Mandhata, the first Samrat of Ancient India

The Ikshavaku dynasty also known as the solar dynasty ruling from Ayodhya produced a number of illustrious kings like Mandhata, Sudasa, Harishchandra, Sagara, Bhagiratha and Sri Rama. Though these kings ruled in the remote past they are remembered with reverence even to this day. Of these rulers Mandhatri or Mandhata through his accomplishment became the first ruler of this dynasty to earn the title Chakravarthi and Samrat.

Mandhata (5409 B.C. / 6027 B.C) ⃰ was son of Yuvanashva and Gauri, the daughter of Matinara of the Pauravas. Mandhata’s name figures among the sixteen celebrated monarch of ancient India in the Puranic list called Sodasha Rajika. As his empire was so extensive, a verse mentions that as far as the sun rises and as far as he sets; all that is called Mandhata’s territory and hence even the earth was named after him as Mandhatra Kshetra.

His Campaigns

Mandhata on assuming power organized a strong army and led a series of expedition against his neighbouring kingdoms. The rulers of Kashi and Maithila and his uncle Tansu, the ruler of Prathisthan accepted his suzerainty. Other important rulers whom Mandhata vanquished were Janmejaya the king of Anavas, the Yadava king Sasabindu of Mahishamati and Marutta a king described as one of the five great emperors of ancient India and ruling over territory around North West India. The Asura kingdoms of Varshikha and Narmani were also subdued. Mandhata had a long war with the Druhyu king Angara who ruled over Punjab and finally killed him and conquered his kingdom. Angara’s son Gandhara accepted the suzerainty of Mandhata, moved towards North-West (Afghanistan) and gave his name to that region.

Incarnation of Vishnu

In ancient India a sovereign who conquered the surrounding kingdom and brought them under his control was conferred with the title Chakravarthi. Similarly the king who conquered the whole of Bharatavarsha was celebrated as a Samrat. Mandhata possessed both these titles apart from considered as a fifth incarnation of Vishnu. Mandhata is said to have performed Ashvamedha and Rajasuya yajnas and his name is also included in the list of kings who gained fame by their gifts of cattle. He was a just and virtuous ruler. When a 12 year long famine broke out in North-West India during his period, he took all possible steps to provide relief to the people and end their sufferings. Mandhata had married Bindumati the daughter of Sasabindu the Yadava king and had three sons, Purukutsa, Ambarisha and Muchukunda.

Mandhata met with a tragic end when while returning with his army through Mathura (Muttra) ruled by the Daithyas. Mandhata and his whole army were attacked by the Daithyas and exterminated to the last man and thus ended the glorious career of the greatest Indian monarch after a long reign of some 60 years.

⃰  See https://ithihas.wordpress.com/2013/04/20/date-of-mahabharatha-war/

Reference:

  • Akshoy Kumar Mazumdar- The Hindu History, B.C. 3000 to 1200 A.D., City Publishing House, Faridabad, Dacca, 1920
  • Ganga Ram Garg- Encyclopedia of the Hindu World, Vol-I, Concept Publication Company, New Delhi, 1992
  • Mittal- History of Ancient India (7300 B.C.-4250 B. C.) Vol-I, Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi, 2006
  • E.Pargiter- Ancient Indian Historical Tradition, London, 1922

 

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The Agastyas- Hindu Missionaries of Ancient India

Among the rishi families who composed the Rig Vedic hymns, it was the members of the Agastya family who first crossed the Vindhya Mountains and established ashrams in south India. The members of this family acted as preceptors of royal dynasties, propagated Shaivism and played an important role in introducing Hindu religion and culture in south-east Asian countries.

In ancient Indian literary works there are references to the activities of Agastya in relation with characters appearing in different time frames. This indicates that a single Agastya could not have achieved all these feats single handedly and unaided. He was therefore the progenitor of a large family and founded a long surviving generation of representatives known by the name of Agastya gotra. The originator of this family Agastya was the brother of sage Vasishta. His descendants composed hymns in the Rig Veda of which we find 27 hymns in the first mandala, one each in the fifth and eighth mandala, two hymns in the ninth mandala and four hymns in the tenth mandala.

Agastya and Lopamudra

One prominent figure among this family was the one who married Lopamudra and was a contemporary of Alarka, grandson of Pratardana of Kashi. This Alarka was a contemporary of king Dushyanta the father of the famous Paurava ruler Bharata after whom our country is named.

Agastya of Ramayana

In Valmiki’s Ramayana, Aranyakanda sarga II describes the beautiful hermitage of Agastya situated at Nasik, a few miles from Dandakaranya where a peaceful atmosphere prevailed. When Rama and Lakshmana visited his ashram, Agastya presented Rama a bow of Vishnu and later Agastya accompanied Rama and his followers on his return journey to Ayodhya from Lanka with Seeta after killing Ravana.

Exploits of Agastya

According to K.D. Abhyankar, the Puranic story of the Vindhya mountain trying to compete with the Himalayas in height by becoming taller and taller and sage Agastya ordering the Vindhya mountain to lie prostrated till he returned from the south is an allegory to the actual crossing of the Vindhyas by Agastya, a prominent rishi of north India for the first time in history. In ancient times, it was easier to cross the seas by navigation. But it was quite difficult to traverse the mountainous land covered with thick forests and inhabited by wild animals. Hence it was a great feat on the part of Agastya to cross the Vindhya Mountain. Similarly the story of Agastya drinking the water of the ocean is another allegory of his crossing the sea and as we know sage Agastya is quite popular in Indonesia, the land beyond the Indian Ocean.

Star Canopus named after Agastya

The star Canopus is named after Agastya as it was first sighted by him. Around 5000 B.C. this star was visible from the south of the Vindhyas, but not from the north of it. As a member of sage Agastya’s family was the first to cross the Vindhyas from the north, he would have been the first northerner to see the star. Hence the star has been named after his family.

Agastya and Tamil

There is no clear and specific mention of Agastya and his exploits in any of the early Tamil works and reference to his work on Tamil grammar called Agattiyam first occur in Iraiyanar Agapporul Urai, a work of the 8th or 9th century A.D. This work mentions Agastya as a member of the first and second Sangams.  Just like the Europeans who have written works on Indian languages after learning them, probably a member of the Agastya clan settled in south India, had learnt Tamil and written a grammatical work which probably has now gone into oblivion.

