After reading SL Bhyrappa’s Parva I wanted to read more from the man. I started with Saartha after a friend recommended it. Review of Parva.
Saartha is a tale of a Brahmana sent on a mission by his king under the pretext of finding more about the various trade caravan routes with a Saartha (caravan). The protagonist Naga-Bhatta is the first person narrator for the entire book. The novel is primarily a journey of self realization of Naga-Bhatta – dealing with a varied range of emotions from anger, infidelity, love to melancholy and despondency. Naga-Bhatta travels from his hometown in Central India to North Indian plains – particularly Mathura, from Mathura to Kannauj and Kannauj to Magadha, Magadha to Mahismati before embarking upon a journey to Arab ruled Multan before coming back to Mathura. Though a lot of characters come and go in the novel, the ones who leave a mark as personalities apart from Nagabhatta are Pratihara Senapati JaySingh and actress and Yogini Chandrika. Other than that, the author also brings the real life historic personalities to life in fantastic and powerful manner. – Mandana Misra, Kumarila Bhatta, Bharati Devi (Misra) and epoch changing Adi-Shankaracharya. Apart from that, the author deals with the intellectual fights – especially between Sramanas (especially Bauddhas) and the followers of the Vaidika Dharma (Vedic Hindus). Bhyrappa manages critical about aspects of both the traditions even though the narration is that of a Vaidika Brahmana.
The storytelling is top notch and visually perfect. The dialogues are extremely effective and powerful. But where the author excels like in Parva is bringing to life a real world from a time long gone. What is more – he manages to do it with the Zeitgeist of the story in mind – not our own. The author doesn’t want to be politically correct or use his zeitgeist as a lens to observe the events of the tale. As the narration is that of a moderately patriarchal 8th century Brahmana, he doesn’t try to bring up the hypocrisy of his position – wherein the protagonist has no qualms about his (attempted) infidelity while he cannot digest his wife’s betrayal so much that it derails his life – filing him up with despondency and emptiness. Its in moments like these that the brilliance of the author comes through.
Throughout the narrative we are come across various spiritual paths available to the thinkers and philosophers in Ancient India – namely the Karma Kanda focused Vaidika Mimansa path, the Mahayana Bauddha path, the Yoga path, the Tantrik path, and finally Shankara’s Advaita. How the Naga-Bhatta grabbles with these paths and how he finds his Karma at the end is essentially the story of novel, Alchemist like tale with huge dollops of sophisticated philosophy and realism. What is fascinating about this book is that unlike Parva (Mahabharat) this book deals with and uses supernatural powers not just as sidenotes but for important parts of the story arc. Also the author’s grasp over Sanskrit is just spectacular, and like in Parva he has created couplets here and there as per the plot demand.
the Polemic and the Philosophy: (Spoilers ahead)
While the story of Saartha works on various levels, I doubt if that was the main purpose of the book. The author uses the character arc of Naga-Bhatta around which the tapestry of 8th Century India is painted, and its this tapestry that works more than the story. In the beginning we are introduced to the conflicts and divergences between Vaidika and Bauddha traditions, while noting the important changes which were occurring in the Bauddha tradition during this time. Some scholars have pointed to these changes (adopting of Puranic deities and tales) which made the Bauddha traditions loose its differentiating USP. The portrayal of Drama as a means of spread of devotional traditions of Rama and Krishna is fantastic. The mechanisms of Yoga and especially Tantra are very well explored. The flirtation of Naga-Bhatta with Buddhism, his abandoning of Vaidika traditions and coming back are not only explained convincingly, but readers also given a peak into the potential origins of the Maithuna images (erotic coupling images) which adorn the Khajurao temples.
The first climax of the book – based on the hagiography of Shankara- deals with the encounter of Adi-Shankara with the Guru of Naga-Bhatta – Mandana Misra, and though Mandana Misra is said to lose that encounter personally as I reader I couldn’t follow the logic of it. Similarly the peek into the life of Kumarila Bhatta – the Mimansika who is said to have defeated the Buddhists before Shankara left me unsatisfied. However one has to note that maybe that was the desire of the author, who clearly seems to favor the Vaidika Mimansikas (minus some orthodoxy).
The final climax of the book is about the confrontation with Islam. This part felt slightly caricaturish but still captured some of the salient reasons for Islamic incursions into the subcontinent. The tripartite struggle of Palas, Prathirahas and Rashtrakutas, the Hindu insularity and naivety & superstition and various other reasons come forth during the climax. The book ends on a very sour note, but that wasn’t surprising, as Bhyrappa is no bollywood screenwriter (who make Padvawat and Panipat appear as victories of Hindus (maybe even Prithviraj)).
