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Literary Sources for the Study of Ancient Indian History

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

Literary sources includes:

  • Vedic Literature

  • Itihasa- Purana Tradition

  • Foreign Accounts

  • Individual Works (Eg: Arthashastra, Rajatarangini,..)

In this article we will deal with Itihasa- Purana tradition and Foreign Accounts


Itihasa Purana Tradition

Itihasa Purana tradition refers to a branch of ancient Indian literature. This tradition was started by Veda Vyasa who started the composition of Mahabharata. This tradition facilitated the recording of past events. It has two components:

  1. Itihasas: They deal with past events. They are considered to be historical. Eg: Mahabharata, Ramayana

  2. Puranas: They deal with old tales and folklores. They may be historical or mythological Eg: Vishnu Purana, Matsya Purana, etc.


Puranas as a source of history

The Puranas contain historical and mythological contents. Purana literature started to be composed by 1 st century BC and it continued till 10 th century AD. They have historical significances in the following ways:

  • From Puranas, we get knowledge of the language and script of that age. Puranas were written in Sanskrit language and in Devanagiri script.


  • We get the knowledge of the calligraphic skills of the age. There are thousands of verses in each Purana and they were written with great artistic skills without any mistakes.

Calligraphic skills in Puranas

  • Puranas contain secular knowledge of ancient times. We can get the names of ancient cities, trade routes, etc. from the Puranas.

  • Some Puranas mention about specific dynasties. Eg: There is special mention about Mauryan dynasty in Vishnu Purana. Similarly, Vayu Purana contains information about Gupta dynasty and Matsya Purana contains information about Satavahana dynasty.


  • Puranas were the most important vehicle for the spread of secular knowledge in ancient India. They were accessible to every section of the people (Unlike Vedas which were not accessible to women and Shudras).

Limitations of Purana Literature

  • Puranas are written in future tense so the language is quite vogue and it leads to multiple interpretations.

  • The unit of time period is difficult to understand. According to Puranas, each dynasty ruled for thousands of years. So, It is difficult to understand how many days constituted one year.


  • Religious elements are predominant in Puranas.

  • Class bias is strong in Puranas. They deal with the life of the ruling class. We do not get information about the life of common people from Puranas.

Foreign Accounts

Foreign accounts refers to the books written by foreign authors. They are:

  1. Greco- Roman Sources. Eg: Indica of Megasthenes, Natural History of Pliny, Geography of Strabo, Epitome of Justin, etc.

  2. Chinese Sources. Eg: 'Fu Kuo Ki' of Fa-Hien, 'Si Yu Ki' of Hiuen Tsang, etc.

  3. Arab Sources. Eg: Kitab Ul Hind of Al Biruni

Significance of Foreign Accounts

  1. They provide information about the politico-administrative life. Eg: Indica gives information about the politico-administrative system during Mauryan Age.


  1. They provide information about the social life. Eg: Fa-Hien mentions that the Chandalas lived in the outskirts of the city. It means caste system and untouchability were prevalent during the Gupta period.


  1. They provide information about the religious life. Eg: Hiuen Tsang mentions about the land grants to Brahmanas and Buddhist monasteries by Harsha. It implies that people of that age were tolerant to different religions.


  1. They provide information about the economic conditions of the age. Eg: In Natural History, Pliny complains that Romans are addicted to Indian luxury goods and Rome is being drained out gold by Indian merchants. It implies that ancient Indians had a huge surplus trade with Rome.

Pliny

  1. They provide information about the foreign relations of the age. Eg: According to Megesthenes, ambassadors were exchanged between Mauryan rulers with the contemporary rulers.

  2. They provide information about the military successes of Indian rulers. According to Megasthenes, there was a war between Chandragupta Maurya and Seleucus Nicator. After this war, the latter surrendered Kabul, Herat, Makran coast, etc. to the former.


  1. From the foreign accounts, we can understand the attitude of foreigners towards India. Eg: Megasthenes says that Indian palaces were more magnificent than Persian palaces.


  1. They provide information about the spread of Indian culture to other countries.

Limitations of Foreign Accounts

  1. In the works of Chinese travellers, Buddhist bias was visible. Eg: Harsha patronized Buddhism. So Hiuen Tsang does not mention about Harsha's defeat against Pulikeshin II of Chalukya dynasty.

  2. There are misconceptions found in the foreign accounts. Eg: Megasthenes says that Indians were employing ants of giant size to dig out gold.


  1. Sometimes, foreign accounts provide wrong information. Eg: According to Megasthenes, slavery was absent in India during Mauryan age. But Arthashastra emphasizes that slavery was prevalent at that period. Probably, Megasthenes could not distinguish between free laborers and slaves because the condition of slaves was quite well in India.


  1. Some authors had negative attitude towards India. Eg: Al Beruni had a negative attitude towards India. He came to India along with Muhammad Ghazni. He accuses that Indians were full of social evils and they do not share knowledge with anyone else.


Sense of Historiography among Ancient Indians

Al Biruni came to India along with Muhammad Ghazni in 11 th century AD. In his book Kitab Ul Hind, he says that, Indians do not have any sense of history; when something is asked to Indians, they start telling stories. This reference from Al Biruni was embraced by colonial historians to argue that ancient Indians had no sense of historiography. Colonial historians argue that Indians learnt historiography from Turks. However, this argument is wrong:

  • Vedas were composed in 2 nd millennium BC. They talk about the socio- politico- economic life of the people of that age

  • The Itihasa –Purana tradition started in 2 nd millennium BC and Continued till 10 th century BC. We get information about various dynasties from them.

  • Arthashastra (written in 3 rd Century BC) describes historiography as a well developed tradition in India.

  • In Rajatarangini, Kalhana describes about the duties and responsibility of a historian.

History According to kalhana

Kalhana lived in Kashmir in 12 th century AD. His book, Rajatarangini contains history of India from Mahabharata age to 12 th century AD. In this book, he describes the duties and responsibilities of a historian.

  • A true historian should behave like a judge; he must be free from biases and prejudices.

  • A true historian must use every possible source of information; he must not rely on only one source.

  • A historian must apply critical thinking while reconstructing the past. Through this, the limitations of one source can be overcome with the evidences from another source.

  • To make sense, past must be interpreted in the light of present. Eg: If we see the word ‘state’ in the ancient literature, we must understand that these were not the ‘States’ in the modern sense.

  • Duty of a historian is to dig out the truth without worrying about the nature of the truth.

  • A true historical work should impart wisdom to its readers; the reader should be able to foresee the future by reading the book.


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