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In Pragati: An Outdated Syllabus

(Photo: Justin Gaurav Murgai)

(a shorter and sweeter version of this article appeared in the Nov 2010 issue of Pragati)

Recently M. Night Shyamalan kicked off a race row with his latest movie The Last Airbender (2010). In the TV series, the characters, Aang, Katara, Sokka are Asian, but in the movie, they were portrayed by white actors; the casting call specifically asked for Caucasian actors. Shyamalan was accused of “whitewashing” and “racebending.” Another movie which attracted similar attention was Walt Disney’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) where actor Jake Gyllenhaal played an Iranian Prince. But in this case, most Iranians were pleased that a fair skinned actor played the role because it accurately represented how “Aryan” Iranians looked before Islam was forcibly imposed.

In Iran, the external Aryan ancestry is a non-issue, but in India it is a matter of angry controversy. The fact that it is a source of controversy in India has been bothering scholars in Western universities. In his course, History of Iran to the Safavid Period, Prof. Richard W. Bulliet, an Iranian specialist at Columbia University ridicules the people who oppose Aryan invasion theory and tells students that Indians believe that proponents of the Aryan Invasion Theory are members of CIA who want to portray India as a wimpish state; he specifically mentions members of BJP as belonging to this group.

In the first lecture he mentions the similarities between Old Iranian and Vedic and their relation to the Indo-European languages. For him, this similarity indicates invasion, and this invasion theory is supported not just by philologists, but also by archaeologists and historians. This Grand Canyon wide gap between scholarly consensus and what is being taught in American universities is not surprising. Last Fall, in a course titled  History of India, at University of California, Los Angeles, Prof. Vinay Lal lectured about rejected 19th century racist concepts like “subdued snub-nosed and dark skinned people known as the Dasas” and how forts and citadels were attacked by the invading Aryans.

These professors are wrong — about the Aryan Invasion Theory, about race, about the people who dispute it and the reason they dispute it. Though nationalism and sometimes Hindu nationalism is blamed, the reason why Indians are suspicious of colonial theories will become obvious as we look at an example where “scientific” European minds applied pseudoscience and divided the Indian population.

First, let us look at the Aryan Invasion Theory. In his book The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (2004), Prof. Edwin Bryant who looks at both sides of the Aryan debate concludes that, “there is general consensus among South Asian archaeologists that, as far as archaeological record is concerned, clear, unambiguous evidence of invading or immigrating Aryans themselves is nowhere to be found either in central Asia or in the Indian subcontinent.” Romila Thapar writes in Early India: From the origins to the AD 1300 (1995), that, “The theory of an Aryan invasion no longer has credence.”

Second, when it is mentioned that only members of the BJP are against the Invasion Theory, it is incorrect. Edwin Bryant is not an Indian; Romila Thapar is an antagonist of Hindu Nationalists. Truth is the casualty when he says that opponents of Aryan Invasion Theory have been ignoring archaeological evidence for Prof. Bryant’s survey shows that it is the lack of archaeological evidence, among other things, which prompted many historians to re-think. Instead of the invasion theory, many scholars now believe in a migration theory.

Finally, Prof. Bulliet says that opponents of the invasion might take refuge in the writings of his colleague Edward Said, the author of the seminal book Orientalism. On this point, he is absolutely right. It was the colonial historian who gave us the concept of race. 19th century Europe was the center of racial studies; scientists measured the volume of the skull for various races and found that the white race was the largest and hence of superior intellect.

From 1891, the British official, Herbert H. Risley defined 2378 castes as belonging to 43 races on the basis of their nasal index. Also, Indo-European, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, Tibeto-Burman linguistic groups were identified as different races with Indo-European speakers or Aryans at the top of the tree. Based on this mythology, the skeletons found in Mohenjo-daro were classified as belonging to various races, mostly non-Aryan.  Coming to the Vedic texts, a racial interpretation was assigned to various passages. The dark skinned and nose-less Dasyu was considered of a different race than the fair and high-nosed Aryan. This racial identification was objected to by Indian scholars like Srinivas Iyengar as early as 1914, but such dissenting voices were not the ones writing history.

