Study Of Hindu Culture: The Misplaced Theories Of Western Indologists

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Feb 8, 2017 02:57 PM +05:30 IST

Study Of Hindu Culture: The Misplaced Theories Of Western IndologistsThe excavated ruins of Mohenjodaro. (Wikipedia)
  • Judging from the interview, the proposed book by Dr Parpola seems to be providing the proverbial old wine in new bottle.

    His scholarship is subsumed by his attachment to the Aryan migration/invasion framework and his selective politicking with India’s own establishment historians of the old school.

The recent interview of Finnish Indologist and Sindhologist Dr Asko Parpola was interesting for two reasons. First, this is the interview of a person, who has devoted decades in studying Hindu culture. Second, the interview shows what was wrong with Western Indologists, who spent a lifetime studying Hinduism.

Dr Parpola states at the beginning of the interview that the earliest literature of South Asia is generally dated between C 1300 and 1000 BCE. He accepts it. This chronology forms the edifice on which he builds his arguments.

So, he speculates in the interview:

Could they come from the advanced civilisation of the Indus Valley that flourished between about 2600 and 1900 BCE, long before the Vedic texts came into being?

And again:

The tradition of the earlier wave, coming to South Asia already around 1900-1700 BCE, infiltrated into the Rigveda in its late books I and VIII-X, but is best represented in the Atharvaveda. By the time the Yajurvedic Samhitās and the Brāhmaṇa texts came into being, the two traditions had already fused together. The Upaniṣads and the “heterodox” religions of Jainism and Buddhism bring to the surface religious ideas that may be new or that may have survived from older times further east, outside the Vedic realm.

Modern scholarship differs on the crucial element of this chronology. Historian Dr Upinder Singh in her authoritative history on ancient and medieval India, points out that the chronology for Vedas C 1200-1000 BCE is based on the tentative dates put forward by German Indologist Max Muller in the 19th century. While rejecting 'very early dates' which fall within 7th or 6th millennium as ‘clearly not acceptable’. She states that the "dates falling within 3rd or the early 2nd millennium BCE, calculated on the grounds of philology and/or astronomical references cannot be ruled out." (2008, P 185).

Again the idea that the Upanishads and the ‘heterodox’ religions were ‘outside the Vedic realm’, is indeed very old argument. Colonial indologists could not comprehend the continuity between Vedic ritual and Upanishadic inwardness. So they suggested that the two are antagonistic and even that the Upanishads rose as a reaction to Vedic ritualism. What is worse, they went on to suggest a racial divide here. Words of Joseph Campbell, bring out the typical Western mindset on this perceived conflicting binary:

Deussen wrote in the later nineteenth century, before anything was known of Indus Valley Civilisation; yet he recognised already – as no Indians seem to have seen – that between the Vedic and Upanishadic views, the difference is so great that the latter could not possibly have been developed out of the former. One was outward-turned and liturgical, the other inward and psychological. One was Aryan; the other, not.
(Oriental Mythology, 1962, P 203)

Most Indian historians are trained to see their own history and culture through the eyes of the colonial indologists and parroted the received wisdom from the West. Indic scholars, who studied the so-called dichotomy of Vedic and Upanishadic worldviews, have asserted the continuity and evolution.

According to Sri Aurobindo:

The Upanishads are not a revolutionary departure from the Vedic mind and its temperament and fundamental ideas, but a continuation and development, and to a certain extent, an enlarging transformation of the Vedic poetry.
(1919: 1997 p.334)
Sri Aurobindo and Ram Swarup
Sri Aurobindo and Ram Swarup

Ram Swarup points out that the so-called changes during the Upanishadic period are a result of psycho-social and spiritual dynamics of an evolving civilisation. Thus he points out that:

