Q. How did early Indian historical tradition, as reflected in Itihasa-Purana, emerge? What are the distinctive features of this genre? [UPSC- 2018]

Q. How did early Indian historical tradition, as reflected in Itihasa-Purana, emerge? What are the distinctive features of this genre? [UPSC- 2018]


Early Indian historical tradition seems to have received its fair share of criticism when it comes to recording of historical events of importance. Historians like Al Beruni remark the sheer lack of historical evidence in the subcontinent. However, the term “historical tradition” is much broader than it’s narrow definition adopted by the West. According to Romila Thapar, “the sense of history is in fact the consciousness of the past event presented in organised framework but what event is considered relevant varies from one society to another and the forms they have presented also vary from one society to another.” ©

It is an open truth that recording of events in a chronological manner is not something Indians specialised in. However, early Indian historical tradition is richer and more vibrant than mere recording of events on a bark or a manuscript. Though there may not have been a conventional form of historical writing, there are nevertheless many texts that reflect the historical consciousness of Ancient Indians.

              This is where the three distinct tradition of historiographies come into play.

  1. The Bardic tradition
  2. The Pauranic tradition including the Itihas Purana tradition
  3. Shramanic tradition. Majority of works were carried down through ‘hearing’ and ‘remembering’. Puranas form an important body of such a literary tradition. These texts are much older than their surviving manuscripts or ‘evidences’. They are treated as a kind of substratum source of history. Their origin lies with sage Ved Vyasa according to some traditions.


              In both, the Puranik and Shramanic traditions, there was a gradual change in the form, information and comment, moving towards creating a historic tradition. This is where Itihas Purana serves as a source of history.

              The Bardic tradition can be considered as a crude form of storytelling in ancient period. This tradition has also served as a predecessor of Shramani and Puranic traditions. With the emergence of Puranas, the lores and legends were consolidated into various books called ‘Purana’.

              The literal meaning of the word Purana means “old”. It is a vast genre of literature that generally consist of legendary stories and lore that has emerged out of Bardic tradition as discussed above. It was narration of stories of legends and heroes that were carried down from one generation to the other. These stories crystallized into the form of Puranas and hence they reflect a strong sense of historical tradition. Most of these texts were written during Gupta period and some works stretch till early medieval India. For eg., Bhagavata Purana (10th Cen) and Skanda Purana (14th Cen)

              Al Beruni notes a total of 18 puranas. They are also known as Maha Purana/Major Purana. They are as follows:

  1. Agni Purana
  2. Bhagvat Purana
  3. Bhavishya Purana
  4. Brahmanda Purana
  5. Brahmavavarta Purana
  6. Garuda Purana
  7. Kurma Purana
  8. Linga Purana
  9. Markandeya Purana
  10. Matsya Purana
  11. Naradiya Purana
  12. Padma Purana
  13. Shiva Purana
  14. Skanda Purana
  15. Vamana Purana
  16. Varaha Purana
  17. Vayu Purana
  18. Vishnu Purana

              These Puranas are supplemented by 18 minor puranas called Upapurana. They are as follows:

  1. Sanatkumara Purana
  2. Narasimha Purana
  3. Brihannaradiya Purana
  4. Sivarahasya Purana
  5. Durvasa Purana
  6. Kapila Purana
  7. Vamana Purana
  8. Bhargava Purana
  9. Varuna Purana
  10. Kalika Purana
  11. Samba Purana
  12. Nandi Purana
  13. Surya Purana
  14. Parasara Purana
  15. Vashishtha Purana
  16. Devi Bhagavatam
  17. Ganesha Purana
  18. Hamsa Purana

Their emergence as historical tradition also comes from the fact that Puranas included mythological works that propagate religious and spiritual messages through stories and fables. They served as an instrument of popular education having strong hold and influence in society. For eg., Brahmanical law codes were narrated in an illustrative format for the masses. It’s the history of ancient past with messages and morals for the society.

These Puranas also dealt with variety of subjects like astronomy, geography, grammar, law, medicine, politics, religion, etc. Their emergence as Indian historical tradition can be explained through the subject matter present in them, Few of them are mentioned below:

  • Reflection of Religious Historical tradition:
  1. Garuda Purana mentions Vishnu worship.
  2. Bhagavata Purana contains 12 books in which Book 10 is devoted to the life of Krishna.
  3. Brahmavaivarta Purana shows ‘Brahma’ to be the creator of the world.
  4. The contents of Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Harivansh are retold.
  • Record of social values: Puranas narrate Brahmanial religious and social values as well as emergence and development of Hindu religious practices. For eg., Adi Purana of Jains narrates the life of first tirthankara Rishabhnath.
  • Reflection of Political Historical Tradition: List of kings and dynasties present a substantial evidence of ancient historical tradition as mentioned in Vayu Purana, Matsya Purana, Vishnu Purana. These puranas refer to historical dynasties such as the Haryanka, Shishunaga, Nanda, Maurya, Sunga, etc
  • Historical Geography: Puranas mention accounts of mountains, rivers, places, etc. For ex., Markandeya Purana talks about Vindhya and Narmada Valley providing us useful historical knowledge.
  • Information on Origin of Aryans: Puranas talk about original homeland of Aryans as Pratisthana which is in stark contrast to other hypotheses as well as serves as one of the earliest source of material on origin of Aryans.
  • Sense of Time: Entire life is divided into 5 phases-
  1. Sarga- the original creation of the universe
  2. Pratisarga- the periodical process of destruction and recreation
  3. Vamsa- the histories of the solar and lunar dynasties of Gods and sages
  4. Vamsanucharita- the genealogies of the kings
  5. Manvantara- the different eras of cosmic cycle


