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


India, the Cradle of Civilization



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India, the Cradle of Civilization

Other scholars, however, upon learning of these linguistic (and therefore racial) connec- tions of the distant Indic languages, felt that radical alternatives to the Armenian point of origin had now gained legitimacy. India, in particular, was a popular candidate, espe- cially among segments of the intelligentsia in the late eighteenth century and first half of the nineteenth century, and especially (but not exclusively) on the Continent. As it had done in classical times, India again captured the imagination of Romantic Europe. The astronomer Bailly, the first mayor of Paris, was very influential in popularizing Indian wisdom. In 1777, after some deliberation, he situated the earliest humans on the banks of the Ganges. Even before Jones's announcement, Bailly stated that “the Brahmans are the teachers of Pythagoras, the instructors of Greece and through her of the whole of Europe” (51). Voltaire voiced his agreement: “In short, Sir, I am convinced that everything—astronomy, astrology, metempsychosis, etc.—comes to us from the banks of the Ganges” (Bailly 1777, 4).

The French naturalist and traveler Pierre de Sonnerat (1782) also believed all knowl- edge came from India, which he considered the cradle of the human race. In 1807, the well-known metaphysician Schelling could wonder “what is Europe really but a sterile trunk which owes everything to Oriental grafts?” (Poliakov 1971, 11). A year later, the influential Friedrich von Schlegel argued that “the Northwest of India must be consid- ered the central point from which all of these nations had their origin” (505). In 1845, Eichhoff was adamant that “all Europeans come from the Orient. This truth, which is confirmed by the evidence of physiology and linguistics, no longer needs special proof” (12). Even as late as 1855, Lord A. Curzon, the governor-general of India and eventual chancellor of Oxford, was still convinced that “the race of India branched out and multiplied into that of the great Indo-European family…. The Aryans, at a period as yet undetermined, advanced towards and invaded the countries to the west and north- west of India, [and] conquered the various tribes who occupied the land.” European civilization, in his view, was initiated by the Indian Aryans: “They must have imposed their religion, institutions, and language, which later obliterated nearly all the traces of the former non-Aryan language, or languages, of the conquered tribes” (172–173). Michelet held that the Vedas “were undoubtedly the first monument of the world” (1864, 26) and that from India emanated “a torrent of light and the flow of reason and Right” (485). He proclaimed that “the migrations of mankind follow the route of the sun from East to West along the sun's course…. At its starting point, man arose in India, the birthplace of races and of religions, the womb of the world” (Febvre 1946, 95–96).

According to Poliakov, it was Johann-Gottfried Herder, a Lutheran pastor, who (along with Kant) placed the homeland in Tibet, who was influential in introducing the pas- sion for India into Germanic lands and prompting the imagination of the Romantics to

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seek affiliation with Mother India. Herder (1803) objected that “the pains that have been taken, to make of all the people of the earth, according to this genealogy, descen- dants of the Hebrew, and half-brothers of the Jews, are contrary not only to chronology and universal history but to the true point of view of the narrative itself.” As far as he was concerned, “the central point of the largest quarter of the Globe, the primitive moun- tains of Asia, prepared the first abode of the human race” (517–18).



Although it was suspected, in some circles, that the enthusiastic acceptance of India as the cradle of the human race was a reaction against biblical chronological hegemony, the position did not initially appear to be without foundation: the new science of his- torical linguistics originally seemed to lend some support to this possibility because early linguists tended to treat Vedic Sanskrit as identical or almost identical to the original Indo-European mother tongue due to the antiquity of its textual sources. (Jones was actually exceptionally “modern” in considering Sanskrit, along with the other Indo- European languages, to be co-descendants of an earlier ancestor language, rather than the original language.) Linguists of the time believed that Sanskrit showed more struc- tural regularity than its cognate languages, which, in keeping with the Romantic worldview, indicated that it was more “original” than Greek and the other cognate languages. Lord Monboddo, (1774), for example, felt that he would “be able clearly to prove that Greek is derived from the Shanscrit” (322). Halhed stated: “I do not ascertain as a fact, that either Greek or Latin are derived from this language; but I give a few reasons wherein such a conjecture might be found: and I am sure that it has a better claim to the honour of a parent than Phoenician or Hebrew (Letter to G. Costard, quoted in Marshall 1970, 10). Schlegel, (1977 [1808]), who played a leading role in stimulating interest in San- skrit, especially in Germany, developed the concept of comparative grammar wherein “the Indian language is older, the others younger and derived from it” (429). Vans Kennedy (1828) felt the evidence demonstrated that “Sanscrit itself is the primitive lan- guage from which Greek, Latin, and the mother of the Teutonic dialects were originally derived” (196). These ideas were picked up by intellectuals outside the halls of academia: Blavatsky (1975), the theosophist, claimed that “Old Sanskrit is the origin of all the less ancient Indo-European languages, as well as of the modern European tongues and dia- lects” (115).

Although other languages also provided valuable material, the reconstruction of the original Indo-European was, in truth, completely dependent on Sanskrit, to which linguists invariably turned for ultimate confirmation of any historical linguistic for- mulation. It seemed logical, at the time, to situate the original homeland in the loca- tion that spawned what was then considered to be the original or, at least, the oldest, language. As Sayce (1883) noted in retrospect, “the old theory rested partly on the assumption that man's primeval birthplace was in the East—and that, consequently, the movement of population must have been from east to west—partly on the belief that Sanskrit preserved more faithfully than any of its sisters the features of the Aryan parent speech” (385).