Incidentally the History podcast Brownpundits have been producing was covering the same time period which Saartha covers. I would highly recommend the book to anyone interested in history, philosophy or even self discovery – Saartha works very well on all these fronts.
Personally as an agnostic I have wondered why have I never been attracted to the philosophy of Buddha whereas I have always been attracted by the philosophies’ Vaidika and Puranic Dharma. Bhyarappa was able to give me the answer in one sentence “Can you imagine Buddha saying what Krishna says (on Kurukshetra) ?”
Another Browncast is up. You can listen on Libsyn, Apple, Spotify, and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!
In this episode Maneesh and Gaurav chat with Jay and Omar Ali and they discuss North Indian politics and power struggles for a vast period from 700 CE to 1200 CE. We touch upon the origins of the Imperial Pratiharas and Palas and discuss the tripartrite struggle for domination of Kannauj between the 3 great kingdoms of Indian subcontinent while a storm brewed up in the west. We also talk about the earlier Arab invasions of Sindh and Punjab and the later Turkic invasions by the Ghaznavids and Ghurids which laid the foundation of Islamicate rule in India.
We will cover the Cultural changes of this period in another episode.
Another Map of the era
Some Links to stuff discussed in this episode:
Al Beruni, Kitab ul Hind https://www.academia.edu/45077160/Al_birunis_Kitab_Ul_hind
Al Baladhuri: Early Islamic Conquests. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/338318331_Arab_Conquests_and_Early_Islamic_Historiography_The_Futuh_al-Buldan_of_al-Baladhuri
Another Browncast is up. You can listen on Libsyn, Apple, Spotify, and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!
The history podcast returns to North India. Gaurav and Jay are in conversation with Maneesh about the changes in the North Indian landscape before and after the times of Harsha – generally considered as the last Emperor of “Ancient India”. We touch upon political splintering that followed the fall of the imperial Guptas, the political Game of thrones that followed, the Kumbha Mela and the decline of trade. 玄奘 (Xuanzang) and Banabhatta make appearances as prolific storytellers along with the stories of contested Urban decay and decline of Buddhism in the Indian heartland.
References for the episode:
A Comprehensive History of India – Vol III The History and Culture of the Indian People: Volume 3. The Classical Age Imagining the Urban – Sanskrit and the City in Early India by Shonaleeka Kaul Urban Decay in India (c. 300-c. 1000) by Ram Sharan Sharma Upinder Singh – Ancient India. Upinder Singh – Political violence in Ancient India Upinder Singh – Culture of Contradictions. Romila Thapar – Ancient History Romila Thapar – Past before us RS Sharma- India’s Ancient Past
Live History India (Paid + unpaid)
PODCASTS: The History of India Podcast – Kit Patrick Echoes of India Podcast – Aniruddha Kanasetti
In this episode of the History series, we return to North India and talk about the Age of the Guptas. We touch upon the military genius of Samudragupta and various Gupta emperors, the emergence of Classical Hinduism and various forms of Art, Music, Science which consolidated during this era. The speakers of the episode are Gaurav Lele and Jay Vardhan and the discussion is moderated by Maneesh.
Sources and References: Books and Blogs Upinder Singh – Ancient India. Upinder Singh – Political violence in Ancient India. Upinder Singh – Culture of Contradictions. Romila Thapar – Ancient History RS Sharma- India’s Ancient Past Gupta Vakataka Age RC Majumdar
Live History India (Paid + unpaid) Early Hinduism — the epic stratification | by Gaurav Lele | Medium
PODCASTS: The History of India Podcast – Kit Patrick Echoes of India Podcast – Aniruddha Kanasetti
The rule of the imperial Guptas is generally considered as a Golden Age or Classical Age of Indian history. Generally arguments for “Golden Age” are rife with retrospective imposition or wishful thinking, but still nonetheless the Gupta Age still deserves to be recognized as an age of immense consequence.
Rome fell in the 5th century, a topic on which whole hundreds of careers have prospered over the centuries. On the other hand, the Imperial Guptas – their rise, their fall and their legacy all remain somewhat uncertain but that may be down to Indian history in general. While Rome as a empire existed from before common era, the rise of the Guptas was a much later event. But there would be some interesting parallels in which these two empires. Rome began becoming increasingly Christian during the 4–5 centuries CE. Guptas who were devoted to Bhagvata sect are also seen as the Great Hindu rulers of the subcontinent. One of the major reasons of the fall of Imperial Rome were the series of events triggered by invasions of violent Huns led by Attila the Hun. Similarly the Hunas who invaded subcontinent are said to be distantly related to the Europeans Huns (only distantly) — but essentially nomadic cavalrymen invaded both these empires and fall of these giant empires is in large part attributed to these Central Asian “Barbarians”/ Mlenchhas.
