Notion of history is the way and methods in which history is perceived, studied, recorded and passed on through the ages in a particular culture. Naturally, this understanding of history varied all over the world. In this article, we will discuss the early Indian notions of history.
Early Indian Notions of History in comparison to Europe
The European notion of history stemmed from the Roman and Greek notions. The Romans believed that history should be preserved by the process of maintaining written records. Chroniclers were expected to record an unbiased and truthful version of the events, relying on their own observations or eyewitnesses. However they were free to give their own views on the matters after the facts were recorded, and usually did. The Medieval Europeans followed this notion of history – as long as it didn’t interfere with religion, knowledge was after all regulated by the church through the Middle Ages (except Italy after the Renaissance) and the church didn’t need the people or, more importantly, the royalty doubting their portrayal of the superiority of Christ.
In other words, the Europeans studied History by fitting it into a cause and effect theme. To study causality, knowledge of how, why, when an event happened and the events leading up to it are important. This is why the European notion places so much importance on written records of events. There is little room for anything other than the facts in it.
When Europeans first encountered the early Indian notions of history, they dismissed Indians as not having a sense of history. The reason for this is that there were few sources of ‘real’ historical writing from ancient India. Although it is true that there is a lack of attempts to chronicle facts in ancient India; this cannot be taken to mean that Indians did not have a sense of history. The sense was very much there, it was just different from the European sense.
Early Indian Notions of History:
The statement that Indians had a different notion of history begs the question of how it was different. A key aspect in explaining this is the ancient Indian sense of time.
Europeans viewed the passage of time as a linear event, sort of like a number line.
Whereas Indians viewed, and still do, the passage of time as a cyclic event, where cycles start, end, start again and continue into infinity. Such a viewpoint entirely eliminates the uniqueness of any event and makes it merely something that has happened before and will happen again.
Due to this attitude works of ‘real’ history only emerged as late as the 12th century CE (Kalhana’s Rajatarangini). Looked at from this viewpoint, Indians did lack a sense of history.
Interpolation means the editing and additions that are made to an original text by future generations. Each addition gets included in the current version, due to which the originality of a text might be lost. Interpolation is frowned upon by most modern historians as it makes it much more difficult to interpret a text the way it was meant to be by the original author.
However from another perspective, due to interpolation, a text ultimately becomes a document which includes the thoughts, ideas, and opinions of quite a few people living at different points in history. A skilled historian may be able to use an interpolated text to understand the changes that society, people, and life, in general, went through with the passage of time.
Thus the heavy interpolation of Indian texts, most notably the Mahabharat and the Ramayan can be viewed in two ways, rather than only as a negative aspect.
Embedded and Externalised History:
The Indian historian Romila Thapar makes a distinction between embedded sources of history: those sources from which data can only be extracted with effort like epics, poetry, myths, plays, etc and externalised sources of history: those sources which show a deliberate attempt to record the past like chronicles, genealogies of kings, etc.
There are a lot of embedded sources of history in India from which data can be extracted. This goes some way in bridging the gaps that the dearth of externalised sources has created.
In conclusion, it can be said that the early Indian notions of history were such, that the recording of events was not given due importance. Though this has created problems in knowing about events in India’s past, it cannot be said that early Indians had no notion or understanding of history. History was well understood, it was only not acted upon.
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