Study of Early Indian History – 6 Ways To View Ancient India

Approaches to Study of Early Indian History

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While studying Indian history, we have to keep in mind various issues relating to the facts that we have. These facts are in form of evidence – however these facts are the raw material. These facts needs to be analysed to extract useful information regarding history from such sources. For example if we have a book from a particular period – we have to consider under what circumstances it was written, who wrote that book, what was his inclination or ideological disposition, what revisions that book has undergone, in which periods of history such revisions took place, who were the patrons of such revisions and so on.

We also have to keep in mind the disposition of the historians who have analysed these. This is because history is not just a reflection of past history, but also a reflection of current trends. So if a historian was closely linked to the freedom movement, the nationalist streak becomes evident. Similarly if such historian is religious in disposition or favours certain ideological disposition, we can easily decipher such trends. We have to understand such issues because history is not just dates and chronicle of rulers, but a civilizational process. Only when we analyse it, we would be able to extract meaningful information from the sources.

Despite of India having great intellectual and literary activity, it is often complained that India lacked sense of history. This is because, India did not produce a Herodotus or Thucydides, not even a Livy or Tacitus. Also, we find absence of regular historical chronicle that we often find in other civilizations. We cannot complain of wholesale destruction as we do not find reference to such an event. Most of the cultural, traditional and religious knowledge was handed down through oral traditions. If records were kept in written mode, then, it is well possible that such materials were perishable and have perished with time.

However these does not mean that Ancient Indians lacked sense of History. We do find that there were political treaties and religious-historical texts of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. There are also preserved long list of kings in traditional sources like Puranas and Epics. However as the matter in such texts relate to very early times, it is difficult to demarcate where the mythology ends and where the historical record begins.

The traditional sources come from different traditions / schools, and there is differences both in terms of data and interpretations, and therefore it becomes difficult to corraborate these data into meaningful history. Conclusions from these reached by different modern scholars show great divergence. These works cannot be regarded as genuine history, as their objective was firstly, glorification of king, who were there patrons, and secondly, the authors were poets and related to literature, their goal was not to record life and times, but to show their literary and poetic skills. We therefore cannot compare the records passed on by them to be rigorous history as we understand it today.

In 7th century, Hieun Tsang noticed that kings had separate officials as chroniclers. Also, Land grants recorded genealogies of kings and family histories of the rich persons who were given such grants. There were also grants given by such kings, and merchants to religious establishments – these grants are also found and contain the family histories of such persons.

Two classes of work contributing to history were biographies and local chronicles. Many of these historical chronicles could not raise their status to sacred / religious heights of Puranas, nor they possessed critical element of texts like Rajatarangini, and so they could not survive through time. However some of these texts continue to exist in areas like Kashmir, Gujarat, Sind, Nepal etc, as these were preserved by the local rulers as part of family traditions.

All such sources calls for caution and they cannot be taken at their face value. This is because, often they may contain exaggerations regarding achievements of kings in wars and other exploits. These needs to be cross verified and can be counterchecked with any existing document / inscription of rival kings.

In terms of written records, Inscriptions are more useful and help to determine more accurately the Political history regarding the dates, dynasties and names of kings. These inscriptions being public in nature are more nearer to truth than personal records. They are also indicative of the territorial jurisdiction of kings. Records of vassal chiefs and coins also corroborate territorial claims.

We can also well understand the literary and linguistic styles prevalent during those times. Some indications can also be had regarding the nature of society – eg prior to Guptas, more than 95% inscriptions are in Prakrit and subsequent to Guptas, it is just the reverse. Epigraphic evidence has been tha principal source of our information for ancient India as they provide us with hard & unalterable evidence, compared to written sources which have undergone multiple revisions.

Such situations have both its positives and negatives. We find a vast treasury of texts which represent the intellectual and literary activities. These deal mostly with philosophy, religion, ethics, political & economic doctrines, socio-legal texts, lyrics, kavyas, dramas etc. The interesting point is that such vast literature are mostly absent in civilisations like those of ancient Egypt, West Asia, China etc. However, the flip side is that Ancient India did not produce any historical treatise, if current standards of history writing (critical / impartial / perspective oriented) is taken. They contain names, dynasties, events, speculative and religious philosophy and so on – the analysis and social history is absent.

13th century is the dividing line, when rigorous, detailed and content rich history started to be written. This happened with the advent of Muslim historians accompanying their warlords. Though many of them could be called secular, even they relate primarily to matters of king and state. A sound historical reconstructon should also take into account developments in other ancient societies. A comparative approach gives a better understanding of developments in our own history.

Approaches of Historians:

Table of Contents

  1. Colonial View
  2. Approach of Indian historians
    1. Rationalist and Objective Approach
    2. Nationalist Historiography
    3. Hindu Revivalism
  3. Local History
  4. Non Political Historiography
  5. Marxist Historiography
  6. Post Independent

Colonial View

In India, the main development of History and Archaeology as a proper discipline took place during the colonial times. The British scholars constituted various segments – some were missionaries, Indologists, officials etc, and many of them were guided by their own preferences and prejudices. Some prominent names includes William Jones (Asiatic Society), Charles Wilkins, Max Muller, VA Smith (Cambridge school) among others.

The main conclusion of their approach was that ancient Indians lacked sense of history and for them spiritualism was most important. Indians were accustomed to despotic rule, which in a way gave the imperial masters a justification for their own despotic rule in India. They also thought that in India, traditions like caste system was more important and consequently Indians did not have feeling of nationhood leading to lack of self government among them. Such view was again a justification of status-quo for India’s colonial status.

Also, their yardstick used to be the Hellenic civilisation – which in various ways tended to curb impartiality that is required in Historical analysis. British and European scholars thought they were on a civilising mission to India. By denying the rich cultural past, they justified colonialism and despotic imperialism. And worst of that by denigrating cultural / religious aspects of India they aimed to convert people to Christianity.

Element of racial superiority was evident and that clearly aimed at showing that Indians were incapable of governing themselves. This is not to say that western scholars did not contribute anything. Ashokan inscriptions could be deciphered because of their efforts. Many of the traditional books and Vedas were translated into European languages by the Indologists. This led to greater awareness of India in the west. These also affected the Indian educated class in various ways.

Approach of Indian historians

The challenge posed by western imperial scholars made a set of Indian scholars aim to bring social reforms in the society. This was aimed alongwith the aim to reconstruct and reinterprete ancient history. There were different strands among Indian historians with different objectives and orientation.

Rationalist and Objective Approach

The Rationalist and Objective strand made a case for social reform. The social and political history was also reconstructed. eg. Rajendralal Mitra’s ‘Indo Aryans’, demonstrated that in ancient times people took beef; RG Bhandarkar through his research advocated widow marriages and castigated evils of caste system and child marriages; VK Rajavade wrote history of institution of marriage; PV Kane’s work ‘History of Dharmashastra’ enabled a study of ancient social laws.

Nationalist Historiography

The Nationalist Historiography wanted to challenge the imperial historians on political issues and demonstrated through their research, the ability of Indians at self governance in past. They thereby reconstructed political history of India. This was inspired by idea of nationalism and was written at a pan Indian level.

eg. DR Bhandarkar, an epigraphist published books on Asoka & ancient Indian political institutions; HC Raychaudhury reconstructed the history of India from time of Bharata war upto Gupta times; KP Jayaswal & AS Altekar emphasised importance of ruling dynasties in liberating the country from ‘foreign rule’ of Sakas and Kushans; KP Jayaswal exploded the myth of Indian despotism and showed that Republics existed in ancient times and enjoyed measure of self government in ‘Hindu Polity’.

Hindu Revivalism

As the Hindu religious practices was under strain due to various issues relating to caste, ill-treatment of widows, etc, the Hindu Revivalism aimed at making the past a glorification for Hindus so that the current quagmire into which the religion had come into could be corrected. Some of the scholars belonging to this strand were also political leaders who participated in social reform movements towards betterment of women and equality of castes. These included people like BG Tilak and Savarkar. Scholars like RC Majumdar are also considered to be part of such strand. He was the general editor of ‘History & Culture of Indian People’ in the post independent period.

Local History

Local History: Some Historians reserached particular areas for historical purposes. Most important among them was Nilkantha Sastri who wrote ‘A history of South India’ and emphasised the cultural supremacy of Brahmins and harmony that prevailed in early Indian society

Non Political Historiography

Non Political Historiography: Al Basham in ‘Wonder that was India’ believed that past should be read out of curiosity. For him, history was to be written with a sympathetic survey of various facets. His research became much famous and a recommended book and remains popular till date. Coming from a westerner, such a book was in sharp contrast to the prejudices displayed by British authors like Vincent Smith

Marxist Historiography

Marxist Historiography: Another important strand related to those historians who prefered to see history from the point of dialectics. DD Koshambi in his book ‘An Introduction to Study of Indian History’ & ‘Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline’ follows material interpretation of history. These drew inspiration from writings of Marx. History of ancient Indian society was presented by them as an integral part of development of forces and relation of production. It is quite pertinent to note that even Karl Marx had written his notes on Indian History with his observations on India. In present times Romila Thapar among others is considered to be a major exponent of this school.

Post Independent

Post independence, research in History has become localised with various institutions concentrating on research in history of their area. The emphasis has now shifted to social history and its various dimensions. There has also been much cross disciplinary studies that included history with sociology, anthropology, economics and political economy. Issues like stratification, rituals, caste, kinship, religious development and their role in shaping political structures etc have now become more important.

© Anup Mukherjee

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