Sunday, March 26, 2017

What is Itihasa?

In 2014, Professor S.N. Balagangadhara (Balu) gave a talk to the Indian Council of Historical Research, "What do Indians Need, A History or the Past? A challenge or two to Indian historians"; and in the accompanying paper, one can find an explanation of what Itihasa is.

That paper is long, and also might be a little difficult for some, so here are the excerpts of what I consider to be the main points.  I assume that the reader of this blog is interested in the answer, and not in the exploration and arguments that lead to the result.  For such details, follow the link.

We have to start with adhyatma, which for various reasons, Balu leaves undefined in his paper, but we take adhyatma to be combination of two words अध्ययन and आत्मा, i.e. अध्ययन of आत्मा. I will leave आत्मा - Atma - undefined and untranslated.  The danger of using an English word is that unwanted connotations of words sneak in, and to even try to remove these takes a long essay. The danger in what I've done is that it creates a possibility of misunderstanding adhyatma.

Now follows edited excerpts:
‘Itihasa’, a compound Sanskrit word, is normally split as iti+ha+aasa. It is also translated as ‘so-it-happened’ or ‘thus-it-verily happened’. From such translations, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that ‘Itihasa’,as a word, picks out literature that chronicles the past or that it is history of the ‘bygone era’.

The facts: the Chandogya Upanishad speaks about itihasa as the fifth Veda, placing it next to the four Vedas; Shankaracharya mentions that recitations of itihasa was part of certain major rituals; the classical Indian poetics lay down the rule that Mahaakaavyas and Naatakas (drama) draw on itihasa to work out their themes; to this day, performing arts in parts of India (Talamaddale, Yakshagana, etc.) follow this rule... And so on.

Let us begin with the translation of the word: let us accept the conventional translation of itihasa as ‘thus it happened’. Now the question is this: what is being picked out by the referential word ‘thus’ or ‘iti’?

If you look at, say, the Mahabharata as a standalone text and make use of the western conventions of telling a story, the conclusion is obvious: ‘thus’ picks out a story that is yet to be narrated. Under these conditions, that the Mahabharata is considered as ‘Itihasa’ and that this word picks out the story narrated in the text become obvious.

However, Sanskrit is not English and India is a culture that is different from the West. ‘Iti’ in Sanskrit is a meta-linguistic word that picks out what has already been linguistically spoken. When we call the Mahabharata an itihasa text, we are actually saying that it refers back to something else that has been already said and that its discourse is at a meta-level regarding what has already been said at an object-level.
When compounded by other words (ahaasa) or by a name, the word also identifies what
follows. The stories of Mahabharata are called itihasa because the iti prefix refers also to something other than the story. Iti does not refer to the conclusion or the moral purport of the story. Iti is at the beginning of the story; the story merely illustrates what has preceded it. Therefore, unless we figure out what this ‘iti’ is, we cannot understand the itihasa tradition. Here is my hypothesis: Adhyatma is the only possible reference of iti. That means itihasa is a story that illustrates Adhyatma or imparts Adhyatma through an elucidation. That is why it has such an exalted place in the Indian intellectual traditions and not because Indians are narcissists, who revel in repeating constantly their own histories to themselves.
So how did "itihasa" become "history"?
When people from other cultures came to India and studied her culture, they brought together some native cultural elements and categories in a different way. They split things apart, as it suited their way of describing the world, which are united in India. They could not understand that Mahabharata and Itihasa had to be situated in a particular context, namely the Adhyatmic context. Itihasa was compared with a genre familiar to the Western culture; they could be seen as mythologies or histories. As a result, Itihasa became ‘history’; the whole of Mahabharata and Ramayana stood for the ancient Indian historiographical traditions.

‘Absurd and fantastic’ stories of the itihasa traditions led them to search for a factual/historical core of these traditions. These efforts also strengthened the Western notions of a heathen India, which was described using different frameworks: the theological, the empirical, the philological, the romantic, and so on. Western scholarship has tried to come to grips with Itihasa as literature, religious text, history, so on, but none of these fits Mahabharata.

As a result, Adhyatma was split apart from itihasa: one was the domain of religion and another became the domain of history. Educated Indians inherited such discourses. Thus, Itihasa stopped making sense to the western educated Indians, who were informed only by the Western interpretations. They see Mahabharata as an epic written by someone called Vyasa, or by multiple authors over millennia, with interpolations and interpretations by different Brahmin groups with vested interests. It thus acquires a loose structure of katha (story) and upakathas(sub-stories) knitted together to oppress the ‘Dalits’ in India. This book, however, is anything but empirical history. No one has attempted to explain the function of this book in a culture that produced it, except in terms of intellectual weakness that produces fantastic stories
guided by the malefic desire to oppress the ‘Dalits’. At best, it exhibits the naïve historical consciousness of Indians, or functions as a source for the reconstruction of life and thought of ancient Indians, or providing ideals and morals for our life. As far as the latter is concerned, no one has been able to provide a coherent picture of the morals of this book as a whole. At worst, it embodies Brahminical conspiracy.
Reminder: adhyatmic stories are **not** moral stories. A moral story tries to inculcate moral behavior; adhyatmic stories are meant as an aid to adhyatma.
To proceed fruitfully, we have to begin with the fact that itihasa tradition survives in multiple forms among Indians. Mahabharata, in whatever form it exists today, is itihasa because it is structured for a particular purpose. It prepares the ground carefully and knits the stories and upakhyanas (discourses) systematically together into a structure. The stories become itihasa when they find place within this structure.