Following World War II, Western anthropologists realized that race cannot be scientifically defined, based on cranial size or nasal index. According to Prof. Kenneth A. R. Kennedy, who has studied the Harappan skeletal remains extensively, “Biological anthropologists remain unable to lend support to any of the theories concerning an Aryan biological or demographic entity.” According to Prof. Gregory Possehl, an anthropological archaeologist at the University of Pennyslvania, “Race as it was used in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has been totally discredited as a useful concept in human biology.” Thus there is nothing to distinguish the invaders from the natives; in short, there is no Aryan or Dravidian race.

A century after Indian scholars raised objections, Western scholars are realizing that the racial interpretation was based on over reading soft evidence; it was a consequence of the 19th century racial insanity that ruled Europe. In 1999, Hans Hock reexamined the supposedly racial Vedic material and found them either to be mistranslated or open to alternative non-racial interpretations. Among multiple interpretations, the racial one was preferred because it favoured colonialism. Still the Professor at UCLA still talks about the snub-nosed Dasyus, even though Indian scholars have interpreted that the Vedic word means one devoid of speech, not nose.

Over the years, historians have accepted that various language groups are just that — language labels — and does not map to racial identity. In the 11th Neelan Thiruchelvam Memorial Lecture given in Colombo on Aug 1, 2010, Prof Romila Thapar made this very clear. According to her the notion of separate Aryan and Dravidian racial identities has no basis in history. According to Prof. Thomas Trautmann, “That the racial theory of Indian civilization still lingers is a matter of faith. Is it not time we did away with it?” But even in the last general elections, the Dravidar Kazhagam party leader exhorted his followers to reject “Aryan” candidates.

It is such non-benign theories and their consequences that has caused Indian scholars to view Western theories with suspicion. Prof.  Edwin Bryant writes, “I argue that although there are doubtlessly nationalistic and in some quarters, communal agendas lurking behind some of this scholarship, a principal feature is anti-colonial/imperial.” Thus the issue is not what members of BJP believe or do not believe; the issue is what is the latest scholarly consensus and why is it not being taught to students. Maybe the Prince of Persia can investigate if the CIA is involved.


  1. Michel Danino, The Indus-Sarasvati Civilization and its Bearing on the Aryan Question
  2. Michel Danino, Genetics and the Aryan Debate, Purtattva, Bulletin of the Indian Archaeological Society No. 36 (2005- 06): 146-154.
  3. Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004).
  4. History of Iran to the Safavid Period, Columbia University (Podcast, Lecture 1)
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In Pragati: Book Review – The Lost River by Michel Danino

The Lost RiverIn 2003, the Union Minister for Tourism and Culture, Jagmohan sanctioned Rs. 8 crore to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to search for the river Sarasvati. Though it was an inter-disciplinary archaeological program involving the Indian Institute of Technology and the Birbal Sahni Institution, designed to settle different schools of thought regarding the existence of the river, the venture was seen as “an attempt by RSS inspired historians to liken the Harappan civilisation with the Vedic era.” The project was shelved by the UPA Government.

In February 2009, the “International Conference on the Sindhu-Sarasvati Valley Civilization: A Reappraisal” was held in Los Angeles, CA, “to discuss, reconsider and reconstruct a shared identity of the Sindhu (Indus) and Sarasvati cultures, using archaeological and other scientific evidence as well as Vedic literature.” The title of the conference, specifically the use of the word Sarasvati, caused consternation among few Western scholars prompting Prof Ashok Aklujkar, Professor Emeritus at University of British Columbia to write a scathing rebuttal.

To understand why Sarasvati is a controversial topic in the 21st century we need to look at evidence from a number of sources: from tradition, archaeology, literature, geology, and climatology. We need to understand the path of Sarasvati, its life span, and traditions that arose within its banks that survive to this day. Finally, we also need to look at how Sarasvati challenges the Aryan invasion/migration theory.

In this 368 page book, Michel Danino narrates Sarasvati’s tale, assembling it from the reports of Western explorers, Indian scholars, Archaeological Survey publications, and Vedic texts. Danino who was born in France and has been living in India since the age of 21, has published papers like The Horse and the Aryan Debate (2006), Genetics and the Aryan Debate (2005), A Dravido-Harappan Connection? The Issue of Methodology (2007) and also the book The Invasion that Never Was (2000) on the Aryan Invasion Theory.
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In Pragati – Takshashila: The lighthouse of a civilization

(Ancient Buddhist Monastery at Jaulian, Takshashila)

Between 576 – 530 BCE, the Achaemenid emperor Cyrus established an empire which extended from Egypt to the Indus — the largest empire the world had seen so far. His successor Darius incorporated Gandhara with Takshashila as its capital, on the Eastern border, as a satrapy. Over the next millennia Takshashila was invaded many times and it became a cosmopolitan town from where great scholarship, new styles of art form, and future emperors would emerge. It was a historic meeting place of the East and the West.

The University Town

Takshashila was primarily a center for learning; an inscribed ladle from the Achaemenid period indicates that this place was a retreat for monks and scholars.  We don’t know exactly from when Takshashila was a university town. What we know is that it is mentioned as a place of learning in the pre-Buddhist Jataka tales. In fact Takshashila was a well known place even before Buddha’s period. According to Ramayana, the city was founded by Bharata who named it after his son Taksha. As per Mahabharata, Janamejaya held his court in Takshashila and it was here that Vaisampayana first narrated the story of the conflict between the Pandavas and Kauravas. The Vayu Purana mentions that Takshashila in Gandhara district is well known for the consecration of Taksha, the serpent prince.

During Buddha’s time it was a well known place of Hindu and Buddhist learning along the Uttarapatha or Northern Route. Students — Brahmin youth, princes, sons of rich merchants — trekked from the cities of the Gangetic plain to complete their advanced education: Jotipala, the son of a Brahmin priest in the court of the King of Benares returned after graduating in archery and military science and was appointed the commander-in-chief. Jivika, Bimbisara’s physician who cured Buddha, learned medicine in Takshashila. Prasenajit, the king of Kosala, who too was associated with Buddha was educated in Takshashila.

It was in this city that Panini produced one of the greatest achievement in grammar and Chanakya composed the treatise on statecraft. Students, who were admitted at the age of 16, learned the Vedas and arts (archery, hunting, elephant lore, political economy). There were schools for Law, Medicine and Military Science educating future emperors like Chandragupta Maurya.

There was no single Takshashila University in the modern sense. Each teacher formed his own institution, teaching as many students as he liked and teaching subjects he liked without conforming to any centralized syllabus. If a teacher had a large number of students, he assigned one of his advanced students to teach them. Teachers did not deny education if the student was poor; those students had to do manual work in the household. Paying students like princes were lodged in the teacher’s house and were taught during the day; non-paying ones, at night.

Trade & Art

Greek historians accompanying Alexander described the place as “wealthy, prosperous and well governed”. According to Strabo, Takshashila was a large city governed by good laws. The country was heavily populated and extremely fertile. Apollonius of Tyana who visited Takshashila in 46 CE observed that the people wore cotton and had sandals made of papyrus with a leather cap. The layout of the streets and houses reminded him of Athens.

Takshashila was also strategically located; it was the junction of a road network connecting Central Asia, West Asia and Kashmir. The “Royal Highway” connecting Takshashila to Pataliputra was precursor to the Grand Trunk Road. Horses, gold, luxury textiles, precious stones – all passed through Takshashila from the Gangetic plains to the Achaemenid world.  The Aramaic script came into India through this path and influenced the Kharoshthi script which was used for trade and administration. According to John Marshall, Kharoshthi was derived at Takshashila.

The imports were all not one way: During the time of Xerxes, the successor of Darius, Indian soldiers served in the Achaemenid forces and some of them fought in the Battle of Thermopylae against King Leonidas of Sparta. The Indian soldiers also participated in the Battle of Plataea, a year later, in which the Greek city states defeated the Persians. Through these contacts, historians like Herodotus got exotic ideas of India.

