Android app on Google Play


II.4 Indic Civilization, a Light for the World


Part II.4

Indic Civilization: A Light for the World


������ What is the civilization of the subcontinent of India? Does it have a place among the great civilizations of the world like Europe or China? Or is it some cultural backwater with little to offer but regressive social customs, overpopulation and disease? Does India have a great history and important traditions for the entire world to study and emulate, or is it merely a way station for different invaders whose culture came mainly from the outside and who left mainly trails of destruction? Was the movement of civilization always west to east, with India merely imitating trends from the Middle East and Europe, or was there an east to west movement of culture from India enriching or even molding that of the West? And was there any significant civilization east of India into southeast Asia in ancient times that was not simply a product of western influences? After all, India is geographically more connected and culturally has had more ties to the east and the south than the west and the north during the historical period.


Let us examine these questions because they are crucial to understanding the place of India in world civilization. However, if we look at the history of India as defined in modern European developed textbooks, there is really not much to tell. India does not count for much in the history of the world, which appears would have been about the same without it. Indic civilization in importance in world civilization ranks far behind not only Europe but also those of the Middle East and China. However, is this the real truth of the matter, or simply the legacy of colonial thinking that has left a strong mark upon current views of the world?


Historically, India is examined only relative to a few connections to the West; notably to classical Greece, the most honored ancient civilization for western historians. India�s own local connections in the subcontinent and to regions south and east are not given any weight. India is interpreted through the West, not in its own right. This suggests the need for a new examination of Indic civilization as we move out of the era of western dominated culture.


The Development of Civilization in India: Mysteries or Misinterpretations?

The history of the subcontinent of India begins with the mysterious Harappan culture, which was certainly one of the great wonders of the ancient world. Harappan culture, as revealed by hundreds of archaeological sites, was the largest and most sophisticated urban civilization of the world at its time, the third millennium BCE (c. 3100 -1900 BCE). It occupied a vast geographical region from the Amu Darya River in Afghanistan in the northwest across the Ganga in the east. In the southwest it stretched to the coast of Iran and down nearly as far as Mumbai, with important coastal sites in Gujarat and Kachchh. It contained not only the two large cities of Mohenjodaro and Harappa but nearly a dozen comparable large urban sites. While Harappa and Mohenjodaro are about 100 hectares in size, Lakhmirwala and Rakhigarhi are about 225 hectares, Gurnikalan is about 145, Hasanpur is about 100 and Ganweriwala is about 80. All these sites are in the Sarasvati heartland with Rakhigari in the Kurukshetra region itself, northwest of Delhi.


Harappa and Mohenjodaro are certainly not the largest, though they remain better excavated because of the longer period of work on them. Yet still textbooks talk of Harappa and Mohenjodaro, as if these remain the most important. They still refer to the culture as the �Indus Valley�, though the great majority of the sites on the dried banks of the Sarasvati. In short, there has been an attempt to freeze the archaeological picture to Harappa and Mohenjodaro in spite of new evidence that these were more peripheral than central to the greater Sarasvati civilization.


These Harappan, or better called �Sarasvati� cities, were better planned, organized and interconnected than those of Egypt or Mesopotamia of the time, both of which regions could have fit comfortably in the boundaries of Harappan India. Writing also arose in India before 3000 BCE or by the same time as in the Middle East. All the antecedents of Harappan civilization have been traced in the Indian subcontinent through various pre-Harappan sites back to the great village complex of Mehrgarh, which was the largest of its time c. 7000 BCE. In other words, ancient civilization in India was advanced and indigenous, comparable to anything in the Middle East at the same time.


Yet in the study of ancient history we read little about Harappan/Sarasvati India and much more about the much smaller cultures of Sumeria and Egypt. The contribution of Harappan India to world civilization is generally ignored or simply missed altogether by a lack of any real looking for it. It is as if nothing significant in terms of urban planning, agriculture, trade, science, literature or religion survived from the culture, which was an historical dead end. By such views, Harappa disappeared without a trace, leaving little influence on the subcontinent, much less on the world outside. There is no other ancient culture of its size and sophistication that has been ascribed such little effect on civilization.


