History and Superstition

By Shrii Prabhat Rainjan Sarkar

(27 August 1958 RU, Ramnagar, India) – It is the Renaissance Universal Convention.* Our subject today is “History and Superstition”.

Let me tell you at the very outset that the English word “history” and the Sanskrit word itihása are not synonymous. The chronological record of past events which is called “history” in English should be called itivrtta, itikathá, purávrtta or purákathá in Sanskrit. Itihása refers to the aspect of itivrtta or history which has educative value. Itihása is defined as:

Dharmárthakámamokśarthaḿ niitivákyasamanvitam;
Purávrttakatháyuktam itihása pracakśyate.
“The type of itivrtta which has the possibility of fulfilling physical longings, psychic longings, psycho-spiritual longings and spiritual longings, and which also imparts moral education, should be called itihása.”

According to this definition, the Mahábhárata can definitely be regarded as itihása. I do not subscribe to the views of those who treat it merely as an epic or educative story. So you can now understand that the book called The History of India, which is usually taught in schools and colleges, should not be called Bháratavarśer Itihása, but Bháratavarśer Itikathá.

Books which only impart moral education and have no historical context are called puráńas. Books of this type are unable to help us to determine historical fact. In fact, their exaggerated and imaginary content creates confusion in the minds of the readers. For example, we can cite the case of the Rámáyańa. The Rámáyańa has great educative value, yet it is not itihása or itikathá. It is a puráńa. All the characters in the Rámáyańa are imaginary. The puśpak chariot, the imaginary flying vehicle in the Rámáyańa, may create the misconception in people’s minds that during the Rámáyańa period the people of India knew how to manufacture planes. If they read such written records of our ancestors, people today may misunderstand history and be led into the false belief that the unreal is real, and thus fall prey to superstition. This is not the case only with the Rámáyańa and other famous mythological books; many ancient stories and works of fiction are wrongly regarded as itihása, causing the seeds of superstition to penetrate deeply into the minds of contemporary readers.

There are many reasons why superstition takes root in the human mind. These reasons can be divided into several categories: ignorance of history, ignorance of science, superstition caused by blind attachment and superstition which has become a habit. Today we will analyse the superstitions which arise due to ignorance of history.

First, let us discuss casteism. It is an undeniable truth that at the dawn of creation the earth was not inhabited by human beings. In the course of pratisaiṋcara [the process of introversion in the Cosmic Cycle of creation], first plants evolved out of the five fundamental factors, then underdeveloped creatures, and finally human beings. The study of history has taught us that about one million years ago a class of semi-humans, closely related to apes of those times, emerged on the earth. These semi-humans were the tailless apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, orang-utans, etc.) and the early ancestors of human beings. After thus studying the origin of the human race and tracing the earliest human ancestors, every educated person will have to admit that all human beings have come from this semi-human clan. No group of people can logically claim that their ancestors are superior to those of others. Every intelligent person will have to admit that the ordering of the castes was something created by human beings and is not divinely ordained. As human beings originated from apes, all belong to one race. Were the ancestors of Brahmans monkey Brahmans, and the ancestors of Kayasthas monkey Kayasthas? Such a ludicrous concept will provide historians with amusing anecdotes. In fact, primitive people established themselves as members of the higher castes through verbal jugglery or by defeating others in battles of wits, and today their descendants claim this ancestral lineage. At the same time people with little intellect were forced to accept positions as members of the lower castes.

Many people today talk about purity of blood. Let us also discuss this point. If by purity of blood people mean pure Aryan blood, I will ask, did not non-Aryan blood enter into the collective body of the Aryans who migrated to India from Central Asia and the Arctic? Certainly it did, and this is the reason that their skin colour was gradually transformed from white into black or yellow according to the routes they took as they migrated into India. In India we can see black-skinned Brahmans and white-skinned Shúdras because of this mixing of Aryan and non-Aryan blood.

