Wednesday, November 3, 2010

6. Departing thoughts on AIT


6. 1. 1. Glottochronology

The idea that the direction of the migration from the IE language family from its Urheimat should be reversed, may still be hard to digest. Could several generations of scholars have been collectively wrong? One of the objections which I expect both laymen and academics to raise, is the magnitude of the chronological revision needed to account for a scenario which makes the Rg-Veda pre- instead of post-Harappan. The non-invasionist school shifts the date of the Rg-Veda back a full two thousand years. Could the scholars have been so wrong about such matters as the rate of change of languages, that the length of the history of Sanskrit has to be increased this much? One of the methods used in estimating the age of the fragmentation of PIE into the IE language groups is, or rather was, glottochronology, an extrapolation of the observed rate of change in languages onto the preliterate past. When comparing dictionaries or literary corpora of successive centuries, one can count the number of words disappearing from or newly appearing in a language; and likewise the phonological and grammatical changes. Yet, it is very doubtful that the results obtained can reasonably be extrapolated, except the unavoidable finding that the rate of change is very uneven. Languages develop slower or faster depending on the cultural changes in the speech community, on the rate of contact with other languages, and on purely random factors. Thus, Greeks and Albanians both lived for several centuries under Turkish rule, and this had, little effect on the Greek language but made a tremendous impact on Albanian, which replaced a large part of its vocabulary with Turkish words. Therefore, 19th-century calculations of the age of IE on this basis are no longer relied upon: “glottochronology is a methodological deadlock”. (1) Nonetheless, it is easy to show that languages evolve more slowly than the standard version of the AIT implies. Linear-B Greek is a thousand years older than classical Greek, yet it is unmistablably Greek, not some half-way stage between Greek and the other branches of IE. The Romance (and likewise the Slavic) languages have gone their separate ways nearly two thousand years ago, and yet they still have a whole lot in common. It takes many centuries to arrive at the degree of difference as exists between Indo-Iranian and the other branches of IE, and even centuries to arrive at the known difference between Iranian and Sanskrit. In a discussion on the Aryan question, a friend of mine who is an AIT-believing philologist remarked off-hand that the Indo-Aryan languages showed more internal change (from Old through Middle to New Indo-Aryan) than the other IE language groups. This may be true, if only because Old Indo-Aryan was much more archaic and closer to reconstructed PIE than the oldest know Latin or Slavic or Armenian (another reason being that modern Hindi or Bengali are nieces rather than daughters of Sanskrit). it is especially remarkable when you consider that the Indo-Aryan languages have lived in a comparatively very stable linguistic environment, with little foreign impact; even Persian, the court language in the 13th to 19th century in North India, has only imparted some vocabulary but failed to influence Hindi grammar. Let us assume, then, that this impression of a relatively high rate of change in Indo-Aryan is correct. The rate of change in Indo-Aryan would not be abnormally high if its history is made two thousand years longer, as the Indian critics of the AIT maintain. This would become perfectly normal if the time span from Vedic Sanskrit to modern Hindi is found to be twice as long as that from Homeric Greek to modern Greek, i.e. if the Vedas are dated to before rather than after the golden age of the Harappan cities.


