Ancient Indians, it is generally held, lacked historical sense. Of course, they did not write ‘history’ in the manner it is done today, or in the way the Greeks did. But on closer examination, we do find some sort of historical sense amongst the ancient Indians.
Though encyclopedic in content, the Puranas provide dynastic history up to the beginning of the Gupta rule. They mention the places where events took place and sometimes discuss their causes and effects.
The authors of the Puranas were not unaware of the idea of change, which is the essence of history. The Puranas speak of four ages called krita, treta, dvapara and kali. The importance of time, a vital element in history, is indicated.
Several eras, according to which events were recorded, were started in ancient India. The Vikrama Samvat began in 58 BC, the Shaka Samvat in AD 78, and the Gupta era in AD 319.
Inscriptions record events in the context of time and place. During the third century bc, Asokan inscriptions record events of his reign. Similarly, in the first century bc, Kharavela of Kalinga records a good many events of his life, year-wise, in the Ilathigumpha inscription.
Indians display considerable historical sense in biographical writings, though these are fraught with eulogies and exaggerations. Banabhatta’s Harshacharita is a typical example.
Sandyakara Nandi’s Ramcharila (twelfth century AD) narrates the story of the conflict between the Kaivarta peasants and the Pala prince, Ramapala, resulting in the latter’s victory.
The Mushika Vamsa, written by Atula in the eleventh century, gives an account of the dynasty of the Mushikas which ruled in northern Kerala.
Although educated Indians retained their traditional history in the form of handwritten epics, Puranas and semi-biographical works, modern research in the history of ancient India started in the second half of the eighteenth century, partially because of the natural interest of the British and other Western scholars and partially because of the needs of the colonial administration.
In the wake of the 1857 Revolt, it was strongly realised by British rulers that they needed a deep knowledge of the manners and social systems of an alien people over whom they had to rule. Similarly, the Christian missionaries wanted to find out the vulnerable points in the Hindu religion to win converts and strengthen the British Empire.
To meet these needs, the ancient scriptures were translated on a massive scale under the editorship of Max Mueller. Altogether fifty volumes, some in seven parts, were published under the Sacred Books of the East series. Although a few Chinese and Iranian texts were included, the ancient Indian texts predominated in the series.
In the introductions to these volumes and the books based on them, Max Mueller and other Western scholars made certain generalisations about the nature of ancient Indian history and society.
They stated that the ancient Indians lacked a sense of history, especially the factor of time and chronology, and were accustomed to despotic rule.
The ‘natives’, it was opined, were engrossed in the problems of spiritualism or of the next world, and were least bothered about the problems of this world. The caste system was considered to be the most vicious form of social discrimination.
The Western scholars stressed that the Indians had neither experienced feelings of nationhood nor any kind of self- government.
Many of these generalisations appeared in the Early History of India by V.A. Smith (1843-1920), who prepared the first systematic history of ancient India in 1904. Smith’s approach to history was pro- imperialist: he emphasised the role of foreigners in ancient India.
Alexander’s invasion accounted for almost one-third of his book. India was presented as a land of despotism which did not experience political unity until the establishment of British rule.
In sum, British interpretations of Indian history served to denigrate Indian characters and achievements, and to justify the colonial rule.
Indian scholars who received Western education were irked by colonialist distortions of their past even as they were distressed by the contrast between the decaying feudal society of India and the progressive capitalist society of England.
Many, therefore, started writing ancient Indian history in a nationalist tone, advocating social reform and self- government. There were others who adopted a rationalist and objective approach.
To the rationalist category belongs Rajendra Lai Mitra (1822-1891), who published some Vedic texts and wrote the Indo-Aryans. He produced a forceful tract to show that in ancient times people took beef.
In Maharashtra, R.G. Bhandarkar reconstructed the political history of the Deccan of the Satavahanas and the history of Vaishnavism and other sects. A great social reformer, through his researches he advocated widow marriage and castigated the evils of the caste system and child marriage.
V.K. Rajwade went from village to village in Maharashtra in search of Sanskrit manuscripts and sources of Maratha history; these sources came to be published in twenty-two volumes.
The history of the institution of marriage that he wrote in Marathi in 1926 continues to be a classic because of its solid base in Vedic and other texts, and also because of the author’s insight into the stages of the evolution ol marriage in India.
P.V. Kane (1880-1972), a great Sanskritist wedded to social reform, wrote the Histoi] of the Dharmashastras published in five volumes] which is an encyclopaedia of ancient social laws and customs. It enables us to make a study of social processes in ancient India.
The Indian scholars keenly studied the past tJ demonstrate that India did have its political histo and that the Indians possessed expertise in administration.
D.R. Bhandarkar (1875 1950), an epigra pliist, published books on Asoka and on ancient Indian pulilical institutions. H.C. Raychoudhury (1892-1957) reconstructed the history of undent India from the time of the Mahabharata war (tenth century bc) to the end of the Gupta empire (6th century ad).
However, his writings show a streak of militant Brahmanism when he criticises Asoka’s policy of peace. A strong element of Hindu revivalism appears in the writings of R.C. Mazumdar (1888-1980).
Most writers on early Indian history did not give adequate attention to South India. K.A. Nilkanta Shastri (1892-1975) took the initiative when he wrote the History of South India. Under his leadership, several research monographs were produced on the dynastic history of South India.
Until 1960, political history attracted the largest number of Indian scholars, who also glorified the histories of their respective regions on dynastic lines.
Those who wrote history on a pan-India level were inspired by the idea of nationalism. The nationalist historians gave much less importance to Alexander’s invasion and placed stress on the importance of the dialogue of Porus with Alexander and Chandragupta Maurya’s liberation of northwestern India from Seleucus.
Some scholars such as K.P. Jayaswal (1881-1937) and A.S. Altekar (1898- 1959) overplayed the role of the Shakas and the Kushanas. However, K.P. Jayaswal exploded the myth of Indian despotism and showed that republics existed in ancient times and enjoyed a measure of self-government.
A Sanskritist by training, A.L. Basham (1914-86) questioned the wisdom of looking at ancient India from the modern point of view. He believed that the past should be read out of curiosity and pleasure.
His book The Wonder That Was India (1951) is a sympathetic survey of the various facets of ancient Indian culture and civilisation, and is free of the prejudices that prevail in V.A. Smith or other British writers. It is a shift from political to non-political history.
The same shift is evident in D.D. Kosambi’s books. His treatment follows the materialist interpretation of history. Kosambi presents the history of ancient Indian society, economy and culture as an integral part of the development of the forces and relations of production.
During the last twenty-five years, there has been n sca-change in the methods and orientation of those working on ancient India. Greater stress is now laid on social, economic, and cultural processes and on relating them to political developments.