Mythology and History are counterposed. Myths need not go to earlier times but they in some cases carry forward earlier ideas. However, their fluid chronology, and the fact that they are generally not records of actual happenings, myths can be used only in a limited way and cannot be treated as a factual account. Yet the prizing out of the social assumptions implicit in a myth can be helpful to restructuring some kinds of history. The interpretation of myths, if handled with caution, can invoke some of the fantasies and subconscious beliefs of their authors, while the structure of the myth can hint at the connections and confrontations in a society of those sustaining the myths. Since history now reflects many voices, some from sources other than those from the courts of the rulers, mythology or the more popular traditions can no longer dismissed as unimportant.[1]

It is still a popular belief that Indians were an ahistorical people and kept no records of their history. The ancient Indians did keep records of their history. They kept records of those aspects which they felt were significant and worth preserving. It is true that most of these records do not deal with political events and activities. They are more in nature of genealogies, legends and monastic chronicles – all legitimate constituents of a historical tradition but not, unfortunately, very useful as a description of contemporary happening. Even the factual records of this period were written largely in the Brahmi script which could not be deciphered. Systematic record keeping began only after A.D. 500 when court chronicles and historical biographies of considerable authenticity were maintained by the Turkish and Mughal courts. Hence, the study of Ancient Indian history is largely riddled with myths.

The paper aims to highlight the popular myths in Indian history, particularly the ancient and medieval period. It will then go on to discuss how some of these myths have acquired political prominence and have been used as tools of propaganda in recent years.



The discovery of the Indian past was initiated under the auspices of the new rulers, the British. When the Europeans arrived in India and began to look for histories of India, they found ample evidence on the period after about A.D. 1000. The earlier centuries remained historically blurred. Research in the history of ancient India was initiated by Sir William Jones who was followed by James Mill. Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century was exploring different avenues of research. Linguistic studies, especially which of Sanskrit, helped develop the discipline of comparative philology in Europe, which in turn led not only to encourage the study the early languages of Asia but also to re-reading the early history of Eurasia. It was also during this period that the notion of racial superiority swept Europe. Traditional aristocracies upheld ones status in the society and also incorporated them in the new colonial hierarchy that was rapidly developing. Sanskrit and the ethnography of India were studied in the context of racial purity and superiority.[2] Hence, the origin of the Aryan ‘race’ became the primary subject for research. In his address to the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal Sir William Jones stated that languages like Greek, Latin, Gothic, Celtic, Persian and Sanskrit have the same source of origin.[3] One the basis of this similitude of languages, he concluded that Europe was the original homeland of the Aryans. The argument was supported on the basis of physical similarities and the description of th the flora and fauna in the Vedic texts. Max Muller, a German scholar, who also reflected on race while studying Sanskrit. His study of the Vedic Sanskrit and philology brought him to his theories of the Aryan race. Max Muller maintained that the Aryans had originated in Central Asia, one branch migrating to Europe and another settling in Iran, with a segment of the Iranian branch subsequently moving to India. He dated the earliest composition of the latter, the Rig-Veda, to about 1200 BC. The Aryans, he maintained, had invaded in large numbers and subordinated the indigenous population of northern India in the second millennium B.C. They had introduced the Indo-Aryan language, the language of the conquerors who represented a superior civilization. The latter emerged as Vedic culture and become the foundation of Indian culture. Since a mechanism for racial segregation was required, this took the form of dividing society into socially self-contained and separate castes. Race was seen as a scientific explanation for caste and the four main castes or varnas were said to represent the major racial groups. Their racial identity was preserved by the strict prevention of intermarriage between them. Max Muller’s theory and the other theories propounded by European scholars gave rise to the ‘myth of racial superiority’ of a particular section of the Indian society and was later deeply embedded in the Indian psyche.

The Aryans who had colonized the whole of the Punjab were not likely to remain inactive on the banks of Satluj or the mythical river Saraswati. The tide of their conquests moved onwards and they crossed those rivers and explored the distant shores of the Jamuna and the Ganges. They settled across the Ganges and marched further eastwards to found new colonies and new Hindu kingdoms. Historically, this was the period of the sixteen Mahajanapadas or the sixteen political republics that were formed during the age of Buddha.[4] The texts which claim to reflect this period are the epics- Mahabharata and the Ramayana. They began as oral traditions and were more informally memorized and frequently added to, and were converted to their present textual form in the early first millennium AD.