6. 1. 2. Zarathushtra’s chronology

In this context, the objection will also be raised of the incompatibility of the non-invasionist chronology with the date of Zarathushtra, now commonly assigned to ca. 1200 BC. However, this date of Zarathushtra is itself based on the AIT, on the assumption that Zarathushtra was only slightly younger than the Vedic seers. Move the date of the Veda, and Iranologists will move the date of Zarathushtra accordingly. Moreover, the time distance between the Avesta and the Rg-Veda is definitely longer than usually assumed. Zarathustra writes in a language that is younger than Vedic. In the introduction to his authoritative translation of Zarathustra’s Gathas, Prof. S. Insler writes: “The prophet’s hymns are laden with ambiguities resulting both from the merger of many grammatical endings and from the intentionally compact and often elliptical style…” (2) Compared with Vedic, Zarathustra’s language was already eroded morphologically and phonologically. Admittedly, such glottochronological argument is in general not strong (modern Lithuanian has preserved Indo-Europeanisms which Greek had lost 3000 years ago), but here we have two very closely related languages, both in the same solemn and conservative style of religious hymns. Moreover, Zarathustra also expresses a stage of religious development that is quite post-Vedic (e.g. his reaction against animal sacrifice, paralleled by the same development in post-Rg-Vedic India), being in some respects a reaction against Vedic notions and practices. I suggest Zarathushtra belonged to the Bactrian Bronze Age culture, while the Rg-Veda belonged to the pre-Harappan stage (incipient urbanization, no metal weapons yet) of the Indus-Saraswati culture. Does this agree with the Iranian traditions concerning the age of Zarathushtra? Yes and no. Iranian literature has highly divergent accounts of the age of Zarathushtra, ranging from 5,000 to 600 BC. One of the dates is bound to be close to the actual date which will have to be decided on the basis of external evidence, not least Zarathushtra’s relation with Vedic history.


6. 1. 3. The West-Asian term “Asura”

Another serious objection concerns the term Asura: in the Rg-Veda a word for “god” (cfr. Germanic Ase, Aesir), in later Vedic literature a word for “demon”, obviously parallel and causally related with the Iranian preference for Asura/Ahura as against the demonized Deva/Daeva, the remaining Hindu term for “god”. (3) In the Indo-Aryan diaspora in West Asia of the 2nd millennium BC, we find quite a few personal names with Asura, e.g. the Mitannic general Kart-ashura, the name Biry-ashura attested in Nuzi and Ugarit, in Nuzi also the names Kalm-ashura and Sim-ashura, the Cilician king Shun-ashura, while in Alalakh (Syria), two people were called Ashura and Ashur-atti. (4) Bernard Sergent explicitly deduces a synchronism between early Vedic and Mitannic-Kassite, which tallies splendidly with the AIT chronology. At present, this can only be refuted at the level of hypothesis. it is perfectly possible, even if not yet attested archaeologically or literarily, that along with the Iranians, a purely Indo-Aryan-speaking group emigrated from India in the Rg-Vedic period to seek its fortune in the Far West (it may be from them that Uralic speakers in Central Asia borrowed the term Asura along with Sapta, Sasar, etc. ). It is these Indo-Aryan bands of warriors who engineered the conquests of their Mitannic and Kassite host populations. Considering that Vedic names are still given to Hindu children today, thousands of years after Vedic Sanskrit went out of daily use, and often in communities which speak a non-Indo-Aryan language, it is quite conceivable that the Indo-Aryans in West Asia managed to preserve their Vedic tradition from the time of their emigration until the mid-2nd millennium BC. And if so, they had to preserve it in the form it had at the time of their emigration, i. c. complete with the veneration for Asura, the Lord.


