Conceptions of Time and Classical Indian Historiography

Added by Professor Charles Ess, Drury College

[From Hajime Nakamura's The Notion of Time in India]

[Indian conceptions of time and its linguistic expression should prepare us] to find the Indian conception of history very different from our own. Indian books of history are few in number, and these few are tinged with a fantastic and legendary color. They are not products of historical science but rather works of art. Usually they are written in verse. Indians are not satisfied with the simple description of facts in the language of daily use. They beautify the past and try to idealize it. They ignore precise figures, exact sequences of events, and other details of time and place. Far from exerting themselves to give exact sizes of armies, say, or expenditures, they exaggerate astronomically with magnificent and brilliant hyperbole.

As an example, consider the Mahavamsa, the most reliable work of history produced in ancient Ceylon. Even this book, though highly informative from the modern historian's point of view, is saturated with a mysterious and legendary atmosphere. For instance, though Mahanaman, the author of the Mahavamsa, lived in the fifth century A.D., in an age not too distant from the time of King Dutthagamani, his descriptions of this greatest of Ceylon's rulers are already full of fantastic elements, and the reader must make a careful distinction between myth and that which is historically true. The histories or "chronicles" of medieval European monks and the biographies of eminent Buddhist monks in China and Japan have a similar style, but the Mahavamsa stretches historical truth to an incomparably greater degree.

Another example is Kalhana's Rajataranginl, the chronicle of a Kashmiri dynasty and one of the best historical works ever written by an Indian. In it Kalhana details the social situation of his time and the activities of the various personages in it with an accuracy that no other Indian book of history has attained. Yet Oldenberg can still describe it in these terms:

If one removes all the poetic elements from Kalhana's story, and compares it with events of the time, he will find that the account is in essence on a level no higher than that of a more or less accurate article in a newspaper or a cartoon in a political comic paper. The process of formation that this story has undergone is not that of historical thinking but that of poetry in the Indian sense with its brilliant quality and also with its weakness. And Kalhana himself has a very distinct idea on this point; he feels himself as a poet and he is a poet (15).

It is worth pointing out that Kalhana scarcely pays heed to causal sequencewhen considering historical events. His dates are inaccurate and sometimes clearly the products of pure imagination.

[Postcolonial] [Indian Subcontinent] India OV

Last modified 15 December 2000