1. Why East India Company wants Indian History
  2. Why Missionaries want Indian History
  3. Friedrich Max Muller (1823-1902)
  4. Sir William Jones (1746-94)
  5. Monier-Williams
  6. Utilitarian School: James Mill.
  7. V.A. Smith (1843-1920)
  8. Historians who did not visit India
  9. Nationalist Approach
  10. Marxist School of History
    1. G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831)
    2. Karl Marx and Indian History/Culture
    3. Marxist School after Independence
  11. Non-Political historians
  12. Multi-disciplinary Approach
  13. Conclusion
  14.  Appendix: Nationalist Historians

This article is a compilation of following Old NCERTs:

  1. Ch.1-3 Old NCERT Class 11: Ancient India by R.S.Sharma (1990)
  2. Ch.1-3 Old NCERT Class 11: Medieval India by Meenaxi Jain (2002)

In the previous article, we saw the two sources of Ancient India: (1) literature (2)material (coins, mounds etc.). In this article, we see about the Modern Historians and their approach towards Ancient Indian history.

East India Company wants Indian History:

  • 1765-66: Bengal and Bihar under East India Company. But the company officers found it difficult to administer Hindu Law of Inheritance=> Manu-smriti translated=>A Code of Gentoo Laws was written.
  • By 1804 we find a marked shift in British attitude towards India. After the defeat of French forces in the hands of British and weakened Maratha power, the British were sure of their rule over India.
  • But they were worried of the fact that British civilians coming to India were getting Brahmanised and developing inferiority complex.
  • To overcome this problem and to inculcate a sense of superiority complex among the British officers about western culture, they started writing a distorted version of Indian history.

Christian Missionaries want Indian History:

  • Most of the missionary writings were more driven by the desire to preach their faith rather than provide objective narration of history- like Al-Beruni did.
  • Christian Missionaries and European Historians were more interested in learning and writing about Indian history in order to depict its flaws and prepare the ground for evangelical activity.
  • Good: This led to the accumulation of large amount of contributions about Indian history
  • Bad: Indian history became the victim of political and religious problems of Europe.
  • A large section of the European scholars became worried when the greatness of India’s past started becoming popular and the Indian philosophy, logic and writings on such things as origin of universe, humanity and its age etc. started gaining acceptance.
  • In the Bible story of Creation. Bishop Usher had calculated that the whole universe was created at 9.00 a.m. on 23rd October 4004 B.C. and the Great Flood took place in 2349 B.C.
  • But these dates and creation stories were being threatened to be wrong in the face of Indian mythologies which talked in terms of four Yugas and several hundred million years. This threatened the very foundation of the faith in Christianity.
  • Hence some European historians launched a mission to discredit Indian History.

Friedrich Max Muller (1823-1902)


  • One of the most respected Indologists of 19th Century.
  • Was a German but spent most of his life in England.
  • After 1857 munity, British realized they needed a deeper knowledge of the manners and social system of Indians, to govern them.
  • Christian Missionaries wanted to know the vulnerable points in Hindu religion, to win the converts, spread their religion and strengthen British Empire.
  • for both of them Max Muller undertook massive jobs of translating Ancient Indian texts in English.
  • He published 50 volumes under the “Sacred books of the East Series”- even included some Chinese and Iranian books.
  • But his approach and intention were never free from prejudice. They were necessitated by his religious belief and political requirements. He coloured the entire approach for the writing and interpretation of Indian history. He made following generalizations about India:
  1. Ancient Indians lacked any sense of History, factor of time or chronology.
  2. Indians were accustomed to despotic rule.
  3. Indians were so engrossed in the problems of spiritualism and paid least attention to the problems of this world.
  4. Indians had neither experienced feelings of nationhood nor any kind of self government.
  5. Caste system was most vicious form of social discrimination.
  • He had even written to Secretary of State for India, “The ancient religion of India is doomed, and if Christianity does not step in whose fault will it be?”
  • According to the Christian book of Genesis, the world started at 4000 BC. Max Muller tried to ‘fit’ Indian history within that timeframe, even where events had taken place before 4000BC. Other writers- William Jones, Vincent Smith et al also followed the same approach.
  • Lacking any firm basis of his own and rejecting every Indian evidence, he arbitrarily dated the entire Sanskrit literature taking the earliest i.e. RigVeda to be of 1500 B.C., once again within the safe limits of Christian Genesis chronology.

