” It was a sad day for Indian scholarship. “
– Iravatham Mahadevan –
Why should someone as qualified as Iravatham Mahadevan make that remark? What is it that is so sad for Indian scholarship? I do not intend to go deep into the debate on the issue here but only make a peep wherein I shall not be dwelling on the Indologist Michael Witzel’s and Comparative Historian Steve Farmer’s joint refutation of the Jha-Rajaram model. Instead I shall anchor my piece on Iravatham Mahadevan’s ‘Aryan or Dravidian or Neither? A Study of Recent Attempts to Decipher the Indus Script (1995-2000)’ .
Independent Researcher Dr N S Rajaram begins his hypothesis on revision of Indus script interpretation on the premise that Indology has always been a field that was Euro-centric and Indologists have always been ‘absent of critical spirit.’ So, it is only appropriate in this context to look into the critical analysis of the Jha-Rajaram model of Indus script decipherment. Dr N Jha – considered to be a Vedic scholar who has also written on the Indus script – and Dr N S Rajaram co-authored the text ‘The deciphered Indus Script: Methodology, readings and interpretations (2000)’.
Rajaram equates the Indus civilization with the late Vedic period of the sutra literature and that the Indus inscriptions are in Sanskrit containing sutras with traceable words to the Nighantu – the ancient Vedic glossary of compiled by Yaksa. Opining that the British christian missionaries imposed the Bible as the ‘Yesurveda’ converting ‘Jesus the Jew’ into an ‘Aryan sage’, Rajaram claimed that Max Mueller was not even a Vedic scholar but one who undermined the real history to oblige the British colonialists. Negative interpretation of the Vedic literature was the trade-mark of the British colonialist scholars, he argued. Similarly, he also slammed the Marxists for their biased perspective that the history of India was nothing but the history of invaders besides trying to place the Harappan civilization outside the Vedic ambit. He was/is critical that Marxists – whom he found to be ‘neglible and crumbling’ – only substituted themselves for the British colonizers in their Indological interpretation.
He also denounced the hypothetical idea of Proto-Dravidian which he found thoroughly fictive without any historical evidence to back up and that the Aryan-Dravidian split as racist. Rajaram felt that the linguistic Elamo-Dravidian family for the Harappans was one more attempt to impose a theory of foreign origin to the indigenous language. He took strong exceptions to linguists – even as he dubbed linguistics as a ‘petty conjectural pseudo-science’ – for their theological myopia and denounced archaeologists for subjugating their analysis to imposed perspectives of the linguists.
As pointed out by Iravatham Mahadevan, the ‘powerful barriers to progress’ identified by Rajaram are colonial interests and Christian missionaries, historians (especially Marxist), linguists (especially Dravidian),
Indologists and archaeologists (especially foreign). Rajaram’s conviction is that when these barriers are removed, progress towards recognizing the identity of Vedic and Indus civilisations would be unimpeded.
The clue to the decipherment of the Indus inscriptions is obtained from the supposed similarity of Brahmi to the Indus script. As Rajaram explains, this is the ‘palaeographic basis for Jha’s decipherment’. “The ‘plausible transition path’ of each Indus sign to the Brahmi stage is traced by progressively ‘simplifying’ the sign by cutting and chipping until the desired linear Brahmi form is reached, and its phonetic value is presumed to be that of the corresponding Indus sign. Thus an ‘alphabetic subset’ is created, which forms the basis for Jha’s readings and Rajaram’s interpretations,” explains Iravatham Mahadevan.
Jha-Rajaram set aside the need to defend the direction of the Indus script taking for granted that the Indus script is read left to right since the Brahmi script and other Indian languages are also read that way. “Unfortunately, the choice of the wrong direction for the script renders the Jha-Rajaram model of decipherment ab initio invalid,” points out Iravatham adding that further discussion of the merits of
the decipherment ‘is unprofitable’!
One of the sensational claims of Rajaram is that some of the mathematical formulas of the Sulbasutras are found in the Indus inscriptions. A text of three signs is read pa-ka-ma and interpreted as follows: pa stands for paridhi vyasa anupathi ‘perimeter to diameter ratio’, ka for karani ‘square root’ and ma for 10. The text, rewritten in modern notation, yields the mathametical formula p = √10 = 3.16 (approximately). “The method is so flexible and easy to follow that one can, without much effort, read into the Indus texts almost any mathematical formula including the most famous one : E= mc 2,” Iravatham pithily remarked.
Indus inscriptions do not contain the ‘horse’ sign. But, Rajaram pulled an amazing trick of an interpretation which ended up more than just becoming an academic polemic. He claimed to have discovered a ‘horse seal’ in Mohenjadaro. The Seal No. 453 in Mackay’s Further Excavations at Mohenjodaro is broken off right in the middle and the front portion of the animal is lost. Iravatham explicates: “However, judging from the hind part of the animal and comparing the motif with hundreds of complete specimens, the animal on the fragmentary seal can be recognised as a bull, most probably the ‘unicorn’, but certainly not the ‘horse’”.
Rajaram, in his book, presents us with a computer-aided image of a seal that he asserts to be a horse which, in his analysis, makes the Indus civilization more Vedic as such. But the image – to quote Iravatham Mahadevan – is ‘so manipulated as to convert the image of half a bull into a full horse. Lest the readers miss the point, an artist’s rendering of the horse is also added.’ The text above the animal is said to contain the word ‘asva’ – horse. “Significantly, Rajaram has refrained from publishing the original illustration from Mackay, which would have clearly shown what the animal really is,” argues Iravatham.
Yet, Rajaram encountered a formidable opposition from Indologist Michael Witzel and historian Steve Farmer who exposed the computer-generated pettifoggery, its visual fallacy and interpretative deceptivity through their ‘Horseplay in Harappa’ article in the Frontline (Oct.13,2000) which obviously require separate blogpieces. And the Witzel-Farmer response to Jha-Rajaram claims led to a sudden profusion of dialogs on the controversy involving other Indologists – online and off-line – including a spirited argument by scholar Michel Danino.
It was exactly the Witzel-Farmer expose of the deceptive Jha-Rajaram decipherment that made Iravatham remark: ” It was a sad day for Indian scholarship. “ What is the end-result or what is the then-result or what is the now-result ? One thing that stood out clear is the ‘arbitrary hubris’ of Dr N S Rajaram making some sweeping observations on the contemporary Indologists, particularly foreign scholars, and his supercilious interpolations without corresponding evidence.