Published On: Sat, Dec 15th, 2012


Science has finally answered the 200 year-old question of why people from India to Iceland speak languages clearly related to one another. Natural history, not linguistics unlocks the puzzle of Indo-European origins.

First of two parts article by Dr. Navaratna Rajaram (NS Rajaram)

A two hundred year-old question

Creation: Biblical vs Scientific timeline

Creation: Biblical vs Scientific timeline

Unlike most academic disciplines, Indology (i.e. Western study of India) and its offshoot of Indo-European studies can be dated almost to the day. In a lecture in Kolkotta delivered on 2 February 1786 (and published in 1788) Sir William Jones, a forty year-old British jurist in the service of the East India Company observed:

“The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists…”

This influential statement is well known but not the errors Jones committed like his dating of Indian tradition based on the Biblical superstition that the world was created on Sunday, 23rd of October 4004 BCE at 9:00 AM— time zone not specified. The date was first derived by the Irish bishop James Ussher (1581 – 1656) based on a literal reading of the Bible combined with the belief that world would end 2000 years after Christ or twelve years ago.

While it sounds comical today, it was taught as history through most of the nineteenth century even though both Darwin’s theory of evolution and geology had determined the earth had to be millions of years old to support fossils and the enormous diversity of life forms found on the planet. Even this very greatly underestimated its age. (The current estimate for the age of the earth is about 4.5 billion years.)

IE languages map

IE languages map

Jones was a capable linguist and knew some Sanskrit. His task was to study Indian texts and understand Hindu law to help administer British justice in a manner acceptable to them. In his study of Hindu texts like the Puranas he came across dates that went much further back than the Biblical date for Creation. He dismissed them as superstitions (for failing to agree with the Biblical superstition) and imposed a chronology on Indian history and tradition to fit within the Biblical framework.

This was to have fateful consequences for the study of India over the succeeding two centuries down to the present. To cite an example, Indian tradition going back at least to the mathematician Aryabhata (476 – 540 CE) has held that the Kali Age began with the Mahabharata War in 3102 BCE. This marks the end of an era known as the Vedic Age. Accepting it takes the beginning of the Vedic period as well as several dynasties like the Ikshwakus to 6000 BCE and earlier. This is millennia before the Biblical date for Creation which men like Jones could not accept.

Dates based on the Biblical chronology were accepted as historically valid by most Western scholars of the period including influential ones like F. Max Müller. He explicitly stated that he took the Biblical account including the date to be historical. Most of them were classical scholars or students of religion and had no inkling of science. The widely quoted dates of 1500 BCE for the Aryan invasion and the 1200 BCE date for the Rig Veda were imposed to make them conform to the Biblical date of 4004 BCE for Creation.

Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, a pioneer in population genetics

Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, a pioneer in population genetics

The situation has not changed much in the succeeding two centuries. Indologists like Wendy Doniger, Diana Eck, Michael Witzel and their Indian counterparts like Romila Thapar have little comprehension of the revolution in our understanding of the past brought about by science in the past two decades. They continue to quote 1200 BCE for the Rig Veda without mentioning that it rests on the authority of a 400 year-old Biblical superstition! (Some ‘scholars’ like Doniger and Thapar don’t know any Sanskrit either, but that is a different matter.)

Language puzzle, linguistic inadequacy

To return to Jones and his successors, in their ignorance of science it was natural they should have come up with some speculative theories to account for similarities between Sanskrit and European languages, especially Greek and Latin. Being linguists, they created a field called philology of comparing languages and cultures and called it a ‘science’ of languages. But it soon got mixed up with crackpot theories on race and language— like the ‘Aryan’ race speaking ‘Aryan’ languages somehow ending up in Nazi Germany!

There was even an ‘Aryan’ science movement that denounced Einstein and his ‘Jewish’ physics! (This can be compared to some present day anti-Hindu academics who denounce anyone objecting to their theories and conclusions as ‘Hindutva advocates’.) It was denounced by scientists, especially in the twentieth century, but politics and prejudice kept it alive for over a century. In addition to the Nazi ideology, British colonial policy used race as a way of classifying its British Indian subjects.

