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What is the more appropriate English word to be used when we talk about Ramayana, Mahabharata, or puranas and other scriptures? The use of the word "mythology" is quite common but I hear that "itihasa" is the more appropriate term. In that case, in what contexts would "mythology" be an appropriate term?

Can someone throw some light on this?

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    Ithihasas. Mythology are all English terms. Wrong translations. – Parabrahman Jyoti Aug 4 at 17:36
  • @ParabrahmanJyoti Ithihas is a Hindi word, It means history. And I usually prefer to use the word "Ancient History" for timelines of Ramayana and Mahabharata. :P – V.Aggarwal Aug 5 at 3:50
  • @V.Aggarwal You are correct. Ithihasa meaning itself is history!!! – Parabrahman Jyoti Aug 5 at 4:40
  • This is suited for a language site to check which word is better to use. This is already asked on English language and usage Better alternative for Mythology by a site moderator. This is subjective and not really suitable for our site. If we want to discuss tag issue, Hinduism Meta is right place. – Sarvabhouma Aug 5 at 7:02
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We need to see what term is used for those scriptures in our scriptures. We should stick to it.

The word used is "Itihasa" only. Here are various references from various scriptures:

One should make them [i.e., the invited Brahmanas] listen to the Vedic recitations, Dharma-Sastras, Itihasas (History) Puranas, and the most beautiful portion [of the S'astras] dealing with [the performance of] the S'raddha. (66)

Usana smriti, Chapter 5 , Verse 66


By reading the principal and minor aphorisms, the Puranas and Itihasas (Histories) daily, one gratifies them with streams of meat, thickened milk, oudana (barley cakes) and honey, (11)

Katyayana Smriti, Chapter 14, Verse 11


The pilferer of learning and books is born dumb. He should give unto, a Brahmana, works on Nyaya (Logic) and Itihasa (History) with money presents. (22)

Satatapa Smriti, Chapter 4, Verse 22


Then the best of Brahmanas should study the Vedas, histories (Itihasas), and the kindred branches of knowledge (Vedangas), give instructions to his own pupils, and feed the good Brahmanas. (4)

Vyasa Smriti, Chapter 3, Verse 4

So, either we have to use the word Itihasa or we can try to find an English equivalent. Now, for many scriptural terms we don't have English equivalents like for Purana we simply use Purana. For Veda, Tantra it's the same.

However, for Itihasa we do have an English word which is History. Hindu scriptures don't define what mythology is. The stories that are found in scriptures are depicted as incidents that had happened in ancient past. They also give the Yuga and time periods when those incidents occurred.

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    "Hindu scriptures don't define what mythology is." Isn't it same for every word other than Sanskrit? It doesn't define the word "scripture: too. It talks about the word "shastra". Scripture is near English translation for the word shastra Isn't it obvious that Hindu scripture doesn't define English word "mythology" formed from the Greek root "mythos"? A few people changed the word to a negative connotation indicating false connotation forgetting its original meaning for which it was created. – Sarvabhouma Aug 5 at 10:38
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Myth literally means fiction and mythology is the the study of myths. Since in Hindu purans, deities have supernatural powers which people simply ignore and say that isn't possible in real life. Thus, they call it as a myth and thus mythology. Also, according to Oxford Dictionary:

mythology

A collection of myths, especially one belonging to a particular religious or cultural tradition.

And according to Religion and mythology:

Mythology is the main component of Religion. It refers to systems of concepts that are of high importance to a certain community, making statements concerning the supernatural or sacred. Religion is the broader term, besides mythological system, it includes ritual. A given mythology is almost always associated with a certain religion such as Greek mythology with Ancient Greek religion. Disconnected from its religious system, a myth may lose its immediate relevance to the community and evolve—away from sacred importance—into a legend or folktale.

There is a complex relationship between recital of myths and enactment of rituals.

Therefore, for an Atheist, it's a myth but for a believer, it's history (itihAsa/इतिहास) or theology. Moreover, if you consider Ramayana and Maharabharata, they aren't Puranas, they're "epic poems".

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Secular historians use history or itihāsa when referring to events on geologic time scale that don't contradict science which is primarily based on pratyakṣa and anumāna pramāṇas.

So when it comes to the two Hindu epics, Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata, these people consider only those events described in them to be factual/historical that conform to the laws of nature.

Take for example these two statements from Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa:

(Bāla Kāṇḍa, Daśaratha speaking to Viśvāmitra:)

Sixty thousand years have passed from my birth, oh! Vishvamitra, and this Rama is engendered at this age, that too with tribulations, hence taking Rama with you will be inappropriate of you. [1-20-10b, 11a]

(Yuddha Kāṇḍa, Vālmīki narrating:)

Having enjoyed the kingship for ten thousand years, Rama performed a hundred horse-sacrifices, in which good horses were sacrificed and numerous gifts bestowed. [6-128-96]

The astronomical figures used to describe Daśaratha's age and Rāma's reign directly contradict nature (and also Śruti) so such statements are usually considered mythology (folklore) and ignored by historians when determining lineages of kings.

