Book Reviews

Cinderella of the Ancient World*

History begins at Sumer was the title of S.N. Kramer’s major work (1965) which reflects the prevalent view fostered by the West, that civilization – life in cities – first began in Mesopotamia. Over three decades later in BBC’s superb TV series LEGACY [1997] Michael Wood put forward the same idea: the first city in the world was Eridu in Sumer. As though the Harappa Culture had not happened! No wonder Geoffrey Bibby in his Looking for Dilmun described the Indus Valley civilization as “the Cinderella of the ancient world”. 

At long last a historian of religion, a professor of computer engineering and a vedic scholar have joined together to present a contrary thesis at significant length, showing that civilization began in the Indian subcontinent with what is popularly known as the Indus Valley Civilization, which they correctly rephrase as the Indus-Sarasvati Civilization. This Harappan world covered around three hundred thousand square miles with over 2,500 settlements found so far. Stretching from Afghanistan in the north to Godavari river in the south and from the Indus in the west to the Gangetic plains in the east, its size exceeds the combined area occupied by the Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations and is much older, going back to the town of Mehrgarh in Baluchistan [c. 6500 BC]. 

Mehrgarh disproves Gordon Childe’s concept of a Neolithic revolution followed by an urban revolution, because here already in the beginning of the Neolithic age we have a large town, the largest in the ancient world, covering over 168 acres, five times the size of the contemporary Catal Huyuk site in Turkey which has been called the largest Neolithic site in the Near East. In comparison, the entire population of Egypt was around 30,000 persons around 6000 BC, around the same as of Mehrgarh alone! And this is two thousand years before Sumer. There is no break in cultural developments from Mehrgarh to Harappa to modern India—here we have proof of the oldest living civilization in the world.

To substantiate their thesis, after establishing the Vedas as the key to understanding the world-view of ancient India, the authors concentrate in the first half of the book on demolishing the myth of the Aryan invasion and proceed to present the advanced Harappan civilization citing major tectonic changes as the cause of the abandonment of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa. In the second part, they discuss the cultural and spiritual legacy of ancient India to highlight not only the profound spirituality but also how ritual gave birth to science, particularly mathematics and astronomy. The work concludes with a presentation of the perennial wisdom of the Vedas, asserting its relevance for saving mankind from rushing lemming-like to its own destruction and for enabling man to realise the potential that lies at the core of his being.

The authors have to be complimented for pointing out that the prevalent belief regarding the age of the Vedas as between 1200 and 1000 BC is based purely upon an ad hoc pronouncement by Max Muller despite his admission in his last work [1900] that the date could as well be 1500 as 15,000 BC! They proceed to show how the word “Aryan” has been twisted to provide a racial connotation that it never had (notably by Gordon Childe), paving the way for fascist racism. In Darius’ cuneiform inscription of 520 BC he alludes to making “the writing of a different sort in Aryan, which did not exist before”, thus giving it a secondary meaning of language. Colin Renfrew has recently reasserted this. Originally the word “arya” referred to a quality of character: nobility, and “arya-varta” meant the abode of noble people. 

This book is one of the first to highlight the little known metal artifact carbon-dated to 3700 BC of a head with moustache and hair coiled with a tuft on the right that has been given the name, “Vasishtha Head”, now reposing in the Hicks Foundation for Cultural Preservation in San Francisco. Pointing out the remarkable accuracy of the weights found in the Harappan sites that follow a binary system up to 12,800 units, and the meticulous geometric layout of the towns, they bring home how scholars have neglected this evidence of scientific knowledge on part of Neolithic humanity. They list as many as 17 arguments to disprove Mortimer Wheeler’s melodramatic scenario of Aryan hordes destroying these cities. The Rig Veda celebrates the seven rivers, specially Sarasvati, which precedes the mythical Aryan invasion of 1200 BC by many centuries. Astronomical configurations are mentioned that could have occurred only between 2000 and 6000 BC. The Brahmanas and Aranyakas also belong to the third millennium BC.

Most important is the fact that the archaeologically established chronology for the cities shows them abandoned far before the alleged attacks in 1500-1200 BC. Just as tectonic changes led to the sudden collapse of the Akkadian empire after Manishtusu (2307-2292 BC), the death of the Bronze Age city of Tiryns in Turkey and of Troy (level VI) and the devastation of the Minoan civilization in Crete in about 1250 BC, so the Indian plate pushing into Asia was responsible for the abandonment of sites like Mohenjo Daro following the drying up of the Sarasvati River and its tributaries (the river had changed its course at least four times) and the emergence of the Kashmir valley. That is why the Indians migrated eastwards to the Yamuna-Ganga valley, a hint of which is in the Shatapatha Brahmana (1900 BC) that speaks of the conquest of the swampy area east of the Ganga by Mathava Videgha. The Vedic people were also seafaring merchants, as there is mention of sea travel in many hymns, and not just cattle breeding nomads as the invasion model asserts. Seals dated to about 2400 BC found in the Middle East substantiate this. The standard weights of Harappa were used in Bahrain (Dilmun), an inscription in Harappan script has been found on the Oman coast and it is possible that the Mesopotamian Meluha refers to Harappa. The authors very convincingly argue that the allegedly separate Vedic and Harappan cultures are actually the same Indus-Sarasvati civilization and its script is the origin of the Brahmi lipi

