This study explores the sources of errors introduced into the history of the Sanskrit language in 200 years of linguistics studies and posits a new hypothesis to dovetail emerging evidence of far greater antiquity of Vedic Sanskrit than hitherto acknowledged with existing hypotheses of language spread in Europe. Reasons for politicization of the issue rather than debate are examined. An ancestral language termed Matamahi bhasha is introduced as part of the hypothesis.
Most people do not know that Indian history before 1500 BCE as it is taught was written for us by western linguists. It was linguists who “discovered” and studied Sanskrit from the 18th century onwards who decided that the language must have come to India from somewhere outside India and reached India around the 1500 to 1000 BCE time period. Over the last decade or so, any Indian who questions this is generally told that he is a representative of “hindutva” (Elst, 2018) with political rather than academic motivations for research. This accusation, coming from western linguists, Indologists and “sanskritists” is absurd on two counts. One of the first things a researcher learns is that new information needs to be rebutted using facts and not based on the perceived political leanings of the person who appears to be rocking the linguistics boat. Second, it would appear that linguists should have such a firm grasp on facts that there would have no need for them to fill up pages with polemic and psychological analyses of Hindu upstarts who are perceived as questioning 200 years of freedom for philologists to cook up history for other people. If people are accused of being biased by “hindutva” or “patriotism” (as I have been) then the bias should surely be exposed by showing up falsehoods using what linguists believe to be facts. Under the circumstances one must consider the possibility that there is something weak and inconsistent in linguists’ theories which cannot be supported by facts, but needs to be bolstered by invective and polemic directed against people with opposing views. This accusation needs to be confirmed or rejected by facts, so I will now try and address what is known about the relationship between Sanskrit and western linguists and Indologists.
1. THE PAST
Comparative linguistics as known to the west was born after early western scholars learned Sanskrit and wrote about it (Beekes, 2011:13). It was Max Muller in 1861 who first stated that speakers of what he called “Aryan languages” also belonged to a single family of people in a statement that was interpreted by others as the existence of an “Aryan race”.
He said: (Muller, 1861)
“the Aryan languages together point to an earlier period of language, when the first ancestors of the Indians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Slaves, the Celts, and the Germans were living together within the same enclosures, nay under the same roof.”
In that era, many famous names in philology such as Muller, Pott, Grimm and Schleicher (Taylor, 1892:11) believed that the common ancestral language that they called “Aryan” originated somewhere in the east. Places like Kashmir, Afghanistan and Central Asia were suggested. Muller’s statement was taken to imply that all Aryan language speakers belonged to one race. This idea was opposed by others – among them a mix of philologists and anthropologists such as Latham, Sayce, Cuno and Schrader. The objection that these men and others had was that speaking an “Aryan language” did not mean that there was a unified “Aryan race”. This was not some woolly-headed liberalism that did not believe in race, it was actually a race argument made from a different perspective. Of course, it was claimed, all speakers of Aryan languages were not of one race. They were of many races – but the language must have arisen among one race and that race had dominated and imposed its language on all other races. This heroic race had to be identified and its home location (Urheimat) found. Gradually, argument upon argument was made to convert this one-race-origin theory into fact. Certain tree and animal names in Aryan languages, it was claimed, could not have occurred south of a particular latitude, ruling out the east and south as areas of origin of the language.
The Cambridge History of India in its 1922 edition (Rapson, 1922:68) notes:
“The most familiar bird of prey was apparently the eagle. The wolf and bear were known, but not the lion or the tiger. From these data is it possible to locate the primitive habitat from which the speakers of these languages derived their origin. It is not likely to be India, as some of the earlier investigators assumed, for neither flora nor fauna, as determined by their language, is characteristic of this area, “
Nineteenth century anthropologists used the bogus technique of “craniology”, the study of skull shape, to decide which races had to be the dominant originators of the ancestral tongue. Furthermore the people of that heroic race whose language spread far and wide had to be sturdy and resolute in character – features which were lacking in eastern races. There had to be a geographic area rich in resources and protected by mountains where this race first lived, gradually increasing in population and strength like the denizens of Mordor. Several such areas were identified in Europe, while other areas in the east and south were eliminated on grounds of imagined deficiencies in geography and climate. The people then started migrating out like spokes from a central hub, dominating and imposing their Aryan language on everyone else. In this way, language became race, race became a dominating military power, and the language was said to have been spread by the domination of all other races who had been speaking non Aryan languages in the lands that surrounded Urheimat. Vast areas of the world were eliminated as possible points of origin of the language on sometimes laughably flimsy grounds.
