In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Historical Traditions in Hindu Texts

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Formative Statements
  • Arguments from Foundations
  • Itihāsa-purāṇa and vaṃśāvalī, genealogy as history
  • Life History and Hagiography
  • From The Colonial to the Postcolonial

Hinduism Historical Traditions in Hindu Texts
Adam Bowles
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 October 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0054


“Hinduism has no sense of history,” or so it has been commonly thought in much of the scholarship on Indian history and literature of the last two hundred years (and more). The same judgment, reflecting the frequently implicit equation between “Hindu history” and “Indian history,” has more often than not been extended to India in general. This reflects the historically overwhelming position that Sanskrit literature has held in scholarship on and within South Asia. As has frequently been pointed out, Sanskrit literature does not have a “scientific” class of literature (śāstra) specifically dedicated to history. Furthermore, as it is also often noted, Sanskrit literature, particularly between the “Vedic” period and the medieval period, has a tendency to avoid reference to concrete historical events located in time and place. Yet, this focus on Sanskrit literature (though in a somewhat reductionist manner) has led to the often complete disregard for historical materials in languages other than Sanskrit. The 15th to 18th centuries were particularly fertile periods for the composition of historical documents and narratives in India. It has been the study of these compositions, many of which are in languages other than Sanskrit, which has especially provoked a substantial rethinking of the historical sensibilities found within Hinduism and India. This bibliography has been arranged to reflect the debates that surround the question of Hindu historical writing, as well as studies and translations of what might be considered exemplars of such writing both in Sanskrit and in non-Sanskrit languages. The first three sections establish the broad historical context of the debate. Subsequent sections are dedicated to the problem of historical writings in Sanskrit, before moving to region-by-region accounts of traditions of historically focused compositions. These include writings in Sanskrit, regional vernaculars, and in some cases, Persian in order to suggest that regional traditions of historical writing may transcend boundaries between literatures of distinct languages. The last two sections contain general surveys of items that, in the first case, consider life history and hagiography as modes of historical discourse, and in the second case, reflect on historical writing during the colonial period and from the perspectives of postcolonial thought. Apart from those bibliographic items that reflect broad surveys of Indic materials, Buddhist and Jain textual traditions have been excluded from this entry because they are beyond its parameters, though they are clearly relevant for a more thorough understanding of Indian historical traditions.

General Overviews

The following items represent overviews of historical practices in Hindu intellectual and literary traditions. Despite the majority view that India and Hinduism did not have a strong practice of historical writing, or a strong sense of historical consciousness, a growing body of scholarship has come to question this view. It is notable that while much of this material is concerned with historical writings in Sanskrit (Asthana 1992, Philips 1961, Raje 1958, Thapar 2002, Warder 1971), a number of these works also give significant place to literary practices in “vernacular” languages (Aquil and Chatterjee 2008, Philips 1961, de Souza and Kulkarni 1972, Warder 1971; see also Narayana Rao, et al. 2001, cited under South India). As will become evident, it is these literary practices that have had a decisive impact on the reconsideration of Hindu approaches to historical writing.

  • Aquil, Raziuddin, and Partha Chatterjee, eds. History in the Vernacular. New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2008.

    A fine collection of articles examining the question of precolonial historical writing in India that delves into a variety of literary genres, covers the expanse of South Asia, and includes traditions other than Hinduism.

  • Asthana, Pratima. The Indian View of History. Agra, India: M. G. Publishers, 1992.

    A survey of “Indian views” of history that takes in the Vedas, Jainism, Buddhism, Saṃkhyā, Cārvāka, the epics, purāṇas, Islam, and the modern period. Despite conceding that an Indian historiography proper did not begin until the founding of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784, this curious and sometimes contradictory volume argues that “genuine historical writing” can be found in many periods of Indian literature.

  • de Souza, J. P., and C. M. Kulkarni, eds. Historiography in Indian Languages. Delhi: Oriental Publishers, 1972.

    An important collection providing an overview of epigraphic and literary material in Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, and Tamil. It therefore fills (as it seems to set out to do) some of the lacunas evident in Philips 1961.

  • Philips, Cyril, ed. Historians of India, Pakistan and Ceylon. Historical Writing on the Peoples of Asia. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.

    A collection of useful, if somewhat dated, essays surveying history writing on India in the ancient period, during the period of Muslim rule, in Western languages during the colonial period, and in Indian languages in the modern period. Especially relevant are the first and last sections. The focus throughout is on making assessments of the usefulness of the surveyed source material for reconstructing Indian history.

  • Raje, Chandrakant Gajanan. Biography and History in Sanskrit Literature. Bombay: University of Bombay, 1958.

    Attributes the absence of a “critical” historical literature in India (Kalhaṇa’s Rājataraṅgiṇī aside) to the absence of writing in the early period, the otherworldly concerns of the Indian mind, and the secondary place allotted to “time” in India. The author nevertheless proceeds to give an account of a number of Sanskrit texts deemed “historical” in some sense and evaluating them in relation to “history.”

  • Sharma, Arvind. Hinduism and Its Sense of History. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    An overview of the development of the view that Hindus did not possess a sense of history, and an argument countering this view through evidence drawn from inscriptional data, literature, and art. A good, occasionally polemical survey that does not attempt to distinguish historical consciousness from history.

  • Thapar, Romila. “Some Reflections on Early Indian Historical Thought.” In Western Historical Thinking: An Intercultural Debate. Edited by Jörn Rüsen, 178–186. New York: Berghahn, 2002.

    Delineates four types of Indic text evincing historical consciousness: purāṇic genealogies, Buddhist monastic chronicles (Dīpavaṃsa and Mahāvaṃsa), “historical biographies” (e.g., Bāṇa’s Harṣacarita), and dynastic chronicles (vaṃśāvalīs). Accordingly, these have not been regarded as “historical” because they did not conform to “Enlightenment” conceptions of historical consciousness. In addition, the overdetermination of certain cultural patterns (e.g., the cyclic view of time) has reinforced the view that India is “ahistorical.”

  • Warder, Anthony Kennedy. An Introduction to Indian Historiography. Monographs of the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, University of Toronto. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1971.

    A chronological survey of Indian historiography that begins with the Rig Veda and ends with India’s various regional traditions and languages. While each of its topics is allotted only a brief chapter and there is a lack of theoretical reflection on the notion of “history” itself and its relationship to the material surveyed, this remarkably comprehensive volume stridently pushes against the received view of India’s ahistoricism. It includes a useful bibliography.

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