Mahabharata, as it is today,is a product of the creativity of itihasa tradition over millennia. Creativity has to work under certain cognitive and epistemological conditions, if it has to be productive. Otherwise, creativity does not distinguish itself from delusional expressions, whether oral or written.

Mahabharata works under constraints laid down by Adhyatmic reflections. It works within that structure. That is why it is creative. People just did not add new stories randomly. If Indians did that, why did they not interpolate pornographic pieces, or any such irrelevant parts into Mahabharata? Of course, Mahabharata had enormous scope for pornography... That must be because pornography obviously violated some cognitive condition that Mahabharata was working with....Adhyatma is not concerned with a description of the empirical world of existence. That is why Pornography is irrelevant to Mahabharata.

One could ask whether or not the {Kurukshetra} war is empirical. The answer is simple: Mahabharata does not describe war {i.e., is not a factual history of the war} but merely identifies it as a reference point for what requires saying.

Why illustrate adhyatma through a story unless adhyatma is deeply intertwined with these stories? Each must be supporting the other. The stories must embody adhyatma. Adhyatma is not a moral of the story that comes at the end. Adhyatma comes before, not after the stories. What is the story then? Story is an illustration. That is why itihasa is ‘Thus it happened’ or, even, ‘thus it is imparted generationally’.
If the above is understood, this next drives the point home:

Talamaddale, a performing art, does precisely this. How can people listen to intellectual discourses for hours and be fascinated by it when it takes the form of performing arts? Mahabharata is simply a background for this performance; as a story, it hardly plays a role. It simply sets the context to a learning process. If such is the case, itihasa has nothing to do with a past event, either in the sense of ‘past’ as a time period or as a temporal domain separated from the present. It has no references to the facts of the past and plays no function in preserving the memories about past events. The reference is to something else. It is a learning process through stories about adhyatma.

If one sees this, one will realize the unity that itihasa and adhyatma are. The scholarship of the last four hundred years has pulled them apart to make this division a fact of thecommonsense today. There appears to be no connection between the Mahabharata and what Shankarahas written, say Brahmasutrabhashya. One appears as philosophy and the other as kavya (poetry) or as a story or as an expression of our primitive sense of history.

How does Itihasa help adhyatmic learning? What the Mahabharata does is to put the latter in
the form of a story. Instead of developing a theory, it puts that in the form of a story. So you must know how to read (and listen and see) this story, you must know how to understand the story. You must know how to practice the story. And you must know how to perform the story. When you are following a story of Mahabharata, watching a talamaddale or yakshagana performance, you are actually thinking. Talamaddale teaches you how to think. It does that by transforming adhyatma into anubhava (translated as ‘experience’ in English)

For extra credit, this:
Consider this: it is only through and in Samsara (Worldly life) that we can hope to achieve moksha (liberation). If we are not in worldly life, we cannot achieve liberation. Each of us, in worldly life, is afflicted by avidya (ignorance) and only though this ignorance (i.e. realizing that we are afflicted by ignorance is how we arrive at knowledge) can we hope to reach vidya (knowledge); only through this world, which is asat, (the Unreal), can we reach Sat(the Real). Therefore, there is no break or opposition between these realms; one is needed to reach the other, i.e., only through the one can we reach the other.

Mahabharata clothes Adhyatmic truth as conventional truth. It is through the conventions of the daily life that you get access to Adhyatma. In fact, the latter is realizable only in worldly life. That is what these stories do: help reach the adhyatma through convention. The whole of Mahabharata is only about our lives but it is telling us about adhyatma and is a passage way.
Unlike the discourse of history, which makes the past completely external to a human being, Indian stories can be taken up by any individual from any context and can use them to reflect upon their own lives and experiences. Any context can be transformed into any other context. One uses talamaddale to shed light upon anything human, be it power, money, status, etc. It is thus that these stories become the story of the person using it. However, as I have said repeatedly, to go to Adhyatma we need to go through the worldly life.
What happened is that when Westerners started studying Mahabharata or Ramayana, they recast the story of these epics by putting them in the genre of traditional historical account. In that process, they severed these from their adhyatmic context or content. These stories are basically crafted to illustrate the adhyatmic truths. The adhyatmic content of the epics was severed and cut off from these stories and put in the category of religion; therefore even Adhyatma ceased making sense. The traditional Indians related with the Itihasa tradition that these epics basically are through a unifying experience of these two. However, the educated Indians ceased making sense of either of the two, therefore lost their memory of how to relate with itihasa.

To the ‘modern’ mind, Adhyatmic Gurus became the ‘god-men’ of India, figures of ridicule or leaders of ‘cults’ or ‘sects’. The only possible intellectual engagement they could now have to these texts is to either fight for establishing the historicity of these epics or relegate them to the status of myths or strive for some convenient hybrid of the two {which is the dilemma we encountered yesterday}.