Romila Thapar and the Study of Ancient India 2: History as propaganda
Column by Dilip K Chakrabarti
(Edited with comments by N.S. Rajaram, Contributing Editor. This continues Professor Dilip Chakrabarti’s analysis of the motives and methodology of Romila Thapar and her colleagues.)
Diluting the record of Islam
A significant part of Thapar’s essay (pp 7-10) tries to gloss over the harshness of the Islamic conquest of India. Such attempts are pointless. As is well-known, Islam has not always been kind to ‘infidels’, and there is absolutely no reason to suggest otherwise, as Thapar does. The modern relation between Islam and the infidels in modern India must not be judged by what happened during the Islamic conquest of the land. If she considers that some historians have judged the methods and impact of the Islamic conquest of India harshly without any solid historical reason, she is welcome to write about it in detail, but to be honest, any apology for the conquest is unnecessary.
Her pontification of the civilizations being products of the intermingling of cultures is unnecessary. What she willfully ignores is the silliness of attempts to explain the basic style and form of a civilization, old or new, in terms of diffusions from elsewhere. In the case of India this unfortunately has been the unchallenged assumption almost since the beginning of ancient Indian studies, and this is precisely what has been challenged in the 1970s and later. May we remind Thapar that a Ph.D thesis on the Indus trade done under her supervision in the late 1960s or early 1970s argued that the role of the Indus civilization was that of a supplier of raw materials to the contemporary Mesoptamia. [Sic: This was probably by Shireen Ratnagar, who was ‘professor of archaeology’ at JNU though she had done no archaeology. NSR]
In a review of the published form of this dissertation in Puratatva, I pointed out this ‘researched’ similarity between the positions held by the Indus civilization and the colonial India in relation to Mesopotamia and Britain respectively. There is a steady continuity between the historical approaches of scholars like Rapson, Sankalia and other scholars of ancient India in modern India, including Thapar and her kind. Nation hardly blips in the intellectual radar of these historians.
Mixing archaeology and language
Thapar should realize that languages are always in a state of flux, being subject not merely to cultural intermingling but also to the various nuances of class and cultural background subject in their turn to socio-economic factors of various kinds. But to be used satisfactorily for historical analysis, we have to realize that language studies do not have any chronological parameter of their own and thus whatever one may say about the correlation of language and a particular archaeological stratum devoid of writing is subjective, and not bound by any independent verification. Language is something which the archaeologists of non-literate contexts may do well without.
In fact, trying to combine language with non-literate archaeological groups has been a breeding ground of various ethnic and eventually racist hypotheses in archaeology. Modern First World archaeologists are not unduly bothered by this but that is no reason why Third World archaeologists should not set them aside. [Sic: Very perceptive observation. A point to be noted is that Thapar has no knowledge of archaeology or languages. Although she writes glibly about Avestan, Old Indo Aryan and so forth, she is a complete illiterate when it comes to Sanskrit. And I use the word ‘illiterate’ in the literal sense of the word. NSR]
I am glad that Thapar has eventually admitted that “so far we have no archaeological evidence to prove an invasion by an Aryan race”. I write ‘eventually’ because it is easy to demonstrate with reference to many early writings of Thapar that she was very much a believer in the coming of the Aryans as a group of people bringing in horses. However, in the same breath she writes that the “picture is complicated, because we also do not have the evidence that the language – Old Indo-Aryan/Vedic Sanskrit – was spoken in India prior to 1500 BC.
Since this is later than the Harappan cities, the Harappans were not Aryan-speaking. Nor do we know the language spoken by the Harappans. However languages related to Indo-Aryan were used in two areas. One was Old Iranian – the language of the Zorastrians and their text called Avesta – used in northeast Iran and the other was the language of the Hittites in northern Syria”. [Sic: I want to reiterate Thapar’s linguistic illiteracy. What is the basis for her assumption—it is no more—that “the Harappans were not Aryan-speaking.” What is meant by ‘Aryan speaking’, when there was no such thing as Aryan language let alone race? NSR]
Apart from the opinion that the language of the Harappans is still unknown, everything mentioned in the above-mentioned propositions is liable to questionings. If one takes up the question of ‘the language of the Zorastrians and their text called Avesta ‘ first, one learns that Zorastrianism as a religion was identified in Western scholarship early in the nineteenth century after the details of the religion of the Parsis of Mumbai came to be known. The existence of the religious text Avesta was known earlier.
There is no doubt a strong element of similarity between the Rigvedic and the Avestan languages, as various historians of the Sanskrit language argue, but whether this implies a similar chronological point cannot be said. The geography of the Avestan literature supposedly extends from Seistan to Merv but is also said to be focused in the central Afghanistan highlands. In a sense, this geographical orbit was not unfamiliar to the Indus civilization, and the persistence of an Indian language tradition was not impossible in this orbit, whatever might have been the basic language of this civilization. The point is that the similarity in the language between the Avesta and the Rigveda cannot be translated in terms of a date for the Rigveda.
