A blog on Indian History

Last updated June 24, 2018, 6:35 p.m.


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Sanskrit Notes: Order of Words
Rudraksha by Kinshuk Sunil (flickr
Rudraksha by Kinshuk Sunil (flickr)

One of the interesting features of Sanskrit is that, in a sentence, the order of the words don’t matter. You can switch them around and the meaning remains the same.

Take for example a sentence like, Rama is going to the forest. You can’t say, “Rama going forest.” You need the “is” and “to the” to make sense of the sentence. The “is going” indicates that it is one person who is doing the action. Now, “to the forest” indicates that the forest is the object of the action.

In simple Sanskrit, you would write it like this

रामः वानमं गाच्छति

It reads, “Ramah vanam gachati”,  When you say “Ramah”, it indicates one Rama. A forest is “vana”, but in the sentence, we wrote it as “vanam”. That indicates, it is the object of Rama’s destination. The “ti” at the end of “gacchati” indicates that it is one Rama who is going (not two)”. If there were many Ramas, it would have become “gacchanti”. Thus the “is going” and “to the” are built into the words themselves.

This makes it interesting. Now you can write

  • गाच्छति रामः वानमं
  • गाच्छति वानमं रामः
  • वानमं गाच्छति रामः

All these sentences mean the same even though the order of words are switched around. Since each word has the part which maintains its relationship to the verb, the order does not matter. Due to this, in poetry, you can switch words around to fit the meter. In Hindu tradition, almost everything is written in poetry form and this made it easier for an oral society to remember anything forever.

Here is a complicated sentence

भारत ! यदा यदा धर्मस्य ग्लानिः अधर्मस्य अब्युधानं च भवति तदा अहम् आत्मानं सृजामि

Take those words and resequence them and apply the sandhi rules, and you get the following verse from chapter 4 of Gita

यदा यदा हि धर्मस्य ग्लानिर्भवति भारत । अभ्युत्थानमधर्मस्य तदात्मानं सृजाम्यहम् ॥४-७॥

Here is an exercise. Try the “Rama is going to the forest” in your mother tongue and see how it behaves. Does it work the same in Dravidian languages and Indo-European languages? In Malayalam, it behaves exactly the same as in Sanskrit. In Hindi, it does not.


  • Based on the lectures of Varun Khanna at Chinmaya International Foundation
  • Gitapravesha by Samskrita Bharati

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Three Stage Evolution of Mahabharata – jayam, bharatam, mahabharatam
Mahabharata (via Wikipedia)
Mahabharata (via Wikipedia)

There are clues in Mahabharata which tells us about how the itihaas grew to become the longest poem with over a lakh verses. Mahabharata is divided into 18 parvas with Harivamsha as the 19th. The core of it — around 24, 000 — verses are about the war between the Pandavas and Kauravas. Besides this, there are tales of gods, kings, sages, discourses on philosophy, religion, law and various asramas of life. We know that Vyasa was the composer who taught it to Vaisampayana who then narrated it to Janamejaya at his sarpa yagna. Ugrasravas, the suta, then narrated it to others at Namisharanyam. Recently I read a book — A short history of Sanskrit Literature — which elaborates on a theory on how Mahabaharatam came to be.

Here are three verses from Mahabharata which refers to three different lengths

  • This verse refers to the first stage that has over 8000 verses

    Mahabharata - Reference to ashtau shloka sahasrani or 8000 shlokas

    Mahabharata – Reference to ashtau shloka sahasrani or 8000 shlokas

  • This is the reference to the 24,000 verses

    Mahabharata - chatur vimshati sahasrim - or 24,000 verses

    Mahabharata – chatur vimshati sahasrim – or 24,000 verses

  • This is the reference to the third stage that has over a lakh verses.

    Mahabharata - shata sahasram or 100, 000 shlokas

    Mahabharata – shata sahasram or 100, 000 shlokas

It is not just that the number of verses increased; the name of the itihaas changed as well. The very first line in adi parvam refers to it as jayam.

नारायणं नमस्कृत्य नरं चैव नरॊत्तमम
देवीं सरस्वतीं चैव ततॊ जयम उदीरयेत

Then it became bharatam and finally mahabharatam. Was it because it passed through three people — Vyasa, Vaisampayana, and Ugrasravas?

A short history of Sanskrit Literature, by TK Ramachandra Aiyar
A short history of Sanskrit Literature, by TK Ramachandra Aiyar

The author of the book, T. K. Ramachandra Aiyar, thinks that the core of Mahabharata is the rivalry of Kurus and Panchalas. Their enemosity is historic. They quaralled for a long time and finally there was a union. The Yajurveda — which was composed in a nearby region — mentions this. The Kathaka Samhita, though speaks of a dispute between Vaka Dalbhya from Panchala and a Dritharashtra who is the son of a Vichitravirya, a Kuru. Over time, the kingdoms split again and engaged in constant rivalry. By the time of Mahabharata, the Kuru and Panchala kingdom were separate.

