Literary Sources of Ancient History of India

Literary Sources of Ancient History of India

Literary Sources of History includes religious and secular literature.

The Puranas and epics, for example, were mostly religious in character and contain no precise dates for events and kings. Vedic writing contains no political history but does provide reliable glimpses of culture and civilisation of the age. Epics such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Jaina and Buddhist religious writings provide us with essential historical information as well as religious messages.

Literary Sources of Ancient History of India

Sacred literature is not precisely historical in content. It provides glimpse of religious, intellectual, cultural and social spheres of activity of people.

Religious literature of India

Religion was the backbone of society of Ancient India. As a result, there is a significant quantity of religious literature from different religions that were prominent in Ancient India. These shed insight on the era under study, as well as religious, socioeconomic, and political philosophy and ideology.

Such sites, however, should be used with care because most religious texts are passed down orally and written down hundreds of years after they were created. Furthermore, 'what-we-have-now' are editions of real works.

Also, religious literatures were primarily created to provide direction through an idealist perspective. As a result, whatever is stated there is of the 'dos and don'ts' variety rather than 'as-is'. 

The Vedas

The Vedas

The word Veda is derived from the Sanskrit root word 'vid' which means to know and thus Veda means storehouse of knowledge. The Vedas are four in number and the Rig Veda is the oldest.

Rig-Veda: It is comprised of 10 mandalas and 1028 suktas. These were prayers to the gods like Indra, Varuna, Agni, Parjanya, Vayu, Marut etc. It gives us information regarding socio-economic, religious, political condition of Early Aryans, located in the area of Sapta-Sindhus. For example, the 'Purushsukta' of Its 10th mandala depicts the origin of Varnasystem in India.

Yajur-Veda: It included the rituals to be performed during sacrifices or yajnya. Actually, the majority of the hymns are taken directly from the Rig-Veda. It is divided into two sections, Shukla and Krishna, and six other samhitas. The Yajurveda Vajasaneyi Samhita sheds a lot of insight on different Vedic sacrifices.

Sam-Veda: "Sam" means song, it means hymns that meant to be sung at the time of soma sacrifice. It included prayers to instruct how to repeat them while conducting sacrifices. Again, it included Rig-Veda hymns and techniques for reciting them. As a result, it is regarded as the origin of Indian classical music.

Atharva-Veda: It comprised assorted subjects like magic, black-magic, superstitions etc. We find
origins of medicines, botany, and surgery in this Veda.

The fours Vedas throw light on life-ways of Vedic Aryans. These later three Vedas gives us information about the religious, social, economic and political life of later vedic aryans


The Brahmanas were created to teach the procedure of sacrifices that were compiled in the Vedas. Hence, each Veda has its own Brhamana, for example:

  • Rigveda- Aitareya Brhamana
  • Samveda- Jaiminiya Brahamana
  • Yajurveda- Shatapath
  • Atharvaveda- Gopath

From these Brahmanas, we get information of Vedic Aryans' various institutions, like, four Varnas, four
Ashramas, philosophy etc.


The Aranyakas were created to teach the learning of Vedic religion, especially sacrifices and mystic philosophy into seclusion. Aitareya Aranyaka is meant for Rig- Veda whereas Taiteriya Aranyaka is for Yajur-Veda.


The term Upanishad literally means "to learn by sitting close to one's teacher." These were to be made to teach the learning of Vedic spiritualism, including topics such as self-knowledge, knowledge of God, relationships between self and God, formation of the Universe, our position in such a huge Universe, and so on.

There are 108 Upanishads in total, but some of the most significant are Ken, Kath, Prashna, Aiterya, Chandogya, and so on.

Because the Upanishads are historically at the conclusion of the Vedas, they are also referred to as "Vedanta."

Because the fundamental backbone of Indian religions was founded, for the most part, on Upanishads, we can understand Indian religions more holistically.


These were created to make Vedas more understandable as:

  • Shiksha: How to pronounce the Vedic prayers in proper manner
  • Kalpa: Rules to perform sacrifice in a proper manner
  • Vyakaran: To know the proper grammar of Sanskrit language
  • Nirukta: Etymology of words, mentioned in the Vedas
  • Chanda: Various meters in which Vedic shlokas are structured to recite. It comprised of Gayatri meter (chanda), Anushtubha meter (chanda) etc.
  • Jyotish : It deals with proper time (Shakun) on which sacrifices should be performed. It also discusses the subjects of astronomy like Sun, Moon, and constellations and, on cycles of seasons etc.


These works deal with philosophical teaching or aspects in the Vedas. These are six, like, Vaisheshik (Kanad), Nyaya (Kanad), Sankhya (Kapil), Yog (Patanjali), Mimansa (Jaimini), Uttar-mimnsa or Vedant (Badrayan).

These cover topics like the theory, logic, unity of soul with God, atoms, Vedic rituals, structure of universe etc.


