Sunday, May 3, 2020

An archaeologist of consequence: Prof. B.B. Lal

(in BR Mani: A Legendary Archaeologist: Prof. BB Lal Felicitation Volume, Delhi 2018)


The first time I heard the name B.B. Lal was ca. 1980 in my hometown Leuven, when the leading Orientalist Prof. Pierre Eggermont mentioned him in a lecture on the putative Aryan invasion. At that time I had no idea yet that his widely shared hypothesis was less than fully supported by the evidence, or that it was going to be the stake of a hot controversy. What little of evidence that Eggermont could build on, was precisely a finding by B.B. Lal.

When still a beginning archaeologist, Lal made his name internationally by digging up the missing link between the Aryans and India: the Painted Grey Ware (PGW, 1200-800) culture. As we ought to have realized since the controversies among anthropologists about hyped “missing links” between ape and man that turned out to be overrated or faked, a missing link tends to be tricky business. Eggermont told us Lal had identified the PGW as a marker of the Aryan invaders making their way deeper into India, and Lal’s first publications on the subject could be cited to that effect. Indeed, they still are: till today, some believers in the Aryan invasion quote Lal’s early hypothesis on the PGW as material evidence for their hypothesis. (Update: even at the annual conference of the European Archaeological Association, Maastricht 2017, I heard this said urbi et orbi, without anyone protesting; which incidentally confirmed that in the fifty years since, no other such “proof” has materialized.)

But the fact is that Lal has abandoned this hypothesis long ago. Nothing in the PGW data positively proved that it was “Aryan”, or more “Aryan” than its surroundings. This was only assumed because it would fit neatly in the Aryan invasion hypothesis, which was taken to be a fact. Actually, the PGW had to fill the yawning gap in the evidential support basis of the Aryan invasion hypothesis. As Lal delved deeper into the subject, he realized that the invasion hypothesis was not a proven factual framework within which one could interpret new data. Instead, it was itself a mere hypothesis, one among several unproven ways to look at the available facts. So he has grown away from it.

But alright, back then an inertial reliance on Lal’s juvenile convictions could be excused. Today, this is no longer acceptable. The PGW is but one of many dashed hopes of Aryan invasion believers looking for a material sign of their hypothesis. None of Lal’s colleagues has discovered the long-awaited trace of an invasion.


Later, Prof. Lal has presented in his books a much larger corpus of archaeological data that militate against the Aryan invasion scenario. I have had the privilege of being asked by the magazine Hinduism Today to review Lal’s book The Rigvedic People: Invaders/Immigrants or Indigenous (Aryan Books, Delhi 2015). There he explains how recent excavations in Kunal and Bhirrana have pointedly confirmed a civilizational continuity since the 6th millennium BC, rather than an interruption by invading Aryans. He documents how, contrary to Western opinion, the horse, supposedly the Vedic glamour animal, is attested in a number of Harappan cities, and the spoked wheel likewise through terracotta models. The excavated fire altars, of the kind used for Vedic fire ceremonies, have been ridiculed in the West as just kitchen hearths, but Lal finds more confirmation for the ritual purpose of these fire-pits as well as indications that real kitchen-hearths, equally attested, were of a different type.

The continuity of the Harappan civilization is expressed in many ways. Lingam-yoni motifs are associated with a male figure seated in meditation posture, the same figure is the addressee of a bull sacrifice, and two attributes of Shiva are found together: a bull with a trident engraved on his hip. Ascetics are found depicted, as also a depiction of a well-known Hindu fable: The Thirsty Crow. Statuettes show the Namaste salute with folded hands. Married women are shown wearing red powder in the parting of their hair and spiraled bangles on their wrists. Concludes the dean of Indian archaeology: “So, it is abundantly clear that all the objections against a Harappan-Vedic equation are baseless.” Indeed, “the Harappan civilization and the Vedas are but two faces of the same coin.”


Over the years, I met Prof. Lal several times, once even in Los Angeles. The last time till now was at the Draupadi Trust’s Delhi conference on the Sindhu-Saraswati Civilization, March 2015. During one session I was sitting just next to B.B. Lal. On archaeology, I am a layman, I am not too interested in the material details of excavations, though as a historian I set great store by the end results. So I was listening only with half an ear to a rather technical paper, meanwhile leafing through the new e-mails on my laptop.  

I had received a message from one of the world’s top scholars in  historical and comparative linguistics, a German teaching in the US, as part of an ongoing debate on the Indo-European homeland. He argued, as almost any Western specialist of Indo-European languages would, that the Homeland is a settled matter, at least to the extent that it was not in India: “Everyone knows it.” But here I was sitting in a hall with India’s top archaeologists, where every speaker pleaded that in his own excavations, he had found total continuity and no trace of an Aryan invasion. It happens only rarely that on one topic, Indian scholars and Western scholars hold such diametrically opposing views.


The name B.B. Lal was again on the frontpages during the scholarly controversies about the Ayodhya  temple/mosque issue ca. 1990, a debate in which I also figured. He stood by the findings he himself had done during on-site excavations in the 1970s. These showed that pillar-bases of the demolished Hindu temple stood underneath the Babri mosque. More thorough Court-ordered excavations in 2003 have amply confirmed the existence of these pillar-bases, along with many other Hindu temple remnants.

This made Lal the target of much slander and mud-throwing. He was ridiculed and denounced as “Hindu fundamentalist”. He was lambasted as “that once-meritorious archaeologist who uses his reputation to propagate the non-existent temple”. Pedantic opponents demanded to see Lal’s field notes, locked away under Archaeological Survey of India rules – as if these writings by Lal himself would contradict Lal’s own conclusion. In any case, he was completely vindicated by later excavations as well as by the written evidence. 

