Myths of Origins, Stories of Travel

We are a multi-source civilisation drawing its cultural impulses, languages, traditions and practices from a variety of heredities and migration histories

By   |  Pramod K Nayar  |  Published: 29th Sep 2019  12:27 am

The debate on a unifying language runs alongside, often, with: the politics of claims over the antiquity of certain languages (thereby, supposedly, bestowing greater glory), over the ‘authenticity’, via autochthony, of some languages (‘our own’) and over the supposed link between a cultural form and a language.

We know that Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) and the geographer Ptolemy (AD 100-79) mention ancient Kannada cultures (particular names of people derived from the Netravati river in present-day Karnataka) and other communities in India. The Tamil language’s antiquity is now a truism, and its Sangam texts have acquired worldly renown.  For Malayalam and Telugu, likewise, historical records show their antiquity, their cultural exchanges and literary productions. Evidence of the ancient world’s trade links between the subcontinent and the Middle East has also surfaced.

Then there is the deep excavation into the Indus and Harappan civilisations. In the case of the former, Iravatham Mahadevan’s pioneering studies in The Indus Script: Texts, Concordance and Tables and other works have offered prescient insights into this ‘lost world’. Yet, such globally recognised scholars are themselves cautious in asserting either the myth of origins or the myth of purity of languages, cultures or social organisation in the ancient (or present) world.

Mahadevan argued that the Indus civilisation language was almost certainly Dravidian in origin. In his interviews, Mahadevan, however, was also careful to speak of not just evidence-as-truth but the interpretation of evidence:

We say that the Harappan civilisation is pre-Aryan. Now how come you have a soma filter centuries before the Aryans ever came in? The Indus civilisation itself is Aryan and the Dravidian hypothesis is wrong. I do not believe that that is the correct answer. We do not have the horse in the Indus civilisation. There is no evidence for the wheeled chariot. There is no evidence for the spoked wheels. The RgVeda, the earliest document of the Indo-Aryan, has no mention of great cities like Harappa or Mohenjo-daro.

Cultural Mixing

When historians and epigraphists seem to rely on inscriptions, Mahadevan states:

The absence of … inscriptions by Chandragupta, the illustrious grandfather of Ashoka, could be explained by saying that stone inscriptions were not in the Indian tradition and they came to us along with the Persian tradition.

He clearly points to cultural mixing here. Regarding the Tamil-Brahmi script, Mahadevan argues that in the Brahmi script ‘some elements of the Semitic were taken over, others were locally added, improvements were made, the order of the sounds were changed, the diacritical marks were locally invented, the aspirates were invented, the additional vowels were joined, so that Brahmi is a much developed and transformed script’.

On the Dravidian and Indo-Aryan cultures, Mahadevan says:

The Dravidians and the Indo-Aryans interacted with each other and we have the Indo-Aryan languages with Dravidian features and we have Dravidian languages with Indo-Aryan features. Hinduism has both Aryan and Dravidian elements… There are no clear cut parallels.

Those who have excavated [Harappa and Mohenjo-daro] are struck by the absence of outward religious symbols. No temple has been excavated, no large deities have been excavated … In any case, the present South Indian civilisation is already the product of both Indo-Aryan and Dravidian cultures, and the language itself is completely mixed up with both elements….

Again, he points to exchanges and mixing as the ‘foundational’ feature of culture.

Mixing is the ‘foundational’ feature of culture – Iravatham Mahadevan, Indus script expert and epigraphist

What strikes one in this account of arguably the foremost epigraphist and scholar of the ancient world we have known is the openness to inquiry, a fair amount of scepticism and self-reflexivity in what they see as ‘history’. This mode of inquiry is precisely what we need today in the age of both, linguistic chauvinism and politically motivated battle-cries over the antiquity of language, the myth of ‘true’ culture and the frightening dogmatism over authenticity.

The Practical Past

There is, in other words, in the contemporary’s hair-raising valorisation of one past or one language a complete dismissal of scholarly inquiry and academic exploration of History. We are immersed in a ‘practical past’ as opposed to a ‘historical past’ when we do so, to invoke the terms of Hayden White in The Practical Past (2014). The historical past is a ‘highly selective version of the past’, a ‘strictly impersonal and neutral object, built by historians, that only exists in books and academic essays’. In contrast, the ‘practical past’ refers to:

(a) notions of the past that people hold in everyday life; (b) the sphere of memory, dream and desire; (c) ideas to which we appeal, at will or not, to face practical problems in present situations … and for creating tactics and strategies for negotiating personal and collective life.

Crucially, White points to a specific problem:

In the present … in inquiries into these kinds of past, what is at issue is not so much ‘What are the facts?’ as, rather, ‘What will be allowed to count as fact?’ and, beyond that, ‘What will be permitted to pass for a specifically “historical” as against a merely “natural” (or for that matter, a “supernatural”) event?

History is supposedly constructed around facts. What we should look at in History is what has counted as facts in the first place

The feminist historian Joan Wallach Scott made resonance with the above, arguing that feminist history began as a struggle to demonstrate that women’s actions in the past were not counted as facts. Thus, feminist history was an attempt to show that women’s oppression was not a ‘natural’ event, but a ‘historical’ one. Joan Kelly-Gadol’s famous question ‘Did the Women have a Renaissance?’ (1977) was one such early attempt to see if the roles and actions of women did indeed influence society, or were they regulated.

