Tuesday, March 14, 2023

What the Rāmāyaṇa tells us about itself

(Swarajya, March 2023) We are lucky that we can devote a book review to Jijith Nadumuri Ravi’s The Geography of Ramayana. A Geographical Journey into the Rama Era (Notion, Chennai 2023), a swift sequel to his geographical analysis of an earlier scripture: Rivers of the Rg-Veda (ibidem 2022). This book draws our attention to numerous geographically or historically consequential details in the epic, which often yield unexpected information. And this, the former ISRO space scientist Nadumuri does with great rigour, contrasting with the endless wishful thinking of so many self-styled history rewriters. Nadumuri is not the first scholar who refuses to accept the Ramayana geography that has come down to us. In the 1950s already, the skeptical Marxist DD Kosambi, followed by HD Sankalia and a string of later “rationalists”, already doubted that Rāma had ever gone that far south, certainly not as far as Rāmeśvaram or Śrī Laṅkā. But precisely because of their principled skepticism, their denial of serious value to an epic poem that had become a Hindu scripture, their criticism of the traditional reading lost some of its force. A priori, Leftists tended to dismiss the epics as little more than fantasy. In the late 19th century in Europe, the scientist vogue had similarly dismissed all ancient tradition as mere invention: Troy did not exist, the Hittites mentioned in the Bible had not existed, even Jesus had been no more than a product of fantasy. This approach was still being imitated in India in the late 20th and even in the 21st century, and praised by the secularists as a refreshing contrast to Hindu obscurantism. The epics and real history But in fact, this approach is quite obsolete. While the academics pooh-poohed the legend of Troy, an amateur went to excavate the site that geographically corresponded to Homer’s Troy, and he found the city. Shortly after, the Hittite language was discovered and proved to explain some names of Trojan heroes. At once, the Biblical references to a hitherto unknown Hittite people (to which e.g. Esau’s two wives belonged) also proved historical. About Jesus, no serious scholar will repeat today that he didn’t exist. That he was God’s only-begotten son, born from a virgin, resurrected from the dead, the redeemer from sin, or the Messiah (“anointed one”, the heir to king David’s throne), those are items of faith, up for discussion and doubt. But that an exorcist and purported healer roamed Palestine, that he fancied himself the Messiah, and that he died on the cross, are now generally accepted as historical facts. So, Nadumuri takes the present text seriously. This starts with genealogical data, where he makes a productive use of the king-lists. These are another such artefact from ancient literature that Indian “rationalists” mock. However, the histories of Mesopotamia and Egypt would be nowhere but for their local king-lists. In India too, these are the most reliable part of the Itihāsa-Purāṇa literature. To explain this phrase “most reliable”, it is worth quoting Nadumuri’s unassailable assessment of the degrees of soberness versus fantasy in the different parts of Hindu literature: “Despite being poetry, RV [Ṛg-Veda] is mostly devoid of magical narratives. RV does describe boons and curses. They cause mental discomfort. But they don’t cause any physical transformations like turning a man into an animal or such magical effects found in the Itihāsa Purāṇas. The nouns that come close to the word ‘curse’ in RV are Aghaśamsa (evil wish) and Abhiśasti (blaming). The noun Śāpa appears only in RV 10 (the 10th Maṇḍala of RV) meaning evil wish, damnation, or blaming. Vara (boon) mentioned in RV has nothing magical. It represents a general blessing like that of Indra to his worshippers. Similarly, there are no divine weapons (Divyāstras) mentioned in RV. The noun Vimāna is used to poetically describe the act of the sun moving through the sky, in the sense that it ‘measures out’ the sky. In the Vedas, the Ṛṣis aspire to live for 100 years considering it as a very long life. The Purāṇic poets describe people as living for 1000s of years.” (p.29) Many Hindu readers will be curious as to what this no-nonsense historian makes of the Vimāna, so often cited as proof of how their ancestors already