Takshashila, an important place in the east-west trade,  was also the melting pot of various cultures — Hindu, Buddhist, Persian, Greek. The interaction between Greek and Buddhist cultures influenced Buddhist art and it was here that Buddha was represented in human form for the first time by artists who were not restricted by the strict Buddhist rules in India. This Gandharan style, which combined Greco-Roman style from Alexandria, Hellenistic and Indian styles, influenced not just the Indians, but also the Central Asians and the South East Asians. The rock inscriptions of Asoka were influenced by the rock edicts of Darius in Gandhara. This melting pot culture affected the education with Greek dramas and philosophy being taught along with Indian texts.

The Invaders

Following the rule of Artaxerxes II (404 – 359 BCE), the Achaemenid rule declined and local chiefs became independent. After a period of quiescence for three decades, the trade routes brought a new invader and Takshashila surrendered without a fight. In early 327 BCE, half of Alexander’s army marched through the Khyber Pass and reached the shores of Indus. After subduing the hill tribes, Alexander and rest of the army joined them in 326 BCE at Ohind at the border of Takshashila.

After a 30 day rest, Alexander crossed the Indus into “the country of Indians” and on the other side he was met by an army in battle formation. This was highly unexpected. The king of Takshashila, Ambhi or Oomphis, had sent word that he would not oppose Alexander and would fight on his side. When it looked as if Ambhi had reneged on his promise, Alexander ordered his army to get ready.

Ambhi rode up alone towards the Greeks and he was met by Alexander who too rode up alone. Realizing that what came from Alexander’s mouth was all Greek, interpreters were summoned. Ambhi explained that he had come to put both his army and the kingdom at Alexander’s disposal. He also gifted elephants, large sheep and 3000 bulls to Alexander prompting the Greek to ask Ambhi if he as into husbandry. While Ambhi surrendered meekly, his neighbor Porus gave Alexander a good fight and lost. But Porus was praised; This battle, Battle of the Hydaspes, was immortalized by Western painters like André Castaigne ,Charles Le Brun and artists in Russia. It also made Ambhi a traitor, for aligning with a foreigner.

Alexander left in 325 BCE and the Greek power declined. Takshashila then became part of the Mauryan empire, under the leadership of Chandragupta Maurya, who apparently was present in Takshashila during Alexander’s invasion. We hear of Takshashila later when Chandragupta Maurya’s grandson Asoka arrived to quell a rebellion which did successfully without creating resentment among people. In 232 BCE, after Asoka’s death, Takshashila became independent; new coins were issued by a non-Mauryan authority. It fell under the Bactrian Greek influence till 50 BCE, Parthian and Saka influence till 60 CE and Kushans till the end of the second century. The Kushan emeror Kanishka had a regional capital in Takshashila.

When the Chinese pilgrim Sung-Yun visited Takshashila in 520 CE, it was already under the Huns who had been ruling for two generations. Sung-Yun noted that the Huns did not believe in the law of Buddha and were cruel and vindictive. According to him, the people of Takshashila were Brahmins who respected the law of Buddha. When Fa Hian visited in the fifth century there were numerous monasteries and stupas. When Xuanzang visited in the 7th century, Takshashila’s monasteries had become ruins and the royal family had become extinct. With the loss of royal patronage and with the ascendency of Saivite and Vaishnavite traditions, Buddhism disappeared from Takshashila.

Soon the city also declined. The political and administrative support perished. The population migrated and the city, after a millennium, became a set of rural settlements. But the memory of the old city did not die; When Alberuni visited in the eleventh century CE, he identified the new name Marikala with the old name Takshashila.


