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A Short History of Religious and
Philosophic Thought in India

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Chapter 3: The Itihasas and Puranas

The Rise of the Epics and Puranas

The Brahman of the Upanishads, which stirred the awe and reverence of the sages, could be realised only by the cream of mankind, and those who are fit to pursue the path chalked out in the Upanishads are small in number. But religion has to extend beyond realisation and cater to the emotional needs of the lesser category of humanity. No historian of philosophy, to our knowledge, has been able to get over the prejudice that all religious thought subsequent to the Vedas and Upanishads, and apart from the later systematic Vedanta of the Darsana school, is a kind of trash, or, at best, a concession to the weakness of the popular mind. But it need not be emphasised that, if the religion of the Hindus had exhausted itself in the visions of the Vedas and Upanishads and the metaphysics of the intellectual Vedanta, Hinduism would have died out long ago and remained today as a memory, like the cultures of Babylon, Greece or Egypt. The almost universal sweep of the thought of the Hindus has enabled their religion to withstand the onslaughts of foreign culture and pass through the vicissitudes of time.  

The appeal of the great religion of India is not merely to the intellect or reason, or even to an empirical need, but to man as such. The longings of human nature are not Eastern or Western, but of the world. The awe-inspiring Brahman or Purusha had to be made accessible to the warrior and the businessman, the servant and the farmer in the fields, in a way intelligible to them all, and practicable to their endowments and temperaments. While the Upanishads called forth special qualifications, the Epics and Puranas came to the help of the general man.  

The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are the towering Epics of India. While the Mahabharata is constructed out of a complicated theme of tradition, mythology, history, philosophy and mysticism, the Ramayana is a straight and running chronicle depicting the deeds of a divinely great hero who came to set an example to mankind as a whole. The Mahabharata soars into the realms of the supernatural and the marvellous, giving at the same time an easier exposition of the nature of the goal of human life. The Ramayana written in the ideal ornate style of Valmiki, mildly shaking the heart of the reader from beginning to end, and giving a silent touch of transformation to the feelings, brings about, without its being known or announced loudly, the requisite regeneration of the human mind into an ideal condition of humaneness, a sense of brotherhood, filial affection, fraternity of feeling, obedience to rule, servicefulness, honesty, firmness in resolution, and an unbounded goodness coupled with an adamantine adherence to truth. The Mahabharata, which is the magnum opus of the brilliant insight of Vyasa, on the other hand, raises a tumult of emotion and feeling and throws the mind to giddy heights, scattering it into the empyrean of a wondrous perfection of the ethical and spiritual ideal, and the student of the Mahabharata finds himself dashed by the waves of the powerful thoughts of Vyasa, now sinking down and now rising up in that ocean of Epic literature. Valmiki and Vyasa are the real builders of Indian culture, and their names will be remembered as long as Hinduism lasts. The great heroes and heroines of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata - Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata, Sita, Hanuman, Krishna, Yudhishthira, Bhishma, Arjuna, Draupadi - are bywords even to a schoolboy in India, and it is impossible to think of these noble personages without a sense of the supernormal creeping into one's veins. It is the Ramayana and the Mahabharata that have driven into the minds of people in India the idea of a compassionate and powerful God ruling the destinies of man and yet ready to help anyone who really craves for His grace. It is the Ramayana and the Mahabharata that have built India through the ages and saturated the Indian mind in religious thought and hammered down the ideal of God-realisation as the goal of human life and the possibility of receiving help in this endeavour from the Rishis and the Avataras of God. It is these sublime Epics that have cemented the hearts of the Hindus into a single whole, and if today India stands as a powerful Nation ready to face undaunted any force that may threaten it from outside, it is because of the moral toughness and courage that has been instilled into the blood of the Nation by the superminds of Valmiki and Vyasa. It is impossible for us here to adequately estimate the indelible impact which the thoughts of Valmiki and Vyasa have produced on the minds of the people of India. They brought into being an effect which cannot be erased out of history, for they touched the being of man.  

The great works of Valmiki and Vyasa became the reservoirs for the streams of several inspiring works by the immortal poets of India - Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti, Bharavi, Magha, Sriharsha, Tulasidas, Kamban, and many other writers in poetry and prose, who drew inspiration from the inexhaustible founts of the authors of the two great Epics. The famous saying, 'whatever is of worth in the literature of the world is what has been already spoken by Vyasa (Vyasochhishtam Jagat Sarvam)', gives an idea as to the nature of the contents of the work of Vyasa. In the very words of the Mahabharata, 'whatever is here (in this Epic), whether concerning ethics, politics, human well-being or spiritual salvation, is elsewhere; what is not found here will not be found anywhere else'. The religion that the common Hindu knows and practises is the religion of the Epics and Puranas. It is this prolific literature that has made India spiritual in character. When the religious man of India, in general, prays to God or even contemplates on God, his idea is really that of the God of the Epics and Puranas. This is the popular religion of India, the religion of the masses and of the orthodox religious elite even today. The great religious festivals and ceremonies, rituals, vows and observances practised throughout the country are the result of the untiring proclamations made in this body of literature, ascribed to Valmiki and Vyasa. Under these circumstances, it is surprising that historians of philosophy, even of Indian origin, should have proffered a step-motherly treatment to these works of great literary merit, and in most cases ignored their very existence, as if they are the chaff of religious literature, while in fact it is to these alone that the religious man has clung for centuries down to this day for inspiration and solace in times of emotional depression or dispiritedness in life.  

This appraisal of the genius of Valmiki and Vyasa is indeed much less than the regard and attention that these masters and makers of human culture really deserve. We hope that students of the history of philosophy and religion will find time and patience enough to dive again into the depths of this ocean of Epic literature, for no one can be said to have truly grasped the spirit of Indian culture without having mastered the import of these Epics. As it is said in the Mahabharata, 'the Veda is afraid of him who has not studied the Epics and Puranas, for he would indeed kill it with his ignorance of its truth propounded in them.'

History and Symbology as Modes of Teaching

The method of the Epics is different from that of the Veda-Samhitas and the Upanishads. The latter lead the mind direct to the ultimate truth of things, with a forceful pressure of the revelation of a universal unity exerted on the understanding. The penetrating insight of the authors of the Epics and Puranas quickly discovered the impossibility of the application of this method on the minds of the masses and followed a way which can be easily accepted by everyone. The mind has a tendency to love the beautiful, admire the marvellous, fear the mysterious and imitate the heroic or chivalrous. The feelings of affection, sympathy and compassion, and a longing for the ideal of justice are all to be found even in the most learned or the philosophically minded. The human side does not vanish even for a metaphysician of the highest order. To understand this aspect of man is a little difficult, and ignorance of this fact is the cause of man's failures in social life. The mind resents following a beaten path and yearns for variety. It loves and hates. It has prejudices and, occasionally, it is even fanatic. All this admixture of curious ingredients in the human mind does not receive full sympathy from the Upanishads or the Vedas. Man, being what he is, needs a friend, philosopher and guide in his day-to-day life. And this need is admirably filled by the works of the great Epic poets.  

The personalities of the Epics are eternal inspirations for the drooping spirits of mankind. Consider, for example, the invincible power of Rama, that exemplar of truth and justice, who was like a thunderbolt to all evil and the tenderest consoler of the simple and innocent, and a forgiver of even the enemy who came to him for refuge, infusing into every heart, devotion, admiration and fear, all together, by the character of his ideal personality. Consider the wondrous Krishna who could walk on earth and in heaven simultaneously, bring kings down from their thrones by a mere word of his, assume the cosmic form of the Almighty and yet wash the feet of the guests who attended the Rajasuya sacrifice of Yudhishthira, bewitch charming girls who loved him, give assurance and comfort to the weeping Draupadi, put courage and energy into the diffident Arjuna, terrorise even the terrific gods in battle, speak the highest philosophy and fight as the mightiest of soldiers, give spiritual vision to Yogins in their meditations, hypnotise the whole army of the Kauravas by a mere look, converse with Brahma and Rudra as friends and yet hold the reins of Arjuna's chariot in war, and remain at once the source of omniscience and omnipotence, a master of yoga, a centre of love and a dynamic man of action, a perfection of personality as man and God in one. Vyasa, by his majestic descriptions of Krishna, stimulates one's being into an ecstasy of thought which the mortal frame cannot endure, for it may break if the thought deepens a little more in such contemplation. Consider the virtue of Yudhishthira, which bore the impertinence and meanness of the Kauravas in the court where Draupadi was grossly insulted in public, the virtue which ordered the release of the evil Duryodhana from the bonds of Chitrasena, the Gandharva, the virtue which had the understanding and patience to withstand the incitations of his brothers, while in forest, to take up arms against the enemies, which showed the presence of mind that had the boldness to walk singly through the thick of the arrayed army to receive the blessings of the elders before the war, which asked for the revival of his stepmother's son rather than his own mighty brothers when they were all in a swoon of death, which would rather give up the prospects of going to heaven than abandon a faithful dog which followed him in his weary journey. Who could remember Yudhishthira without tears in one's eyes! Consider the dexterity of Arjuna, the strength of Bhima, the might of Hanuman, the sorrow of Draupadi, the grief of Sita, the misery of Damayanti, the courage of Lakshmana, the sacrifice of Bharata, the greatness of Bhishma, the spiritual splendour of Vasishtha which foiled the mightiest weapons known on earth. Consider the wisdom of Vyasa, the realisation of Suka, the glory of the divine sages, Narayana and Nara! Who can read the lives of these great ones without a thrill of wonder, fright, love, and an aspiration for the higher life! These are some of the many picturesque and unforgettable lessons that the Epics have left behind them as a legacy for directing the human heart to blossom from humanity to Divinity.  

Apart from the great lessons that one learns from the lives of the towering personalities of the Epics, they also provide a symbolic representation of the activity of the cosmic forces, working both within and without, an activity which is the very nature of the Universe. The wandering of Rama in the forests also reminds one of the aberration of the Jiva (individual soul) in samsara, with his consort Sita, the mind that implores him to run after the golden deer of sense-object. The power of discrimination and virility which is Lakshmana gets grossly insulted by the desirous mind and is made to take leave of it by a misconstrued interpretation of situation. The ten-headed Ravana is the group of the ten senses which carries away Sita, the mind, impetuously, and Rama, the soul, is left all alone, seeking union with his consort in the wilderness of life. Another reading of this symbology takes it to signify the separation of Sita, the individual soul, from Rama, the Absolute. Here Ravana may be regarded as the mind working with the ten senses. The good tidings which Hanuman conveyed to Sita are like the happy news of the possibility of the soul's salvation, received from a Guru or spiritual teacher. The Guru's power of insight dispels the darkness of the mind and shakes the Jiva from its slumber of ignorance, as Hanuman disillusions the Rakshasas by his terrifying power, dashing down their fortresses and challenging their unified attack all alone. In this symbology, the union of Sita with Rama, after the destruction of Ravana, is the union of the individual with the Supreme Being, after the annihilation of ignorance.  

