The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate edwin bryant oxford

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Biblical Origins

Scholars and thinkers of the late eighteenth century, enthusiastically pushing forward the scientific and intellectual frontiers that had become accessible in post-Enlightenment Europe, found themselves grappling with the historicity of Old Testament chronology. The discovery, through expanding European colonies, of other cultures claiming pedi- grees of vast antiquity; developments in linguistics; and the proliferation of “hard” ar- chaeological evidence provoked a drastic reevaluation of biblical narrative in matters of human origins. Features such as the monogenic descent from Adam, the evolution of all human language from the monolingual descendants of Noah, and the brief period that seemed to be allotted to the dispersion of the human race after the Flood became the subjects of intense debates. As the first pioneering British scholars in India began to discover Sanskrit texts, the promise of hitherto unknown historical information be- coming revealed to Europeans became the cause of both great anticipation and episte- mological anxiety.

Sir William Jones, the first Indologist to attempt a serious synchronization of bibli- cal and Puranic chronology, exemplifies the tensions of his time. His predecessors, British scholars John Holwell, Nathaniel Halhed, and Alexander Dow—all associated in vari- ous capacities with the British East India Trading Company—had relayed back to an eager Europe gleanings from Puranic sources that described an immense antiquity for the human race. 1 These provided the ranks of disaffected Christians, such as the vocif- erous Voltaire, with valuable materials with which to attempt to shake off the constraints of Judeo-Christian chronology and to refute Jewish or Christian claims to exclusive mediation between man and Providence. Holwell, for one, believed that the Hindu texts contained a higher revelation than the Christian ones, that they predated the Flood, and that “the mythology, as well as the cosmogony of the Egyptians, Greeks and Ro- mans, were borrowed from the doctrines of the Brahmins” (Marshall 1970, 46). Halhed, too, seemed to take the vast periods of time assigned to the four yugas quite seriously, since “human reason … can no more reconcile to itself the idea of Patriarchal … lon- gevity” of a few thousand years for the entire span of the human race (Marshall, 1931, 159). Dow was instrumental in presenting Europe with a deistic image of India whose primitive truths owed nothing to either Jews or Christians. Such challenges stirred up considerable controversy in Europe, fueled by intellectuals such as Voltaire adopting such material in endeavors to undermine biblical historicity.

Naturally, such drastic innovations were bitterly opposed by other segments of the intelligentsia. For well over a millennium, much of Europe had accepted the Old Tes- tament as an infallible testament documenting the history of the human race. Thomas Maurice, for example, complained bitterly in 1812 about “the daring assumptions of


certain skeptical French philosophers with respect to the Age of the World … argu- ments principally founded on the high assumptions of the Brahmins … [which] have a direct tendency to overturn the Mosaic system, and, with it, Christianity.” Such schol- ars were greatly relieved by “the fortunate arrival of … the various dissertations, on the subject, of Sir William Jones” (22–23). Jones was just as concerned about the fact that “some intelligent and virtuous persons are inclined to doubt the authenticity of the ac- counts delivered by Moses.” In his estimation, too, “either the first eleven chapters of Genesis … are true, or the whole fabrick of our national religion is false, a conclusion which none of us, I trust, would wish to be drawn” (Jones 1788, 225).

