Our nation, it is often alleged, does not have a sense of history.
In my opinion the Puranas are history. But to our educated people today history means the history of the past two thousand years since
the birth of Christ. They do not believe that the events of earlier
eras, including those mentioned in the Puranas, are history. Some of
them admit, though, that there is an element of truth in Puranic
stories as shown by recent researches. But these relate to theories
like the division of the Indian people into races like Aryans and
Dravidians, theories they fancy are supported by the Puranas. The
rest, like the miracles or accounts of supernatural occurrences, they
dismiss as fables or as a tissue of lies. Since they are unable to
comprehend matters that are beyond our senses they treat the Puranas
Now children have no choice but to read the textbooks of history
written by such people. But I believe that it is not a good to keep
children ignorant of the Puranas. It is not my purpose to say that you
should not read history, but I should like to mention that the puranas
are also history and that our youngsters have a great deal to learn
from them, a great deal that will help in moulding their conduct and
character. No such purpose is served by the history taught in schools.
One reason why they say history must be read is their belief that
"history repeats itself". The idea is that the lessons of the past
would be helpful to us in the future. We learn from history about the
circumstances that usually lead to war and about how great
civilizations rise and fall. We can be on guard against a repetition
of these circumstances and this, we are told, is one of the "uses" of
The same events are repeated kalpa after kalpa. According to our sastras, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavata, the Dasavatara
(the story of the ten incarnations of Visnu) and the Puranas are
re-enacted kalpa after kalpa. Here too we see history repeating
We are witness in our own times to governments losing their support
because of charges of bribery and corruption made against them and
other malpractices ascribed to them including partisanship and
nepotism. When one such government falls, another group forms a new
government and they too lose the support of the people in the
subsequent elections for the same reasons. Here is an example of our
failure to learn any lesson form history.
History must be taught along with lessons in dharma; then alone will it serve the purpose of bringing people to the right path. The Puranas
do precisely this.
History contains no more than accounts of monarchs and other rules in
chronological order. It does not give importance to their moral
character : whether wicked rulers suffered an ill fate or whether just
and righteous rulers earned a high place. According to the law of
Karma, Isvara determines the fate of people on the basis of their
actions, meritorious and sinful. Such justice is not necessarily meted
out during the lifetime of a person. The fruits of a man's action are
reaped in subsequent births. It is not the task of history to deal
with such questions, nor do historians have the capacity to inquire
into such matters. Whether a wicked ruler like Hitler was consigned to
hell on his death and whether he had a lowly rebirth is a subject for
the Puranas. Those who composed these texts had the reqisite insight
to deal with such questiions; indeed the very purpose of these stories
is this, to impart moral lessons. From history we do not derive any
The Puranas are also, as I said before, history. Besides, they contain lessons in papa and punya (demerit and merit). In fact, their
choice of stories and narration are such as to bring people closer to
the path of dharma. Again, the Puranas contain accounts of
individuals who by virtue of their steadfast adherence to dharma
attained to an elevated state in this birth itself. At the same time,
they also tell is about persons who, by their acts of adharma, came to
harm in this very birth itself. There are in fact no Puranic stories
that do not contain some moral lesson or other.
"The experience of the past narrated in history are a pointer of
future events. The stories of good men who performed virtuous deeds
and benefited from them should be a source of inspiration for us. In
the same way, the stories of wicked men who brought evil to the world
and themselves suffered on account of their acts contain a warning for
us". Is the stufy of history really usefull in this way? It is not. To
improve ourselves morally and spiritually we must turn to the Puranas.
The purpose of the Puranas is not to give [as history does] a
chronological account of kings or their quarrels without imparting
lessons on good and evil. We do not need such history since it does
not contain any guide for the condcut of our life. History must be
capable of bringing us Atmic rewards.
The Puranas too deal with the lineages of various ruling houses. They
give accounts of dynasties descended from the moon and the sun
(candravamsa and suryavamsa) and contain list of successive rulers of
varous kingdoms. But in most cases only the names of rulers are
mentioned or only brief references made to them. Detailed accounts are
given only of rulers whose lives have a lesson for us. For instance,
the Bhagavata tells the story of Uttanapada, the father of Dhruva, and
of Dhruva's son, but only very briefly. However, the story of Dhruva
himself is told in detail, Dhruva who is an example for all of us in
devotion, determination and courage.
It is not right to view history merely as an account of the rise and
fall of empires or of wars, invasions, dynasties amd so on. Each and
every subject has a history of its own. But we find that political
history is given a dominant place. The emphasis in the Puranas is on
dharma and, incidently, they also deal, in a subsidiary manner, with
the ruling dynasties, with holy men as well as with ordinary folk.
They contain details also of cultural life, the arts and the sciences.
The thrust of the Puranas, however, is dharmic and Atmic.
So, the opinions of Swamiji about the stories in the Puranas and Itihasas can be briefly summarised as follows: