A Brief History Of History
Arun Gupta | 23 Mar 2008

"It's ancient history" usually means that "it" is no longer relevant. But India's ancient history provokes many contemporary controversies. One such even made it to the cover story of a recent issue of Frontline magazine. The question underlying that controversy is -- What was the language of the people who lived five thousand years ago in Harappa and Mohenjodaro ? N. Rajaram, a NRI-engineer-returned-home-turned-historian claims to have deciphered the writing of those people and found it to be Sanskrit. Indologist Witzel and historian Farmer debunk the decipherment and allege fraud on the part of Rajaram. But why is any of this important ? The history of India has never been confined to the ivory tower. History has been used as an underpinning to political ideology.

Ancient Indians were apparently not very good at history. Ten centuries ago, Al Biruni, the great scholar of the court of Ghazni noted that Hindus quickly lose track of dates and are mixed up on events as recent as a hundred years ago. More recently, Sanskritist Monier-Williams noted that with the exception of historiography, Sanskrit has more texts, commentaries and commentaries on commentaries than any other ancient language.

So, with but a few exceptions, the early histories in India were probably written by Muslims in India. I do not know if these provoked debate when they were written. Probably not. Today, of course, it is a matter of controversy of whether the iconoclasm of the Muslim rulers described in those histories is a fiction to disguise political and economic motives, or whether it described genuine religious fanaticism. India's attention to all this, however, was drawn by the Europeans. It would be interesting to find out whether Sikh, Maratha resurgence led to any construction of histories.

History was a tool of the Europeans in justifying their subjugation of India. The East India Company paid for the derogatory history of India authored by James Mill, and gave copies of it to their employees headed for India. India was deemed a "backward area", never fully civilized, where only a "vigorous despotism" by a civilized country such as England was workable.

Another factor in the European construction of Indian history was the mission to Christianize India. Typical is Max Muller, who wrote about his translation of the Vedas that "the Veda is the root of their religion and to show them what the root is, I feel sure, is the only way of uprooting all that has sprung from it during the last three thousand years."

Indian history was not only to be misused in India, but in Europe itself. Sir William Jones had noted in 1786 that Sanskrit has great similarities in words and in grammar to Latin and Greek. Proceeding from this was uncovered the fact that many of the languages of India, Iran and Europe must have had a common origin, and presumably at some early time were spoken by some single people in some small geographic area. German nationalists seized upon this idea, and constructed a "blonde blue-eyed Aryan race" who had carried the seed of Indo-European language and civilization by glorious conquest through out the world. There is no need to dwell on the horrors these ideas ultimately led to. It is very necessary to point out that the connection between race and language constructed here is false and has no supporting evidence -- more about that in the future.

The theory of Aryan invasions was convenient to British imperialism as well. It made the English simply part of a historical pattern that was repeating itself endlessly, and therefore justified by tradition. It further laid waste to India's claim of having a civilization of its own. Influenced by these ideas, Marx wrote that India had no civilization that had not been imposed on it.

India had more than just Indo-European languages ( the two other major language groups are Dravidian and Munda). The colonialists equated language and race once again, and it seems this was yet another way to try to peel away another group away from Hinduism. In this construction, Dravidians were the people conquered by Aryan invaders, and were permanently subjugated by being classified into the lower castes of the Aryan hierarchy. Indians were utterly unconscious of this supposed Aryan-Dravidian divide until the Europeans pointed it out; and its consequences are reverberating today, in India, and in Sri Lanka, where the Sinhalese consider themselves to be Aryans continuing a historical war against the Tamils.

We now come to modern times, when a Hindu revival is taking place in India. There is no doubt that there is an ugly intolerant side to this phenomenon, which execrates Muslims and Christians as foreign elements in India who detract from the true nationalism, Hindutva. I hope people realize that the Hindu revival is much broader than Hindutva. Anyway, it is theorized by opponents of Hindutva that the Aryan Invasion Theory is an embarassment to Hindutva, because it means that Hinduism (or at least much of its source) was brought in by invaders analogous to the Islamic and European Christian invaders of India. Therefore Hindutva followers will try to discredit this theory and any theory of the foreign origins of speakers of Sanskrit. And sure enough, the most vigorous opponents of the Aryan theory happen to be Hindutva followers. N. Rajaram is one of them.

This may well be true. However, Veer Savarkar, who coined the word "Hindutva" , and was the prime Hindutva theorist, is also said to have accepted the Aryan Invasion theory. For Savarkar at least, it appears that Hinduism was not diminished by the possibility that it was initially propagated by invaders. It is not clear whether Savarkar's modern followers think the same way. The reaction against the Aryan invasion theory may simply be a rejection of all constructs originating with the colonialists.

The authors of the Frontline article, Witzel and Farmer, are among those who see in Rajaram's work sinister Hindutva purpose, and have written risking abuse and vituperation to expose that and to defeat it. One effect it will definitely have is to raise the average Indian reader's interest in ancient history. It is fortunate timing -- there are plenty of interesting new discoveries. More about that later.