Ancient Indian Historiography (Sources, Tradition, Itihasa, Puranas, Charita)

India is thought to be one of the world's first civilised countries, the ancient Indians did, in fact, have a strong sense of history.

However, it is widely assumed that the ancient Indians were unable to translate this sense of the past into a history in the modern sense.

India had no historian or history worthy of its name in comparison to ancient Greece, Rome, and China.

Despite the abundance of its literature, history is so miserably represented that in the whole of the great period of Sanskrit literature, there is not one writer who can be seriously regarded as a critical historian.

Abundance of Source Material and the Absence of Histories

The "Brahmanical puranas", the "Buddhist Pali canon" and the "Jain pattavalis" contain, amid vast masses of religious and social matter, much historical material though their treatment of such material is anything but historical.

With such material for historical reconstruction, ancient India produced no great historian.

The only professedly formal history undertaken in ancient India is the Rajatarangini of Kalhana (कल्हण).

Most of the Sanskrit works were composed by Brahmans, who certainly had not a taste for writing histories, their interests being engaged in other pursuits.

India produced no oratory, which flourished best in an atmosphere of political freedom.

Ancient Rome produced its best orators while it was still a republic, and the Romans wrote history.

Again, national feeling and the resultant popular action which are a powerful aid to the writing of history was not evoked in India by all the foreign invasions during the period up to AD 1200.

The factors which worked against the development of a genuinely historical consciousness among the ancient Indians are to be sought in their religion and philosophy.

Of such factors, the doctrines of karma and rebirth, and the operation of almighty fate.

Problem of Chronology

The comparable lack of a chronological sense makes it difficult to ascertain precise dates for the events of ancient Indian history.

Historical knowledge is the knowledge of past events in the order of their priority and posteriority of occurrence, related to an index of time.

Knowledge of events even when accurate, if unaccompanied by the time of their occurrence, is not historical.

In the absence of a proper historical sense, and also perhaps of a unitary religion with a definite founder, no such universal chronology was developed by the ancient Indians.

The date of an event is given in the regnal years of a monarch, or say after the birth or death of a teacher like the Buddha, one is still adrift on a featureless sea of time as to the occurrence of the event.

A classic example is Asoka’s otherwise clear statement that in his eighth regnal year he attacked and conquered Kalinga which still leaves one in doubt as to the date either of his coronation or of the Kalinga war.

Events of the past are not described as having occurred in their chronological sequence, i.e., as having occurred in specific durations of time as months or years.

The arrangement of events in early medieval historical narratives shows a logical development of the theme rather than a historical one.

Indian Historical Tradition

An oral tradition of history, as in the "gatha" and the "narasamsi (hero-lauds or praises celebrating men)" existed in India in a nebulous and amorphous form even in "Rig Vedic times".

Other forms of quasi-historical compositions - the akhyana, itivrtta, vamsa and vamsanucharita, purana and itihasa were added in the later Vedic Age and later.

At times the gatha and narasamsi were welded together and absorbed by the akhyana, which simply meant historical narrative such as Devasuram and Pariplavani mentioned in the Brahmana literature.

"Itivrtta" meaning occurrence or event, denotes traditional account of men and things of times past.

"Vamsa" or royal genealogies and the line of priestly succession is another class of ancient lore.

Such stray historical works when collected and systematized developed into the "vamsanucharita", the material out of which those political parts of the "puranas" were constructed at a later date.

A class of important court officials in the later Vedic Age (1000–600 BC) were the "sutas", whose special duty was to compose, collect and preserve "vamsa", i.e., royal and priestly genealogies.

Between 400 BC and AD 400 this oral tradition of history and legend had been given a fixed literary form.

The sutas disappeared as the proper organization of royal archives from the Mauryan times seems to have made the work of the "sutas" redundant.

Purana and Itihasa

Itihasa refers to the collection of written descriptions of important events in Hinduism.

It includes the Mahabharata, the Puranas and the Ramayana.

The earliest forms of oral tradition – the gatha, narasamsi, akhyana, itivrtta and vamsanucharita - seem to have been absorbed by the purana and itihasa.

The purana and the itihasa, mentioned first in the "Atharva Veda", occur together in the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and the Upanishads.

A question of fundamental importance is whether the purana and the itihasa, which represent the ancient Indian conception of history, can be regarded as real, genuine history.

Maharshi Vyasa set out to compile all the ancient texts available during his time (the period of Mahabharata) into single large compilations so that they are all available in one place.

He did not write the vedas.