Prior to the war, there was a turn of events which caused the annexation of Northern Panchala by the Kurus. This is the incident, where Drona defeats Drupada using Arjuna. This event upset the balance of poweer between the two kingdoms. The Kurus were defeated in the war and the Panchalas won along with the Pandavas. (Here is an interesting explanation about the Mahabharata war, not as a rivalry between Kauravas and Pandavas, but as a war between Kurus and Panchalas).

With this background, here is the theory on what might have happened. The defeat of the Kurus would have resulted in various songs glorifying the victory of the Pandavas and their allies. Sutas would have sung this in various assemblies. This would have been Jayam. By the second stage, when it reaches 24,000 verses, the life of Pandavas was elaborated. Krishna was represented as an incarnation of Vishnu and Shiva and Vishnu become more prominent than Brahma. The epic became popular all over bharatavarsha and other additions like the stories of gods and sages were added and it became a treatise on dharmashastra. This was the third stage.

The book became an authority on dharma dealing with religion, law and morality. It was accorded the status of the 5th veda. There are land grants dating between 462 CE and 532 CE, which talks about the one-lakh verse Mahabharatam compiled by Vyasa. There are numerous literary evidence from Sanskrit authors on the stature of Mahabharata. From Ujjayini to Khamboja, the ithihaas was read in temples. It became a national epic.

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Western Mythology of Cortes, Pizzaro and James Smith
Cortés scuttling his own fleet off the coast of Veracruz in order to eliminate the possibility of retreat. (via Wikipedia)
Cortés scuttling his own fleet off the coast of Veracruz in order to eliminate the possibility of retreat (via Wikipedia).

In Western mythology, Hernan Cortes is a larger-than-life hero. He was responsible for single handedly conquering the Aztecs with a small army. From a story telling perspective think about the impact of this foundational story: a rich and powerful empire was conquered by few soldiers. According to one myth making site,

Hernán Cortés, marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, was a Spanish conquistador who overthrew the Aztec empire and won Mexico for the crown of Spain. He marched to Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital and home to ruler Montezuma II. Cortés took Montezuma hostage and his soldiers raided the city. Cortés left the city after learning that Spanish troops were coming to arrest him for disobeying orders. After facing off against Spanish forces, Cortés returned to Tenochtitlán to find a rebellion in progress. The Aztecs eventually drove the Spanish from the city, but Cortés returned again to defeat them and take the city in 1521.

You can imagine myth making before the time of the printing press. Western socities have continued this myth making that continues to this day. Remember the Weapons of Mass Destruction myth making that happened right in front of our eyes. During the destruction of Native Americans in North America the myths around Pocahontas and James Smith was created. The same was done for Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of Peru, again with a few hundred men.

Artificially created myths have an expiry date. When Peruvian archaeologists revisited the history written by the victors they discovered that the romantic tales woven by the Conquistadors were – well, tales. Out of the many skeletons found in the grave near Lima, only three were found to be killed by Spanish weapons; the rest by Incas. A testimony by Incas who were present in the battle was found in the Archive of the Franciscans at the Convent of San Francisco de Lima, which mentioned that it was not a great battle, but just a few skirmishes. Pizzaro was helped by a large army of native American allies and the battle was not between the Spaniards and Incas, but between two Inca groups. It was also found that size of rebels were not in tens of thousands, but in thousands and there was no cavalry charge.

In the case of Pocahontas, according to the popular narrative, Smith was about to be executed by the Powhatan tribe, based on an order by Pocahontas’ father. As they were about to strike, Pocahantas threw herself on James Smith and he is spared. In the Disney version, they settle in a dugout canoe and sing, while a talking raccoon fawns. According to a discussion in BBC’s In Our Time, this incident never happened. Pocahontas, who lived nearby, visited the colony often and her age at that time was around 10 which makes it unlikely that she threw herself to save a 30 year old Smith. Also, in a narrative written by James Smith in 1608, this incident is never mentioned. In another version written in 1624, seven years after Pocahontas died, this incident appears. Not just that, in his voyages, there seems to be a pattern; James Smith is saved by maidens three other times as well.

How true is the story that Cortes managed to conquer a vast, wealthy empire with only 250 soldiers? The reality of what happened will give good exercise to your eyebrows. Many interesting events happened after the arrival of the Spaniards, whom the Aztecs called Castillians. By November 1519, the emperor Montezuma was finished as an emperor, but had territory and army. When the Spaniards showed up, he could have killed them, because they had aligned with Tetzcoco and Tlaxcala who had defeated the Aztecs in battle. After the Spaniards arrived at Tenochtitlan, they spent 235 days as the guest of Montezuma. This is puzzling: why did Montezuma trust the foreigners who came with the Aztec enemy? Anyway, after their long stay, the Spaniards took the emperor as prisoner, but had to flee very soon. They came back in 1520, as part of a military alliance made up of Tlaxcalteca warriors. In the composition of that army, the Spaniards were one in two hundred. That victory was rewritten to make it seem as if the Spaniards won on their own.

