Astronomy and the dating of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana
Following some discussion on a thread re Valmiki and the Dating of the Ramayana, my view was asked for, following this contribution:
“Sometime ago I read a book "80 Questions to Understand India" by Murad Ali Baig - something I picked up for airplane reading while browsing at a bookstore in India. Now Murad is not an historian - just that he studied history at St. Stephens college. A lot of what he has written seems implausible but it does give a fresh perspective on a lot of things that we read in our history books. Here is some of stuff that he wrote (and this is from my recollection of things I read a few months ago):
" 'The Ramayana was set in present Kryghistan/Uzbekistan around 1400BC. The Mahabharata happened near and around the time of Troy. These epics which were passed on through the oral tradition and may have traveled to India with the Vedic spread eastwards and got "localized" over time. Hinduism which is touted as one of the oldest religions of the world may actually be less than a 1000 years old. It may have started around 300 AD and got established over the next 3 or 400 hundred years mostly by the destruction of Buddhist shrines and their replacement with Hindu temples and the forced conversion of Buddhists to Hinduism by Brahmins who were trying to establish their control (as advisers to various rulers). Hinduism as we know it today may have been established by Shankaracharya around 8th centurey AD and defined in its present form by Raja Ramohan Roy in the early 19th century. Of course if you include the Buddhist and Vedic parts then it is over 5000 years old.”
“I am honoured to be asked to comment:
“Scholars must always keep an open mind for their current views to be modified or even falsified, so I always try to look at all new evidence possible, in order to see what is really before me as evidence, and not be prejudiced by my own thoughts or theories…
“I have not read Murad Ali Baig’s "80 Questions to Understand India" – would you recommend that I read it?
“As for the theories that you cite from that book:
1. There is no consensus among scholars about the location of the Mahabharata War (archeological evidence shows that a war certainly took place in the Kurukshetra region, but then wars took place in many regions – the archeological evidence at Kurukshetra does not indicate a war on anything like the scale that the Mahabharata describes; this is not to say that no such great war as described in the Mahabharata took place in India - it may well have taken place, but at present we have no incontrovertible evidence of it).
2. Nor is there any consensus about the date of the Mahabharata. Estimates vary from roughly five thousand BC to the 9th century BC
3. Calculations based on the astronomical references in the Mahabharata itself, range from roughly 5,500 BC (P N Oak & P V Vartak, who differ slightly on the exact date), to 3143 BC (P V Holey), to 3067 BC (B N Achar) to 2559 BC (S. Balakrishna) to 1478 BC (R. N. Iyengar). My conclusion: the astronomical references are clearly too vague, if they allow such scholars to arrive at dates 4000 years apart.
4. As for Murad’s view that the War took place in Kryghistan/Uzbekistan, it is possible, given that so much of the Vedas originate somewhere in Central Asia (please note: I am *not* saying that our Mahabharata was written there, only that much Vedic material, in its oral form, came from somewhere in Central Asia, and that might have included tales of a great war there, which may then have become conflated with a local war in India some millennia or at least centuries later)
5. Baig’s view of the start of “Hinduism” in AD300 or so, probably comes from the fact that that is when murti-puja started in our country, as a result of Greek influence (Alexander the Great and all that) – almost certainly, we had no murtis before that. Most of the gods we worship today start after that date, and are then “read back” into the Vedas; a huge number of gods who are prayed to in the Vedas have disappeared in our consciousness, thought and practice so that no one worships them now - this is not as astonishing as first appears to people unacquainted with India – we have had massive transitions in our religious thought and practice just in our own lifetime – consider Ganga-Puja in Varanasi!!! Ganga Mata was never earlier worshipped at Varanasi, only at Haridwar (and possibly at Gangotri – though I have not been able to establish that); or consider the changes in Durga Puja even in Bengal – but Sandip is able to tell us much more about that than I can…
6. Shankaracharyaji’s impact was huge, and he certainly put in place many of things that we now associate with mainstream Hindu thought and practices.
7. It is too much to say that Raja Ram Mohan Roy “defined Hinduism in its present form”; what is true is that Roy *and* the Bengal Renaissance as a whole formed what are the different streams of Hindu thought and practice today. For example, the idea that all religions are “the same” or “lead to the same end” does not exist in India before Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa came up with this idea in the late 19th century. The Brahmo Samaj, the Arya Samaj, the Prarthana Samaj, the Ramakrishna Mission were, each of them, like so many others (and the number has only multiplied with time, down to the Brahma Kumaris and ISKCON and Osho and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and all our new gurus) are all reform movements, new movements – movements to *change* the traditions that were established up to the end of the 19th century. In that sense, it is correct to say that “Hinduism”, as we see it today, only goes back a century or so. However, as we all know, there is no such thing as “HinduISM”, there are many Hinduisms; and that gives us the liberty to say that Hindu thought and practice goes back 5000 years (or 7000 years or whatever).
8. Buddhism is a different matter. Buddhism and Jainism were anti-Vedic. The anti-Buddhist (and, by the way, anti-Jain) movement culminated in Shankaracharyaji’s inclusion of Buddhist and Jain ideas into Hindu thought and practice. For example, vegetarianism and reincarnation are not Vedic ideas (the Vedas relish meat-eating! I should say that I am a vegetarian...). Vegetarianism and reincarnation are originally Jain ideas (Buddhism does have a version of reincarnation, but we did not accept the Buddhist version, we accepted the Jain version); Buddhism was originally NON-vegetarian – the Buddha himself ate meat – which, by the way, is the reason that Tibetan Buddhists, Thai Buddhists, and so many other Buddhists (including IN India) are non-vegetarian, whereas you are far less likely to find a Jain who is non-vegetarian, even today…
9. Buddhism and Jainism date from around the 6th century BC, though Jainism claims antecedents going back to Rishabha (claimed to be, by various people, as long back as perhaps the 8th millennium BC).
Born and brought up in Delhi, but from the age of 3 to the age of 8 in Amritsar and started school on holiday in Srinagar. Leaving Amritsar, at school for a year in Solan. Otherwise in Delhi, studying at J. D. Tytler School and Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, then at St Stephen's College, where I eventually taught for 3 years. Then 3 years at North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong. Political exile from India in 1976. Lived/studied/worked in Scotland for 3 years, England for 16 years and Switzerland since then.