Eager to settle the matter, Jones undertook the responsibility of unraveling Indian chronology for the benefit and appeasement of his disconcerted colleagues: “I propose to lay before you a concise history of Indian chronology extracted from Sanskrit books, attached to no system, and as much disposed to reject Mosaick history, if it be proved erroneous, as to believe it, if it be confirmed by sound reason from indubitable evi- dence” (Jones 1790a, 111). Despite such assurances, Jones's own predispositions on this matter were revealed in several earlier written statements: “I … am obliged of course to believe the sanctity of the venerable books [of Genesis]” (1788, 225); Jones (1790) concluded his researches by claiming to have “traced the foundation of the Indian empire above three thousand eight hundred years from now” (145), that is to say, safely within the confines of Bishop Usher's creation date of 4004 B.C.E. and, more important, within the parameters of the Great Flood, which Jones considered to have occurred in 2350 B.C.E. Such undertakings afford us a glimpse of some of the tensions that many European scholars were facing in their encounter with India at the end of the eighteenth century; the influence of the times clearly weighed heavily. However, Jones's compromise with the biblical narrative did make the new Orientalism safe for Anglicans: “Jones in effect showed that Sanskrit literature was not an enemy but an ally of the Bible, supplying independent corroboration of the Bible's version of history” (Trautmann, 1997, 74). Jones's chronological researches did manage to calm the waters somewhat and “effec- tively guaranteed that the new admiration for Hinduism would reinforce Christianity and would not work for its overthrow” (74). Trautmann notes that, for the most part, up until the early part of the nineteenth century, British Indomania was excited about the discovery of Hinduism for several reasons: it provided independent confirmation of the Bible; its religion contained the primitive truth of natural religion still in practice, a unitary truth from which the forms of paganism of Rome and Greece were perverted offshoots; and its arts and cultures were connected to Egypt's (64).

Jones's much more lasting contribution, and one generally recognized by linguists as the birth of historical linguistics, was his landmark address to the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1786. This, by constant quotation, has by now become the mangalacara of comparative philology:

The Sanskrit language, whatever may be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source which, perhaps, no longer exists: there is a similar


reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothick and the Celtick, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanskrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family. (Jones 1788, 415–431)

Significantly, this statement was almost a paraphrase of a not so well known declaration made over a century previously (in 1668) by one Andreas Jager in Wittenberg, before the discovery of the Sanskrit language:

An ancient language, once spoken in the distant past in the area of the Caucasus moun- tains and spreading by waves of migration throughout Europe and Asia, had itself ceased to be spoken and had left no linguistic monuments behind, but had as a “mother” gen- erated a host of “daughter languages”…. [D]escendants of the ancestral language in- clude Persian, Greek, Italic, … the Slavonic languages, Celtic, and finally Gothic. (Quoted in Metcalf 1974, 233)

Attempts to demonstrate that the disparate languages of the world stemmed from a com- mon source long predated the discovery of Sanskrit. As early as 1610, J. J. Scaliger was able to distinguish eleven European language groups, such as Germanic, Slavic, and Romance, and was noteworthy for his time in challenging the idea that these languages derived from Hebrew—the opinion prevalent in his day. 2

The idea of a common source—initially considered to be Hebrew—for all languages, which, it is important to note, was always associated with a common people, was taken for granted by most scholars in Europe until well after the Enlightenment. The idea was inbedded in the biblical version of history, in which Noah's three sons, Japheth, Shem, and Ham, were generally accepted as being the progenitors of the whole of humanity. 3 Prior to the construction of the city of Babel, there was one human race speaking one language. These linguistically unified and racially integral people were subsequently dispersed and scattered over the face of the earth. This theme, even when stripped of its biblical trappings, was to remain thoroughly imprinted in European consciousness until well into the twentieth century.

In 1768, even before the affinities of Sanskrit with the Indo-European languages had been officially broadcast by Jones, Père Coeurdoux foreshadowed much present-day opinion regarding the point of origin of this language by stating that “the Samskroutam language is that of the ancient Brahmes; they came to India … from Caucasia. Of the sons of Japhet, some spoke Samskroutam” (quoted in Trautmann 1997, 54). Once San- skrit had become accessible to British scholars, its connection with the classical lan- guages of Europe was suspected even before Jones's proclamation. Halhed had noted the possibility a few years earlier. James Parsons, too, physician and fellow of the Royal Society and of the Society of Antiquities, had also associated Indic with the European languages in 1776. In fact, almost two centuries earlier still, the Italian Jesuit Filippo Sassetti, who lived in Goa in the 1580s, had noted that in the language “there are many of our terms, particularly the numbers 6, 7, 8 and 9, God, snakes and a number of other things” (Marcucci 1855, 445). Jones's status and reputation, however, ensured that news of this language connection reverberated through the academic halls of Europe.