‘Vedic Gods suffer deflation. And strangely enough, it is first at the hands of the Upanishadic sages, through the teachings of brahmavada and āatmavada. But in reality, it was not real deflation. Rather it was an attempt to bring out the unity of spiritual life, which in the Vedas was being expressed in a different way...’ 
(2000, P 144)

Dr Roshen Dalal, a historian of ancient India, says that 'the Vedic Samhitas were not rejected in the Upanishads', but that 'a continuity was sought to be maintained between them and later ideas.' (2014)

Professor Herman Wayne Tull says that though the Western scholars were 'aware' of the 'continuity of thoughts' and 'practical relationship between' Upanishadic thoughts and Vedic rituals, 'their notion of how the religion of ancient India evolved – from the healthy tenor of the Rigvedic worship of nature through a period of disease in Brāhmanic ritualism to a revitalisation in the Upanishads – led them to emphasise an underlying dissension in the growth of Vedic tradition.' In order to establish such a conflicting binary, they resorted to 'vitiate both the textual evidence, which strongly suggested the ideological continuity of the Brāhmans and Upanishads.' (1989, p.21)

Here is another potential deepening Dr Parpola is going to attempt at a fabricated fault line in Indian thought. Indic scholarship should now point out how wrong the colonial Indological view of schism between the Vedic and Upanishadic thought to which Dr Parpola attempts to give a racial dimension.

And what else is Harappan? According to Dr Parpola, he is going to argue in his new book that within the Vedic pantheon, especially Puruṣa-Prajāpati, Rudra and Goddess Vāc (the Vedic predecessor of Goddess Durgā) are deities of predominantly Harappan origin. Not just that, Dr Parpola then makes, at least for this writer, the most interesting statement in the whole interview:

The Vedic aśvamedha, in which the sacrificed horse lies with the principal queen (representing Earth and the Vedic goddess Vāc), probably goes back to a Harappan ‘sacred marriage’, where the victim was buffalo instead of horse. The Vedic queen is called mahiṣī, suggesting that her sacrificed mate was mahiṣa, buffalo bull. Such a variant of the ‘sacred marriage’ has survived in the buffalo sacrifice to Goddess Durgā in Bengal and in southern India.

Interestingly, till now this ritual was shown both in ‘scholarly’ narrative and India’s pro-Marxist Dravidian racial rhetoric as the clinching evidence of debasing obscene Aryan ritual. Perhaps, oblivious to these, Dr Parpola in his liberal western entanglement, thinks that this should be a positive addition to the supposed non-Aryan Harappan-Dravidian basket.

That leaves us with a question: what is it that the ‘Indo-Europeans’ brought into India? ‘The Soma cult was introduced to India by the Rigvedic tradition long after the disappearance of the Indus Valley Civilisation,' says Dr Parpola while cleverly sidestepping a pointed question by Debashish Bannerjee, that Mahadevan has posited that the objects in front of the “unicorn” in the unicorn seals is a Soma filter. Then he speculates on the ‘cult object’: ‘Could the cultic object of the "unicorn" represent some sort of sacrificial stake? Vedic animal sacrifices required tying the victim to ayūpa.’

So, now the ayūpa in the Vedic ritual needs to be made Harappan. Swami Vivekananda once ridiculed how every Western indologist discovered a favourite Aryan homeland based on his own pride and prejudice. Now we have the fortune of witnessing every Western indologist inventing which component of which ritual is Harappan and hence non-Aryan based on his or her own notion of political correctness. Dr Parpola denies the famous Yoga postured horned ‘deity’ as related to Yoga and says is derived from ‘adopted from Proto-Elamite iconography’; But he quickly asserts that Tantra, Yoga and Puja have their origin in Harappan culture. The readers can see a pattern here. All popular elements in Hinduism are Harappan and non-Vedic. Anything positive in Vedic literature and Harappan iconography becomes an element appropriated by later day Vedic culture.

