Battle over Indian History

Vishnu Sculpture

Vishnu Sculpture on the wall of Kandariya Mahadev Temple, at Khajuraho, India

by N.S. Rajaram

The current battle over history, exemplified by the ICHR controversy, should not be viewed in strictly political terms. It represents also a paradigm shift in the study of history from pre-conceived theories to empirical methods. By N.S. Rajaram

The last article looked at the evolution of Indology from its origins in the late eighteenth century to post-colonial India where it has become a battleground between historians with different approaches and values. This article examines the current state of the debate and the direction which history and historiography of ancient India have taken. An important point to note is that in the ongoing debate, political arguments are obscuring the conflict between two methodologies — the theoretical and the empirical.

From eschatology to empirical science

Although the Marxists dominated the Indian history establishment, they were not without challengers. It would be a mistake however, to regard this challenge as a nationalist reaction as Marxists have tended to do. Directly or indirectly, the challenge has come from a wide range of scholars. These have included nationalists like Shriram Sathe; historians like K.D. Sethna, Bhagwan Singh and Michel Danino; Western Vedic scholars and students of mysticism like David Frawley and Georg Feuerstein; archaeologists like S.R. Rao, M. Kenoyer and V.S. Wakankar; modern linguists like S.S. Mishra and S. Talageri; and even mathematicians and historians of science like A. Seidenberg and this writer.

This challenge is by no means confined to the post-independence period. Based on their deep study of ancient works, Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo rejected the whole version of Indian history based on the Aryan invasion. Such nineteenth century European scholars as Jacobi, Thibaut and Hildebrandt had also rejected any Aryan invasion. Jacobi had also noted that astronomical references in the Rigveda pointed to dates as early as 4500 BC, which rule out Max Müller’s 1200 BC date for its composition. (Later in his career, Max Müller himself all but repudiated his dates, but that is a different story.) Thus it is a great contraction of their scope to label these dissenting views as a nationalistic reaction. In fact, one of the main causes of this reaction, especially in recent decades, is the failure of establishment scholars to raise fundamental questions. Their failure to examine the reasons behind the European interest in ancient India is just one of them. (More of this later.)

Under normal circumstances, this kind of reaction and criticism would have been part of the give and take of academic debate, but the peculiar circumstances prevailing in colonial- and post-colonial India precluded such free debate. First, the colonial-missionary scholars, and then their Marxist successors enjoyed near monopoly. It is only in the last five years or so that both sides are being heard.

If there is one thing common among these dissenting scholars of diverse backgrounds, it is their empirical approach to problems. Even Shriram Sathe, who alone among the challengers mentioned earlier may be called ‘nationalist’, was guided by his study of the primary sources — particularly those pertaining to Max Müller and his role in the propagation of the Aryan invasion theory in the context of the German Nationalist Movement. Specifically, he wanted to know the need for German nationalists to travel so far in space and time as ancient India for their inspiration. What Sathe found was that the Christians of Europe were anxious to give themselves an identity that would free them from the Judaic heritage of Christianity. From this he rightly concluded that the Aryan invasion theory is a product of European politics, not Indian history. By and large, the impact of the idea of the ‘Aryan’ race and the ‘Aryan’ nation — at least in their modern sense — have been greater on Europe than India.

All this does not concern us here; they are discussed briefly in the next article. The point is it was a question that the establishment Indian historians should have asked, but did not. Instead, they unquestioningly accepted the theories of politically motivated scholars like Max Müller as valid, and based their own theories on them. In blindly accepting Western impositions, established Indian scholars ignored a vast body of primary evidence. As previously noted, it was left to outsiders to make an independent study on empirical grounds.

In this empirical reaction, the pioneer in many ways was K.D. Sethna. In a brilliant piece of research that traced the path of cotton trade in the ancient world, Sethna concluded that the Harappan period, the Sumerian-Akkadian Empire of Mesopotamia and the Sutra period of the Vedic Age must have overlapped. This at once reverses the chronological relationship between the Rigveda and the Harappan Civilization, placing the former before the latter. This demolished the Aryan invasion as the cause of the collapse of the Harappan Civilization, taking with it the date of 1200 BC for the Rigveda.

