Open Essay

In the Beginning was Sanskrit. Really?

Roderick Matthews specialises in Indian history. He is the author of Jinnah vs Gandhi and Mountbatten and the Partition of British India
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Oak’s folks

THE WRITING OF history and the development of national identity frequently go together, colluding in mutual creation. This has been a live issue in India for decades now, and there are no signs of swift or neat resolution. Since independence, the dominant interpretation within Indian history has remained the Congress-approved narrative taught in schools, with its accent on diversity and tolerance.

But the most assertive strand, particularly within medieval and ancient history, is much more aggressively Hindu in tone. This strand has high ranking adherents within the current Government, who have been ready to assert eyebrow-raising claims about Vedic culture and technological achievements.

It is a strand that also supports a different kind of patriotism. The Congress developed a broad national critique of the British, but the principal target of Hindutva history is everyone else but Hindus. The great Congress grievance was imperial rule, resolved long ago. Hindutva grievances are less easily remedied, prompting fears of social restructuring on an unprecedented scale. At the base of this programme lies ancient tradition, coupled with a feeling, explicit or implied, that history has been falsified.

It is worth having a look at where all this came from, and to examine the substantial basis for ideas about India’s suppressed history. The movement first appeared towards the end of the 19th century and was closely associated with the rise of the Arya Samaj, whose founder, Dayananda Saraswati, believed not only in the literal truth of ancient Sanskrit texts, but also in their comprehensive scope. All that was in the Vedas was true, and all truth was in the Vedas, he taught. Much promotion of ‘Vedic science’ followed, as a nationalist pushback; ‘Hindu chemistry’ was pitched into the ring against Western intellectual supremacism, typified by Lord Curzon’s complacent claim that the highest ideal of truth was ‘to a large extent a western conception’.

But the modern persistence of this ambitiously assertive attitude is principally the work of one man, the remarkable PN Oak. Purushottam Nagesh Oak (1917-2007) was a fiercely patriotic Maharashtrian who devoted a lifetime to the rediscovery and reassessment of India’s lost past. He was never hampered by intellectual modesty, and believed so single-mindedly in the truth and importance of what he thought he had discovered that in 1964 he founded an organisation called The Institute for Rewriting World History. He was also an angry man, incensed by the state of decay and agonised self-doubt into which his country had fallen. This lifelong fury was so intense that it blinded him to the perils of giving one of his own books the ambiguous title Some Blunders of Indian Historical Research (1994).

Educated Indians were quite rude about Oak, and Oak was rude right back, claiming that the ‘conspiracy of silence’ that greeted his ideas merely illustrated the evils of foreign tutoring. His detractors, he said, lacked independence and should come up with some ‘original thinking’ of their own.

One of his original insights, featured in Blunders, was that the pyramids of ancient Egypt had been misidentified, and were actually ‘castles’, not tombs. How anyone could be expected to live in the tiny spaces inside them, deprived of light and water, did not concern him. His instinct for originality was satisfied.

Yet despite his eccentric perceptions, Oak’s main ideas about India’s past were not particularly original. Har Bilas Sarda, a prominent Araya Samajist, had covered much of the same ground in his 1906 book Hindu Superiority, and very similar material, particularly in the area of comparative philology, had appeared in India in Greece; Truth in Mythology (1852) by E Edward Pococke, a work of astoundingly misplaced scholarship. Oak’s main contribution was to add an extra degree of ambition and militancy. His main points are easily grasped—that ancient Hindus were the prime creators of global civilisation, and that modern Indians have been swindled out of their own history.

His work has inspired a club of supporters and imitators, both bookish and political. There is now a large body of literature from, among others, VS Godbole, Paramesh Choudhury, NS Rajaram, S Talageri, François Gautier, Stephen Knapp and David Frawley, all of whom generally concur with Oak about the primacy of Hindu science and culture in the ancient world.

Educated Indians were quite rude about Oak, and Oak was rude right back, claiming that the ‘conspiracy of silence’ that greeted his ideas merely illustrated the evils of foreign tutoring

Oak is probably best known for his insistence that the Taj Mahal is actually a converted Rajput temple, but his interests were always much broader than that, and led him to develop a ‘Unified Field Theory of History’, which he set out in his masterwork World Vedic Heritage (1984). On its title page he announced his firm conviction that ‘from the beginning of time the world practiced Vedic culture and spoke Sanskrit’.

This unified theory includes the belief that the Mahabharata War was a real struggle for global hegemony, which took place in 5561 BCE, and involved advanced weaponry, such as nuclear bombs and flying machines, which Oak insists were all products of Vedic science. This science seems to have been powerful enough to create war-winning weapons, but was somehow not sufficiently memorable to have survived.

Despite the complete absence of material traces of this advanced civilisation, Oak insists that signs of the ancient global Vedic culture are still everywhere to be found, but are ignored because of colonial brainwashing. He never even attempts to use archaeology to support his position. His reasons to reject archaeology include: that it can never be complete, that relevant discoveries have been hushed up, that ignorant archaeologists have missed the evidence, and that proof, especially of advanced Vedic machines, may simply have disappeared through decay because Vedic culture is so enormously old.

