It’s easy to write books that fill in history’s blank spaces, and the less archaeological and textual evidence there is in your chosen period, the easier it gets. This makes the trackless wastes of pre-literate history an especially alluring habitat for oddballs and charlatans, and the ‘alternative’ bookshops of the western world are well supplied with their literary output. Most of these books are about Atlantis, Egypt or pre-Columbian America and they do not generally seek to promote specific political agendas, or to make a case for ownership by particular people of particular lands.
Ancient India, however, has generated a type of literature that frequently has these two objectives specifically in mind.
Versions of ancient Indian history that reinforce Hindu nationalist orthodoxy are now widely available. These are invariably written by amateurs operating outside formal academia – people whose personal identity and religious convictions are intensely bound up with the narratives they are telling. Not unsurprisingly, there is now a string of disagreements in the field between ‘professionals’, who form opinions based on data, and ‘advocates’, who use Hindu scripture and any scrap of evidence, no matter how isolated, to arrive at conclusions that support a set of rigid initial propositions. Faced with no evidence at all, the former group will remain silent, but the latter will proceed undeterred, led on by the absolute necessity to establish a ‘Hindu’ presence in ancient India, because the whole basis of the Hindutva outlook absolutely relies on an inherited right to prior ‘possession’ of the subcontinent. This supposed inheritance then leads on to support rather less convincing claims that ancient Hindus gave culture to the rest of the world.
The scale and stridency of these claims is undoubtedly related to the lasting impact of colonialism, which has created a deep compulsion among a small number of writers in India to overturn Eurocentric views of world history. This has reinforced a desire among some to believe that Indian culture was fully formed at an extremely early date, after which it spread out to cover the entire planet. One website talks of ‘Bhartiya history and its unbroken civilisation of 1,972 million years’, while another is a little more precise, dating the origins of humanity at 1,971,961,683 years ago. More modest claims tend to top out at around 150,000 years.
There is no solid evidence for any of this, apart from a very literal reading of scripture, but there is a direct motive propelling the desire to believe that it might be true. If India’s early ‘Vedic’ culture can be shown to predate the development of literate culture in Sumer or Egypt, then this can be used to support the idea that Vedic culture moved out of India to enlighten the rest of the planet. The existence of this Vedic hegemony can be ‘proved’ by the discovery of resemblances between Sanskrit words and words in any other language, anywhere. Similarly, any resemblance, no matter how superficial, between elements of Greek philosophy and Indian metaphysics can be taken as proof of the existence of patterns of direct transmission, or deliberate imitation, linking Vedic and Greek culture. Belief in the validity of this chain of reasoning is the starting point for the bevy of Indian and Indophile writers who have championed the existence of an ancient Hindu World Order.
The most direct method of providing supporting evidence for ancient Vedic global domination is to quote lines from the Puranas about how various ancient Indian kings and gods conquered the world. N. S. Rajaram in ‘Nationalism And Distortions In Indian History’ supplies two such lines from the Aitareya Brahmana (c. 600 BCE): “With this great anointing of Indra, Dirghatamas Mamateya anointed Bharata Daushanti. Therefore, Bharata Daushanti went round the earth completely, conquering on every side and offered the horse in sacrifice.” Rajaram follows this with another, almost identical quote, but with Tura Kavasheya anointing Janamejaya Parikshita instead. That makes two conquerors that went round the world – no possibility of error there, then. But the existence of this Vedic World Empire has no support in any scholarly community outside India, and precious little in the relevant disciplines inside India either; it is purely a construction of Hindu religious polemic.
Revisionist Hindutva historians do not lack knowledge. What they lack is wider context, specifically a proper acknowledgement of other positions, and of legitimate doubts about their own. Certainty is not available in matters of ancient history, and the best scholars always acknowledge this with due modesty. For good scholarship requires not only detail, it must contain balance; it is not driven on through all doubts and difficulties to a preferred conclusion. It is often, therefore, rather dull. Polemic, by contrast, is exciting, precisely because it dispenses with balance. It strains every sinew to persuade. It uses every technique, overt and covert, to overwhelm doubt, to be clearly decided, to seem authoritative. Polemic writing can never sustain balance and will always sacrifice it for simplicity, and its stable-mate, intensity. H. B. Sarda was the early leader in asserting Vedic hegemony, and he determinedly avoided balance. V. K. D. Ayyangar did much the same in the 1930s. Finally P. N. Oak carried the tradition to new heights from the 1960s onwards.
