Edward James Rapson.

Ancient India, from the earliest times to the first century, A. D online

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E/'j. RAPSON, M.A.



Cambridge :

at the University Press

I'irst Edition I914
Reprinted 1 9 14


In the following pages I have tried to write the
story of Ancient India in a manner which shall be
intelligible to all who take an interest in Modern
India. My object has been to draw as clearly as
possible the outlines of the history of the nations
of India, so far as it has yet been recovered from
the ancient literatures and monuments, and to
sketch the salient features of the chief religious
and social systems which flourished during the
period between the date of the Rig-veda (about
1 200 B.C.) and the first century a.d.

For the benefit of those who wish to continue
the study I have added at the end of the book
some notes on the ancient geography and a short
bibliography of standard works.

In the transliteration of Sanskrit names I have
followed a system which, while giving a strictly
accurate representation of sounds, will, I trust, not
puzzle readers who are not oriental scholars. If
the vowels are pronounced as in Italian, with due



attention to long and short (e and o being in-
variably long), the result will be sufficiently-
satisfactory for all practical purposes. Modern
place-names are spelt as in the Imperial Gazetteer
of India (new edition).

I am indebted to my friend, Dr F. W. Thomas,
the Librarian of the India Office, for his kindness
in obtaining for me permission to reproduce the
illustrations, which are taken from negatives in
the possession of the India Office.

To my wife, to Miss Mary Fyson, and to the
Rev. C. Joppen, S.J., I owe my best thanks for
much valuable assistance in reading proofs and in
compiling the index.


St John's College

i']th February 19 14



I. The Sources of the History of Ancient India i

II. The Civilizations of India .... 24

III. The Period of the Vedas .... 36

IV. The Period of the Brahmanas and Upanishads 52

V. The Rise of Jainism and Buddhism . . 64

VI. The Indian Dominions of the Persian and

Macedonian Empires . . . . 78

VII. The Maurya Empire ..... 99

VIII. India after the Decline of the Maurya

Empire . . . . . . .113

IX. The Successors of Alexander the Great . 122

X. Parthian and Scythian Invaders . . .136

Notes on the Illustrations . . .149

Notes on the Ancient Geography of India 159

Short Bibliography . . . . .176

Outlines of Chronology . . . , 181

Index 187



Plate I. The Girnar Rock in 1869 . . Frontispiece

Plate II. Coins of Ancient India . Facing p, 18

Plate III. The Besnagar Column . . . « 134

Plate IV. The Mathura Lion-Capital . „ 142

Plate V. Inscriptions on the Girnar Rock and

on THE Mathura Lion-Capital . „ 150

Plate VI. Inscriptions on the Besnagar Column „ 157


N.W. India and the adjacent Countries in the

time of Alexander the Great Between pp. 78 and']()

The Principal Countries of Ancient India . At the end






The * discovery' of Sanskrit — The Indo-European family of
languages — The languages and literatures of Ancient India
— Alphabets — Inscriptions and Coin-legends — Chronology
— The rise of Jainism and Buddhism.

'^The Sanscrit language, whatever be its
antiquity, is of a wonderful structure ; more
perfect than the Greek, more copious than the
Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either :
yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both
in the roots of verbs, and in the forms of grammar,
than could possibly have been produced by
accident ; so strong indeed, that no philologer
could examine them all without believing them to
have sprung from some common source^ which perhaps
no longer exists. There is a similar reason, though
not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the
Gothick and the Celtick^ though blended with a very
different idiom, had the same origin with the
A i


Sanscrit ; and the old Persian might be added to
the same family."

This pronouncement, made by Sir William
Jones as President of the Asiatic Society of
Bengal in the year 1786, may truly be called
^ epoch-making,' for it marks the beginning of
the historical and scientific study of languages.

At the time when Sir William Jones spoke
these words, the recent discovery — or rather the
recent revelation to Western eyes — of the exist-
ence in India of an ancient classical literature,
written in a language showing the closest affinity
to the classical languages of Ancient Greece and
Rome, had raised a problem for which it was
necessary to find some rational solution. How
was the affinity of Sanskrit to Greek and Latin
and other European languages to be explained.'*
Scholars at the end of the eighteenth and the
beginning of the nineteenth centuries were in-
clined to see in Sanskrit the parent language
from which all the others were derived. It was
only after the lapse of a generation that the view
propounded by Sir William Jones began to prevail.
The correctness of his conception of an Indo-
European ' family of languages,' the members of
which are related to each other as descendants of
a common ancestor, has since been abundantly
proved by the researches of Franz Bopp, "the


founder of the science of Comparative Philology,"
whose first work was published in 1816, and by
those of his numerous successors in the same field.

