The Roots of Hinduism: The Early Aryans and the Indus Civilization


Asko Parpola is the most knowledgeable and intelligent of the ancient Indus script explorers, the one with the most evidence and complex a story to tell. He knows Sanskrit, Tamil and other Dravidian and ancient Mesopotamian languages well enough to trace the roots of words in all of them. No one else out there knows the scientific facts as well.

Aryan (that is, Indo-Iranian-language speaking) tribes from the Eurasian steppes (probably from what is now southern Ukraine) made their way in two large waves to India between 2000 and 1000 BCE. They brought with them gods like Agni and Indra. The pattern of tribes from the steppes moving and settling in other lands is common throughout this period in Europe and Asia. Nothing unusual here. The Turks, for example, come from Siberia, and "Dravidian" languages can be traced to Iran. The tribes coming to India brought horses, as is clear from the archaeological record, and chariots and occasionally fought big battles. The far fewer Indo-Aryan speaking people who came to India encountered populations with deep religious roots. Their traditions mixed and fused.

Parpola's critics usually don't understand what he is saying, and take "Aryan invasion" personally, as if language and race were the same thing. They often don't seem to understand how many layers there are to these issues; this doesn't mean Parpola is always right, just that one needs to know a lot before one can theorize and criticize. The roots of Hinduism run many thousands of years and miles across history. It makes no sense to talk in terms of indigenous and foreign when one is talking across such wide swaths of history.

Parpola's new book successfully brings his many years of thinking and research into a coherent whole for the less scholarly reader. He discusses a lot of new evidence about the BMAC culture in Central Asia and steppe migration all over the region in the fourth and fifth millenniums (5000-3000 BCE). Lots of great new research. Central Asian and European archaeology have moved far ahead in the last decades and it is getting much easier to date things. Technology like isotope analysis is enabling new facts to appear.

Visual evidence like seals and inscribed Indus objects are analyzed in detail by Parpola. One may not know enough to follow some arguments, but the tracing back of certain themes to Mesopotamian ones, the decipherment of the fish and star (suggested before Parpola, and which others like Iravatham Mahadevan concur with), the growing morsels of evidence connecting Indus icons to the earliest history of Tamil South India (some Tamil tribes, as is well known, claim lineage from Punjab) - all of this still amounts to a fragmented and incomplete picture, but no one is better at taking you through it than Asko Parpola. Word and root affinities between Sanskrit and steppe languages are diverse and well-evidenced. Many of the seal interpretations seem reasonable, but are not proven until there is a compelling bilingual inscription, of which there are as yet none. Sometimes it all falls together so nicely as with Parpola's derivation of squirrel and its connection to Sanskrit and Dravidian etymologies and Tamil words used today. In characteristic fashion Parpola concludes:

"The fact that even such uncommon Indus symbols as the palm squirrel, which have a narrow pictorial meaning, find a natural and fitting explanation within a Dravidian linguistic framework is a hopeful sign. As we have seen, a number of Dravidian-based rebus interpretations [where one sound can have two meanings, like the fish and star homology min] interlock with external linguistic and cultural data, making sense within ancient Indian cultural history and the Indus civilization. The interpretations restrict themselves to ancient Indian astronomy and time-reckoning and its associated mythology, the chief deities of Hindu and old Tamil religion and the fertility cult associated with fig trees. These contexts enable some progress to be made in spite of difficulties, and suggest possible avenues for future progress. Although our knowledge of Proto-Dravidian vocabulary, especially compound words, is deplorably defective, it nevertheless allows some cross-checking." (The Roots of Hinduism, p. 291).

A humble, so well-informed and deeply thoughtful picture. A must read for anyone who wants to understand the Indus script and the latest research.

Omar Khan, January 18, 2016

Iravatham Mahadevan responds:

Your review is fair.

You have alluded to differences of opinion among experts on the reading and interpretation of some signs of the Indus Script. This is unavoidable in the present state of our knowledge. Such differences in detail do not in any way affect the soundness of the main conclusions in this timely and well-written book by Parpola.

As you have pointed out, none is better qualified than Parpola to tackle the complex problems of the origin of Hinduism and the part played by the Indus Civilization. Parpola's expertise in Vedic Studies, familiarity with ancient pictographic scripts, first hand knowledge of the recent archaeological discoveries in Central Asian steppes, knowledge of Old Tamil and Dravidian linguistics, have all combined to provide him with unmatched credentials to write a book on Hinduism and The Indus Civilization.

In my opinion, Parpola's new book has presented convincing evidence combining new archaeological discoveries with fresh interpretations of vedic literature to prove that -

- The Indus Civilization is chronologically earlier than the Vedic culture.
- The route and timing of Aryan immigration into South Asia can no longer be seriously disputed.
- Indo-Aryan and Dravidian have merged millennia ago to form the roots of Hinduism and sustain the continuity of Indian historical tradition till the present day.

I have already congratulated Asko with the Vedic benediction to live 'a hundred autumns (saradas satam)' to write more books like this.

From the back book cover:

Hinduism has two major roots. The more familiar is the religion brought to South Asia in the second millennium BCE by speakers of Aryan or Indo-Iranian languages, a branch of the Indo-European language family. Another, more enigmatic, root is the Indus civilization of the third millennium BCE, which left behind exquisitely carved seals and thousands of short inscriptions in a long-forgotten pictographic script. Discovered in the valley of the Indus River in the early 1920s, the Indus civilization had a population estimated at one million people, in more than 1000 settlements, several of which were cities of some 50,000 inhabitants. With an area of nearly a million square kilometers, the Indus civilization was more extensive than the contemporaneous urban cultures of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Yet, after almost a century of excavation and research the Indus civilization remains little understood. How might we decipher the Indus inscriptions? What language did the Indus people speak? What deities did they worship?

Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (August 12, 2015)
Language: English