Ancient Histories of India



It is a popular misconception that Indians / Hindus have no interest in history or that they do not care to keep their history.  Like all people, Hindus are very passionate about their past.  You only have to look at the interest with which they regale each other with the achievements of their ancestors, list of ancestral names etc at each and every family occasion.  Given half a chance, Hindus will tell you about what their parents, grandparents, ancestors, ancient kings and gods did in the present tense, as if they were talking about current affairs.  Hindu love to go backwards and forwards in their histories as if there was no linear relationship to it at all.  Maybe that’s the difference between Hindu and non-Hindu way of recording histories.


Recorded history of Hindus exists in various forms.  First is the history written in the Vedas – recording the valorous acts of kings, sages, heroes and Divine spirits.  Purans mix up history and mythology.  Under its poetic style, it is difficult to say what is what.  Various kings and emperors have recorded their histories in their official biographies.  Most of these have been either lost, destroyed or are buried deep in some unknown places.  Some however, have survived – like the rock edicts of Ashok or the announcements of the various kings on the Iron Pillar at Dehli. 


Temples that survived the iconoclastic muslim invasions, record the achievements of individuals, guilds, communities and kings.  These are either carved in stone, engraved on copper plates or written on palm leaves.  Temple records are fantastic form of primary historic data. 


Folk singers have faithfully maintained regional histories by memorising major events in verses for centuries.  For centuries they have sung these histories and educated the masses with their painted Pada and puppet shows.


Pandas have maintained the family histories of almost all Hindus – yes – almost all Hindus – in the various pilgrimage centres throughout India.  So remarkable is their recording method, that even now, you can see the hand writing or finger prints of our ancestors going back for hundreds of years.  Each record details who was in the family at the time and the reason for their pilgrimage. 


Physical remains of India’s ancient past are consumed by time, nature, armies and architects.  Stone palaces and monuments have been levelled by successive generation, their remains reused by architects to build new palaces and monuments.  Wooden structures has been eaten by armies of termites, worn away by torrential rain, or reduced to ash by invading armies.  Written records have been various burnt, drowned or melted for metal. 


However, one source of historical data has not been wiped out and still remains with us – the astronomical readings recorded at the time of great events !  Hindu scriptures have captured important dates by recording the position of starts, planets and constellations at the time of major events – births, deaths, coronations and wars.  While terrestrial remains may be destroyed, the stellar data can not be changed.  By examining this data, we can still pin point the exact date of events in the ancient times.


In terms of "ancient history", there are two main histories that have been given the honour of being called “scriptures” – Ramayan and the Mahabhart.  Though in essence they deal with the family history of Raghu and Yayati’s dynasties they also weave histories of other great families, great events, cultural intricacies, social norms and philosophical ideologies of the times.  This is what makes them epics rather than just simple histories of royal families. 


Ramayan and Mahabhart are mirrors of the Indian society.  Even now, these two are used as touchstones for all matters on relationships, kinship, kingship, politics, morality, ethics, duty, philosophy and religion.  As literary works, these two are some of the biggest and weightiest toms, with over 25,000 and 100,000 verses each.  Compare this to the Iliad which has 15000 lines and Odyssey, which as 12,110 lines.  The Old Testament of the Bible has 23, 214 verses and the new Testament has just under 8000 verses.  Koran has only 6666 verses.


In terms of their reach, both Ramayan and the Mahabhart directly influence art, theatre, music, literature, social norms, morality and ethics of nations all the way from India to Cambodia.


Shri Maad Bhagvad Gita (Gita) is a philosophical gem that emerges from the terrible intestinal war of Mahabharat.  Recited by Shri Krushna at the start of the war, it helped re-engage a despondent Arjun, reminding him that to fight for the righteous cause was his duty.  SMB Gita examines Arjun’s reasons to justify his pacifism, and clears up his doubts by exploring the various philosophical schools of Hinduism.  At no point though, does Shri Krushna “force” Arjun to accept his view point.  Even at the end of his SM Gita, Shri Krushna says that to act or resign, to accept or reject his advise is Arjun’s prerogative.  This open spirit of letting the individual decide what to do, which path to follow, is central to Hindu thought.  Gita has influenced Hindus for centuries.  For example, in early part of the twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi famously used the Gita to promote Indian aspirations of independence and self reliance though non-violence !


Ramayan is perennially favourite.  In the 1980s, television serialisation of the epic was so popular, Indian streets were deserted every time the episodes came on TV.  Even now, the ideal sort of government everyone aspires to and politicians constantly promise to deliver to their constituents is, “Ram-Rajya”.  Family relationships are weighed in comparison to characters in the epic.  Of all Hindu epic heroes, Rama was the only one ever to be monogamous.  Rama is so loved by the people, that after independence, the new Personal and Family Laws stipulated all Hindus should be monogamous like Rama !!!! and amazingly, Hindus agreed !!


Even today, Mahabharta is a fantastic source material for countless TV serial and cinema plots.  Script writers use aspects of the original story to spice up their plots.  Politicians often justify their actions by quoting the Mahabharta.  “Coalition Dharma” is one of the newest innovations in Indian politics to try and justify their inactions.  They accuse each other of acting like the blind king Dhrutrastra, evil uncle Shakuni or evil Dushashan.  


Hindus record, preserve and perpetuate their histories differently to Europeans.  This simple fact needs to be appreciated and understood by all - inside and outside India. 

© Bhagwat    [email protected]


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