History is the study of past events. It helps us to understand those processes that enabled the early humans to successfully conquer their environment and develop the present day civilizations. It is not just a study of battles and kings as is normally understood by some. It is an analysis of society, economy and cultural trends over a long period as reflected in available sources. A historian tries to evaluate different situations over a long period and asks questions as to why certain events happened and what was their impact on society at large? Every new evidence or a fresh interpretation of existing evidence by different scholars helps in enriching our knowledge about the past. A historian differentiates between fact and fiction. However , myths which are based on oral tradition of a society may contain memories of past happenings. The historian’s job is to ascertain the fact through cross checking of different historical evidence. In this lesson you will learn how India’s ancient past was constructed with the help of large varieties of historical evidence and their interpretation.
After seen this video you will be able to:
- understand historical construction of India’s ancient past;
- know about various types of source material used by ancient historians and
- identify changing traditions of history writing
Understanding Indian History Nios Chapter 1st
SOURCES FOR RECONSTRUCTING ANCIENT INDIAN HISTORY
A historian needs source material to reconstruct the past. But 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, ask relevant questions, cross check evidence to offer meaningful explanation. For example in 1826 Charles Masson noticed the high walls and towers of an old settlement in Harappa Village of western Punjab ( now in Pakistan), and five decides later Sir Alexander Cunningham collected some seals from the site, but it took archaeologist John Marshall another fifty years to identify the oldest civilization in the Indus region.
For example 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.
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 c.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 descendents 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.
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 books 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. Works on grammar are also sometimes useful for historical reconstruction. The earliest and the most important work on grammar is the Ashtadhyayi written by Panini, which is dated by scholars to around 700 B.C.
The earliest south Indian literature is called Sangam literature. It was written in Tamil and is secular in nature. It was produced by poets who joined together in assemblies (Sangam) patronized by chiefs and kings during the first four centuries of the Christian era. 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.
Inscriptions are permanent writings engraved on hard surface such as stone, metal or terracotta. Study of inscriptions is called epigraphy. The earliest inscriptions were written on stone. They usually record the achievements, activities and ideas of those who got them inscribed. So we get inscriptions which glorify the exploits of kings or mention donations made by men and women for religious purposes. Those inscriptions which are composed by poets in praise of kings and patrons are known as prashastis. Some inscriptions carry dates. Others are dated on the basis of palaeography or style of writing, with a fair amount of precision. The earliest inscriptions were in Prakrit, a name for a language used by ordinary people. In later times, Tamil and Sanskrit were also used to write inscriptions.
The Aramaic and Greek scripts were used for inscriptions in Afghanistan so that the local people could understand their subject matter. The Brahmi script was first deciphered in 1837 by James Princep who was a civil servant during the British rule. Brahmi was written from left to right like Hindi while Kharosthi from right to left. Ashokan inscriptions help us greatly in understanding his religious and administrative policies. From the first century B.C. the kings started granting land to religious people. The Satavahans kings of the Deccan were the first ones to do so. These inscriptions record the concessions granted to the donee ( the receiver of grant ). Such inscriptions help us in finding out the religious and economic activities of the period.
The study of coins is known as numismatics. It not only includes visual elements such as script and images on the coins but also metallurgical analysis. Ancient coins were mostly minted in metals such as copper, silver, gold and lead. The earliest coins found in India contained certain symbols and were called punch-marked coins. They were made of silver and copper (c. sixth century BC onwards). The first coins to bear the names and images of rulers were issued by the Indo-Greeks, who established control over the northwestern part of the subcontinent (c. second century BC). The first gold coins were issued by the Kushanas in c. first century AD. Some of the most spectacular gold coins were issued by the Gupta rulers. Their earliest issues are remarkable for their purity of gold content.
The material remains of the past can be studied with the help of archaeology. Archaeology is a science that enables us to systematically dig the successive layers of old mounds and to form an idea of the material life of the people of the past on the basis of remains found there. Archaeology is very important to study prehistory i.e. the period before the invention of writing. History is basically based on written material. Although writing was known in India by 2500 BC in the Indus culture, its script has not so far been deciphered. Thus, though the Harappans knew how to write but the historians have not been able to read it. Their culture is placed in the period called proto-historic phase. The first script to be deciphered was Brahmi which was used in the Ashokan inscriptions and it belongs to the third century BC.
The history of climate and vegetation is known through an examination of plant residues, and especially through pollen analysis. On this basis it is suggested that agriculture was practised in Kashmir and Rajasthan around 7000–6000 BC. The nature and components of metal artefacts can also be analysed scientifically, and consequently the mines from which metals were obtained are located and stages in the development of metal technology identified. The geological studies provide an idea of the history of soil, rocks etc, where prehistoric man lived. Human history cannot be understood without an idea of the continuing interaction between soils, plants and animal, on one hand, and humans, on the other. Taken together with archaeological remains, geological and biological studies act as important sources for the reconstruction and development of human history.
ACCOUNT OF FOREIGN TRAVELLERS
Indigenous literature can be supplemented by foreign accounts. To India came Greek, Roman and Chinese visitors, either as ambassadors or travellers or to seek religious knowledge from time to time. They have left behind an account of the things they saw. To the court of Chandragupta Maurya came a Greek Ambassador called Megasthenes who wrote Indika. Its original text is lost but parts of it have been preserved in fragments quoted by subsequent Greek writers. When read together, these fragments, furnish valuable information not only about the administration but also social classes and economic activities of the Mauryan period.
CHANGING NOTIONS OF HISTORY
It was suggested, particularly by western scholars that ancient Indians had no sense of writing history, But it is not true. Actually, Indian’s sense of writing history was different from that of the Westerners. The people from the West recorded events in chronological order while the ancient Indians wrote in a different manner. It can be seen in the texts called the Puranas where four different ages called Krita, Treita, Dvapara and Kali are mentioned. And in each age we get detailed lists of the rulers and dynasties. Besides, a large number of inscriptions have been discovered. These give genealogies of kings of various dynasties and also refer to their achievements. It shows that Indians had the basic knowledge of time (period) and space where events were taking place.
In 1904, Vincent A Smith wrote Early History of India. It was the first systematic history of ancient India. In this book his approach to history was pro British and he tried to justify the British rule in India. It served as good propaganda material for the perpetuation of despotic British rule.
After independence, a new trend in history writing took over. There was a shift towards the writing of non-political history with greater emphasis on society and economy. The Wonder that was India was one such pioneering work written by A.L. Basham (1914–1986). A further shift is evident in D.D. Kosambi’s (1907 – 1966) book An Introduction to the Study of Indian History. His treatment follows a socioeconomic aspect of ancient Indian history. After him a large number of historians followed the trend and focused on social, economic and cultural history. Their main stress was on means of production and the social and economic relationship among different groups of people.
THEMES IN INDIAN HISTORY
For an overall knowledge of the past, students are to be made aware of various aspects of society, called THEMES. These themes enable us to learn about developments in different spheres – social, economic, religious, political and cultural. The developments in these spheres are so much interlinked that they often break the boundaries between them, for example when the pastoral society of the early Vedic Age got transformed into settled agricultural society in the later Vedic Age, the political system changed as a consequence.
The king who was earlier known as Gopati (lord of cattle) in pastoral society became Bhupati (lord of land) with the development of agricultural economy. And with that the wars began to be fought for acquiring more land instead of cows. The kings gradually became powerful and kingship hereditary. So, we notice that changes in different spheres are related to each other an they often influence major developments. In this course material you will learn about the development in the fields of art, architecture, caste system, science and economy, technology and also about the rise and growth of various religious sects and rituals