The period of 6th century BCE witnessed emergence of early states and growth in economy and coinage. This was the time when heterodox faiths such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Ajivakas flourished and evolved. They challenged Vedic religion and its shortcomings and provided a strong alternative.

As a result of these shifts, the custodians of Vedic religion reconstructed and regulated their religion. As a result, Sutras were developed to provide standards, rules, and regulations for the Vedic religion.

These were comprised of three sutras, viz. Dharmsutras, Shrautsutras and Grihyasutras; together they are called as Kalpasutras.

The Smritis

During the last centuries of BC and the first centuries of AD, India experienced another era of speedy changes. The economy was thriving, India had strong links with the Roman world, Buddhism was at its pinnacle, and local dynasties were creating empires.

SAgain, the Vedic religion felt the need to reconstruct their religion and thus produced the Smritis. The Smritis, like Sutra, are the books of norms, codes, rules, regulations to consolidate and reconstruct Vedic religion.

These were written by various scholars, like, Manu, Narad, Parashar, Yajnyavalka etc. Hence, we find many smrities on their name, for example Manu-smriti, Narad-smriti etc.

The Puranas

Purana is a Sanskrit term that signifies "old, ancient, or primitive." There are 18 in total, with Matsya Purana, Vayu Purana, Bhavishya Purana, and Bhagwat Purana being the most important.

Puranas provides helpful information about different royal lineages, but it also has many shortcomings, such as dates and geneologies that do not match.

Ramayana and Mahabharata

The Ramayana and Mahabharata are two great Vedic epics, provide insight into the times and society of the later Vedic era. The epics are splendid works that contain strong tales and are excellent examples of Indian writing in poetry.

The Ramayana was written in Sanskrit by Valmiki. There are 24,000 slokas in the tale. Furthermore, the epic is important for its fluidisation of old Indian social concepts.

Ved Vyas's Mahabharata can help us understand old Indian political philosophy. There are 100,000 slokas in the tale. It is made up of 18 Parvahs. (books).

Buddhist Literature

The Tri-Pitakas are the most important Buddhist scripture. They were written in Pali language. Deepvansha and Mahavansha are buddhist scripture written in Pali language during the 4th and 7th century respectively. Lalit Vistar is the biographical sketch of lord Buddha.

Buddhist Literature


The Pitakas comprised of three compilations, viz. Vinaya, Sutta, Abhidhamma and together they are known as 'Tri-Pitakas. The Vinay- Pitaka was compiled by Upali and comprised of five books. These were basically created to provide codes of conducts for Monasteries, Bhikus, Bhikkunis, their daily routine, ethics etc.

The Sutta-Pitaka comprised of five books (nikayas), like Digha-nikay, Mazzim-nikaya, Sanyukta-nikaya, Anguttarnikaya, Khuddak-nikaya. The Khuddak-nikaya was an important volume consisting of works like, Dhammapada, Suttanipata, Thergatha and Therigatha. Jatakas were also become part of Khuddaknikaya.

Buddha's teaching is the main theme of Abhidhamma-Pitaka, however, it has a philosophical and scientific form. These were meant for Buddhist scholars. It comprised of 'Kathavastu' an important Buddhist book.

The Jatakas

The Jatakas are a collection of tales about Buddha's previous births. To solve his followers' problems, Buddha developed a lovely way of telling tales from his previous births, and the skeptic or problem follower drew answers from these stories. These were the Jatakas who shed light on India during 6th BCE.

Dipvamsha and Mahavamsha

These Buddhist compositions are from Sri Lanka. They tell us about Ashoka, the Mauryan Emperor, and other Buddhist academics.


This Buddhist sculpture is from Nepali. It recounts Buddhist tales and sheds light on northern dynasties ranging from Mauryan emperors to the Shunga era.

Other significant works in Buddhist writing include Milind-Panha (discussion between Bhikku Nagsen and Milind (Menander), a Buddhist turned Greek monarch; Ashvaghosha's Buddha-Charit (biography of Buddha); Mahavastu, Lalitvistar, Manjushri Mulkalpa, and others.

Jain Literature

Ancient Jain literature is available in a variety of languages, including Prakrit, Tamil, and Sanskrit. The writing is divided into two sections: Anga (14) and Agamas. Chedasutras (6) and Mulsutras (4) are also essential components.

Anga and Agam

These writings shed insight on Mahavir's teachings. The Acharang Sutra comments on Jain monks' standards of behavior, whereas the Bhagavati Sutra illuminates Mahavir's biography and accomplishments.

Jain Puranas

The Jain Puranas were built on the structure of Vedic epics and Puranas, but with a focus on Jain doctrine. These included Harivamsha purana, Mahapurnana, Padmacharit, and others.

Other Works

Samaysar, Pravachansar etc. works  were mainly created by Acharya Kundakunda, reflected upon Jain spiritualism.

