The Puranic stories can also be analysed to understand many aspects of ancient Indian life such as the role of women in their society, relationships of dominant groups with other ethnic groups and their caste relationships especially in terms of subjugation of shudra caste groups. However, in this post, my focus is on ancient history of India.
Rangey Raghav, originally from Andhra Pradesh, was only 39 years old when he had died in 1962. In his short life he had written about 25 Hindi books including a novel on the Indus valley civilization ("Murdoon ka tila" - or the "Mound of the dead") in 1948.
His book "Pracheen Brahmin Kahaniyan" (Ancient Brahmin Tales) was published by Kitab Mahel publishers in Allahabad in 1959. It was one of my favourite childhood books. Years later, when we were forced to give away the collection of our Hindi books for lack of space, I had kept this book with me.
In this book, based upon Puranas, Rangey Raghav had described the major ancient stories. Recently, I read this book again after decades and it made me reflect on the nature of ancient historical understandings. This post shares some of those reflections.
Ancient Indian thoughts, philosophy and understanding of the world, dating back to about 2500-500 BC, was distributed mainly in three kinds of texts - Vedas, Upanishads and Puranas.
According to Wikipedia, there are 19 Puranas and these can be classified into 3 groups depending upon the main deity (Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva) to whom they are dedicated. The oldest Puranas like Linga purana, Kurma purana, Vamana purana and Brahmand purana date back to about 900 to 800 BC. Before that period, India had oral traditions of transmitting knowledge and thus, these stories probably go back to earlier times.
The Puranas are supposed to provide five kinds of stories - about the creation of the universe, its recreation after destruction, the genealogies of gods and sages, histories of major dynasties of rulers and the Manavantaras (periods of the first human beings).
Stories in "Pracheen Brahmin Kahaniyan"
Raghav's book has 71 stories. They start with the story of creation of the planets and the first human being called Vaivasvat Manu. They touch on some of the well known mythological stories such as Prahlad and Narsimha, the truth-speaking king Harishchandra, Bhagirath and the descent of river Ganges. The last 25 stories of this book relate to Mahabharata.
Some of the stories in this book, hardly have any story and are mainly lists of descendants of illustrious kings or gods.
Sun and Consciousness - Surya and Sanghya story
The story of Surya and his wife Sanghya is one of the most beautiful story in this book. It is about the creation of the universe. I feel that in symbolic terms, this story explains parts of the creation in a way which is surprisingly close to our scientific understanding today.
In this story, Sanghya (Consciousness) is the daughter of Vishwakarma (literally "creator of the world" or Brahma) and is married to Surya (Sun). Sanghya could not look at her husband because his light was very strong so when he came near her, she closed her eyes. Surya was angry with his wife because he thought she did not like him. They had 2 sons (Vaivasvat and Yama) and a daughter, Yamuna. Unable to stay near her husband, one day Sanghya created a body double (Chaya or Shadow) and went back to her father's house.
Surya had two sons and a daughter with Chaya, before he found out that the woman living with him was not his wife but her body double. He went to look for his wife. When he understood why Sanghya had left him, he asked Vishwakarma to help in reducing his light by dividing him in 16 parts. One of the parts was still Surya, while other 15 parts were used to create planets and other godly objects. As his light was reduced, Sanghya could finally live with him.
Sanghya's eldest son, Vaivasvat Manu was the 7th Manu. Her second son, Yama, was the god of death. Her daughter, Yamuna was the river. Her other two sons, Ashwini Kumar, were doctors of the gods.
Chaya's first son Sampurnik, was the 8th Manu. Her second son, Shanichar became the planet Shani (Saturn). Her daughter Tapati gave rise to the Kuru dynasty.
The basic idea of this story that consciousness could not live with the Sun because he had too much light (and heat) and could only live with him, when he lost part of that light by making different planets, I find it fascinating.
Organisation of human societies in Purana stories
The Puranas stories in the book present an organisational structure of gods-and-humans society, though they do not explain their different roles and responsibilities. These structures include -
- Manu - The time was organised in Manavantars (epochs of Manu) and each epoch had its own Manu or the first man - Autam was the 3rd Manu (Manu of the 3rd epoch of Manvantaras); Anand, a Rakshas, was 6th Manu and was also known as Chakshus; Vaivasvat was the 7th Manu; Sampurnik was the 8th Manu; Sanamik, son of Daksha, was the 9th Manu; Brahmasavarini was the 10th Manu; Dharmasavarini son of Dhanura was the 11th Manu; Savarini, son of Rudra, was the 12th Manu; Rochya was the 13th Manu; Bhosya, son of Bhuti muni was the 14th Manu; some other Manus mentioned in the book include Swayambhu manu (son of Brahma), Tamas and Raiwat. All the Manus or the first men, had male names. Different stories mention the names of kings during the period of the Manus, thus, "Manu" did not mean a king. What was their role in the society is not clear.
- Each story about a Manu mentions some of his office-bearers - some Devagana (literally "Persons of gods" or minor gods), an Indra (lord of the gods), and a Sapta-Rishi (literally the "seven sages"). Stories also provide names of the children of each Manu. The title of Manu does not seem to be hereditary. Persons in the roles of Devagana, Indra and Sapta-Rishi seem to be nominations. For example, a person could become Indra because of he was "being good", "being courageous" or because "he did 100 yagnas".
- The stories mention genealogies of kings' families or sometimes sages' families. Usually the genelogies in this book are limited to the names of first sons. Sometimes names of daughters are mentioned if their children play an important role as future kings. For example, the story of the genealogy of Swayambhu Manu starts by saying that Brahma created the gods, mountains, etc. and then created 9 humans - Bhrigu, Pulsatya, Pulah, Kritu, Angira, Marichi, Daksh, Atri and Vashishth. Then Rudra was born from Brahma's anger. Then he made ordinary human beings, both men and women, of different colours and shapes. Finally Swayambhu Manu was born, who was appointed by Brahma to be the protector of people. Manu was married to Shatrupa (literally "a hundred forms") and they had 2 sons (Priyavrat and Uttanpad) and 2 daughters (Akuti and Prasuti).
Considerations about understanding history from Puranas stories
It is difficult to make a chronological or historical sense of events from the Puranas stories. The stories mix actual people, especially kings and warriors, with persons who occupied mythological-sounding positions and with mythical figures.
For example, the word, Sapta-Rishi is used for the seven stars that form Ursa Major. Using this term for a set of persons in Puranas stories can mean that the kings or Manu were suppose to have a group of seven sages to advice them or to oversee the religious rites. Thus, the Sapta-Rishi of these stories were not stars, but persons who received a title.
On the other hand, the stories of Surya, Yama, Yamuna along with children of Vaivasvat Manu, seem to be creation myths and not the history of actual persons.
Ancient Indians used logic and had the capacity to categorize and analyse knowledge. Thus, Panini could work on Sanskrit grammar in a way that is understandable to linguistic experts even today. Or Vatsyayan could work on the theme of sexuality, that can be understood scientifically even today. Even esoteric subjects like meditation, yoga and the nature of human soul, were looked at in logical terms, analysed and discussed. Then, why those ancient Indians, did not use that kind of logic for writing history? Why did they make a mish-mash of actual events with mythological stories?
Perhaps for ancient Indians, the worlds of gods and spirits were as real as their daily physical world, because that was the only way they could make a sense out of the events? Thus their ideas of history were impossible to separate from these fantasy worlds? Perhaps it had something to do with Indian concept of time as being cyclical (and not linear), where worlds were created and destroyed in cycles,and thus history was understood differently?
Could Indian ideas about time have been influenced by the fact that for ordinary persons, there was no concept of short time periods like weeks but rather the time was measured in terms of religious festivals linked to astrology, moon and planets?
Looking at the names of the week-days in Hindi, these seem to be translations from English or Latin, and thus were not indigenous to India. The importance of "week" arose among Jews who had fixed one day of Sabbath (Saturday) for not working and for prayers. Christianity, to distinguish itself from the Jews, selected Sunday as its Sabbath day, while Muslims, who came next, chose Friday as their weekly prayer day.
Did this kind of weekly organisation of time influence the development of human thinking about linear time in the middle east and then in countries following Abrahmic religions? Similar understanding of linear time came later to India with persons coming from Middle-east and thus, we did not develop a linear understanding of time and documenting of history till relatively recently?
I do not know if the writings of later Indian writers like Kalidasa (about 5 century AD) reflect a linear understanding of history. Normally understanding of ancient history is a triangulation of findings from archaeological excavations, paintings/art and ancient texts. Puranas do not seem to be reliable chronicles of history. So, which were the first indigenous Indian texts about history?