Our Voice in Our History

(An edited version of this article was published in the Aug 2008 issue of Pragati)

Photobucket“The Indus Valley civilization dwarfed Egypt and Mesopotamia in area and population, surpassed them in many areas of engineering and was aggressive in globalization 5000 years back.” These are words from Andrew Lawler’s lead article in the June 2008 issue of Science magazine which had Indus Civilization as the cover story

Previously archaeologists believed that Indus people got their ideas from Mesopotamia and was a civilization without deep roots, but as per new evidence, Indus evolved from the Neolithic site of Mehrgarh in Baluchistan. Archaeology has also found evidence of occupation in Harappa dating to 3700 B.C.E and in Farmana in India to 3500 B.C.E.

Writing about the religious beliefs of the Indus people, Lawler mentions that the proto-Shiva seal has fuelled speculation that the religious tradition of Indus helped lay the basis for Hinduism. While there are questions to be answered on their language, religion and form of government, decades of archaeology has changed the image of Indus from a xenophobic and egalitarian society to one which was vibrant and complex.

Though the article was fairly balanced covering excavations in Harappa, Baluchistan, and Kot Diji in Pakistan and Farmana, Dholavira, Rakhigarhi and Kalibangan in India, it had the usual western hatchet job, blaming Indian archaeologists for using Hindu texts as a guide. This is a no-no, we are told, because (a) it is inflammatory to the Pakistanis and (b) India has a large Muslim population.

The article has other issues too. Drought, as a reason for the demise of Indus, is scoffed at while many other reasons, including “change in a society that they say emphasized water-related rituals” is offered as an alternative. The western scholars quoted in the article themselves admit their theories are pure speculation, but the drying up of Ghaggar-Hakra around 1900 B.C.E is ignored, since it would involve a reference to the Rig Veda.

As Western scholars condescendingly set the rules of the games — a very different one from that practised in their own research centers — we need to evaluate what can be done. Whining about unfairness can be cathartic, but it does not solve the problem.

Different Standards and Inept Government

Few years back, Stanford University offered a course on the Historical Jesus which was an enquiry based on the scriptures. Biblical Archaeology is quite popular in Israel which has the same percentage of Muslim population as India. These techniques are considered communal in India.

After two centuries of searching and not finding anything spectacular, Biblical Archaeology in the past half century has morphed into the archaeology of the Biblical period. Archaeologists now say the Exodus did not happen, not by speculation, but after conducting extensive archaeology in Egypt. We too should not indulge in speculative archaeology, but first Indian archaeologists and scholars need to be unapologetic about knowing the scriptures and using them for clues.

Sadly this attitude cannot be taken by people who work for government funded institutions like the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and Universities. The Saraswati Heritage Project was canned by the government since it was seen as an attempt to push the antiquity of Indian civilization. (If these people were around in 1921, they would have halted archaeology at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa which pushed the antiquity of Indian civilization by many millennia)

Recently the Government of India cut funding for a major Sanskrit program in schools because – it is getting tad repetitive – India has a large Muslim population and there was a fear that it would instil religious and cultural pride among students. In such an atmosphere, it would be naive to expect the government to lead the battle in understanding our history. Instead of wasting time writing letters to ministers, we might be better off digging in our own backyard for Painted Grey Ware.

The second problem is mentioned in the Lawler’s article itself. Indian archaeologists have done excellent work, like R. S. Bisht in Dholavira and Vasant Shinde in Farmana, but they are slow to publish and collaborate. Bisht’s work has revealed “monumental and aesthetic architecture, a large stadium and an efficient water-management system”, but has largely been unpublished. The lack of data from people who had first access to the location helps in sustaining myths about the civilization.

Solutions

There is an urgent need to create institutions where scholarship is free of bureaucracy and political interference. One such institution — the Indus Heritage Center — funded by the Global Heritage Fund is coming up in Vadodara. Besides starting a Smithsonian class center in India, the center also plans to popularize the findings of Deccan College, the Department of Archaeology of Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda and the Archaeological Survey of India.

There have been xenophobic comments regarding this institution due to the involvement of western professors, even though the professors don’t believe in the Aryan Invasion theory. The fear is that they will be applying western frameworks on our history resulting in misinterpretation.

But instead of complaining about west, it is time we adopted some of their techniques for popularizing history. Building a Smithsonian style museum is an insuperable problem for the cash strapped ASI which can barely manage the monuments under its care. The Indus Heritage Center model where private donors in association with various colleges build research centers in which native interpretation of history can happen should be considered. Right now there are few sincere individuals who are involved in correcting Western biases; their efforts are exemplary but not sufficient to make an impact.

