Saturday, August 14, 2010

Exaggerated Minorities in Linguistic Histories

... and possible conclusions in The Aryan-Dravidian Debate.


This post is in response to the review of Michel Danino's book 'The Lost River' by Jayakrishnan over there at The Varnam blog.

I read Michel Danino's book The Lost River earlier this year, ironically while traveling in Rajasthan, the deserts of which hide their share of the mysteries of Saraswathi. I have also read some works of Romila Thapar, DD Kosambi and Asko Parpola.

Problem Statement:

Lets phrase two of the important Questions in this field:

1. Was Harappan civilization (which now includes both the Indus and the Saraswathi valleys), an Aryan civilization? And that too, the Vedic-Sanskrit Civilization?

2. Is the Indus script likely to have been used to write an Aryan or a Dravidian language?

Literature Study:

Michel Danino makes a very convincing case that Saraswathi is indeed the mighty river praised in the Vedic Aryan literature and also the life giver of the Indus-Saraswathi civilization.

Romila Thapar has for long suggested that the origin of Sanskrit is more likely to be Bactria (central Asia) than northern or even north-western India. DD Kosambi had written extensively about the words and cultural habits of the natives that were inherited by the Aryan speakers. And Asko Parpola's research is on the lines of seeking a Tamil (and hence a decidedly non-Aryan) connection to the Indus script.

Ofcourse, the positions of the eminent historians above are more nuanced than the crude way in which I have put them.

What I'm saying:

I think if we don't leave detailed evidence, future historians, some 2000 years from now, will be fighting whether Arabs, Persians and Britishers were the original inhabitants of India. It may sound ridiculous but our current controversies could be as bizarre as such a proposition.

Example 1:

Minorities especially religious minorities have a tendency to contribute extensively to literature. For instance Tamil literature has a disproportionate amount of contributions from Jains, Buddhists, Brahmins and Ajivikas. Take some of the most famous works in early Tamil literature: Thirukkural (Jain), parts of Tholkappiam attributed to Tholkappiar (Brahmin), Silappathikaram (Jain), Manimekalai (Buddhist), 'Yadhum Oore ...' of Purananuru (Ajivika), Kamba Ramayanam (Brahmin).

Similarly Brahmin contribution to the medieval (some famous songs of Thevaram and Nalayira Divya Prabhantham) or even modern literature (Panchali Sapatham and songs by Bharatiyar), is disproportionate to the size of the Brahmin population in Tamilnadu. If you take the English works both in literature and the popular print that has orginated from Tamilnadu, Brahmin contribution is again disproportionately high.

We should also remember that, at certains points in history, south-Indian Brahmins (who's native tongues were now non-Aryan) also produced a disproportionately large amount of Sanskrit religious literature. Here, disproportionate with respect to the large Aryan speakers in the north of the country.

Example 2:

In the case of past thousand years of north India, the cultural contribution of Muslims especially in architecture is so humongous that any future historian will definitely mistake north-India as the world's largest Islamic settlement. And that too speaking Persian or even Arabic. Wait, let me rephrase it. India is certainly one of the largest Islamic settlements. But future historians may conclude that Islam was the religion of the majority of the people and Persian their language, both of which were never true.

Example 3:

Now, a more contemporary example. If its not already the case, majority of the words written in India in the near future are likely to be in English. But curiously, the words that may survive as archaeological evidence, like in Temple inscriptions may still have disproportionately more native (non-english) words. I mean disproportionate to popular print. Not to mention the fact that English could become the most understood language in India (overtaking Hindi).

Actually, in the above examples, when we mean literature and art forms produced in disproportionate quantity, its an assessment by what survives. Because, religious and linguistic minorities save their literature for future generations, much more than the majority communities who take things for granted.


Now, applying the above heuristics to the Indus-Saraswathi debate:

1. its very much possible that Sanskrit is indeed of foreign origin and its spread in India and its influence on the native tongues, a quirk of civilizational time.

2. and its also possible that the Vedic Aryans were a minority community in the Harappan civilization. As found in Tamilnadu and elsewhere, these Vedic Aryans could have lived in secluded enclaves (Agraharams) and produced literature in a non-native, elite language (Sanskrit) and in a disproportionate quantity.

