Historical Elements in the Matsya Purana

by Chaitali Kadia | 2021 | 91,183 words

This page relates ‘Historical Elements (3): Foreign Accounts’ of the study on the historical elements of the Matsya-purana: one of the eighteen Mahapuranas which are Sanskrit texts that have preserved the cultural heritage, philosophy, religion, geography, etc of ancient India. This Matsyapurana was originally written in 20,000 verses and deals with topics such as architecture, ancient history, polity, religion and philosophy.

Historical Elements (3): Foreign Accounts

The importance of foreign sources has been emphasized by K. A. N. Sastri in these words:

“The accounts of any country and its people by foreign observers are of great interest to the historian of the country. For they enable him to know what impression it made upon the minds of such observers and to estimate with greater confidence the part played by it in the general history of the world. And whereas in the case of India, the native sources of history fail him partly or altogether at some points, the writings of foreigners gain great value in his eyes.” (Age of the Nandas and Mauryas, K.A.N. Sastri, P.220).

We get a lot of useful information from the writings of foreigners. Herodotus and Ctesias got their information through the Persian Sources. Herodatus in this ‘Histories’ give us much information about the Persian and Greek wars and Indo-Persian Relations. He also tells us about the political condition of North-West India in his time. According to him Northern India was a part of the empire of Darius and constituted the 20th satrapy or province. The account of Ctesias is full of fables. Arrian wrote a detailed account of the invasion of India by Alexander and he based his account on the evidence of Nearchas, who was the Admiral of the fleet of Alexander. Skylax wrote a book which contains a detailed account of his Voyage between the Indus and the Persian Gult. It also gives a good deal of incidental information about India. He was sent by the king Darius, to collect the information about Indus Valley in 517 B.C. Onesicritus took part in the expedition of Nearchos and wrote a book about India. How-ever Strabo considered him untruthful.

Three Ambassadors were sent by the Greek Sovereigns to Ptaliputra and their names were Megasthenese, Deimachus and Dionysios, Megasthenese was sent by Seleucus to the Court of Chandragupta Maurya. He wrote a book on India called the ‘INDICA’. The original work has been lost but the later writers quated passages from the original book and those passages have been collected to give us an idea as to what Megasthenese wrote about India. These have been translated into English by McCrindle and are quite handy for students of Indian history. The information given by Megasthenese is quite detailed on certain points. Deimachus was sent from the Syrian Court to Bindusara or Amitraghaten. Dionysios was sent from the Egyptian court of Ptolemy. The writings of Deimachus and Dionysis have been lost completely. Very few quotations from their writings have come down to us and those also refer to unimportant matters. Patrocles who was the Governor of the provinces between the Indus and the Caspian Sea under Seleucus and Antiochus I, wrote an account of these countries including India. Strabo testifies to the veracity of his account. The Greek Author of the ‘Periplus of the Erythraean Sea’ made a Voyage to the Indian coast about A.D. 80 and he has left to us a record of its ports, harbours and merchandise. This book gives us an idea of the maritime activities of the ancient Indians. Ptolemy wrote about the geography of India during the second century A.D. Although his knowledge of the geography of India was defective, yet he gives us a lot of valuable information. Pliny gave an account of the Indian animals, plants and minerals in the first century A.D.

It is to be observed that the Greek accounts must be used with some caution. Their knowledge of India may be defective. They may not have seen much of the country and might have resorted to generalizations. Their ignorance of the Indian languages might have affected their impressions and knowledge of the country. They must have seen everything through the Greek eyes and might have distorted or exaggerated certain facts.

According to Dr. R. C. Majumdar,

“The net result of all this discussion is that we must dismiss from our mind the notion that the statements of classical writers have any special claim to be regarded as true or authentic, and based on ascertained facts. In particular, the older generations that preceded Strabo were generally speaking, very uncritical, and therefore much less reliable than writers like Strabo and Arrian, who possessed a more rational mind and a much higher critical faculty, as evidenced by their questioning the truth of absurd statements or un-natural phenomena which the earlier writers glibly reported as true. It may be that many of these were not deliberate liars or fabricators of facts, but were misled by imperfect knowledge of Indian Language and manners false report of Indian informants, and fables or allegories recorded in Indian Literature. But while these considerations may weigh with us in our judgment of their moral character, they should not, in any way, affect our view of the reliability of their accounts. One who is guilty of recording false stories, from whatever causes, and has been proved to the incapable of rational discrimination between what is probable or natural and what is not forfeits all rights to be regarded as a reliable recorder of events or things even where they do not exceed the bounds of probability. This does not mean that we shall reject all their statements are in consonance, and not in conflict, with what we may reasonably conclude from other evidences, we may provisionally accept them as true. But we must not regard them as specially to reject them in the light of new facts which might be adjudged to possess a greater degree of reliability, after considering all that has been said above of the general nature of Classical Accounts (The classical Accounts of India, PP. 25–26).