If we assume (as is the case according to most scholars) — that Indian armies were mainly infantry supplemented by elephantry and cavalry — the tactics used by Skandagupta and later indian rulers to defeat these Hunas must have been fascinating — interesting pop culture parallel would be the Dothraki versus the unsullied.
Integration of Classical Hinduism:
Hinduism as we define it today became something clearly recognizable during this time. One interesting way to look at Hinduism is using the metaphor Rajiv Malhotra uses — about Indra’s net — in terms of Software Hinduism is a open architecture software based on the Vedic traditions where different Apps and programs can be installed as long as they are compatible with open architecture. If we are to explain using that analogy — then the various Sampradayas and local deities cults slowly got integrated into the Vedic architecture. The devotional cults of Vishnu and Shiv and Devi clearly had some Vedic as well as non Vedic antecedents . The Bhagvata cult from North India may have had its origins in the Vedic period around the Vrishni Hero Krishna Devakiputra & others like Samkarshana, but by the time of Guptas the Bhagvata sect become something very different. The Puranas which were composed around these times played a key role in the linking of these various cults and deities into a somewhat coherent (yet extremely contradictory) mythology.
Apart from Vaisnava sect — various traditions of Shakta, Saivism and Tantra were also becoming popular. According to most scholars — Saivism was more popular at this time than Vaisnavism. Apart from the imperial Guptas, most other rulers of the time were devotees of Shiv. Whereas the Vaishnava traditions were more synchronized with Vedic traditions, some local, Tantra and Saiva traditions were not accepted in the mainstream Vedic religion. There are many stories of initial conflict of such local cults with Vedic traditions while these cults were slowly integrated into the Shrauta Vedic traditions. (Something I have touched previously in this piece – Hindu Integration: Brahmanas and Gramadevatas – Brown Pundits). The mechanisms of this integration are varied and complex — some deities become avatars of Vishnu — some become children of Shiv and some are added into the complex narratives of the Puranas. Kumārasaṃbhavam by Kalisada is also a fine example of the storytelling employed by composers while weaving this complex mesh of Hinduism.
Devi also becomes increasingly interwoven with other deities — as illustrated by the tale of Mahisasur Mardini from the Puranas. The Udaygiri cave complex is a fantastic example of one of the earliest manifestations of such rich stories and motifs and their interplay — Vishnu as Varaha, Shiv Mukhalingam, Mahisasur mardini, Skanda, Ganesh etc.
In a way traditions based on Vedic Yajna based practices which are more transactional began giving way to more devotional forms of worship. These include grand temples, Teertha Kshetras and Shakti Peeth. Small temples may have existed before — we cannot be sure as archeological record is sparse; but during these times ruler began to patronize rich temples complexes — like the Udaygiri caves, Pravareshwara temple complex – which were mediated by Brahamanas practicing Vedic traditions but focus began shifting on the devotional aspects on faith.
One of the interesting foreign accounts we have of this time is that of Fa-hien — a Buddhist monk from China — who writes about a somewhat Golden age — where crime and punishments are low and people are wealthy, where vegetarianism is a norm and people even abstain from garlic and onions. The important thing to glean out of this is the fact that practices like Vegetarianism were becoming widespread around these times — something that has been linked heavily with Vaisnavism as well as Sramana traditions — especially Jainism. This era was also the time when the Mahabodhi temple, Nalanda university were constructed, so Buddhism was also in fashion as was Jainism — though Jainism seems to be more dominant in the west and south.
Architecture and Art:
The oldest Hindu temples clearly go back to pre Gupta times but the recognizable Hindu temple forms also took shape during these times. Early temples used to be short constructions made of mainly wood — around 10–10 feet square. Temples with their distinctive “Shikhar” began becoming constructed around this time.
In Cave architecture , apart from the Udaygiri and Elephanta caves (which are not firmly dated) — cave architecture seems to have been predominantly Buddhist — as attested in the fantastic Ajanta caves. Even though some of the early caves of Ajanta cave complex go back to the Satavahanas — like the Karla and Bhaja caves, the more spectacular cave art — both paintings and sculpture goes back to the age of the Golden age of the Vakatakas – around the end of 5th century.