Meanwhile, a publicly available proof of his objectivity and bona fides was eagerly cited by the secularists themselves, because they reckoned it could embarrass the Acharyas leading the Ayodhya agitation. These Hindu leaders had thought that Lal’s support to the temple thesis implied a support to all their beliefs about Rama, including a very high chronology. But Lal’s excavations only found human habitation at the Rama Janmabhumi till the second millennium BCE, not earlier. This greatly disappointed them, and they protested loudly. So Prof. Lal answered: “I don’t say so, but my spade tells me so.”

Though he himself never allowed his successes to go to his head, it must, in hindsight, be an archaeologist’s dream come true to play a prominent role in major controversies and be proven right in the end. At any rate, such are the highlights of Prof. B.B. Lal’s career.

Read more!

Thursday, April 16, 2020

AIT and the science of linguistics

Linguistics is a field far away from the wild speculations of folk etymology, and while it may not have the relative certitude of the exact sciences, it is nevertheless a scientific enterprise that opponents of the Aryan Invasion Theory may do well to familiarize themselves with, if they hope to win the debate at some point in the future.

Jssor Slider(Pragyata, 26 May 2018)

On 2 May 2018, the online magazine Swatantra published the article “PIE or LIE: Why Linguistics Is Not A Science” by surgeon Dr. Shivsankar Sastry. I have nothing against people publishing about another discipline than their own, provided they submit to the same rules as the professionals. We shall see, however, that this is not the case here. In India, comparative and historical linguists are hard to come by, and so outsiders grab the microphone unafraid of being gainsaid by professionals.

No surprise then that in the very beginning already, we come across the claim that ‘the word father is derived from Latin pater’. Any linguist who knows his discipline will immediately remark that both pater and father stem from a common origin in Proto-Indo-European, but the one has not been derived from the other. This is not frivolous nitpicking, we shall see that the exact relation between such similar word is the very heart of this debate.

 He describes how many words in many languages resemble each other, but adds contemptuously: ‘However Europeans did not know this until they came to India and “discovered” Sanskrit.’

 There is no good reason for the scare quotes around ‘discovered’: things that get discovered, existed earlier, as Sanskrit did, but enter the worldview of the discoverer for the first time, as Sanskrit did for the European newcomers. Columbus ‘discovered’ America (contemptuous laughter among the Sastrys of this world), not in the sense that he was the first to set foot there, but that for him and his people, it had been unknown before; in the same way that youngsters ‘discover’ sex life even though all the previous generations had already known it. The scare quotes are intended to convey the message that these ugly vicious Europeans had stolen knowledge from India, the way Columbus had invaded America all while ‘discovering’ it.

 The statement as a whole is not true, however. Europeans did know about the resemblance of words across language frontiers, and unlike the Indians of the time, they even had developed an explanation for these resemblances. That is how in the 17th-18th century they already mapped out the Uralic family, linking very similar languages like Finnish and Estonian with at first sight very dissimilar languages like Hungarian, Komi, Udmurt and a dozen others. They were construed as cognate, and a genealogical tree was drawn up that specified the precise relation between all of them.

 This also had nothing to do with racism. It is in the late 19th century that race theories had their heyday, long after the all-white Uralic family had been reconstructed, and even after the theory of Indo-European kinship had started.

Folk etymology

The Indo-European family, by contrast, did indeed largely need Sanskrit for the realization of its interrelatedness. A few European travellers to India had already noticed a resemblance of their own languages with the modern Indo-Aryan languages they encountered – traders did not usually learn bookish classical languages like Sanskrit. But the official birth moment is of course William Jones’s speech to the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1786.

So, this much of Dr. Sastry’s discourse is true enough:
“Sanskrit provided the missing link that made people understand relationships between a huge group of languages spoken from India to Europe. Sanskrit, especially old, Vedic Sanskrit has more words in common with more European languages than any other language including Greek and Latin (…) a Briton called William Jones in a much quoted speech had theorized that Sanskrit, Greek and Latin must have sprung from a common root language. Comparative linguistics sought to rediscover that language.”

Comparative linguistics (which he and numerous other Hindus call a ‘pseudo-science’) “started initially with similar sounding words in different languages with similar meanings (called cognates)”. That much is true, but it was only a beginning. In this infancy state, many words are taken to be cognate, i.e. evolved forms of the same word, whereas they are only similar-sounding. Thus, Persian bad (‘bad’, as in Persian-Urdu badmāś, badnām) sounds the same as English bad, and in this exceptional case, the two also have the same meaning, so laymen would assume that they are a perfect example of cognate words; yet on closer inspection, they are not cognate (see Or: French feu, ‘fire’, and German Feuer, also ‘fire’, seem to be the same word, yet the first has developed out of Latin focus, ‘hearth’, while the second is cognate to the unrelated Greek word pur, ‘fire’ (wherefrom English ‘pyre’, ‘pyromaniac’).

 It is in that childhood stage that the notorious PN Oak’s folk etymologies, tremendously popular among Hindus, have remained. Since Vatican is similar to Sanskrit vāṭikā, ‘place, park’, Oak decided that the headquarters of the Catholic Church were originally a Vedic centre, a Veda-vāṭikā. (The unfounded addition of the Veda component is but another testimony to Oak’s lack of methodological seriousness.) In reality, Vatican comes from vates, ‘inspired poet, sooth-sayer’, semantically approximatively the equivalent of ṛṣi, linguistically cognate with the Germanic deity rendered in English as Woden, in Scandinavian as Odin, and with Dutch woeden, ‘to rage’; but not related to vāṭikā. So: the ‘Poets’ Hill’. (Since linguists are not as cocksure of their case as their Hindu lambasters are, they also leave a small possibility open that it was an unrelated Etruscan loan.)

