Literary Sources – Sources of Ancient History of India

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Literary Sources – Sources of Ancient History of India| Religious, Secular and Sangam Literature

Literary sources may broadly be divided into three types:

→ Religious Literature

→ Secular Literature

→ Sangam Literature

Religious Literature

During the ancient period, three main religion were present, Hindu, Buddhists and Jain. Thus, the relegious literature can be divided into three types:

→ Hindu Religious Literature: The Vedas, The Upnishads, The Aryanakas.

→ Buddhist Literature: Tripitaka, The Jatakas, Dvipavamsa.

→ Jain Literature: Bhagabati sutra, Merutunga.

Hindu Religious Literature

The Vedas

The word ‘veda’ originated from the root ‘vid’ which means ‘signifying knowledge’. Before acquiring written form, the Vedas were transmitted to various generations orally thus it is also known as Shruti (heard ones). These are most sacred scriptures of India. The Vedic texts are large and contain thousands of hymns. Each hymn is very long and contains numerous verses.There are four vedas: The Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda.

• Rigveda is the only indigenous source for reconstructing the history of the Rig-Vedic Aryans while other three Vedas focused on later Vedic period and composed during 12th century BC to 6th century BC.

Vedas Upvedas (deals with)
Rgiveda Arthved (science of sociology and economics)
Yajurveda Dhanurved (science of defense and war and the making of its related tools)
Samaveda Gandharvaved (science of music, both singing and instrumental)
Atharvaveda Ayurved (the medical science)


It is the most ancient and gives a lot of information regarding the history and the political system of the Aryans.

• It is said to be date back to 1500 B.C. – 1000 B.C.

• The of early vedic period is based on Rigveda and its culture is also known as Rigvedic culture.

• The whole work of Rigveda is under ten ‘Mandals’ and has 1028 Suktas’ and 10580 ‘Richas’.

• It is observed that the tenth mandala was added later as its language differs from the other nine mandalas.

• The 7th and 2nd Mandalas were the very first composition, later on the other mandalas were composed.

• The religious work of this Veda contains political events such as ‘War of ten kings’ and deals with the political institutions such as “Sabha’ and Samiti’; to social organisation and social units like ‘Kula’ ‘Vish’.


It has 40 chapters and 2000 hymns.

• It is a ritual veda and has two main texts: Krishna (black) Yajurveda and Shukla (white) Yajurveda.

→ Krishna Yajurveda contains mantras (hymns) and the Shukla has commentary in prose.

→ The Krishna Yajurveda is related with the Brahma-school while the Shukla Yajurveda is related with the Aditya-school.

• Among the five branches of Yajurveda known as Kasthak, Kapishthal, Maitrayani, Taittiriya and Vajasneyi, the first four are related to the Krishna Yajurveda and the last one is to Shukla Yajurveda.

• Ishopanishad, the last chapter of Yajurveda, is about philosophical and metaphysical matters.


The Samaveda is quite lyrical in nature. It is the second oldest Veda.

• It has 1549 Shlokas (richas) but only 78 are original while rest of them have been borrowed from the Rigveda.

• These were meant to be sung at the time of soma sacrifice. It is the source of Indian classical music, dance, drama and various ragas.

• Samaveda has two parts: Purvarchika (having six subdivisions called ‘Apathaka) and Uttrarchika (having nine subdivisions called ‘Prapathaka).


It is the latest of the four Vedas. It describes the life of the period when Aryans had adopted a number of non-Aryan religious practices.

• It is divided into 20 books volumes and contains 731 hymns and 5,987 mantras out of which about 1200 Mantras have been taken from the Rigveda.

• They deal with folk rites and rituals, magic and medicines.

• The hymns of Atharvaveda tell how to over come the evil spirit.

• The two branches of this Veda are Shaunk and Pippalad.

• It is also known as Brahmaveda or Atharvagirasveda.

The Brahmanas

The Brahmanas were composed after the vedas to explain the hymns of the vedas. These are the commentaries on all Vedas. Every veda has its own Brahamana text.

• Kaushitiki and Aitreya are Brahman texts of Rigveda.

• Taitriya and Satpath Brahmans belong to Krishna Yajurveda and Shukla Yajurveda respectively.

• Panchvimsh, Tandav and Jaiminiya Brahman is the Brahman text of Samveda.

• Gopath is the Brahaman of Atharvaveda.

The Upanishads

The word upanishad is a combination of the two sanskrit word, i.e. upa (near) and nishad (to sit) which means to sit down near someone (here it means teacher) and get the knowledge by him.

• There are 108 upanishads. Important upanishads are are Ken, Kath, Mandookya, Prashna. Isa, Aitereya, Svetashvatar, Taitriya, Chhandogya, Brihadaranyak, Maitrayani and Kaushitiki.

• The Upanishads were composed during the period between 800 and 500 B.C.

• These books discuss the theories about the creation of universe, ‘Brahma’, ‘Atma’, migration of soul and rebirth or the life after death.