Purushottam Nagesh Oak (1917-2007) was a Maharashtrian who devoted a lifetime to the rediscovery of India’s lost past. An intensely serious man, he doubtless believed in the truth of what he wrote. No one but an intensely serious man could blithely have titled one of his own books ‘Some Blunders of Indian Historical Research’, or have founded an organisation called ‘The Institute for Rewriting World History’, as he did in 1964. But Oak was also an angry man, angry at the state of decay that his country had fallen into, at the agonised self-doubt to which it had been reduced. He was also angry because his ideas were rejected by so many of his fellow Indians, a rejection Oak put down to colonialist education and a ‘conspiracy of silence’ to suppress his findings.
Educated Indians have been quite rude about Oak, and Oak has happily returned the (un)compliment, claiming that those who denigrate him serve only as a perfect illustration of why foreign tutoring is a bad idea. Such people, he says, should show some independence of mind and come up with some ‘original thinking’ (World Vedic Heritage, p. 203). Oak practiced what he preached, and his books are exactly that – profoundly original thinking.
Oak’s ideas have attracted and inspired supporters and imitators. There is now a large body of literature from, among others, V S Godbole, Paramesh Choudhury, N S Rajaram, S Talageri, François Gautier, Stephen Knapp and David Frawley, all of whom generally concur with Oak on his revisionist approach, and certainty agree with him about the wide scope of ancient Hindu culture and its primacy in the intellectual shaping of the ancient world. Though not all Indian by birth, these writers tend to be Hindus by religion. A notable exception to this rule is Koenraad Elst. What a Belgian trained in Catholic theology is doing writing about Sanskrit philology and the movement of ancient Aryans only becomes clear when we realise that Elst is primarily attracted to India as an important battlefront against Islam. Elst is motivated by a variety of causes, such as anti-Marxism and anti-secularism, but his main motivation is Islamophobia.
Oak is probably best known for his insistence that the Taj Mahal is really a Rajput temple, but his interests were much more global than that. One of his most creative insights was to announce that the pyramids of Egypt were really castles. He also developed a ‘Unified Field Theory of History’, which he set out in his masterwork World Vedic Heritage (1984). On the title page of the book he announced his conviction that ‘from the beginning of time the world practiced Vedic culture and spoke Sanskrit’. This unified theory includes, among other things, the belief that the Mahabharata War was a real struggle for real global hegemony – Oak places it in 5561 BCE. It also involves a belief in ancient Hindu flying machines and advanced weaponry, all provided by ‘Vedic’ science. This science was powerful enough to create war-winning weapons, but apparently was neither sufficiently useful or memorable to have survived.
Despite the complete absence of material traces of this advanced civilisation, Oak insists that signs of the ancient global Vedic culture are still everywhere to be found, but are ignored because of colonialist brainwashing. He does not even attempt to use archaeology to support his position. His reasons to reject archaeology include; that it can never be complete, that relevant discoveries have been hushed up, that ignorant archaeologists have missed the evidence: and that proof, especially of advanced Vedic machines, may simply have disappeared because Vedic culture is so enormously old. Nor does he resort to scriptural authority except, rather mischievously, to take the Bible’s assertion that ‘the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech’ (Genesis 11:1). But this tongue was not the ancient Hebrew of Eden; it was, of course, Sanskrit.
To challenge any of this we have to examine Oak’s methods rather more closely than would usually be the case within a conventional historical dispute. His refusal to use material evidence forces him to rely primarily on verbal and logical methods of argumentation, so rather than attempting to refute every single conclusion he comes to, it is simpler to test his theories by examining his methods. Chief among these is the repeated use of a ‘comparative’ approach in order to find evidence of ancient Vedic influence. If something in the ancient world ‘looks like’ something modern, then for Oak they are the same thing. This allows him to see depictions of ancient nuclear reactors on the walls of Shiv temples, because ‘there are innumerable irresistible points of identity’ between ‘Shivling’ emblems in temples and the modern nuclear reactor at Trombay, with its prominent dome. It has ‘the look’ of a Shivling (ibid., p.160).
