History vs Mythology - Ramayana and Mahabharat
Ramayana and Mahabharat document the ancient Indian history. But those are not considered as formal history texts in Indian Universities. Why?
First of all Ramayana and Mahabharat is considered as Itihasa. Itihasa means old narratives. In a sense it is the history of India. But there are few differences which need to be addressed before marking these as formal history texts.
1. Human History - When we say history in academic sense, it is referred to Human history, documentation of Human civilization. It does not cover the history of deities or Devatas like Indra, Varuna etc and demons or Rakshasa like Ravana, Bakasura etc.
Whereas books like Ramayana and Mahabharat contain both Human history along with the history of Devata and Rakshasa. So people don't accept history of Devata and Rakshasa as natural evolution of civilization. Those are considered as a part of mythology.
2. Earthly events - Generally history documents social, political, economical, cultural events or protocols present in past civilizations on earth. It does not cover the supra-cosmic events happened in heaven or hell.
Whereas Ramayana and Mahabharat contain past events occurred on earth as well as from heaven and hell. For example - Arjuna going to heaven for one year, Dasaratha went to heaven to help Indra etc. Yudhistira went to hell with own body as a visitor, Krishna brought dead son of a Brahmin etc. Those are considered as mythology because it does not fit into normal human perception.
3. Teachings - The purpose of history is to document the past events without any interpretation. For example - King Ashoka killed all in Kalinga, converted into Buddhism and spread Buddhism throughout the world. But history does not extend to incorporate Buddha's teaching. Because teaching is an interpretation to be covered in other stream of knowledge. Those are not a part of history.
Whereas Ramayana and Mahabharat contain past events along with teachings. For example - Vishma was sleeping on arrow bed and Krishna met him along with Pandavas. Then teaching given by Vishma is described at length. Similarly in battle field Krishna-Arjuna discussion is narrated as sacred book Gita. So these books also incorporate philosophies, moral teachings, and spiritual teachings. So people don't accept those as history or mythology. Rather those could be fit into philosophy stream.
4. Consistency - In any stream of knowledge consistency is a challenge. Historical events are studied keeping sequence of events, possibly with time period. Also information should be consistent across all authors or books.
Whereas Ramayana and Mahabharat contain a lot of inconsistent events. Rama ruled for 11,000 years. His father Dasaratha also was said to have lived for 16,000 years. Krishna met Jambuban of Treta. Krishna was dancing with sixteen thousand girls and then got married to another set of sixteen thousand girls. Radha, the lover of Krishna is NOT mentioned in Mahabharat, but she is a popular character in today's Krishna temple. Many such events are conflicting in various Puranas like Bhagavatam etc. So rational mind considers those as mythology.
5. Miracles - History covers incidents. It does not covers accidental miraculous events.
Whereas Ramayana and Mahabharat contain many such miracles. Krishna lifting mountain in little finger. Ravana was moving in a magic flight, Hanuman jumping Indian ocean etc. So people does not accept these because there is no such scientific explanation of these events.
We need to remove all super-natural events, characters from these two books to be considered as history.
6. Authenticity - Any stream of knowledge must be authentic including History. For example the existence of Buddha is known from various stone images and writings presents on stone. Writings from stones, discoveries from various monuments, study of metals, soils gives clue about past. For example Harappan Civilisation.
Whereas events documented in Ramayana and Mahabharat do not mention source of information - What are places, which period etc. For example Ravana is from Sri-lanka or not? Was Rama born in current Ayudhya or some other place? Where is the birth place of Krishna in current India? There are no uniform answers to all these events. So people doubt authenticity of places and events.
7. Author - Any information without author name is irrelevant. This is very important in case of History. People go by the authority of that person in that stream of knowledge.
Ramayana is written by Valmiki. Some says he wrote through visual meditation because he did not know Rama until Narada revealed it. It seems he also wrote beforehand what Rama is going to do in future. There are thousands Ramayana in Sanskrit and local languages. In one Ramayana in Sanskrit, where Sita is Ravana's sister and Rama kidnapped Sita. So there was a fight between Rama and Ravana. Similarly Vyasa wrote Mahabharat through Ganesha from heaven. And same Vyasa wrote many Puranans, all are inconsistent. Buddha is mentioned by Vyasa in Bhagavatam. Then Buddha is before Vyasa or after Vyasa? Some say Vyasa is just a title of publishers. There were many Vyasa, many Suta-muni etc.