I am not suggesting that Dr Parpola is necessarily doing these things consciously. He has a problem. He believes in Aryan invasion/migration theory. Yet, as a scholar he has data that shows strong Vedic elements in Harappan culture. So how to reconcile both? He knows what sound ‘politically correct’ in the progressive Western worldview. Tantra, Yoga, devotion etc. have Harappan as well as Vedic roots. So he makes all Harappan and Vedic people ‘incorporate’ them into their own culture. This is not new with scholars rooted in invasion/migration model when they study the parallels between Vedic and Harappan cultures.

Let us consider one of Dr Parpola’s own achievements with the signs in the Harappan seals. He speaks about it in the interview. He says:

As the West Asian seals never speak of fish, the ‘fish’ signs in the Indus seals probably stand for something else than ‘fish’. In Dravidian languages, which are historically most likely to be related to the Indus language, the principal word for ‘fish’, mīn, (மீன்) is pronounced like the word mīn that means ‘star’.

Associated with this nomenclature is the imagery that the sky is the celestial ocean in which the shining stars are the fish. In Rigveda, Varuna becomes the far removed ocean in heavens (RV 8.41.8). So here again one finds the Vedic imagery of heavenly ocean fitting with Harappan signs of fish being interpreted as stars based on homonym in Dravidian language. (The suggestion was originally made by Jesuit archeologist Henry Heras in 1953.*)

Going by the interview, Parpola’s new book seems to be just another and the latest link in the long confused obsession of colonial Indology in identifying what is Aryan and non-Aryan (and hence Harappan) in Hinduism. As early as 2000, Shrikant G Talageri pointed out in his book, how various authors working within invasion/migration framework, have tried to make deities in Vedic pantheon and clans in Vedic literature, either Aryan and non-Aryan depending upon their own focus and prejudice:

According to Malati Shendge, Indra represents the conquering Aryans, VaruNa as his powerful equal represents the non-Aryans, and, according to R N Dandekar,the mythological rivalry between asura VaruNa and Indra (represents the rivalry) between the Assyrians of the Indus Valley and Indra of the Vedic Aryans. ... According to R N Dandekar, Indra was half a non-Aryan, from his father’s side: Indra belonged to the DAsas on the father’s side, and to the Gods (Aryans) on the mother’s side.

And now we have two eminent indologists, who work from the invasion/migration model, identifying almost all key features of Vedic culture in Harappan civilisation and yet go for convoluted scenarios to make data fit their prejudiced axioms. So Iravatham Mahadevan considers the ‘cult-object’ in the Unicorn symbol as Soma filter; most probably, rightly so. But he makes Aryans borrow the Soma ritual from the Harappans. And we have here Dr Parpola, who considers Soma ritual as something brought by the Aryans, considers aswamedhayagna as an ‘Harappan’ feature adapted by Aryans, replacing the slain buffalo with horse.

When question related to Sarswathi comes, Parpola is at his evasive best. He then attributes even the nomenclature to an assumed nation-state feeling among Indian archeologists to make India the birth place of Harappan culture. However, that is not what scholars working in the field thought about the nomenclature. For example, Jonathan Mark Kenoyer who has worked for decades in Harappan centres in Pakistan, states:

The Indus river dominated the alluvial plain, hence the name Indus Valley Civilisation. However, now that we know of the presence of the ancient Saraswati river (also known as the Hakra-Ghaggar along its central stretches), some scholars refer to this culture as the Indus-Saraswati civilsation.
Kenoyer, 1998, P 29

So, naturally one wonders from where he gets the line that the naming of Harappan as Indus-Saraswati as connected to some kind of complex Indian archeologists have with Harappa being in Pakistan. The answer is simple. He is repeating a political propaganda line taken by Irfan Habib, who repeatedly slanders any archeological work done about Saraswati as a political project so that ‘the Indus Valley Civilisation, whose two major cities Mohenjo Daro and Harappa unfortunately lie in Pakistan, can then be renamed the Saraswati Civilisation and, on that ground, claimed for India’. Now we know from where Dr Parpola gets his information from.

