A Brief History of India: Indian Mythology in History
by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 29 January 2011
Much of India's early representations of history
are more accurately placed under the banner of mythology. This is mainly because early history
was never properly documented chronologically, but rather was passed on
orally from generation to generation. As a result it has ended up
full of interpolations, fantasy, and superhuman attributes for certain individuals,
some of which is probably fiction and often
However, here is an attempt to present this
mythological age in a logical form, weaning out the parts of it that
The major tribes prevalent during the Rigvedic
period were the Bharatas, Matsyas, Krivis, Tritsus, Sviknas, and Ayogava, and
of five tribes called the Turvas, Yadus, Purus, Druhyus and Anus. Their
kings performed various sacrifices such as the Rajasuya Yagna and the
Ashwamedha Yagna (the horse sacrifice) which heralded their hegemony
over others. The Bharata kings were amongst the most powerful of
those times, as were the Matsyas.
Later, new tribes formed with the old ones either fading or merging
into the newer ones. Amongst the most prominent of these new tribes were
the Kurus, the Panchalas, the Kasis, the Kosalas, and the Videhas. The
legendary king of the Aryans was said to be Manu Vaivaswata, also
known as Manu Swayambhu, or the 'self born'. The name Manu is of course
very similar to the word Manav or the 'Man' (as in the first man). Manu was
said to have had nine sons and a daughter.
He divided his empire between his children. His eldest son, Ishwaku,
received Madhyadesha (now in Uttar
Pradesh) as his share and he founded the Suryavansha, or solar
dynasty. From Manu's daughter, Ila (some sources call her an hermaphrodite), sprang the Chandravansha or
Ishwaku's son, Nemi, founded the kingdom of Videha. His capital
at Mithila was named after his son, Mithi. Ila's son, Pururavas Aila,
founded the kingdom of Pratishthana (now Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh).
This kingdom expanded and his descendents carved out
separate principalities of their own, namely Kanyakubja (Kannauj), Benares
and so on.
Yayati, the great-grandson of Pururavas, was a great conqueror and
came to be known as Samrat (emperor). He divided his empire between his five sons, Yadu, Turvasu, Druhyu, Anu and Puru.
Puru, the youngest, gained the ancestral property, while Yadu's kingdom
lay near the rivers of Chambal, Betwa and Ken. Yadu's descendents
branched out as the Haihayas and the Yadavas. The Yadavas defeated their
cousins, the Pururavas (descendents of Puru), and drove their other
relatives the Druhyus (descendents of Druhyu) towards Punjab.
Meanwhile, some of the descendents of Ishwaku under Yuvanasva II
kingdom at Ayodhya. His son, Maudhata, expanded its borders. The Ishwakus overran the Paurava, Kanyakubja and Druhyu kingdoms. The
Druhyu king retired to the north and re-established his kingdom at
Gandhara (Kandahar in Afghanistan). The Ayodhya kingdom grew until
it reached the Narmada Valley.
Later, the Haihaya kingdom (descended from the Yadu line) gained prominence
and overshadowed the Ayodhya kingdom. Their famous king, Arjuna, extended his territory
from the Himalayas to the Narmada. 
Apparently some brahmanas from the Haihaya kingdom fell out with
its kings and had to flee to Madhyadesha. Their chief rishi, Richika Aurva,
married the daughter of Gadhi, king of Kanyakubja. It was Gadhi's son, Vishwaratha,
who became the great Brahman, Vishwamitra, the guru (teacher) of the Ayodhya clan, and
who sired a son named Jamadagni. Apparently, Jamadagni was killed by Kartavirya Arjuna
following a dispute over the cow, Kamadhenu, which Arjuna desired but which Jamadagni
had refused to part with. However, Jamadagni's son, Rama, avenged his father's death
by slaying Arjuna in collusion with the Ayodhya and Kanyakubja kings.
The Haihaya kingdom did not wane after Arjuna's death, but on
the contrary continued to grow, reaching from the Gulf of Cambay to the Ganga
Yamuna Doab and Benares. The Haihayas extracted revenge on the
Ayodhya and Kanyakubja kings for helping Rama by defeating them in
war. The Ayodhya king had to flee and seek refuge in the forests,
where he died leaving behind a son named Sagara.
Sagara grew up to be a great conqueror who crushed the Haihayas
and regained Ayodhya glory. Alongside the Ayodhya kingdom, more
kingdoms regained their independence; Videha (also descended from the Ishwaku line), Kasi (a
division of from Madhyadesha), Anavas (descendents of Anu,
the son of Yayati), and the Yadavas at Vidharba (descended from the Yadu line that ran
parallel to the Haihayas, their cousins).
There was in fact a king amongst the Yadus called Vidharba, after
whom the Vidharba kingdom was named. His grandson, Chedi, founded the
Chedi kingdom, south of Yamuna.
The Anava kingdom fractured into the kingdoms of Anga, Vanga, Kalinga and Suhma (all in
eastern India). The capital of Anga was named Malini, and later
Champawati or Champa (Bhagalpur) after their king, Champa.
The Pauravas (from the Yayati line that ran parallel along with
the related lines of the Yadavas, Haihayas, and Anuvas), who were earlier
defeated by Sagara, rose after his death. Their famous king, Dushyanta,
regained the glory of this dynasty. His son, another famous king by
the name of Bharata
(born of one of the king's wives named Shakunatala) also founded his own line from whom rose the
Kauravas and the Pandavas who fought the great war of
Kurukshetra (mentioned in the epic Mahabharata). Bharata's fifth
successor, Hastin, established the kingdom of Hastinapura (ruled by
Krishna instructs Arjuna in the bhagwad geeta Mahabharat
 This is not the Arjuna who
was the principal character of the epic Mahabharata, but
Kartavirya Arjuna, the son of Kritavirya.
