There is a memorable scene in that Spencer Tracy classic “Inherit the wind” where the creationists clash with scientists in a courtroom. The pro-creationist lawyer asks the judge not to allow the testimonies of professors of zoology, archeology and anthropology in the courtroom, as they did not want to hear any “zoological hogwash” against Bible. It was déjà vu of that courtroom drama, when the Chennai based activist Radha Rajan in her recent article in the web-portal Vijayvaani.com sneered at “Anthropology, linguistics, archaeology and epigraphy” disciplines which project them as science only to provide “their peddlers the veneer of infallibility.”
The context should be first made clear. And the context is Witzel.
Professor Michael Witzel of Harvard University, Wales professor of Sanskrit was scheduled for a meeting in Sanskrit college Chennai. This created a stir, as Witzel was known for his anti-Hindu stand in the California Textbook case where he did not hesitate to derive support from anti-Indian forces. Witzel is a strong supporter of Indo-European migration model of ancient Indian past. He also favors an “illiterate Harappa” model. In all, his academic stands have a pattern: he carefully devalues, demeans and deconstructs ancient India. He does that in an academic way and sometimes his agenda spills out as he views all Indian research as naturally inferior. He smacks of western supremacist tendencies. So are some of his colleagues. So his invitation to Sanskrit college in Chennai naturally creates resentment and pain among the section of people. This is natural.
However Witzel has been criticized academically and attacked non-academically. First the academic: It should be noted that there is no textual evidence in the Vedas for Indo-Aryan migration into the Indian region. However Witzel in his work came up with one passage Baudhâyana Shrauta Sûtra. A leading international authority on Vedic Sanskrit would later comment:
It is beyond dispute that the interpretation Witzel gives to this passage does not accord with its syntax. This was pointed out, though without considering details by Elst (1998, similarly 1999:164-5). In e-mail message kindly conveyed to me by S.Kalyanaraman (11 April 1999), Witzel reacted to Elst’s objection and amended his rendition, referring to a passage from a forthcoming paper…. Even this however, fails to meet the requirements of syntax…. one must conclude that, without resort to unwarranted liberty of interpretation, this text cannot serve to document an Indo-Aryan migration into the main part of the subcontinent.”
[(Emphasis not in the original), George Cardona, The Indo-Aryan languages, Routledge, 2003, pp.34-35]
Witzel also acknowledges in academic circles that his Munda, Para-Munda substratum are not as well attested by proof as he would like his lay audience to believe. For example Witzel admits in an academic paper thus:
It must be stressed that neither the commonly found Dravidian nor Munda etymologies are up to the present standard of linguistic analysis where both the root and all affixes are explained. That is why most of the subsequent etymologies have to be regarded preliminary.”
(Substrate languages in Old Indo-Aryan (Rgvedic, middle and late Vedic), Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies 5.1, 1999)
George Cardona, an eminent linguist from University of Pennsylvania corrects many of the misconceptions that Witzel slips in between the lines in his papers. For example Witzel claims, “The spread of the narrative perfect, is a late phenomenon that it did not reach Panini at all…” Cardona states “The use of the perfect in reporting events not witnessed by a speaker is known to Panini, for his current language (Astadhyai 3.2.115…) … so that it is not precise to say “the spread of the narrative perfect …did not reach Panini at all”. (George Cardona, 2003 p.20)
In fact Cardona states in the civilized language of a venerable academician: “Without wishing to diminishing the value of Witzel’s major contribution, I have nevertheless to say that some of the conclusions and claims made are subject to doubt.” (George Cardona, 2003 p.19) Regarding one of Witzel’s pet theories on Munda substratum in Vedic language, though Cardona honestly admits he could not judge the value of the Munda vocabulary Witzel brings in, Cardona states clearly his own judgment on the Vedic terms for which Witzel proposes Munda etymology: “…although Witzel gives a long list of Vedic terms in which he sees Para-Munda prefixes, he does not, as far as I can see, give examples of entire words demonstrably borrowed from Munda and which could have served as a basis for abstracting prefixes. Moreover while asking rhetorically ‘Is the Indus language therefore a kind of Proto-Munda?’ Witzel admits, “Against this may speak first of all, as Kupier states, that the RV substrate does not have infixes like Munda.” (Emphasis not in the original: George Cardona, 2003 p.31)
The readers can note for themselves the intentional mistranslation by Witzel in order to fabricate literary evidence for Aryan migration. The readers can also note the mild language of rebuke towards the linguistic speculations Witzel puts forth with not much of credible evidence.