In addition, there has been little effort to connect Harappan culture south and east from India. Western Indologists have created a divide in their minds, as if the India of Harappan times was an island that ended at the Ganga, which was an impenetrable ocean. Though there are many interesting archaeological sites to the east, these have been ignored on principle, as if Indic civilization had to be connected only to the northwest.


According to what is now an old perspective�though it still dominates history books today�this mysterious Harappan culture was terminated by the ubiquitous Vedic Aryans who came pouring in from Central Asia. Originally, the Vedic Aryans were blamed as the destroyers of Harappa, thundering out of Afghanistan into the plains of India like Attila, the Hun into the Roman world. This view has been highlighted in textbooks and depictions for several decades, since Wheeler, an important early Harappan archaeologist, proposed it, though his scanty skeletal evidence for it was eventually proved to be entirely faulty.


Now that recent archaeology has proved that Harappan culture ended because of the drying up and changing courses of rivers in the region, notably the Sarasvati River of Vedic fame, not owing to any outside invasion. Because of this current Western Indologists have turned the Vedic Aryans into small groups of intruders into India in the post-Harappan era. They have given up the Aryan invasion of Harappa and replaced it with an Aryan migration in the post-Harappan era. The Aryans are no longer styled the destroyers of Harappa but are still given an ignoble status as outside barbarians, who through some trick or cunning managed to impose their language on the older cultures of the region by a means yet to be discovered.


Though this earlier view of the Vedic Aryans as the destroyers of Harappa has been exposed as a great blunder�one of the greatest errors by modern historians�scholars have still not been willing to give credit to the maligned Vedic people. Nor have they bothered to remove the old wrong view from history books, which still usually contain it. Even when their ideas have been proven erroneous, they have yet to question their methodology or prime beliefs�their fixation on Vedic culture as deriving from outside India, with no real indigenous Indic culture surviving on its own.


Let us be clear about this�so far there is no civilization, ruins, artifacts, or skeletal remains, much less cities that have been proven to be those of the Vedic Aryans apart from the Harappan or other indigenous cultures of the region. The cultural identity of the Vedic Aryans remains as mysterious as the disappearance of the Harappans by such views. There is no separate identity for the Vedic Aryans that has ever been shown apart from the Harappans and pre-Harappans.


Vedic Literature


The Vedas remain the largest literature from the pre-Buddha era in the world (before 500 BCE). They dwarf the Bible, the Iliad, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead or any other such ancient records. Yet in spite of their extent, they are not counted for much in western accounts of civilization. Western Indologists doubt whether the Vedas were even composed in India or represented the indigenous traditions of the region in the first place. The Vedas have been reduced to primitive nature poetry that later generations unwisely attributed to a divine or seer vision.


Though Vedic literature has continued to inspire spiritual and social movements on the subcontinent to the present day, it is looked upon by modern scholars as little more than a ruin or fossil. As the record of an intrusive nomadic culture, rather than a stable civilization, it is a literature that probably shouldn�t even exist. That Indians are inspired by the Vedas becomes only another sign of their lack of discrimination for the western mind. Why such a primitive literature would be faithfully preserved for millennia is something they have no reason for apart from the cultural backwardness of the Hindus.


Nor surprisingly, western Vedic scholars have done little more than catalogue Vedic grammar, which though quite sophisticated even by their accounts doesn�t cause them to look for something deeper. They know little of any spiritual secrets of the Vedas that traditional scholars have indicated are in the texts, which everywhere speak of what is hidden, secret, or only for the initiated. Such Indologists don�t see any deeper meaning in the Vedas. Though modern scholars, both Christian and non-Christian, look at the Bible in terms of many layers of symbolism, probing behind the strange metaphors and events found within it, they ignore deeper levels in Vedic literature, even though the Vedic tradition describes these. The Vedas speak of special mantras, Divine names, and higher states of consciousness much like later Hinduism, with a sevenfold symbolism much like the seven chakras of Yogic thought.


