The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 16, 2000

Colonial distortions of Indian history
By Sandhya Jain

UNKNOWN to most Indians, western anti-Semitism has informed much of the interpretation of our ancient history. Embarrassed by the emerging avalanche of archaeological data, modern scholars are beginning to accept that the political-cultural contexts of 18th to 20th century Europe, which included a strong anti-Semitic bias, led to a ‘tailoring’ of Indian history to suit colonial needs.

Local cultural developments shaped Mohenjodaro In Migration, Philology and South Asian Archaeology, American anthropologists Jim G. Shaffer and Diane A. Lichtenstein challenge 18th — 19th century paradigms, and claim that politico-historic needs of colonial Europe led to distortions of India’s past. Two of the most persistent, and mischievous, of these myths are: that major cultural innovations such as food production and languages came from western sources, and that these were introduced through the eastward migration of groups from the West.

Reconstructing the historical framework in which these myths were fabricated, Shaffer and Lichtenstein say that when the British became a colonial power, they had to handle two complex and different cultural traditions, viz., Islam and Hinduism. While Europeans were familiar with Islam for over a millennium, Hinduism was ‘foreign’ to their Christian-based culture.

  The need for effective communication led to a late-18th century focus on language and traditional literature, in which Sir William Jones made a spectacular contribution. Jones was a towering intellectual figure whose most powerful insight was the "philologer paragraph", which drew attention to similarities in language structure between Sanskrit with various European languages. Jones’ observations drew the attention of later scholars to the Indo-European language system as it is known today. He also demonstrated that Arabic and Turkic/Altaic languages were structurally distinct from Indo-European and represented separate language "families." This led to recognition of multiple language origin centres, each with its own history, and spurred research to define specific geographic homelands with a reconstruction of the proto-language(s) of each region. Scholars and the general public began to see linguistic studies as the key to access the pre-literate past, until archaeology emerged as a separate discipline in the early 20th century.

Early philologists, however, were inclined to uphold the Biblical version that language diversity was the result of dialects spoken originally by Noah’s sons. They tried to validate Biblical premises which equated a language with a people, and language spread with population movement (the geographic dispersal of Noah’s sons/ descendants).

Shaffer and Lichtenstein claim the European cultural context strongly influenced South Asian scholarship. Since the 16th century, languages had been intensely manipulated as a focus of ethnic, political and "racial" affiliation. The expansion of literacy and the advent of inexpensive newsprint, and later radio, television, and cinema, added new and intense cultural, emotional and political dimensions to one’s native language. Languages played a critical role in the formation of Europe’s modern nation states, and by the beginning of the 20th century came to be linked with biological (racial) heritage.

Anti-Semitism added a critical dimension to European scholars’ perspectives on ancient India, as the 19th century witnessed great interest in the language spoken in ‘paradise’. Hebrew was the original language of the Bible; but it was the language of the Jews, and was decidedly different was any past or prevalent European language. The proposition that Adam and Eve might have spoken Hebrew was simply unpalatable. European scholars found Sir William Jones’ hypothesis of a relationship between Sanskrit and Latin and Greek useful in reconstructing a proto-Indo-Aryan/European language, which could serve as an alternative to Hebrew as the language of ‘paradise’. Hebrew could be confined as the language of Biblical record. Europeans came to be depicted as part of the Judaeo-Christian world and also as direct heirs of ancient Greek and Roman culture, law, political systems and art, with languages related to Sanskrit via a ‘proto-Indo-Aryan/European’ language system. This bias gave Sanskrit an academic status comparable to Latin and Greek.

However, this linguistic kinship posed a problem. Shaffer points out that Hindu culture with its exotic ‘religions’, caste, and biological history was a striking contrast to Victorian Europe’s self-perception as an epitome of progressive cultural development. If the British and Hindus had a common, though remote, cultural-linguistic-biological ancestor, how could this ancestral population have evolved into such diametrically different societies?

These developments resulted in Classical Studies becoming the major academic focus in European universities. Three of the five most prominent British archaeologists (John Marshall, Gordon Childe, Mortimer Wheeler) were trained in Classics, and their work shaped early South Asian archaeology. Stuart Piggott focused on Europe, while Sir Ernest Mackay worked in Egypt and later in southwest Asia.

Marshall and Mackay excavated Mohenjodaro and other Indus sites and formulated the first interpretative picture of the Indus civilisation. They claimed it was pre-Vedic/pre-Aryan, and was a major Bronze Age civilisation with urban centres, sophisticated craft technologies, and writing distributed over a large area. They described it as a civilisation of literati, priests, craftsmen and traders, which collapsed due to a self-created environmental crisis. But they also noted that it showed no firm evidence for intense conflict/warfare.

By the time Mortimer Wheeler and Stuart Piggott came to India during World War II, much more was known about Old World Bronze Age civilisations. The translations of texts revealed an endless tale of war and invasion propagated by an urban ruling elite, which appeared at par with modern European civilisation in the twentieth century. Influenced by this knowledge, Wheeler and Piggott developed a paradigm to ‘correct’ the Marshall-Mackay version of Indus history.

They asserted that the Indus civilisation originated as a result of outside — Mesopotamian — influence, and was centrally organised, ruled by priest-kings who lived in urban citadels and maintained rigid cultural uniformity, propagated animal worship and, perhaps, Brahmanism. Wheeler and Piggott further claimed that this civilisation was conquered by invading Indo-Aryan armies, which, through time, were culturally and biologically corrupted by indigenous populations into adopting practices such as caste, Brahmanism, Hinduism et al. They, thus, explained how Europe and South Asia developed in diametrically opposite directions despite a common ancestry.

Shaffer and Lichtenstein state that new archaeological data demolish these conjectures. The Mehrgarh excavations near Sibri, Pakistan, for instance, disprove the theory that food production was a western cultural import. The most important finds of Mehrgarh Period 1A, seventh millennium BC, include an economy based on domesticated varieties of wheat and barley, hunting, and the domestication of animals. What is more, the archaeological record shows no evidence of a diffusion or migration of ‘Indo-Aryan’ people. There is now growing consensus among archaeologists that Harappan culture was a result of local cultural developments alone.

Emerging paleo-environmental data show that sometime in the early second millennium BC, the Saraswati (Ghaggar-Hakra river system) was ‘captured’ by the Yamuna and dragged eastwards. Simulta-neously, there was increasing tectonic activity in Sindh. These natural geological activities resulted in a population shift into eastern Punjab and Gujarat, described in Vedic oral tradition.

Shaffer and Lichtenstein conclude that there is cultural continuity in pre-historic and historic periods in South Asia. When indigenous discontinuity does occur, it is due to ecological factors, which are recorded in ancient oral traditions. They contend that as archaeologists have worked hard to unravel the most convincing data, it must not be held to ransom by Eutropean ethnocentrism, colonialism, racism and anti-Semitism.