In this article we will discuss about the two main sources of ancient Indian history. The sources are: 1. Literary Sources 2. Archaeological Sources.
1. Literary Sources:
Amongst literary sources, we include all written records in the form of texts, essays or descriptions.
It has been mainly divided into two parts, religious and secular as follows:
(A) Religious Literature:
This includes religious texts of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains.
1. Hindu Religious Texts:
The first literary sources of Hindus are Samhitas which includes four Vedas — the Rig-veda, the Sam-veda, the Yajur-veda and the Atharva-veda. Besides these are Brahmanas (the Satapatha, the Panchavis, the Aitreya etc.), Upanishads (the Kathaka, the Isa, the Svetasvatra etc.), Aranyakas, Vedanga (Total No. 6), Upo-veda (the Aur-veda, the Danur-veda etc.), Sutras (the Dharam-Sutra, the Graha-Sutra etc.), Smiritis (the Manu, the Vishnu, the Narad, the Brahaspati etc.), Puranas (the Vishnu, the Vayu etc. 18 in all) and Epics (the Ramayana and the Mahabharata) which throw light mostly on the history and culture of India from the Vedic up to Gupta age.
The Rig-veda provides us information about the civilization of the early Vedic Age while the rest of the three Vedas are useful to know about the civilization of the later Vedic age. Brahmanas provide us knowledge concerning the expansion of the Aryans towards east India during the later Vedic age and also religious beliefs and rituals of the Aryans.
Upanishads concern the philosophical speculations and beliefs of the Aryans such as the trans-migration of soul, Brahma, salvation of soul etc. Sutras tell us the rituals while performing different Yajnas and the religious, social, moral and political responsibilities of an individual. Smiritis reveal to us the social and religious conditions of the Indians between 200 B.C. to 600 A D.
The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are useful for knowing the living conditions of the Aryans during the later Vedic age while Puranas help us in finding out the history of the rulers and their kingdoms which existed in India after the war of Mahabharata till the 6th century A.D.
2. Buddhist Religious Texts:
The original Buddhist texts are known as Tripitakas.
They are three in number:
(i) The Vinyapitaka describes rules and regulations for the guidance of the Buddhist monks and the general management of the Church;
(ii) The Sutt-Pitaka is a collection of the religious discourses of the Buddha, and
(iii) The Abhidhamma-pitaka contains an exposition of the philosophical principles underlying the religion.
Afterwards, the Mahayana and the Tantrika sects of Buddhism created vast religious literature of their own and Jataka stories (nearly 549 in number) of Mahayanism describing various life-stories of Mahatma Buddha were also written Some later written Buddhist texts like Anuguttar-Nikay which provides us useful information concerning the political, social and religious condition of the 6th century B.C., Mahayana-Sutra, Satsharika, etc. written by Buddhist scholar, Nagarjuna, Mahayana-Sutra Lamkar written by Asanga, Abhidharma-Kosha written by Vasubandhu and several other books like Milinda-Panha, Divya-dana, Manjusrimulakalpa, Lalit- Visitar etc. written by other scholars provide us useful historical material.
All of them constitute sources of knowing the contemporary culture and history of India. These Buddhist religious texts provide useful information to us concerning the polity, political life, different rulers, their dynasties, their rule and their kingdoms up to 6th century B.C. and also social, economic, religious and cultural life of the people in that age. The religious texts, the Mahavansa and the Dipavansa, prepared by the scholars of Sri Lanka also provide us useful information concerning the history of Ancient India.
3. Jain Religious Texts:
The original Jain religious texts were called Agams, Afterwards these were compiled into 14 Purvas and further, the first ten Punas were re-arranged in 12 Angas in the fifth century A.D. Now only 11 Angas are available. Besides, a vast literature was created by Jain scholars afterwards, which also provide us useful knowledge concerning history, culture and civilization of Ancient India.
The Bhadrabhahu Charita refers to several events of the reign of Chandra Gupta Maurya. The Vasudeva Hindi, the Vrahat Kalpa Sutra Bhasya, the Kalika Purana Katha Kosh and alike other Jain religious texts also provide us useful historical material. Among the later Jain religious texts, one of the most prominent ones is the Parisista Parva which was prepared during the 12th century.
(B) Secular Literature:
(i) Writings by foreigners,
(ii) Biographical works of great historical persons and historical texts, and
(iii) Literary compositions.
The Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Muslim writers and travellers have left fairly interesting sources of information in their accounts. Amongst Greek and Roman writers Strabo, Skylex, Justin, Herodotus, Curtius, Diodorus, Arrian, Plutarch, Ptolemy and the anonymous author of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea have left useful accounts of India. But the most popular account amongst them is the Indica written by Megasthenes who lived for some time in the court of Chandra Gupta Maurya as an ambassador of Seleucus.
