The roots of Hinduism

I have been reading a lot lately on the history of the Indian civilization. History of India by John Keay is a brilliant book which charts the often murky civilizational developments in the areas which now roughly constitute India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan over the last 5000 years. The book is relatively light on details when it talks about the time period spanning 3000 to about 1000 BC but is quite detailed about more modern times, especially charting very well the various Mongolian, Turkish, Persian, and British invasions of the subcontinent. While the latter time period is historically clearer and also more important to the development of the religion and culture as we know them today, the earlier time period is much more interesting when it comes to figuring out who the ancestors were to the modern Indians, where they came from , and what the roots of the Hindu religion were. This is where John Keay's otherwise excellent book is lacking. I am currently reading Asko Parpola's brilliant The Roots of Hinduism which sheds an eye-opening light on the earlier time period. Parpola presents compelling archaeological and linguistic arguments to answer one of the deepest questions when it comes to the ancestry of the Indian people (at least the North Indians anyway). In what ways are the modern Indians connected to the ancient Indus valley civilization, also known as the Harappan civilization?

The Indus valley civilization was a large civilization which coexisted with the Egyptian civilization and spanned a very large area around the Indus river and its tributaries. Its ruins have been found all over Pakistan, Afghanistan and Western India and they represent a highly advanced culture especially when it comes to town planning. The Indus valley script has eluded decipherment even after more than a century of intense interest. In comparison, the Egyptian hieroglyphs have been successfully decoded mainly due to the fortunate discovery of the Rosetta stone. Indian nationalists have had a deep interest in connecting the current culture to the Indus valley civilization as it presumably lends great prestige and antiquity to the Hindu religion. However, as nationalists everywhere, the Indian nationalists are not very intelligent, relying more on emotions than on logic, reasoning, and evidence. Parpola presents compelling evidence, mostly linguistic in nature, which would make it hard for a reasonable person to disagree with his central conclusion - the connection between Hinduism and the Indus valley civilization are very tenuous and the case against it is quite strong. Sanskrit, that great Hindu language, from which emerge the majority of the modern Indian languages, especially north Indian languages, shares great similarities with other ancient languages such as Greek and Latin. In fact major languages in the Indian, Baltic, Celtic, Germanic, Iranian, and Armenian regions share deep similarities with each other and they all derive from the now extinct Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language. By studying the similarities and differences in the words of these related languages, linguists have been able to reconstruct PIE itself. On the other hand, by studying the archaeological evidences which relate to seals and inscriptions researchers have been able to map out the trajectory of the migrations of the PIE speakers. It appears that the PIE speakers dwelled somewhere in the present day Ukraine and moved from there to inhabit the rest of Europe, Persia, and the subcontinent, the latter around the 1800 BC time frame. The oldest Hindu scripture, the Rigveda, is believed to have been penned (obviously not by any single person) around 1500 BC and its gods and rituals again share deep similarities with the ancient Greek and Persian gods. Another indication of shared historical roots. The Indus valley people were already in the region (~2500 BC) much before the PIE people ventured here and it is the PIE people and their traditions from which Hinduism derives the overwhelming bulk of its religious history and culture. This includes all of its Vedas and all of its subsequent epics. In fact the closest relation that the Indus valley civilization has with any existing cultures in India is possibly with the Dravidian people and its languages (Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, and most directly Brahui). The fact that it is Hinduism which is practiced in Southern India is a relatively recent phenomenon aided by the north to south migration of the people who originally descended from the PIE speakers.

2 observations on “The roots of Hinduism
  1. Amitesh

    What about PIE eaters, and when I say that think about Key lime pie, Lemon merangue pie, Boston creme pie, Coconut pie, Apple pie? 😀

  2. Ankit

    The pie-eaters were there before everyone else. Just eating their pies in a side-walk cafe looking incongruously at the PIE people as they tried to appease their imaginary gods with their uncivilized rituals.


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