Reflections on Indic Culture: On the historicity of The Ramayana
By Dr. Varadaraja Raman
Great narratives—especially of the religious kind—have to be read or listened to while grazing in the realm of ideas and ideals. Their truth lies not in factuality but in the meaning, message, and inspiration they impart. So it has been with me all through the years. The Rama and Krishna I read about in the epics and Puranas are not the same that I pay homage to in a temple. The epic heroes are supreme symbols of the culture. Their words and deeds may be analyzed and admired, even criticized and castigated here and there in academic discourse, but more importantly they are icons of a tradition that has invested them with sanctity through generations of reverence and worship.
The images in the temples to which we sing kirtans and bhajans may be only religiously and denominationally sacred, but what they stand for is of universal significance. Taken as characters in a literary work Rama and Sita are transnational and of universal interest, like Agamemnon, Hamlet and Faust. They carry the weight and wisdom of centuries and have imparted indelible cultural imprints on an entire civilization. Their names are imbued with a mysterious connotation in the hearts and minds of those who are part of that civilization.
The Ramayana is the saga of the divine personage Rama and his consort Sita. The two have become ideals of truthfulness and chastity in the Hindu world. Very few names in history have provoked the love and respect that Rama and Sita have been able to do in the hearts and minds of millions of Hindus during countless generations.
Yes, the Ramayana has nourished the Hindu spirit and India’s culture for many centuries now. Yet, we have no idea of when or how the magnificent epic seeped into our collective psyche and became an intrinsic part of it.
Even after centuries of scholarship, no one has a definitive answer. The traditional view is that the work is several thousand years old. Rama’s reign is said to have been during the treta yuga which, per traditional Hindu reckoning, was at least a million years ago. If we take the findings of modern archaeology and geology seriously, this contention will have to be moderated.
There seems to be some literary evidence to suggest that even before the actual composition of the masterpiece, certain more ancient ballads treating the story of a Rama and a Sita were popular in northern India. It has been suggested that it was perhaps from these that a great poet took his germinal ideas. Specifically, some Buddhist Jataka tales speak of a brother and sister called Rama and Sita. Sita’s name is also mentioned as a furrow in some Vedic hymns while there is mention of a King Janaka (Sita’s father in the epic) in the Brihadáranyaka Upanishad.
A related question is the historicity of Rama and the other characters. Bluntly put, is the Ramayana literature or history?
This may be a matter of enormous interest from the perspective of history and comparative literature; but it is also an extremely sensitive question from the point of view of a dynamic living religion, let alone current politics. Dispassionate scholars may explore the genesis of what they regard as one of the most marvelous creations of the human spirit with great reverence and admiration for the work. The eminent scholar Dr. Suniti Kumar Chatterjee wrote in a Bengali newspaper article that “Ramayana is not a historical fact of any age; it is from beginning to end a fiction. …… No scholar of Indian history thinks that Rama, the hero of Ramayana was a historical person who can be relegated to a particular period of time.” He was severely criticized by orthodoxy to which this sounded blasphemous. But it was also feared, perhaps rightly, that questioning the historicity of a divine hero could shake the stability of ancient customs, practices, and worship modes.
We may recall that when scholars in the Western tradition began to examine the historicity of Jesus Christ in the eighteenth century, there was uproar from the religious establishment. In some traditions, there would be more than uproar. It is a blessing for Hindus that there is no authority in our system who is invested with the power to issue death warrants on Hindus for entertaining unorthodox views. No authority can even excommunicate a person in the Hindu world. In our own times spokespersons for ancient traditions take to the Internet to abuse skeptical thinkers with a variety of adjectives.
As long as minds are free to think and wherever they are allowed to express their thoughts, challenges to religious dogmas and further explorations will continue. Wherever minds are slavishly fettered to mindless religious bigotry, and the bigotry holds political power, free thinkers will have to remain silent and terrified, or flee to lands where freedom reigns.
While it is true that historical inquiries into the claims of religions could have negative impacts on some aspects of religions, they also enrich the culture by deepening understanding and appreciation of a culture’s past.
(From the book Voyage Through Indic Heritage)