Saturday, September 17, 2022

Prof. B.B. Lal in the major debates

(Shorter version in First Post, 15 Sep 2022) Now that Prof. Braj Basi Lal, the Dean of Indian Archaeology, has left this world at 101, it is fitting to highlight the most striking among his many achievements. For seven decades he was in the forefront of India’s archaeological research, even charting new ground in our knowledge of the less-known Ganga Civilization (From the Mesolithic to the Mahājanapadas: The Rise of Civilisation in the Ganga Valley, Aryan Books International) in 2019, at age 98. But his place in his history has been made by two issues with an importance far beyond pure scholarship: the Ayodhya temple/mosque controversy and the Indo-European (‘Aryan’) invasion debate. In the 1980s, when the present writer studied Oriental Philology and History in Leuven University, he took Prof. Lambert Isebaert’s course of Indo-European Linguistics, and once asked him if there was any proof for the generally assumed Southwest-Russian homeland of the Indo-European language family. Isebaert said that this had been proven by archaeology. Another professor in Leuven, the leading Dutch Indologist Pierre Eggermont, spoke in the same vein, and also named his source: Prof. Braj Basi Lal’s 1950s’ exploration of the Painted Grey Ware (PGW). This was a type of pottery that Lal explained as typical of the Aryans penetrating deeper into India (starting with Lal: ‘Excavation at Hastinapura and other explorations in the upper Ganga and Sutlej basins’, Ancient India (Bulletin of the Archaeological Survey of India), 1950-52, no.10-11, p.5-151; and ‘New Light on the ‘dark Age’ of Indian History: Recent Excavations at the Hastinapura Site, Near Delhi‘, Illustrated London News, 1952). Thirty years later, he had not fundamentally changed his mind yet (‘The Indo-Aryan hypothesis vis-à-vis Indian archaeology’, EPHCA, Moscow, 1981). So when, around that same time, I heard my professors quote him as a source of authority, they were simply reproducing the state of the art. Indeed, till today, Lal’s invasionist interpretation of his own PGW findings is still being cited as proof of an Aryan invasion, e.g.: ‘Lal considered PGW to be intrusive’ (SV Pradhan: The Elusive Aryans, 2014, p.67), and we heard the same opinion at the annual conference of the European Archaeological Association, Maastricht 2017. This decades-long exclusive appeal to Lal’s finding at least confirmed that in the intervening decades, no other ‘proof’ has materialized. Even today, that state of the art has not been strengthened by any new evidence. The elusive Aryans fail to show up in the archaeological record. And the state of the art has evolved since then, because crown witness BB Lal realized that his invasionist explanation was only an interpretation, viz. a force-fitting of the data into the reigning paradigm, the one he had absorbed from his mentor, invasionist Sir Mortimer Wheeler. Later he came to understand that he had merely developed an application of the paradigm, not an independent proof of it. So now we have to face the complete absence of archaeological evidence for an Aryan immigration. An invasion of the military type has long been ruled out (as opposed to Europe, where an “Aryan” or Indo-European military conquest emanating from the Black Sea coast has been confirmed by all manner of archaeologically attested material and cultural innovations), but a peaceful influx under the radar yet replacing the thickly-populated Subcontinent’s language and religion as well. Even Invasionist champion Michael Witzel confirms that no archaeological proof for the Aryan invasion has been found ‘yet’. This explains why most leading Indian archaeologists are no longer shy about their skepticism of the invasion scenario. Since the 1990s, Lal has published a number of books detailing the archaeological evidence for a full continuity between the Harappan cities, such as The Saraswati Flows On: the Continuity of Indian Culture (2002), The Homeland of the Aryans. Evidence of Rigvedic Flora and Fauna, and Archaeology (2005), and culminating in The Rigvedic People: ‘Invaders’/’Immigrants’? or Indigenous? Evidence of Archaeology and Literature, (2015, all through Aryan Books International, Delhi). Thus far, Lal’s efforts have not yet made a dent in the dominance of the invasionist paradigm: ‘An ostrich-like attitude is perpetuating the Aryan invasion myth’. (in Bal Ram Singh: Origin of Indian Civilization, Delhi/Dartmouth MA, 2010:23-36) But the Indo-Europeanist establishment cannot keep on stonewalling the accumulating archaeological and other evidence forever. They can look the other way when their only archaeo-supporter turns away from their Aryan invasion scenario, and even when his younger colleagues, together with scholars from other fields, find new evidence against it. But the truth has a way of finally asserting itself. We have already seen it in the Ayodhya temple/mosque controversy. In the 1970s, the same BB Lal came up with archaeological evidence for the temple, of which remains formed part of the foundations and the pillars of the Babri Masjid. This was the first scientific confirmation of a commonly accepted tradition (also by the local Muslims and the British) about a pre-existing Rama temple at the mosque site. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered Lal to keep silent about it. But once the ‘Eminent Historians’ started roundly denouncing the existing consensus, among scholars Lal’s evidence was highlighted, together with a growing body of documentary evidence. Yet, the media kept the old consensus and the new evidence for it for some more years out of view; they stonewalled Lal’s evidence just as the Indo-Europeanist establishment is still doing, or even decried him as a ‘born-again Hindu nationalist’. Unfortunately for the Eminent Historians, truth bypassed their efforts at suppressing it, and now judgments by Uttar Pradesh’s High Court (2011) and the Supreme Court (2019) have definitively confirmed that Prof. Lal had been right all along. A similar end of the affair seems to be in store for the Aryan immigration debate. Here Lal is instrumental in a return to the assumption of an Indian Homeland of the Indo-European language family, common in Europe in the half-century around 1800. As the leading linguist from Leiden, RSP Beekes (Vergelijkende Taalwetenschap, = ‘Comparative linguistics’, Utrecht 1990, p.73), wrote: ‘When the IE family was discovered and people sought its land of origin, they at first thought of India’. The Out-of-India Theory is not some far-fetched novelty, but stood at the cradle of the very notion of an Indo-European language family. It is to Prof. Lal’s eternal credit that he has played a crucial role in restoring the true story with new evidence.

No comments: