Bṛhat

History is Ontic but Itihāsa is Ontologic – a Fractal Maṇḍala Essay
In this essay we engage in emic freethinking, and look at some names from Indian itihāsa in a new light. How many such stories might we find in the Purāṇas, Epics and other texts? And if we did, would we not understand our past better?

At one point in the 1998 movie Pi, the protagonist’s professor shouts out- “if you look for the number pi everywhere, you will find the number pi everywhere!” We can understand the exasperation, for confirmation bias and recursive thinking are not unfamiliar in common experience. The reference is made here to preamble the following article, which may well be a similar case of ‘finding pi-s everywhere.’ Alternatively, it could be a relevant observation on itihāsa, or Indian civilisational memory. The latter proposition finds strength from previous notices of macro-historical memory in Indian itihāsa.

Some technical ground needs to be covered first. Though often used interchangeably, the words ontic and ontologic have a distinction based primarily on the formulation of Heidegger, a German philosopher of recent vintage, and a mind that a modern Indian ontology must eventually converse with. A simple if reductive way to describe this is- ontic gives factual, physical, material descriptions of something, while ontologic describes what that thing is for itself- its being-ness. This was Heidegger’s way of separating entities or things from being- not in fact a trivial distinction. Had a mind like his been initiated into Indian consciousness, it would have gone the step further to realize that in ‘Dasien’ he was conceiving of ātman, and by the ontic he referred to things ṛta and kṛta. The anecdote abounds that late in his life, when Heidegger discovered Zen Buddhism, he remarked- “this is what I’ve been trying to say all my life.” Against this backdrop, note that the origin of “history” is in the Greek word historia, which means ‘inquiry of the past’ and the knowledge derived from such inquiry. Clearly then, history lies in the ontic realm- it is a study of things, or in this case- events and happenings. Now Adluri:

Itihāsa represents the empirical world aesthetically to problematize both being-in-the-world and the relationship of ontology, text, and the world. In other words, itihāsa is history that has overcome historicism: history that has become critical and self-conscious.

This definition, related as it is to self-awareness, puts itihāsa in the realm of the ontologic- a thing as it is for itself. Thus the claim in this article is that while history/historia, the discipline, is an ontic field; itihāsa, or Indian civilizational memory, is an ontologic one. In turn, this adds support to the four aphorisms of civilizational emergence.

Itihāsa is the “mempool” that Indian civilization is in conversation with. It can recollect images, memes and impressions for conscious reflection in the present.

Indeed, this is what (at least the) elder generations of Indians do on a daily basis. Regular conversations refer to the pledge of Bhīṣma, the vengeance of Karṇa, the greed of Duryodhana or the perseverance of Rāma, and more. Now, when our access to and traditional engagements with the mempool are broken, our civilization moves forward aimlessly, pulled in the sway of “development, progress and technology” that may land a future Bezos or Musk a lordship over Asteroid X1A21, but gives no vision of where it may land us. What Adluri writes above is in fact the very process of emergence, through information being processed in complex ways at massively aggregate scales, over a long period of time. When a civilization is in conversation with its past as an ontologic, it generates learnings and ethicality. When a civilization approaches it only as an ontic field, it may remember the exact date when Columbus landed on a new world, but is bound to repeat the same evils again. This minor digression done, let us now come to the claim at hand- history is ontic, itihāsa ontologic. The former is an attempt at factual, as-was representation. The latter at self-aware, as-being representation. To do this, we examine some popular names of Indian itihāsa and their Pāṇinian roots:

Pūru, Anu, Yadu, Druhyu, Turvaśa, Bharata, Kuru. The first five here are commonly considered the pañca-gaṇa of the Ṛgveda (though this is never explicitly stated in it), and in Paurāṇika testimony they spring from the five sons of cakravartin Yayati Nāhuṣya. Of the Bharatas and the Kurus (or Kauravas), there is no introduction needed. These are all important names, and indeed we consider them to be real tribes of an Indian past. It is these Bharatas, descended from the cakravartin patriarch of the same name, that lend to our nation its name- Bhārata. Ṛgvedic testimony on these tribes gives important information on issues like Indo-European origins and timelines. But let us reference that in the Pauraṇika schema, names such as Indra, Manu, Kaśyapa and more do not refer to a specific individual but are titles occupied by different people across the ages. In other words, they are nominal. Could it be so for these names as well? We find answers in the dhātubhiḥ vyutpattiḥ, or etymology from dhātus.

