By far the best-known incident in the Aryan controversy of the last quarter-century is the cover-story of the Chennai-based Communist fortnightly Frontline, “Horseplay at Harappa” (2000). This article by Prof. Michael Witzel and Dr. Steve Farmer makes a whole drama of Dr. Navaratna Rajaram’s attempt to prove the existence of horses in the Harappan civilization, and then puts it in a larger context of politically motivated history revision.
On these political motives, they show their ignorance, reliance on secondary sources and personal partisanship. Admittedly a heavy load of allegations, which I will have to discharge some day (except that much of it is already taken care of in the chapters on political motives and on VD Savarkar in my book Asterisk in Bharopiyasthan), but I will leave it for another occasion. Instead, a recent debate on the Aryan question has drawn my attention again to the substance of the Horseplay article: the deconstruction of the “horse seal” and of the Harappan decipherment thesis to which it serves as an illustration.
One implication of Rajaram’s decipherment is that the Harappan and even pre-Harappan societies spoke Vedic and were contemporaneous with the composition of the Vedic hymns. But in that case, the archaeologically well-attested Harappan civilization should show some sign of having been familiar with the horse, an oft-described animal in the Vedas. By now, the archaeological presence of horses in the archaeological record seems to have been established (vide Dilip Chakrabarti & Makkhan Lal’s new multi-volume work on ancient Indian history), but back then, Rajaram put his bet on an incomplete seal of which in his opinion the missing part showed a horse’s body.
What followed was slapstick involving the then-ongoing transition between complicated photography and digital photo manipulations: Witzel and Farmer accused Rajaram of having photoshopped his picture of the seal, a technology which he probably did not know yet. It was their mistake to think that any intentional visual manipulation had taken place. I have worked in the New Age sector long ago, a popular target for allegations of fraud by skeptics; so, having observed this problem very closely, I had to conclude that in the real world, there is far less willful deception than gullible self-deception. Here also, it doesn’t require postulating any conspiracy to explain Rajaram’s wrong interpretation of the seal: there had not been any manipulation, he simply saw what he eagerly wanted to see. In reality, however, the incomplete seal could more logically be completed as a buffalo than as a horse.
When I myself first saw Rajaram’s “artist’s depiction” of the completed seal, in a pre-decipherment publication, I was struck by the unusual design, with the horse not in a normal posture but emphatically showing its hind part. Now, I can imagine a Playboy centerfold highlighting her posterior charms, but for a Harappan animal this is a bit odd. Still, I didn’t think anything of it, looking forward to Rajaram’s decipherment (with N. Jha), which reportedly was very promising. But when doubts were voiced by others, I was not surprised.
Unfortunately, when his decipherment came out, it was a disappointment. Like most decipherments, it made the Harappan seals too profound. Sumerian writing started as a commercial bookkeeping device, but in Harappa, apparently, they first used their script to eternalize their philosophical musings. Even mathematical formulas were read into it. Outsiders looking into the proposed decipherment named many different kinds of objections. The inevitable Michael Witzel remarked, for instance, that Rajaram’s reading of the well-known Shiva Pashupati seal was grammatically incorrect: Ishad yatta Mara (“The demon Mara tamed by Isha/Shiva”) presupposes that the agentive object is in the ablative (which would be true in Latin), but Sanskrit puts it in the instrumental case: Ishena yatta Mara. I was also unpleasantly surprised by Rajaram’s insistence that a symmetrical 3-shaped sign represented the well-known Aum sign – a shorthand for the rendering of the Aum sign in the Devanagari script, which is some 2000 years younger than the Harappan seals and grew out of the Brahmi script which didn’t have that particular Aum sign. Rajaram’s reply to the Frontline article, making yet another low-credibility claim for a horse depiction, only added to the atmosphere of ridicule.
Now, maybe these were just details and the decipherment could, with some amendments, still be upheld. But in that case, it fell to Rajaram to defend his decipherment. And this, to my knowledge, never happened.
What I would have done, is either to have stood by my decipherment, i.e. defended it, sought to improve on it with more evidence, compared it with other decipherments and shown how specific inscriptions are better accounted for by my own than by those other decipherments; or to have admitted defeat and publicly said so. This latter procedure is not some noble guideline, merely an application of the business principle of “writing off your losses”, limiting the damage. If you have the courage to acknowledge your mistake, you can again be taken seriously and, after a period of “delousing”, even hope to contribute something meaningful to the debate again. But that is not the course which Dr. Rajaram took. As for the other option, I have kept following this debate but have never heard from this decipherment again. Thus, Rajaram often collaborates with Dr. S. Kalyanaraman, also a decipherer and also a spokesman of the “Harappan is Sanskrit” thesis, and it would have been logical if the two had compared their readings and fought it out. But I, at least, have never heard of that.
At the time, the treatment which Rajaram received (or in another version, which he called upon himself) was so extremely humiliating that I admired the fortitude of the man to suffer it all without complaining. But then again, it may have been the haughtiness that I have witnessed so often among internet Hindus: “I don’t have to convince those white critics”, “it is best to ignore them”, “we had better address the Hindu audience rather than those foreign interlopers”, “we should give history, appropriated by the scholars, back to the people”. Maybe so, but it is not the way to victory.
The Horseplay in Harappa incident contributed immensely to the identification of Hindu history revision with superstition and fraud. It set the stage for the Hindu defeats in the history textbook controversies of India (2002-4) and of California (2005-9). For me, being mentioned there in passing added greatly to the “guilt by association” in the enemy camp’s rumour mills.
Ever since I started work on Indian history, I have had to reckon with bad company with whom I was willy-nilly associated. The enemy camp gloated over its artfully composed lists of purported “influences” on Hindu public opinion such as “PN Oak, Koenraad Elst, NS Rajaram…” And it is true that I had defended Rajaram in writing (articles in 1993, included in my book Update on the Aryan Invasion Debate, 1998, against Prof. Robert Zydenbos, who relayed the impression that Rajaram’s anti-AIT discourse had to be “Nazi” somehow, when in fact it is his own AIT that has solid Nazi connotations). Well, so be it. I stand by my writings on this subject, and remain confident that concentrating on the evidence is the way forward. The truth about the “Aryan” homeland question will shine through.