Dialogue  April-June, 2012, Volume 13 No. 4

The Ownership of the Ancient Indian Past

Dilip K Chakrabarti

Those of us , who believe that the Western universities are full of people with wholly scholarly and rational attitudes to the ancient past, may read with profit what Professor C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky has written about the attitude of a colleague of his at Harvard. We are deeply thankful to Dr S. Kalyanaraman (bharatkalyan97.blogspot.com for drawing our attention to this. Many years ago a former student of mine faced almost an identical situation in the Oriental Faculty of Cambridge (UK). He was made to stumble in his pre-Ph.D registration test because he did not cite, or did not do extensive justice to, the theory that the death of the Buddha was about hundred years later than the generally accepted date of c.486 BC or thereabouts.

I quote from Dr Kalyanaraman :

As I read through Bryan K. Wells, 2011, Epigraphic approaches to Indus writing, Oxford and Oakville, Oxbow Books, some disturbing points emerge, related to academic prejudices in adjudicating a student’s contributions.

In the Foreword to the book, C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky, makes some incisive observations and comments on how Bryan’s doctoral dissertation was dealt with in the academic setting of Harvard University: "Bryan Wells…came to Harvard as a graduate student intent on continuing his study of the Indus Civilization and its script…He was, and remains, committed to the idea that the Indus script represents writing and its decipherment will lead to an understanding of its texts and language. He did not think that at Harvard his dedication to this goal would meet with resistance. It did. This volume is a substantially revised edition of his doctoral dissertation. Bryan’s dissertation committee consisted of myself as Chair and Dr. Richard Meadow and Professor Michael Witzel. A near final draft of his dissertation was rejected by Meadow and Witzel. Bryan was required to return from Germany to confront and ostensibly to correct and address its shortcomings. The basic problem was that Profesor Witzel, influenced by Steve Farmer, had concluded that the Indus script was neither writing nor representative of language.(See ‘The Collapse of the Indus Script Thesis: The Myth of Literate Harappan Civilization’ by Steve Farmer, Richard Sproat and Michael Witzel, 2004, http://www.safarmer.com/downloads.

Steve Farmer believes the Indus signs to be magical symbols. In light of Professor Witzel’s strong commitment to the non-writing nature of the Indus script Bryan’s effort was deemed spurious and unacceptable. Richard Meadow, less strident in his view as to the nature of the Indus script, nevertheless advised Bryan to ‘tone down’ his view that the Indus represented ‘writing’. Approximately six weeks were spent as Professor Witzel balked at any mention of the Indus being a script and having a logo-syllabic nature. He insisted that Bryan substitute the word ‘marks’or ‘symbols’ for script. He was initially in opposition to the entire thesis. A Professor’s opinion, which, in this case is a minority view within the profession, should never be used to impose or prevent an alternative hypothesis from being addressed by a Ph.D. candidate. It was not as if Bryan was addressing an untenable, absurd hypothesis. He was to spend weeks of uncertainty, anxiety, and, in a state of near depression he puzzled over what to do. The consternation endured and expenses incurred affects his entire family. " (pp. xiii-xv)

Eventually good sense prevailed, and the student got his Ph.D. In the case of the Cambridge Oriental Faculty student I mention (an Indian), he slowly realized the importance of not being on the wrong side of the supervisor’s and his friends’ opinion and was eventually successful in getting his degree.

In the wake of the Farmer-Sproat-Witzel theory some Indian computer scientists had pursued some methodologies specific to computational techniques and reached the conclusion that the system of Indus signs was likely to represent a regular writing system. Even without knowing anything about computational techniques, one may do some serious advocacy in favour of the idea that the Indus civilization was indeed familiar with writing. First, very few of the available signs were regularly used, suggesting that the total corpus of the texts was likely to be much larger than the corpus which is currently available. In view of the long-standing Indian tradition of writing on perishable materials such as birch and palm leaves, this hypothesis is certainly worthy of consideration. Further, a famous Indian archaeologist, B.B. Lal, (How Deep are the Roots of Indian Civilization? Archaeology Answers. Delhi 2009) has drawn attention to a terracotta representation of a tablet among the excavated antiquities of Mohenjodaro. The point is that identically shaped wooden writing tablets are still widely used in the village schools of northern India. The very existence of the terracotta representation of such a tablet among the excavated antiquities of Mohenjodaro goes a long way to suggest that a regular schooling system was in place in this civilization, which is hardly a matter of surprise in view of the fact that both in Egypt and Mesopotamia schools were known.