6. 1. 4. Greater India

Sometimes, Indian scholars unnecessarily overstate their claims, usually to the effect of magnifying the Hindu presence and role in the genesis of civilization in general or specified cultural achievements in particular. Thus, most of them used to be (and many still are) enthusiastic believers in the initial assumption of the fledgling Indo-European philology that Sanskrit was the mother of all other IE languages, rather than their sister. Western scholars can at best smile condescendingly when they read the fairly frequent claim that Hindus created the Mayan culture in Central America, not to speak of Paramesh Choudhury’s claim that Chinese culture came from India. (5) In the same spirit, the impression that the Kassites along with the Mitannians were to an extent Indo-Aryan, has been incorporated in an Indocentric account of IE expansion. Non-invasionists have made much of the presence of Sanskrit names in the Kassite dynasty in Babylon. Yet, the reality revealed by this evidence may be more complicated than is usually assumed. We have information from Semitic Mesopotamians about the Kassite language, and it was not Indo-Aryan. A number of known Kassite words are apparently unrelated to any known language, e.g. mashu, (“god”; yanzi, “king”; saribu, “foot”. They also seem to have a formation of the plural unknown in IE, viz. with an infix, e.g. sirpi, sirpami, “brown one(s)”, or minzir, minzamur, “dotted one(s)”,(6) Assuming that the language described as “Kassite” and located by the Babylonian sources in the hills east of Mesopotamia is indeed the language of the Kassite dynasty (for language names sometimes change referent) (7), does this not refute the Indian connection of the Kassites? No: to the relief of the much-maligned Hindu chauvinists, this state of affairs suggests a third scenario, viz. that a non-IE population in Iran used Sanskrit names referring to Vedic gods. Let the Kassites have spoken a non-IE language. (8) This would be the same situation as in the Dravidian provinces: a non-IE-speaking population maintains its own language but adopts Sanskritic lore and nomenclature. This would mean that Vedic culture had spread as much to the west as we know it has spread to the east and south, and that a part of western Iran (well before its iranianization) was as much part of Greater India as Kerala or Bali became in later centuries.


6. 1. 5. Simple and avoidable mistakes

In the search for Aryan origins, scholars have sometimes been misled by ignorance of very down-to-earth facts. Let me give an example from my own experience. The approach known as linguistic paleontology has tried to connect the IE vocabulary with the flora and fauna of a particular region or climate zone, but mistakes have been made concerning the Indian fauna. It has been said that the otter (Sanskrit udra, Hindi Ud-bilAw) does not exist in India, while the word otter is part of the original PIE vocabulary, thus confirming that India cannot be the Urheimat. While I was pondering this problem, the answer came from my little daughter: “Daddy, when are we going to the zoo?” That’s where I learned of the simple fact that otters do live in the rivers of the Himalayan foothills. Likewise, the salmon has been used to decide the Urheimat question, with the claim that it only lives in the Caspian area (serving the interests of both the Kurgan and the Anatolian Urheimat schools). (9) The IE word *laksos has retained its original meaning in German, Lithuanian, Russian, Ossetic. It has also developed the general meaning “fish” in Kuchi (Tokharic B); “reddish”, “white-spotted red” (i.e. salmon-coloured) in some Iranian and Indo-Aryan languages; and in Indo-Aryan also “100,000”. (10) The core meaning is undeniably the salmon, so if there is any validity in linguistic paleontology, there ought to be salmon in the Urheimat. Well, it so turns out that you do find salmon in some rivers of northwestern India. It gets worse when we come to inside knowledge of Hindu civilization, or to the more technical aspects of this debate. Many advances made by scholars in one discipline, or in one country, are not known to scholars working elsewhere or in another discipline. I am sure that in this book, I must have overlooked pertinent information which is publicly available but somehow not within my horizon; and I see it happen to others as well. This is where doubt and anxiousness come in handy: if you’re worried that you may be wrong, you get motivated to scan all the sources of information. This is where the prevalent self-assuredness in both camps is so counterproductive. And of course, everyone should realize by now that we need an interdisciplinary approach: the fact that Sir Mortimer Wheeler dug up Harappan cities did not by itself give him the competence to interpret his findings in terms of Vedic or non-Vedic culture. Linguists and archaeologists and other experts in their respective fields ought to give a hearing to specialists in neglected aspects of the evidence, starting with Vedic studies. But the funny part of the problem is the numerous cases where scholars don’t see the import of data even when these are presented to them. Thus, during question time after his lecture, I heard a prominent invasionist scholar explain to someone who brought up the evidence of the Saraswati having dried up and thereby providing a terminus ante quem for the Saraswati-centred Rg-Veda, that “the Saraswati didn’t disappear completely, for it is still mentioned in Sutra texts ca. 600 BC”. He did not realize that the whole chronology of Vedic literature is at stake here, and that the conventional date of the Sutra literature should not be taken for granted. Indeed, non-invasionists claim precisely that the Sutra literature was largely produced during the Harappan period, before 2,000 BC, when the Saraswati was still a mighty river. The thing to do here is not to address stray remarks but to first acquaint oneself with the complete version of history as conceived by the opposing side.



