The reconstruction of past history depends on sources of information, regardless of whether they are archaeological or written. For prehistory, historians gather information solely from archaeological sources. However, during the historical period when people adopted the art of writing, written or literary sources became the most important. There are different forms of recorded history, which include: (a) Religious Texts, (b) Epics, (c) Sangam Literature of South India, (d) Secular Literature, (e) Semi-biographical texts, (f) Literary texts in the form of drama, poetry, etc., (g) Technical works, (h) Writings on art, and (i) Accounts of foreign travelers, etc.
Religious Texts: The Vedic literature is the oldest literary text in India. It consists of the Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, and Atharvaveda. The Rigveda is the earliest Vedic text and belongs to the Early Vedic period (1500-1000 BC). Although composed during that time, it was not written down until 500 BC. The other Vedic texts (Yajurveda, Samaveda, and Atharvaveda) belong to the Later Vedic period (1000-600 BC). Apart from the Vedas, there are other religious texts composed in Sanskrit, such as the Puranas and Dharmashastra. The doctrines of Buddhism are found in their religious text ‘Tripitaka,’ written in the Pali language. On the other hand, the Jains wrote in Prakrit but later began using Ardhamagadhi as well. The teachings of Jainism can be found in the Agamas.
The Epics: The Ramayana and Mahabharata are two Sanskrit epics. It is evident from their references to each other that the two epics were aware of one another. The composition of the Mahabharata is placed between 400 BC and 400 AD, while the Ramayana is believed to have been written between the 5th and 4th century BC and the 3rd century AD. The powerful stories narrated in these epics serve as important sources of information for the contemporary period. The Mahabharata is said to have been written by Vyasa, and the Ramayana by Valmiki.
The Sangam Literature: Sangam literature is the earliest group of literary texts in South India. The literature was written in Tamil, and ‘Sangam’ means assembly. It is said that the Tamil poets (8,898 in number) met in three assemblies spread over 99,990 years to compose these texts. However, modern historians believe that the Sangam literature was composed under the patronage of the Pandya kings of South India between 300 AD and 600 AD. This literature sheds light on the development of society in South India.
Secular Literature: Among the secular literature, mention must be made of the Arthasastra, a book on political science, which was the first of its kind in India. The book was written by Kautilya, who is also known as Chanakya or Vishnugupta, around 400 BC. Additionally, the Ashtadhyayi of Panini, Mahabhashya of Patanjali, Mitakshara of Vigyaneswara, and Dayabhaga of Jimutavahana are some of the most important secular texts that deal with various aspects of life in ancient India.
Semi-biographical Texts: Literary texts in the form of semi-biographies are useful for reconstructing the socio-economic life of the people during the periods in which they were composed. In this category, we have Bakpati’s Gaudabaho, Vishakhadatta’s Mudrarakshasa, Sandhyakaranandi’s Ramacharita, Nayachandra’s Hamirkavya, and Bilhana’s Vikramankadevacharita, among others. These texts are helpful in reconstructing the socio-economic conditions of the Gupta and post-Gupta times.
Literary Texts in the Nature of Poetry, Drama, etc.: Many poetical works of ancient India, apart from their beauty and fine literary qualities, are used by historians as sources of information. The earliest Sanskrit poet and playwright were Ashvaghosha and Bhasa. Ashvaghosha was famous as the author of the Buddhacharita, and Bhasa composed many dramas, including Pancharatra. The most celebrated among all Sanskrit writers was Kalidasa, who belonged to the 4th and 5th centuries. Kalidasa’s drama Abhijnana-Shakuntala and the poetic work Raghuvamsha are masterpieces in Sanskrit literature. In addition to their literary value, these creations of Kalidasa reflect the socio-economic life of the contemporary period.
Technical Works: Some technical works dealing with astronomy, astrology, etc., are also useful for the study of socio-economic life. For example, the Astadhyayi of Panini is essentially a book on grammar, but it also sheds light on the geography of North India. Varahamihira composed the famous Brihat Samhita, which deals with agricultural methods during the Gupta period. Krishiparasara, written around the 11th century, vividly describes agricultural methods and also refers to certain conditions based on which it is possible to predict rainfall.
Writings on Art and Architecture: Certain texts also provide information about art and architecture during contemporary times. In this respect, mention may be made of Manasara and Aparajitapraccha. These books provide technological information about the construction of houses and also reflect on the social classes prevalent in the early medieval period.
Accounts of Foreign Travelers: Greek, Roman, Tibetan, and Chinese travelers who visited India for various purposes left accounts of their experiences during their stay in the country. These accounts provide valuable information about the social, economic, and religious life of the people in ancient times.
(i) Pre-Alexander Period: Greek writers of the pre-Alexander era wrote about India without personal experiences of the country. Instead, they relied mostly on hearsay and travelers’ tales. Skylax, Herodotus, and others belong to this group.
(ii) During the Time of Alexander: Some travelers accompanied Alexander the Great to India and were distinguished writers. Ptolemy, Nearchus, and others who traveled with Alexander wrote about India.
(iii) Megasthenes: Following Alexander’s associates, Megasthenes, an ambassador of Seleucus, the Greek King of Syria, visited the court of Chandragupta Maurya. His book, titled Indica, provides valuable information about the social and economic activities of the people during the Mauryan period.
(iv) Fa Hien, Xuanzang, and Taranath: Fa Hien (Faxian) and Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang) were two Chinese Buddhists who traveled to India to study Buddhism and visit Buddhist shrines. Their accounts are considered valuable sources of information about India. Fa Hien visited India in the 5th century and stayed for some time in the court of the Gupta Emperor Chandragupta II Vikramaditya. His book, Fo-kuo King, is a valuable record of his observations about the life of people under the Gupta rule. Two centuries later, Xuanzang vividly described the socio-economic and political condition of India during the rule of Harsha in his book Si-yu-ki. The Tibetan historian Taranath left a vivid account of life in Bengal under the Pala rule.
(v) Alberuni: Alberuni, a Muslim scholar, arrived in India around 1000 AD. He accompanied Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni during his invasions of India. Alberuni was a scholarly person who studied Sanskrit during his stay in India. He also made efforts to understand Hindu social customs and religion. Based on his understanding, he presented a scholarly account of India in his book Tahqiq-i-Hind or Kitab al-Hind.