“The Mahabharata: Myth & Reality”, “The Ramayana: “Myth or Reality”, “The Search for Lanka”, “Retrieval of History from Puranic Myths” are some of the recent books published on Hindu Mythology seeking to establish that a substratum of fact underlies the overlay of myth and fantasy which appear to baffle the reader who wishes to glean some insights into our ancient history through the enormous corpus of our epics and Puranas. After all, if Schliemann could discover the buried ruins of Troy by following the hints in the Iliad, why should our archaeologists disdain to treat the Mahabharata and the Ramayana as recording historical events and use the data in the text to excavate the sites mentioned in them? The two most authoritative attempts in this long neglected area have been Dr. Gauri Lad’s thesis Archaeology and The Mahabharata (Deccan College, Pune, 1978) and Dr. H. D. Sankalia’s Ramayana: Myth or Reality (Macmillan, 1980).
There is, however, an older and a very different approach that offers rich material to anyone interested in mythology. Way back around 300 B.C. in the court of King Cassander of Macedonia lived a remarkably innovative scholar named Euhemerus, who was the first one to look at his own peoples’ mythology as something other than religious material. A fairly well-travelled man, he had possibly come into contact with the Phoenicians who sought historical bases for their myths. In his Sacred History, Euhemerus asserted that the Greek gods were originally heroes and conquerors deeply venerated by their subjects. The Romans followed this tradition consciously in deifying Romulus, the founder of Rome, and their emperors, besides worshipping ancestors much in the same way as Hindus do puja to the “pitris”. A good example of Euhemerus’ approach is the career of Hercules. Here was a hero who performed feats of such magnitude that he was lifted up to the heavens and worshipped as a god. The argument is that this holds true of all the gods. In other words, Zeus fighting his father Kronos and taking over the kingship of heaven; the fights Zeus had with Hera, culminating in her being hung in chains; the gods and goddesses ranged on opposite sides in the war over Ilium—all are actual events that have subsequently received the heightened touch of a poet’s imagination and been transmuted into myth. Robert Graves studied this at length in his unparalleled book on the Greek Myths. He argues that Zeus was the leader of the invading Dorians and his marriage with Hera shows the conquest of the original inhabitants of the Ionian isles who were worshippers of the Mother Goddess. The stories of Hera’s rebellions record the actual insurrections by the local people against the conquerors. Zeus himself usurped his father’s throne by slaying him with the help of aborigines (the hundred-armed giants) who had been imprisoned by Kronos. Kronos’ swallowing of his children represents his refusal to give in to his wife Rhea’s cult in which the king had to die every year. He sought to supplant a matriarchal agricultural culture by his patriarchal culture of nomadic herdsmen.
Let us see what happens if we apply Euhemerism to our Puranic mythology, following Acharya Chatursen’s magnum opus in Hindi, Vayam Rakshamah. As a watershed we take the Great Deluge, archaeological proof of which has been found at Ur in Persia as having occurred around 3000 B.C. This area, comprising modern Iran, Iraq, Syria and Jordan, comprised the centre of our ancient civilization. The five sons of Chakshus Manu, Atyarit Janantpati (whence the Arrats of Armenia), Abhimanyu, Ur (who established the city of the same name), Pur (whence Persia), Taporat (whence Tapurai, now called Mazanderan) and Ur’s son Angira (whence Angora/Ankara in Turkey) invaded this region. That is why Persian mythology calls them Ahriman, the pain-inflictors, the satanic host. Abhimanyu built Susha, probably the oldest city in the world and is called Memnon in Homer’sOdyssey, who came to help the Trojans with his army of Sushians. The eastern province of Persia called Sattagydia was Satyalok and Mount Demavand was Vaikuntha.
The gigantic fish that is said to have saved Manu and his ark in the deluge is nothing but a race of excellent seafaring folk. After the deluge, Varun the son of Aditi and Kashyap, re-excavated Susha and re-populated it. He drained the land of the water by digging canals and began living in Mesopotamia/Elam with his brothers, known as the 12 Adityas. That is why Varun is known as the lord of the waters and is a major deity in the Vedas. It was he who founded the Sumerian Civilization. His brother Vivasvan founded the Aryan civilization in Bharatavarsha, and other brothers spread over Egypt, Arabia, China, Tibet etc. and formed the race of the Devas. Susha was renamed Amaravati or Indrapuri. The Persian Gulf was Kshirsagar and the land just above it was Srinas (Sheeshtan of the Persians) where Varun dwelt. Vivasvan’s son Yama is the Jamshed of Persian myths who made his kingdom in a region devoid of life owing to the deluge, because of which it was called Naraka and he was known as the Lord of the Dead. This was possibly the province Apavart (Azerbaizan).
