by Horace Hayman Wilson | 1840 | 287,946 words | ISBN-10: 8171102127
The English translation of the Vishnu Purana. This is a primary sacred text of the Vaishnava branch of Hinduism. It is one of the eighteen greater Puranas, a branch of sacred Vedic literature which was first committed to writing during the first millennium of the common era. Like most of the other Puranas, this is a complete narrative from the cr...
The fourth book contains all that the Hindus have of their ancient history. It is a tolerably comprehensive list of dynasties and individuals; it is a barren record of events. It can scarcely be doubted, however, that much of it is a genuine chronicle of persons, if not of occurrences. That it is discredited by palpable absurdities in regard to the longevity of the princes of the earlier dynasties must be granted, and the particulars preserved of some of them are trivial and fabulous: still there is an inartificial simplicity and consistency in the succession of persons, and a possibility and probability in some of the transactions which give to these traditions the semblance of authenticity, and render it likely that they are not altogether without foundation. At any rate, in the absence of all other sources of information, the record, such as it is, deserves not to be altogether set aside. It is not essential to its credibility or its usefulness that any exact chronological adjustment of the different reigns should be attempted. Their distribution amongst the several Yugas, undertaken by Sir Wm. Jones or his Pandits, finds no countenance from the original texts, farther than an incidental notice of the age in which a particular monarch ruled, or the general fact that the dynasties prior to Kṛṣṇa precede the time of the great war, and the beginning of the Kālī age; both which events we are not obliged, with the Hindus, to place five thousand years ago. To that age the solar dynasty of princes offers ninety-three descents, the lunar but forty-five, though they both commence at the same time. Some names may have been added to the former list, some omitted in the latter; and it seems most likely, that, notwithstanding their synchronous beginning, the princes of the lunar race were subsequent to those of the solar dynasty. They avowedly branched off from the solar line; and the legend of Sudyumna, that explains the connexion, has every appearance of having been contrived for the purpose of referring it to a period more remote than the truth. Deducting however from the larger number of princes a considerable proportion, there is nothing to shock probability in supposing that the Hindu dynasties and their ramifications were spread through an interval of about twelve centuries anterior to the war of the Mahābhārata, and, conjecturing that event to have happened about fourteen centuries before Christianity, thus carrying the commencement of the regal dynasties of India to about two thousand six hundred years before that date. This may or may not be too remote; but it is sufficient, in a subject where precision is impossible, to be satisfied with the general impression, that in the dynasties of kings detailed in the Purāṇas we have a record which, although it cannot fail to have suffered detriment from age, and may have been injured by careless or injudicious compilation, preserves an account, not wholly undeserving of confidence, of the establishment and succession of regular monarchies amongst the Hindus, from as early an era, and for as continuous a duration, as any in the credible annals of mankind.
The circumstances that are told of the first princes have evident relation to the colonization of India, and the gradual extension of the authority of new races over an uninhabited or uncivilized region. It is commonly admitted that the Brahmanical religion and civilization were brought into India from without. Certainly, there are tribes on the borders, and in the heart of the country, who are still not Hindus; and passages in the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata and Manu, and the uniform traditions of the people themselves, point to a period when Bengal, Orissa, and the whole of the Dekhin, were inhabited by degraded or outcaste, that is, by barbarous, tribes. The traditions of the Purāṇas confirm these views, but they lend no assistance to the determination of the question whence the Hindus came; whether from a central Asiatic nation, as Sir Wm. Jones supposed, or from the Caucasian mountains, the plains of Babylonia, or the borders of the Caspian, as conjectured by Klaproth, Vans Kennedy, and Schlegel. The affinities of the Sanscrit language prove a common origin of the now widely scattered nations amongst whose dialects they are traceable, and render it unquestionable that they must all have spread abroad from some centrical spot in that part of the globe first inhabited by mankind, according to the inspired record. Whether any indication of such an event be discoverable in the Vedas, remains to be determined; but it would have been obviously incompatible with the Paurāṇik system to have referred the origin of Indian princes and principalities to other than native sources. We need not therefore expect from them any information as to the foreign derivation of the Hindus.
