Itihāsas: Classical Period History or Dharma?

Itihāsas: Classical Period History or Dharma?
Episodes from the Ramayana being enacted on stage in Bali (Indonesia) and from the Mahabharata in a street play in Tamil Nadu

Recently, a high level NCERT panel recommended that Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata must be taught as part of history curriculum as ‘Bhārata’s Classical Period’. The idea is to place the itihāsas as a separate period which will be followed by Medieval period, British era and Modern India.

When the NEP 2020 was published, the one thing that I expected to see but was thoroughly disappointed was the singularly Bhāratīya civilisational term ‘dharma’. Dharma is the bedrock of our culture and upon which our entire history stands; yet not a single mention of the term is seen in the entire document!

What is the correlation between dharma and the recommendation, you must be wondering. It will be made clear in a little while. Before that, it must be highlighted that it is a fallacy to club itihāsas with history. We know that we have a long and eventful history. Some of our kings have been among the greatest to rule on the planet, some have ruled enviably large territories spanning continents. Yet, we do NOT call all these as itihāsa (in the same sense as we refer to Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata ALTHOUGH in certain languages the term ‘itihāsa’ might mean history). We usually call history as ‘caritra’.

Here are the differences between chronological history and itihāsas:


History: History is the chronological record of events that happened, the people involved, the causes and repercussions and their contributions to our nation.

Itihāsas: Cāṇakya, in Arthaśāstra (c 300 BCE), clarifies what itihāsa means:

पुराणमितिवृत्तमाख्यायिकोदाहरणं धर्मशास्त्रं चेतीतिहास*

Purāṇamitivruttamākhyāyikodāharaṇam dharmaśāstram cetītihāsah

purāṇam (the chronicles of the ancients) iti (that is) vṛttam (history) ākhyāyika (tales) udāharaṇam (illustrative stories) dharmaśāstra (the canon of righteous conduct) ca (together) iti (make up) itihāsa (itihāsa)


History: To know our pasts and how things have unfolded for us.

Itihāsas: Inculcation of dharma in order to understand the right way to live.


History: The incidents must be placed contextually in order to be understood. Absence of context makes it hard to comprehend certain behaviours.

Itihāsas: The incidents are relevant to human behaviour irrespective of the time frame. These have eternal value in this sense.


History: History is closely related to and has a great impact in the place that is close to the geography of the place of its occurrence.

Itihāsas: They tend to have a transcending appeal irrespective of geography of occurrence.


History: Historical events tend to display linear tendency.

Itihāsas: Itihasas are multi-dimensional and multi-layered. They are as complex as the human mind itself.


History: There is a greater degree of accuracy to determine dates, places, events and occurrences in case of recorded history.

Itihāsas: In the case of itihāsas, while the events, dates and places can be verified, some occurrences such as Gandhārī having 100 sons, Hanuman lifting Sañjīvanī mountain etc., cannot be verified through available scientific methods.


History: Primarily through books and academic texts. Certain significant events and persons are presented via theatre, movies etc.

Itihāsas: These are studied as texts, they are re-written to enhance the experience of the readers, they are depicted through all traditional art forms including painting, sculpting, theatre, puppetry, music, dance etc.,


History: History tends to impact to a higher degree those who are associated with the events and persons either in time or in place.

Itihāsas: Itihāsas are very close to the readers’ heart and all aspects of life irrespective of the place that they are at or the generation that they belong to.

 Therefore, it is very clear that itihāsas are not to be treated as mere history and must certainly be kept out of history texts. Conflating history and itihāsas will create unnecessary confusions as both seek to serve very different purposes. It will also pave way for mindless criticism of our itihāsas as being ‘unscientific’ and/or ‘unreal’ history. This will only make it all the easier for external forces to convince people that our itihāsas do not qualify as history and will be counter-productive to the purpose of including itihāsas into history books.

Click HERE to read PART - 2