Historical Divide: Archaeology and Literature


Indology grew out of attempts to interpret Indian sources from European perspective. Its legacy is archaeology without literature for the Harappans and a literature without archaeology for the Vedic Aryans. Any rewriting of history must begin by bridging this unnatural gulf.

INDOLOGY, WHICH prominently includes history of the Vedic Age, is the result of a historical accident. In 1784, Sir William Jones, an English jurist in the employ of the British East India Company, began a study of Sanskrit to better understand the legal and political traditions of the Indian subjects. As a classical scholar, he was struck by the extraordinary similarities between Sanskrit and European languages, especially Latin and Greek. He went on to observe: "… the Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of wonderful structure, more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of the verbs and in 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 the same source."

Though he was not the first European to recognise this connection — that honour belongs probably to Filippo Sassetti, a Florentine merchant living in Goa two centuries earlier — Jones was the first to express it in scholarly terms. With this dramatic announcement Jones launched two new fields — Indology and comparative linguistics, notably Indo-European linguistics. To account for this similarity, some scholars postulated that the ancestors of Indians and Europeans must at one time have lived in the same region and spoken the same language. They called this the Aryan language and their common homeland the Aryan homeland. Following the Nazi misuse of the word Aryan as a race, and the atrocities that accompanied it, the term has fallen into disfavour. The preferred term today is Indo-European. According to this theory, the ancestors of the Indians who used Vedic Sanskrit to compose the Vedas and other related literature hailed from a land outside India. Their original homeland has been placed in locations from Germany to Chinese Turkestan, that is, everywhere except India where the Vedic language and its literature have found the fullest expression and endured the longest.

This is the background to the famous Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) that has dominated Indian history books for over a century. Based on various arguments, but strongly influenced by biblical beliefs, scholars like F. Max Mueller assigned a date of 1500 BC for the Aryan invasion and 1200 BC for the composition of the Rigveda, the oldest member of the Vedic corpus. The Bible is said to assign the date October 23, 4004 BC for the Creation and 2448 BC for the Flood. This was in the background when he gave 1500 BC as the date of the Aryan invasion. Max Mueller himself in a letter to the Duke of Argyle, then acting Secretary of State for India, asserted: "I regard the account in the Genesis (of the Bible) to be simply historical." In his defence, it must be recognised that he was by no means dogmatic about his theories. Towards the end of his life, in response to some critics, Max Mueller wrote: "Whether the Vedic hymns were written in 1000, 1500 or 2000 or 3000 BC, no power on earth will ever determine."


What is remarkable in all this is the fact that the foundations of ancient Indian history were being laid by scholars who were not historians but linguists. In keeping with the political conditions of the age — the heyday of European colonialism — it was inevitable that colonial and Christian missionary interests should have intruded on their work. Even Max Mueller, during the first half of his career, saw it his duty to advance the interests of Christian missionaries, though, towards the end of his life, he became a convert to Vedanta. In addition, most of them had no scientific background — witness their belief in the Biblical Creation Theory. There was also no archaeology to guide them.

All these were soon to change. Beginning about 1921, Indian and British archaeologists working under Sir John Marshall revealed the existence of the ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro in the Punjab and Sindh. Further excavation showed that they were part of a vast civilisation spread over most of North India and even beyond. This is now famous as the Indus Valley or the Harappan civilisation. They were flourishing in the period from c. 3100 BC to 1900 BC, or more than a thousand years before the postulated Aryan invasion. Scholars from a wide range of disciplines including literature, archaeology, architecture and even mathematics, began to study the archaeological remains for clues to the identity and nature of the civilisation.

At first sight, the discovery of the Harappan civilisation, spread over the same geographical region as described in the Vedic literature, seemed to invalidate the Aryan Invasion Theory. The natural conclusion seemed to be that Harappan archaeology represented the material remains of the culture described in the Vedic literature. But for reasons that are too complex to detail here, prominent historians soon rejected the idea of the Vedic identity of the Harappan civilisation. They insisted that the Harappans were a pre-Vedic (and non-Vedic) people who were defeated by the invading Aryans and forced to migrate en masse to South India, later to be known as Dravidians, speaking languages that are supposedly unrelated to Sanskrit. Through this device, historians sought to preserve the Aryan Invasion Theory and reconcile it with the existence of a much older civilisation in the Vedic heartland. In this exercise it should be noted that a theory postulated by linguists in the previous century prevailed over archaeological evidence.

No evidence of invasion

This soon ran into contradictions. Archaeologists found no evidence of any invasion or warfare severe enough to account for the uprooting of such a vast civilisation. On the other hand, the decline of the Harappan civilisation could be attributed to natural causes — in particular, ecological degradation due to the drying up of vital river systems and also floods. It is now known that a major contributor was a severe 300-year drought (2200 — 1900 BC) that struck in an immense belt from the Aegean to China. Recent research has shown that the rainfall in some areas diminished by as much as 20 per cent. The Harappan was one of several ancient civilisations to feel the impact of this ecological catastrophe; others similarly affected were Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to the west and China to the east.

