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59 CH APTER FOUR Itihāsa-Purāṇa The Heart of Hinduism Śruti and smṛti are the two eyes of dharma, but the Purāṇa is its heart—on no other foundation does it rest but these three. —Devībhāgavata Purāṇa XI, 1, 21 Itihāsa, history/story, is the collective term for the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābh ārata, in Western publications usually called the Great Epics.1 Related to them in character and importance are the Purāṇas, “ancient books,” of which eighteen are accepted as Mahāpurāṇas, important scriptures of the major Hindu traditions. Itihāsa-Purāṇa is often called collectively the fifth Veda, the Holy Book of the mass of people who were not entitled to study the four Vedas. Western scholarship has for a long time played down the importance of ItihāsaPur āṇa, partly because of its largely mythological contents, partly also because the existing texts and editions offered such a bewildering variety of readings, claiming ancient origins for obviously very recent interpolations and on the whole lacking the unity of theme and structure of epic or historical works in the Western sense. Indian tradition has always claimed great antiquity and authority for these writings and though the more critical approach of modern Indian scholarship2 has had to dismantle some of the cherished legends surrounding these books, it has tended on the whole to reinforce the traditional view and lent it greater importance.3 As in several areas studied before, in the field of Itihāsa-Purāṇa studies too one has to respect the typically Indian character of this literature and its subject matter in order not to approach it with models of epics or history taken from elsewhere. Itihāsa-Purāṇa is in a very real sense the heart of Hinduism, with all its strengths and weaknesses. Although the core of Itihāsa-Purāṇa may possibly go back to the seventh century bce or 60 PART I: HINDUISM even earlier, it is much more popular and much more alive today in India than any folk literary tradition of Europe. Indian languages are strongly influenced by the vocabulary and the imagery of Itihāsa-Purāṇa; the numerous rewritings of these texts in the Indian vernaculars are quite often the first major literary works in those languages. They have shaped Hindu religious and theological terminology and have become the medium for imparting secular knowledge as well. They are the source for much of Indian sociology, politics, medicine, astrology, and geography . Reading Itihāsa-Purāṇa one can recognize the character of the Indian people, enlarged, typified, idealized—true in an uncanny sense. The personalities described, their wishes and fantasies, their joys and sorrows, their emotions and ideas are much closer to the India of our own time than the venerable age of the books would suggest. Many Indians bear the names of the heroes and heroines of Itihāsa-Purāṇa; most of them are familiar from early childhood with the stories contained in them, stories that combine entertainment with moral education. School readers in the Indian vernaculars are full of tales from them. Countless films and dramas take their subjects, often with very little modification, from these ancient books. Even simple people in the villages can speak with such enthusiasm and earnestness about Rāma and Sītā, about Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna, Hanuman and Rāvaṇa, Bharata and Lakṣmaṇa that one realizes that contemporary India also identifies with the tradition expressed in Itihāsa-Purāṇa. Broadcasting and television, printing presses and professional Kathā performers, films and musicals keep this “true history of India” alive, “history not of events, but of the urges and aspirations, strivings and purposes of the nation.”4 Whatever critical literary scholarship may or may not find out about the texts and their history, Hinduism without them would not be what it is. Anyone interested in the real religion of the Indian people today would find in Itihāsa-Purāṇa the source for all aspects of the contemporary living religion of the masses. THE GR EAT EPIC The Mahābhārata represents a whole literature rather than a single homogeneous work; it constitutes a veritable treasure-house of Indian lore, both secular and religious. No other single work gives such insight into the innermost depths of the soul of the people. It is a “Song of Victory,” commemorating the deeds of heroism in...


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