India could not be ignored as the place of discovery of Sanskrit, but considering India or Indians as a possible ancestral source of origin of the language family had to be ruled out using every possible excuse. Despite linguistic arguments that Vedic Sanskrit was the oldest language, India was eliminated as a possible source right at the outset as having the wrong racial type of people in a land unsuitable for sturdy, healthy people (Taylor, 1892:44). As regards invasion of India by Aryans – that was declared to be a fact right at the beginning using guesswork. No evidence was needed for this, the word of linguists was sufficient proof that the language must have reached India with all-conquering invaders. After all, Indians were not the only ones to be invaded and dominated. There were many European races who were assigned that fate by linguists and anthropologists.
In 1861, Schleicher (Schleicher, 1861) wrote:
“..the Indians, who were the last to leave the parent stem, that it is quite certain that they expelled an aboriginal race from their later dwelling-place, a race of whose language much passed into their own: a similar process is highly probable in the case of many other Indo-European peoples.”
Indians were at the bottom of the Indo-European pool table. Wrong race, Wrong land. Wrong people. The fact of oldest language being preserved in India meant nothing. Indians would be dominated and the dominating invaders or migrants would impose their language on pre-existing Indians, replace them and then compose the Vedas. Not a scrap of evidence was required for conjuring this history for Indians. It was all done by European linguists and anthropologists constructing stories and histories that gave them comfort and pride. In this way Indians were informed and taught their history, with dates for their most ancient language being assigned by linguists sitting in Europe. The legacy of this travesty that they called science is still with us.
2. THE PRESENT
How important is Sanskrit in the overall scheme of linguistics? Apart from the historic role of Panini’s work in helping to give birth to the study of grammar in linguistics, Sanskrit played an important role in comparative and reconstructive linguistics. However Sanskrit was needed only for its historic role and its irremediable connection with India is treated by some linguists as a sort of millstone around the linguist’s neck. With the creation of the hypothetical model “mother language PIE” (Proto-Indo-European) this will no longer be a problem.
A dictionary of PIE has been constructed by linguists and it appears that Sanskrit is no longer essential to cite the origin of words – at least in European languages. This observation is from my analysis of 298 PIE words reconstructed from old Indo-European languages (Sastry, 2018). Of 298 reconstructed PIE words, 43% had no Sanskrit cognates, whereas 70% had Latin cognates. One in four words had Latin cognates, but none of Sanskrit, while only one in eight had Sanskrit cognates but no Latin. English, German, Russian and Greek all had more cognate words in the PIE word list than Sanskrit. Old European languages such as Latin, Greek, German, English, Russian and Lithuanian provide all the necessary cognate words needed for a comprehensive PIE dictionary and the role that Sanskrit plays in PIE is much less important. Perhaps Sanskrit could be removed entirely from the list without affecting the overall composition of the PIE word list for European language words. But this idea will need further work for validation.
However all this is not sufficient to explain why modern day linguists get upset by Indians who show evidence of Sanskrit and the Vedas as being far older than has generally been admitted by those linguists. After all, how much difference would it make to European languages and language theories if Sanskrit were found to date from 3000 BCE rather than 1500 BCE? Surely all that would be needed is an adjustment of dates to accommodate the new facts rather than attacking the bearers of new facts with polemic, accusing them of being agents of Hindutva? In fact this has already been done in a comprehensive monograph in which the author shows that an earlier date for Sanskrit need not affect existing theories of spread of European languages (Kar, 2012).
To investigate this angle one would have to see what dates are currently assigned to various languages known as “Indo-European” languages and try and see if an earlier date for Sanskrit would make much of a difference to the overall story. I extracted the dates of earliest evidence of old languages used for the reconstruction of PIE (Proto Indo-European) from a standard linguistics text (Beekes, 2011).
They are as follows:
Sanskrit: “before 1000 BCE”
Iranian (Zend): 1000 BCE
Greek: 900 BCE
Latin: 500 BCE
Old Irish: 300 CE
Gothic: 300 CE
Old English: 700 CE
Old Church Slavonic: 900 CE
German: 900 CE
Russian: 1100 CE
Old Norse: 1100 CE
Lithuanian: 1500 CE
For Sanskrit, which is declared to be the oldest, I assigned a date of 1500 BCE as being “before 1000 BCE”. Although the earliest written Sanskrit work dates from as recently as 150 CE (Neelis, 2010:155), Buddhist texts point to an older date. Lithuanian is said to be very archaic, but its oldest available texts date from around 1500 CE and that figure cannot change without new evidence. Figure 1 represents some of the major old languages from which PIE has been reconstructed where the daughter languages are arranged according to dates of oldest available texts. PIE has been assigned a date of 4000 BCE. The left half of the image, marked A differs from the right side (marked B) only in the date of Vedic Sanskrit. On the left is the conventional date of 1500 BCE and on the right is the date of 3300 BC based on the date of the Early Harappan civilization (Kenoyer, 2005:27) that was located alongside the Saraswati river before it dried up in the desert. References to the drying up of the Saraswati river are present in ancient Sanskrit texts (McDonnell,1912). It may be noted that the re-assignment of a date of 3300 BCE to Vedic Sanskrit hardly makes a difference to the overall relationships between PIE and the other old Indo-European languages.
