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From NCERT to IITs, science takes a knock

ByGN Devy
Apr 11, 2024 10:49 PM IST

It is undesirable and tendentious on the part of educational institutions to ask students to internalise fanciful hypotheses and inadequately proven opinions

The immortal closing lines of Shelley’s 1820 Ode to the West Wind, “The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind/If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”, though not their juxtaposition of the undesirable and the desirable, came to my mind when I read about modifications in Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) history texts introduced by National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT). Shocking as it is, NCERT’s insistence on establishing that the Harappans later emerged in India’s proto-history as the Vedic people, I did not feel shocked by the distortion since that is precisely what the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur (IIT-K) did in its 2022 calendar. Is it because the imagination of a larger part of CBSE students is fired by the dream of getting into an IIT that NCERT wants to indoctrinate them by way of preparation towards that goal?

PREMIUM
Excavation work at Rakhigarhi, an Indus Valley Civilisation site in Haryana. (Saumya Khandelwal/ HT Archive)

First about IIT-K. Created in 1951 with Sir JC Ghosh as its first director and BC Roy and SS Bhatnagar among its board members, its vision was to “produce global leaders in science, technology and management” and “to be a hub of knowledge creation”. Seven decades later, the calendar, dedicated to the Centre of Excellence for Indian Knowledge Systems, was devoted to what it called the “recovery of the foundations of Indian knowledge systems”. Its stated aims are: First, recognition of the secret of the Vedas; next, reinterpretation of the Indus Valley civilisation (IVC); and last, to provide a rebuttal to the Aryan invasion myth. Towards this end, it offered 12 “evidences”, never mind the awkward plural. What it offered as “evidence” was a series of biased claims: The currently accepted chronology of Indian civilisation is dubious and questionable; the chronological gap between the IVC and the Vedic period is a calumny of some European scholars, a conspiracy hatched by them in order to “downgrade the cosmological and altruistic foundations of the Vedas”. The calendar tried to show how the Aryan invasion myth resulted from the works of Max Muller, Arthur de Gobineau and HS Chamberlain.

It is well established that Adolf Hitler accepted the ideas of Aryan superiority from the works of de Gobineau (1816-82), who turned the name of a language (Indo-Aryan) into an ethnographic term (Aryan), and Chamberlain further made the idea accessible to the Germans. Therefore, it is clear beyond doubt that the Aryan invasion of India is not a historical fact. It is also established though that the term Aryan in Sanskrit had been used previously by speakers of Indo-Iranian in the Mitanni period for referring to a person, just as the term “sir” is used. How absurd it would be as a scientific observation if centuries from now a future anthropologist were to dig up files in government archives and claim the existence of a people called “sir”! Something similar has happened in the case of the term “Aryan”.

However, there is a vast difference in the ways languages migrate and large populations do. The Rakhigarhi skeleton research opens up the question of the five-century gap between the end of the Harappan era around 1900 BCE and the beginning of the Vedic era around 1400 BCE, but a vast amount of further research will be required to close it. Demonising European scholars of Indian civilisation does in no way prove that the historically non-existent Aryans “went out from here” rather than “came here from outside”. To harbour such a belief amounts to committing the same ghastly blunder that Adolf Hitler committed but from an Indian end of the fantasy.

During the last two decades, genetics have helped in arriving at a granular grasp of prehistory which had earlier remained surrounded in mystery and open to wild guesswork. In the context of India, works like David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here (2018) and Tony Joseph’s The Early Indians (2018) have presented cogent accounts of different waves of migrations. Similarly, David Anthony’s The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World has established a precise sequence of the rise of horse-driven wagons in the Eurasian steppes and the successive stages of the evolution of the language which, after its arrival on the western border of India, came to be known as Sanskrit. The turning point in this history was the use of copper, the control of horses and the use of wheel-run wagons which allowed ancient Eurasian steppe people to move out towards the South and the West. In the process what is described as the “Proto-Indo-European” (PIE) branched into Indo-European, Indo-Iranian and Indic. Indic was subsequently named Sanskrit. Its earliest form was related to the language of the Avesta. One notices that at least 380 words — such as Indra, Mitra, Varuna, and Homa — used in the Avesta are found in the Rig Veda.

The claim that the recent ancient DNA study of a Rakhigarhi skeleton disproves the previously established understanding of the language movement is hasty, far-fetched and agenda-driven rather than a dispassionate scientific analysis. In the 2019 paper published by archaeologist Vasant Shinde and others based on DNA study of a Rakhigarhi skeleton, the conclusion states that the DNA sample shows no presence of Iranian farmers’ ancestry among IVC. It points to new directions for research on the history of agriculture in India. But it also states, “Our analysis of data from one individual from the IVC, in conjunction with 11 previously reported individuals from sites in cultural contact with the IVC, demonstrates the existence of an ancestry gradient that was widespread in farmers to the northwest of peninsular India at the height of the IVC, that had little if any genetic contribution from Steppe pastoralists or western Iranian farmers or herders, and that had a primary impact on the ancestry of later South Asians. While our study is sufficient to demonstrate that this ancestry profile was a common feature of the IVC, a single sample — or even the gradient of 12 likely IVC samples we have identified — cannot fully characterise a cosmopolitan ancient civilisation.”

Accounts of the evolution of languages are based on comparative and historical linguistics. They firmly indicate that Sanskrit is historically a later stage of the PIE and that it has had no pre-Harappa existence in South Asia. Given the current state of various disciplines — human genetics, ancient DNA study, linguistics, archaeology and history of food and agriculture — it is undesirable and entirely tendentious on the part of NCERT to ask students to internalise fanciful hypotheses and inadequately proven opinions.

