This looks like a definitional problem ("Fact check: India wasn't the first place Sanskrit was recorded – it was Syria").
I have no doubt that an older language linked to Old Sanskrit is attested in Syria. My problem is with calling this Mitanni language "Sanskrit", even with the caveat that it is Rig Vedic Sanskrit. Sanskrit incorporates a number of Dravidian features (even in the Rig Veda) that mark it as having taken its final shape in the subcontinent: the entire retroflex series of consonants, for example. This speaks of a collaboration between the Vedic people and a sedentary people living in the subcontinent before them, who had a strong hand in "refining" ("Sanskritising") this Vedic language.
The only reasonable thing to take away from this discussion is that it proves the Old Vedic language had its origin outside the subcontinent. But not Sanskrit, (unless you are ready to deconstruct it and take out the Dravidian features: in which case, an older Rig Vedic language, now lost, existed outside the subcontinent, from where it was brought here). – Peggy Mohan
Nice summary of the archaeological and inscriptional evidence for origins of Sanskrit. I also want to point out that the most important evidence for Rig Veda-like culture is the archaeological findings in the east of Ural Mountains called Sintashta culture. This archaeological complex is centred around a fortification with industrialised production of metal weaponry on a scale which could only mean constant warfare of the kind Rig Veda hymns seem to show.
Sintashta has also the earliest evidence for a horse-driven chariot and burial with prestige goods which closely mirrors the lifestyle of a warrior king in Rig Veda. Please keep the articles on the subject of origin of Sanskrit coming.
PS: All the best sifting through outrage and flame from online Hindutva warriors. – K Chowskey
Yes, this is old hat. Actually, it would be inaccurate to call what the Mittanis wrote as Sanskrit, which is the term used for the language of the Vedas and descendants. Mittani probably has roots in Indo-Iranian, the predecessor language of the early Indo-Aryan recorded in the Rig Veda. But that area of the north-west had a very mixed ethnic and linguistic population, and it is quite possible that some loan words from Indo-Aryan found their way, but to call Mittani Sanskrit is a stretch. But the point of the article is well taken: that Sanskrit as a language is related to others stretching all the way to Ireland. The Out of India Theory (OIT) is a thinly veiled attempt to make India the mother of all Indo-European languages. A good account of Mittani (surprisingly) is found in the Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitanni – Patrick Olivelle
Shoaib Daniyal has tried to draw our attention to a well known (a least in scholarly circles) bit of information – one of the earliest known attestations of an Indo-Aryan dialect are from the Mitanni state of the mid-late 2nd millennium BCE. With this bit of information, he tries to paint a picture of history that is lop-sided and incomplete.
First let us take some details that he omits. Old-Indo-Aryan loanwords are found not just in the Mitanni documents, but also in Kassite documents, Finnish documents, Luwian documents etc, but in all these places, they appear to be immigrants and not natives of the region they lived in.
Daniyal claims: "Sanskrit is the liturgical language of Hinduism, so sacred that lower castes (more than 75% of modern Hindus) weren’t even allowed to listen to it being recited."
The above view is against modern scholarly consensus which regards Sanskrit (and Vedic) as Old-Indo-Aryan which evolved over time into Middle-Indo-Aryan.
Ipso facto, this means originally all Indo-Aryans must have spoken and understood Old-Indo-Aryan. If there was such an exclusion as Daniyal claims, it clearly did not work, as about 90% (or more) of all Buddhist books were written in sanskrit, a sample list of these is available here.
Daniyal states: "While Sanskrit is a marker of Hindu nationalism for the BJP, it might be surprised, even shocked, to know that the first people to leave behind evidence of having spoken Sanskrit aren't Hindus or Indians – they were Syrians."
Here again the motive seems to be to completely invert the facts. The natives of the Mitanni state in pre-modern Syria and Iraq were the Hurrian people, not the Indo-Aryan speaking royals who were most evidently immigrants since their language was a superstrate. What it does however prove is that the bulk of Indo-Aryan speakers were in 1350 BCE not natives of Syria.
