26.) Purāṇas as a Source of Hindu History

Most of us have been trained, as students of history, to virtually disregard the Purāṇas as a source of Indian history. The underlying reason seems to be the fanciful accounts in which they abound, which compromise their credibility as a source of sober history. It seems the time is now ripe to reassess the situation for several reasons. When early Western scholars set about the task of reconstructing Indian history, they preferred to rely on the extra-Indian sources for the history of India, as Hindus were not believed to possess a sense of history. Recent researches have shown that this might be a case of confusion between effect and cause. Scholars have argued that those parts of India which either escaped Muslim rule (Nepal) or remained on the fringe of it (Orissa) have a healthy tradition of maintaining dynastic history, very much along the lines of the Purāṇic lists. In Kashmir this tradition even survived the assaults of neighboring states. What is being suggested is that loss of Hindu political ascendancy may have also resulted in the loss of its archival record. Thus if the idea that Hindus had no sense of history needs to be revisited, the Purāṇas also need to be revisited as a source of it.

Western scholars relied on records of foreign observers in reconstructing ancient Indian history along with archeological, epigraphic and numismatic evidence, presumably in the belief that these foreign observers displayed a greater sense of history. However, if the accounts of the Greeks about India were translated into Sanskrit, they will read just like a Purāṇa. We are glad Faxian visited India, but despite the reputation of Chinese as a nation steeped in historiography, he does not even mention the name of the king through whose empire he passed. Xuanzang is richer in historical detail but his account, like that of Faxian, is full of accounts of Buddhist miracles, just as the Purāṇas are full of Hindu miracles. It is his account of Harṣa which is considered historical timber, and, among the Greek accounts, it is the account of Alexander’s invasion which is supposed to approximate history[1] and not everything the Greeks say. Similarly, it is the sections of the Purāṇas which deal with the record of dynasties in the Kaliyuga which we must turn to. Here too, as in the case of Greek or Buddhist accounts, we have to look for the right thing in the right place.

A third reason has also been proposed for turning, or returning, to the Purāṇas as a source of Hindu history. In the past, Vedic philosophical material had been given precedence over Puranic traditional material, although according to the Hindu tradition itself the Vedas should be treated as ahistorical and the Purāṇas as historical. One would not wish to press this point too far but it does suggest that ‘further progress in revising ancient Indian history could be expected from a study of Itihāsa-Purāṇas, rather than from an analysis of the ṚgVeda. One may ask rhetorically, by way of providing a parallel: what kind of reconstruction of Ancient Israel’s history could be done on the basis of the study of the Psalms, leaving out Genesis and Kings, or what reconstruction of European history is possible based upon a study of the earliest Rituale Romanum?’

Finally, the concept of history itself needs to be somewhat broadened and we come back to the general point of looking for the right thing at the right place. “Rabindranath in an essay called ‘Bharatvarsher Itihasa’ wrote that those who say that there is no history but only political history, go to find an eggplant in a rice field. Not all fields yield the same crop, it is those who can appreciate that that are wise.”[2]

[1] Even here some evidentiary conflict is evident, see R.C. Majumdar, The Classical Accounts of India (Calcutta: Firma KLM Private Ltd, 1981) p. xxi.

[2] Dhruba Chakravarti, in News India Times, September 25, 1998. p. 55.


11 Responses to “26.) Purāṇas as a Source of Hindu History”

  1. pandita indrani Says:

    Do the Puranas combine the Indian story telling tradition with the mythological approach for communicating higher knowledge?

    In all pujas, yajnas etc. there is the compulsory sankalpa rite where the purohit recites the exact astrological time of the performance. This is also a way that we reocrd history.

  2. S.P. Attri Says:

    Subj: Errol Phillips’s Conundrum
    If 92 % of Black voters cast their ballots for Obama – that is fine.

    If 92 % of White Voters cast their ballots for Clinton – that proves white racism.

    Errol Phillips
    A befuddled Independent

    2. My Take:


    You are not befuddled, they are.

    3. ” If 92 % of Black voters cast their ballots for Obama – that is fine.”

    COMMENT: That is Not fine at all, it indicates Black Ill-At-Ease & Self-Consciousness. Obama’s double-talk & crude socialistic-nonsense, does not impress me.

    4. ” If 92 % of White Voters cast their ballots for Clinton – that proves white racism.”

    It does not prove anything at all, certainly not ” white racism, ” it would represent White’s rejection of Obama’s crude socialistic-nonsense. Most Americans have always disdained and dismissed the path of socialism, as a solution to their economic problems.

