Rig Veda composed in Afghanistan
The Telegraph, 12 May, 2000
ARYANS AND THEIR UNSETTLED ORIGINS/BOOK REVIEW
The Vedic People: Their History and Geography By Rajesh Kochhar, Orient Longman, Rs 425
BY SHAMS AFIF SIDDIQI
Books on ancient Indian history are dime a dozen, but an original working of the subject like The Vedic People is bound to create interest among experts as well as general readers.
The special difficulty with an academic inquiry into ancient India is the lack of archival material. But the absence also serves to increase the curiosity. Rajesh Kochhar's book in this sense will satisfy the inquiring mind. The book makes an attempt to locate the original homeland of the Indo-Aryans before they came down from the mountain ranges to the plains.
Kochhar does not break any new ground. He probably bases his thesis upon the debris of innumerable historical thinkers before him. His originality lies in the way he synthesizes these thoughts and ideas.
Though the author's focus is the people of the Vedic times, he interprets mythological texts in a manner others before him have not thought of. He also consults sources other than history. Keeping the Rig Veda at the heart of his discussion, he examines texts on natural history, geomorphology, linguistics, archaeology and even astronomy.
The subtitle should not be taken too literally. The book touches upon the geographical locations of the times and explores some important rivers, places and events that find their echoes in mythological texts. If Kochhar does not give further details of the lives and manners of these people, it is because very few details are available. Thus the book relies on interpretations of the Vedas, Puranas, the Ramayana, Mahabharata and even the Avesta.
Kochhar takes up the question of the river Saraswati, mentioned in the Rig Veda, and finds similarities with Helmand river in Afghanistan. He does not agree that the Saraswati can be identified with the Ghaggar river. Kochhar also feels that the Rig Veda was not composed in India but somewhere in Afghanistan after 1700 BC and that the Vedic people and the Harappans are not the same. He is of the opinion that Indic speakers who settled in south Afgha- nistan between Helmand and Arghandab composed the Rigvedic hymns.
The Vedic peoples came into contact with the later Harappans in 1300 BC in north India. Kochhar?s findings about Ayodhya are interesting too. He does not think that the present day Ayodhya is the city Rama ruled over since the modern Ayodhya is of relatively recent origin. ?Rama?s Ayodhya must then be placed on its [river Sarayu?s] bank and Rama himself must have lived in Afghanistan.?
Kochhar?s scientific analysis of data makes his arguments reasonable. The marshalling of diverse materials into a unified whole by the simplicity of his prose makes the book readable. He succeeds in presenting the technicalities of a difficult subject in a manner that even the general reader will find interesting.
The Hindu, April 16, 2000
Establishing history as social science
"HISTORY is not the mythology of the dead," says Rajesh Kochhar. This is an interesting comment because the power of the idea expressed is belied by the simplicity of the words. In an age when the past is seen through the ideological filters of a lumpen mob, the discipline of history needs an arsenal of academic rigour, combining historical methodology with cross discipline analysis to establish its claim as a social science. The book under review is a lucid example of how that can and should be done.
Kochhar takes on three arguments that the Indian Gang of Four (the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Shiv Sena) have been trying to package as India's Aryan heritage.
First is the claim that the Indian subcontinent was the original home of the Aryan people who moved out towards the West to give us an Indo-European heritage. The second is the claim that the god Ram was indeed the king of present-day Ayodhya in the State of Uttar Pradesh and that the sites of the epic Mahabharata can be located in the modern cities of Kurukshetra, Hastinapur and Indraprastha. We can include the residence of Krishna at Dwarka and Mathura in this list. The third, and perhaps as interesting, is the importance of the present Gangetic river system to Rig Vedic society.
Those of us who went to school and college before India's Cultural Revolution started rewriting history textbooks, recall having studied about the original homeland of the Vedic people in the Eurasian Steppes. From here the pastoral Aryans moved towards the East on their fine, swift horses to destroy the sedentary Harappan civilisation on the banks of the Indus river. Kochhar's book on the subject is like a breath of fresh air. Perhaps, for the first time, a comprehensive study of every possible source has been undertaken to show exactly how the Vedic people began to move out of their homeland.
According to Rajesh Kochhar, the Aryans are proto-Indo Europeans who "emerged as a pre-historical entity in the Steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas with the domestication of the wild horse". As important as the domestication of the horse are the knowledge of wheeled vehicles and the use of metal. These enabled them to cover large distances and raid sedentary cultures without fear of retaliation. This group is further divided into the European and the Indo-Iranian, moving around the second millennium B.C., southwards into the territories now called Europe and Central Asia respectively.