Although the significant resemblance that Oak is noting here might work as a radical feminist critique – nuclear power plant as phallic symbol – as proof of Vedic science it is a bit thin. The much clearer parallel between a Shiva lingam and the male sexual organ is rather better attested. Ancient Hindus worshipped a representation of a penis and the similarly would not have been, and was never meant to be, lost on any of them. They were surely not worshipping models of a power station.
Oak’s supporters claim that this comparative method is authorised by the Upanishads, which teach that inferences can legitimately be made from similarities between ‘the word and the world’. These can show a deep level of significant correspondences hidden within reality. A parallelism (bandhu) can be valid, showing an equivalence (sampad) that lies beyond rational grasp. This approach above all, it could be argued, is what makes Oak’s a specifically ‘Hindu’ history. Not just his conclusions, but his methods too.
Virtually his entire case for a global Sanskrit-speaking empire rests on the use of this technique. In World Vedic Heritage he sets out numerous rules for the detection of significant correspondences in the names of places, gods and abstractions. He finds Sanskrit influence all over England by using a long list of equivalences such as -bury = -puri, -ton = -sthan and -shire = -shawar. By also allowing for the possibility that p = b, g = j or k, and that s = h or even c, suddenly Druids are Dravids, Krishna is Christ, Abraham is Brahma, and Noah is definitely Manu, if you drop the last syllable of No-ah and the first of Ma-nu, and then accept that No- = -nu and don’t concern yourself where the Ma- came from. Doubtless Oak would also be keen to lay claim to Hariputra, the boy wizard, and Darth Veda.
In Blunders he uses Sanskrit-sounding place names such as Riga and Mali to prove that Vedic culture ruled as far afield as the Baltic and West Africa (pp. 277, 280). Perhaps. But he does not explain what these words might reasonably be supposed to mean – he is happy with their general shape, despite the fact that ra, ga, ma and li are some of the commonest syllables in the world’s languages.
To assume that the occurrence of a particular syllable in any particular place is sufficient proof of a Sanskrit-speaking empire is not a safe conclusion, no matter how many times you do it. For a start it assumes that these names were in use at the time of their supposed inclusion in the global Vedic imperium. It also thoroughly ignores ‘Occam’s Razor’, the metaphorical implement that a wise scholar should use to pare the number of ‘entities’ in any explanation to a minimum. By contrast, the ‘Global Vedic Empire’ thesis is an example of the liberal application of ‘Oak’s Adhesive’, a substance that permanently sticks together any two ‘entities’ that look even vaguely similar. Lastly, Oak never bothers to show us how in these distant regions the enormous majority of local words that show little or no Sanskrit influence got there. For him, just one per country can be enough. This is the kind of logic that would have us believe that wheelbarrows and watermills were invented by the same person because they both have one wheel. He is simply playing a game of ‘spot the similarity and ignore all the differences’.
Nor should anyone assume, from the impressive extent of Oak’s writings, that his theories rest on some vast body of evidence. They don’t. The ‘evidence’ he uses is all of roughly the same quality, but is pumped up with repeated use of adjectives such as ‘overwhelming’ and ‘irresistible’, all joined together with phrases such as ‘it is obvious’. This is the intellectual equivalent of shouting. His ideas actually rest upon a few basic methodological flaws repeated over and over again
He likes to set a out a universal law (usually of his own invention) then follow it through to highly specific conclusions that can be added up to seem convincing. For instance: he declares that ‘military conquest is an essential prerequisite for the spread of a language’ (Blunders, p. 275). This linguistic law is not explained or qualified in any way. Next he tells us that Sanskrit was spoken all over the world, because there is evidence to that effect in place names and in philological survivals in modern languages. Finally we are told that because languages only spread by conquest (immutable law) and because Sanskrit was spoken all over the world (proven fact) therefore – ancient Sanskrit-speaking Indians conquered the whole world. Job done.
