History vs Mythology – It’s Not Fact vs Fiction

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In India today the lines between Fact, Myths and Legends seem blurred. How do you separate the threads for a clearer understanding? Author and Mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik goes back, through history to understand how mythology and the way we picture our gods from the Hindu pantheon has evolved and how iconography has been inspired by society. Excerpts from an interview:

LHI: People often confuse mythology with history. Why do you think people so often confuse history and mythology in India?

DP: Some time ago, I met this gentleman who said, ‘Devdutt, why do you refer to our history as mythology? This word ‘mythology’ was created by the British, and it is derived from the word mithya, which is a Sanskrit word for falsehood or delusion.’ I heard him out. I agreed with him on the fact that ‘myth’ is used loosely to convey fiction or fantasy. But I told him that, etymologically, ‘myth’ came from the Greek word mythos, which means ‘stories of gods and heroes’. His claim that ‘myth’ is derived from mithya was false.

The corresponding word for mythos in Sanskrit is akhyana, which refers to stories of gods, kings, sages and heroes, which are found in ancient literature. So, technically, mythology is the study of mythos, which is the story of gods, kings and sages. In Sanskrit, the word for it would be Akhyana Shastra.

History is the study of the past based on fact, that is, objective truth, while mythology is the study of myths or stories that are subjective truth for a community. In a sense, mythology is neither history, nor is it fiction, as fiction is nobody’s truth.

LHI: How do stories and icons reflect changing values in society?

DP: For example, in the Rigveda, there is no reference to Shiva getting married. There is no Shiva Parivar in Vedic literature. But in the Ellora caves and the Elephanta Caves, which are about 1,400 years old, we find images of Shiva, Parvati and his family. Therefore, we see a shift in ideas taking place.

In the Rigveda, there’s a line on ‘naraka’, which means ‘hell’. But when you read the Manusmriti, you have descriptions of multiple levels of naraka. Manusmriti is less than 2,000 years old, while the Rigveda is more than 3,000 years old, a gap of lat least a thousand years between the Rigveda and the Manusmriti. Therefore, we see that the belief system has changed over time.

LHI: We all know your passion for mythology, but what made you look at it through the lens of history?

DP: It all began when I saw mytho-fiction writers at literature festivals arguing that mythology is history and history is mythology. I also noticed how journalists did not differentiate between an analysis of myth and writing fiction based on epic and myths. I was reminded of how the British argued that Indians have no sense of history. Was that true? So I decided to work on the intersection between these two subjects – history, which focuses on what actually happened, and mythology, which appreciates what is believed to have happened.

History depends on facts. The source can be a piece of literature, or writing, something scraped on a wall, a carving, or a few pieces of pottery. Based on these sources, we try to understand the past. So, facts are the foundation for understanding the past. But facts also include stories, symbols, rituals – they communicate what people believed in, in the past. I few historians focused on how the past imagined the world and how that imagination informs the present.

When we study how mythology changes over time and how artworks change over time, we realise how people change their minds over time. We realise how different we were 10 years ago, 20 years ago, and this helps us understand the world better.

LHI: Mythology is usually studied through literature. What made you look at it through iconography?

DP: Privileging texts is a colonial hangover influenced by the Protestant belief that texts are true. This was a popular idea in the 19th century. Remember, even historians argued that history begins with the use of the written word. This is why Indians are obsessed with finding a ‘script’ for Harappa, and get angry with the suggestion that the ‘script’ is probably an ‘emoji’.

Humans communicate ideas in many ways – stories are just one way. Symbols are another way. Rituals are another way. Mythology focuses on all three forms of communication – that which is told, that which is shown, and that which is performed. I have always focused on artworks in my books, besides stories. Tantrik goddesses like Mahavidya have only imagery, no stories. Now I want to see if these images changed over time. Which images were privileged, by whom, and why? Also, how rituals changed over time. How the old Ashwamedha Yagna performed to establish kingship in the 8th century BCE changed to rituals like Hiranyagarbha Dana, and Tula-Bharam Dana or Meru-Dana around the 8th century CE.

LHI: Religious literature has given rise to iconography. But do you think iconographies have, in return, influenced literature?

DP: Again, we privilege texts, stories, and songs over artworks. The earliest cave paintings and petroglyphs were the earliest evidence of mythic thinking. Were they accompanied by stories? We don’t know. Lajjagauri images are found across the Deccan region – even its name, suggesting shame and modesty, is a later invention by archaeologists who were embarrassed by the sight of a spreadeagled woman. Chhatt Puja in Bihar has no story linked to it – only a very elaborate and venerated ritual. No one cares about the story. The performance at the right time, by the right people, is key.

LHI: Our current idea of gods and goddesses come from the poster art or calendar art that originated in the 19th century. What is your opinion on calendar art?

DP: The medium of expression keeps changing over time. Between 1500 BCE and 500 CE, we hardly find any icons in India. Then we find clay, stone, and metal imagery. These get refined over time. When paper came, we had paintings that were earlier painted on walls. When printing technology arrived, and European ways of painting gods reached India, artists reimagined gods. We must remind ourselves that we are not merely students of history; we are participants in history. We are not here to judge history, and its processes; merely to observe and analyze patterns. I see calendar art as a medium through which gods who were otherwise locked in temples were suddenly able to reach the homes of all people, even those who were not allowed to enter the temple. That makes it a powerful political and even economic tool, besides a tool of ritual communication.

LHI: Is there a deity whose image has remained unchanged throughout?
DP: The oldest image of any god is possibly that of Goddess Lakshmi. The image of Gaja Lakshmi, or Lakshmi adored by elephants, is found in the Buddhist stupas belonging to the 1st century BCE. In these images, she is depicted standing on a lotus and surrounded by elephants who pour water on her. Although, here, Lakshmi has only two arms, the idea of Gaja Lakshmi has remained more or less the same.