In time, however, the linguist F. Bopp (n.d.) stated: “I do not believe that the Greek, Latin, and other European languages are to be considered as derived from the Sanskrit. … I feel rather inclined to consider them altogether as subsequent variations of one original tongue, which, however, the Sanskrit has preserved more perfect than its kin- dred dialects” (3). Once the news of this connection seeped out from the ivory towers,

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there were clamorous objections raised against the whole linguistic concept of Sanskrit even being a cognate language (not to speak of the “original” mother language), as will be discussed later, since the corollary was the outrageous proposal that the people of Athens and Rome should be considered to have a community of origin with the “niggers” of India. (The kinship of Europeans with Indians was of course, implied by Jones long before.) But Bopp's sound scholarship eventually prevailed, the “original tongue” eventu- ally became known as Proto-Indo-European, and Sanskrit was demoted to the rank of a daughter language, albeit “the eldest sister of them all” (Müller 1883, 22).

The term Indo-European was coined in 1816 by the linguist Thomas Young. Rask toyed with various names such as European, Sarmatic, and Japhetic. Soon, however, zealous German scholars showed preference for the term Indo-German, popularized by Julius Klaproth in 1823 (but first used by Conrad Malte-Brun in 1810), on the grounds that these two languages encapsulated the entire Indo-European-speaking area—the farthest language to the east being Indic, and to the west, Germanic (Celtic had not yet been recognized as a distinct language group). This term unsettled the sensitivities of French and British scholars, who exerted their influence to reestablish the more politically neutral Indo-European. Bopp preferred to follow their example, since “I do not see why one should take the Germans as representatives for all the people of our continent” (quoted in Olinder 1972, 13). The term Aryan was also used extensively during the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth century. This is not to be confused with Indo-Aryan, which refers exclusively to the Indic-speaking side of the family. Nowadays Indo-European is the standard term for the whole language fam- ily, although some German scholars still prefer Indo-Germanic despite a history of com- plaints against it.

As a side note, obviously, there must have been a time prior to any hypothetical reconstructions of particular protolanguages and protocultures. Accordingly, Proto-Indo- European is generally defined by most linguists as a language that can be reconstructed at least theoretically, at a stage prior to its transformation into distinct languages, and which reveals a certain cultural environment at an approximate period in human devel- opment, in a potentially definable geographic location; linguists acknowledge that this location can only be identified for that particular (hypothetical) stage of language and culture. While such generalities are generally accepted, we shall see that anything much more specific is usually contested (and even these generalities have been challenged). In any event, in the opinion of most scholars (in the West at least), India soon lost its privileged position as the point of origin of the Indo-European languages.

A variety of reasons were brought forward to reject the proposal that India might have been the original homeland. In 1842, A. W. von Schlegel, in contrast to his brother Frederik, claimed that “it is completely unlikely that the migrations which had peopled such a large part of the globe would have begun at its southern extremity and would have continually directed themselves from there towards the northeast. On the contrary, everything compels us to believe that the colonies set out in diverging directions from a central region” (515). He felt that the Caspian Sea area possessed such required central- ity. Lassen noted in 1867 that from the countries where the large Indo-Germanic family resided in ancient times, “India was the most peculiar, … and it would be very inexpli- cable that no traces of these Indian peculiarities should have been preserved by any Celtic race in later times, if they had all originally lived in India…. Among the names

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of plants and animals which are common to all these nations there is none which is native to India” (614). Benfey pointed out that South India was peopled by various non-Aryan tribes who could hardly have pushed their way through the superior civiliza- tion of the Sanskrit-speaking people had the latter been indigenous to the North. These tribes, therefore, must have been the original natives of India who were subjugated by the invading Aryans (Muir [1860] 1874, 311–312). Muir, summarizing the issues in 1874, fortified all these arguments by arguing that the Sanskrit texts themselves showed a geographic progression “of the gradual advance of the Aryas from the north-west of India to the east and south” (xx).



Such arguments were by no means uncontested. In 1841, Mountstuart Elphinstone objected that “it is opposed to their foreign origin that neither in the code [of Manu] nor, I believe, in the Védas, nor in any book … is there any allusion to a prior resi- dence or to a knowledge of more than the name of any country out of India.” Respond- ing to some of the arguments that had been brought forward, he argued that “to say that [the original language] spread from a central point is a gratuitous assumption, and even contrary to language; for emigration and civilization have not spread in a circle.” As far as he was concerned, “the question, therefore, is still open. There is no reason whatever for thinking that the Hindus ever inhabited any country but their present one, and as little for denying that they may have done so before the earliest trace of their records or tradition” (97–98).

But, as time went by, such objections soon became far too out of tune with the aca- demic consensus, as well as with developing colonial exigencies. Soon after the mid- nineteenth century, few scholars were still open to considering either India as the home- land of the Indo-Europeans, or protestations regarding the indigenousness of the Indo-Aryans in the subcontinent. According to Chakrabarti (1976), “it is around the middle of the nineteenth century that this romantic view of India as sending out roving bands of ascetics died out. With the Raj firmly established it was the time to begin to visualize the history and cultural process of India as a series of invasions and foreign rules” (1967).





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