Monthly Archives: May 2017

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 time.1 To reconstruct the history of ancient India many information contained in the Puranas have to be critically analysed and poetic exaggerations and inventions which have been interpolated have to be purged.2 Similarly, both Ramayana and Mahabharatha abound in numerous Brahmanical myths and legends which frequently interrupt the thread of the narrative.3 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 hands.4 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 habits.5 Hence there is a need of reading a new meaning in the sacred tradition in order to protect it from the satire of critics.6 A critical study of the epics and Puranas shows four types of interpolations like

  • Factual incidents which were blown out of proportions by fanciful writers of the subsequent period

  • Hilarious stories inserted to amuse people

  • Facts twisted to cover up customs considered as inappropriate at later times or blunders committed by famous historical characters and

  • 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 –

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), etc.7 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 Bhrigu.8 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 mantras.9 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 Ravana.10 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 Dasas.11
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 wants.12 The composers of Rig Vedic hymns developed the cults of Indra, Agni and Soma.13 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 manner.14 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 evil.15 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 beautiful.16 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 goblin.17 Thus, the conflict between the Devas (Manavas) and Asuras/Panis/Rakshas was for power and kingship and nothing to do with ideology or morals.

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 heaven.18
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 Trishanku.19 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.

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 around 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 centre 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 center.22 Parashurama was the first colonizer of the tract (the present Konkan and Kerala region) which probably erupted out of the sea due to seismic disturbances. 23 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 them.24

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 sons.25
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 irrigational 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 length.26 Bhagiratha perhaps was also the originator of the Ganga worship.27

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 an iron rod, etc.

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 sense.28
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 available.29 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.

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 arrows.30
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 material.31 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.

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 killed.32
Fact– Probably the story of Samba being pregnant was added by the interpolator to make the Mahabharatha amusing to the masses.33 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 a 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.

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 together.34
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 them.35

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 devas.36
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 honour.37

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

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 salvation.38
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 were only for the upper castes and if one transgresses this rule, he will have to face the consequences. Unfortunately, this story has tarnished the image of Rama.

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 Brahmins.39
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 Krishna.40 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.41

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 Mahabharatha.42


  1. A.D.Pusalker- The Epic and Puranas, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1955, p. xviii

  2. J.P.Mittal- History of Ancient India (7300 B.C.-4250 B. C.) Vol-I, Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi, 2006, p.xix

  3. A.D.Pusalker- Op.cit, p.xxxv

  4. A.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. A.D.Pusalker- The New Style Puranas, Op.cit, p. 65

  7. R.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. J.P.Mittal- Op.cit, p.44

  10. Ibid, p.67

  11. K.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. J.P.Mittal- Op.cit, p.249

  17. F. E.Pargiter, Ancient Indian Historical Tradition, Oxford University Press, London, 1922, p.290

  18. Vettam Mani- Op.cit, pp: 794,795

  19. R.K.Pruthi- Op.cit,p.59

  20. Vettam Mani- Op.cit, pp: 393,394

  21. A.D.Pusalker- The New Style Puranas, Op.cit, pp:70,72; R.K.Pruthi- Op.cit, pp: 55,56

  22. Ibid

  23. A.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- Op.cit, p. 114

  26. A.D.Pusalker- The New Style Puranas, Op.cit, pp:65,66

  27. R.K.Pruthi- Op.cit,p.62

  28. Vettam Mani- Op.cit, p. 638

  29. J.P.Mittal- Op.cit, p.244

  30. Vettam Mani- Op.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- Op.cit, p.428

  33. Dhirendra Nath Pal, Op.cit, p.448

  34. Ibid, p.124

  35. Ibid, pp: 123,124

  36. Vettam Mani- Op.cit, pp: 442, 443

  37. Dhirendra Nath Pal, Op.cit, p.112

  38. Vettam Mani- Op.cit, pp: 639,678

  39. Dhirendra Nath Pal, Op.cit, p.171

  40. Ibid, pp: 172,173

  41. Bankim Chandra Chaterjee treats the episode of Krishna washing the feet of the Brahmanas at the Rajasuya ceremony as an interpolation. (Bimanbehari Majumdar- Krishna in History and Legend, University of Calcutta, 1969, p.254)

  42. A.D.Pusalker- Op.cit, pp: xxiii, 97