Independently of Sethna, I had arrived at a similar conclusion. My conclusion was based on a combined study of the mathematics of ancient Indian texts known as the Sulbasutras and the architecture of Harappan cities. The mathematical precision displayed in the carefully laid out cities and structures of the Harappan Civilization had convinced me that its architects and builders must have had access to fairly advanced mathematics — of the kind found in the Sulbasutras. The work of an American mathematician, the late A. Seidenberg leads to a similar conclusion. After a careful study of the Sulbasutras and the mathematics of Egypt (c. 2100 BC) and Old-Babylonia (c. 1900 BC), he concluded that the Egyptians and the Babylonians must have derived their mathematics from ancient Indian mathematics — or the Sulbasutras. This means that the Sulbasutras — or Indian mathematical texts from the late Vedic period — must already have been ancient by 2000 BC.

The Sulbasutras are of course part of the Sutra literature, which Sethna had told us was contemporary with the Harappan Civilization. (I was not aware of Sethna’s work at the time when I reached the same conclusion based on ancient mathematics and archaeology, though his work was by then a decade old.) This means that Vedic India of the Sutra period, the Harappan Civilization, and Sumer-Akkad were contemporary, or at least had significant overlap. This receives further support in the form of mathematical expressions from the Sulbasutras discovered on the Harappan seals following Jha’s decipherment.

In our book Vedic Aryans and the Origins of Civilization, David Frawley and I formalized this relationship in what we called the ‘Sutra-Harappa-Sumeria equation’. This is no doubt an oversimplification, but our objective was to encapsulate a vast amount of historical data in an easy to grasp form.

This is not the whole story, for there is dramatic evidence relating to a Vedic river known as the Sarasvati. The people of India now regard the Ganga (Ganges) as the sacred river, but did not do so in ancient times. To the Vedic people the sacred river par excellence was the Sarasvati, a great river running in a course more or less parallel to the Indus but well to the east. This was long regarded as a mythical river. Beginning in the 1970s, satellite data showed that such a river once did flow as described in the Rigveda. Following this discovery, in a great exploration of several thousand miles, the late V.S. Wakankar traced the course of this ancient river. We now know that this great river had dried up completely by 1900 BC, if not earlier. This means the people who composed the Vedas must have been well established in India by then, long before 1500 BC — the date assigned for the Aryan invasion.

All this is of course technical evidence that bears on the Vedic Civilization. But David Frawley took a direct look at the Vedic literature itself to see what the Vedic Aryans had to say about themselves. The main contention of nineteenth century scholarship was that the Rigveda was the record of nomadic invaders from the Eurasian steppes who were ignorant of the ocean. This is central to the Aryan invasion theory as well as the interpretation of the Vedic literature followed down to the present day by Indologists. What Frawley found was totally different. First, he found no record of any invasion. More significantly, he found that the Rigveda, far from being ignorant of the ocean, describes a maritime society. Images of the ocean, ships and navigation dominate Vedic poetry. To highlight this, I will quote only a few lines from the Rigveda including the famous creation hymn. (Translations by David Frawley.)

In the beginning, there was darkness hidden in darkness,
all this universe was an unillumined sea. Rigveda X.129.3

The Gods stood together in the sea. Then as dancers
they generated a swirl of dust.
When, like ascetics, the Gods overflowed the world,
then from hidden in the ocean they brought forth the Sun. Rigveda X.72.6-7

The creative Sun upheld the Earth with lines of force.
He strengthened the Heaven where there was no support.
As a powerful horse he drew out the atmosphere.
He bound fast the ocean in the boundless realm.
Thence came the world and the upper region,
thence Heaven and Earth were extended. Rigveda X.149. 1-2

Law and truth from the power of meditation were enkindled.
Thence the night was born and then the flooding ocean.
From the flooding ocean the year was born. The Lord of
all that moves ordained the days and nights.
The Creator formed the Sun and Moon according to previous worlds; Heaven and Earth, the atmosphere and the realm of light. Rigveda X.190

All these passages are pervaded by the image of the ocean. And there are literally hundreds of them. As Frawley has pointed out, a society totally ignorant of the sea does not visualize the process of creation itself in terms of the ocean. Can anyone believe this to be the poetry of a nomadic people who had never seen the ocean? What trust are we to place in a scholarship that missed all this for over a century while insisting that its creators were nomadic invaders ignorant of the sea? What are their 'interpretations' worth?