Amongst Muslims, Sulaiman and Al Masudi left brief records of India while Alberuni who came to India with Sultan Mahinud of Ghazni wrote the best foreign accounts of India.
The Tahkika-i-Hind of Al-Baruni provides us good information concerning political, social and cultural condition of northern India in the 11th century. The Chinese travellers, Fa-hien, Hiuen Tsang and I-tsing recorded their experiences in fairly bulky volumes which provide us with much useful information.
Their writings provide us useful information concerning social, religious and cultural condition of contemporary India. Besides these important writers and travellers there are many other Greek, Muslim and Chinese whose accounts also provide us with useful information of Indian history and culture.
The contemporary biographical works also provide us with good information. The most important of these works are the Harsha-charita of Banabhatta, the Gandavaho and the Vikramankadeva-charita of Vakpati and Bilhana describing the exploits of Yashovarman and Vikramaditya of the later Chalukya dynasty, the Kumarapala-charita of Jayasimha, the Kumarapala-charita of Hemachandra, the Hammir-Kavya of Nayachandra, the Navashasanka-charita of Padma Gupta, the Bhojaprabandha by Ballala, the Prithviraja-charita of Chand Bardai, the Rama-charita of Sandhyakar Nandi and the Prithviraja-Vijaya by an anonymous writer.
Amongst historical writings, the most famous is the Rajatarangini. It is a history of Kashmir written by Kalhana. After him Jonaraja, Srivara, Prajya Bhatta and Suka carried on this work and brought the history of Kashmir till a few years after its conquest by Mughal emperor Akbar.
The Gujarat chronicles like the Ras-Mala, the Kirtikaumudi, the Hammira-mada-mardana, the Vasanta- vilasa, the Persian translation of the Chachnama which gives a detailed account of Arab conquest of Sind, the Vansavalis of Nepal and Tamil literature, particularly of the Sangam age, also throw valuable light on contemporary history and culture of their respective places.
Pure literary works as dramas and poems and works on polity, economy and even grammar carried on by scholars in other branches of knowledge are also of valuable help.
Amongst them the most notable are the Arthasastra of Kautilya, the Mahabhashya of Patanjali, the Ashtadhaya of Panini, the Mudra-Rakshasa of Visakhdatta, the Kamasutra of Vatsyayana, the Priyadarshika, the Ratnavali and the Naganand (dramas) by emperor Harsha Vardhana and extensive writings of Kalidas and Bhavbhuti.
The Arthasasira of Kautilya, the Muudra Rakshasa of Visakhdatta and the Kathasarit-Sagar of Khemendra provide us useful historical information concerning the period of the Mauryas; the Nitisara written by Kamandaka provide us information regarding the polity of the Gupta rulers; the Mahabhashya of Patanjali and the Malvikagnimitra written by Kalidas help us in finding out the material concerning the history of the Sungas; and the Mrachakatika of Sudraka and the Das Kumara-Charita written by Dandin throw useful light on the contemporary social life.
The same way, the writings of some later times, viz., the Kumarpala-Charita written by Jayapala, the Nava-Sahasanka-Charita of Padma Gupta and the Prithvi-Raja-Vijya prepared by Jayanaka provide us much information concerning the history of the rule of Kumarpala. ruler of Gujarat, the history of the Parmaras and the history of the Chauhan ruler, Prithviraja respectively.
The same way, the Sangam-literature written in Tamil language provide us good information concerning the history of the Chera, Chola and Pandya dynasties of the far South up to 3rd century A.D.
However, this list is not complete. Different scholars wrote religious and secular texts in Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrat, Tamil and other languages at different times. Amongst them many are well known and many more might have been missed by the modern scholars.
Besides, a student of history should be cautious while going through this literature, whether religious or secular, in an effort to dig out ancient Indian history, because religious texts are no historical chronicles and the object of biographical works was mainly the glorification of kings while the writings of foreigners are mostly based on second-hand information. Yet, though suffering from these handicaps, the literary sources certainly provide valuable help to students of Indian history.
2. Archaeological Sources:
The archaeological sources can be divided as follows:
(ii) Coins, and
(iii) Monuments, remnants of cities, art-pieces, pottery, weapons and tools of stone or metals etc.
The inscriptions, being contemporary records, have proved a source of the highest value for reconstruction of the political history of ancient India. These are mostly engraved on stone and metal, particularly copper Practically all of them are either commands, records of conquests, descriptions of achievements or sale and gift of lands by different rulers. The earliest of these inscriptions have been found on the seals of Harappa belonging to about 3,000 B.C.
But. their script has not been deciphered so far. After them are those of emperor Asoka engraved on rocks and pillars throughout his vast empire. These inscriptions were engraved in Brahmi script barring a few which were engraved in Kharoshthi script which was written from right to left.
The inscriptions which were engraved after the reign of Emperor Asoka have been divided into two categories, viz., inscriptions engraved by emperors or kings and inscriptions engraved by certain other people or local officers.