Nor does he resort to scriptural authority, except, rather mischievously, to take the Bible’s assertion that ‘the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech’ (Genesis 11:1). But this tongue was not the ancient Hebrew of Eden; it was, of course, Sanskrit.

His refusal to use material evidence forces him to rely primarily on verbal and logical argumentation, so rather than testing his many conclusions in detail, it is simpler to judge his theories by examining his methods. Chief among these is the repeated use of a ‘comparative’ approach in order to find evidence of ancient Vedic influence. If something in the ancient world ‘looks like’ something modern, then for Oak they are the same thing. This allows him to see depictions of ancient nuclear reactors on the walls of Shiva temples, because ‘there are innumerable irresistible points of identity’ between ‘Shivling’ emblems in temples and the modern nuclear reactor at Trombay. Its prominent dome has ‘the look’ of a Shivling.

As proof of Vedic science, this is decidedly thin. The much- clearer parallel between a Shiva lingam and the male sexual organ is rather better attested. Ancient Hindus worshipped a representation of a penis, and the similarity would not have been, and was never meant to be, lost on any of them.

No one should assume from Oak’s writings that his theories rest on some vast body of evidence. They don’t. His ideas rest upon a few basic methodological flaws repeated over and over again

Oak’s supporters claim that this comparative method is authorised by the Upanishads, which teach that inferences can legitimately be made from similarities between ‘the word and the world’. These are believed to show a deep level of significant correspondences hidden within reality. A parallelism (bandhu) can be valid, revealing an equivalence (sampad) that lies beyond rational grasp. This approach above all, it could be argued, is what makes Oak a specifically ‘Hindu’ historian.

Virtually his entire case for a global Sanskrit-speaking empire rests on the use of this technique. In World Vedic Heritage, he sets out numerous rules for the detection of significant correspondences in the names of places, gods and abstractions. He finds Sanskrit influence all over England by using a long list of equivalences such as -bury = -puri, -ton = -sthan and -shire = -shawar. By also allowing for the possibility that p can appear as b, g as j or k, and that s can transform itself into h or even c, suddenly Druids are Dravids, Krishna is Christ, Abraham is Brahma, and Noah is definitely Manu, if you drop the last syllable of No-ah and the first of Ma-nu, and accept that No- = -nu and don’t concern yourself where the Ma- came from. Doubtless, Oak would also be keen to lay claim to Hariputra, the boy swami, and Darth Veda, destroyer of worlds.

In Blunders, he uses Sanskrit-sounding place names such as Riga and Mali to prove that Vedic culture ruled as far afield as the Baltic and West Africa. Perhaps. But he does not explain what these words might reasonably be supposed to mean. He is happy with their general shape, despite the fact that ri, ga, ma and li are some of the commonest syllables in the world’s languages.

To assume that the appearance of certain syllables in geographical names is sufficient proof of a Sanskrit-speaking empire is not a safe conclusion, no matter how many times you do it. For a start, it would require some proof along the way that these names were in use at the time of their supposed inclusion in the global Vedic imperium. That is a task he never troubles to take on.

Nor does Oak ever bother to show us how, in these distant regions, the enormous majority of local words that show little or no Sanskrit influence got there. For him, just one per country can be enough. This is the kind of logic that would have us believe that wheelbarrows and watermills were invented by the same person because they both have one wheel.

Blatantly ignoring Occam’s Razor, the Global Vedic Empire thesis is a result of the liberal application of Oak’s Adhesive, a substance that permanently sticks together any two things that seem even vaguely similar.

No one should assume therefore, from the extent of Oak’s writings, that his theories rest on some vast body of evidence. They don’t. The evidence he uses is all of roughly the same quality, but is pumped up with repeated use of adjectives such as ‘overwhelming’ and ‘irresistible’, all joined together with phrases such as ‘it is obvious’. This is the intellectual equivalent of shouting. His ideas actually rest upon a few basic methodological flaws repeated over and over again.

The most central of these is the way he sets out a universal law, of his own invention, which he then follows through to highly specific conclusions that are added together to seem convincing by sheer weight. For instance: he declares that ‘military conquest is an essential prerequisite for the spread of a language’. This linguistic law is not explained or qualified in any way. Next, he tells us that Sanskrit was spoken all over the world, because there is evidence to that effect in place names and philological survivals in modern languages. Finally, we are told that because languages only spread by conquest (immutable law) and because Sanskrit was spoken all over the world (proven fact), ancient Sanskrit-speaking Indians conquered the whole world. Job done.