Founder of Siddha System of Medicine

A daitya named Ilvala who had a grouse against sages used to invite them for lunch, serve the flesh of a goat (which was actually his brother Vatapi turned into a goat) and later call his brother who used to come out ripping the stomach of the diner. Agastya who had gone to Ilvala to seek financial help was also fed in a similar manner but when Ilvala called him, Vatapi could not come out as Agastya had digested him. This incident is probably an allegory to indicate that Ilvala used to kill sages by serving them with poisoned food. A member of Agastya family who was served with poisoned food came out unharmed as he knew about antidotes for food poisoning and was probably the founder of the Siddha system of medicine.

Discoverer of River Cauvery

According to a Tamil work Manimekhalai, Cauvery stream was released by Agastya from his water pot at the request of Chola king Kantan for perennial water. Agastya overturned his pitcher from which Cauvery flowed towards the sea in the east. The Purana also says that Agastya had compressed the River Cauvery and held the water in his water pot and Ganapathi came in the form of a crow and toppled the water pot and got released the river Cauvery. These stories can be interpreted as a member of Agastya family discovering the river Cauvery or naming the discovered river as Cauvery.

Oversea connections of Agastya

Members of this family even migrated to distant lands and introduced Shaivism there. A statue of sage Agastya is found in a Shiva temple in a temple complex at Pramban in Java. Similarly at a cave in Kombeng situated to the north of Muara Kaman in east Borneo we find the image of sage Agastya. Indradevi the queen of the ruler of Kambuja Empire, Indra Varman I (877-889 A.D.) is said to have descended from sage Agastya. In the old Javanese literature we have a work Agastya Parva, where Agastya describes to his son Driddasyu the creation of the world in puranic style.

Cult of Agastya

Members belonging to the Agastya family became the preceptors of royal dynasties. For instance the Pandya king Sundara Pandya is referred as Agastya Shisya ‘disciple of Agastya’. An inscription of Chalukya Kirtiraja of Lata (Gujarat) says that their spiritual preceptor was Agastya. As a preacher and preceptor of Shaiva religion and guru of many princes, Agastya soon came to be regarded as the object of personal worship and a cult of Agastya was soon formulated and his images consecrated in many temples began to receive the honour of worship. The mode of his worship is laid down in the Skanda Purana and Agni Purana. The Agasteshwara temple at Thodnavada in Chittor district, the Meenakshi Agasteshwara temple at Wadapally in Nalgonda district, the Agasteshwara temple at Guntur district all in Andhra Pradesh, the Agasteshwara temple at T.Narasipura in Mysore district of Karnataka and the Agasteshwara temple at Chennai to name a few are some of the temples dedicated to Agastya.

Agastya’s name has often been cited as an example of courage and wisdom which implies that the members of this family were known for their enterprising nature and intelligence. The members of this family played an important role in national integration by synthesizing the culture of north and south India.

References

  1. A.Nilakanta Sastri- A History of South India: From Prehistoric Times to the fall of Vijayanagara
  2. D.Abhyankar – Folklore and Astronomy: Agastya a Sage and a Star, Current Science, Vol- 89, No. 12, 25th December, 2005
  3. C.Majumdar- Hindu Colonies in the Far East
  4. Swami Parmeshwaranand- Encyclopedic Dictionary of Puranas, Vol-I
  5. C.Gangoly- The cult of Agastya and the origin of Indian colonial art, Quarterly Journal of Mythic Society, Vol-XVII, No.3, January 1927
  6. Shrikant Talageri- The Rig Veda- A Historical Analysis
  7. N.Saletore-Encyclopedia of Indian Culture

 

Samkhya Shastra – The World first Philosophical System on Metaphysics

The Samkhya is the first and the oldest among the philosophical systems of India and the whole spiritual life of Hindus was strongly influenced by the Samkhya ideas. John Davies in his work Hindu Philosophy says that the Samkhya system is the first recorded system of philosophy in the world- the earliest attempt on record to give an answer from reason alone to the mysterious questions which arise in every thoughtful mind about the origin of the world, the nature and relations of man and his future destiny.

Philosophical background of Samkhya

Like the other Indian philosophical schools, the object of Samkhya’s philosophical enquiry is to alleviate human sufferings which are of three kinds, namely

  • Aadhyaatmika- Pain caused by disease of the body and mind
  • Aadhibautika- Pain due to extraneous causes like men or beasts and
  • Aadhidaivika- Pain caused by supernatural agencies like nature.

Meaning of Samkhya

Samkhya means number and hence enumeration. As Samkhya system enumerated 25 tattvas (categories) it is likely the philosophy came to be called Samkhya. In Amarakosha the sentence ‘charcha Samkhya vicharana’ means rational examination or discernment and the word Samkhya may be derived from it in the sense of ‘system of rational examination’. Samkhya in general sense means tattvajnana that is knowledge of ultimate reality or a person who know the ultimate reality.

Founder of Samkhya Philosophy

Sage Kapila, son of Prahlada is said to be the originator of Samkhya philosophy. He was a contemporary of king Sagara of Ikshawaku dynasty of Ayodhya and according to Baudhayana Dharma Sutras; it was Kapila who devised the scheme of the four ashramas, namely Brahmacharya, Gruhasta, Vanaprastha and Sanyasa. Two books, Tattwa Samaasa and Samkhya Pravachana Sutra are attributed to him. In Bhagavata Purana, Kapila is regarded as an avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu; the one who burnt the sons of Sagara to ashes and the author of Samkhya philosophy. His name also occurs in the Sveteshvara Upanishad.

Origin of Samkhya

Scholars are divided in their opinion regarding the origins of Samkhya. All agree that references to what appears as Samkhya-Yoga doctrines are found in the Upanishads, especially in the later ones among them. But while some are of the opinion that the Samkhya system is independent in origin and almost as old as the Upanishads, others maintain that it is an off shoot of the teachings of Upanishads. As the works of Kapila, his direct disciple Asuri and that of Panchashiksha are all lost, the tenets of this philosophical system is found only in Samkhya Karika of Ishvarakrishna whose work is dated around 4th century A.D. Reference to this system is also found in Vachaspati’s Samkhya-tattva-kaumudi and Vijnanabhiksu’s commentary on Samkhya Pravachana Sutra.

