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In Pragati: Book Review of A Passage to Infinity by George Gheverghese Joseph

An important problem in historiography is the politics of recognition. Which theory gets recognized and which doesn’t sometimes depends on who is saying it rather than what is right. Take for example, the Aryan Invasion Theory. Historians like A L Basham wrote convincingly about it and it was the widely accepted fact. Over a period of time, the invasion theory fell apart; the skeletons, which were touted as evidence for the invasion, were found to belong to different cultural phases thus nullifying the theory of a major battle. Due to all this, historians like Upinder Singh categorically state that the Harappan civilization was not destroyed by an Indo-Aryan invasion. But  the Aryan Invasion Theory is still being taught in Western Universities and those who question it are ridiculed. In this atmosphere if any academic dares to support the Out of India Theory, that could be a career-limiting move.

Eurocentric historiography has affected not just Indian political history, but the history of sciences as well. Indigenous achievements have not got the recognition it deserved; when great achievements were discovered, there have been attempts to explain it using a Western influence. In 1873 Sedillot wrote that Indian science was indebted to Europe and Indian numbers were an abbreviated form of Roman numbers. Half a century before that Bentley rewrote the dates for various Indian mathematicians, pushing them to much later and blamed the Brahmins for fabricating false dates. Some of these historians were willing to acknowledge that there were some great mathematicians till the time of Bhaskara, but none after that and without the introduction of Western Civilisation, India would have stagnated mathematically.

George Gheverghese Joseph disputes that with facts and goes into the indigenous origins of the Kerala School of Mathematics which flourished from the 14th century starting with Madhava of Sangamagrama and ending with Sankar Varman around 1840s. Though there were few mathematicians in Kerala in the 9th, 12th and 13th centuries, what is today called the Kerala School started with Madhava who came from near modern day Irinjalakuda. His achievements were phenomenal; they included calculating the exact position of the moon and what is now known as the Gregory series for the arctangent, Leibniz series for the pi and Newton power series for sine and cosine with great accuracy.

Following Madhava,  the guru-sishya parampara bore fruit with a large number of students in that lineage achieving greatness. These include Vattasseri Paramesvara,  Nilakanta, Chitrabhanu,  Narayana, Jyeshtadeva and Achyuta. They wrote commentaries on Aryabhata (who was an influential figure for Kerala mathematicians), Bhaskara and Bhaskaracharya, recorded eclipses and dealt with spherical and planetary astronomy and produced many theorems and their proofs. Tantrasangraha by Nilakanta was a major output of this school. In this book, he carried out a major revision of the models for the interior planets created by Aryabhata and in the process arrived at a more precise equation than what existed in the world at that time. It was even superior to the one developed by Tycho Brahe later. These are the people we know about; Joseph writes that many more could be found from the uncatalogued manuscripts in Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

The book also goes into the social situation in Kerala which made these developments possible. By the 14th century the Namboothiri Brahmins, the major landholders were organized around the temple. They had a custom by which only the eldest son entered a normal marriage alliance and got his position in society by taking care of property and community affairs. The younger sons did not marry Namboothiri women, but entered into relations with Nair women — a practice called sambandham. They had to gain prestige by other means such as scholarship and the book makes the case that these younger sons formed one section of these mathematicians.

In an agrarian society which depended on monsoons, the precision of the calendar and astronomical computation of the position of celestial bodies was important. Astrology too was important for finding auspicious times for religious and personal rituals. All this knowledge was nourished, sustained and disseminated from the temple which served as the hub of this intellectual activity. The temple also employed a large number of people — priests, scholars, teachers, administrators — and there were a number of institutions attached to the temple where people were given free boarding and lodging.

After explaining the social situation in Kerala which facilitated the such progress, the final section of the book tackles an important problem. Two important mathematical developments of the 17th century are the discovery of calculus and the application of the infinite series techniques. While Europeans like Leibniz and Newton are credited with this work, the book argues that the origin of the analysis and derivations of certain infinite series originated in Kerala from the 14th to the 16th century and it preceded the work of Europeans by two centuries. The  mystery then is this: how did this information reach Europe?

