Why Perpetuate Myths? ~ B B Lal

April 18, 2014    

A Fresh Look at Ancient Indian History

By B. B. Lal, Director General (Retd.), Archaeological Survey of India Lecture given at the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), New Delhi

For a pretty long time the following four myths have been obscuring our vision of India’s past:

Myth 1: ‘There was an Aryan Invasion of India’

Myth 2: ‘The Harappans were a Dravidian-speaking People’

Myth 3: ‘The Rigvedic Sarasvati was the Helmand of Afghanistan,’ and

Myth 4: ‘The Harappan Culture became Extinct’

And here is how these myths came into being. In the nineteenth century a German scholar, F. Max Muller, dated the Vedas, on a very ad hoc basis, to 1200 BC. Granting that the Sutra literature may have existed in the sixth-fifth centuries BC, he assigned a duration of two hundred years to each of the preceding literary periods, namely those of the Aranyakas, Brahmanas and Vedas and thus arrived at the figure of 1200 BC for the last-named texts. However, when his own colleagues, like Goldstucker, Whitney and Wilson, challenged him, he stated that his dating was ‘merely hypothetical’ and confessed: ‘Whether the Vedic hymns were composed in 1000 or 1500 or 2000 or 3000 BC, no power on earth will ever determine.’ However, the saddest part of the story is that his blind followers, both in India and abroad, even today swear by 1200 BC and do not dare cross this Laksmana rekha.

Be that as it may. The first quarter of the twentieth century witnessed the discovery of an altogether unknown civilization on the Indian subcontinent, datable to the third millennium BC. Called variously the Harappan, Indus or Indus-Sarasvati Civilization, it is characterised, amongst other things, by systematic town-planning, an underground drainage, excellently engraved seals, a monumental script, a refined system of weights and measures and some beautiful statuary.

However, recent excavations have thrown new light on various other aspects of this civilization, which call for a fresh look at many issues connected with it. Radiocarbon dates indicate that its roots go back to the 5th millennium BC, while its peak period lay between 2600 and 2000 BC, after which began its decline.

With the discovery of Harappan Civilization there also started a debate about its authors. Because of Max Muller’s fatwa that the Vedas were not earlier than 1200 BC, it was argued that this civilization could not be associated with the Vedic people. Since the only other major language spoken on the subcontinent was the Dravidian it was but natural at that point of time to assume that the Dravidian-speakers were its authors.

In 1946 Sir Mortimer Wheeler carried out further excavations at Harappa and discovered a fortification wall around one of the mounds. However, his interpretation of it was nothing more than a mere flight of imagination. Since the Rigveda refers to Indra as puramdara (destroyer of forts), he jumped at the idea that there was an ‘Aryan invasion’ which destroyed the Harappan Civilization, and the latter became ‘extinct’. To give a prop to his thesis, he referred to certain skeletal remains found at Mohenjo-­daro, which, he held, provided evidence of a ‘massacre’ by the invaders.

If these skeletons are at all to be associated with a massacre by invaders, one expects that these would have come from the latest level. But the hard fact is that these came from various levels, some from the middle and some from the late, and some were found in deposits which accumulated after the site had been abandoned. Thus, there is no case for a massacre; and Professor George F. Dales of the University of California, Berkeley, has rightly dubbed it as a ‘mythical massacre’. Further, if there at all was an invasion, one expects at the site the weapons of warfare as also some remains of the material culture of the invaders. But there was no such evidence. On the other hand, there is a clear case of cultural continuity, not only at Mohenjo-daro but also at other Harappa Culture sites.

Commenting on this issue, Lord Colin Renfrew (UK) avers: ‘If one checks the dozen references in the Rigveda to the Seven Rivers, there is nothing in any of them that to me implies invasion… Despite Wheeler’s comments, it is difficult to see what is particularly non-Aryan about the Indus Valley Civilization.’

After a thorough analysis of the skeletal data, Professor Hemphill (of USA) holds: ‘As for the question of biological continuity within the Indus Valley, two discontinuities appear to exist. The first occurs between 6000 and 4500 BC. The second occurs at some point after 800 BC but before 200 BC.’ It is, thus, abundantly clear that no new people entered the Indus Valley between 4500 BC and 800 BC. So, where is any case for an ‘Aryan invasion’ around 1500-1200 BC?