3. so we shouldn't be surprised if Indus script was used to write a non-Aryan language. Infact, considering the large corpus of Vedic Sanskrit and Tamil literature available, and our inability to decipher the Indus Script so far, we can even suggest a completely non-Aryan, non-Dravidian language. After-all, how much of the eastern Munda languages have survived in written form?


ps 1: If while reading the above post, you were thinking Aryan-Dravidian as a race debate, you are in the stone age of research in this field. Aryan-Dravidian debate is a linguistic one.

ps 2: The very interesting Nadistuti Sukta from the Rig Veda, mentioned by Michel Danino in his book.

ps 3: You may want to read this related (but rather pompously named) post by me. A History of Aryans.


Sundar said...

Interesting hypothesis. But, isn't it incidental that they were minorities? Or perhaps, it was transitive causality, minorities appeasing centres of power and publishing, and hence, getting more of their works sponsored/published. Because, in my opinion, the patronage of the kings and access to publishers were key proximate factors to the prolificacy of these groups. No?

Is it established that Thiruvalluvar was Jain (I don't have strong reasons to think otherwise though.)?

Anonymous said...

Yes, seems possible..

I'll come back if I have more to say...


Balaji said...


yes. patronage by kings/chiefs was a key requirement. although i'm not entirely sure about the nature of such relationship.

some kings could genuinely have feared going upto the pearly gates and be asked why you worshiped the 'satan' instead of me, the God :-) so they cud have supported religious minorities, just in case!

some patronage cud have been image building exercises (cholas for instance).

but more likely, religious minorities could have been trading communities or possessed some genuinely superior skills (like in metallurgy, math) which the kings got in return for patronage.

otherwise, i think, promoting a minority community shud have obviously been unpopular with the majority subjects and in the absence of votebanks, rulers had no reason to risk angering the majority community. further, i don't think many of the Indian kings were rich enough for such indulgences.

or perhaps, the trading communities within the majority cud have cultivated interest in the said minority community which in turn forced the king to offer such patronage.

err, to cut a long story short, i think support by kings/chiefs cud have been more in the form of protection. and the minority communities may have been affluent themselves to promote their religion and literature.


My view on Thirukkural's Jain content is shaped by
R Banukumar, who's blog i had been reading few years ago. I have also come across few others who support the Jain content. With my non-trivial interest in Jainism, I'm also convinced of the argument.

i'm glad you asked abt Thirukkural. becos, I had stopped following Banukumar's dormant blog. It seems he has revived it and is still ploughing away at the question! I have subscribed to him again.

Sundar said...

I still have my doubts about the patronage coming in the form of protection, mostly. Didn't they handover goodies to poets? And, on the trade part, I haven't heard of the priestly class being traders. But, I agree that, they, being well-read, could have offered advice to the kings in return for patronage.

Will read Banukumar's blog when I find time. I asked that question, because, in 2003, I was told by a linguist that some research works studying his vocabulary and allegory locate Thiruvalluvar to have grown up in the Nanjil (Nagercoil) region. Were there Jains in that region?

Balaji said...

oh, Jains certainly would have lived in Nagercoil. a farm fed community in the plains and littered with hillocks is tailor made for them.

Sundar said...

Oh, I see. I don't know much about their history.

maddy said...

Sad that you have to refer Romila Thapar and D.D. Kosambi, "Eminent historians'" hypothesis. None of their research was based on direct readings of sanskrit works and after so many years I wonder if they have actually updated their theories. All they did was read some Englishman's translations in English. By that standards I guess you can count urself also as an "Eminent Historian". May I suggest Edwin F Bryant's "The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture"? He laments the fact that there are hardly any Indian linguists who can contribute a lot to this whole Aryan question. The last known scholar of Dravidian languages is Bhadriraju Krishnamurti who is almost 80 years old now. There is a fundamental hypothesis about tranfer of language/culture that it is always conquest oriented. But the Indian model is more diffusive, take the case of the Vedas/Puranas/Itihasas... they have so many diverse elements from multiple indian traditions. Unfortunately western-trained minds still need "open minds".

Balaji said...

it'll be ludicrous if we claim that Romila Thapar and DD Kosambi are not well versed in Sanksrit works. Kosambi was a polymath and an authority on Sanskrit. they both very much qualify as linguistic historians. and eminent they certainly are.

but its not necessary that all their interpretations have to be correct.

i haven't read Edwin Bryant's book yet. thanks for the info on Bhadriraju Krishnamurti. i didn't know abt him.

Sundar said...

Balaji, as for Tholkappiyam, most modern scholars agree that it is a multi-layered work in its current form, edited over several centuries. (Of course, your claim may still be valid if all of its editors were Brahmins.)

Balaji said...

true. i have modified the post to reflect this.

Sundar said...

That was fast. Thanks.