The book presents multiple theories here. It considers the option that Jesuits were the channel through which this knowledge reached Rome and from there spread elsewhere. There have been many such examples of transmission from the 6th century onwards with knowledge reaching Iraq and Spain and eastward to  China, Thailand and Indonesia. But extensive survey of Jesuit literature did not provide any data for this transmission. Understanding the cryptic verses in which the information was written required investment of time and excellent knowledge of Malayalam and Sanskrit. Though Shankar Varman spoke to Charles Whish in 1832, that level of sharing of information may not have happened in the 14th century. The book then presents an alternate theory that the information may have slipped out unintentionally; the computations of the Kerala school would have been interesting for navigators and map makers and it would have been transmitted through them and then reconstructed back in Europe. This topic is not closed yet and much more research has to be done.

The book is not written purely for the layman in the style of Michel Danino’s The Lost River or Sanjeev Sanyal’s The Land of Seven Rivers. There are large portions of the book which contain mathematical proofs by  these great mathematicians and can skipped for those who are not mathematically inclined. There was something a bit odd about an appendix appearing in the middle of the book. While dealing with the history of mathematics in India, the book starts with the ‘classical’ period and with Aryabhata (499 CE). Recently, there was a course Mathematics in India – from Vedic Period to Model Times taught by Prof M D Srinivas, M S Sriram and K Ramasubramanian, whose videos are available on YouTube. The course, very rightly starts with the ancient period, starting with the Sulvasutras (which is prior to 500 BCE) and such ancient knowledge should be acknowledged.

During these times when every development is attributed to Greece or Europe, the book dispels that notion completely and argues for an indigenous development of the Kerala School. Thanks to the work of various post-Independence historians, we have more information about the the Kerala School of Mathematics and that information is getting more popular. The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics by the same author and Mathematics in India by Kim Plofker, all talk about the history of Indian math and Kerala School in particular. But in more popular books, these developments are rarely mentioned because Indian mathematicians followed the computational model of Aryabhata which is different from the Greek model. In this context, books like A Passage to Infinity  are important for us to understand these marginalized mathematicians.

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In Pragati: The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India by Jonardon Ganeri

Recently the Society of Biblical Literature published the book Neo-Babylonian Trial Records (Writings from the Ancient World) by Shalom E Holtz. According to the description of the book, “this collection of sixth-century B.C.E. Mesopotamian texts provides a close-up, often dramatic, view of ancient courtroom encounters shedding light on Neo-Babylonian legal culture and daily life” and 50 cases are documented. Going even back in time, in 2062 BCE, an Indus colony existed in Mesopotamia and we have detailed documentation from that period mentioning the names of the colonists along with grain delivery records and debt notes. When it comes to India during that period, such detailed records are lacking.

Due to this, daily life in the Indus-Saraswati period is documented not from written records, but from archaeological evidence. As scholars get into the history of Indian philosophy, they run into new issues; there is not much biographical detail of the philosophers. In fact a common trend among Indian philosophers was to avoid writing personal details, and not have any mention of the social and political context, as they would be just distractions. While we know about Machiavelli’s childhood from his father’s documents and his personality based on the chronicles from his contemporaries, all we know about the Varanasi philosopher Raghudeva Bhattacharya that he was a student of Harirama, lived in Varanasi and had his work translated by Mahadeva.

These become important as we discuss the concept of modernity in Indian philosophy. Did Indian philosophers turn against the ancient traditions like Francis Bacon and Descartes who had warned that one should not stay with the past too much. Overwhelmed by the Mughal and subsequent British influence, did the Indian philosophers invent a neo tradition dissing the past and incorporating concepts from the non-Indian world? Was modernity in Indian philosophy instigated by Western influence?

