A reply to Frontline’s cover story
by Profs. Michael Witzel, Steve Farmer & Romila Thapar (13 October 2000 issue)

Note : The above reply to Frontline was not published, even though several subsequent issues carried readers’ letters and supplementary articles.

The two articles in Frontline’s cover story (October 13 issue) regrettably show more prejudice than scholarly objectivity, and call for the briefest of answers on several distinct points :
  1. The horse question in the Harappan civilization;
  2. N. Jha’s and N. S. Rajaram’s proposed decipherment of the Indus script;
  3. The relationship, if any, between the Harappan and the Vedic worlds;
  4. The deeper question of “Indology” vs. Indian civilization.

1) Objective readers will agree with Profs. Witzel’s and Farmer’s convincing demonstration that the so-called horse seal included in Jha’s and Rajaram’s book is unlikely to have depicted a horse at all. But a “fraud” or an over-enthusiastic error ? Witzel and Farmer imply that the distorted seal is central to Jha’s and Rajaram’s work, but a look at their book shows it only occupies a minor place in their scheme of things. In my opinion, the reproduction (fig. 7.1a) is, more likely, a bad digital enlargement of a bad scan of a poorer original than the one Witzel and Farmer give us p. 7 ; on the whole, the shapes remain faithful, but the “artist’s reproduction” (fig. 7.1b) is certainly not legitimate. No one is above error, not even Witzel who mistranslated a Sanskrit text to make it hint at a migration into India (see Update on the Aryan Invasion Debate by the Belgian linguist and historian Dr. Koenraad Elst for details).

Prof. Romila Thapar’s remark that “if the horse had been as central to the Indus civilisation as it was to the Vedic corpus, there would have been many seals depicting horses” is simplistic. The Harappans did not include all the animals around them on their seals—they had cows and camels, for instance, yet did not depict them ; on the other hand they depicted the unicorn and a three-headed creature, which did not exist physi­cally. The seals were not meant to be a zoological catalogue, and until we can read the Harappans’ mind and culture, we can only try to guess reasons for the presence or absence of a particular animal.

As regards the horse itself, Witzel and Farmer quote the late Prof. Sándor Bökönyi, but omit his important conclusion about “the possibility of the occurrence of domesticated horses in the mature phase of the Harappa culture, at the end of the 3rd millennium B.C.” (South Indian Studies 13, 1997, p. 300). Apart from Bökönyi, Indian archaeozoologists Bhola Nath and A. K. Sharma had earlier reached similar conclu­sions. Let us not forget that not even five per cent of all Harappan sites have been exca­vated—the question of horse remains will doubtless remain open for some more time.

2) Witzel’s and Farmer’s objections to Jha’s proposed decipherment of the Indus script are twofold : One, that trying to read Sanskrit on the seals shows the work of “Hindutva revisionists”; by that criterion, respected archaeologists such as Dr. S. R. Rao, Dr. M. V. N. Rao and others, who had much earlier proposed decipherments linked to Sanskrit, will probably have to be stuck with the omnibus Hindutva label ! Two, a valid objection that the Jha’s decipherment leaves too much room for interpretation; yet that is not a sufficient ground to dismiss Jha’s work altogether, for our view of the Harappan script is probably distorted by the brevity of the inscriptions. What if Harap­pans had longer texts on cloth, wood, reed, or any other degradable material ? Such texts (even a few dozen words long) would clearly restrict the freedom of interpretation, even with Jha’s method, and would have given the necessary background to make shorter texts clear to the Harappans (just as the modern Hebrew script, devoid of vowels, can be ambiguous if a reader only had a word or two, but ceases to be so with more words). In the end, the reader is left wishing for an impartial and open-minded critique of Jha’s and Rajaram’s proposed decipherment rather than this kind of character assassination.

3) All three writers are emphatic that the Vedic age came much later than the Harappan, and that any attempt at equating the two can only come, again, from the fevered brains of “Hindutva propagandists”. This is absurd as well as misleading, for the connection (or lack of it) between the Harappan and the Vedic (or “Aryan”) worlds has been a matter of scholarly debate for decades, perhaps ever since John Marshall remarked in 1931, “[The Harappan] religion is so characteristically Indian as hardly to be distinguished from still living Hinduism.” More recently Colin Renfrew, a well-known British archaeologist, remarked (in his Archaeology and Language – the Puzzle of Indo-European Origins) : “It is difficult to see what is particularly non-Aryan about the Indus Valley civilization.” Indeed, several symbols depicted on the seals or other artefacts, such as the bull or a mother-goddess, are reminiscent of Vedic themes ; Raymond and Bridget Allchin, British archaeologists of rather conservative leanings, concede in their Origins of a Civilization – the Prehistory and Early Archaeology of South Asia that a seal from Chanhu-daro does seem to depict the marriage of Heaven and Earth, a theme central to the Rig-Veda. The seals also portray numerous deities seated or standing in yogic postures, and figurines in various yoga asanas have been found (e.g. at Lothal), which shows that yoga was part of Harappan culture. And what about the fire-altars found in several Harappan cities, reminiscent of Vedic rituals ?

