Towards the end of September, Delhi University’s Sanskrit department plans to make public research material which would show that the Rigvedic period lasted from 8000 BC to 5000 BC. What do you think of this exercise?
I am not sure whether the Sanskrit department of Delhi University has the necessary expertise to undertake the responsibility. I was a member of the history faculty for three decades during which I frequently interacted with the members of the Sanskrit department but never met any credible Vedicist. If they indeed had the expertise what prevented them from undertaking the task all these years? Was it necessary to wait for the BJP to come to power with a majority in Parliament?
Moreover, the Sanskrit department has already asserted that the Rigvedic period lasted from 8000 BC to 5000 BC. They have stated their conclusion before undertaking the exercise of dating the Vedic texts without waiting for the conclusion! What kind of research is this?
Is there a broad agreement among scholars on the date of the Rigveda? What’s the basis of this agreement?
According to the general consensus, the Rigveda is dated to around 1500 BC, though its first and last sections are dated later and could be contemporary of the three Vedas – Sama, Yajur and Atharva.
The mention of the Vedic deities in the Mitanni inscription of the 14th century implies that the upper date of the Rigveda is not beyond 15th century BC. The Mitanni kingdom was situated in north west Syria. The Mitanni inscription, dated 1380 BC, records a treaty between a Mitanni king and a Hittite king. It mentions several gods whose names occur in the Rigveda. These are: Indara (Indra), Mitras (Mitra), Nasatiya (Nasitya, that is, the Asvins) and Uruvanass (Varuna). This record, among other things, has been used by experts to date the Rigveda.
The dating of this text (Rigveda) has much to do with determining the traits of the Aryan culture for which one has to depend on the Zend Avesta (the text of Zoroastrianism) and Homer’s Iliad. Its (Rigveda) similarity with the Avesta and the geographical information contained in it make it necessary to date it in relation to those texts. The close resemblance between the language and culture of the Avesta and the Rigveda has been noted by many scholars. Examples of words occurring in the Avesta and the Rigveda are: haoma (soma), daha (dasa), hindu (sindhu), Ahura (Asura), yasna (yajna), etc. This kind of evidence has also been used for dating the Rigveda.
The dating of the Rigveda would thus draw insights from different disciplines like comparative linguistics, ecology and anthropology and so on.
Isn’t there an alternative date for the Rigveda?
The only alternative view of the chronology of the Vedas is that of the Hindu Right. This is based on the traditional astronomical information. This pushes the text’s antiquity to the 4th millennium BC but this has been rejected by recent studies.
Is this traditional astronomical information credible?
Frankly, I have not followed closely the studies of the Vedic astronomical references by various scholars. But I know that there is no consensus among them and the dates of the Rigveda suggested by them ranges from 11th century BC to 4000 BC. Moreover, the Rigvedic astronomical ‘evidence’ may be dubious.
It may be noted that the Hindu Right treats the Vedas as divinely revealed and having a fantastic antiquity. But this view is not credible at all: the Vedas are not divine in origin, nor can they be assigned the fantastic antiquity. In history it is the evidence that matters, not the faith.
Contrary to the Hindutva propaganda, the generally accepted view so far is that the Vedic culture is later than the Harappan culture. There is no correspondence between the Harappan and the Vedic cultures. The latter is predominantly pastoral and the former is known for its well developed urban features. The Harappan centres amply testify to the existence of crafts and commerce and to the extensive use of burnt bricks but these are absent in the Rigveda.
There is also the issue of horse.
The horse and horse-drawn chariot figure prominently in the Rigveda: it has been pointed out that the various forms of ashva (horse) are mentioned 215 times in the Rigveda. But horse is totally absent in the Harappan cultural complex. The presence of horse is a characteristic feature of the Vedic culture which is why the Hindutva scholars (if scholars they can be called!) have tried to assert, time and again, that horse was known to Harappans: their assertion has been based on what is a piece of faked evidence produced some years ago by one of their champions.
Who produced the fake evidence of horse?
NS Rajaram and Natwar Jha produced a computer enhanced seal which they projected as evidence of horse at Harappa and scholars have called it a “Piltdown horse” (sarcastically named after British Piltdown man, a 1912 hoax which sought to establish the “missing link” between ape and man), at Harappa. Michael Witzel and Steve Farmer exposed the fraud committed by Rajaram and Jha. (See the October 13, 2000, cover story of Frontline)
You know, non-serious students of history living in the 21st century are unable to imagine how an urban culture lapsed into a pastoral one.
