|Volume 17 – Issue 25, Dec. 9 – 22, 2000
India’s National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU
Questions about the Aryan identity 200)
The Vedic People, Their History and Geography by Rajesh Kochhar; Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2000; pages xiv + 259, Rs.425.
“HISTORY cannot be written without implicating the historian,” says Rajesh Kochhar as he begins his journey into the remote past. By any standards, he is an unconventional historian, an astrophysicist who has equipped himself with the tools of diverse di sciplines – ethnography, linguistics, metallurgy, paleobotany, among others – to interpret a period which to this day remains wrapped in mystery. More than the obscurity of the archaeological and scriptural records, the more formidable barriers to unders tanding have been posed by the layers of political partisanship that the study of the Vedas – as historical documents – have acquired over the years.
Interpretations of the Vedas have always been closely interwoven with competing views on the construction of the modern Indian state. Theorists of nationhood as a primordial solidarity dating back to antiquity, cite the authority of the Vedas in self-rat ionalisation. In the early days of India’s struggle against colonialism, the liberal sections of the nationalist leadership were torn by a question of priorities: should nationalist consolidation precede or follow social reform? Lala Lajpat Rai, the grea t spokesman of Hindu nationalism, had a simple solution to the conundrum: “Reform is revival and revival is reform”. While national consolidation through social reform was undoubtedly important, this should be based entirely on rational foundations, said Lajpat Rai. And “nothing can be national or rational which is against the spirit of the Vedas”.
This variety of blind faith has inspired a whole branch of history which today purports to be the truly scientific interpretation, purged of all the political implants. In this context, Kochhar’s work represents an effort to apply the widely accepted rul es of rational inquiry to both summarise the existing state of knowledge of the Vedas and propose some rather bold solutions to its many unresolved questions. He points out that the Vedas began to acquire value as historical documents, as opposed to pure ly priestly records of ritual, with the early European arrivals in India. The term “Arya”, which occurs frequently in the Vedas, was first understood as an epithet that could be applied to the speakers of the Vedic and analogous languages. But later phil ologists, in the flush of their discovery of the common roots of what are today called the Indo-European languages, provided a much broader ambit for the term.
A further note of controversy was imparted by the elevation of the Aryan theory of race – tenuous at the best of times – to a hallowed principle of national revival. The German philologist Max Mueller had a crucial role in this respect. For certain eleme nts within Indian nationalism, the connotations of racial equality that the Aryan theory of race carried, seemed a promise of national redemption. The racial or ethnic basis of the Indian nation was its primeval origin in the days of Aryan glory and its scriptural underpinnings were provided by the Vedas. Since the idiom of nationalism then required every religion to have an encoded system of values, beliefs and practices, Hindu nationalism had little difficulty in casting the Vedas in that role.
Archaeological excavations beginning around 1920 turned up evidence of the Indus Valley civilisation, confronting this school of thought with a serious challenge. This left the Hindu nationalists with no recourse but to seek to assimilate the Harappan ru ins to the Vedic literary corpus. In this enterprise, the antiquity of the Vedas had to be pushed back several centuries and the Vedic river Sarasvati had to be assigned a greater priority than the Indus as a cradle of ancient civilisation.
The initial verdict from the archaeologists was devastating for the pretensions of the Vedic nationalists. As summed up by Mortimer Wheeler, “Indra”, the principal deity of the Vedas, “stood accused” of destroying the Harappan civilisation. One of the ma ny attributes of Indra that attracts frequent references in the Vedas is in fact, “Purandara” or “destroyer of forts”. From here, it was all too easy to build the theory of Aryan conquest over a settled Harappan civilisation, entrenching the supposed ant inomy of Aryan and Dravidian even deeper into the Indian political psyche.
The “Aryan conquest” was a welcome hypothesis for the thinkers who had consistently opposed the Hindu revivalist agenda and read the Vedas as little more than a manifesto of racial separation and social hierarchy. Always a battleground of modern ideas, a ncient India became after this an even more sharply contested political terrain. Rationality could very easily have been the principal casualty of this sharp contest of political interests. Fortunately though, historical inquiry managed to transcend this bitter conflict between contemporary political interests.
The varieties of evidence that Kochhar seeks to marshal in his task of establishing the authentic history of the Vedic people cover a wide range. When examining the literary evidence of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, he proceeds with the robust premis e that these Puranas “are a classic example of how history should not be recorded”. And yet, these oral accounts which were committed to written texts far after the events they purport to describe, remain the only source for the study of ancient history, and “rejecting them outright would be like throwing the baby with the bathwater”.
