Many foreign scholars opined that Indians had no sense of history writing and whatever was written in the name of history is nothing more than a story without any sense. Do you agree with this view. Critically discuss? (150 W/10 M)

Mentors Comment:

This is an important debate regarding Ancient India which was started by colonial historians. According to their opinion, ancient India’s “proper history” is missing in literature and therefore people of that time did not had sense of history writing. All we get is religious texts or glorified rulers of the era but not proper chronological data of events and history. For a long time, this notion prevailed, until modern Indian historians broke this myth and countered these arguments of western scholars. So the answer of this question will be based on this debate.

Remember that the directive of the question is to critically discuss hence you have to discuss both sides of the debate.

In the intro, discuss the importance of history and chronology.

Then discuss the points raised by foreign scholars and show how that notion got created. Point out lack of literature on history of that time, excess use of excavation to trace the history, too much literature based on religious scripts etc.

Then provide the counter to these theories and discuss that Indians of that time did had sense of history and they showcased it through books written by Kautilya, Megasthenes, Fa Hien etc, how we our sense of history is different from what western scholars perceive etc.


Model Answer:

History of a society is generally studied from the chronological events recorded by the historians of that age. In first glance, it seems as if ancient Indians didn’t pay much attention to historiography as they did in the case of religious, philosophical studies.

Reasons for this notion?

  • Some foreign scholars used to say that the history of India and the Indian Subcontinent didn’t begin until the Muslims invaded in the 12th century A.D.
  • For example, Alexander’s invasion finds no mention in Indian sources. We’ve to reconstruct his exploits entirely on basis of Greek sources.
  • For historiography of ancient societies, we are more depended on the coins, inscriptions and other archaeological sources.
  • History-writing, in its purest form, don’t extend back in time as far as these scholars liked or as far as in other ancient cultures.
  • When writing about a group of people who died thousands of years ago, as in ancient history, there are always gaps and guesses. It showed with ancient India too.
  • Colonial scholars described the Indian past as ‘oriental despotism’, arguing that it was a static society that registered no historical change, and therefore it had no use for recording the past and used only cyclic time.
  • One important reason for this notion is that till now, the Indus Valley Civilization language has not been deciphered and hence our sense of historiography of that age is based on the foreign sources or through materials excavated from the sites.
  • Printing was not known. Everything was written on soft materials like birch bark, palm leaf, paper etc.
  • Since the old manuscripts become fragile in course of time, they had to be manually copied.
  • Therefore, at the time of copying, some errors tend to creep in or sometimes even additions were made.
  • Many of the available sources are religious in nature. They give some idea on prevailing social conditions but hard to put it in context of time and place.
  • The real recording of historical events starts with the gradual advent of Muslim rulers.

Indians did had sense of history writing:

  • Despite this shortcoming, it would be unfair to call the ancient Indians as ones who had no sense of history as they tried to incorporate the genealogies through epics and puranas.
  • Though main focus during ancient period was on religious studies but still there are many authoritative texts which throws light on events related to the polity, society, economy etc.
  • For ex. Arthashastra of kautilya throws light on polity, statecraft.
  • We get abundant information on socio-political situation from texts like Rig veda, Mahabharata and many such works which are corroborated by foreign texts, inscriptions and coins.
  • Dharmashastras, laws books of Manu also emphasized upon the society and varna system, to which many interpolations were added later on.Such informations are also found in puranas, smritis.
  • Many such works make us reconstruct history with ease provided we should be careful in extracting fact from fiction.
  • Every ruler had his own chronicler and many rulers would write their own memoirs providing us with huge information.
  • Megasthenes’ Indica also contains social, political and religious life of that age.
  • Again Pliny’s Naturalis Historia contains trade relation between India and Roman empire. During Chandragupta 2nd, Fa Hien mentioned religious information of India while Hiuen Tsang’s Tsi-yo-ki contains social and economic condition of India.
  • Though some other rulers also kept significant contributions in Indian medieval history, it is said yet that Indian historiography is essentially an Islamic heritage as Islamic influence was mostly followed everywhere via their valuable creativities.

Therefore, the notion of western scholars, that ancient Indians did not had sense of history, appears to be a very harsh judgment. The knowledge of history was given a very high place in ancient India. It was accorded sanctity equal to a Veda. Though there may not have been a conventional form of historical writing, there are nevertheless many texts that reflect the historical consciousness of the past.