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Myth and History (#4)

A dilemma faces most students of history in a country like ours. What role does myth play in the study of history? Are myths and histories one and the same? These questions become increasingly important as history is practised in a religiously charge societies. Dichotomous discourse exists around these questions. While one stream of thought dismisses myth and its connection to history, the other believes the foundation of Indian history lies in these very myths. A large part of the argument is based in acceptance or rejection of communal politics. Little attention is paid to examination through historical methods.

The origin of this dichotomy can be traced to the rise of Positivism. Historians like Leopold von Ranke theorised that history should show happenings as they really were. History was thus ‘fact’ and objective. Mythology was sideline for the lack thereof. Is the division as simple as this though?

Mythology can be an important source for the study of history. A text written in the past can become a constituent of culture. This holds true particularly in terms of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Myths need to be understood and examined like other historical sources. When a historian tries to understand a piece of poetry or a text from the past, he or she considers first some important criterion. Evidence is the most important factor in determining the veracity of a historical event. In the study of a text like the Mahabharata, a historian needs to find answers to some questions before he can accept evidence uncritically. When was the text written? Who wrote it? Why was the text written? When was it written?

Of course this argument does not imply that myths are always untrue or have no basis in truth. All people are part of a society. Popular norms and values shape perceptions through socialization. These values are often reflected in writing. For example it is hard to discern parts of the Mahabharata that have basis in historical fact. A reading of the epic however makes clear to the reader the importance of patrimony. Buddhist myths similarly, give us information about the treatment of Dalits in ancient societies. The writing of myths is not static. The Ramayana for example has been written by authors from across South and South-east Asia. Through the reading of these versions, one can trace the foundational norms that constitute culture. On the other hand, these readings give us an insight into cultural exchange and interaction in the ancient world.

The relationship between myth and history is going to be contested and challenged by people for these myths have shaped our identities. As students of history however, a more critical approach must be employed when we examine these texts.


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