Scientifically discredited IE migration map showing the Aryan invasion

Scientifically discredited IE migration map showing the Aryan invasion

Setting aside such aberrations, Jones did raise a legitimate question: why do people from India and Sri Lanka to Ireland and Iceland speak languages clearly related to one another, and have done so for more than two thousand years? This fact has been widely noted but a few examples help illustrate the point. What is deva in Sanskrit becomes dio in Latin, theo in Greek and dieu in French. Similarly, agni for fire in Sanskrit becomes ignis in Latin from which we get the English words ignite and ignition. A particularly interesting example is the Russian drink vodka meaning ‘a little water’ is related to the Sanskrit udaka. And there are many more, far too many to be seen as coincidence. Prejudice and politics aside this basic question remains.

Over the past two hundred years many theories have been created to account for these similarities. These are based mostly on superficial phonetic similarities but none has proved satisfactory. Even without the confusion introduced by race theories, these explanations give glaring inconsistencies. To take an example, using the same data and the same methods some scholars have argued that a branch of Indo-Europeans called ‘Aryans’ invaded India, while some others claim the reverse— that Aryans (or Indo-Europeans) originated in India and migrated to Eurasia and Europe taking their language(s) with them. The AIT of course holds the opposite view—that the invading Aryans were the eastern branch of Indo-Europeans.

Science to the rescue

Sir William Jones

Sir William Jones

With the benefit of hindsight one can see that the science needed to unlock the language mystery did not become available until about twenty years ago. It was only in the last few decades, with the emergence of molecular biology after World War II and especially gene sequencing and genome research in the past decade and more that we are able to trace the origin and spread of Indo-Europeans and their languages. Two areas of natural history— the distribution of mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosomes in the world’s population groups and the fate of humans in the face of natural events have resulted in the spread of Indo-Europeans and their languages from a group perhaps as few as a thousand 60,000 years ago over two billion speakers today.

What has allowed us to unlock the mysteries of IE origins is science, especially natural history and population genetics. Population genetics was founded by Sir Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright and J.B.S. Haldane. Fisher, a geneticist as well as a statistician had two outstanding students, C. Radhakrishna Rao (C.R. Rao) and Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. Rao became known as the world’s greatest mathematical statistician while Cavalli-Sforza carried forward Fisher’s work in population genetics, combining microbiology with mathematical genetics. If we are able to unlock the secrets of our origins today much of the credit must go to these pioneers.

The material presented here, especially in the second part draws heavily on the work of Cavalli-Sforza, Stephen Oppenheimer and their colleagues. (This author had the good fortune of working with C.R. Rao while a student in the U.S.) What is extraordinary in all this is the depth and power of scientific analysis needed to unlock the puzzle. Linguistics, the principal tool used for over two hundreds has proved unequal to the task of unlocking the mystery of our origins. The creation of Vedic and Sanskrit languages in India going back perhaps 10,000 years or more was crucial in the evolution of the final phase of Indo-European languages.

No less remarkable is the vast time scales involved— not thousands but tens of thousands of years. Even this is miniscule by evolutionary standards. We Indo-Europeans have been on the planet for barely 65 thousand years, while dinosaurs ruled the earth for as many million years. With this as background, we may next look at a brief account of our origin and spread.

(To be continued)

Dr. Navaratna Rajaram  is a scientist and historian. The ideas of the article are explored in greater detail in his forthcoming book Genes of Time and the Birth of History.

  • Madhu

    Sir,if we go along with yugas then it’s been said age of kali as 432,000 years(1 Hindu year=360 days),double it you get dwapar,triple tretha and quad krita.

    As in one of your comments you said extraordinary claims requires extraordinary proofs.I understand that.But for argument sake we have been told Ishkvaku dynasty existed in tretha yuga. Can this be a possibility?

    Some say Ram existed around 5000 BC and opponents of this theory say for every 25,600 years constellation shifts in a 360-degree circular motion i.e. the same formation of stars can be found after 360 degree cycle.

    • N.S. Rajaram

      We must distinguish between different yugas– historical yugas like the present Kali that is said to have begun in 3102 BCE and ecological yuga like the beginning of the Ice Age and the Cosmic yuga like Creation and so forth.
      The 25,600 cycle you mention is due to the precession of the equinoxes. It is an astronomical phenomenon that may have a bearing on the climate but cannot be used to write history. Both Rama and his father Dasharatha find mention in the Rig Veda and so may be taken as historical. We cannot push their dates back by invoking astronomy.
      Unlike Krishna’s, Rama’s date is uncertain but there are reasons to believe he lived 32 generations earlier.
      As for obtaining 432,000 years by manipulating multiples of 360, it is man-made numerology and there is no reason why nature should follow our wishes. It usually does not.

