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Saturday, January 19, 2008
Star Books Review

Retracing the old proto-historic migrations

Farseem M. Mohammedy is delighted by a work on cultural history

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

The Vedic civilisation is still an enigma. Mystery in the dating of the civilisation, whether it is actually a material civilisation, where its original homeland was, etc., are questions that still exercise minds worldwide. There are two distinct schools that hold two opposing views. One is the European trend that puts the homeland somewhere in the southern Russian steppes or around the Caspian and Black Sea or even in north Europe. The other school (mostly Indian scholars) suggests it is actually northern India. However, the general belief is of a central Asian steppe homeland, from where later migrations took place. These proto-historic migrations took the Indo-European (IE) languages far and wide. One group went to western Europe and ended up becoming Germanic and Balto-Slavic languages. Another major branch took the IE speaking people to modern Iran and India where they gave way to old Persian and Sanskrit languages. All these major branches then bred their own daughter languages. There are also the Anatolian language in the Asia Minor region and the now-dead Tocharian languages in Chinese Turkmenistan which originated from proto-IE languages. Philologists believe that all these languages, spoken by most Eurasians, were once together in proto-history and manifested themselves in proto-IE languages. One can create important word roots that were once believed to be spoken by proto-IE people. However, whether they were the real language or not one may never know.

Edwin Bryant documents all these arguments in this book. He shows the arguments for and against each key concept and why and how the two schools differ. In a total of thirteen chapters he discusses the Vedic myth, Vedic philology, comparative linguistics, linguistic paleontology, valid archaeological records and gives a vivid account of the discourses amongst scholars of the various issues involved. There exist about two centuries of scholarship that assigned a possible homeland for the proto-IE people. There is Gimbutas' theory for the Uralic/Volgan steppe region north of the Black and Caspian Seas which is associated with 'Kurgan culture' which again has a definite material culture attested to by archaeology. This culture is then succeeded by the Andronovo culture which is also IE-related. Colin Renfrew argues about a west Anatolian homeland, emphasising how farming spread to Europe; Gamkrelidge and Ivanov's east Anatolian homeland and Nichols' theory about Sogdiana/Bactria (present day Farghana valley in Uzbekistan) are all discussed. These homeland theories are based on linguistic paleontology that looks for the IE word-cognates among the branch languages and tries to put them into a historic-geographical context. Words for flora and fauna, for rivers and horses (which is very crucial for IE people) are examined. All these homeland theories have to be tested against archaeological evidence, linguistic loan-words in non-IE languages (e.g. IE words incorporated into Finno-Ugric languages), place geographies, evidence of horse riding and/or domestication, presence of spoked wheels, etc. The famous Mitanni treaty had words that are distinctly IE, hence explanations are required as to how IE turned out to be in Asia Minor. Bryant exposes most of the arguments from all sides, revealing their relative weaknesses. This book serves as a good anthology of all the sources involved in this debate. However, experts should also think about the climatic changes that took place over those millennia in order to come to a definitive solution. Many problems in the Middle Ages are now being explained in terms of climatic changes. Lately, experts have identified the present-day Ghaggar-Hakra river to be the dead riverbed of the once mighty Vedic river Saraswati. Some material civilisation clues have also been excavated on the banks of present day Ghaggar-Hakra. I recall sometime in 2000/2001 three articles appeared in the Calcutta-based Desh magazine about the origin of the Vedas. The arguments presented were supported by most international experts. However, they did not prevent amateurs from firing away lengthy letters in defence of their pet theory for an original Aryan homeland of India. It is amazing to see how prejudiced such views remain, even to this day. It should also be added that there are not many up-to-date publications in these areas. One can find plenty of cheap twentieth century reprints of nineteenth century books in a Delhi bazaar, but not the very recent ones. In the Bengali language, I have not come across any modern discourse, other than some books (rather collections of disjointed essays) by Dr. Suniti Chatterjee.

In relation to Avesta, the Zoroastrian holy book of ancient Iran written in a language that was very close to that of Vedic Sanskrit, Bryan details the cultural proximity that must have been a reality in prehistory before the Indo-Iranians separated from the Indo-Aryans. Words like daeva, ahura, hapta-hendu, harahvaiti, homa, etc., have their counterparts in Sanskrit (read 's' in place of 'h'). Avesta has a distant recalling of an ancient homeland which had mountains and flowing water, but unfortunately the Rig Veda does not recall anything about the long overland trek of these people.

There is a problem regarding the dating of the different stages of the IE journey. Chapter twelve of this book discusses in detail the issues involved, particularly the astronomical arguments which, depending on which interpretation you like, can put the date either around 4000BC or 2500BC. Bryant seems to put a solid date of about 2000BC by which Indo-Iranians and Indo-Aryans lived together or had very recently separated. The Rig Veda was compiled not after 1200BC (anytime between 1500-1100BC). Bryant discusses most of the arguments and counter-arguments regarding dating the Vedas and the IE people in general. He shows that a consensus among experts is still a far cry.

Bryant also discusses the Indus civilisation and the absence of translations of the Indus script. Once it was thought that the incoming Aryans destroyed the Indus civilisation, thanks to Indra, the Vedic warrior god, who was also known as Purandar, the destroyer of forts. However, most scholars now believe that the demise of the Indus culture had more to do with climatic and ecological changes and it was already in decline when the 'handsome' Aryans came to northern India. Bryant feels that once the Indus script has been deciphered and depending on whether that script is non-IE or not, it will definitely help clarify many important notions regarding the IE homeland problem and the problem of non-IE, non-Dravidian loanwords into Sanskrit.

A good aspect of the book is that all chapters are concluded through a summarisation of that particular chapter and puts the information in a context. It would be more helpful if the reader has some background on the current IE problems before reading this book. While being almost exhaustive in collecting most of the scholarship involved in this business, this book will not be comprehensible to a novice who has had no introduction to the IE problem. J. P. Mallory comments on the work: “Edwin Bryant's The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture ... systematically exposes the logical weaknesses of most of the arguments that support the consensus of either side. This is not only an important work in the field of Indo-Aryan studies but a long overdue challenge for scholarly fair play.” For the inquisitive reader, here is very small selection of sources that may be read regarding the Indo-European problem: J. P. Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth. London: Thames & Hudson, 1989; Colin Renfrew, Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins, London: Pimlico, 1987; Gamkrelidge and Ivanov, In Search of the Indo Europeans, Scientific American, March 1990.

The writer is a full-time bookworm and is engaged in electrical engineering research.

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