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.
An edited version of this essay appears here.