History and Mythology

Yesterday, on yet another reasonably routine visit to the Shankara MaTha in Shankarpuram (where else?), I happened to notice this series of illustrations which sought to tell the story of Adi Shankaracharya’s life. The story starts out with Hinduism being in trouble in the 8th and 9th century AD, which leads to a bunch of Gods and Angels to lead a delegation to Shiva asking him to “do something” about it.

Since I was in the rather calm precincts of the temple, I prevented myself from laughing loudly, but this whole idea of mixing mythology with history intrigued me. The story got even more interesting later, since there was a panel that depicted Shankaracharya getting lessons from Veda Vyasa (the author of the Mahabharata, for the uninitiated). “Was he still alive in the 9th century”, the wife thought aloud politely. I made some random comments about not remembering if he was one of the Chiranjeevis.

A long time back, maybe when I was in school, my grandmother had wanted to see this movie on Shirdi Sai Baba (*ing Shashikumar). There again, there was a mixture of history and mythology, with one of the Gods (Shiva, I think) planting himself in some mango lady’s womb (not sure of the accuracy of this, close to 20 years since I watched it). In that case, however, it being a part of a popular movie, I thought there was enough poetic license to do that. But as part of the panels inside a temple, which is supposed to give out the authentic story? I’m not sure providing entertainment is a stated objective of that temple.

Now I begin to wonder how devout some of the devout could be, if they could actually believe that in the 9th century AD, there was a delegation of Gods who appealed to Shiva to rescue the religion! There are also other implications of this. One, that the Gods closely watch over what was happening on earth (well, I guess the omniscient model of God does permit this). Two, the admission that there might be religions apart from the Sanatana Dharma – which is something that is not made in any of our ancient texts. The Vedas, Upanishads and other texts were all written in India so long ago that no other organized religion existed back then. If you look at the myths, you will observe that all characters are religious, and they all worship parts or the whole of the Hindu pantheon.

My guess is that the series of illustrations in the Shankara MaTha and the associated commentary are the results of the efforts of some particularly over-zealous “devotee”, and the rest of the managing committee hasn’t had the heart or mind to call out this absurdity and get rid of the ambiguous illustrations. Or maybe the entire maTha has lost it, and actually believes that there was a delegation of gods only 1100 years back.

2 thoughts on “History and Mythology”

  1. This is not a new phenomenon. One of the things that this book – http://www.amazon.com/Textures-Time-Writing-History-1600-1800/dp/1590510445 notes is also the same thing. Apart from pointing out that South India already had a historiographic tradition before the Brits came, this book also points out that the initial version of an incident usually does not have any mythology included, but later versions start with for e.g., Narada talking to Indra about the incident about to happen, which makes it seem like we don’t have a historiographic tradition.

    At the same time, I think learning from Veda Vyasa could be interpreted as Adi Shankara belonging to the same school of thought as Veda Vyasa.

    These stories in general also add to the legitimacy of Adi Shankara. (not that he needs any)

    1. I agree that with passing versions and oral tradition, history transforms into mythology. And with Rama, Krishna, etc. who are not “dated”, they are firmly established as part of Myth. But with someone as recent as Shankaracharya who has been dated, this mix of mythology seems a little funny.

      I don’t know why I’m suddenly reminded of the “Brahmin who ate a crow” story

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