The science of Comparative Philology, which
thus received its first impulse from the study of
Sanskrit, represents by no means the least among
the intellectual triumphs of the nineteenth century.
The historical treatment of individual languages
and dialects, and a comparison of the sound-
changes which have taken place in each, have
shown that human speech, like everything else in
nature, obeys the laws of nature. The evidence
obtained by this method proves that the process
of change, by which varieties of language are
produced from a parent stock, is not arbitrary, but
that it takes place in accordance with certain
ascertainable laws, the regularity of whose action
is only disturbed by the fact that man is a reason-
ing and imitative being. The laws, which govern
change in language, are, in fact, partly mechanical
and partly psychological in character.

More valuable perhaps, from the point of view
of the student of early civilization, is the service
which Comparative Philology has rendered in
throwing some light on the history of the Indo-
European peoples before the age of written records.
These peoples are found, in ancient times, widely
scattered over the face of Asia and Europe from


Chinese Turkestan in the East to Ireland in the
West; but, as we have seen, there must have
been a period more or less remote when they were
united. Now, since words preserve the record
both of material objects and of ideas, it has been
possible, from a careful examination and comparison
of the vocabularies of the diiFerent languages, to
gain some knowledge of the state of civilization,
the social and political institutions, and the rehgious
ideas of the Indo-European peoples, both at the
period when they were still united and after the
separation of the various branches.

In the earlier stages of the science, this line of
investigation was, no doubt, sometimes pursued
with too much zeal and too little discretion ; and
the evidence of language as a record of civilization
was sometimes strained to prove more than was
justifiable. But there can be no question that
certain broad facts have thus been established
beyond the possibility of dispute. The evidence
of language proves conclusively, for instance, that
a particularly intimate connexion must have existed
between the Persian and Indian branches of the
Indo-European family. The similarity in language
and thought between their most ancient scriptures,
the Persian Avesta and the Indian Rig-veda, can
only be explained on the supposition that these
two peoples, after leaving the rest of the family,


had lived in association for some considerable
period, and that the separation between them had
taken place at no very distant period before the
date of the earlier of the two records, the Rig-
veda. In the following pages we shall be chiefly
concerned with this particular group of the Indo-
European family, which is usually designated by
the term ^ Aryan,' the name which both peoples
apply to themselves (Avestan A iry a = Sd.usknt

Such, then, were the first fruits of the study
by Europeans of the classical language of Ancient
India — a complete revolution in our conception of
the nature of human speech, and the recovery
from the past of some of the lost history of the
peoples, who, in historical times, have played a
predominant part in the civilization of both India
and Europe. The ^ discovery ' of Sanskrit, with
its patent resemblance to Greek and Latin, sug-
gested the possibility of a connexion which was
undreamt of before, and prepared the way for
the application to languages of the historical and
comparative method of investigation, which was
destined to win its most signal triumph when it
was applied subsequently by Charles Darwin and
other great scientists to the material universe and
to living organisms.

Familiar as the notions of an Indo-European


family of languages and of the scientific study of
language may be to us at the present day, they
proved a hard stumbling-block to all but the most
advanced thinkers of the late eighteenth and the
early nineteenth centuries ; for they rudely dis-
turbed the belief of many centuries past that
Hebrew was the primitive language of mankind,
and that the diversity of tongues on earth was
the result of the divine punishment inflicted on
the builders of the Tower of Babel.

But great and far-reaching as has been the
influence of the 'discovery' of the Sanskrit
language on the intellectual life of the West,
no less remarkable are the results which have
followed from the application of Western methods
of scholarship to the interpretation and elucidation
of the ancient literatures and monuments of India.

When, in 1784, the Asiatic Society of Bengal
was founded by Sir William Jones for the promo-
tion of Oriental learning, the history of India
before the Muhammadan conquest in the eleventh
century a.d. was a complete blank; that is to say,
there was no event, no personahty, no monument,
no literary production, belonging to an earlier
period, the date of which could be determined
even approximately. A vast and varied ancient
Sanskrit literature, both prose and verse, existed
in the form of manuscripts; and European


scholars, with the aid of the ' pandits ' or learned
men of India, were already beginning to publish
texts and translations from the manuscripts. But
as to the date of this literature nothing whatever
was known. Sanskrit had ceased for many cen-
turies past to be a language generally understood
by the people. It had long since become, like
Latin in the middle ages of European history, the
exclusive possession of a class of learned men,
who attributed to the sacred books a divine origin
and regarded the secular literature as the work
of sages in a dim and distant period of legend and
mystery. The chronological conceptions of the
pandits were those of the Puranas, which teach
that the universe undergoes an endless series of
creations and dissolutions corresponding to the
days and nights of the god Brahma, each of which
equals 1000 'great periods ' of 4,320,000 years.
What we know as the historical period of the
world was for them the ' Kali Age,' or the shortest
and most degenerate of the four ages which
together constitute a 'great period.' It was but
as a drop in the ocean of time and might be

