Thursday, December 30, 2010

In Search of the Cradle of Civilization: New Light on Ancient India

Book Review: In Search of the Cradle of Civilization: New Light on Ancient India
by Georg Feuerstein, Subhash Kak, and David Frawley  (Quest Books 1995, 2001)

This was a very good book that postulates a somewhat alternative history of India and the Vedic-Aryans. It is Indo-Centric at times and has perhaps helped a little to fuel the unhealthy current of Indian Nationalism – but it really is a well-done book that approaches Vedic history, and indeed human history and tradition from several angles.

Part One of the book focuses on the deep past of the Indus Valley culture (~3100-1900 BC), the Neolithic settlement of Mehrgarh (from 6500 BC), and comparisons of these cultures to that written about in the ancient Vedas. The authors make a good case that the Indus Valley culture and the Vedic culture are one and the same. The usual argument of scholars is that the Vedic Aryans invaded and/or migrated into the region around 1200-1500 BC or perhaps 500 yrs or so earlier – having subdued the Indus Valley culture. The arguments given by the authors are numerous and include archeological, textual, and astronomical-astrological arguments. The authors note the recent geological discovery of a buried river system in the region to be equated with the Sarasvati River mentioned in the Vedas. They postulate that the Indus Valley people left the region around 1900 BC due to climatic changes resulting in the drying of the rivers. Post-Vedic writings such as the Brahmanas and Puranas note repeatedly that the Sarasvati River disappeared into the desert. Before that in the Vedas there is no mention of the river having vanished. Also of interest are the writings known as the Aranyakas – or the writings of the Forest-Dwellers. The authors postulate that these writings refer to a time when the Indus Valley-Vedic Aryans moved eastward into more heavily forested regions after the climatic changes, toward the Ganges region where they would eventually re-settle. Also of interest are textual evidence (in Assyrian scripts) of Vedic-Aryans making a treaty among the Hittite-Mitanni in Anatolia circa 1400 BC and being present in Mesopotamia and ruling Babylonia for a time as the Kassites. They acknowledge as do others that Vedic-Aryan may not be a strictly ethnic connotation as these societies were thought to consist of very mixed ethnicities. They and others interpret Vedic-Aryan as more of a cultural model in terms of types of rulership and stratification of society. They seem to suggest that Indo-Aryan is the main or perhaps the most complete branch of Proto-Indo-European – which is more defined by language than strictly a cultural model. They seem to favor the ideas of Colin Renfrew a bit more than the other, more accepted, Indo-European historians. In any case they strongly dispute the Aryan Invasion theory of the take-over of India by the Aryan militaristic migrating pastoralists.

Much of the archaeology of the Indus Valley/Harrapan towns of Mohenjo Daro, Dholavira, Harappa, and others is discussed. Many of these town sites have yet to be excavated. The Indus script has yet to be deciphered. I have read in other books where it was thought to be related to an Elamite-Dravidian language but others think it is closer to Sanskrit. Those who favor its relation to Sanskrit point out a few similarities to the bahmi script used in the time of King Ashoka’s edicts. I guess we won’t know for sure unless it is deciphered. Apparently, one problem relating to its decipherability is that the inscriptions are all very short and typically, longer inscriptions are needed to break the codes. Another interesting thing about the Indus people is that they were known to have traded with Sumerians as early as 3000 BC. It is also thought that they traded by sea as outposts have been found along the Indian Ocean and on the Arabian peninsula. There are also Indus artifacts found in the Maldives off of South India which substantiate this capacity for sea travel. The Vedas mention the Pani as a people often at odds with them. The Pani are thought to be the Phoenicians. The Indus-Sarasvati peoples had an intricate system of weights and measures, kept food and grain in storage, had a rather sophisticated sewage removal system, and mostly lived in cities with buildings and streets made of bricks. People in favor of the Aryan Invasion theory will often point out that the Vedics were pastoral nomads that did not live in cities but the authors point out several passages from the Rig Veda mentioning cities. The authors also conclude that rectangular Vedic fire altars are part of the archaeological discoveries although some archaeologists apparently are not so sure. In Harappa, however, there is no doubt. There is a rather famous clay seal called the Pashupati seal which shows a seated figure possibly in a crossed legged yoga-like pose with horns atop his head and surrounded by various animals. He has been equated with Rudra-Shiva (as lord of yoga) in his aspect as Pashupati  - lord of animals. This seal has also been compared to the shamanic horned god (as Cernnunos) depicted on the Gundestrip cauldron discovered in a bog in Denmark that was thought to have been made by or for a Celtic tribe in the first or 2nd century AD.  The Pashupati seal would be at least 2000 years older. Other Indus art does indeed show some continuity to later Indian art. Perhaps future archaeological excavations will yield more answers to all these intriguing questions. The peepal tree (bo tree/Bodhi Tree) is depicted in much art and is indeed a sacred tree today to both Hindus and Buddhists.

The discovery of Mehrgarh is very significant in that it is a very large urban center for Neolithic times – perhaps up to 20,000 people lived there so it is thought to be maybe 4 or 5 times the size of contemporaneous Catal Huyuk in Anatolia. This is about 2/3 of the entire population of Egypt in 6000 BC – so this was a very large city for that time period. Domestication of cattle, pottery from a potter’s wheels, and drilling tools with urban workers were known in Merhgarh. These are new discoveries that defy soem of the older models of early India. Another interesting observation is that in both Merhgarh and Catal Huyuk it was determined through DNA studies of human remains that both of these cultures were surprisingly multi-racial.