The fact that some Western scholars of Harvard seem to have closed their mind to the possibility of the Indus civilization having a writing system, much of which has not survived, may be seen as a part of a generally prevalent current Western attitude regarding the originality and antiquity of the Indian civilization.

Regarding the date of the Mahaparinirvana of the Buddha, one may point out that the issue has been extensively debated since the late nineteenth century and there was no point in waking up in the 1980s to the possibility that it could be a hundred years later than its commonly accepted date. It is an old debate, and the only advantage for some Western scholars in this late date was that it would root out the possibility of any Buddhist philosophical impact on any aspect of ancient Greek thought.

The denial of antiquity and originality to the ancient Indian civilization is not limited only to the Western (read ‘white’) scholars. While discussing the ancient trade between the Indus civilization and Mesopotamia in her book Encounters (1981), Shireen Ratnagar, an Indian scholar trained at, among other places, the Deccan College, Pune, and Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, deduced that this civilization flourished mainly as a supplier of raw materials to Mesoptamia and thus basically ascribed to the ancient Indus the role India had as a supplier of raw materials to the mother country Britain during the colonial period. In the early 1970s, Hasmukh Dhirajlal Sankalia, Director of the Deccan College, Pune and a celebrated Indian archaeologist, wrote in a major international journal World Archaeology (1973) that the seeds of civilization came to India always from the west, and he went to the extent of having a painting drawn on this theme. In this attitude he was preceded by many Western scholars, including E.J. Rapson, a Sanskrit professor at Cambridge :" It is true that the civilizations which have been developed in India have reacted, and that Indian religions, Indian literature, and Indian art have spread out of India and produced a deep and far-reaching influence on the countries of Further Asia; but the migrations and the conquests which provided human energy with which these civilizations were created have invariably come into India from the outside" (italics added).

This was published not in an obscure place but in the chapter on ‘peoples and languages’ in the first volume of Cambridge History of India (1922). How is it that Sankalia, a well-publicised Indian archaeological Guru of post-Independence India, if ever there was one, and Rapson, a Cambridge Sanskritist ever conscious of the superiority of the white-skinned in relation to the natives, reached the same conclusion regarding the civilizational status of India ?

This must have a lot to do with the Bhakti of the native Gurus for Western scholarship on ancient India. The Indian regard, Bhakti, for Western scholars or at least the more prominent of them, can be boundless even in the modern context .Another Director of the Deccan College, Virendra Nath Misra (2010), while writing the obituary of a Western archaeologist (F.R.Allchin) who specialised in Indian archaeology, compared him as a person to Mahatma Gandhi, mainly because that person obliged many Indians, especially of the Deccan College, by arranging, through Charles Wallace Trust, short-term visiting fellowships for them in what is called Ancient India and Iran Trust, an organization which he and others set up in Cambridge town. Another Director of the same institute, K.Paddayya, in his obituary of the same Western scholar regretted that he was not awarded a professorship by his employer institution, Cambridge University. On the Western side, Bhakti for the Western ancient Indian and archaeological scholarship is also kept alive by bringing over, with full cost, 10 or more Indian scholars to the biennial conferences of the Euro-American association of archaeologists, historians and art historians. As I have recently explained the situation in an article in Oxford Handbook of Public Archaeology (2012), the proceedings of these conferences are published in "volumes which do not usually reach Indian bookshops or libraries. However, they unfailingly set apart a sum of money for bringing in important Indian participants—about ten to twelve of them. To the Indian invitees this counts as a badge of honour, so to speak. None of these important Indian archaeologists can, of course, even dream of being critical of the ideas which emanate from the pens of the learned European archaeologists interested in south Asia just as none of these learned Euro-American archaeologists can pass up a chance of feeling superior to the native Indian archaeologists. It is a funny world in which the Indian archaeologists hankering after so-called international recognition accept their minor role without demur and are unfailing in their praise of the work done by their Euro-American colleagues.