The Mahabharata, likewise, serves as a great symbol of the universal drama. The dark forces as the Kauravas banish from their estates the virtuous characters as the Pandavas, with apparent success in the beginning. Goodness in the world seems to have no support and it is put to shame by the vices which gain an upper hand. The Pandavas who represent good character and right conduct are disconcerted and defeated and forced out of their kingdom into the forest, where they live with the sympathy of some good people, who are naturally not many in number. Virtue is put to test and does not receive help even from God in the earlier stages - Krishna is far away, busily engaged in something else, and does not know the woe of the Pandavas. There is also, after a time, a temptation to try the impossible and break a vow, when the younger brothers and Draupadi advise Yudhishthira, the chief among the virtuous and the good, to cut short their exile in the forest and retaliate upon the Kauravas. Only the sagacity of a Yudhishthira could realise the unworthiness of such a move at that time. After a period of severe test, virtue is rewarded, and armed forces come to its rescue, and God Himself as Krishna takes up the reins of its destiny in His hands, and the war with vice is waged. Even here is another symbology of the chariot, of which Krishna is the charioteer, a figure which occurs in the Kathopanishad. The supreme intelligence in man is the charioteer or the guiding principle in the battle of life. Arjuna is the individual soul. The horses are the senses. The body is the chariot. The mind is the reins. The objects of the senses are the path and the direction of the movement of the chariot. In this war with unrighteousness one has to face not merely gross wickedness as of Duryodhana and his henchmen, but also outdated conservatism and tradition as in Bhishma, a character which may be called misplaced understanding that does not take cognisance of the subtlety of changing situations; alliance of knowledge and power with injustice as in Drona; and ability and conduct vitiated by bad association as in Karna. God, the Master of the destiny of the Universe, has His own plans, and Krishna, the Lord of Yoga rousing the confused soul with His gospel of the Bhagavad Gita and infusing confidence by His Visvarupa, Himself does all the work of the destruction of evil and establishment of righteousness, while the soul is merely an instrument in His hands. As long as God is seated in the body it lives and moves and when Krishna descends from Arjuna's chariot it is instantaneously reduced to ashes. God takes up the responsibility of caring for the Jiva when there is true self-surrender, and Krishna takes up arms against the fierce Bhishma when the need is felt. God sees that the vow of the soul in its battle is fulfilled as is illustrated in the overcoming of Jayadratha. The traditional concept of dharma, like the rule of mathematics fixed for ever, has to be abandoned and seen as it is in its vitality, a living, changing and ruling force, as was demonstrated in the vanquishing of Karna. The surgeon's knife has to be applied when the body is going to be eaten up by cancer. Whether one is a Bhishma, worthy of respect, or a Duryodhana deserving kingly honour, he has to be put down when he goes counter to the divine order prevailing in creation.  

The above description of an inner symbol in the Epics does not mean that they are only a symbol and there is no substance or truth in them. There are many who imagine these Epics to be the concoction of a brave genius, with no historicity whatsoever in their annals. Such a hazardous view goes to an extreme and truth is always in the middle. It is possible that some minor details, such as the Upakhyanas in the Mahabharata, have grown out of some old legends or traditions, but there is no reason to disbelieve the historical character of the central figures of the Epics. May we also suppose that the restless anxiety of some writers to reduce persons like Rama and Krishna to mythical or imaginary concepts of poets is due to an eagerness to see that the case of spirituality or divine living does not triumph in the world? Even during the time of Krishna himself, there was at least one man who denied his very existence.

The Metaphysics of History

Here it will be profitable to make a slight digression from the main subject and discuss the meaning of history and symbol, and how the charge of the non-historicity of the Epic figures cannot affect the main purpose of the Epics. Perhaps it is a feeling of many that non-historicity means non-existence. It is our purpose here to show that this erroneous notion is based on a wrong view of history itself. There is a cosmic significance of things, in addition to the historical and isolated meaning which they seem to have in social life. The human mind has a habit of looking at events in a straight line and this linear march of events is normally regarded as history. This is what we call the three-dimensional perspective or the spatio-temporal vision of the mind-to look at objects as bodies, as existences cut off from others, in such a way that there cannot be any intrinsic or organic connection among them. This is the classical historical view. The events of political history have no organic connection. There appear to be sudden jumps, in space and time, of characters which cannot be predicted easily. But that this is not the truth of history will be clear to a true philosopher of history. The historical view takes account of the causal connection of events, while causation is not the whole truth of the universe. Arthur Eddington introduces a distinction between causation which is the commonsense meaning of the relation of cause and effect in which there is the notion of the temporal antecedence of cause to the effect, and what he calls causality which is the symmetrical relation of the totality of events in the universe, which is a complete system of reciprocally connected events. Whitehead holds a similar view when he considers reality to be of the nature of an organismic process. Here the three-dimensional or spatio-temporal view of history gives way to the truth of a universal situation, which though it may appear as extra-mental to individual observing centres, is involved in the very constitution of the observers, and hence incapable of observation at all. A necessity of thought need not be an uncontradictable truth. James Jeans observes: "We can no longer say that the past creates the present; past and present no longer have any objective meanings, since the four-dimensional continuum can no longer be sharply divided into past, present and future". "If we still wish to think of the happenings in the phenomenal world as governed by the causal law, we must suppose that these happenings are determined in some substratum of the world which lies beyond the world of phenomena."  

