Sunday, October 3, 2010

Meaning of History & Itihaasa

History has always been a second love after engineering for me. While I have briefly discussed different events in Hindu history on this blog, I haven't given a post on the philosophy of history till date. This post is meant to give a Hindu perspective of this philosophy, as has been elucidated in appendix D of "The Pernicious Effects of the Misinterpreted Greek Synchronism in Ancient Indian History" by Kosla Vepa which was a work presented in the "International Conference of Indian History", 2009. (Post is an abridged version of appendix D of the hyperlinked work & modified to suit our purpose)

"Historians & philosophers have been contemplating the meaning of history since the beginning of history. A simple definition of history is "remembering the past" or knowledge of what has happened from the start until the present. It is also the knowledge of the past since record keeping was initiated. The purpose of studying history in school text books is to teach the student understanding of what has taken place so that we may build upon and understand how a nation functions and how it came to be. We also study the history of other nations and how their history interacts with ours. A greater awareness of history results in a more enlightened and educated citizenry. Knowledge of our past helps us understand the present and prepare for the future. Knowing the history of the world helps the individual respect and appreciate one's form of government and society as well as become better informed about differences in civilizational ethos of other peoples of the world. (this also helps to better appreciate the evolution of diversity among us, and give an opportunity to make peace with people from different spheres of thought, culture and race)

The original meaning of Itihaasa had a more precise sense than the word history. The etymology attested to be Panini indicates itiha to mean "thus indeed, in this tradition". One of the earliest references to Itihasa is in Chanakya's Arthashastra. Investigations lead us to believe that the Maurya Empire for which he was the perceptor began in 1534 B.C. (please avoid chaos on this issue.) He defines Itihaasa, in the context of syllabus prescribed for training of a prince with the following words:

"Puraana (the chronicles of the ancients), itivrtta (history), akhyayika (tales), udahaarana (illustrative stories), dharmashastra (the canon of righteous conduct), and arthashastra (the science of government) (- and economics) are known as itihaasa (history)."
Kautilya's Arthashastra -- (Book 1, Ch. 5).

History (Itihaasa) in this definition takes on the meaning more akin to the sense of historiography and is perhaps more eclectic & appears to indicate a super set of political science and history as we use them today.

In the Mahabharata, which is itself considered itihaasa, Adi Parva 1.267-268 mentions that a knowledge of the Itihaasa and Purana is essential for the proper understanding of the veda. By the time the Brahmana and the Upanishada were written, & certainly by the time the Itihaasa and the Purana were written, there was such a well defined sense of history, that the Mahabharata cautions us that the Veda are afraid of those who would read it without a prior acquaintance of the Itihaasa and Purana.

Kalhana in the Rajatarngini states that: "History will be the narration of events as they happened, in the form of a story, which will be an advice to the reader to be followed in life, to gain the purushaarthas namely kama, the satiation of desires through artha, the tool, by following the path of dharma, the human code of conduct to gain moksha or liberation.""


Dirt Digger said...

Interesting thoughts especially Kalhana in the Rajatarngini's views on how history links with dharma, artha and moksha.
Could you elaborate on,"..that the Veda are afraid of those who would read it without a prior acquaintance of the Itihaasa and Purana."

Karmasura said...

I doubt that you have subscribed to the comments section of this post, but if you have, I have this for you.

If you can get your hands on "in search of the cradle of civilization" by Subhash Kak, there, on page 105, 1st paragraph, there is mention of the original Purana which is mentioned in the Vedic literature, that came much before the current Puranas that we know. Perhaps, the Mahabharata was talking of that Purana.