An unusual expression of Bhakti of this kind has been noticed in the Government of India celebration of the 150 years of the Archaeological Survey of India in December 2011 when a Cambridge emeritus professor of archaeology, Lord Renfrew, was invited to give what were described as two ‘curtain-raising’ lectures before the celebrations were formally inaugurated by the Prime Minister. It is important to note that Lord Renfrew , who, incidentally, is not known to have taken any specific interest in Indian archaeology, was not invited to lecture at an Indian academic institution, which would have been appropriate but he was given the task of virtually introducing archaeology as a theme to the formal start of the official celebrations of the Government of India. In the same vein, a British freelance historian was invited to write a book, at the Government of India expense, on the history of Indian archaeology to coincide with the celebrations. It is indeed unthinkable that Indian archaeologists will ever be invited to be involved in the celebratory ceremonies of a British national institution. There cannot be any doubt that the present leadership of the Archaeological Survey of India and its officially superior organization, the Ministry of Culture had completely ignored the fact that the Survey was a national organization of an independent country and that the celebration of its 150 years did not call for any ‘inauguratory’ role by foreign archaeologists.

The dimensions of this Bhakti network run deeper. As I explicitly pointed out in my article in Oxford Handbook of Public Archaeology, The relationship with First World archaeologists with field interests in the Third World can also be a political issue in Third World archaeology. In Indian archaeology, for instance, it assumes an identifiable dimension. In view of the fact that the government of India seems to be currently in favour of an open-arms policy regarding the participation of foreign archaeologists in Indian archaeology, the situation is likely to deteriorate further in the future. The signs we already have are ominous. It is known that in the early days of European control of India, there used to be a class of Indian merchants who were known as the Banyans or Dubashes. Their approach to business success was to act as brokers of a European business house or a European merchant. It is these Indian merchants who paved the way for the European economic and political domination of India. In Indian archaeology, there are already a number of university centres whose ostensible academic mission is to provide collaboration to foreign archaeologists in return for authorships in publications and sundry incentives like ‘visiting fellowships’ and all-expenses-paid trips to international conferences. This also absolves them of the duty of doing research on their own. This ‘Banyan or Dubash model’ model’ of doing archaeology is the prevailing rage among Indian university archaeologists.

This tide of Bhakti is also reinforced by a rapidly developing situation in the area of Indian historical education. Now that Sanskrit has ceased to be a compulsory subject in Indian school education, the students’ understanding of their own regional languages has begun to grow weak. In my classes in Delhi University History department till the late 1980s, I noticed a distinct division between the students who were educated till then in the vernacular medium of instruction and those who were educated in the medium of English. The students of the latter class were hardly familiar with their rich vernacular literary traditions depicting the different nuances of the land. They were, in fact, somewhat aggressive to assert their imagined ‘Western identity’. The teachers themselves belonged mostly to this group, and the first thing required was whether these students were familiar with the Western historical and archaeological approaches to ancient India. It was not a happy development even in the late 1980s, and in the current context the situation has possibly become far more aggravated. Any kind of commitment to the ancient past of the nation, of which they are the lineal descendants and of which there should be at least a modicum of pride in their minds, is generally missing in the historical writings of this generation of young people, whether students or teachers. Now that there is a manifest concern with the real ideological threats of ‘breaking India’ (R. Malhotra and A.Neelakandan, Breaking India, Western Intervention in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines, Delhi 2011) our ideas regarding our ancient history may be more important than we know or care for. In other words, it is getting more imperative to view ancient India in its own terms than the lenses of those who would rather view it as a past with which they would not have any emotional link. The American archaeologists approach the ancient Indian past in the same way they approach the Iraquois past which is something completely unrelated to them. There are indications that in a large section of Indian archaeologists and ancient historians this American approach is an eminently acceptable approach. The signs of ‘intellectualism’ in this section of Indian writings on ancient India are almost exclusively the authors’ familiarity with the related writings of Western scholars. This is how they thrive in the academia linked to the Indian ancient history scenario from Romila Thapar to Upinder Singh.