• The famous national statement ‘Satyameva Jayate’ has been taken from the Mundaka Upanishad.


These works were written and studied in the forests. These were created to teach the learning of Vedic religion, especially sacrifices and mystic philosophy into seclusion.

• These works are also related to Vedas such as Aitareya Aranyaka is meant for Rigveda and Taiteriya Aranyaka is for Yajurveda.

• Important Aranyakas are Aitereya, Shaklayan, Taitriya, Maitrayani, Madhyandin and Tatvakar


These were created to make Vedas more understandable. These are six in number given below:

• 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, Anushtubha meter etc.
• Jyotish : It deals with proper time on which sacrifices should be performed. It also discusses the subjects of astronomy like Sun, Moon, and constellations and, on cycles of seasons etc.


• Kalpasutra is quite famous among Sutra Literature which describe rules and regulations. It has three parts – Srauta, Grihya and Dharma.

• Srauta Sutra explains the subjects of rituals and various types of yajnas ceremonies.

• Sankhyanan, Aashvakayan, Latkayan, Kattyayana and Bodhayan are the main compositions of Sutra literature.

• Griha Sutra deals with various sanskaras and the four Ashramas, i.e. Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanprastha and Sannyasa of human life.

• Dharmasutra deals with the social life of the Vedic era in which various code of conduct and religious matters are explained.

• Kaushiki sutra deals with Medical science and remedies while Sulva sutra is about mathematical theories and geometry.


These books are like Sutra, are the books of norms, codes, rules, regulations to consolidate and reconstruct Vedic religion. The Smriti helps in understanding social, religious, economic, political and cultural life of the people of this period.

• These were written by various scholars, like, Manu, Narad, Parashar, Yadnyavalka etc. Thus, we find many smrities on their name such as Manu-smriti, Narad-smriti etc.

• The earliest Smriti work is ‘Manu Smriti’. It was written in between the period 200 B.C.– 200 A.D.

• Yagyavalkya Smriti was written in between 100300 A.D.

• Smritis of Narad, Parashar, Kattayan and Brihaspati belong to Gupta period.


The ‘Purana’ means ‘the old’. Lomharsha or his son Ugrashrava is said to be the compiler of puranas. There are 18 Puranas were classified according to the devotional cults, for example, the Puranas of Shaiva consisted of Shaiv Puranas, Vayu Puranas, Skanda Puranas; whereas the Vaishnavas honoured Vishnu Purana, Garud Purana, Matsya Purana, Varaha Purana.

• The Matsya purana is the oldest puran.

• The name of puranas are: Brahma, Padma, Vishnu, Shiva, Bhagvat, Narad, Markandey, Agni, Bhavishya Brahma-vaivartya, Linga Varah, Skanda, Vaman, Kurma, Matsya, Garur and Brahmand.

• Besides these there are 19 Upapuranas.

Mahakavya (Epics)

There are two Mahakavyas (Epics), the Ramayana written by Valmiki and the Mahabharata written by Ved Vyasa.

The Ramayana

• The oldest epic of the world said to be composed in 5th century B.C.

• The original Ramayana has twelve thousand ‘shlokas’. Finally, after many additions it consists of 24,000 shlokas divided into 7 Kandas (Bal Kand, Ayodhya Kand and Aranya Kand, Kishkindha Kand, Sundar Kand, Lanka Kand and Uttar Kand).

• The 1st and 7th Kand were the latest additions to the Ramayana.

The Mahabharat

• The longest epic of the world said to be composed between 400 B.C. to A.D. 400.

• It consists of 1,00,000 shlokas in 18 parvans or chapters.

• Shanti parvan is the largest parvan.

• The Bhagavad Gita is extracted from the Bhishma Parvan of the Mahabharata.

• Originally it had only 8,800 shlokas under the name of Jay Samhita, later on it was called chaturvinshati sahastri samhita or Bharat consisting of 24,000 shlokas

• Finally it became Mahabharata or Shatasahastri Samhita with 1,00,000 shlokas.


These are also the auxiliary treaties of the vedas.

• There are six schools of Indian philosophy known as Shad-Darshans.

→ Sankhya (Kapil), Yoga (Patanjali), Nyaya (Akshapad Gautam), Vaishesika (Uluka Kanada), Purva Mimansa (Jaimini) and Vedanta or Uttar Mimansa (Badarayana).

Buddhist Literature

Up to 3rd-4th century AD, Buddhism was its peak. Vedic religion was examining and experimenting in its thoughts. During this time, under Mahayana, the idol of Buddha was started worshipping an became the religion of masses. The Buddhist literature were written in various languages, like, Prakrit (Pali), Tibetan, Chinese, Sinhali etc. To challenge Vedic religion, these were also written in Sanskrit language.


The Pitakas comprised of three compilations, 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.

• Sutta Pitak is source of immense value to know about sermons and religious ideas of Gautam Buddha.

