How Ancient Is The Vedic Tradition
Dr Kenneth Chandler
Origins Of Vedic Civilisation
Causes of the Decline of the Indus-Saraswati Civilisation
Geological and archeological evidence, it turns out, give strong evidence that a long and devastating drought followed by devastating floods led to the abandonment of the settlements along the banks of the Indus and Saraswati rivers in western India, ending an urban civilisation that had flourished, archeologists now surmise, sometime between 2,600 BC and 1,900 BC. The Indus and Saraswati valley civilisation was vast and widespread, and covered over 250,000 square miles, from north central India in the east all the way to the eastern edge of Iran in the west. There is no evidence to suggest that this vast civilization was destroyed by Indo-European Aryan invaders, but rather, it is now virtually certain that its demise came as a result of widespread climatic changes that occurred in 1,900 BC.
Recent studies by Louis Flam of H. H. Lehman College of the City University of New York have shown that the course of the Indus river changed dramatically around 1,900 BC, probably flooding many settlements along the river and disrupting the Indus valley civilisation. Jim Schaffer of Case Western University has found impressive evidence that settlers of the Indus valley migrated at this time east to the plains of the river Ganges.
Mortimer Wheeler, the anthropologists who excavated Mohenjo-Daro in the in the 1920s , one of the most well-preserved cities of the Indus Valley civilisation, brought to the project an “outside invasion theory.” He found unburied skeletons in the most recent layers of the city which led him to think that he had evidence that the civilisation was overrun by invaders from outside. More reliable recent evidence has shown that the people of the Indus valley were not victims of invasion and massacre, but that their civilisation withered as a result of various climactic changes, including prolonged droughts and extensive flooding, and possibly also earthquakes that changed the courseof the rivers.
It was not outside invaders of India who brought an end to the Indus-Saraswati civilisation, but a series of climactic changes and natural disasters. The biases of European scholarship caused them to see invaders where there were none. They existed only in the imagination of European scholars.
Historical Linguistics and Migrations of Early Civilisation
The other issue that needs to be considered is language origins. Historical linguistics appears to detect patterns of language change which some think may imply patterns of migration of early peoples, and which may therefore provide a clue to the origins of Vedic civilisation.
The original theory proposed by the early historical linguistics who considered these issues was that Vedic Sanskrit conserved the original sound system of the “proto-Indo-European” language most closely, and that Iranian and European languages underwent a systematic sound shift, creating break-away or daughter languages spoken by the people who populated India and Europe. According to this theory, Vedic Sanskrit was put at near the trunk of the proto-Indo-European language tree, if not the trunk itself.
This theory has been challenged and hotly debated in recent years, most especially by computer linguists. Since the 1990s, it is now common for computer linguists to hold that Sanskrit is not so near the root of the Indo-European language tree, but a subsequent branch. A currently dominant theory is that the original Indo-European language stemmed from an Indo-European proto-language that has since been lost.
The first languages to break off from the proto-Indo-European root, according to the dominant contemporary linguistic theories, was Anatolian (the language of what is now central Turkey), followed by Celtic (a language found in nearby Thrace in northeastern Greece, and also Ireland suggesting that there was a commerce or colonisation between Ireland and early Thrace), then Greek, and then Armenian. According to these theories, the Indian and Iranian language groups are still later branches off the proto-Indo-European “root.”
The linguistic evidence appears to imply migrations of people from the Black Sea area into India, and yet there is no anthropological evidence to support either a migration into northern India, or an invasion. Evidence from skeletal remains, as we saw, as well as pottery and other artifacts, show no cultural replacement at any time in north Indian history. This makes it difficult to conclude that a people speaking a proto-Indo-European root language migrated to India from outside, resulting in a language shift to the daughter language of Sanskrit. The hard anthropological evidence just does not support such a view. How else, then, can we account for the apparently late evolution of Sanskrit from the proto-Indo-European root language ?
