Published in First City, New Delhi, September 2006

Many people are convinced that at the heart of an epic or legend is an event that occurred a long time ago, that narratives becomes sacred because they are the only available records (however distorted and embellished they may be) of a community’s past. To these people the Trojan war did occur, Moses did lead the Hebrews across the Red Sea to Palestine, Arthur was once an ancient Celtic king, and Osiris was a wise Egyptian leader and harbinger of civilization whose murder at the hands of the boorish Seth was avenged by his brave son, Horus.

The idea that myth is nothing but warped or hyperbolic history goes back to 300 B.C.E., when the Greek philosopher Euhemerus of Messene wrote in his Sacred Documents that Zeus and other gods of Olympus were in fact deified humans. In India medieval Jain scholars, in their commentaries on the Hindu epic Ramayana, opined that the monkeys of the narrative were in reality tribes whose banners bore the emblem of monkeys.

Hindu scriptures rarely differentiate between traditional beliefs and historical data. Hence the oldest collections of myths are known as Itihasas (histories) and Puranas (chronicles). In these documents narratives of gods, kings, and sages trace the history of India from the beginning of time to the prophecies of anarchy that will herald the end of the world. Historians, however, do not consider these narratives to be records of facts.

Early Indian history is shrouded in mystery. First there were the stark, functional, brick-laden cities built along the tributaries of the Indus and the now-dry Saraswati around 2500 B.C.E. About the same time the earliest Vedic hymns were being composed. This civilization, covering a territory of more than 1.3 million square kilometers, disappeared around 1500 B.C.E. as inexplicably as it appeared. Some believe that the composers of the Vedic hymns destroyed the civilization; others believe the cities simply died out, letting Vedic culture dominate society. Still others believe that the Vedic culture was spawned within and around the city civilization itself. For more than a thousand years, from the collapse of the city civilization to the establishment of the Magadhan empire following Alexander’s invasion, historians have no material relics for the study of Indian history. There are no ruins of cities, no monuments or inscriptions. The only archeological evidences for this vast stretch of time are a few tools and potsherds. In place of material evidence there is Vedic literature, which is primarily liturgical and philosophical but which offers tantalizing glimpses of the historical conditions that witnessed the spread of Vedic culture from northwest India to the east, and then south of the subcontinent. Given this situation historians, anthropologists, and sociologists often turn to the tales of the Itihasas and Puranas to understand what could have happened in India between 1500 B.C.E. and A.D. 500.

Hindu narratives clearly retain the memory of the integration of three main groups of people whose ideas fermented the Hindu psyche: nomadic herdsmen, settled agriculturists, and animist hunter-gatherers of the forest. If one believes that myth is essentially proto-history then the following story from the Mahabharata clearly refers to a war involving the nomadic herdsmen, the agriculturists, and forest tribes.

Kadru, the mother of serpents, or nagas, and Vinata, the mother of the eagle known as Garuda, once saw the celestial horse Ucchaishrava gliding along the horizon at dawn. Kadru said the horse had black hair in its tail; Vinata said the horse was spotlessly white and wagered her freedom on it. Determined to win the wager, Kadru ordered her children to cling to the horse’s tail. The next day, from a distance Ucchaishrava’s tail did appear to have black hair. As a result Vinata had no choice but to serve as Kadru’s slave. The price of Vinata’s freedom was the jar of amrita, the nectar of immortality that was possessed by the devas. Garuda flew into the city of Amravati, fought the devas, took the jar of amrita by force, and gave it to the nagas, thus securing his mother’s freedom. He requested that the nagas drink the amrita only after taking a bath. While they were away he let Indra, king of the devas, reclaim the nectar and take it back to his celestial city. Thus Garuda tricked the nagas, just as their mother had tricked his mother. Impressed by Garuda’s strength, valor, and guile, Vishnu—the best of gods—asked Garuda to be his mount. “I will carry you around if you can place me on top of you too.” Vishnu agreed, and Garuda became both his mount and his insignia (fluttering on his banner above him). On Garuda’s request Vishnu also made the nagas the natural food of eagles so that each time Garuda killed a naga he did not sin.

Even today in Vishnu temples the image of Garuda holding a serpent in his talons can be seen before the sanctum sanctorum and on the sacred banner. The above narrative, which explains the origin of this practice, can also be interpreted as a historical event: The serpent-worshipping agriculturists had enslaved the eagle-totem tribe and stolen cows (indicated by amrita, since cows were crucial to the survival of the nomads) belonging to the nomads. The leader of the eagle tribe befriended the nomads, and together they liberated the cows as well as the slaves.

