B.B. Lal’s newest book deftly quashes the myth that marauding foreigners brought language and civilization to the subcontinent
BY KOENRAAD ELST, BELGIUM
NONAGENARION ARCHAEOLOGIST Dr. B.B. Lal, 94, has synthesized his last few decades of research in his new book, The Rigvedic People: Invaders? Immigrants? or Indigenous? (Aryan Books, Delhi 2015). In it he seeks to answer three questions about the Aryans spoken of in the Vedas: (1) Did they originate outside India? (2) Did the Harappan civilization originate outside India? (3) Were the Harappans Vedic Aryans?
His answers are direct. There is no sign of a foreign origin of either the Indus-Saraswati civilization or the Vedic Aryans. In fact, recent excavations in Kunal and Bhirrana unambiguously confirm an existing civilizational continuity since the 6th millennium bce. Nor has anything “proto-Harappan” been found in Mesopotamia or anywhere else outside India from which the typically Harappan lifestyle could have descended. Moreover, the area known to the Vedic Aryans and described in the youngest layer of the Rig Veda (10:75:5-6) reaches from the Ganga to the western tributaries of the Sindhu, thus coinciding with the Harappan territory (minus its Gujarati borderland). In earlier layers, the Vedic heartland is already on the then-mighty Saraswati river in Haryana, exactly where the highest concentration of Harappan settlements is found. Lal’s spade, after fifty years of digging, has never bumped into a trace of Aryans penetrating India.
Especially in his case, this latter fact is remarkable. It was he who, as a young archaeologist in the 1950s, made his name by finally digging up what was taken as the long-awaited proof of an Aryan invasion. He had identified a pottery style, the Painted Grey Ware (1200-800 bce), as typifying the Aryans’ penetration into India. That is what was taught to us in university, and even recently published books upholding the Aryan Invasion Theory cite this finding as proof. But Lal himself has grown away from it. At the time, he had simply applied the reigning invasionist framework, until he understood that this was but a hypothetical construct unsupported by hard findings.
Lal notes that in the late 18th century, historians cited India itself as the original homeland of the Aryans, a theory which was discarded in the early 19th century. He takes a rather skeptical view of this homeland search, as do some of the western homeland searchers themselves.
Latest among the homeland theories is said to be one by Johanna Nichols (1997). Lal says, “She holds that the dispersal of the Indo-European languages commenced from a region somewhere in the vicinity of ancient Bactria-Sogdiana, thus bringing the scenario closer to the Indian subcontinent, but not quite there.”
Nichols’ theory is nothing new. In the running for two hundred years, it was discarded in the 20th century. She simply revived it with newer linguistic arguments. But she was ignorant of the archeological findings Lal relies on to push the homeland in the opposite direction—even farther east, into India. Lal asserts: “However, an important postulate in Nichols’ thesis is that only the language got dispersed and not the people.”
Just as predominantly black Jamaicans today speak the English imparted by white Britons, so, too, the Indo-European language has certainly spanned races. Either it started among Europeans and was adopted, through a very minoritarian migration, by different-looking Indians (that would be the invasion theory), or else it was originally spoken by Indians and adopted by Europeans. Today we have a defective understanding among archaeologists of what these linguists are busy with; and at the same time most Western linguists who cling to language theories to establish a western homeland for the Vedic Aryans are unaware of the findings that, to Lal, form such clinching evidence that India itself was the homeland.
However, if these linguists looked at the European side of Indo-European archaeology, they would see, around 2900bce, an enormous upheaval in Central Europe caused by an invasion from the east which is easily traceable in the material record, and includes a partial population replacement, now traceable with the new science of genetics. So, an Aryan invasion of Europe from the east is robustly supported by the archeological evidence. But the evidence for an Aryan invasion of India is totally and conspicuously absent in the archaeological record of India.
Lal shows how the assumption of a non-Aryan identity for the Harappan Civilization in the 1920s followed from the chronology established by Friedrich Max Müller. He put the first Vedic hymns as late as 1200 bce, centuries after the demise of the Harappan cities. He later expressed his own doubts about this chronology. But it was too late. This completely arbitrary fiction became a consensus reality. As a consequence, for almost a century, we have had to sail upstream against the non-Vedic and non-Aryan paradigm of the Harappan civilization.
Like Umapada Sen and Shrikant Talageri, Lal dates the Rig Veda mostly to the 3rd millennium bce. This is one or two millennia earlier than in Max Müller’s account, but more moderate and sober than the ages or eternities proposed by some zealous Hindu scripturalists.
The opposition camp has tried to refute Lal’s previously published conclusions. Unlike the many would-be decipherers of the Harappan script, who have smugly buried their heads in the sands of their own pretended solution, unresponsive to criticisms or rival decipherments, Lal fearlessly tackles the issues raised by his critics.
