Yes, says popular parlance. But it is wrong. The answer is Yes and No. No, because the entire Hindu literature is replete with legends and history. And, yes, because we failed to create a tribe of hereditary historians to record our life and doings like the Chinese.
It is said that Hindus are not curious about their past. Wrong again. A people who believe in rebirth cannot but be curious about their past. The Mahabharata begins with a request from Janamejaya, the king of Hastinapur, for a recount of the history of his ancestors. Almost all Puranas are about the history of Hindus gods and goddesses and heroes. And there is the history of Emperor Harsha (Harsha Charita by Bana) and the history of Kashmir (Rajatarangini by Kalhana). Good Reader, is there any parallel to the epics Ramayana which is the history of Rama, and Mahabharata, which is there history of the Great War of Kurukshetra?
Didn'tthe Hindus have a sense of historiography? They did. We need no other instance in support of this view than the Rock Edicts of Ashoka. He wrote of his life and thoughts on rocks so that they would endure forever to guide his people. There is no parallel to it in the world.
After all these, can we say that we had no sense of history? We cannot. We can only say that we failed to produce a continuous history of the Hindus as the Jews have done in the Old Testament. But were the Hindus a single nation like the Jews? They were not. In fact, they were broken up into hundreds of petty kingdoms. No historian in these circumstances would have attempted to write a history of the Hindus.
I believe it had more to do with the outlook of the Hindus. To the Hindus, life on earth was an affliction?of sorrow, as the Buddha said. Hence, their main objective, they thought, was to liberate themselves from the cycle of birth and death. Which explains why the State was unimportant to the Hindus unlike the Chinese. What is more, the most educated class of Hindu society?the Brahmins?had no interest in the development of the State. And the Kshatriyas, whose job it was to protect and promote the State, wasted their lives in profligacy.
The Chinese were perhaps the most conscious people of their history. Worship of the State and the ancestors was central to the teachings of Confucius. The Chinese Book of History has records of the activities of the Chinese state from 1000 BC!
The historian was thus amongst the highest functionaries of the Chinese State. It was his job to record natural events (eclipses, floods, famines), royal proclamations and ministerial declarations and to keep the Emperor informed of past events to prevent him from deviating from the ways of the ancestors. The Emperor was held responsible for calamities.
The Chinese had a cyclic notion of history. In this they were like the Hindus. And as the Chinese use rhetoric (not logic) in an argument, knowledge of the past was essential. In the same way, the Chinese believed that virtue was to be achieved by following the example of one'sancestors. All these called for a record of history of the ancestors. What is more, the Golden Age of China lay in the past?in the reign of Yao and Shun.
What about other civilisations? The Greeks and Hindus held almost identical views on history. The Greeks were, like Hindus, indifferent to history. According to Collingwood (historian) Greek thought was ?anti-historical?. And Moses Finley writes that ?at the intellectual level, everything (in Greece) was against the idea of history.?
The Ionians (Greeks) were in close touch with India, being part of the Persian empire. The Greeks believed in a perpetual cycle?of creation and destruction. The Stoic theory of history, has remarkable similarities to the Indian. The change in Greek history began with Herodotus, Father of History.
The Jews were meticulous in recording their history. The Old Testament is without parallel in the influence it wielded on Jews. And the central point of the Old Testament is the promise of Yahweh, their god, to liberate them from bondage in Egypt and to take them to a land of milk and honey (Cannan). But Yahweh failed to keep the promise. So, the Jews made the promise into a universal promise to humanity. Very clever! Thus, they see history in linear terms. The Christians and Muslims came to follow this tradition.
Islam drew on Jewish and Christian sources. Mohammed had profound interest in history. But Muslim historiography was flawed, for their ?real? history began from the birth of Mohammed! As for the writing of history, Muslim historians produced hagiographies of their sultans and badshahs. They are of no use as history.
A word about the cyclic and linear theories of history. Both are absurd theories from the point of view of logic. But the cyclic theory has more sense.
With their limited idea of time, history meant nothing to early Christians. What mattered to them was the need to save souls. The discovery of ?progress? made history meaningful, but it is flawed. However, the idea that God works through history is firmly entrenched in Christian countries. It reminds us of the ?Promise? of Krishna in the Gita that he would be born again and again to save the world from adharma.