The Mahabharata as it survives today is among the longest single poems. Traditionally its composition is ascribed to Ved Vyas. The main action revolves around what has become the famous contest between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, and is set in the fertile and strategic region around Delhi. The geography of the Mahabharat focused on the Ganges-Yamuna and adjoining areas and also is Saurastra in Gujarat, where the Yadvas, the clan to which Lord Krishna belonged, were based. Incidentally, these two were the more active cities after the decline of the Harappan cities. The Kauravas with their capital at Hastinapur, one of the 16 Mahajanapadas, were the hundred sons of Dhritrashtra, and the Pandavas the five sons of Pandu were their cousins. The Pandavas became heirs to the Kuru territories, since Dhristrashtra was blind and therefore not eligible to rule. But Pandu had a skin ailment that made succession of the Pandavas uncertain. Dhritrashtra, in the hope of avoiding a conflict between the cousins, divided the territory and gave half to the Pandavas, who ruled from Indraprastha, which is in the vicinity of Delhi. But this arrangement did not satisfy the Kauravas, who challenged the Pandavas to a gambling match. The later staked all their wealth and also their wife which they lost and spent the next few years in exile. The Kauravas were still unwilling to allow them to rule, so the matter had to be settled through a war. They battled for eighteen days on the plains at Kurukshetra, resulting in the annhilition of many clans, including most of the Kauravas. The Pandavas after ruling peacefully, renounced leadership, installed a grandson and went to the City of Gods in the Himalaya. Intervening frequently in the narrative, as a close friend and adviser of the Pandavas, was the Yadava chief, Krishna.

Krishna renounced war in Mathura for the greater good of the people living in the region and founded the city of Dwarka in Gujarat. Krishna’s Dwarka finds a mention in the Mahabharata, and it is said that this Dwarka was located near the site of the current city of Dwarka, but was eventually deserted and submerged into the sea. Whether the original city of Dwarka actually existed is a subject of debate and is also included in the many myths of Indian history.

The other mythical epic, the Ramayana, is much shorter than the Mahabharata despite later additions. The scene is set further east into the middle Ganges Plain and the Vindhyan forest. The original version of the Ramayana is generally dated to the mid-first millennium BC. The original version is attributed to the poet Valmiki who merged bardic fragments and poetic traditions to create this hallmark of early Sankrit literature. The story revolves around the legendary Price Rama, the heir of the King of Kosala, who married Sita, the princess of Videha. Rama’s stepmother wanted her son to succeed to the throne and successfully contrived to have Rama banished for fourteen years. Accompanied by his wife and his younger brother Lakshman, the exile took them to the forests of the Peninsula where they lived as forest dwellers. But Ravana, the demon King of Lanka- kidnapped Sita. Rama organized an army, taking the assistance of Hanuman, the leader of the monkeys. They built a bridge across the ocean and reached the shores of Lanka. A fierce battle was fought against Ravana, in which Ravana and his army were destroyed and Sita was rescued. The fourteen years of exile ended and they returned to the Kingdom of Kosala.

Despite being mythical documents, the two epics have come under the scanner of many historians and have been subjected to many historical interpretations. The Mahabharata and Ramayana have at times been declared as myths. Dr. D.C. Sircar, an eminent Epigraphist and a former chief Epigraphist to the Government of India, declared that the Mahabharata was a myth, devoid of little historical facts.[5] The epics are each concerned with events that are difficult to date since many passages were added at a time later than the original composition. The versions we have today are generally placed in a chronological bracket between the mid-first millennium BC to the mid-first millennium AD. Therefore, they can hardly be regarded as authentic sources for the study of a narrowly defined period. Incidents from the epics can have some historical authenticity provided they are supported by some archeological evidence that can be found to bear them out. An example of this case is the flood at Hastinapur, which has found a mention in the epic and is also corroborated with archeological evidence. This particular evidence has been used to date the war to 900 BC. But such co-relations have so far proved futile. Poetic fantasy and epic poetry is undoubtedly fascinating but cannot be an ally of historical authenticity.