Yet just as Western Indology has erected an artificial geographical border on ancient Indian civilization, refusing to allow it to go beyond the Ganga, they have created a similar dividing line on Indic or yogic spirituality, refusing to see it in any texts before the Upanishads. They look at the Vedas from a point of view apart from the Indic tradition. Whatever typically Indian or Hindu occurs in the Vedas, they ascribe to an influence of the indigenous people on the Aryan intruders, not to anything that really belonged to the Vedic mind.


Such scholars have their own rigid time line on Vedic culture. They refuse to connect it to anything before 1500 BCE, as if Vedic culture had no roots before that period and certainly no prior connection with India, in spite of it becoming the representative ancient literature of the entire area, emulated throughout the region ever since. As part of this, they have erected a semantic divide as well. They rigidly separate Vedic deities like Indra from later Hindu deities like Shiva, even though these have similar characteristics. They ignore the role of Vedic deities like Agni, Vayu and Surya in later internal Yoga practices as the powers of inner transformation, though they are clearly there.


Western Indologists have created a linguistic divide that follows their proposed temporal and geographical borders. They will connect the Indo-European languages of India to cultures of Europe and Central Asia. But they fail to take linguistic and cultural connections south and east in India itself, particularly before the time of the Buddha. They have tried to erect certain language families as absolute boundaries, when these are simply convenient categories with much overlap and many variations. They emphasize the existence of Indo-European and non-Indo-European language groups in India to make the former into intruders, ignoring the fact that Indo-European and non-Indo-European linguistic groups occur together everywhere in the ancient world, including Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. In fact, Central Asia and the Eastern European plain� the main proposed homeland for the Indo-Europeans�has always been a highway occupied by shifting populations differing in language and ethnicity including Slavic, Germanic, Celtic, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Slavic, Iranian, Scythian, Turkic, Mongolian and other very different groups. That it could preserve any pure linguistic or ethnic homeland is almost absurd.


Such scholars highlight place and river names connecting the Vedas to Afghanistan but ignore the many Vedic/Sanskrit place and river names to the south and east of India as well. Though the river names of north India are Sanskritic as far back as can be traced, they still portray the Vedic people as intruders into the region.


Modern linguists have also failed to understand the nature of the Vedic language, which was not a common spoken tongue that can be reduced to some historical sound changes. Vedic Sanskrit was called �Chandas� or poetry and was a highly refined elite language of the higher classes. Just as later Sanskrit, it could be continued for many centuries with little change owing to its elite and sacred status. Sanskrit remains one of the world�s most sophisticated and scientific languages. This suggests that it was the product of a great civilization, not the development of nomadic peoples. Indeed, the Rigveda itself, as great modern teachers like Sri Aurobindo proclaim, has a sophistication of language on par with anything produced in the history of the world, with profound plays on symbolism, sound and meaning. It requires a great civilization to explain its sophistication. It is not the primitive literature Western Indologists require in order to justify their theories.


Western scholars have looked at Harappan civilization as a great set of urban ruins from a culture that had little effect on history. They have similarly looked at the vast extent of Vedic literature as a collection of texts that had no real culture to support it. This means that the archaeological remains of ancient India, however extensive, are dissociated from any continuity of civilization in the region. Similarly, the existent literature from ancient India has been removed from the ancient civilizations of the region�and from any real civilization at all. We are left with mute Harappan ruins on one hand, and a Vedic literature from a strange nomadic world that no one has ever found on the other.


Yet the historical texts of the region�whether Hindu, Buddhist or Jain�do not speak of such a discontinuity. They are unaware of these invaders and all proudly call themselves Arya, not as an ethnic term but as a term of refinement, nobility and respect. Arya Dharma is another early name for Buddhism and can be applied to Hindu and Jain traditions as well. It is perhaps the only term that can include all the dharmic traditions of the region.


