'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Mythical Chronology - And Anachronisms

Note: This post has benefitted from inputs from Anand of Locana (link on the right panel) and from Gopal.

In its ancient Indian variant, the game of dice had a scoring system based on modular arithmetic - the best throw 'krita', was when the numbers shown by the dice added up to a number perfectly divisible by 4. The other scores, in descending 'desirability' were 'treta' when the sum of the displayed numbers left 3 on dividing by 4, 'dwapara' when the remainder was 2 and finally 'kali' when the remainder was 1.

The 'chronology' of Indian myths and legends is also largely based on cycles of 4 eras or yugas - the first yuga would be the longest and the best era; and then all the good things gradually decline until the fourth and shortest and final yuga - we are there at present - would end in utter chaos and dissolution. And rather appropriately, the 4 yugas have been named (indeed ranked) after the scores in a game of dice. 'krita' being the early halcyon days and the present, 'kali' being by far the worst. The era immediatly preceding 'kali', the 'dwapara' was also none too good a time(*).

Indian mythology has personified 'Dwapara' and especially 'Kali' as two largely malevolent spirits who are out to create trouble for men and even gods - they feature prominently in the story of king Nala for instance. I have not seen any personifications of 'krita' and 'treta' in the mythology. Many (mostly but not only firangees) have confused this Kali with the fierce and hideous but ultimately benevolent goddess whose name is spelled the same way in English (and pronounced rather differently in Sanskrit). One telling instance is the 'Time' magazine cover story on the horrors of Indian Partition of 1947. This article, available online, is also full of lurid orienatlisitic imagery and stereotypes. The cover of that issue of Time can be seen here. A curious thing about that picture is that the outlined maps of India and Pakistan there show Kashmir firmly with India, very unlike American media! And here is yet another cover from the same source; the 'fine printed' caption is particularly interesting. Anyways, let me not digress!

Within the above 4-yuga scheme, the huge corpus of Indian Itihasas (Ramayana and Mahabharata) and Puranas has been accommodated. Most of the 'action' takes place in the middle two eras - Treta and Dwapara (indeed, the 'krita' yuga seems to have been a rather boring, equal music time, just like heaven. There were few troublemakers and consequently few juicy stories (**)). Forming the backbone of the chronology of these two yugas are two vast dynasties ('vamsas') of kings, each with perhaps hundreds of listed names - named after Surya and Chandra (sun and moon). The Suryavamsa flourished in the Tretayuga and Chandravamsa in the Dwaparayuga.

The events of Ramayana (a Suryavamsa story) is believed to have occured in Treta and the Mahabharata in the Dwapara. Indeed, the characters of Mahabharata generally seem aware of Rama and his adventures and those characters who feature in both epics (Hanuman for instance) appear in the Mahabharata as much aged; so the basic idea of Mahabharata post-dating the Ramayana (in a mythical time sense) appears justified. And this chronological sequence is strictly followed in some art forms like the Yakshagana (this dramatic art form from coastal Karnataka acts out episodes from the myths with great emphasis of extempore improvisation of dialog. However, if the story being enacted is a Ramayana based one, no reference to Mahabharata or Krishna will be 'tolerated').

A very curious thing about this mythical chronology (especially, since at least 'Kaliyuga' is part of the common vocabulary of most Indians) is that it is probably not very old. The Vedas and even the Itihasas were ready in their final form long before this modulo-4 framework was worked out - perhaps even before such a scheme was even conceptualized. Classical Master Kalidasa who lived in or before 5th century AD was probably unaware of the grouping of the mythical kings into the above two Vamsas - in his 'Raghuvamsam', king Nahusha(***), of the Chandravamsa and hence the Dwapara yuga is referred to by Rama (of the earlier Treta) - a clear 'anachronism' (Kalidasa also appears to have been unaware of the status of the god Ganesha, who must thus have been a later addition to the pantheon!). The 'Adhyatma Ramayana', a devotional, early medieval(?) retelling of the Ramayana (probably post-dating Kalidasa) also has similar anachronisms - in its Malayalam translation(?) by Ezhuthassan, Rama refers to prince Puru's great sacrifice (the latter was Nahusha's grandson and hence from Chandravamsa).

Nevertheless, those smart guys who worked out this chronological scheme did a god job at least with the main Itihasas, inserting several references to the Ramayana in the Mahabharata and probably excising from the former all references to the latter. Characters featuring in both the epics were a prolem (their life-spans would straddle two eras each lasting hundreds of thousands of years or more) which appears to have been solved by collecting them into a tight list of Chiranjeevis ('immortals').

And here is a very 'contemporary' anachronism: The Malayalam film 'Vaishali' is about the mythological story of Rishyasringa, clearly assigned to the Treta yuga (the hero marries Rama's elder sister). A song in the movie (penned by eminent Malayalam poet ONV Kurup) has romantic allusions to an episode from the Shakuntala story, which would get played out in the 'future' Dwapara yuga, just a few generations before the Mahabharata war!

And let me conclude on a personal note - a very distant memory (from childhood) of a visit to the temple at Rameswaram. The priest-guide who showed us around pointed out two large sculptures which faced each other across a long and somewhat gloomy corridor. One showed the figure of a male warrior sitting on the shoulder of a much larger female figure. The warrior held a sword aloft but he appeared to be smiling. In the other sculpture, the roles where reversed, a midget female sat on the shoulders of a colossal male; I do not remember her expression - that of her huge bearer dominated everything - anger written all over his face, bloodshot eyes,... and he brandished a sword and seemed poised to strike the onlooker. The priest told us these were allegories of the Krita yuga and Kali yuga respectively. He did not explain further -and I was too overawed to ask anything further....

(*)- I would have imagined the best Yuga to have lasted the least but then that is from a perspective informed by the worst of times! And the present Kali yuga is by no means the end - the 4 yugas repeat indefinitely in a cycle.

(**) - There are of course, many stories assigned to the Krita yuga but these generally concern the conflicts and intrigues between the Gods and the Asuras; Humans hardly feature and presumably had a good time.

(***) - 'Nahusha' strikes me as a rather heavily Persian name.


  • At 5:31 AM, Blogger Two Minds said…

    The inference that Chandravamsha can not be referred to by a Survyavamshi is WRONG. It so turns out that both the Vamshas were 'present' all the time; just that they rose to prominence in different eras. Janaka Maharaja, father of Sita, was a Chandravamshi. The point is both the vamshas coexisted and Suryavamsha was in prominence during Treta and Chandravamsh in Dwapara. Kalidasa does not seem so ignorant after all :-)

  • At 6:41 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    two minds,

    interesting point. so, one needs to study the two vamsas parallely to decide whether there is an anachronism or not - since their times probably *overlapped*. i was unaware of this.

    kalidasa's ignorance is no ignorance at all anyways since this yuga scheme most probably *postdates* him.

  • At 12:16 PM, Blogger anand said…

    IMHO, you are confused about kali and kaaali.

    aa no bhadraaH kratavo yantu vishvath
    (let noble thoughts come to us fron the Universe -- veda)


    PS. beware, Etymology is a purely and simply a business of christianity and nothing to do with Indian traditions.

    aa no bhadraaH kratavo yantu vishvatH



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