May 25, 2020
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Locating Questions Of National Origin

A sensible charting out of Vedic people; history for the layman

Locating Questions Of National Origin
The Vedic People
By Rajesh Kochhar
Orient Longman Rs 425, Pages: 259
Nationalism gives an urgency to the question of national identity, and this involves historical investigations of what are viewed as its origins. In the nineteenth century it was thought that Indian origins lay with the Vedic people, or the Aryans as they are called. They were the authors of the compositions that make up the Vedic corpus and were also said to be the creators of all the refinements of Indian civilisation. Language and race were used interchangeably in this argument-as they still are-and caused immense confusion.

Among the problems that have since arisen, one is related to the established view that the Indo-Aryan speaking people came from across the northwestern borders and settled in north India. It was earlier believed that this took the form of an invasion, a theory that few would support today. But that they came as migrants has been endorsed by many scholars. However, the demands of exclusionist national ideologies, the world over, require that the founders of their histories be indigenous. Hence the attempts that are being made to prove this for the Aryans in India.

Another problem was the discovery of the Indus civilisation in the early twentieth century, the date of which preceded the generally accepted period of the composition of the Rig Veda, making the Indus civilisation the foundational culture. This meant that origins and identities could continue to be "Aryan" only by insisting that the authors of the Indus civilisation were identical with those who composed the Rig Veda, in spite of the immense differences in the two cultures. The Rig Veda would have to be dated to the fourth millennium BC rather than the generally accepted second millennium. "Aryan" culture would then be entirely indigenous, untouched by foreign hands, as also its language, Sanskrit. Furthermore, the supporters of this view can now contend that history has to be rewritten in accordance with this interpretation even if it is unacceptable to most scholars.

That an astrophysicist had published a book on Vedic people made one wonder what would surface. It turns out to be a sensible and down-to-earth book for the interested general reader. One may not agree with all of Kochhar's conclusions, nevertheless he does try and place the subject in historical perspective, which is becoming a rare exercise these days when all kinds of theories about the historical past are current, particularly in educational circles.

The opening chapter explains the problem by providing a brief historiography of how an interest developed in Sanskrit and in Aryan culture in the last few centuries, a not negligible contribution being from the politics of colonialism. A laying out, as it were, of the sources follows this. There are details of the Vedic corpus and the Puranas since the latter purport to carry some gleanings of history. This is followed by brief but wide-ranging surveys of the archaeological cultures, which have a bearing on the main theme. The section on literary sources could have included a summary of the very pertinent current discussion among Sanskritists and linguists relating to the occurrence of non-Indo-Aryan forms, primarily Dravidian and Munda, in the Rig Veda. This has suggested to some scholars that there was a period of bilingualism, and this raises a number of new historical perspectives. That a part of the Rig Veda was composed in Afghanistan prior to its authors migrating to India is a view held by others earlier and with which Kocchar concurs. He also returns to the earlier theories on the closeness between the Avesta of Iran and the Rig Veda.

The author includes a discussion of the geography of rivers and locations, the identification of the Saraswati having become so central to the question of equating the Aryan with the Harappan. Kochhar's identification of the earlier references to Saraswati and some other rivers in the Rig Veda is with rivers in Afghanistan. He has some cogent reasons for arguing that the old Ghaggar could not have been the Rigvedic Saraswati.

Kochhar's view is that the Indo-Aryan speakers date to the early second millennium BC in Afghanistan, arriving in India between 1700 and 900 BC. The introduction of the horse and the ritual use of soma are characteristics that they have in common with other early Indo-Europeans and with Iranians. He posits a merger between the Indic speakers and post-urban Harappans, which is a feasible hypothesis but requires a fuller integration of the sources.

A brief chapter discussing the location of the events described in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as being more to the west and even into Afghanistan, seems tangential to the main theme of the book. Far more work would have to go into making a convincing case for such locations.

Kochhar's book points to the diverse sources that have to be consulted in order to chart the arrival and establishment of the Vedic people, and the range is immense. It is a refreshing change to have an author concede this, unlike many others writing for a general audience who assume that one category of evidence is sufficient. The emphasis on identifying "the Aryans" digresses in some ways from what historians would regard as the central investigation, namely the nature of the society of these times. Evidence from diverse disciplines but focused on this investigation, as for example, water sources, crop patterns, geomorphology, language use, metal technology and such like, may well provide us with new insights.

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