By Nithin Sridhar
The Aryan Question: Part 3
The Aryan question has been hanging for many decades without any conclusion, but with a lot of controversies and politics being played around it. In the quest to bring out the various facets of the Aryan issue, NewsGram decided to interview various scholars who have extensively worked on unraveling the mystery of Aryan issue.
In this third instalment of ‘The Aryan Question’ series, NewsGram brings an exclusive interview withProfessor Rajesh Kochhar of Panjab University Mathematics Department who has written the book‘The Vedic People, Their History and Geography’, highlighting various aspects of Aryan debate.
Interview with Rajesh Kochhar
Nithin Sridhar: For the benefit of the readers, I would like to start with the basics. Who were the ‘Aryans’? Is it a racial, or cultural, or linguistic identity? And what do the scholars actually imply when they speak about Aryan invasion or Aryan migration? Does it imply only a transfer of language or a migration of people along with their culture and religion?
Rajesh Kochhar: Linguistic and literary evidence provide us with very important clues. The closeness in grammar, vocabulary and phonetics between Sanskrit and major European languages (especially Greek and Latin) suggests that ancestors of their speakers must have lived together in the remote past. This joint Indo-European homeland has been placed in the Eurasian steppes. Furthermore, there is a remarkable degree of closeness between the Rigveda and the Zoroastrian sacred text Avesta, not only in language but also in mythology and religious concepts.
The peoples of the Rigveda and Avesta referred to themselves as Aryan. The 19th-century German scholarship used the term Aryan to denote the ‘race’ of Indo-European speakers. With the Nazi holocaust, the term fell into disrepute. It is considered more appropriate to use linguistic indicators. Thus, we talk about Indo-European speakers, of whom Indo-Iranians constituted a sub-group.
It is surmised that various linguistic groups dispersed from the homeland into Europe and southwards into Iran, Afghanistan and North India. Indic speakers moved into India after the collapse of the mature Harappan phase. Whether there was a migration or an invasion is a mere matter of detail. The key point is that the Rigvedic People were not Harrapans. Evidence suggests that decline of mature Harappan phase was brought about by environmental factors (like the long-drawn draught) than war.
NS: The date usually given for the migration of Aryan language speakers into India is around 1500 BC. Can you shed some light regarding how this date was arrived at and what are the important evidence that point towards this migration of Aryans into India?
RK: The date 1500 BC was suggested by Max Muller purely on the basis of guesswork, although it may not be too much off the mark. Archeological evidence, of course, cannot tell us about the language spoken by the inhabitants. But the appearance of new cultural elements suggests the arrival of new people. Indo-Iranian speakers appear on the Central Asian scene in about 2000 BC.
I have argued that the composition of Rigveda began in south Afghanistan in 1700 BC and the Rigvedic people entered India around 1400 BC.
A remarkable piece of evidence from Namazga VI in south Turkmenistan has a bearing on India. Namazga VI (c. 1700 BC) shows unmistakable signs of a break with the past and the arrival of new people. One pedestal from here was decorated by a swastika, an absolutely new motif in local symbolism. It was never found again in the entire rich collection of south Turkmenistan pottery. The solitary swastika seems to be a remnant of Indic-speaking tribes which moved further southwards.
NS: Please explain the process by which the migrating Aryans spread their language and culture on the natives of India. Especially considering that many migration proponents believe that only small waves of migrations happened into India over a long period of time. How did these people who came in small waves of migration manage to completely uproot the native Harappa culture and language and impose their own?
RK: When the Rigvedic people arrived in India, Harappan culture had already declined. There is an interesting piece of evidence suggesting assimilation. Sanskrit has retroflex sounds (such as ‘sh’ in Krishna). Retroflex is absent in European languages as well as in the Avestan and Old Persian. But it occurs in South Indian languages. It is surmised that retroflex was introduced into Sanskrit through the merger of the new groups with the older groups.
NS: What cultural and social differences can we notice between the migrating Aryan speakers and native Harappa people? Any information available regarding the fate of the native Harappans after the migration of Aryan people? What happened to them? Where did they go?
RK: Presence of Brahui speakers in Balochistan provides a clue. Brahui is related to the Dravidian family rather than Sanskrit. This would suggest that the majority of Dravidian speakers moved into South India after the arrival of Indic speakers.
NS: You have pointed in your book that, the Vedic literature speaks about two Saraswati’s-Naditama Saraswati and Vinashana Saraswati. You have further identified the former with Helmand River in Afghanistan and the latter with Ghaggar valley in Rajasthan. Can you elaborate on how you arrived at this conclusion?
RK: River Sarasvati is described in detail as a mighty river, in the old books (mandalas) of the Rigveda. It is noteworthy that rivers Sarasvati, Sarayu and the land Sapata-Sindhu appears in the Avesta in equivalent forms. It has been received wisdom for a long time that the Sarasvati of the old mandalas (naditama Sarasvati) is to be identified with the Old Ghaggar. Ghaggar today is a small river, in the land between Satluj and Yamuna that loses its way in the desert. There is incontrovertible evidence that in the past, things were different. Both Satluj and Yamuna flowed into Ghaggar and the combined waters flowed into the Arabian Sea. It must be borne in mind that contrary to popular misconception, satellite imagery confirms the existence of Old Ghaggar but does not (cannot) provide any chronological information.
It is very likely that the Ghaggar system has been in its present pitiable state for say 10000 or 20000 years. More fundamentally, the old Ghaggar cannot match the Rigvedic attributes of the mighty Sarasvati. The waters of snow-fed Satluj and Yamuna will make Lower Ghaggar a mighty river, but Upper Ghaggar will still be as it is now, a small rain-fed rivulet.