Varanasi in 1832 by James Prinsep

Varanasi in 1832 by James Prinsep

Ganeri tries to answer all these by going through the evolution of Navya Nyaya school of thought which originated in Mithila, but later flourished in Navadipa and Varanasi. The person responsible for this school was Raghunatha Shiromani (1460 – 1540), the author of Pad-rtha-tattva-nir-pa-a, and who preceded both Bacon and Descartes by a century. He was a contemporary of Caitanya Mahaprabhu and advocated a “reason and evidence-based critical inquiry”, than scriptural exegesis. He asked philosophers to think for themselves and reflect on matters, which seem contrary to accepted opinion. The Navya Nyaya school was quite popular and attracted students not just from India, but from Tibet and Nepal as well; some Sanskrit pundits even went to Tibet in the 17th century to assist the Dalai Lama.

Ganeri discovers that unlike in Europe, where there was a tendency to break away from the past to display modernity, Indian philosophers did not think that was necessary. Instead they bridged the ancient past and the emerging modernity. Raghunatha and his students, who pioneered evidence based critical enquiry, reinterpreted the ancient texts and found no incompatibility between the ancient and modern. Ganeri argues that if you have to understand modernity in the Indian philosophical context, you have to discard the notion that modernity is a rejection of the ancient.

Instead what is seen in the period mentioned in the book — 1450 to 1700 — is a new type of commentary, which looks at the hidden meaning in the ancient texts. These philosophers wrote commentaries without deference for the ancient with the purpose of educating their contemporaries, explaining a difficult point, filling in gaps or presenting a deeper non-obvious meaning. Some of these commentaries, like those of Raghunatha apply a new framework on an older text. Another goal was to make the reader think well; they had a layered model of the world in which concepts worked at the smallest scale as well as at the highest levels with composite bodies. When expressing complex ideas warranted the creation of a new language, they did that as well to explain the logical forms of their philosophical claims.

According to Ganeri, these developments were possible because the philosophers lived on the fringe — they lived near intellectual centers like Navadipa and Varanasi— but were not too deeply involved in the affairs of the city. Another reason was the sponsorship they got from the Mughal Court to the Bengal Sultanate to various rich patrons. Though these philosophers lived during the time of Dara Shikoh and the Mughal empire with its strong Persian influence, that influence was not seen in the Sanskritic works.

Ganeri also acknowledges the difficulty in reconstructing the biographies of most of these philosophers and instead analyses the history of these ideas against the context of sastra andsampradaya. Fortunately we have sufficient information about the social, political and intellectual context in which Navya Nyaya flourished. This approach has helped him analyze not just the thinker, but also the so-called modernity that he brings in. This sampradaya based system was eventually scuttled by the British, who decided that such a system was irrelevant. According to Ganeri, another reason for putting an end to this system was because it provided a strong intellectual basis against colonialism.

As you read through the book, it even makes you wonder if the term — modernity — is the right one to describe these developments. This constant questioning and challenging the established was always part of Indian darshanas and not something unique to the 15th century. The Upanishads criticised the ritualism and ceremonialism in the Brahmanas while appreciating the philosophical concepts in the Mantras. Buddhism repudiated the concept of the individual self while Nyaya-Vaisheshika recognised the individual self to be the ultimate. According to Prof Hiriyanna, “we have all the different shades of philosophic theory repeated twice over in India, once in the six systems and again in Buddhism”. Which among these should one consider modern?

In the conclusion of the book Ganeri expresses shock that modern philosophy is taught in Europe without mentioning Indian philosophers. There is nothing to be shocked about this; most European or American courses don’t mention developments in Indian math or science either. For example, the Kerala mathematician Nilakanta, who was a contemporary of Raghunatha Shiromani, revised the Indian planetary model for the interior planets, Mercury and Venus and for this he formulated equations to find the center of the planets better than both Islamic and European traditions.

In their propensity to solve astronomical problems, mathematicians of the Kerala school developed concepts like Gregory’s series and the Leibniz’s series. Yuktibhasha, the text written by Jyesthadeva, contain proofs of the theorems and the derivations of the rules, making it a complete text of mathematical analysis and possibly the first calculus text. Thanks to the efforts of late Prof KV Sarma, Dr CK Raju, Dr MD Srinivas, Dr MS Sriram, Dr K Ramasubramanian and Dr George G Joseph, Indians and Western scholars are becoming more aware of the Indian contributions to Mathematics and understanding how those ideas spread to the West. Similarly, Ganeri’s book besides giving a great introduction to the Navya Nyaya school and the social and political atmosphere in which it flourished, documents the vibrant philosophical culture that encouraged ‘modernity’ even before the Western influence came in.

(This was originally published in Pragati)

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In Pragati: Evidence for the continuity between Harappan Signs and Brahmi letters

(Original published link)

Instead of a complete termination of one civilisation and the beginning of a radically new one, there was a period of both continuity and change.

Harappa

(Image used under Fair Use from The Art Newspaper)

One of the most puzzling unsolved mysteries of the ancient world is the writing system of the Indus-Saraswati civilisation.Though there are over 4200 inscriptions, on seals, tablets and pottery, the writing has not been decoded.  One of the problems is that the writing is too short mostly being four or five symbols long. The decipherment is also hard because the Indus writing falls into the most difficult category in the relation between script and language. While the easiest one is where the script and language are known, like English written using Roman alphabets, the most difficult one is where the script and language are unknown; the Indus writing falls into this category.

Now a 30 cm tall varaha found under the foundation of a home in Haryana is now providing an interesting clue into the later usage of the Indus-Saraswati script. This 2 kg, copper figure went on display for the first time in Brussels last year and will be exhibited at the National Museum in Delhi from March 6th for two months. According to the description which appeared in The Art Newspaper, “The figure has a cast relief on its chest of a unicorn-like animal, similar to motifs found on seals of the Harappa culture, which thrived until around 1900 BC.” But the most interesting part is the inscription above this creature; according to the curator  Naman Ahuja  the inscription represents “a combination of Harappan signs and Brahmi letters”, suggesting that it comes from “a period of overlap between the two cultures.” The inscription reads  “King/Ki Ma Jhi [name of king]/ Sha Da Ya[form of god]” and according to the curator, “looks unmistakably like the Hindu god Varaha”. The Uttar Pradesh archaeological department has accepted this as an antique piece and dates it to the second to the first millennium BCE.

(Indus valley seals showing unicorns)

(Indus valley seals showing unicorns)

Before going into the relation between Harappan signs and Brahmi letters, we need to pay attention to the unicon like figure on the varaha. In his book, The Wishing Tree: Presence and Promise of India, Subhash Kak writes about the importance of the unicorn in Sanskritic texts. The Puranas referred to Vishnu and Shiva as ekashringa or the one-horned-one. The Mahabharata describes the varaha as triple humped, as shown in the Harappan iconography. In some seals, the unicorn is shown with the horn coming from the side as mentioned in Sanskrit texts.

Michel Danino too writes about the unicorn, which has been found in three quarters of the seals found in the Indus region, in The Lost River: On the trail of the Sarasvati. For Danino, the clues come from the Rig Veda. The Harappans added horns for not just the unicorn, but for tigers, serpents and various composite animals; the Vedic deities too have horns, sometimes even as high as four. The horn is prevalent all over the text: in describing how Indra destroyed the enemy’s den,  to describe Soma, or while mentioning how the sun god spreads truth. Danino concludes that it cannot be proved that the carefully executed unicorn stood for Indra, but the affinity with Vedic concepts calls for attention.

Now to the writing. India’s first script which we can read is written in Brahmi; Asokan inscriptions were written in Brahmi and so was early Tamil. Many of the Asian scripts such as Burmese, Tibetan, Cham, Malayan, Javanese, Sumatran and the Tagalog were all derived from Brahmi. Even the so called Arab numerals, which are actually Indic numerals are derived from Brahmi. That said, there are different theories regarding the origins of Brahmi. One theory suggests that it was derived from an earlier Indian script while the other suggests it was derived from Phoenician or South Semitic scripts.

(A fragment of an inscription in the Asokan Brahmi script. The inscription records Asoka’s Sixth Edict dating to 238 BCE.)

(A fragment of an inscription in the Asokan Brahmi script. The inscription records Asoka’s Sixth Edict dating to 238 BCE.)