Also the Indo-Aryan language they spoke cannot be called Sanskrit, as Sanskrit is the term given to the (by definition post-Vedic) classical language.
Further some of the deities in their pantheon were the same as the deities of the Vedas, so to call them non-Hindus would be even more misrepresentative than it would be to call them early Hindus (since the Vedic religion is commonly defined as a pre-classical form of Hinduism).
Daniyal says: "Rigvedic Sanskrit was first recorded in inscriptions found not on the plains of India but in in what is now northern Syria."
The Mitanni form of Indo-Aryan is not however called by scholars as Rigvedic, although it is co-eval to the period of the Rigveda. It would be appropriate to identify it simply as Old-Indo-Aryan. It would be also appropriate to mention that the attestation of a language is like a photograph taken at a point in time, the photograph cannot be used to prove the non-existence of what is not captured in it.
He also reminds Hindus that they have "mostly stopped the worship of these deities, these Mitanni gods were also the most important gods in theRig Veda" .
This is a striking fact. As David Anthony points out in his book, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, this means that not only did Rigvedic Sanskrit predate the compilation of the Rig Veda in northwestern India but even the “central religious pantheon and moral beliefs enshrined in the Rig Veda existed equally early”.
We know all these already. These are not striking facts, these are boring truisms.
It is not a great surprise that the Vedic language existed before the Vedic hymns were composed, no language can come into existence after its literature is composed. It is also common knowledge that the Vedas themselves only portray one of the influential religions of the time, and hence the religion had to exist before the Vedas could capture a snapshot of it.
After providing evidence all along for the fact that the Indo-Aryan speakers in Mitanni were migrants who arrived in Syria, Daniyal finally finishes his hodge-podge article by announcing the well-known but yet unproven hypothesis of the Aryan Invasion (now Migration) Theory: "From this Central Asian homeland diverged a group of people who had now stopped speaking Proto-Indo-Iranian and were now conversing in the earliest forms of Sanskrit. Some of these people moved west towards what is now Syria and some east towards the region of the Punjab in India."
This is as usual putting a conclusion (of Central-Asian homeland) and arguing backwards for the proof (that does not support the conclusion advanced), notwithstanding the fact that there are several hypotheses, not just the Central Asian one (Gimbutas' Kurgan hypothesis) and Indian origin (OIT), that are being floated by Western academia for the home of the Indo-Europeans. A third hypothesis posits the homeland to be Anatolia in 7000 BCE (the Anatolian hypothesis). A fourth hypothesis is the Paleolithic Continuity Theory, a fifth hypothesis is the Baltic-Pontic hypothesis. These hypotheses are still being debated by academics, but none of these regions (except the sub-continent i.e. the Indus valley) have been known in pre-history to hold a massive multi-lingual population that could have potentially later diverged. The subcontinent also satisfies an important condition that none of the other regions satisfy, namely that it has the most Indo-European linguistic variations - also both parts of the satem-centum isogloss reach a meeting point in this region, namely Indo-Iranian family and the three different Tocharian languages of the Xinjiang region. – S Ramakrishnan
I self-identify as an atheist, so I have no qualms accepting that Helmand/Haraxvaiti matches Rigvedic Saraswati, that the Ancient North Indian and Ancient South Indian genetic groups show little divergence today because of intermarriages, and thus Sanskrit definitely originated outside India, but not where Scroll suggests (“Fact check: India wasn't the first place Sanskrit was recorded – it was Syria”). At best your article highlights yet another hypothesis, and certainly not a fact-check. I would not be mistaken to assert that any article about the origin of the Sanskrit language is a front for theorising about Indo-Aryan migration into India. That's fine. The disagreement is over the starting point of this Indo-European journey, not its intermediate stages (in this case the Hittite-Mitanni linguistic superstrate in the ancient region now called Syria).