Sir William Jones (1746-94)

  • Civil servant in East India company
  • Translated Abhijanashakuntalam into English.
  • Setup Asiatic Society of Bengal to understand ancient laws and customs.
  • Claimed European languages were similar to Sanskrit and Iranian languages. This made German, France, Russian and other European countries interested in Indological studies.
  • Undertook the responsibility of unravelling Indian chronology for the benefit and appeasement of his colleagues.
  • Claimed that foundation of the Indian empire above 3080BC – hence safely within the limits of Christian creation date of 4004 B.C.
  • Thus he effectively guaranteed that the new admiration for Hinduism would reinforce Christianity and would not work for its overthrow. Sanskrit literature was not an enemy but an ally of the Bible, supplying independent corroboration of Bible’s version of history.
  • Thus, the fate of Indian history now got intertwined with the safety and pleasure of Christianity.


  • famous for his Sanskrit- English and English-Sanskrit dictionaries
  • He wrote: “when the walls of the mighty fortress of Brahmanism [Hinduism] are encircled, undermined and finally stormed by the soldier of the Cross, the victory of Christianity must he single and complete”.
Other Prominent Historians
Colonel Boden
  • He setup Boden Professorships of Sanskrit at Oxford University to promote the Sanskrit learning among the English to enable his countrymen to convert Native Indians to Christianity.
  • Prizes were offered to the literary works undermining Indian tradition and religion and for refutation of the Hindu religious systems.
Thomas Maurice The daring assumptions of certain skeptical French philosophers with respect to the Age of the world argument principally founded on the high assumptions of the Brahmins… (which) have a direct tendency to overturn the Mosaic system, and, with it, Christianity
Sir William Jones some intelligent and virtuous persons are inclined to doubt the authenticity of the accounts delivered by Moses. Either the first eleven chapters of Genesis… are true or the whole fabric of our national religion is false, a conclusion which none of us. I trust, would wish to be drawn.

Thus, we can safely say that most of the works done on Indian history during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were:

  1. guided by the preconditions imposed by the belief in the Christian Genesis
  2. to counter all the writing that were projecting India’s past in terms of great civilization and Indian philosophy about the origins of universe and human beings.

Utilitarian School: James Mill.

  • James Mill wrote six volumes on history of India between 1806 and 1818,
  • Without ever visiting India or knowing any Indian language!
  • Without any logic and Justification, he divided Indian history into three periods –
  1. first Hindu Period.
  2. second Muslim Period
  3. third British Period
  • He presented an extremely denigrating picture of Hindu periods.
  • He condemned every institution, idea and action of the Hindu period and held Hindus responsible for all the ills of the country.
  • This book was introduced as a text book in the Harleybury school in England which was established to educate the young Englishmen coming to India as administrators and civil servants.
  • Thus, Utilitarian school of thought, played a very important role in shaping the imperialist policy in India and the future of Indian education in the core of which was the distorted history of ancient India.
  • Later his son John Stuart Mill, and his disciple Thomas Macauley also traded on the same path.

V.A. Smith (1843-1920)

  • Vincent Arthur Smith, An ICS officer serving the British Government in India
  • Book: Early History of India in 1904.
  • As a loyal member of the civil service, he emphasized the role of foreigners in ancient India. Hence his approach to history writing was “pro-imperialist.”
  • Alexander’s invasion accounted for almost one-third of his book.
  • His racial arrogance is obvious when he writes, “The triumphant progress of Alexander from the Himalayas to the sea demonstrated the inherent weakness of the greatest Asiatic armies when confronted with European skill and discipline”
  • He gives the impression as if Alexander had conquered whole of India from Himalayas to seas while the fact is he only touched the north-western borders of India hence his ‘Indian-victory’ was a virtual non-event.
  • V.A Smith said, India as a land of despotism which did not experience political unity until the establishment of British rule. Autocracy is substantially the only form of government with which the historians of India are concerned.
  • His book served as a textbook for nearly fifty years and still used by scholars.

Thus, the approach of Imperialist Historians/ Utilitarian Scholars was:

  1. Denigrate Indian character and achievements to justify the colonial rule.
  2. generalizations made by these historians were either false or grossly exaggerated.
  3. They could serve as good propaganda material for the perpetuation of the despotic British rule.
  4. Ancient/Medieval India had One man rule system – hence the office of Viceroy with concentration of all powers=was justified.
  5. Indians had never experienced self-rule, hence it was duty of the British colonial masters to look after Indians.
  6. At the heart of all such generalisations lay the need of demonstrating that Indians were incapable of governing themselves.
  7. Although some generalizations were valid e.g. Indians did not show any strong sense of chronology / history: compared to Chinese; the negative points about caste-system.