Antiquity of Samkhya Philosophy

References to Samkhya speculations in the Mahabharatha and the Bhagavad Gita show the great antiquity of this school of philosophy. It is further attested by the fact that the fundamental doctrines of Samkhya School have been elaborately criticized in the Nyaya-sutra and the Brahma-sutra and its thought reproduced in the Caraka-samhita. In Ashvaghosa’s Buddha-carita also similar Samkhya doctrines have been expounded.

Nature of Reality

Samkhya postulates two ultimate realities, Purusha and Prakriti; the interaction of which produces the activities of the universe including those of life.

Purusha

Purusha stands for ultimate selves or spirits which are eternally free, unchanging and absolutely independent entities whose nature consists of pure consciousness alone. Purusha as the self, the subject, the knower is intelligent and makes all knowledge possible. It is not to be confused with the mind, ego or intellect, since these evolutes of Prakriti are material. Purusha is beyond time and space, neutral and a non-agent.

Plurality of Purushas

The Samkhyas believed in the plurality of Purushas on the following grounds. Birth, death and mental and physical capabilities are different for each person. If the atman is the same for all, then birth, death and the endowments must be the same for all. If the atman is the same then when one sleeps, the others also must sleep and so on. There are different kinds of sentient beings, men, birds and beasts. If the atman is the same, these differences cannot be true. But they are true. If the atman is the same, when one atman is liberated, the others also must be liberated. But they are not liberated. If the atman is the same, when one man enjoys the fruits of his action, then other men also must enjoy them. As the Samkhya teaches the existence of many Purushas each living eternally separate from the rest, this system is also described as a school of individualism.

Prakriti

Prakriti (nature or matter) is one, real and is independent of Purusha. The word Prakriti means the original or original nature. All objects are present in Prakriti in a latent form and the world around us with its diversities is the product of Prakriti. In other words, the world is a manifest state of the unmanifest Prakriti (also known as Pradhana). Prakriti or the primordial substance or energy give rise to all material forms, from atom to man. Prakriti is of two forms, one homogeneous (avyakta) or noumenon and the other heterogeneous (vyakta) or phenomena.

The Three Gunas

The three gunas, sattva, rajas and tamas are the constituent elements of the Prakriti. These gunas will either be in the state of equilibrium or in the opposite state in which one or two gunas preponderate over the rest. If they are in the state of equilibrium, they constitute what the Samkhya call Pradhana or avyakta Prakriti. But as soon as their equilibrium ceases, the process of evolution (vyakta) commences. We can never know the real nature of the gunas and Pradhana in its avyakta (noumenon) form; but only in the vyakta or phenomena state.

Causes for Evolution

Evolution begins when the equilibrium of the three gunas are disturbed due to the interference of Purusha which is not through volition as Purusha is devoid of any agency or capacity for action. Hence as the mere contiguity of the cow and the calf is enough to set the milk flowing from the cow; so the mere contiguity of Purusha and Prakriti causes the movement of the latter. The relation between the two is much like the one existing between a magnet and a piece of iron: the influence of Purusha acts like a magnet, setting Prakriti in motion. The cooperation between Purusha and Prakriti is similar to the necessary cooperation between a lame person and a blind person- the blind person carrying the lame person on the shoulders and following the directions given by the latter until they reach their common destination. Prakriti is blind and Purusha like the lame person is unable to move; and hence only their cooperation makes the world-objects possible.

Denied the role of a Creator

The Samkhyas do not believe in a creator or God as according to them God who can have no desires unfulfilled can desire to gain nothing from the creation of the world. The atmans are all perfect originally and are eternal; there is no need of God to create them. Nor can his engaging himself in creation be due to benevolence for before creation jivas have no sense organs, bodies, objects and hence cannot experience pain. In the absence of pain how can there be a benevolent desire to remove it? Hence the Samkhya system is called ‘Nirishvara’ or atheistic system.

The 24 Categories of the Evolution

The first product of evolution is Mahat which is the cosmic intelligence not to be confused with pure intelligence, the Purusha. Next comes Buddhi, its function is to discriminate; to distinguish objects enabling Purusha to experience them. Its intelligence is the reflected intelligence of the Purusha. The next product is Ahankara or self-sense (ego). Ahamkara is said to have three aspects; sattvika ahamkara which contains a high degree of sattva guna and produces the manas (mind), the five jnanendriyas (sense organs- namely sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch) and the five karmendriyas (motor organs- namely tongue, the feet, the hands, the organs of excretion and of generation). The tamasika ahamkara which contains a high degree of tamas produces the five tanmatras (subtle elements- namely sound, touch, form, flavor and odour) and the five Bhutadi (gross elements- namely ether, air, fire, water and earth). The rajasika ahamkara does not directly produce anything but helps the other two gunas in their function to produce the evolutes.

Purpose of Evolution

The purpose of evolution is for the Purusha to enjoy and suffer, to experience and interpret and thereby become capable of distinguishing between himself and Prakriti so that he could dissociate himself from the binding Prakriti. Prakriti therefore functions for the enjoyment and liberation of Purusha and their association is thus temporary.

Bondage and Emancipation

According to Samkhya the cause of misery is wrong knowledge, by which one identifies Purusha with Prakriti. There is bondage and misery as long as a Purusha mistakenly identifies itself with buddhi, ahamkara and manas in which it is reflected. As soon as the Purusha realizes that it is not the intellect or ego or mind, that it is not Prakriti- it is liberated. The discriminatory knowledge which makes liberation possible is obtained through right knowledge, reflection and spiritual discipline. As for spiritual discipline, Samkhya relies on the practical steps developed fully in Yoga, which is referred as the practical aspect of Samkhya.