South Indian folklore, especially from Kerala, retains the memory of the migration of the nagas from the north, where their forest homes were destroyed by migrating aryas. There are tales and ceremonies referring to the only survivor, the serpent-king Takshaka, who in exchange for shelter ensured the fertility of the land. It is likely that the nagas were serpent-worshipping agriculturists, who after being driven south by animal herding aryas, taught farming to southern forest dwellers who gave them refuge.

In time the identity of the fertility-bestowing serpents and the people who first worshipped them mingled and merged. The teacher of farming who worshipped the naga became a naga himself.

The Bhagavata Purana informs us that Kaliya, the naga, and his wives took shelter in a lake to hide from the eagle Garuda, who wanted to kill and eat them. This lake stood near Gokul, the village of the cowherds. To keep away trespassers Kaliya poisoned the lake with his venom and attacked anyone who dared to enter the water. Krishna, the cowherd hero, challenged Kaliya to a fight. He ended up subduing the naga and dancing on his hood until his wives begged for his release.

The story suggests that agriculturists (represented by Kaliya) harrassed by forest tribes (represented by Garuda) migrated to pastures where herdsmen (represented by Krishna) grazed their cows. After a period of hostility, the herdsmen overpowered and then befriended the agriculturists.

Some historians believe that such narratives came into being when certain Indo-European nomads (yagna-performing, cow-herding aryas, mythologically identified as gods and humans, or devas and manavas) made their way into India from the northwest. They invaded settled communities (of serpent-worshipping, city-building dravidas, mythologically identified as asuras, yakshas, rakshasas, and nagas), which had driven out autochthonous tribal cultures (totemic and animistic communities, mythologically identified as vanaras, garudas, bhalukas, and nishadhas). These historians believe that the aryas brought horses to India and that in a ceremony known as Ashwameda they let loose their most magnificent horse and laid claim to all the lands the horse traversed unchallenged. Stories such as the one following from the Mahabharata seem to endorse this idea.

When the Pandava Yudhistira became king, he performed a horse sacrifice and let loose his royal horse. Arjuna led the armies that followed this horse. The horse crossed many lands and the kings of those lands accepted the overlordship of the Pandavas. But then on the border of Manipura, the warrior Babruvahana stopped the stallion and challenged Arjuna to a duel. In the fight that followed Babruvahana successfully shot a poison-tipped arrow into Arjuna’s chest. When Babruvahana’s mother, Chitrangada, saw the dying Arjuna she burst into tears, for Arjuna was her husband—Babruvahana’s father—who as per the marriage contract had agreed to let her father, who had no male offspring, adopt the son born of their union. Babruvahana had never seen his father. He had learned archery from Uloopi, a naga woman who was also Arjuna’s wife, but one he had abandoned and forgotten soon after marriage. Thus scorned, she had used Babruvahana to avenge her humiliation. At the request of Babruvahana and Chitrangada, Uloopi brought Arjuna back to life with the help of the serpent gem that serves as an antidote against all poisons.

Anthropologists suggest that Chitrangada probably belonged to a matrilineal clan—not unlike the Nairs of Kerala—where the child belongs to the mother’s, not the father’s, family. The arrival of Vedic culture is believed to have replaced an earlier matriarchal culture with a patriarchal one.

The Aryan invasion theory, based primarily on linguistic studies of the Vedic scriptures, is fraught with contradictions and controversies, for it suggests that the Vedic culture came into India from outside, an idea that is unacceptable to the traditional Hindu of modern India. While narratives suggest a constant dynamic of conflict and compromise between nomads, settled communities, and the forest tribes, they never suggest that the nomads (whether Rama or Yayati or the Pandavas) are outsiders. Also the scriptures insist that the three groups of people descended from a common father—Kashyapa, the ancient one—indicating a common ancestry. This is seen as proof of the alternative to the Aryan-invasion theory: that the Vedic culture once extended from India to the Caspian Sea (Caspian being a derivative or corruption of Kashyapa, which is the name of the rishi who fathered the gods) but survived and evolved only in the subcontinent. Indeed many of the characters in the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata (Kaikeyi, stepmother of Rama; Madri, wife of Pandu; Gandhari, wife of Dhritarashtra) belong to lands now identified as Pakistan and Afghanistan.