The disagreement is also over the assumption that Mitanni rise to prominence should be attributed to mercenary charioteers being employed by Hurrian kings of Syria. Horses were introduced in the region by Kassites in 1,531 BCE who did not speak any identifiable language (let alone Indo-European or even Proto-Sanskrit) but worshipped a combination of Rigvedic and local gods. Was the whole world Hindu at that point? No way! Were they pagan worshippers influencing each other? An emphatic yes! Did Indo-European presence in West Asia predate Sintashta-Andronovo cultures of Kazakhstan? Absolutely! Can the explanation be summarised to save your time? No. It is beyond the scope of a feedback email owing to the vastness of the subject; nor is such linguistic reconstruction/conceit universally accepted as 'factual' in the academic circle).
The evolution of Indo-European languages is a highly complicated subject and Shoaib Daniyal's article about the origin of the Sanskrit language based on simplistic linguistic conjectures forwarded by a few Eurocentric linguists (and their desire to keep the original homeland close to the geography of the Old Testament and/or Eastern Europe; deliberate suppression of archaeological evidences from Northern Iran), their assumed word reconstructions, over-reliance on horse-centric invasion theories and imagined political coups is well, an oversimplification, half the story rather. It would result into erroneous editorial push such as this Scroll.in article. - Saikat Chakraborty
Oh god, Shoaib Daniyal and his Hinduphobia again. Will it ever end? Have you ever taken a look at Dharampal's books? He includes reports by British civil servants – yes all white ones too – mentioning about the equitability of the pre-British education system in India.
The schools had significant portion of Shudras (some having 50%). They were mostly funded by the community before your white heroes came and purged India of its prosperity – ahem "civilised the brown heathen"!
Coming to the crux of the article, Avestan shares a lot with Sanskrit. Witzel – a hero of yours, I'm sure – mentions that speakers of Avestan and Sanskrit would have easily been able to understand each other, and would be able to speak the other in a matter of weeks. This means nothing. That the whole chronology is tweaked to fit an ideology is quite another thing (despite incontrovertible evidence to the contrary).
The article is frankly ridiculous. The author may as well have claimed that Sanskrit belongs to Germany because they share "linguistic characteristics". Or probably claim Sanskrit originated in the US because 'Mother' and मातृ share the same roots. – Akshay Srinivasan
A language, if it originates in a particular landscape, is the manifestation of cultural integration of it with its population. By dominance of a foreign language, mother tongue can't be wiped out. But an external language can lose its grip after many centuries. Just by recording as ancient language and labelling it as its origin is a foolish act.
If language has taken birth in one area even after series of attacks, its remnants will survive. I don’t believe that neither there are any traces of Sanskrit in Syria nor any language similar to it exist there. If a few dominant migrants can save their language for history, can’t the same people who dwell in their own area flourish it? Actually this post supports the fact –at ancient times Hinduism was seen throughout the globe. – Naveen Kulamarva
I am a regular reader of Scroll.in and find your articles really interesting. However, your article about how Sanskrit was first recorded in Syria is not only misleading but factually incorrect.
The author claims that Mittani people used Sanskrit names. However, it is a well-known fact that they used names from Indo-Aryan languages which was later developed. Though Indo-Aryan languages developed from Sanskrit, it must be noted that these languages have features/name quite distinct from each other and hence Indo-Aryan languages can't be called Sanskrit. Eg- Modern Indian languages such as Marathi and Hindi, though developed ultimately from Sanskrit, shows features distinct from Sanskrit and hence can't be called Sanskrit. Please refer to the Wikipedia page for more information.
I would request Scroll to either take out this article with factually incorrect information or publish a research paper (not just opinion but facts supported by evidence) that clarifies why the author thinks that Mittani used Sanskrit names and not Indo-Aryan. – Mayur Punekar
It's unfortunate that the author is following European traits. Come out of that yellow coloured view.
I think the author has forgotten the basic way in which Vedas were taught. It was not recorded. It was taught orally by a guru. Then it was repeated, spelt out by the disciple using his memory. Hence, Vedas were called Srutis (heard) and Smriti (remembered).
Without this basic understanding, how can the author just depend on some myopic westerner thinkers’ assumptions? This is injustice done to Vedas by undermining its glory and greatness.
