The word ‘history’ as we know it today, meaning the scientific evidence-based understanding of the past, is less than 200 years old. The Sanskrit words itihasa-purana, both of which are translated as history, are over 2,500 years old, and refer to cultural memories. But itihasa is different from purana. Itihasa is narrated by a poet who has witnessed the events of the story he is narrating. Purana is not witnessed, it is merely transmitted. Both can take the form of narratives (akhyana), or poetry (kavya) and epic ballads (mahakavya).
In the Brihaddevata, a late Vedic text, we come upon many itihasas that explain how various Vedic mantras were ‘seen’ by Rishis. We encounter stories of Bhrigu in the afterlife, and of sages being rescued from wicked brothers with the help of devas. Most of us are not familiar with these. For us, itihasa mainly applies to the mahakavyas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which were witnessed and narrated by Valmiki and Vyasa respectively.
Ramayana is itihasa because Valmiki is part of the Ramayana as the teacher of Ram’s sons, who are the first to narrate his biography of Ram, before Ram himself. Mahabharata is itihasa because Vyasa is part of the Mahabharata as the father of Pandu and Dhritarashtra, whose children engage in a terrible war that inspires his composition. The participation of the composers in the tale is meant to indicate that the work is not a purana, but an itihasa. The etymology of itihasa is ‘thus it had happened’.
Both epics are probably inspired by events that took place in the Vedic age around 1000 BCE in the Gangetic plains. But they were put down in writing after centuries of oral transmission, between the Mauryan and the Gupta eras. This is when India was overrun by foreign tribes such as Yavana (Indo-Greeks), Saka (Scythians) and Kushans (Yue-chi), and Vedic ideas were being challenged by monastic orders such as Buddhism and Jainism. It seems that the writing was strategic, hence the uncanny similarity in both intent and structures.
Both epics have the same purpose — to help kings understand the concept of raj-dharma. Both epics reached their final form at a time when clans were giving way to kingdoms, and clan-chiefs had to become kings, ruling over multiple clans and wider territories. So theories of what a king is supposed to do were emerging in Buddhist and Hindu literature. Everyone agreed that a raja exists to prevent a-raja-kta or anarchy. Without a king, no one will respect property. Without kings to impose order, anyone can forcibly take away your wife and your belongings, like an alpha beast in the jungle. This idea forms the theme of Ramayana and Mahabharata, where even royal wives such as Sita and Draupadi are subject to abduction and abuse. In Ramayana, the focus is more on an ideal king. In Mahabharata, the focus is on the process of king-making.
Both Ramayana and Mahabharata have the same structure. Both begin with palace politics that ends with the protagonists landing up in forest exile. Here, in the wilderness, both experience a world without kings. Both encounter kingdoms with bad kings. This is followed by a return to the kingdom, but not before a war. Both wars have negotiations before and terrible consequences after. Both end as tragedies, where kingship is seen as an ideal greater than personal happiness and kinship ties. Ram rules Ayodhya alone without his wife and children. Pandavas administer Hastinapur mourning the loss of all their children except an unborn grandchild.
Kings and forests
These epics popularised the Hindu concept of dharma, as obligations to be fulfilled, as repayments of debts to family, society, ancestors, gods, sages and even nature. Thus they countered the ideal of renunciation found in Buddhism and Jainism. While the monastic orders spoke of kings who give up kingship and find solace as mendicants, the two Hindu epics always speak of kings who go to the forest and return enlightened as better kings.
Both epics are considered the fifth Veda as they narratively express concepts of the Veda. For example, the divide between forest and settlement, the land where humans are helpless, and where humans are in control, is first found in the Sama Veda where melodies are classified as those that have to be sung in the wilderness (aranya) and those that have to be sung in villages (grama). Hence the value placed on kings going to forests and encountering wild beasts, the rakshasas, who do not value civilised conduct. Ram encounters Tataka, Surpanakha, Viradha, Kabandha and Ravana who grab what they want. Pandavas encounter Baka, Kirmira, Hidimba, and realise the so-called ‘cultured’ Duryodhana is no different from these so-called ‘barbarians’.
Both epics deal with property disputes. Kaikeyi wants her son to be king. Vali refuses to share his throne with Sugriva as desired by their father. Pandavas and Kauravas fight over who is the rightful heir to the kingdom, since neither has a clear claim based on bloodline.
But there are differences too. Mythologically they belong to different periods: Treta yuga and Dvapar yuga. In Ramayana, the antagonist is Ravana, child born of Brahmin and Rakshasa union. In Mahabharata, the antagonists are cousins, who refuse to share property. In Ramayana, the challenge is between the insider and the outsider. In Mahabharata, the challenge is between insiders.
Dharma in both cases is distinguished from rules. Dharma is about overturning jungle law (matsya nyaya), helping rather than consuming the weak, rules notwithstanding. In culture, the mighty protect the meek. And is this protection given only to insiders or outsiders? Who is the outsider? That is the question that emerges when Krishna displays his cosmic form, an idea that we first encounter in the Rig Veda as the infinite limbed Purusha.
Vishnu Purana that was composed a few centuries after Ramayana and Mahabharata elevated Ram and Krishna to avatars of Vishnu, who takes different forms to establish dharma on earth. The idea of dharma, first found in early Brahmana literature, is thus further elaborated through the idea of god-on-earth as theism gains currency. Thus we find a continuity from Vedas through Ramayana and Mahabharata to the Puranas, a continuity that is often denied by academicians who refuse to see the conceptual evolution from the portable yagna to the temple-based puja-archana.
The similarity of the structure of Ramayana and Mahabharata cannot be ignored. It could not have been a coincidence. One often wonders if these patterns are evident simply in hindsight or if the patterns were part of an existing storyteller (suta) tradition. Significantly, Manusmriti does not refer to Ramayana and Mahabharata though it was composed in the same historical period. But all three scriptures privilege the householder’s life, and oppose the monastic world-rejecting ways of Buddhism, and Jainism. Here, kings do not escape to the forest. They learn from the forest and return as responsible kings.
Devdutt Pattanaik is author of 50 books on mythology, art and culture.