In this article we will discuss about the history of ancient India.
The greatest handicap in the treatment of the history of ancient India, both political and cultural, is the absence of a definite chronology. The dates of political events and the vast mass of literature which normally form the basis of any cultural study are but imperfectly known and the more we recede the more difficult even a close approximation of these dates becomes and one wanders in a realm of uncertainty.
The literary genius of India, so fertile and active in almost all branches of study, was somehow not applied to chronicling the records of kings and the rise and fall of states. Ancient India did not produce historians like Herodotus and Thulydides of Greece or Livy of Rome and Turkish historian Alberuni.
It does not mean that historical sense or even historical material was altogether wanting in ancient India. Religious texts of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains have carefully preserved the lists of teachers and written records of good and evil events were maintained by state officials in every part of India.
However, the only concrete result of historical study in the most ancient period is to be found in the long lists of kings preserved in the Puranas and the Epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Pargiter was the first to make a bold attempt to coordinate the varying details of the royal dynasties before the great war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas into a skeleton of political history.
Various attempts have been made after him. Yet, we are not in a position to firmly grasp the continuity of the political history of India until we come to the beginning of the sixth century B.C. From this century onwards the sources of ancient Indian history are increasingly available.
Yet, history as a different and distinct subject of study could not be recognised before the establishment of the Muslim rule in India, viz., thirteenth century A.D. It has, certainly, created problems for modern historians to find out and interpret the history of ancient India.
Another handicap from which Indian historiography has seriously suffered is that efforts to explore and interpret Indian history were actually started by the British and many of them, if not all, in order to prove the beneficence of the British rule, failed to pass judicious judgement about the history of India. When the Indians took up this challenge, the pendulum, at times, swung to the opposite extremes.
While the British historians tried to minimise the importance of ancient India, the Indian historians tried to glorify it. However, that period seems to have passed now and having become free from political subjugation and due to availability of new resources, we are now in a better position to explore and interpret the history of ancient India.
Efforts were made by Europeans to explore the history of ancient India in the later half of the eighteenth century. The efforts of a few Jesuit Fathers like that of Father Hanxladen in mastering Sanskrit and of Father Coeurdouse to recognise the kinship of Sanskrit with the languages of Europe gave no real understanding of India’s past. The efforts which brought about definite results in this field were made by Sir William Jones who came to India as a judge of the Supreme Court during the days of Warren Hastings as governor-general.
Jones was a linguist who had already learnt some important languages of Europe as well as Hebrew, Arabic, Persian. Turkish and a little of Chinese before he came to India. Here, he learnt Sanskrit also. In 1784, with the help of Charles Wilkins, he established the Asiatic Society of Bengal. In the journal of this society, Asiatic Researches, the first real steps in revealing India’s past were taken.
Jones himself translated the Sakuntala, the Gita-Govinda and the law-book of Manu in English while the Bhagavad Gita and the Hitopadesa w ere translated by Wilkins. Thus, Jones and Wilkins were truly the fathers of Indology. They were followed by Henry Colebrooke and Horace Havman Wilson. In 1786, a Frenchman, Anquetil- Duperron, translated Upanishads from a seventeenth century Persian version.
The efforts of these pioneers created interest in Sanskrit literature in Europe and chairs were instituted at London. Cambridge, Edinburgh and several other universities of Europe and America for the study of Sanskrit.
It also resulted in the establishment of French Asiatic Society in 1821 in Paris followed by the Royal Asiatic Society in London two years later. A German-Sanskrit dictionary was also prepared by two German scholars which was published in parts by the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences from 1852 to 1875.
Another notable contribution was made by Max Muller, a German scholar, who spent most of his working life as Professor of Philology at Oxford by translating the Rig-veda and a series of books known as Sacred Books of the East in English. In 1837 James Prinsep interpreted for the first time the earliest Brahmi script and was able to read the edicts of emperor Asoka.
These literary efforts created curiosity amongst scholars and adventurers to probe further into the history and culture of India. It resulted in the establishment of an Archaeological department in 1862 and Alexander Cunningham was appointed as its head. During the period of his Viceroyalty, Lord Curzon took personal interest in the working of the department.
John Marshall was appointed director-general of this department which was reformed and enlarged. With the help of one Indian officer Mr. R.D. Banerji, Sir John Marshall discovered the remnants of the Indus civilization in 1922.
Afterwards, useful work has been done by many Indian scholars in exploring the history and culture of India. Amongst the pioneers were Dr. Bhan Daji, Dr. Bhagvant Lai Indraji. Dr. Rajendra Lai Mitra. Dr. R.G. Bhandarkar and Dr. A. Ghosh.
Now, this work has been taken up mostly by the Indians and foreign scholars are working simply as their associates. All these efforts have contributed to the exploration of ancient history and culture of India and their various sources.