 Similarly, in a British-Indian textbook on Hinduism, the claim was made that the hero’s name Rāma is related to the Tibetan word lama, as in Dalai Lama. In reality, the latter component (after dalai, Mongolian for ‘ocean’) comes from bLa, ‘high’, as is bLa-dakh, better known as Ladakh, ‘high mountain pass’, and is more or less equivalent to the Christian term ‘father superior’; but unrelated to Sanskrit rāma, ‘pleasing’.

 At this point, I usually get swearwords thrown at me from the Hindu side: ‘Colonialist’, ‘You equate European with maturity, Indian with childhood!’ No, that childhood stage has existed in Europe just as well, and all linguists have learned about it in their training. Thus, Plato, considered the fountainhead of the whole edifice of Western philosophy, produced quite a few folk etymologies in his book Cratylus. He was great, we respect him, but we are not uptight about facing the childhood mistakes he made in some respects, as in etymology, and rejecting them: Amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas, ‘Plato is our friend, but an even greater friend is the truth.’ Too many Indians, by contrast, hold fast to these childhood mistakes as being ‘truly national’, as opposed to this ‘ugly foreign modernity’.

 As late as the 17th century, Goropius Becanus from Antwerp tried to deduce all languages from the Antwerp dialect of Dutch, e.g. Hebrew adam, ‘man, Adam’, from Dutch aardman, ‘earth-man’ (coincidentally a pun on adam’s real connection with adamah, ‘earth’, just as Latin homo, ‘man, earth-dweller’ is cognate to humus, ‘soil’), and Hebrew hawwah, ‘life, Eve’, from Dutch eeuwvat, ‘eon-barrel’. This way, he ‘discovered’ that Antwerpish had been spoken in the Garden of Eden, no less. He was our very own PN Oak, and I live quite near where he used to live. But we are pleased to consider this childhood stage as a piece of history that we have outgrown and need not go back to.STAY CONNECTED

Recognizing real kinship, unmasking false kinship
According to Dr. Sastry, speaking here for numerous Hindus, our universities just paid people for decades to fool everyone: ‘Rules were created and when those rules did not work they created new rules and still more rules in their quest for the holy grail of mother language uniting all languages, but there is no evidence that they even once applied scientific method to linguistics.’

To be sure, we can understand that when a surgeon (who routinely saves lives thanks to an inventive application of technologies enabled by our knowledge of the laws of nature) hears the free-for-all of the jargon-laden ideological nonsense put out by the Social ‘Science’ department, he tends toward scepticism of the Humanities. Yet, when it comes to Historical and Comparative Linguistics, I would plead with him for some patient reconsideration. Indeed, it is not Physics, with its sharp and fully tested laws, yet it is still far more scientific than just any narrative. Let us give a little taste of it.
Words have coincided that are not originally related, so that a layman unmindful of the diachronic dimension, i.e. of the historical process of change, in words as in so many things, might conclude to sameness where actually there is difference. Thus, English pronounces with the same sounds the words wether (‘ram’), weather (‘atmosphere’s condition’), and whether (‘or’). Fortunately for our purpose, English has a conservative spelling still rendering the sounds which at one time differentiated these words, but in a phonetic language like Hindi, they would have coincided; as they effectively do in the related Dutch, where these words all have coincided in weder, which in modern times has become weer, further coinciding with even more words (‘man’, Latin/Sanskrit vīr-, as in weerwolf, ‘werewolf’;  ‘against’, German wider, as in weerstand, ‘resistance’; and ‘anew’, German wieder, as in tot weerziens, ‘see you again’). In this case, no less than six different words have come to coincide in one. [Postscript: actually seven, for English wither corresponds to Dutch wer-en, as is verweerd, “withered”.]

These coinciding words may even have meanings that are not just different but opposite, e.g. English let means ‘allow, permit to pass through’, but in the expression without let or hindrance, it means the opposite: ‘veto, prevent’. Here, the diachronic or historical dimension can help us out: in Old English the two words are different, as still in Dutch, where laten means ‘let, allow through’, whereas be-let-ten means ‘prevent, not allow through’.    

 Conversely, words that have grown far apart, even unrecognizably so, may be of the same origin and have preserved the same or a related meaning. Thus, it is not obvious to recognize French huit (roughly pronounced ‘wit’) as an evolute of Latin octo, yet we are pretty sure of it, having the origin, the end result and some intermediate forms well-attested in texts.

 The method of Comparative and Historical Linguistics is based on the extension into the past of the evolution observed in known languages. This is their empirical basis. Thus, most Western linguists were familiar with Latin and French and had some knowledge of the intermediate stages of Romance and Old French. Similarly in India, scholars would be familiar with both Sanskrit and Hindi and somewhat with intermediate stages like Pali and Apabhramsa. This way, they could see for themselves how Latin eradicare, ‘uproot’, became French arracher; or how Sankrit Gurugrāma, ‘teacher’s village’, became Hindi Guṛgāon.

 Since in both cases the elite among the speakers of the modern language also knew the ancient language, they often borrowed an ancient word to be used in the modern language, sometimes alongside the evolved form of the same word. Thus, the southern suburb of Delhi has been renamed Gurugrāma, now used in formal contexts alongside the more colloquial Guṛgāon, and since the Latin-infatuated Renaissance, French contains a Latinate word éradiquer alongside the colloquial arracher. (These citation words are called in Sanskrit tatsama, ‘the same as that’, the evolved forms tatbhava, ‘become/evolved from that’.)

