Looking beyond the Indus Script: Story of Vedic Harappans
A decade since Jha and Rajaram presented their findings, there have been significant developments that show that the script was one piece of a larger picture that connects Harappan archaeology to the Vedic literature, and also to the natural history of the post Ice Age. Navaratna Rajaram finds out more…
In the year 2000 the late Natwar Jha and this writer published a book called The Deciphered Indus Script: methodology, readings, interpretations that offered a solution to a vexing problem of ancient India— the identity and culture of the people who created the vast and advanced archaeological remains of the Harappan or the Indus Valley civilization. At that time it was held by some scholars, but by no means universally, that Harappan archaeology was the creation of a people who were the original inhabitants of India who were defeated and driven south by an invading race of people called the Aryas (or Aryans). For political reasons colonial officials and missionaries identified these supposed ‘original’ inhabitants of India with the ‘Dravidian’ people of South India.
This is the famous, now infamous Aryan invasion theory (AIT) invented by Western scholars of the colonial era. Since they controlled the writing of textbooks, this version of the Aryan invasion and the Aryan-Dravidian conflicts became the official version of history taught to children— a situation that continued after independence. While science— first archaeology and then genetics has discredited the theory, it has acquired powerful political and academic interests that have allowed this version to continue in textbooks and universities, in both India and the West.
A curious thing is that any argument or evidence against the AIT was not countered or refuted but simply dismissed and the people opposing it denounced as ignoramuses, chauvinists and worse. The distinguished American historian of science Abraham Seidenberg ridiculed them observing that “their ‘refutations’ were little more than haughty dismissals.”
This is a strange attitude for scholars to adopt. To fathom this bizarre behavior we need to recognize that the AIT or its latest incarnation called the AMT (for the Aryan Migration Theory, for there is no evidence for any invasion) has several faces that cater to the socio-political needs of several different groups. First and simplest, it is used to justify the political ideology of Dravidian parties of Tamil Nadu that hold that Tamil culture was ‘pure’ until it was defiled with Sanskrit by invading Aryans, especially by the Brahmins. This divisive myth was created by Robert Caldwell, Bishop of Tirunelveli as part of the missionary strategy of ‘divide and convert’. This was picked up by Dravidian party politicians like Karunanidhi to claim they were victims of Aryan, particularly Brahmin oppression. In this the politicians had and continue to have the strong support of Christian missionaries.
Then there are also entrenched Indologists in Western academia whose survival is tied to this model of history. As per the AIT (now AMT), Vedas and the Sanskrit language were not created by the Indians themselves but brought by an invading superior race of Aryans, now called Indo-Europeans (to avoid the taint of Nazi horrors.) Until recently, and even now to a significant extent, these invaders are portrayed as fair skinned people related to Europeans. While these academics may be prepared to give up the idea of racial superiority—or at least claim to—they are not prepared give up the idea of being the descendants of a superior people who brought the Vedic Civilization to India. There whole discipline is built on it; it is just not their identity but also their livelihood that is threatened by the collapse of AIT-AMT version of history.
In India, these Western interests don’t have a direct bearing except for the status of Indian scholars that goes with being associated with Western scholars. In addition, being in their good books by toeing their line can yield perks like fellowships, visiting positions and the like at Western institutions. Until recently this Indian elite prided on being seen as sharing a common ancestry with the British rulers, namely the Aryans or Indo-Europeans. This made them feel superior to fellow natives. (The British nurtured this superstitious vanity to gain Indian collaborators.)
In addition, the Indian history establishment after independence has been dominated by Marxists like Romila Thapar and her associates. Marx also said India has no history except the record of invaders. Further, the Marxists used the AIT to interpret the fictional Aryan-Dravidian conflicts as a class struggle. According to these, even the caste system represents a transformation of classes. On the other hand, the British attributed the caste system to racial differences, supposedly based on something called the ‘nasal index’. Its message— longer the nose, higher the caste!
Even from this cursory discussion it should be obvious that this brand of ‘scholars’ are complete ignoramuses when it comes to science. So they were and are in no position to understand let alone dispute the findings of ancient astronomy, metallurgy and other sciences that contradict their theories. As far back as 1893, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Hermann Jacobi used astronomical references in the Vedic literature to show that the Rig Veda must have existed long before 3000 BC. About 20 years ago, this writer used metallurgical data to show that the Rig Veda could not be later than 3500 BC. But these scholars could not comprehend it so they ignored it.