  1. This article appeared in the May 2010 edition of Pragati
  2. Images from Wikipedia


  1. Abraham Eraly, Gem in the Lotus: The Seeding of Indian Civilisation, 2005.
  2. A. Dani, Historic City of Taxila (Bernan Press(PA), 1986).
  3. Radhakumud Mookerji, Chandragupta Maurya and his times, 3rd ed. (Motilal Banarsidass, 1960).
  4. John Keay, India: A History (Grove Press, 2001).
  5. Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, 1st ed. (Prentice Hall, 2009).
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In Pragati:The Indus colony in Mesopotamia

Someone recently asked why sea voyages were prohibited in India. The answer is simple: sea voyages were not prohibited in India. How else do you explain the Indian Ocean Trading system where merchants — Gujarati vaniyas, Tamil and Telugu chettis, Malabar Mappilas, Saraswats, Navayats — traded in ports from Meleka to Aden? The June 2009 issue of Pragati had an article by Manmadhan Ullatil on this trading network.

But the history of sea voyages is much older; around 2000 B.C.E, there was a Meluhhan (identified as people from Indus region) colony in Mesopotamia. There was also a person who could read Meluhhan and Sumerian or Akkadian which could help in deciphering the Indus script. Read all about it in the latest issue of Pragati. The references can be found here.

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In Mint: The Fight over Darwin

(This piece was published in the Sept 15th issue of Mint)

In 2009, while the world is celebrating Charles Darwin’s 200th birth anniversary, American scientists have a unique challenge: convince 60% of their fellow countrymen that God did not create man. It might seem odd that a country which has won the maximum number of Nobel prizes, sent man to the moon, and has the best universities in the world, takes the antediluvian creation myth in the book of Genesis literally.

A 2009 Gallup poll revealed that only 39% of Americans believed in evolution.  There were two reasons for this: education and religion. Among the high school educated, only 21% believed in evolution and 52% had no opinion; among those with a college degree, 29% did not believe and 30% had no opinion. For the religious, Darwin contradicts the word of God and those who attended church regularly were found to not believe in evolution.

To analyze the role of religion in this debate, Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life asked major religious groups in United States on what they thought about evolution. The study found that at the bottom of the chart were Jehovah’s Witnesses: only 8% of their members believed in evolution. Slightly better were Mormons (22%), Evangelical Protestants (24%), Historically Black Protestants (38%) and Muslims (45%). Among the Catholics and Protestants, more than 50% believed in evolution.

A major problem facing America is that religious groups which deny evolution are out to impose their views as science on everyone by modifying science text books. In 2004, 150 years after Darwin published his seminal work, the Cobb County Board of Education in Atlanta affixed a sticker on thousands of public school textbooks which stated that evolution is a theory, not a fact. In Dover, Pennysylvania, the school board decided to teach that an “intelligent agent” created various species.

The same Pew Research poll which found that only 8% of Jehovah’s Witnesses believed in evolution also found that 81% of Buddhists believed in evolution along with 80% of Hindus. Like the story of creation in the book of Genesis, Hindus too have creation myths, but in India,  where the most American-Hindus are from, these creation myths stay in religious books, not in school text books. Also there are no Hindu or Buddhist groups questioning a fact which has been debated, analysed and tested for 150 years.

While various American Christian groups are vehemently anti-evolution, it cannot be generalized that it is a common behavior of all Abrahamic religions, since the group which stands third in ranking, after Hindus and Buddhists, are Jews with 77% believing in evolution.

The Pew religious survey found  one thing in common between American Hindus, Buddhists and Jews: members of these religions lead the religious groups in terms of education and were most likely to have a post-graduate degree. This ties with the Gallup poll which found that 74% of Americans who had a post-graduate degree believed in evolution. This also explains the frenetic effort among religious groups to subvert the education system

There is one more difference. In India, the syllabus is decided by the government — both state and central — whereas in United States, local school boards have the authority to decide tests, texts and teaching materials. Thus depending on the religious beliefs of the school board members, insane ideas can be taught and science can be redefined.  To prevent this, parents have to file law suits or vote the school board out – both disruptive activities.

Courts in United States have found that teaching “intelligent design”, a euphemism for creationism, violates the constitution. The creationists now are fighting for academic rights, so that educators can teach “a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”Fortunately, this is a fight we don’t have in India.


  1. A British film about Charles Darwin cannot find a US distributor.
  2. Texas public schools are required to teach Bible this year. According to second most powerful member of the Texas House, evolution is an anti-religious Jewish plot.
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