Indologist and scientist Subhash Kak wondered if there was a relation between Brahmi which has 48 letters and Indus script which has more than 300 signs and what he discovered was absolutely stunning. In his paper, On the decipherment of the Indus script –  a preliminary study of its connection with Brahmi, he noted that letters of Brahmi could be combined to produce modified symbols and tabulating all the common modifications, he found they totalled between 200 and 300. He also identified the primary characters of the Indus script — ones which account for more than 80 percent of the signs — and they totalled 39 which is close to the letters in Brahmi.  Also just looking at the Brahmi characters, he was able to identify many characters in Indus symbols which visually look similar. With this insight and by  assigning sounds to those characters, Kak was able to read the names of Vedic deities into some texts. His work did not conclusively prove that Brahmi and Indus are related, but showed that the probability was high.

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In Pragati: Where is the Indo-European homeland these days?

(This article was originally published in Pragati)

The discovery of the relation between Sanskrit and European languages by Sir William Jones resulted not only in the birth of comparative philology, but it also initiated the search for the Indo-European homeland. There was no consensus on homeland location. In The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate, Edwin Bryant writes, “The Indo-European homeland has been located and relocated everywhere from the North Pole to South Pole, to China. It has been placed in South India, Central India, North India, Tibet, Bactria, Iran, the Aral Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, Lithuania, the Caucasus, the Urals, the Volga Mountains, South Rusia, the steppes of Central Asia, Asia Minor, Anatolia, Scandinavia, Finland, Sweden, the Baltic, western Europe, northern Europe, central Europe and eastern Europe.”

During the time of William Jones, scholarship was focussed on reconciling Indian history with theBible. In 1790, Jones reaffirmed the “sanctity of the venerable books (of Genesis)” and put the origins of Indian empire within the safe confines of Bishop Usher’s creation date of 4004 BCE. Under Max Muller, who claimed that Genesis was historical, the biblical heritage survived with the narrative that superior civilisations of Europe, Persia and India had one language family. Though India was initially considered as the homeland, by the 19th century that was no longer the case. Bryant writes, “The Indomania of the early British Orientalists did not die of natural causes; it was killed off and replaced by an Indophobia initiated by Evangelism and Utilitarianism epitomised by Charles Grant and James Mill respectively.”

The 19th century was also a period of racial science and it was encouraged by Orientalists in Madras who discovered that South Indian languages were not derived from Sanskrit. Following this discovery, Vedic texts were interpreted to read that white-skinned Aryans subdued dark-skinned and snub-nosed dasas. The similarity of Indo-European languages along with such heroic conquests led the search for the mysterious homeland from where these aristocrats set forth. With this the British could explain their presence in India as yet another wave of Aryan invasion, similar to the many waves that happened before. Once scholars started searching for the homeland, it turned out that you could throw a dart at a world map and there was a theory of origin from that place.

As of 2013, there are three homeland theories that are prominent. The first one — the Anatolian-Neolithic — proposes that Indo-European originated in Anatolia and spread through Europe along with the spread of farming. The spread of the language towards India was explained using two models. The first one proposed that the language spread eastward from Anatolia to India and the second one suggested that it was a later southward migration from Central Asia that bought the language to India. After going back and forth between these two models, the present version argues that Indo-European spread symmetrically westward to Europe and eastward to India. The second theory suggests that the homeland was not in Anatolia, but to the south of the Caucasus. The spread of the language did not happen with the spread of farming, but at a much later date. This theory also posits a secondary homeland located north of the Black and Caspian seas. The third one suggests that the homeland was located between the Volga and Dnieper (The Pontic-Caspian) during 4500–3000 BCE.

In a 2013 paper titled Twenty-first century clouds over Indo-European homelands, J P Mallory used the common notion that Anatolian was one of the first languages to split away in the proto-Indo-European framework to evaluate the three homeland theories. In the Pontic-Caspian model, the ancestors of Anatolians leave the region north of the Black Sea and move to Anatolia. Indo-European develops later in the Pontic-Caspian region and the speakers disperse both east and west in the Bronze age. The Near Eastern model presents crazy travel plans. First the Anatolians move out of Anatolia into the Balkans and Indo-European develops in that space. Before the Anatolians move back to their homeland, the Indo-Europeans move out requiring carefully choreographed movements of peoples. In the Anatolian Neolithic model, the Anatolians do not travel back and forth to the Balkans, but stay put. Instead the Indo-Europeans disperse around the world.

