Thursday, January 22, 2009

Lanka, the Aryan invasion at last

The Lankan Army, mostly consisting of ethnic Sinhalese, are taking over the last strongholds of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The self-declared Tamil state of northern Lanka is about to pass into history. On balance, this may not be a bad thing.

Most Tamil nationalists have been spoonfed a particular version of the Aryan Invasion theory (AIT). In general, the AIT claims that the Indo-Aryan (and Kafiri and Proto-Bangani) branches of the Indo-European language family were brought into South Asia from the northwest. The Tamil nationalist variety claims moreover that the speakers of Indo-Aryan languages including Sanskrit subdued and displaced the original population of the Indus-Saraswati Civilization (ISC), and that the latter consisted of speakers of Dravidian, the language family of which Tamil is the best-known member. There is in fact no proof for this "Aryan invasion" nor for the Dravidian character of the ISC (which even pro-AIT scholars now deny), but this lack of proof is amply compensated for by the intensity of the theory's political exploitation.

In Lanka, in the Tamil Tigers' understanding, the Aryan-Dravidian confrontation of about 4,000 years ago is now being re-enacted. The Indo-Aryan-speaking Sinhalese Buddhists have tried, since independence, to impose their language on the whole country, trampling on the distinct identity of the Tamil minority. They managed to get India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's co-operation for the "repatriation" of those Tamils whose parents had been settled in Lanka during British rule. They tried to suppress the Tamil attempt to preserve their identity and freedom by setting up an independent Tamil Eelam. And now they are militarily overrunning and dismantling that de facto Tamil state.

Contrary to international perception, this is not primarily a religious war. The Sinhalese resented the Tamil "overrepresentation" in the civil service and the professions that had developed under colonial rule. Along with the Indian Muslims, the Sikhs and particular Christian groups, the Tamils were "the spoiled children of the British empire". In the British scheme of the racial characteristics of their subject nations, the Buddhists in Lanka and Burma counted as indolent, the Tamils as hard-working. Therefore, they transferred Tamil labour to Lanka and Burma, whence the immigrants were again expelled in the 1960s, as well as to Malaysia, where they eke out a meagre existence as dhimmi-s, and Singapore, where they thrive. Ethnic envy and mistrust is sufficient to explain the genesis of the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict. The key event in its escalatioon was the declaration of Sinhalese as only national language.

Later on, a religious dimension was nonetheless inserted into it. After the armed struggle broke out, Sinhalese Buddhists vandalized some Hindu temples, identifying Hinduism with the Tamil enemy. Inside the Tamil separatist movement, however, Hinduism was never the prime motivator and was eventually sidelined completely. All through the 20th century and down till today, Tamil nationalism or "Dravidianism" has been allied with militant anti-Brahminical and generally anti-religious atheism, championed by Periyar Ramaswamy Naicker, the "father of the Tamil race". He summed up his hatred for the "northern, Aryan" Brahmins in his dictum: "If you see a snake and a Brahmin, kill the Brahmin first." Since the 1960s, Dravidianist parties have been taking turns at ruling India's state Tamil Nadu, and their two lasting achievements are the exodus of most Tamil Brahmins (to Mumbai, Bangalore and Silicon Valley) and the "purification" of the Tamil language of Sanskrit loanwords and of the chaste Brahminical style.

Along with vulgarity, corruption is the hallmark of the Dravidianist political culture. On this point, at least, the Tamil Tiger movement, with its extreme military discipline, provided an improvement. But is has kept on sharing the Dravidianist aloofness from, if not hostility to, Hinduism. That is one reason why the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in India has never supported the Tamil Tigers. The other is that India has enough problems with various separatisms, and that any success for separatist movements in other countries would only encourage them.