However, the epics help in the greater understanding of the society at large. Mahabharata speaks volumes about clan based societies which had become very common during the period from 1200 BC- 600BC. It also refers to the complexities of administering kingdoms. Originally, the Mahabharata may have been the description of a more localized feud, but it caught the imagination of bards who described the events in the form of a fantasy. The conflict between Rama and Ravana in the Ramayana also reflects an exaggerated version of local conflicts, occurring between expanding kingdoms of the Ganges plain and the less sedentary societies of the Vindhyan range. Both these battles in the two epics symbolize the end of small clan based societies and chiefdoms and the establishment of much larger Kingdoms that were formed in the subsequent centuries.

The emergence of the great Mauryan Empire marked a shift from the 16 republics. Founded by Chandragupta Maurya, it become the largest empires during this period (321 BC-185 BC). Perhaps, the greatest myth surrounding the Mauryan empire is the mysterious accession of its emperor Asoka to the throne. It is believed that when his father and the incumbent, Bindusara became gravely ill, Ashoka succeeded him, although one hundred of his other brothers were mysteriously murdered. Many historians believe Ashoka had his own brothers eliminated so that he could succeed his father.[6]

Asoka’s reign as emperor began with a series of wars and bloodshed, culminating in the Kalinga War. The mammoth loss of life and suffering witnessed on the battlefield made him turn away from war. He subsequently became deeply influenced by Buddhism, and adopted the righteous path. Historically yet to be proven, the myth surrounding Asoka’s accession to the throne and his redemption after embracing Buddhism is largely circulated in today’s time. It is done to re-affirm the fact that it was infact the influence of Buddhism that stirred Asoka’s inner soul and turned him into a man of benevolence and virtue. People today are asked to emulate the same. Myths in such cases are developed to highlight the contrast between the good and the bad.

In the Islamic era, it was the desecration of temples initiated by Emperor Babur that has become a controversial myth. Akbar’s wife, Jodha bai, continues to be a myth. In recent times, the issue came to the fore with the release of Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodha Akbar.[7] A lot of popular history regarding Akbar, Jodha Bai and Salim seems to have been derived from the movie Mughal-e-Azam. However, there is no conclusive historical record. The love story of Anarkali and Salim which was encapsulated in the magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam is one of the greatest myths of medieval history. Anarkali is the quasi-mythical character of a slave girl in love with the Mughal Prince Salim, later to be known as Emperor Jahangir. Emperor Akbar did not approve of this liaison and had the girl walled up at the Mughal court in Lahore. Shattered in love, the prince later built a mausoleum in her memory sixteen years after her death. The monument is still standing at Lahore and is famous as Anarkali herself but historians are not contended that the monument in fact belongs to Anarkali.


The image of the past is the historian’s contribution to the future. However, this image can be used by his contemporaries for political mythmaking. Such political projections of society seek intellectual justification from the theories of historians and other social scientist.[8] To mention, some rather obvious examples – the myth of the racial superiority of the Aryans came in very useful to Hitler and the formation of Fascism and Nazism.

The reaction in India to the myth surrounding the invasion of the Aryans was wide-ranging even among those who were not historians. It came to be used in the political confrontations of different groups. Since the early half of the twentieth century, this view gradually shifted from supporting the theory of the Aryan invasion to denying such an event. The theory largely supported by Veer Savarkar and other votaries of Hindu spirituality concluded that the Aryans in fact were the original inhabitants of the land and had not arrived from a foreign region. It was later claimed that only the Hindus, the believers in Vedic culture, were the lineal descendants of the Aryans. They were therefore the true inheritors of land, the aliens in turn were the Muslims and the Christians whose religion had originated in west Asia. This viewpoint was driven more by compassion than any empirical evidence. Over the years it led to the emergence of the hard-line Hindutva ideology which was to play an integral role in the division of the country in 1947 and also the assassination of Gandhi.[9]

In the later half of the twentieth century, the use of myths became integral to the politics of the Sangh Parivar, a chief representative of the Hindutva ideology. The first issue to come to the core was the reality behind the epic Ramayana and Lord Ram. Oral versions of the Ramayana have circulated for centuries. It has been told, retold, translated and trans-created throughout the country and it continues to be performed in dance, drama, puppet shows, songs and movies all across Asia. From childhood most Indians learn the characters and incidents of these epics and they furnish the ideals and wisdom of common life. The epic binds together the many peoples of India, transcending caste, distance and language. However, ever since Ayodhya became a disputed territory, Ram and instances from the Ramayana have become at the centre stage of the political mobilization. Beginning with the movement for the construction of the temple at Ayodhya, the Sangh Parivar engaged in providing authenticity to various myths surrounding the life of Rama. The central issue of the Ayodhya movement was the identification of the exact birthplace of Rama, which was difficult to ascertain owing to the lack of evidence. Local tradition identifies Ayodhya through a popular myth, which runs as follows: After Treta Yuga when Ram was supposed to have been born Ayodhya could not be located. While Vikramaditya was looking for Ayodhya, a saint told him to leave a calf loose and the place at which the calf secreted milk would be the place where Ayodhya was located. Vikramaditya did as he was told, and where the calf secreted milk he located Ayodhya. This mythical story became the basis for the identification of Ayodhya as well as the birthplace of Rama.