Now let us contradict this academic civilized culture with the way Witzel and his close associate Steve Farmer react to academic stands that go against themselves. Of course the the almost racial jabs hurled at Indians, particularly Hindus, by the learned Wales Professor of Sanskrit have made their rounds in the Internet.When in 2009 an Indian team from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, and the Indus Research Centre of the Roja Muthiah Research Library (both at Chennai), presented a paper, resulting from more than two years of sustained research it was accepted and was published in the prestigious journal Science. The paper contradicted Witzel-Farmer thesis of “illiterate Harappans”, which they had earlier presented in a sensational way. Now this paper by Indian team proved that there is credible scientific evidence to show that the Indus script is a system of writing, which encodes a language. The derision with which the Witzel-Farmer team reacted to this paper shocked among others Iravatham Mahadevan – the famous epigraphist who has dedicated his life to study the Indus seals. He wrote:
“As they say, garbage in, garbage out,” says Michael Witzel of the Harvard University. These quotations from an online news item (New Scientist, April 23, 2009) are representative of what passes for academic debate in sections of the Western media over a serious research paper by Indian scientists published recently in the USA (Science, April 24, 2009)…. The provocative comments by Farmer and Witzel will surprise only those not familiar with the consistently aggressive style adopted by them on this question, especially by Farmer. (Iravatham Mahadevan, The Indus ‘non-script’ is a non-issue, The Hindu, May 03, 2009)
In 2001, Witzel and Farmer along with a Chennai based Marxist media establishment launched a quasi-academic media lynch of N. S. Rajaram for claiming in his deciphering of Indus script that a particular broken Indus seal as a horse. While Rajaram’s deciphering did not stand the tests of science and failed on its own merit, the mistaken identification of the seal was trumpeted by Witzel-Farmer as an intentional hoax. However N.S.Rajaram need not have had recourse to hoaxing a broken seal if he wanted to prove the presence of Equus caballus. He could have mentioned the archeological reports which place domesticated horse ca 4500 BCE at the base of Aravalli Hills (Ghosh, 1989) or at the Harappan sites of Surkatoda (AK Sharma, 1979) or nearer to his own home at the Hallur excavation (Alur 1992), or at Kalibangan (Sharma 1992-3) or at Lothal (Rao, 1979). Yet Witzel-Farmer duo went about beating their drums about how they had exposed an equivalent of a Piltdown hoax by Indian nationalists.
The truth is that had anyone bothered to apply the same standards to Witzel’s mistranslation of BSS to fabricate literary evidence for Aryan migration that could have definitely merited as a “Piltdown translation” hoax than the seal misidentification could be termed as a “Piltdown horse hoax.” Emboldened now Witzel and Farmer claim that Mahadevan had distorted the Indus seals to present it as a language. So now the Indian researches are all graded from distortions to hoaxes. Steve Farmer once spoke with the same derision about eminent Indian archeologist B.B.Lal as “rightwing archeologist” and that “absolutely none of Lal’s recent work is accepted by any leading Western archaeologist.”(In an Internet post dated January 16, 2006)
Thus the pattern that emerges is clear: Witzel and his colleague Farmer carefully devalue anything Indian and at the same time also do not hesitate to attack non-academically and in an arrogant language those who disagree with them. Interestingly, the find media-platforms provided to them. One of the reasons for their increase in non-academic, political as well as media clout is the kind of attack launched on them by a section of Hindu activists. The name-calling as well as hyperbole has helped the duo to project themselves as some sort of knights in the shining armor fighting the menacing eastern monsters threatening academic freedom and research.
This being the context let us return to the article by Radha Rajan – we will see how she unwittingly complements Witzel’s agenda b her own vitriolic language and ill-tempered statements.