In the times of the Kusanas the art form known as Gandhara sculptor developed (with influence from Greeks), during the Gupta period, the Mathura & Sarnath schools continued to innovate to new heights. The Sarnath Buddhas are considered as one of the greatest art produced in India. Among some other famous sculptures of this times are the terracotta of personified Yamuna and Ganga from Ahhichattra . Yamuna-Ganga figures along with the royal standard Garuda denote the Gupta and their patronage as the Gupta originated from the region of Prayaag.
The Natyasastra which is dated to the first and second centuries CE also deserves a mention while talking about the classical age of India. One of the central concepts of Natyasastra is Rasa — Rasa is what the audience is supposed to feel as an effect of the performance. Rasas and not emotions but they map on to emotions — like Shringara Rasa with love, Vira Rasa with energy — Rasa is not the feeling or emotion but Reaction— which i have to say is a very sophisticated way of looking at it. Audience was not supposed to be a passive observer, but a highly trained and sophisticated participant in the process of Drama. The Natyasastra also prescribes that death, love making, bathing, eating should never be shown on stage and dramas should always end on a positive note — unlike famous Greek tragedies.
Fa-hien also talks about buildings which acted as hospitals existing in north India. The Sushruta Samhita which probably goes back to the late Vedic or early Mahajanpada period, but the Caraka samhita which has many layers was probably work in progress till the Gupta era. The Bower manuscript which is dated to 5–6th century CE gives a fascinating peek into the developments of Ayurveda. It refers to passages from or commentaries on the Caraka Samhita. The text also refers to Sushruta as the one who originally got this knowledge from the king of Kashi.
Legacy of invaders, Indian Kingship and religions:
By and large Indian kings right from the times of Bimbisara, rarely persecuted religions sects even if they were personally devoted to some competing sect. This made good pragmatic political sense — this is the argument made by a section of scholars while looking back at these policies of religious pluralism. Many of the ruling elites after the times of the Mauryas like Hunas during this age — were “foreigners”/ Mlencchas — like most steppe warriors of these Hunas must have mostly practiced some form of Iranic religion like the earlier Sakas and Kusanas or Shamanism like the later Mongols. But inspite of what we noted earlier — about Mihirakula being among the few ancient Indian rulers to resort to religious (anti religious) zealotry — the Hunas went native quite soon. These streams of invaders who came to shape the subcontinent from the time of the Buddha to the fall of Gupta empire — Persians, Macedonians, Bactrian Greeks, Sakas, Kusanas, Hunas — we find that all these identities melted into the Melting pot of India. Indian religions — especially Hinduism and Buddhism in large part absorbed, reshaped and restyled the faith systems of the invaders. From between a few generations to few centuries all these invaders “went native” — so in a way what became Classical Hinduism was shaped by these invaders. This integration of the “invaders” would stop in the coming centuries.
Here is a quote from Upinder Singh — History of ancient and earlier medieval india.
This research article will be submitted in the new journal Intersectional Gender and South Asian studies. Dedicated to VisionIAS - especially Smriti Shah
Roots of divergence between Bangladesh and the rest of South Asia
South Asia in general has been a diverse place demographically as well as geographically. Unlike the myth of ancient civilization conjured up by well-meaning anti-colonialists in the 19th and 20th centuries, South Asia neither had a coherent identity nor a dominant mass religion. It only became a political unit after the forceful amalgamation of different polities under the Colonial British Raj. Since getting independence, Bangladesh has diverged a great deal not only from former West Pakistan but also from India. Not only in economical terms but also in terms of women empowerment. Unlike most democracies, Bangladesh has been governed by women for a significant duration of time since its independence.
The History podcast passes through the Magadh era. Mukunda Raghavan and Gaurav Lele talk to us about the sub-continent at the end of the Vedic age and take us all the way to the ruler whose symbols are part of the Modern Indian Republics mythology. Alexander and Vishnugupta Chankaya make an appearance and we speculate on the first recorded caesarean birth.