These were comprised of Bhadrabahu-Charita, Jasahar-chariu, Naykumar- chariu etc.

The Bhadrabhaucharita throws light on the events related to Mauryan Emperor Chandragupta and
his teacher, Bhadrabhau-Jain Acharya.

The Jain literature also comprised of Kathakosh of Harisen, Parishishta-parva of Hemchandra Suri, Dhananjay-mala (thesaurus), Alankar-chintamani (on literature), Mahavir-ganit-sarsamgraha (mathematics), Niti-vakya-mrita of Somdeva (Political Science) etc.

Secular Literary Sources

India was not completely immersed in religions. Throughout its thousand-year existence, it also produced a significant body of secular literature.


According to modern lines of historiography, Rajtarangini is considered the first book of Indian history. It is Kashmir's narrative, penned by Kalhan (born in 1100 AD in Kashmir). During the rule of King Jaysimha of Kashmir, he finished this work in two years. It is written in Sankrit and consists of eight Khandas (chapters/volumes) and 7826 sholkas. (verses).

It provides a history of Kashmir from the time of the Mahabharata war to the 12th century AD, but only from the 9th century can a precise history be seen. Kalhan was an unbiased historian who used a large number and diversity of materials to write history.

He conducted field research and travelled throughout Kashmir. During his journey, he not only gathered materials but also questioned locals and recorded oral traditions.


Eulogies are writings written by a  poet in the palace to praise the patron king and his deeds. Although one-sided, such work educates us about the king , his lineage and family, his deeds and policies, and so on.

Vikramank-deva-charit: This eulogy is written by Bilhan who praises the king Vikramaditya (of
Chalukya dynasty) and his various deeds.

Gaudavaho: Vakpati wrote this eulogy in praise of Yashovarman's (of Malwa) victory over Bengal
(Gaud region).

Harsha-charit: This eulogy was written by Banbhatta in praise of Harshavardhana.

Besides, some other notable eulogies comprised of Kumarpala-charit by Hemchandra, Hammir-mad- mardan by Jaychand Suri.


Ashvaghosha's 'Sariputta-prakaran' was regarded as the first drama. Then a scholar named Bharat penned his renowned 'Natyshastra' on dramatics. Among the notable drams are:

Mudra-rakshas: Vishakhadatta wrote a play called Mudra-rakshas. The play is about an event involving Chanakya (the prime minister of Chandragupta Maurya) and Rakshasa (Amatya of Dhanananda). The drama discusses Chankya's politics, espionage, and the foundation of the Mauryan Empire. His play 'Devi-chandraguptam' is about the story of Chandragupta II of the Gupta empire.

Mrichcha-katika: This drama revolves around the love between one poor Charudatta and beautiful Ganika Vasantasena. It was penned by Raja Shudrak and casts light on ancient India's economic affluence, Ganika and their social standing, the social structure, and so on. It also mentions the people's revolt against an unjust king.

Malvika-agnimitra: Kalidasa, a famous author and dramatist during the Gupta era, wrote this play, Malvika-agnimitra. The play is about the love of Malvika and Agnimitra, the brave king of the Shunga dynasty. Kalidasa also created exquisite plays such as Vikramorvashiya and Shakuntal.

King Harshavardhana wrote the dramas Nanganada, Ratnavali, and Priyadarshika. These represent his reign's socioeconomic situation and religious perspective.

Other significant plays included Bhavbhuti's Uttar-rama-charit and Malati-madhav, Bhasa's Svapna-vasavdatta, and others.

The 'Raghu-vamsha,' 'Kumar-sambhav,' 'Riti-samhar,' and 'Meghaduta' were Kalidasa's iconic poetries. The last two are world-famous, and the depiction of nature and seasonal cycles written in them shows not only the classicality India got at the time, but also the current environment of the time.

Scientific Works

Ancient India was well aware of science thinking. As a result, a significant quantity of scientific work was produced during that time frame.

The treaties primarily consisted of works on political sciences and grammar; however, after the early centuries, many scientific works on topics such as medical science, agro-irrigation science, mathematics, astrology-astronomy, art-architecture, imagery, and so on began to appear.

The Gupta era, in particular, saw the emergence of various sciences.


Arthashastra's primary topic is 'Political Science,' which was composed by Chanakya/Kautilya, the prime minister in Chandragupta Maurya's court. It teaches us how to gain authority and how to maintain it through different administrative systems and policies.

This book is a firsthand record that tells us about the Mauryan Empire's governance and administrative structure. It is written in court language, Sanskrit, because it is an administrative document made for the king.

The Arthashstra comprised of 15 parts (pradhikaranas), 150 chapters (adhyayas), 180 headings (up-vibhagas) and 6000 verses (Shlokas).