Latin documents give us some useful information about the ‘History of Ancient India’. Trogus Pompeius wrote a history known as ‘Historial Philippical’. Although the work is lost, some prologues to the chapters are preserved in ‘Epitoma Historiarum Philoppicarum’ of Justinus. This book throws a flood of light on the relations of Selucus with India and the Bactrian invasion on India. From the geographical point of view Pompponius Melas is very important as it gives us valuable information about the geography of India.

The Chinese Travellers like Fahien, Hiuen Tsang and I-Tsing give us a lot of useful information. These Travellers “made the long and toilsome pilgrimage to the scenes of the Master’s Life and Labour” and left valuable accounts about what they saw. Hiuen Tsang is called “the Prince of pilgrims.” He stayed in India for many years and studied in the University of Nalanda. He was patronized by Harsha and his account is rightly considered as a Gazetteer of India. His book is a treasure-house of accurate information, indispensable to every student of Indian antiquity, and has done more than any archaeological discovery to render possible the remarkable resuscitation of lost Indian history which has been recently effected. Although the chief historical value of Hiuen Tsang’s work consists in its contemporary description of political, religious, and social institutions, the pilgrim has increased the debt of gratitude due to his memory by recording considerable mass of ancient tradition, which would have been lost but for his care to preserve it. The life of Hiuen Tsang, composed by his friend Hwui-li, contributes many details supplemental to the narrative in the Records, though not quite so trust worthy. 80

Fahien also gives us useful information about India in the reign of Chandragupta II. I-Tsing visited India during the 7th century and he has left to us useful information about the social and religious condition of the people. The stream of Chinese Buddhist pilgrims who continued for several centuries to visit India, which they regarded as their Holy land, begins with Fa-hien (Fa-hsien); who started on his travels in A.D. 399, and returned to china fifteen years later. The book in which he recorded his journeys has been preserved complete, and translated once into French, and Four times into English. It includes a very interesting and valuable description of the Government and social condition of the Gangetic provinces during the reign of Chandra-gupta II, Vikramaditya. Several other pilgrims left behind them works which contribute something to the elucidation of Indian history and their testimony will be cited in due course.

The Chinese Historical works contain numerous references to the movement and migration of Nomadic Tribes living on the borders of China and some of which eventually invaded India. These and other chronological references have been found useful in building up the framework of Indian Chronology. Many original books on Buddhism were taken from India to China and translated into the Chinese. Although the originals have been lost, the translation remain and those give us a lot of useful information.

The Tibetan Historian, Taranath, in his “History of Buddhism”, gives us a lot of valuable information about Buddhism. Tibetan works like the ‘Mani’, ‘Bka’, ‘Bum’, a sacred history of Tibet and Bu Stons’ chos’ Byun, the ‘Birth of the Law’ in three parts, also give us very useful information about history of India.

Arab travellers, geographers and historians were attracted to India from eighth century A.D. onwards. The early Arab writers deal with the country and its inhabitants and history as such. The important Arab works on India are ‘Kitab-al-Fihrist ’, a great biographical collection, ‘Kitab-Fotuh-Al-Boldan ’ of Al Beladori, ‘Mo’ Jam-ul-Boldan’, ‘Dictionary of Countries ’ by Yakut and ‘Atar-Al-Bilad’ and ‘Monuments of countries ’ by At Kazwin. Alberuni visited India in the time of Mahmud of Ghazni and he has left to us a remarkable book called ‘Tehqiq-i-Hind ’. This book is translated into English and Hindi and contains a lot of useful information about India. Alberuni himself studied the Sanskrit language and thus was able to derive his information from Sanskrit sources. His book is voluminous and contains detailed information on many points. However, he wrote from what he read and not from what he saw. His information is not based on his personal knowledge but on what he read in books in Sanskrit. He says practically nothing about the condition of the people of India in his own times.

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