Now to the second myth, viz. the ‘Harappan = Dravidian’ equation. It has been made out that the Aryan invaders drove away the ‘Dravidian-speaking’ Harappans to South India but a small section somehow managed to stay on in Baluchistan, speaking the Brahui language. However, many scholars do not agree that Brahui belongs to the Dravidian group. Some even hold that the Brahui-speaking people migrated to that region from elsewhere during the medieval times. Further, if the so-called Dravidian-speaking Harappans were pushed down to South India, one expects some Harappan sites over there. But the hard fact is that i none of the four Dravidian­-speaking sates of South India, viz. Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala do we have even a single site of the Harappan culture !! On the other hand, what we do have in South India about that time is a neolithic culture. Do then the proponents of the ‘Harappan = Dravidian’ equation expect us to believe that the urban Harappans, on being sent away to South India, shed away overnight their urban characteristics and took to a Stone Age way of living?

Again, it has been observed all over the world that even if the original inhabitants are pushed out of an area, some of the rivers, mountains and towns in that area continue to bear the original names. Thus, for example, even after the Europeans overran North America and gave their own names to the towns, such as New York, New Jersey, etc., many of the names of the towns and rivers given by the earlier inhabitants, viz. the Red Indians, may still be noted: for example, Chicago and Massachusettas those of towns and Missouri and Mississippi as of rivers. But in the entire region once occupied by the Harappans there is not even a single name of river, mountain or town which can claim a Dravidian origin. Why? The obvious answer is that the Harappans were not a Dravidian-speaking people.

Let us deal with the third myth, viz. that the Helmand of Afghanistan was the Rigvedic Sarasvati. This is totally wrong. According to RV 10.75.5, it lay between the Yamuna and Sutlej (imam me Gange Yamune Sarasvati Sutudri stotam sachata Parusnya…). RV 3.23.4 states that the Drishadvati and Apaya were its tributaries (Drishadvatyam manusa Apayam Sarasvatyam revadagne didihi… ). Further, RV 7.95.2 clearly mentions that the Sarasvati flowed all the way from the mountains to the sea (ekachetat Sarasvati nadinam suchir yati giribhya a samudrat… ). In Afghanistan there are no rivers by the name of Yamuna and Sutlej, nor are there Drishadvati and Apaya. Further, there is no sea in Afghanistan. So how can the Rigvedic Sarasvati be placed there? All this evidence ¾ positive in the case of India and negative in the case of Afghanistan ¾ clinches the issue: the present-day Sarasvati-Ghaggar combine, though now dry at places, does represent the Rigvedic Sarasvati (see Figs. 1 and 2); the Helmand of Afghanistan does not.

Earlier we had established that the Harappans were not a Dravidian-speaking people. Were then they the Sanskrit-speaking Vedic people? Against such an equation the following four objections have been raised. First, the Vedic Aryans were ‘nomads’, whereas the Harappan civilization had a major urban component. Secondly, the Vedas refer to the horse, whereas the Harappan Civilization is thought to be unfamiliar with it. Thirdly, the Vedic carts had spoked wheels, whereas the Harappan vehicles are supposed to be bereft of such wheels. And finally, since according to the dating of Max Muller the Vedas cannot be earlier than 1200 BC and the Harappan Civilization belonged to the third millennium BC, how can the two be equated?

Unlike nomads, the Vedic people lived a settled life and even constructed forts. In RV 10.101.8 the devotee’s prayer is: ‘[O gods] make strong forts as of metal, safe from assailants (purahkrinadhvamayasi-radhrista). RV 4.30.20 refers to ‘a hundred fortresses of stone’. Sometimes these had a hundred arms (RV 7.15.14: purbhava-satabhujih).

The Vedic people carried on trade, not merely on land but also across the sea. RV 9.33.6 states: ‘From every side, O Soma, for our profit, pour thou forth four seas filled with a thousand-fold riches (rayah samudranchaturo asmabhyam soma visvatah. Apavasva sahasrinah)’. Further, the ships used in sea-trade were not petty ones but could be as large as having a hundred oars (sataritra, RV.116.5).

