Important General Knowledge Notes For All Competitive Exams: History - Part-01

Period of ‘Second Urbanisation’: 
The use of iron tools and cattle-power in the fertile middle Ganga plain led to the increase of agricultural productivity and the food supply in the 6th century BC. This development of agriculture resulted in growth of towns, trade and money economy. That is why the sixth century B.C. is also known as a period of ‘second urbanisation’. In this period, some non-vedic religions like Buddhism and Jainism responded to the new social realities and argued for a ban on cattle sacrifice, money-lending and urban lifestyle. They advocated better social status for trading communities, who in turn patronised these new religions. The main teachings of Jainism are triratna and panchamahavrata, while Gautam Buddha asked people to follow four noble truths and eight-fold path. The Janapadas of earlier times consolidated in this period and resulted in the rise of sixteen mahajanapadas. Some Janapadas followed the non-monarchical system of governance. Ultimately, the utilization of favorable geographical condition by the ambitious rulers of Magadh resulted in its rise as an empire. Later on Mauryas uprooted the Nanda dynasty and established their rule. They maintained a highly centralised bureaucracy along with a vast army, and administered a large part of the Indian Subcontinent. One of the greatest Indian rulers Ashoka adopted the policy of Dhamma, which was aimed at consolidation of the empire and resolving internal conflicts through peaceful means. After the death of Ashoka the Mauryan Empire declined due to inefficiencies of later rulers and unstable relationship between core and peripheries of the empire.

Sources For Reconstructing Ancient Indian History:
The historian is expected to track the source, read texts, follow clues, ask relevant questions, cross check evidence to offer meaningful explanation.
For example: In 1826 Charles Masson noticed the high walls and towers of an old settlement in Harappa Village of western Punjab ( now in Pakistan), and five decides later Sir Alexander Cunningham collected some seals from the site, but it took archaeologist John Marshall another fifty years to identify the oldest civilization in the Indus region.

Literary Sources:

Religious Literature:

1.Vedas and Vedanta:
  • Vedas (assigned to c. 1500–500 B.C.)
  • The Rig Vedamainly consists of prayers. 
  • The other three, Sama, Yajur and Atharva-contain prayers,rituals, magic and mythological stories. 
  • The Upanishads contain philosophical discussion on atma and pramatma. They are also referred to as Vedanta.
2.Ramayana and Mahabharata :
  • Ramayana and Mahabharata, seem to have been finally compiled by c.A.D. 400. Of the two, the Mahabharata is attributed to sage Vyasa. 
  • It originally consisted of 8800 verses and was called Jaya gita or a song dealing with victory.
  • These later got expanded to 24,000 verses and came to be known as Bharata because it contained the stories of the descendents of one of the earliest Vedic tribes called Bharata. A further expanded version of 1,00,000 verses was named Mahabharata. 
  • The Ramayana of Valmiki originally consisted of 6000 verses than 12,000 verses and was finally expanded to 24,000 verses.
  • The earliest Buddhist texts were written in Pali.
  • They are called Tripitakas (three baskets) viz. Suttapittaka, Vinayapitaka and Abhidhammapitaka. Of the most important non religious Buddhist literature are the Jatakas. They contain the stories of the previous birth of the Buddha.
  • The Jaina texts were written in Prakrit and were eventually compiled in sixth century AD at Vallabhi in Gujarat. 
  • They are called Angas and contain the philosophical concepts of the Jainas.
Secular Literature: This category of literature does not have religion as its theme. To this class belongs the Dharmashastras or the law-books which prescribe the duties for different social groups. 

