The study of ancient India, at least in the modern Western sense, may be said to have begun with Sir William Jones in the late 18th century. With his discovery of the Sanskrit language and its literature, Jones became the founder of the field we now call Indology. For the next century and half, this became the basis for the study of everything connected with ancient India, including its history.
With the discovery of the Harappan Civilization in 1921 — greater in extent than ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia combined — archaeological data also became available, which could now be used in the study of ancient India. But no systematic effort was made to connect archaeological data with the ancient Indian literature. On the other hand, entrenched theories like the Aryan invasion sought to keep Harappan archaeology and ancient Indian literature permanently separated. This has created a strange situation. The Harappans, the creators of the greatest material civilization of antiquity, have no literary or historical context. On the other hand, the Vedic Aryans, the creators of the greatest literature the world has ever known have no archaeological or even geographical existence.
As a result, after more than two centuries, the subject called Indology has no foundation to speak of; what we have instead is little more than a collection of views and ad-hoc theories that often contradict one another. It is time now to look at the underlying beliefs and methods of Indology, which has for all practical purposes served as a substitute for historiography as far as ancient India is concerned. The present volume is intended as a contribution towards that end. It focuses on two sources: first, ancient literary sources which challenge the Indological version of Vedic Civilization as the creation of nomadic invaders called the Aryans; and next, the separation of the Harappan Civilization from the Vedic mainstream.
In this reexamination, the recent decipherment of the Indus script by Natwar Jha is beginning to play a fundamental role. To begin with, it provides a firm historical context for the Harappans by linking their archaeology to the Vedic literature. This provides a chronological and cultural marker of the first importance by placing the later Vedic literature in the third millennium. As a result, it now becomes possible to begin to formulate the history of Vedic India on a solid foundation. It is shown that this is best done by discarding the field called Indology which has no scientific basis; its place should be taken by a historical structure built on a foundation of primary sources from archaeology and ancient literature. With this, our study of ancient India can begin in earnest.
In the last decade of the 18th century, 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 like Latin and Greek. He observed:
… 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 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.
With this dramatic announcement Jones simultaneously launched the two fields that we now call Indology and comparative linguistics. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that the two fields were doomed from the start: being new, neither had a scientific foundation, and yet they tried to grow by feeding on each other. It soon spawned a new breed of scholars who went on to apply the first superficial findings of these new fields to the problems of ancient India. Into these new fields — rich with data, but without any foundation to speak of — entered a man whose name has become almost synonymous with Indology, Freidrich Max Müller.
Max Müller was a romantic with a vivid and sometimes uncontrolled imagination. Through his combination of erudition, enthusiasm, skill in presentation and fortunate circumstances, he came to dominate the new field of Indology. To account for the similarities between Indian and European languages, European scholars went on to propose something called the ‘Aryan invasion’. According to this theory, a nomadic people inhabiting the Eurasian steppes speaking the common ancestor of Sanskrit and Greek — variously called Indo-European, Indo-Aryan and so forth — invaded India from the northwest and settled in India. Max Müller placed this invasion in 1500 BC, and the composition of the Rigveda in 1200 BC. He presented various arguments, but it is now known — we have his own word for it — that what influenced him was his firm belief in the Christian dogma of the creation of the world in 4004 BC (October 23 at 9:00 AM, time zone unspecified), and the Biblical Flood in 2448 BC!
This highlights another problem that has plagued Indology right from the start. Not only was Indology (and its associated field of comparative linguistics) without a foundation, but also heavily influenced by Christian beliefs and political considerations. This is reflected in its methodology also which often resembles theology more than science. This can be seen in the following statement of the well-known linguist Murray Emeneau made as recently as 1954:
At some time in the second millennium B.C., probably comparatively early in the millennium, a band or bands of speakers of an Indo-European language, later to be called Sanskrit, entered India over the northwest passes. This is our linguistic doctrine, which has been held now for more than a century and a half. There seems to be no reason to distrust the arguments for it, in spite of the traditional Hindu ignorance of any such invasion. (Emphasis added.)
As Emeneau himself acknowledges, this notion of a foreign origin for the Vedas and Sanskrit is a 'linguistic doctrine' for which there is no evidence in the Vedic or other ancient literature. Presumably Emeneau expects us to accept his doctrine on faith — as revealed truth. To a scientifically informed person this seems more like theology than anything else. (Remember Thomas Aquinas' dictum: Philosophia ancilla thologiae or "Rational inquiry must be subordinate to theology.")
There were other forces at work — notably the rise of German nationalism, and political and career considerations of individual scholars; these need not detain us here. The point to recognize here is that in such a climate, dominated by political and religious considerations, Indology had no chance of evolving into a systematic discipline — let alone a science. As a result, influence and powers of rhetoric often prevailed over logic and facts.
