Early Indic Visions of History - II

The presence of myths in the Epics has led historians to deny them the status of history, thereby defying the tradition's self-understanding.

Published: 19th April 2022 12:30 AM  |   Last Updated: 19th April 2022 04:38 PM   |  A+A-


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Against the entrenched colonial bias that early Indians did not write history, this series seeks to understand Indic visions and methods of recollecting their past in their own right. The series does so in two ways: (a) by surveying the range of evidence available of early Indian societies displaying a distinct regard for timekeeping and for preserving and chronicling events for posterity, and (b) by questioning the Positivist Eurocentric basis on which the modern discipline of history has come to exclude traditional Indic modes of narrating the past.

In the previous column, we discussed Indic concepts of time that reflected an idea of history spanning anthropic specificity/ precision on the one hand and cosmic vastness/ unreckonability on the other. These were infused with ethics and cultural memory to boot. Of these, the exponentially widening notion of time denoted by yugas is best articulated in a corpus of texts known as puranas, literally 'ancient narratives on the past'. Eighteen pan-Indic mahapuranas have come down to us such as the Vishnu Purana, Shiva Purana, and Shrimad Bhagavata Purana, which were composed between the 3rd and 9th century CE; and many more subsidiary ones, upapuranas, like Kalika Purana and Vishnudharmottara Purana; and still other local or sthalapuranas, including the Nilamata Purana and Devanga Purana.

The puranas are essentially sectarian, encyclopaedic texts in Sanskrit that claim to cover five themes, panchalakshana (though they actually contain much more material): sarga (creation), pratisarga (re-creation), manvantara (epochal intervals), vamsha (genealogy) and vamshanucarita (biographies). So it will be clear that apart from cosmology and theology, puranas also document vital information on ruling families as well as great sages,  and their entire lineages and life-histories, many of these being historical.

Thus these vamshavalis are an invaluable record of the political history of early India including important dynasties such as the Barhadrathas, Haryankas, Shaishunagas, Nandas, Mauryas (founders of the first empire in Indian history), Shungas, Kanvas, Satavahanas and so on down till the Gupta kings. The puranas are also of course a treasure trove of geographical and cultural history of the entire country.
A companion genre to purana is itihasa - literally 'thus it was', thereby attesting an explicit engagement with the past. Tradition defines itihasa as: dharmarthakamamokshanam upadeshasamanvitam/ kathayuktam puravrittam itihasam prachakshate. 'Tales of the past, rendered in a narrative style, containing instruction in the four goals of life - piety, power, pleasure and liberation - is known as history'.

This offers one of the earliest explicit definitions of history, which shows that a literary and socio-ethical pedagogy may have been at the heart of the Indic vision of the discipline.

Specifically, however, itihasa refers to the Sanskrit Epics, Mahabharata of Vyasa (400 BCE-400 CE) and Ramayana of Valmiki (500 BCE-500 CE) that record in detailed, continuous narrative form the stories surrounding important events in the lives of kings and kingdoms of early historic India, such as the Kuru-Panchalas of Hastinapura and Ikshavakus of Ayodhya, along with a host of other allied dynasties said to be ruling over a large part of the subcontinent.

However, the presence of myths in the Epics has, among other reasons, led historians to deny them the status of history, thereby defying the tradition's self-understanding. Or they have only grudgingly accorded them the defensive epithet of 'embedded history' for aspects of the past incidentally captured in them. But it needs to be remembered that both Epics deal centrally with issues of royal succession and war, thereby reflecting on important processes of state formation in early India vis a vis real polities. And again, piercing through all the mythology and indeed facilitated by it, at the heart of both Epics are meta-historical questions of ethics (dharma) and socio-political legitimacy, which merge with the divinity of the two central protagonists, Shri Krishna and Shri Rama.

Traces, however, of a society self-consciously recording and preserving for posterity the names and feats of significant individuals go still further back to the Vedas themselves, the most ancient literature of India dated (entirely conservatively) to 1500 BCE. Categories of Vedic verses titled Danastuti ('praise of charity'), Narashamsi ('praise of men') and Gatha ('stories') provide accounts of meritorious or heroic individuals and their social altruism.

In a sense, the same impulse is seen in mature and expanded form a millennium later in the poetic genre of charita, which are biographies chronicling, eulogising and also at times critiquing the lives of important personages, mostly kings and seers. Among the earliest charitas we get are the life stories of Gautama Buddha, like Ashvaghosha's Buddhacharita (2nd century), and of King Ashoka Maurya, namely the Ashokavadana (6th century) that was composed in Sri Lanka.

Thereafter we see a spate of political biographies composed by court poets in regional kingdoms across the subcontinent, such as Bana's Harshacharita (7th century, Sthanishvara/ Kanauj), Bilhana's Vikramankadevacharita (11th century, Karnataka), Atula's Mushikavamsha (11th century, Kerala), Sandhyakara Nandin's Ramapalacharita (11th century, Bengal), Jayanaka's Prithvirajavijaya  (12th century, Rajasthan) and Hemachandra’s Kumarapalacharita (12th century, Gujarat).

Among regional histories, the one name that towers above the rest comes from Kashmir, Kalhana's Rajatarangini (12th century), to which we will devote the concluding part of this series. There are two reasons for this emphasis: (a) this text is generally (and mistakenly) understood to represent the only specimen of true history in all of Sanskrit literature and (b) it provides an opportunity to illustrate traditional Indic modes of history, such as rhetoric, myth and didacticism, in high relief.

(to be continued) 

(The writer is Associate Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and can be reached at shonaleeka@mail.jnu.ac.in)


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  • M Bajaj

    This is in the long time being an attempt made from JNU faculty to deep dive into Indian history. The dates mentioned seems to be taken from the composition/writing dates of the scriptures and no regard being given to the Indian tradition of transferring history by word of mouth. For example by research it is now attempted to date Mahabharata which is widely accepted to be between 3400 BCE to 3100 BCE. Also research has proved the existance of Saraswati river which is widely regarded as mythological one way back to 50000 years ago and further providing the reasons for its drying. So this all proves that Indian history is actually Itihas and not mythology. Western mindset is so heavily dominated our modern historians that till they do not approve we tend not to accept the fact even if it is proved locally from various sources. This is because of habit of not recognising own scholars and waiting g for the western stamp yo the fact yo be proved. Westerners had a habit of adopting the Indian culture
    5 months ago reply
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