So, the Tamil Tigers are mainly a secular-nationalist movement. At least as far as the nominally Hindu members are concerned. But there is also a Christian presence in the movement, and it has gradually gained in importance. Both LTTE ideologue Anton Balasingham and the suicide bomber who killed Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi were Christians. The Sinhalese tend to see the LTTE as a Christian-led and Christian-teleguided movement, which to them explains "Christian" Norway's attempt to broker a peace agreement effectively legitimating Tamil rule in the north. Hence the famous cartoon showing a padre hotly denying any LTTE involvement all while a tiger's tail is showing from underneath his clerical garb. The Tiger martyrs are not cremated after the Hindu custom, but buried after the Christian fashion. Given the Sinhalese Buddhists' prior and long-standing resistance against missionary efforts at converting them, the Christian angle to the Eelam problem exacerbates the religious animosities.

For the Lankan Tamil population, the war for Tamil Eelam has been a disaster. The people for whom the LTTE claims to be fighting, is disappearing. Their percentage of the Lankan population has more than halved due to emigration, war casualties and the war's damaging effect on family formation. Possibly the terms they will get after surrendering will not be as favourable as those they might have gotten after a two-sided armistice negotiated from a position of strength. But in the circumstances, there is simply nothing to be gained anymore from continuing the war. Some international pressure may help in assuring them of a sufficiently fair deal in a reunited Sri Lanka. Or alternatively, the Sinhalese themselves may freely decide not to repeat the mistakes that drove the Tamils to armed separatism.

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Monday, January 5, 2009

A great book about the Great Book

The new book by Shrikant Talageri, claiming to present “the final evidence” on the Indo-European Homeland question, goes a long way indeed in disproving the Aryan Invasion Theory and establishing India as the land of origin of the migrations that spread the Indo-European language family over half of the Eurasian continent, from Bengal to Portugal and from Lanka to Norway.

The kinship between the languages spoken by most Indians and by most Europeans, jointly known as the Indo-European (IE) language family, is usually explained through the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT). The AIT holds that in the mid-second millennium BC, a group of immigrants brought the Indo-Aryan branch of IE from Russia through Central Asia into India and then imparted it to the natives. Alternatively, the Out-of-India Theory (OIT) holds that the common homeland of IE was in India, whence some groups emigrated to Central and West Asia and Europe, where their dialects mingled with local languages to become Greek, Slavic, Germanic, etc. Recent attempts to give a convincing formulation to the OIT and buttress it with evidence were still clumsy or fragmentary, but now, the OIT has come of age with Shrikant Talageri’s book: The Rigveda and the Avesta, the Final Evidence (Aditya Prakashan, Delhi).

In earlier books dated 1993 and 2000, Mumbai-based self-taught scholar Talageri (°1958) had already built a case for the following scenario. In the pre-Rigvedic age, a group of IE-speaking tribes populated the central and western Ganga plain and some of these migrated westward to the Saraswati basin in what is now Haryana and Rajasthan, and on to the Indus basin from Panjab to Afghanistan. By the time the earliest Vedic hymns were composed (tentatively dated to beyond 3000 BC), the westernmost tribes, known in Sanskrit sources as the Druhyus, were leaving the subcontinent, filling up Central Asia, thence to migrate to Anatolia, Xinjiang and Europe. The remaining peoples in the northwest, known as the Anavas, were mainly speakers of Iranian; while Indo-Aryan developed in central North India, whence it expanded westward into then-Iranian territory. Of the Indo-Aryan speakers, it is the Paurava tribe and within it the Bharata clan that produced the Rigveda. The friendly and hostile interactions between the Iranians and the Paurava Indo-Aryans form part of the historical background of the Rigveda and the Avesta. Among the conflicts, the main ones were the Battle of the Ten Kings, between the Bharata king Sudas and a confederacy of tribes in whose names we can still recognize Iranian ethnonyms; and the Varshagira Battle, to which both the younger part of the Rigveda and the earliest part of the Avesta refer. At the end of this confrontation, the Iranian centre moved to Afghanistan, those who remained in the subcontinent assimilated into Indo-Aryan.

In the present book, Talageri strengthens his thesis with a lot of new evidence, and refines it considerably. The master key for discerning historical expansions and migrations is the internal chronology of the Rg-Veda. Basing himself on two centuries of Western scholarship, from 19th-century German Veda scholar Oldenburg to present-day AIT champion Prof. Michael Witzel, Talageri compares the contents of the oldest layer, largely coinciding with books 6, 3 and 7; of the middle layer, books 2 and 4; and the youngest layer, comprising books 1, 5, 8, 9 and 10. Covering every verse and every instance of every category considered, and comparing the three periods, he finds a shifting focus in the names of animals, plants, rivers, landscape features, technology, ancestors, ethnic groups, and in personal name types and verse forms.

