Between history and mythology

The casualty of the creation of the dichotomy between history and mythology is the attempt to understand the nature of both. But they are not dichotomous; they have much in common

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:38 pm IST

Published - July 17, 2014 02:14 am IST

ABOUT US: The reach of culture in any society is far more pervasive than that of historical facts. Ram’s extensive presence in India is because he is a cultural icon, a larger-than-life figure whose stature no real life king could achieve.

ABOUT US: The reach of culture in any society is far more pervasive than that of historical facts. Ram’s extensive presence in India is because he is a cultural icon, a larger-than-life figure whose stature no real life king could achieve.

The recent observations of the new Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) Chairman, Professor Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, that the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are not works of mythology but of historical veracity brings back to the fore the old debate about the nature of history and mythology. The fundamental assumption here is that the two stand in a dichotomous relationship with no common space between them. This dichotomy also places them in a hierarchy, with history being equated with truth and mythology with falsehood.

Evidence and belief

The dichotomy was created by Positivism, which has unquestioned European provenance. Positivism had, during the eighteenth century and down to much of the twentieth century, sought to recreate the exactitude of the natural sciences in forms of societal knowledge, the social sciences. Auguste Comte, the founder of Sociology, placed this new discipline at the highest level of precision and Mathematics at the lowest, because Mathematics had no objective basis except for a commonly accepted set of values. For Leopold von Ranke, “History tells us as it really happened.” It reveals to us the objective truth, with no ambiguity. The veracity of history is proven by the evidence of facts gathered from archives, epigraphs, archaeology, coins, monuments etc., all being objective realities rather than imaginary creations. Certain norms of spatial and temporal location of events form its core.

On the other hand, mythology stood at the other end of objectivity: all of it was the product of imagination, much like fiction, with no objective evidence open to rational, scientific scrutiny, but dependent instead on one’s beliefs and faith.

It is in this backdrop that the struggle to place mythological creations on a par with history or objective truth, is best understood, for any concession to the imaginary nature of mythology relegates it to an inferior status. Or so it is assumed.

The chief casualty of the creation of this dichotomy is the attempt to understand the nature of both history and mythology. To begin with, it is a false dichotomy and no hierarchy of status is implied between them. The difference between the two does not amount to dichotomy and they do have much in common. Both history and mythology are creations of human imagination. History, however, is limited to retrieval of verifiable ‘facts’ and evidence from the past, which is construed as a reality, even as it varies from one school of history to another or even from one historian to another. Mythology has no such limitations. It is not bound by space, chronology, and evidence that is indisputable. Space and time here are entirely created in the mind, just as in a novel, even as it bears semblance of reality. The nature of folklore is similar.

Does it then imply that mythology does not reflect any reality? Mythology, fiction, poetry and paintings relate to a different genre of reality which could, for convenience, be grouped under culture, of which religion is also an important segment, even as the two are not synonymous. In that sense culture and mythology also acquire the characteristics of an objective reality that governs our attitudes and behaviour as social beings. Indeed, the reach of culture in any society is far more pervasive than that of historical facts. If Ram was to be treated as a real historical figure, as a ruler of a small and insignificant kingdom of Ayodhya, compared, for example, to the massive Maurya or Gupta Empire, he would have been relegated to a minor footnote in history books. A good test is to try to recall the name of another ruler of Ayodhya — very unlikely to come to one’s mind. Ram’s pervasive presence in India is because he is a cultural icon. No real ruler’s presence in the life of India’s millions, even that of Asoka, comes anywhere near it. Probably a sizeable number of the population have his name as part of their own personal names. Would that pervasive presence have arisen from his being the king of Ayodhya and doing things that kings do all the time? Surely, his larger than life figure as a cultural icon is what gives him that stature that no other real life king could achieve.

Plural versions

There is also the question of plural versions of mythologies, as there are of history. Paula Richman’s book is titled Many Ramayanas and the great Professor A.K. Ramanujam was the author of the superb essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas”. The Mahabharata similarly has not one but numerous versions, and Madhavacarya in the thirteenth century speaks of the text teeming with interpretations, interpolations and transpositions. That’s a few centuries before the modern day baddies among historians came in to question the singularity of the sacred texts. So, which version is one seeking to authenticate in terms of its historical veracity?

The study of mythology would be greatly enriched as a cultural phenomenon rather than as authentic history that is based on material evidence, without it suffering the ignominy of being false or inferior.

But then, the very assertion that mythological figures are not necessarily historical figures immediately invites political fire from the Sangh Parivar. The Parivar’s Hindutva sentiment is hurt precisely because it has accepted the Positivist dichotomy of history and mythology and its ensuing hierarchisation of status. How far has the Parivar really travelled from the celebration of plural versions of truth in ancient Indian intellectual and cultural milieu to the modern day assertion of singularity of Truth, which is what Positivism has bestowed upon us and dominated our thinking for nearly three centuries?

(Harbhans Mukhia was Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

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