“Would you like to see how the sky looked at the beginning of the war?” asks Ashok Bhatnagar, peering over his glasses. The war he is referring to is the one that famously lasted for 18 days, the greatest of all wars. He switches on his laptop, clicks on Stellarium, a planetarium software that simulates the sky in 3D, feeds in some data, and soon we are staring at a configuration on the screen which looks like the night sky with stars glittering on it. This is the sky just before the Battle of Kurukshetra, according to Bhatnagar, an astronomer who has spent the years since his retirement— as additional director general from the Positional Astronomy Centre of the Indian Meteorological Department—extracting astronomical references from the Mahabharata.
By tracing the winter solstice and the autumnal equinox indicated in the text, he has found a time bracket of 1,000 years. He then looked for eclipses within that period, and one by one, he says, it all fell into place. “According to my research, the war would have started on 14 October 1792 [1793 BCE].” A balding middle-aged man with the benign manner of one who spends a large part of his time behind mounds of data, Bhatnagar now works as the technical director of the Delhi chapter of I-Serve (Institute of Scientific Research on Vedas, an NGO). His paper on the war’s dating will be part of a book of research on the Mahabharata that I-Serve plans to bring out later this year. In support of his hypothesis, he cites research by veteran geologist KS Valdiya, author of Saraswati: The River That Disappeared, on paleoseismic activity in the lower Himalayas to trace the approximate time of the Mahabharata.
There exists a long tradition of astronomical dating of Indian epics (done by studying celestial events like eclipses, comets, and planetary positions mentioned in texts), some by scholars, and now with easily available software packages, increasingly by amateurs. A quick search on the internet would have you believe that astronomy has already proved the veracity of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, with countless websites carrying contradictory data. But consensus is hard to find. Take the case of the discrepant dating that astronomy throws up for the Mahabharata. Bhatnagar’s dates are close to those of RN Iyengar, one of India’s best known civil engineers and a scholar on the history of science, who has pegged the Mahabharata at 1493-1443 BCE. Another veteran researcher in the field, Narhari Achar, a professor of Physics at the University of Memphis, backs the more popularly accepted date, 3067 BCE.
Says Professor Achar on email, ‘Different scholars have strong opinions and believe their own results are correct. Deeper study of the original texts would help.’
The problem of dating the Ramayana and Mahabharata is a difficult one, as the texts are syncretic and accretive. The dates recreated by astronomy software cannot be taken as definitive since we do not know whether the verse being dated was part the original core or if it was added later, says Subhash Kak, who teaches at the department of electric and computer engineering at Louisiana State University, and has worked on the history of Indian science. ‘Furthermore, we have dates that are sometimes mutually contradictory. The way a poetic description of an astral event in the verses is interpreted is subjective and it lacks scholarly agreement.’
The quest to prove the historicity of the epics by dating them affirmatively is an old pursuit. It is also a politically fraught subject that has been making recurrent headlines. There was a fair amount of opposition when Y Sudershan Rao, a little- known Mahabharata researcher, took over last year as chairperson of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), and stated soon after that the Ramayana and Mahabharata are not ‘myths’ but true accounts of the period. It led to fear among historians that the ICHR would henceforth expend all its energy dating the epics, a field that many historians dub ‘unhistorical’. According to a recent news report, the ICHR will soon be taking up research projects on new approaches to writing ancient Indian history based on Sanskrit texts, and revisiting the theme of Aryan immigration into India. It is clear that the epic dating enterprise will be getting a fillip in times to come.
Contemporary dialogue on India’s ancient past often resembles the battlefield of Kurukshetra, cleaved into two factions, the Left and the Right, mythology versus history, truth versus bunkum. Beyond the political battleground, if you take a popular vote on this subject, it will show up the duality that the Indian mind is so at ease with: most believe that the truth of our past lies somewhere in between received history and mythology.
Generations of researchers have combined the study of the two texts with data from astronomy, archaeology and paleogeography. The field has been widened to include genetic studies and natural sciences, but to little or no avail. We are far from any unanimous agreement, except for concurring that the Vedas predate the Ramayana, which came before the Mahabharata.
There are people, however, who are committed to delving deeper for answers by applying imaginative cross-disciplinary ways of thinking and analysis to the epics. Take the case of Gyaneshwar Chaubey, a geneticist at the Estonian Biocentre in Tartu, Estonia. He has been conducting genetic studies on the tribes of the Ramayana. In the first part of the project that lasted for three years, he studied the gene pool of the three main tribes mentioned in the epic, Bhil, Kol and Gond, to establish their continuity since ancient times with contemporary tribal and caste populations of the Indian Subcontinent. ‘My main topic of research is about human migration and origin. We know that Indian mythological sources might have preserved information about prehistoric peopling as well as past societal structure. And we use this information and look into the human genome (DNA), which preserves information back several generations. And then we see how this information coming from their genome is in concordance or vice-versa with the mythological information,’ he explains in an interview over email.
The Ramayana project is ongoing, and the plan for the next phase is to collect DNA samples from communities that claim direct lineage from Rama and then look for a consensus result—if any—that traces his male descent via the Y chromosomal haplogroup.