Pūru

From the root √pū, to which Pāṇini assigns the evocation of cleansing, or purifying- pāvane. The same evocation also yields roots √pūj and √pur, where the latter means ‘to be ahead’ or ‘go in front’ (cleansing, or consecration of land, went in front of its inhabitation)- also giving the word purohita. Rooted thus, the word ‘pūru’ refers to someone who purifies, who cleanses, and who goes in front. The youngest son of Yayati, it was Pūru who ‘was placed ahead’ and given the central part of his “kingdom,” which broadly lay between the Sarasvatī and Yamunā rivers. There exists an elaborate Paurāṇika story on the generosity of Pūru that won him the primary region despite being the youngest.

In turn, Pūru’s descendants multiplied in the generations to come- even the later Bharatas and Kurus traced descent from him. How coincidental is it, that civilizationally and ontologically formative words like puruṣa, purohita, pūjā and pura share root with a civilizationally formative tribe?1 Or is it no coincidence at all? Especially when we notice that the word pūru implies a purifier, a cleanser- someone who used fire, agni, to clear and consecrate a land for inhabitation. It appears that Pūru and the Pūrus may be entirely a descriptive nominal- not real names at all.

Anu

From the root √an, which evokes breathing, or something ongoing- prāṇane. ‘Anu’ is translated as that which ‘breathes alongside,’ ‘is near to,’ or ‘has a share.’ Ṛgvedic examination (a la Talageri) reveals the Pūrus to be culturally most aligned to the Anu-s, or Ānavas. Both considered fire sacred, and both embarked upon a path of ritual hymnology. In fact, Talageri finds reason to speculate that the Bhṛgus2, a formative ṛṣi clan, were originally aligned to the Ānavas- with the clan of Jamadagni Bhārgava defecting to the Pūru side. Again- how coincidental that among all the Ṛgvedic tribes, the ones appearing relatively most aligned- or sharing ancient origins- to the Puru-Bharatas are also named commensurately! ‘Ānava’ yields the meaning of kind to men, or benevolent. A ruler in the Ānava line, Sivi Auśinara, is remembered in the Purāṇas as a cakravartin, with elaborate tales of his charity and piety. And in the Ṛgveda, Bharadvāja Bṛhaspati lauds the generosity of Abhyavartin Cāyamāna- another Ānava.

Yadu

Some ṛcas in the Ṛgveda refer to a people named Yakṣu, which most translations equate to Yadu. If so, we may connect Yadu to the root √yakṣ, and without it to the root √yaj alone, the latter of which lends to us a core civilisational ontic- yajña. Both roots evoke worship, consecration, decoration- devapūja, sangatikaraṇa, dāneṣu, bhakṣana.

We also have the word yadi, which evokes who, which, if, how, why kind of questions. In the Purāṇas, the Yakṣas are an ancient people with wavering allegiances. In some wars they fight alongside Daityas, in others they rally for the Ādityas. Similar ambiguity is found for Yadus in the Ṛgveda, especially in the dāśarājña ṛcas as chronicled here. In RV 7-18-6 is mention of Puroḍā Yakṣu, and translations cannot agree on whether it’s the name of a person or refers to a tribe, or whether Yakṣu is a play on Yadu. There is also disagreement on whether the reference is to an enemy or an ally of Sudās. Trivedi’s Hindi translation asserts amity, and even finds the ṛca to mean that Yadu(s) were attempting to negotiate a truce between Sudās and his enemies. We hope that the pattern is now becoming evident.

In each of the cases examined so far, the names are evocative of the same meaning as the historic details we may glean about the tribes- a tautology that reveals a historical onomatopoeia- the description of something sounding like that thing itself.

Pūrus were not a people literally named such3, but rather the people who first purified, or consecrated, in Indian civilizational memory4. The Ānavas were those who, at least at the earliest reaches of this memory, walked alongside the Pūrus. This supports Talageri’s speculations that the Harappan phase of Indian civilization was peopled by the Pūrus and Ānavas. Yadus were the third people in the mix. They too had rituals of a kind, they too conducted devapūjā, but of their actual political alliances little could be concluded. Note in this context that even Kṛṣṇa Yādava of the Mahābhārata era first discouraged his people from adopting Vedic fire ritualism- instead turning them to attachment to the hills, forest and groves (this changed after his tutelage under Sandīpani was complete). The onomatopoeia becomes unmistakable after we examine the next two names under similar methodology.

