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Myth versus Reality

Nanditha Krishna is a historian, author and environmentalist, and director of the CPR Institute of Indological Research in Chennai
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Instead of searching for truths in myths, it would be easier if we appreciated the scientific achievements of ancient Indians

Recently, the chief minister of Tripura said that India had internet in the times of the Mahabharata. Possible? Anything is possible. Probable? Highly improbable and unlikely.

Indian literature has been described as mythology. But is it all myth? Let us take the most linear of our literature, the Ramayana. The first canto summarises the entire epic in a few words, when Narada narrates to Valmiki the story of the greatest man of their times, the wise, intelligent, handsome and great warrior-king of Ayodhya, Rama, a contemporary of Valmiki. Guha the Nishada, Sabari, Hanuman and the Vanaras – forest people, not monkeys – and Ravana and the Rakshasas are all mentioned by Narada. Then Valmiki, the “adi kavi” fleshes it out, with flying chariots and monkeys who soar the skies, creating the greatest epic of all time, an epic which crossed the seas and was adopted by many different civilisations. Invariably, a poet will add masala to a story, not unlike our Bollywood films. Thanks to Narada, we know the real story and sifting reality from myth is not difficult in this case.

The Mahabharata is even less mythical with very real people and real situations. Here the multiplicity of authors, in spite of the credit going to Vyasa, makes the epic very complicated. Sifting myth from reality is not easy.

Sanskrit literature was described as myth by early English translators who were generally Boden Professors of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford. The professorship was established in 1832 with money bequeathed to the university by Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Boden, a retired soldier in the East India Company who wanted the university to establish a Sanskrit professorship “to proceed in the conversion of the natives of India to the Christian Religion”. To do this, said the Lieutenant, they had to know Sanskrit, to be able to run down Hindu literature. The Boden professors included H.H. Wilson, M. Monier Williams, A.A. Macdonell and others. Max Müller also applied for the post but the German was defeated by the Englishman Monier Williams. Müller's view was that his work was of greater value to missionaries in their efforts to proselytize, and published testimonials to the effect, while Monier Williams stressed in his campaign that the holder should assist in converting Indians. The translations and commentaries of these writers, who described Sanskrit literature and its writers as mythical and primitive, is still used by our historians and writers. Needless to say, their motive was singular: to destroy the religion that Sanskrit literature represented.

The Vedas distinguished between the Aryas and the Devas. The former were people who herded cattle, tilled the land and fought battles. The Devas were the “Shining Ones” whose activities affected the lives of the Aryas. The battle between Indra and Vritra, for example, is the personification of rain overcoming drought. The story is a myth, but it is undoubtedly an actual event.

L. Spence described mythology as “the science of primitive man, his manner of explaining the universe.” Man, as a symbol-using animal, not only needed to act, but also give symbolic reasons for his acts. In primitive religion, the mythical world is related to the actual world and the chief concern was the maintenance of personal, social and cosmic harmony and the attainment of material ends – rainfall, a good harvest, good health and children – not very different from the rural Indian’s material ends even today. Natural phenomena were explained as the action of mythical beings and expressed the hopes and fears of a people who had not yet understood the natural order of the universe. A record of invasions, migrations, changes of dynasties and social changes were maintained in the mythologies of the various great civilizations of the ancient world.

The Marxist historian D.D. Kosambi attempted to trace the primitive roots of Indian myths and rituals that survived the beginning of civilization. He identifies the three-faced naked male figure with buffalo horns on a Harappan seal as Mhasoba or Mahisha. Ancient India was a land of buffalo grazers. When the Goddess-worshipping food producing the Dravidas arrived, the two battled for control of the land. The success of the Dravidas is represented in Mahisha-Mardini, the Goddess who slays the buffalo “demon”. Dravidian cultures are generally worshippers of the Goddess, be it Devi, Amman, Durga, etc. The buffalo worshippers were forced to flee into forests and continue to be found there – the Gonds and Maria Gonds in Central India and the Todas in the Nilgiris, the last fleeing from Mahisha-ur or Mysore where the temple of Goddess Chamundeshwari has a huge statue of Mahisha at the foothill. But all this has to be inferred.

However, such inferences can go wrong too. Kosambi compared the dancing Nataraja to the Ice-age Chamois-masked dancer of Les Trois Freres or the French stone-age Diablotins. The leftists left no stone unturned in their efforts to decry India’s civilizational achievements as myths. But Dr. Sharada Srinivasan and the late Dr. Nirupama Raghavan established how the figure of Nataraja – standing on one leg, the other uplifted, one arm blessing and the other stretched out – could be plotted on the asterism Tiruvatira (Ardra) as it appeared in the sky in the eighth century CE.

Instead of searching for truths in myths, it would be easier if we appreciated the scientific achievements of ancient Indians. The Prime Minister said that cosmetic surgery was practised in India thousands of years ago. He was right, but instead of the example of Ganesha’s head – an elephant’s head attached to a human body, which would have been a physical impossibility, given the sheer size and weight of the elephant’s head – he could have mentioned the great plastic surgeon Sushruta, who lived around 700 BCE and could do ophthalmic and plastic surgery. He could even fix chopped-off noses. Shoorpanakha may have benefitted from his skill! Indians were practising plastic surgery till the arrival of the British, who learned the skill, chopped off the hands of the Indian practitioners and introduced plastic surgery in British medical colleges as a British invention. Charaka wrote about herbal treatments based on nearly 100,000 plants: today the wheel has turned a full circle and people are returning to Charaka’s herbal remedies instead of antibiotics.

By 800 BCE, Baudhayana had calculated the value of  pi, besides square roots and other geometric theorems. He was the first to calculate the theorem attributed to Pythagoras, who is believed to have travelled to India, learned mathematics and geometry, and presented it in Greece as his idea (according to his contemporaries). In 700 CE, Brahmagupta, another great mathematician, gave the first rules for using zero as a number (1+0=1; 1-0=1; 1x0=0) and for geometry and trigonometry. 500 years later, another mathematician, Bhaskara II, showed that 1 divided by 0 was infinity. Brahmagupta explained how to find the cube root of an integer, and devised rules to calculate squares and square roots. Aryabhatta stated that the earth was round, and was the first to calculate the diameter of the earth. Kanada discovered the laws of gravity 2000 years before Isaac Newton. Varahamihira was an astronomer, Nagarjuna a metallurgist, Bhaskaracharya and Hemchandra astronomers and mathematicians. In the fifteenth century, Madhava, a great mathematician of medieval India, took algebra to calculus. Mathematics, Astronomy, Science - India had no dearth of talent.

But how many Indians know about our great mathematicians, astronomers, surgeons and scientists? How many text books contain information about them? We still talk of Arabic numerals, Pythagoras’ theorem and British surgeons. A love for all things western - a legacy of the Nehruvian years - blinds us to our own reality. Instead of wallowing in a mythical past, let us appreciate the achievements of a great Indian past, of people who worked without computers or even electricity to teach the world science and mathematics.