He also regularly collapses differences in epoch, so that time becomes conveniently static. Even if centuries separate the actual usage of two superficially similar words, the correspondence between them is assumed to be valid. So in World Vedic Heritage, we have arjuntana = Argentina. This is taken as proof of Vedic rule in South America because the Sanskrit word arjuntana means ‘silvery’, which obviously refers to the silver mines in Argentina. But there were never any silver mines in Argentina, although the Spanish invaders rather hoped there might be. The indigenous name for the land, therefore, could not possibly have been Arjuntana when the Spanish arrived; they brought the name with them.

Oak is wrong to take the word ‘Vatican’ as proof of the Vedic roots of the Papacy, claiming it is cognate with vatika, meaning hermitage. A wider knowledge of church history could have excused him this ‘blunder’

He is happy to go much further. He maintains that the name ‘England’ comes from the French ‘Angleterre’, a word he claims is based on the Sanskrit root ‘anguli’ meaning ‘finger’, and is not therefore derived from the banal and well-attested fact that the Angles settled there in the fifth century CE. Oak is happy to describe ancient Vedic explorers standing in France looking at this distant, as yet nameless land, imagining that it looks like a finger. But you can’t actually see the cliffs of Dover from France, and if you could, then they would hardly suggest a finger; they would look more like a long pancake. If either an ancient or a modern name for England sounded a bit like ‘crepe’ then this suggested transmission might be more persuasive.

Undeterred, Oak moves on to insist that British political institutions have Vedic origins, or at least their names do. So ‘monarch’ is rendered as Sanskrit manawarka meaning ‘the sun among humans’. This really is hogwash, and brings us directly to the main criticism of all Oak’s activities in pretty well his whole enterprise, namely that there are already perfectly good explanations for everything he tries to explain anew. ‘Monarch’ comes from the Greek roots mon, one, and arch, ruler. Oak’s interpretation can only hold water if it also reads across to other appearances of the same roots. For instance, if he can consistently find coherent (and relevant) Sanskrit equivalents for oligarchy, hierarchy and anarchy, or of architect or archbishop. This is a leap he never makes with any of his discoveries. They are all one-offs.

Oak is also completely wrong to take the word ‘Vatican’ as proof of the Vedic roots of the Papacy, claiming it is cognate with the Sanskrit vatika meaning hermitage. A wider knowledge of church history could have excused him this particular ‘blunder’. The Vatican City, now the headquarters of the Catholic Church, takes its name from the Vatican hill on which the papal complex currently stands, but popes did not live there until the 14th century CE. Before that, their principal residence was the Lateran Palace. There is, therefore, no possible link between any ancient Vedic occupiers of Rome and the Vatican. The phrase ‘the Vatican’ is no more than shorthand—a modern synecdoche.

The fervour of Oak’s style is, in the end, no protection against the death of trust within the reader, and so much extraordinary land-grabbing gives more than a hint that his style of word association is not a safe intellectual tool.

It can also be easily turned around. For instance, a case can be made that the inhabitants of North America ‘obviously’ founded the culture of South Central India and gave their name to the local language, which explains why it is called Kannada, betraying its original Canadian roots. And because Hindutva theorists believe that North America’s native population speak a form of Sanskrit and show other Vedic influences, is it not obvious that the entire origin of Vedic culture was actually in chilly North America? Tilak was right after all! There is thus overwhelming evidence that the direction of ancient cultural influence was actually westwards across the Bering Straits, not eastwards as is currently falsely claimed. Indians in India are called Indians because they took their culture from the original Red Indians, who lived in Indiana. This is quite plain to anyone with an open mind. And for clinching proof, there is a district in Tamil Nadu called Salem. Where was the original Salem? Yes— in Northeastern America! After such overwhelming evidence, no one could fail to be persuaded.

The theory of ancient Vedic hegemony has no claim to serious consideration within modern cultural and political debates. But it lies at the ideological root of the entire Hindutva project, its claims to exclusive proprietorship of India, and its claims to superiority over all other world cultures.

This is why it is important to engage with Oak’s ideas, at least to the limited extent of emphasising how little substance there is to them. We are dealing directly with a political standpoint here, and it would be a mistake to let the historical claims that support it pass unchallenged, because there is an endless supply of inquisitive non- specialists who pick up books by Oak, or his acorns, and take them seriously. The customer reviews in the columns of amply demonstrate this, with Oak and his imitators cast as defiant heroes grappling with vested interests which have seized a monopoly of world history and perverted it. Established academics are accused of twisting their conclusions so that they conveniently fit the biased, ‘Western’ data. ‘Open-minded’ researchers into the past who come up with different conclusions, on the other hand, are seen as heralds of a new, dispassionate truth, not as writers with clear vested interests of their own.

Oak’s work remains important because he is probably the only writer who has tried to make a detailed, non-scriptural case for ancient Vedic supremacy. He has had an effect, and others, some rather more influential than he, have followed closely in his intellectual footsteps.

There was no ancient Hindu World Order, or any other kind for that matter, but the idea still casts a dense shadow over parts of India’s rational present. Oak’s work should serve as a warning, for what it promises is not a new beginning to scholarship, but a chaotic end.