OPEN PAGE

'Paradigm shift' in history? — I

Frawley may `love' India all the way he wants, but if he really wants to understand, he must at least begin to study the required sciences, be they anthropology, linguistics, philology, biology or geography. Of course, he does not see the need as he already knows the `secrets' of the Veda.

IN MY last contribution (Open Page, February 11, 18), I mentioned the battle for the "soul of India," and N. S. Rajaram (March 18) actually echoes this by pointing out that "the history of ancient India is now in the midst of a major debate." However, what had started as a serious discussion in Open Page in January 2002, has now deteriorated, with D. Frawley's (a.k.a. Vamadeva Shastri) last contribution of March 4, to email-like loudness and abuse, without any answer to the criticism offered, due to lack of arguments. Again, he quotes selectively — the oldest trick in the book — and twists words, like the run of the mill American tort lawyer. Ad hominem attacks always are an admission of weakness, which I trust readers have noticed. Such diatribes, insinuations, and prevarications are not really worth a detailed rebuttal and I have deliberated on this during a long trip across the Pacific. Yet, an answer seems necessary, after all, in view of the actual defamation contained in Frawley's outpourings, before we can move on to the intellectual topic in question: the presently propagated "innovative, paradigm shifting" view of Indian history (Frawley, Rajaram, et al.)

Frawley's piece betrays a large degree of personalisation. As a historian of ideas, I write about content, not about persons. I am not interested in the ephemeral Vamadevas, Rajarams, or Talageris of the present decade. They only get dragged in when they propose particularly outrageous unscientific ideas that damage scholarly research — and thus, incidentally, the international standing of India. This stance has earned me some hatred, daily seen in my email, often with attached destructive viruses, but so be it.

In Frawley et al.'s "battle" apparently all means are right. They are extremely happy to have found one simple translation "mistake" in 30 years of publications (which rather concerns a point of interpretation, where scholars have differed, see EJVS 7-3 and 7-4 (https://users.primushost.com/{cedil}india/ejvs/issues.html). Frawley's characterisations are often due to ignorance of my work: "Witzel's background is purely as a linguist." Just a brief look at my web site (https://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/{cedil}witzel/mwpage.htm) could have taught him otherwise. The same holds for: (He has) "(n)ever written about Indian culture or Bharatiya samskriti in a positive light." All too often, Frawley has received his wisdom in pre-distilled email messages of his friends that lead to his misconceptions. He insinuates that I have (only) "recently done some articles on the Vedic religion" (actually, since 1972), "to show what it really was and to counter the many distortions about it that exist today (probably made by Hindus!)." Insinuation, again: scholars are concerned, on and off, with distortions that are found in books and even on the web, — from wherever they may come. In sum: his is an omnium gatherum of selective quotes with very polemic aims, a procedure also favoured by his friend Rajaram (below).

Frawley now even tries denunciation with the Government, complaining about the "numerous contemptuous remarks that Witzel makes against Indians, Hindus, India and the Indian government." Like his self-centred friends, he confuses criticism of the Golden Age fantasies of certain writers like him with that of all Hindus, all Indians, or the Indian Government.

He overlooks — should his maligning succeed — that a Vedic specialist/Indologist can always go elsewhere: the ancient cultures of the hills of N.E. Afghanistan, N. Pakistan, Nepal, and those of the Brahmins of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, and Bali all are very important and congenial for my research. Deviating for a moment, it is useful to remind the government of one point that is usually neglected. European scholars have worked in the areas just named for decades, without any political problems; they were often supported, instead, by official agreements. This has not really been possible in India ever since Nehru's time. In the above countries, governments have not confused our field research into religion, customs, languages, etc., with the famous "foreign hand," imagined at every other occasion in India, which has generated enormous restrictions on academic research — just now seriously reinforced. German Orientalists have an Institute in Beirut/Istanbul but none was possible in India, a country they have cultivated (and indeed loved) for the past 200 years. Therefore, they have worked, instead, in Nepal, the only Hindu kingdom left, with consistently good cooperation since 1970. I have myself negotiated, in 1977, a government agreement allowing us to work anywhere in Nepal in all fields of the humanities and sciences. By contrast, when I tried to merely contact the Union Education Ministry in 1992, I was immediately rebuffed by some low level officer. Such people with limited imagination overlook that any such Oriental Institute is good cultural propaganda for the nation hosting it. Nepal has gained — among the past two generations of scholars — many genuine and influential friends in academia and beyond, from Berlin to Washington and Tokyo. I have made this point many times privately, to no avail.