  • Mouton

    The author begins with a quote from an East India Company official. In brief, the official says that Sanskrit is a wonderful language. But like other Hindu “scholars” this “scholar” too writes in English. Received his education in English. Lives in an English speaking country. Without English he would cease to exist professionally. The East India Company made his current life possible for him. Yet he appears to be full of resentment and reacts by trumpeting an imaginary great and glorious civilization of his own from a hoary past.

    You cannot take these Hindu “scholars” and “historians” seriously.

    • IndicRace

      Well binary numbers and logic was invented in India when many Germannic tribes were still hunter gatherers and today’s computer technology is all based on zeroes and ones. So without Indians you would not have been able to spend time on the internet and make arguments with flawed logic as above. If you think my analogy is weird, well so is yours.

      • N.S. Rajaram

        All civilizations have their ups and downs. Each has made its contribution in its time when a combination of circumstances led to its flourishing. Looking at Greece and Egypt today could you guess they were once great civilizations?

        Similarly, could anyone in 1945 have guessed Japan would be a mighty industrial and technological power? Or how about Korea after the Korean War?

        On the same subject, who would have imagined 20 years ago that the U.S. would fear the Indian software power? The point is humans are capable of the highest achievement which depends on other factors.
        Nothing is permanent. Only illiterates try to judge the past from the present.

    • Madhu

      Don’t worry dude, if not you your children or grandchildren will learn Sanskrit just like any programming language like C or C++.

  • Vyasa

    /** it is man-made numerology and there is no reason why nature should follow our wishes. It usually does not .Only illiterates try to judge the past from the present.**/

    There is every reason sir when the said man made theory was,is based on course of nature ,cosmos,brahmanda as with everything else in our puranas.Our Puranas talk about human,ecological origin that happened 195 crores of years ago .

    /** who would have imagined 20 years ago that the U.S. would fear the Indian software power? The point is humans are capable of the highest achievement which depends on other factors.Nothing is permanent.Only illiterates try to judge the past from the present.**/

    On the contrary, judgement or not, only illiterates& yet to learn half bakes look at ecology,humans,past ,present as distinct entities.Dump newton physics,quantum physics is the way to go.Past is very important to understand the factors on which humans highest achievement capacity depends, to understand human up gradation or degradation.Also to those who didn’t follow Indology scripts,to those who knew how Europen achievers be it Ptolemy,Bernoulli, Fibanocci, Newton, Pythagaros,Archemedies etc learnt& plagiarised from Vedic repositories Indian software talent wouldn’t be so shocking or fearful

    • N.S. Rajaram

      Man-made tools like calculus, physical theories, etc are needed for us to understand nature. We don’t bend nature to fit our rules. What we create are ‘descriptions’ of nature and its working, not rules for nature to follow.
      A crisis arises as happened with relativity and quantum physics when our theories are found to be inadequate. Then we have to go back to the drawing board and come up with a more accurate description. All our tools, especially mathematics, are only approximations to reality. The real question is how adequate are they? And do they help us understand nature?
      As far as Mouton’s criticism of me for writing in English is concerned– for better or worse it is now the international language and he too writes in English. I have written extensively in Kannada also which the state of Karnataka has recognized by giving me an award.

      • vyasa

        That is where you are mistaken sir or may be it’s not your fault but is the constraint of the scientific framework to which your are confined to, which through behind the screen machinations has been dominating the popular culture for sometime now.Vedas,Upanga Vedas like Vaiseshika talk about the nature, its’ manifestations ,understanding which makes predictability and changing the nature also possible.
        Western science which is built on the half information plagiarized from vedic repositories would want us to believe that if it cannot then it doesn’t simply exist which is sheer arrogance laced with ignorance.Any number of African origin theories are also products of such ignorance-arrogance combo.

        I’ll ignore the language issue as neither do i have any issues nor was it addressed to me.

  • John Nevere

    No horses at the Indus? Rajaram , Frawley and the other Indian revisionists have been driving around in the streets of the Indus with their Mustangs.

  • Ramamoorthy

    Dear Dr.Rajaram,
    I am an ardent admirer of your scholarship and what you have done in correcting the ancient Indian History. In my opinion there are four parallel revolutions taking place in India: The yoga revolution of Baba Ramdev, the cow protection revolution of Raghavesha Thirthaji, The political revolution of RSS/Modi and lastly the revolution of rewriting the correct History of India by you and your friends at Voice of India initiated by Ram swarup and Dharampal. I request you to spend the rest of your life to reestablish the real Indian history for the posterity of this great nation!

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