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India: What is and is not history

For scholars, faith and evidence of historicity are two separate matters

by Romila Thapar, 28 March 2019

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The Indian Express, March 20, 2019

This is with reference to Arun Anand’s article, “Why the Left Isn’t Right” (IE, March 13). The dispute over Ram Janmabhoomi cannot be reduced merely to what has been described as Left historians having a flawed understanding of the Babri case. In support of this statement, a short pamphlet on ‘The Political Abuse of History’ has been referred to in the above article. The pamphlet was raising the question important to historians, of historicity having to be based on proven reliable evidence. This is yet to be found for the events of the Ramakatha. What mythology, fantasy, poetry or faith make of a believed biography, is of considerable interest for an intellectual analysis or a study of what surrounds history. However, taking it as the literal biography of an existing person is problematic for an historian.

The modern scholars quoted in the article as having stated that the story goes back to the fifth century BC, is not disputed. But this does not prove the historicity of the persons involved in the narrative or the story or the events. The story is described as a katha, and the term used in English refers to it as an epic. This may explain why the biography of Rama and others differs substantially and conceptually in three of the earliest versions of the story. These are the Vaishnava Valmiki Ramayana, the Buddhist Dasaratha Jataka and the Jaina Paumachariyam. The three Ramas of these three texts are three different persons with three different messages. Such differences increase with the adoption of the story in variant cultures in India, and even further afield: For example, in the many distinctively diverse versions that come from South-East Asia. It is precisely this element of difference that is most significant and needs to be analysed in terms of the authenticity of any narrative. This is quite a contrast to the essential uniformity in the biographies of the founders of a religion, such as the Buddha and Christ and some others.

Furthermore, none of these texts provide us with a detailed topography of the events as they happened and were identified with locations in Ayodhya. This comes about many centuries later in the mid-second millennium AD, when the Ayodhya-mahatmya was composed, and various locations in Ayodhya were associated with a believed biography. Mention of such places from the 18th century follow from this and continue, often to this day.
Visitors to India would have mentioned the worship of Rama wherever they came across it. The object of worship is a matter of faith and none would deny this faith where it exists. But this does not mean that historians should accept faith as evidence of the historicity of the Ramakatha. Faith and evidence of historicity are entirely distinct.

As for mediators in the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute, the definition of a mediator should be clear. The term mediator is used for a person who initially takes a middle position in a dispute (the median), and attempts to reconcile the views of those disputing the claims. Therefore the person so selected to mediate in a dispute, should not be associated, and especially not publicly, with an opinion committed to any one side. Is this true of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar?

The writer is a historian and author


The above article from The Indian Express is reproduced here for educational and non-commercial use