It All Started in Jambudvipa. Or Did It?

Devdutt Pattanaik
Grist Media

As storytellers take creative license – show Shiva with a daughter on television (Devon ke Dev Mahadev serial on Life OK channel), locate Suryavanshis and Chandravanshis in the Indus valley civilization (Shiva trilogy novels by Amish Tripathi), claim that southern Rakshasas were liberal people at the receiving end of northern Devas (novel Asura by Anand Neelakantan), visualize Ganesha as a tribal youth in the midst of a Shudra and Arya conflict (the Kannada novel Dhundhi by Bangalore author Yogesh Master, who was arrested last month after some moral policing groups protested) – people are not quite sure what is the truth. This leads people in search of origins, for we believe origin is the truth.
As Indians we have always loved origins. For millennia, the tribes and communities of India have worshipped origins – the source of rivers (mountains), the source of the sun (eastern direction), the source of milk (cow). We love shrines that are swayambhu or self-created, born of natural rock without human intervention.

However, we are not comfortable when the origins we seek turn out to be an outcome of history, or when the origins are located in foreign geography, or when the origins are not simple and singular like a seed, but rather, complex and multiple like a river’s tributaries.

For many Indians, ‘originally Indian’ refers to an idea that is timeless, or at least five thousand years ago. The phrase ‘five thousand years ago’ is an attempt to make the ‘timeless’ sound more time-bound, hence scientific; and yet beyond the reach of exasperatingly anal, evidence-seeking historians.

So everything that is India came into being five thousand years ago: Vedas, Ramayana, Mahabharata, as well as the Puranas from where we get information about Vishnu, Shiva, Durga and Ganesha.

Historians will point out that such conclusions are based on speculation and anchored at best by astronomical data and hagiographic texts that cannot be trusted. For historians, the Indus valley cities came first, then the Vedic hymns, then the Upanishads, then the Buddha, then the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, then the Puranas that tell the stories of Vishnu, Shiva, Durga and Ganesha, then the arrival of Islam followed by heightened popularity of Bhakti literature such as the works of Tukaram and Tulsidas, Akka Mahadevi and Mirabai, and finally the rise of European powers, culminating in the Indian national movement. (Only Ramchandra Guha bothered to tell us that history continues after Gandhi).

Such linearity and periodicity is rejected by traditionalists for whom Hinduism is ‘sanatan dharma’ or a timeless truth where everything from bhakti, to temple worship of Ram, Krishna, Shiva, Durga and Ganesha, to the ritual of yagna referred to in the Vedic hymns, existed simultaneously across the Indian subcontinent, thriving even in the well planned brick cities on the banks of the Indus and now-dry Saraswati, five thousand years ago. 

Further, all truths about India and its origins must have roots only in Jambudvipa, the subcontinent poetically described as shaped as a jambul, the Indian blackberry.

We bristle when anything Indian is attributed to foreigners. Yet from ancient Persia we learned about empires and monotheism, and from ancient Greece we learned stone idol worship. From ancient China, we learned many alchemical Taoist principles that we incorporated in Tantra, which is sometimes called Chinachara, or the Chinese way; although we largely prefer to tell ourselves about how Chinese martial arts originated in the martial arts of Kerala (or as AR Muragudoss would have it in the 2011 Tamil movie 7aum Arivu, sealed in the genes of an ancient Pallava prince).
From ancient Central Asia, we learned about building stone monuments and tombs, the most famous being the Taj Mahal. From the Zoroastrians and Christians, we learned about heaven and hell (swarga and naraka) which defies the karmic theory where no destination is permanent. From Islam, we learned the value of holy books (before that all wisdom was oral and expressed only through song and dance).

Then there is the problem of nomenclature. Scholars reject the tendency to equate ‘original Indian thought’ with Hindu thought, as the word Hindu emerged only in the nineteenth century.  The term was used by the British for administrative convenience, to categorize what they had earlier called the religion of the Brahmins. That makes us wonder if the Ramayan is a Hindu epic or an Indian epic?

But isn’t ‘Indian’ all things secular? What does that make the Taj Mahal: an Islamic tomb or an Indian monument? And what about Jain, Buddhist and Sikh ideas that cannot be nested under the umbrella term Hindu? Are ancient ideas from modern Pakistan and modern Nepal or Bangladesh to be classified as Indian ideas? This issue is inflammatory.

Words like ‘South Asia’ popular in European and American universities are woefully inadequate and inaccurate. Academicians now use the word ‘Indic,’ to refer to ancient cultural ideas that are also, but not essentially, Hindu, distinguishing it from ideas associated with India, which is a modern political entity.