For each of the homeland theories and their paths of dispersal there are sufficient counter arguments that make it untenable or look ridiculous. To give an example, a theory presented in 2012, required two linguistic groups, and separated geographically for 2500 years to have similar linguistic changes. Mallroy writes, “the statisticians who devised this model seem to require some form of mutual contact at a distance, one of the stranger aspects of quantum theory that Einstein once dismissed as Spukhaftige Fernwirkung (“spooky action at a distance”) ”

A second problem with all these migration theories is this:  If agriculture was the source of language expansion, did the region from Anatolia to the Indus speak the same language at some point? Very often historians tell us that the invading/migrating Aryans changed the linguistic landscape of North-West India. If the agricultural spread theory is true, then it was not just the Indus languages that were changed. In the 2500 km distance from Anatolia to the farming community of Mehrgarh in Balochistan, there were four other non-Indo-European speaking regions (Hurrian, Semitic, Sumerian and Elamite) and the migration model requires major language shift in all these areas. Mallroy writes, “In any event, all three models require some form of major language shift despite there being no credible archaeological evidence to demonstrate, through elite dominance or any other mechanism, the type of language shift required to explain, for example, the arrival and dominance of the Indo-Aryans in India.”

One possibility is that the language did not spread through invasion or the current favourite — migration — or due to elite dominance, but due to demic diffusion. Peter Bellwood looked at the farming hypothesis and coupled it with new archaeological discoveries in the Gangetic plains, and proposed last year that Indo-European speakers arrived in North-West two millenia earlier than expected. This gave possibility to the development of Vedic language in the region and not in Central Asia. It also provided the ability for the language to spread slowly rather than suddenly. Later in his life Max Müller questioned the concept of a single Proto-Indo-European language. Martin Lewis, a historical geographer at Stanford University, writes, “He [ Müller] further contended that speakers of these dialects might have spread their tongues not by way of massive invasions but rather through the gradual infiltration of relatively small numbers of people out of their Asian homeland.”

To paraphrase an Indo-European scholar, the right question to ask these days is not where the Indo-European homeland is, but rather, where do they put it now?  Since Indian history has been deeply tied to the movement of Indo-European people, it is important to understand the debate that is going on. If one has to be cynical of the whole enterprise, it has to come from an understanding of the complexity and not through a simplistic denial of the theory. In her book History of Ancient and Early Medeival India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century Upinder Singh wrote that most historians have abandoned the idea of an Aryan invasion for a ‘several waves of migration’ theory. Though no one knows where they came from or which path they followed, Indian history is still firmly rooted in these external origins.

The problems with two centuries of linguistics do not end with diverse homelands or inconclusive paths of migration. There are fundamental issues on what languages belong to the Indo-European tree.  Where does Graeco-Armenian or Italo-Celtic belong? Is Tokharian an orphan or should it be associated with the German branch? A debate which is going on this year is if Basque, the ancestral language spoken by people living in the region spanning northeastern Spain and southwestern France, is an Indo-European language or not. These doubts, (See  An earlier date for Indo-Europeans in Northwest India) which exist in Indo-European linguistics, is absent in Indian history narratives. There is not an iota of scepticism and a simplistic model still seems to be the norm.

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In Pragati: Book Review of Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox

Margalit Fox reveals the life and struggles of the people behind the decipherment of Linear B, an unknown language in an unknown script, similar to Indus-Saraswati writing. 

One of the most puzzling unsolved mysteries of the ancient world is the writing system of the Indus-Saraswati civilisation. There are over 4200 inscriptions, on seals, on tablets and on pottery; of the 400 signs, only 200 have been used more than five times. Decoding this writing would not only reveal details of life during that period, but also put an end to various debates over the identity of the residents of the Indus region. There has been no dearth of decipherments: many have read proto-Dravidian into the script and others Sanskrit. In The Lost River, Michel Danino writes that the only safe statement that can be made is that the seals played an important part in trade and permitted the identification of either traders or their goods.