The history of Indology in Germany and elsewhere has been a matter of academic attention in the recent years, three convenient examples of which are Aryans, Jews, Brahmins, Theorizing Authority through Myths of Identity by D. Figueira (2002), Indology, Indomania, Orientalism: Ancient India’s Rebirth in Modern Germany by D.McGetchin (2009), and Indra Sengupta, From Salon to Discipline: State, University and Indology in Germany 1821-1914 (2005). Although all these works of research contain many new data and perspectives, none of them prefers to dwell particularly on the basic racist milieu of the growth of Indological studies in Euro-America. From roughly the mid-nineteenth century onward that milieu has been dominated entirely by racist attitudes to the subject of these Euro-American studies, i.e. India and Indians. It is not that this racism matters to a large section of Indians. One learns that somebody as racist as Max Muller in his evaluation of the potential of India and Indians has had a stamp issued in his honour by the Indian Post and Telegraphs in 1974. One may also take note of the title of an Indian publication, Indology and Its Eminent Western Savants: Collection of Biographies of Western Indologists by G. G. Sengupta (1996). The Max Muller type of racism where a very superior attitude in relation to modern India and Indians is commonplace, still persists in the various Indian studies sections of many Euro-American universities.

Equally bypassed in such studies in the history of Western Indology is the issue of the ecclesiastical pressure to translate ancient texts in the hope that conversion to Christianity would be easier once the message of the true state of Hinduism and its changing characters were driven home to the public. That was the main reason why Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Boden instituted a Sanskrit professorship (Boden professorship) in Oxford in 1832. Joseph Boden was an East India Company Official from Kolkata, and he donated £25000 to Oxford. He is said to have held the opinion that "a more general and critical knowledge of the Sanskrit language will be a means of enabling his countrymen to proceed in the conversion of the natives of India to the Christian religion, by disseminating a knowledge of the sacred scriptures amongst them, more effectually than all other means whatsoever" (The Oxford University Calender of 1832, p. 50) .

The instituition of the Sanskrit professorship in Cambridge in 1867 is not at all dissimilar, though, in this case the university itself seems to have taken the initiative. The first holder of the post, E, B. Cowell, had among his referees Bishop Cotton of Kolkata. From the Bishop’s point of view, as he stated in a letter dated 11 July, 1867 the main claim of Cowell to the post lay in the fact that, as befitted somebody aspiring to " a professorship in a Christian university", he was not a person whose interest in India was confined to philology and ancient learning but that he was also "actively desirous to see it a Christian country" and that his influence in any position "would be exerted with a distinct reference to that great end" ( italics added). In his inaugural lecture in 1867, Cowell hoped that India might under British rule "share the blessings of Western civilization and Christianity."

To facilitate India’s conversion to Christianity was also the aim of F Max Muller’s translation of The Hymns of the Rigveda, with Sayana’s Commentary (London, 1849-75, 6 volumes), which was largely supported by the East India Company’s Board of Directors . He wrote in the following terms to his wife :

The translation of the Veda will hereafter tell to a great extent on the fate of India and on the growth of millions of souls in that country. It is the root of their religion, and to show them what the root is, I feel sure, is the only way of uprooting all that has sprung from it during the last 3000 years.

The official sanction to open India to the proselytisation of Christianity came about in the Charter Act of the British parliament in 1813. The missionaries, as Figueira puts it, they thought Indians were suffering in darkness and languishing in horrid conditions. One of these leading evangelists was Charles Grant, who returned from India in 1794 and sat on the Board of Directors. Grant modelled his evangelical mission for Britain on the Roman empire, with the idea that they were spreading civilization. Grant portrayed Hinduism as rotten to its core, incapable of restoration or renaissance.

According to another contemporary evangelist, "the Hindu divinities were absolutely monsters of lust, injustice, wickedness and cruelty. In short their religious system is one grand abomination" Even missionaries like William Carey, who are known for their contributions to the modernisation of vernacular presses, had always their eyes focussed on the importance of such establishments in the propagation of Christianity. That was also the attitude of Cowell who emphasized the close links between Sanskrit and the vernacular literatures and thought that through an improvement of the latter one could look forwards to an improvement in the situation of the Hindus.

The study of Sanskrit got linked not merely to the programme of evangelical Christianity but also to specific race issues in the form of Aryanism. The political ramifications of this issue can be clearly perceived in the generally prevalent assumption that the Aryans were the first Western conquerors of India. Macdonell in his book on the history of Sanskrit literature states this explicitly. This assumption was firmly in place by the beginning of the 20th century.

