UCLA 9A: Notes on Indus Valley Lectures

The first few lectures of Introduction to Asian Civilizations: History of India, a course taught at UCLA and which has Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India as mandatory reading, talks about the Harappan Civilization. 

In Lecture 2, the instructor mentions a list of animals that were domesticated in the Indus region and adds that the horse bones were never found before 2000 B.C.E; carbon dating found horses of much later date. This for him suggests that Aryans came with their horses, from the steppes, after 2000 B.C.E and subdued the natives.

The story about horses is not that simple. As we have seen, horse bones definitely were present in Harappa, possibly before 2000 B.C.E. What the instructor conveniently left out was the fact that there were not a whole lot of horse bones even after the alleged Aryan arrival. The symbolism of asva is left out too as well as the fact that there was no massive migration from the steppes since 7000 years back.

The instructor then talks about Sarasvati, in the context of Harappan civilization and dismisses it as the work of Hindu nationalists. He  mentions that this theory is not believed by any serious scholar of Indian history and goes on to add that the irony for Hindu nationalists is that the beginnings of their civilization is outside India.

He is right about the fact the Hindu nationalists mostly believe that Ghaggar-Hakra is Sarasvati. The whole truth is that, it is not just Hindu nationalists who believe that. The following text is from a response given in the Rajya Sabha just two weeks back, by a minister belonging to the Congress Party.

The major (western most) channel of river Sarasvati remained more or less constant and unchanged and is considered to be the actual Rig Vedic Sarasvati river. The description and magnanimity of these channels also matches with the River Sarasvati described in the Vedic literature. From the prominence and width of the palaeo channels on the satellite data, supported with data from archaeological finds, age and quality of ground water, sediment type, etc., it is confirmed that river Sarasvati had its major course through present day river Ghaggar and further passing through parts of Jaisalmer and adjoining region in Pakistan and finally discharging into the Rann of Kachchh. A major palaeo channel of the river passes through Jaisalmer district while a considerable part of the river drained further, inside Pakistan. [Detection of underground water]

Also, early this year, just few miles away from UCLA, there was a conference titled International Conference on the Sindhu-Sarasvati Valley Civilization: A Reappraisal. Those who attended were Jonathan Mark Kenoyer (University of Wisconsin), Jim G. Shaffer (Case Western Reserve University), Carl C. Lamberg-Karlovsky (Harvard University), Edwin Bryant (Rutgers University), Maurizio Tosi (University of Bologna, Italy) and Nicholas Kazanas (Omilos Meleton Cultural Institute, Athens). Are they Hindu nationalists?

Also in attendance were professors of Indian origin like Subash Kak (Oklahoma State), Ashoka Aklujkar (University of British Columbia), who have been living abroad for decades. How do we know these professors are still guided by the politics of the homeland and not pure research.

In fact what is wrong in studying Sarasvati-Sindhu?

Scholars may disagree about the identity of Sarasvati with a specific modern river, about the exact course the river followed, about whether the name “Sarasvati” is borrowed from a region to the northwest of pre-partition India, about the number of sites actually close to the accepted course, about the number of sites in the north and the south of the course, about whether the river had its origin in the Himalayas, about whether the river was glacier-fed, about how closely or exactly the newly discovered sites are related to the Indus-Harappa sites, and so on. However, no scholar worth the appellation has, as far as I can determine, taken the position that the new sites cannot at all be related to the Indus-Harappa sites or are beyond the area associable with Sarasvati. If, in this state of research, some scholars wish to study the Sindhu-Sarasvati area together, what is so objectionable about it? Why should the inclusion of Sarasvati be an anathema?[Response to S. Farmer]

We have seen this pattern before: accuse anyone who holds a different point of view of being a Hindu nationalist. Hopefully, UCLA students of Indian History, will go beyond Nehru and  Doniger and read more balanced books like Edwin Bryant’s The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004) or Klaus K. Klostermaier’s A Survey of Hinduism, 3rd ed. (State University of New York Press, 2007) to understand India.

5 thoughts on “UCLA 9A: Notes on Indus Valley Lectures

    1. Kedar,
      I have seen some books in the library like The Indus Valley (History Opens Windows) by Jane Shuter etc. But these books simply regurgitate the 19th century paradigms and are not balanced at all. But their writing style in simplifying contents is worth emulating.

  1. The instructor then talks about Sarasvati, in the context of Harappan civilization and dismisses it as the work of Hindu nationalists. He mentions that this theory is not believed by any serious scholar of Indian history and goes on to add that the irony for Hindu nationalists is that the beginnings of their civilization is outside India.

    I had the misfortune of attempting to have a meaningful conversation with the instructor (Prof. Vinay Lal) once about the extent of politicization of social science departments – especially, history, political science, and sociology – in the United States, which he quickly and angrily denied. This quote goes to show why he must have done so!
    If the Sarasvati River hypothesis is flawed, then it should be falsified with evidence, not by labeling those who advance the hypothesis. Then again, that’s the scholarly method of falsification. Ideological demagogues masquerading as academics, unfortunately, are not well versed in the scientific method.
    What is ironical about “Hinduism” originating in the Harappan/Indus Valley, which is currently inside the boundaries of a political entity called Pakistan, and outside a political entity called India? Is it ironical that Christianity originated in Israel or that Buddhism originated outside Japan? And, why would a serious academic care about any of these trivia?

  2. It is sad indeed that historians, some of high academic repute, often discredit opposing points of view by accusations of ideology influencing research. Recently, this was evident in the fights that happened between the researchers (Witzel, Sproat, Farmer) who believe that the Indus people had no script vs. researchers (Rao, Yadav, Vahia, Joglekar, Adhikari, Mahadevan) who had published in Science that the Indus symbols are indeed part of a script. Some of this fight also played out in the comments to my own blog post (http://karatalaamalaka.wordpress.com/2009/05/04/indus-valley-symbols/), where Professor Sproat conceding that his co-authors Professors Farmer and Witzel sometimes go overboard in their “Hindu fundamentalists” accusations.

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