History: Understanding Indian History: Sources of reconstructing Ancient Indian History and Religious Literature

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History is the study of past and future events. People know what happened in the past by looking at things from the past including sources (like books, newspapers, and letters) and artifacts (like pottery, tools, and human or animal remains.). A person who studies history is called a historian. The past, with all its decisions completed, its participants dead and its history told, is what the general public perceives as the immutable bedrock on which we historians and archaeologists stand.

Sources for Reconstructing Ancient Indian History

  • A historian needs source material to reconstruct the past. However, sources themselves do not reveal the past. They need interpretation and the historian makes them speak. In fact, the historian is expected to track the source, read texts, follow clues, and ask relevant questions, cross check evidence to offer meaningful explanation. Nowhere in the sources pertaining to king Harsha (seventh century AD) do we find a mention of his defeat at the hands of Chalukya ruler Pulakesin II. But the inscriptions of Pulakesin II claim a victory over Harsha. In this case it is obvious that Harsha’s biographer Bana Bhatt who wrote Harshacharita deliberately did not mention the defeat of his patron.

  • The Mahabharata is a story of conflict between two sets of warring cousins. One in not sure whether there was a real war as narrated in the epic. Some historians believe that the war did happen while others wait for corroborative evidence for the event .The original story was probably composed by bards known as sutas who generally accompanied Kshatriya warriors to the battlefield and recited poems in praise of victories and other achievements of their heroes. These compositions were circulated orally and preserved as part of human memory.

Religious Literature

  • Most ancient Indian texts contain religious themes and these are known as Vedas. They are assigned to c. 1500–500 B.C. The Vedas are four in number. The Rig Veda mainly consists of prayers. The other three, Sama, Yajur and Atharva-contain prayers, rituals, magic and mythological stories. The Upanishads contain philosophical discussion on atma and pramatma. They are also referred to as Vedanta.

  • The two epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, seem to have been finally compiled by A.D. 400. Of the two, the Mahabharata is attributed to sage Vyasa. It originally consisted of 8800 verses and was called Jaya gita or a song dealing with victory. These later got expanded to 24,000 verses and came to be known as Bharata because it contained the stories of the descendants of one of the earliest Vedic tribes called Bharata. A further expanded version of 1,00,000 verses was named Mahabharata. Similarly, the Ramayana of Valmiki originally consisted of 6000 verses than 12,000 verses and was finally expanded to 24,000 verses.

  • The religious books of the Jainas and Buddhists refer to historical persons and incidents connected with their respective religions. The earliest Buddhist texts were written in Pali. They are called Tripitakas (three baskets) viz. Suttapittaka, Valayapati and Abhidhammapitaka. Of the most important non-religious Buddhist literature are the Jatakas. They contain the stories of the previous birth of the Buddha. It was believed that before he was actually born as Gautama, the Buddha passed through over 550 births. Each birth story is called a Jataka.

Secular Literature

  • This category of literature does not have religion as its theme. To this class belongs the Dharmashastras or the law-books which prescribe the duties for different social groups. They set out punishments for persons guilty of theft , murder, adultery, etc. The earliest law book is Manu Smriti. It was the first book translated by the British and formed the basis of Hindu code of law. Arthasastra of Kautilya provides rich material for the study of Indian economy and polity of the Mauryan period.

  • The works of Kalidasa who lived during the Gupta period comprise poems and dramas. The famous among them are Abhijananashakuntalam, Ritusamhara and Meghadutam. Besides being great creative compositions, they provide us with glimpses of the social and cultural life of the Guptas. One such important text is Harshacharita, written by Banabhatta in praise of Harshvardhan.

  • The literature consists of short and long poems in praise of various heroes, written probably to be recited in the courts. It also constitutes the epics called Silpadikaram and Manimekali. The Sangam literature is our major source for the study of south Indian society, economy and polity during BC300–AD300. The descriptions given in the Sangam literatures are confirmed by archaeological finds and accounts of foreign travellers.

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