The misinterpretation of Western scholars was not limited to this monumental oversight. They went on to claim that the horse was all-important to the Vedic people. This of course accorded with their idea of the Aryans as steppe nomads. The horse is important, but these scholars exaggerated its importance in Rigveda out of all proportion, while totally ignoring its maritime nature.

After this study, Frawley was moved to write:

For all the emphasis on an Aryan invasion of India which remains the common view in historical books today, no solid evidence can be shown for it, and the so-called literary evidence, the misinterpretation of the Vedas as the records of a nomadic people is the least credible. (Original emphasis.)

What are we to make of it? The most charitable explanation is that the Vedic scholarship of nineteenth century pioneers like Max Müller was not equal to their reputation. This had long been recognized by real scholars of the Vedas — from Swami Dayananda Saraswati to Sri Aurobindo. In fact, Swami Dayanada is on record as having said of Max Müller’s Vedic studies: "He is like a toddler learning to walk." In all probability, it was his fear of exposure by the likes of the Swami that made Max Müller avoid visiting India. (Most people probably don’t know that despite his life-long study of India, he never visited the country.)

This was roughly the situation when N. Jha announced his decipherment of the Indus script in October 1996: the model of Indian history based on the Aryan invasion stood shattered by science and objective research, but vested interests, notably the Marxist (Indian) historians and academic Indologists (Western) still held on to the model. At the same time there was a serious debate over the validity of the model, with archaeologists — both Indian and Western — insisting that they found no support for any invasion in ancient times. At the same, being ignorant of Sanskrit, most archaeologists did not realize that many of the difficulties in interpreting archaeological data vanish they are identified with the Vedic Civilization. A step towards this was taken by Jha and this writer who pointed out that Jha’s decipherment and the resulting readings provide clearly defined historical context for the Harappans by linking their archaeology to the Vedic literature.

What made this possible was Jha’s Vedic scholarship along with his mastery of paleography. He showed that the language of the Harappan seals is Vedic Sanskrit, and their written messages have close connections with the Vedic literature. This, as just observed, solved a fundamental problem by providing a historical context for the Harappans. Jha’s breakthrough was the result of applying an empirical methodology to the primary sources, backed by great scholarship. His decipherment is very much a part of this approach — one that combines modern science and ancient records. The same is true of the work of Seidenberg, Sethna, Frawley and this writer. None of these should be looked at in isolation.

At the same time, since most academic Indologists lack knowledge of primary languages like Vedic Sanskrit, they have been slow to comprehend — much less appreciate — modern advances like Jha’s decipherment. Seen in this light, the battle between this new school — sometimes (incorrectly) called the Indo-American school — and the traditional Indologists and their Marxist successors is no less methodological than ideological. It was by no means limited to a nationalistic reaction brought on by Hindu revivalists as the Marxists claim.

It is also worth noting that most of us grew up believing the Aryan invasion to be a proven fact, and its founders to be objective scholars of outstanding ability. It was only when an examination of primary data threw up contradictions that several of us began to question both the theory and the methodology. The real battle today is between theorists who tried to fit data to existing models as prescribed by their beliefs, and empiricists trying to interpret data in the best manner possible. Raising the specter of nationalism and revivalism is a diversionary tactic meant to avoid a debate that they have lost even before it began. As Seidenberg once observed, their ‘refutations’ are only ‘haughty denials’.