Underlying this quest for the original is a defensive and apologetic stance that can be traced to the colonial period. The British rulers of the land declared that civilized cultures are cultures with history, and since Indians had no history, only mythology, there were in need of civilizing. Thus they justified their colonial rule. White Man’s Burden they called it and went about giving India its history, its maps, its education and judicial systems, much of which we still cling to.

When Indians scholars pointed out that Indians did have their own notion of history, it was rejected as it did not meet European standards. When Indian scholars pointed out that Indian pilgrims always had the notion of a single entity called Bharat, these were dismissed as nationalist propaganda. When Indian freedom fighters pointed out that Europeans were invaders, not civilizers, who drained India’s wealth, the British realized they were being cornered.

So they fought back by declaring the upper caste Hindu leaders invaders themselves – ‘you tore down the cities of the Indus valley just as the Huns and Muslims tore down the cities of the Gangetic plains and enslaved the original inhabitants pushing them into forests or turning them into untouchables’. This is what in mythology is called a ‘Brahmastra’ and we are still reeling from that salvo.

Even today, despite vast evidence to the contrary unravelled by Indian and Western scholars, textbooks in schools across India teach Indian children about the ‘Aryan invasion theory’ making Vedic hymns ‘foreign’, to the outrage of Hindus.

The Indus valley script is still not deciphered yet speculations are rife whether they were people of the Vedas (a theory preferred by historians with Right-wing leanings) or non-Vedic Dravidian people (a theory preferred by historians with Left-wing leanings).

Wearing the guise of science, such theories are actually political in nature. And the politics is about origins. So it is not surprising that modern mythological fiction revolves around Indus valley cities, and around invasions of Devas and the conflict between Shudras and Aryas. The success of these novels reveals the latent hunger of the ‘lost’ youth.

And it is not surprising that these stories alarm and anger nationalist and fundamentalist forces who from time to time violently overreact, much to the outrage of liberals and the delight of the media. For we still yearn for the pure ‘seed’ of our origins.

This is rather tragic considering the characteristic feature of Indian/Indic thought is its comfort with ambiguity as expressed so clearly in the famous Indian headshake. It is evident even in creation myths of Indian origin. Judaic, Christian and Islamic stories that arose in the Middle and Near East are clear about the idea of God as creator. But Indian/Indic stories are not.

Jain scriptures say the universe was never created; it has always existed, blooming and withering with unfailing regularity, propelled by itself and not some intelligent design. Buddha did not care for origins as he said that he was more interested in the healer than the archer who shot the poisonous arrow.

In the Vedas the Creation Hymn goes, “Who came first? Light or darkness, reality or absence of reality? Even the gods came later!” And in the Puranas, different books identify different fountainheads for the universe: Shiva according to Shiva Purana, Vishnu according to Vishnu Purana, Brahma according to Brahma Purana and Devi according to Devi Purana.

As a culture we have always been contextual thinkers. We create our truths and our origins as per convenience, much like we create our biryanis and bhel puris, never distinguishing our novels from our textbooks much to the exasperation of scientists and historians. Ram and Krishna are as much part of ‘our history’ as Gandhi.

So we continue to argue whether ‘Sita’s banishment’ is true, as it is not part of the ‘original’ Valmiki Ramayana, but comfortably accept the concept of ‘Lakshman Rekha’ as true, even though it finds no mention in Valmiki’s work. So writers have transformed a tiny slip of a story from Padma Purana into ‘Ashoka Sundari’, daughter of Shiva, to ensure the modern television audience does not feel that Shiva only prefers male children. In generations to come, Shiva will always be the father of a daughter, just as several generations earlier he was made a father of sons.
So also, we insist we have been using nimbu-mirchi as talismans to ward off the malevolent gaze (nazar) forever, even though chillies came into India from South America via Portuguese traders. So we will consider Santoshi mata a timeless goddess even though no Indian had heard of her until the 1970s Bollywood mythological blockbuster.

So we worship horse-headed deities like Hayagriva in Tamil Nadu as a timeless form of God mentioned in the Vedas even though natural historians point out that horses are not native to the subcontinent and have always been regularly imported from Central Asia. So we make English, the language of the colonizer, our own and populate it with our very own, very original, words and phrases such as ‘prepone’ and ‘good name’ and smugly dare anyone who challenges its authenticity.

This is what makes us Indian. Let us accept it. Ignore the priests, the philosophers, the teachers and politicians who fight over the ‘original and actual’ tributary and swim in this delightfully turbulent (should we say polluted) river. Shanti, shanti, shanti.

Devdutt Pattanaik is a Mumbai-based author and illustrator with 25 books on mythology to his credit. He consults Star TV on serials such as ‘Devon Ke Dev Mahadev’ and ‘Mahadev’, and serves as Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group (Big Bazaar). To know more visit