Linear B Image

A sample of Linear B script

Decipherment of Indus writing is hard because it falls into the most difficult category in the relation between script and language. The easiest one is where a known language is written in a known script, like English written using Roman alphabets. A difficult case is where a known language is written in an unknown script like when Rongorongo is used to write Rapa Nui. Equally difficult is the case where a known script is used to write an unknown language like when Greek alphabets are used to write Etruscan. The most difficult one is when the language and script are unknown and there is no help for the decipherer. The Indus writing falls into this category.

Linear B, the writing found on the island of Crete, belonged to this category as well but was decoded half a century after it was discovered. The writing was used by Minoans who flourished during the Bronze age following the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilisation. Found by an English digger named Arthur Evans, it was named Linear Script Class B. The decipherment story of Linear B might have turned into a dry academic discussion on the difference between proto-writing and writing or on if it was a memory aid for rituals or just meaningless visual art, but Margalit Fox makes it a fascinating tale as the decipherment is tied to the life of three unusual people: a glorified English tomb robber, a largely forgotten American classicist and a gifted English architect; it is the human element that adds depth to the mystery.

The three decipherers

The challenges that faced the decipherers looked insurmountable. When Evans found the tablets in 1900, there were no computers that could detect patterns or do statistical analysis. It looked as if we would never find out if the tablets would reveal a Western epic like the Iliad or just bland accounting records. Though there were no external clues from a Rosetta Stone, some information could be gleaned from the tablets. Evans, for example, figured out the direction of writing and the word breaks because they were separated by tick marks. He also figured out the numerical system used by the Cretan scribes. Some tablets, which had arrow signs on them, were found near a chest filled with arrows; the context gave an idea of what those tablets represented. Some of the tablets were found in the palace complex in boxes with pictograms representing the contents

Nothing beyond this was known when Alice Kober started work on the script in the United States of America. She was an assistant professor of classics at Brooklyn College, who taught introductory Latin and Classics during the day and worked on deciphering the secrets of the Cretans by night. In preparation for the work, Kober learned many fields such as archaeology, linguistics, statistics. Since she was not sure about the language of the Linear B writing, she spent fifteen years studying languages from Chinese to Akkadian to Sanskrit. Without seeing the tablets and by looking the two hundred inscriptions that were available, she worked on them methodically and came close to solving the mystery. Not much credit was given to her in other books about Linear B decipherment and the book tries to correct that by detailing her contributions.

She solved many mysteries, which Arthur Evans or other scholars could not solve; this included figuring out which signs depicted male and female animals as well the sign for boy and girl.  A major breakthrough for Kober was the discovery that Linear B was inflected, which meant that they depended on word endings like adding -ed to denote past tense and -s to indicate plural. With this discovery, she was able to eliminate many languages, which don’t use inflection and focus on languages, which did. She was also able to figure out what was known as a bridging character, which enabled her to figure out the relative relationship between the characters in the script.

The last person mentioned in the book is the one who finally deciphered it. Michael Ventris, is a person who would have been dismissed by modern scholars as a quack for he was not a linguist or a classicist or a scholar in any other field of humanities; he worked as an architect. Like Kober, he too was obsessed with Linear B, even publishing a paper when he was 19. Unlike Kober, Ventris had access to larger number of Linear B symbols. As he sorted the characters based on their frequency and position, he found certain characters appeared at the beginning of the words.

He made one major intuitive leap, which Alice Kober failed to do, and with that he was able to solve the mystery. There were codes, which differed only in the last character and they were found only in Knossos which meant that those characters represented the name of the place. Now it was time to figure out what the words actually meant. Since Kober had figured out that it was an inflected language, he discarded Etruscan and considered other options like Greek. According to the wisdom at that time, Greek speakers arrived much later and so this would have been unacceptable. Ventris, then performed a second leap. During the Iron Age, a writing system called the Cypriot script existed. While the language remained a mystery, the sounds of the symbols were known as the script was used to write Greek following the Hellenization of Cyprus. As those sound values were substituted, the words began to make sense. By the time he was 30, he had solved Linear B.