The vedas were eternal ancient texts with each individual hymns of knowledge having their own author (discoverer of that particular knowledge) in the past.

Maharshi Vyasa undertook a gigantic project of compiling all that knowledge into the four vedas that we know today.

Hence he came to be known as Veda Vyasa.

The Puranas narrate universal history - the books discuss in depth the topics of cosmogony, myth, legend and history.

Though not history proper, the purana might contain historical matter alongside much that was mythological.

The "Purana Text of the Dynasties of the Kali Age (1913)" and "Indian Historical Tradition (1922)", besides presenting an excellent critical study of the puranic texts, also deal with the historicity of their dynastic part.

Metrical accounts of the dynasties that reigned in northern India after the great Bharata battle (950 BC) gradually grew in a literary Prakrit recited by bards and minstrels.

There are clear indications that the whole of the Matsya, Vayu and Brahmanda, and portions of the Vishnu and Bhagavata puranas were originally composed in Prakrit.

The "Bhavishya" was the first purana to give an account of the dynasties of the "Kali age", and the "Matsya, Vayu and the Brahmanda" got their accounts from it.

Vamsa and Charita

Freed from the suta tradition, the "vamsa" form developed a vast body of quasi-historical literature.

The Buddhist Rajavamsa, Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa, the Jain Harivamsa, the Hindu Raghuvamsa, Sasivamsa, the Nripavali of Kshemendra, the Parthivavali of Helaraja, and the Rajatarangini of Kalhana are only some of the vamsa genre of a vast body of a semi-historical literature.

Another kind of historical narrative, the "charita", a historical epic or ornate biography, came to be developed in the milieu of the royal courts.

Asvaghosha's "Buddhacharita" may be cited as perhaps the first known example of the charita kind.

The sutas and such others charged with keeping up the historical tradition were replaced by salaried court poets who wrote royal biographies.

Some of the most famous specimens of this kind are the Harshacharita, the Gaudavaha, Vikramankadevacharita, Navasahasankacharita, Kumarapalacharita, Prithviraja-vijaya, Somapalavilasa, and Ramacharita.

Bana Bhatta: Harshacharita

Bana Bhatta was a 7th-century Sanskrit prose writer and poet of India.

He was the Asthana Kavi in the court of King Harsha Vardhana, who reigned 606–647 AD in north India first from Thanesar, and later Kannauj.

Bana's principal works include a biography of Harsha, the "Harshacharita", and one of the world's earliest novels, "Kadambari".

Bana died before finishing the novel and it was completed by his son Bhusanabhatta.

Both these works are noted texts of Sanskrit literature.

The other works attributed to him are the "Candikashataka" and a drama, the "Parvatiparinaya".

Banabhatta gets an applause as "banochhistam jagatsarvam" meaning Bana has described everything in this world and nothing is left.

The Harshacharita is not history proper, which was a genre unknown to its author.

The eight chapters of "Harshacharita" bring us only to the first year of Harsha s reign.

It deals with the family of the author; his introduction to Harsha and goes on to describe Thaneswar.

It also take us through Harsha's ancestry, his sister Rajyasri's marriage to Grihavarman Maukhari of Kanauj, the death of his father Prabhakaravardhana, the murder of Grihavarman and the imprisonment of Rajyasri by the king of Malwa, his brother Rajyavardhana's expedition against the wrong-doer and his easy success, Rajyavardhana's treacherous assassination by King Sasanka of Gauda, Rajyasri's escape and flight to the Vindhyas, her rescue by Harsha and his return to the imperial camp on the Ganges.

Biographical works

Vakpatiraja: Gaudavaho

Gaudavaho ("Slaying of the Gauda king") is an 8th-century Prakrit-language epic poem by "Vakpatiraja".

It narrates the exploits of the poet's patron, king "Yashovarman", who ruled in northern India.

Vakpati was well-versed with the works of earlier poets such as Bhasa, Kalidasa, and Subandhu.

He highly praised the Prakrit language, and composed two poems in it: Madhumatha-vijaya and Gaudavaho.

Of little importance for history, the Gaudavaha is of no great significance for literature either.

Atula: Mushikavamsa

Mushika-vamsha is a Sanskrit dynastic chronicle composed in 11th century by poet Atula.

It narrates the legendary history of the "Mushika dynasty", which ruled the northern part of the present-day Kerala state of India.

The chronicle moves from mythological beginnings of the founding ancestors to more authentic genealogical history in later sargas.

