Ancient India

Modern Historians of Ancient India

Colonialist Views and Contribution

ALTHOUGH educated Indians retained their traditional history in the form of hand-written epics, Puranas and semi-biographical works, modern research in the history of ancient India started in the second half of the eighteenth century because of the needs of the colonial administration set up by the British. When Bengal and Bihar came under the rule of the East India Company in 1765, they found it difficult to administer the Hindu law of inheritance. Hence, in 1776, Manusmriti (the law book of Manu), which, was considered most authoritative was translated into English as A Code of Gentoo Laws. The pandits were associated with British judges to administer the civil law of the Hindus and the maulavis to govern the same, law of the Muslims. The initial efforts to understand ancient laws and customs, which continued largely until the eighteenth century, culminated in the establishment of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784 in Calcutta. It was set up by a civil servant of the East India Company, Sir William Jones (1746-1794), who translated the drama known as the Abhijnana shakuntalam into English in 1789 the Bhagvadgita, the most popular religious text of the Hindus, had been rendered into English by Wilkins in 1785. The Bombay Asiatic Society was set up in 1804 and the Asiatic Society of Great Britain was set up in London in 1823. William Jones emphasised the point that originally European languages were very much similar to Sanskrit and Iranian languages. This aroused the interest of Germany, France, Russia and other European countries in Indological studies. In the first half of the nineteenth century chairs in Sanskrit were established in England and. several other European countries.

The greatest push to Indological studies was given by the German-born scholar F. Max Mueller (1823-1902) who spent most of his time in England. The Revolt of 1857 was a great eye opener. It was strongly realised in Britain that it badly needed a deeper knowledge of the manners and social systems of an alien people over whom it had to rule. Similarly, the Christian missionaries wanted to find out the vulnerable points in the Hindu religion to win converts and strengthen the British Empire. To meet these needs ancient scriptures were translated on a massive scale under the editorship of Max Mueller. Altogether fifty volumes, some in several parts were published under the Sacred Books of the East series. Although a few Chinese and Iranian texts were included, really the ancient Indian texts predominated in the series in the introductions to these volumes and the books based on them, Max Mueller and other western scholars made certain generalisations about the nature of ancient Indian history and society. They stated that the ancient Indians lacked a sense of history especially of the factor of time and chronology. They added that the Indians were accustomed to despotic rule. Further, the natives were engrossed in the problems of spiritualism or of the next world and least bothered about the problems of this world. The caste system was considered to be the most vicious form of social discrimination. The western scholars stressed that the Indians had neither experienced feelings of nationhood nor any kind of self-government.

Many of these generalisations appeared in Early History of India by Vincent Arthur Smith (1843-1920), who prepared the first systematic history of ancient India in 1904. His book which was based on a deep study of the available sources gave primacy to political history. It served as a textbook for nearly fifty years and is still used by scholars. Smith’s approach to history was pro-imperialist. As a loyal member of the Indian Civil Service he emphasised the role of foreigners in ancient -third of his book. India was presented as a land of despotism which did not experience political unity until the establishment of British rule. As he observes: Autocracy is substantially the only form of government with which the historian of India is concerned.

In sum, British interpretations of Indian history served to denigrate Indian character and achievements and justify the colonial rule. A few of these observations appeared to be somewhat valid. Thus compared to the Chinese, the Indians did not show any strong sense of chronology although in the earlier stage important events were dated with reference to the death of Gautama Buddha. However, generalisations made by historians were either false or grossly exaggerated. They could serve as good propaganda material for the perpetuation of the despotic British rule. Their emphasis on the Indian tradition of one man rule could justify the system which vested all powers in the hands of the viceroy. Similarly, if the Indians were obsessed with the problems of the other world, the British colonial masters had no option but to look after their life in this world. Without any experience of self-rule in the past, how could the natives manage their affairs in the present? At the heart of all such generalisations lay the need of demonstrating that the Indians were incapable of governing themselves.

Nationalist Approach and Contribution

All this naturally came as a great challenge to Indian scholars, particularly to those who had received western education. They were irked by the colonialist distortions of their past history and at the same time distressed by the contrast between the decaying feudal society of India and the progressive capitalist society of England. A band of scholars took upon themselves; the mission to reform Indian society but also to reconstruct ancient Indian history in such a manner as to make case for social reforms and, more importantly, for self-government. In doing so most historians were guided by the nationalist ideas of Hindu revivalism, but there was no dearth of scholars who adopted a rationalist and objective approach. To the second category belongs Rajendra Lal Mitra (1822-1891), who published some Vedic texts and wrote a book entitled Indo-Aryans. A great lover of ancient heritage, he took a rational view of ancient society and produced a forceful tract to show that in ancient times people took beef. Others tried to prove that in spite of its peculiarities the caste system was not basically different from the class system based on division of labour found in preindustrial and ancient societies of Europe.