GN Devy is professor of national eminence and director, School of Civilisation, Somaiya Vidyavihar University, Bombay. The views expressed are personal

The immortal closing lines of Shelley’s 1820 Ode to the West Wind, “The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind/If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”, though not their juxtaposition of the undesirable and the desirable, came to my mind when I read about modifications in Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) history texts introduced by National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT). Shocking as it is, NCERT’s insistence on establishing that the Harappans later emerged in India’s proto-history as the Vedic people, I did not feel shocked by the distortion since that is precisely what the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur (IIT-K) did in its 2022 calendar. Is it because the imagination of a larger part of CBSE students is fired by the dream of getting into an IIT that NCERT wants to indoctrinate them by way of preparation towards that goal?

PREMIUM
Excavation work at Rakhigarhi, an Indus Valley Civilisation site in Haryana. (Saumya Khandelwal/ HT Archive)

First about IIT-K. Created in 1951 with Sir JC Ghosh as its first director and BC Roy and SS Bhatnagar among its board members, its vision was to “produce global leaders in science, technology and management” and “to be a hub of knowledge creation”. Seven decades later, the calendar, dedicated to the Centre of Excellence for Indian Knowledge Systems, was devoted to what it called the “recovery of the foundations of Indian knowledge systems”. Its stated aims are: First, recognition of the secret of the Vedas; next, reinterpretation of the Indus Valley civilisation (IVC); and last, to provide a rebuttal to the Aryan invasion myth. Towards this end, it offered 12 “evidences”, never mind the awkward plural. What it offered as “evidence” was a series of biased claims: The currently accepted chronology of Indian civilisation is dubious and questionable; the chronological gap between the IVC and the Vedic period is a calumny of some European scholars, a conspiracy hatched by them in order to “downgrade the cosmological and altruistic foundations of the Vedas”. The calendar tried to show how the Aryan invasion myth resulted from the works of Max Muller, Arthur de Gobineau and HS Chamberlain.

It is well established that Adolf Hitler accepted the ideas of Aryan superiority from the works of de Gobineau (1816-82), who turned the name of a language (Indo-Aryan) into an ethnographic term (Aryan), and Chamberlain further made the idea accessible to the Germans. Therefore, it is clear beyond doubt that the Aryan invasion of India is not a historical fact. It is also established though that the term Aryan in Sanskrit had been used previously by speakers of Indo-Iranian in the Mitanni period for referring to a person, just as the term “sir” is used. How absurd it would be as a scientific observation if centuries from now a future anthropologist were to dig up files in government archives and claim the existence of a people called “sir”! Something similar has happened in the case of the term “Aryan”.

However, there is a vast difference in the ways languages migrate and large populations do. The Rakhigarhi skeleton research opens up the question of the five-century gap between the end of the Harappan era around 1900 BCE and the beginning of the Vedic era around 1400 BCE, but a vast amount of further research will be required to close it. Demonising European scholars of Indian civilisation does in no way prove that the historically non-existent Aryans “went out from here” rather than “came here from outside”. To harbour such a belief amounts to committing the same ghastly blunder that Adolf Hitler committed but from an Indian end of the fantasy.

During the last two decades, genetics have helped in arriving at a granular grasp of prehistory which had earlier remained surrounded in mystery and open to wild guesswork. In the context of India, works like David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here (2018) and Tony Joseph’s The Early Indians (2018) have presented cogent accounts of different waves of migrations. Similarly, David Anthony’s The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World has established a precise sequence of the rise of horse-driven wagons in the Eurasian steppes and the successive stages of the evolution of the language which, after its arrival on the western border of India, came to be known as Sanskrit. The turning point in this history was the use of copper, the control of horses and the use of wheel-run wagons which allowed ancient Eurasian steppe people to move out towards the South and the West. In the process what is described as the “Proto-Indo-European” (PIE) branched into Indo-European, Indo-Iranian and Indic. Indic was subsequently named Sanskrit. Its earliest form was related to the language of the Avesta. One notices that at least 380 words — such as Indra, Mitra, Varuna, and Homa — used in the Avesta are found in the Rig Veda.

The claim that the recent ancient DNA study of a Rakhigarhi skeleton disproves the previously established understanding of the language movement is hasty, far-fetched and agenda-driven rather than a dispassionate scientific analysis. In the 2019 paper published by archaeologist Vasant Shinde and others based on DNA study of a Rakhigarhi skeleton, the conclusion states that the DNA sample shows no presence of Iranian farmers’ ancestry among IVC. It points to new directions for research on the history of agriculture in India. But it also states, “Our analysis of data from one individual from the IVC, in conjunction with 11 previously reported individuals from sites in cultural contact with the IVC, demonstrates the existence of an ancestry gradient that was widespread in farmers to the northwest of peninsular India at the height of the IVC, that had little if any genetic contribution from Steppe pastoralists or western Iranian farmers or herders, and that had a primary impact on the ancestry of later South Asians. While our study is sufficient to demonstrate that this ancestry profile was a common feature of the IVC, a single sample — or even the gradient of 12 likely IVC samples we have identified — cannot fully characterise a cosmopolitan ancient civilisation.”

Accounts of the evolution of languages are based on comparative and historical linguistics. They firmly indicate that Sanskrit is historically a later stage of the PIE and that it has had no pre-Harappa existence in South Asia. Given the current state of various disciplines — human genetics, ancient DNA study, linguistics, archaeology and history of food and agriculture — it is undesirable and entirely tendentious on the part of NCERT to ask students to internalise fanciful hypotheses and inadequately proven opinions.

GN Devy is professor of national eminence and director, School of Civilisation, Somaiya Vidyavihar University, Bombay. The views expressed are personal

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