Several kings mentioned in the kavya, such as Validhara Vikrama Rama (929 AD), Jayamani and Kantan Karivarman (Srikantha Kartha) (1020 AD) and Chera king Kota Ravi Vijayaraga (883–913 AD) can be found in the medieval inscriptions discovered from north Kerala.

Athula was a Sanskrit-language poet from the Mushika Kingdom in present-day Kerala, India.

Bilhana: Vikramankadevacharita

Kavi Bilhana (बिल्हण) was an 11th-century Kashmiri poet, he is known for his love poem, the Caurapancasika (कौरपंचिका).

Bilhana was born in a Kashmiri Brahman family of scholars and poets.

Receiving a traditional Sanskritic education he left his homeland in search of fame and fortune.

He wandered through Mathura, Kanuj, Prayaga, Varanasi, Somnath, Kalyan and Rameswaram but luck eluded him.

But while trekking back through Kalyan, Western Chalukya Empire King Vikramaditya VI appointed him as Vidyapathi.

Bilhana rewarded his patron by composing in his honor an epic Vikramankadevacharita (विक्रमांकदेवचरित).

Jayanaka: Prithviraja-vijaya

Prithviraja Vijaya (पृथ्वीराज विजय) is an eulogistic Sanskrit epic poem on the life of the Indian Chahamana king Prithviraja III (Prithviraj Chauhan).

It is believed to have been composed around 1191-1192 AD by Jayanaka, a Kashmiri poet-historian in the court of Prithviraja.

It is laudatory, celebrating the victory of Prithviraja Chahamana over Muhammad of Ghor in the first battle of Tarain (1191).

Sandhyakar Nandi: Ramacharitam

The "Ramacharitam" is a Sanskrit epic poem written by Sandhyakar Nandi (1084-1155 AD) during Pala Empire.

Ramacharita is one of the best works from the historical point of view.

Primarily intended to be a biography of Ramapala of Bengal, it also gives a brief account of his two predecessors and successors.

Sandhyakar Nandi was patronaged by Madanapala and his biographical details are retrieved from the Kaviprashasti (of 20 couplets) appended at the end.

Nandi hailed from Brihadbatu, a village close to Pundravardhana, and was the son of Prajapati Nandi, who was the Sandhi-Vigrahika (minister of peace and war) of Ramapala.

Kalhana: Rajatarangini

Rajatarangini ("The River of Kings") is a metrical legendary and historical chronicle of the north-western Indian subcontinent, particularly the kings of Kashmir.

It was written in Sanskrit by Kashmiri historian Kalhana in the 12th century AD.

It is a continuous history of the kings of Kashmir from mythical times (1184 BC) to the date of its composition (AD 1148–49).

The Rajataringini provides the earliest source on Kashmir that can be labeled as a "historical" text on this region.

Although inaccurate in its chronology, the book still provides an invaluable source of information about early Kashmir and its neighbors in the north western parts of the Indian subcontinent, and has been widely referenced by later historians and ethnographers.

A work of great scope, the Rajatarangini is a storehouse of information.

From the holy Brahman and the noble Rajaputra to the humble Domba and the untouchable Chandala, Kalhana depicts all at their tasks.

Though Kalhana does not stress the economic aspect in his chronicle, his descriptions of famine, food prices, taxation, currency and many similar details do not fail to give a picture of the economic life of the times.

King Sankaravarman's oppressive acts are listed at length, from plundering temples and the resumption of grants to the exaction of forced labor.

In Kalhana, we have in ancient India, the nearest approach to a true historian, the Rajatarangini alone being written as history.

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The Puranas contain narratives about the history of the Universe from creation to destruction and the genealogies of kings, heroes, sages, and deities.

Some of the Puranas are discourses on cosmology, geography and Hindu philosophy.

There is little that is genuinely historical in the definition of either the itihasa or the purana.

For this reason the itihasa–purana tradition - the way in which the Indians tried to understand their past - was not easily comprehensible to those familiar with the usual Graeco-Roman or even the Islamic traditions of historiography.

But the charge that the ancient Indians were an ahistorical people has been objected to, doubtless with a measure of truth.

Recently, Romila Thapar has suggested that instead of summarily dismissing the itihasa–purana as a fanciful rendering of the past, it may be found to have a firm historical basis if related to the different phases of state formation, i.e., of the transition from a lineage society to a state system.

As for theme, the histories of ancient India were the "charitas" or ornate biographies, mostly of kings.

Only "Kalhana" had regard for facts as facts and the "Rajatarangini" is exceptional in its sense of sustained narrative and a near-complete freedom from legendary matter.