Returning to Frawley's piece, it is especially amusing to read that one can only write about the Veda from an insider's point of view, such as he claims for himself: "(Witzel) neither believes in nor practises the Vedic religion" (how does he know that?) "nor has ever shown any respect for its great ancient or modern teachers, much less sought to be a disciple in any Vedic tradition or lineage." Had he actually read my publications he would have seen that I have "praised and respected," among others, Vasishtha, Yajnavalkya, the Buddha, and Panini. He asserts that I do "not claim a deeper study of Indian philosophy, yoga, or spirituality" and pompously admonishes me that if I am "truly interested in real spirituality... India can provide him with quite enough teachers and teachings." Little does he know that I have sat at the lotus feet of the late Rajguru of Nepal, studying Mimamsa philosophy, the traditional key to the Vedas, all while speaking in Sanskrit.

Frawley claims to be at the very centre of Indian/Hindu tradition, to be a Vedic Pandit and Astrologer. As such, he already knows what the Veda says. By contrast we, the philologists, are engaged in a constant endeavour to come ever closer to the original (not just the medieval) meaning of the texts. However, for all of his Vaidika training, he still has not understood where he comes from: out of America, that is from a culture where mothers have to keep telling their children "I love you" and where some of these may complain "my mother never told me that she loved me." Imagine this in Asia or Europe, where nobody would think it necessary to say so, as it is tacitly understood, expected, and experienced daily. Action, not empty, perfunctory assertion, counts. However, Americans, be they Tom, Dick or George II, need constant reassurance: "Your dress, your book, your country is great! And, we are on your side!" No wonder then that Frawley constantly insists on verbally expressing his "love for India" and that he misses such empty assertions in my writing. In my own local German culture such flattery is commonly regarded as the (polite) lie that it is, and it is viewed with deserved suspicion or even derision. Americanisation, also in this respect, is not a universal panacea, even if it comes from a "Vedic Pandit." With Krishna, it is action that counts. Must I always add, in Frawley's fluent American, "I have loved and savoured Indian music, painting, philosophy, literature, etc., since High School?" And why should I have devoted all of my adult life to the study of ancient India — out of hate, since age 16 or so? Incidentally, with very little prospect to become "rich and famous," as they repeat here daily. And, why should I have worked in South Asia for nearly six years at a stretch, with my young family, in the still very medieval Kathmandu of the Seventies?

At universities — unlike at Frawley's ashram — we want to understand, not just retell or praise, the matter we study. We want to know how Indian culture "works." One may have a great love for music but, at the same time, no real understanding of Raga and Tala — not to speak of the various Shruti systems. Frawley may "love" India all the way he wants, but if he really wants to understand, he must at least begin to study the required sciences, be they anthropology, linguistics, philology, biology or geography. Of course, he does not see the need as he already knows the "secrets" of the Veda: "the world of Vedic scholarship does not require them (foreign Indologists) to explain the secrets of the Vedas, which clearly they don't even suspect, much less know." This is the optimistic but unproved insider's view. Buoyed by such confidence, he prefers just to chant OM.

His home-bred limitations are also seen in his characterisation of certain ethnicities as "primitives" (Open Page, March 14, Munda "aboriginals" Aug. 20), alleging that I regard "both (Aryan and Dravidian) peoples as equally primitive and as not having even developed agriculture much less any civilisation of their own," or when he speaks of "uncivilised, primitive nomadic tribes." Witness his repeated equation of material civilisation, even agriculture, with culture: the usual American conflation of material with spiritual (religious, poetic, etc.) culture, "civilisation." Finally, Frawley is another example of certain American "Gurus" who combine "spirituality" with business (and, quite a few of them, notoriously, also with sex), and who are followed by men in business suits who manage their wealth, derived from gullible people. Frawley has mixed his own brand of "Vedic spirituality" with payments required for his astrology consultations.

As an "insider," he imposes a certain set of beliefs and attitudes, increasingly so about early Indian history, in "missionary," un-Hindu fashion. Amusingly, this kind of catechism-like ukase has often been deplored by some of the more nationalistic circles in India as "Abrahamic" (i.e. of Jewish-Christian-Muslim outlook). Indian tradition has always stressed multiple ways to approach truth or the Ultimate, but Frawley knows and requires us to believe his dicta, and thus, he threatens me with the usual condemnations in chauvinistic websites and with his very own denunciation, addressed to the NRIs and the Indian government — barely falling short of "Abrahamic" threatening with brimstone and hell fire. In short: "India does not need people like Witzel to save its soul" — as if I had ever proposed to do so. (One among more than one billion? From my small office in Cambridge, Mass.?)

