Asko Parpola's Work

Asko Parpola's Work

Q: What are your thoughts on Asko Parpola's work, its importance and where you disagree with him in general.

A: Parpola's work is without doubt the most valuable contribution to date in the field of the Indus script. As I have mentioned in my latest paper, his work transcends linguistic boundaries. His contribution in publishing the first concordance, the first computer studies, the UNESCO volumes of seals are very great. One of his biggest achievements now is a standardized sign list which is so comprehensive that it replaces all other sign lists, including the one prepared by me more than twenty years ago. He has also meticulously recorded every little variant of every sign, running into thousands of variants. He has in his book, while it deals with the Dravidian hypothesis, also given a formal analysis of the Indus script, its functional character, frequency distribution analysis, syntactical analysis, how an Indus sentence could be broken up into slots and so on.

Therefore, while I still consider that Parpola's latest decipherment to be not wholly successful, therein might lie the seeds of future decipherments. There are many, many things he says which make sound sense, like his emphasis on contacts with the Near East, his proof as to why a Dravidian language is involved. He has marshaled all the arguments in favor of a Dravidian hypothesis which I find convincing. I would say he has laid the groundwork for a successful decipherment.

There are many, many things which he says, which makes sound sense like, for example, his emphasis on contacts with the near East and his proof as to why a Dravidian language is involved in this case. He has marshaled all the arguments in favor of the Dravidian hypothesis, which I find convincing against his argument about the direction of writing. He has again marshaled all the arguments. So, I would say that Parpola has laid the groundwork for a successful decipherment, which may happen any day now or maybe later, that’s still in the future. But there is no doubt that the world of scholarship now recognizes Parpola to be probably the most serious work done to date on the Indus script.

Q: One of your charges against him is that he emphasizes too much the religious nature of these various signs. First I thought that was a good point. But Mark Kenoyer makes the point that in Islam, in Christianity, Hinduism, and so on, names and religion are closely intertwined. Most names have a religious origin. Doesn't that make your charge against Parpola a little bit weaker?

A: It is not a charge but an observation. Asko Parpola happens to be a close personal friend of mine. Well, he stays with me whenever he’s in the city. I sometimes wonder whether his involvement with the Veda, particularly the Sama Veda, has not inclined him towards a religious solution of the Indus script that’s by the way – I agree that the Harappan names could be religious and in that sense the contents of the seals could be religious, as were the Near Eastern seals. But religion is not the only thing.

For example, when Parpola says the fish sign is not only a phonetic symbol, it is not only a representation of a star or a planet, but that it is a god in itself - he calls the fish sign a god and it has values far transcending its phonetic values - well, that seems to me to be overstating the case. Further, when you look at the sum total of his decipherments, it's all gods - you have Murugan, you have planets, you have stars. Okay, the Harappans had gods and they could very well be these. I also believe that the fish-star parallel may have something to it. But then where are the Harappan people in his decipherment? Where is the scribe? Where is the ordinary petty government official, the tax collectors, the warriors, the sailors? Take Near Eastern seals: X, son of y, gave this. Where is son, daughter, wife, husband, father? Where are those little cementing particles of language without which you cannot write?

I deal with Indian inscriptions. Even the briefest of the Brahmi inscriptions, both in Prakit and Tamil, cannot do without a modicum of grammar. They cannot just be a string of nouns. You will have to have "and," conjunctions, "of," genetive case, "to," dative case. You have to have verbal participles. A language which consists of nothing but a string of names and the names all being gods to me seems very unlikely.

We know that the Harappan civilization was a very advanced urban civilization and it must have employed a large army of bureaucrats because it has such standardized weights, bricks, standardized versions of everything. So there must have been efficient administration of everything, tax collection and civic and sanitary affairs. Almost everyone has a seal - the seals have a boss at the back and it has a hole to be worn around the neck. So the holder must have mentioned not only his name, but also his calling, his profession. Unless we have a word for priest, king, noble, tax collector, scribe, unless we have a little more of what I call ordinary, day-to-day life of the people it looks to me like the decipherment is slanted. It may be true, but only very partial.

Q: Couldn't all those names of these specific functions also have a religious side to them? All these people, workers, scribes, tax collectors couldn't they have had a religious side to their function?

A: Of course, we have such parallels in the city states of the Near East, where the king was also the god, the palace was also the temple and everybody had both a religious and secular identity. Nevertheless, if you look at the message of the writing in the Near East it is not all religious. I am not talking of the longer texts, even the seal texts, have things like so-and-so belonging to such and such city. For example, Harappa and Mohenjo-daro were very large cities. They must have had names. The people from there possibly used their city names. The secular, mundane day-to-day-life of the Indus valley is not sufficiently represented. In fact, those who have excavated those cities are struck by the absence of outward religious symbols. No temple has been excavated, no large deities have been excavated. I would be the last person to deny that Harappans had a religion and that it was very important and reflected in their seals, but that it would be the only message - that, I think, is unlikely.

Q: Lets talk about the bangles decipherment by Parpola. How does that strike you?

A: Parpola has pointed out that the bangles are inscribed, and among the signs the sign of the interlocking circle or ovals are very common and they occur with greater frequency on these bangles. So I am fairly convinced that perhaps the interlocking circles do pictorially represent a pair of bangles. It is very likely. Now very large quantities of stoneware bangles have been discovered from Mohenjo-daro by [Michael Jansen's] German team. But when you try to give a phonetic value for it, it becomes very difficult. Parpola has chosen a word which means twisted wire bangle, or twisted wire amulet or a twisted wire earring or nose ring, where the operative word is twisting, the root there is murugu, which means in old Dravidian "to twist." But the stoneware, the polished vitrified stoneware bangles have no twists on them, so that is very unlikely. There are other words for bangles but he doesn't choose them because they are not homophonous with the word for Murukan that he is looking for. I personally believe that if the Indus Valley people were Dravidians, one of their gods was called Murukan - it is very likely, but he is hiding in still some other sign.