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Return of the Vedic Saraswati

Return of the Vedic Saraswati

Author: Sandhya Jain
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: April 27, 2008

Book review

The Battle for Ancient India. An Essay in the Sociopolitics of Indian Archaeology.
Dilip K. Chakrabarti
Aryan Books International, New Delhi, 2008.
Price: Rs. 390/0; pp. 173.

As water-starved Haryana urges the Oil and Natural Gas Commission for drilling machines to rediscover the paleo channels in which the once-mighty Saraswati may be flowing silently, it may solve one of the most vexatious issues of Indian history. Plagued with water disputes with Punjab and Rajasthan, the state where Sri Krishna gave the famous command to do one's duty, may soon unravel the truth of a river once hailed as 'best of mothers' and more lately mocked as 'mythical.'

Colonial Indology and its modern avatars may soon face a reality check. Dilip Chakrabarti takes this negative legacy head on in his latest work, deriding especially the tendency to reduce debates to slogans of 'secularism versus communalism'. On the Aryan Invasion Theory (now Aryan Migration Theory), he argues that the history of ancient India must be judged in its own terms and no claims of externally inspired diffusion of its cultural development be made unless there is strong supportive evidence and the hypothesis can be justified in clear geographical terms.

Chakrabarti notes that when Dayaram Sahni went to excavate Harappa in 1920, the abundance of pre-historic Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic remains, including Neolithic settlements in the south, and the 'Copper Age' was known. Any perceptive archaeologist would realize India had a pre-historic civilization before its documented history, especially in view of the occurrence of seals with unknown writings and art-style at Harappa. It was known that ancient India had a long history of trade and commerce with different countries, including Egypt, in the second millennium BC. Unfortunately, the theory about Indian 'races' and languages and the myths of Aryan and Dravidian invasions were invented before the Bronze Age Indus civilization was discovered; hence the finds at Harappa and Mohenjodaro had to fit into an entrenched paradigm.

In 1924, John Marshall reported that in the third millennium BC or even earlier, the peoples of Punjab and Sind lived in well-built cities with a mature culture, developed arts, crafts and pictographic writing. He was clear this civilization developed in the Indus Valley itself, and noted its possible religious ambience, mentioning R.D. Banerji's finding of a tank at Mohenjodaro which he felt was a charanamritakunda, "receptacle for the holy water used for the washing of the sacred image." At Harappa, archaeologists found a small mound suggestive of an image shrine, though it is difficult to say if image worship existed then. Chakrabarti says this is a hint to seek reflection of the Indus religion in prevailing rituals of Hinduism.

R.P. Chanda created the confusion about the builders of Harappa and Mohenjodaro and the Rig Vedic Aryas. He believed the Indus civilization was both pre- and non-Vedic. Yet Chanda also tried to view the Indus civilization within the framework of Indian tradition by identifying its yogic tradition as the root of one of India's most important spiritual dimensions; he also realized indebtedness of the Buddhist and Jaina traditions to the Indus civilization. Mortimer Wheeler formalized the Aryan invasion to explain the demise of the Indus civilization in 1947, and the idea acquired hegemonic status in academia though convincingly disputed by B.B. Lal (1953) and G.F. Dales (1964).

P.V. Kane examined the relationship between the Harappan civilization and Vedic Aryans in his Presidential Address to the Indian History Congress in 1953. He argued that as Mohenjodaro and Harappa were major cities, "the remains of dead bodies would have been found on an enormous scale" in the event of an Aryan attack, and not limited to 26 skeletons at Mohenjodaro! The cities could have been deserted because the rivers on whose banks they stood shifted. Kane compared the internal evidence of the Rig Veda and excavated evidence of Indus settlements and found reverence for water and the Pipul tree in both. Regarding the occurrence of bulls on Indus seals, he noted that the Rig Veda referred to Indra and other gods as Vrishabha (bull). Astronomical references in the Rig Veda and Brahmanical literature suggested that the Rig Vedic people were earlier than the Indus Valley people, but as the evidence was meagre it was best not to dogmatise.

Tackling the festering dispute over the horse, Chakrabarti says horse bones have been identified in and before Harappan contexts by competent professionals like B. Nath of the Zoological Survey of India. Moreover, Harappans could have imported horses from central Asia as Shortughai was on the border.

The Cholistan archaeological survey showed the course of the Ghaggar-Hakra denoted the core area of origin of the Indus civilization, prompting S.P. Gupta to coin the term Indus-Saraswati civilization, as Ghaggar-Hakra denoted the Saraswati riverbed. Scholars challenge the view that the Rig Veda describes only an agricultural-cum-pastoral society. Bhagwan Singh has listed various crafts and professions, navigation, overland trade and commerce, housing and urban centres; while R.S. Bisht has shown that Dholavira was divided into three distinct parts: upper, middle and lower, corresponding to the Rig Vedic parama, madhyama and avama.

Chakrabarti argues that as the spread of this civilization was not limited to the Indus valley, there is no justification to call it the Indus Valley civilization; Marshall called it the Indus civilization. While Indus-Saraswati civilization does better justice to its sheer extent and the role of the Saraswati in its genesis, it does not cover the whole territory; hence he favours Harappan civilization. Moreover, in the current political context, Indus Valley civilization gives it a Pakistan twist. What refreshing candour.

Chakrabarti concludes that the archaeological sequence of all areas covered by Indus civilization sites shows no break in any relevant area, or any evidence of new cultural inroads which cannot be explained geographically with reference to the Oxus-Indus-Pamir-eastern Iran political and economic interaction sphere. He feels the Harappan tradition tempered with unidentified regional elements laid the roots of the entire cultural development of the upper Ganga plain, given that the antennae swords of the Gangetic valley copper hoards have been verified as belonging to the Harappan tradition.

All people of the subcontinent are heirs of the Indus civilization. It links the deep south through the find of a polished celt with incised Harappan script signs near Cuddalore, and several sites with antennae copper swords of the upper Gangetic Valley copper hoard type as far as Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu and a tea estate in Kerala. Above all, it is not easy to note any non-Indian tradition in the figure of the Sramana from Mohenjodaro or any other sculptural relic of this civilization.

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