Historians who did not visit India

Based on the huge amount of literature produced in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe, many scholars and intellectuals who had never travelled to India, also wrote about Indian history. Example

These fellas wrote about India without visiting!
  • viewed India as the homeland of religion in its oldest and purest form; and also as the cradle of worldly civilizations
  • was convinced of the priority of Indian achievement in the area of secular learning and worldly culture
  • Describes Indians as the people, “to whom we owe our numbers, our backgammon, our chess, our first principles of geometry and fables which have become our own.”
  • “In short I am convinced that everything – astronomy, astrology, metaphysics, etc. – comes to us from the bank of Ganges”.
Pierre de Sonnerate
  • French naturalist and traveler
  • believed that all knowledge came from India which he considered as the cradle of civilizations
Metaphysician  Schelling What is Europe really but a sterile trunk which owes everything to oriental grafts?
Philosopher Emannual Kant
  • The great philosopher also acknowledged greatness of ancient Indian culture and civilization.
  • Their religion has a great purity … (and) one can find traces of pure concept of divinity which cannot easily be found elsewhere
  • He also declared that Indian religious thoughts were free of dogmatism and intolerance.

Nationalist Approach

  • The educated Indian intelligentsia of the nineteenth century was horrified at the distortions of the ancient Indian history by these European Historians.
  • They decided to reconstruct Ancient Indian history in such manner- to make a case for social reform, self-governance and Hindu revivalism.
  • In the late nineteenth century some scholars like Rajendra Lai Mitra, R.G. Bhandarkar, and V.K. Rajwade tried to look at the ancient Indian history from the Indian point of view.
  • The contributions of all these great scholars helped in clearing the mist built by the missionaries and the imperialist historians.
  • (More on them given in appendix)

Marxist School of History

  • The Marxist school of historiography used to be the most influential school of history in the second half of the last century.
  • Despite the inherent contradiction and total failure of Marxist model of history writings it is academically important to discuss it and give respect to the contributions it has made.
  • The Marxists believe in universal laws and stages of history. They believe that all the societies pass through at least five stages of history –
  1. Primitive Communism
  2. Slavery
  3. Feudalism
  4. Capitalism
  5. Communism.
  • These stages were defined by Karl Marx and F. Engels, the propounders of Communism. They were influenced by F.W. Hegel and Lewis Henry Morgan
  • the stages of history proposed by Marx and Engels was based on their understanding of European history.
  • But Before we come to Indian Marxist historiography it is important to know as to what Hegel and Marx said about Indian history and civilization.

G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831)

  • was a great western philosopher.
  • But he was not an Indologist and made no attempt to learn Sanskrit or any other Indian language.
  • He made use of translations and reports etc. His writings on Indian history and philosophy were based mainly on the writings of William Jones, James Mill and other British writers whose main approach was to denigrade ancient Indian history as we saw earlier.
  • Thus, when Hegel based his writing on the research of those Imperial Historians, the results were indeed disastrous.
  • Initially, Hegel felt that India, as the Orient in general, has to be excluded from the history of philosophy!
  • Later, Hegel reluctantly accepted that India had a philosophical system and its history had great antiquity, BUT he explicitly considered it to be inferior to that of the Greeks and the Romans.
  • Thus, whatever Hegel had to say about the Indian world, turned out to be very insufficient: and the result was a caricature which shows that he ventured on a task for which he was not qualified.
  • Despite such shortcomings Hegel’s influence is not confined to Europe alone, even some Indian Marxist Historians walk the same path.

Karl Marx and Indian History/Culture

  • Just like Hegel, Karl Marx was also very superficial in his knowledge about India and not really free from racial considerations.
  • Most of what Marx had to say about India is found in newspaper articles.
  • Marx took his lead from Hegel. Marx was a great votary of India being enslaved by British and dismissed India as a backward and uncivilized nation with no history!
  • He wrote, “India, then could not escape being conquered, and the whole of her past history, if it be anything, is the history of the successive conquests she has undergone. Indian society has no history at all, at least no known history. What we call its history, is but history of the successive intruders who founded their empires on passive basis of that unresisting and unchanging society…”

Marxist School after Independence

  • During British rule, these Hegelian and Marxian approach to Indian history remained dormant.
  • But, after the independence of India, the Marxist school of historiography became one of the most influential and dominant schools.
  • These new Indian Historians followed Marx’s scheme, and began re-writing Indian History.
  • Recall that Marx and Engels gave five stages to any history: primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism and communism. These new Marxists Historians applied the same, while writing Indian History also.
  • Just like the imperialist school, this Marxist school does not find anything good with Indian civilization.
  • They feel that all that is good in Indian civilization is the contribution of conquerors and that is why, the Kushana period is the golden period and not the Satavahanas or Guptas.
  • The period from the Gupta’s to the conquest of Muslims in the twelfth century A.D. has been termed as the “Period of Feudalism” i.e. “Dark Age” during which everything degenerated.
  • This has been despite the fact that, irrespective of political upheaval, there was an all-round development in the fields of literature, sciences, art, architecture, economy etc.
  • Also when it came to literary evidence and its chronology, they largely follow Max Muller and other British historians.
  • Indian Marxist historians lay great emphasis on economic interpretation of all social and religious ideas, customs and institutions.
  • Being allergic to religion and spirituality their irreverence for saints and sages is too obvious.
  • However, it must be mentioned that their writings, nevertheless, have contributed immensely towards the understanding of various aspects of Indian history which had remained ignored earlier.
Notable Indian Historians from Maxist School
  1. Bipan Chandra
  2. Romila Thaper
  3. R.S. Sharma
  4. Irfan Habib
  1. Satish Chandra
  2. D.D. Kosambi
  3. D.R. Chanana