Lessons for the Indus Decipherers

ten indus glyphs

Ten Indus glyphs discovered near the northern gate of Dholavira 

The people who worked on the decipherment faced great challenges, but they had some qualities that helped them makes progress. They were intelligent, had great memory and were single mindedly focussed on the issue. Margalit Fox explains in detail the tremendous skills that are required to find success in an impossible task like decoding an unknown script of an unknown language. You need rigour of the mind, ferocity of determination, a deliberate way of working, along with a flair for languages. When you are stuck with such a problem, where no external help is available and the problem looks unsolvable, you have to look closely for sometimes the clues lie in the puzzle itself revealing itself to the careful observer.

There is a certain orthodoxy in the Indus politics, which prevents scholars from considering that an Indo-European language was spoken in the region. Solely based on linguistics, it has been argued that Indo-European speakers arrived in North-West India following the decline of the Indus civilisation and hence the language should not even be considered as a possibility. Thus most decipherments argue that the language spoken in Indus Valley was non Indo-Aryan. Similarly, for decoding Linear B, there was intense speculation on the language of the tablets, but Greek was ruled out because Greek speakers were known to have arrived later. Evans thought that the Minoan culture was different from the later Greek culture and there was no relation between the two. Alice Kober refused to play that game, refused to give sound values to the characters, and firmly said that the script had to be analysed based on the internal evidence devoid of the decipherer’s  prejudice. She was highly against starting with a preconceived idea and then trying to prove it.

Now even in Indus studies the data is pointing to interesting possibilities. A 2012 paper by Peter Bellwood, Professor of Archaeology at the School of Archaeology and Anthropology of the Australian National University suggests that Indo-European speakers may have been present in Northwest India much earlier, maybe even two millennia earlier than previously assumed.  According to Bellwood, the urban Harappan civilisation had a large number of Indo-European speakers alongside the speakers of other languages which may have included Dravidian.

In a 2010 paper, Professor Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, who has been excavating at Harappa for three decades wrote that even though the Indus script has not been deciphered, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, Sino-Tibetan and Indo-Aryan co-existed in the region. Paul Heggarty, a linguist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in a 2013 paper writes that Indo-European speakers may have reached Mehrgarh much earlier than 4000 BCE. With such information, there is a need to break away from the orthodoxy. (See “An earlier date for Indo-Europeans in Northwest India”)

Maybe there is a scholar or an amateur who is as meticulous as Kober or as gifted as Ventris to whom the secrets of the Indus would be revealed, but the  decipherment of Indus script is hard because of the brevity of the seals; the average is five symbols. To figure out anything from seals averaging just five signs is an impossible task. Another possibility that could help is the existence of  a bilingual inscription in one of the regions with which the Indus people traded. For example, there existed an Indus colony in ancient Mesopotamia. This village was located in an area called Lagash in southwestern Mesopotamia which had cities like Girsu, Nina, and a port city and area called Guabba. Scholars also found a  reference to a personal seal of a Meluhhan (assumed to be a person from the Indus region) translator — Shu-ilishu — who lived in Mesopotamia.

Thus 4000 years back, there was a man in Mesopotamia who could speak Meluhhan as well as Sumerian or Akkadian. He could read those Indus tablets. This is not surprising since the Meluhhan merchants would have handled the imports from Meluhha and exported Mesopotamian goods to their homeland. Since the translator worked with Meluhhans and Mesopotamians, he would need to speak multiple languages. This also suggests that there could exist a bi-lingual tablet somewhere in the region where Shu-ilishu lived. If such a tablet is found, it could be the Rosetta stone which would solve a 134 year old mystery forever.

Finally when it was decoded, the Linear B tablets did not reveal an epic like the Iliad or the Odyssey; they found a record of crops, goods, animals and gifts offered to gods. They revealed the working of the society, about the status of various holdings, and about the personnel who worked there. They revealed their food habits, religious habits and how they spent their time. It revealed the pyramidal structure of the Minoan society with elites at the top, craftsmen and herdsmen below them and slaves at the bottom. The tablets were predominantly economic and was concerned with keeping track of  the goods produced and exchanged.

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