Literary sources

In the previous section, we already came through the definition of literary sources. But before starting this topic, we must go through the definition once again.

Literary sources: The written evidence such as legends, manuscripts, edicts, epics, etc. by which history of any era can be understood can be termed as literary sources. The Literary Source can also be divided into three groups, Religious Literature, Secular Literature, and Accounts of Foreigners.

Types of Literary Sources

History cannot be considered only as of the record of the rulers. History is artistic writing about common people’s life and living in a particular era. It accounts for the social, economic, and mental conditions of the peoples from literary sources. The Literary Source can be divided into three groups:

  1. Religious Literature
  2. Secular/Non-Religious Literature
  3. Accounts of Foreigners

Religious Literature

The Religious Literature includes the Vedas, the Upanishads, the great epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the Puranas of the Hindus. These are important sources of information that help us to understand religious beliefs, social systems, people’s manners and customs, political institutions, and conditions of the culture of a particular era.

Representational Image: The Puranas

The religious writings of the Jainas and the Buddhists are also quite important and sometimes also help in cross verification of any historical events being mentioned in other literary sources. While dealing with religious subjects, they also write about important historical persons and political events. Contemporary economic and social conditions are vividly known from these literary sources.

Secular/Non-Religious Literature

In the quest of writing history, one can find numerous secular or non-religious literature. Dharmasutras and Smritis, which gives a detailed account of Law and order about ancient India, belong to this category of literary sources. These sources contain a code of duties for kings, administrators, and people. These sources also provide knowledge about the rules regarding property and prescribe punishments for murder, theft, and other crimes.


Arthashastra which was written by Kautilya is a famous work that not only speaks of the State and polity but also states about the social and economic system. Patanjali and Panini wrote books about Sankrit literature which also described some of the political events. The dramas of Kalidasa, Vishakhadatta, and Bhasa provide us quite useful information about the people and society.

However, few historical writings mainly revolve around the royal family and their reign. Banabhatta wrote Harshacharita or the Life of King Harshawardhan. Bilhana wrote a historical account of King Vikramaditya.  Kalhana’s Rajatarangini was a historical text of great value that accounts for the history of Kashmir.

Accounts of Foreigners

From very ancient times, foreigners used to visit India quite frequently. Some of them left valuable accounts of their travels or visits which helps us to understand the society and royal kingdom of those eras. Ancient Greek and Roman historians also wrote many accounts for India from their knowledge and information. All these foreign accounts proved to be useful for writing history.

We came to know about Chandragupta Maurya’s victory over the Greeks from the Greek accounts. They mentioned Chandragupta as Sandrokottas in their writings. The Greek ambassador Megasthenes stayed in the court of Chandragupta Maurya and wrote his famous work Indica. But this work was lost. But few fragments from that book were preserved in the quotations by other Greek writers. Those brief accounts are regarded as the most precious literary sources to know more about Mauryan polity and society.

Ptolemy’s Geography states knowledge about India’s ports and harbors whereas Pliny’s work helps us to know about trade relations between Rome and India. The Chinese traveler Fa-Hien left precious accounts on the time of the Imperial Guptas. Hieuen Tsang, who was called as the ‘Prince of Pilgrims’ wrote details about India visited during the reign of King Harshavardhan.

Travelers from the Islamic world also visited India. Al Beruni who visited India at the time of Mahmud of Ghazani studied Sanskrit. His writings on ‘Hind’ give useful information about some political and social events.

Importance of Literary Sources

India has one of the oldest & richest histories in the entire world. Indian history commenced with the arrival of human beings in the Indian subcontinent and has continued incessantly since then. The early Indian History reconstructed with the help of information provided by Literary sources and the archeological source. Their source is available in plenty & light on every dimension of the human life of the Indian Subcontinent.

The Literary sources provide the most valuable information about life in India during ancient age. Beginning from the Vedic age, the life of the Indian subcontinent is known mainly with the help of information provided by Literature. The Literary source such as Arthashastra and Nitisar through light on political and administrative life in detail. Arthashastra was written by Kautilya, the Prime Minister of Chandragupta. He wrote about the institution of the Maurya Empire & the fun performed by various officials. Nitisar was written by Kamadanka (Prime Minister of Chandragupta I) in 4th Century A.D.

The Literary source through light on socio-cultural life as well. Source like Vedas & Dharma-Shastra deal with social institution & their functions. The economic life of ancient age is also revealed by literary sources.

Arthashastra: describes various types of taxes, trade routes, and occupation of the age. The Sangam Literature informs about economic life in Tamil Land during the early centuries of the Christian era. The foreign account left behind by Greek-Roman, Chinese & Arab writers also threw light on the economic life of ancient age.

The religious life of ancient age is understood primarily with the help of Literary sources. Beginning from the Vedic age, an immense amount of Literary is available to understood religious institutions & practices. Literary sources like “Charak Samhita”, “Shushurt Samhita”, “Aryabhatiyam” & “Siddhanta Siromani” through light on progress in the field of Science & Technology during ancient age. The nature and character of India’s relation with the side world can also be inferred with the help of information provided by Literary sources.

Megasthenes was a Bactria (trans-oxiana) ambassador in the court of Chandragupta Maurya. He wrote about the relationship of the Maurya king with Selicus Necoten.

The wars and battle fought by Indian milers, the territorial extent of their empire, rise, and fall of various-political entities as well as changes in the character of the Indian political system can also be comprehended on basis of information provided by Literary sources. Banabhatta wrote in detail about the military achievement of King Harshwardhan.

Limitation of Literary Sources

No Literary sources of any kind are available before the Vedic age. The Literary source doesn’t provide any information about stone-age & Chalcolithic. In this way, more than 99% of the human history of the India subcontinent can’t be reconstructed with the help of Literary sources. The Literary sources lack a true historical character. The writer didn’t pay any attention to chronology. The development has been described as more likely a story.

The Literary sources are not available on continuous bases. Very few literary works are available for the past-Mauryan period. Hardly anything is known from Literary about the dynasty of Satvahanas. The Literary sources are prone to intra potation or extra potation. At times it difficult to comprehend whether entire literary work belongs to a particular period or different period.

It’s believed that much information found in Vedas was added later on. Some chapters of Arthashastra were composed during Gupta’s age by a person Vishnu Gupta. The Literary sources suffer from personal bras of writers. Most of the writers lived in court under the patronage of the king. Such court poets can’t be expected to present an unbiased picture of the achievements and failure of their patron. Banabhatta, the court poet of Harsha wrote in detail about Harsha’s achievement but he didn’t mention Harsha’s failure.

Most of the Literary source used in the reconstruction of early Indian History is religious work, secular literary sources are few. The Literary source deal primarily with the elite class. The focus of writers was generally limited to court, palace & life of nobility. Hardly anything is now about the life of common people.

The Literary source represents the only history from courts, kingdom, and rulers reign, and history about the social and economic life of common people is missing in the literature. At the time the language of Literary Source is weak, as a result of this these sources have interpreted quite differently by different scholars.

Puranas are written in the future tense. The period of many Literary Sources is not known precisely. The information provided by Ramayana and Mahabharata covers a long period. The source like Rig-Veda covers 500 years.

Some historians believed that Chanakya lived in the Gupta period & Kalidas lived in the Maurya age but we are unable to find dates related to the sources. Many dimensions of human life such as technological progress in the quality of life can’t be easily inferred on basic information provided by Literary Sources. A true estimation of these dimensions can be carried out only by having looked at ground realities.