• Abhidhamma Pitak throws light on philosophical ideas of Buddhists.

Jatak Kathas

These are the compilation of the stories regarding previous births of Buddha. There are 549 or 547 tales describing the pre-birth stories of Buddha. These are the parts of art and literature and useful for the historical study of 3rd century B.C. They also present a socioeconomic conditions of Mauryan Period.

• These stories solve problems of the followers as they drew answers from these stories.

Dipvamsha and Mahavamsha

These works are written in Pali. They are dated to 4th and 5th centuries.

• These Buddhist works are of Sri Lankan origin.

• They give us information about Ashoka the Mauryan Emperor and various Buddhist scholars.


This Buddhist work is of Napali origin written in Sanskrit. It tells Buddhist stories and throws light on northern dynasties, from Mauryan kings to Shunga period.

Milinda Panho

This is a discussion between Bhikku Nagsen with Indo-Greek ruler Milind (Menander)

Ashvaghosha’s Buddha-Charit (biography of Buddha); Mahavastu, Lalitvistar, Manjushri Mulkalpa etc. are other important books.

Jain Literature

Ancient Jain literature is in various languages like Prakrit, Tamil, Sanskrit etc.All the Jain granthas were compiled in the Council of Vallabhi in A.D. 516. Jain Literature is called Jain Agamas. They are canonical texts of Jainism based on Mahavira’s teachings. There are 12 Angas:
• Ācāranga sūtra
• Sūtrakrtanga
• Sthānānga
• Samavāyānga
• Vyākhyāprajñapti or Bhagavati sūtra
• Jnātrdhārmakathāh
• Upāsakadaśāh
• Antakrddaaśāh
• Anuttaraupapātikadaśāh
• Praśnavyākaranani
• Vipākaśruta
• Drstivāda

The Acharang Sutra is the first of the 12 Anga Agamas which reflects on codes-of-conducts of Jain monks’ while Bhagavati Sutra throws light on Mahavir’s biography and his exploits.

Besides these, 12 Upangas, 10 Prakirnakas, 06 Chhedasutras, 04 Mulasutras and 02 Sutra Granthas are there.

• 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 Literature

These can be divided into two parts: Historical and Non-Historical Literature.

Historical Literature


This book is recognised as the first book history of India. It is in Sankrit, comprising eight Khandas (chapters/volumes) and 7826 sholkas (verses). It is written by Kalhan which gives history of Kashmir from the period of Mahabharata war up to 12th century AD.

Other Historical Literature

• The ‘Rasmala’ and ‘Kirtikaumudi’ (written by Someshvar) inform us about the history of Gujarat during the Chalukya period.

• Sandhyakar Nandi’s Ramcharit is also a historical creation describing the works and achievements of Rampal, the pal ruler of Bengal.

Non-Historical Literature


It was composed by Kautilya (Chanakya), the prime minister in Chandragupta Maurya’s court. He defines
Arthashastra as ‘the science to teach how to be benefitted by the power and how to preserve it’. It gives a methodological analysis of political and economic.

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


This is a drama, written by Vishakhadatta. The drama deals with one incident concerned with Chanakya and
Rakshasa (Amatya of Dhanananda). The play gives information on Chankya’s politics, espionage and the foundation of Mauryan Empire.


It deals with Grammar, written by Panini. It throws light on social churning of 6th century BC, i.e. the period of second urbanization in India.


It is written by Patanjali, which is a commentary on Panini’s text provides some informations about the history of Shunga dynasty. Kalidas, the great Sanskrit poet and dramatist’s work

• ‘Malvikaagnimitra’ written by Kalidas also throws some light on the history of this period.

Charak-samhita and Sushrut-samhita

These works inform us about medical sciences during Ancient India and considered as the basis of Ayurveda-branch of medicines.


It is written by Vakpatiraj in praise of Yashovarman’s (of Malwa) victory over Bengal (Gaud region).


It is eulogy written by Banbhatta in praise of Harshavardhana.

• Other works which describes the important events of the Rajputana Period are Chand Bardai’s (Prithviraj Raso), Jayanak’s Prithviraj Vijay and Kumarparpal Charit, Jaganakas’ Parmal Raso.

Sangam Literature

It is the main source of information about the ancient South India. Sangam was a college or assembly of Tamil poets held under the patronage of the Pandya kings of Madurai. The body of Sangam literature comprised of the poems, presented in three assemblies, by Tamil poets.

• As per current estimate, Sangam period lasted between 400 BC until 300 BC. The assembly lasted for 9,990 years.

• The Sangam literature consists of Tolkappiyam, Ettutogai, Pattuppattu, Pathinenkilkanakku and the two epics Silappathigaram and Manimegalai.

• These type of literature is mostly a secular one which deals with secular matters relating to public and social activity like Government, war, charity, renunciation, worship, trade, agriculture, physical, manifestations of nature and reflects true nature of common men-women and their life-style.

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