Significance of Samkhya Philosophy

  • Several millennium before Darwin, the Samkhya School of philosophy propounded the theory of evolution. But unlike Darwin theory which believed in the linear growth of organism from primitive to refined, Samkhya propounded the cyclic theory of evolution followed by dissolution.
  • The giant among European philosophers, Immanuel Kant spoke about ‘a thing in itself’ called noumenon which cannot be known and only the attributes of its opposite, phenomenon can be known. This view was articulated centuries earlier by the Samkhyas who called noumenon as avyakta or the real nature of Prakriti and its traits can never be known.
  • Reference to the three gunas and the practice of meditation as enunciated by Samkhya-Yoga school are also found in the Bhagavad Gita.
  • The Jains believe in the plurality of souls as enunciated by the Samkhyas and along with Buddhists accept meditation, a kind of yogic practice for attaining Nirvana or salvation.
  • Today Yoga has been acclaimed worldwide as a practice for the wellbeing of body and mind. And the philosophical basis of Yoga is provided by Samkhya.
  • Bibhu Padhi and Minakshi Padhi in their work Indian Philosophy and Religion say that Samkhya contains the seeds of the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta.
  • The Tantra system was also influenced by the Samkhya philosophy.
  • Finally regarding the significance of Samkhya philosophy the Mahabharatha (Shanthiparva) say that whatever knowledge is found in the Vedas, Yoga, in the various Puranas, in Ithihasa and Arthashastra and whatever knowledge exists in the world, all are derived from the Samkhya.

Reference

  1. Bibhu Padhi and Minakshi Padhi – Indian Philosophy and Religion
  2. T.Raju- The Philosophical Traditions of India
  3. Shantaram Anant Desai- A Study of the Indian Philosophy
  4. Radhakrishnan- Indian Philosophy
  5. T.Srinivasa Iyengar- Outlines of Indian Philosophy
  6. Swami Prabhavananda- The Spiritual Heritage of India
  7. Yogi Ramachakra- The Inner Teachings of the Philosophies and Religions of India
  8. Brian Carr and Indira Mahalingam, Edited- Companion Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy
  9. P.V.Kane- History of Dharmashastra, Vol- 2, part-I and Vol-5, part-II
  10. Erich Frauwallner- History of Indian Philosophy, Vol-I, Translated from original German into English by V.M.Bedekar

 

Manu Vaivasvata – The Progenitor of Hindu Royal Dynasties

The Puranas give the names of the 14 Manus. The life span of each Manu is said to be one Manvantara consisting of 71 chaturyugas (each yuga consisting of Krita, Treta, Dvapara and Kali). Manu Vaivasvata is said to be the seventh Manu and the Manu of the present age from whom all ruling dynasties of ancient India trace their origin. The unreasonable life span assigned to the predecessors of Manu Vaivasvata makes their very existence a myth. Also the mentioning of the future Manus when the present age is still in vogue shows that the information is just prophesy. Hence only Manu Vaivasvata can be consider as a historical person.

Manu was the son of Vivasvan and Savarna. His father Vivasvan was the brother of Indra and son of sage Kashyapa and Adithi. In the Rig Veda Manu is spoken as the father of mankind and was the first to offer sacrifice. Manu had his capital at Ayodhya on the banks of river Sarayu. Kautilya reveals that people suffering from anarchy first elected Manu Vaivasvata to be their king and allotted 1/6th of the grains grown and 1/10th of the merchandise as sovereign due. Fed by this payment kings took upon themselves the responsibility of maintaining the safety and security of their subjects. His eldest son Ikshavaku succeeded him and he was the founder of the solar dynasty. Manu’s daughter (adopted) Ila married Budha and their heir was Pururava, the originator of lunar dynasty. Manu was a good administrator and peace and prosperity prevailed in his kingdom. He was a great lover of learning and religion. Kalhana has recorded that even during the reign of Kashmir monarch, Jayapida, the 5th successor of Lalitaditya Muktapida (712-750 A.D.) Manu along with Mandhatra, Rama and others was remembered as a great sovereign.

Probable Period of Manu Vaivasvata

Two probable dates arrived by scholars on the occurrence of Mahabharatha war are 3067 B.C. and 2449 B.C. In Vayu Purana we have a total of 94 kings from Manu to Bhrihadbala belonging to the Ikshavaku dynasty. According to D.R.Mankad the Puranas computed the number of kings of a dynasty on the basis of units of 40 years or caturyugas. Hence the date of Manu can be arrived if we multiply 40 years (that is the number of years each ruler lived) X 94 generations = 3760 and add either 2449 or 3067 (dates of Mahabharatha War) to calculate the date of Manu, that is 6209 if the date of Mahabharatha War is taken as 2449 or 6827 if the date of Mahabharatha War is taken as 3067.

Manu Smrti – Code of Manu

Manu Vaivasvata is the author of Manu Smrti the first book on Hindu jurisprudence. As he had to organize his state composed of different groups of people, he probably had drafted the dharma shastras (codes). It is said to be based on an earlier work entitled Svayambhuva Sastra written by Svayambhuva Manu. But as Svayambhuva Manu appears to be a mythical person, the authorship of the said work could be given to Manu Vaivasvata. According to P.V.Kane the extant Manu Smrti was composed between 2nd century B.C. and 2nd century A.D. and it is almost impossible to say who composed it. Probably the extant Manu Smrti was based on the original Manu Smrti composed by Manu Vaivasvata and a person who had access to the original manuscript, made additions to it and suppressing his identity published it as Manu Smrti with a view to invest the work with a halo of antiquity and authoritativeness. This interpretation we can deduce if we critically analyze the extant Manu Smrti. The present work contains 12 chapters. Except the seventh and eighth chapters which deal with the duties of kings and ministers and with law and justices, the rest of the chapters deal with castes, duties of Brahmins, pure and impure food, about vratas, shradda, yagas, kinds of marriages, etc. As we know the growth of caste system, the rituals associated with various ceremonies like yagas, marriages, etc. was a later development. So except those dealing with law, justice and governance, the rest of the topics could be interpolations. The Bible in India says that the Manu Smrti was the foundation upon which the Egyptian, the Persian, the Grecian and the Roman codes of law were built.