The excellent analysis of data from the Neolithic site of Mehrgarh points out the use of the potter’s wheel, bow drills and domestication of cattle in the early fourth millennium, much before the so-called invasion. There is a direct development from Mehrgarh to Mohenjo Daro and the Rig Veda. The arguments could have been even stronger if the authors had cared to consult K.D. Sethna’s very important book,Karpasa in Prehistoric India (Biblia Impex 1984). Cotton finds mention in the earliest Sutras but is absent from the Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas. Hence, if the Rigvedic people came after the Harappans, how can they be ignorant of cotton? Similarly, rice is not known to the Rigveda and the Avesta, while it is present in several Harappan sites within and outside the Indus valley. Therefore, the Rigveda has to precede the Harappan Culture. Silver is known from 4000 BC only, and is not found in this Veda, which must therefore antedate it. Sethna’s Problem of Aryan Origins (Aditya Prakashan, 1992) provides some more clinching arguments that the authors would have done well to study: Harappan seals with evidence of spoked shells are dated to 1960 BC far before the supposed invasion which Wheeler claims to have introduced the chariot and spoked wheel; evidence of equine remains is available dated before 2000 BC and even at Hallur in Karnataka c. 1800-1500 BC. Therefore, the Aryans whom Asko Parpola and Wheeler would like to immigrate to India c.1600-1400 BC cannot have introduced the horse in the Deccan centuries before their arrival! If the horse is a conclusive sign of Aryan presence, then it is in India long before the Harappan Civilization in Neolithic sites. Moreover, a terracotta horse-like figurine with a saddle on its back has been found in Balu in the Harappan urban phase. Sethna also provides evidence, going back to much before the second millennium BC of heavy flooding of Harappan settalements, with five floods found in Mohenjo Daro itself, each lasting for several decades. Considerable rise in the coast-line of the Arabian Sea is also a geological fact he cites. Hence there is no need to posit an invading Aryan horde to demolish imaginary dams where natural forces are at work. Further, points out Sethna, if invasion came from the north, why is it southern Mohenjo Daro instead of northern Harappan sites that shows noticeable decline in material prosperity? The coup de grace is administered with evidence from undersea excavations at Dwaraka, dating the submergence to c. 1400 BC, tallying with statements in the Mahabharata and the Harivamsa. If the Kurukshetra war occurred around this time, surely the period of the Rig Veda would have to be considerably anterior to it and by no means c. 1500 BC. How could the Aryans invade just a couple of centuries before the great war? Necessarily, therefore, the Rig Veda precedes the Harappa Culture that ended around the middle of the second millennium BC. 

In their presentation of the antiquity of the Indian Civilization the authors lose the advantage of brilliant research by Sethna in his Ancient India in a New Light (Aditya Prakashan, 1989) that cites convincing evidence for identifying Megasthenes’ Sandrocottus with Chandragupta of the Gupta dynasty. Megasthenes’ references point to the Bhagavata Vaisnavite cult of the Guptas and not what the Mauryas practised. The Mehrauli Iron Pillar inscription is by Sandrocottus-Chandragupta-I whose term for the invading Greeks is “Vahlika” which fills in the puzzling gap in Indian records regarding incursions by them. Scholars have blindly accepted Fleet’s chronology of Fa-Hien as visiting during the reign of Chandragupta II, though he does not mention any king and his descriptions of social conditions to not tally with the Gupta regime. Similarly, Fleet misrepresents Al-beruni’s travelogue. The Arab categorically refers to the Gupta Era as celebrating the end and not the beginning, as Fleet states, of a dynasty that had come to be hated. Fleet even conjectured Skandagupta battling the Huns though there is no such reference in the Junagadh inscription of Rudradaman-I as Sethna proves. The Ashokan monuments have affinities not with Achaemenid art but with Mesopotamia and carry on the tradition of the realistic treatment of the Indus seals, the hall at Mohenjo Daro and the high polish of Harappan jewellery. Inscriptions at Mandasor of Dattabhatta and Yasodharman are analysed by Sethna to clear many misconceptions about the date of Ashoka whom he establishes at 950 BC, with Buddha’s death in 1168 BC and Mahavira’s in 1165 BC. This would have convincingly supported the effort of the book under review to illuminate the dark backward and abysm of a critical portion of our antique time.

If the thesis the three authors have presented motivates those interested in the history of the birth of civilization to thing afresh, untrammelled by preconceptions foisted by western scholars and their Indian followers over the last hundred years, it will be a consummation devoutly to be wished.


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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