That is a wrong way at looking at the Harappan and the Rigvedic (periods). There was a gap of nearly three centuries between them, though there was also an overlap between the later part of Harappan civilisation and that of the Rigvedic at a few places. The decline of Harappan civilisation has been discussed in detail by many scholars and so has the emergence of the Rigvedic Aryans on the Indian subcontinental scene. The two represent two different historical processes.
Indeed, there are no credible alternative theories to the generally accepted view that the Vedic culture is later than the Harappan culture. The only alternative I can think of is the Hindutva propaganda.
What explains the obsession of rightwing historians to push back the Rigvedic period centuries back?
The main features of the perception of the past as presented by the rightwing historians appear to be their obsession with the antiquity of Hinduism, and the Vedas from which it is believed to have derived, as well as their obsession with the Hindus being the original inhabitants of India.
This has much to do with their anti-Muslim stance. Since Islam came from outside they demonise Muslims as the other. And if they are the other the Hindus have to be the original habitants of the land. From this it follows that the authors of the Harappan culture, the oldest culture of the Indian subcontinent, have to be Hindus. Hence the laboured attempt to project the Harappan culture as Vedic.
But this view was not acceptable even to the late RC Majumdar, who extended an ideological support to the communal agenda of the Hindu Right. He was the only credible rightwing historian. NS Rajaram and Natwar Jha and their likes among the RSS ideologues are no substitutes for him.
Are the Aryans best described as a race or speakers of the Indo-Aryan language? How did this distinction come about? Why is the Hindu Right so invested in claiming Aryan origins?
In the 19th century the Aryans were often projected both as a racial category as well as speakers of the Indo-Aryan language and (German-born philologist) Max Muller often used race and language as interchangeable categories. With growing awareness of the untenability of race/language equation, the Aryans are no longer considered as a racial category.
However, the Hindu Right has clung to the effete and obsolete ideas which derive inspiration from the views of the Theosophical Society, especially its president, Col Olcott, and Dayanand Saraswati, the founder of the Arya Samaj. Both postulated that the Aryans were indigenous to India and modern Hindus are their descendants, and that the Aryan culture was the cradle of civilisation and the Vedas were the repositories of all knowledge.
It is this view which runs across the Hindutva perception all through. The Hindutva-vadis are so obsessed with the Aryan indegenism that they go to ridiculous lengths to assert their position. When (Bal Gangadhar) Tilak, himself a revivalist, suggested that they came from the Arctic, (RSS Sarsanghchalak or Supreme Leader) MS Golwalkar had no hesitation in asserting that the North Pole in those days was located in Bihar/Orissa.
Historians belonging to the Hindu Right often argue that history has been constantly rewritten. They wonder why they can’t rethink and revise theories.
No one prevents them from revising theories. But any revision has to be based on evidence. Incessant propaganda cannot be the basis of historical reconstruction; it is a display of ignorance. The reason why the Hindu Right’s view is contested is not the ideology but the lack of evidence in whatever they say about the Aryan migration. As of now, the evidence – linguistic and archaeological – points to the migration of the Aryans from the north-west.
There may be many views of the past but the history based on a rigorous analysis of the various types of evidence is more reliable than the one based on riotous imagination.
There are multiple histories or imaginings of the past. So what do we teach schoolchildren? They are bound to get confused listening to different ideas about the past.
As for school textbooks one should emphasise those aspects of the past on which there is a general consensus among historians. Controversial issues, however, may be introduced in higher classes.
If the BJP-RSS were to remain in power for another 10-15 years, do you fear historians might want to rethink their position to please those who rule?
When Hitler was in power many scholars changed their academic stand, but there were many who migrated to other countries to escape persecution. Although India has entered into Dark Age with Modi coming to power, I don’t visualise a situation in which Indian historians will migrate out of India. But it is not unlikely that some of them may dilute their earlier position, to seek favours from the Modi government. In fact, there is no dearth of scholars who always try to please the powers-that-be. But proximity to political power often undermines the honesty of academics.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, published by HarperCollins, is available in bookstores.