The authors do make a strong case that the Vedic-Aryans did not come from outside India but were there at least from the early Indus-Sarasvati period around 3000 BC and they would like to think that the culture was rather continuous from the early Neolithic (circa 8000 BC) onward. Most scholars would disagree and put the proto-Indo-European homeland to the north on the Eurasian steppes around 4500 BC and beginning to spread out from then and there over the next few thousand years and invading/migrating to India from about 1500 to 1200 BC.

There are some very interesting astronomical arguments from the Vedas which indicate star configurations and solstice/equinox situations that suggest time periods extending back to 7000 BC or earlier. Apparently there are several of these suggestions – only now beginning to be taken seriously by more modern archaeo-astronomical studies. In the early part of the 20th century the Vedic researcher Tilak came up with some interesting but very controversial notions for dating the Vedas and placing the people at latitudes within the arctic circle by astronomical methods. Scholars summarily dismissed his findings. However, other researchers have definitively placed astrological events in the time range of 2500-4500 BC suggesting that the Vedas are in this age range at a minimum. Unfortunately, the Vedas consist mainly of hymns and can be cryptic at times. There is very little data that is historical. Apparently, one can sort of cross-reference information given in the Brahmanas and Puranas with that in the Vedas to arrive at some historical data.

Part Two of the book is about the cultural and spiritual legacy of India. Here we encounter topics such as the origins of yoga, Vedic spirituality and the teachings of the Upanishads that many think were concurrent but written down only later. Some of the IE scholars who keep to the Aryan Invasion theory have suggested that the Upanishads derive from the conquered Dravidians ( their Indus Valley peoples) while the Vedas are attributed to the nomadic pastoralist invaders. 

There is some fascinating material about the birth of science and measurement in the Vedic sacrificial rituals which called for mathematical proportionate fire altars and precise astronomical orientations. The idea of correspondences, or equivalence, in nature has always been important the ritualist. The Vedic sacrifice was a thread betwixt man and god, the body/mind and the cosmos, the earth and the sky. As above, so below is an apt maxim for the nature of these rites. Observations of the natural world yielded survival knowledge. Knowledge of time through astronomical observance improved agriculture. The authors posit that there was a metaphorical interpretation of the Vedas and of the sacrificial rites from the beginning. The cryptic nature of many of the hymns (riks) and some fairly obvious metaphorical-type references support this idea. Sri Aurobindo in more modern times has made commentaries incorporating his own metaphorical interpretations of Vedic meanings. Still, it seems likely that many of the keys to interpretation may be lost or yet to be re-discovered. The purport of many of the earlier scholars (Euro-centric as the authors say) that the gods of the Vedas are mere personifications of natural forces seems rather shallow. That may be true in the exoteric sense but clearly there seems to be a deeper psychological aspect to the Vedic cosmology and ritual.

The mathematical relationships between the way the Vedas are arranged and memorized, the construction of the fire altars, astronomy/astrology, and the time cycles are examined and show some interesting correspondences in terms of planetary and lunar cycles. Quite clearly, sophisticated naked-eye astronomical observation was in place among the Vedics before the texts were written down, long before the astro knowledge of the Babylonians and Greeks arrived. The authors suggest that an exodus of peoples from the ecologically troubled Indus-Sarasvati culture around 1900 BC brought some of these (as they believe) Indo-Aryans to Western Asia where it is possible that the Vedic astrology influenced the development of Babylonian astrology.

The authors examine some parallels of Vedic science notions with later yoga and the Ayurvedic medical system – aka. the fifth Veda.

“The Vedic theory of knowledge is based on a belief in the interconnectedness and unity of the whole universe. As mentioned before, according to the Vedas, the cosmos (adhideva), the individual living being (adhibhuta), and the Spirit (adhyatma) are intimately connected. It was for this reason that the Vedas were meant to be interpreted in three ways. Thus the Vedas speak of the seers in the sky as stars, on Earth as sages, and in the head as cognitive centers. Likewise, the Vedic texts know of the Ganges of the sky (the Milky Way), the Ganges River on our planet, and the Ganges of neural pathways of the brain. These mysteries of the universe were communicated to the people through the theater of ritual. As we have seen, cosmological knowledge was encoded in the design of the altars and in the Vedic ritual itself.”

Apparently, when Alexander made it to India he or his comrades  noted the similarities of Krishna and Shiva to Herakles and Dionysus. The ensuing Indo-Greek culture on the Bactrian frontier was syncretistic from the outset. Comparison of deities such as the Vedic Varuna, the Greek Ouranos, and the Egyptian Osiris can be fruitful according to the authors. The astrological basis of some of the Vedic myths given in various Indian texts and epics are given. Some are fairly clear and there is a significant amount of evidence that the precession of the equinox was known – and of course, reflected in the Vedic time cycles. Several plausible astronomical interpretations of Vedic myth are given in the book.

In the last section they explore the Indian knowledge as related to Western knowledge and the future of such. The authors suggest the Vedic knowledge as a sort of “perennial wisdom” to form the basis of a global spirituality. That makes sense to me but more in reference to the more philosophical notions present in the Upanishads. Our own western philosophical and knowledge frameworks are rooted in the Ancient Greek traditions overlain rather uncomfortably with the spiritual notions of Judeo-Christianity. I would agree that the Vedantic knowledge makes a better standard to measure against in terms of the spiritual.

Overall, this was a wonderful book, full of knowledge – although some of it surely will be dismissed by scholars in the field. But, I think these authors were armed with powerful and varied tools that other scholars often overlook or of which they may even be unware. For this reason, and many others, this is a potent and useful book.

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