He also regularly collapses differences in epochs and eras, so that all time is effectively static. Even if thousands of years separate the actual usage of two syllables, the correspondence between them is as valid as if they were proven to be contemporary. So in World Vedic Heritage we have arjuntana = Argentina (p. 524). This he takes to be irrefutable proof of Vedic rule in South America because, he says, the Argentine had silver mines, and Sanskrit arjuntana means ‘silvery’. But the local name for the area was never arjuntana, no matter what it may mean or resemble. And there were never any silver mines in Argentina, although the Spanish explorers hoped that there might be. The indigenous name for the land. therefore, could not possibly have been Arjuntana when the Spanish arrived. And it wasn’t.
He is happy to go much further. He maintains that the word ‘England’ comes, via French (!?), from a Sanskrit root ‘anguli’ meaning ‘finger’ (ibid., p. 866). When precisely this is meant to have happened is not made clear, but he is happy to imagine Vedic explorers standing in France naming this distant (unoccupied?) land because they think it looks like a finger. Well, you can’t easily see the cliffs of Dover from France, and if you can then they don’t look much like a finger; they look more like a pancake. Anyway, Oak moves on to demonstrate that British institutions have a Vedic origin too. So ‘monarch’ is rendered as Sanskrit manawarka meaning ‘the sun among humans’ (ibid., p. 868). This is hogwash, and brings us directly to the main criticism of all Oak’s activities in pretty well his whole enterprise, namely that there are already perfectly sufficient explanations for everything he tries to explain anew. ‘Monarch’ comes from the Greek roots mon-, one, and arch-, ruler. Oak’s interpretation can only hold water if it also reads across to other appearances of the same roots. For instance, if he can consistently find coherent (and relevant) Sanskrit equivalents for oligarchy, hierarchy and anarchy, or find readings of words such as architect or archduke. This leap he never makes with any of his discoveries. They are all one-offs.
As ever, over-claiming leads to the death of trust in the reader. For instance, Oak is keen to take the word ‘Vatican’ as proof of the Vedic roots of the Papacy, claiming it is cognate with the Sanskrit vatika meaning hermitage. Perhaps a wider knowledge of Roman and Papal history would have excused him this ‘blunder’. The Vatican City, now the headquarters of the Catholic Church, takes its name from the hill on which the Vatican palace now stands, but the Pope did not reside there until the fourteenth century. Before that his principal residence was the Lateran Palace. There is no possible link between any ancient Vedic occupiers of Rome and the ‘Vatican’ Papacy. The phrase ‘the Vatican’ is just modern shorthand. And it is simply not true, as Oak claimed in an article in 1999, that the Emperor Constantine overthrew a Vedic priesthood in 312 CE and replaced them with a new Christian clergy. Constantine did not kill or replace anybody. He submitted publicly to Papal authority (in the spiritual realm), acknowledging the bishop of Rome (the official name for the Pope) as the spiritual protector of the Roman Empire, thus officially transferring his allegiance from the old pontifex maximus (High Priest) of the old Roman civic religion.
Oak’s American-born admirer, Stephen Knapp, has credulously bought into all of Oak’s fantasies about Rome and the Papacy, and in his book Proof of Vedic Culture’s Global Existence (no publisher, no date) he trots out the whole rigmarole as if incontestably true. But ‘pontiff’ is not a corruption of pundit, as Knapp would have us believe (ibid., p 164), it is a rendering in English of pontifex, which literally means Bridge Builder – i.e. to heaven – from the Latin roots pont- (bridge) and facere (to make).
This game of word association can easily be turned around. The inhabitants of North America ‘obviously’ founded the culture of South Central India, and gave their name to the local language, which explains why it is called Kannada, betraying its original Canadian roots. As modern Hindutva theorists are keen to point out, North America’s native population speak a form of Sanskrit and show other Vedic influences, so it is obvious that the entire origin of Vedic culture was actually in chilly North America. (Tilak was right after all!) There is thus overwhelming evidence that the direction of ancient cultural influence was actually westwards across the Bering Straits, not eastwards as is currently falsely claimed. Indians in India are called Indians because they took their culture from the original Red Indians. This is quite plain to anyone with an open mind. For further conclusive proof, there is a district in Tamil Nadu called – - – Salem! And where was the original Salem? Yes – in Northeastern America. There – definitive proof.
