What The Ramayana Tells Us About Itself

Koenraad Elst

Mar 06, 2023, 11:39 AM | Updated 11:39 AM IST

The cover of  Jijith Nadumuri Ravi’s The Geography of Ramayana: A Geographical Journey into the Rama Era.
The cover of Jijith Nadumuri Ravi’s The Geography of Ramayana: A Geographical Journey into the Rama Era.
  • Nadumuri coherently explores the geography of Ramayana and presents the reader with new insights and astounding revelations.
  • The Geography of Ramayana: A Geographical Journey into the Rama Era. Jijith Nadumuri Ravi. Notion Press. 2023. Pages 630. Rs 511.

    We are lucky that we can devote a book review to Jijith Nadumuri Ravi’s The Geography of Ramayana: A Geographical Journey into the Rama Era (Notion, Delhi 2023), a swift sequel to his geographical analysis of an earlier scripture: Rivers of the Rg-Veda (ibidem 2022).

    This book draws our attention to numerous geographically or historically consequential details in the epic, which often yield unexpected information.

    And this, the former ISRO space scientist Nadumuri does with great rigour, contrasting with the endless wishful thinking of so many self-styled history rewriters.

    Nadumuri is not the first scholar who refuses to accept the Ramayana geography that has come down to us.

    In the 1950s already, the sceptical Marxist D D Kosambi, followed by H D Sankalia and a string of later “rationalists”, already doubted that Rama had ever gone that far south, certainly not as far as Ramesvaram or Sri Lanka.

    But precisely because of their principled scepticism, their denial of serious value to an epic poem that had become a Hindu scripture, their criticism of the traditional reading lost some of its force.

    A priori, Leftists tended to dismiss the epics as little more than fantasy.

    In the late nineteenth century in Europe, the scientist vogue had similarly dismissed all ancient tradition as mere invention: Troy did not exist, the Hittites mentioned in the Bible had not existed, even Jesus had been no more than a product of fantasy.

    This approach was still being imitated in India in the late twentieth and even in the twenty-first century, and praised by the secularists as a refreshing contrast to Hindu obscurantism.

    The Epics And Real History

    But in fact, this approach is quite obsolete. While the academics pooh-poohed the legend of Troy, an amateur went to excavate the site that geographically corresponded to Homer’s Troy, and he found the city.

    Shortly after, the Hittite language was discovered and proved to explain some names of Trojan heroes. At once, the Biblical references to a hitherto unknown Hittite people (to which eg Esau’s two wives belonged) also proved historical.

    About Jesus, no serious scholar will repeat today that he didn’t exist. That he was god’s only-begotten son, born from a virgin, resurrected from the dead, the redeemer from sin, or the messiah (“anointed one”, the heir to king David’s throne), those are items of faith, up for discussion and doubt.

    But that an exorcist and purported healer roamed Palestine, that he fancied himself the messiah, and that he died on the cross, are now generally accepted as historical facts.

    So, Nadumuri takes the present text seriously.

    This starts with genealogical data, where he makes a productive use of the king-lists. These are other such artefact from ancient literature that Indian “rationalists” mock.

    However, the histories of Mesopotamia and Egypt would be nowhere but for their local king-lists. In India too, these are the most reliable part of the Itihasa-Purana literature.

    To explain this phrase “most reliable”, it is worth quoting Nadumuri’s unassailable assessment of the degrees of soberness versus fantasy in the different parts of Hindu literature:

    “Despite being poetry, RV [Rg-Veda] is mostly devoid of magical narratives. RV does describe boons and curses. They cause mental discomfort. But they don’t cause any physical transformations like turning a man into an animal or such magical effects found in the Itihasa Puranas.

    “The nouns that come close to the word ‘curse’ in RV are Aghasamsa (evil wish) and Abhisasti (blaming). The noun Sapa appears only in RV 10 (the 10th Mandala of RV) meaning evil wish, damnation, or blaming. Vara (boon) mentioned in RV has nothing magical. It represents a general blessing like that of Indra to his worshippers.