* * * Dr. Don Ringe and Dr. Ann Taylor, two linguists at the University of Pennsylvania, with the help of computer scientist Dr. Tandy Warnow, developed a computer algorithm to sift through the Indo-European languages and look for grammatical and phonetic similarities between them. Their work, published in 1996, has thrown up four possible family trees. “We have come up with a favorite,” says Dr. Warnow. The tree shows that the first breakaway language was Anatolian, an ancient group of languages once spoken in Turkey. Celtic was quick to follow, spawning Irish, Gaelic, Welsh and Breton. Armenian and Greek then developed from proto-Into-European. Strangely enough, one of the later branches to emerge, according to the runs of the computer programs, was Sanskrit.
It is interesting that the Celts settled in Thrace in northern Greece, just a short distance from Anatolia. Thrace was the birthplace of the Orphic mysteries which swept into Greece in the sixth century BC. Celtic is one of the earliest languages, along with Anatolian and Greek, to break off from the Indo European proto-language. The technique for self-knowledge described by Socrates were said to have come from Thrace. The Anatolians of central Turkey occupied the area near where the pre-Socratic tradition sprang up in the sixth century BC. This suggests that a technique was passed from India into the Celtic language.
Eminent computer linguists caution against drawing conclusions from computer-simulated language programs—which may reflect the assumptions of the programmers more than the branches of the linguistic tree. They caution that computer linguists tend to program in assumptions that reflect their own biases and expectations, and therefore the outcomes cannot be any more accurate than the assumptions. Computer linguistics does not necessarily mean unbiased, objective linguistics, but may, on the contrary, program in distinct biases of the linguists. If linguists start with a theory of an outside invasion, they will naturally bring those biases into their work, and it is not unthinkable that such biases have colored computer and historical linguistic theories.
It also needs to be pointed out that if a false assumption is programmed in, then anything at all can come out. Anything at all can be derived from a false assumption. If the assumption that Sanskrit is not the proto-Indo-European language root be false, then anything follows.
More on the Indo-European Proto-Language
* * * In 1990, Thomas V. Gamkrelidze and V. V. Ivanov, authors of the two volume The Indo-European Language and the Indo-Europeans, published an article in Scientific American, in which they state, “The landscape described by the reconstructed Indo-European proto-language is mountainous—as evidenced by the many words for high mountains, mountain lakes and rapid rivers flowing from mountain sources.” They note also that, “the [proto-Indo-European language] has words for animals that are alien to Europe, such as “leopard,” “snow leopard,” “lion,” “monkey” and “elephant.”” The authors suggest, on the basis of this and other linguistic evidence, that the homeland of the proto-Indo-Europeans was somewhere in the Caucasian mountains of western Asia near the Black Sea in around 4000 BC.
These same words could be used to make the case that the mountainous terrain, and more especially the elephant, monkey, and snow leopard are more commonly found in the region of northern India and the Himalayas. If the words for elephant, monkey, snow leopard, and mountains are in fact more abundant in the Indo-European proto language, this would most likely put the proto-Indo-European home somewhere in the Himalayan region of northern India, rather than in the Mountains to the east of the Black Sea. This would tend to support the hypothesis that the Indo-European proto language originated in the region of the Himalayas of northern India and Tibet, rather than in the area of central Turkey, where there are few monkeys and elephants.
At present, there is simply not enough evidence to discern the early patterns of migration and language shift that brought about the different language groups. We can say with relative certainty, however, that the Vedic people did not migrate into India from outside, so it is relatively unlikely that the Vedic language came from outside India. Thus the origins of Vedic Sanskrit remain obscure.
Many linguists stress that our “linguistic heritage, while it may tend to correspond with cultural continuity, does not imply genetic or biological descent. There is no more reason to suppose that we, as speakers of an Indo-European language, are descended biologically from the speakers of proto-Indo-European, than that the English speaking population of Nigeria is Anglo-Saxon.”17 It is necessary to be very careful in drawing conclusions about migration patterns and racial origins from linguistic evidence.
Rules of Language Transformation
A main tool of historical linguistics is the set of rules of sound and grammatical transformation governing the language change. One language evolves into another due to cultural or geographic separations of peoples due to migrations or other cultural displacements, such as conquest. Using the rules of historical linguistics, it appears to be possible to discern patterns of change and to determine which language has shifted into the other.