 When we extend this observed evolution of language to stage beyond what has been attested, our knowledge of patterns makes us suspect larger wholes with longer lines of evolution. Thus, we can suspect among the numerals an original form approaching *kwetwor, which must have evolved into several mutually unrecognizable directions, such as Dutch-German vier, Greek tettar-, Sanskrit catvar-. Or, among pronouns, *ego has become Sanskrit aham, Latin-Greek ego, French že (written je), Spanish yo, English ai (written I). If you only look at the forms these words have today, the untrained eye will fail to notice the links. Fortunately, languages like Latin, Greek and Sanskrit have long literary traditions in which you can follow the evolution of words.

 To be sure, ‘knowledge of pattern’ is a fallible ground for assumptions. Prehistoric man may have heard a whisper in the tree leaves, mobilized himself for fight or flight suspecting the presence of a tiger, and then found to his relief that it was only the wind. Patterns may be deceptive, thus warranting some scepticism. Yet the next time, the sound in the leaves did indicate a tiger, and the careless sceptic was killed. Pattern 
recognition is not perfect, but not baseless either.

 Fortunately, in the case of the Indo-European language family, thanks to its wide spread and resulting division in many languages including extinct ones, some long hidden but finally attested, we have had a number of occasions for testing. The hypothesis was already alive in the 18th century, yet new discoveries in the 19th and 20th century have confirmed though also refined the hypothesis. These are principally the discovery of Anatolian (Hittite), Tocharian and Proto-Bangani, and the closer scrutiny of all the native vocabularies including the socially marginal registers and the historical dead ends. This is not necessarily the case, e.g. for the San (Bushmen), we only have a few now-existing languages not committed to writing until the 20th century, rather than a whole range of languages spread over many thousands of miles in dozens of different forms preserved in literatures since four millennia.

 To the untrained layman, such as Dr. Sastry, this all looks unnecessarily complicated, random, intractable, and susceptible to manipulation: ‘Linguists picked up dozens of European languages and looked for parts of words and grammatical structures that were similar, sometimes rejecting obviously similar words as unrelated or “borrowed” and sometimes including unlikely sounding words as cognates based on their rules.’
 Yes, dear Doctor, that is the way it is. But your own lack of understanding is no reason to assume that there is a lack of logic or of factual basis to these procedures. To grasp more than their surface, you will simply have to study Comparative Indo-European Linguistics more seriously than you have done hitherto.

Reconstructing the past

From as soon as human beings became conscious of an earlier language, they liked to use relics from it, e.g. in the -2nd millennium already, Akkadian and Hittite treated Sumerian as a classical language, integrating literally cited words or sumerograms from it. But if we go back deep enough into the past, we come to a stage where a language was first frozen and remembered, either by writing or by memorization, and carried no memory of an even earlier stage. In their case, all words are either tadbhava, evolved forms of the words of an older and irretrievable stage of the same language, or new introductions not having existed in the older language, either borrowed from foreign languages (French nord/est/sud/ouest, ‘north/east/south/west’, from Dutch; post-Vedic Sanskrit mīṇa, ‘fish’, kāṇa, ‘one-eyed’, from Dravidian) or newly coined.
In Sanskrit, Latin and Greek, as also in Old Church Slavonic and the earliest known form of Germanic, Celtic and the other Indo-European languages, there are only words evolved from, and words independent from, their ancestral language. The latter category cannot teach us anything about it, the former only little, and less and less as you go back further in time. When we return to the speech community of the ancient languages that became classical in India c.q. Europe, we find no consciousness of an earlier language anymore. Yet the reconstruction of their ancestral language is not entirely hopeless.

Here, linguistic history is in a similar situation as political history. We are in both cases looking for knowledge of the past, but the sources that can yield it are imperfect and incomplete, and usually worse so as we fathom deeper into the past. It is obvious that the laws of Physics, with their experimental proof and reproducibility, can’t serve as model here. In historical disciplines, we can (1) draw conclusions about past events to the extent that relevant sources are available, which implies that newly-discovered sources can change the emerging picture drastically; (2) draw only provisional conclusions from those sources to the extent that we assume that they are correct, which is optimistic as the sources may be flawed by either limited knowledge or deliberate mendaciousness, and (3) draw conclusions that are, even in the best case, always but asymptotic approximations of what really happened back then.

There are debates among scholars about whether the Buddha, Laozi, Chanakya, Jesus or Mohammed have really existed. Sources about them are certainly existent, but either very limited (Laozi, Chanakya), or highly doctored and ideologically streamlined (Jesus). Such debates could even be extended to more recent characters. Has Napoleon really existed? We have plenty of documents referring to him in a consistent manner, and we have public places and institutions named after him, so that few characters from the past are better attested. Yet, even he could, strictly speaking, be a fictional character invented by someone with a great publicity machine.

About him and all entities from the past, even the dinosaurs, we cannot assume certainty ever, we can only achieve probability that asymptotically approaches the reality we keep positing but know we can never fully reach. The evidence for a number of them has mounted so much that no practical purpose is served anymore by doubting it, and those who do (say, doubting the dinosaur fossils as a valid basis to conclude to the dinosaurs’ existence, as Biblical Creationists do), tend to socially cover themselves in ridicule; yet in a strict logic, they still have a very slim chance of being proven right one day. Similarly, about Proto-Indo-European, its existence is highly probable, to the extent that by now, busy people won’t waste time trying to question it; yet, genuine scholars always remain aware of the fallibility and provisional nature of their conclusions.