The essential components of the state system (theory of Saptanga), relations among different states, responsibilities of officials and employees, administrative divisions of Empire, taxing system, laws, foreign affairs, and so on are all covered in Arthashastra.

Other topics covered include social conditions in different areas, medicinal plants, mines and mining art, farming patterns, drainage systems, and so on.

Other political treaties comprised of Niti-sar (by Kamandak), Niti-vakya-mrit (by Somadevsuri).

Ashtadhyayi and Mahabhashya

Ashtadhyayi deals with Grammar, written by Panini. It sheds light on the social upheaval of the 6th century BC, i.e. the era of India's second urbanisation.

Patanjali's Mahabhashya, a work similar to Mahabhashya, tells us about societal conditions during the Early Historic era.

Charak-samhita and Sushrut-samhita

These writings provide information about medical disciplines in Ancient India and are regarded as the foundation of the Ayurvedic medicine branch.


It is written by Varhamihir and it is encyclopaedic in nature. It covers a wide range of topics, including cereals, cropping patterns, agricultural technology, seismic prediction, astronomy, astrology and so on. It attests to India's scientific advancement during the Gupta era.

He also wrote 'Pancha-siddhantika,' which deals with eclipses, planet paths, and the speed of constellations, among other things.

Other astronomical and astrology writings include Aryabahatiya (by Aryabhatta), Brhama-sphutasiddhant (by Brahmagupta), and others.

Sangam Literature

The Sangam literature informs us about early historic Southern India. The Sangam refers to an assembly. The poems delivered in three assemblies by Tamil poets formed the corpus of Sangam literature. The poets literally gathered these poems from different eco-regions in southern India.

As a result, these are essentially folklore collected by urban writers. Shilappadikaram, Manimekhalai, Pattupattu, and other compositions are notable.

There are five eco-regions in Tamil-land known as 'Tinai,' and these five are referred to as 'Ain-tinai'. Each 'tinai' has a distinct ecology and, as a result, a distinct reaction (or method of subsistence) to their surroundings.

As a result, songs from hilly areas have distinct topic matter or settings than those from coastal regions. However, these traditional melodies were written along two main themes: love (ekam) and war. (puram).

Foreign Accounts

Foreign Accounts

India was reintroduced to the ancient world following the conquest of the Persians and Greeks. The wars were some incidents however, the process of people moving between two countries became a long-lasting reality in Ancient India.

Because these visitors were outsiders, they owed no allegiance to any of the region's kings. As a result, their reports are objective, and their status as "eyewitnesses" provides us with firsthand information on the topics they discussed.

However, because they were outsiders with no roots in India, it is unreasonable to expect them to have a complete understanding of Indian socioeconomic and political ideas and institutions.

The Greeks and Roman


Megasthenes: He was Seleucus Nicator's envoy in the palace of Chandragupt Maurya. In his book 'Indica,' he describes the plan of Pataliputra as a large city with an area of 14 km x 2 km, fortified with 570 bastions and 67 gateways, and with one large regal residence, among other things.

He also discusses societal organization, the caste system, caste interactions, and so on. It should be mentioned that the original Indica has been lost, so we can't use any information that was recorded in there.

However, travellers who arrived in India after Megasthenes referred to and cited Indica. As a result, we can use 'Indica' as a source indirectly through them.

Peryplus of the Erythraean Sea

This travelogue is an unidentified work that is thought to have been penned by a fisherman on Egypt's shore. The book provides us with unbiased and objective knowledge on Indo-Roman trade during the Early Historic era.

It tells us about the ports on India's shore line, trade centres in India, trade paths linking trade centres and ports, distance between centers, a catalogue of trade items, the yearly amount of trade, rates, ship kinds, and so on.


Fa-Hien (Fa Xian) (337-422 AD)

During the Gupta era, this Chinese traveller visited India. He was a Buddhist monk who travelled to India to seek wisdom from Dev-bhumi (India) and to tour Buddhist sacred sites.

Based on his three years of travel, he wrote the chronicle 'Records of Buddhistic Kingdoms' on North Indian society and culture, as well as different elements in Gupta governance.

Hiuen-Tsiang (Xuan Zang) (602-664 AD)

Against all chances, this Chinese Buddhist monk toured India during Harshavardhana's rule. He began his trip in 629 AD in Gansu and travelled through the Gobi Desert, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Samarkand, and Balkh before arriving in India in 630 AD.

He toured Buddhist sacred sites, studied Buddhism at Nalanda University, read original Buddhist writings, gathered original documents and keepsakes, made copies, attended Harsha's assembly, and returned to China in 645 AD after years of travel throughout India.

In China, he signed his name as 'Si-Yu-Ki.' (Great Tang Records on the Western Regions).

He discusses kings, particularly Harsha and his generosity, people and traditions of different areas of India, life-ways, and so on. He has written about the customs and character of Maharashtrians.