The Epics – History, Tradition, And Myth


The two great epics of ancient India — the Ramayana and the Mahabharata—probably took shape in the course of several hundred years, and even subsequently additions were made to them. They deal with the early days of the Indo-Aryans, their conquests and civil wars, when they were expanding and consolidating themselves, but they were composed and compiled later. I do not know of any books anywhere which have exercised such a continuous and pervasive influence on the mass mind as these two. Dating back to a remote antiquity, they are still a living force in the life of the Indian people. Not in the original Sanskrit, except for a few intellectuals, but in translations and adaptations, and in those innumerable ways in which tradition and legend spread and become a part of the texture of a people’s life. They represent the typical Indian method of catering all together for various degrees of cultural development, from the highest intellectual to the simple unread and untaught villager. They make us understand somewhat the secret of the old Indians in holding together a variegated society divided up in many ways and graded in castes, in harmonizing their discords, and giving them a common background of heroic tradition and ethical living. Deliberately they tried to build up a unity of outlook among the people, which was to survive and overshadow all diversity.

Among the earliest memories of my childhood are the stories from these epics told to me by my mother or the older ladies of the house, just as a child in Europe or America might listen to fairy tales or stories of adventure. There was for me both adventure and the fairy element in them. And then I used to be taken every year to the popular open-air performances where the Ramayana story was enacted and vast crowds came to see it and join in the processions. It was all very crude, but that did not matter, for everyone knew the story by heart and it was carnival time.

In this way Indian mythology and old tradition crept into my mind and got mixed up with all manner of other creatures of the imagination. I do not think I ever attached very much importance to these stories as factually true, and I even criticized the magical and supernatural element in them. But they were just as imaginatively true for me as were the stories from the Arabian Nights or the Panchatantra, that storehouse of animal tales from which Western Asia and Europe have drawn so much.* As I grew up other pictures crowded into my mind: fairy stories, both Indian and European, tales from Greek mythology, the story of Joan of Arc, Alice in Wonderland, and many stories of Akbar and Birbal, Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur and his Knights, the Rani of Jhansi, the young heroine of the Indian Mutiny, and tales of Rajput chivalry and heroism. These and many others filled my mind in strange confusion, but always there was the background of Indian mythology which I had imbibed in my earliest years.

If it was so with me, in spite of the diverse influences that worked on my mind, I realized how much more must old mythology and tradition work on the minds of others and, especially, the unread masses of our people. That influence is a good influence both culturally and ethically, and I would hate to destroy or throw away all the beauty and imaginative symbolism that these stories and allegories contain.

Indian mythology is not confined to the epics; it goes back to the Vedic period and appears in many forms and garbs in Sanskrit literature. The poets and the dramatists take full advantage of it and build their stories and lovely fancies round it. The Ashoka tree is said to burst into flower when touched by the foot of a beautiful woman. We read of the adventures of Kama, the god of love, and his wife, Rati (or rapture), with their friend Vasanta, the god of spring. Greatly daring, Kama shoots his flowery arrow at Shiva himself and is reduced to ashes by the fire that flashed out of Shiva’s third eye. But he survives as Ananga, the bodiless one.

Most of the myths and stories are heroic in conception and teach adherence to truth and the pledged word, whatever the consequences, faithfulness unto death and even beyond, courage, good works and sacrifice for the common good. Sometimes the story is pure myth, or else it is a mixture of fact and myth, an exaggerated account of some incident that tradition preserved. Facts and fiction are so interwoven together as to be inseparable, and this amalgam becomes an imagined history, which may not tell us exactly what happened but does tell us something that is equally important—what people believed had taken place, what they thought their heroic ancestors were capable of, and what ideals inspired them. So, whether fact or fiction, it became a living element in their lives, ever pulling them up from the drudgery and ugliness of their everyday existence to higher realms, ever pointing towards the path of endeavour and right living, even though the ideal might be far off and difficult to reach.

Goethe is reported to have condemned those who said that the old Roman stories of heroism, of Lucretia and others, were spurious and false. Anything, he said, that was essentially false and spurious could only be absurd and unfruitful and never beautiful and inspiring, and that ‘if the Romans were great enough to invent things like that, we at least should be great enough to believe them.’

Thus this imagined history, mixture of fact and fiction, or sometimes only fiction, becomes symbolically true and tells us of the minds and hearts and purposes of the people of that particular epoch. It is true also in the sense that it becomes the basis for thought and action, for future history. The whole conception of history in ancient India was influenced by the speculative and ethical trends of philosophy and religion. Little importance was attached to the writing of a chronicle or the compilation of a bare record of events. What those people were more concerned with was the effect and influence of human events and actions on human conduct. Like the Greeks, they were strongly imaginative and artistic and they gave rein to this artistry and imagination in dealing with past events, intent as they were on drawing some moral and lesson from them for future behaviour.