These two cultures are further distinguished by the fact that the Indo- Iranian, identified as the Vedic people, were not only obsessed with the horse but also a plant said to yield the divine drink of the gods, Soma. This plant is conclusively identified as the "alkaloidal Ephedra" and Kochhar says, "the Indo-European homeland must be the horse land; the Indo-Iranian habitat, the soma land."
What is particularly exciting in the book is the extensive use of the Avesta, read along with the Rig Veda, as a source of information about a culture whose material artefacts are few and unimpressive. This is done because "there are extremely close ties of language, culture, mythology and rituals between Rig Vedic and Avestan Aryans". In fact Zarathushtra identifies himself as a zaotar (hotr) or Rig Vedic priest.
Sometime between 2000-1800 B.C., the Indo-Iranians get subdivided into the non-Rig Vedic Indic speakers who move into the late Harappan, Jhukar and Rangpur phase. The Rig Veda related Indic speakers (but not the composers of the Riga Veda itself) enter the late Harappan Cemetery-H phase in Punjab. The actual Rig Vedic people, the authors of Swat V culture are still based in South Afghanistan where in 1700 B.C. work on the Rig Veda starts. They move towards the Indian subcontinent only in about 1400 B.C. where they "merged with the Cemetery-H people to produce the Painted Grey Ware culture". It is these people who begin clearing the Gangetic forests around 900 B.C. but not before they have armed themselves with Iron technology. This leads to the Northern Black Polished Ware Culture in the first millennium B.C..
There are only two problems with Kochhar's otherwise brilliant analysis of the Aryan movement eastward. One is the paucity of details regarding their socio-cultural environment. It must surely have been a society in flux, trying to retain their original cultural traits even while evolving new ones according to the conditions they found in each area they settled down in. They did not move into uninhabited areas. This also leads to the second problem, the unexplained merger between the late Harappan and Indo-Iranian people. This has been a topic of intense debate with various explanations given for the decline of the mature Harappan civilisation and it would have been of vital importance to see how this "merger" was accomplished. It is a daunting task no doubt and one does not expect him to provide all the information. But having raised our expectations with his arguments one just wishes he would have added these details.
The residents of present-day Ayodhya seem to condone a number of originary myths. The most important of these being the birth of the legendary god Ram in what was the Babri Masjid complex. Kochhar however will have none of that. He has argued very convincingly that Ram was actually born in south Afghanistan. Having undertaken to locate the important Rig Vedic rivers, he has brought out an interesting hypothesis regarding the rivers Sarasvati, Sarayu and the Sapta-Sindhu rivers. This is then linked with Puranic evidence to conclude that the "Rig Vedic Sarayu should be identified with the Avestan Sarayu (Haroyu) whose present name is Hari-rud. Ram's Ayodhya must then be placed on its banks and Rama must himself have lived in Afghanistan".
The Mahabaharta, similarly, receives a re-interpretation "We may tentatively associate the participants in the Bharta battle with the Swat culture," and further "Maha in Mahabharta refers to the embellishment of the accounts of the battle rather than to the battle itself .... it is likely that the war was merely a skirmish and not an 'earth-shaking' event as it was later made out to be." To understand how Kochhar actually reconciles Puranic evidence with archaeological facts one must read this extremely interesting book.
Finally we come to the Gangetic river system. Having identified the main trajectory of the Aryan movement east, Kochhar is fully justified in concluding that though the Aryans had entered India in the Copper Age itself, they remained confined to the region west of the Yamuna-Ganga doab. It was only when the pressure of an increasing population began to fuel a demand for more land that Iron technology helped clear the Gangetic plain of its thick forests. This would eventually lead to large-scale farming, trade and manufacturing, giving rise to wealthy cities and empires. "It is the culture and geographical extent of the later-day Aryans that have been backdated and even applied to the early Aryans. Consequently, as the epics and the Puranas stand now, they tell us more about the culture and geography of the narrators than the narrated".
Since we are rewriting history en masse, I would recommend that the history and geography of the Vedic People be fully revised in our textbooks but keeping in mind the new evidence brought out by Rajesh Kochhar. It would be prudent however to take his repeated calls for extensive archaeological excavations in Afghanistan seriously and the governments concerned should arrange such a project through the UNESCO as he has suggested.