Rama and Krishna- Epic Characters or Historical Greats

Atul Sethi had a feature in Sunday Times of India last week- ‘True Legends?’ For many years, I faced the questions and asked too: Were Rama and Krishna just the legendary characters of the epics credited to Valmiki and Ved Vyas or historical figures?

Atul has come out with the opinions of known historians and writers on the subject. Did the events mentioned in the epics actually happen? Did the characters described in them actually exist? How much of the epics is fiction and how much history?

Some don’t believe about their historicity.

Historian K M Shrimali: ”Historically speaking, I have apprehensions about subscribing to the view that Rama was a historical figure. The scale of the event described as the Mahabharata war and its historicity is also suspect.”

R S Sharma, professor emeritus of the department of history at Patna University: ”Although Krishna plays an important role in the Mahabharata, inscriptions and sculptural pieces found in Mathura dating back to 200 BC and 300 AD do not attest to his presence. Because of this, ideas of an epic age based on the Ramayana and Mahabharata have to be discarded.”

But many others believe they are historical figures.

N S Rajaram, author of ‘Search for the Historical Krishna‘: ”There is sufficient evidence available now to suggest that Krishna was indeed a historical figure, who lived about 5000 years ago. This evidence is not just literary but also archaeological, geographical as well as astronomical.”

Pushkar Bhatnagar, author of ‘Dating the era of Lord Ram‘: ”Valmiki, who wrote the Ramayana, was a contemporary of Rama. While narrating the events of the epic, he has mentioned the position of planets in the sky at several places. Using recent planetary software, it has been possible to verify that these planetary positions actually took place precisely as specified in the Ramayana. Not just a stray event but also the entire sequence of the planetary positions as described by Valmiki at various stages of Rama’s life can be verified today as having taken place. This information is significant, since these configurations do not repeat for lakhs of years and cannot be manipulated or imagined so accurately, without the help of sophisticated software. The inference that one can draw is that someone was present there to witness the actual happening of these configurations, which got recorded in the story of Rama.”

According Rajaram, ancient authors have taken enormous pains to preserve accounts of Krishna’s life, times and philosophy. ”If we look beyond the myths accumulated over millennia, Krishna actually emerges as a human figure – a practical philosopher par excellence – who moved away from the ritualistic practices of the Vedic religion of his time to the action-oriented Sankhya philosophy, embodied in his philosophy of karma yoga – of the Bhagavad Gita, which till date remains his transcendent legacy. Contrary to popular imagination, which portrays him as a romantic hero, the image of Krishna that we get from ancient sources is that of an impeccable statesman. He was an austere and studious man, whose main concerns were political stability and ethical and religious reform.”

A number of non-sectarian, secular works like Panini’s grammar and the Chandogya Upanishad mention Krishna and provide independent support for his historicity.

Interestingly, the contemporary Buddhist works like Sutrapitaka and Lalitavistara refer Krishna as an asura. The Buddhists of the time viewed Krishna’s teachings of nishkama karma (detached action) as inimical to their own teachings, emphasising renunciation, and found it necessary to try to discredit him by referring to him as an asura.

Many geographical references like Rameshwaram, Kishkindha, Kurukshetra, Hastinapura etc connected with Rama and Krishna has survived over the centuries and still exist. How could for thousands of years, the authors kept the same locations for their story?

Rajaram puts forward his argument about the period of the epics. ”In all probability, the society described in the Mahabharata corresponded to the early Harappan period, before 3000 BC, since this period was a rich one with numerous urban centres, while the society described in the Ramayana was less urbanised and more agrarian. Most scholars today place the Mahabharata war around 3100 BC. According to Mahabharata, Arjuna’s son, Abhimanyu, killed Brihadbala, 32nd in descent from Rama. So we may tentatively place Rama 650 to 750 years before the war.”

However, Bhatnagar thinks, a period of at least 2000 years separates the two personalities. ”This is because on the basis of astronomical dating, we can now say that Rama lived during the 5th century BC, while Krishna is believed by scholars like Aryabhatta to have belonged to the 3rd century BC.”

But, why is there not much archaeological evidence that points towards their existence? It is perhaps because systematic excavations have never been carried out, says historian Nandita Krishnan. ”Nobody believed that Homer’s Iliad was a true story till Troy was discovered after extensive archaeology. Unfortunately, the sites of the Ramayana and Mahabharata have now been built over many times and it may never be possible to excavate extensively either at Ayodhya or Mathura.”

We don’t have much of the archeological proofs of even Buddha and Mahavir era. Even the palaces of Chandra Gupta Maurya and Ashok are nonexistent today in any form. We have not kept the historical evidences of even Kalidas and Tulsidas. Perhaps, Indians are very poor in preparing, and preserving their history. After few years, we shall be saying the same for Gandhiji too.

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