History, Science and Indology

Rahul Oka rahul.oka at USA.NET
Fri Mar 17 01:55:50 UTC 2000

For some time I have been following the various threads of this forum and the
debates in which the participants always seem to be engaged in polemics and
arrange themselves around the Wheelerian paradigm, whether they want to or
I am not a linguist, historical or othervise. My training has been social
sciences and the natural sciences rather than humanistic fields. I am an
ecological archaeologist and study urbanism and urban decay through scientific
rather than humanistic tools. I do however, follow philosophy of history and
linguistics, right-wing and left wing, constructivist, deconstructivist and
reconstructivist.  The attempts of historians and linguists engaged in
science-envy has always been interesting if slightly amusing.  
The epistemology of Indology and veracity of sources dealing with Indian
studies is grounded in the Western paradigm, see Europe and The People without
History. A book that created controversy yet raised the fact that Non-Western
cultures seen through Western eyes must always be through a power-laden
hierarchy. The debate between Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyeskere is
quite pertinent.  I do not think that we can ever completely cross the border
between being Insiders and Outsiders.  
The Linguists here are all eminent scholars, yet complain about scientists
barging into their fields. I think that the socio-politics of India demand
such a cross-field attention to Indian history.  
The reading of Indian history, whether through Wheeler's (since retracted)
ideas or the agendas of Leftist Historians who wish to base their analysis on
conflict primarily, has created a severe problem, one which will never be
addressed sitting in a leather-backed chair in Harvard or Oxford. The notion
of Aryan Invasion (frowned upon by archaeologists utilizing scientific rather
than linguistic techniques) has created a conquerer-conquered complex within
Indian society. Hence when a student from Bengal comes and tells me that there
is a distinct division between North Indians and South Indians and that he's
glad "we" kicked "their" arse, I get worried. Physical anthropologists have
not indicated any such differences between the so-called Aryans and Dravidians
and from our own ethnographic research, we know that body-types and
lingusitic-types are hardly indicative of any grouping pattern. 
I find it amusing that questions regarding the Indus phases, a point in times
when "Vedas" were not supposed to be there, and linguists have not been able
to 'crack' the language to each others' satisfactions (no help there), are
being regarded as a province of humanists rather than scientists, who really
have to only access to information. 
Why are there huge debates on the dates of Rigveda.  I am not a fan of
"dubious" sources, but I recall reading about astronomical dates mentioned in
the Rgveda which places the date way back. Someone here dismissed that source
out of hand, prefering instead to rely on the "scientific analysis" of
linguistic approach. I am not saying the dates are absolutely right, (using
Occam's Razor here), but assuming that a primary source (the dates mentioned
in the Vedas) is stupid (got the whole star-planet config. way off), or just
wrong or may be, made it up (to perplex and irritate Indologists) is quite
unscientific a series of assumptions. So is the over-reliance on a field which
grew out of and also informed colonialization, eugenics and is still
problematic, given that it contnues to be based on assumptions created a
hundred years ago.
Let's take this straight:
        Max Muller proposes 1200 BCE.  He is regarded as an authority then
(not now as was mentioned before) but his methodologies and ideas inform
subsequent research through the 20th century. By now, we are well aware that
he plucked the idea out as an "educated guess" based on a Judeo-Christianic
view.  But we say that our latter and contemporary research confirms his
guess. (Scientific Creationists make similar statements when arguing about the
literal veracity of the Bible.)  But ..., our research is based on his and
subsequent works. When did we ever say, let us change paradigms completely and
examine Muller's date through a completely different perspective, may be stuff
offered by scientists. So then may be, we should not quibble that Sarasvati
may have been a small lake, that the ansectors of the Hindus were stupid or
primitive enough to have not travelled towards larger bodies of water to make
that distinction. May be if the early Vedic peoples mention the S. River is as
big as an ocean and that later they say that it is not as big, then may be
they did record an actual geological event (confirmed by science) and were not
the atrocious chroniclers and observers of data (a 'fact' that has infuriated
Indologists the world over!, since the beginning of history, circa 1492 ACE). 
      Occam's razor is working: Rather than go into obscure, non-falsifiable
details of lake/river/ocean, if we take a primary source at its face value,
and subject it to scientific scrutiny, it stands up. But not by the science of
linguistics. But it is that latter which is more scientific because "there are
only so many ways in which the mouth can move, and sounds which can be
produced." I opine that the "sciences" practiced here should realize that
there are other sources of communication which will not be understood from the
chairs in the departmental offices but only through hard ethnographic research
done in the "field."  
        Why the strict opposition (almost patronizing) towards scientists in this
forum? Why does India and her "civilized" age (or for that matter China)
bother so many people. Is it because these are the only areas where there has
been cultural and syncretic continuity, possibly from the Bronze age, while in
the other areas (Sumer, Egypt, Mesoamerica), Semetic hegemony obliterated the
local culture from its dominant form? Does it bother people that Indians claim
that centuries of foreign invasions were unable to stamp out the local culture
from its dominant position, a process which took place quite fiercely in
Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the Americas (and to a Huge extent Asia and
I do not wish to resart the tired AIT thread. Just that I question the idea
that the "science" practiced by linguists as the best way to study Indian
History, especially when other disciplines fail to verify the linguists
claims, no matter how much the data is tweaked within the parameters of error.
I do think that we need border-crossers for studying history, and definitely
scientists (real ones) for studying Indian history. I would like to state that
I do not endorse studying history through any particular meta-narrative or
agenda and am not saying that humanist scholars cannot do history, but that
there should be convergent verification between disciplines. We do that in
archaeology all the time. If I have a pet theory over the collapse of a
society and a physicist, geologist, biologist come and tells me (through
reproducible verification) that I am way off, I think that I will rethink my
ideas rather than question scientific data. But then I would have to ensure
that I was well conversant with scientific techniques and theories to
understand the others work. I cannot do that if I studied basically language
(linguistic and humanistic history) in undergrad, grad and post-grad work.

Rahul Oka

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