I am aware that decent yet narrow-minded people from the exact disciplines shudder to call such provisional and approximative hypotheses as are usual in the historical disciplines, ‘scientific’. Well, if you don’t like this element of uncertainty, stay out of these disciplines. If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen; the rest of the world is still more than big enough for you.

The tree model

According to Sastry: “The most obvious slip up is the assumption that all modern languages must have descended in a tree like fashion from one mother language. That is to say that there is one trunk, dividing into branches, smaller branches and leaves. In fact things might not have panned out in this manner. There may have been a “trunk” mother language that branched out into daughter languages but those branches, unlike real tree branches may have coalesced to form one branch and then re-branched.”

In reality, the tree model (Stammbaumtheorie) posited by August Schleicher ca. 1870 was at once criticized and supplemented by the wave model (Wellentheorie). The most natural acquisition of language is to speak the same language you hear from your parents; rather than presenting it as a wild flight of fancy, you can check it in your own life. You and your wayward brother gradually adopt different expressions and different loans from your different surroundings, but both have first inherited the same language. That is why the tree scenario of vertical inertial influence from your parents is primary, the wave scenario of influence from the environment only secondary. Since the discovery of the Uralic kinship in the 17th century already, and even without these theoretical concepts, both the approaches had de facto been used already in constructing the Uralic ‘tree’.

 More Sastry: “Having only one unprovable theory to explain the unknown without considering other possibilities is as unscientific as any study can get.”
 In reality, there have always been competing hypotheses, the best-known for Indians certainly being that between different Homelands. Only very recently, there has, even among AIT believers, been a stand-off between the argumentations for Anatolia and Southwest Russia, and before there have been investigations into many other candidates. This includes India, which was discarded when the Indo-Europeanist discipline was still in its infancy, on the intuitive ground that since Sanskrit was not the ancestral Proto-Indo-European (PIE, though close to it), India could not be the Homeland. Now that our grasp of these processes has become more sophisticated, this hypothesis deserves reconsideration.


Dr. Sastry then compares the reconstruction of PIE with the 17th-18th-century Phlogiston hypothesis that posited a separate substance to explain the phenomenon of combustion. This was a false trail that was soon abandoned; a childhood disease of nascent Physics. In fact, trying out hypotheses and then dropping those found unable to resist testing is the very essence of the process of scientific research, so there was nothing really wrong or laughable about the Phlogiston episode. But still, it was a wrong hypothesis, and the fact of an Indo-European language family may well be a wrong hypothesis does deserve an evaluation when the need arises.

 The Phlogiston hypothesis, while it lasted, was defended with special pleading, and according to Dr. Sastry: “In an eerily parallel manner linguists have not attempted any scientific method to resolve anomalies and have assumed from the word go that their reconstructions of an old, unknown language from cognate words would work as long as they muddled along making up rules at every roadblock.”

 Still according to him, a real scientist would have built a model and tested it against reality, but: “There is no evidence that linguists did that. (…) Linguists have just rushed in and merrily reconstructed unknown languages as if all the methods used are valid and correct.”

 Well, well. That statement presupposes, at least among someone so vocal about ‘scientific’ standards as Dr. Sastry, an actual investigation into what these Indo-Europeanists since William Jones have actually been doing. Knowing this subject, I can see right away that he has never done that, e.g. he suggests: “They could simply have taken three or four modern languages with a known old ancestral language and then tried to reconstruct that old language from the modern ones.”

 Contrary to what he implies, this has actually been done, most notably with the well-known Romance languages as a basis for reconstructing their already-known Latin foremother (e.g. in the test of Glottochronology’s claim that the rate of language change corresponds to a knowable time lapse so that the timing of Latin could be derived from the rate of change in the Romance languages), yet he thinks: “This has never been done.”

Another mark of his incompetence in these matters is this: “An example of this is Avestan, an imaginary language that Parsis are said to have spoken in 1000 BC. Avestan has been reconstructed from fragments of original gathas recalled orally, from Pahlavi language texts translated into Sanskrit.”

 No, Avestan is a really attested language and didn’t need to be reconstructed. Its surviving literature, the Avesta, was passed on orally, exactly like the Vedas in their ‘imaginary’ Sanskrit. It is more transparent by its closeness to Sanskrit and close kinship with its daughter Pahlavi, so we have little problem understanding it; during all the intervening centuries, the Parsis had no trouble understanding it either. In the 8th century, when the Zoroastrian priests feared for the survival of their religion because of the impact of Islam, they coined a phonetic alphabet and committed their Avestan texts to writing. White, or Christian, or colonial, or any other supposedly hostile force does not come into the picture anywhere.
 We find that this man passes judgment on a subject he hasn’t studied. He is literally ‘underinformed but overopinionated’.

Archaeology of the Homeland

Even if the linguists’ method were as worthless as Dr. Sastry claims, its conclusions could still have been correct. One’s premises do not have to be correct for the conclusion to be correct, though it certainly helps. One may occasionally just stumble upon the truth by sheer coincidence. This point is in fact illustrated by Dr. Sastry himself.

In the midst of a wrong grasp of the history of PIE reconstruction, and of a conspiracy theory, he nonetheless gets it right where he says: “And PIE has dropped like manna from heaven for archaeologists who have gleefully grabbed and dumped PIE in a place where there is no historical evidence of language, the Russian steppe – a convenient area in the middle of a land mass equidistant from every corner making it seem “likely” that the language could have gone anywhere from there because no place can be declared as “extra far away” from that point. “Too far away” has actually been used as an excuse to rule out certain other possible places of origin.”