had helicopters; so we will let you share in Nadumuri’s insights: “Vimāna – a vehicle that can fly in the sky based on the will of the rider -- could be a Poetic Imagination of Vālmīki himself. The imagination of flight is very ancient in human prehistory, in all the cultures across the globe. Vimāna originally meant the tall towers of the cities. They contain balconies where people can stand and watch the ground from an elevation. If Vālmīki were to stand inside one of them, it could trigger the feeling that the static Vimāna is somehow flying in the sky, carrying the people standing inside them.” (p.31) He analyses the occurrences of Vimānas more closely (p.359) and concludes that in those cases where they are flying vehicles, this has all the characteristics of poetic imagination. “The concept of a flying Vimāna that can go to any place based on the will of the person using it, was thus born in the mind of the poet. This is the world’s first science-fiction.” (p.67) Rāma and Śantanu We see history shade over from mostly sober and factual in the Vedas to a more embellished and sometimes purely fantasized form in the Itihāsa-Purāṇas. Yet, the part that was least tampered with, that was learned by heart and arguably formed the first reason for composing quasi-historical literature, were the king-lists. We skip the flood of light that Nadumuri throws upon the genealogical information in the early Veda and the later Mahābhārata, and focus on his startling coordination of the Rāmāyaṇa with the Vedas’ end and the Mahābhārata’s beginning. As year of the Mahābhārata battle Nadumuri takes 1783, the time calculated by Ashok Bhatnagar on astronomical grounds, and he correlates this with newer archaeological findings of Ochre Coloured Pottery (with newly-appearing hoards of weapons), certified by the Archaeological Survey of India to date to the 18th century BC, and with the known timing of the Sarasvatī’s desiccation. He thus rejects oft-cited traditionalist dates like 3139 BC, or other dates thereabouts or even millennia earlier. The great-grandfather of the Kaurava and Pāndava warriors is Śantanu. His stepson is Kṛṣṇa Dvaipayana who becomes the final editor of the Veda-TrayĪ, hence nicknamed Veda-Vyāsa. This Vyāsa is also the sperm donor who stands in for his early-deceased half-brother VicitravĪrya in order to father upon the latter’s widows the sons Dhrtarāṣṭra and Paṇḍu, thus becoming the grandfather of the Kauravas c.q. the Pāṇḍavas. The Vedas seem to confirm this historical placement of Vyāsa: his stepfather Śantanu is the last human being mentioned in the Ṛg-Veda, his biological son Dhrtarāṣṭra the last person mentioned in the Yajur-Veda. (The Atharva-Veda took a few generations longer, with Arjuṇa’s grandson Parīkṣit, or Vyāsa great-great-grandson, as the youngest person mentioned.) Nadumuri teaches his Hindu readers to candidly read the historical parts of the Vedas as an account of what really happened, and to outgrow the tendency to cramped literalism that too many Hindus have come to accept as a condition of proper piety before Scripture. Thus, it is commonly believed that the Parāśara who was with his grandfather Vasiṣṭha in the early-Vedic Battle of the Ten Kings was the same man who sired Vyāsa: Vasiṣṭha sired Śakti sired Parāśara sired Vyāsa, which would mean that the dozens of generations between the early Ṛg-Veda and its final editing get reduced to just four generations. So more realistically, the Vasiṣṭha (and similarly Bharadvāja and Viśvāmitra) who is part of Rāma’s life is a descendant of but not identical with the early-Vedic sage of that name. No: “The Early-RV Vasiṣṭha (the priest of Sudās), Śatayātu and Parāśara are mentioned as the witnesses of the Dāśarājña Battle (7.18.21). As per RV Anukramaṇi, Śakti composed the hymn RV 7.32. (…) These Vasiṣṭha, Śakti and Parāśara belonged to Early-RV. The Late-RV Vasiṣṭha composed many hymns in RV 9 & 10. The Late-RV Śakti composed the hymns RV 9.97 and RV 9.108. The hymn RV 9.97 was jointly composed by his son Parāśara Śāktya. Śakti’s descendent Gaurivīti Śāktya composed RV 10.73 and RV 10.74. Thus, there were individuals by the name Vasiṣṭha, Śakti and Parāśara in Late-RV too. The Vasiṣṭha and Śakti of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa and the MBh were Late-RV and different from the Early-RV