Druhyu, Turvaśa

From the roots √dru and √turv respectively. Both are evocative of violence or malice- hiṃsā, jighāṃsā. The Druhyus are ‘enemies’ in Indian memory wherever you look, and throughout the period of Ṛgvedic history are the frontal tribe that protagonists are warring against. It is Druhyus that Māndhātṛ pushes out of India, and it is Druhyus that Sudās conclusively puts out of the pale of Indian geography- both being instrumental waves that spread Indo-European out of India. The Dasyus that are maligned in RV are Druhyu ‘priests,’ and none of their leaders find prominent mention in the Paurāṇika record.

Said to ‘come from far shores’ or from ‘shores afar,’ the Turvaśas too never really appear an allied or harmless tribe. When combined with the root √aś, evocative of union- saṅghāte, we sense a paradox in turv + aś, one that reflects in their frequent pairing with the Yadus. Not for nothing does the Jamison-Brereton translation declare- “the shifting alliances of the participants in the Ten Kings battle are notorious and well-discussed.” By this point we must withdraw our skepticism and concede that these are not coincidences. The names we visit are nominal and do not seem to be proper nouns, culminating in the next realization.

Bharata

From the root √bhṛ, meaning to carry or sustain- bharaṇa and dharaṇa. ie, carry the agni or sustain the dharma, or take forward the cardinal ontology and ritualplex of Indian civilization- to be bhāratas. ‘Bharaṭa’ also means a potter, or one who shapes, evoking the shaping of culture, and as the Bharatas claimed descent from the Pūrus, we find a common metaphor for puruṣa-prakṛti in that of clay and pot5. A recursive and ontological onomatopoeia is writ large in the name Bharata, as it is also in the earliest purohitas of the tribe- Bṛhaspatis. As asynchronous as the phraseology is, Bharatas are the ‘people of the book’ in the Ṛgveda, the ones who invite and establish agni upon the Sarasvatī, and the victorious protagonists of the dāśarājña. Later kings in their line are cakravartins in the Purāṇas, and both Kauravas and Pāṇḍavas trace descent from them. Though the matter is obvious by now, for rhythmic consonance with previous sections we remark-

How coincidental that among all the Ṛgvedic tribes, the ones that clearly entrenched Vedic ritualism- itself a descent from the developing dharma of previous manvantaras, via the Pūrus- are also named commensurately.

Kuru

Kuru comes from the roots √ku and √kur, both evocative of sound or speech- śabde. Alternatively, it is derived from √kṛ, which means do, or act- karaṇe. So what is it that the Kurus did exactly? For one, they ‘effected’ (kṛta) a wide-reaching political form to the emergent civilization previously ushered by Pūrus and Bharatas. A Kuru branch reached as far as modern Bihar, establishing the janapada/proto-janapada of Magadha where civilization turned to empire centuries later (Mauryas and Guptas). Some branches migrated north, establishing linguistic and cultural roots in a land thus called Uttarakuru- the final wave of IE dispersals out of India and the staging ground for IE ‘invasion’ of Europe.

But also established during the Kuru period was śikṣā- organized Vedic learning and transmission, and pada pāṭha- the systematic breakdown of Vedic ṛcas into words- or śabdas. The Pūrus and Bharatas ensured a crystallization of tradition preceding them, and the Kurus gave the binding glue in the form of the science of sound and precise memorization of sacred knowledge. More than anything else, this is what they did- karaṇa of śabda. What other name would we call them then, if not kuru- the doers. We may now compare two separate and different accounts to recapitulate that-

History is Ontic, Itihāsa Ontologic

A (short and selected) History of Ancient India

In the earliest phase of the current era, a tribe descended from Pūru and bearing his name rose to political prominence near the Sarasvatī and Yamunā rivers. Their branches multiplied, and they both married into and warred with other tribes such as Aikṣvākus and Yadus.

Losing this stature after the campaigns of Māndhātṛ, they found resurgence through Duṣyaṅta. In a tale of descent one is allowed to be skeptical of, a son named Bharata became ruler after Duṣyaṅta, and rose to cakravartin fame.

The Pūrus, and later the Pūru-Bharatas, had to contend with a host of other tribes including the rest of the pañca-jana: Ānavas, Druhyus, Yadus and Turvaśas. Of these, the Ānavas shared most affinity with them, though it soured in later periods. The Druhyus were unmistakably opposite and were eventually driven out. Of the Yadus and Turvaśas placement, we cannot be too sure.

In their rise, the Bharatas also had to contend among each other, and a line subdued by the Ṛgvedic Bharatas later found vengeance and prominence both. Descended from Kuru, they were proud of their ancient patriarch and assured in their inheritance of his legacy. A great war among these Kurus in turn yielded the colossal epic of Mahābhārata.