 His brief account of the role of archaeology vis-à-vis linguistics is inaccurate, but it is true that the putative steppe Homeland conveniently happens to have no history of language until a few centuries ago, unlike earlier centres of literacy like Anatolia and India. This makes it quite comical to see some scholars give a detailed history’ of the branching out of both the Uralic and the PIE family five thousand year before the area became literate. Yes, there are excesses among some in the Indo-Europeanist establishment; but Comparative and Historical Linguistics as such deserves better than this.

 Moreover, Sastry correctly points out that the Russian steppe is ‘a convenient area in the middle of a land mass equidistant from every corner making it seem “likely” that the language could have gone anywhere from there because no place can be declared as “extra far away” from that point. “Too far away” has actually been used as an excuse to rule out certain other possible places of origin.’

 Though places as excentric as Bactria and Germany have been taken serious as Homeland candidates, there is nowadays a great deal of background bias in favour of the steppes because they do lie about halfway between Lanka and Iceland; between Assam and Portugal. When you propose India as a Homeland, this argument does come up: that it is ‘too far away from the centre’, and that Russia is so much more centrally located. Before going into actual arguments pro and con, this feeling asserts itself: that a central location is just more palatable. Yet, most languages that expanded, did so from a far corner of their later expanse: Russian from Kiev eastwards, Arabic from Arabia northwestwards, Bantu from West Africa southeastwards. So, the choice for India would only follow an established pattern.

The Out-of-India Theory

As an alternative to Russia, recently India has been revived as a Homeland candidate. Many scholars believe that this is a Hindutva machination, a ‘concoction’. In reality, the Out-of-India Theory (OIT) dates back to 18th-century Europe and was the dominant view for fifty years or so. Further, it is not true that the Hindutva organizations have seized on the OIT; they merely oppose the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT), which posits a PIE Homeland outside India followed by an expansion into India. They have no alternative theory of how the Indians and Europeans have come to speak languages belonging to the same family, viz. an expansion westwards starting from India. Their horizon goes no farther than the Khyber Pass, the history of the languages outside doesn’t figure in their worldview.

The OIT is the work of a mere handful of Indian, Indian-naturalized and Western scholars. It is followed by a sizable segment of Hindu society: people who have gotten convinced that the unity of PIE cannot seriously be denied, so that its presence in India requires either an Indian Homeland or an invasion from outside; and who have a vague impression that the said handful of scholars know what they are doing. But a similar number (I cannot vouch for exact percentages, but I mean very many) don’t want to have anything to do with PIE, and consequently reject the OIT as much as the AIT.
Our Dr. Sastry is one of them: “Needless to say, archaeological findings have been cooked up to connect India with that imagined place of origin of the imaginary language PIE.”

 Of course, if there is no PIE, there need not be a PIE Homeland. But note the completely unfounded conspiracy theory: ‘cooked up’. After having heard this claim a thousand times, we have never been presented with any evidence for this vast conspiracy, but it remains popular nonetheless. It is very widespread in India: the idea that some British administrator once wondered how to hoodwink the Hindus into submission, then sat own and thought up the AIT. That, again, is a sign of ignorance about the real history of Comparative and Historical Linguistics and how it thought up PIE and the various Homeland theories. In reality, the AIT was already in place, thought up by armchair scholars in some German library, by the time the British colonials saw its usefulness.

The current debate

In the ongoing Homeland debate, I am sorry to note that Hindus have badly damaged their own cause. Smugly, they don’t see any need at all for studying the battlefield or the adversary’s position. One harmful policy, by those who do accept the language family as a reality, is to claim that the debate is already over and the OIT has won. 
They clearly have no contact with the outside world, for the overwhelming assumption there is still that the ‘Aryans’ originated on the steppe and then invaded India.
Another is to deny the existence of an Indo-European family altogether. Sometimes I see AIT champions on internet forums falsely claim that they have disproven the OIT.

 There is, on close consideration, no such thing as a linguistic proof for the AIT and against the OIT. But mostly, if you persist in asking, they do not mean that they have proven the OIT wrong, but they have proven the Hindu polemicists wrong,-- and these rarely argue for the OIT, but they argue for the non-existence of an Indo-European language family, i.e. against the kinship between the Indian languages and those from the despised West. Most non-Indians involved in the Homeland debate have gained the impression that AIT opponents are at once opponents of the notion of Indo-European itself; and about that position, they are rightly confident to have proven it wrong.
Denying the Indo-European family is not only against the evidence, such as of the far greater likeness of the pronouns or the numerals between Sanskrit and English (even in its contemporary form) than between Sanskrit and Tamil, let alone Sanskrit and Chinese. It also puts Hindus in a poor position in the Homeland debate, viz. as village bumpkins who just don’t know the history of the pertinent research and its results. They have gate-crashed into an ongoing debate without first (nor even as they go along) familiarizing themselves with the state of the art.

The result is what I experience at Indo-Europeanist conferences. I am the only one of the non-AIT camp to ever go there, at least when finances permit. The main problem, in which I have patiently made a few very small holes at last, is the complete stonewalling by the AIT camp of any AIT-critical input. They have been told that a critic of the AIT is inevitably a Hindu nationalist, a species whose unspeakable evil is only matched by its unfathomable stupidity. Illogically, but in keeping with their care for their reputations, they then deduce that anything said by those Hindu nationalists must be ridiculous and not worth studying or answering to. In this prejudice, they are confirmed by their actual encounters on internet forums with anti-AIT hotheads. They don’t want to waste their time on always going back to square one and teaching the ABC. I can testify that it is difficult to be up against that mindset. I humbly try to clean up the mess made by those mindless but polemic-happy Hindus.

