History — make it or break it?

COMBINED METHODS IN INDOLOGY AND OTHER WRITINGS: D. D. Kosambi, compiled, edited and introduced by Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya; Oxford University Press, 2/11, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, P. B. No. 7035, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 995.

THIS BOOK, a collection of hard to find articles, is essentially intended as a supplement to the better known works of D. D. Kosambi who, 40 years after his death, still towers above Marxist students of ancient Indian history like a colossus. So far as the discovery of new leads is concerned, `obscure' texts can open up a gold mine from time to time, but in most cases, in the absence of a reliable sieve or compass, they merely add to the clutter.

As was the case when, almost immediately after the unearthing of Harappa, Kosambi went public with his conclusion that the `barbaric' Aryans had stormed into the sub-continent, ravaged the urbane and heavily fortified cities of the Harappans, and then, instead of settling into comfortable new homes, moved on - into the wilderness, in search of greener pastures for their cattle. The criticism might seem harsh; everyone gets a little carried away at times, everyone makes mistakes. But habitual mistakes one has to take a firm stand against.

For more than 200 years, both before and after the discovery of Harappa, there was/has been a consensus among philologists (namely those who study ancient civilizations primarily on the basis of ancient texts), professional historians, archaeologists and other experts that the `Indo-Aryans' or `Rg Vedic people' were strangers or newcomers to the subcontinent. But there was and is something odd about this consensus. According to Hermann Kulke, whose History of India (3rd edition, Routledge, 1998, pg 30) is used as a basic text by many American universities, "though the arrival of the Indo-Aryan speaking people is well documented by the sacred hymns of the Rg Veda, the details and the chronology of their migrations from Central Asia are still a matter of considerable controversy among archaeologists, historians and scholars" (emphasis mine). So much so that bolder souls like Michael Witzel (Professor of Sanskrit, Chair of the Committee for South Asian Studies at Harvard University, and Editor in chief of the Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies) and Rajesh Kochhar (Director of the National Institute for Science, Technology and Development Studies at Delhi) feel free to assert that the real Saraswati was in fact the Haraoti of Afghanistan — in memory of which the river near Kurukshetra was named.

The second peculiar thing about this consensus is the way in which it jumps about from time to time; perhaps best illustrated by the way that historians like Romila Thapar have been urging their colleagues to shift their focus away from age-old questions about the migration of `Indo-Aryan' people into India (she herself now believes that they might well have been here all along) and instead concentrate on the import of Indo-Aryan culture. The shift is welcome; it is from their culture or level of civilization that people derive their identity, not from the place where they were born. However, this shift of focus cannot by itself solve the Indo-Aryan question, even if solutions are somehow found for downstream questions like: wherefrom, when, how and why. This does not seem to have occurred to Prof. Thapar as yet. Even in her latest book (Early India, Penguin, 2002) she fails to make the obvious point that such sophisticated ideas, languages, cultures would have been very difficult for country bumpkins to absorb. Advanced languages, ideas, cultures can only be transmitted to civilisations that themselves have a relatively advanced class of elites — who would in that case have had important contributions to make in return.

One would imagine that the numerous jerks along the journey (after all, the changes were more slick than smooth) would have woken scholars from their slumbers. But this was not the case. Some simply fail to notice. In other cases, Kosambi and others simply altered earlier versions of their idiosyncratic theories to accommodate the fragmentary new `facts', while quietly dropping some of the earlier ones; along with the scholars or fields of expertise who/which had earlier been holding up that particular part of the sky. My protest relates only to the use of this tactic by expert witnesses. I myself have no particular objection to it; in fact I resort to it all the time in order to remain snug (and smug) in the conviction that I am really a very lovable chap, despite all the evidence to the contrary that crops up from time to time. Be that as it may, the point is that the ability and willingness to cheerfully incorporate potentially embarrassing evidence makes it difficult to rebut any presumption or theory, no matter how fragile its foundations.

Yet it is evident that expert witnesses, themselves (with the exception of exceptionally gifted scholars like Kosambi), are aware of the shifty and shifting nature of the sands on which they stand. First by the desperation with which they try to force their evidence to fit the `fact' of the Indo-Aryan `invasion' in any of its various versions. Had the matter been settled beyond doubt, it would not have been necessary for Witzel, so late in the day, to devote seven closely typed pages of a scholarly paper to prove that there was an Aryan migration — and then go on to explain why the Aryans themselves did not remember it.