Parallels do not end with artefacts. Prof. Romila Thapar’s assertion that “there are no descriptions of the city in the Rigveda [...] that could be applied to the Indus cities”, is astonishing : can she be unaware of claims to the contrary by respected archae­ologists, such as Dr. R. S. Bisht, excavator of Dholavira in Kutch, where he found “a virtual reality of what the Rig-Veda, the world’s oldest literary record, describes”? Bisht is also a deep Vedic scholar, and in a masterly article “Harappans and the Rigveda : Points of Convergence” in the recently published Dawn of Indian Civilization, he quotes over 500 references from the Rig-Veda to build his case that not only town-planning but various kinds of Harappan habitations are depicted in the Veda. Thapar also seems unaware that the Rig-Veda does make frequent mention of shipping, trade, and other ingredients of Harappan life. As the historian B. K. Ghosh pointed out in 1958, “The Rgveda clearly reflects the picture of a highly complex society in the full blaze of civili­sation,” a picture as consistent with the Indus civilization as it is inconsis­tent with pastoral nomads just arrived from Central Asia.

Finally we have the evidence provided by the Sarasvati river which dried up in stages until it disappeared around 1900 BC. Archaeologists, e.g. the Allchins, J. M. Kenoyer, Gregory Possehl, and most Indian archaeologists, accept the identification between the Vedic Sarasvati and the Ghaggar-Hakra valley which runs through Haryana, Rajasthan, and Pakistan’s desert of Cholistan. This identification is “well-established,” to use Witzel’s and Farmer’s frequent phrase (see their rule No. 2 about “respect for well-established facts”). Then how could the Rig-Veda praise the Sarasvati as a “mighty river” if its composers arrived on the scene much later ? Gregory Possehl puts the problems squarely when he remarks in his recent Indus Age : The Beginnings : “This carries with it an interesting chronological implication : the composers of the Rgveda were in the Sarasvati region prior to the drying up of the river and this would be closer than 2000 bc than it is to 1000 bc, somewhat earlier than most of the conventional chronologies for the presence of the Vedic Aryans in the Punjab.” In fact it should be much before 2000 BC if we accept the Rig-Veda’s description of the Sarasvati as flowing “from the mountain to the ocean” (7.95.2), Once again, the debate will go on, and raising the Hindutva bogey will do nothing to advance it. (Incidentally, was B. G. Tilak, who advocated an Arctic origin for the mythical Aryans, not a staunch defender of Hindutva ?)

4) If Rajaram and Jha are such worthless scholars as the writers constantly imply, why don’t the latter rather spend their energies engaging in a serious scholarly debate with a Renfrew or a Rao, a Bisht or a Possehl ? Is it because they are ill-equipped to do so ? Clearly, the Harappan-Vedic question is far more complex than the three professors are telling us, and cannot be solved by their sweeping assertions which ignore much archaeological and other evidence in disregard of their own golden rules Nos. 1 and 3.

As regards rule No. 4 about “independence from religious and political agendas,” it is unexceptionable. But in that case, why don’t the writers protest against the perverse misuse of the defunct Aryan invasion theory (or its new avatar of “Aryan migration”) by Marxist, Dalit, Christian and Dravidian groups ? When Asko Parpola declared in a World Tamil Conference that today’s Tamilians are the descendants of the Harappans, that was fine ; when K. N. Panikkar, who describes himself as a “Left histo­rian”, publicly defended the Aryan invasion theory at a recent student congress, that is fine ; but when one quotes solid evidence from reputed archaeologists to reject such half-baked claims, one is a “Hindutvavadi”—where is the logic ? And why are outdated Indian textbooks, which still speak of Aryan and Dravidian races, of Aryans invading India and destroying the Indus civilization, allowed to continue stuffing the brains of Indian children with such antiquated nonsense?

The demand underlying both articles is that none except holders of university chairs should have a right to discuss issues related to India’s ancient past. That demand is untenable. Knowledge has never been the exclusive property of academia. If in addi­tion Indologists (a very hazy term) are unwilling to tap living sources of knowledge on Indian civilization from genuine Indian scholars, pandits, and (why not ?) yogis, and hasten to dismiss all historical data derived from traditional sources, they should not be surprised if they find themselves isolated in their ivory tower. More importantly, Western or Westernized Indologists subconsciously try to impose a purely Western intellectual approach which, despite its great usefulness as a tool, fails to fathom India’s non-intellectual content. Recall for instance Thapar’s characterization (in her History of India) of the Rig-Veda as “primitive animism”, of the Mahabharata as the glorification of a “local feud” between two Aryan tribes, or of the Ramayana as “a description of local conflicts between the agriculturists of the Ganges Valley and the more primitive hunting and food-gathering societies of the Vindhyan region” (sic !). Such a shallow, reductionist look at one of the profoundest cultural heritages in the world is too often (though not always) the bane of Western academia. It can only leave many Indians dissatisfied and in search of more perceptive alternatives that do not belittle the Indian psyche.

(Sent by e-mail 9 Oct. 2000)