However there is one critical difference. The 3300 BCE date for Vedic Sanskrit would bring its chronology very close to that of the hypothetical PIE. This throws up two interesting possibilities:
- One possible conclusion would be that Sanskrit of an earlier date is chronologically close to and therefore linguistically similar to PIE. This would imply that the origin of PIE was geographically very close to the origin of Vedic Sanskrit because this hypothesis leaves insufficient time for PIE to spread from a distant area of origin to India, although the relationship of PIE to other languages remains unchanged.
- The second possibility is that PIE should be assigned an earlier date – such as 6-8000 BCE. This would leave plenty of time for the language to be carried to the areas of different daughter languages. However this would put a “spoke in the wheel” of the theory that language spread took place with the technological advancement of the horse and chariot because this early date for PIE is far anterior to the dates cited for the earliest chariots in the archaeological sites of Eurasia. The idea of spread of Indo European languages as a result of “conquest by people riding on chariots” would have to be discarded. It also leaves an unduly large time gap between Vedic Sanskrit and other languages.
Perhaps these complications, arising from a new, earlier date for Vedic Sanskrit being presented from multiple Indian sources causes western linguists to get upset because all the old theories of spread of Indo-European languages would be falsified by this new information and 200 years of linguistics theories may have to be trashed, or at the very least heavily revised. That would put many a western academic chair in jeopardy and would be a powerful incentive for western linguists and Indologists to “defend their turf” by opposing all attempts to re-assess the date for Vedic Sanskrit, including dismissing proof as being politically motivated by Hindutva.
3. THE FUTURE: REMOVING THE “INDO” FROM INDO EUROPEAN
There is, however a simple solution that will allow existing language spread models to remain unchanged even as Vedic Sanskrit is assigned an earlier date . A new plausible hypothesis is required to replace the current ‘PIE” model which is inadequate and insufficient to explain older dates for Vedic Sanskrit. The older dates come with scientific evidence as opposed to the guesswork hitherto used to place Vedic Sanskrit in the 1500 to 1000 BCE time period. Figure 2 introduces an ancestral “grandmother” language that I call Matamahi bhasha that is placed far earlier than PIE. An early split of this language could have led to a separate development of “Proto-Sanskrit” and “Proto-European”. This hypothesis allows the separate and independent development of Vedic Sanskrit and European languages without interfering with known time lines of the latter (Figure 2).
Two important points differentiate this theory from the PIE hypothesis. First, Vedic Sanskrit is much older than is currently believed, and second, I cite the fact that every new, dominant language picks up substrates from older pre-existing languages (Ungureanu, 2014; Tardivo, 2017; Mosenkis).
I postulate a proto language called “Matamahi bhasha” (grandmother language) that was spoken 8 to 10,000 years ago or earlier. As the population of speakers of this language increased they began to migrate to live in other areas. During the course of migrations Matamahi bhasha split up into two daughter languages, “proto-Sanskrit” and “proto-European”. Proto-Sanskrit picked up substrates from pre-existing Indian languages to become Vedic Sanskrit. In parallel, proto-European spread across Europe, splitting into different groups, picking up substrates from different local languages.
This hypothesis also suggests an explanation for the variable proportion of non-IE substrates in Indo-European languages that range from just 4% in Vedic Sanskrit (Witzel, 1999) to 50% or more in Germanic languages (Kroonen, 2014). Early expansion of proto-Sanskrit into pre-Vedic India was likely in a remote time period during which populations were low, and consequently Vedic Sanskrit has virtually no substrate languages. However spread of proto-European into Europe was much later, by which time other languages had become established in Europe leading to a high percentage of substrates in Germanic languages. The fact that languages such as Lithuanian, Slovenian, Old Church Slavonic and Russian (Borissoff, 2012, Skulj, 2013) show similarities with Sanskrit is probably the result of early separation of Slavic languages from Proto-European.
The postulation of a Matamahi bhasha with two daughter languages that separately go on to become European and Indo-Iranian languages removes the “Indo” from Indo-European. It allows new facts about the antiquity of Sanskrit to be accommodated; it does not change the European language spread model in any way, and it explains why Sanskrit does not play a big role in the reconstructed PIE dictionary. PIE would then become “PE” or “Proto-European”, a daughter language of the primal “Matamahi bhasha”.
An incurable patriot, Dr. Shivsankar Sastry is a surgeon by profession; and a historian, thinker, sociologist and military aviation enthusiast by choice
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