* * * Thomas V. Gamkrelidze and V. V. Ivanov, “Family Tree of the Indo-European Languages,” Scientific American, March, 1990, argue that more “recent evidence now places the probable origin of the Indo-European language in western Asia.” They hypothesize that the proto-Indo-Europeans originated sometime around 4,000 BC in the region around the Black Sea.
* * * Radio-carbon dating of skeletal remains of the “Kennikut man” found in the late 1990s in the Columbia river gorge on the west coast of north America shows that caucasoidal men inhabited Oregon more than ten thousand years ago. Some words of the Klamath Indians of that region of Oregon are also of apparent Indo-European origin. The Klamath word which means “to blow” is “pniw” and may be linked to the Greek “pneu” which means breath or to blow, and ultimately to the Sanskrit “prana” which means breath. Linguists assume this was mere accident before the discovery of Caucasoid remains in the area. This would suggest that a migration into the Americas took place 10,000 years ago or more—and the immigrants brought with them an Indo-European language, putting the dates of the proto-European root at before 10,000 BC. The Rig Veda civilisation, like the American Indians, had a bow and arrow technology. Rig Vedic civilisation can be placed in time as more advanced than the Indian culture of 10,000 years ago.
One of the rules of historical linguistics is the softening of consonants over time. Thus, for example, the “v” in the Sanskrit “Veda,” meaning knowledge, is transformed into the softer English “w” in “wit,” “witten,” “wisdom” and the German “wissen,” which also means knowledge, and derives from the more ancient Sanskrit root. The Sanskrit “deva” is transformed into the softer Latin “deus,” Greek “theos,” Lithuanian “dewas,” Irish “dia,” and Old Prussian “diews.”
Using such transformation rules, linguists attempt to reconstruct which languages are earlier and which broke off later in the transmutation of language. Historical linguists assume that these rules are constant over time and that they apply to early transformations as well as later ones.
If we assume that the basic rules of language transformations are constant and do not mutate over time, then these conclusions follow. But could there have been sound shifts in the opposite direction at much earlier times in history ? Perhaps different laws applied at the time when Vedic Sanskrit changed from and to other languages.
Consider that there are also changes in the reverse direction. For example, the “g” in the Sanskrit “go,” (meaning cow) is transformed into the harder consonant “k,” to make the German word “kuh” for cow. The English word “cow,” pronounced with a hard “k,” is a harder, guttural form than the “g” in the Sanskrit “go.”
Also, in the case of the Vedic tradition, we have a people who were highly conscious of language and sound and the rules of sound transformation, even from the early Vedanga period. The Vedangas give elaborate theories of sound and its relation to meaning. Ancient Sanskrit grammar has its own rules for the transformation of consonants, internal rules for change, codified in ancient texts on phonology and grammar (Nirukta and Vakaran), both of which express elaborate theories of sound. Such self-reflective theories at an early date may have influenced the direction of language shift and may be anomalous to the rules applied in later linguistic theory.
Other hypotheses may explain why Vedic Sanskrit appears to not be the proto-Indo-European root language. One might propose, for example, that an early form of Sanskrit arose in northern India, and that some north Indian peoples migrated west to the Black Sea area, where their language mutated into Anatolian, Armenian, Celtic, and Greek. Then language change within Vedic Sanskrit, due to self-reflective grammatical theories, have mutated this earlier form of Sanskrit in a direction contrary to the typical rules of linguistic transformation.
Computer simulated models of language change may be simply wrong or misleading. In other words, the transformation “rules” of historical linguistics may not apply to changes as early as Vedic Sanskrit. Or they may reflect more the racial and cultural biases of the programmers. Rather than assume a migration from the Black Sea area into India, which is not supported by anthropological evidence, we must simply acknowledge that we do not have enough knowledge to discern the early patterns of migration of the people who wrote the Vedic literature.
The simplest hypothesis to account for the data may be that Vedic Sanskrit is itself is the mother tongue of the proto-Indo-European peoples.
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