Sources and References: Books and Blogs Upinder Singh – Ancient India. Upinder Singh – Political violence in Ancient India. Upinder Singh – Culture of Contradictions. Romila Thapar – Ancient History RS Sharma- India’s Ancient Past Javarava’s Raves: (Blogposts publications etc) Greater Magadha – Johannes Brockhorst Live History India (Paid + unpaid) Early Hinduism — the epic stratification | by Gaurav Lele | Medium Free Web Sites – Buddhism – LibGuides at Michigan State University Libraries (msu.edu) Excerpts from : King, Governance, and Law in Ancient India: Kautilya & Arthasastra PODCASTS: The History of India Podcast – Kit Patrick Echoes of India Podcast – Aniruddha Kanasetti
What makes an Indian? Is it the passport? The genetics? The culture? The religion? The food? The fashion? All of the above? It’s a question that’s been hotly debated amongst the citizens of the Indian Republic since the bloody partition and independence of 1947. Praise of India’s diversity finds purchasing power both inside and outside its borders, but this diversity does come at a cost. Between religion, caste, ethnicity, language, and so many other identities, India at times seems to tear from its seams. Harbingers of hatred need no excuse to dig into the annals of history finding division and discord that can be applied today. One proposed division takes us to the time of India’s infancy. From the southern tip of the grand Indian peninsula came an ideology that posited that Dravidians, a speculative group of people who speak Dravidian languages, as the original inhabitants of the subcontinent. The patriarch of this ideology, EV Ramaswamy, known as Periyar amongst his faithful, spewed venom and violence against the “invader” north Indians and their Brahmin patriarchs and progeny.
But how accurate is this notion? Was there an idyllic, secular, and rational society prior to when the first horse hooves of the steppe stampeded into India? Did these “Aryans” bring a foreign religion called Hinduism into India as well and impose it on the Dravidians who followed a now lost faith? Half truths at least; full falsehoods at most.
Societies are stories. They are the fallout of generations of narrations about our past and who we are. Jawaharlal Nehru, freedom fighter and India’s first Prime Minister, sought to weave an “Idea of India” that was a composite tapestry of Hindu and Muslim fabrics. That tapestry has been torn to shreds for several decades now. Instead, it has been Hindutva that has supplanted the Nehruvian sacrament as the sacred fire of the yajna of yore engulfs Indians politics and a common Indian identity built on Dharma gains popularity.
But not all bow to the ritual of these ancients.
Politics Is War
There are few places where historical invasions animate the populace more than India. While much of this headspace is focused on more recent Islamic invasions of the medieval era as well as British imperialism of the colonial era, in some pockets of India, headaches originate from invasions in a time where history wasn’t even recorded in India. A missing memory of the subcontinent.
These battles are highlighted in the deep south of India, Tamil Nadu and lately have entered elite academic debates on caste. The conflict in Tamil Nadu is over the ancient peopling of India with an onus on the enigmatic Aryans. But this piece is not going to exclusively focus on the migration of the Aryans into India; there are many that do. What we will examine are the many migrations into and within India as well as the present political consequences. But first, let’s establish some quick background.
The aboriginal Indian, whose genes run through the blood of nearly everyone from the Indian subcontinent, descended into the subcontinent around 50,000-70,000 years ago. This population would become known as AASI – Ancient Ancestral South Indian.
The Iranian hunter-gatherer would enter India around 10,000 years ago and mix with aboriginals to form the Indians who gave rise to the Indus Saraswati Civilization.
The steppe component entered India most probably in waves after 2000 BCE to 1000 BCE. They are usually the big hubbub as they are posited to be the legendary Aryans, but more on this later.
The Austronesian component would enter from southeast Asia at a similar time of 2000 BCE to 1000 BCE.
There are other migrations into and outflows from the subcontinent as well, but for now let’s call the aforementioned out as the prominent ones we know of today. Feel free to dive into the 2 pieces I mentioned prior. I highly recommend them as they are treasure troves of information.
One of the most potent lines of rhetoric that stems from Hindutva discourse is that it is fundamentally an indigenous rights movement. “Indigenous rights” – that phrase is a sacred cow today. Conjuring the bloody European campaign of terror that walked in lock step with colonialism, those who were crushed under the European heel are today demanding their reparations and retribution. In Western discourse, you cannot dare to cross these lines of persuasion. Indigeneity evokes powerful emotions and a primordial attachment to the land, where the spirits of ancestors connect to the soil itself.
But where Hindutva’s call of indigeneity faces hurtles is the proposed ancient migrations into India. Keep in mind that migrations have occurred across the world, yet this notion of indigeneity is only challenged in India. The nomadic Mexica people would clear out the valley of Mexico before they established Tenochtitlan and became the Aztecs. A substantial genetic portion and culture of the ancestors of the emblematic Greeks, Romans, hell, so many Europeans come from the steppe in the model we are discussing. The ancient Egyptians did not speak Arabic nor had a 1 to 1 genetic makeup to modern Egyptians. The massive Bantu expansion across Sub-Saharan Africa was not a Mandelan march of peace. Yet it is only in India that this standard of indigeneity is upheld. Indra, who rides an Indian elephant and blesses the agricultural Indian with rain for their crops, is a steppe central Asian god; but Zeus and Thor are decidedly Greek and Nordic. I think you see the double standard here.