The result is of such clarity and consistency that most scholars who have been working in this field will feel envy and embarrassment at never having noticed the contours of the scenario before. It is this: the old layer was indubitably composed in the Yamuna/Sarawati region, which was to remain the centre of gravity of Vedic culture; the middle layer’s horizon expands westwards as far as the Indus; while the youngest parts are also familiar with Afghanistan. This is exactly the opposite of what the AIT predicts. In an invasionist scenario, the oldest layer would obviously be based in Afghanistan and be as yet unfamiliar with India’s interior, which would then only be settled in the younger period.

Another spectacular finding is that the early Avesta, involving Zarathustra, coincides in time with the youngest period of the Rigveda. The material and religious culture, along with the vocabulary and the name-types, allow us to link a number of datable extra-Indian connections to the youngest layer of the Rigveda. The remnants of Indo-Aryan vocabulary in the West-Asian Kassite (17th BC) and Mitanni (15th BC) culture, bequeathed by Indo-Aryan-speaking emigrant groups of at least several generations earlier, belong to the youngest period. This implies that the Rigveda must have been completed by ca. 2000 BC.

Another emigrant group is the one whose settlement has been dug up in Sintashta, on the eastern slopes of the Ural mountains in Russia. This is where the oldest horse-drawn chariots have been found, dated to ca. 2000 BC. The burials show a number of ritual features which Witzel has connected to the Rigveda in a bid to buttress his thesis that the Sintashta people were proto-Indo-Aryans on the way to India. But of each of these features, including the fabled horse sacrifice, Talageri shows that they are typical of the late period of the Rigveda, unattested in the older periods. So, more likely, the Sintashta people were part of a succession of small westward emigrations (small by India’s demographic standards but highly noticeable in the thinly-populated countries of settlement) around the end of the period of Rigvedic composition. This time seems to coincide with the end of the urban Harappan period, probably due to desiccation, when north-western India became less capable of supporting its dense population.

An Indo-Aryan presence in Russia was noticed by the ancient Greeks (e.g. the Sindoi in the Crimea) and remains visible in dozens of loanwords in the Uralic languages. The latter too have often been presented as testimony of the Indo-Aryans’ stay among the Uralic peoples while on their way to India. But from the unidirectional pattern of borrowing, with not a single Uralic loan in Indo-Aryan, Talageri shows that this is impossible. On the contrary, the pattern fits the opposite scenario: the Indo-Aryan loans in Uralic, like those in Mitanni-Hurrian and in Kassite, were the gift of emigrant groups from the Indo-Aryan heartland, which was India. Here, Talageri has made up for his lack of knowledge of the Uralic languages with a penetrating logical analysis of the relevant findings of other, AIT-bound scholars. Indeed, logic is where this non-specialist outshines all the specialists and manages to use their own data in support of conclusions opposite to the ones they profess.

Talageri argues that spoked-wheel chariots are not simply in evidence “in the Rigveda”, as the Orientalists have known since the 19th century, but are specifically typical of its youngest period. The older parts know of carts, generally with four full wheels, but the chariots with two spoked wheels are a later development. The archaeological record is pretty silent on their first appearance, for none have been dug up from reputedly Indo-Aryan or Indo-Iranian settlements in the Andronovo culture (Kazakhstan), the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex or India. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, especially in the case of largely wooden constructions in a hot and humid climate like India’s. From the late-Rigvedic testimony reasonably dated to the late 3rd millennium BC, it may be deduced that they were first produced on a sizable scale in India, whence groups of specialist craftsmen-warriors and other emigrants took them to western lands.