It is noteworthy that there is an uncanny similarity between the Rigvedic description of Sarasvati and Avestan description of Helmand (old name Haetumant=Setumant). Rigveda (6.61.8) talks of Sarasvati ‘whose limitless unbroken flood, swiftly moving with a rapid rush, comes onward with a tempestuous roar’, while Yasht (10.67) refers to ‘the bountiful, glorious Haetumant swelling its white waves rolling down its copious floods’. This suggests that the same river is meant in both cases.
I have argued that the Naditama Sarasvati is to be identified with Helmand river of South Afghanistan, which matches all the Rigvedic attributes.
A point needs to be clarified. Helmand empties into an inland lake. This, however, does not pose any problem. Rigveda refers to the Sarasvati’s going into Samudra. The literal meaning of Samudra is gathering of waters, its identification with ocean came later.
NS: What is your view regarding the Nadisukta in Rigveda that places Saraswati between Yamuna and Sutlej? Some scholars point out that, the dried bed of Gagghar is wider than Helmand and was flowing at its full at around 3000 BC and hence, they assert that Ghaggar may well represent the Naditama Saraswati that was flowing into the ocean as well. What is your view on this?
RK: The famous river hymn, Nadisukta, appears in the tenth mandala which constitutes the youngest portion of the Rigveda. The star of this hymn is river Indus; all the superlatives earlier applied to Sarasvati are now transferred to Indus. Ganga, Yamuna, Sarasvati, in order appears in this hymn in passing. It is certain that here the present rivers of the same name are meant. After the Aryans moved eastwards from Helmand towards Yamuna, they gave the name Sarasvati to Ghaggar (as it is today). The reference to the trio may explain the later Puranic mythology, making Sarasvati an invisible associate of Ganga and Yamuna which now were the most sacred rivers.
NS: Some archaeologists have asserted that no evidence of invasion or migration exists in the Harappa ruins. What is your view on this? Can you shed some light regarding the archeological evidence that point towards Aryan migration?
RK: I have argued that the Indic-speakers entered the Indian subcontinent at the end of mature Harappan phase, in three waves; the first two are dated c. 2000-1800 BC, and the third in 1400 BC. Direct archaeological evidence attributable to the Rigvedic people comes from the valley of Swat river (Rigvedic Suvastu) which joins the Kabul (Kubha) before flowing into Indus; from the Gomal (Gomati) in Baluchistan; and from across the Indus. Graves in Swat IV and V, as well as grave goods, are distinct from the earlier Harappan phase. More specifically, I have identified Swat V people with the Rigveda.
NS: A recent seminar of Sanskrit scholars in India has dated Rigveda to a period before the Indus valley civilization using astronomical and literary evidence. Some have dated Mahabharata to 3000 BC using astronomical dating. Similarly, some genetic studies have shown that there has been no gene infusion into India after 10,000 BC. How consistent and reliable are these astronomical and genetic evidence? How do you reconcile these evidence with the present Aryan migration model wherein Aryans migrate around 1500 BC?
RK: Rigveda is familiar with metal (ayas=copper) and wheeled vehicles. Both these technological developments can be dated in the world context. In no case can Rigveda be earlier than, say 4000BC. It is, in fact, much younger, as argued above.
Astronomical data is not reliable and does not provide unique numbers. In the case of Mahabharata, dates ranging from 3000 BC to 1000 BC have been suggested. Nobody has even otherwise suggested a date outside this range.
Also, all the pieces of the puzzle should fit together. It is not sufficient to take one particular piece of evidence and build an inverted pyramid on it.
This is especially true of astronomical and genetic clues. They can be aids, not an end in itself. Many genetic studies pertain to genes from the mother’s side while ancient societies were predominantly patrilineal. When we talk of Aryan arrival, we are talking about their language and culture rather than their genes.
NS: What is your assessment of the Out of India Theory that posits the homeland of Aryan speakers in India itself?
RK: Indo-European speakers enter world history through domestication of the horse and use of the faster horse carts rather than ox-carts. Similarly, soma/haoma cult is an important part of Indo-Iranians. The Indo-European homeland must be the horse-land and the Indo-Iranian heimat the soma/haoma-land.
If India were the original home of Indo-Europeans, it must also be the birth place of Zarathushtra. If the Zoroastrians had migrated out of India, they would have carried memories of the geography they left behind. Avestan literature is not familiar with the Indus. In fact, it believes Indus and Oxus to be the same. In contrast, Avesta itself refers to features in Afghanistan.
NS: One of the paradox pointed out by many who do not accept Aryan Migration Theory is that, on the one hand, it speaks about a nomadic tribal people who have developed a sophisticated language like Vedic Sanskrit, but have left no script and have left no archeological imprints and On the other hand, Harappan people who had developed an extensive urban civilization are without a written language and have left no extensive literature. How is this paradox reconciled?
RK: The dichotomy is striking. At our current level of knowledge, the archeology and literary evidence do not intersect. Indus script, if it is indeed a script, remains un-deciphered. On the other hand, no archaeology can be associated with Rigveda. This may be due to the fact that we have been looking at the wrong places. Personally, I am confident that large-scale archaeological excavation of South Afghanistan would yield valuable clues on ancient India. This, of course, is not the time for such cultural exercises, but one hopes that situation would be more conducive in the future.
One line of inquiry can, however, be taken up right away. A rigorous, objective, open-ended, multi-nation investigation, under UNESCO auspices, into the hydrological history of the Ghaggar-Hakra system, would be very valuable indeed. If it turns out that the Ghaggar lost Satluj and Yamuna waters and reached its present puny state before historic times, the question of the identity of the Naditama Sarasvati of the old Rigvedic mandala would be settled once and for all.