The study of ancient Indian history is important for several reasons. It tells us how, when and where people developed the earliest cultures in our country. It indicates how they started agriculture which made life secure and settled. It shows how the ancient Indians discovered and utilized natural resources and how they created the means for their livelihood. We come to know how they took to farming, spinning, weaving, metal-working and so on; how they cleared forests; and how they founded villages, cities and finally large kingdoms.
People are not considered civilized unless they know Writing. The different forms of writing prevalent in India today are all derived from the ancient scripts. This is also true of the languages that we speak today. The languages we use have roots in ancient times and have developed through the ages.
Ancient Indian history is interesting because India proved to be a crucible of ethnic groups. The pre-Aryans, the Indo-Aryans, the Greeks, the Scythians, the Hunas and the Turks etc. made India their home. Each ethnic group contributed its mite to the evolution of Indian Social system, art and architecture and literature. All these peoples and their cultural traits mixed up so inextricably with one another that at present none of them can be clearly identified in their original form.
A remarkable feature of ancient Indian culture has been the commingling of cultural elements from the north and the south and from the east and the west. The Aryan elements are equated with the Vedic and Sanskritic culture of the north and the pre-Aryan with Dravidian and Tamil culture of the south. But many Dravidian and non-Sanskritic terms occur in the Vedic texts ascribed to 1500-500 B.C. They indicate ideas, institutions, products and settlements associated with the peninsular and non-Vedic India. Similarly many Pali and Sanskrit terms signifying ideas and institutions developed in the Gangetic plains appear in the earliest Tamil texts called the Sangam literature which is roughly used for the period 300 B.C. A.D. 600. The eastern region inhabited by the pre-Aryan tribals made its own contribution. The people of this area spoke Munda or Kolarian languages. Several terms that signify the use of cotton, navigation, digging stick, etc. in Indo Aryan languages is traced to the Munda languages by the linguists. Although there are many Munda pockets in Chhatanagpur Plateau, the remnants of the Munda culture are not as strong as those of the Dravidian culture. Many Dravidian terms are also used found, in the Indo-Aryan languages. It is held that changes in the phonetics and vocabulary of the Vedic language can be explained as much on the basis of the Dravidian influence as that of the Munda influence.
India has since ancient times been the land of several religions. Ancient India witnessed the birth of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism; but all these cultures and religions intermingled and acted and reacted upon one another in such a manner that though people speak different languages, practise different religions and observe different social customs, they follow certain common styles of life throughout the country. Our country shows a deep underlying unity in spite of great diversity.
The ancients strove for unity. They looked upon this vast subcontinent as one land. The name Bharatavarsha or the land of Bharat was given to the whole country after the name of an ancient tribe called the Bharatas and the people were called Bharatasantati or the descendants of Bharata. Our ancient poets, philosophers and writers viewed the country as an integral unit. They spoke of the land stretching from the Himalayas to the sea as the proper domain of a single universal monarch. The kings who tried to establish their authority from the Himalayas to tire Cape Comorin and from the valley of the Brahmaputra in the east to the land beyond the Indus in the west were universally praised. They were called Chakravartins. This kind of political unity was attained at least in ancient times. In the third century B.C. Ashoka extended his empire over the whole country, except for the extreme south. Again, in the fourth century A.D. Samudragupta carried his victorious arms from the Ganga to the borders of the Tamil land. In the seventh century, the Chalukya king, Pulakeshin defeated Harshavardhana who was called the lord of the whole of north India. In spite of lack of political unity political formations all over the country assumed more or less the same shape. The idea that India constituted one single geographical unit persisted in the minds of the conquerors and cultural leaders. The unity of India was also recognized by foreigners. They first came into contact with the people living on the Sindhu or the Indus and so they named the whole country; after this river. The word Hind is derived from the Sanskrit term Sindhu in course of time the country came to be known as India which is very close to the Greek term for it. It came to be called Hind in Persian and Arabic languages.
We find continuous efforts for the linguistic and cultural unity of the country. In the third century B.C. Prakrit served as the lingua franca of the country. Throughout the major portion of India, Ashoka’s inscriptions were written in the Prakrit language and Brahmi script. Later Sanskrit acquired the same position and served as the state language in the remotest parts of the country. The process became prominent in the Gupta period in the fourth century A.D. Although politically the country witnessed numerous small states in the post Gupta period, the official documents were written in Sanskrit.
Another notable fact is that the ancient epics, the Ramayana and the Mahdbharata were studied with the same zeal and devotion in the land of the Tamils as in the intellectual circles of Banaras and Taxila. Originally composed in Sanskrit, these epics came to be presented in different local languages. But whatever the form in which Indian cultural values and ideas were expressed, the substance remained the same throughout the country.
Indian history deserves our attention because of a peculiar type of social system which developed in this country. In north India arose the Varna caste system which, came to prevail almost all over the country. The caste system affected even the Christians and the Muslims. The converts belonged to some caste and even when they left Hinduism to join the new religion they continued to maintain some of their old caste practices.
The study of India’s past assumes special significance in the context of the problems we face in modern times. Some people clamour for the restoration of ancient culture and civilization and a good many are sentimentally swayed by what they consider to be the past glories of India. This is different from the concern for the preservation of ancient heritage in art and architecture. What in really want to bring back is the pattern of society and culture. Such a situation demands a far better understanding of the past. There is no doubt that ancient Indians made remarkable progress in different fields of life, but these advances cannot enable us to compete with the achievements of modern science and technology. We cannot ignore the fact that the ancient Indian society was marked by gross social injustice. The lower orders, particularly the shudras and untouchables, were encumbered with disabilities which are shocking to the modern mind. The restoration of the old ray of life will naturally revive and strengthen all these inequities. Ancient India’s march to civilisation was accompanied by the growth of social discriminations. The success of the ancients in surmounting the difficulties presented by nature and human factors can build our hope and confidence in future, but the attempt to bring back the past will mean the perpetuation of social inequity which plagued the country. All this makes it necessary to know what the past means.
We have many survivals of ancient, medieval and later times persisting in the present. The old norms, values, social customs and ritualistic practices are so deeply ingrained in the minds of the people that they cannot easily get rid of them. Unfortunately these survivals inhibit the development of the individual and the country. They were deliberately fostered in a colonialist situation. India cannot develop speedily unless such vestiges of the past are removed from its society. The caste system and sectarianism hinder the integration and development of the country on democratic lines. Caste barriers and prejudices do not allow even the educated people to appreciate, the dignity, of manual labour and prevent our unity for a common cause. Though women have been enfranchised, their age-long social subordination prevents them from playing their due role in social progress. This is also true of the lower orders of society. The study of ancient India helps us to go deeply into the roots of these prejudices. We can find out the causes that sustain the caste system, subordinate women and promote narrow religious sectarianism. The study of ancient Indian history, therefore, is relevant not only to those who want to understand the true nature of the past that some people want to relive but also to those who want to appreciate the nature of obstacles that hamper the development of the country.
1. Explain the meaning of the following terms and concepts:
2. Ethnic groups, Sanskritic culture, Varna, ‘Unity in Diversity’, Chakravartin.
3. Discuss how the study of ancient Indian history is relevant to an understanding of contemporary India.
4. Do you think that it is desirable to think in terms of restoring the past? Why, or Why not? Discuss.
5. Give examples of commingling of different cultures in the context of ancient Indian history.