1. Harald Haarmann: “Basic’ vocabulary and language contacts: the disillusion of glottochronology”, Indogermanische Forschungen, 1990, p. 35.

2. S. Insler: The Gathas of Zarathustra, in the series Acta Iranica, 3rd series vol. 1, Brill, Leiden 1975, p. 1 (emphasis mine).

3. Bernard Sergent: Genèse de l’Inde, p. 211 and p. 280, makes the very popular mistake of seeing “the Asuras” as a separate class of gods next to “the Devas”. In fact, the distinction and opposition between them is a late-Vedic development connected with the Irano-Indian (or Mazdeic-Vedic) conflict. In the Rg-Veda, Deva and Asura are as synonymous as “God” and “Lord” are in Christian parlance.

4. Bernard Sergent: Genèse de l’Inde, p. 210. In this context, though assyriologists might reject it as just too obvious, something can be said in favour of a link between Asura and the city name Assur, whence the ethnonym Assyrian. Some Indian authors are at any rate eager to read a Sanskritic origin in Sanskrit-sounding names like Assur-bani-pal.

5. Thus, Bernard Sergent: Genèse de l’Inde, p. 477, scornfully mentions Paramesh Choudhury: Indian Origin of the Chinese Nation, and The India We Have Lost: Did India Colonize and Civilize Sumeria, Egypt, Greece and Europe? Strange theses indeed, but Choudhury’s more recent book The Aryan Hoax shows a rare familiarity with contemporary scholarly thinking on the Aryan question, which Sergent fails to acknowledge.

6. Wilfred van Soldt: “Het Kassitisch”, Phoenix (Leiden) 1998, p. 90-93.

7. E.g. the name “Frankish/French” originally refers to a Germanic language, roughly Old Dutch, yet now refers to the Romance language spoken in a state founded by the Frankish and Germanic-speaking king Clovis. Likewise, the name “Hittite” of an IE language is in fact the same word as “Hattic”, name of the pre-IE Anatolian language displaced by Hittite.

8. One of my history teachers in secondary school, Father Koenraad, used to speculate that the names Hatti and Kassi- are the same: fricative [h] or [x] corresponding to occlusive [k], as between Greek kard- and Germanic heart, and intervocalic [tt] softened to [ss], as in the Greek allophonic variation thalatta/thalassa (“sea”) or in the softening of intervocalic [t] from Greek demokratia to [s] in English democracy. This hypothesis, while unprovable, is as good as any other: it is by no means impossible that a tribe in the Kurdish mountains retained a language cognate to that of the original Anatolians, even when the latter lost theirs in favour of the incoming IE language now known as Hittite.

9. E.g. T. Gamkrelidze and V. Ivanov: Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans, p. 454.

10. Hindi lAkh, Sanskrit laksha means “100,000”. The derivation may be analogous to that of the Chinese character wan, “10,000”, which depicts an ant, hence “bristling anthill”, “uncountably many”.