What about the Saraswati River in India, what about Rishis and Munis who were using such language day in and day out, mentioned in the Vedas? Has the author given a thought towards that?
Author of the article needs to change his confused view towards Sanskrit and the Vedas before venturing to write something about such great assets of the universe. This is written in goodwill and just pertains to the topic raised. – Badarinath Nagrajrao
I read this article with interest and must note several flaws in the argument. At the start, Shoaib Daniyal says nobody speaks, writes or reads Sanskrit, and immediately after, he says it is the liturgical language of Hinduism- an internal contradiction.
From his insistence on Sanskrit being a platform for the BJP and his assumption that all Muslims are its enemies, there arises the curious idea that Hindus would or should object to ancient Syrian kings and deities having Sanskrit names. Surely this is a sign of the influence and reach of early Indian civilisation. To insist upon the false directionality of the Aryan Invasion myth to explain the early reach of Sanskrit without the slightest factual proof is simply foolish. We have zero archaeological evidence that any purported Indo-European people arose in the Steppes, far from any large natural waters and brought Sanskrit to the subcontinent on horseback. How sad that Danyal must cite the insistence of Western scholars on that ridiculous and unproven view, which arose in the context of colonialism.
All this begs the question: would Shoaib Daniyal say the same of Latin, which after all is widely studied in schools and universities throughout the Western world? Latin and Greek feature in the syllabi of private schools as a compulsory language throughout Europe and the Americas, both because Latin facilitates the learning of multiple modern languages and is an essential foundation to the study of history, as well as archaeology, and to some extent the history of law in many countries. – Amrita Douglas
In your article about Sanskrit originating in Syria, you forget that Syria was part of India. There were many kings who rule the whole world like King Vikramaditya.
The King Vikramaditya inscription was found on a gold dish hung inside the Kaaba shrine in Mecca, proving beyond doubt that the Arabian Peninsula formed a part of his Indian Empire. (Ref: page 315 of a volume known as Sayar-ul-Okul treasured in the Makhtab-e-Sultania library in Istanbul, Turkey). King Vikrama's preachers had succeeded in spreading the Vedic Hindu sacred scriptures in Arabia and Arabs were once followers of the Indian Vedic way of life.
So there is no doubt that India was the first place where Sanskrit was recorded as Syria was part of India. – Ketul Parmar
I am writing to you regarding the news article that appeared on your website with the title mentioned in the subject line on Tuesday. I appreciate that your newspaper makes space for such topics and generates interest among the public. In the same breath, I take the liberty to point out the numerous factual errors in the article whose headline ironically reads “fact check”. Such errors seriously mislead readers, and when you specifically call out these are facts, the harm is greater.
Firstly, the language in the ancient document the article refers to contain names of rulers who were ruling over a population that spoke an unrelated language. These names sound like Sanskrit words. That does not make the language in the document Sanskrit. I take one example – “Tusratta” – which taken as it is, is not even a word in Sanskrit. A close match in Sanskrit is “tveṣaratha”, and this is the one that corresponds to the translation you put out. Other names that occur in that ancient document can also be matched along similar lines; you may refer any scholarly article on this topic (and when you write articles that hinge on non-English words, please use appropriate diacritic marks and an Indic alphabet set like IAST/NLK that reflect the precise pronunciation of words, otherwise you are simply making a mockery of the topic).
So, your “fact” that these words are from the Sanskrit language because they sound like Sanskrit is silly, to put it mildly. The names could be corrupted forms or derived forms of Sanskrit words, or even have sprung from a common source as Sanskrit, but that does not make them the same as Sanskrit. Indeed, by this logic, one could claim Hindi is the same as Sanskrit because “dūdh” milk (to pick a word) sounds like “dugdha”, a word used in Vedic for milk. Of course, we do know that the Hindi word comes down from Sanskrit, but does it make the language itself Sanskrit? To round off my point, the language used in the ancient horse-training manual you refer to is called Hittite, a member of the Indo-European language family.