References

  1. Ganga Ram Garg- Encyclopedia of the Hindu World, vol-I, Concept Publication Company, New Delhi, 1992
  2. Har Bilas Sarda- Hindu Superiority, Rajputana Printing Works, Ajmer, 1906
  3. V.Kane- History of Dharmashastra, vol-I, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona, 1930
  4. Kumar Mazumdar- Early Hindu India, A Dynastic Study, Vol-I, Cosmo, New Delhi, 1981.
  5. K.Pruthi (Edited) – Vedic Civilization, Discovery Publishing House, New Delhi, 2004
  6. N.Saletore- Encyclopedia of Indian Culture, Sterling Publishers Private Limited, New Delhi.
  7. C.Singhal and Roshan Gupta- The Ancient History of India, Vedic Period, a New Interpretation, Atlantic Publishers and distributors, New Delhi, 2003
  8. Vettam Mani- Puranic Encyclopedia, Motilal Banarsidass, 1975

 

Interpreting the Myths in the Puranas and Epics

 The epics and the Puranas constitute an important source of the cultural history of India as they throw a flood of light on the various aspects of the life of the time1. To reconstruct the history of ancient India many information contained in the Puranas have to be critically analyzed and poetic exaggerations and inventions which have been interpolated have to be purged2. Similarly both Ramayana and Mahabharatha abound in numerous Brahmanical myths and legends which frequently interrupt the thread of the narrative3. There are several stories or episodes in ancient Indian literature which are absurd if taken literally. It would certainly be unwise to reject the entire story on account of such apparent absurdities; and one should try to look deeper beyond the literal meaning to extract the wisdom of the ancient. For instance the gods and goddesses having three, four and five heads and four, eight and sixteen hands are interpreted to be divine, immensely more powerful than man with the usual number of heads and hands4. Similarly some of the ancient nomadic tribes were called by the names of Sarpas (serpents) and Garudas (eagles) on account of their constant movement and migratory habits5.Hence there is a need of reading a new meaning in the sacred tradition in order to protect it from the satire of critics6. A critical study of the epics and Puranas shows four types of interpolations like

  1. Factual incidents which were blown out of proportions by fanciful writers of subsequent period
  2. Hilarious stories inserted to amuse people
  3. Facts twisted to cover up customs considered as inappropriate at later times or blunders committed by famous historical characters and
  4. Stories inserted to establish the supremacy of Brahmanas

Through a critical analysis of incidents in the various types of interpolation mentioned above, we can find the actual historical facts. Some of the episodes which have been exaggerated in the first type of interpolation are –

