History versus Mythology

DevduttIn India, until the arrival of Islam, everyone believed that time is circular, that we live infinite lives and we live the same life infinite times. With Islam came the notion of Qayamat, the final Day of Judgment when history ends. This was very different from the notion of pralaya, cosmic dissolution, which is essentially death of the universe before rebirth.

When the Europeans came to India, they were divided between religion and science. At one level, they believed in the beginning (Original Sin) and the end of history (Apocalypse) like the Muslims. At another level, they believed in scientific evidence.

Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik

Evidence-based study of history revealed something that shocked the establishment. Subjects like archaeology revealed cultures much older than what was referred to in the Bible. Subjects like palaeontology revealed that humans had evolved from animals. Darwin’s idea that we descended from apes made him a heretic in the eyes of the establishment.

The Europeans started the formal education system in India. Here history and science was taught. The Orientalists dismissed Indian notions of time as ‘myth’. European and Indian archaeologist discovered the Indus valley civilisation and Ashoka (until then known only in Buddhist legend) and established the history of India. However, it must be remembered that it is only after 1950 that most Indian schools taught this Indian history. Until then most Indians were taught European history.

While Indians bonded over the Ramayan and the Mahabharata, the European rulers and later Indian administrators, gave greater value to Ashoka and the Indus Valley, leading to many Indians viewing Ramayan and Mahabharata as historical, just like religious Europeans (and now Americans) found ‘scientific’ evidence to prove Creation.

European science started exploring psychology in the 18th century, and realised there is more to the mind than what religious authorities and ancient philosophers spoke of. Thanks to the works of Freud and Jung in the 20th century, another branch called psycho-analysis came forth with studies on stories and dreams, which greatly valued epics.

These hitherto non-existent subjects provided frameworks that gave the Ramayan and Mahabharata new meaning. Maybe it was not about history at all, but about psychology. Ancient Indians were perhaps were not so much interested in mundane political events as much in psychological matters that shaped human history.

In the 20th century, Einstein’s theory of relatively shook the certainty of science. There was more to time and space than anyone had thought before. Both could be folded. Big Bang and Big Bust were perhaps events in one reality. Other realities could exist, said theoretical physicists, as they wrote about quantum mechanics and string theory. Maybe the idea of time as a cycle and a wave was not bizarre after all.

So what the 17th century European mocked, the 20th century European-American admired. Many Indians today continue to talk of mythology in historical terms. Perhaps this is colonial hangover. Few realise that the epics of India have more to do with psychology and even space-time quantum theories. The question to ask is not — when and where was Krishna born, rather — what does Krishna represent in our personality. Time to relook at our heritage.

The author is Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, and can be reached at

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper. 

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