The most interesting interpretation we can find is from the story about the Narasimha (man-lion) avatar. The Caspii tribe inhabited the shores of the Caspian Sea (named after our Kashyap rishi). Their king was Hiranyakashipu, so named because he had found gold mines in the Persian salt desert (then called Nandanvan). His brother, Hiranyaksha, ruled Babylonia. The two of them defeated the Devas and established the worship of Ashur (Asura) whence the Assyrian people. After the death of Hiranyaksha, (possibly at the hands of the boar worshipping people of Norway who had helped Varuna reclaim Elam after the floods) Babylonia was conquered by Nrig, a son of Vaivasvat Manu, known also as Narsiman and featured as the winged lion with a man’s face on the Assyrian ruins. It was Nrig who came to the rescue of Prahlad, a friend of the Devas, and slew Hiranyakashipu. We know that Nrig was Yama’s nephew and there is the story of his being turned into a lizard by a curse. It is significant that the throne of Yama-Jamshed is carved with the figures of a lion and a lizard. The latter represented the Negritos (from Nrig) and the former the Assyrians. The myth of the lizard is explained as the banishment of Nrig by Vaan of Armenia to Girgis in Northern Turkey, also known as Karavoguz (dry well). The reason behind this was the gifting of a stolen cow to a Brahmin. Land is also called “go”. Nrig had driven away the priest-kings of Media (the descendants of Shukra, priest of the Asuras) and given the land to the people of Vashishtha. Hence the Shukras and the Asuras attacked him and drove him into Karavoguz-Girgis (figured forth as his being turned into a lizard or “girgit” in a dry well).
Indra was the greatest of the heroes among the Devas. Born in Tapuria (then Atri’s Tapo-bhumi) also called Aryanem-vaejo, the original home of the Aryans, their “lost paradise” or Vaikunth, he not only ingratiated himself with Varun, Vishnu and Vivasvan-Surya, but allied himself to the Daityas by marrying their King Puloman’s daughter Shachi. He called the Adityas by a new name, Devas, his kingdom Devabhumi, and allied himself with the Babylonians against the Daityas of Asia Minor. Indra got Varun’s son Narad to write hymns in his praise, and he was followed by other sages. Other Devas followed suit, and thus the Vedas were written. It was Indra who carried out the plans of ambitious Vishnu to capture the gold mines of the Daityas by beguiling the generous and simple minded Bali. The peace-loving and aging Varun was thrust into the background more and more as these two Adityas waged the Deva-Asura wars.
According to another interpretation formulated by Pandit Dwarka Prasad Mishra, the Devas were inhabitants of Tibet and China, who kept interfering at strategic moments in the history of Bharatvarsha to keep their control established. His interpretation has been carried out to its logical culmination in Guru Dutt’s superb novelisation of the Mahabharata in three parts (Avataran, Vinashyacha Dushkritam, Sambhavami Yuge Yuge). Acharya Chatursen in Vayam Rakshamah has presented what is possibly the most detailed and daring application of euhemerism to the Puranic sagas and the story of Ravana. Somewhat analogous is J.P. Singhal’s The Sphinx Speaks. A different approach is that of Narendra Kohli in his five part novelisation of the Ramayana, depicting Rama as a prince deliberately going into exile to break the growing tyranny of the non-Aryan Ravana and provide succour to the suffering poor dwelling in forests and in southern India with the help of the Devas living in Himalayan fastnesses.
The extreme example of this approach is what we may term as Danikenism—the application of Erich von Daniken’s theories of gods being visitors from outer space to our myths. Thereby the Devas become spacemen belonging to vastly advanced civilizations gifting the Pandavas and Rama space-age weapons to ensure the victory and survival of their chosen “superior” race created through genetic engineering (interbreeding with chosen earthly women as in the birth of the Pandavas and similar stories). They seek to explain the “reality” of air-borne vehicles described in the Puranas and the use of nuclear missiles of terrifying destructive power in the wars described therein. Birendra Mitra’s Bengali novels on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are in this tradition. Such thinking is quite popular in the West even today as seen in the range of the Marvel Comics series devoted to Greek gods as heroes and to serialisations of Daniken’s ideas in terms of occidental mythology in the USA.