He opposes the attempts to understand the “Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex” (BMAC, present-day northern Afghanistan and adjacent northern areas) as a settlement of pre-Vedic Indo-Aryans on the way from Russia to India. Soviet archeologist of ancient Turkmenistan, Viktor Sarianidi, cites a bas-relief found in Bactria from some 2000 bce and relates it to objects found in Mitanni (Syria), where the local Hurrian language in 1500bce contained many Sanskrit words. Lal correctly remarks that this does not prove that Bactrians were ancestral to the (India-based) “Vedic Aryans,” whom the invasion theory assumes to be more recent than the Mitanni Aryans. But it does prove (or at least indicate) something else: that the Bactrian culture was ancestral to the Mitanni culture, an east-to-west migration from Bactria to Mitanni. This may have been the second leg of a migration beginning in India.
Similarly, Lal opposes the late Gregory Possehl’s claim that a horse find in Bactria indicates a Vedic horse sacrifice, performed by Aryans on their way to India. He points out that the horse was beheaded and does not satisfy the Vedic prescriptions for a horse sacrifice. But I would point out there is no need to refute Possehl. Since the Rig Veda was composed in the 3rd millennium (and not in 1200 bce as Possehl assumed), earlier than this Bactrian horse, as a sacrificial Vedic offering it would only confirm an India-to-Bactria migration, not the other way around.
Lal slices through the myth that the Sindhu-Saraswati Civilization could not have been Vedic because it lacked the Vedic glamor animal, the horse. Though few in number, they were clearly present in Aryan cities such as Hastinapura, both in depictions and in reality. Apart from mentioning their clear presence in Lothal and Mohenjo Daro, Lal goes through the evidence for horse bones from Surkutada, certified by the Hungarian horse expert Sándor Bökönyi.
Likewise, it is often claimed that there were no spoked wheels in Harappa, though they make their appearance halfway through the Rig Veda (as Talageri has shown). True, India’s hot and humid climate is not conducive to the preservation of wooden implements, but terracotta models of the same spoked wheel have been dug up.
Finally, Lal’s claim that excavated fire pits were Vedic altars has been ridiculed by Western academics who said they were just kitchen hearths. Lal quotes a leading Western archaeologist, the late Raymond Allchin, as confirming the ritual purpose of these fire pits. He also details why these cannot be kitchen hearths. Among non-technical reasons, he highlights a finding of fire-altars where a genuine cooking hearth stood close by, as if to demonstrate the difference.
The continuity of the Harappan civilization is expressed in many ways. Several findings confirm the presence of Shiva in Harappa: lingam-yoni motifs are associated with a male figure seated in meditation posture, the same figure is the addressee of a bull sacrifice, and two attributes of Shiva are found together: a bull with a trident engraved on his hip. Ascetics are found depicted as sitting in Bhadrāsana (noble pose), Vajrāsana (diamond pose) or Siddhāsana (yogi pose).
There is also a depiction of a well-known Hindu fable: “The Thirsty Crow.” A crow searching for water landed near a jug with a narrow top and tried to drink, but the water was too low. It cleverly dropped stones into the pitcher so the water level rose and he could drink.
Statuettes show the namaste salute with folded hands. Married women are shown wearing red powder in the parting of their hair, like their modern granddaughters. The Harappan ladies wore spiraled bangles and other cosmetic gadgetry that is worn today.
Concludes the dean of Indian archaeology: “So, it is abundantly clear that all the objections against a Harappan-Vedic equation are baseless.” Indeed, “the Harappan civilization and the Vedas are but two faces of the same coin.”
In the last fifteen years, two heady developments have made the westerly homeland theory hard to sustain. Philological work, mainly by Talageri and by the Greek Sanskrit professor Nicholas Kazanas, has given flesh to an Indian homeland framework and traced it deeper in ancient Indian literature. New genetic research has discovered proof for westward migrations from India.
The archaeological progress has been slower but no less spectacular. Though not given the proper publicity outside India, excavations in ever more Harappan cities have confirmed the emerging picture of full cultural continuity with early Neolithic as well as with later Hindu society. None of Lal’s colleagues has discovered the long-awaited trace of an invasion.
We ought to be happy that a synthesis of the archaeological arguments against the Aryan invasion has now been published. B.B. Lal’s life work has earned him a memorable place in history. After he had first discovered pillar-bases of the demolished Rama temple in Ayodhya, he was ridiculed and denounced as a “Hindu fundamentalist.” Then, when he shifted from the invasionist to the “Vedic Harappa” position, he was denounced as that “known propagator of the non-existent temple.” Yet, later Court-ordered excavations laid bare the entire foundation of the temple, proving him right. Likewise, new findings confirm his stand on the Vedic Sindhi-Saraswati civilization.