Dr Parpola does not even acknowledge the fact that even those researchers who do not agree with the Himalayan origin of Saraswati, say their researches ‘point to a perennial monsoon-fed Saraswati river system with benign floods along its course, which could well be considered important for early agricultural civilisations such as the Harappan.’

They further say that the Vedic description of Saraswati as ‘a testament to the acuity of the Rigveda composers who transmitted to us across millennia such an incredibly accurate description of a grand river!’ (Liviu Giosan et al, 2013). Again one wonders if Dr Parpola is evasive because it demolishes the chronology he sets up for his latter day Vedic Aryans borrowing elements from Harappans.

As they say in India, ‘then comes the ball and he hits a sixer’. Answering a question on the present condition of education in India he says that he is ‘worried about repeated recent political attempts to favour certain views of the past and to curb the freedom of expressing different opinions’.

The reader should note that he has stated Durga as the original Harappan Goddess. And we had an orgy in one of the most subsidised national centers of learning, JNU, supposedly to be in the cutting edge of studies of post-colonial cultural studies and social sciences, where the same Goddess was called an ‘Aryan sex worker’ sent to seduce and then massacre natives. The entire academia witnessed the total silence displayed by supposed doyens of Indian history like Romilla Thapar about this colonial, pseudo-scientific racist back-reading of mythology. And here we have a scholar, who prefers to go silent over such a hysterical onslaught on his own field.

Durga Puja
Durga Puja

But his concerns are elsewhere. He speaks of “attacks are directed both against renowned Indian historians labelled "Marxists" and against foreign specialists of Indology who have devoted their lives to disinterested study of India's past”. Yet, he is again strangely silent about what Edwin Bryant calls ‘Indological McCarthyism’ in his own discipline ‘whereby anyone reconsidering the status quo of Indo-Aryan origins is instantly and a priori dubbed a nationalist, a communalist or, even worse, a Nazi.’ (Bryant, 2001, P 7)

So, on the whole, judging from the interview, the book seems to be providing the proverbial old wine in new bottle. Dr Parpola’s decades of scholarship are subsumed by his attachment to the Aryan migration/invasion framework and his selective politicking with India’s own establishment historians of the old school.

Note: I thank epigraphist S Ramachandran, who pointed out to me the Atharva Vedic imagery of celestial and terrestrial oceans being that of the thighs of Varuna, when we discussed the fish marks being made on the roof of ancient buildings.

*Incidentally Fr. Heras also identified ‘Dravidians’ as the source of ‘Hamitic races now called the Indo-Mediterraneans’, a Biblical classification that is pseudo-scientific with racist connotations, and yet the classification was very much in use in the academic journals as late as 1950s, and still used in evangelical literature to prove the Biblical origin of Harappan civilisation. (Henry Heras, Studies in Proto-indo-mediterranean Culture, Indian Historical Research Institute, 1953)


Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India, Pearson, 2008

Jospeh Campbell, The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology, Arkana 1962:1991

Sri Aurobindo, The Renaissance in India with A Defence of Indian Culture, Volume 20, The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, 1997

Ram Swarup, Meditations Yogas, Gods, Religions, Voice of India, 2000

Roshen Dalal, The Vedas: An Introduction to Hinduism’s Sacred Texts, Penguin, 2014

Herman Wayne Tull, The Vedic Origins of Karma: Cosmos as Man in Ancient Indian Myth and Ritual, SUNY Press, 1989

Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization, Oxford University Press, 1998

Shrikant G Talageri, Rig Veda - A Historical Analysis, Aditya Prakashan, 2000

Irfan Habib, Searching for Saraswati, The Hindu, 17 April 2015

Liviu Giosan et al, Sarasvati II, Current Science, Volume 105, No. 7, 10 October 2013, pp. 888-90

Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate, Oxford University Press, 2001

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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