All of thse episodes make you wonder about the edifice on which Western history is built. Conquests which were brutal, required a mythological origin to erase the reality of a violent origin. It also required some larger-than-life heroes — Cortes,  Pizzaro, James Smith. The themes also varied. The 19th century conquest of Native Americans was about Manifest Destiny; now a days it is about spreading freedom and democracy. The Pocahontas myth — the affair between a Native American and a White settler — gave imperialism a human face. Cortes’ adventures required a different literary imagination. Though the real victors were Tetzcoco and Tlaxcala, the Spaniards established their government, grabbed land, and imposed their language. This military and economic success required a foundational narrative, powered by literary conceit to justify land grabbing and the subsequent loot.

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European Origins of Manifest Destiny
Across The Continent, an 1868 lithograph illustrating the westward expansion of white settlers By Currier & Ives (publisher).
Across The Continent, an 1868 lithograph illustrating the westward expansion of white settlers By Currier & Ives (publisher). James Merritt Ives & Fanny Palmer (artists). – (via Wikipedia)

In the 19th century, American settlers moved West grabbing frontier lands. The term Manifest Destiny was coined, which claimed special virtues for American people. It was imperative that they fulfill this essential duty. The United States used muscle power to deprive the indigenous people of their land. Once the natives were conquered, this theory was applied to rest of the world and soon Puerto Rico, Cuba and Philippines came under American control, apparently to rescue them from Spanish tyranny. The Native Americans lost their land, traditions, and religion. They watched helplessly as a flood of settlers flocked to their land.

This asuric behavior had its origin from the crusades in the 11th century. During that time, there was a major movement of European population driven by religious fervor. They figured out how to move long distances, take control, and displace existing population. This process took a break as the continent experienced Black Death. Till the Middle Ages, Europe became an insignificant entity on the world stage with nothing of value to offer to the world. Then they embarked on a series of voyages of discovery and came upon plundering as a nation-building option.

The 20th episode of Tides of History goes into detail about this period. Much before the voyages of Columbus and Vasco da Gama, Castille, Aragon, and Portugal started expanding to other areas kickstarting the process of invasion and settlement. After Aragon conquered the Island of Majorca, in the middle of the Mediterranean, the king distributed the land among the nobles who accompanied him. Then came the settlers — Catalans, Italians, Navarrese — who took possession of the property obtained during the conquest. There was a similar movement of people all over into Hungary, Romania, Sicily, Greece.

Following the conquest of Southern Spain by Castille, the Moors slowly disappeared. They were forced or enslaved and those who stayed were converted to Christianity. They replaced rebellious leaders with leaders over whom they had control. They were familiar with the process for populating newly conquered frontier lands and enticing settlers to those new lands. This was an established process by the time Vasco da Gama set sail to India. Remember, he did not come for spices alone. He was also looking for Prester John to liberate Jerusalem.

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Revisiting Out of Africa, Hominins in Philippines
Map of sites with ages and postulated early and later pathways associated with modern humans dispersing across Asia during the Late Pleistocene. (Science Mag, Fair Use)
Map of sites with ages and postulated early and later pathways associated with modern humans dispersing across Asia during the Late Pleistocene. (Science Mag, Fair Use)

Around 200,000 years back, Sapiens evolved in Africa. Then around 60,000 years back they left East Africa towards the Arabian Peninsula and from there to India following, maybe a coastal route. This is what the Out of Africa theory says. When these sapiens reached Europe, they met other species such as Neanderthals and Denisovans and interbred with them. The other species died out and now we are the only homo species that remain. At least, that’s what we believed so far.

There not even a slender certainty that it is true. Sapien remains have been found at multiple sites in China that have been dated to between 70,000 and 120,000 years ago. Additional finds indicate that modern humans reached Southeast Asia and Australia prior to 60,000 years ago. This predates the time span normally attributed to the Out of Africa theory, implying that there were previous migrations from 120,000 years back. Here is the interesting data point: all of us — all non-Africans — are descendants of a single ancestral population dating back to 60, 000 years. This implies that the migrations prior to 60, 000 years, was probably a tiny population. Even though they were not that large, they left markers around the world for us to discover. Later a major migration occurred, leading to all of us.

It’s fancy to believe in a simple West to East migration in a linear time frame. Unfortunately, nature behaves differently. Human migration requires complicated models.

The second interesting data point comes from a discovery from a butchered rhino at Kalinga in the Philippines. The bone bed where this rhino met its grim death had 57 stone tools and was dated to between 777 – 631 thousand years before present. This pushes the date of appearance of hominins in the Philippines by hundreds of thousands of years. It is a big discovery. Of course, these were not sapiens, but Homo erectus. It seems there were no land bridges to the Philippines during that time and the only way these hominins could have reached there would have been by deliberately constructing rafts. Think about it, around 700, 000 years, our ancestors built rafts and crossed channels that were 10 KM wide.

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