By Nithin Sridhar
The Aryan Question: Part 5
The Aryan question continues to remain highly controversial and multidimensional in nature. In order to unravel the nitty-gritty of the issue, NewsGram interviewed various scholars who have researched various aspects of the issue in depth.
In this 'fifth installment' of 'The Aryan Question', NewsGram brings an exclusive interview of Michel Danino, independent scholar, educationist, and guest professor at IIT Gandhinagar, who has authored books and papers on the issue, including The Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati (Penguin India, 2010). He is also a member of the Indian Council of Historical Research.
Interview with Michel Danino
Nithin Sridhar: You have been researching the origins of River Sarasvati for many years. Can you share with us why River Sarasvati is so important for understanding ancient Indian history? What is its relevance in the debate on the Aryan issue?
Michel Danino: The Sarasvati River is important at two levels. One, as a river, since it is praised as such in the Rig-Veda, India's oldest text; it is clear that a number of the Rig-Vedic hymns were composed in the region where the river flowed. It was part of the Vedic landscape, just like Sindhu (the Indus) or its tributaries; together they formed the Saptasidhava (the "seven rivers"). However, the Sarasvati is the only one of those rivers that disappeared, hence the search not only for the river's location but for the causes of its disappearance. Secondly, the river was so revered that it was turned into a goddess with the additional symbolic meaning of inspiration, then speech, therefore, knowledge, therefore, education, the arts, etc. Sarasvati is thus an important symbol in Indian culture.
If the river's identification has become controversial, it is only since the 1980s, when it became clear from the archaeological evidence that the river dried up in its central basin around 1900 BCE. In that case, how could Aryans supposedly arriving about 400 years later describe the river as of "mighty waters", flowing "unbroken" "from the mountain to the sea"? There is a chronological impossibility. The Rig-Veda was composed while the river was in full flow, and on the basis of current archaeological evidence, this would take us before 2600 BCE (when the river first broke up near what is today the international border in western Rajasthan). Of course, proponents of the Aryan invasion/migration theory will not accept this.
NS: You have identified the River Sarasvati mentioned in the Vedas with the dried bed of the Ghaggar-Hakra River. Can you briefly explain the evidence that has helped you to arrive at this identity? What bearing does this identification have on the whole debate surrounding Aryan migration?
M Danino: The Sarasvati's identification with the dry bed of the Ghaggar-Hakra of Haryana, Punjab, northern Rajasthan and the Cholistan is not mine at all. It was first made by the French geographer Louis Vivien de Saint-Martin way back in 1855! It was soon endorsed by almost all European Indologists (such as HH Wilson, F Max Müller, Marc Aurel Stein, Louis Renou), geographers and geologists (such as RD Oldham), and later archaeologists (Stuart Piggott, Mortimer Wheeler, and Aurel Stein again, not to speak of recent ones like RAllchin or GL Possehl and numerous Indian archaeologists). Today's critics of this identification conceal this longstanding consensus as they dishonestly want to create an impression that the identification is a recent "Hindutva" theory. It is no such thing.
The reasons for the identification are very simple: 1) In its tenth and final mandala, the Rig-Veda has a hymn "in praise of rivers" (the famous Nadistuti Sukta) which lists Sarasvati between the Yamuna and the Sutlej; 2) later literature, from the Brahmanas to the Mahabharata not only confirms the river's location but records its gradual retreat; 3) there is in Haryana a small "Sarsuti", a tributary to the Ghaggar, and also an old tradition that the Sarasvati's source is nearby in the Shivalik Hills. These are precisely the points that the nineteenth-century scholars used to reach their conclusion.
NS: Some Aryan migration proponents argue that the Rigveda refers to two different Sarasvati rivers. They identify the one referred to as "Naditama" in older portions of Rigveda with Helmand in Afghanistan, and the Sarasvati mentioned in Nadisukta and other later portions of Rigveda with the Ghaggar. Another argument forwarded to support Helmand hypothesis is that 'Samudra' refers to 'lake' and not 'ocean'. What is your view on this?