Yet, this "insider" is certainly not listening to his self-elected Vaidik tradition. The Kashmirian Katha Shiksha Upanishad, first edited and translated by Witzel (1977/1979), or the closely related Taittiriya Upanishad (1.11), that many still know by heart, would have told him: "Speak the truth, behave according to Dharma, ... one should not be negligent of truth ... if there should be Brahmans competent to judge... not harsh (in behaviour),... as they may behave themselves... so you should behave !"

What all of this is really about is the battle about the view of (Old) Indian History. I had never thought that the subject of the Veda would become a bone of political contention. However, ever since my summary historical papers on the Rgveda in 1995, I have been attacked by "patriotic" internet and other personages (see EJVS 7-2, intro.) and my comfortable stay in the ivory tower has been abruptly terminated.

In their new nationalistic view of history, Frawley, Rajaram, et al. (O.P. March 4, 18) cannot stomach that something in Indian culture could have come from the outside, especially not the "Aryans." In Frawley's words, I believe that "people and culture must come to India from the outside ... regardless of how many peoples and cultures India is able to produce." How do you "produce" a people?

Instead, serious researchers have told us that we all descend from the so-called African Eve and that early Homo sapiens has entered the subcontinent at 75,000 BCE, or by 30,000 BCE at the latest, after crossing the Red Sea and South Arabia (mtDNA M, and Y chromosome IV and V), and that these people proceeded to S.E. and E. Asia along the now submerged coastlines. Later on, many waves of immigrants have entered the subcontinent (Y Chrom. III, IX from the Near East, Central Asia, etc.) but they have hardly proceeded further (cul-de-sac, which has angered Frawley, O.P. Aug. 20). He better face the newly emerging genetic facts. Actually, all the subcontinents of Asia, the European, S.W., South, S.E. and East Asian ones, have constantly been entered and criss-crossed by new waves of peoples.

This early influx was followed in recorded history, from 519 BCE onwards, by one wave of immigrants or invaders after the other. The speakers of the Old Indo-Aryan language (Vedic), too, must have come from somewhere in Central Asia/Iran as their language reflects cool climate plants and animals. The same Central Asian loan words for village life and religious items as in Rgvedic are also found with the Mitanni-Indo-Aryans in N. Iraq and N. Syria (1450-1350 BCE), whose language and religion is very close to, but slightly older than Rgvedic. Frawley et al. also overlook or deny the well-known reminiscences of Afghanistan and Central Asia in the Rgveda (all summarised in EJVS 7-3). All of this simply cannot be allowed by indigenists as it affects their fantasised "Vedic Harappan" period, their "Sindhu-Sarasvati civilisation."

Frawley complains that I let the Rgvedic poet Vasishtha lead King (chieftain) Bharata out of Eastern Iran into India — which I have not written. His own American background leads him to allege that I am "influenced by the story of how biblical Moses led the Jews out of Egypt into Israel, ... while the Bible remembers such an exodus, no such Vedic or Puranic records exist." He forgets about Central Asian reminiscences, worse, and that the biblical account is now regarded by archaeologists as pure myth.

Similar scenarios hold for the Dravidian languages — especially if indeed related to the Nostratic ones (Afroasiatic, Georgian, Uralic, Indo-European, Altaic) — and as most of their agricultural vocabulary seems closely related to Sumerian (Blazek & Boisson, Archiv Orientalni 60, 1992, 16-37). To no avail, says Frawley: "(Witzel) regards both peoples (Aryans and Dravidians) as equally primitive and as not having even developed agriculture much less any civilisation of their own." No tribe on this planet is "primitive" — a 19th century, colonialist's term strangely surviving in this spiritualist's vocabulary: e.g., the Stone Age Australians have a complicated social system, mythology (dream time) and oral literature, just as the Old Indo-Aryans or Dravidians. Therefore, I "equate the sophisticated and advanced Vedic literature with the compositions of uncivilised, primitive nomadic tribes" — such as those of the early Rgveda with that of the earliest Indo-European or other tribes. Frawley has indeed repeatedly offended Austro-Asiatic peoples such as the Munda or Khasi (O.P. Aug. 20), disqualifying them (O.P., Feb. 11).

(To be concluded)

MICHAEL WITZEL

(www.fas.harvard.edu/{cedil}witzel/mwpage.htm)

Recommended for you