Dharmashastras :
  • The earliest law books is Manu Smriti. 
  • It was the first book translated by the British and formed the basis of Hindu code of law. Arthasastra of Kautilya provides rich material for the study of Indian economy and polity of the Mauryan period. 
  • The earliest and the most important work on grammar is the Ashtadhyayi written by Panini, which is dated by scholars to around 700 B.C. 
  • The works of Kalidasa who lived during the Gupta period comprise poems and dramas. The famous among them are Abhijananashakuntalam, Ritusamhara and Meghadutam.
  • Kashmir we have an important book called Rajataranagini written by Kalhana( 12th AD) Biographies or charitias are very important non-religious texts for writing history. They were written by court poets in praise of their patron rulers. 
  • As there is a tendency among them to exaggerate the achievements of the patrons they have to be studied with caution. 
  • One such important text is Harshacharita, written by Banabhatta in praise of Harshavardhana. 
  • The earliest south Indian literature is called Sangam literature. It was written in Tamil and is secular in nature. It was produced by poets who joined together in assemblies (Sangam) patronized by chiefs and kings during the first four centuries of the Christian era. The literature consists of short and long poems in praise of various heroes, written probably to be recited in the courts. It also constitutes the epics called Silpadikaram and Manimekali. The Sangam literature is our major source for the study of south Indian society, economy and polity during BC300–AD300. The descriptions given in the Sangam literatures are confirmed by archaeological finds and accounts of foreign travellers.
Non-Literary Sources
1. Inscriptions:
  • The Mauryan king Ashoka was the first person to issue inscriptions.
  •  Most of his inscriptions are in Prakrit language written in the Brahmi script though, some in the northwest, were written in Kharosthi. 
  • The Aramaic and Greek scripts were used for inscriptions in Afghanistan so that the local people could understand their subject matter. 
  • The Brahmi script was first deciphered in 1837 by James Princep who was a civil servant during the British rule.
  •  Brahmi was written from left to right like Hindi while Kharosthi from right to left. 
  • Ashokan inscriptions help us greatly in understanding his religious and administrative policies. From the first century B.C. the kings started granting land to religious people.
  •  The Satavahans kings of the Deccan were the first ones to do so. These inscriptions record the concessions granted to the donee ( the receiver of grant ).
2. Coins:
  • The study of coins is known as numismatics. 
  • Ancient coins were mostly minted in metals such as copper, silver, gold and lead.
  •  The earliest coins found in India contained certain symbols and were called punch-marked coins. 
  • They were made of silver and copper (c. sixth century BC onwards). 
  • The first coins to bear the names and images of rulers were issued by the Indo-Greeks, who established control over the northwestern part of the subcontinent (c. second century BC). 
  • The first gold coins were issued by the Kushanas in c. first century AD. Some of the most spectacular gold coins were issued by the Gupta rulers. 
3. Archaeology:
  • The material remains of the past can be studied with the help of archaeology. 
  • Archaeology is a science that enables us to systematically dig the successive layers of old mounds and to form an idea of the material life of the people of the past on the basis of remains found there.
  • History is basically based on written material. Although writing was known in India by 2500 BC in the Indus culture, its script has not so far been deciphered.
  • Though the Harappans knew how to write but the historians have not been able to read it. Their culture is placed in the period called proto-historic phase
  • The first script to be deciphered was Brahmi which was used in the Ashokan inscriptions and it belongs to the third century BC.
  • Excavations have brought to light the tools of early humans in India going as back as seven lakh years. 
  • In south India some people were buried along with their tools, weapons, pottery and other belongings under big and heavy stones. These graves are known as megaliths.
  • Radiocarbon or Carbon 14 (C14) dating method: Carbon 14 is a radioactive carbon present in all living objects. It decays, like all radioactive substances, at a uniform rate when the object is dead. By measuring the loss of C14 content in an ancient object (wood or bone) its age can be determined. 
  • Pollen Analysis:The history of climate and vegetation is known through an examination of plant residues, and especially through pollen analysis. On this basis it is suggested that agriculture was practised in Kashmir and Rajasthan around 7000–6000 BC. 
  • The geological studies provide an idea of the history of soil, rocks etc, where prehistoric man lived. Human history cannot be understood without an idea of the continuing interaction between soils, plants and animal, on one hand, and humans, on the other. Taken together with archaeological remains, geological and biological studies act as important sources for the reconstruction and development of human history.
4. Account Of Foreign Travellers:
  • Indigenous literature can be supplemented by foreign accounts. 
  • To India came Greek, Roman and Chinese visitors, either as ambassadors or travellers or to seek religious knowledge from time to time. They have left behind an account of the things they saw. 
  • To the court of Chandragupta Maurya came a Greek Ambassador called Megasthenes who wrote Indika.
  • Its original text is lost but parts of it have been preserved in fragments quoted by subsequent Greek writers. When read together, these fragments, furnish valuable information not only about the administration but also social classes and economic activities of the Mauryan period. 
  • Greek and Roman accounts of the first and second centuries mention many Indian ports and commodities of trade between India and the Roman Empire. 
  • The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea and Ptolemy’s Geography, both written in Greek, provide valuable data in this regard.
  • Of the Chinese travelers, mention may be made of Fa-hsien and Hsuan Tsang. Both of them were Buddhist and came to this country mainly to visit the Buddhist shrines and to study Buddhism.
  •  Fa-hsien who came to India in the fifth country AD describes the conditions in India in the age of Guptas whereas Hsuan Tsang presents a similar account of India in the seventh century during the time of king Harshavardhan. Hsuan Tsang also describes in detail the glory of Nalanda University (Bihar) during his times.
  • Dhammamahamatta- Officer appointed by Ashoka to look after his principles of Dhamma in society.
  • Chauri - A hairy fan waved to and fro around a king or a religious object.
  • Jataka - Collections of Buddhist stories about the previous births of the Buddha
  • Tirthankara - A tradition of prophets in Jainism; literally “ford-maker”
  • Nirvana - Extinction of human desire
  • Digambara - Sky-clad, a sect of Jainism which remains naked
  • Svetamabara - A sect of Jainism whose members are dressed in white cloths
  • Mahayana - A sect of Buddhism which believe in idol worship of Buddha
  • Hinayana - A sect of Buddhism which advocated the adherence to original teachings of Buddha.
  • Samaj - Religious and merry making congregation of common people.

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