We have, then, wholly insufficient means for arriving at any information concerning the ante-Indian period of Hindu history, beyond the general conclusion derivable from the actual presence of barbarous and apparently aboriginal tribes—from the admitted progressive extension of Hinduism into parts of India where it did not prevail when the code of Manu was compiled—from the general use of dialects in India, more or less copious, which are different from Sanscrit—and from the affinities of that language with forms of speech current in the western world—that a people who spoke Sanscrit, and followed the religion of the Vedas, came into India, in some very distant age, from lands west of the Indus. Whether the date and circumstances of their immigration will ever be ascertained is extremely doubtful, but it is not difficult to form a plausible outline of their early site and progressive colonization.
The earliest seat of the Hindus within the confines of Hindusthān was undoubtedly the eastern confines of the Pañjab. The holy land of Manu and the Purāṇas lies between the Dṛṣadvatī and Sarasvatī rivers, the Caggar and Sursooty of our barbarous maps. Various adventures of the first princes and most famous sages occur in this vicinity; and the Āsramas, or religious domiciles, of several of the latter are placed on the banks of the Sarasvatī. According to some authorities, it was the abode of Vyāsa, the compiler of the Vedas and Purāṇas; and agreeably to another, when on one occasion the Vedas had fallen into disuse, and been forgotten, the Brahmans were again instructed in them by Sāraswata, the son of Sarasvatī. One of the most distinguished of the tribes of the Brahmans is known as the Sāraswata; and the same word is employed by Mr. Colebrooke to denote that modification of Sanscrit which is termed generally Prakrit, and which in this case he supposes to have been the language of “the Sāraswata nation, which occupied the banks of the river Sarasvatī.” The river itself receives its appellation from Sarasvatī, the goddess of learning, under whose auspices the sacred literature of the Hindus assumed shape and authority. These indications render it certain, that whatever seeds were imported from without, it was in the country adjacent to the Sarasvatī river that they were first planted, and cultivated and reared in Hindusthān.
The tract of land thus assigned for the first establishment of Hinduism in India is of very circumscribed extent, and could not have been the site of any numerous tribe or nation. The traditions that evidence the early settlement of the Hindus in this quarter, ascribe to the settlers more of a philosophical and religious, than of a secular character, and combine with the very narrow bounds of the holy land to render it possible that the earliest emigrants were the members, not of a political, so much as of a religious community; that they were a colony of priests, not in the restricted sense in which we use the term, but in that in which it still applies in India, to an Agrahāra, a village or hamlet of Brahmans, who, although married, and having families, and engaging in tillage, in domestic duties, and in the conduct of secular interests affecting the community, are still supposed to devote their principal attention to sacred study and religious offices. A society of this description, with its artificers and servants, and perhaps with a body of martial followers, might have found a home in the Brahmā-vartta of Manu, the land which thence was entitled ‘the holy,’ or more literally ‘the Brahman, region;’ and may have communicated to the rude, uncivilized, unlettered aborigines the rudiments of social organization, literature, and religion; partly, in all probability, brought along with them, and partly devised and fashioned by degrees for the growing necessities of new conditions of society. Those with whom this civilization commenced would have had ample inducements to prosecute their successful work, and in the course of time the improvement which germinated on the banks of the Sarasvatī was extended beyond the borders of the Jumna and the Ganges.
We have no satisfactory intimation of the stages by which the political organization of the people of Upper India traversed the space between the Sarasvatī and the more easterly region, where it seems to have taken a concentrated form, and whence it diverged in various directions, throughout Hindustan. The Manu of the present period, Vaivaswata, the son of the sun, is regarded as the founder of Ayodhyā; and that city continued to be the capital of the most celebrated branch of his descendants, the posterity of Ikṣvāku. The Viṣṇu Purāṇa evidently intends to describe the radiation of conquest or colonization from this spot, in the accounts it gives of the dispersion of Vaivaswata's posterity: and although it is difficult to understand what could have led early settlers in India to such a site, it is not inconveniently situated as a commanding position, whence emigrations might proceed to the east, the west, and the south. This seems to have happened: a branch from the house of Ikṣvāku spread into Tirhut, constituting the Maithilā kings; and the posterity of another of Vaivaswata's sons reigned at Vaisāli in southern Tirhut or Saran.