PhotobucketPast many decades of research have found no archaeological evidence for the Aryan Invasion theory. It has been discredited through genetic research as well. The demise of Indus valley is understood to be due to hydrological changes. Still, pick up a book like Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, which is used as text book in graduate courses, and you will find that colonial politics is still alive and any divarication is branded as nationalism.

One Indus Heritage Center cannot change such entrenched ideas. To give the megaphone to differing voices, more Indus Heritage Centers which are financially secure are required. This dovetails into the larger debate about the need to free higher education and research from government control and facilitate an atmosphere where private capital can provide funding. With such freedom, scholars would be able to delve into research as they see fit, instead of surrendering to artificial political fears.

Five thousand years back our ancestor living in the Indus Valley sailed across the vast Arabian sea in reed boats with cotton sails and made the best of the Bronze age globalized world. It would be a shame, if we did not show even a fraction of their ingenuity in making our voice heard in a debate about our history.

7 Comments

  1. As a north indian muslim living in UP I would prefer that my children learn urdu in govt schools but that would be interpreted as “appeasement”
    According to the three language formula alongwith English,hindi urdu and sanskrit could the avalaible options for the third language.
    Sanskrit is already taught in CBSE and UP Board schools in middle and Secondary classes

  2. Ahmad:

    Well may be as a North Indian Muslim you should have migrated to Pakistan, considering how it was the North Indian Muslims in the first place who were hankering for land of pure.

  3. Ahmad – I don’t understand your complaint – Urdu is taught in many Indian schools, right? And unlike Sanskrit it even gets taught as a first language? Secondly the Sanskrit taught in schools is far too mediocre, I am sorry to say.

    Most Hindi speakers also understand Urdu, and Urdu has infiltrated into Hindi in a big way. Urdu is still culturally dominant in India – pray why is it that every “classy” song in bollywood is Urdu-based?

    You may say that Sanskrit doesn’t have scope for use in classy bollywood songs – but the presence of Sanskrit and Indian-mythology-based themes in Malayalam film songs presents an overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

  4. Ahmad,

    You should know that it’s far more acceptable for people in power to talk of reviving Urdu than reviving Sanskrit – the former being secularist, latter a communalist. Whether either are is another matter. May be in UP Sanskrit is offered, but in south Sanskrit is not. In Hyderabad, Urdu is but in only few schools. Being from Hyderabad, I like Urdu and see a lot more of it in Indian public life – movies to media to politics, then Sanskrit.

    While it’s far easier for most Indians to learn and understand Sanskrit because of their mother tongue, Urdu has a place but a much smaller one. That won’t satisfy our Marxist secularists who control the public discourse. Their double standard is “appeasement.”

  5. Gaurav
    May be you should ask that question to my father who stayed back after partition.
    Froginthewell :
    Yes Urdu is taught in some schools. Yes there are some Urdu medium schools but not in UP. What does Urdu ‘infiltrating’ into hindi mean ?
    How many schools of UPBoard and CBSE board offer urdu ?
    After independence urdu was deliberately marginalised in Uttar Pradesh by the local Congress Govt. No wonder urdu is dying with it being restricted to madrassa people and the rare urdu medoum school in it’s heartland of Uttar Pradesh
    Regarding sanskrit being badly taught I agree with you,
    I was taught sanskrit in school and like most people after leaving school forgot all about it.
    But I would prefer being taught my mother tounge urdu in school instead of sanskrit even as a third language.
    I dont care about Urdu being used in Bollywood.

  6. Ahmad :
    How many schools of UPBoard and CBSE board offer urdu?

    Whether a school should offer Urdu or not is up to it; what prevents lovers of Urdu from setting up schools ( like
    this urdu-medium one )?

    Similarly we have Union HRD ministry funding translation of UP Board science books into Urdu. Thus, forget third language – one can even have Urdu medium education in both CBSE and UP board.

    Contrast with the lovely country called Pakistan that marginalized Bangla, Punjabi, Sindhi and Pashto in favor of Urdu.

    Regarding Bollywood : whether you care or not doesn’t matter. The fact is that Urdu is not only not dying, but is also culturally dominant, sidelining Sanskrit.

  7. Hindi and Urdu are syntactically identical – with a few differences in gender declensions and conjugations of pronouns and past tense verbs. And the syntactic base of Urdu and Hindi is very similar to that of the many popular languages of India. When you substitute a Sankritic word with a Farsi word (and the rare Arabic wod) you get Urdu. The Urdu spoken commonly in India is for al intents and purposes similar to Hindi. But the Urdu of the newscasts in India and the official Urdu of Pakistan are another matter entirely. Given the common base of Urdu and non-peninsular languages and a few peninsular languages it makes sense to learn Sanskrit. Where aesthetics and linguistics is concerned even the classical Tamizh tradition is derived from Sanskrit. Sanskrit is a technical object oriented language and not so much a means of daily communication – please note no oughts and shoulds here.

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