What dominates today is the ‘practical past’, where some detail or datum from the past, excavated by the historian, the geneticist or archaeologist is not counted as fact. We replace the datum with ‘faith’ and ‘belief’, so that History can be made to serve our present political needs, whether this is about ‘holy’ sites, linguistic origins or the ‘greatness’ of particular cultures/civilisations. The data is made to tell a single story.

Where scholars like Mahadevan admitted to incomplete knowledge and their own tendency to often idiosyncratic interpretation of, say, Harappan seals, the politically motivated ‘practical past’ presents interpretation as fact. In other words, the contemporary politicised ‘practical past’ has no use for self-reflexivity, the humility of scholarship or the acceptance that the past is a matter of interpretation and political decisions as to what counts as proof or fact.

Cross-cultural Influences and Past

The obsession with purity or origins enables us to ignore cross-cultural influences. We posit a straight, unwavering line of descent of languages, cultures or ritual practices even when the influences are, as Mahadevan and other scholars trace, palpable and visible. It is this last that most troubles the ‘practical pasts’. To not make certain historical process of exchange, connections and influences visible is the key to the idea of a monolithic culture that can then reject other cultures.

To see culture and language as built through borrowings that were contingent, necessitated by a host of as yet unknown factors, is anathema to the practitioners of the ‘practical past’ – and this is not restricted to India or the USA alone. Admittedly, not all exchanges or influences were ‘positive’, and many elements of cultures were surely lost in these transactions.

But then, is that not the story of the evolution of life itself: of adaptation, borrowing and loss of certain organs, limbs and functions? Evolutionary biologists tell us that life advanced through cooperation and co-optation, and not just through competition. Culture, surely, is no different.

Science and/as History

Alongside such a determination to theorise a monolithic past and ‘unifying’ language, is the so-called evidence for the same drawn from genetics, especially paleogenetics and population genetics. Seeking pure origins to establish a ‘we were the first here’ status/claim or ‘we are the true natives’ is as foolhardy as ethically unacceptable. Recent commentators in these fields have pointed to the impossibility of relying exclusively on genetic evidence for such claims.

The Harvard geneticist, David Reich, widely quoted (and misquoted) today concludes his Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past (2018) with the incontrovertible argument that ‘in Nazi Germany, someone with my expertise at interpreting genetic data would have been tasked with categorising people by ancestry’, signalling the misuse of genetic data. For Reich, the biggest advantage of genetic studies is:

The effect of exploding stereotypes, undercutting prejudice, and highlighting the connections among peoples not previously known to be related.

Tony Joseph in Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From (2018) concludes, after sifting through the genetic data now available, that ‘the tribals … ought to be seen as the foundational population of India’. But he also points out that there was a ‘multiplicity of migrations’.

Joseph notes that the mixing of communities and social groups was the norm until around 100 CE, and ‘shutters’ came down around intermixing by the time the Mauryan empire ended. This is where the caste system began. Thus, the ‘caste system in India is not coterminous with the arrival of the “Aryans”’. Joseph notes that 50-65% of the ‘whole genome ancestry of the Indian population comes from the descendent lineages of the First Indians’. With all this data on origins and genealogies, Joseph writes:

To try to erase these differences and patterns to create a monoculture would be a typically un-Indian enterprise…The genius of our civilisation, during its best periods, has been inclusion, not exclusion.

He concludes:

The best way we can define ourselves is as a multi-source civilisation, not a single-source one, drawing its cultural impulses, its traditions and its practices from a variety of heredities and migration histories…We are all Indians. And we are all migrants. 

In the place of the origin myth, the history of migration. In the place of ‘authenticity’, the story of mixtures. In the place of stasis and fixity, the story of travel. When you get to the origin, you discover: there was always a prosthesis at the origin.

Misplaced Pride

  • Openness to inquiry is what we need today in the age linguistic chauvinism and politically motivated battle-cries over the antiquity of language
  • What dominates today is the ‘practical past’, where some detail or datum from the past, excavated by the historian, the geneticist or archaeologist is not counted as fact

  • We replace the datum with ‘faith’ and ‘belief’, so that History can be made to serve our present political needs, whether this is about ‘holy’ sites, linguistic origins or the ‘greatness’ of particular cultures/civilisations
  • To not make certain historical process of exchange, connections and influences visible is the key to the idea of a monolithic culture that can then reject other cultures

Dravidian Dash

  • Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) and the geographer Ptolemy (AD 100-79) mention ancient Kannada cultures (particular names of people derived from the Netravati river in present-day Karnataka) and other communities in India
  • Tamil language’s antiquity is now a truism, and its Sangam texts have acquired worldly renown
  • Telugu’s grammar goes back to the 13th century and its origins lie, scholars claim, in Proto-Dravidian, perhaps developing more fully around 1,000 BC
  • Malayalam’s origins, scholars note, lie in Old Tamil and Sanskrit, and came into its own  around the 7th century
  • Studies like Sheldon Pollock’s Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South India have offered numerous evidentiary records to their antiquity

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)