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Devdutt Pattanaik | The yugas came later

Devdutt Pattanaik | The yugas came later

Through fragmentary stories, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata allude to another world, a larger world, outside history, involving the Hindu trinity.

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Last Updated : 24 April 2024, 05:17 IST
Last Updated : 24 April 2024, 05:17 IST
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The four yugas of Hindu mythology (Krita, Treta, Dvapara, Kali) are based on the numbers on traditional four-sided dice: four, three, two, one. They refer to the four legs of the bull of dharma. In the ideal age, the bull stands on four legs, in the age of Ram it has only three, in the age of Krishna it has only two, and currently we are in one before the flood of doom. Or they may refer to the decreasing duration of the four yugas, 4:3:2:1, giving us hope that Kali Yuga is the shortest.

In some books, the four yugas constitute one day of Brahma (kalpa). In other books, the four yugas constitute one period of Manu (manvantara), and several such periods of Manu make up a day of Brahma. Different texts all give different durations for the yugas and kalpas, and it makes for great social media fodder. What is not clarified is that this is a new idea, one that became popular only after 500 AD, with the advent of Puranic literature, which located the two great epics of Hinduism — the Ramayana and the Mahabharata — in two separate yugas.

The Ramayana and the Mahabharata were written effectively by 100 AD, in a Sanskrit form very different from the Vedic Sanskrit. They told the biographies of great kings who valued the Vedic way, who lived long before kings were distracted by Buddhism and Jainism. The storytellers were witnesses, participating in the stories they narrated. Valmiki saw the reign of Ram. Vyasa saw the war at Kurukshetra. This is what made them valid memories (itihasa).

Both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were first presented to kings during Vedic ceremonies. When Ram performs the Ashwamedha ritual, he heard his own story, the Ramayana, presented as poetry by two boys, who turn out to be his sons, born and raised in the forest by their mother Sita, and educated by Valmiki. When Janamejaya performed the Sarpa-satra ritual, he heard the story of his ancestors, the Mahabharata, presented by Vaisampayana, keeper of the Yajur Veda, and student of Vyasa, who had organised the Veda, and had also composed the Mahabharata to help everyone understand dharma. Vyasa, also happened to be the biological ancestor of Janamejaya, the grandfather of his great-grandfather, Arjuna.

Through fragmentary stories, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata allude to another world, a larger world, outside history, involving the Hindu trinity. In the Ramayana, Ram is told the story of how Shiva enabled the descent of the River Ganga from the sky to the Earth, to facilitate the rebirth of the dead. Thus the idea of the circle of rebirths (samsara) is mainstreamed; and the Vedic belief in repaying debt to ancestors (pitr-hrinn) by marrying, and producing children, is articulated.

In the Mahabharata, besides many stories of the Vedic rishis, and Kuru kings, we are introduced to the mysteries of Swarga and Naraka, for the first time. The villains land up in Swarga, the heroes in Naraka, even gods are cursed, and we are told that true liberation (moksha) happens only when we give up all attachments, even resentments. The Vedic philosophy is clearly articulated by Krishna, who is Vishnu in the Gita, on the eve of a great war, where enlightened participation of the householder is privileged, over withdrawal like a hermit.

Both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata refer to settled communities as well as the forest. They refer to sages mentioned in the Rig Vedic canon. They refer to a primarily North Indian world. The Ramayana refers to Vasishta and Vishwamitra as teachers of Ram, who are poets in the Rig Veda. The Mahabharata tells stories of Yayati whose sons have the same names as the five main chieftains of the Rig Veda: Puru, Yadu, Anu, Druhyu, and Turvasu.

The Ramayana story is present within the Mahabharata. It is narrated to the Pandava kings during their exile in the forest. Thus, the Ramayana is positioned as having happened earlier than the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata also alludes to a word that goes through cycles of creation and destruction, but details are fleshed out centuries later.

Around 500 AD, the Vishnu Purana spoke of the immortal Vishnu descending and taking a mortal form to establish dharma in a new context. Ram, the avatar of Treta yuga, is the eldest son of a royal family. Krishna, the avatar of Dvapara yuga, is the youngest son of a cowherd family, who plays a pivotal role in the Mahabharata.

Thus the old epics were presented, in later times, as chapters in a larger story. To appreciate the larger story one had to read the Puranas. Kings were encouraged to be part of this story. A successful king’s lineage could be traced to Ram (the solar dynasty) and to Krishna (the lunar dynasty). The solar dynasty was traced to Manu, Kashyapa, and Marichi. The lunar dynasty was traced to Atri. Manu, Kashyapa, Marichi, and Atri are mentioned in the oldest corpus of Vedic poetry, and linked to the Sapta Rishi.

Thus, the narrations of itihasa-purana were meant for royal benefit, to tell kings that they too could be as great as Vedic kings of yore, provided they protected and provided for the storytellers, the Brahmins.

(Devdutt Pattanaik is the author of more than 50 books on mythology.)

(Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.)

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