    Surinder Paul Attri

  3. Maj Gen V S Joglekar Says:

    saw your articles thru a friend’s email
    Presume you have gone thru the book by Sh P L Bhargava on Vedic History – based on the Vedas and Puranas.
    Where do I get full text of your articles on Puranas and History? I am interested.
    V S Joglekar

  4. Can Purāṇas be a source of Indian History? | DesiPundit Says:

    […] they carry fanciful accounts, and instead relied on non-Indian sources. Arvind Sharma says it is time to reassess this notion that Hindus did not have a sense of history. However, if the accounts of the Greeks about India were translated into Sanskrit, they will read […]

  5. S.K. Bhattacharjee Says:

    Indian History means Hindu History, since Hindu Dharma is the oldest practising Faith/Religion on the earth and also pre-Mughal India. History of any people or nation is nothing but an “addition” of time-slices – depicting everything from culture, economics, education, political climate, development of science & technology, reserach on various topics from Agriculture to Mathmatics to Astronomy to Medicines to Religious Intellects etc. and neighboring civilization. If Indian History fails to include any one – be they VEDAS or PURANAS or RAMAYANA or GITA or other elements from old times, it ain’t wrth the paper it’s written on who may be the authors.
    Finally, history of any nation is best written by its natives – not by invaders, or by colonialists or by visitors or scholars from distant lands thru hearsay.

  6. Semantic Overload Says:

    The errors in the history if India to a large extent is due to the propensity of political parties to pander to their vote banks and the unwillingness to challenge existing dogmas due to fear of communal disagreements.
    For instance, it has been deemed necessary to show the Islamic invasion of India in a positive light instead of acknowledging the reality that India was a prosperous economic and cultural region prior to the Islamic invasion, and the invasion plunged India in the dark ages.

    On a different note, Hinduism as an account of the cultural evolution of a people has been completely ignored and replaced by Hinduism as a (corrupted) religion. Any text from Hinduism, therefore, is viewed exclusive in the context of religion. Consequently, any relevance of puranas to history has gone largely ignored, or even ridiculed.

  7. S.P. Attri Says:

    1. Muslim call to adopt Mecca time: BBC
    Magdi Abdelhadi
    April 21, 08
    Muslim scientists and clerics have called for the adoption of Mecca time to replace GMT, arguing that the Saudi city is the true centre of the Earth.
    Mecca is the direction all Muslims face when they perform their daily prayers.
    The call was issued at a conference held in the Gulf state of Qatar under the title: Mecca, the Centre of the Earth, Theory and Practice.
    One geologist argued that unlike other longitudes, Mecca’s was in perfect alignment to magnetic north.
    He said the English had imposed GMT on the rest of the world by force when Britain was a big colonial power, and it was about time that changed.
    Mecca watch
    A prominent cleric, Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawy, said modern science had at last provided evidence that Mecca was the true centre of the Earth; proof, he said, of the greatness of the Muslim “qibla” – the Arabic word for the direction Muslims turn to when they pray.
    The meeting also reviewed what has been described as a Mecca watch, the brainchild of a French Muslim.
    The watch is said to rotate anti-clockwise and is supposed to help Muslims determine the direction of Mecca from any point on Earth.
    The meeting in Qatar is part of a popular trend in some Muslim societies of seeking to find Koranic precedents for modern science.
    It is called “Ijaz al-Koran”, which roughly translates as the “miraculous nature of the holy text”.
    The underlying belief is that scientific truths were also revealed in the Muslim holy book, and it is the work of scholars to unearth and publicise the textual evidence.
    But the movement is not without its critics, who say that the notion that modern science was revealed in the Koran confuses spiritual truth, which is constant, and empirical truth, which depends on the state of science at any given point in time.

    2. My Take:
    The Moslems demand to replace GMT with Mecca, is the biggest joke, if not a shaggy-dog story.
    3. The justification used, is the direction & place, that Moslems use to pray, and is designated as Lijaz-Al-Quran ( that is, miraculous nature of Quran ), and that this scientific truth is revealed in Quran itself.

    4. What scientific truths are revealed in Quran ?
    Quran says that earth is flat, Allah has stretched it out like a carpet, and has put mountains on it, like paper-weights. Seven planets ( Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn ) move around it.

    5. At sunset, the Sun goes and prostates itself at the feet of Allah, and next morning it takes the permission of Allah to rise again…and so on and on.

    Remember, these are the words of Prophet and of Allah.

    6. The Moslems credulity & silence, in the face of this Quranic nonsense, reflects on the judgment of Moslems, all these 1400 years.
    Commonsense tells us to toss in trash, Quranic nonsense in entirety, and reject Moslem demand to replace GMT with Mecca.

    Surinder Paul Attri

  8. Bharat Says:

    Dear Moderator of the blog:
    It looks clumsy with some irelevant messages (having no relation with the topic), pasted by some unconscious people.


  9. Amercement Says:

    Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation :) Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Amercement!!!

  10. Heartburn Home Remedy Says:

    I read your posts for a long time and must tell that your articles always prove to be of a high value and quality for readers.

  11. Pradip Bhattacharya Says:

    Extremely rewarding and stimulating.

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