Some people support casteism by referring to books about caste history. Although many of the historical texts of the different castes were written in difficult Sanskrit, one fundamental defect is apparent. If we believe the shlokas [couplets] in these texts, we will be led to believe that one caste was born from the mouth of the Supreme Entity, another from Its arms, another from the middle of Its body, and yet another from Its feet. Only those who are under the influence of intoxicants will accept such scriptures as authentic! Obviously, no human being can be born from the mouth, and although it is philosophically accepted that the quinquelemental universe was created out of the vast formless Cosmic Body, it is foolish to imagine that that Body has a mouth, arms, [etc.,] out of which the different higher or lower characteristics of the different castes were created. In fact, this Rgvedic shloka, which is a mere interpolation, has been used to perpetuate the defective concept of casteism. Furthermore, the actual meaning of the shloka is different from this.

Bráhmańo’sya mukhamásiit váhurájanyo’bhavat;
Madhya tadasya yadvaeshya padbhyá shúdra ajáyata.
“Brahmans came out of the mouth (of the Supreme Entity), Kśattriyas were born from the arms, Vaeshyas came out of the trunk of the body, and Shúdras were born from the feet.”

Actually, here “Brahmans” means “those who are sattvaguńii [of a sentient nature] and have an intellectual disposition”. Through allegory it is being suggested that intellectuals symbolize the mouth of the Supreme Entity, warriors (rajahguńii) represent the valiant arms, capitalists, merchants and traders (rajastamaguńii) represent the middle portion of the Cosmic body, and workers (tamoguńii) symbolize the feet. This is the proper interpretation of the shloka.

It is also easy to find numerous contradictions in caste history. For example, according to caste history there were only ten categories of Brahmans: five from North India and five from South India. As other groups of Brahmans did not fall into these ten categories, they were considered to be non-Brahmans. Besides this, the histories of different castes refer to the widespread practice of niyoga prathá (fathering a child by a woman other than one’s wife), which resulted in widespread promiscuity. Moreover, in the Buddhist Age the rigidity of the caste system loosened and the intermingling of castes became quite common. In regions where orthodox people tried to strictly follow caste rules, new castes and sub-castes were formed.

Let me tell you an interesting story which will illustrate the contradictory nature of caste history. In the caste history of the Bengal Brahmans it is mentioned that King Jayanta Shur brought five sincere Brahmans from Kánya Kubha to Bengal. These five Brahmans are described as the ancestors of the millions of Brahmans of Ráŕh and Barendrabhúmi. (Did each of these five men marry a large number of Bengali women? Otherwise how could they have had so many descendants?) It is also stated that five Shúdras came to Bengal along with the Brahmans as their servants and became the ancestors of the Kayasthas of Bengal. Now, in the caste history of the Kayasthas it is mentioned that King Jayanta Shur brought five warriors to Bengal from Kánya Kubha, and they are the ancestors of the Káyasthas of Ráŕh and Barendrabhúmi. These Kayasthas were all warriors, and came on horseback wearing leather shoes. Despite their skill as warriors, they did not know how to cook, so five cooks accompanied them. These cooks became the ancestors of the Brahmans of Ráŕh and Barendra. Obviously the question arises, are such caste histories reliable?

Káko nindo káko vando dono pálrá bhárii!
“Whom should we criticize, whom should we worship? Between the two there is an even balance!”

According to the caste history of the Kayasthas, Chitragupta was the first ancestor of the Kayasthas of Bengal. (All the Kayasthas except four or five groups accept Chitragupta as their first ancestor.) The amusing thing is that Chitragupta is only an imaginary character. He is the mythological son of Brahma (the Supreme Entity). The caste history states that Chitragupta had twelve sons: Cáru, Sucáru, Citru, Citracáru, Aruńa, Yatiindraya, Himavána, Matimána, Bhánu, Vibhánu, Vishvabhánu and Viiryabhánu. The twelve categories of Kayasthas – Ambaśt́ha, Shriivastava, Bhattanágara, Máthura, Sakhasená, Ganda, Súryadhvaja, Valmiiki, Kulashreśt́ha, Aśt́hána, Nigama and Karana – descended from these twelve sons. But the interesting thing is this: the Kayasthas belonging to these twelve categories had two hands, but their father, Chitragupta, is depicted as having four hands, holding thunder, a club, a pen and an ink pot. Though Chitragupta was supposed to be human, he was the record keeper of an invisible kingdom. I leave it to you to decide whether the account of Chitragupta is reliable or not.