While much attention and ire surrounds the entry of the Aryans into India, little is sounded around the Dravidians. And therein lies the hypocrisy. Politics flows from emotion first, then logic.
As we established prior, the Indian population is a mixture of 3 large waves or migrations. This 2nd migration consists of a group that was related to, but distinct from, Iranian agriculturalists in the Zagros mountains. In the shadow of the Zagros is where the people of Elam flourished. From around 3200-540 BCE, the Elamites formed the eastern frontier of the Fertile Crescent. The Elamites worshipped a menagerie of gods, many of whom they shared with Akkadian Mesopotamians, and spoke a purported language isolate; but some believe it had a cognate. The proposed cousin is to the east, in the Indus Saraswati Civilization; a civilization that the Elamites traded with frequently. The proposition is that the ancestors of the Zagros farmers of Elam kept moving east and mingled with the AASI Indians eventually forming the base population for the Indus Saraswati peoples (and much of the genetic makeup of modern Indians themselves). Ironically, this means there was an earlier set of Indo-Iranians prior to the Indo-European speaking Indo-Iranians. History indeed loves to rhyme and repeat!
The common characterization of these Vedic peoples is that they came into India and wiped out the natives, completely destroying their culture and bringing their traditions as the new centerpiece of Indian civilization. But this is not true either. With climate and geological changes, the Indus Saraswati civilization waned eventually collapsing prior to the entry of the steppe people. These steppe people would come into India and indeed would conquer, but they would then be integrated completely. They came, they saw, they conquered, and then they were swallowed.
The people who wrote the Vedas were in love and reverent to the land of India. The rivers, mountains, plains, forests, even the literal dirt itself was holy to them. Their gods were flanked with Indian flora and fauna. They delved into philosophies and rituals alien to the wider world. They were a profoundly unique people who would not be who they were if they did not live and die in India.
Over time, many of the gods who found the most praise in the Vedas, the lords of the elements such as Indra, Varuna, Agni, etc…, would give way to other divinities who would eclipse them in prominence. Vishnu’s greatness could be gleaned throughout the early Vedic verses as he was frequently paired with Indra, Surya, Agni, and light itself. He was referenced as the guardian of the highest home, where a soul that has broken the cycle of reincarnation resides. The dawn of Vishnu and Shiva would arrive with the transition to the Puranas and Itihasa epics. In the Yajurveda, Narayana, a popular epithet for Vishnu, is mentioned as the supreme being. The icon of the Pashupati seal of the Indus, Shiva, known as Rudra in the Vedas also makes frequent appearances as a lord of storms and destruction. Adorned with a cobra for a necklace, his home in the Himalayas, the sacred Ganga river springing from his matted locks, and donning leopard skin, Shiva’s iconic Indian brand radiates his local roots.
Krishna, Vishnu’s incarnation, watched as his adoptive father, Nand, prepared to pray to Indra to bless them with rain. The young Krishna would chide his father for fearfully worshipping a god who had grown jealous and arrogant with power. He instead told his father and the villagers to pray to the mountain Govardhan and revere their cattle for those were the true guaranteers of their agricultural success. An incensed Indra would send a terrible torrent on Krishna’s home, Braj, flooding the land. The legend climaxes with Krishna lifting Govardhan with his finger, protecting Braj from the storm, and humbling Indra into obeisance. Perhaps this represents the transition of which god(s) curried the most favor with the ancient Indians. Perhaps not, but it is a convenient tale.
So ironic this is, as much of India owes itself to Tamil Nadu. From the wise Vedanta philosopher, Ramanuja, whose ideas catapulted the Bhakti movement across all of India to the great Chola emperors (who funny enough referred to themselves as Aryans) who carried the Tamil crown across the subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Tamil Nadu functioned as the incubator and refuge of a Hinduism ravaged in the north during medieval invasions. Scores of Tamil scientists, especially the former Indian President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, would push Indian technology and capability forward making the lives of all Indians better. Yet today, it is Periyar’s ideology that dominates the Tamil political sphere.
One of the more disturbing parts about the effect of such simplistic takes on ancient Indian migrations is a niche form of genetic supremacy that is developing. While some embellish the stature of their steppe DNA, others claim themselves as the true aboriginal of the land due to their large proportion of AASI lineage. They go so far as even asking for reparations based on this poppycock of logic. While there is some correlation between mixes of steppe, IVC, and AASI lineages around caste, it is an imperfect and a diverse amount that is in the end, a mixture. All Indians are an amalgamation of these people to various degrees. There is almost no pure steppe, IVC, or AASI person in the subcontinent (the Andaman Nicobar people may be sole exception on the AASI front). The movement towards heightened caste consciousness combined with the advocation of an almost racial element to caste could be potentially disastrous for India.
