Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Kozhikode Vedic conference

On 7-10 January 2014, a Vedic conference has been taking place at Kozhikode (Calicut), Kerala, India. This is the town where Vasco da Gama first landed in 1498, thus starting the colonial entreprise in Asia. It was very well-organized and took place in the Gateway hotel. This is a very expensive place, but so far, I think every rupee spent was worth it.

The first non-personnel person I met here was, of all people, conference convenor Michael Witzel, Wales professor of Sanskrit at Harvard. For quite some time now I have taken my distance from the counterproductive Hindu habit of treating him as a hate figure. Feelings about persons stand in the way of a focus on ideas, and all these fulminations against Witzel or against Max Müller have not contributed anything at all to a solution of the Aryan debate. In fact, I had a rather positive impression of Witzel, and seeing the old man with his Japanese wife made all doubts disappear. I guess divorced men tend to admire couples growing old together.

AIT assumptions

Apart from a number of Nambudiri Brahmin as well as non-Nambudiri Keralite traditions, most of the conference concerned technical points of Vedic philology, with which I will not bore my readership. But one of the reasons for me to participate here was that I expected some speakers who assume an Aryan invasion to nonetheless give specific data that, when well considered, give “testimony against interest”, viz. support the Out-of-India theory. The same thing has happened at the Indo-European conferences I participated in during the past six months (Leiden, Louvain-la-Neuve, Münster and Leipzig): speakers who had never even considered the OIT innocently gave information that contradicted their AIT assumption and supported the OIT.

Many participants here never even think about Aryan origins. They study the Nambudiri traditions of transmission, the way the Vedas are taken to underpin the Shastras (lawbooks), or the distinctive interpretation by some medieval commentator. Those who bring it up, usually have learned it in university and never seen an occasion to question it. Those who, like Witzel, actually try to underpin it with arguments, are few and far between. There are only a handful of scholars competently arguing for the OIT, but on the AIT side, it is not really different.

T.P. Mahadevan wove the invasion narrative into his (otherwise very interesting) presentation about the genealogies of the Vedic seers and their descendants, so I asked him straightaway  if he had any evidence for the framework he was using. As expected, he admitted he had no evidence but “knew” that the invasion scenario just had to be true and that it had been certified by the linguists. Yes, in this debate, there is always someone else who has the evidence.

Finally the evidence?

Kanad Sinha, a young researcher from Jawaharlal Nehru University, presented a paper on the early Rg-Vedic Battle of the Ten Kings and of the use made by posterity of the antagonism between the seers for both contending sides, Vasishtha and Vishvamitra. Though he had announced during a conversation beforehand that his paper would give evidence for the AIT, I waited in vain for this evidence. He used the AIT-generated categories of “Aryan invaders” versus “natives” profusely to explain all kinds of later developments, but assuming the Aryan invasion framework is not the same as proving it. The 19th-century translator Ralph Griffith frequently refers to an Aryan invasion in his footnotes (taking every reference to “black” as referring to the skin colour of the natives, for instance), but you will scan his book in vain for any “proof” of this invasion. Sinha’s chosen subject at any rate concerned a battle whose parties were “already” based in India, so no evidence of the invasion could be expected.

If he had given any evidence for the Aryan invasion, his name would be made instantly. After all, at least 90% of his audience consisted of people who assume the same framework but have never seen any evidence for it. If specifically dealing with the Aryan question, they have generally conceded in writing that the Vedas contain no reference to an invasion, nor does the archaeological record. So they would applaud him if he came up with the long-awaited proof.

Is Kanad Sinha a bad person, as Hindu nationalists with a conspiratorial mindset are sure to allege? I, for one, did not have that impression. But like most youngsters in India, he has imbued a large dose of Aryan invasion propaganda, and he has been put off AIT paradigm and applying AIT-derived categories then subjectively fortifies their belief in the theory. As long as this approach doesn’t land them in consciously experienced contradictions, they think that they have “proven” the theory.  Lazy-minded Hindus, no doubt good at making money but thoroughly bad at analysing historical problems, have been saying for at least fifteen years that “nobody believes in the AIT anymore”, when the reality once more proves to be that one half of the scholars consciously uphold the AIT while the other half just assumes it without even knowing that it is being challenged.

Avesta younger than Rg-Veda

A British professor from Oxford, Elizabeth Tucker, read a paper on the worship of the waters in the Atharva-Veda and the Avesta. To explain water names like praskadvari and takvari, she first focused on the suffix –vari, which in the Rg-Vedic family books formed the feminine counterpart of the masculine –van, but in the later books became an independent suffix. For the Avesta, she did not find this ancient Vedic pairing. As for the water goddesses, this was a cult typical of the Avesta and the Atharva Veda but not of the family books, where another mythology prevailed, viz. of Indra releasing the waters by defeating the reptile Vrtra.

In both cases, the linguistics of -vari and the religious status of the waters, the situation in the Avesta differed from that in the family books but was the same as in the later Vedic literature. I deduce that the Avesta is younger than the family books but synchronous with the younger layers of the Vedas, as parts of a common Indo-Iranian culture. The AIT-necessitated scenario given by the speaker, viz. that there first was an Indo-Iranian culture with the worship of the water goddesses, which was preserved in the Avesta but lost in the family books and later revived in the Atharva-Veda, doesn’t hold water.

So, this is a modest case of a scholar who assumes the AIT but presents data that are more logically explained by the OIT. By contrast, not a single speaker managed to prove the AIT (which most didn’t think necessary anyway), let alone present data that were force-fitted into the AIT but somehow fit the OIT better.    

Postscript: Why the AIT won't go away

(In reply to a very good question, I quickly formulated the following comment:)

The AIT is not going away because (1) it is not felt to be problematic, and (2) there is no credible alternative, or at least it is not brought home to the scholars.

(1) You can continue to assume the AIT paradigm because, practically, society encourages you to do so, in the West because of inertia, in India because it is still politically useful to various powerful group interests; and theoretically, because the time concerned is distant enough so that any errors following from a wrong theory are not too intrusive.

(2) Hardly any alternative is available. Most of the available OIT literature is polemical, questioning the established narrative rather than telling its own narrative. (I take is as a priority now to sit down and produce such an independent and innovative narrative of ancient Indian history.) Of these, there are hardly a handful of admittedly polemical pro-OIT publications I could recommend, and these rarely circulate in the channels which scholars read. Most pro-OIT publications mix truth with untenable propositions (e.g. a very high chronology) and factual observations with shrill language, often arrogant and abusive. This puts neutral and competent observers off. Often they are also conspiratorial, of one piece with Edward Said's conspiratorial work Orientalism, viz. pretending that all Asian Studies scholars of the past two hundred years were but servants of a grand imperialist project. If you want the Aryan debate to go anywhere, OIT writers have to observe a complete moratorium, without ifs and buts, on references to the last two hundred years. No more Max Müller or Michael Witzel! When you are asked to describe a tree standing across the road, you don't start talking about the glasses through which you see the tree; and when discussing the Aryan question of some four thousand years ago, you don't start talking about the way the ancient past was approached in the recent past. There are exciting discoveries to be made about the ancient past, and only losers prefer to focus on the drab and well-known colonial and Nehruvian history.

Having spent time in the real world, interacting with real scholars, I know the real situation, which is that the AIT is still taught from all the important platforms. People who tell you diferently, live in a fantasy world and only interact with village bumpkins who accept their word for it; so as feedback they ultimately only hear their own opinions. Fortunately, we can ignore recent history including these Hindu will-o-the-wisps, and start work on the really available testimonies to ancient history.



Pankaj said...

Hello Sir, I think the last line of your post written as - let alone present data that were force-fitted into the OIT but somehow fit the AIT better - should actually read as "force fitted into AIT but somehow fit the OIT better".


Gururaj B N said...

As an informed layman, I would ove to believe that Aryans are natives of India. But, OIT protagoinists have yet to explain the reference to Vedic deities in Boghasqia inscription, or any evidence at all to support migration of Aryans out of India.

Praveen said...

So, I think it gives an indication that you are about to start a serious work on OIT.
Hindus indeed are too lazy, and too self serving to do his on their own!
Best wishes, Sir!

S.Srinivas said...

An attempt to synchronize the Vedic and Harappa civilization is made here.

Giacomo Benedetti said...

Dr. Elst, I am the Italian Indologist who spoke with you at the workshop (and first at the Mumbai airport).
I approve many observations, particularly that AIT is still well alive, but I think that the dualism AIT/OIT is too simple. AIT normally means (and I got this impression also in your writings) an invasion of Aryans in the 2nd mill. BC according to the academic vulgata, denying the Aryan identity of the Harappan civilization. But other theories has been presented recently, different from OIT but supporting the Aryan Harappans. Bellwood for instance supports the arrival of IEs with the Neolithic, and also Bouckaert supported an ancient espansion from Anatolia to India. I have discovered yesterday that even Mallory has some criticism for the Pontic-Caspian model of a 'recent' invasion of India:
On my blog you can find also a link to the interesting theory of R.Bradley Kar:
All these theories are not OIT but very different from the common AIT.
G. Benedetti

Koenraad Elst said...

Dear Giacomo,

Am currently reading the papers you refer to. Clearly, something is moving. More to follow.

Yatin Dhareshwar said...

As I continue to interpret the Vrtra myth in terms of historical events, I believe I have found evidence that the myth might be a reference to the end of the last ice age in the Himalayan region. The end of the ice age resulted in water locked in glaciers in the Himalayas to flood the various Vedic rivers.

There are verses in Mandala VI that suggest this may be the case. And if indeed this is true, it means the remote ancestors of the Bharadvajas were in the Indian subcontinent 10,000 years ago and passed this memory down for posterity.

So where does this leave us with the AIT or OIT? Food for thought!

Reference: Evidence for the end of ice age and resulting flooding of Vedic rivers

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