In the accounts given by leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the place of birth became an indisputable fact of history. Following this identification, the VHP accorded historical status to a series of myths. These include the existence of the Ram temple at the site of the Babri Masjid and the attempts by Hindus to reclaim the temple through several battles against the Muslims in which many sacrificed their lives. It later led to the demolition of the Babri masjid at this very sight in December 1992.

Soon after Ayodhya, the issue of Ram Sethu emerged as yet another issue when myth was intertwined with politics. It was the mega marine Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project (SSCP) launched by the Government of India that brought the Ram Setu controversy to the core. The project envisaged the dredging of the shallow ocean region in the south-eastern Bay of Bengal to create an artificial channel-like passage for ships across the island formations called Adam’s Bridge or Ram Sethu.

The bridge, or sethu, is a discontinuous chain of sandbars dotting a 30-km stretch in the east-west direction between the southern tip of the Rameswaram island in India and Talaimannar in northwestern Sri Lanka, creating a geographical divide between the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar, which form part of the southern Cauvery basin. Scientifically, the Rama Sethu is shown to be a pre human structure, called ‘tombol’, a sand deposition due to natural process. The Geological Survey of India ruled out its being manmade. The inference from NASA satellite pictures is that it is due to sedimentation of clay and lime stone. It is tombol in NASA language, connecting one land with another, and that it is from times when human habitation is doubtful. However, the scientific explanations and its economic viability were questioned when different political agitations supported by the various Hindu organizations or the Sangh Parivar criticized the project. According to myth and popular belief, the Ram Sethu was derived from the epic Ramayana wherein Ram built this bridge with the help of his allies, the monkey army, to reach Lanka and rescue his abducted wife Sita, thus giving rise to the belief among Hindus that the island chain is was made by an army of monkeys. 


Mythological bridges driven by political goals and emotions have been constructed in recent years. Myths have now become authentic histories and not only are they paraded as historical facts but they have found place in textbooks as authentic history.[10] Over a period of time, many of these facts could become part of popular history also.

Myth represents reality but symbolically and metaphorically. Yet they tend to mask reality. Therefore, myths are illusory representations of man and his world. Given their illusory nature, myths may not help to unravel the historicity of an event but are an important means to understand reality.[11] Given this overlap, myths are often used or misused for a variety of purposes. So far they have been used to understand natural phenomenon, the origin of certain races, and the understanding of the growth of certain societies. Unfortunately over the years, they have also become tools of political propaganda.

Myths go beyond facts and empirical evidence. In the process, they guide us in analyzing the society from a different perspective. Hence, their importance as sources of history cannot be ruled out. However, at a time when attempts are being made to use myths for political advantage, it is imperative to impart a secular and unbiased character to them so that dispassionate research can be encouraged.



[1] Romila Thapar, Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300, Penguin, New Delhi, 2002, p. xxii.

[2] Ibid., p. 3.

[3] L.P. Sharma, History of Ancient India, Konark Publishers, New Delhi, 1987, p. 15.

[4] G.P. Singh, Republics, Kingdoms, Towns and Cities in Ancient India, D.K. Print World, New Delhi, 2003, p. 93.

[5] S.P. Gupta and K.S. Ramachandra (eds.), Mahabharata: Myth or Reality, Agam Prakashan, Delhi, 1976, p. 7.

[6] Romila Thapar, Early India, pp. 176-178.

[7] Omair Ahmed, ‘Once upon a Fable’, in Outlook, Vol.48, No. 7, 18th February 2008, pp. 77-78.

[8] Romila Thapar, Past and Prejudice, National Book Trust, New Delhi, 1994, p.2.

[9] Ibid., p. 14

[10] Ibid.

[11] K.N. Panikkar, Myth, History, Politics, 28th September 2007,