From the earliest period at which the mention of India dawns upon us, among the records of the past, her name has been surrounded by a halo of poetic mystery, which even the research and familiarity of modern times, have as yet failed to entirely dispel. Of her own history she tells us but little, and it was only in comparatively modern times, when she came into contact with the more prosaic nations of the outer world, that we learned much regarding her former existence. So far as is at present known, no mention of India has yet been discovered among the records of Egypt or Assyria. No conquest of her country is recorded in the hieroglyphics that adorn the Temples of Thebes, nor been decyphered among the inscriptions on the walls of the palaces of Nineveh. It is even yet uncertain whether the Ophir or Tarshish to which the ships of Solomon traded and “brought back gold, and ivory, and algum “trees, and apes, and peacocks,” can be considered as places in India, rather than some much nearer localities in Arabia or Africa. The earlier Greek writers had evidently no distinct ideas on the subject, and confounded India with Ethiopia in a manner that is very perplexing. It was not, in fact, till the time of the glorious raid of Alexander the Great, that the East and the West came practically into contact, and we obtain any distinct accounts, on which reliance can be placed, regarding that land which before his time was, to his countrymen, little more than a mythic dream. Fortunately, as we now know, the visit of the Greeks occurred at one of the most interesting periods of Indian history. It was just when the old Vedic period was passing away, to give place to the new Buddhist epoch; when that religion was rising to the surface, which for nearly 1,000 years continued to be the prevailing faith of northern India, at least. Though after that period it disappeared from the land where it originated, it still continues to influence all the forms of religious belief in the surrounding countries, to the present day.
The gleam of light which the visit of the Greeks shed on the internal state of India, though brilliant, was transitory. Before the great Mauryan dynasty which they found, or which they placed, on the throne of central India had passed away, her history relapsed, as before, into the same confused, undated, record of fainéant kings, which continued almost down to the Moslem conquest, a tangle and perplexity to all investigators. It is only in rare instances that the problems it presents admit of a certain solution, while the records of the past, as they existed at the time when the Greeks visited the country, were, as may well be supposed, even more shadowy than they became in subsequent ages.
It is so strange that a country so early and so extensively civilised as India was, should have no written chronicles, that the causes that led to this strange omission deserve more attention than has hitherto been bestowed on the subject by the learned in Europe. The fact is the more remarkable, as Egypt on the one hand and China on the other, were among the most careful of all nations in recording dates and chronicling the actions of their earlier kings, and they did this notwithstanding all the difficulties of their hieroglyphic or symbolic writing, while India seems to have possessed an alphabet from an early date, which ought to have rendered her records easy to keep and still more easy to preserve. There seems in fact to be no intelligible cause why the annals of ancient India should not be as complete and satisfactory as those of any other country in a similar state of civilisation, unless it lies in the poetic temperament of its inhabitants, and the strange though picturesque variety of the races who dwell within her boundaries, but whose manifold differences seem at all times to have been fatal to that unity which alone can produce greatness or stability among nations.
All this is the more strange, for, looked at on the map, India appears one of the most homogeneous and perfectly defined countries in the world. On the east, the ocean and impenetrable jungles shut her out from direct contact with the limitrophe nations on that side, while in the north the Himalayas forms a practically impassible barrier against the inhabitants of the Thibetan plains. On the west the ocean and the valley of the Indus equally mark the physical features which isolate the continent of India, and mark her out as a separate self-contained country. Within these boundaries there are no great barriers, no physical features, that divide the land into separate well defined provinces, in which we might expect different races to be segregated under different forms of government. There seems certainly no physical reason why India, like China, should not always have been one country, and governed, at least, at times, by one dynasty. Yet there is no record of any such event in her annals. Aśoka, in the third century B.C., may have united the whole of the north of India under his sway, but nothing of the sort seems again to have occurred till nearly 2,000 years afterwards, when the Moguls tinder Akbar and Aurangzib nearly accomplished what it has been left for us, to carry practically into effect. During the interval, India seems to have been divided into five great divisions, nearly corresponding to our five presidencies, existing as separate kingdoms and ruled by different kings, each supreme over a host of minor kinglets or chiefs, among whom the country was divided. At times, one of the sovereigns, of one of the five Indias, was acknowledged as lord paramount, nominally at least, bat the country never was united as a whole, capable of taking a place among the great monarchies of the earth, and making its influence felt among surrounding nations. It never, indeed, was so organised as to be capable of resisting any of the invaders who from time to time forced the boundary of the Indus, and poured their hordes into her fertile and much-coveted plains. It is, indeed, to this great fact that we owe all that wonderful diversity of peoples we find in India, and, whether for good or for evil, render the population of that country as picturesquely various, as that of China is tamely uniform. It is this very variety, however, that renders it so difficult for even those who have long studied the question, on the spot, to master the problem in all its complexity of detail. It unfortunately, too, becomes, in consequence, almost impossible to convey to those who have not had these advantages, any clear ideas on the subject, which is nevertheless both interesting and instructive, though difficult and complex, and requiring more study than most persons are able or inclined to bestow upon it.