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144. 004. Ancient Lecture 4 ppt

History of Ancient India
By Manikant Singh
India: from the point of view of foreign writers
•What were observations of the foreign writers
and travelers about the life in ancient India?
•How far are their accounts useful as a source
of study of ancient India?
Ancient India was well linked to the rest of
world even during ancient times. There was a
robust commercial and cultural contact
between India and outside world. Traders,
missionaries, ambassadors, invaders, military
generals, etc. trickling into India commented
about her.
Grecko-Roman Accounts:
The oldest reference to India in the Greek
accounts was in Herodotus’s ‘The
Histories’. He was possibly the first one
to use the term ‘India.’
The accounts of individuals like
Nearchus, Ptolemy I Soter, Aristobulus,
etc. who came to India along with
Arrival of Megasthenes of as an
ambassador of Seleucus I Nicator to the
court of Chandragupta Maurya and his
account of ‘Indica’.
In the early centuries of Common Era
(CE), references were made to India in
Naturalis Historica of Pliny, Bibliotheca
Historica of Diodorus Siculus, Anabasis
of Alexander of Arrian, Geographica of
Strabo, etc.
Significance as historical sources:
1- Alexander’s historians described the
monarchies, republics and contemporary
socio-cultural elements in the North-Western
part of subcontinent during the 4th century
BCE. In the absence of other sources, these
are the only sources for the study of NorthWestern Indian subcontinent during this
2-The Sandrocotus- referred to have met
Alexander in the Greek sources- has been
identified with Chandragupta Maurya. The
chronology of dynastic history of India could
be established on this basis.
• 3- As a contemporary writing, Megasthenes’s
‘Indica’ is an important source for the study of
Mauryan period. Due to his proximity to the
royal court, he could report some key
administrative details.
• 4- Through the accounts of Roman writers
and ‘Periplus of Erythrean Sea’, important
information on the trade links between Indian
Ocean, Red Sea and Persian Gulf and trade
with Roman Empire has been highlighted.
• 5- Due to their foreign roots, they were free
from biases.
Chinese Accounts:
•Chinese were attracted to India due to their
devotion to Buddhism.
•Many scholars came to India to collect
Buddhist scriptures. Fa Hien (399-414 CE) and
Huen Tsang (629-645 CE) were prominent
among them.
• In the accounts of Fa Hien, apart from
Buddhism, some other crucial details are
discussed. E.g. he discussed the prosperity of
Madhya Desha and Patliputra. He was possibly
the first foreign observer to notice the plight of
• Huen Tsang was contemporary of Harsha and
describes his reign with some detail. In the
course of giving an account of Buddhism in
contemporary India, he made incidental
references to Geography, Climate, Economic
Activities, Social Aspects, etc.
Arab-Persian Chronicles:
The Arab writings represent a period
when a large part of the world was
integrated under a single Islamic
empire. Under the Islamic rule, trade
as well as intellectual pursuit were
stimulated. In this order, Arab writers
mention India in their accounts.
The exact dates of Arabic-Persian
accounts are easily established because
those were clearly dated in the Hijri
Calendar, starting with 622 CE.
The Arab conquest of Sindh in 712 CE
is discussed in the book, ‘Chachnama’.
The ‘Hudud Al Alam’ - a geography
book written in Persian in 10th century- is
important for the geographic information
it provides. But, it authorship is unknown.
Arab sources are very important for a
detailed account of India’s land and sea trade
with West Asia, South-East Asia, Central Asia
and areas around Mediterranean Sea during
the period from 9th century to 13th century.
Suleiman, Ibn Khordadbeh, Al Masudi, Al
Idris, etc. gave useful accounts on India.
But, the singular most important source is
the ‘Kitab-ul-Hind’ written by Al Beruni in 11th
century. It is the most important source to
understand contemporary India’s social and
cultural practises.
•Being foreigners, they lacked contextual
understanding of some of the issues.
•Despite containing some key details, the
Grecko-Roman accounts are full of
Mythical stories and
hearsay about India and unreasonable
comparison with Egypt are common. E.g.
Megasthenes divided Indian society into
seven groups.
It is crucial to discriminate between
the ‘hearsay’ and the ‘primary source
observations’ contained in the writings of
foreign writers. E.g. Megasthenes talks
about ants with leopard like skin. And, Al
Beruni says that Indians didn’t cut their
nails or hairs. The ‘Indica’ of Ktesias
(written in 4th century BCE) is full of
bizarre stories about India collected by the
author while working in Persia as a royal
• Why are there different schools of
historiography despite all of them being
based on same types of sources i.e. literary
and archaeological?
Due to the following reasons: •Due to their different perspective of looking
and understanding history.
•Their writings are informed by their own
Different Schools Historiographies:
 Imperialist Approach:
Two schools
come under this category.
1- Orientalists
2- Utilitarian
Those British officials and scholars that were
active in India and took a keen interest in the
past and culture of India were called the
‘Orientalists’ or ‘Indologists’. Though, they
preferred to be called ‘Antiquarians’. William
Jones, Colebrook, Wilkins and a German
linguist, Max Muller were imminent
Orientalist scholars. Due to their pioneering
efforts, chairs of oriental studies were set up
in leading European universities.
Stimulating factors behind the orientalist writing:
Some European and British scholars took a
natural interest in the study of Indian
For the sake of colonial interest, a better
knowledge of India’s customs and traditions
could help the British officers to better
exploit India’s economic resources.
1-Establishment of ‘Asiatic Society of
Bengal’ in 1784 CE. It led to a systematic
2-Due to the efforts of Cunningham,
Indian Archaeological Survey was set up in
1871 CE and exploration of inscriptions,
coins and monuments began.