  1. In ancient India there was a continuous conflict between the forces of good and evil, the former representing by the Devas (Manavas) and the latter represented by the Asuras/Rakshasas.
    Fact– Ancient India was inhabited by Devas (Manavas), Daityas, Danavas, Vanaras, Rakshasas, Yakshas, Nagas, Panis (Dasas), etc7. All of them were human beings and claim descent from mythical Rishis. The Devas, Daityas, Danavas and Nagas were descendants from Rishi Marichi, while the Vanaras, Rakshasas and Yakshas were descendants from Rishi Pulastya. Further the Devas, Daityas, Danavas and Nagas were step brothers born to a common father Kashyapa. While the mother of Devas was Aditi, that of Daityas was Diti, that of Danavas was Danu and that of Nagas was Kadru. The Daityas and Danavas were called as Asuras by the Devas. Some of the prominent Asuras were Vrtra, Hiranyakashyapu, Prahalada and Bali. The Devas were advised by Brihaspati son of Rishi Angirasa and the Asuras by Shukracharya son of Rishi Bhrigu8. The Nagas supported both the Devas and Asuras depending upon the relations with them. Sesha and Vasuki were the allies of Vishnu (who always supported the Devas). Some of the Naga girls married the Devas. There were many Naga Rishis like Arbudkadraveya Naga (Rig Veda 10/94), Jatakarna Erwata (Rig Veda 10/76) and Sarprajni (Rig Veda 10/182) who composed Vedic mantras9. With regards to the Yakshas, as long as they supported the Devas in their fight against the Asuras, they were called Rakshak (protectors) by the Devas; but after the fall of the Asuras, when the Yakshas became the rival of the Devas, the Yakshas were called Rakshas and depicted as ugly. Some of the important Yakshas were Kubera and Ravana10. Another important group living in ancient India was the Panis who were businessmen and were very wealthy. If the Panis lent money to the Devas, they (Panis) earned their favour otherwise they earned they wrath and were condemned as niggardly or miserly Asuras. As the moneyed class is generally physically weak, the Panis lost to the Devas in the power struggle. Being vanquished the Panis were assigned the status of Dasas11.
    As the practice of hero worship (ancestor worship) was prevailing in ancient India, personalities like Indra, Varuna and Agni became celestial beings after their death and were addressed as Devas (gods) by their descendants. People performed yajnas and invited them to their aid in times of distress and wants12. The composers of Rig Vedic hymns developed the cults of Indra, Agni and Soma13. In the beginning the Rig Vedic hymns described the heroic deeds of their leader Indra and those who aided him in the conflict and were meant to be taken in the literal sense without any symbolism. When the conflict was over and when its authors (Manavas) sought to make a religion out of the events of the conflict, the process of myth making set in. The process of myth making is apparent though in a subtle manner in the Brahmanas which contain the detailed instructions and explanation for performing certain rites in a stated manner. Because Indra acted in a certain manner in a certain battle and was victorious, a sacrificer seeking to obtain the same result should perform the sacrifice in a symbolic manner14. Thus when the Manavas created a religion out of these events, they defied their leaders and arrogated to themselves the title of cosmic good. The opponents naturally became demons and represented the cosmic evil15. As the Rakshasas had lost the battle, the ancient historians (Puranic writers) depicted them as wicked people and their ladies ugly. If they had married the sages they were shown as beautiful16. Hence after the subjugation of various powerful races like Danavas, Daityas, Rakshasas and Nagas, even their names became scornful until at length they ceased to possess any ethnological force and turned into purely evil appellations. For instance the word Asura became synonymous with the meaning demon and Pishacha, the original name of a tribe was turned to mean an impish goblin17. Thus the conflict between the Devas (Manavas) and Asuras/Panis/Rakshas was for power and kingship and nothing to do with ideology or morals.
  2. Sathyavrata (Trishanku), son of Trayyaruna once carried away a bride from a Brahmin house on the eve of her marriage. This act of his resulted in his father expelling him from the palace. Sathyavrata spent his days roaming in the forest and helped the family of Vishwamitra who were in distress on account of the absence of Vishwamitra who had gone to do penance. Once hunger drove Sathyavrata to killed Nandini a cow belonging to Vasishta and consumed its flesh. On knowing this incident Vasishta cursed him to become a Chandala (an outcaste) and called him Trishanku ( trayi- three and shanku- sins) as he had committed three sins; incurring the wrath of his father, for abducting another man’s wife and for consuming cow’s flesh. Later Sathyavrata (Trishanku) was crowned the ruler of Ayodhya as he was the sole heir for Trayyaruna. After some times Sathyavrata (Trishanku) desired to go to heaven with his mortal body and approached Vasishta for help but the latter refused. Meanwhile Vishwamitra returned from penance and was told by his wife of the help rendered by Sathyavrata (Trishanku) in their difficult period. As gratitude Vishwamitra decided to fulfill the desire of Sathyavrata (Trishanku) to go to heaven with his mortal remains. When Sathyavrata (Trishanku) reached the heaven, the Devas refused to allow him and he began to fall back to earth. Vishwamitra then created a separate heaven for Trishanku (Trishanku swarga). As the Devas did not want a duplicate heaven, they agreed to allow Sathyavrata (Trishanku) into the heaven18.
    Fact– Sathyavrata (Trishanku) was expelled by his father at the instance of his family priest (Vasishta) on account of some excesses. For twelve years Sathyavrata (Trishanku) wandered in the woods. While in the forest a severe famine occurred lasting for nine years. At that time Sathyavrata (Trishanku) supported the family of Vishwamitra who were starving as the latter had gone to perform penance. When Vishwamitra returned after his penance and heard about the help rendered by Sathyavrata (Trishanku), he intervened and saw that Sathyavrata (Trishanku) was installed as the king of Ayodhya. Probably this incident has been blown out of proportion by an interpolator by writing that Vishwamitra created a heaven called Trishanku19. It is also likely that Vasishta the family preceptor with whom Trishanku was not in good terms had probably refused to perform Trishanku’s obsequies. This could have forced Trishanku’s son Harishchandra take the help of Vishwamitra to conduct his father’s last rites by paying a heavy fee (dakshina). These facts were blown out of proportion by the Puranic writers of the later period. Hence we find all those fanciful stuff like Vishwamitra creating a heaven for Trishanku and later harassing his son Harishchandra for dakshina, etc.
  3. Arjuna son of Haihaya ruler Kartavirya through a boon granted by his guru Dattatreya, son of sage Atri had 1000 arms (sahasra baahu). Once he visited the ashrama of sage Jamadagni where he and his followers were given a sumptuous feast. This was done through a divine cow, Susheela which Jamadagni possessed. Kartavirya Arjuna wanted the cow and sent Chandragupta to bring it. But Jamadagni refused to part with it and when Chandragupta tried to seize it, the cow suddenly vanished into the sky. Then Chandragupta tried to capture her calf. When Jamadagni intervened he was beaten to death. Parashurama, son of Jamadagni then took a vow to go round the world 21 times and extirpate the Kshatriya kings. At the gate of Mahismati, he chopped off all the 1000 arms of Kartavirya Arjuna and beheaded him with his axe (parashu) 20.
    Fact– The story of the Bhrigu-Haihaya conflict may be interpreted in the following way. The Haihayas, scions of the Yadava family were great warriors and Bhrigus though belonging to the priestly class were great navigators, expert mariners and enterprising tradesman who controlled the trade between India and the western world, acting as intermediaries between Indian and the foreigners such as Assyrians. They had amassed great wealth by helping foreigners at the cost of indigenous population. Mahismati on the Narmada River was a great trading center which was the focus of the routes running north and south and hence prized by ancient rulers. The Karkotaka Nagas has seized it from the Haihayas, but Kartavirya had recovered it. In order to secure the allegiance of the Bhrigus and to alienate them from the Nagas, Asuras, etc., Kartavirya bestowed wealth on them. Arjuna, son of Kartavirya was a great warrior who spread the Haihaya sway far and wide. He wanted the trade and commerce of India to be under the control of Indians and did not like the Bhrigus who were the agents of the foreigners. This was the main reason of the Bhrigu-Haihaya conflict. The Haihaya were in need of money for continuing their military operations and demanded the return of wealth from the Bhrigus and on their refusal pursued them and recovered the wealth buried by them. The Bhrigus ran helter-skelter for safety. In order to counter attack, the Bhrigus entered into matrimonial relationship with the ruling families. One Richika belonging to Bhrigu family approached Gadhi for his daughter and his son was Jamadagni and his grandson was Parashurama. Meanwhile the Haihayas made alliance with the Atris, rivals of the Bhrigus and sought the help of Dattatreya who helped Kartavirya Arjuna by building him a 1000 oared ship (or a fleet of 1000 ships). (The Atris were experts in ship building) 21.
    Kartavirya Arjuna’s effort at getting control of the sea trade was an eyesore to the Bhrigus. Parashurama carried a ruthless war and entirely eliminated the Haihayas from the Naramada valley. He founded new cities and also colonized the region known as Aparanta on the west coast where Surparaka became a great trading center22. Parashurama was the first colonizer of the tract (the present Konkan and Kerala region) which probably erupted out of the sea due to seismic disturbances23. Another rational interpretation for the epithet sahasra baahu which Kartavirya Arjuna possessed was that he was so called because he had the power and strength to wield 500 bows together or a single bow equal to them24.
  4. Sagara the predecessor of Bhagiratha had lost his 60,000 sons due to the wrath of sage Kapila who had reduced them to ashes in the fire which emanated from his eyes for disturbing his penance. The responsibility of performing the last rites of these 60,000 sons of Sagara fell upon Bhagiratha who did penance to bring River Ganga to earth. Ganga was pleased but said that the earth would not be able to withstand the impact of her powerful flow and this could take place only if Shiva agreed to allow her to flow into his matted hair. Bhagiratha then did penance for 1000 years on Shiva and being pleased Shiva agreed to allow Ganga to flow on his matted hair and from then gently to the earth. Then Bhagiratha performed the funeral rites of Sagara’s sons25.
    Fact– The story of Bhagiratha bringing the River Ganga to earth refers to directing the course of the Ganga from the Himalayas to the eastern regions to water and fertilize the tract. One of the greatest irrigation works in the world, it involved the efforts of four generation of the rulers of Ayodhya dynasty, namely, Sagara, Anshuman, Dilipa and Bhagiratha to construct a channel more than a thousand miles in length26. Bhagiratha perhaps was also the originator of the Ganga worship27.

