Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

September 28, 2016

First published September 27, 2016


When Saraswati met Indus

Published on 27th September, 2016, on .

The hymns of the Rig Veda speak of a culture with a vivid imagination that celebrated horses, cows, chariots or at least carts, a portable ritual called yagna that suited a nomadic lifestyle, an obsession with astronomy, a war-mongering god called Indra, and a four-fold division of society. They retain memory of a great river called Saraswati and reveal a migration pattern from plains of the Punjab to the Gangetic plains but not from outside India as European scholars once believed. Let us call these people hymn singers.

The remains of the Indus valley cities (many of them in Rajasthan and Gujarat far from the Indus river valley) reveal a very urban civilisation with well-organised cities with granaries, roads, a drainage system and seals revealing plant and animal worship with bulls and tigers and elephants, but no horses. An occasional fire altar and stepped well, but no sign of hierarchy or overly religious imagery. Everything seems utilitarian and minimalist. Let us call these people city dwellers.

The contrast is stark. Contemporary Indian society reveals influences of both these hymn singers as well as the city dwellers: the cow continues to be sacred, as does the pipal tree. Were these two different communities that shaped India? Or were they just the one?

Despite glaring differences in the spirit of the two cultures, this is a strong desire to believe that the hymn singers were also the city dwellers. Evidence remains quite tenuous. And it does not explain why Indians abandoned “good” sewage drainage system, but why we clung to “bad” four-fold social division.

In all probability, they were not the same people. Did they live in the same geographical area in different time zones? If yes, who came first: the hymn singers or city dwellers? Maybe the Vedic hymns came later. But that is unacceptable to nationalists. For we have been conditioned by our education system that that which came earlier is superior. Theories that say early Vedic hymns refer to astronomical events of 6000 BCE are preferred to theories that trace Vedic hymns to 1500 BCE on basis of Mittani epigraphic evidence found in Mesopotamia. But if hymn singers came earlier, then it must have witnessed the rise and fall of the cities. But no hymns speak of this. And the migration to the Gangetic plains did not lead to new wave of planned cities with drainage systems.

Maybe they lived in the same time zone but different geographical zones. European Orientalists, who discovered the Indus cities, and who were the first to analyse the Indo-European roots of the Sanskrit language, insisted they were foreigners. Being Christians, they postulated the idea that the Vedic war chariots destroyed the Indus cities using the Bible’s Old Testament frame of nomadic Jewish tribes overpowering the city-dwellers of Canaan to establish the kingdom of Judea. This theory was favoured by British rulers as it enabled them to argue with Hindu nationalists that their ancestors were, much like the Europeans, and Muslims before them, invaders and colonisers. They were not “original”. This seemed plausible theory for many Indians, especially those who fancied the idea of belonging to pure Aryan stock, until the rise of Nazism during World War II after which Aryan became a bad word. Unfortunately for these invasion theorists, there is absolutely no evidence of any invasion either in the Vedic hymns or in the archaeological remains of the cities. Scientists are convinced that climate changes not invasion destroyed the Indus cities; perhaps it was the drying or shifting of a river that the Vedas identify as Saraswati.

The Europeans Orientalists also postulated that Sanskrit, or at least proto-Sanskrit, was a foreign language which came into India from somewhere West. The Vedic language has no doubt much in common with languages in Iran and faraway Europe. But it also has 300 words used by the local Munda tribes. Did the language move from Central Asia, and then got wedged in Iran so that one group moved West to Europe and other group went East to India? Or did the language spread from India and move westwards to Europe and eastwards towards Gangetic plains, the latter evolving the Vedic hymns, the former retaining only memories of asuras and devas such that asuras become Ahura, God of ancient Iran, and devas become divs, demons of ancient Iran? Typically, predictably, foreign scholars prefer the West to East theory and Indian scholars — not just nationalists – prefer the East to West theory.

In all this conversation about migration from east to west or west to east, there is a big assumption: that language equals race! That is not true. Migration of language has little to do with migration of people. Many words of the Vedic language may have come from Central Asia, but not necessarily the people. Language can arrive with traders, and travellers, not necessarily immigrants or invaders. People can go away but they can leave behind the language. Just as today those who speak and write books in English can also be native Indians, those who composed the hymns of the Rig Veda in Vedic Sanskrit, with its Indo-European words, were in all probably native Indians, maybe not the city building Indians, but Indians nevertheless. Even if they were foreigners, how does it really matter, except to nationalists? We will really never know. What we do know is that the hymns, composed or captured or simply classified by rishis, clearly originated and flourished in South Asia (known as Indian Subcontinent before rise and partition of nation states), not elsewhere.

Could the city dwellers and hymn singers have lived in the same geographical and in the same time zone without wanting to invade or influence each other? Why is this idea so difficult to accept? Why must two neighbours always be in conflict? In forests across India there are tribes who live together but never talk to each other, each one respecting the other’s rhythm. Why are we not encouraged to accept such a possibility? Why are we told that is not possible? The obsession of explaining everything in the world in terms of conflicts is a modern obsession.

Maybe they were not exact contemporaries. Maybe the hymns were composed by Indians using local words and foreign words over a long period of time amplifying at a time when horses become widely prevalent, so probably in the late phase of the cities (horses have always had to be imported into India, as they were to China, from Central Asia as horses they in its open grasslands). Maybe hymn singers emerged as a powerful force after the city dwellers were well past their glory days, when drainage systems had collapsed because of the collapse of a central or at least efficient management system. Maybe, as time passed, some ideas that did not demand central control like worship of plants and animals and use of certain design motifs survived. But no, we don’t want this theory. It is too messy.

Now with our obsession with cleaning India with many theories floating around as to explain why Indians are “so dirty”, imagined conflict between hymn singers and city dwellers has resurfaced. A theory is being proposed that hymn singing people introduced the caste system and purification rites, hence a disdain for sanitation, which wiped out all memories of sanitation created by the egalitarian city dwellers.

The European Orientalists would be horrified if their beloved Aryans were accused of rejecting drainage system and willy-nilly promoting open defecation. India’s nationalists are certainly not amused. If you oppose this theory, you are most likely to be branded as a “savarna” Vedic sympathiser who does not believe in egalitarian clean cities.

Theories such as these, which want to project, city dwellers as the good “toilet” folk and the hymn singers as the bad “caste” folk have much to do with today’s politics and less to do with history. We continue to do what we have accused European Orientalists of: using history as a propaganda tool for our own agendas. Many historians buckle to political pressures. We saw this in the erstwhile government and we continue to see in the new government (though only the latter is highlighted by many “liberals”). But mercifully there are many historians who have no desire to give a comfortable convenient user-friendly version of the past. Our past is messy and mysterious defying organisation and explanation, efforts of fiction writers notwithstanding. Let us learn to accept it as it is.

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