A debate on Indus Civilisation and Vedic society by MICHAEL WITZEL


The Open Page write-up by N.S. Rajaram (Historical divide: archaeology and literature, January 22) is a serious misrepresentation of the results of various fields of scholarship. Certainly, the writing of ancient Indian history “must begin with a thorough study of the primary sources. The first step is to close the unnatural gap between archaeology and literature.” However, such study, which is not altogether new, has to begin without prejudices of any kind, such as Rajaram’s wrong presuppositions. There is little overlap between the archaeology of the Indus Civilisation (its script cannot be read yet) and early Vedic texts. For a good reason. The oldest Vedic text, the Rigveda, is full of quick, spoked-wheel horse-drawn chariots (invented around 2000 BCE), and obviously, of domesticated horses (first clearly identified in the Kachi Plains of the Indus, at 1700 BCE), but it does not yet know of iron (introduced in the northwest around 1200/1000 BCE).
Annoying details Clearly, the Rigveda must fall between these dates. However the Indus (Harappan) Civilisation is dated by all archaeologists between 2600 (not 3100!) and 1900 BCE.
No wonder there is geographical but not a temporal overlap between the two. Further, in spite of recent rewriters of history, whatever the pastoral Rigveda describes does not fit the fully developed cities of the Harappan Civilisation: these are two different worlds. How to explain this `gap’ is another matter, with which scholars still struggle. Whether the decline of the Indus Civilisation was due to drought or a number of separate, coinciding, and self-reinforcing reasons is still undecided. Rajaram, however, simply overlooks such annoying details by adducing various isolated features in mono-lateral fashion, features which do not add up and are in fact to be contradicted by the various sciences that he evokes against mere students of the humanities (such as me). For the details, such as on geometry,  astronomy, archaeology, Puranic king lists, language, etc., see EJVS 7-3 (in Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies, http://users.primushost.com/ india/ejvs/). That the Harappans lost their script and language and took over an Indo-Aryan
language (now developed into Punjabi, Sindhi, etc.) has parallels in other areas. Witness the descendants of the great Maya Civilisation who mostly speak Spanish now and have long lost their script. Their civilisation was disintegrating on its own when the Spanish arrived, who did not have to resort to the same brutal methods they used in Mexico and Peru. Civilisations do die when under strains of various sorts.
Why then such a “simple” solution, a “systematic programme to rationally connect Harappan archaeology and the Vedic literature”? No Aryans were needed for the demise. The earliest Aryan-like culture in the subcontinent may be the Gandhara Grave Culture of N. Pakistan (starting around 1700 BCE), well within the time frame mentioned above. The “Aryans”, perhaps Pathan-like seasonal pastoral migrants from Afghanistan, merely exploited a new opportunity in the then less agricultural Indus Valley, and set off a wave of acculturation based on their more effective pastoralism. No Hun-like “invasion” (the model of the 19th century scholars) is
needed, though one has to take into account a whole range of processes, from peaceful acculturation to forceful take-over, in the various parts of the Northwest. As history teaches, one size does not fit them all. Unilateral points The several unilateral points and the new theories built on them by Rajaram are quickly destroyed by the various sciences, such as his pre-Indus Rigveda with chariots and horses in the subcontinent before their time. Any linguist will tell him
that the Indo-Aryan languages (from Punjabi to Sinhala and Bengali), Dravidian (Tamil, Telugu, etc.), Munda (Santali, etc.) belong to three completely different families that share only loan-words from Sanskrit or Prakrit, just like all European languages have theirs from Latin. Still, no Kannada or Santali speaker will understand a Punjabi, just as little as a Portuguese can make out anything from Finnish or Basque. But then, linguistics is a `petty conjectural science’ as he likes to say.
All his “proofs” (the ubiquitous swastika, the `literate’ Harappans, seafaring Rigvedic people, the age of the Sulbasutras, Vedic literature as larger than “all other…ancient literature…combined…”, etc.) disappear once one takes a closer look (details in EJVS vol. 7-3, 2001, as above). Again, the Harappans must not “have had access to the Sulbasutras” — the Egyptians built their giant pyramids or a completely new, well planned town such as Amarna, without their help, having learned from trial and error. To what extent Rajaram must go to make the overlap between Vedic and Harappan, is exposed in Frontline, Oct. 13 and Nov. 11, 2000:
The historical background is wrong as well. Indology is not an “attempt to interpret Indian sources from [a] European perspective” , instead, it is an attempt to let the sources speak for themselves, irrespective of later Indian or European interpretations. In other words, just like Sinology, Egyptology, etc., it is a work in progress. Even poor old Max Mueller is misrepresented again. His history is not derived from the Bible. Anybody who actually reads his letters (not just excerpts) will see that he was, as a young man, an opportunist who wrote one “Christian” letter to his pious donor and a completely “non-Christian” letter upon the death of young sister… to his own mother. To put Indology down to “Eurocolonial attitudes” is much too facile, in fact, pure propaganda. Non-Western scholars (say, of Japan) do not agree with Rajaram’s “new history” either — see: “Was there an Aryan invasion at all” (in Japanese language): Kokusai Nihon Bunka Kenkyu Senta Kiyo. (Nihon Kenkyu) 23, March 2000.
An article by 
MICHAEL WITZEL
Department of Sanskrit, Harvard University.
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