With regards to hilarious stories inserted in the Puranas and epics to amuse people we have incidents of Hanuman flying with  a mountain in one hand, Bhishma laying upon a bed of arrows in the battle field awaiting death, Krishna’s son Sambha giving birth to a iron rod, etc.

  1. During the battle between Rama and Ravana at Lanka, Indrajit, son of Ravana shot an arrow at Lakshmana who became unconscious. To revive him Jambavan told Hanuman to bring the herbal plant Mrtasanjivini from the Himalayas. Hanuman flew to the Himalayas but could not identify Mrtasanjivini from other herbal plants. Hence he brought the whole mountain which grew these types of plants to Lanka. Jambavan then used the Mrtasanjivini to bring back Lakshmana back to sense28.
    Fact– Hanuman brought the Sanjivini herbs from the Dronachana hill (Mahodaya Mountain) which must be one of the three hills surrounding Lanka where herbal medicines are available29. Hanuman bringing the herbs on time and Lakshmana being brought back to senses thrilled the author of the epic to use metaphor to describe this incident and one should not take the explanation literally.
  2. During the battle Bhishma fell down after Arjuna shot his arrow at him. Bhishma decided to stay alive until the sun came to uttarayana. Till then he lay on a bed of arrow and begged for a pillow to the kings. When he found that they were not paying any heed to his entreaties he asked Arjuna for a pillow and also begged for water from him. Later he taught Rajadharma to Yudhisthira resting on a bed of arrows30.
    Fact– A careful study of the critical edition of the Mahabharatha shows that Bhishma died on the tenth day of the battle or soon after. His laying on the bed of arrows simply means that he fell on the ground that was strewn with arrows. This was later mythologized to mean that he lay on a bed of arrows as he waited for the auspicious time of the year to die. The main purpose of this story was to keep Bhishma alive long enough to advise the new king Yudhisthira on rajadharma and introduce other didactic and sectarian material31. Today in the Kali age if common people come across an injured animal, they show sympathy and try their best to get it medical facilities. Hence it is hard to believe that neither the Pandavas nor the Kauravas and also their respective allies lacked conscience and continued to fight when the great patriarch was lying down on a bed of arrows that too in the battle field.
  3. With regards to the destruction of the Yadu race it is said that one day some of the Yadus to have fun with three great Rishis Vishwamitra, Kanva and Narada who had come to Dwaraka dressed Samba, one of the sons of Krishna in female attire and taking him to the Rishis asked them what child the supposed woman would give birth. The Rishis at once knew what mischievous pranks the impudent Yadus were playing. They grew fearfully angry and cursed them saying that an iron bar would be produced from the womb of the woman and this bar would destroy the entire Yadu race. The next day Samba delivered an iron rod. The Yadavas pounded it into powder and threw it into the sea. This powder was washed ashore and it grew up like arrow like grass. Krishna who was angry due to the death of Satyaki, Pradyumna and others plucked a handful of that grass and it transformed itself into an iron rod with which he beat to death those around him. Then other people plucked up the grass which turned into iron rod. They fought among themselves and all of them got killed32.
    Fact– Probably the story of Samba being pregnant was added by the interpolator to make the Mahabharatha amusing to the masses33. First of all Samba’s existence itself appears fictitious as his mother is said to be Jambavanti, daughter of Jambavan, a bear. Can a man (Krishna) marry a she-bear and having contact with a man; can a she-bear deliver a human being? Being the son of Krishna, would Samba stoop to such low level as to get himself dressed as an pregnant woman and play such silly pranks? Perhaps Samba could have been the first and last man in the history of mankind to deliver that too an iron rod. Also the interpolator has depicted Krishna as a mentally deranged for killing all those around him just because his son had died.

Sometimes stories in the Puranas and epics were interpolated to cover-up customs considered as inappropriate at later times and blunders committed by famous historical characters.

  1. For instance it is said that in the svayamvara of Draupadi, the Pandavas participated disguised as Brahmanas. There Arjuna was successful in hitting a target, thereby fulfilling the condition imposed for becoming eligible to marry Draupadi. After marrying her he returned home along with his brothers. When the Pandavas returned home, they cried at the door- ‘mother, we have got splendid alms today’. The mother replied whatever it be my sons, divide it among all of you. So that their mother’s right might not become false, they married the princess all together34.
    Fact– The Pandavas had passed their early life in Tibet. It was a prevalent custom of that country for the women to have a plurality of husbands. This custom prevailed among many Hindu castes in many parts of India. Over a period of time this custom disappeared and the writers of the epic could not bear the idea that such custom prevailed among their forefathers. Thus several chapters in the Adi parva of Mahabharatha were interpolated and the story above is one of them35.
  2. Kunthi had served sage Durvasa and being pleased, the latter had taught her a mantra by which she could invoke any deva and get children from them. To test the efficiency of this mantra, she invoked the sun god with the mantra. Thereupon the sun god came and she was blessed with a son who later became Karna. As Kunthi had not been married she put the child in a box and floated it in the Yamuna. Kunthi later became the wife of Pandu, who also had another wife, Madri. Once while hunting, Pandu killed a sage Kindama, who was making love with his wife in the forest; both of the sage and his wife having assumed the forms of deer. The sage cursed Pandu that he would die the instance he touched his wives. Pandu became dejected as he would be heirless and asked his wives to become mothers through some noble persons but they declined. At that instance Kunthi told about the boon she had got from sage Durvasa and by uttering the mantra bore three sons, Yudhisthira, Bhima and Arjuna from Dharma, Vayu and Indra and Madri bore two sons, Nakula and Sahadeva from the Ashwini devas36.
    Fact– Karna was a Kanin (a child born to an unmarried damsel was called Kanin) born to Kunthi before her marriage. To hide her shame, she placed the child in a basket and floated it in the river. The interpolators have related an extraordinary story to save Kunthi’s honour37.

