Did Rama exist? A billion Hindus believe he did and an unbroken tradition of Rama worship has continued for thousands of years in India. Rama is also a hero in Indonesia (despite it being a Muslim country), in Thailand and in several other South East Asian countries. Without the weight of historical tradition and without the stamp of truth, the Ramayana would have been swept by the tidal waves of conquests that swept India.
But there are others who argue that there is no proof Rama lived. The British and their acolytes like Max Muller were primarily responsible for the prevailing stereotypes about Indian history, religion and culture. Muller, who was in the pay of the East India Company, went so far as to describe the Vedas as childish poetry.
In her History of India, academician Romilla Thapar describes the celebrated Rig-Veda as “primitive animism”, the Mahabharata as the glorification of a “local feud” between two Aryan tribes, the Ramayana as “a description of local conflicts between the agriculturists of the Ganges Valley and the more primitive hunting and food-gathering societies of the Vindhyan region” (sic).
But the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and other ancient Indian texts like the Vedas, Puranas and Upanishads are true records of Indian history, interwoven with mythology, philosophy and spirituality. Just because they talk about battles between gods and demons is no reason to dismiss their accounts of kings and other contemporary developments as great story telling. It is indeed amazing that the Bible mentions numerous fantastic events like the Great Deluge, Pillar of Fire, instantaneous healing of cut-off ears, and is yet considered a history of Christianity and Jews, while the ancient Indian texts are considered “mere” mythology.
Thankfully, science is not parochial. Just like the laws of motion cannot be questioned, scientific evidence is incontrovertible. Science also has a habit of shaking up the deepest foundations if they rest on a bed of lies. The Catholic Church had to accept (the Pope admitted it only in 2009) that the earth was not the centre of the universe, a discovery made by Galileo 400 years ago (and which the Hindus knew thousands of years before that).
In the late 1980s divers of the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa, led by leading archaeologist S.R. Rao discovered Krishna’s sunken capital Dwarka, precisely at the place in Gujarat where Krishna mentioned it was located. Palaces, pillars, fort walls, a port, anchors, and various artefacts have been discovered. This is perhaps the first instance in modern Indian history that a historical fact was established through scientific methods. It establishes the fact that Krishna existed. So the Mahabharata was true, and since it mentions incidents from the Ramayana, then doesn’t it prove that Rama also existed?
Also, literary references to the characters from the Ramayana Era provide limits after which the Ramayana could not have occurred. For example, Valmiki is referred to in the Taittiriya Brahmana (dated to 4600 BCE) and therefore Ramayana must have been written before it was composed.
The wonderful thing about the Ramayana is that when Valmiki wrote the epic, he made it idiot-proof. He packed so much information about the various planetary positions of those days, the geography of the areas mentioned in the epic, the seasonal events, and about the genealogy of various kings that it is virtually a no-brainer to establish the dates on which those events occurred.
Genealogical links and archaeological findings provide clues to the dating of the Ramayana era. According to writer B.R. Haran, “In no other nation and no other religion in the world, true history is so meticulously documented, supported by umpteen evidences. Any ancient history is supported with evidences of architecture and literature. The Sangam literature is the documented evidence for the existence and ruling of Tamil kings, and similarly, Ramayana and Mahabharata are the documented evidence for Rama and Krishna. Questioning Ramayana and Mahabharata is like questioning the very existence of India.”
Archaeological and literary methods can only provide approximate datelines. For determining the precise time of the Ramayana events, scientists use astronomical calculations. Several of India’s leading astronomers, astrologers and retired nuclear scientists have come together to establish the dates of India’s ancient history.
So how is astronomical dating done? Says eminent historian Dr P.V. Vartak: “Sage Valmiki has recorded the dates of events in detail, albeit by describing the positions of stars and planets. To decipher the astronomical encodings has not been a trivial task, and not many have attempted to do so. It should be noted that the ancient Indians had a perfect method of time measurement. They recorded the 'tithis', days according to the nakshatra on which the moon prevailed, the months, the seasons and even the different solstices. By noting a particular arrangement of the astronomical bodies, which occurs once in many thousand years, the dates of the events can be calculated.”
Dr Vartak has taken hundreds of illustrated passages from the epic to establish dates. Valmiki records the birth of Rama as Chaitra Shuddha Navami (9th), on Punarvasu Nakshatra and five planets were exalted then; Sun in Mesha up to 10 deg., Mars in Capricorn at 28 deg., Jupiter in Cancer at 5 deg., Venus in Pisces at 27 deg. and Saturn in Libra at 20 deg. (Bala Kanda.18/Shloka 8,9). December 4, 7323 B.C. therefore is the date of birth of Rama, when the four planets exalted. Ramayana occurred over 9300 years ago.
Frankly, only an astrologer/astronomer can make any sense of it. I’m not in the habit of quoting passages I don’t understand but Dr Vartak’s passages illustrate to the reader how dating can be done with sufficient information. No guesswork or computer number crunching can come up with these dates. Events – such as an eclipse, planetary or astral positioning or a comet sighting – mentioned in an epic like the Ramayana may have occurred subsequently or prior. Over a period of say, 20,000 years, a particular event could have happened a hundred times.
Stars shift position too vis-a-vis the earth so the star field we see in the night sky is not what the ancients saw 9000 years ago. This is called precession and has to be factored into all calculations. The idea is to back up astronomical data with other reference points regarding geography (like how many of those eclipses took place over Ayodhya) and reduce the probability of error.
Who knows, further research could come up with more surprises. Whether such dating finally places Rama’s reign to 10,000 or 5000 years ago is immaterial. Yes, a final closure would be welcome but what cannot be wished away is that religion currently is not based on facts, but is a matter of faith. The Indian government, with its appeasement plank, has even pleaded in court in a case regarding the Sethusamudram Canal that the Ramayana is a myth without any proof. Like I said earlier, when it comes to Hindu matters, it’s open season for everyone.
Rakesh Krishnan is a features writer with Fairfax New Zealand. He has previously worked with Businessworld, India Today and Hindustan Times, and was news editor with the Financial Express.