    “Similarly, there are no divine weapons (Divyastras) mentioned in RV. The noun Vimana is used to poetically describe the act of the sun moving through the sky, in the sense that it ‘measures out’ the sky. In the Vedas, the Rsis aspire to live for 100 years considering it as a very long life. The Puranic poets describe people as living for 1000s of years.” (p.29)

    Many Hindu readers will be curious as to what this no-nonsense historian makes of the vimana, so often cited as proof of how their ancestors already had helicopters; so we will let you share in Nadumuri’s insights:

    Vimana — a vehicle that can fly in the sky based on the will of the rider — could be a Poetic Imagination of Valmiki himself. The imagination of flight is very ancient in human prehistory, in all the cultures across the globe. Vimana originally meant the tall towers of the cities.

    They contain balconies where people can stand and watch the ground from an elevation. If Valmiki were to stand inside one of them, it could trigger the feeling that the static Vimana is somehow flying in the sky, carrying the people standing inside them.” (p.31)

    He analyses the occurrences of Vimanas more closely (p.359) and concludes that in those cases where they are flying vehicles, this has all the characteristics of poetic imagination.

    “The concept of a flying Vimana that can go to any place based on the will of the person using it, was thus born in the mind of the poet. This is the world’s first science-fiction.” (p.67)

    Rama And Santanu

    We see history shade over from mostly sober and factual in the Vedas to a more embellished and sometimes purely fantasised form in the Itihasa-Puraṇas.

    Yet, the part that was least tampered with, that was learned by heart and arguably formed the first reason for composing quasi-historical literature, were the king-lists.

    We skip the flood of light that Nadumuri throws upon the genealogical information in the early Veda and the later Mahabharata, and focus on his startling coordination of the Ramayana with the Vedas’ end and the Mahabharata’s beginning.

    As year of the Mahabharata battle Nadumuri takes 1783, the time calculated by Ashok Bhatnagar on astronomical grounds, and he correlates this with newer archaeological findings of Ochre Coloured Pottery (with newly-appearing hoards of weapons), certified by the Archaeological Survey of India to date to the eighteenth century BC, and with the known timing of the Sarasvati’s desiccation.

    He thus rejects oft-cited traditionalist dates like 3139 BC, or other dates thereabouts or even millennia earlier. The great-grandfather of the Kaurava and Pandava warriors is Santanu.

    His stepson is Kṛṣṇa Dvaipayana who becomes the final editor of the Veda-Trayi, hence nicknamed Veda-Vyasa. This Vyasa is also the sperm donor who stands in for his early-deceased half-brother, Vicitravirya, in order to father upon the latter’s widows, the sons Dhrtarastra and Pandu, thus becoming the grandfather of the Kauravas c.q. the Pandavas.

    The Vedas seem to confirm this historical placement of Vyasa: his stepfather Santanu is the last human being mentioned in the Rg-Veda, his biological son Dhrtarastra the last person mentioned in the Yajur-Veda.

    (The Atharva-Veda took a few generations longer, with Arjuna’s grandson Pariksit, or Vyasa great-great-grandson, as the youngest person mentioned.)

    Nadumuri teaches his Hindu readers to candidly read the historical parts of the Vedas as an account of what really happened, and to outgrow the tendency to cramped literalism that too many Hindus have come to accept as a condition of proper piety before scripture.

    Thus, it is commonly believed that the Parasara who was with his grandfather Vasistha in the early-Vedic Battle of the Ten Kings was the same man who sired Vyasa: Vasistha sired Sakti sired Parasara sired Vyasa, which would mean that the dozens of generations between the early Rg-Veda and its final editing get reduced to just four generations.

    So more realistically, the Vasiṣṭha (and similarly Bharadvaja and Visvamitra) who is part of Rama’s life is a descendant of but not identical with the early-Vedic sage of that name.


    “The Early-RV Vasistha (the priest of Sudas), Satayatu and Parasara are mentioned as the witnesses of the Dasarajna Battle (7.18.21). As per RV Anukramani, Sakti composed the hymn RV 7.32. (…) These Vasistha, Sakti and Parasara belonged to Early-RV.

    “The Late-RV Vasistha composed many hymns in RV 9 and 10. The Late-RV Sakti composed the hymns RV 9.97 and RV 9.108. The hymn RV 9.97 was jointly composed by his son Parasara Saktya. Sakti’s descendent Gauriviti Saktya composed RV 10.73 and RV 10.74. Thus, there were individuals by the name Vasistha, Sakti and Parasara in Late-RV too.

    “The Vasistha and Sakti of the Valmiki Ramayana and the MBh were Late-RV and different from the Early-RV ancestors. The Late-RV Vasistha is contemporary to Aja. Vasistha’s son Sakti is contemporary to Aja’s son Dasaratha.

    “Sakti’s son Parasara is contemporary to Rama and hence also to Santanu. Parasara’s son Vyasa is contemporary to Rama’s son Lava and also to Santanu’s son Vicitravirya. This perfectly matches with the chronology of MBh.” (p.403)

    Alright, that was a long run-up before coming to our points.

    Firstly, according to Nadumuri, Rama is the same person as the Rama mentioned as a mighty one among the sponsors in RV 10:93:14, so in the very last stage of the RV.

    It already stood to reason that Rama belonged somewhere in the long Vedic age, but this specification toward its very last phase is somewhat surprising.

    Equally surprising is that he would be mentioned in the Rg-Veda at all.

    While Nadumuri casts doubt on the assumption that Ayodhya had been the Solar Dynasty’s ancestral home, pointing to several shifts of the capital (though possibly with retention of the city’s name), one even only some two generations before Rama, he confirms that Rama himself was born in the Ayodhya that is now in eastern Uttar Pradesh, hundreds of miles from the Vedic area.

    It was a common assumption that the Solar and Lunar worlds were quite separate, but here Nadumuri reminds us of serious overlaps.

    The Ramayana’s geographical horizon stretches as far west as Kekaya in western Panjab, west of the Vedic area. Conversely, as described in the Satapatha Brahmana, it was already in the mid-Vedic period that some Vedic priests took a leadership role in exploring the east up to Videha, east of the Sadanira river (ie in northwestern Bihar), taking the fire cult that far but also using the fire materially to clear forests and thus make way for fields and meadows.

    They made swampy lands cultivable, the way the Christian monks would do some 3,000 years later in this reviewer’s own region, the low countries.

    And this was all to the east of Ayodhya.

    So, it is not proven but actually quite plausible that Rama as a king in the powerful Solar dynasty finds mention among the patrons of the Vedic tradition.

    And secondly, the aforementioned Santanu, who flourished in the early 19th century BC, was contemporary with Rama. While the exact place of Rama’s birth has raised enough controversy, his date of birth has only been the object of some rival hypotheses but with no real conflict ensuing.

    Nadumuri proposes an estimate of 1920 BC. (p.35) Both come a few generations after the Bharata king Kuru for whom his Kaurava descendants were so named: Santanu because he was his descendant, Rama because he visited the region Kurujangala (“Kuru’s jungle”) named after the patriarch.

    A date of ca. 1900 BC is as yet unsupported by excavations, but only narrowly: “Archaeology has reported sites as old as 1750 BCE in Ayodhya. The archaeological gap between 1900 BCE to 1750 BCE is very short. It may get resolved in the future.”

    Archaeological dating is inherently uncertain, as a new discovery may suddenly change the picture. On the other hand, if Ayodhya was still a new city at the time of Rama’s birth (as Nadumuri will argue, cf. infra), and 1750 BC proves to be a correct archaeology-based estimate for the founding of the city, Rama may have lived in the late seventeenth century BC.

    And if Santanu did likewise, his great-grandsons may have waged the Mahabharata battle in 1504 or 1478, — the next astronomy-based dates proposed for it, viz by Krishna Kumar c.q. RN Iyengar.

    The jury is still out on the exact year, but on the basis of the king-list information that Mahapadma Nanda’s coronation (4th century BC) came 1015 to 1500 year after Pariksit’s birth (which was less than a year after the battle), we must at any rate look between the nineteenth and the fourteenth century BC.

    The World Ages

    This means Rama belonged to the final stratum of the Rg-Veda, and came three generations earlier than the Kauravas, Pandavas and Krishna.

    That the Rama narrative was older than the war of succession in the Bharata dynasty is generally known; only a handful of Western scholars, a few decades ago already, wanted to reverse the order. But few would have expected them to be that close.

    For the believers in a precisely-timed scheme of four world ages, it must be especially disappointing. In their “tradition” (actually hardly older than 500 AD), Rama is the Treta ka Thakur, the lord of the Treta Yuga, while Krishna's death marks the end of the Dvapara Yuga.