M Danino: The linguistic argument that the Helmand had an ancient Avestan name, "Harahvaiti", which is cognate with "Sarasvati", proves nothing, since we might just as well turn it around and propose that this is evidence of a migration out of India. Or, if we get a little less obsessed with migrations, we could see it as a sign of cultural interaction. In any case, there is nothing to show that the Rig-Veda refers to one river in its older hymns and to another in the Nadistuti Sukta — this is an artificial device imposed on the text to get away from the chronological implications I referred to above. The absurdity becomes clear if you consider that the Ghaggar had long dried up by the time (1500 to 1200 BCE) the Aryans are supposed to have reached it: why should they transfer the name "Sarasvati", a river they extolled, to what had by then become a puny seasonal stream?
As regards "Samudra", the word can indeed be used in principle for any sizeable water body, but in many passages, it clearly refers to the ocean. Thus the legend of Bhujyu, rescued from a storm in the "billowy Samudra" by the Ashvins. There are many mentions of seven rivers meeting the Samudra, of waves, ships, storms, etc. In fact, HH Wilson plainly stated in 1866 that the Rig-Veda's hymns were "familiar with the ocean and its phenomena"; Max Müller agreed, writing in 1882 that "the word Samudra shows in by far the larger number of passages the clear meaning of ocean." It is silly to deny this simply to portray Aryans as freshly arrived from landlocked Afghanistan!
NS: Can you briefly explain the salient features of the Indus-Sarasvati civilization? Also, share about the time period, urbanization, and the eventual decline of it.
M Danino: It was the first urban civilization of the Indian subcontinent. After a few millennia of slow and gradual developments, by 2600 BCE cities came up over much of the Northwest. They did not boast pyramids, imposing temples or colossal statues, but displayed planning to an unprecedented degree in the Bronze Age; Mohenjo-daro also had a remarkable drainage system. Harappans were primarily manufacturers, craftsmen and traders (of course agriculturists too). The cities appear wealthy enough, though not ostentatiously so. It is now clear that by 1900 BCE (a little earlier or later depending on the region) the whole civilization disintegrated and cities were either abandoned or reverted to semi-rural settlements. The current consensus is that climatic and environmental changes (including the drying up of the Sarasvati at about the same time) played a major role in this.
NS: Contrary to the assertions of AMT proponents that Indus civilization was a non-Vedic, non-Aryan civilization, you have argued that there is continuity between Indus civilization and the later Vedic civilization in the Gangetic plains. Can you shed more light on this? What similarities can be observed between the two civilizations?
M Danino: I never speak of "Vedic civilization", only of "Vedic culture", and there is no proof that it is "later" — that is no more than an opinion, albeit the dominant one. What I have done is to add my bit to the body of evidence of numerous bridges and commonalities between Harappan and Vedic cultures, many of which have been pointed out for decades, and to the enormous Harappan legacy to the Gangetic civilization of the first millennium BCE. For instance, fire altars are unmistakable at sites like Kalibangan, Lothal and Banawali; Harappan figurines point to some practice of yoga and meditation; Harappan units of weight and length, as well as auspicious proportions, survive, as do several important symbols, concepts of iconography and craft techniques. And much more. The so-called break between the two cultures is, again, an artificial device imposed by the Aryan scenario.
NS: The absence of horses and chariots in Harappan sites has been pointed out as being definite evidence of the Indus civilization being Non-Aryan, Non-Vedic civilization. You have extensively written refuting it. Can you summarize your observations?
M Danino: This is a poorly constructed argument as it misrepresents the evidence at every step. Very briefly, it is incorrect to state that the horse was unknown to Harappans: horse bones or teeth have been identified at over a dozen sites (even at a couple of pre-Harappan sites) by the best archaeozoologists so that even conservative archaeologists like Piggott or Wheeler accepted the animal's presence. The argument also incorrectly implies that with the supposed coming of the Aryans, evidence of the horse should become widespread — quite the contrary, relics of the animal remain few and far between. The horse is also rarely depicted in art until the Mauryan Empire. Finally, 25 years ago, the respected British anthropologist Edmund Leach protested at the misreading of the Rig-Veda that would have a Vedic society full of horses; he pointed out that the animal was, on the contrary, used as a "prestige animal" that would rather point to its rarity. In fact, a century ago, Sri Aurobindo had warned that just as 'go' in the Rig-Veda means both a cow and light, 'ashva' refers both to the horse and to speed or energy, and many passages were misread by taking the word at its literal meaning. Of course, our Aryan proponents have no use for such nuanced points and continue to bludgeon their "no horse" argument.