India’s history is one of syncretism and synchronization. Multiple identities, ideas, and itihasas were welded together by the Vedic verses millennia ago. Both the Brahmins and Śramanas or priests and ascetics traversed the Indian expanse and spread the message of Dharma. Still, they all agreed on the inherent divinity and sacredness of the subcontinent, of Bhārata. That is what distinguishes these people, these ideas, and these philosophies from the rest of the world. Indeed, as one delves into the story of India, a story that encapsulates much of human history and audacity of both thought and action, one attains the truth in the Mahabharata’s triumphant epilogue:
Earlier this month I was part of a podcast discussion about AIT and its counter (OIT?) with Razib, Mukunda, Kushal Mehra, and a Carvaka regular Kartik Mohan. It was a good discussion though I doubt if it would come out as a great podcast.
Personally, I have gone down the AIT/OIT rabbit hole enough last few years to want a long break from these discussions. However, before I take the break, I would like to summarize my current position which would also act as my notes for the podcast. For my position on this topic a year ago please find the following blogpost – From OIT to AIT
I firmly believe that ancient genetics is the strongest method for unraveling the mysteries of prehistory. For pre-modern societies, I do not believe there were any mechanisms of the spread of primary languages without mass movements of people. Language is a meme but unlike religions, it has complex mechanisms of spread that take years and requires (in most cases) familial teaching. If we take examples of memetic spread in recorded history – be it the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia or Buddhism in East Asia(via trade, etc) both happened without fundamental alterations in the primary language of the recipient regions. So in essence I do not find the model of primary language shift through mechanisms of trade or other N mechanisms posited as feasible.
As Razib pointed out in the podcast – everywhere on the earth where Indo-European languages were spoken as primary languages in pre-modern times, the Steppe genetic signal is present in substantial amounts. I do not think any other explanation other than some form of Steppe hypothesis can explain this data. Of course, PIE homeland (including Hittite) could be in the Steppe or it could be elsewhere. I believe what we can firmly state is not where PIE originated, but where PIE developed and was spread out of.
If we want to look at a potential model of IA spread into India from the historic record we can take a look at the British isles. The languages are nicely split in the east-west direction along Germanic/Celtic lines similar to the North-South split of Aryan and Dravidian languages in India. Not only that only around 38% ancestry of Britain is Anglo Saxon with an east-west gradient.
Critics of OIT like to attack particulars of the 2007 Anthony book as new evidence is unearthed as if any dissonance in Anthony/Mallory model is a slamdunk against the Steppe hypothesis. Personally, I have no strong positions on the details of the Steppe hypothesis as argued by Anthony and Mallory. The evidence of horseback riding for the Sredny Stog or even the Yamnaya is circumstantial at best (I believe some form of horseback riding as a tool of herding by young shepherds might have been a possibility), so we cannot firmly assume that horseback riding was the reason for the massive demographic changes brought about by the Steppe men. This might have mattered before the ancient DNA revolution, but now we know the genes of the steppe pastoralists spread, maybe because of the horseback riding or maybe just due to the benefits of horse husbandry or some other reasons. We know massive demographic and (probably) linguistic changes occurred from the Steppes, the “how” question might eventually get solved (or it might not) – but that doesn’t poke holes in the larger “Steppe hypothesis” built on top of Archaeogenetics.
This doesn’t mean that any other mechanism of IE spread cannot work with the available data but it has to go beyond the tenuous mechanisms like trade-aided language spread. Even the Elite migration hypothesis (minus demographic changes) doesn’t seem to work as well as we assumed before the ancient DNA. The Hittite and Mitanni IE elites did not cause any substantial demographic changes nor did they cause any long-term linguistic alterations in the middle eastern region. Closer to home, Indians have had elite rules who spoke Greek, Iranian languages, Turkic languages, and lastly English. These massive elite dominations for centuries have only resulted in superstrates and languages like Urdu (I am not sure if we call it a creole). By the end of an efficient British Raj, not even 1% of Indians spoke English as a primary language. Thus anyone who tries to explain away IA spread out of India has to account for the 20-30% paternal ancestry (50% Y chromosomes) which seems to have changed in the other direction. This paternal ancestry matters a lot as we know the ancient Aryas were patriarchal, patrilineal, and patrifocal.