The above is a listing of things that happened, and of groups or people involved in these things- ontic types.

A (detailed but selected) Itihāsa of Bhārata:

Saṃskṛti rises and falls. Dharma is sanātana but undergoes yugas unending. Its re-inception begins anew epoch on epoch, and in each epoch the primeval remembrance to establish the civilizational focus on Mind, or Intent, or Mānasa, is thus called Manu.

We speak not of institution nor of the the top-down effect of organization, but the bottom-up emergence of bhāratīya sāṃskṛtika cetanā- Indian civilizational consciousness. So of course the Manus established no religion- they simply embodied a continuing cultural ontology. And of course of those that succeeded them many were not in subscription to this culture.

Civilizational consciousness is rare to emerge but quick to dissipate- dhvamṣate- scatters and disperses. The tides of kāla and kṛti bring much suffering and pain. Thus we remember those that endured, those that bound us together, those that upheld the passed down traditions, purified us, and those that bore us ahead- prasahaṇe, avadhvamṣane, dhāraṇe, pāvane, bharaṇe- √dhi, √dhṛ, √pū, √bhṛ- Dharma, Puruṣa, Bhārata. This is what our past means to us, it is a story of our being, as we felt it. It is, as KM Munshi wished for, a narrative of “the efforts of the people to will themselves into organic unity.” It is, as Adluri calls it, a “history that has become critical and self-conscious.”

Manu’s ontology was upheld first by a people that cleansed the early lands, consecrating previously wild regions for civilized inhabitation. Between the Yamunā and Sarasvatī, entrenching then along the Sarasvatī and its tributaries, the people that went in front we thus remember as Pūrus. In the grand parliament of religions of all the children of Manu6, they were those that led from ahead.

Emergence is not a one-tracked or single-sourced phenomenon. Arising as it does from information being processed in extremely complex ways, and on the scale of civilization across a vast mesh network7 and long span of time, it wrings together many strands. Bhāratīya sāṃskṛtika cetanā similarly drew from many sources, of which we remember the formative. Pūjā, ātman, prāṇa, puruṣa, yajña, yajus- these are some words to capture the bīja strands.

The people who went alongside the Pūrus, who carried the anukṛti to their saṃskṛti, who shared a part of the civilizational returns and corresponded most to dharma- who ‘breathed (√an)’ alongside through the emergence- we thus remember as Anu-s. Referring to them as ‘Ānavas’ helps us fixate memory on benevolence and kindness- things we want in civilization and in rāja dharma. So we celebrate Ānava rulers that exemplified this, such as Sivi.

There were others that embodied association and union- √aś. Some among them were at times given to animosity, to dhvamṣane instead of avadhvamṣane. So it is best we call them Turvaśas. Others carried forward havana, yajña, devapūjā- pure √yaj. To linguistically encode the memory that even they were not always of amity, we recorded them as Yadus and Yakṣus.

All the pūjā of the Pūrus, the prāṇa of the Ānavas and the yajña of the Yadus would have come for naught- another dissipation- if not for the people who bore, sustained and carried forward this emergent civilization. The people who finally vanquished the Druhyus – who were given to malice and injury. The people who, as does a potter to clay, or mind to its intent, shaped our nation and culture. It was not an easy task- for dharma requires self sacrifice of the level of Puruṣa, as we remember in a Ṛgvedic sūkta. Only the enduring mind, when in application of its pure intent- the √dhṛ √man- can be a dharman. And so those that did this we epitomize and call the Bharatas. Through them has this land gained enduring form. It is why Dharma and Bhārata are two aspects of the same thing, as is a pot and the clay that made it.

Dharma, the dhṛta or established, which in this epoch was led by the Pūrus and carried by the Bharatas, was ultimately ‘completed’ or ‘effected’- kṛta- by the Kurus. Under their patronage the Cosmic Vāc, the Śabda Brahman, was codified and stamped together as the Veda that we know. We do not have the historia of ‘that founder king’ or ‘this ruling tribe,’ but that is not what our story is about anyway. It is true- ancient Indian literature does not have a ‘historical’ sense. But it is seeped in meaning and self-conversation.

Ours is the story of how we came into being, of us as it felt for ourselves. It is an ontologic, not an ontic. And no matter which part of our itihāsa you begin from, you will be brought to the same truths. Because Indian civilization is a fractal maṇḍala.