ancestors. The Late-RV Vasiṣṭha is contemporary to Aja. Vasiṣṭha’s son Śakti is contemporary to Aja’s son Daśaratha. Śakti’s son Parāśara is contemporary to Rāma and hence also to Śantanu. Parāśara’s son Vyāsa is contemporary to Rāma’s son Lava and also to Śantanu’s son Vicitravīrya. This perfectly matches with the chronology of MBh.” (p.403) Alright, that was a long run-up before coming to our points. Firstly, according to Nadumuri, Rāma is the same person as the Rāma mentioned as a mighty one among the sponsors in RV 10:93:14, so in the very last stage of the RV. It already stood to reason that Rāma belonged somewhere in the long Vedic age, but this specification toward its very last phase is somewhat surprising. Equally surprising is that he would be mentioned in the Ṛg-Veda at all. While Nadumuri casts doubt on the assumption that Ayodhyā had been the Solar Dynasty’s ancestral home, pointing to several shifts of the capital (though possibly with retention of the city’s name), one even only some two generations before Rāma, he confirms that Rāma himself was born in the Ayodhyā that is now in eastern Uttar Pradesh, hundreds of miles from the Vedic area. It was a common assumption that the Solar and Lunar worlds were quite separate, but here Nadumuri reminds us of serious overlaps. The Rāmāyaṇa’s geographical horizon stretches as far west as Kekaya in western Panjab, west of the Vedic area. Conversely, as described in the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, it was already in the mid-Vedic period that some Vedic priests took a leadership role in exploring the east up to Videha, east of the Sadānīrā river (i.e. in northwestern Bihar), taking the fire cult that far but also using the fire materially to clear forests and thus make way for fields and meadows. They made swampy lands cultivable, the way the Christian monks would do some 3000 year later in this reviewer’s own region, the Low Countries. And this was all to the east of Ayodhyā. So, it is not proven but actually quite plausible that Rāma as a king in the powerful Solar dynasty finds mention among the patrons of the Vedic tradition. And secondly, the aforementioned Śantanu, who flourished in the early 19th century BC, was contemporary with Rāma. While the exact place of Rāma’s birth has raised enough controversy, his date of birth has only been the object of some rival hypotheses but with no real conflict ensuing. Nadumuri proposes an estimate of 1920 BC. (p.35) Both come a few generations after the Bhārata king Kuru for whom his Kaurava descendants were so named: Śantanu because he was his descendant, Rāma because he visited the region Kurujaṅgala (“Kuru’s jungle”) named after the patriarch. A date of ca. 1900 BC is as yet unsupported by excavations, but only narrowly: “Archaeology has reported sites as old as 1750 BCE in Ayodhyā. The archaeological gap between 1900 BCE to 1750 BCE is very short. It may get resolved in the future.” Archaeological dating is inherently uncertain, as a new discovery may suddenly change the picture. On the other hand, if Ayodhyā was still a new city at the time of Rāma’s birth (as Nadumuri will argue, cf. infra), and 1750 BC proves to be a correct archaeology-based estimate for the founding of the city, Rāma may have lived in the late 17th century BC. And if Śantanu did likewise, his great-grandsons may have waged the Mahābhārata battle in 1504 or 1478,-- the next astronomy-based dates proposed for it, viz. by Krishna Kumar c.q. RN Iyengar. The jury is still out on the exact year, but on the basis of the king-list information that Mahāpadma Nanda’s coronation (4th century BC) came 1015 to 1500 year after Parīkṣit’s birth (which was less than a year after the battle), we must at any rate look between the 19th and the 14th century BC. The world ages This means Rāma belonged to the final stratum of the Ṛg-Veda, and came three generations earlier than the Kauravas, Pāṇḍavas and Kṛṣṇa. That the Rāma narrative was older than the war of succession in the Bhārata dynasty is generally known; only a handful of Western scholars, a few decades ago already, wanted to reverse the order. But few would have expected them to be that close. For the believers in a precisely-timed scheme of four world ages, it must be especially disappointing. In their “tradition” (actually hardly older