NS: The presence of speakers of Brahui (which belongs to Dravidian family of languages) in Balochistan has been used to point out that Dravidian speakers were in North-West India and after the influx of Aryan speakers, they migrated into South India. What is your view on this?
M Danino: One more methodologically flawed argument. Way back in the 1920s, the French linguist Jules Bloch demonstrated that Brahui reached Baluchistan recently, perhaps at the time of the Islamic invasions and probably from central India. This thesis was more recently endorsed by the noted linguist Murray Emeneau, and still more recently by H.H. Hock. Finally, the linguist and mathematician Josef Elfenbein confirmed it using a different approach. It is completely illegitimate to see the language as a "relic" from the Harappan times; the argument, still misused today to establish that the authors of the Indus Valley civilization were "Dravidians," has no linguistic validity.
NS: Do we find any archaeological pieces of evidence in South India or any literary pieces of evidence in old Tamil Sangam literature that speak about a migration of Dravidians into South India or the interaction between Aryan and Dravidian speakers?
M Danino: There are no references to a northern origin of Tamil speakers in the Sangam literature and no animosity against northern Indians. On the other hand, its earliest layers are already quite familiar with the Vedas and important themes of Hindu mythology, for example, Ganga or the Himalayas are objects of reverence. As regards the archaeological record, just as it has failed in the North to document the supposed arrival of the so-called Aryans, it is completely silent in the South about a migration from the north. Archaeology has no need and no use for the invisible Aryans, which is why most archaeologists have quietly shown them the door.
NS: The invasion/migration theory was first hypothesized to explain the commonalities between Sanskrit and certain European languages. In the case of non-invasion, non-migration scenario, how would these commonalities be explained?
M Danino: There are quite a few alternative scenarios, which surprisingly have received very little attention. "Surprisingly" because the failure to trace Aryans — let us now call them Indo-European speakers, a better term anyway — in north India is repeated in central Asia and also Europe; bioanthropology (the study of skeletal remains) and most recent genetic studies have also failed to discern the arrival of a new people in the 2nd millennium BCE.
Alternative linguistic models include (1) models of language propagation that do not require population movement but only contact (such models have been in place since the 19th century); (2) models of a "broad homeland" for Indo-European languages, in which they evolved by convergence rather than divergence from a proto-language (which, in this case, need not have existed at all); (3) models that do accept such a proto-language but put it at a much more remote period, 7000 BCE or beyond, which allows time for more complex interactions; (4) Out-of-India models, in which the proto-language originated from the subcontinent. Let us also note that a few professional linguists go further: "The very idea of an 'Indo-European' language family on which Indology is based is scientifically indefensible. IE linguists ignore vast amounts of data that do not fit with their classification. Sanskrit shares some features with Greek and Latin but it also shares equally important features with Afro-Asiatic. Indology as a discipline can be useful if it frees itself from the yoke of IEL [Indo-European linguistics]" (A. & R. McMahon, 2005). Clearly we are far from a linguistic consensus.
NS: Can you briefly summarize the protohistory of India, in the light of currently available archaeological, literary, linguistic, and genetic evidence?
M Danino: We should honestly acknowledge that current data remains insufficient for a complete picture; for instance, only about 10% of the Mature (or urban) Harappan settlements have been excavated. However, there is no reason to assume a discontinuity between the Harappan or Indus civilization and the later Gangetic civilization, as the Aryan model demands: cultural and biological continuities between the two are now numerous and well-documented. The archaeological continuity goes back to 7000 BCE or so at Mehrgarh (Baluchistan) and possibly Bhirrana in Haryana (though much more work needs to be done there).
The literary evidence is more difficult. Since the Rig-Veda does not mention rice, cotton, bricks, cities or ruins, and refers to the Sarasvati as flowing "from the mountain to the sea", some scholars have been tempted to place its most ancient hymns at a period prior to the Mature Harappan phase (2600-1900 BCE), that is, about 3000 BCE or earlier. That is also what scholars like Tilak and Jacobi had suggested (going back to 4000 BCE, in fact) on astronomical grounds, and we have more such astronomical arguments by now. Of course, the mainstream view remains that the Rig-Veda cannot be older than 1500 BCE, but it has no convincing replies to the many paradoxes that this late date raises.
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