Civilizational consciousness is rare to emerge, but when it does, it does so with an accretionary critical path. In the deepest recesses of the primordial past, the uncaused cause came into being- Svāyam Bhū, born of the expansion of Mind- √bṛh √man or brahman, and the coming into time or motion- ṛ, of the existing- of Sat. Inside of time, when Sat yields existence, or ṛ + kta, we call it Ṛta. It could be argued that to Indian consciousness, Sat is the only ontologic type that exists- since everything else is but an aspect of it;

Within Ṛta, building with the syntax of vibration or sound- Vāc- emerged prāṇa and prīṇa- breath and sensation. Followed play, desire, performance, pain- krīḍā, vijigīṣa, vyavhāra, mardana. But falling as these did under the Mind’s perception or sight- its dṛṣṭi, they were bound (paśya) by illumination, by light- jyotiṣa, prakāśa;

Our civilisational language links these through the root √div, and the dhārmika imperative is to transcend the perception of play, desire, pain- the performative realm, and reach perception of pure light. Tamaso mā jyotir gamaya- from darkness to light, such that our ātman is one with the brahman and thus perceives as it does- tat tvam asi. It becomes a matter of nominal convenience that the ontic types (with their own ontologies) to focus our intent on be called Devas- entities of √div- for they can guide us from the immanent to the transcendent;

What is called ‘life’ relates most closely to what we knew as prāṇadhārana- to possess breathing- and this is evoked by the root √jīv. Since jīvas were those who breathed on their own, ātm + √an, we understood that they were ātmans. Among jīvas, some further possessed thinking (√man)- or mānasa. Ours was a language emergent upon the same principles as the civilization, it resonated with ontological onomatopoeia. The creatures of thought we thus called Mānavas. Devas, Jīvas, Mānavas- possessed of ātman all, born of brahman all. Our saṃskṛtika itihāsa remembers all. What does teṣāṃkṛtika history remember?

The tradition that understood this, and conceived of the imperative to unite with light- yoga- of the sustenance of dhṛta mānasa, is what we called Dharma. And since it was a continuing tradition even at the beginnings of civilizational memory, it is sanātana to us. The Purāṇas declare- “Origin and annihilation occur continuously among living beings. Sages and other learned people are not deluded in this respect.” So it is with Dharma and Samṣkṛti, and we now live in the 7th known epoch of a dhṛta mānasa among Mānavas, or the 7th manvantara. At the beginning of this manvantara, our story loops back to Pūru(s), and the itihāsa that follows is an autobiographical and introspective account of a people willing themselves into organic unity, likely put together- kṛta- under patronage of the Kurus. All of this was known to us all along.

For if you notice, you find that the jaundiced king in our greatest epic is called Pāṇḍu (meaning yellowish, pale), and the ‘compiler’ of said epic recorded his own presence as Vyāsa (meaning assembler, arranger). Itihāsa was never giving us historia, it was giving us an ontological account.
Notes:

1 – Referring to a chronological framework developed here, it can even be speculated that Pūrus were the lead tribe to usher the Sothi-Siswal and pre-Harappan archaeological periods. That is, they were in front of material civilisational progress.

2 – Bhṛgu stems from the root √bhṛ, evoking to sustain, carry or nourish- bharaṇa, dhāraṇa, poṣaṇa. This root builds to the word bhṛg, considered onomatopoeic for the crackling sound of fire, which lends the name Bhṛgu. He is credited in the Ṛgveda as introducing fire to the ārya people. So the ṛṣi who introduced the Vedic form of fire ritualism happened to be named after the onomatopoeic for the sound of fire? Coincidental again…

3 – This helps debunk the anyway sketchy association of a much later Porus to Pūru. By any interpretation of the Paurāṇika record, the Pūru name was of negligible prominence even by the time of Kurus and Pāṇḍavas, let alone another 1200-1500 years after them.

4 – More accurately, Indian civilisational memory of the 7th manvantara, for there were six earlier epochs remembered.

5 – Pūru shares common linguistic root with puruṣa, and Bharata with potter. The tribe that took forward a tradition consecrated by the previous, was linked to it by linguistic undertones to the tradition’s ontology.

6 – A phrase borrowed from Shrikant Talageri’s fantastic piece- The Primarily Dravidian, and Pan-Indian, Nature of Hinduism. It is a highly valid ontic counterpart to the ontologic narrative given in this post.

7 – Mesh networks are organic, ie., all nodes contribute and cooperate in the network.

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Amritanshu Pandey

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Amrit writes on history, civilization and design. He has come to understand Bhārata as a civilisational consciousness with multi-level coherence, and his work is to uncover the tale of this emergence.

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