The second issue of ‘the language of the Hittites in north Syria’ is equally problematic and has been expressed clearly by P. Thieme in his article “the ‘Aryan’ gods of the Mitanni treaties” in 1960 in Journal of the American Oriental Society 80(4): 301-317:
“The discovery of ‘Aryan’ looking names of (Mitanni) princes on cuneiform documents in Akkadian from the second half of the second millennium BC (chiefly tablets from Bogazkoy and El-Amarna), several doubtlessly Aryan words in Kikkuli’s treatise in Hittite on horse training (numerals : aika- ‘one’, tera- ‘three’, panza- ‘five’, satta – ‘seven’, na(ya) –‘nine’; appellatives : varttana – ‘circuit’, course (in which horses move when being trained),’ aliya –‘horse’ ), and , finally, a series of names of Aryan divinities on a Mitanni-Hatti and a Hatti-Mitanni treaty (14th century BC), poses a number of problems that have been reportedly discussed since the beginning of the century.”
To Thieme the problem is whether the terms can be interpreted as “traces of specifically Indo-Aryan speech and religion, or whether they should rather be identified as Proto-Aryan”. He is inclined towards accepting them as ‘proto-Aryan’. In addition, in his The Sanskrit Language T. Burrow finds a few traces of the Sanskrit language among the documents of the Kassite dynasty of Babylon: “In a list of names of gods with Babylonian equivalents we find a sun-god Suriyas (rendered Samas) which must clearly be identified with Skt Surya. In addition, Maruttas the war-god (rendered En-Urta) has been compared with Skt Marut … Among the kings of this dynasty one has a name which can be interpreted as Aryan: Abhirattas : abhi-ratha – ‘facing chariots in battle’.”
India and West Asia
What emerges on the whole is the presence of a few Sanskritic deities and words in the old Hittite territory or modern Anatolia in about 1400 BC, with margins on either side. The similarity lies only in a few Sanskrit-sounding words in both the Kikkuli horse-training text of c.1400 BC and the treaty between Suppiluliuma, the Hittite king of c.1380-c.1345 BC) and Mattiwaza, the Mitanni ( southeast Anatolia and northern Syria) king of the period. The mention of the Rigvedic gods Mitra, Varuna, Indra and the two Nasatyas occurs as a part of a rather long list of non-Rigvedic gods and goddesses:
“The Storm-god, Lord of Heaven and Earth, the Moon-god and the Sun-god, the Moon-god of Harran, heaven and earth, the Storm-god, Lord of the kurinnu of Kahat, the Deity of Herds of Kurta, the Storm-god, Lord of Uhušuman, Ea-šarri, Lord of Wisdom, Anu, Antu, Enlil, Ninlil, the Mitra-gods, the Varuna-gods, Indra, the Nasatya-gods, Lord of Waššukanni, the Storm-god, Lord of the Temple Platform (?) of Irrite, Partahi of Šuta, Nabarbi, Šuruhi, Ištar, Evening Star, Šala, Belet-ekalli, Damkina, Išhara, the mountains and rivers, the deities of heaven and the deities of earth.”
In the case of the Kikkuli text too, it is only certain words which have been used in the context of this Mitanni text. In the Kassite documents cited by Burrow, assuming that the Sanskritic analogies of certain words in those documents are correct, the comparison does not extend to the level of linguistic similarity of the type which is suggested between the Rigveda and the Avesta.
Whether such similarities in words mark the route of the Indo-European language-speakers to the sub-continent or mark their route out of it is a point which cannot be decided either way. Philological research does not have any historical marker, nor an earlier piece of this kind of philological research gets superseded by newer versions. However, the fact of the presence of Indian words in west Asia may not be as mysterious as it sounds.
The Indus seals are known to occur in the Kassite context in Mesopotamia and the Gulf, showing that this civilization remained in contact with west Asia as late as the 14th century BC. The beginning of this contact is dated as early as the Royal Graves of Ur of c.2600 BC. Whatever might be the language or languages of the Indus civilization, it was clearly a contact of more than a thousand years between India and west Asia. If one remembers this simple point, one does not have to be surprised by the presence of admittedly few Indian words in some west Asiatic documents.
In the case of the Avesta, it may be noted that the core area of its geography from southeastern Iran to the southern central Asia lies very much within the general orbit of contacts of the Indus civilization. Further, the location of the site of Shortughai in the Kokcha valley north of the Hindukush leaves no doubt about the preeminence of the role of the Indus civilization in this region. Thus, to try to support the overarching frame of Aryan origins and migration from Europe to India with the help of the presence of a few Indian-sounding words in some 14th century west Asiatic documents does not seem to be a valid or logical exercise. It is time Thapar and her kind appreciated the rationale behind this argument.
One may be somewhat amused by Thapar’s observation that the Rigvedic people “were cattle-herders looking for good pastures” and that “they settled wherever ecology was suitable”. People all through history settled wherever they thought that the ecology was suitable; so, that is not the point. The point is whether they were ‘cattle-herders’. That they were far more than being ‘cattle-herders’ is clear from RV.III.57 : “May the ploughshares break up our land happily ; may the ploughman go happily with the oxen; may Parjanya (water the earth) with sweet showers happily”.