than 500 AD), Rāma is the Tretā kā Thākur, the lord of the Tretā Yuga, while Kṛṣṇa’s death marks the end of the Dvāpara Yuga. This means the Dvāpara Yuga stretches over less than three generations, rather than the traditional thousands of years. Then again, Nadumuri later (p.393) also considers indications that, contrary to these indications, Rāma partly belonged to the Dvāpara Yuga; but that would still add only one generation to this hopelessly short Dvāpara Yuga. Well, all this doesn’t matter much once we realize the recentness and artificiality of the usual temporal scheme of the Yugas. While a scheme of four world ages already existed in the pre-Vedic time of Proto-Indo-European unity (hence its reappearance in Greek and Germanic mythology, viz. as Golden-Silver-Bronze-Iron Age c.q. Spear-Sword-Wind-Wolf Age), it was never linked to specific time periods. This link appeared when the precession cycle of 25,772 years, approximated as 24,000 years, had been discovered (Hipparchus, 127 BC), providing a uniquely long cosmic cycle. It took several centuries before this knowledge, transmitted by the Indo-Greeks, had taken root in India. The next step was that the world ages were now seen as fractions of half of this cycle, in a proportion of 1:2:3:4. This arbitrary but reasonably-proportioned division was ascribed to sage Mārkāṇḍeya. In a next move, these figures were multiplied by 360, apparently out of awe for things heavenly (equating a year for men with a day for the gods), yielding the Purāṇic figures of 432,000 years and its multiples. These form an example of an “invented tradition”, a fairly recent tradition that is falsely projected back into the deep past. But if we go back to reality, these figures don’t matter, and the time-span from Rāma to Kṛṣṇa can really have been much shorter. Ayodhyā: now you see it, now you don’t Next, and for most of the book, Nadumuri explores the geographical detail in descriptions of which direction Rāma or Hanumān went in a certain phase of their itineraries, or how many yojanas (of which the length is disputed, but Nadumuri gives an informed guess) they covered. The first question, much highlighted in the Ayodhyā controversy, is: but was this really Rāma’s birthplace? About that, he finds no reason for doubt, but just a few generations earlier as well as later, the situation was more complicated. In the very beginning of his Rāmāyaṇa (Bāla Kāṇḍa, sarga 5-6), Vālmīki describes Daśaratha’s Ayodhyā as well as his ancestor Sagara’s Ayodhyā, and: “Sagara’s Ayodhyā was different from Daśaratha’s Ayodhyā.” (p.55). The Solar dynasty’s capital was moved yet again just after Rāma’s death: “The probable reason for [Rāma’s twin sons] Kuśa and Lava abandoning Ayodhyā is because the Sarayū river flooded Ayodhyā. Probably the same flood ended the life of Rāma and Bharata, and perhaps also of Lakṣmaṇa. This fact is shrouded in Poetic Imagination as follows:-- Rāma, Bhārata and every citizen of Ayodhyā entered Sarayū to end their life!! The poet did capture a bit of the reality. He noted that the river Sarayū flowed in a westward direction (7.100.1). The normal direction of the flow of the river near Ayodhyā is to the east. The river made a westward turn, causing the flood that destroyed Ayodhyā.” (p.410-411) As a consequence, the city temporarily becomes a ghost town without inhabitants nor historical importance: “Ayodhyā was missing when Śantanu’s son Bhīṣma and grandson Pāṇḍu rose to prominence. Kāśī was then a great city of Kosala. Hence, Bhīṣma chose the princesses of Kāśī as brides for his brother Vicitravīrya. They were addressed as Kausalyā (the princesses of Kosala). Ayodhyā did not feature in the military expedition of Pāṇḍu. Probably, it was being rebuilt then. The rebuilt Ayodhyā was featured in the military expedition of Pāṇḍu’s son Bhīma. It was then ruled by a king named Dīrghaprajña. Duryodhana’s son was named Lakṣmaṇa. His mother seems to be from Kosala. This was why the Kosala king Bṛhadbala sided with Duryodhana in the Kurukṣetra War. Bṛhadbala was a descendant of Kuśa. He wasn’t ruling from Ayodhyā. Bṛhadbala was killed by Arjuṇa’s son Abhimanyu in the Kurukṣetra War.” (p.419) At any rate, the house of Rāma and the Bhārata dynasty met in combat on the Kurukṣetra battlefield. Incarnation of Viṣṇu After having argued that Śantanu