Until proven, a myth: Historians

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By CHARU SUDAN KASTURI & SUDESHNA BANERJEE in Calcutta
  • Published 12.09.07
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New Delhi/Calcutta, Sept. 12: Ram cannot be considered a historical figure despite references in ancient literature because crucial material evidence to authenticate his existence has not been found, historians have said.

“A textual reference necessarily needs to be corroborated by inscriptions engraved in stone or other long-lasting material or by archaeological evidence,” said Nayanjot Lahiri, professor of ancient history at Delhi University.

Until such evidence is found, a character or event in texts or literature is considered mythological, historians said.

Historians have traced the original texts of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana to a period between 400 BC and 400 AD.

“But it is extremely difficult to date these ancient texts exactly as they were written over a long period of time. The Mahabharata for instance, has been changed over the centuries,” professor Upinder Singh of Delhi University said.

Remains of black earthen pots found at archaeological sites referred to in the Mahabharata — Hastinapur, for instance — have been dated back to the 13th century BC.

But King Ashoka, whose rule — 272 BC to 233 BC — coincided with the period ascribed to the writing of these texts is accepted as part of history.

“Inscriptions written by Ashoka himself have been found, which support the numerous mentions he finds in texts,” Lahiri said.

Another textual reference to Ashoka has been validated through inscriptions found at the site.

Historians caution, however, against accepting all that is written in texts about historically proven characters as well. There are aspects of the lives of the Maurya dynasty — that included Ashoka — which, though mentioned in texts, are yet to be established.

In contrast, the life of King Harshavardhana — 590 to 640 AD — that the Harshacharita talks about is almost completely documented, experts said.

“The earlier texts are naturally harder to date. The characters and events they mention are even harder to track down archaeologically,” historian Shahid Amin said.

But Nyayacharya Pranabeshwar Smrititirtha, who teaches at the Sitaram Vaidik Mahavidyalaya, near Dakshineswar, laughed out aloud on being told about the affidavit.

“Will we forget the shastras because of someone’s random comment? Shall we forget Valmiki? Is the timing of Durga puja meaningless?” the Sanskrit scholar asked.

“We clearly utter, during the invocation, mantras on how Ram performed the puja to kill Ravana. Is that false? Let them prove it first. An epic will carry an allegorical element, but that does not mean the entire work is imaginary.”

Yoga guru Baba Ramdev said the affidavit was an insult to the Hindu faith. “Does the government have the courage to deny the existence of the important figures of other religions?” he asked.