    This means the Dvapara Yuga stretches over less than three generations, rather than the traditional thousands of years.

    Then again, Nadumuri later (p.393) also considers indications that, contrary to these indications, Rama partly belonged to the Dvapara Yuga; but that would still add only one generation to this hopelessly short Dvapara Yuga.

    Well, all this doesn’t matter much once we realise the recentness and artificiality of the usual temporal scheme of the yugas.

    While a scheme of four world ages already existed in the pre-Vedic time of Proto-Indo-European unity (hence its reappearance in Greek and Germanic mythology, viz as Golden-Silver-Bronze-Iron Age c.q. Spear-Sword-Wind-Wolf Age), it was never linked to specific time periods.

    This link appeared when the precession cycle of 25,772 years, approximated as 24,000 years, had been discovered (Hipparchus, 127 BC), providing a uniquely long cosmic cycle.

    It took several centuries before this knowledge, transmitted by the Indo-Greeks, had taken root in India. The next step was that the world ages were now seen as fractions of half of this cycle, in a proportion of 1:2:3:4.

    This arbitrary but reasonably-proportioned division was ascribed to sage Markandeya. In a next move, these figures were multiplied by 360, apparently out of awe for things heavenly (equating a year for men with a day for the gods), yielding the Puranic figures of 432,000 years and its multiples.

    These form an example of an “invented tradition”, a fairly recent tradition that is falsely projected back into the deep past. But if we go back to reality, these figures don’t matter, and the time-span from Rama to Krishna can really have been much shorter.

    Ayodhya: Now You See It, Now You Don’t

    Next, and for most of the book, Nadumuri explores the geographical detail in descriptions of which direction Rama or Hanuman went in a certain phase of their itineraries, or how many yojanas (of which the length is disputed, but Nadumuri gives an informed guess) they covered.

    The first question, much highlighted in the Ayodhya controversy, is: but was this really Rama’s birthplace?

    About that, he finds no reason for doubt, but just a few generations earlier as well as later, the situation was more complicated.

    In the very beginning of his Ramayana (Bala Kanda, sarga 5-6), Valmiki describes Dasaratha’s Ayodhya as well as his ancestor Sagara’s Ayodhya, and: “Sagara’s Ayodhya was different from Dasaratha’s Ayodhya.” (p.55).

    The Solar dynasty’s capital was moved yet again just after Rama’s death:

    “The probable reason for [Rama’s twin sons] Kusa and Lava abandoning Ayodhya is because the Saraya river flooded Ayodhya. Probably the same flood ended the life of Rama and Bharata, and perhaps also of Laksmana.

    This fact is shrouded in poetic imagination as follows — Rama, Bharata and every citizen of Ayodhya entered Sarayu to end their life!

    The poet did capture a bit of the reality. He noted that the river Sarayu flowed in a westward direction (7.100.1). The normal direction of the flow of the river near Ayodhya is to the east. The river made a westward turn, causing the flood that destroyed Ayodhya.” (p.410-411)

    As a consequence, the city temporarily becomes a ghost town without inhabitants nor historical importance:

    “Ayodhya was missing when Santanu’s son Bhisma and grandson Paṇḍu rose to prominence. Kasi was then a great city of Kosala. Hence, Bhisma chose the princesses of Kasu as brides for his brother Vicitravirya.

    “They were addressed as Kausalya (the princesses of Kosala). Ayodhya did not feature in the military expedition of Pandu. Probably, it was being rebuilt then.

    “The rebuilt Ayodhya was featured in the military expedition of Pandu’s son Bhima. It was then ruled by a king named Dirghaprajna. Duryodhana’s son was named Laksmana. His mother seems to be from Kosala. This was why the Kosala king Brhadbala, sided with Duryodhana in the Kuruksetra War.

    Brhadbala was a descendant of Kusa. He wasn’t ruling from Ayodhya. Brhadbala was killed by Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu in the Kuruksetra War.” (p.419)

    At any rate, the house of Rama and the Bharata dynasty met in combat on the Kuruksetra battlefield.

    Incarnation Of Viṣṇu

    After having argued that Santanu and Rama are contemporaneous, on p.134 Nadumuri adds a third important person to the same time bracket:

    Rama the son of Jamadagni, a sage of the late Rg-Veda, and descendant of Bhrgu. The Itihasa-Purana literature has popularised him as Parasu-Rama, “Rama with the Axe”. (According to Shrikant Talageri, this is a corruption of the, by then forgotten, ethnonym Parsu, an Anava subtribe that ended up fleeing India and becoming the Persians.)

    Being as old as Santanu, he naturally became the teacher of the latter’s first son, Bhisma, and played a role in both epics.

    This creates a problem for devout Vaisnavas though.

    How could Rama Jamadagnya be contemporaneous with Rama Dasaratha, yet both be incarnations of Visnu?

    Modern reincarnation researchers might point to the fact that outside India, other conceptions of reincarnation exist, example, a native chieftain in Canada announced on his deathbed that he would reincarnate in a number of children, and some years later, several children did indeed report memories of having been that one chieftain.

    But it seems to us that a better way out of this dilemma is to take to the doctrine of divine incarnations, the Avataravada, less literally.

    Being an incarnation of a god is just a manner of speaking. It means that a deceased mortal, when you oversee his life, has played the same role in the world that the deity plays in mythology,

    For example, upholding Dharma in society replicates Visnu’s role as Maintainer. It is one specific, deity-oriented form of a more general form of apotheosis, “elevation to godhood” (in Semitic Sirk, “associating a mortal with the divine”, which became the Islamic term for “idolatry”).

    As Nadumuri explains: “Usually, the route to deification in Sanatana Dharma is the elevated consciousness of the individual and their antiquity.

    Many ancestors — among them many gurus, warriors, kings, and queens — are deified and worshipped as divinities”. (p.23)

    In this case, it should be understood that Rama’s (or others’) status of incarnation of Visnu was not an original part of his persona: “the core of Valmiki’s Ramayana is closer to RV. The remapping of Rama as the Avatara of Visnu was a later development. Visnu became a prominent divinity in the Puranic Period.” (p.22)

    This is yet another “invented tradition”, here a post-Rama claim on Rama, one that in this case managed to penetrate by interpolation the peripheral parts of the epic.

    The Geography

    We have not given away any detail about the main topic of the book, elaborated so painstakingly, taking into account every single passage of the epic, by Jijith Nadumuri Ravi.

    Let us at least disclose that he nowhere finds Rama or other protagonists crossing the Narmada river.

    To make a very long argumentation short: while the location of Ayodhya or nearby Citrakuta remains uncontroversial, his farther journey takes him into more uncertain territory: Kiskindha was not in Hampi, and Lanka was not Sri Lanka.

    According to Nadumuri, the Ramayaṇa contains “not a single reference of Rama ever crossing the river Narmada! (…) This upsets the traditionally popular locations of Kiskindha and Lanka.

    Kiṣkindha is popularly identified with Hampi in Karnataka. (…) Lanka is popularly identified with Sri Lanka.

    However, despite these deep-rooted notions in the psyche of the believers, archaeology has found no trace of evidence for any urban culture in Sri Lanka during Rama-Era.

    Valmiki Ramayaṇa describes Lanka city as having a Harappan-style urban culture. (…) we identified Lanka with the Bhagatrav island in the mouth of Narmada where it joins the sea. (…) It matched perfectly with the prosperous city of Lanka.”

    If you want to voice objections to this daring application of the scientific temper to a religious classic, at least go buy and read the book first, so you come to know what exactly it is that you want to object to.

    And if you just want to know the historical hard data underlying a fascinating epic, this book is the best you’ll find in a long time.

    It avoids the conventionalism of the textbooks but also the enthusiastic flights of the imagination so badly affecting the self-styled history rewriters.

    Koenraad Elst (°Leuven 1959) distinguished himself early on as eager to learn and to dissent. After a few hippie years he studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. As an independent researcher he earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state, the roots of Indo-European, the Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi's legacy. He also published on the interface of religion and politics, correlative cosmologies, the dark side of Buddhism, the reinvention of Hinduism, technical points of Indian and Chinese philosophies, various language policy issues, Maoism, the renewed relevance of Confucius in conservatism, the increasing Asian stamp on integrating world civilization, direct democracy, the defence of threatened freedoms, and the Belgian question. Regarding religion, he combines human sympathy with substantive skepticism.

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