Also, it is often overlooked that AIT is just one node of the larger PIE – Steppe hypothesis. Even if details of AIT are contested how much does that matter to the PIE question? Also even if PIE shifts out of Pontic Steppe into Iran or Anatolia it would still be against any model for OIT and in favor of some form of AIT.
As I tried pointing out in the podcast, I see a lot of issues with Talageri and other OIT (anti-AIT scenarios) – I have not read Talageri’s books yet but have read his blog posts and interpretation of RV and listened to his podcasts on Carvaka. My points against those interpretations are
The east to west movement of the Bharatas based on the mandalas 6-3-7 seems to hold on to some very tenuous points from the RV (eg: 2-3 references to Ganga). This reasoning might appear possible (not probable) but has zero archeological records to support it – especially for the timelines Talageri argues for (3000 BCE). Before 2000 BCE we have no archaeological data from the Gangetic plains to buttress these extraordinary claims.
The lack of references to rice in RV is also inconsistent with the Gangetic origins of Aryas.
The whole Asva/Ratha argument in Talageri model old RV as other equids/carts doesn’t seem to work in my preliminary reading of the RV. While the point made by Talageri “that all references to Asva/Ratha need not mean Horse/Chariot” is a correct one; the opposite isn’t automatically true => All references to Asva/Ratha need not be non Horse/non Chariot references. On the contrary, reading the RV I felt reading those references as horse/chariots make more sense (maybe it’s my priors). Interested readers can read through RV 3.43 3.45 6.29 6.44 6.45 7.18 7.19 and see for themselves if the references to Asva/Ratha appear to be for Horse/chariots or for Cart/Donkeys. (especially the Dasrajna hymns).
Whatever inferences I take from RV, I find it difficult to impose them on whatever we know of the IVC. This doesn’t automatically rule out the possibility of Arya poets living on the peripheries of IVC and composing RV but makes it unlikely IMO.
However to conclusively deny these assertions one would have to do a meta-analysis of RV, if ever I get down this rabbit hole in the future I might do it myself. However in the meantime, one can look at this.
Needless to say, such interpretations will remain “circumstantial” be they in support of the AIT or OIT. After all, RV only captures a thread of the ancient Indian past while the others may be completely lost.
Personally, I would be open to alternative scenarios to explain the IA spread into India, like IA migration during the IVC (before the Sintastha) while migrations downstream of Sintastha which are attested via Genetics being responsible for the consolidation of Aryas as Kshatriya/Brahmana elites of the Vedic age. But these are extraordinary scenarios and they would require at least some robust objective pieces of evidence like
Steppe signal from before 2000 BCE.
Chariots or other classical IE motifs before 2000 BCE.
Or deciphering of IVC script (or any other script from ancient India) to a Sanskrit-like language.
Outside the world of religion and mathematics, there is no absolute certainty. As a result outlier individuals from academic disciplines will continue to have non-conformist takes (like Kazanas for example). Such takes over the decades will continue to be used to create elaborate theories, be it using linguistics, genetics, and something else and they will continue getting traction in some groups (European pagans, Serb nationalists, Indian nationalists). The solutions to the PIE question are models, some more parsimonious; some tenuous, others ridiculous. There is certainly enough circumstantial data to spin wild theories putting the homeland from Iberia (initial bell beakers) to Gangetic plains (OIT), but none of these theories is the best fit for the data we have today. Maybe with newer data, some better candidates can emerge (though I doubt it). But going by the academic consensus from 3 fields -> Genetics, Linguistics, and Archaeology some model of the Steppe hypothesis is the best fit for the Indo-European question.
But for all, we know someone can still spin a theory based on some evidence that puts the PIE homeland in the sunken Atlantis.
I have had enough of the AIT/OIT debate and I will be avoiding this topic in the future. It has become a political and emotional topic and there is only so much that there can be no conclusion as what people assume to be at stake isn’t merely an academic question like Pre-Clovis peopling of the Americas.
Episode 3 of The History of the Indian Sub-continent series takes us to the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC). Our panel journeys from the banks of the Oxus River to the Deccan plateau. We connect the genetic and archaeological dots, speculate about people whose scripts we are yet to decipher, talk about what they did for a living, their towns, and what are the missing blocks in our understanding of that age. The Dancing girl from Harappa makes an appearance as do textiles and we ask if the great bath of Mohenjo Daro was really the great bath or was it something else. Joining Maneesh Taneja in this conversation are Razib Khan, Gaurav Lele, Mukunda Raghvan, and Shrikantha Krishnamacharya.
You can listen on Libsyn, Apple, Spotify, and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!