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History and its malcontents

History and its malcontents
Staunch Hindu chauvinists never tire of reminding us of India’s glorious past. So we are told that ancient Hindus could make and fly aeroplanes; that they were skilled plastic surgeons; that they understood gravity much before Newton’s famous apple moment; or that they knew how to inoculate against smallpox many centuries before Edward Jenner injected the first vaccine.

This self-congratulatory “we-were-there-first” politics of authenticity, however, rests on a more fundamental belief, namely, that our wonderful ancestors were indigenous, and not, as majority of scholars now contend, immigrants who brought with them the intellectual paraphernalia, including a precursor to Sanskrit, that eventually gave rise to the artistic, literary and scientific exploits of the ancient Hindus.

The controversy over the origins of the Aryan race is enmeshed with the dispute over the origins of Sanskrit. It all started in 1786 when Sir William Jones, a young British orientalist serving as a judge in Calcutta, claimed that Sanskrit, Latin and Greek were long-lost cousins and had “sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, not longer exists”. Ever since, researchers have been looking for the elusive home of the proto-Indo-European (PIE).

Currently, there are two leading models. The steppe hypothesis suspects it is the steppe region north of Caspian Sea, whence the PIE diffused around 5,500-6,500 years ago, whereas the Anatolia hypothesis prefers modern-day Turkey, whence the PIE began scattering around 9,500–8,000 years ago with the expansion of farming.

Two major studies released last month support the steppe hypothesis and, by inference, the idea that Sanskrit didn’t evolve exclusively in India, and that ancient Hindus were settlers from Central Asia.

In the first study, geneticists from Harvard Medical School in the US compared the DNA of individuals from the Yamnaya culture of the steppe hypothesis with the DNA of people who lived in Central Europe 3,000 years ago.

Turns out almost 75 per cent of the latter could trace their descent to the former, suggesting an exodus, and hence spread of PIE, from Ukraine’s steppes to Central Europe around 4,500 years ago.
In the second study, published in the latest issue of Language, linguists at the University of California, Berkeley, US, used sophisticated statistical models to find out the rate of change of 200 sets of words from over 150 living and dead Indo-European languages.

Their calculations suggest that the changes taper off around 6,000 years ago, which is again consistent with the steppe hypothesis.

This is not the final word on the subject though. Peers have already punched a few holes in both the studies. Indeed, most agree that given the many gaps in the available data, not to mention its subjective interpretation, the debate is unlikely to be clinched soon.

For academics, it might be a case of intellectual jousting, but for a large number of people, deeply ingrained as they are in the identity politics of nation, race, culture and religion, such research arouses strong emotions, as is evident from the online response to the two studies.

The Armenians, for instance, will never accept the Anatolia hypothesis precisely because of the genocide perpetrated on them by the Ottoman Turks. Besides, people haven’t forgotten how Hitler appropriated the work of 19th century German scholars, who tried to prove Germany as the original home of Aryans, to further his Nazi ambitions.

So who cares then whether ancient Hindus came from modern-day Turkey or Ukraine when one is convinced that they have existed in India since time immemorial? Indeed, if anything, it is the Europeans who have descended from the original Aryans of India. Such is the power and peril of dogma. DOWN TO EARTH
Rakesh Kalshian

Rakesh Kalshian

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