Literary Evidence in The Construction of Indian History

Indian Art - Kalachuri period

by Jayaram V

In the construction of Indian history, three sources are important: literary sources, archeological evidence (excavations, inscriptions, coins, and monuments), and foreign accounts. Ancient Indians did not maintain an accurate record of their daily lives, family histories or contemporary accounts, thereby creating a huge vacuum in our understanding of the times in which they lived. Hence, Indic scholars are burdened with the task of constructing Indian history with meager evidence. In this discussion, we will focus upon the reliability of literary evidence.

Ancient Indians created voluminous literature, which was mostly religious and partly secular. The Vedas, Puranas, Itihasas, Shastras, Sutras, Kavyas, Kosas, ancillary texts like the Vedangas and Ayurveda, and numerous other liturgies, folktales, commentaries, summaries (samgrahas), Prabandhas, vernacular literature, etc., provide the historians with a rich source of information. However, although they are useful, they are not always reliable.

Certain risks seem to be unavoidable when you rely upon literary sources to construct the past, especially when you do not have an alternative source to corroborate the information. The ancient texts are not purely factual. They contain facts mixed with imagination, speculation, and assumptive reasoning and reflect the romantic idealism, religious authority, and creative imagination of their authors, rather than the reality of the times in which they were composed. Hence, without corroborative evidence, you do not know how far you can rely upon them and draw valid conclusions. In this regard the following points are worth mentioning.

  1. The ancient literary texts do not always reflect the social, economic, or political reality.
  2. They might have been altered several times by numerous people from different times.
  3. Their age is unknown. Hence, you cannot always place them in a timeframe.
  4. Being creative works, they contain idealism mixed with reality.
  5. We do not know their value to the common people who had no access to them.
  6. We do not know how many people put them to real use in their lives.
  7. Their appeal was limited to a  few groups as ancient India was home to diverse cultures.
  8. Changes in the language and idiom might have affected our understanding of them.
  9. We have a lot of unknowns and forgotten histories. We do not know what was lost that would never be known.
  10. Many sacred texts are not entirely free from religious and cultural bias.

Imagine that a thousand years from now historians had been tasked with the duty of constructing the history of today’s world solely based upon the remnants of today’s literature, art, films and television soaps. What kind of history would they create and how accurate it would be?

If they were to solely rely upon science fiction (and nothing else), they would have inferred that the people of today had the knowledge of time travel, space travel, alien civilizations, artificial intelligence, and the ability to colonize planets, harness the stars, and use advanced weaponry in galactic wars. (For example, we have these fantastic constructs that the people of the Mahabharata times had the knowledge of atomic warfare and missile technology).

If they had to depend solely upon Indian movies, they would have concluded that today’s Indian society was marred by violence, rapes, robberies, and corrupt politics, that people loved singing and dancing in the public places, forests and mountains, that women wore skimpy dresses and romanced with men in public, and that men settled their differences with fist fights and street brawls.

If they had to go solely by the Indian television serials, they would have concluded the women in the households spent their time bickering and plotting against their husbands and other members of the family, and some were so evil that they would poison their own friends and family members for money, power, position, love, or attention.

These are a few "exaggerated" examples of how distortions can arise if we have to base our conclusion solely upon literary works to construct the past. The older a civilization is the greater is the difficulty in recreating its history. Our knowledge of Hinduism and the history of ancient India comes to us mostly from the sacred texts and a few literary works. Hence, we have to be careful how we use them and what conclusions we draw from them.

We may use all the positive information to glorify the past, ignoring the contradictions and troubling facts, or we may use all the negative information to create an alternative history that is far from truth or delusional at its best. Many distortions have already crept into Indian history because of faulty conclusions, agenda based personal constructs, and political and ideological bias. The same sources are used by different groups to draw different conclusions.

History is mostly an interpretation of the past based upon available evidence. At the best, it is an educated and intelligent guess that may be totally out of sync with the reality. When proper evidence is lacking, no one can claim authority over it, nor should it be a license to write nonsensical histories. The history of India that we have today is rather a collection of perspectives by different people at different times. Hence, whenever we speak about the history of India or of Hinduism, we must look for validation and corroborative evidence from different sources, and allow the debate to continue. That is if we are interested in truth.

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