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Alberuni, the father of Indian Historical writing? - varnamvarnam
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Alberuni, the father of Indian Historical writing?

Ayaz Amir writes

STRANGE that one of history’s cradles, the Indian peninsula, should have so little truck with genuine history, as opposed to myth-making and mythology.

Is there any Indian Herodotus? Or Thucydides or Tacitus? One of the richest histories of the world, full of blood, conquest and great achievement without any chronicler, not even an apology of a Gibbon. Before Alberuni who accompanied the armies of Mahmud Ghaznavi, we have the Hindu holy texts, the Upanishads, Kautilya’s Arthashastra and Megasthene’s account of the court of Chandragupta Maurya. But nothing that can be credited as historical writing.

Indian history – that is, historical writing – begins with the coming of the Muslims. This is a remark made not in the spirit of drum-beating because we of the sub-continent are prickly to an inordinate degree, apt to stand on our dignity and pick quarrels about the wrong things, but just a bald statement of fact.[A travesty of history via an email from The Acorn]

Amir’s assertion is that till Muslims came to India, there was no historical writing. A civilization which was thriving from 2500 BC, did not have any “historical writing” till 1017 AD till Alberuni visited India, which is a big gap of 3500 years. Now what did Alberuni write about?

He accompanied Mahmud of Ghazni to India and stayed there for many years, chiefly, in all probability in the Punjab, studied the Sanskrit language and translated into it some works from the Arabic, and translated from it two treatises into Arabic (Elliot and Dowson:5). Sachau, translator of Alberuni’s Indica believes Alberuni “composed about twenty books on India (Sachau:xxvii), both translations and original compositions, and a number of tales and legends, mostly derived from the ancient lore of Eran and India.” He was indeed a prolific writer and his works are stated to have exceeded a camel-load. (Elliot and Dowson:3)

Let me also make another observation about Alberuni. He regards Hindus as excellent philosophers and he felt strong inclination towards Hindu philosophy but still he was a Muslim and at times does not fail to point out the superiority of Islam over Brahmanic India[India as Alberuni saw it]

Alberuni translated Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra into Arabic (called Kitab Patanjal). He also wrote a monograph on Indic culture, Kitab al-Hind which did not achieve the prominence of other works of comparative religion written around the same time. Romila Thapar adds that Alberuni was the finest intellect of central Asia. In the ten years he spent in India, he made observations on Indian conditions, systems of knowledge, social norms and religion. His book Tahqiq-i-Hind is the most incisive made by any visitor to India. But was he the first person to indulge in some “historical writing” as Ayaz Amir writes.

Huen Tsang was a Chinese scholar who visited India in 630 A.D at the age of 26. Huen Tsang returned to China with enough statuary and texts to load twenty horses and wrote a long account of India which was based on personal observation[1]. It seems his accounts had more detail than his predecessors and was meticulous in detail [3]. Alberuni carried one camel load of books and Huen Tsang required twenty horses and so the winner is…

Around the same time Banabhatta wrote Harshacarita which provided a descriptions of significant events during the reign of Harshavardhana [3] This was the first biography in Sanskrit as well as a masterpiece of literature.[1]. At this time Alberuni’s grandfather was not even born.


Before Huen Tsang, Fa Hian, a Chinese pilgrim visited India between 405 – 411 A.D during the reign of Chandra-Gupta II. From his writings we learn about the life of the disposers of the dead, the social hierarchy, Magadha and its towns. He was not concerned about political affairs but wrote about festivals and Brahmins. He watched, “the brahmacharis come forth to offer their invitations; the Buddhas then, one after another, enter the city”. [1]. At this time, pardon my french again, Alberuni’s grandfather’s grandfather was not born.

Now let’s go back some 700 years to 327 B.C., when Alexander of Macedonia came to Punjab. Of Alexander’s companions, three were noted for their writing on India. Nearchus, who explored the coast between Indus and the Persian Gulf, Onesicritus, who later wrote a book about India and Aristobulus, whom Alexander entrusted with certain commisions in India. Besides this Strabo, who lived in 64 B.C – 19 A.D wrote an important geographical work of which Book XV, Chapter I deals with India. Diodorus who lived up to 36 B.C wrote an account of India based on Megasthenes. Pliny the Elder wrote about India based on Greek books and the reports of Merchants. Arrian who lived between 130 A.D. and atleast 172 A.D. wrote about India, its geography, and manners and customs. Plutarch (45 – 125 A.D.) wrote Lives and its chapters 57-67 deals with Alexander and mentions India.[4]

References to the times of Chandragupta Maurya come from Brahminical, Buddhist and Jain sources. The Brahminical sources include the Puranas, Mudrarakshasa of Visakhadatta, and the works like Kathasaritsagara of Somadeva and Brihatkathamanjari of Kshemendra. The Buddhist authorities are Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa, the Mahavamsa Tika and Mahabodhivamsa. The Jain books are Kalpasutra of Bhadrabahu and Parisishtaparvam of Hemachandra.

I have in my collection, the The Arthashastra which explains the life during the time of its author Kautilya (as noted in the Penguin Classics edition). This book is a manual on how to run a state with details from training the King to foreign policy. In the introduction L N Rangarajan writes, “The historian sees it as a valuable document which throws light on the state and society in India at that time, whether it be 300 B.C. or 150 A.D”. Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador in the court of Chandragupta Maurya, wrote a book called Indica which describes the life in times of the Mauryan empire. But for some reason Ayaz Amir dismisses them without any reason, which is fine, for we have established that there was historical writing in India even before Prophet Mohammed or Jesus Christ’s time.

But as you can see, most of these authors are foreigners, including Alberuni. So Ayaz Amir has a point when he asks, “Is there any Indian Herodotus? Or Thucydides or Tacitus?”. The answer is No. My question to him is, why does it matter? When did having a Herodotus become the standard of approval for any civilization? Do the Mayans or Sumerians or Chinese have a Herodotus ? No. Does that diminish the value of those civilizations? No. Each country does things different now and in ancient times it was no different. While Greeks have well chronicled history, early Indian history comes from coins and charters, random inscriptions, oral tradition, literary compositions and religious texts [1]. Each of these provide a version of history which can be corroborated with inputs from other sources.

Sorry to burst your bubble Ayaz. India had a documented history long before Alberuni set foot here.

References
[1] India, a History by John Keay
[2] In search of the cradle of civilization by Georg Feuerstein, Subhash Kak, David Frawley
[3] Early India by Romila Thapar
[4] Chandragupta Maurya and His Times by Radha Kumud Mookerji


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