Unlike the Greeks, and unlike the Chinese and the Arabs, Indians in the past were not historians. This was very unfortunate and it has made it difficult for us now to fix dates or make up an accurate chronology. Events run into each other, overlap and produce an enormous confusion. Only very gradually are patient scholars today discovering the clues to the maze of Indian history. There is really only one old book, Kalhana’s ‘Rajatarangini’, a history of Kashmir written in the twelfth century A.C., which may be considered as history. For the rest we have to go to the imagined history of the epics and other books, to some contemporary records, to inscriptions, to artistic and architectural remains, to coins, and to the large body of Sanskrit literature, for occasional hints; also, of course, to the many records of foreign travellers who came to India, notably Greeks and Chinese, and, during a later period, Arabs.

This lack of historical sense did not affect the masses, for as elsewhere and more so than elsewhere, they built up their view of the past from the traditional accounts and myth and story that were handed to them from generation to generation. This imagined history and mixture of fact and legend became widely known and gave to the people a strong and abiding cultural background. But the ignoring of history had evil consequences which we pursue still. It produced a vagueness of outlook, divorce from life as it is, a credulity, a woolliness of the mind where fact was concerned. That mind was not at all woolly in the far more difficult, but inevitably vaguer and more indefinite, realms of philosophy; it was both analytic and synthetic, often very critical, sometimes sceptical. But where fact was concerned,, it was uncritical, because, perhaps, it did not attach much importance to fact as such.

The impact of science and the modern world have brought a greater appreciation of facts, a more critical faculty, a weighing of evidence, a refusal to accept tradition merely because it is tradition. Many competent historians are at work now, but they often err on the other side and their work is more a meticulous chronicle of facts than living history. But even today it is strange how we suddenly become overwhelmed by tradition, and the critical faculties of even intelligent men cease to function. This may partly be due to the nationalism that consumes us in our present subject state. Only when we are politically and economically free will the mind function normally and critically.

Very recently there has been a significant and revealing’ instance of “this conflict between the critical outlook and nationalist tradition. In the greater part of India the Vikram Samvat calendar is observed; this is based on a solar reckoning, but the months are lunar. Last month, in April, 1944, according to this calendar, 2,000 years were completed and a new millennium began. This has been the occasion for celebrations throughout India, and the celebrations were justified, both because it was a big turning point in the reckoning of time and because Vikram, or Vikramaditya, with whose name the calendar is associated, has long been a great hero in popular tradition. Innumerable stories cling to his name, and many of these found their way in mediaeval times in different garbs to various parts of Asia, and later to Europe.

Vikram has long been considered a national hero, a beau ideal of a prince. He is remembered as a ruler who pushed out foreign invaders. But his fame rests on the literary and cultural brilliance of his court, where he collected some of the most famous writers, artists, and musicians—the ‘nine gems’ of his court as they are called. Most of the stories deal with his desire to do good to his people, and to sacrifice himself or his personal interest at the slightest provocation in order to benefit someone else. He is famous for his generosity, service for others, courage, and lack of conceit. Essentially he has been popular because he was considered a good man and a patron of the arts. The fact that he was a successful soldier or a conqueror hardly comes out in the stories. That emphasis on the goodness and self-sacrificing nature of the man is characteristic of the Indian mind and of Indian ideals. Vikramaditya’s name, like that of Caesar, became a kind of symbol and title, and numerous subsequent rulers added it to their names. This has added to the Confusion, as there are many Vikramadityas mentioned in history.

But who was this Vikram? And when did he exist? Historically speaking everything is vague. There is no trace of any such ruler round about 57 B.C. when the Vikram Samvat era should begin. There was, however, a Vikramaditya in North India in the fourth century A.C., and he fought against Hun invaders and pushed them out. It is he who is supposed to have kept the ‘nine gems’ in his court and around whom all these stories gather. The problem then is this: How is this Vikramaditya who existed in the fourth century A.C. to be connected with an era which begins in 57 B.C. ? The probable explanation appears to be that an era dating from 57 B.C. existed in the Malava State in Central India, and, long after Vikram, this era and calendar were connected with him and renamed after him. But all this is vague and uncertain.

What has been most surprising is the way in which quite intelligent Indians have played about with history in order somehow to connect the traditional hero, Vikram, with the beginning of the era 2,000 years ago. It has also been interesting to find how emphasis is laid on his fight against the foreigner and his desire to establish the unity of India under one national state. Vikram’s realm was, in fact, confined to North and Central India.

