Bhartiya History

Reexamining history from a Hindu perspective and exposing the colonial distortion of their Vedic heritage that fails to recognize the spiritual root of Indic civilization.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Rigveda and the historical sense of Indians

By T.P. Sankaran Kutty Nair

History divorced from truth, does not help a nation—its future should be laid on the stable foundations of truth and not on the quicksands of falsehood, however alluring it may appear at present. India is now at the crossroads and I urge my young friends to choose carefully the path they would like to tread upon.

—Ramesh Chandra Majumdar

History has had assigned to it the task of judging the past; of instructing the present for the benefit of the ages to come

—Leopold von Ranke

These two views of two great historians carry considerable weight even today. Ranke is the father of modern scientific history and R.C.Manjumdar, doyen among Indian historians.

With the opening of the Vascoda Gama epoch in Indian history, began the long interaction between the East and the West. In those days, one of the charges against India was that India produced, “no great historian or historical work, and Indians had no historical sense, although Indians excelled in other branches of learning”. The western scholars charged Indians of not having written a proper history of India. To this charge, Indians reacted by projecting the Rigveda, which remains even today the oldest book of knowledge. Cole Broke had revealed that the oldest product of Indian literature is the Rigveda. The three German scholars Bopp, Grimm and Humboldt established the intimate relationship among all Aryan languages, the most primitive form of which was shown to be preserved in the language of the Rigveda. Max Mueller (1823-1900) a German Orientalist and Indologist settled at Oxford acquired a mastery over Sanskrit without the help of a teacher. He then turned to comparative language studies which involved him in the study of the Zend Avesta. The Zend Avesta led him to the study of comparative religion and of the editing of the whole text of the Rigveda (1845-79) with the commentary of Sayana. His History of Sanskrit literature (1859) mapped out in chronological order all the Sanskrit texts known till then. His interest in mythology on which he wrote appealing essays led him further into the study of comparative religion and to the publication of The Sacred Books of the East (1879-1904) A monumental achievement, this collaborative enterprise made available in English, translations of 50 major oriental non-Christian scriptures. The Rigveda is neither a historical nor a heroic poem, but mainly a collection (Samhita) of hymns by a number of priestly families, recited or chanted by them with appropriate solemnity at sacrifices to the God. Of the various recensions of the Rigveda known in tradition only one, namely the Sakala recension consisting of 1017 hymns of very unequal length has come down to us apparently complete, and it is this Sakala recension that is meant when one speaks of the Rigveda. The Rigveda is not— as it is often represented to be—a book of folk poetry nor does it mark the beginning of a literary tradition. Bucolic, heroic and lyrical elements are not entirely absent, but they are submerged under a stupendous mass of dry and stereotyped hymnology dating back to the Indo-Iranian era and held as a close preserve by a number of priestly families whose sole object in cherishing those hymns was to utilise them in their sacrificial cult.