Talageri’s reconstruction of Vedic and Indo-European history is exclusively based on primary data and on findings by scholars working within the AIT framework. He never relies on the theses of other AIT sceptics. The latter’s findings on astro-chronology, archaeology and linguistics are generally compatible with his scenario extracted from the literary data, but they are independent witnesses, not part of Talageri’s evidence basis. Thus, in the book’s introduction the reader will notice traces of an ego clash between the author and Greek OIT scholar Nicholas Kazanas (whose collected papers on this subject are about to be published by Aditya Prakashan as well). While I hope at the personal level that they make up and become friends again, at the polemical level this quarrel is a fortunate thing. In contrast with the AIT school, a network of mutual support where we see R.S. Sharma and Romila Thapar relying on the “evidence” of Michael Witzel’s well-refuted assertion that the post-Vedic literature describes an Aryan invasion, the OIT school consists of isolated individuals who have no other support than from the data themselves.

It will be held against Talageri that he gets too personal in his argumentative jousting with Prof. Witzel, whose rebuttal of his own second book he now rebuts in turn. The objection that he is only paying Witzel back in the latter’s own coin could be a fair excuse in the playground but not on a scholarly forum. The allegations of academic malpractice even carry over to his rebuttal of a linguistic argument by the mild-mannered Prof. H.H. Hock, for which I can find no excuse at all. These breaches of form, along with eccentricities regarding referencing and emphasis, and along with “bank clerk” Talageri’s lack of academic status, are the flaws sure to be exploited against him by those who prefer not to address the formidable challenge posed by his cast-iron argumentation. On the other hand, the quality of Talageri’s work is such that this time, at least some established academics are bound to acknowledge its importance.

The book’s final chapter is a refreshing antidote of sanity against all the hot-headed political abuse that has disfigured the Aryan homeland debate in the last few decades. In Talageri’s opinion, nothing in particular follows from ancient history for contemporary ethnic and caste groups in India. Thus, today’s Yadava “caste”, actually a conglomerate of several cattle-raising castes, is not the physical progeny of the Vedic tribe of the same name. Brahmin clans like Bharadwaj or Bhargava who continue the names of Vedic seers may genuinely comprise the latter among their ancestry but have visibly been mixed with the local population of whichever Indian region where they settled.

Once the OIT gains acceptance, quite possibly some European roots-seekers might start identifying with the Druhyus as their linguistic ancestors and feel honour-bound to adopt the latter’s ancient bias against the Anavas and Pauravas, now turning it against the modern Iranians and Indians. But in fact, languages like Greek and Germanic comprise a very large substrate of pre-IE native vocabulary, and it is from those pre-IE natives that modern Europeans have inherited most of their genetic make-up, rather than from the IE-speaking “Druhyu” immigrants who largely managed to impart their language through a process of elite recruitment. (Why exactly the IE-speakers from the east were accepted as an elite by the European natives, remains to be understood.) The white Europeans are largely the linguistic but only minimally the physical progeny of the brown Aryans.

For most OIT authors, this rejection of the abuse of history for identity politics, which has already done so much harm to India (as in Tamil anti-Brahmin and “anti-Aryan” separatism), will be a matter of course. But they may not applaud Talageri’s related rejection of a very widespread Hindu bias regarding the Rigveda, viz. the belief that its battles are part of a struggle between good and evil, with the Vedic kings representing the good side. In fact, the Vedic king Sudas who won the Battle of the Ten Kings was a Paurava imperialist invading Anava territory, and the ten kings were legitimately defending their own territory against him. Sudas may have been the hero of the Rigveda’s 7th book, “but”, so Talageri warns, “he is not the hero of this book”.

To sum up, the Rigveda is not a God-given text exclusively dealing with cosmic stuff, where all names and data are merely symbolic pointers to some Great Beyond. No, they refer to real people and historical events, and nothing human is alien to this ancientmost collection of hymns. But this only increases the merits of the Rishis, the composers who praised the gods in their hymns. Obviously, without their testimony, Talageri’s reconstruction of early Indian and IE history would have been impossible. We might never have been able to locate the IE homeland. All the Orientalists, including Michael Witzel and the present writer, owe a debt of gratitude to Angiras, Vishvamitra, Vasistha and the other Vedic seers, and to their contemporary scion, Shrikant Talageri.

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