Once the discovery of Sanskrit as a language related to the European languages had been made public, it precipitated post-Enlightenment trends toward disaffiliation from Genesis. It was a traumatic time for Europe. As Max Müller, who “look[ed] upon the account of Creation as given in Genesis as simply historical” (1902, 481), later remi-


nisced: “All one's ideas of Adam and Eve, and the Paradise, and the tower of Babel, and Shem, Ham, and Japhet, with Homer and Aeneas and Virgil too, seemed to be whirling round and round, till at last one picked up the fragments and tried to build a new world, and to live with a new historical consciousness” (Müller 1883, 29). This “new world,” however, retained much of the old, and the biblical framework of one language, one race was transmitted completely intact. Even after developments in lin- guistics had irremediably established the existence of numerous completely distinct lan- guage families, and the times no longer required scholars to orient their positions around a refutation or defense of Old Testament narrative, the biblical heritage continued to survive in a modified form: the idea of one language family for the superior civilizations of Europe, Persia, and India—the Aryan, or Indo-European, language family—continued to be associated with the fountainhead of a distinct people that had originated in a specific geographical homeland.

The correlation of race and language, an assumption that still occasionally continues to haunt discussions on the Indo-Europeans, was reinforced by the very vocabulary adopted by the fledgling science of linguistics: Jager, as we have noted, referred to “mother” languages generating “daughters.” This genealogically derived vocabulary later became es- tablished as standard linguistic parlance by Schleicher, whose basic paradigm of the fam- ily tree of languages is still in use, albeit usually in modified form. As Trautmann notes: “This tree paradigm remains very much the foundation of historical linguistics to this day, although a kind of willful collective amnesia has tended to suppress its biblical origins. … In the self-conception of linguistics there came to be a strong tendency to imagine that its central conceptual structure comes from comparative anatomy and to forget that it comes from the Bible” (1997, 57). The influence of the Bible, initially overtly and subsequently in a more inadvertent or subconscious fashion, pervaded the entire field of Indo-European studies in its formative stages throughout the nineteenth century:

The authors of the nineteenth century were hostages, as we are no doubt too, to the questions they set themselves. Though they cast aside the old theological questions, they remained attached to the notion of a providential history. Although they borrowed the techniques of positivist scholarship, took inspiration from methods perfected by natural scientists, and adopted the new perspective of comparative studies, they continued to be influenced by the biblical presuppositions that defined the ultimate meaning of their work. Despite differences in outlook, Renan, Max Müller, Pictet and many others joined ro- manticism with positivism in an effort to preserve a common allegiance to the doctrines of Providence. (Olinder 1992, 20)

Another instant by-product of the discovery of Sanskrit was that a dramatic new ingredient had been added to Europe's quest for linguistic and racial origins. Up to this point, many European scholars, such as James Parsons in 1767, tended to be “persuaded that these mountains of Ararat, upon which the ark rested, [were] in Armenia; and that the plains in their neighborhood were the places where Noah and his family dwelt, immediately after they left the ark” (10). Even after Sanskrit had been “discovered,” many scholars would not stray too far from this location. Jones himself was emphatic that the “primeval events” of the construction of the Tower of Babel and the subse- quent scattering of the original monolanguage into different tongues “are described as having happened between the Oxus and Euphrates, the mountains of the Caucus and the borders of India, that is within the limits of Iran.” There was no doubt about this,


since “the Hebrew narrative [is] more than human in its origin and consequently true in every substantial part of it.” Therefore, “it is no longer probable only, but absolutely certain, that the whole race of man proceeded from Iran, whence they migrated at first in three great colonies [those of Shem, Japhet, and Ham]; and that those three branches grew from a common stock” (Jones 1792, 486–487).

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