Book review: Indus Age- the Writing System by Gregory L. Possehl.

Vishal Agarwal vishalagarwal at HOTMAIL.COM
Fri Apr 30 22:10:43 UTC 1999

Indus Age: The Writing System by Gregory L. Possehl (1996).
Oxford and IBH, New Delhi. Pages 243 + xvi. Price not stated. Reviewed
by Dr. N.S. Rajaram.

Gregory Possehl is one of the more prolific authors on the
Harappan Civlization with several books and numerous papers to his
credit. So naturally, his new book is of considerable interest to
students of ancient India, especially the Harappan Civilization. It
appeared in 1996, the same year as the publication of Jha's Vedic
Glossary on Indus Seals. The book is elegantly produced, and the
Indian edition reasonably priced (though not stated in the book). It
purports to be a discussion of progress in the reading of the Indius
script from G.R. Hunter to the present day. Understandably, it has no
discussion of Jha's (or this reviewer's) work on the subject.
The literature on the Indus script is huge and growing, but
not everything published is of value. The book under review contains
60 pages of references, occupying a quarter of the whole book. It is
probably the most comprehensive survey of the literature so far
undertaken, but seen from our vantage position, curiously incomplete
in a manner to be soon described. In the light of this, and the fact
that it is becoming something of a standard reference, I feel that a
few observations on the work in the light of Jha's recent work would
not be out of place. The first point to note is that it is not, nor
does it claim to be a contribution to the decipherment of the Indus
script. It is a survey of previous efforts that tries to include
anything even remotely connected with the Indus script.
Upon examining the work, one is struck by the extraordinary industry
displayed by the author in hunting down the most obscure references,
including many that have never appeared in print. (It does not include
documents and multimedia presentations that are beginning to appear on
the Internet, which is a more recent phenomenon.) As examples of the
author's thoroughness in compiling his bibliography, I will cite only
two: a paper delivered by M.N. Gupta at the University of Kentucky in
1981, and an unpublished report "Soma, Metallurgy and Script: An
Economic Chronicle" by S. Kalyanaraman of the Asian Development Bank
in Manila! In a real sense Possehl's book may be called an annotated
For all its thoroughness, Possehl's bibliography is not
without its limitations. The most striking from the Indian point of
view is the incompleteness mentioned earlier: there is complete
absence of references to any primary works of ancient India like the
Rigveda. (Griffith's English translation of the Rigveda is mentioned,
but that hardly qualifies as a primary work. It is also very bad.) The
earliest reference we could find was to Cunningham's 1875 report on
Harappa. In other words, it is a survey strictly of the secondary
literature on the subject.
The source of this problem is the author's ignorance of Indian
languages and sources. It is as though the author has taken the modern
Indological dogma of the Harappan-Vedic dichotomy as a proven
historical fact upon which to frame his context. This means that he
places greater trust in present day works written by authors in
complete ignorance of the language and culture of the Harappans than
those written by their near contemporaries. This has led him to regard
all Vedic literature as being irrelevant to the Harappan Civilization.
His own admission of the complete failure of the 'mainstream'
Indological scholarship to make the slightest dent on the decipherment
problem has apparently not persuaded him to examine its foundations.
To his credit Possehl admits this failure when he notes at the end of
his book: "... it is sad to observe that except perhaps for the
concordances, we are no nearer a decipherment than G.R. Hunter in
"What then is the point of this massive bibliography?" - one may well
ask.  The author fails to note - for it lies outside his frame of
reference - that this unhappy state of affairs is the result of
working in a historical context that is far removed from reality,
compounded by a total neglect of the primary sources from the ancient
Indian literature and tradition. In other words, for all the industry
and thoroughness, Poessehl's book is little more than a catalog of
failures - with extensive commentary of course, but failure none the
same. I hasten to add, however, that this is a comment on the field
rather than the author whose effort and industry I applaud.
Needless to say this is not the best recommendation for the vast
literature that the decipherment has spawned. Possehl attributes this
sad state of affairs to poor sharing of visions on the part of
scholars. My own view is different: all these 'decipherments' have
taken place in the absence of a realistic historical context. So,
sharing of visions resting on the same foundation - or lack of one -
would accomplish little; it is like sharing visions by scholars
working on the Flat Earth model. Most of these scholars have attempted
to decipher an unknown script using a nonexistent language and a
fabricated history and culture. In addition, with rare exceptions,
most of them have made no attempt to relate the seals to the vast body
of literature left behind by the Vedic Hindus. In its place we find a
dogmatic attempt to divorce Harappan archaeology from the Vedic
To break out of the present rut these scholars must critically examine
their foundation. My experience with Indologists and 'Indo-European
Studies' scholars does not encourage me to conclude that this is going
to happen anytime soon. The more likely scenario is that a new school
of thought will emerge that will render these scholars and their field
irrelevant. This is exactly what happened when Newtonian Mechanics was
dethroned by Quantum Mechanics a century ago.
So where does this leave us as far as Possehl's book is concerned? It
is a useful compilation of attempted decipherments - all failures -
over the past seven decades. It has no insights to offer, and the
reader will come out no more enlightened about the Indus writing - or
even the Harappan civilization - after reading the book. In a couple
of years - if not already - it will be seen as a work mainly of
historical interest.

Post Script: (By Vishal)--The work suffers from one more serious flaw--a
total ignorance/non-,mention  of the  vast literature on this subject in
Indian Vernaculars. Most of this is composed by Traditional Indian Pundits
(who are not necessarily ignorant of Western Scholarship) and they have
applied the rules of the Vedangas , Pratisakhyas etc. to each and every
occurance of the word 'Arya' and so on and have amply demonstrated that the
Vedic texts do not allude to any foreign invasion of Aryans. In fact, it is
sad that most foreign scholars are totally ignorant of the excellent
scholarly works which appear in Hindu, Marathi and other Indian vernaculars.

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