Even more amazingly, many of these scholars, most prominently Thapar are completely ignorant of Sanskrit and cannot read the Vedic literature! They depend entirely on colonial era English translations. They project themselves, and are also acknowledged by the media as authorities on Vedic India. This is like a mathematical illiterate claiming to be an expert in modern physics. How could it be possible? The answer is political influence. These ‘secularist’ historians have cultivated political connections with the Congress party and its politicians going back to Jawaharlal Nehru whose prejudices they are careful to project in their works. (The Thapar family has close ties with the Nehru family, and Romila Thapar was a personal friend of Indira Gandhi.)
The Congress and its’ secular’ affiliates have long patronized Marxist historians like Romila Thapar, R.S. Sharma, Irfan Habib and others. The ruling Congress today for all practical purposes has no Indian nationalistic roots. It is now a conglomerate of Marxists and worshippers of the West; this includes Marxism, which is the most extreme of Eurocentric ideologies. (During the Freedom Movement, the Communists acted as ‘spies and stooges’ of the British for which they were generously paid.)
Hostility to anything Indian, especially Hindu is hardwired into them. A real but unstated goal of making Vedas and Sanskrit foreign imports is to be able to claim that like Islam and Christianity, Hinduism is also of non-Indian origin and therefore has no special place in Indian history and culture. In this campaign it is not surprising to see Christian missionaries to be strong supporters of this version of ‘history’. Some Christian ‘scholars’ have gone to the extent of claiming that Sanskrit came to India only after St Thomas brought Christianity to India!
Sarasvati unifies Vedic and Harappan
The situation in 2000 when the book The Deciphered Indus Script appeared can be summarized as follows. Cracks were appearing in the AIT version of history, mainly on the basis of the Sarasvati river evidence. The problem is that the Rig Veda extols the Sarasvati as the greatest river, not once or twice but many times. Scientific studies based on satellite photography and archaeology showed that the Sarasvati had dried up completely by 2000 BC. So the Aryan invaders arriving in India in 1500 BC could not have described and worshipped the Sarasvati as the greatest river when it had dried up 500 years earlier.
To counter this, Thapar’s follower Rajesh Kocchar wrote that the Sarasvati described in the Rig Veda was a river in Afghanistan which the Aryans had encountered on their way to India. But there are no great rivers in Afghanistan. Also the Rig Veda describes the Sarasvati as flowing from “the mountain to the sea,” which is impossible in landlocked Afghanistan. (For more details on the Sarasvati and related matters, see http://www.archaeologyonline.net/artifacts/scientific-verif-vedas.html.)
All this went to demolishing the AIT version of history— showing there was no invasion of Aryans or anyone else in the late ancient age. But it left open the identity of the Harappan civilization. Archaeologists, however, began to notice that a large number of so-called Indus sites (or Harappan sites) lay not along the Indus but along the now dry Sarasvati. This showed that the same river—the Sarasvati—which is called the greatest in the Rig Veda was also the lifeblood of the Harappan civilization. The Harappan civilization collapsed when the Sarasvati dried up. (See map of the Sarasvati River.)
This (and other) evidence showed that the Vedic and the Harappan civilizations were intimately related, the question really was the temporal relationship between the two. Then K.D. Sethna of Pondicherry and this writer working independently and following completely different approaches showed that the Harappan civilization, which may be dated to the 3000 – 2000 BC (to a first approximation) belonged to what is known as the Sutra period of the Vedic literature.
The Vedic literature can conveniently be divided into Samhitas (Vedic hymns like the Rig Veda), Brahmanas (prose commentaries) and Sutras (codified texts like the Patanjali Yoga Sutra). (This is an oversimplification but will do here.) Since any codification can come only towards the end, it showed that the Rig Veda was much older than the Sutra literature period, which was shown to be contemporary with the Harappan archaeology.
Perhaps more importantly, it showed that the language of the Harappans could not be too far removed from the archaic (Vedic) Sanskrit of the Sutra literature. This created the background necessary to decipher the writings found on the famous Indus seals. The same idea had come to the great Vedic scholar and polymath Natwar Jha with whom this writer was soon to collaborate.
Indus seals and writing
The Harappans were a literate people. They have left behind samples of writing, mostly short messages on terra cotta seals and other artifacts. These are the famous Indus (or Harappan) seals. Ever since they were first discovered, reading the script and the identification of the language have been major goals of historians. With the benefit of hindsight, one can see that the Aryan invasion theory, which had by then had hardened into a dogma, was a major obstacle to understanding the Harappan language and hence reading the writing. The AIT held that the Harappan language could not be Sanskrit but an early form of Dravidian— like Tamil. But the oldest Tamil known is only about 2000 years old, while the Harappan writing is 4000 years old. So attempts to read them as Tamil were doomed to failure though some scholars like Asko Parpola who claimed to do so were generously rewarded by Dravidian politicians.
