Literary Sources of Ancient Indian History

Literary sources of Ancient Indian History: The ancient literature and the religious books are important sources of information for the reconstruction of ancient Indian history. Their classification is simple – religious and secular literature, historical literature and foreign accounts.

1. Religious Literary Sources of Ancient Indian History

Religious literature provides information for the period between the beginning of the Aryans into India and Alexander’s invasion into India.

The Vedic, Buddhist, Jain and other contemporary literature are the religious literary sources of Ancient Indian History.

The Vedic Literature

The Vedic literature – such as Chaturvedas, Vedanga, the Sutrasahitya, etc. gives us a clear picture of the political, social and economic life of the Aryans, and of the nonstop conflicts between the Aryans and the non-Aryans.

The four Vedas are Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva. The Historic Facts about religious ceremonies and rituals of the Aryans can be traced from Vedic literature.

The Buddhist Literature

The principal Buddhist literature such as – Tripitaka, Nikaya, Jataka, Dvipavamsa or Dipavamsha etc. gives us an impression of the socio-economic-religious condition of existing Indian society.

Dvipavamsa (or Dipavamsa) together with Mahavamsa narrates the history of Ceylon. The life of the Buddha and the principles of Buddhism can be understood from the ‘Lalitavistara’ and ‘Vaipulya Sutra’.

The work called ‘Jataka’ contains records relating to the life of Buddha in his previous birth.  According to the Buddhist belief, the Buddha had experienced many births before being born in the Sakya family at Kapilavastu and thereafter got enlightened and came to be known as Buddha. There are about 550 Jataka that gives us an idea of the contemporary social, political, economic and religious life of the Indians. They were possibly compiled in the second and third centuries (A.D.).  The Jataka stories occupy an important place in the history of civilization of the third century A.D.

Other Imporant Religious Literatures as Sources of Ancient Indian History

The Jain religious works, such as, Bhagabati sutra, Merutunga, etc. are important religious works and serves as sources of Ancient Indian History.

The ‘Mahabhashya’ of Patanjali, the ‘Gargi-Samhita’, the ‘Ashtadhoyi’ of Panini, the ‘Arthashastra’ of Kautilya etc., contain valuable information of ancient Indian history. Kautilya was the prime-minister of Mauryan Empire. Arthashastra gives us details on various aspects of economy and government.

2. Historical Literary Sources of Ancient India

The historical materials are scattered and it is difficult to draw a comprehensive picture of the ancient age. The historical literature can be sub-divided into several groups. They are Puranas, the epics, dynastic history and biography.

The Puranas

The ‘Puranas’ serves as a source of historical facts of ancient India. There are eighteen Puranas. The puranas provides historical information of various dynasties. The fact relating to various dynasties and kingdom specially those about Magadhan Kingdom are collected. The chronological accounts given in the Puranas should be used with caution and care. In the Puranas, legends have been so unidentifiably mixed up with historical data that the data provided in Puranas should be used carefully. In the Puranas, it is held that the events of the past would repeat themselves in future.  An attempt to forecast the future has been made through these events.

The Ramayana and The Mahabharata

The Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the two old epics of India, provide us with numerous historical materials. There is controversy about the historicity of the Ramayana, and many scholars are of opinion that story of the Ramayana is fictitious. But scholars of all categories are unanimous in their recognition of the historical value of the events narrated in the Mahabharata. The Kurukshetra war described in the Mahabharata is regarded generally as a historical event. According to Dr. R.C.Majumdar, the war occurred in 1000 B.C. Apart from the Kurukshetra war, the Mahabharata contains various accounts of social life and religious thinking of the people of ancient India.

Banabhatta’s Harshacharita

Banabhatta, the poet Laureate of Harshavardhan, composed the Harshacharita. This royal biographies written in ancient India, is an important source of Ancient Indian History. The book gives us a report on the early reign of Harshavardhana. Though Banabhatta sang the praise of his lord, Harshavardhana, but it seem like he did good justice while explaining the important facts of Ancient Indian History.