Even on the political and administrative fronts, the Vedic people were highly organised. Not only did they have sabhas and samitis which dealt with legislative and perhaps judiciary matters, but they also had a well-established hierarchy amongst the rulers, viz. samrat, rajan and rajaka. Thus, in RV 6.27.8 Abhyavarti Chayamana is stated to be a Samrat (Sovereign), while RV 8.21.8 states that, dwelling beside the Sarasvati river, Chitra alone is the Rajan (king) while the rest are mere Rajakas (kinglings or petty chieftains). That these gradations were absolutely real is duly confirmed by the Satapatha Brahmana (V.1.1.12-13), which says: ‘By offering the Rajasuya he becomes Raja and by the Vajapeya he becomes Samrat, and the office of the Rajan is lower and that of the Samraj, the higher (raja vai rajasuyenestva bhavati, samrat vajapeyena l avaram hi rajyam param samrajyam).

The horse. In his report on Mohenjo-daro, Mackay states: ‘Perhaps the most interesting of the model animals is one that I personally take to represent the horse.’ Wheeler also confirmed the view of Mackay. A lot more evidence has come to light since then. Lothal has yielded not only a terracotta figure of the horse (Fig. 3) but some faunal remains as well. On the faunal remains from Surkotada, the renowned international authority on horse-bones, Sandor Bokonyi, Hungary, states: ‘The occurrence of true horse (Equus Caballus L.) was evidenced by the enamel pattern of the upper and lower cheek and teeth and by the size and form of the incisors and phalanges (toe bones).’ In addition, there are quite a few other Harappan sites, such as Kalibangan and Rupnagar, which have yielded the faunal remains of the horse.

The spoked wheel. It is absolutely wrong to say that the Harappans did not use the spoked wheel. While it would be too much to expect the remains of wooden wheels from the excavations, because of the hot and humid climate of our country which destroys all organic material in the course of time – the Harappan Civilization is nearly 5,000 years old, the terracotta models, recovered from many Harappan sites, clearly establish that the Harappans were fully familiar with the spoked wheel.

On the specimens found at Kalibangan and Rakhigarhi (Fig.4), the spokes of the wheel are shown by painted lines radiating from the central hub to the periphery, whereas in the case of specimens from Banawali these are executed in low relief (Fig.5) – a technique which continued even into the historical times.

Now to the chronological horizon of the Vedas. The Harappan settlement at Kalibangan in Rajasthan was abandoned, while it was still in a mature stage, because of the drying up of the adjacent Sarasvati river. This evidence has been thoroughly worked out by Italian and Indian hydrologists, and Raikes, the leader, aptly captions his paper: ‘Kalibangan: Death from Natural Causes.’ According to the radiocarbon dates, this abandonment took place around 2000-1900 BC. Eminent geologists, V. M. K. Puri and B. C. Verma, have demonstrated how the Sarasvati originated from the Himalayan glaciers and how subsequently its channel got blocked because of tectonic movements in the Himalayas, as a result of which the original channel dried up and its water got
diverted to the Yamuna.

Putting together the entire archaeological, radiocarbon­-dating, hydrological, geological and literary evidence, the following conclusion becomes inescapable, viz. that since during the Rigvedic times the Sarasvati was a mighty flowing river and according to archaeological-radiocarbon-dating-cum-hydrological evidence this river dried up around 2000 BC, the Rigveda has got to be earlier than 2000 BC. How much earlier, it would, of course, be anybody’s guess.

As is absolutely clear from RV 10.75.5-6, the entire area right from the Ganga on the east to the Indus on the west was occupied by the Rigvedic Aryans. Further, since the Rigveda must be dated to a period prior to 2000 BC, a question may straightaway be posed: Which archaeological culture covered the entire region from the Ganga on the east to the Indus on the west during the period prior to 2000 BC? Please think coolly and dispassionately. If you do that, you cannot escape the inevitable conclusion: It was none other than the Harappan Civilization itself (Fig. 6). However, in spite of such strong evidence in support of a Vedic = Harappan equation, it would be prudent, as I have all along advocated, to put this equation on hold until the Harappan script is satisfactorily deciphered. It is needless to add that all the tall claims made so far in this respect are not tenable at all.

There is also no truth in the fourth myth, viz. that the Harappa Culture became ‘extinct’. What had really happened was that the curve of the Harappa Culture, which began to shoot up around 2600 BC and reached its peak, in the centuries that followed, began its downward journey around 2000 BC. Several factors seem to have contributed to it.