Decline of Marxist School:

  • In the Marxist scheme of history Marxism is an ideal philosophy and polity and the Soviet Union was the ideal state.
  • Since the break-up of Soviet Union and almost the total eclipse of Marxian polity and economy, the historians are finding it difficult to explain the reasons for the collapse.
  • Hence Marxist historiography has lost its luster.

Non-Political historians

  • They questioned the wisdom of looking @ancient India with modern point of view.
  • Past should be read out of curiosity and pleasure, free from the prejudices.
  • Example; AL Basham: Wonder that was India.

Multi-disciplinary Approach

  • In the last ten years due to the huge accumulation of data from various disciplines like archaeology, paleontology, anthropology, astronomy and space research, there has been renewed interest in studying the ancient Indian history.
  • Many scholars have broken the shackles of the old molds and have been looking at ancient Indian history in the light of data obtained from different disciplines. This is known as the multidisciplinary approach


  • Few Indian writers still magnify the role of religion, believe everything is good and great, originated from their country
  • Western writers no longer insist that all such things came to India from outside.
  • But they underscore the divisive features responsible for stagnation in India- religious ideas, rituals, caste, kinship and tradition. Hence Underdevelopment is integral part of Indian character. Thus, they use India’s past to present its present progress.

 Appendix: Nationalist Historians

hardly relevant for GS, but may be useful to those with History optional. Here it goes:

Nationalist Historians
Rajendra Lal Mishra Book: Indo Aryans. Took rationalist approach. Showed that in Ancient times, People took beef.
Ramgopal Bhandarkar
  • Worked on the history of Maharashtra region and reconstructed the social, political and economic history of the area.
  • Satvahan, Vaishnavism,
  • advocated widow remarriage, opposed child-marriage and caste system
Vishwanath Rajwade
  • evolution of marriage system in India, Maratha history.
D.R. Bhandarkar (1875-1950)
  • His books on Ashoka and on ancient Indian polity helped in clearing many myths created by imperialist historians.
K.P. Jayaswal (1881-1937).
  • In his book Hindu Polity, published in 1924, Jayaswal effectively knocked down the myth that Indians had no political ideas and institutions.
  • showed that India was not a despotic country as propagated by the imperialist historians.
  • Beside the hereditary kingship, India had the tradition of republics right from RigVedic times. = self-rule did exist. (although other scholars counter him).
  • Indian polity and art of governance was far more developed than that of any other part of contemporary world.
  • Foreign rulers had become part and parcel of India’s life and did not exploit its resources for their original homeland (like British were doing)
  • His book Hindu Polity is considered as one of the most important book ever written on ancient Indian history.
H.C. Raychaudhury
  • in his book Political History of Ancient India reconstructed the history of ancient India from the time of Mahabharata war to the time of Gupta empire and practically cleared the clouds created by V.A. Smith.
  • But his approach was Militant Brahmanism- when he criticized Ashoka’s policy of peace.
R.C. Majumdar
  • is considered as the doyen among Indian historians.
  • He was one of the most prolific writers and has written on almost every aspect of Indian History. He wrote a large number of books covering the time period from Ancient India to the freedom struggle.
  • Book; History and Culture of the Indian People in eleven volumes
  • This multi-volume series deals with Indian history and civilization right from the prehistoric times to the India’s independence in 1947 and remains a singular reference work.
K.A. Nilakant Sastri
  • contributed immensely towards the understanding of South Indian history. His books like A History of Ancient India and A History of South India are the shining examples of brilliant scholarship
R.K. Mookerji
  • His books like Hindu Civilization, Chandragupta Maurya, Ashoka and Fundamental Unity of India put the cultural, economic and political history of India not only on firm ground but also made it accessible even to a lay reader when it came to expressing even the most difficult subjects in simple terms.,
P.V. Kane
  • His monumental work entitled History of Dharmasastra in five volumes running into over six thousand pages is an encyclopedia of social, religious and political laws and customs.
K.A.Nilakanta Sastri
  • Historian from S.India but like most Nationalist Historians, he also did not give adequate attention to South India.
  • His general observation about South Indian polity and culture, is questioned by several scholars.

in the next article, we see about Geographical influences on Ancient Indian history.