Dating the Divine

krishnamilkmaidsPublished on 27th July, 2014, in The Times of India

God created the world on Sunday, October 23, 4004BC, according to James Ussher, the 17th century Archbishop of Armagh (Church of Ireland). He based his findings on a literal reading of the Bible. Scientists and historians did not take this Ussher chronology seriously. But many orthodox Christians did. Even today, in USA, many schools do not teach `evolution’ as it goes against the Bible. It is in this context that we need to understand the yearning of the new chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) to see Ramayana and Mahabharata as history, not mythology.

First, let us understand the history of the word ‘ mythology’. It is derived from the Greek word `mythos’ which means `story’. Classical Greek philosophers rejected mythos, in favour of logos, that which appealed to reason. Thus was born the divide between mythology and history.

It led to the very popular assumption that ideas not based on logic are false. It also led to the rational being deemed superior to the sentimental. Post-Renaissance scientist embraced Greek logic but did not know where to locate the Bible. They dared not call it myth and put their God, Jehovah, alongside Zeus and Aphrodite. They had witnessed the fate of Galileo at the hands of the Roman Inquisition for proving the earth moved around the sun and not vice versa. Even Charles Darwin had hesitated publishing the Origin of Species. So the Bible was viewed as fact and emphasis was put on the historicity of Jesus, even though ideas such as Immaculate Conception and Resurrection that contributed to the glory of Jesus Christ proved problematic to the scientific mind.

When imperial powers went about establishing colonies in Asia, Africa and Americas, they arrived with a sense of technological and moral superiority. They had © Hal BeralCorbis science and the one true story about the world -the Bible. The sacred stories of all other cultures became `false stories’ -myths defined as fiction that uneducated people believed to be true. It was a definition adopted by the early reformers of India too. Scholars like James Frazer, Max Mueller, Robert Graves, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, ClaudeLevi-Strauss and Mircea Eliade, all male Europeans, wrote on the nature of myths. Some sawit as a proto-history (euhemerism), while others saw it as per sonification of natural phenom ena and allegory (literature).

Some saw it as expressions of psychological responses to the world (psychoanalysis), while others saw it as tools used to organize the world (structuralism). In most of these conversations on mythology, the Bible was kept out.

Indians resented their sacred stories being viewed as mythology, not history.

They resented the reconstruction of India’s history by British Orientalists based on archaeology, philology and epigraphy, especially since they tended to give greater value to everything antiHindu: the founder of Buddhism (Gautama Sakyamuni), the king who patronized Buddhism (Ashoka), the monuments of Islamic kings, and scriptures like Manu Smriti that affirmed that Hindus used the caste system to suppress vast portions of the local population. It seemed like a political conspiracy to systematically strip upper-caste Hindus of all self-worth and self-esteem. The ensuing rage resulted in every historical finding being viewed in political terms. Despite clear attempts of modern historians to separate data from informed interpretation, which continues to have an element of subjectivity, history remains a contentious subject for Indians.

Few notice that Hindu, Buddhist and Jain stories make sense only when we presuppose rebirth and the idea of karma, unlike Biblical stories that presuppose a beginning (Genesis) and end (Apocalypse and Rapture). The focus of Indian sages has always been on ideas such as anadi (without beginning) and ananta (without end) and sanatan (timelessness). The aim is moksha, kaivalya, nirvana that breaks the limitations of body , time and space, biology , history and geography . The emphasis is on the human mind (manas) and expanding the mind (brah-manas), outgrowing `one truth’ and embracing `multiple diverse truths’. Historical facts become irrelevant when the denominator is infinite. The timebound Ram or Krishna do not matter as much as the timeless Ram or Krishna. Reason matters less and belief matters more. The word `itihasa’ for Ramayana and Mahabharata, which is popularly translated as `what was’ or history , can also be translated as `what wasiswill’, in other words timeless, or sanatan. It’s a totally different way, a more expansive way of seeing the world. Rather than appreciating its grandeur and sharing it with the world, we would rather deny it, be embarrassed by it, in our mad rush to embrace history over mythology.

The definition of mythology has changed since the rise of postmodern studies in the 1970s. The cultural prejudice of historians has now been revealed. We see how science and language itself has been shaped by mythical culturally ingrained structures. Mythology is now study of subjective truth of a people expressed through stories, symbols and rituals. It gives an insight of the cultural view of the world. Across Universities around the world, every mythology including those of Catholics and Protestants, Shias and Sunnis, is being studied to appreciate how these narratives play a key role in shaping the mind of people, serving as a glue to bind communities and creating identity politics. Psychologists, neuroscientists and sociologists are appreciating how every human being, even the most avowed atheist, needs a narrative, a myth, his own particular understanding of the world, to go through life, with some help of the culture he belongs to.

However, most Indians still cling to old prejudiced definitions of mythology . That is why those on the Left are convinced our great narratives are `falsehoods’ while those on the Right are convinced they are literal `truths’. Both function in a state of colonial hangover, but will deny it violently if accused of it.