As the universe is a connected process and not a collocation of isolated objects hanging in space, no one thing or event can be said to be the cause of another thing or event, for, in an unbroken process, every part has to pervade and penetrate every other part, so that everything in it becomes a cause as well as an effect. Every event, thus, reflects a universal condition and does not stand as an element abstracted from the whole. Causation among things is to be understood as the individualistic reading of the consequences of an indivisible consciousness appearing as the witness of objects which have it as their existence and content. The function of this universal principle as an unbroken continuum appears, where it is manifest in individuals, as the law of causal relation. The dynamic self-expression of the Absolute in the world of objects involves among them a living connection which appears in this manner. Causation has a meaning in the empirical world, but is meaningless to the Absolute. The mechanistic senses of man cannot observe the teleological purpose hidden in the Universe, an aim towards which all evolution is directed.  

The story of Lila and Padma, in the Yoga Vasishtha, demonstrates the truth that an event can have several dates and locations. Every event is a universal event and is valid to the whole cosmos. The past, present and future have no absolute determinations of their own. An event may have a different significance altogether with a different space-time meaning in some other framework of reference. What is past need not be necessarily past for everyone, and this law applies to the present and future, also. Any event taken by itself and at a given moment of time may belong either to the past, present or future according to the space-time coordinate from which it is viewed. From the point of view of the Reality behind the Universe, an event is a universal process inseparable from the consciousness in which it occurs. Space-time is a relation and not existence. This world of space-time in which we live is not the only possible one, for there can be as many worlds, with as many space-times, as there are frames of reference or modes of consciousness. Our world-history, therefore, need not be an ultimate reality. When subjected to critical analysis, the reality of the historical existence of things, as we conceive it, vanishes like mist before the sun.  

What we understand to be history has a significance wider than that the historical level would permit. The crass notion of a historical being would perhaps be of a person or thing capable of being seen with the physical eye at the time when it existed. Perhaps the existence of someone who has never been seen by anyone would be an object of doubt as to his existence. As there is nobody today who can say that he has seen Rama or Krishna, for example, we are ready to doubt their reality. We seem to reject everything which cannot be empirically proved right now and here. But in this weddedness of ours to the historical dogma we seem to forget that history need not merely be a straight march of certain events in time but can comprehend situations and realities overstepping the limits of sensory phenomena.  

Is God a historical person? Perhaps the reason why his existence is often denied is because his being cannot be subjected to the test of empirical history. Is the world or the universe a historical entity? The solidness, the simple location, in short, the temporal historicalness of the contents of the world has been smashed down once for all, by the discoveries of the modern Theory of Relativity in physics, and its startling philosophic interpretations by such thinkers as Eddington and Whitehead. In this predicament one should really hesitate to give opinion against the historical existence of the personalities of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The perception of Valmiki and Vyasa ranged beyond the empirical view of history and looked at the universe from the point of view of being qua being. The Sages sang the history of the cosmos, which an uninitiated mind cannot comprehend. Any attempt by the layman to probe into their implications would be like a science student of a secondary school trying to read the discoveries of Einstein for himself and understand them. No one who is incapable of a universal perspective of things can appreciate the truths presented in these Epics, which proclaim to the world the outer meaning of the inner reality revealed in the Upanishads.  

The history of a thing is not what happens to that thing in a particular country or village, but what it is in creation as a totality. We do not exist merely in a country; we exist in the cosmos. That some of us are visitors, some are pilgrims, some have arrived from foreign countries, and some have this or that character, quality or duty, is a description of our personalities; but we are all more than this descriptive form. Our status in the cosmos is our true history, and no study of a person can be complete or be free from doubt unless it is studied from the cosmical standpoint. Taking things bit by bit, in isolation, is not the method of a true historical study. The biography of a person, at least according to the viewpoint of seers like Vyasa, should include the story of body, mind and spirit together, and not merely of the sociological existence of the body. As our social relations today touch all nations, our spirits touch all the planes of being. This is the wider view of history, in which questions like "Did Krishna exist?" cannot arise. When creation is taken in its total perspective, everything in it becomes a historical reality.  