and Rāma are contemporaneous, on p.134 Nadumuri adds a third important person to the same time bracket: Rāma the son of Jamadagni , a sage of the late Ṛg-Veda, and descendant of Bhṛgu. The Itihāsa-Purāṇa literature has popularized him as Paraśu-Rāma, “Rāma with the Axe”. (According to Shrikant Talageri, this is a corruption of the by then forgotten ethnonym Parśu, an Ānava subtribe that ended up fleeing India and becoming the Persians.) Being as old as Śantanu, he naturally became the teacher of the latter’s first son, Bhīṣma, and played a role in both epics. This creates a problem for devout Vaiṣṇavas though. How could Rāma Jāmadāgnya be contemporaneous with Rāma Dāśaratha, yet both be incarnations of Viṣṇu? Modern reincarnation researchers might point to the fact that outside India, other conceptions of reincarnation exist, e.g. a native chieftain in Canada announced on his deathbed that he would reincarnate in a number of children, and some years later, several children did indeed report memories of having been that one chieftain. But it seems to us that a better way out of this dilemma is to take to the doctrine of divine incarnations, the Avatāravāda, less literally. Being an incarnation of a god is just a manner of speaking. It means that a deceased mortal, when you oversee his life, has played the same role in the world that the deity plays in mythology, e.g. upholding Dharma in society replicates Viṣṇu’s role as Maintainer. It is one specific, deity-oriented form of a more general form of apotheosis, “elevation to godhood” (in Semitic Širk, “associating [a mortal with the divine]”, which became the Islamic term for “idolatry”). As Nadumuri explains: “Usually, the route to deification in Sanātana Dharma is the elevated consciousness of the individual and their antiquity. Many ancestors -- among them many Gurus, warriors, kings, and queens -- are deified and worshipped as divinities”. (p.23) In this case, it should be understood that Rāma’s (or others’) status of incarnation of Viṣṇu was not an original part of his persona: “the core of Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa is closer to RV. The remapping of Rāma as the Avatāra of Viṣṇu was a later development. Viṣṇu became a prominent divinity in the Purāṇic Period.” (p.22) This is yet another “invented tradition”, here a post-Rāma claim on Rāma, one that in this case managed to penetrate by interpolation the peripheral parts of the epic. The geography We have not given away any detail about the main topic of the book, elaborated so painstakingly, taking into account every single passage of the epic, by Jijith Nadumuri Ravi. Let us at least disclose that he nowhere finds Rāma or other protagonists crossing the Narmāda river. To make a very long argumentation short: while the location of Ayodhyā or nearby Citrakūṭa remains uncontroversial, his farther journey takes him into more uncertain territory: Kiṣkindhā was not in Hampi, and Laṅkā was not Śrī Laṅkā. According to Nadumuri, the Rāmāyaṇa contains “not a single reference of Rāma ever crossing the river Narmadā! (…) This upsets the traditionally popular locations of Kiṣkindhā and Laṅkā. Kiṣkindhā is popularly identified with Hampi in Karnataka. (…) Laṅkā is popularly identified with Srilanka. However, despite these deep-rooted notions in the psyche of the believers, archaeology has found no trace of evidence for any urban culture in Srilanka during Rāma-Era. Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa describes Laṅkā city as having a Harappan-style urban culture. (…) we identified Laṅkā with the Bhagatrav island in the mouth of Narmadā where it joins the sea. (…) It matched perfectly with the prosperous city of Laṅkā.” If you want to voice objections to this daring application of the scientific temper to a religious classic, at least go buy and read the book first, so you come to know what exactly it is that you want to object to. And if you just want to know the historical hard data underlying a fascinating epic, this book is the best you’ll find in a long time. It avoids the conventionalism of the textbooks but also the enthusiastic flights of the imagination so badly affecting the self-styled history rewriters. Jijith Nadumuri Ravi: Geography of the Ramayana, Notion Publ., Chennai 2023.
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