Most of the hymns were not composed as such but were mechanically manufactured out of fragments of a floating anonymous literature and the process of manufacturing hymns in this manner must have continued for a long time. The division of the whole Samhita into ten mandalas and the number and arrangement of hymns in these mandalas are not at all arbitrary. It is hardly an accident that the number of hymns contained in the first and the last mandalas is exactly the same, namely 191. The kernel of the Rig Samhita is however constituted by the so called family mandalas ie. the six consecutive mandalas from the second to the seventh, each of which is supposed to have been composed by a particular family of priests. The ninth mandala is most pronouncedly a ritual mandala. The principle governing the original arrangement of hymns in the family mandalas seems to have been determined by three considerations—deity, metre and the number of verses contained in the hymns concerned. Each family a mandala opens with a group of hymns dedicated to Agni, immediately followed by another group addressed to Indra, then dedicated to various gods. That the tenth mandala is later in origin than the first nine is however perfectly certain from the evidence of the language. But it is also certain that the whole of the Rig Samhita including the tenth mandala has assumed practically the same form in which we find it today, already before the other Samhitas came into existence. The hymns of the Rigveda contain abundant geographical data including reference to the mighy Himalayas. Out of the 31 rivers mentioned in the Vedic texts about 25 names occur in the Rigveda alone. The Rigveda enumerates several streams most of which belongs to the Indus system. The Rigvedic people not only knew the sea but were mariners and had trade relations with the outside world. Vedic literature confined itself to religious subjects and notices political and secular occurrences only incidentally so far as they had bearing on the religious subjects. As Pargiter has very pertinently observed, “ancient Indian history has been fashioned out of compositions which are purely religious and priestly, which notoriously do not deal with history and which totally lack historical sense. The extraordinary nature of such history may be perceived if it was suggested that European history should be constructed merely out of theological literature. What would raise a smile if applied to Europe, has been soberly accepted when applied to India. The force of these remarks is undeniable and no student of Indian history should ignore legendary element in the Puranas and epics. It is necessary to remember that the traditions are not genuine historical facts so long as or so far as they are no corroborated by contemporary texts as other reasonable evidence. But the traditional history is valued beyond doubt because it helped us to reconstruct genuine history. The historical sense of Indians as we projected earlier through the Rigveda is then proved to be not a reality but more a myth.

The Rigveda is neither a historical nor a heroic poem, but mainly a collection (Samhita) of hymns by a number of priestly families, recited or chanted by them with appropriate solemnity at sacrifices to the God.

The Rajatarangini and the Indian historical sense

Some Indian scholars pointed out the importance of Rajatarangini written by Kalhana of Kashmir. It is not only a classic of Sanskrit narrative poetry but is the earliest extant history of Kashmir written in the middle of the 12th century, in the age when the crusaders of Europe were fighting in western Asia. It is a unique masterpiece of Kalhana, a blend of authentic chronicle and imaginative poetry inspired by the poet’s passionate love of his exquisitely beautiful homeland. It was in 1892 that Pandit Durga Prasad published the Rajatarangini in a Sanskrit text form, followed by similar efforts made by Sir Aurel Stein. Stein brought out an English translation in two volumes in 1900 under the caption Chronicle of the Kings of Kashmir based on a French translation done by Troyer during 1840-1852.

The name of the book indicates the meaning as saga of the kings of Kashmir or river of kings. It is narrated in eight cantos, each canto being called a taranga or wave by the author. It is a continuous history of the kings of Kashmir from mythical time (1184 BC) to the date of its composition ie. 1148-1149. The colophon of the work informs us that its author Kalhana was the son of Champaka, the Minister of King Harsha of Kashmir (1088-1100). The Rajatarangini is the only Sanskrit work, with a historical perspective.

To quote Jawaharlal Nehru, “Rajatarangini is the only work hitherto discovered in India having any pretensions to be considered as history. Such a book must necessarily have importance for every student of old Indian history and cultural.” (sic-Ancient Indian History)

The principle governing the original arrangement of hymns in the family mandalas seems to have been determined by three considerations—deity, metre and the number of verses contained in the hymns concerned.

It is a history and it is a poem, though the two perhaps go ill together, and in translations we see their unavoidable admixture of myth and reality combined together. Written eight-and-half centuries ago the work covers the history of over two millenniums. The early part of mythological phase is brief and vague and sometimes fanciful (first three taranginis) but Kalhana’s period had been covered in a close up narrative. It is not at all a pleasant story as it was a period of romanticism and warfare side by side. Consider it as the romantic age in Indian history as testified to by the romances of Rajput princes and princesses, spread all over the Indian subcontinent. It was also an age of quixotic chivalry and knighthood wherein the people of Kashmir suffered under mighy feudal barons. It is too much of palace intrigue, murder, treason, tyranny and civil war. It is the story of autocracy and military oligarchy. In essence it is a story of the kings, the royal families and the nobility, not of common folk. No wonder it is given the title “River of Kings”.

(To be continued)

(The author retired as Head, Department of History, University College, University of Kerala.)


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