Even in the initiation and patronage of Indian archaeology, it was not wholly because of an altruistic belief. The notion that archaeological enquiries would show that Hinduism was not always the most powerful religion in India by yielding many remains of Buddhism. The basic attitude still persists. Scholars are criticised for stating that the ancient Indian civilization was a Hindu civilization. It is conveniently forgotten that Buddhism sprang out of Hinduism as a basically reform movement against the all-pervasive importance given to the performance of Vedic rituals. In this sense, Hinduism has been the tree trunk from which various religious offshoots like Buddhism have grown throughout history. If the offshoots became subsequently powerful on their own, that need not detract from its interconnectedness with their roots.

It was after Independence that Bhakti towards Western archaeological theories began to grow distinctly visible. H.D. Sankalia’s statement that I have already cited is a convenient example, but uncritical acceptance of Western opinions in archaeological matters has been by and large the order of the day. The importance which the Indian scholars attached to every little opinion of Mortimer Wheeler whose introduction to Indian archaeology took place during his brief stay in the country as the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India (1944-48) is fairly distressing, but the tragedy is that this attitude still continues. In two or more west Indian university archaeological departments that I can think of, it is almost obligatory for teachers and students to begin the writing of anything on the Indus civilization by quoting what some American Indus specialists think of it. In the case of the Indus studies, the position once enjoyed by Wheeler seems to have gone to J M Kenoyer, an American archaeologist of Madison, Wisconsin. A paper of mine on the archaeology of Indian religions, which was commissioned by the Oxford Centre of Hindu Studies or something like that, was rejected for publication by the same Centre because, this paper ,according to one of its referees (an Indian lady of JNU who was associated with this centre under a fellowship programme named after an Indian family), did not take into consideration Kenoyer’s opinion. If Kenoyer has published anything significant on the religion of the Indus civilization, I am not aware of it, but to this Indian university teacher, that was no reason why Kenoyer should not be cited in an article on the religious aspects of the Indus civilization. The unholy grip of this American gentleman on Indian archaeology will be clear from the fact that he was asked to give the Presidential lecture to the Indian Archaeological Society in its session in Lucknow last year (2011 winter), and apparently in return for this privilege, he arranged an archaeological study tour of Pakistan for a number of Indian archaeologists who are known to be obliged to him in various ways . This group of Indian archaeologists included Mr K N Dikshit, the Secretary of the Indian Archaeological Society, who took over the running of the Society from Dr S P Gupta, reputedly a noted RSS functionary of Delhi. I believe that the Indian Archaeological Society is still indebted in various ways to people sympathetic to the RSS, but retaining the independence of Indian archaeological research is in no way their concern. In such matters there is hardly any difference between the RSS and the Indian left. One has, after all, to look after one’s personal interests !

While talking about the Bhakti of the Indian archaeologists towards their foreign Gurus, one must draw attention to the book written by a former Director of the National Museum and a former senior officer of the Archaeological Survey of India, Dr N.R.Banerjee, on the beginning of iron in India. The book was his Ph.D thesis supervised by N R Ray of Calcutta University. For some reason, Ray, an art historian and writer of an important Bengali book on the ancient history of the Bengalis who served in important positions of the Government of India, thought that he was knowledgeable about the beginning of Indian iron. Much of Banerjee’s book The Iron Age in India (1965) is concerned with what he thought was the Aryan problem, and all that he basically did was to quote learned Western scholars on this topic. The basic facts regarding iron suggest, in no uncertain terms, that India was an independent and early centre of iron metallurgy. The tragedy is that this simple fact was realized by scholars including European metallurgists till basically the 1930s, but soon after Independence, good Indian archaeologists and historians like Banerjee and Ray thought that nationalism was an anathema and that it was their business to show that India was always a colony, as Sankalia argued in 1973 and as many of his successors do so in various ways even now.

That nationalism has become an anathema to Indian ancient historians and archaeologists can be seen in many contemporary writings. Whatever reason people offered for the formation of the Indian Council of Historical Research, which I have argued to be the first example of a major academic scam in India (in Fifty Years of Indian Archaeology (1960-2010: Journey of a Foot Soldier, Delhi 2012), nationalism was not one of those. In fact, Indian ancient historians with any kind of professional competence in the post-Independence period have taken special care to emphasize that their writings are unaffected by nationalism. There may be exceptions, but such exceptions are singularly rare.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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