Thapar also thinks that “we should get away from meaningless questions like, whether the Aryan-speakers were indigenous to India”. When Indians have been subjected, for more than a hundred years, to the opinion that the Aryan- speakers came to India from outside and laid the basis of the Indian religion of Hinduism and when Thapar’s fellow-travelers like R.S.Sharma write books like “Advent of the Aryans in India”, the question cannot be as meaningless or innocuous as Thapar makes it sound. In her dictionary “the question of indigenous and foreign” may be “a non-question” but this has framed the Indians’ perception of themselves for a very long time, and there is no reason why the macabre arguments that the Indians have lived with so long should not be thoroughly exposed for what they are worth.
[Sic: If it is a non-question, why does Thapar insist on making her so-called ‘Aryan languages’ non-Indian? And on separating Aryan (Vedic) from the Harappan— going to the extent of bringing in Michael Witzel and Steve Farmer to launch a personal attack on N. Jha and this writer (NSR) for showing Harappan civilization to be Vedic? And later why did she join Michael Witzel in his campaign to save Aryan theories from being removed from California school books? She cannot eat the cake and have it too. NSR]
I find Thapar’s emphasis on ‘freedom of expression’ very intriguing. The historical group of which Thapar is an eminent member came into being in the early 1970s “to give a national direction to an objective and scientific writing of history and to have rational presentation and interpretation of history”, as the web-site of the Indian Council of Historical Research declared. To argue that there was no “objective and scientific writing of history” till this group moved into government-sponsored power to control the funding and job-opportunities of historical research in India was distinctly reminiscent of a dictatorial streak in itself.
By then historical research in the country had flourished for about a century and to argue that the previous historians were unaware of ‘objective and scientific writing of history’ was a vicious piece of self-aggrandizement on the part of this group. In fact, since the coming of this group to power, the world of Indian historical studies has been largely criminalized. When Thapar preaches in favour of historical tolerance, one does feel amused. [Sic: This strong charge will be supported in the next article relating to Arun Shourie’s expose of these ‘scholars’. NSR]
I find it very curious that with all her pontifications in the field of ancient India Thapar forgets to mention that the study of ancient Indian history and archaeology is only a marginal subject in the frame of Indian historical studies. It is difficult to be certain of this, but certainly not more than twenty university departments offer full courses in the subject. Archaeology is professionally taught in places whose total number does not reach even the double-digit. The large Historical Centre which J.N. University has been running for long and of which Thapar is a precious member does not have any professional archaeology component. Thapar does not even bother to enquire why the study of ancient India remains still marginalised in the Indian university frame and why the historical departments of the Indian universities and colleges are dominantly concerned with ‘modern’ or British India.
Another of Thapar’s inexplicable silences is about focusing on the socio-politics of the Indian past. Thapar and her group never forget to turn to whatever Western theories are available in a particular area, but as far as the socio-politics of the Indian historical studies is concerned, they seem to be completely indifferent except for shouting against the probable or improbable signs of Hindu fundamentalism. In fact, as I have written in my Fifty Years of Indian Archaeology (1960-2010):
By making too much of fundamentalism, Thapar and her fellow travelers have made fundamentalism almost respectable. The fact that they are silent about the fundamentalism of other non-Hindu religious groups throws clear light on what is their attitude to the Indian religious scene. This attitude is also evident in the following formulation of hers: “If the Census of 1882 had included a column for those who observed a cross-over kind of religion, a mix of Hinduism, Islam and other formal religions, this column would undoubtedly have had the largest number”.
Was there ever a “cross-over kind of religion, a mix of Hinduism, Islam and other formal religions“? Would believers in Hindu, Islam and Christianity ever admit this? Is Thapar’s tacit assumption is that Hinduism would not have been shown as the religion of the Indian majority, if only the columns of the 1882 census were framed differently? [Sic: Thapar’s ‘crossover’ argument leads to the absurd conclusion that Hindus would not be a majority in India but for this crossover of Muslims and Christians into the Hindu fold! NSR]
Conclusion: breaking India
Thapar refers to the formation of different identities in modern India but does not mention that it is important to understand the historical assumptions behind the formations of such identities. For instance, if there is a Dalit version of the history of ancient India we must understand what it is and what is the presence or absence of historical logic behind it. The formation of historical identities cannot be avoided, and it is only by discussing its basis threadbare that one can focus on its true worth.
In the case of India Thapar, in an interview to the French paper Le Monde, foresaw (cf. M. Danino in Dialogue, April-June 2006/vol. 7, no,4) that by the end of the 21st century India would break down into a series of small states federated within a more viable single economic space on the scale of the subcontinent. For those of us who refuse to play the role of a clairvoyant as far as our national fate is concerned, we must try to understand the historical basis of ‘identities’. The study of the socio-politics of the ancient Indian past should play an increasing role in the understanding of the ways in which ancient Indian history has been interpreted.
[Sic: We should be grateful to Thapar for showing her true face— one with those who want to see India broken up. This makes Thapar a bedfellow of neo-imperialists and Maoists. So much for her pose as a ‘progressive’ historian! Thanks to Professor Chakrabarti and Michel Danino for bringing this to light. NSR]