6. Departing thoughts


6. 2. 1. The archaeological job

Not being an archaeologist, I do not want to evaluate the status quaestionis of the archaeological search for IE origins. All I can do is note that the archaeologists themselves don’t seem to have mapped out the trail of the early Indo-Europeans in South and Central Asia with a convincing amount of detail. Asko Parpola and Bernard Sergent have made a valiant attempt, and invasionists are hopeful that if pursued further, these efforts should lead to the definitive proof of the AIT. However, we have seen that the interpretation which Parpola and Sergent give to the crucial Bactrian Bronze Age culture as Indo-Aryan is uncertain, and that their own data could better support the identification of that culture as Iranian. More importantly, we have seen that they have not succeeded in getting the Bactrians into India, i.e. in proving an actual migration of people and of a culture into India. The Bactrian Bronze Age culture is a rather late affair in IE history, which started at least 3,000 years earlier. The focus should be on the origins of the Kurgan culture in ca. 5000 BC. There is sufficient evidence to conclude provisionally that it originated in Asia, to the east of the Caspian Sea, e.g. Russian scholar N. Merpert traces the Kurgan culture to the “Volga-Ural region, developing there under the influence of Neolithic cultures of the south-east Caspian zone”. (11) And where do we go back to from there? If India is the homeland of the IE family, there should be traces of a cultural expansion or migration from India to the Caspian region around 5,000 BC, the pre-Vedic age. Another thing to do is to dig up the ancient settlements in the Ganga basin. Unlike the mighty Indus-Saraswati cities, these won’t be readily visible, nor are they easily accessible as abandoned ruins: many of them lie underneath bustling cities. But there, as much as in the Harappan area, a very important part of India’s (and possibly the Indo-European language family’s) history lies waiting for discovery.


6. 2. 2. Literary testimony to Harappan decline

If it is true that Harappan civilization was prominently Indo-Aryan and that much of Sanskrit literature was written in the Harappan period, then a certain chronological stage in this literary tradition should correspond to the decline and ruination of the Harappan cities. So far, the only literary reference to this process that I’ve heard of, is a Mahabharata line mentioning the sinking and drying up of the Saraswati river, and attributing it to the goddess’s disgust with the decline in moral and cultural standards among the population. That hardly suffices as literary testimony to such a vast civilizational crisis as the abandonment of the Harappan cities. So, this will become an object of mockery for the skeptics, unless the non-invasionists meet the challenge and present the literary evidence.


6. 2. 3. Let us keep on doubting

One thing which keeps on astonishing me in the present debate is the complete lack of doubt in both camps. Personally, I don’t think that either theory, of Aryan invasion and of Aryan indigenousness, can claim to have been “proven” by prevalent standards of proof; eventhough one of the contenders is getting closer. Indeed, while I have enjoyed pointing out the flaws in the AIT statements of the politicized Indian academic establishment and its American amplifiers, I cannot rule out the possibility that the theory which they are defending may still have its merits. On both sides, I have seen so much self-satisfaction, the conceit of the academic establishment disdaining the contributions of “amateurs”, the bad faith among the Indian Marxists dismissing every word uttered by “Hindu chauvinists”, the triumphalism among the non-invasionists about having exposed “the myth of the Aryan invasion”. Many seem to think that all the questions have been answered, that only mad or evil people can still adhere to the rivalling school of thought, so that there is also no need to listen to their objections; but what I see is that at least many parts of the question are still waiting for an answer. For example, the non-invasionists should recognize the merits in the invasionist skepticism of the horse evidence found in the Harappan cities. It is one thing for Prof. B. B. Lal (one of those healthy doubters who only came to dismiss the “myth of the Aryan invasion” gradually) to cite recent finds of horse bones as proving that “the horse was duly known to the Harappans” and to quote archaeozoologist Prof. Sandor Bokonyi as confirming that the horses found in Surkotada were indeed horses (which some had refused to believe due to their AIT bias), and that “the domestic nature of the Surkotada horses is undoubtful”. (12) It is another to deduce that the horse was simply part of Harappan life rather than an exotic curiosity; AIT defenders have a point when they maintain that the horse was not part of the Harappan lifestyle the way it was in the Kurgan culture. More work is to be done, both in digging and incorrectly interpreting the data. Likewise, invasionists reproach non-invasionists for disregarding the fact of kinship between IE languages, and for behaving as if the presence of IE languages in both India and Europe needs no explanation. They really have a point: most Indian publications focus exclusively on Indian history, and show absolutely no interest in explaining how, if IE was native to India, it made its way to distant countries. True, research is also guided by the actual facts which are being discovered, i. c. findings in India which undermine the AIT, so it is normal to focus on India. But a scholar must not be satisfied with giving some answers; he must aim for a theory which answers all relevant questions.



