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Is our civilisation really 10 millennia old? Or are we simply insecure?

Suhas Munshi | Updated on: 21 September 2015, 10:43 IST

The contention

  • Delhi University\'s Sanskrit dept will reassess Vedic chronology
  • The department will host scholars from across the country next weekend
  • The contention is \'astronomy shows the Vedas are older than we think\'

The arbit

  • Right-wing Hindu scholars oppose the theory that Aryans/Rigveda are not indigenous
  • When Tilak said Aryans were from the Arctic, Golwalkar said North Pole was in Bihar or Odisha
  • Professor Rakesh Sinha of Delhi University now says vedic civilisation can be 10,000 years old

The logic

  • Scholar DN Jha says Vedas can\'t be divinely revealed as claimed
  • Jha points to similarities between Vedas, Avesta
  • \'Marxist historians with colonised mindset have hijacked debate,\' Sinha counters
  • \'We behave like sulking pupils; need someone to blame,\' says JNU professor Shereen Ratnagar

The debate on the origins of the Rigveda and Aryans in India is not new. It is not so much a scholarly dispute as much as it is an unending controversy.

It is important for Hindu ideologues to believe that their ancestors - the Aryans - were the original inhabitants of India and the authors of the Vedas; that their civilisation precedes all others, including the Indus Valley civilisation.

And if this hypothesis - that Aryans did not come to India from somewhere else - is accepted as the truth, then all other religions and influences such as Islam and Christianity become 'outsiders'. It would also become quite convenient to assert that the Rigveda, the foundational philosophical treatise for Hinduism, was written by one of their own. Not an outsider.

Recently the University of Delhi's Sanskrit department has claimed 'astronomical calculations' show that the Vedas are much older than what most scholars think. The department will host scholars from across the country next weekend to reassess existing vedic chronology.

'Our attitude is of a pupil who thinks he never had a chance to prove himself. We need an enemy'

Rakesh Sinha, who heads India Policy Foundation, a right-wing Hindu think, tank and is an associate professor of history at the university, says vedic civilisation could be as old as 8000-10000 BC.

"Marxist scholars have hijacked this debate. They are highly colonised people whose only interest is in the deconstruction of the cultural context and legacy of India," Sinha says.

"Research and inference has shown that the Vedic civilisation is no less than 5,000 years old. Panini's grammar itself is placed in this period, how can the Vedic civilisation be younger than that?"

But why is the issue so important and relevant today? Why is the controversy still alive despite evidence and studies in comparative linguistics, ecology and anthropology?

Scholars like Shereen Ratnagar believe this impulse arises from various reasons, including low self-esteem.

"These people believe that we were colonised by a ruler who never really understood our culture. It is the attitude of a sulking pupil who thinks he never had a chance to prove himself," says Ratnagar, who was a professor of archeology and ancient history at the Centre for Historical Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

"Most importantly we need an enemy to blame," adds Ratnagar, an independent researcher now.

How does her scholarship differ from those who're passionately trying to push back the dates for the Vedas?

"We are not dividing people based on race. Our scholarship divides civilisations based on languages. It is from history and philology that we have understood Indo-European languages and how Aryans brought a branch of it from central Asia to India. It is a fascinating problem of how indigenous people switched from their language to the language brought by Aryans."

DN Jha, a scholar on ancient India who has chaired Delhi University's history department, explains why he thinks Rigveda was written by people who came to India from outside:

"Rigveda is closely associated with and similar to Zend Avesta and Homer's Illiad, and their origins teach us about the origins of Rigveda. The close resemblance between the language and culture of the Avesta and the Rigveda has been noted by many scholars. Examples of words occurring in the Avesta and the Rigveda are: haoma (soma), daha (dasa), hindu (sindhu), Ahura (Asura), yasna (yajna), etc. This kind of evidence has also been used for dating the Rigveda."

According to Jha, the Hindu Right treats the Vedas as divinely revealed and having a fantastic antiquity. "But this view is not credible: the Vedas are not divine in origin, nor can they be assigned that fantastic antiquity."

The obsession of right-wing Hindu ideologues with the Aryan civilisation is so excessive that "when (Bal Gangadhar) Tilak, himself a revivalist, suggested that they came from the Arctic, (RSS Sarsanghchalak or Supreme Leader) MS Golwalkar had no hesitation in asserting that the North Pole in those days was located in Bihar or Odisha," Jha points out.

According to Ratnagar, the propaganda by the Hindu right-wing needs to be dealt with in a scholarly way. "We don't want to take away their right to their point of view."

It seems there is a long way to go before the controversy ends.

First published: 21 September 2015, 10:43 IST
Suhas Munshi @suhasmunshi

He hasn't been to journalism school, as evident by his refusal to end articles with 'ENDS' or 'EOM'. Principal correspondent at Catch, Suhas studied engineering and wrote code for a living before moving to writing mystery-shrouded-pall-of-gloom crime stories. On being accepted as an intern at Livemint in 2010, he etched PRESS onto his scooter. Some more bylines followed in Hindustan Times, Times of India and Mail Today.