The study of ancient Indian history is important for several reasons. It tells us how, when and where people developed the earliest cultures in our country. It indicates how they started agriculture which made life secure and settled. It shows how the ancient Indians discovered and utilized natural resources, and how they created the means for their livelihood. We come to know how they took to farming, spinning, weaving, metal-working, and so on; how they cleared forests; and how they founded villages, cities, and finally large kingdoms.
People are not considered civilized unless they know writing. The different forms of writing prevalent in India today are all derived from the ancient scripts. This is also true of the languages that we speaks today. The languages we use have roots in ancient times, and have developed through the ages.
Unity in Diversity
Ancient Indian history is interesting because India proved to be a crucible of ethnic groups. The pre-Aryans, the Indo-Aryans, the Greeks, the Scythians, the Hunas, the Turks, etc. made India their home. Each ethnic group contributed its mite to the evolution of the Indian social system, art and architecture, and literature. All these peoples and their cultural traits mixed up so inextricably with one another that at present none of them can be clearly Identified in their original form.
A remarkable feature of ancient Indian culture has been the commingling of cultural elements from the north and the south, and from the east and the west. The Aryan elements are equated with the Vedic and Sanskritic culture of the north and the pre-Aryan with Dravidian and Tamil culture of the south. But many Dravidian and non-Sanskritic terms occur in the Vedic texts ascribed to 1500-500 B.C. They indicate ideas, institutions, products, and settlements associated with the peninsular and non-Vedic India. Similarly many Pali and Sanskrit terms signifying ideas and institutions developed in the Gangetic plains appear in the earliest Tamil texts called the Sangam literature which is roughly used for the period 300 B.C. – A.D. 600. The eastern region inhabited by the pre-Aryan tribals made its own Contribution. The people of this speak Munda or Kolarian languages. Several terms that signify the use of cotton, navigation, digging stick, etc., in Indo Aryan languages are traced to the Munda languages by the linguists. Although there are many Munda pockets in Chhotanagpur plateau, the remnants of the Munda culture are not so strong as those of the Dravidian culture. Many Dravidian terms are also used found in the Indo-Aryan languages. It is held that changes in the phonetics and vocabulary of the Vedic language can be explained as much on the basis of the Dravidian influence as that of the Munda influence.
India has since ancient times been the land of several religions. Ancient India witnessed the birth of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism; but all these cultures and religions intermingled and acted and reacted upon one another in such a manner that though people speak different languages, practice different social customs, they follow certain common styles of life throughout the country. Our country shows a deep underlying unity in spite of great diversity.
The ancients strove for unity. They looked upon this vast subcontinent as one land. The name Bharatavarsha or the land of Bharata was given to the whole country after the name of an ancient tribe called the Bharatas, and the people were called Bharatasantati or the descendants of Bharata. Our ancient poets, philosophers and writers viewed the country as an integral unit. They spoke of the land stretching from the Himalayas to the sea as the proper domain of a single universal monarch. The kings who tried to establish their authority from the Himalayas to the Cape Comorin and from the valley of the Brahmaputra in the east to the land beyond the Indus in the west were universally praised. They were called Chakravartins. This numerous small states in the post Gupta period, the official documents were written in Sanskrit.
Another notable fact is that the ancient epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, were studied with the same zeal and devotion in the land of the Tamils as in the intellectual circles of Banaras and Taxila. Originally composed in Sanskrit, these epics came to be presented in different local languages. But whatever the form in which Indian cultural values and ideas were expressed, the substance remained the same throughout the country.
Indian history deserves over attention because of a peculiar type of social system which developed in this country. In north India arose the varna/caste system affected even the Christians and the Muslims. The converts belonged to some caste, and even when they left Hinduism to join the new religion they continued to maintain some of their old caste practices.
Relevance of the Past to the Present
The study of India’s past assumes special significance in the context of the problems we face in modern times. the problems we face in modern times. Some people clamour for the restoration of ancient culture and civilization, and a good many are sentimentally swayed by what they consider to be the past glories of India. This is different from the concern for the preservation of ancient heritage in art and architecture. What they really want to bring back is the old pattern of society and culture. Such a situation demands a far better understanding of the past. There is no doubt that ancient Indians made remarkable progress in different fields of life, but these advances cannot enable us to compete with the achievements of modern science and technology. We cannot ignore the fact that the ancient Indian society was marked by gross social injustice. The lower orders, particularly the shudras and untouchables, were encumbered with disabilities which are shocking to the modern mind. The restoration of the old way of life will naturally revive and strengthen all these inequities. Ancient India’s march to civilization was accompanied by the growth of social discriminations. The success of the ancients in surmounting the difficulties presented by nature and human factors can build our hope and confidence in future, but the attempt to bring back the past will mean the perpetuation of social inequity which plagued the country. All this makes it necessary to know what the past means.
We have many survivals of ancient, medieval and later times persisting in the present. The old norms, values, social customs and ritualistic practices are so deeply ingrained in the minds of the people that they cannot easily get rid of them. Unfortunately these survivals inhibit the development of the individual and the country. They were deliberately fostered in a colonialist situation. India cannot develop speedily unless such vestiges of the past are removed from its society. The caste system and sectarianism. The caste system and sectarianism hinder the integration and development of the country on democratic lines. Caste barriers and prejudices do not allow even the educated people to appreciate, the dignity of manual labour and prevent our unity for a common cause. Though women have been enfranchised, their age-long social subordination prevents them from playing their due roe in social progress. This is also true of the lower orders of society. The study of ancient Indian helps us to go deeply into the roots of these prejudices. We can find out the causes that sustain the caste system, subordinate women, and promote narrow religious sectarianism. The study of ancient Indian history, therefore, is relevant not only to those who want to relive but also to those who want to appreciate the nature of obstacles that hamper the development of the country.