The inscriptions engraved by emperors or kings are either Prashastis composed by court-writers or grants of land assigned to individuals. Among the Prashastis of emperors, the most prominent ones are the Prashasti of the emperor Samudra Gupta engraved on the Asoka-pillar at Allahabad which was prepared by his court-poet, Harisena, the Hathigumpha- Prashashti inscription of king Kharavela of Kalinga, the Nasik-inscription of king Gautami Balsree, the Gwalior-inscription of king Bhoj, the Girnar- inscription of king Rudrudaman, the Aohole inscription of the Chalukya king, Pulkesin II, the Bhitri and Nasik-inscriptions of the Gupta ruler Skanda Gupta and the Deopara-inscription of the Sen ruler, Vijaya Sen.
The inscriptions which were used for the grant of lands were mostly engraved on copper-plates. These inscriptions describe the area of land, by whom it was granted, to whom it was granted and also the date when it was granted. Some of them also describe the achievements of rulers who granted lands.
These inscriptions, besides many more, of private individuals or local officers, have furnished us with the names of various kings, boundaries of their kingdoms and sometimes useful dates and clues to many important events of history.
The inscriptions of private individuals or that of local officers are mostly engraved in temples or images of stones or metals. These have provided us information concerning dates of construction of temples, the development of architecture and sculpture at various places during different times and also the growth of regional languages.
Some of them give descriptions of the rule of contemporary rulers, the duties and rights of their different officers and their revenue-system as well which help us in knowing the political condition existing under the rule of different rulers. Some of these inscriptions help us in verifying those facts which we find in contemporary literary works.
Thus, inscriptions have been found very much useful in finding different facts of the history of ancient India. The history of Satavahana rulers has been based mostly on their inscriptions.
The same way the inscriptions of the rulers of south India such as that of the Pallavas, the Chalukyas, the Rashtrakutas, the Cholas and the Pandyas have been of great help in finding historical facts of the rule of their respective dynasties.
Certain inscriptions found outside India have also helped in finding facts concerning the history of ancient India. One among such inscriptions is that of Bogajkoi in Asia-Minor which was inscribed in 1400 B.C.
Hoards of gold, silver and copper coins have been unearthed in different parts of the country which provide us valuable information regarding Indian history till the Gupta age. Most of them were issued by rulers and contain dates and figures of rulers or their gods but many were issued by trading-guilds as well. The history of the Bactrian, Parthian and Scythian princes of India has been recovered almost solely from a careful study of coins issued by them.
Also, coins have helped us in finding out the names and dates of various rulers besides helping us indirectly in assessing the economic and religious conditions of the time when they were issued.
Different coins of different rulers help us in assessing the extent of territory of their kingdoms, their tastes, religious views, dress used by them and the economic condition in general under their rule etc. The coins of different metals, the quality of metals etc. help us in finding out the economic life of the people in ancient India.
Remnants have been found in India even of the prehistoric age. These remnants have proved that man existed in India even during the palaeolithic age. On the basis of remnants found at Hastnapur, Dr B.B. Lai has expressed the opinion that the war of Mahabharat was fought in nearly 900 B.C. It has also helped us in fixing the time of the beginning of the iron-age in India.
The remnants of the iron-age have been found in India at Baluchistan, north-west India, Ganga-Yamuna Doab, Madya-Bharat and south India. On the basis of these remnants Dilip Kumar Chakravarty has expressed the opinion that the iron- age began in India nearly 1100 B.C. These remnants found at different places in India have helped us in finding out the process of social and economic development of the Indian people at different times in different parts of India.
Remnants, monuments, buildings, idols, wall-paintings etc. have helped us in finding the culture and civilization of India during the later period as well. The monuments are undying witnesses of the artistic skill of India in various fields and testify its wealth and grandeur at different epochs of history.
They constitute one of the most important sources of information regarding the cultural history of ancient India. Different stupas, temples, pillars, wall-paintings, statues, toys, ornaments, pots etc. have been found at different places in India.
The remnants of cities of the Indus valley, pillars of Asoka, wall-paintings of Ajanta caves, different statues of Buddha, clay-seals and pots of the Indus valley are but a few such examples which help us in discovering ancient Indian culture. The excavation at the Indus valley have taken the history of Indian culture back to 3000 B.C. and have placed the Indian civilization among the most ancient civilizations of the world.
The Indian pottery excavated from different parts of India have contributed to much extent in exploring Indian history. After examining them, it has been possible to fix up different dates of the events of Indian history. Besides, these clay-pots are beautiful pieces of art as well.
By utilising all these available sources it has been possible to throw some light on the culture and civilization of India since the third millennium before Christ and also to draw an outline of its political history from the sixth century B.C. There is no doubt that there are many shortcomings and details are to be filled in at many places.