There is an unhealthy tendency among some sections of society to give credence to baseless stories and mythologies. They do so because they are ignorant of history. I have heard people say that since India was named “Bháratavarśa” after the Puranic character King Bharata, neither King Bharata nor the Puranas themselves should be regarded as false. However, facts contradict this. India was not named after King Bharata. In fact, the term “Bháratavarśa” is much older than the story of King Bharata. People have been misled and confused because of the similarity in the names. Etymologically, bhara means “feeding the people” and ta means “expanding”. So “Bháratavarśa” means “a land which can readily supply food and shelter to its population and easily facilitate the unhindered psycho-spiritual development of its people”. (Varśa means “land”.) When the nomadic Aryans, who were used to living in an inhospitable environment, arrived in the fertile, prosperous land of India, they were so overwhelmed by the abundant wealth, warm climate, lush vegetation and verdant beauty of the country that they called it “Bháratavarśa”.

It was the practice of the Aryans to name geographical regions or individuals according to their special qualities or characteristics. For example, the Aryans noticed innumerable pebbles and stones resembling jám (Eugenia jambolana Lam.) in the northwestern region of India, so they called it “Jambudviipa” (modern Jammu). (Jambu is the Sanskrit equivalent of the Bengali jám, and dviipa is Sanskrit for “island”.) A region that had two large lakes they called “Dvigarttabhúmi” (modern Dogra). (Dvi = “two”, gartta = “lake”, bhúmi = “land”.) As the northern part of India was inhabited by people of the Kash tribe, the area was called “Kashmeru”. (Meru means “land”, and “Kashmeru” became “Kashmir”.) Thus because the Aryans considered that India possessed wonderful qualities and vast resources, they called it “Bháratavarśa”. This name has nothing to do with the mythological King Bharata.

Some people in India attach great importance to the tradition whereby men wear a pigtail on the back of the head and a sacrificial thread across the body. They believe that a man is not virtuous unless he follows these two practices. When in ancient times the nomadic Aryans migrated to and settled in India, the country was already inhabited by Dravidians and Austrics, so naturally there was racial mixing between the Aryans and the non-Aryans. Eventually there was so much social blending that it was impossible to determine who were the torchbearers of Aryan culture and who were not. To distinguish themselves from the masses as the upholders of Aryan culture and Vedic religion, the Aryans started wearing a pigtail. Through their pigtail the Aryans proclaimed their Aryan identity, in spite of the fact that tremendous racial mixing had already occurred in India and that the skin colour of many of those who followed this custom was black. How can there possibly be any relation between these external rituals and the observance of dharma?

Regarding the custom of wearing a sacrificial thread, one need not bother trying to find a connection between an ordinary cotton thread and one’s internal spiritual elevation. The fact is that the Aryans – the original inhabitants of the Arctic and Russia – were very partial to drinking. The Aryans of the Vedic Age who came to India maintained many of the original Russian customs (some of which can still be found in the Russia of today). In that primitive age before the development of science, the Aryans, like numerous other tribes and races, were basically animists. They regarded the various natural forces as expressions of a divine entity and attributed all their fortunes and misfortunes to those deities. In order to save themselves from natural calamities, they used to chant hymns, make offerings of their favourite food and burn sacrificial wood to propitiate their gods. This is how yajiṋas and homas (two kinds of sacrifice) arose and why the Aryans of that time used to offer ghee, animal flesh and other favourite food items into those sacrificial fires. As the colour of clouds and smoke appear similar, the Aryans incorrectly thought that the smoke rising from their sacrificial fires would climb high in the sky, form clouds and bring down rain. The Aryans wrongly thought that the diseases which originated and spread from stinking, filthy places could be counteracted by the scented smoke of sacrificial fires. In an age in which science was still very primitive, the undeveloped Aryans engaged in sacrificial rituals, goaded by mundane considerations. Unfortunately, there are still groups of people today who think that unless sacrificial rituals are performed, religious practices will be incomplete.