8. Rituals - It is mentioned in various Smritis and Sutras, during rituals, Kings used to arrange discussion and speech program as pastime. Because the rituals like Ashvamedha, Rajasuya, Putra-kamesti Yajna use to continue for months. And whole day people cannot chant mantra. So during the gap, as a refreshing or entertaining activities, people used to describe about past kings and past events. At later point of time those tales are documented as Ramayana and Mahabharat. Since these tales are associated with rituals, there were various narrators, so there are inconsistencies. Every preacher wants to highlight their lineages through exaggeration. People added a lot of miraculous stories on the top of real facts, diluted facts to get public attention, name and fame.
And in due course of narration they have also described the process followed in those rituals. For example in Ashvamedha Yajna, the queen had to sleep with dead horse over night for symbolic sex, killing of animals in yajna facing towards a particular direction, various objects required for those rituals etc. So these rituals cannot be a part of history. And people consider those as mythology.
9. Religion - People keep History subject as a secular subject. So people do not want to include spiritual process or methods like Yoga, Vedanta, Advaita topics into History. Life of saints can be included, but the sadhana or paths followed by them should be kept out of history context.
Whereas Ramayana and Mahabharat contain spiritual topics, religious protocols, caste system, Svadharma based on caste etc. And many will NOT be interested in these Hindu religious topics. These books also do not include Buddha's method, Jain's method etc. So these texts are looked as belonging to a particular religious sect. These are not organized as a universal history book.
10. Foreign driven - The most interesting thing is our history is driven by foreigners. We have collected data from foreign visitors like Hiuen Tsang, Al-Biruni etc. Indian never documented anything other than few Sanskrit books.
Indian Sanskrit books talk of cyclic civilization like Satya-Treta-Dvapara-Kali. It includes both evolution and involution of human progress. So the time is cyclic. Whereas western thought process is linear civilization. That includes only evolution as a linear human progress. So their historic time is linear. Indians were never history centric, rather they were Purana centric. So Indians have to revisit their strategy to migrate from mythology centric to history centric study.
11. Ordinary humans - Generally History considers humans from all social layers in a balance way. It covers starting from Kings, businessmen, till ordinary human life style.
Whereas our Puranas are centered around few Kings as a major information. Ordinary human lives, social issues are not highlighted. So there is an imbalance in documentation. Whereas history centric people try to learn about ordinary citizens and their life styles, general politics, people culture etc. Those are missing from Ramayana and Mahabharat.
Rama left home to keep father's promise – obedient to father. Was it a normal life style for ordinary citizen or Rama was unique? Draupadi got married to five brothers - polyandry and she was paraded naked in Indian parliament in front of all ministers and her own five husbands – no dignity of women. Vidura was a Dalit, still became the India's PM – caste is not a bottleneck, Vyasa did sex with three dead cousin's wife to give birth to Dhrutarastra, Pandu, Vidura – Liberal sex life, Krishna kidnapped Rukmini – love marriage. Were these events common to general public or these were unique to royal family?
This is another reason, why people do not correlate these events to their day-to-day lives. They think these are not humanly possible for ordinary citizens. So whatever values or morals taught in these texts do not influence normal humans. So in India there is a lot of corruption, harassment, untouchability, because people are not inspired to practice these texts in action, though they preach these in words. Basically people revere Rama, Krishna, Pandava, Vishma etc as role models. But they do not put into action thinking they were super-natural actors with special divine power. People do not accept those as history of common man, or actions from common man.
So we need to consider Ramayana and Mahabharat as a superset of History book. These contains past events, morals and spiritual teachings, religion, various Yogas, history of Devata, Rakshasas, miracles etc.
We need to filter all these super-natural facts to give it a status of history. And there are a lot of superstitions which are considered as tradition due these Puranas. Because people remember these facts eternally as Hindu tradition. For example, following caste system, believing in demons and various non-vedic demi-gods, practice of unhygienic rituals – e.g. throwing dirt into river Ganga in the name of purity etc. So we need to demarcate the ancient ‘secular’ social customs from ‘religious’ Hindu tradition. History must be analyzed in a secular, scientific and data driven method.
Swami Vivekananda nicely said - "The Smritis and the Puranas are productions of men of limited intelligence and are full of fallacies, errors, the feelings of class and malice. Only parts of them breathing broadness of spirit and love are acceptable, the rest are to be rejected. The Upanishads and the Gita are the true scriptures."