It is due almost entirely to the labours of
scholars during the last century and a quarter
that the outlines of the lost history of Ancient
India have, in a great measure, been recovered.


and that its literature, which reflects the course
of religious and intellectual civilization in India
from about 1200 B.C. onwards, has been classified

The materials for the reconstruction of the
history are suppHed principally from three
sources: — (i) the literatures of the Brahmans,
Jains, and Buddhists ; (2) inscriptions on stone
or copper-plate, coins, and seals ; and (3) the
accounts of foreign writers, chiefly Greek, Latin,
and Chinese.

At present, large gaps remain in the historical
record and it is probable that some of them can
never be filled, although very much may be
expected from the progress of arch^ological
investigation. Of the more primitive inhabitants
of India we can know nothing beyond such general
facts as may be gleaned from the study of pre-
historic archseology or ethnology. History in the
ordinary sense of the word, that is to say, a
connected account of the course of events or of
the progress of ideas, is dependent on the exist-
ence of a literature or of written documents of
some description ; and these are not to be found
in India before the period when Aryan tribes
invaded the country at its north-western frontier
and brought with them an Indo - European
civilization, resembling in its main features the


ancient civilizations of Greece, Italy, and Germany.
Our knowledge of Ancient India follows the
course of this civilization as it spread, first from
the Punjab into the great central plain of India,
the country of the Ganges and the Jumna
rivers, and thence subsequently into the Deccan.
This extension is everywhere marked by the
spread of Sanskrit and its dialects. It received a
check in Southern India, where the older Dravidian
civilization and languages remain predominant even
to the present day. In this region history can
scarcely be said to begin before the Christian era.
Thus, the language of all the earliest records of
India, whether literary or inscriptional, is Indo-
European in character. That is to say, it is
related to Greek and Latin and to our own
English tongue, and not to the earlier forms of
speech which it supplanted in India. The Aryan
tribes who continued, perhaps for generations or
even for centuries, to swarm over the mountain
passes into Southern Afghanistan and the Punjab,
or through the plains of Baluchistan into Sind and
the valley of the Indus, must, no doubt, have
spoken a variety of kindred dialects. The history
of languages everywhere shows that this is in-
variably the case among primitive peoples. It
shows, too, that, in the course of time, when a
community becomes settled and civihzation


advances, the dialect of some particular district,
which has won special importance as a centre of
religion, politics, or commerce, gradually acquires
an ascendancy over the others and is eventually
accepted by general consent as the standard
language of educated people and of literature ;
and that, when its position is thus established, its
use tends to supersede that of the other dialects.
An illustration of this general rule may be taken
from the history of our own language : it was
*'the East Midland" variety of the Mercian
dialect of English "that finally prevailed over the
rest, and was at last accepted as a standard, thus
rising from the position of a dialect to be the
language of the Empire " (Skeat, English Dialects^
p. 66^ in the series of Cambridge Manuals).

In India, such a standard or literary language
appears first in the Hymns of the Rig-veda, the
most ancient of which must probably date from a
period at least 1200 years before the Christian
era. This ' Vedic ' Sanskrit is the language of
priestly poets who lived in the region now known
as Southern Afghanistan, the North- Western
Frontier Province, and the Punjab ; and it differs
from the later 'Classical' Sanskrit rather more,
perhaps, than the language of Chaucer differs from
that of Shakespeare.

After the Vedic period, Aryan civilization


extended itself in a south-easterly direction over
the fertile plains of the Jumna and Ganges, which
became subsequently not only the chief political
and religious centre of Brahmanism but also the
birthplace of its rival religions, Jainism and
Buddhism. It was in this region that the priestly
treatises, known as 'Brahmanas,' and the great
epic poems, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana,
were composed.

The language of each of these classes of litera-
ture — the Brahmanas representing almost ex-
clusively the priestly caste, the Brahmans, and
the epic poems belonging chiefly to the warrior
caste, the Kshatriyas — is, in a different sense,
transitional between Vedic and Classical Sanskrit.
In character, the two styles may broadly be dis-
tinguished as learned and popular respectively.
The Sanskrit of the Brahmanas merges in the
course of time by almost insensible degrees into
Classical Sanskrit; the epic language, on the other
hand, is already stereotyped and retains its archa-
isms and its ' irregularities ' for all time.

