Writing of Ancient Indian History
During the 4th century B. C., Kautilya in his book ‘Arthashastra’ advises the king to dedicate some time for hearing the narrations of history.
History was conferred holiness equal to pious Veda, Atharvanaveda, Brahmanas, and Upanishads. The Itihas-Purana is one of the branches of knowledge of history.
There are 18 main Puranas and 18 subsidiary Puranas.
The subject matters of history are (As per the Puranas),
Sarga (evolution of the Universe)
Pratisarga (involution of the Universe)
Manvantantar (recurring of the Time)
Vamsa (genealogical list of the kings and sages)
Vamsanucharita (life stories of some selected characters)
The reign of Parikshit (the grandson of Arjuna) was considered as a benchmark for the reference of the royal genealogies given in the Puranas.
In Puranas, all the earlier dynasties and kings prior to reign of Parikshit, have been mentioned in past tense. While the latter kings and dynasties have been narrated in a future tense.
This may be due to the fact that the Puranas were completed during the reign of Parikshit. As mentioned in the Puranas, the coronation of Parikshit marks the beginning of Kali Age.
In the context of the Puranas, it is observed that in ancient India, ltihas (History) was looked upon as a means to illuminate the present and future in the light of the past.
The purpose of history was to understand and inculcate a sense of duty and sacrifice by individuals to their families, by the families to their clans, by the clans to their villages, by the villages to Janapada and Rashtra, and ultimately to the whole humanity.
During the ancient time, history was treated as a powerful vehicle of the awakening of cultural and social consciousness. Therefore, the narrations of Puranas were a compulsory part of the annual ritual in every village and town (especially) during the rainy season and at the time of festivals. F. E. Pargitar and H. C. Raychaudhury have attempted to write history on the basis of genealogies of various dynasties mentioned in the Puranas.
‘Rajatarangini’ written by Kalhana is another work of history, which enjoys the great respect among the historians for its approach and historical content.
Important Greek writers were Herodotus, Nearchus, Megasthenese, Plutarch, Arrian, Strabo, Pliny, Elder, and Ptolemy.
The contribution of Greek writers in the history of ancient India was restricted to the northwestern region of India.
During 324-300 B.C., Megasthenese (a Greek ambassador) visited in the court of Chandragupta Maurya.
Megasthenese in his famous book ‘Indica’ gave detailed account of society and polity of the contemporary India, but unfortunately, it is no longer available to us.
Megasthenese affirms about the existence of an array of 153 kings whose reigns had covered the time period of about 6,053 years up till then.
The writings of Megasthenese, further, had been a source of the information about the ancient India for most of the Greeks writes, including Diodorous, Strabo, and Arrian.
Al-Biruni was born in A.D. 913 in the central part of Asia. He was contemporary of Mahmud of Ghazi and accompanied Mahmud when he conquered part of central Asia; likewise, he came in contact of the Indian culture.
Al-Biruni learned the Sanskrit language to gain a precise knowledge of Indian society. He made multidimensional observations ranging from philosophy, religion, culture, and society to science, literature, art, and medicine.
The work of Al-Biruni is free from all religious or racial biases.
Al-Biruni died in Ghazni (Afghanistan) in A.D. 1048.
Christian Missionaries and Enlightenment
The contribution of Christian Missionaries during the 17th and 18th centuries was mainly affected by the religious and political movements in Europe.
A large number of works were produced on India by the Christian Missionaries, but their writings can hardly be said to be fair. In fact, their interest in learning and writing about India was to show faults in Indian society and culture driven by zealous activities.
A large number of works were produced by the Christian Missionaries on India, but none of them stands near to the works of AI-Biruni.
Some other group of European Scholars, including John Holwell, Nanthaniel Halhed, and Alexander Dow had written about Indian history and culture proving the pre-eminence of the Indian civilization in the ancient world.
Holwell had written that Hindu texts contained a higher revelation than the Christian one.
Halhed had discussed the vast periods of time of human history assigned to four Yugas and concluded that human reason can no more reconcile to itself the idea of Patriarchal longevity of a few thousand years for the entire span of human race.