It is not Indians only who are affected by nationalist urges and supposed national interest in the writing or consideration of history. Every nation and people seem to be affected by this desire to gild and better the past and distort it to their advantage. The histories of India that most of us have had to read, chiefly written by Englishmen, are usually long apologies for and panegyrics of British rule, and a barely veiled contemptuous account of what happened here in the millenniums preceding it. Indeed, real history for them begins with the advent of the Englishman into India; all that went before is in some mystic kind of way a preparation for this divine consummation. Even the British period is distorted with the object of glorifying British rule and British virtues. Very slowly a more correct perspective is developing. But we need not go to the past to find instances of the manipulation of history to suit particular ends and support one’s own fancies and prejudices. The present is full of this, and if the present, which we have ourselves seen and experienced, can be so distorted, what of the past?

Nevertheless, it is true that Indians are peculiarly liable to accept tradition and report as history, uncritically and without sufficient examination. They will have to rid themselves of this loose thinking and easy way of arriving at conclusions.

But I have digressed and wandered away from the gods and goddesses and the days when myth and legend began. Those were the days when life was full and in harmony with nature, when man’s mind gazed with wonder and delight at the mystery of the universe, when heaven and earth seemed very near to each other, and the gods and goddesses came down from Kailasa or their other Himalayan haunts, even as the gods of Olympus used to come down, to play with and sometimes punish men and women. Out of this abundant life and rich imagination grew myth and legend and strong and beautiful gods and goddesses, for the ancient Indians, like the Greeks, were lovers of beauty and of life. Professor Gilbert Murray* tells us of the sheer beauty of the Olympian system. That description might well apply to the early creations of the Indian mind also. ‘They are artists’ dreams, ideals, allegories; they are symbols of something beyond themselves. They are gods of half-rejected tradition, of unconscious make-believe, of aspiration. They are gods to whom doubtful philosophers can pray, with all a philosopher’s due caution, as to many radiant and heart-searching hypotheses. They are not gods in whom anyone believes as a hard fact.’ Equally applicable to India is what Professor Murray adds: ‘As the most beautiful image carved by man was not the god, but only a symbol to help towards conceiving the god; so the god himself, when conceived, was not the reality but only a symbol to help towards conceiving the reality…. Meanwhile they issued no creeds that contradicted knowledge, no commands that made man sin against his own inner light.’

Gradually the days of the Vedic and other gods and goddesses receded into the background and hard and abstruse philosophy took their place. But in the minds of the people these images still floated, companions in joy and friends in distress, symbols of their own vaguely-felt ideals and aspirations. And round them poets wrapped their fancies and built the houses of their dreams, full of rich embroidery and lovely fantasy. Many of these legends and poets’ fancies have been delightfully adapted by F. W. Bain in his series of little books containing stories from Indian mythology. In one of these, ‘The Digit of the Moon,’ we are told of the creation of woman. ‘In the beginning, when Twashtri (the Divine Artificer) came to the creation of woman he found that he had exhausted his materials in the making of man and that no solid elements were left. In this dilemma, after profound meditation, he did as follows: he took the rotundity of the moon, and the curves of the creepers, and the clinging of tendrils, and the trembling of grass, and the slenderness of the reed, and the bloom of flowers, and the lightness of leaves, and the tapering of the elephant’s trunk, and the glances of deer, and the clustering of rows of bees, and the joyous gaiety of sun-beams, and the weeping of clouds, and the fickleness of the winds, and the timidity of the hare, and the vanity of the peacock, and the softness of the parrot’s bosom, and the hardness of adamant, and the sweetness of honey, and the cruelty of the tiger, and the warm glow of fire, and the coldnesss of snow, and the chattering of jays, and the cooing of the kokila, and the hypocrisy of the crane, and the fidelity of the chakravaka; and compounding all these together, he made woman and gave her to man.’

* The story of the innumerable translations and adaptations of the ‘Panchatantra’ into Asiatic and European languages is a long, intricate, and fascinating one. The first known translation was from Sanskrit into Pahlavi in the middle of the sixth century A.C. at the instance of Khusrau Anushirwan, Emperor of Persia. Soon after (c. 570 A.C.) a Syrian translation appeared, and later on an Arabic one. In the eleventh century new translations appeared in Syrian, Arabic, and Persian, the last named becoming famous as the story of ‘Kalia Daman.’ It was through these translations that the ‘Panchatantra’ readied Europe. There was a Greek translation from the Syrian at the end of the eleventh century, and a little later a Hebrew translation. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries a number of transla-tions and adaptations appeared in Latin, Italian, Spanish, German, Swedish, Danish, Dutch Icelandic, French, English, Hungarian, Turkish, and a number of Slav languages. Thus the stories of the ‘Panchatantra’ merged into Asiatic and European literatures.

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The Discovery Of India – Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru

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