The basic assumptions of Indology were (and remain): (1) Vedas and the Sanskrit language (or its ancestor), were brought into India by nomadic invaders in the second millennium; (2) there was no indigenous civilization in India prior to that date. An immediate corollary to these assumptions is that India never had an indigenous civilization and everything was an import. This is still the central dogma of Marxist historians who became the successors to the colonial and Christian missionary scholars. (More of this later.) In this climate of combined religious and political darkness that resembled Medieval Europe more than the modern world, there were a few shafts of scientific light. Scholars like H.T. Colebrook, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Herman Jacobi found astronomical references in the Vedic literature that brought to light serious problems with the Aryan invasion and other assumptions (and dogmas) of Indology. This, however, was not enough to dislodge entrenched dogmas. Then, in the third decade of this century, there was a significant change.
Beginning in 1921, archaeologists Rakhal Das Bannerji and Daya Ram Sahni, working under the direction of Sir John Marshall discovered two ancient cities in Punjab and Sind; these are now famous as Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. Subsequent excavations showed that they were part of a great civilization spread over more than a million square kilometers. This is now known as the Harappan or the Indus Valley Civilization. Archaeologists now place it in the c. 3100 – 1900 BC period, though its antecedents can be traced to 7000 BC at sites like Mehrgarh in the northwest and Koldihwa in Central India.
This was a major blow to the Aryan invasion theory, and the idea that there was no civilization in India prior to the arrival of the Aryans in 1500 BC. It should have made scholars sit up and take a serious look at the foundation of their theories and arguments. It did not. To begin with, Indologists had never built a foundation for their subject. All they had to show for their century of activity was a collection of theories and conjectures. In keeping with this record, they added another conjecture: the Harappan Civilization was destroyed by the invading Aryans. The result of all this piling of conjecture upon conjecture was to move Indology (and Indologists) further and further away from empirical reality. As it stands today, Indology resembles nothing so much as comparative mythology. Clearly, this cannot be the basis for history let alone historiography. So we must look elsewhere to build a foundation for the study of ancient India.
From colonialism to Marxism
A consequence of this unusual history is that the major influences on the evolution of Indology have been Christian missionary interests and European politics including colonial interests. (It should be noted that throughout the colonial period, Christian missionaries worked closely with colonial authorities, especially in fields like education.) This came to an end with the independence of India from colonial rule on August 15, 1947. So the time was ripe for Indian scholars to reject these colonial impositions and begin a reexamination of their history and culture based on a study of their matchless heritage of primary records, supplemented by modern scientific tools. In fact, more than a century ago, Swami Vivekananda had exhorted Indians:
The histories of our country written by English [and other Western] writers cannot but be weakening to our minds, for they talk only of our downfall. How can foreigners, who understand very little of our manners and customs, or religion and philosophy, write faithful and unbiased histories of India? Naturally, many false notions and wrong inferences have found their way into them.
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, to study the Vedas and the Puranas, and the ancient annals of India, and from them make it your life's sadhana to write accurate and soul-inspiring history of the land. It is for Indians to write Indian history.
But again, for reasons peculiar to every post-colonial country, this did not happen. Why this was so is an important subject that still awaits serious study. For our purposes it is enough to know that at the time of independence, India had a substantial English educated elite class that identified itself closely with the values and attitudes of the British rulers. A good number of these had received their education at institutions run by Christian missions, and had gone on to imbibe many of the anti-Hindu prejudices perpetuated by missionary scholars. Following the withdrawal of colonialism, Marxism — no less hostile to Hinduism — filled the resulting vacuum. This elite, without the guidance of colonial and missionary scholarship, readily embraced Marxist formulations of Indian history.
A key figure in this development was the Marxist scholar D.D. Kosambi. He formulated a version of ancient Indian history around the central Marxist dogma of the class struggle, and economy as the basis of history. An inseparable part of Marxist theology is that India has no history of its own and what is called history is nothing but a record of its intruders. This was stated by no less a person than Karl Marx. This dogma has become sacrosanct for the Marxist scholars who came to dominate the Indian intellectual scene for nearly half a century. They are no more prepared to question it than a devout Catholic the notion of virgin birth. The Aryan invasion theory fitted in well with this belief system. Even when archaeological data forced some of them to abandon the invasion idea, they grimly hung on to the notion of the Vedas and the Sanskrit language as foreign imports. This is essentially the position of Indian Marxists, many of whom recognize that the Aryan invasion has been shattered by science. They assert that even though there was no invasion, the Vedas and Sanskrit are foreign imports. Their very identity as Marxists depends on it.
It is important to understand that what has passed for ‘research’ and ‘scholarship’ by this school has consisted entirely of manipulating data from Indian sources around Marxist beliefs. Where Christian missionaries in India had followed this course to establish the superiority of Christianity over all other religions — especially Hinduism — the Marxists used similar arguments to establish the inevitability of Marxism. Marxists essentially adopted the idea of ‘progress’ from Christian theology.
Christianity sees history as the evolution of mankind from its ‘natural’ sinful state to be redeemed by Christ. This is the essence of mankind’s ‘progress’ or eschatology. Marxists hold the history of the world to be a similar evolution into a Marxist society. It was for this reason that the philosopher Bertrand Russell called Marxism a ‘Christian heresy’. And for the same reason, the Marxist view of history may justifiably be called a ‘secular eschatology’. From all this it is not hard to see that modern Indian historians have been acting more as theologians than scientists. This in fact is at the heart of the current debate over the interpretation of ancient Indian history. There is now battle raging over it. This is examined in the next article.