Over-exploitation and consequent wearing out of the landscape must have led to a fall in agricultural production. Added to it was probably a change in the climate towards aridity. And no less significant was a marked fall in trade, both internal as well as external. As a result of all this, there was no longer the affluence that used to characterise this civilization. The cities began to disappear and there was a reversion to a rural scenario. Thus, there was no doubt a set-back in the standards of living but no extinction of the culture itself. In my recent book, The Sarasvati Flows On, I have dealt extensively with this aspect of continuity, giving comparable photographs of the Harappan objects and the present ones. In a nutshell, let it be stated here that whichever walk of life you talk about, you will find in it the reflection of the Harappa Culture: be it agriculture, cooking habits, personal make-up, ornaments, objects of toiletry, games played by children or adults, transport by road or river, folk tales, religious practices and so on. Here we give just a few examples. The excavation at Kalibangan has brought to light an agricultural field dating back to circa 2800 BC.It is characterised by a criss-cross pattern of the furrows (Fig. 7). Exactly the same pattern of ploughing the fields is followed even today in northern Rajasthan (Fig. 8), Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh.Today mustard is grown in the widely-distanced furrows and chickpea in the narrower ones (Fig. 9) and it is most likely that these very crops were grown in a similar manner during the Harappan times; we do have evidence of both these items from the Harappan levels. Kalibangan has also yielded a linga-cum-yoni (Fig. 10) of the same type as is worshipped now (Fig .11).

This very site, along with Banawali, Rakhigarhi and Lothal, has brought to light ‘fire-altars’, indicating rituals associated with fire. In the illustration given here (Fig. 12) there were originally seven fire­-altars, some of which have been disturbed by a subsequent drain. There is a north-south wall at the back, indicating that the performer of the ritual had to face the east. In the front may be seen the lower half of a jar in which were found ash and charcoal, signifying that fire was kept ready for the ritual. Close to these fire-altars, on the left (not seen in the picture), there were a well and a bathing pavement, suggesting that a ceremonial bath constituted a part of the ritual. (It needs to be clarified that these fire-altars have nothing to do with those of the Parsis.)

It would appear to be a mere tale if it was stated that yogic asanas, which are now becoming fashionable even with the elites, were being already practised by the Harappans (Fig. 13).

A married Hindu woman usually applies sindura (vermilion) to the manga (the line of partition of the hair on the head); Fig.14). Though most surprising, yet it is a fact that Harappan ladies did the same,as evidenced by many female terracotta figurines (Figs.15 and 16). In these terracottas, the ornaments are painted yellow to indicate that these were made of gold, the hair is black, while a red colour has been applied in the manga, indicating the use of vermilion. Even the Hindu way of greeting with a namaste (Fig.17) is rooted in the Harappan Culture, as shown by certain other terracotta figures (Fig.18).

From the foregoing it must have become abundantly clear that all four theories, viz. that there was an ‘Aryan Invasion of India’, that the ‘Harappans were a Dravidian-speaking People’, that the ‘Rigvedic Sarasvati is the Helmand of Afghanistan’ and that there was an ‘Extinction of the Harappa Culture’, are nothing more than mere myths which, once created, have subconsciously been perpetuated. Since these have coloured our vision of India’s past, the sooner these are cast away the better would it be. How long must we continue to bury our heads, ostrich-like, into the sand of ignorance?

In retrospect. One is set wondering as to why and how this great civilization of the Indian subcontinent – called variously the
Harappan, Indus or Indus-Sarasvati Civilization and whose roots go as deep as the fifth millennium BC – still lives on, not as a fugitive but as a vital organ of our socio-cultural fabric. The Indian psyche has indeed been pondering over this great cultural phenomenon of ‘livingness’, and the quest has very aptly been echoed by a great Indian poet and thinker, Allama Iqbal, in these words:

Yunan-o-Misra-Ruma sab mit gaye jahan se
Ab tak magar hai baqi namo-nisan hamara
Kuchh bat hai ki hasti mitati nahin hamari
Sadiyon raha hai dusman daur-i-zaman hamara

The poet says that whereas the ancient civilizations of Greece, Egypt and Rome have all disappeared from this world, the basic elements of our civilization still continue. Although world events have been inimical to us for centuries, there is ‘something’ in our civilization which has withstood these onslaughts.

What is that ‘something’, some inherent strength? Doubtless it lies in the liberal character of the Indian civilization, which allows for cross-fertilisation with other cultures, without losing its own identity. One may well recall the words of the greatest man of our times, Mahatma Gandhi: Let me keep my doors and windows wide open so that fresh air may enter from all directions. Nevertheless, he was firmly seated in his room (the soul). The soul of India lives on!