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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 transcends logic.

To try and balance that, this will be an attempt to present this mythological age in a logical form, weaning out the parts of it which are fantasy.

The major tribes which were prevalent during the Rigvedic period were the Bharatas, Matsyas, Krivis, Tritsus, Sviknas, and Ayogava, plus a group of five tribes called the Turvas, Yadus, Purus, Druhyus and Anus (the plural of 'Anu'). Their kings carried out 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 Indo-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 as his share (now in Uttar Pradesh) and he founded the Suryavansha, or solar dynasty. From Manu's daughter, Ila (some sources refer to her as a hermaphrodite), sprang the Chandravansha or lunar dynasty.

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, including Kanyakubja (Kannauj), Benares, and others.

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 founded a 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. [1]

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. [2]

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 which 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 which 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 the Kauravas).

Krishna in the Mahabharata
This typically-elaborate illustration shows Krishna instructing Arjuna in the bhagwad geeta Mahabharat

[1] This is not the Arjuna who was the principal character of the epic Mahabharata, but Kartavirya Arjuna, the son of Kritavirya.

[2] 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.

Meanwhile, Ayodhya rose again under Bhagiratha, the great-grandson of Sagara. 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.

During this 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 valiant 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.

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), the son 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 strategy 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, and so on fought on the side of the Pandavas, while the kingdoms of Punjab and others 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.

Following 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, and others, did survive.

From this point begins the historical period in India.


Main Sources

Majumdar, R C - Ancient India, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Ltd, 1987

Prasad, L - Studies in Indian History, Cosmos Bookhive, Gurgaon, 2000

Thapar, Romila - Penguin History of India, Volume 1, Penguin Books, London, 1990



Text copyright © Abhijit Rajadhyaksha. An original feature for the History Files.