 Again, this Rama is not the
principal character of the epic Ramayana, but rather the
warrior sage more famously known as Parshurama, also hailed as
Lord Vishnu's incarnation. Rama was called Parshurama because he
was the wielder of the axe 'Parshu', which was apparently gifted
to him by Lord Shiva.
Shiva the destroyer of evil
Meanwhile, Ayodhya rose again under Bhagiratha, the great-grandson of
Sagara. However, during the reign of Kalmashapada, trouble brewed for
Ayodhya after the king killed two sons of the great sage Vashishta.
The kingdom was soon divided in two, until Dilipa II was able to
reunite it (the kingdom gained the name Kosala with Ayodhya becoming its
capital). Dilipa II was followed by his successors, Raghu, Aja, Dasharatha
and Rama (the hero of the epic Ramayana, revered as an incarnation
of Lord Vishnu)
As mentioned in the Ramayana, the virtuous Lord Rama was exiled by
his step-mother, Kaikeyi, to the forests of Dandakaranya, so that her
son Bharat could become king. Rama, his wife Sita, and his
brother Laxmana were therefore banished for fourteen years.
period Sita was kidnapped by Ravana, the Asura king of Lanka, in
revenge for the humiliation Laxmana meted out to his sister
Shurpanakha. Apparently, Laxmana had cut off Shurpankha's nose after
she dared to attack Sita. In the battle, Rama emerged victorious and
Ravana was killed. Shortly afterwards, the fourteen years of his
exile also ended and Rama returned to Ayodhya, where he was crowned
king. Rama was later succeeded by his son, Kusha.
After Lord Rama, the kingdom of Ayodhya ceased to play any important
role in history, although it had a number of kings who ruled the
kingdom for centuries. Their last king was Vrihadbala, who was said to have
been killed by Abhimanya, the valorous son of Arjuna (the principal
character of the epic Mahabharata).
Meanwhile, the Yadavas, who were divided into several minor kingdoms,
rose under their King Madhu, who established his sway from Yamuna to
Gujarat. His descendents came to be known as the Madhavas. The Yadava
kingdom (following the reign of King Satavata) was again divided, amongst his
sons. Of those, the Andhakas at Mathura and the Vrishnis at Dwarka
gained in importance.
The kingdom of North Panchala, which was also on the ascendancy, rose
under their king, Sudas, who defeated a confederacy of hostile kings.
Later he also came into conflict with the Pauravas and drove them out
of Hastinapura. But under their king, Kuru, the Pauravas rose again
and wrested back Hastinapura and also captured the kingdom of North Panchhala. Their sway now extended beyond Prayaga.
Kuru also changed the name of Kurujangala to Kurukshetra (this was
the place at which the famous war of the Mahabharata was later fought
between Kuru's descendents, the Kauravas and the Pandavas).
Vasu, a descendent of Kuru's, conquered the kingdom of Chedi, extended
his conquests to Magadha in the east and Matsya in the north-west. Vasu divided the kingdom amongst his five sons. Brihadratha, the
eldest, gained Magadha.
Jarasandha was the best-known king of this
line. He extended his kingdom as far as Mathura, where Kansa, the
Yadava king, accepted him as his overlord and was also made his son-in-law. However, Kansa was killed by his nephew, Krishna (who is
venerated as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu). This roused Jarasandha's wrath, and the Yadavas under Krishna and his brother
Balrama had to migrate to Dwarka. Krishna was later to take the
help of the Pandavas to slay Jarasandha.
Vishnu the protector
Meanwhile, the Kauravas,
descendents of Kuru, had gained prominence in Hastinapura under King Shantanu (Pratipa's son).
His grandsons, Pandu and Dhritarashtra,
were later to become kings at Hastinapura. Pandu's sons were the Pandavas,
while Dhritarashtra's sons came to be known as the Kauravas (after their
ancestor, King Kuru-Dhritarashtra). Later, a war erupted between the Pandavas (Yudhishtira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula
and Sahadeva) and the Kauravas after Duryodhana (also known as Suyodhana),
of Dhritarashtra, refused to share his kingdom with his cousins. The Pandavas had earlier assisted Krishna in slaying Jarasandha,
so Krishna and his Yadavas of Dwarka sided with the Pandavas during
the war. In fact it was Lord Krishna who actually provided the
for the war for the Pandavas and even assisted them in gaining
support from friendly kingdoms.
As a result, the Matsyas, Chedis, Karushas, Kasis, South Panchala, Western Magadha, etc,
fought on the side of the Pandavas, while the kingdoms of Punjab, etc,
fought on the Kaurava side.
The Kurukshetra war was won by the Pandavas, and Yudhistira, the
eldest Pandava, became king at Hastinapura. He ruled for some
years before abdicating the throne and retiring to the forests,
along with his other brothers. Arjuna's grandson Parikshit (the son of
his martyred son Abhimanyu) was made king. After him there were around
thirty more kings ruling Hastinapura including his son Janmejeya.
After Lord Krishna's death, the Yadavas of Dwarka were destroyed in
a fratricidal war.
After the Kurukshetra war, the Pauravas of Hastinapura became the
dominant power in the country. However, other kingdoms such as Magadha
(under Brihadrata), Ayodhya, Kasi, Videha, etc, did survive.
From this point begins the historical period
Krishna subduing the sea serpent
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