Kochhar has no alternative, then, but to proceed on the basis of a number of plausible surmises. All genealogies are traced in the Puranas to the primal figure of Manu. Kochhar assumes that the lines of monarchical succession delineated in these texts ar e accurate and that a generation is roughly of 18 years duration. He then tests the narrative against astronomical phenomena of the period, which can be inferred with a fair measure of accuracy. Oblique references to the state of mathematical and geometr ical knowledge are culled out from the text and correlated with known details of the evolution of Indian thinking in these disciplines. His conclusion is that the Bharata battle, as an epic contest of strength between the diverse clans and tribes of the region, must have taken place around 900 B.C. He intentionally eschews the term “Mahabharata’ since the “Maha” he argues, refers only to the numerous embellishments that succeeding years have added on to the original account. This dating, in his view, is infirm when viewed in isolation. But it concurs with the dating that can be inferred from “more reliable sources such as the Vedic texts and archaeology”.
IT is a verity often overlooked that modern territorial definitions have no meaning in the study of ancient history. To study the Vedas (or the first of them, the Rigveda) in isolation from the Zend Avesta, an almost equally hoary record of established r eligious practice from the Iranian region, would be in Kochhar’s view, completely futile. The congruences in the vocabulary and the content are too numerous to overlook and the partly antithetical philosophies strongly suggest an element of political con testation between the adherents of the two orthodoxies. Kochhar follows up this study of the texts with a broader analysis of their linguistic contexts in the larger Indo-Iranian and Indo-European habitats.
A particularly striking feature of the book is its effort to separate the verbiage and the poetic effusions that surround the Rigvedic cult of Soma, (or Haoma in the Avesta) and identify its material basis. As a plant whose alkaloid resin is supposed to produce certain magical effects on its users, Kochhar examines several possible candidates for the category, before finally narrowing his focus to the ephedra plant which is known to grow profusely in the mountainous regions of Central Asia.
The life-sustaining rivers Sarasvati and Sarayu are similarly common to both the Vedas and the Avesta. Modern orthodoxy allows that the Vedic Sarasvati could possibly refer to the Ghaggar river system, which is a rainwater drain for the Shivaliks and lat er broadens its channels as it transits into the Cholistan desert in modern-day Pakistan. Kochhar finds this identification to be rather flimsy for several reasons. Even after allowing for all possible geological and ecological changes over the millennia , it is simply implausible, he argues, to say that the mighty Sarasvati of the Vedic narrative could be in such reduced circumstances as today’s Ghaggar.
The inferences that Kochhar draws are arresting and deserve quotation at some length: “…the river names Sarayu and Sarasvati, that occur in both the Rgveda and Avesta, refer to the rivers in Afghanistan. Sarayu is the same river, Hari-rud, in both cas es, whereas the name Sarasvati applied to the Helmand in the Rgveda is transferred to its tributary, the Arghandab, in the Avesta… The significance of the occurrence of the names Sarayu and Sarasvati in both the texts needs to be fully appreciated… T he most natural explanation for the commonality of these names is that they were given to the Afghan rivers by the Rgveda composing branch of the Aryans. The Iranian branch which came to dominate the area later, decided to retain the names. When the Rgve dic people moved eastwards, they carried these names along and selectively reused them. The names that were not reused lost their geographical identity and became literary terms. This would explain the curious fact that in spite of the Rgveda’s uninterru pted sanctity and the continuous Aryan presence in India, a large number of the Rgvedic names of rivers, lakes and mountains are unrecognisable.”
The numerous “well-established linkages” between the Rigveda and the Avesta, Kochhar argues, firmly rule out “the Indian origin of the Aryans”. Equally definitively, it is simply inconceivable that the Harappan civilisation could have been Aryan. A numbe r of arguments are advanced in support of this assertion, one among them being the absence in known Harappan sites of any well-testified remnants of the horse, a crucial animal in Vedic lore.
There are also serious mismatches between the available archaeological record and the Vedic descriptions, which fly in the face of the effort to identify the Ghaggar as the Vedic Sarasvati and ascribe to it a greater priority than the Indus in the Harapp an civilisation. “Archaeologically,” Kochhar points out, “the oldest (Harappan) sites are in Baluchistan, followed by the lower Indus, lower Ghaggar and upper Ghaggar in that order.” The Rigveda reverses this entire chronology, since the hymns venerating the Sarasvati are its oldest. Archaeologically in other words, there is a pointer to an eastward migration of the Vedic people, which can only be squared with the scriptural evidence if the Vedic Sarasvati is identified as the rivers of Afghanistan.
All this constitutes a very provocative reading of ancient India. Being a relative outsider to the discipline of history, Kochhar is able to advance bold hypotheses that the more conventional historian would stop short of. But the audacity of his inferen ces is underpinned by rigorous scientific reasoning. And he forswears the notion of an Aryan conquest, preferring to argue on the basis of the preponderance of evidence that the reality was one of a gradual migration eastwards, an assimilation of pre-exi sting cultures in the Indus region and of progress into the Ganga-Yamuna basin following the discovery of iron.
As a historian fully implicated in the process of inquiry, Kochhar brings to bear a unique combination of skills. His work is a synthesis of specialised writings in a range of disciplines, leavened by bold leaps of conjecture and imagination. The non-spe cialist would be amply rewarded for the effort put into comprehending Kochhar’s multifarious arguments. For the specialist, they constitute a challenge to innovate and work with new techniques of inquiry, to lay bare the social realities of the distant past.