Itihas Purana is said to have marked the beginning of ancient Indian historical tradition. It’s three main components, akhyana (narratives), itihasa (past events) and purana (ancient lore) contain the seeds of history. This Itihasa in real sense signifies history which appears in ancient India not only as a record of the past but also as a trustworthy guide to contemporary cultures and civilization.

The antiquity of Itihas Purana tradition can be traced back to the Vedic Age. The earliest reference to the word Purana occurs in Rigveda Samhita, the oldest Vedic text. It cited the Kuru dynasty as an example of Itihasa. The compound word Itihasa-Purana also finds mention in it as well as in the Brahmanas.

In one of the Pali texts, Itihasa is called as the fifth veda. Sayana, a commentator on Veda, mentions fifth Veda to be Mahabharata.  According to him, it forms a part of sacred literature which consists of either story of god or men or cosmogony tradition. According to Emil Sieg, Mahabharata is the fifth veda contending that this great epic possesses al the elements of Itihasa and Purana.

Thus, the tradition effectively includes the two great epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata.

The two epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, include almost all the elements of historical tradition. Valmiki himself calls his Ramayanas a Puratana Itihasa whose justification lies in the historical data contained in the texts.


  1. Use of narrator: In almost all the Puranas the Suta Lomaharshana or his son Ugrasrava appears as the narrator who explains the events of importance.
  2. Encyclopaedic tradition: Certain Puranas have an encyclopaedic format. They deal with subjects like astronomy, grammar, law, medicine, politics, etc. For example, Agni Purana, Vishnu Dharmottara Purana
  3. Presence of a local tinge: For example, Brahma Purana may represent the Orissa version of the original work just as the Padma may give that of Pushkara, the Agni that of Gaya, the Varaha that of Mathura, etc. Same goes with the epics and their local adaptations.
  4. Devotional nature: Reflect a crude form of Bhakti tradition by mentioning the stories about gods who are the objects of people’s loyalty, and description of practices of various kinds appropriate to the worship of those gods. The epics profess philosophical and moral lessons in the form of legendary stories.
  5. Other diverse subjects dealt by Puranas are as follows: Social traditions & customs, social ceremonies, rituals, festivals, donations, details on temple construction, description of folk tradition, cosmology, medicines, etc
  6. Larger audience: Law books of Gupta period allowed women and Shudras to study Puranas while disallowing them to study Vedas. Thus, this format of historical tradition was open to all sections of Indian society creating a larger reach.
  7. Works on secular subjects: Topics of general interest as well as secular information are mentioned for society. For example, system of land grants, urbanisation, origin of aryans, interaction of different cultures. Certain Puranas have enclyclopaedic character. For eg., Agni Purana, Garuda Purana, etc
  8. 8. Knowledge about Indian history and culture: The epics, in a minor degree profess to give accounts from tradition about the earliest occurrences.
  9. Idea of history: According to Kautilya, the idea of history is comprehensive, It included six elements like Purana, Itivritti, akhyayika, udaharana, dharmashastras and arthashastra
  10. Parakriyas and Purakalpa: The former focuses on only one hero such as in the Ramayana and the latter on several heroes such as in the Mahabharata.
  11. The Itihasa Purana tradition finds reflection not only in Vedas, the epics and Purana but also in the writings of the Buddhist and Jain scholars. The historical writings in ancient India at least to the end of the Gupta period were broadly based on this tradition.


  1. Lack of evidence– There is a fine difference between history and mythology which gets blurred by Puranas. While historical narratives can be refuted with facts and evidences, there are barely any evidences available for Puranic records. Nor is it possible to defend the claims of Puranas authentically.
  2. Lack of scientific content– All works combine legends related to gods and demons, life after death, etc which disqualify mythology from becoming worthy of serious philosophical study.
  3. All-inclusive nature– Itihasa Purana include almost all activities of life and hence they ought to occupy an important position in the list of disciplines. But this all inclusiveness itself is a serious defect.

Indian historical tradition has been enriched with Itihasa Purana knowledge. They have served as one of the primary sources of information on ancient India life. While it is difficult to correlate them with historical evidences, they present a strong sense of history writing nevertheless. To use them as historical sources, it is necessary to identify their internal chronological layers. They may be intertwined with mythology and folklore, but they serve as a storehouse of evidences of events in ancient India. ©

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