Secondly, the shaky foundations are exposed by the way experts swoop down delightedly on isolated fragments of `evidence' from other areas of expertise. Indeed Witzel (who, incidentally, has chased more than his share of wild geese) identified this as one of the major reasons why scholars have failed to reach sound conclusions even after studying the subject for two hundred years. (see his chapter in George Erdosy ed Ancient South Asia: Language, Material Culture and Ethnicity, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, 1995) The same point was also made by Colin Renfrew in his Archaeology and Language (Jonathan Cape 1987). Last but not least is the way that `JNU historians' take cover behind the `propaganda function of the social sciences' in the articles and book reviews they write for lay readers.

I share their concern about the BJP's efforts to re-write history unilaterally, behind closed doors. But I have begun to suspect that their interventions into the debates also serve another purpose. However `cranky' people like David Frawley and N. S. Rajaram might be, no one, not even an expert, can help seeing that some of the doubts and questions being raised by them about the so-called Aryan invasion need to be taken seriously. The `experts', however, have managed to evade the serious questions by instead plunging furiously into merry-go-round games like `horsing around Harappa' knowing full well that nothing would change even if a hundred horses were found at Harappa; at any rate so far as the question of the Rg Vedic people themselves being the Harappans (or their predecessors) is concerned. Though, of course, the discovery of horses, and attempts to account for them, would be of great interest in themselves.

The whole thing reminds me of a girl in one of Dostoevsky's novels who was in the habit of `deliberately exaggerating the charge against herself, or subtly mistargeting it, so as to make it easy to present a credible defence; a girl who, often almost with tears in her eyes, blamed herself for evil propensities which she did not have, while obstinately denying her real defects.

In conclusion, let us take a look at the testimonial value of Kosambi's writings on ancient India. The fact of the matter is that the citations by eminent scholars that drew Prof. Chattopadhyaya's attention to this or that hard-to-find article by Kosambi are mostly intended either to impress the reader or to pass off as corroborating evidence what is in fact only a shared opinion or prejudice. Sadly this is not always the case; so the stuff cannot simply be junked. Under these circumstances, Prof. Chattopadhyaya's compilation makes the researcher's task less nerve-wracking than it would otherwise have been; though an index would have been welcome. The fact is that Kosambi was incapable of making any contribution to the history of ancient India; because of his belief that the Vedas, Puranas and Epics had little historical value (though he did feel free to quote from them when it suited his purposes). He was therefore forced to limit himself to pre-history (chapter 2 of the book under review); and to "proto-methodology" — which he simply lifted from oft-quoted passages of The German Ideology. As for pre-history, he picked up most of his evidence in the course of rambles through the technologically primitive villages around his residence at Pune. There was unlimited scope for the study of pre-history, he concluded; `because pre-history is still all around us' - thus overlooking what is perhaps the most valuable contribution made by Marxism to the methodology of the social sciences; namely that `A' is fundamentally defined by its relationship to `not-A'. Furthermore, this brilliant mind (b 1907) failed to notice that ancient history, too, was all around him: in the interplay between Vedic culture and a stratified society.

The only `state'-specific English-language probe into ancient Indian history is to be found in an article by Michael Witzel — which is available online, and therefore not at all hard-to-find (Origins and Development of the Kuru State; Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies, 1995). In substantive terms, the paper is a hilarious caricature of the Marxist worldview. It could hardly have been otherwise, coming as it did from an American after Communism was well and truly dead. (Indeed, thanks to George Bush the joke going around these days is that the only `state' that Americans care about is the United States). But the article was nevertheless a sincere attempt to open a new, rich (i.e. resource-abundant) and potentially rewarding line of research which ought to have been the fundamental focus of Marxist histories of ancient India. It is even more ironic that Witzel was driven to such an extreme in a desperate effort to salvage the primary source material for a Marxist study of ancient Indian history from the dustbin of history; to which it has now been consigned because Romila Thapar and other minor deities have been going about the place telling anyone who will listen that `there is nothing to be learnt from the ancient literature of India that has not already been learned'. Unless people begin treating her with the respect she properly deserves, the history of ancient India will remain forever unwritten. Pre-historians, and mythologists, would then have the run of the roost.


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