Thus, about the year 500 b.c, when the first
work in strictly Classical Sanskrit appeared —
Yaska's Nirukta or ' Explanation ' of Vedic diffi-
culties — there were in existence three well-defined
types of Sanskrit. The first, already invested
with a sacred character from its great antiquity,


was the poetical language of the early Aryan
settlers in the north-west. The second was the
language of bards, who sang at royal courts of
wars and the deeds of the heroes and sages of old
time. The third, to which, strictly speaking, the
term 'Sanskrit ' (samskriia = 'cultivated,' 'literary')
should be confined, is that form of the language
of the Brahmans, which, as the result of a long
course of literary treatment and grammatical re-
finement, had gained general acceptance as the
standard of correct speech.

A literary language thus definitely fixed ceases
to undergo any material change, so long as the
civiHzation which it represents continues. Its
spoken form must naturally, as a rule, be less
careful and elaborate than its written form ; and
both must vary according to the degree of
cultivation possessed by each individual speaker
or writer. There may thus be infinite varieties of
style, but there is no substantial modification
of the character of the language. Classical
Sanskrit has remained essentially unaltered during
the long period of nearly twenty-five centuries in
which it has been employed, first as the language
of the educated classes and of literature, and
later, down to the present day, as the common
means of communication between learned men
in India.


In sharp contrast to the literary language of a
country stand the local dialects. While the
former is fixed, the latter still continue to have a
life and growth of their own and to change in
accordance with the laws of human speech.
While the literary language, although no doubt
originally the dialect of some particular district,
gains currency throughout the whole country
among the educated classes, the local dialects
continue to be spoken by the common people,
who, in Ancient as in Modern India, must have
formed an overwhelmingly large proportion of the
population. It is, therefore, chiefly by a perfectly
natural process of development that most of the
modern vernaculars of Northern India have been
produced from the ancient local dialects or
'Prakrits,' as they are called (/>r(^^r//^ = * natural,'
'uncultivated '), in precisely the same way as the
Romance languages have sprung, not from literary
Latin, but from the dialects of Latin spoken by
the common people.

While, however, the literary language and its
dialects continue to exist side by side, the former
invariably tends to grow at the expense of the
latter, so long as the civilization to which they
belong does not decline or change its character.
The inscriptions and coin-legends of Ancient India
afford a striking illustration of this fact. As


being, from their very character, intended to
appeal to all men, learned and unlearned alike,
they are, on their first appearance in the third
century B.C., written in some Prakrit ; but, as
time goes on, their language is gradually influenced
and eventually assimilated by the literary language,
until, after about the year 400 a.d., Prakrit
ceases to be used for these purposes and Sanskrit
takes its place.

The history of Sanskrit is especially associated
with Brahmanism, and the tradition has remained
through the ages unbroken by time or place.
Sanskrit is to Brahmanism what Latin is to the
Roman Catholic church. Jainism and Buddhism
were revolts against Brahman tradition ; and, like
the reformed churches in Europe, both originally
used the type of speech, whether Sanskrit or
Prakrit, which happened to be current in the
various districts to which their doctrines extended.
Thus the Buddhist scriptures appear in a Sanskrit
version in Nepal and in Prakrit versions elsewhere.
Through their employment for religious purposes
some of the Prakrits developed into literary
languages, for which, in the course of tim.e, hard
and fast laws were laid down by grammarians,
precisely as in the case of Sanskrit. The most
notable of these is Pali, the literary form of some
Indian Prakrit which was transplanted to Ceylon,


probably in the third century b.c, and became
there the sacred language of the particular phase
of Buddhism which found a permanent home in
the island, and which has spread thence to Burma
and Siam. In India itself, after about the fifth
century a.d., there was a growing tendency on
the part of both Jains and Buddhists to use
Sanskrit, which thus eventually became the
lingua franca of religion and learning throughout
the whole continent.

Such then are the languages in which all the
early literature of India and Ceylon is preserved.
This literature is enormous in extent and most
varied in character. No species of composition,
whether in prose or verse, is unrepresented ; and
few phases of human intellectual activity remain
without their record, except in the domain of
those sciences, which have been, even in Europe,
the creation of the last two hundred and fifty
years. But, if we compare any ancient Indian
literature, Brahman, Jain, or Buddhist, with the
Greek and Latin classics, we shall find one strik-
ing deficiency; in none of them has the art of
historical composition been developed beyond its
earliest stages. Its sources — heroic poems, legend-
ary chronicles, ancient genealogies — are indeed
to be found in abundance. From the literatures
and from the monuments we learn the names, and


some of the achievements, of a great number of
nations, who rose to power, flourished, and declined
in the continent of India during the twenty-two
centuries before the Muhammadan conquest ; but
not one of these nations has found its historian.
Ancient India has no Herodotus or Thucydides,

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Online LibraryEdward James RapsonAncient India, from the earliest times to the first century, A. D → online text (page 1 of 12)