But the identification of the Harappans as belonging to the late Vedic (Sutra) period by Sethna and the author solved the first half of the problem: the language had to be archaic Sanskrit of the Sutra period. Natwar Jha had also made significant advance in reading the script assuming the language to be Vedic Sanskrit, but our work (with Sethna) justified his assumption and gave also the historical background. It was then that this writer and Jha decided to collaborate. After two years, we published the book The Deciphered Indus Script. (See the accompanying book review.)
It is obviously too technical to go into the details of the decipherment, but it can be said that it identifies the Harappans firmly as part of the Vedic civilization, coming towards the end of it. The Harappans represent the twilight of the Vedic Age. This means the Harappans are no longer the puzzle they were supposed to be, though this puzzle was largely the making of the scholars’ dogmatic attachment to the non-existent Aryan invasion and the artificial, politically motivated Aryan-Dravidian divide. In summary, Harappan archaeology represents the material remains of the culture and civilization described in the Vedic literature.
The Harappans therefore were Vedic Harappans; both were native to India as DNA studies show. Biologically as well as culturally they were the product of a long evolutionary process. What the Indus seals and their study, of which the decipherment is a part, tell us is that the civilization of India is a continuum from Vedic times to the present, and the Harappans were an integral part of it. There were outside influences of course, but they were secondary. The same is true of the Indus (Harappan) script. It is the oldest writing known from which later Indian scripts like Brahmi, Devanagari and others evolved.
‘Harappan horse’ hysteria
Where the Sarasvati River and other data discredited the AIT, what Deciphered Indus Script did was to utterly demolish the existing version of history and replace it with one that integrated the Vedic literature with Harappan archaeology. Considering the stakes that academic Indologists in India and the West had in the status quo, some criticism and even hostility was to be expected. But the authors were not prepared for the ferocity of the personal attacks and diversionary tactics involving issues that had nothing to do with the book or the decipherment.
The lead in this was taken by Romila Thapar in India and Harvard linguist Michael Witzel in the U.S. Where Thapar objected to our identification of Harappans as Vedic people, without refuting our arguments but questioning our ‘Hindutva’ motives, Witzel and his partner—an academic nonentity called Steve Farmer—charged us with fabricating the image of a horse on one of the seals. This was shown to be false for we produced another seal from their own work containing a horse image. It was purely a diversionary tactic: our book was about the Harappan civilization and script and not Harappan zoology. (The oft repeated claim of ‘No horse at Harappa’ is totally false. Horse remains have been found at all levels at several Harappan sites.)
The curious thing is that this ‘critique’ of our work appeared not in any scholarly journal but the pro-Communist magazine Frontline. Leaving aside the unsoundness of their argument, their tactic of making personal attack to divert attention from the substance of the topic bespoke a new low in academic conduct. It is a measure of insecurity felt by the likes of Michael Witzel, a feeling justified by recent developments at Harvard where his department has been closed down. (And at other universities also.)
It may be noted that similar tactics of raising irrelevant issues and personal attacks were used by the very same people—Witzel and his colleagues—to expel Dr Subramanian Swamy by having his economics courses cancelled. Where the ‘Harappan horse’ was the bogey in their campaign against us, Swamy’s supposedly anti-Muslim article served as the pretext in the campaign against him. So this writer was not surprised to see such ‘bodyline’ tactics employed against Swamy, having himself been their target some ten years previously.
To return to the Vedic –Harappan unification and its ramifications, Jha and this writer were working on a follow up volume to our book when the storm broke. We felt that it was best to hold back publication until the noise died down, as any new work would not get a reasonable hearing in the hysterically anti-intellectual climate that had been whipped up by our adversaries. Tragically, Jha died in 2006 aged only 58. At about the same time, following his campaign against California school curriculum and his misadventure in drumming up Pakistani support, Witzel had been exposed as more a political propagandist than scholar. He and his colleagues now have little credibility left. As a result of all this, this writer is working to complete the book that he and Jha had been working on.
With the benefit of hindsight it can be said that Jha’s breakthrough goes far beyond the language and script of the Harappan seals. He showed also deep connections between the Harappan civilization and the Vedic literature and even the Mahabharata. One of Jha’s major discoveries was that a passage in the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata serves as a link between the symbolism of Harappan iconography and an important class of Vedic texts known as Nirukta. The full implications of this are still not clear, but will be discussed in the book currently in progress.