The five categories of Brahman priests (Hotá, Rtvik, Udgátá, Adhvaryu and Bráhmańa) who performed sacrificial rituals were supposed to perform their religious duties with perfect calmness and mental serenity. This is how the Aryans expected their priests to conduct themselves. Obviously, the priests would scrupulously avoid drinking alcohol and shun the company of drunkards during a ritual or sacrifice. To keep drunkards away, they used to wear a piece of deer skin across their left shoulder as a distinguishing mark. As this symbol was used during sacrificial rituals, it was called a yajiṋopaviita. And when the priests wore the same symbol on their right shoulder during the performance of oblations to their departed ancestors, it was called a práciiráviita. When they suspended the same symbol around their necks, it was called a niviita. Women were entitled to perform religious sacrifices, therefore it can be presumed that they also wore a yajiṋopaviita.

Later on, after deer had become somewhat scarce and the Aryans in India had become acquainted with cotton, the custom of wearing a deer skin was replaced with the custom of wearing a cotton thread. Subsequently, it became a part of their religious practice to always wear a cotton thread over the left shoulder. Whatever might have been the importance of sacrificial rituals and a sacrificial thread to the ancient Aryans, today in this relatively developed age of science, when people use their intellectual power and developed technology to fight against natural calamities and no longer propitiate deities by offering ghee in sacrificial fires, the intelligentsia should decide whether or not the custom of wearing a yajiṋopaviita is useful.

Many people become confused and believe in superstitions because they do not have a proper understanding of the correct meaning of words. I have often seen people debate over useless, trivial matters such as whether Rama or Krśńa is greater, or whether Shiva or Narayana is greater. The word Ráma is derived from the Sanskrit root verb ram. Etymologically, Ráma means “The Entity Who Is the Embodiment of Bliss”, that is, Puruśottama (Nucleus Consciousness). Similarly, the word Krśńa is derived from the Sanskrit root verb krś. Krśńa means “The Entity Who Attracts the Entire Universe towards Himself”, that is, Puruśottama. Ráma and Krśńa are therefore two names of the same Entity. Similarly, the word Shiva means Parama Puruśa [“Supreme Consciousness”]. Náráyańa is a combination of two words: nára and ayana. Nára means Prakrti (“Supreme Operative Principle”) (nára can also at times be used to mean “devotion”) and ayana means “shelter”. So Náráyańa means “The Shelter of the Supreme Operative Principle”, that is, Supreme Consciousness. Thus Shiva and Náráyańa are merely two names for the same Entity. So where is the scope to wrangle over this issue? The Persian word Khudá and the Sanskrit word Svayambhu (according to some people the Vedic word Svayambhu has been transformed into the Persian word Khudá) are also two names for the same Entity. Is there therefore any scope to debate over whether Khudá or Svayambhu is greater? It is only due to their ignorance of etymology that people take part in unnecessary debates and arguments over the correct meaning of words and divide society. If all human beings are the offspring of the Supreme Entity, how is it possible that only Muslims are the favourite children of Allah, and only Hindus are the favourite children of Náráyańa?

The fact is that all the created objects in this universe are the children of Parama Brahma – all are Its finite manifestations. Nobody is inferior; nobody is insignificant. All are bound by the ties of fraternity.

We have to move forward, shoulder to shoulder, together with all. No one will benefit if human beings remain confined within the quagmire and filth of ignorance or the foggy atmosphere of superstition. Superstition and a false sense of superiority can only pave the way for the annihilation of the human race.

* The author founded Renaissance Universal on 27 January 1958.

Copyright Ananda Marga Publications 2013

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