Another type of interpolation in the Puranas and epics was stories intent to convey the superiority of Brahmanas. For instance it is said

  1. During Rama’s rule infant’s death was very much on the increase in Ayodhya. It was believed that such deaths increased when shudras did tapas (penance). To find out if any shudra was engaged in penance, Rama flew over the Dandaka forest in his Pushpaka Vimana where he found a shudra called Shambuka performing penance hanging down from the branch of a tree with his head down. Rama killed him and Shambuka’s spirit got salvation38.
    Fact– This story is found in the Uttara Kanda, a later addition to Valmiki’s Ramayana which contained only five kandas. Nowhere in the sacred books of Hindus it has been mentioned that shudras should not do penance. Valmiki, a hunter had performed penance and became a sage. It is a clear case of interpolation to convey the masses that spiritual practices was only for the upper castes and if one transgress this rule he will have to face the consequences. Unfortunately this story has tarnished the image of Rama.
  2. When Yudhisthira performed the Rajasuya yajna, he invited kings and chiefs from across the country including Krishna to participate in the yajna. It is said that at the yajna Krishna with a desire of gaining the excellent fruits willingly took upon himself the task of washing the feet of Brahmins39.
    Fact– On the advice of Krishna, Yudhisthira performed the Rajasuya sacrifice only after defeating Jarasandha. In the said sacrifice, when the question arose as to who should be offered the Agra puja (first worship, where the honoured person is offered things like sandal paste, blade of grass, flowers, etc.), Bhishma said that as the sun shines among all luminous objects, so shines Krishna among all men present here. Therefore Agra puja (first worship) should be first presented to Krishna40. These being the case it is impossible to believe that Krishna invited as a chief guest at a function would wash the feet of Brahmanas. In Bhagavad Gita, Krishna speaks of nishkama karma, that is action without desire, how come the same Krishna desire of anything. In fact he had refused to ascend the throne after the death of Kamsa, in spite of his kinsmen plea. Moreover would the Brahmins who had come to receive gifts (dana) dare to allow Krishna to wash their feet or would Bhishma allowed Krishna whom he considered as an incarnation of God to wash the feet of Brahmanas? This incident of washing the feet of Brahmanas is another instance of interpolation to show that even Gods worship Brahmins to gain merit.

Indian scholars have untiringly bringing out the critical editions of our ancient texts containing historical information by rejecting absurd stories and incidents which have been inserted. For instance Vyasa taking the help of Lord Ganesha as a scribe to write the Mahabharatha and Krishna clothing Draupadi when she was being disrobed by Dushshasana have been rejected as interpolations in the critical edition of the Mahabharatha41.

Bibliography

  1. D.Pusalker- The Epic and Puranas, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1955, p. xviii
  2. P.Mittal- History of Ancient India (7300 B.C.-4250 B. C.) Vol-I, Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi, 2006, p.xix
  3. D.Pusalker- Op.cit, p.xxxv
  4. D.Pusalker- The New Style Puranas in Mahendra Kulasrestra- Edited, Culture India– A Compendium of Indian Philosophy, Religion, Arts, Literature and Society contributed by authorities in various areas, Lotus Press, New Delhi,2006, pp: 64,65
  5. Abinas Chandra Das- Rig-Vedic India, R.Cambray & Co, Calcutta, 1927,148
  6. D.Pusalker- The New Style Puranas, Op.cit, p. 65
  7. K.Pruthi (Edited) – Vedic Civilization, Discovery Publishing House, New Delhi, 2004, p.91
  8. Vettam Mani- Puranic Encyclopedia, Motilal Banarsidass, 1975, pp: 162,396,612,760
  9. P.Mittal- Op.cit, p.44
  10. Ibid, p.67
  11. C.Singhal and Roshan Gupta- The Ancient History of India, Vedic Period, a New Interpretation, Atlantic Publishers and distributors, New Delhi, 2003, pp:142,143
  12. Ibid, pp: 2,3
  13. Thaneswar Sarmah- The Bharadvajas in Ancient India, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, New Delhi, 1991, p.xxiii
  14. Malati J Shendge, The Civilized Demons: The Harappans in Rigveda, Abhinav Publication, New Delhi, 1977, p.8
  15. Ibid, pp:3,4
  16. P.Mittal- Op.cit, p.249
  17. E.Pargiter, Ancient Indian Historical Tradition, Oxford University Press, London, 1922, p.290
  18. Vettam Mani- cit, pp: 794,795
  19. K.Pruthi- Op.cit,p.59
  20. Vettam Mani- cit, pp: 393,394
  21. D.Pusalker- The New Style Puranas, Op.cit, pp:70,72; R.K.Pruthi- Op.cit, pp: 55,56
  22. Ibid
  23. D.Pusalker- The New Style Puranas, Op.cit, p. 67
  24. Ratilal N Mehta- Pre Buddhist India, Examiner Press, Bombay, 1939, p.11
  25. Vettam Mani- cit, p. 114
  26. D.Pusalker- The New Style Puranas, Op.cit, pp:65,66
  27. K.Pruthi- Op.cit,p.62
  28. Vettam Mani- cit, p. 638
  29. P.Mittal- Op.cit, p.244
  30. Vettam Mani- cit, pp: 137,138
  31. S.Rajaram- Mahabharata Date: A Word of Caution, QJMS, vol- XCIV, 1958, No:1-2, 2003, pp:56,57
  32. Dhirendra Nath Pal- Sri Krishna- His Life and Teachings, Published by C.C.Basak, The Research Home, Calcutta, 1923, p. 448; Vettam Mani- cit, p.428
  33. Dhirendra Nath Pal, cit, p.448
  34. Ibid, p.124
  35. Ibid, pp: 123,124
  36. Vettam Mani- cit, pp: 442, 443
  37. Dhirendra Nath Pal, cit, p.112
  38. Vettam Mani- cit, pp: 639,678
  39. Dhirendra Nath Pal, cit, p.171
  40. Ibid, pp: 172,173
  41. D.Pusalker- Op.cit, pp: xxiii, 97