To study universal history we require a different apparatus of understanding from that we need when we read European and Indian history. If, as the poet said, we cannot touch a flower in our garden without disturbing a star in the heavens, no one's reality can be evaluated without reference to his wider meaning in the cosmos. This is true not only of human beings but also of the smallest atom in the world or the gods in Paradise.  

Apart from this inner truth of history and the reality of a person from this standpoint, there is nothing to disprove the historical existence of the important personalities of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata even from the point of view of our own physical view of earthly history. That we have no means to adduce as proof of their existence need not imply that they did not walk on this earth at some distant date.

The Puranas

The Puranas are chronicles containing ancient history, mythology and longer or shorter discourses in religion, philosophy, yoga, mystical attainments and spiritual realisation, and many other kindred subjects.  

Large sections of the Puranas are devoted to glorifications of the exploits of Vishnu, Siva, Devi, Ganesha and Skanda, either in their original forms or through their manifestations. Other deities such as Brahma, Surya and Vayu occupy prominent places in the Puranas and receive great attention though not in the same measure as the five mentioned. The other themes are also widely spread through the Puranas in greater or lesser emphasis. The Puranas also describe at length such other subjects as medicine, art, rhetoric and literary appreciation, grammar, ethics, politics, ritual, social laws of the castes and the stages of life, pilgrimage to holy places, religious vows and observances, the nature and value of charitable gifts, and the philosophy of Sankhya, Yoga and Vedanta in all their variegatedness. Their vivid biographies of stalwarts who lived and moved in the world as paragons of sagely wisdom, prowess and moral toughness, devotion to God and self-sacrifice give a concrete picture of the universal truths which they elucidate in a homely but magnificent style. The classification of human conduct and duty into the four Purusharthas or aims of existence is a master-stroke of the ethico-philosophical concept of ancient India, and it formed the groundwork of the great systems of law embodied in the Dharmasastras or Smritis.  

The gods, Rishis, kings, saints and moral heroes described in the Puranas have an exceptional educative value to the human mind. As regards the historicity of the personalities of the Puranas, our observations on those mentioned in the Epics have to be called back to memory, for the Puranas are only an amplification of those themes which are concisely hinted in the Epics during the course of the narration of their main subjects.  

The major Puranas are eighteen in number and are classified, generally, into three categories of six each, dedicated to the glorification of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. The other gods also find their proper places in the recountings of these texts in suitable contexts. As far as the essential content, philosophical profundity and religious impressiveness of the Puranas are concerned, the most important among them are the Vishnu Purana and Srimad-Bhagavata. The Srimad-Bhagavata, in particular, deals with the creation of the world, following the trend of Sankhya and Vedanta; the various incarnations or Avataras of Vishnu, which are twenty-two or twenty-four in number (including the ten great Avataras); the dynasties of gods and demons, sages and kings, as following from the original progenitors issuing from the Creator; the lives of great devotees of God such as Dhruva, Rishabhadeva, Jadabharata, Ajamila, Prahlada, Gajendra, Ambarisha, Sudama and the like; philosophical discourses on Sankhya, Yoga and Vedanta, especially those delivered by Kapila to Devahuti and Sri Krishna to Uddhava; astronomy and geography; the principles of the Dharmas of castes (varna) and orders of life (ashrama); and a description of time cycle (kalpa), the four ages (yuga) and the four kinds of dissolution of things (pralaya), etc. But the most striking and enchanting section of the Bhagavata is that which describes the life of Krishna. The forceful presentation of the great Avatara has become the source of a marvellous development of the various Bhakti schools in India. This part of the biography of Krishna, though referring to the events of the Mahabharata, carefully avoids the details of his public life as a statesman, warrior and teacher, which is so colourfully portrayed in the Epic. The chapters describing the Rasa Lila or the amorous dance of the lasses of Vrindavana with Krishna as a small boy, his childish pranks of earlier days with a divine import hidden behind them; his marvellous feats of strength and valour striking awe upon everyone even while he was an adolescent, have given rise to a vast literature by devout poets in later times and their spirit pulsates through the emotions of ardent lovers of God even till this day. The Puranas, backed up by the Epics, with their compelling force and grandeur of mien, form an efficient mouthpiece of the Vedas and Upanishads.