Last resort: negationism

With the rapid accumulation of technical evidence against the invasionist version of ancient Indian history, the position of the Marxists scholars in India has begun to crumble. It is also beginning to be recognized that many of these scholars, who rose to positions of eminence through political patronage, were unsound in their approach. Their ignorance of science and of original languages (like Sanskrit in which primary works are written) is also getting exposed. For example, the most articulate voice on ancient Indian history at a leading leftist university is completely ignorant of Sanskrit. Her prestigious position at a newly established university was largely because of her closeness to India’s most influential political family.

As the climate began to get more open, especially in the 1990s, these scholars increasingly found themselves on the defensive. Lacking the strength of scholarship to engage in free debate, they had depended heavily on their support in the government. Declining fortunes of the leftist political parties is reflected in the declining influence of these scholars also. Used to patronage, these men and women are showing themselves to be ill equipped to fight their academic battles in the open. To make matters worse, because of their previous exalted claims and positions, many of them are finding themselves the target of hostile criticism.

At the same time, it is important to note that it is their weakness of scholarship rather than the changed political climate that has now come back to haunt them. Other Marxist scholars who were sound in their scholarship and approach — like Bhagwan Singh — are being vindicated by new discoveries.

In any event, by 1995 or so, these Marxist successors to the colonial-missionary school increasingly found themselves on the losing side of debates. Their theories were being discredited, and their competence brought into question. It was also being exposed that they had used their position and influence to suppress important research works that went against their positions. The best known example is the suppression of a sixty-page article on the archaeology of Ayodhya by the distinguished archaeologist B.B. Lal. This was recently exposed in a long article published in the leading Indian daily The Hindu.

In the face of mounting evidence that discredited their theories, and even clouded their reputations, these scholars are increasingly resorting to negationist arguments. In the manner of religious fundamentalists, they simply deny the existence of any evidence that contradicts their positions. Not knowing any science they were untroubled by the mathematical contradictions inherent in placing the Sutra literature — the Sulbasutras in particular — in 500 BC, more than two thousand years after their applications found in Harappan archaeology. If the intricacies of Seidenberg’s (and Rajaram’s) mathematical arguments relating Vedic mathematics to Babylonian and Egyptian mathematics were beyond them, it is understandable. A few of them continued to maintain that Indians learnt geometry from the Greeks after Alexander. It was the same story with alphabetical writing. With their habitual disregard for technical data and arguments, they failed to grasp the close connections between the Indus script and the Brahmi. Even the discovery of Brahmi writing in Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, dating to before 600 BC, failed to shake them from their entrenched positions. The height of absurdity was reached probably in dealing with the Sarasvati river data. At first, Romila Thapar tried to make the Sarasvati dry up in 1000 BC, nearly a thousand years later than the scientifically determined date. She then went on claim that Sanskrit and the Vedas were derived from the Avestan scripture, and somehow the ‘h’ of Avestan became transformed into ‘s’ in Sanskrit. Leaving aside the fallacy of the argument, it was a remarkably bold exercise by someone ignorant of both Sanskrit and Avestan! All these convoluted exercises have become necessary because the Sarasvati River presents an insurmountable problem. One distinguished member of this school (Irfan Habib) offered an ingenious ’refutation’: the Sarasvati never existed! The next stage of course is to deny the existence of the Harappan Civilization, followed by the denial of the existence of the Rigveda.

This is essentially the situation today, at least within what may be called the Indian (Leftist) history ‘establishment’.

It is clear from this tortured course of Indology over the past two hundred years, and its present moribund state — in which assertions take the place of facts, and negation serves as refutation — that an alternative approach to Indian historiography needs to be developed. This is what empirical researchers have been trying to do for nearly fifty years, culminating in Jha’s decipherment of the Indus script. Thanks to the decipherment the long silent Harappans speak to us again, and speak to us in a language and idiom we can understand — Vedic Sanskrit. What they have left behind, studied along with the ancient texts can guide us along the path of an objective approach to the study of ancient India. But this is a topic reserved for the next volume.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Source: © Mr.Rajaram.Reproduced with author's permission from Kalidas Vedic India

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