The ancient Vedic hegemony is a complete myth and it certainly has no claim to serious consideration within modern cultural and political debates. But it lies at the ideological root of the entire Hindutva project, its claims to exclusive property in India, and its claims to superiority, and anteriority, to all other world cultures.
This is why it is important to engage with Oak’s ideas, at least to the limited extent of emphasising how little substance there is to them. We are dealing directly with a political standpoint here, and it would be a mistake to let the ‘history’ that supports it pass unchallenged, because there is an endless supply of inquisitive non-specialists who pick up books by Oak and Knapp and take them seriously. The customer reviews in the columns of Amazon.com amply demonstrate this, with Oak and his imitators cast as defiant heroes grappling with vested interests that have seized a monopoly on world history. Established academics are accused of twisting their conclusions so that they conveniently fit the biased, ‘western’ data. ‘Open-minded’ researchers into the past who come up with different conclusions, on the other hand, are seen as heralds of a new, dispassionate truth, not as writers with clear vested interests of their own.
Oak’s work remains important because he is probably the only writer who has tried to make a detailed, non-scriptural case for ancient Vedic supremacy. He has had an effect, and others have followed closely in his footsteps.
One such is Paramesh Choudhury, author of Indian Origin of the Chinese Nation, and The India We Have Lost: Did India Colonize and Civilize Sumeria, Egypt, Greece and Europe? (Dasgupta: 1990). This is a difficult book to read, mostly because it constantly switches from extremely detailed arguments concerned with philology, archaeology and comparative mythology, to enormously broad speculations, with no basis in evidence whatsoever, about the spread of ideas and the transit of entire nations across the ancient globe. Waves of enlightened beings issue purposefully from India (why?) in all directions, bringing with them everything good in world culture. Seemingly, they were welcomed into the new lands, or at least they did not have to fight to get in. We are told that the Rig Veda is probably 140,000 years old, that Chinese people are really Indians, and that all China’s science came from India, including firearms and printing. India has simply been ‘unlucky’ in losing out on the credit. Vedic missionaries also pop up in Ireland. True to form, fringe European authors are cited without discrimination, whereas more reliable sources are quibbled with. Light relief is provided by a passage about Victorian adventurer John H. Speke, whom Choudhury records as exploring the upper Nile in the year 1082 CE (p. 43). This, we assume, is a misprint, although somehow it feels like it has made itself truly at home.
Finally we hear again about the famous ancient Vedic flying machines – vimanas – and we are at last given a reason why they disappeared. Apparently the emperor Ashoka, at some time around 250 BCE, decided to suppress all the super-advanced scientific and technical knowledge of ancient India, because it was likely to promote the waging of war, which he had come to dislike. Nine books containing all the restricted knowledge were entrusted to nine shadowy guardians for eternal safe keeping. (Presumably, to ensure perfect secrecy, all other initiates who had actually built or operated the flying machines must also have been killed by the peace-loving Ashoka.) Descendants of these original Nine Men then went on to become ‘the most powerful secret society on earth’ (p. 241). Any important scientific breakthroughs made by any European who had ever visited India at any point, were the result of occasional privileged access to these Books.
By the time we reach this gem of an explanation, all willingness to follow the book’s argument or believe any of its assertions is long gone. If this kind of contentiousness is convincing, then anything sufficiently passionate can pass as convincing.
Lack of material evidence does not deter these devout writers from persistently upholding vast, chauvinistic historical fantasies. They feel free to rewrite any part of history that offends them, using inspiration wherever it can be found.
There was no Hindu World Order, but still it casts a dense shadow over parts of India’s rational present. Oak’s work should serve as a warning, for what it promises is not a new beginning to scholarship, but a chaotic end.