‘Gandavaha’, written by Vakpatiraja, the conquest of Ganda by Yashovarmana has been narrated.

Bilhana’s Vikramankadevacharita supplies us with sufficient information’s about the reign of the Chalukya King, Vikramaditya VI.

These apart, mention can also be made of Padma-gupta’s Navasahasanka Charita and of Jaysinha’s Kumara Pala Charita.


Sandhyakara Nandi’s Ramacharita provides us with further information on Ancient India. It has two aspects.  In one aspect, it is the story of Rama, the principal character of the Ramayana. On the other hand,  it gives us an account of the works of King Ramapala, the famous Pala King of Bengal.


Rajatarangini,  the famous historian of Kashmir, wrote ‘ Kalhana’. The Ancient kings of Kashmir used to conserve historical materials. The Kalhana presents continuous details of the political events of Kashmir from ancient times down to the twelfth century A.D.

Prithviraja Raso

Prithviraja Raso, an epic poem,  composed by Chand Bardoi, traces the details of Pritviraj II, the great Chauhan  King of Delhi.


Other religious books such as Naroda, Brihaspati Smriti, Sukraniti, Manusmriti etc.

3. Written Accounts of Foreign Writers and Travellers

The historical accounts written by the foreign writers and travelers are valuable source materials for the re-construction of ancient Indian history. The Greek, Chinese, Roman, and Muslims travelled India extensively and stayed here for a number of years. Their accounts are a fusion of personal observations and hearsay stories.

The accounts of Greek and Roman authors, such as Megasthenes, Arian, Curtius, Plutarch, Diodorus, Dionysics, etc., gave valuable information of India’s Contemporary situation. The Greek writer, Herodotus,  had never been to India and yet his book has reference to the conquest of north-western India by the Persian emperor. It constituted the twentieth province of the empire of Darius, the Persian emperor.

Megasthenes’ famous work, ‘Indika’, gives  us with a valuable account of Indian state and society in the Maurya age. The original work of Diodorus remains untraced, but parts of his writings have been quoted by other authors in their works.

Claudius Ptolemy’s Geography and Plimy’s work on mineral and forest resources can claim to be the sources of many valuable materials.

No record of Alexander’s invasion of India is available in India’s contemporary literature. It is available only in the works of , Arian, Curtius, Diodorus and Plutarch.

The unknown authors of the book ‘Periplus of the Erythrean Sea’ flourished presumably, in the first century A.D. The book presents valuable information about the economic and geographical conditions of India in the said period.

The value of the works of the Chinese historians and travelers on Indian history in the post-Maurya period is undeniable. Numerous facts have been collected from the writings of such Chinese travelers as Fa-Hien, Hiuen-Tsang, and It-Tsin etc.

The contemporary political history of India, and, especially, the accounts on Buddhism, cannot be complete without the Chinese source materials. The Chinese historian, Tsu-Ma-Fien in his historical works presents abundant materials on India, in the first century B.C. He was known as Herodotus of China.

The Tibetan historian, Lama Taranatha, also, left a detailed account of Buddhism in India. The narratives left by Hiuen Tsang about the reign of Harshavardhana are highly valuable. Hiuen has given invaluable information regarding the social, economic and political condition of India during the reign of Harsha.

The Muslim authors and travelers came next, in order of succession, to the Greek, Roman, Chinese and Tibetan authors. It is from their writings that detailed accounts of Muslim expeditions of North-Western India are available.

Alberuni, the celebrated Muslim scholar left an account on India. The work is comprehensive portrayal of the contemporary political and social conditions of the country.

Another Muslim historian, Suleiman, gave an extensive study of the history of the Rashtrakutas of the Deccan. Besides the two works, the writings of Al-Biladuri, Al-Mahsudi, and Hassan Nizami etc. have thrown much light on Indian history.