The most adventurous emigrations, however, took place through the lunar dynasty, which, as observed above, originates from the solar, making in fact but one race and source for the whole. Leaving out of consideration the legend of Sudyumna's double transformation, the first prince of Pratiṣṭhāna, a city south from Ayodhyā, was one of Vaivaswata's children, equally with Ikṣvāku. The sons of Pururavas, the second of this branch, extended, by themselves or their posterity, in every direction: to the east to Kāśī, Magadhā, Benares, and Behar; southwards to the Vindhya hills, and across them to Vidarbha or Berar; westwards along the Narmadā to Kuśasthali or Dvārakā in Guzerat; and in a north-westerly direction to Mathurā and Hastināpura. These movements are very distinctly discoverable amidst the circumstances narrated in the fourth book of the Viṣṇu Purāṇa, and are precisely such as might be expected from a radiation of colonies from Ayodhyā. Intimations also occur of settlements in Banga, Kaliṅga, and the Dakhin; but they are brief and indistinct, and have the appearance of additions subsequent to the comprehension of those countries within the pale of Hinduism.
Besides these traces of migration and settlement, several curious circumstances, not likely to be unauthorized inventions, are hinted in these historical traditions. The distinction of castes was not fully developed prior to the colonization. Of the sons of Vaivaswata, some, as kings, were Kṣatriyas; but one, founded a tribe of Brahmans, another became a Vaiśya, and a fourth a Śūdra. It is also said of other princes, that they established the four castes amongst their subjects. There are also various notices of Brahmanical Gotras, or families, proceding from Kṣatriya races: and there are several indications of severe struggles between the two ruling castes, not for temporal, but for spiritual dominion, the right to teach the Vedas. This seems to be the especial purport of the inveterate hostility that prevailed between the Brahman Vaśiṣṭha and the Kṣatriya Visvāmitra, who, as the Rāmāyaṇa relates, compelled the gods to make him a Brahman also, and whose posterity became very celebrated as the Kauśika Brahmans. Other legends, again, such as Dakṣa's sacrifice, denote sectarial strife; and the legend of Paraśurāma reveals a conflict even for temporal authority between the two ruling castes. More or less weight will be attached to these conjectures, according to the temperament of different inquirers; but, even whilst fully aware of the facility with which plausible deductions may cheat the fancy, and little disposed to relax all curb upon the imagination, I find it difficult to regard these legends as wholly unsubstantial fictions, or devoid of all resemblance to the realities of the past.
After the date of the great war, the Viṣṇu Purāṇa, in common with those Purāṇas which contain similar lists, specifies kings and dynasties with greater precision, and offers political and chronological particulars, to which on the score of probability there is nothing to object. In truth their general accuracy has been incontrovertibly established. Inscriptions on columns of stone, on rocks, on coins, decyphered only of late years, through the extraordinary ingenuity and perseverance of Mr. James Prinsep, have verified the names of races, and titles of princes—the Gupta and Andhra Rājās, mentioned in the Purāṇas—and have placed beyond dispute the identity of Candragupta and Sandrocoptus: thus giving us a fixed point from which to compute the date of other persons and events. Thus the Viṣṇu Purāṇa specifies the interval between Candragupta and the great war to be eleven hundred years; and the occurrence of the latter little more than fourteen centuries B. C., as shewn in my observations on the passage, remarkably coñcurs with inferences of the like date from different premises. The historical notices that then follow are considerably confused, but they probably afford an accurate picture of the political distractions of India at the time when they were written; and much of the perplexity arises from the corrupt state of the manuscripts, the obscure brevity of the record, and our total want of the means of collateral illustration.
Footnotes and references:
However incompatible with the ordinary computation of the period that is supposed to have elapsed between the flood and the birth of Christ, this falls sufficiently within the larger limits which are now assigned, upon the best authorities, to that period. As observed by Mr. Mil-man, in his note on the annotation of Gibbon (II. 301.) which refers to this subject; “Most of the more learned modern English protestants, as Dr. Hales, Mr. Faber, Dr. Russell, as well as the continental writers, adopt the larger chronology.” To these may be added the opinion of Dr. Mill, who, for reasons which he has fully detailed, identifies the commencement of the Kālī age of the Hindus, B. C. 3102, with the era of the deluge. Christa Sangita, Introd., supplementary note.
Sir Wm. Jones on the Hindus (As. Res. vol. III.); Klaproth. Asia Polyglotta; Vans Kennedy on the Origin of Languages; A von Schlegel Origines des Hindous (Trans. R. Soc. of Literature).
See p. 285. note.
As. Res. vol. V. p. 55.
As. Res. vol. VII. p. 219.
See p. 406-409. 444. &c.
P. 448. 459. 454. &c.
P. 484 n. 81.