One hurdle is their national self-obsession. Dr. Shivsankar Sastry is described as ‘an incurable patriot’, and that precisely is the problem. As al-Biruni already observed a thousand years ago, Indians think there is no country like theirs, a superiority complex based on India’s leadership position in the ancient world. After a thousand years of Muslim and British oppression, the Hindus have notoriously acquired an inferiority complex, which leads to overcompensation, for which they call in whatever remains of that old superiority complex. As a result, many of them don’t care about the rest of the world, such as the non-Indian parts of the Indo-European world, whose linguistic existence deserves an explanation. Likewise, they don’t care about the opinion of non-Indians about the quality of the anti-PIE arguments, just as they don’t care for any outsider’s frowning on their belief in ancient Hindu helicopters and nuclear missiles. All this foreign disbelief must be due to a colonial-missionary-racist conspiracy of evil designs anyway.

I am all for India, for its integrity and against Kashmiri separatism; but that is a matter of course, a sensible defence of civilization against barbarism. It doesn’t need any puffed-up doctrine of national feeling. As Samuel Johnson said: ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.’ And indeed, in India it is mostly used to overrule the Upanishadic saying that happens to be India’s national motto: Satyam eva jayate, ‘only truth prevails’. Some people think instead that ‘patriotism prevails’, and to hell with truth. Of a theory, they want to know whether it is of foreign origin, not whether it is true. And that is why they don’t believe in the Indo-European language family.

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Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Danish cartoon affair revisited

(For the record, a post of mine on the Indo-Eurasian Research yahoolist from August 2009 is reproduced, concerning the Danish cartoon affair of 2006, the hypotheses proposing to "explain" it, and my own role in it. The affair was a touchstone of Western intellectuals’ willingness to stand up for freedom of expression; they largely failed the test.)

In, [Islam scholar] Michel Tavir wrote:

> [Moderator note. The terms "party line" and "party liners" are really loaded, Michel. What supposed party are you talking about? When you say that "Denmark was chosen because, more than anywhere else in Europe, the anti-muslim ultra-right had (and still has) a de facto grip on political power...", who was supposedly doing the choosing? Without naming names it sounds more than a bit conspiratorial. – Moderator Steve Farmer]

There was no need for Michel to withdraw into a figurative reading of the expression he used. In Denmark, an "anti-Muslim" political party (Pia Kjaersgaard's) did have a "grip" on power, in the sense that it gave indispensible outside support to Lars Lökke Rasmussen's minority government.

But I wouldn't call it "ultra-right". When moving rightward from the centre, the farther right you go, the less likely that you will meet "anti-Muslim" people, who are usually also anti-democratic, anti-American and anti-Zionist. Neo-Nazis in their demonstrations nowadays carry pictures of the Hezbollah sheikh [Hassan Nasrallah] and of Iran's president [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, comrades at arms in the struggle against the Zionist World Conspiracy. Recently the leader of the Dutch neo-Nazi group [Nederlandse Volksunie] said on TV that Bosnian and Albanian Muslims were fully part of Europe, because they are white and also because of their numerous volunteers in the Waffen-SS, but African Muslims were not, and nor were African Christians or native religionists, because of their race. From the Nazi viewpoint, not religion but race is important: history shows that religions come and go, but race is forever, at least if we do the demographically right thing. And that's where religion may play an auxiliary role: in Himmler's footsteps, some neo-Nazis theorize that the white race would be better off by converting to Islam, a martial and pro-natalist religions that leaves no womb unused. Some neo-Nazis have put this advice into practice and converted to Islam.

"Anti-Muslim" positions are more common in a more moderate segment of the right, viz. libertarian, pro-democratic, generally also pro-American and (pragmatically rather than religiously) pro-Zionist. And are now reviving among the Left. Increasingly, leftist intellectuals on the European continent are realizing that the instrumentalization of postmodern "cultural relativism" as a shield against criticism of Islam's treatment of women and of non-Muslims just can't be reconciled with their basic commitment to equality and emancipation.

> > It was, in short, scholarship, not sensationalism.
> That's also how I viewed Jytte Klausen; (...) yet, if she is quoted properly:
“Ms. Klausen, who is also the author of "The Islamic Challenge: Politics and Religion in Western Europe," argued that the cartoon protests were not spontaneous but rather orchestrated demonstrations by extremists in Denmark and Egypt who were trying to influence elections there and by others hoping to destabilize governments in Pakistan, Lebanon, Libya and Nigeria. The cartoons, she maintained, were a pretext, a way to mobilize dissent in the Muslim world.
> it appears that she is [toeing] the "party line" that was propagated around the world by the West's willing media.<

That was indeed the line taken by the hegemonic media, but for a different reason than the one your propose. It was to abort the rising impression of Muslim hatred for liberty that they shifted responsibility for the anti-cartoon riots away from "ordinary Muslims" and into the hands of fringe movement leaders or impersonal state actors.

> For those who like myself were on the front line at the time and refused to be blinded by ideology or prejudice, it was obvious from the start that we were witnesses to an orchestrated (not a "well-orchestrated", as the cliché goes) provocation that fit all too nicely into one of the neo-cons favorite paradigms, Huntington's so-called clash of the civilizations.<

That's exactly what Ayatollah Khamenei said at the time. It was also said by the editor of the Flemish weekly Knack, who argued that Jyllands-Posten's Jewish editor Flemming Rose, the American alleged Likudnik Daniel Pipes with his Middle East Forum, and also the Flemish website Brussels Journal, then the main clearing-house for news about the cartoon affair, had concocted the cartoon scenario with the aim of provoking the Muslim masses in Syria and Iran into vandalism and other ugly scenes for the TV news in order to prepare the ground for an Israeli military attack. Pen-pushers and pencil-pushers conspiring for world war, no less! Considering that I have written for both the Middle East Quarterly (about a similar affair, Rushdie's The Satanic Verses) and Brussels Journal, I suddenly found myself in the middle of a truly ambitious conspiracy. At least I can say I was "on the front line at the time and refused to be blinded by ideology or prejudice".

