Since the different interpretations of the past are shaped by the social and intellectual background of the compilers of the traditions, the choice of the materials and their interpretations differ. Early India seems to have at least three distinct historical traditions from a very early period: the Vedic-Brahmanic, the bardic tradition called itihāsa-purāṇa (Brahmanised later), and the Śramaṇic (within which the Buddhist and the Jaina traditions can be differentiated).

Occurrence of an event/tradition across these traditions invariably would empower them with a greater claim of historicity, but each of these traditions represents a unique historical consciousness in its own right.

The beginning of Indian historical traditions can be traced in its earliest literary composition, the Ṛg Veda. Though the text’s primary concern was not recording history, certain Vedic poets left valuable historical accounts about their families and patrons. Such information often helps us to reconstruct bits of early Indian history.

For instance, the history of a significant political event, the dāśarājña or the Battle of Ten Kings, can be satisfactorily reconstructed from the accounts given by the poet-priests of both the contending parties, Viśvāmitra and Vasiṣṭha.

The event was a landmark, demarcating the hegemony of the Bharata tribe over vast regions of the North Indian plains after the victory of their chief Sudās over a confederacy of ten tribes. Gradually, the Vedic composers felt a need to record certain historical accounts, and Thapar identifies the dānastutis, gāthās, nārāśaṃśīs, and ākhyānas of the Vedic texts as the earliest forms of ‘embedded history’.

Whereas the dānastutis were celebrations of lavish gifts given by the generous patrons and the gāthās and nārāśaṃśīs repetitions of brilliant achievements (ritual or military) by certain individuals, the ākhyānas were properly formed narratives for narration during the sacrifices. Some of these narratives were identified as itihāsas (it happened like this), indicating that they had some truth- claim about their historicity unlike the other ākhyānas. The ākhyānas about Purūravas and Urvaśī (ṚV 10.95) or Śaṃtanu and Devāpi (ṚV 10.98) are examples of such itihāsas.

However, itihāsa was also considered a separate discipline in its own right from a very early period. It was considered a tradition different from the Vedic one but of almost equal importance. The Atharva Veda considers it as emanating from the Supreme Being, just like the Vedas. The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad treats it on par with the Vedas, whereas the Chāndogya Upaniṣad calls it the “fifth Veda”.

The Āśvalāyana Śrauta Sūtra (X.7), the Gopatha Brāhmaṇa (I.10), the Śāṅkhāyana (I.24.8), and Āśvalāyana Gṛhya Sūtras (IV.6.6) prescribe the hearing of itihāsa in certain ritual contexts. The Arthaśāstra includes it in the curriculum of princely education.

The early composers and transmitters of the itihāsa were various bardic groups such as the sūtas, māgadhas, and kuśīlavas, who were the custodians of its sister tradition purāṇa (tales from old) as well. Both the traditions were orally transmitted initially. Later, they were formalised and written down under Brahmanical control. Therefore, gradually they lost their original character. The present Purāṇas, for instance, are characteristically devotional Brahmanical texts rather than accounts of the past.

What was the character of itihāsa? Is there any text retaining some elements of that tradition? The traditional definitions of itihāsa take it very close to what we now understand as historical tradition. The Nāṭyaśāstra, for instance, almost defines it as a dialogue between the past and the present by saying that itihāsa is the past being visualised as if it is happening in the present. The traditional definition of itihāsa, quoted by Taranatha Tarkavachaspati in his Vācaspatyam, describes it as a comprehensive discipline which not only contains the accounts of the past but can provide guidelines for social duties, political economy, pleasure, and salvation:

dharmārthakāmamokṣāṇaṃ upadeśasamanvitam /
puravṛttakathāyuktam itihāsaṃ pracakṣate //

The Nirukta of Yāska shows that the truth-claim in itihāsa had been a source of lively debate from a very early time. The school called the aitihāsikas focused on historicity, while the nairuktakas insisted that the itihāsas should be interpreted figuratively. Though the discipline called itihāsa was not exactly a part of the Śramaṇic tradition, its truth-claim was so well known that the Jaina scholar Jinasena defined it as relating that which actually happened.

Thus, itihāsa had a claim of authenticity but not the kind of factual authenticity around which Positivist historiography was formed. As Sibesh Chandra Bhattacharya has pointed out, itihāsa is much more explicitly didactic in nature than history. It teaches, and it teaches by example. Itihāsa is not interested in the past for its own sake, it is not interested in the whole of the past, but in what is exemplary. The past that is devoid of didactic value is not given a place in itihāsa.

Therefore, the historical tradition named itihāsa narrated what it believed to be authentic account of the past, but the claim to authenticity lay not in factual or chronological accuracy but in the lesson to be learnt about dharma, artha, kāma, and mokṣa from an exemplary and comprehensive account of the past.

The only complete text described in Indian tradition as an itihāsa is the Mahābhārata. In fact, the Mahābhārata has a central position within early Indian historical tradition. It revolves around an event which marks the culmination of the Vedic historical tradition and the starting point of the Purāṇic one.

As mentioned earlier, the Early Vedic period witnessed the establishment of Bharata hegemony. The Bharatas and their allies the Pūrus gradually evolved in the Kuru tribe. The Kurus and their Pañcāla dominated the Later Vedic landscape. The Mahābhārata is the itihāsa of the Kurus in the period between the reigns of Śaṃtanu (the last Kuru chief known to the Ṛg Veda) and Parikṣit (the Kuru chief celebrated as a contemporary in the Atharva Veda).

Two of the prominent Vedic ākhyānas known as itihāsa, those of Purūravas-Urvaśī and Śaṃtanu-Devāpi, are also integrally connected with the Mahābhārata narrative. Can the Mahābhārata then serve as our major source to document the history of the transition which took place in the Later Vedic period?

The text itself took its role as itihāsa very seriously. Thus, it promises to have fulfilled its role most comprehensively, according to the traditional definition of itihāsa:

dharme cārthe ca kāme ca mokṣe ca bharatarṣabha /
yad ihāsti tad anyatra yan nehāsti na kutracit //

(Bull among Bharatas, whatever is here, on Law, on Profit, on Pleasure, and on Salvation, that is found elsewhere. But what is not here is nowhere else.)

Not only that, the text also is consciously proud of generating an effective communication between the past and the present:

ācakhyuḥ kavayaḥ kecit saṃpratyācakṣate pare /
ākhyāsyanti tathaivānye itihāsam imaṃ bhūvi //

(Poets have told it before, poets are telling it now, other poets shall tell this itihāsa on earth in the future.)

Moreover, the Mahābhārata knows itself as a text of transition, a witness to the shift from the Dvāpara Age to the Kali Age. Traditionally also, the Bhārata War is regarded as a watershed. In Purāṇic litera- ture, incidents prior to the Bhārata War are usually narrated in the past tense, while incidents after it are generally in the future tense.

In early Indian historical consciousness, the battlefield of Kurukṣetra marks a highly significant boundary where the “past” ends and the ‘future’ begins. However, can we use the present text of the Mahābhārata to understand which great shift it deals with, how it portrays that shift, and what is the text’s commentary on it? We will seek the answer.

However, as indicated already, the history that culminates at Kurukṣetra has a long prehistory. Therefore, our work will focus not only on the decisive moment of the Bhārata War but also on the long journey from the dāśarājña to Kurukṣetra.

Excerpted with permission from From Dasarajna to Kuruksetra: Making of a Historical Tradition, Kanad Sinha, Oxford University Press.