When did events of Ramayana and Mahabharata actually occur?
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It all depends on what answer you are prepared to receive, for the answer is complicated and mired in politics. There are essentially two kinds of answers: faith-based answer, or fact-based answer. Faith-based answer accepts as absolute truth what is transmitted in texts and by teachers without critical analysis; it makes people vociferously certain. Fact-based answer is limited by availability of measurable and verifiable evidence; it makes people cautious and doubtful.
For example, there is archaeological evidence of cities, now submerged under the sea, near the city now called Dwarka, in Gujarat. These are probably over 4,000 years old, dated to Harappan times. This is an established fact. Faith-based answer will jump to the conclusion that this is the island-city of Dwarka whose destruction is described in the epic Mahabharata, the earliest available retelling of which is less than 2,500 years old. Fact-based answer will say, there is not enough evidence linking the two.
Now, Hindus believe that time is cyclical. So there is no one Ramayana or Mahabharata. These events recur in every cycle (kalpa). Each cycle has four phases (yuga), and Ramayana takes place in the second, and Mahabharata in the third. Between each cycle there is pralaya (end of the world) when all matter is dissolved and the only memory that survives is the Vedas.
The last Ice Age, when much of the earth was covered with snow, ended about 10,000 years ago. The faith-based school believes the Ice Age marked the last pralaya. Based on astronomical information such as position of constellations and time of eclipses available in scriptures, they have concluded that events in the Ramayana took place 7,000 years ago and events in the Mahabharata took place 5,000 years ago. The sages Valmiki and Vyasa witnessed these events, and composed epics, not merely to share the story, but to reveal how their protagonists, Ram and Krishna, used Vedic wisdom to engage with society. However, this traditional view is not accepted by scientists.
According to scientists, after the Ice Age, we find rise of human civilisation around the world, especially in river valleys. We find settlements in South Asia as confirmed by cave paintings and various Stone Age artefacts. The Harappan city civilisation thrived around the rivers Indus and Saraswati in the North West for a thousand years from 5,000 years ago to 4,000 years ago, with trade links to Egypt and Mesopotamia. Climate changes, and the drying of Saraswati, led to the collapse of this civilisation. We don’t know what language was spoken here so we don’t know if they were aware of Ram or Krishna. The only image recognisable is one that suggests Shiva in meditation. While Harappan cities collapsed, the ideas found in the Harappan civilisation did not die out and probably served as one of the many tributaries to the river we called Indic culture. And so plants such as pipal, symbols such as swastika and mathematical proportions such as 5:4 (one and one quarter) which have been traced in Harappan cities are still very much part of contemporary Indian faith systems.
As the Harappan civilisation (cities without language) waned, the Vedic civilisation (language without cities) waxed, marked by hymns in a language similar to the language of a nomadic people who migrated out 5,000 years ago from Eurasia towards Europe in the West and India via Iran in the East. The migration of a people and/or language took place over several centuries. It was never an invasion as British Orientalists imagined.According to scientists, after the Ice Age, we find rise of human civilisation around the world, especially in river valleys. (Photo: Reuters)
According to language experts, while proto-Sanskrit may have come from Eurasia, the language we call Sanskrit today emerged in the region where Harappan cities once thrived. Did the two people mingle, exchange ideas? Did the Veda-chanting people inhabit the dying Harappan cities? Evidence is weak. The people speaking Vedic Sanskrit eventually spread further east towards the Ganga where they established a thriving civilisation 3,000 years ago. The hymns refer to an eastward migration. Reference to iron is found in later hymns. Archaeologists have found painted greyware pottery in the Gangetic plains that can be dated to this period. So we are fairly confident that Vedic civilisation thrived in the Gangetic plains 3,000 years ago.
The epics refer to events in the Gangetic plains, so can we say these events happened around 3,000 years ago? Events in the Mahabharata refer to the upper Gangetic plains (Indraprastha, near modern Delhi) and the behaviour of people is rather crude as compared to the very refined behaviour found in the Ramayana and which describes events in the lower Gangetic plains (Ayodhya, Mithila) and further south. Can we say events in the Ramayana took place after the Mahabharata, and the refinement indicates passage of time and evolution of culture? However, this goes against what the epics themselves say. In the Mahabharata, the Pandavas are told the story of an ancient king called Ram, which makes Ramayana, at least narratively, an earlier tale. This makes things confusing.
Now the Vedic hymns are written in a Sanskrit called Vedic Sanskrit while the oldest Ramayana and Mahabharata texts we have are written in a Sanskrit called Classical Sanskrit. The latter uses a grammar first documented by Panini who lived 2,500 years ago. So the oldest versions of Ramayana and Mahabharata that we have today are less than 2,500 years ago, but they could be describing events that occurred many hundred years before that.
The Mauryan kings introduced writing to India 2,300 years ago and Vedic hymns started being put down in writing less than 2,000 years ago. Until then the corpus of Vedic knowledge was transmitted orally. This gave the Brahmins, carriers of Vedic knowledge, special status in society. Brahmins were challenged by hermits (shramana) who valued contemplation and meditation more than rituals. They spoke words of wisdom that appealed to society. The most popular hermit was the Buddha who lived 2,500 years ago. The hermits rejected the Vedic rituals and the householder’s life. Ramayana and Mahabharata seem to have been composed as a reaction to this hermit revolution, so after the age of the Buddha, they argue in favour of the householder’s life and reveal how hermit’s wisdom can be used within the household.
They may have used actual historical events as a framework to present their ideas, and embellished the story with fantastic elements. But it is tough to separate what may have really occurred, and what is fantasy, what is memory and what is imagination. Violent arguments break out when you suggest that ancient aeroplanes (Pushpak Viman) may be fantasy, and ancient transgenderism (Shikhandi) may be fact.
Scholars are of the opinion that many Brahmins contributed to the many editions of the two epics. This editing took place over 600 years from 2,300 years ago to 1,700 years ago. In other words, the epic we have now is seen as the work of multiple, not single, authors. Regional versions came much later: Tamil Ramayana is about 1,000 years old, Hindi Ramayana and Mahabharata about 500.
Several books claiming to be the original Sanskrit Valmiki Ramayana and Vyasa Mahabharata were gathered in the 19th century from across India. In the 20th century, scholars put together a "critical" edition of what could be probably the oldest hymns. Thus we have the critical edition of Valmiki Ramayana by Maharaja Sayaji Rao University Oriental Institute, Baroda, and the critical edition of Vyasa Mahabharata by Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune.
We can be fairly confident that the two epics reached their final narrative form 2,000 years ago, and that they reflect events that occurred 3,000 years ago. Anything before that is a matter of faith.
(Please note that dating in the article is approximate and rounded for ease of understanding.)