Here's another story from the Mahābhārata which narrates how a fish delivered two human twins:

And the king [Uparichara Vasu] became possessed with desire, and he saw not his wife before him. Maddened by desire he was roaming hither and thither, when he saw a beautiful Asoka decked with dense foliage, its branches covered with flowers. And the king sat at his ease in the shade of that tree. And excited by the fragrance of the season and the charming odours of the flowers around, and excited also by the delicious breeze, the king could not keep his mind away from the thought of the beautiful Girika. And beholding that a swift hawk was resting very near to him, the king, acquainted with the subtle truths of Dharma and Artha, went unto him and said, 'Amiable one, carry thou this seed (semen) for my wife Girika and give it unto her. Her season hath arrived.'

The hawk, swift of speed, took it from the king and rapidly coursed through the air. While thus passing, the hawk was seen by another of his species. Thinking that the first one was carrying meat, the second one flew at him. The two fought with each other in the sky with their beaks. While they were fighting, the seed fell into the waters of the Yamuna. And in those waters dwelt an Apsara of the higher rank, known by the name of Adrika, transformed by a Brahmana's curse into a fish. As soon as Vasu's seed fell into the water from the claws of the hawk, Adrika rapidly approached and swallowed it at once. That fish was, some time after, caught by the fishermen. And it was the tenth month of the fish's having swallowed the seed. From the stomach of that fish came out a male and a female child of human form. The fishermen wondered much, and wending unto king Uparichara (for they were his subjects) told him all. They said, 'O king, these two beings of human shape have been found in the body of a fish!' The male child amongst the two was taken by Uparichara. That child afterwards became the virtuous and truthful monarch Matsya.

This blog gives a more rational, acceptable and historical account of the same story:

Adrika was a maiden belonging to the Matsya (fishermen) tribe and Vasu beget two children in her, probably when he was away from his wife Girika. Adrika was described as an Apsara, due to her beauty. Apsaras were mentioned as extremely beautiful. The word 'Apsara' can be divided into 'Apa' (water) and Sara (lakes). They were often described as women seen in the vicinity of water-bodies like lakes and rivers. A Matsya lady (fisher-women) too lives close to water-bodies like seas, lakes and rivers. There are also myths about fairies called Matsya-Kanyakas (fish-women / fisher-women) who were half fish and half women. Such tales were also similar to the tales of Apsaras. Thus Matsya Kanyakas and Apsaras seem to be same. Both these terms later assumed the meaning of fairies living close to water bodies, and Apsaras in particular was formerly their tribal name. Fisher-women were the Apsaras and the Apsaras were the fisher-women.

Adrika probably died while delivering the twin babies. Death of women after delivering babies, especially twins, were quite common in those days. The fishermen after learning about the affair between Adrika and the king might have taken the babies to the palace. King after knowing that he was the father of the twins could have raised them in his palace. The male among them later became the famous Matsya king. It is probable that this Matsya king was the forefather of king Virata. Similarly the female among them was probably the ancestor of Satyavati whom king Shantanu wished to marry. The territory of the Matsya chief, who was the father of Satyavati was on the banks of river Yamuna where as the territory of king Virata was south-west to Yamuna in Rajasthan comprising the districts of Alwar and Bharatpur.


So whether one uses history, itihāsa ('it happened thus') or mythology ('exaggerated account of a real event or fictitious altogether') for things described in Hindu scriptures, really depends on the nature of the stories and also if the individual generally interprets them literally or allegorically.

If your faith requires you to give utmost importance to śabda pramāṇa, you may have to take everything literally or go with your guru's interpretation when things don't make sense.

If on the other hand, you follow no particular belief system, you are free to call things that conform to reality as history (or itihāsa, it happened thus) and the unbelievable stories as mythology (traditional accounts, either exaggerated or fictitious).

Same goes for Purāṇas and any other Hindu scripture.

  • So all the questions tagged with mythology are about folklore according to you? (Have not downvoted yet) – Rickross Aug 7 at 16:00
  • 'questions tagged with mythology' - this is a discussion meant for meta and no way related to what OP asked here so I won't answer it here. 'Have not downvoted yet' - what are you waiting for? :) @Rickross – sv. Aug 7 at 18:49
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    You have posted what you feel and I guess that won't change with sites. – Rickross Aug 8 at 6:14
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    "Why can't a person live for thousand years? It is biologically possible". Not it is not. Your telomers are only have so much length. You can maybe reach 120 - 130 years but that is about it. @Lokesh – Wikash_ Aug 10 at 6:16
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    @Lokesh We are still flying by sitting in an aeroplane. We are not flying like birds. There is a difference in both the cases. – Sarvabhouma Aug 21 at 6:01

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