11. Paraphrase by J. P. Mallory: “The chronology of the early Kurgan tradition”, Journal of Indo-European Studies, 1977/4, p. 339, with reference to a Russian article by N. Merpert, Moscow 1974.

12. Sandor Bokonyi: letter to the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India, 13-12-1993, quoted in B. B. Lal: The Myth of Aryan Invasion: Some Reflections on the Authorship of the Harappan Civilization, inaugural address delivered at the Second International Conference of the World Association for Vedic Studies, Los Angeles, 7-8-1998.


6. Departing thoughts


The emerging alternative to the Aryan Invasion Theory may be summarized as follows. In the 6th millennium BC, the Proto-Indo-Europeans were living in what is now Panjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, speaking a variety of mutually comprehensible dialects, and tending cattle as well as practising agriculture. Due to demographic growth, internal conflicts and the occasional economic crisis, some of them moved out through the Khyber pass to Margiana and Bactria, which was to remain a frontier zone of Indian culture for millennia. From there, some of them moved on to the Caspian coast, while others moved east to become the Tokharians. During this stay in Central Asia, they adapted to the local way of life, growing millet and domesticating the horse, a skill which was soon communicated back to the motherland. The group which separated earliest from the rest was the one which took the oldest form of the IE language along: we encounter them by 2,000 BC in Anatolia. The next move of the IE settlers in Central Asia, by 4,500 BC, brought them across the Urals and the Volga into Europe. By internal development and because of interaction with ever new native populations, their dialects changed and differentiated. Expanding ever more westward and southward, they broke into the Old European civilization of the Balkans and overran Anatolia. Another group developed its own distinctive culture in northern Central Europe, and was poised to overrun Western Europe and the British Isles. Meanwhile in India, civilization made great strides, writing was invented ca. 3,500 BC (unfortunately too late for the emigrants to take along), astronomy perfected, cities built of ever greater urbanistic quality. The language, still spoken only in a limited area, had developed the characteristic traits of Indo-Iranian, except in some outlying regions where older forms of IE were preserved, among them Proto-Bangani. Priests composed hymns to the gods and learned the hymns composed by their teachers and colleagues by heart, accumulating a tradition known as Veda. In the northern Indus basin, the Indo-Iranians started fighting amongst each other, and one result was that several factions followed the beaten track to Afghanistan and beyond. We meet them in history as the Iranians, who had built strongholds in Bactria whence their adventurers trekked north and then east as well as west, turning the whole of Central Asia into an Iranian Lebensraum; much later, they also conquered the countries to the west and southwest as far as Mesopotamia. They often clashed with the Indians, who had just reached the apogee of civilization with their large and numerous well-planned cities, and who tried to gain control over the Afghan mining centres. Later, perhaps already as a result of the crisis which sounded the death-knell of the magnificiant Harappan cities, more people migrated from India to become the West-Asian Indo-Aryans. Having moved through Margiana to the south side of the Caspian Sea, they mixed with Hurrites, Kassites and others, and pushed as far west as Palestine, making their mark for a few centuries (18th-12th century BC) in different parts of West Asia before disappearing through assimilation, In the southern Indus-Saraswati basin, the Indo-Aryans met the Dravidians whom they assimilated. However, Dravidian language and culture were preserved thanks to Dravidian colonists who had started settling in the south, in their turn assimilating the Veddoid and other native tribals. In a parallel movement, Indo-Aryans were colonizing India’s interior, assimilating the tribals they encountered, except in the less accessible corners where they left them to their traditional way of life. This movement from the northwest to the rest of India accelerated with the decline of the Harappan cities, yielding essentially the very distribution of languages over the Indian territory which exists till today. This model will certainly need amendments and corrections, but it is better able to explain the data than the dominant Kurgan-to-India invasionist model.

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