3- Chance discoveries of prehistoric tools
by the officials of geological survey
department laid the foundation of the
study of prehistoric India.
4- The modern study of ancient Indian
history on the basis of literature,
inscriptions, coins and monuments began.
•Based on a Europe-centric approach.
•Inspired by the colonial interest.
•Undue weight given to the Bramhanical
sources among the ancient manuscripts.
•Propagating many stereotypes about
India in the western mind.
Utilitarian Group: Based on the works of Utilitarian
thinkers like James Mill and Jeremy Bentham.
•These scholars wanted to bring changes to suit the
interest of British industrial capitalism. Therefore,
they launched a broadside against the India’s past
and culture.
•They misinterpreted historical developments as
they wanted to create a philosophical justification
for the British rule over India.
The first systematic history of India was written
by James Mill- ‘The History of British India’.
• Before Karl Marx, James Mill had theorised
the concept of ‘Oriental Despotism’.
• Division of India history into ‘Hindu Period’,
‘Muslim Period’, and ‘British Period.’
Why ancient India was not a ‘Hindu
themselves Hindus. The word ‘Hindu’ was
used for the first time by the Arabs in the
8th century. The term ‘Hindu’, at that
time, denoted the people living in the
lower Indus Valley and surrounding areas.
Parallel to the Brahmanism, there
were strong currents of Jainism and
Buddhism in ancient India.
Why ancient India was not a ‘Hindu
themselves Hindus. The word ‘Hindu’ was
used for the first time by the Arabs in the
8th century. The term ‘Hindu’, at that
time, denoted the people living in the
lower Indus Valley and surrounding areas.
Parallel to the Brahmanism, there
were strong currents of Jainism and
Buddhism in ancient India.
Why modern India was not a
If the basis of classification
religion, then why not ‘Christian’
of ‘British’?
The British were perpetual
is only
Nationalist Historiography:
A distinct group of historians emerged during
the last phase of 19th century and early
decades of 20th century. They were recognised
as ‘Nationalist Historians’. Import scholars
were- K. P. Jaiswal, A. S. Altekar, R. G.
Bhandarkar, R. C. Majumdar, Hemchandra Rai
Chaudhari, etc. Most of these scholars
reflected the sentiments of the ongoing
national movement.
1- To face the challenge posed by the
dominant narrative built by the imperialist
2- To bring forth the achievements of
ancient Indian culture.
1- They challenged the rubrics of the
three fold classification of Indian History by
James Mill and renamed different eras as
‘Ancient Period’, ‘Medieval Period’ and
‘Modern Period.’
2- They undermined James Mill’s
proposition of ‘Oriental Despotism’ and
tried to prove rather convincingly that
ancient Indians had a sophisticated sense
of state system and political institutions.
3- They inaugurated a new paradigm of
the ancient Indian history by creating a
coherent narrative of India’s past by
weaving together conclusions drawn from
disparate literary, inscriptional and other
archaeological sources.
4- They were especially interested in
the history of political dynasties.
5- They brought the history of south
India into the mainstream of ancient
Indian history.
1-As a response to the imperialist historiography,
they exaggerated some of the ancient Indian
achievement e.g. the notion of ‘Golden Age’ and the
search for modern ‘nationalism’ in ancient India.
2-Thought, they questioned the nomenclature, the
basis for classification of Indian history remained
3-They based their study mainly on the Sanskrit
sources and largely neglected the popular literature.
Marxist Perspective:
•The Marxist historiography developed in
the 1950s. D. D. Kaushambi was its pioneer.
He set a new trend with his book, ‘An
Introduction to the Study of Indian History’,
published in 1956 CE.
•The core argument of Marxist way of
thinking is that the economic changes guide
the political, social and cultural changes.
And, these changes, in turn, influence
economic changes.
•This tradition of history writing was
carried forward by scholars like R. S.
Sharma, D. N. Jha and V. N. S. Yadav.
•To present a materialistic interpretation
of history. (In contrast to the ideological
•To link the study of history with
experience of oppressed classes.
1-To veer the history writing away from the history
of political dynasties, towards the socio-economic
2-To highlight the history of oppressed classes.
3-Making history ‘analysis centric’ rather than
‘event centric’.
4-To give due importance to ‘Pali’ and ‘Prakrit’
source along with ‘Sanskrit’ sources.
5-They dissolved the basis of James Mill’s historical
classification by linking the rise of ‘feudalism’ with
the beginning of ‘Medieval Period’.
1-Sometimes, the ideology overpowers the
2-Excessive focus on ‘Class Conflict’.
Meanwhile, simply adjusting the tangible
realities of Indian society like gender, caste,
outcaste, etc. into the broader ‘class conflict’
3- More dependent on literary sources
because it is easier to demonstrate ‘class
conflict’ with the help of literature.
4- Instead
independent assessment of art and
literature, projecting them simply as
reflections of the ideology of dominant
Revisionist Historiography and New
•It has challenged many of the axiomatic
notions of Marxist school like ‘Role of Iron
in 2nd Urbanisation’ and ‘Indian
•Special focus on bringing the histories of
labour class, dalit groups and tribal
societies into the mainstream of historical
•Studying the condition of women by
liking them with prevailing household,
societal and political norms.
•To study the historical changes within the
overall context of environmental impacts.
•To highlight the history of neglected
areas like North-East.
What should be the way forward?
•There should be more focus on the potential
of archaeological sources.
•Better exploitation of possibilities generated
by DNA footprinting.
•At last, we should remember that history isn’t
one, but many. We are yet to understand many
its aspects. A rational curiosity and different
approaches can together bring more and more
of its dimensions into light.
-Manikant Singh