The theory of Harappans as Dravidians has also proved to be far from satisfactory. The Harappans, who were supposed to be the original Dravidian speakers, were a literate people. There are some four thousand examples of their writing from sites like Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, Lothal, Kalibangan and others, as well as dozens in West Asia. Yet, the earliest examples of South Indian (or Dravidian) writing use a version of the Brahmi script, which originated in North India. This leaves us in the extraordinary situation where the migrating Harappans took their language but not the script that they had themselves invented. And they waited more than a thousand years to begin their writing, borrowing from a North Indian script for the purpose.

In the light of all this, the situation regarding the primary sources of ancient India may be summarised as follows: no satisfactory explanation has been found to account for the separate existence of Harappan archaeology and the Vedic literature, both of which flourished in the same geographical region. On the one hand, there is Harappan archaeology, the most extensive anywhere in the world, but no Harappan literature. On the other, there is the Vedic literature, which exceeds in volume all other ancient literature in the world combined several times over, but no Vedic archaeological remains. So we have archaeology without literature for the Harappans and literature without archaeology for the Vedic Aryans. This is all the more puzzling considering that the Harappans were a literate people while we are told that the Vedic Aryans knew no writing but used memory for preserving their immense literature. This means only the literature of the illiterates has survived.

In the light of this incongruity, one may say that as long as this gulf between archaeology and literature remains unbridged, there can be no such thing as history. Neither the Harappans nor the Vedic Aryans have a historical context, but only archaeological and literary sources hanging as loose ends. So the first step in any writing (or rewriting) of ancient history should be a systematic programme to rationally connect Harappan archaeology and the Vedic literature. These are the primary sources; the theories that are now in textbooks are secondary, based on the perceptions of scholars of the colonial era. More seriously, they contradict the archaeological evidence.

Vedic-Harappan connection

Fortunately some progress is being made in accounting for both Harappan archaeology and the Vedic literature, though, to a large extent, it owes to the work of outsiders. Some Vedic scholars have noted that Harappan remains are replete with sacred Vedic symbols like the swastika sign, the ‘OM’ sign and the sacred ashvattha leaf (Ficus Religiosa). No less dramatic is the discovery of the American mathematician and historian of science, A. Seidenberg, tracing the origins of Egyptian and Old Babylonian mathematics to Vedic mathematical texts known as the Sulbasutras. As Seidenberg observed: " … the elements of ancient geometry found in Egypt (before 2100 BC) and Babylonia (c. 1900 — 1750 BC) stem from a ritual system of the kind observed in the Sulbasutras." This means that the mathematics of the Sulbasutras, which are Vedic texts, must have existed long before 2000 BC, i.e., during the Harappan period. This is clear also from a technical examination of Harappan archaeology, which displays skill in town planning and geometric design, showing that Harappans must have had access to the Sulbasutras. This gives a scientific link between Vedic literature (Sulbasutras) and Harappan archaeology. (The Sulbasutras should not be confused with popular books on Vedic mathematics. These are modern works that have little to do with the Vedas).

All this shows that progress can be made in explaining Harappan archaeology and the Vedic literature if one is prepared to follow a multidisciplinary, scientifically rigorous approach. The present incongruous situation — of mismatch between archaeology and literature — is attributable to two factors. First, an attempt to preserve a theory created on the basis of insufficient evidence before any archaeological data became available. Next, the fact that even this theory and the foundation that it rests on were created by linguists and other scholars whose understanding of science and the scientific method left much to be desired.

Correcting past errors

Several historians have rightly expressed concern that history may soon be written by individuals who lack the necessary knowledge of the historical method. But far more serious is the fact that what is found in textbooks today is based on theories created by men and women who had no qualifications to write about them. They are based not on the primary sources, but explanations that seek to fit the data to a particular Nineteenth century worldview — the Eurocolonial. The immediate task before Indian historians is to get back to the fundamentals, ignoring the authority of scholars from the past, no matter how great their reputations. Sri Aurobindo suggested that the problem lies in the failure of Indian scholars to develop independent schools of thought. In his words: "That Indian scholars have not been able to form themselves into a great and independent school of learning is due to two causes: the miserable scantiness of the mastery in Sanskrit provided by our universities, crippling to all but born scholars, and our lack of sturdy independence which makes us over-ready to defer to European (and Western) authority."

This is not to suggest that we should either deny or reject the findings of Western scholarship. Only we should not accept them uncritically as authority figures. They were products of their time and environment and the resulting weaknesses should be recognised. Their contributions remain substantial, but cannot be treated as primary knowledge. No less a person than Swami Vivekananda once said: "Study Sanskrit, but along with it study Western sciences as well. Learn accuracy, … study and labour so that the time will come when you can put our history on a scientific basis… How can foreigners, who understand very little of our manners and customs, or our religion and philosophy, write faithful and unbiased histories of India? … Nevertheless they have shown us how to proceed making researches into our ancient history. Now it is for us to strike out an independent path of historical research for ourselves, … It is for Indians to write Indian history."

His advice holds as good today as it did a century ago when he gave it to a group of students. The recovery of history must begin with a thorough study of the primary sources. The first step is to close the unnatural gap between archaeology and literature.

(The writer is the author with David Frawley of the book Vedic Aryans and the Origins of Civilisation)


1. Historical divide: archaeology and literature , by N.S. RAJARAM, The Hindu, Tuesday, Jan 22, 2002.


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