Those Primitive Vedic People

(image via

In a recent review of Frits Staal’s Discovering the Vedas, Pramit Pal Chaudhuri writes

  1. Even a non-history buff will find the role of the Bactrian-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) and the Iranian Wedge in the evolution of Hinduism fascinating.

  2. What led such primitives to dwell so much on infinity or develop numbers so large they “have nothing to do with the universe,” he wonders.

After the Aryan Invasion theory failed, some proponents moved to a convenient migration-of-cattle-breeders-looking-for-pastures theory and the BMAC was hailed as new Aryan homeland They found some evidence too; an antennae-hilted sword found in Bactria looked similar to one found in Fatehgarh. It was also claimed that BMAC people had fire-worship temples, supposed use of soma, a horse skeleton assumed to be used in ashvamedha and cult motifs on precious stones

On closer examination however it was found that most of these claims required imagination in liberal doses. Looking at the evidence of the sword, Dr. B. B. Lal, who was the Director General of the ASI said, “if I said that the occurrence of a cylinder seal at Kalibangan in Rajasthan entitles Rajasthan to be the ‘motherland’ of the Mesopotamian Culture, I am sure my learned colleagues present here would at once get me admitted to the nearest lunatic asylum.Analysis of other evidence found no use of soma, no proof of ashvamedha, and in case of fire worship, that the migration was from India to Central Asia.

Even if they had some connection, the BMAC people, who belonged to the Bronze age culture of Central Asia, were not primitives, for they had well planned structures, multi-roomed temples, pottery kilns, metal objects, and sculptural art. But as soon as they completed their journey from Bactria to India, they became primitives.

The usual view of Vedas, the composition of these neo-primitives, is that of semi-civilized people wondering about nature, creating anthropomorphic gods and goddesses, moving from polytheism to monotheism to monism. People like Staal condescendingly wonder how such people are able to produce great concepts? Maybe they were not culturally primitive. As Chandradhar Sharma notes, “the correct position seems to us to be that the Vedic sages were greatly intellectual and intensely spiritual personages who in their mystic moments came face to face with Reality and this mystic experience, this direct intuitive spiritual insight overflew in literature as Vedic hymns.”

This attempt to cast people who wrote the Nasadiya Sukta as primitive comes from 19th century models which portrayed the natives as semi-civilized. Pick up a book like Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation which is used as text book in graduate courses, and you will find that colonial politics is still alive. Even when one part of their theory contradicts the other, it is presented to us with a straight face and if you disagree you are labelled a Hindu nationalist.

5 thoughts on “Those Primitive Vedic People

  1. Excellent stuff, JK. Thanks very much for all the links as well.
    Coming from Staal, this is disappointing. I remember reading one his pieces (i think in ‘Rules without Meaning:Ritual…’) where he talks about a certain part of a srauta ritual where the participant walks from west to east – and that was linked to the ‘Aryan Migration’!
    Chandradhar Sharma’s statement hit the nail on the head.
    1) Here is S.N.Balagangadhara’s review of another of Staal’s work:
    2) And here’s an Indian scholar complaining about the ‘everything foreign’ issue:

  2. Sharan,
    Thanks for the link. Regarding the Indian scholar complaining about the foreign issue, that was the wrong mailing list to complain.

  3. > Regarding the Indian scholar complaining about the foreign issue, that was the wrong mailing list to complain.
    totally 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *