Written by Sri Swami Chandrashekarendra
For the learned and the unlettered alike in our country the Ramayana and
the Mahabharata have for centuries been like their two eyes, pointing to
them the path of dharma. The two poetic works are not included among
the Puranas and are accorded a special place as "itihasas".
"Pura " means "in the past". That which gives an account of what
happened in the past is a "Purana", even though it may contain
predictions about the future also. The term can also mean what was
composed in the past. The genre called "novel" written in prose came
after a long period in literature dominated by poetry and drama. When
the novel was introduced into India it came to be called "navinam". If
"navinam" means new, purana means old.
A Purana must have five characteristic features - (laksanas). The first
"sarga" (creation of the cosmos); the second is "prati-sarga" (how eon
after eon it expanded); the third is "vamsa" (the lineage of living
creatures beginning with the childrern of brahma); the fourth is
Manvantara (dealing with the ages of the 14 Manus, forefathers of
mankind during the 1, 000 caturyugas); and the fifth is "vamsanucarita"
(genealogy of rulers of the nation including the solar and lunar
Besides there are descriptions of the earth, the heavens the different
"Itihasam"="iti-ha-sam" (it has happened thus). The "ha" in the middle
means "without doubt", "truly". So an itihasa means a true story, also a
contemporarary account. Valmiki composed the Ramayana during the
lifetime of Rama. Vyasa, author of the Mahabharata, lived during the
time of the five Pandavas and was witness to the events narrated by him
in his epic.
In the Puranas Vyasa has dealt with the stories or events of the past
which of course is in keeping with their name (that is “Puranas"). But
how? Vyasa could see into the past as he could into the future. So what
he has written of the past must be an eyewittness account. However, his
contemporaries would not have known about them. The Mahabharata
and Ramayana are different. When these works were first made known
to the world most people must have been familiar with the characters
and events described in them. There is thus no reason to doubt their
authenticity. The "ha" in" itihasa"confirms this.
The word "itihasa" can also mean "thus speak they" (that is "great men
say that it must be so").
"Aitihya" is not an account of what is directly witnessed: it is to be
accepted as a matter of faith. It is also derived from "iti" (thus great
have spoken "). What we actually observe is "this"; what is told by