(You may notice that, extensively elsewhere but also on BJ, I have repeatedly written against the interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and possibly Iran; war polarizes opinion and only hardens the existing beliefs, whereas what the Muslim world needs is a thaw that makes their beliefs melt and give way to Enlightenment.)

Well, after that promotion to crown witness, it is my testimony that to my knowledge, there was no such pre-planning involved. A journalist simply wanted to know if you can make as much fun of Mohammed as is routinely done with Jesus and Yahweh in European papers. And he found out.

> The most serious, comprehensive and trustworthy book published on the Mohammed cartoons affair is "Karikaturkrisen - En undersøgelse af baggrund og ansvar" ("The Danish Caricature Crisis - an Investigation of Background and Responsibilities"), published in 2006 by Tøge Seidenfaden, the editor-in-chief of Politiken, Denmark's second largest newspaper, and renowned analyst and commentator Rune Engelbreth Larsen, whose outlook on current affairs is rooted in the traditions of humanistic Renaissance and the Enlightenment:

Strange what positions these "humanists" take: shielding obscurantism from scrutiny and attacking secularism and freedom of speech. I know a different breed of humanists, who swear by the Enlightenment. Or knew, for quite a few have been murdered, such as Pim Fortuyn and Theo Van Gogh. Others are absconding, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali ex-Muslim politician, or have been smashed out of court, like Mohamed Rasoel, the Pakistani ex-Muslim who was sentenced by a white judge in Amsterdam for "anti-Muslim racism" after writing critically about Islam and its view of non-Muslims. He hadn't written anything about Islam that hadn't been written in essence already by Ernest Renan or Winston Churchill or Bhimrao Ambedkar, or has since been written by Henryk Broder and other respected mainstream intellectuals. Anything held against the cartoonists also counts against those big names.

The lead in criticism of Islam now rests with pro-Enlightenment ex-Muslims like Ibn Warraq or Ali Sina or Taslima Nasreen. They put their lives at risk, they are the vanguard in the struggle for secular modernity against religious obscurantism. Another reason for genuine secularists to support them and the cartoonists is the worldwide anti-freedom alliance that soon materialized between different religions. In India, the Hindu-nationalist BJP supported a resolution (in the Andhra Pradesh assembly) condemning the cartoons. In the Netherlands, Christian parties surprised everyone with a proposal to reinvigorate the dormant law against blasphemy, now explicitly to include "blasphemy" of Allah and Mohammed. And did you ever hear GW Bush, the reborn Christian and neocon par excellence, applaud the cartoons?

> It doesn't seem that their book was ever translated into English, most likely because what it had to say wasn't very popular among party liners.

Strange, for the same things have been said in English by well-published writers like Karen Armstrong. It was also supported by every single member of the panel at the 2006 AAR conference (I was there in the audience); they had not cared to invite a single expert or participant willing to defend the cartoonists.

> Sorry if I come across with a certain sense of frustration, but this remains a very sensitive subject for some of us, considering where the swamp of intolerance the world, and Europe in particular, has increasingly got itself mired in since those events took place.<

Every one of the Islam critics I mentioned, including the tenors of the cartoons affair, have stated as their reason (or at least one of their reasons) to hold Islam up for criticism, that Islam is intolerant. Their stated intention is to do something about intolerance. Shouldn't that make you happy?

> Needless to say, I'm not taking issue with the freedom to publish controversial material, anymore than Seidenfaden or Engelbreth would.

That's at least one thing we can agree on. As Jawaharlal Nehru said: "Freedom is in peril, defend it with all your might!" That's what the cartoonists intended to do.

Steve Farmer wrote:

> > Note that the NY Times article doesn't give a link to the cartoons either.
> >

In the case of the US and UK press, I could understand why, at the height of the Iraq war, and with many other entanglements in the Muslim world, they would choose to avoid hurting Muslim sensibilities. In case an al-Qaeda operative were to cite the publication of the cartoons as justification for the killing of their soldiers in Iraq, the newspaper editors might feel morally implicated. But to continue this prudishness about the cartoons today is no longer justifiable.

> >
> >
> >

Sometimes Mohammed shows his face in these pictures, sometimes he is veiled. When in 1990 the Dutch-Pakistani Islam critic Mohamed Rasoel, when he was still an unknown name behind his book, was invited by the press, he appeared on TV (there to be grossly insulted) with his face covered.

Incidentally, his name was a pen name, meaning "Mohammed Prophet". After he had seen Muslims demonstrate in Britain and also in Rotterdam with slogans like: "We will kill Salman Rushdie", he calculated that they would think twice before shouting "We will kill Mohammed the Prophet".

> > Please note that I'm not "anti-Islam": I'm against all pre-Enlightenment- style political/religious extremism: Islamic, Zionist, Hindutva, Christian, Mormon, Dravidian, general-American, whatever. They are all hangovers from pre-modern states of culture.
> >

Another point of agreement! Good to see how this painful affair, viz. the violence by obscurantists against cartoonists exercising their freedom of expression, gives rise to such a chummy situation on this forum.

Kind regards,

Koenraad Elst

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