You yourself have included the actual Sanskrit words for the Hittite numerals in paranthesis, yet you choose to claim the language is Sanskrit? And why does it matter? Because, this is the basis for your article. If the reader were to take out the error that “they spoke Sanskrit in Syria”, most of the “facts” in the article reduce to the level of the absurd. The error is so elementary that it is in the realm of possibility the author wilfully introduced it, so he can build an article around it, mix it with a political view and get readers who align with that political view to also buy your idea of "Sanskrit in Syria".
Next, let us deal with the more important subject the article refers to – that of the “Proto Indo European” language and its “homeland”. The write-up again betrays that you are not aware of the difference between what is fact and what is not, in this context. That there are so many languages across Asia and Europe strikingly similar beyond coincidence is a fact by observation, and that they may have sprung from a common parent language is a logical deduction, but that the parent language came from X or Y region is merely a hypothesis, not a fact. The hypothesis is based on a branch of study called “historical linguistics”. It is based on science, not emotion like most Hindutva views are. But that’s that. Historical linguistics cannot tell us where a parent language originated. Spoken language leaves no trail and cannot be found by archaeologists.
Speaking of archaeologists, are you aware that there is no archaeological evidence whatsoever that an external “Indo-European” speaking people established themselves in the subcontinent replacing an existing culture, and all your talk of “mercenary charioteers” and their entry into India is a long dead hypothesis and not fact? This is not stuff made up by the Hindutva horde, but the outcome of pain-staking research in the ruins of Indus Civilization sites by reputed archaeologists over decades. This is the reason the hypothesis for the geographical origin of the Sanskrit language has gradually moved from one based on violent “Aryan invasion” to a gentler “migration”, and most recently a quiet “trickling in”. Many arguments have been brought forward, and many demolished, and there are many more arguments that could be used to make a case any which way you like depending on “whose side you are on”.
As the state of scholarly research stands today, please be informed that the homeland question still hangs in the balance, perhaps mildly tilted in favour of a “Russian steppe” region mainly for the want of evidence that could prove otherwise and razor-thin linguistic arguments. The idea thrives mostly on historical “academic consensus”, notwithstanding that much of the supporting evidence that generated this consensus over many decades have themselves been knocked down by experts.
In essence, your article parades just about the same sort of nonsense as the Hindutva horde does in the name of facts, but only in the other extreme. That does not make your view correct and “fact”. Indeed, it is highly subjective views such as this article stitched from ill-informed, half-digested pieces of information borrowed from your favorite sources and masquerading as well-researched articles that feed the extreme right Hindutva views of flying machine proportions.
The Indo-European homeland question is a complex and sensitive one, and has been playing out for over 200 years. In this time, the homeland has been located anywhere from Scandinavia to Germany to Russia to India and even the North-pole. In the process, it has created significant upheaval in India and in Europe, not the least of which was what Adolf Hitler made out of it. The cocktail of European ideological speculations mixed with notions of caste in India during the last century and a half have been exploited by the British first, and Indian politicians next. An eventual answer to the question has significant social, cultural and political implications in India and elsewhere.
My sincere suggestion to you is to not publish more articles on the topic as you are clearly incapable of an objective, well-researched view. You are not a scientific journal either, so do not pretend to be one. If your intention really is to present an unbiased view of the subcontinent’s history, I would rather you begin with the basics. Write about the problems facing scholarly historical study in our country today. Question why the government does not invest in building objectively better scientific historical research institutions given our rich history, why it cannot take better care of the ancient archaeological sites within India, and why non-academicians should head research institutions, but limit yourself to such. Then you will have done society a favour. – Chandrashekar
A response from Shoaib Daniyal
Peggy Mohan raises a genuine semantic point. Mitanni may be “an older language linked to Old Sanskrit” but can it be called Rig Vedic Sanskrit (as my piece does)? Since “Sanskrit incorporates a number of Dravidian features (even in the Rig Veda) that mark it as having taken its final shape in the subcontinent: the entire retroflex series of consonants, for example".