In Maharashtra, Ramakrishna Gopal Bhandarkar (1837-1925) and Vishwanath Kashinath Rajwade (1869-1926) emerged as two great dedicated scholars who pieced together varied sources to reconstruct the social and political history of the country. R.G. Bhandarkar reconstructed the political history of the Deccan of the Satavahanas and the history of Vaishnavism and other sects. A great social reformer, through his-researches he advocated widow marriages, and, castigated the evils of the caste system and child marriage. With his unadulterated passion for research, V.K. Rajwade went from village to village in Maharashtra in search of Sanskrit manuscripts and sources of Maratha history; the sources came to be published in twenty-two volumes. He did not write much, but the history of the institution of marriage that he wrote in Marathi in 1926 will continue to be a classic because of its solid base in Vedic and other texts and also because of the author’s insight into the stages in the evolution of marriage in India. Pandurang Kane (1880-1972), a great Sanskritist wedded to social reform, continued the earlier tradition of scholarship. His monumental work entitled the History of the Dharmasastra published in five volumes in the twentieth century is an encyclopaedia of ancient social laws and Customs. It enables us to make a study of social processes in The Indian scholars diligently studied polity and political history to demonstrate that India did have its political history and that the Indians possessed expertise in administration. Here due credit should be given to Devdatta Ramakrishna Bhandarkar (1875-1950), an epigraphist, who published books on Ashoka and on ancient Indian political institutions. More valuable work was done by Hemchandra Ray chaudhuri (18921957), who reconstructed the history of ancient India from the time of the Bharata (Mahabharata) war, i.e the tenth century B.C to the end of the Gupta Empire. Being a teacher of European history, he adopted some of the methods and comparative insights in writing this book. Although he did not discuss the problem of periodisation, his history of ancient India stopped with the sixth century A.D. Though he recognised the contribution of V.A. Smith to the reconstruction of early Indian history, yet Raychaudhuri criticised the British scholar at many points. His writings are marked by impeccable scholarship but show a streak of militant brahmanism when he criticises Ashoka’s policy of peace. A stronger element of Hindu revivalism appears in the writings of R.C. Majumdar (1888-1980), who was a prolific writer and the general editor of the multi volume publication History and Culture of the Indian People.

Most writers on early Indian history did not give adequate attention to south India. Even K.A. Nilakanta Sastri (1892-1975), the great historian from south India, followed the same approach in his A History of Ancient India. This was more than rectified in A History of South India written by him. His style is terse, but his writing is lucid. In the presentation of facts he is as dependable as Raychaudhuri. However, His general observations on the nature of polity and society in south India are questioned by several scholars. Nilakapta Sastri emphasised the cultural supremacy of the brahmanas and also highlighted the harmony that prevailed in early Indian society. Under his leadership several research monographs were produced on the dynastic history of south India.

Until 1960 political history attracted the largest number of Indian scholars, who also glorified the histories of their respective regions on dynastic lines. Those who wrote history at a pan-India level were inspired by the ideas of nationalism. In contrast to the book of V.A. Smith, who gave almost one third of the total space to Alexander’s invasion, Indian scholars gave this subject much less space. On the other hand, they stressed the importance of the dialogue of Porus with Alexander and Chandragupta Maurya’s liberation of north-western India from Seleucus. Some scholars such as K.P. Jayaswal (1881-1937) and A.S. Altekar (1898-1959) overplayed the role of the indigenous ruling dynasties in liberating the country from the rule of the Shakas and Kushans, little realising that Central Asian and some other people became part and parcel of India’s life and did not exploit its resources for their original homeland.

However, the greatest merit of K.P. Jayaswal lay in exploding the myth of Indian despotism. As early as 1910-12, he wrote several articles to show that the republics existed in ancient times and enjoyed a measure of self-government. His findings finally appeared in Hindu Polity in 1924. Although Jayaswal is charged, with projecting modern nationalist ideas into ancient institutions and the nature of the republican government presented by him is attacked by many writers including

U.N. Ghoshal (1886-1969), Ills basic thesis regarding the practice of the republican experiment is widely accepted and his pioneer work Hindu Polity, now in its sixth edition, is considered a classic.

Shift to Non-Political History

British historian, A.L. Basham (1914-1986), a Sanskritist by training questioned the wisdom of looking at ancient India from the modem point of view. His earlier writings show his deep interest in the materialist, philosophy of some heterodox sects. Later he believed that the past should be read out of curiosity and pleasure. His book Wonder That Was India (1951) is a sympathetic survey of the various facets of ancient Indian culture and civilization, free from the prejudices that plague, the writings of V.A. Smith or other British writers.

Basham’s bookmarks a great shift from political to non-political history; The same shift is evident in D.D. Kosambi’s (1907-1966) book An Introduction to the Study of Indian History (1957), later popularised in The Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline (1965). Kosambi blazed a new trail in Indian history. His treatment follows the materialist interpretation of history, which is derived from the writings of Karl Mane. He presents the history of ancient Indian society, economy and culture as an integral part of the development of the forces and relations of production. His was the first survey book to show the stages of social and economic development in terms of tribal and class processes. He was criticised by many scholars including Basham, but his book continues to be widely used.

During the last twenty-five years there has been a sea change in the methods and orientation of those who work on ancient India. They lay greater stress on social, economic and cultural processes and try to relate them to political developments. They take account of the stratification of the texts and compare their conventional nature with archaeological and anthropological evidence. All this bodes good for the future of historical studies. Unfortunately a few Indian writers magnify the role of religion and believe that everything good and great, originated in their country. Western writers no longer insist that all such things came to India from outside. But some of them hold that religious ideas, rituals, caste, kinship and tradition are the main forces in Indian history. They also underscore various divisive features which made for stagnation. They are more concerned about the problem of stability and continuity. They seem to be fascinated by old, exotic elements and want to preserve them for ever. Such an approach implies that Indian society has not changed and cannot be changed. It means that underdevelopment is an integral part of the Indian character. Thus, the chauvinists and sophisticated colonialists use the study of

balanced and objective view of ancient India.


1 Explain the meaning of the Following terms and concepts: Indological studies, Sanskritists, forces and relations of production.
2 Make an assessment of views of ancient Indian history. Give specific examples of their views while making your assessment.
3 Discuss the contribution of nationalist historians to the study of ancient Indian history.

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