Iravatham Mahadevan, it is rumored, had arranged the meeting of Witzel at Sanskrit college. Perhaps Mahadevan was following the dictum of Thirukural – the Tamil classic that wants one to make the arrogant shy their evil deeds by one’s benevolence towards them. However this was also provided an opportunity for Sanskrit scholars in India to academically confront Witzel and expose him as academically weak. However Radha Rajan took it as an emotional issue. To her Sanskrit college is more than an academic institution, for it is sanctified by Pramacharya and today the evil Milecha was going to pollute it.
So she went and insulted Mahadevan.
In her own words:
I asked Mahadevan to back off and dump Witzel, Mahadevan refused, I told him I will disrupt his meeting, he snivelled, he was 80 years old, was recovering from a heart attack and would go on a fast-unto-death if I disrupted his meeting. … But like all idiot/criminal Hindus Iravatham Mahadevan decided to fast-unto-death, like Gandhi, not for Hindus and Hindu dharma but for Hinduism’s enemies. At my creative best, I made some posters – Inky Pinky Ponkey, Harward had a donkey, The Donkey rode the elephant (iravatham is Indra’s elephant),shame shame, and so on, a ten point ‘Know your Witzel’ document and went to the venue yesterday.
It is exactly through these kinds of moments that Witzels of the world become heroes. It is exactly because of such uncivilized attacks that we diminish ourselves. One should remember that it was Mahadevan who discovered the identification of Soma ritual and the Unicorn motif in the Indus seals. Remember that it was the Indian team under the guidance of Mahadevan that gave an academic blow to Witzel-Farmer “illiterate Harappans” hypothesis. And see how we Hindus repay him? Is it because he has provided us an opportunity to counter Witzel academically that we through our uncivilized behavior let pass.
Now to this article that Radha Rajan has penned down.
She calls archeology, linguistics and anthropology as tools for White Christian agenda. But what she forgets is that it was a white-skinned archeologist who disproved the “Massacre at Mohenjadaro” scenario – George Dales. It was an anthropologist – a white-skinned one at that- who exorcised the notion of Aryan as a racial or biological entity. It is archeologist B.B.Lal who today advocates academically the identification of Harappan civilization with Vedic. It was only a few decades back that some orthodox Hindus attacked him for his dating of core events of Ramayana as should have happened later than those of Mahabharatha. It was a white-skinned Belgian who exposed Witzel’s fabrication of literary data.
But here the malaise is deeper. Radha Rajan states that calling a discipline science a “veneer of infallibility.” This shows not just the prejudice of Radha Rajan but her ignorance about science. Had she at least customarily glanced Karl Popper she would not have written, what she had written. The label of science does not give a discipline the “veneer of infallibility.” On the other hand, it demands that the discipline should provide falsifiable hypothesis, which can be tested empirically. That is why we can claim Marxism and astrology as pseudo-sciences. That is why we can precisely identify some of the claims of Aryan invasionists and Dravidianists and their Nazi-like anti-Brahmin rhetoric as pseudo-scientific nonsense.
The readers can see for themselves that some of the worst indictments of Witzel have come from the very disciplines Radha Rajan so vehemently belittles. But it is the rhetoric of people like Radha Rajan that gives Witzel and his likes their extra-hours in the limelight of glory.
It is time Hindu intellectuals disown such uncivilized drivels and move forward and take up the challenge thrown at us by the likes of Witzel. Indian archeologists have done that. They did not indulge in word fights of street fight caliber nor did they pen down silly rhymes demeaning themselves. Rather they indulged in hard work. They overcame all the problems of a closed mindset of a dying paradigm. AK Sharma had to wait almost two decades before his discovery of horse bones were held valid. It is such Gandhian patience and intelligent hard work that will win the day for Hindus against the likes of Witzel. Instead if we abuse our own giants like Mahadevan, we are indulging in the sin of insulting Saraswati Herself.
As far Radha Rajan, I can only hope that she will not become furious reading this. A vain hope of course. For my fellow Hindu brothers and sisters I can only share with them the benedictory prayer Paramacharya wrote for UN:
Practice Friendship that wins all hearts
Now that is a sentiment even a die-hard Hindu atheist like myself can agree with.
S. Aravindan Neelakandan