Noted Indo-Europeanist, David W Anthony calls the language of the Mitanni “Rigvedic” and Micheal Witzel (the Wales professor for Sanskrit at Harvard University) also calls the language of the Indo-Aryans before they entered the subcontinent, Rigvedic (see Linguistic Evidence for Cultural Exchange in Prehistoric Western Central Asia, 2003).
Thus both Anthony and Witzel classify the language of the Rig Veda as one not incorporating Dravidian and Munda features (such as retrolflexion) and hence the same as Mitanni.
Yet, the Rig Veda, as it exists today, certainly contains Dravidian and Munda features.
So, what gives?
The issue is that the earliest Rig Veda’s hymns are lost (going back all the way to the split of Proto-Indo-Iranian, hence the similarity with Mitanni). What we have today is a rough recreation of the original hymns compiled by the Indo-Aryans at about the same time as the other Vedas i.e. after they had entered the subcontinent. The language of this “copy” has Dravidian and Munda features even as the original hymns did not (and could not, since it was composed before the Indo-Aryans reached the subcontinent).
Moving on, S Ramakrishnan, along with many others, tries to raise up the issue of Out Of India: the theory that the speakers of Sanskrit and its parent languages originated in India and spread out into Asia and Europe. Very innovatively, Ramakrishnan proposes that Xinjiang and the Indus Valley is one region, rather conveniently ignoring the greatest mountain range on earth, the Himalayas, that stand between the two. On the other hand, Xinjiang and the Pontic Steppes – the most popular proposed home right now of the Indo-Europeans – is definitely a single region: the Eurasian steppe.
Ramakrishnan is not the only one. The flights of fancy of Out of India proponents such as Talagari and Elst has led Stephanie Jamison (Professor, Department of Asian Languages & Cultures, UCLA) to lament that "the parallels between the Intelligent Design Issue and the Indo-Aryan Controversy are distressingly close". She classifies the Out of India theory as "essentially a religio-nationalistic [read: Hindutva] attack on a scholarly consensus [of Indic language being bought to the subcontinent]". (see Jamison’s review of The Indo-Aryan Controversy: Evidence and Inference in Indian History, 2005).
Micheal Witzel (Wales professor for Sanskrit at Harvard University) backs her up: “The Westward drift of Vedic tribes – which imagines them moving from the Gangetic Motherland into the Panjab, and from the Panjab to Iran and to Europe – are familiar Hindutva fantasies." (Westward Ho! A Review of: Shrikant G. Talageri, The Rigveda. A historical analysis, 2001).
In fact, Witzel, never one to pull punches, has this to say, about what drives Out of India proponents to argue their case in the face of the overwhelming academic consensus that the Indo-European languages came from outside India:
An obvious goal is to display the "hoariness" and uniqueness of ancient-most Indian culture and its imagined importance for the rest of the world.
Against such a background, no cultural innovation and certainly no trickling in, immigration or "invasion" from the outside is allowed. Everything created by "Indian" civilisation for the past 9000 years or so, beginning with the early agriculturists of Mehrgarh in Baluchistan(!), has been local and no (major) influences from the outside can be tolerated. This, of course, would make it the oldest tradition on the planet: The Rig Veda, to recall Talageri's words, "is the oldest and hoariest religious text of the oldest living religion in the world today: Hinduism." Underlying these claims is the familiar Hindutva agenda that suggests that all non-Hindus are ultimately "foreign" peoples in India, and a blot on the body politic.
One culture (Vedic), one language (Sanskrit), one people: Bhårata ueber alles!
And, in spite of certain well-attested cultural influences (e.g. in astronomy!), of repeated immigrations and of actual invasions -- from the Old Persians and Greeks to the Huns, Turks and Moghuls and the interaction and acculturation that all such political developments brought with them.
In other words, history is written with an ulterior motive in mind, that of "nation building." Facts count little, dates nothing!
The warning that Witzel gives us, of “Hindutva fantasies” in which “history is written with an ulterior motive in mind”, is not only restricted to the wildly speculative Out of India theory. It holds for all of India’s history, be it Akbar or Syama Prasad Mookerjee.
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