Literary Sources of Ancient Indian History: Significance and Limitations


India has one of the oldest and richest histories in the entire world. Indian history commenced with the arrival of human beings in the Indian subcontinent and has continued incessantly since then.

The early Indian history reconstructed with the help of information provided by literary sources and archaeological sources. These sources available in plenty and throw light on every dimension of human life of the Indian subcontinent.


Secular Literature

  1. Arthashastra
  2. Patanjali
  3. Sangam Literature (Madurai)
  4. Nitisar
  5. Brahmanas and Upanishads

Religious Literature

  1. Vedas
  2. Dharmashastra/Smritis
  3. Gita
  4. Puranas
  5. Vedangas or Upvedas
  6. Ramayana and the Mahabharata
  7. Jaina Agamas
  8. Buddhist Tripitakas

Foreign Accounts of

  1. Greek-Roman writers
    • Megasthenes – Indica
    • Pliny – Natural History
    • Strabo – Geography
  2. Chinese traveler
    • Fa-Hian
    • Hien Tsang
    • It SIng
  3. Arab Traveller
    • Al-Baruni
    • Al-Suleman
    • Al-Masudi

Significance of Literary Sources of Ancient Indian History

  1. The literary sources provide the most valuable information about life in India during the ancient age. Beginning from the Vedic age, the life of the Indian subcontinent is known mainly with the help of information provided by literature.
  2. The literary sources such as Arthshastra and Nitisara throw light on political-administrative life in detail.
  3. Arthshastra was written by Kautilya, the Prime Minister of Chandragupta Maurya. He wrote about the institutions of the Mauryan empire and the function performed by various officials.
  4. Nitisara was written by Kamandakiya, Prime Minister of Chandragupt 1st, in 4th-century AD.
  5. The literary sources throw light on social-cultural life is well.
  6. Sources like Vedas and Dharma Shastra deal with social Institutions and their functions.
  7. The economic life of ancient is also revealed by literary sources.
  8. Arthashastra describes various types of taxes, trade routes, and occupations of the age.
  9. The Sangam literature informs about economic life in Tamil Land during the early centuries of the Christian Era.
  10. The foreign accounts left behind by Greek-Roman, Chinese and Arab writers also throw light on the economic life of the ancient age.
  11. The religious life of the ancient age is understood primarily with the help of literary sources.
  12. Beginning from the Vedic age, an immense amount of literature is available to understand religious Institutions and practices.
  13. Literary sources like Charaka Samhita on Ayurveda, Sushruta Samhita on medicine and surgery, Aryabhatiyam of Aryabhata, and Siddhanth Shiromani of Bhāskara II throw light on progress in the field of science and technology during the ancient age.
  14. The nature and character of India’s relation with the outside world can also be inferred with the help of information provided by literary sources.
    • Megasthenes was Bactria (trans-oxiana) Ambassador in the court of Chandragupta Maurya. He wrote about the relationship of Maurya king with Seleucus Nicator.
  15. The wars and battles fought by Indian rulers, the territorial extent of their Empire, rise, and fall of various political entities as well as changes in characters of the Indian political system can also be comprehended on basis of information provided by literary sources.
  16. Banabhatt wrote in detail about the military achievements of king Harshvardhan.

Limitations of Literary Sources of Ancient Indian History

  1. No literary sources of any kind are available prior to the Vedic age.
  2. The literary sources don’t provide any information about the stone age and the chalcolithic period.
  3. In this way, more than 99% of the humans’ history of the Indian subcontinent can’t be reconstructed with the help of literary sources.
  4. The literary sources lack a true historical character. The writer did not pay any attention to chronology. The development has been described as more likely a story.
  5. The literary sources are not available on a continuous basis.
  6. Very few literary sources are available for the post-Mauryan period.
  7. Hardly anything is known from literature about the dynasty of the Satavahanas.
  8. The literary sources are prone to politicization. At the time it difficult to comprehend whether the entire literary work belongs to a particular period or a different time period.
    • It is believed that much information found in Vedas added later on. Some chapters of Arthashastra composed during the Gupta age by a person named Vishnu Gupta.
  9. The literary sources suffer from the personal bias of Writers.
    • Most of the writers lived in court under the patronage of the king. Such Court poets can’t be expected to present an unbias picture of the achievement and failure of their patron.
    • Banabhatt, the court poet of Harsha, wrote in detail about Harshas’s achievement, but he did not mention Harsha’s failure.
  10. Most of the literary sources used in the reconstruction of early India’s history are religious work, secular literary sources are very few.
  11. The literary sources deal primarily with the elite class. the focus of writers was generally limited to court, Palace, and life of nobility.
    • Hardly anything is known about the life of common people.
    • The literary sources represent the only history from above, history from below is missing in Literature.
  12. At times, the language of literary sources is weak, as a result of this, these sources have interpreted quite differently by different scholars.
    • Puranas were written in the future tense.
    • The time period of many literary sources is not known precisely.
    • The information provided by Ramayana and Mahabharata covers a long period. The source like Rig Veda covers 500 period years.
    • Some historians believe that Chanakya lived in the Gupta period and Kalidas lived in Mauryan age because these sources’ dates are not mentioned.
  13. Many dimensions of human life such as technological progress in the quality of life can’t be easily inferred on basis of information provided by literary sources. A true estimation of these dimensions can be carried out only by having look at ground realities.

Questions related to Literary Sources of Ancient Indian History

  1. Describe various sources used in reconstruction of Early Indian History.
  2. Critically examine significance of literary sources in the study of Early Indian History.
  3. Why do the literary sources failed in providing a complete picture of Early Indian History?
  4. Its difficult to reconstruct Ancient Indian History only on basis of Literature. Elucidate.
  5. Throw light on limitations of literary sources used in reconstruction of Early Indian History.

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