The Changing Approaches to the Study of Early Indian History | History

The Changing Approaches to the Study of Early Indian History!

The history writing in Ancient India started with the coming of Europeans to India. Even though Indians possessed historical works, like Rajatarangini, and Puranas, modern history writing as is understood today began with the Europeans.


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The modern research regarding early Indian history started in the eighteenth century because of the needs of the colonial administration set up by the British.

Initially, the Manusmriti was translated into English as the Code of Gentoo laws in 1776. The initial efforts culminated with the establishment of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784 in Calcutta. This was followed in 1789 by the translation of the drama the Abhigyan Shakuntalam into English in 1789, and the Mahabharata’s translation by Wilkins.

The greatest push to the Indological studies was given by F. Max Muller. The Revolt of 1857 was a great eye opener. It was strongly realized 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, scriptures were translated on a massive scale under the editorship of Max Muller.

In these volumes, the western historians made certain generalizations about the nature of the ancient Indian history and society. It was said that the Indians lacked a sense of history. Further, Indians were used to the despotic rule.

The caste system was considered to be the most vicious form of social discrimination. Indians had never experienced feelings of nationalism or any king of self-government. Such was the view of the western scholars.

The first systematic history of ancient India was prefaced by Vincent Smith in the form of Early History of India in 1904. His book based on primary sources gave emphasis on political history. His approach was core imperialist and haughty.

He emphasized the role of foreign invasions and Alexander’s invasion took half of the space of his book. India was presented as a land of despotism which did not experienced political unity till the establishment of the British rule.

In sum, the British interpretations of the Indian history served to denigrate Indian character and achievements and justify colonial rule. However, most of the generalizations were either false or grossly exaggerated. They could serve as good propaganda material for the perpetuation of the despotic British rule. Their emphasis on Indian traditions of one man rule could justify the system which vested all powers in the hands of the Viceroy.

All this was naturally challenged by the Indian scholars, 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 the mission to reconstruct ancient Indian history in such a manner as to make a case for social reforms, self-government, and in doing so most of themes were divided by the ideas of Hindu revivalism.

But many scholars like Rajendra Lai Mitra adopted sound approach and wrote a book on Indo- Aryans. Others tried to prove that in spite of the peculiarities, the caste system was not basically different from the class system based on the division of labour.

Ramakrishna Bhandarkar and Vishwanath Kashinath Raj wade emerged as two great dedicated scholars who pieced together varied sources to reconstruct social and political history of the country. R.G. Bhandarkar wrote the History of the Satavahanas and the History of Vaishnavism. V.K. Rajwade wrote the History of the Institution of Marriage.

Pandurang Vaman Kane, a great scholar, wrote the History of the Dharmashastra. Similarly, Roychoudhari focused on political history and so did D.R. Bhandarkar, an epigraphist who wrote a book on Asoka. K.A. Nilkanta Sastri followed the same approach in his book, A History of South India. Until 1960, political history attracted the largest number of Indian scholars.

British Historian, A.L. Basham, a Sanskrit’s by training questioned the wisdom of looking at ancient Indian from the modern point of view. His writings show deep interest in the materialist philosophy of heterodox sect. His book Wonder that was India is a systematic survey of the various sects of ancient Indian culture and civilization.

Basham’s book marks a shift from political to non- political history. The source shift is evident in D.D. Koshambi’s An Introduction to the Study of Indian History. Koshambi justified a new trail in Indian history. This treatment is materialist in approach. He presents the history of ancient Indian society, economy and culture as an integrated development of relations of productions.

During the last twenty five years there has been a sea change in methods and orientations of those who work on ancient India. They lay greater tress on social, economic, and cultural processes. They compare archaeological and anthropological evidences.

Unfortunately a few Indian writers magnify the role of religion, and believe that everything good and great originated in their country. This does not bode well for history writing on ancient India. There is a need to be more balanced and critical in history writing to pass correct judgments to future generations. Only then can one have an objective view of early history of India.

Submitted by : Professor Advika, Category : History, Tag : History