From Indus to India
Dilip K Chakrabarti Posted online: Wednesday, Sep 09, 2009 at 0243 hrs
Professor K. P.N.Rao and his associates assert, on the basis of their recently published computer studies on the Indus script, that this script has statistical regularities which are in line with other natural languages. Thus, the various signs of the Indus script cannot be explained away as only symbols of different sorts. The latter opinion was expressed by an American group sometime back and apparently taken seriously enough by Rao and his colleagues to undertake their own analysis.
That the Indus script represents a language is amply shown by the way its signs were found scratched from the right to the left on an inscribed potsherd from Kalibangan and the way in which the signs were arranged on the seals of Mohenjodaro. Further, the rarity with which many of these signs occur is almost a certain indication of the fact that much of the textual corpus of the Indus civilisation was written, on the analogy of the Indian tradition which continued down to the end of the nineteenth century, on perishable materials like palm and birch leaves.
The basic problem, however, lies elsewhere. There is a conscious attempt in certain quarters to disassociate this civilisation from the later mainstream tradition of Indian/ Vedic culture. Historically, the beginning of this attempt can be traced to the period around India’s Independence when Mortimer Wheeler proposed that the impetus for this civilisation came from Mesopotamia. Earlier, when India was a jewel in the British crown, there was no compulsion to depict it as an offshoot of Mesopotamian or other contemporary civilisations. The early excavators had no problem hypothesising that this civilisation was deeply rooted in the Indian soil and that many of its features could be explained with reference to the later Indian civilisation.
The current attempts to disassociate the Indus civilisation from the mainstream Indian tradition has assumed many forms. The term ‘Indus valley civilisation’, which is being increasingly common, suggests that this civilisation was primarily a product of the Indus valley alone, which is far from being the case. The civilisation is also bandied about as the product of what is dubiously dubbed as the ‘middle Asian interaction sphere’ and not as a product of a vast region of the sub-continent. Its chronology has been needlessly shortened, suppressing a long and continuous developmental span of about 2500 years in the modern Indian section of its distribution area.
The civilisation is also visualised at the end of a straight arrow-line of wheat-barley-based development beginning in Baluchistan at c.7000 BC, completely ignoring the contribution which came from the east — from the early farming and metallurgical developments in the Aravallis or from the rice-cultivating tradition that began in the Ganga plain and its Vindhyan periphery in the seventh millennium BC. The famous Sramana image from Mohenjodaro, which shows the bust of a shawl-wearing man with a meditative expression, is now advocated as belonging to an artistic tradition of north Afghanistan and beyond.
Notorious Hindu-baiters are aghast at the thought that anything related to Hinduism could occur in that civilisation, whereas the first excavators’ frame of reference for the study of the religion of this civilisation was Hinduism. That Siva was worshipped in this civilisation is proved not merely by the phallus-shaped stone objects found at Mohenjodaro and Dholavira but also by the find of an indisputedly Sivalinga set in a Yonipatta at Kalibangan. If anybody is interested, Bhang and Dhatura , both favourites with a class of Siva-worshippers, occur in the Indus civilisation.
The battle raging these days is whether there can be a relation between the life depicted in the Vedic literature and this civilisation. Without trying to pull down this debate to the all-too-common Indian level of ‘progress versus reaction’ syndrome which implies that that any talk in favour of Veda-Indus civilization relationship is a ‘right reactionary’ proposition ( a la Irfan Habib), we note that scholars of the stature of M.S.Vats, R.P.Chanda, B.N.Datta and P.V.Kane had no difficulty in arguing for a relationship between the two.
The opinions which we have noted above and which try to disassociate the Indus civilisation from the mainstream Indian tradition are endemic in modern First World archaeological literature on the subject and its followers in India. First World Archaeology, as my long familiarity with it tells me, suffers from a sense of inordinate superiority in relation to the archaeologists of the Third World. By allowing it to enjoy a free run in the country as the present archaeological policy of the government does and by allowing it to set up ‘Indus Centres’ in Vadodara or Pune, grievous damage is being caused to national archaeological scholarship in India.
The writer is emeritus professor of South Asian archaeology, Cambridge University.