Chaubey also speaks of how his growing up years in Varanasi gave him a firm grounding in mythological texts and sources, which he now applies to research. He is extending the same analysis to the Mahabharata. ‘We are studying various tribal and caste groups mentioned in the Mahabharata,’ he says, ‘The second thing about [the epic] is that we know that it happened somewhere in the Kurukshetra region; to understand this further, we are also studying the genes of the present Kurukshetra population to see their affinity with other Indians and world populations.’
Nanditha Krishna is a historian and environmentalist, and director of the CP Ramaswami Institute of Indological Research in Chennai. She turned to botany and zoology to establish the historicity of the Ramayana. Two life scientists from the institute, P Sudhakar and M Amirthalingam studied the plants and animals of the Ramayana. “Every animal and plant mentioned in the epic is still found exactly where they are described: Chitrakut, Dandakaranya, Kishkindha and Lanka,” Krishna says. The idea for this research came to her while on a visit to Bhimbetka caves in Madhya Pradesh, where she saw a painting of a tiger and a lion together. Dismissing it as artistic licence, since the two are not found in the same forest, she later found out that in the forest of Dandakaranya, the two had co- existed, and Valmiki had weaved this into the Ramayana. She felt she had to follow his trail. “The Ramayana is botanically so precise and rich,” she says, “Valmiki must have been a fantastic life scientist.” The research was published as a book, Plant and Animal Diversity in Valmiki’s Ramayana. By next year, the results of their work on Krishna and the Mahabharata will be out. The Mahabharata, though, is not as yielding in botanical information as the Ramayana.
Nanditha Krishna has also authored Sacred Plants of India and Sacred Animals of India (published by Penguin), books about research done on the Vedas and epics to authenticate their historicity. “As part of my research,” she says, “I have found the two epics to be a wonderful source of information about ancient India. As I searched for correlations in ancient texts, I realised that while writers can make up stories about people, they cannot fake plants and animals, which are described so accurately in these texts. That was a tremendous source to authenticate our literature.”
Neera Misra, who runs the Draupadi Trust in Delhi, is not a historian or scientist, unlike other pursuers. She is a former entrepreneur who was drawn to the field quite by accident. Misra belongs to Kampilya, which, located in Farrukhabad district of Uttar Pradesh, is considered the birthplace of Draupadi and the capital of the kingdom of Panchala. Some years ago, while recovering from an illness, she started watching reruns of Mahabharata on television and realised the importance of Kampilya. She also rediscovered Draupadi, and through her work she has introduced the question of gender to the debate on the epic’s historicity. “We associate Draupadi with only two things, either her five husbands or the cheer haran (disrobing), but she is greatly misunderstood. She was witty and intelligent, fiercely independent and progressive. She is an icon for our times,” says Misra. Her tiny office is filled with ancient maps of Panchala, some frayed with age. “For me, there is little doubt that this is history. I have a connection with the land.”
Misra has the air of someone who knows how to get things done. She campaigned extensively for excavation at Kampilya, which took place between 2010 and 2012. The site revealed traces of Painted Grey Ware (PGW). Misra talks about the tragedy of Kampilya. The mound where Drupad Kila (Fort of King Drupad) is assumed to be located has been taken over by squatters. Intent on reclaiming the historic site and developing it for cultural tourism, she is currently in talks with the government of Uttar Pradesh.
Archaeology is the only discipline that historians of all hues accept as a validator of information. BB Lal, a pioneer in this field, has written books on archaeological evidence for both the epics. The last great breakthrough was the discovery of the submerged city of Dwarka. But even archaeology has not provided enough leads.
Last year, amid much sounding of trumpets, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) undertook an excavation at Delhi’s Purana Qila, a 16th century fort that’s also considered the site of Indraprastha, believed to be the capital of the kingdom of the Pandavas. The first excavation at this site was conducted by BB Lal in 1954; he found traces of PGW, which he then corroborated with the Mahabharata. The aim of this round of excavation was to discover stratified deposits of PGW to establish links that would otherwise be tenuous.
The team found PGW potsherds in the upper layers, till the rain interrupted the excavation. This year, they were to dig for stratified deposits, but the project is stalled and the lead excavator Vasant Swarnkar, superintending archaeologist with the ASI, has been transferred. “We found continuous cultural habitation from the pre-Mauryan to the British period. There was definitely a PGW habitation at this site, but we need large- scale excavation to prove this archaeologically,” Swarnkar says.
TKV Rajan, an archaeologist in Bengaluru who has been pushing for re-excavation at Dwarka (in the current state of Gujarat) by using new underwater technology, believes that the ASI does not want to relate the excavation at Indraprastha with the Mahabharata as the topic is a little too politically charged and sensitive.
‘For at least two centuries, scholars have tried to answer the question, with no consensus,’ says Michel Danino, a French-born Indologist who was inducted recently into the ICHR, and a guest professor at IIT-Gandhinagar. ‘This is because a complete solution will have to harmonise the literary, social, geographical, cultural, archaeoastronomical and archaeological data. No one has been able to do this. Scholars, while broadly agreeing that the epics were composed or compiled a few centuries BC and AD, disagree on how much in them is embellishment or interpolation: critical literary studies trying to pin down their ‘original core’ have reached diverging conclusions. The problem is exceedingly thorny and may never have a final solution.’
One thing will remain constant, however, as it has over thousands of years: perspectives on the two great epics will keep multiplying.