Indic Civilization


The Indic record of history is first of an ancient Vedic civilization centered on the Sarasvati river that relocated to the Ganga and Yamuna area after the drying up of the Sarasvati and the shifting of its headwaters. The Indic record is second of a Puranic Hindu and Buddhist tradition on the Ganga that arose as an adaptation or reform of the Sarasvati tradition. This agrees with the archaeological record today that the Harappan culture was centered on the Sarasvati river and the end of this civilization occurred because of the drying up of the river. In other words, the Sarasvati to Ganga shift of civilization in ancient India is reflected in Vedic and post-Vedic literature. Still, western scholars remain reluctant to connect the two, in part because few of them keep up with archaeological findings that show the Sarasvati-Harappa connection, but also because the implications are too upsetting to western paradigms of history that support the supremacy of western civilization.


If we look at the culture and literature of the subcontinent of India, it is clear that India has a civilization older, more complex and continuous than perhaps any other culture in the world. English literature, for example, mainly goes back to the sixteenth century or to Chaucer a few centuries before. Almost every region of India has an older regional literature than the English, whether it is Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Kashmir or Bengal, which in turn look back to much older Sanskrit models.


European civilization goes back to ancient Greece and Rome, about two thousand years ago. Yet at the time of ancient Greece and Rome there was no European civilization per se. The Greeks or Romans had no concept of themselves as Europeans. The idea of Europe as a cultural entity is no older than Charlemagne, who in the ninth century started the Holy Roman Empire. Greece and Rome were integral parts of the Mediterranean sphere of culture that included North Africa, Anatolia and Mesopotamia. Central and Eastern Europe were hardly populated at the time and mainly consisted of marshland. The literature of ancient Greece and Rome was destroyed or marginalized by the Christianization of the region, breaking the continuity of culture in the region.


On the other hand, in India today, Sanskrit literature like the Mahabharata, which dates back to the Greco-Roman period, if not much before, is still alive and part of the culture, including that of the common people in India today. No such Greek or Roman texts have this living status in western culture and have not had for nearly two thousand years. Sanskrit literature not only dwarfs that of Greece and Rome, it is both older and more continuous. All of classical Sanskrit literature was quite old by the time Europe emerged from the dark ages, and slowly began to form its modern civilization and its proud nation states.


Western Misinterpretation of Indic Civilization


The problem is that the West has defined civilization in its own image, disregarding other civilizations and their different approaches and values. First, it has defined civilization in terms of science and technology, as a largely materialistic development. Clearly, the West did pioneer most of modern science and technology during the period from 1500-2000 AD. However, prior to that Europe was no more advanced scientifically than the rest of the world, and often behind it. India and China were equal or ahead of Europe in science and technology throughout the medieval period and in the ancient era as well. Today we see scientists from Asia making their mark on modern science, which is no longer an affair that belongs to Europe or America. Indeed, there are more trained scientists in India than in America today. If we define civilization as science and technology, clearly the era of European predominance is coming to an end. It was more an historical phase than any lasting domination of world civilization, which historically has been more dominated by larger and older cultures in Asia.


Second, and more importantly, the West has defined culture in terms of its own approaches to religion, art and philosophy, even though these are rather recent, fragmentary or at odds with each other. It is not that India does not have religion, art or philosophy. In fact, India has had probably more of these than the West, but that the Indic approach to these aspects of culture, being different, causes them to be ignored or denigrated on principle.


In terms of religion and spirituality, India has offered the world a much greater literature, older and larger traditions, and a deeper cosmic knowledge than the West has ever produced. Look at the Vedas, Upanishads, Epics, Puranas, Tantras and Yoga Shastras in the Hindu tradition, and the many Buddhist, Jain, Sikh and other teachings as well. In the modern world, if people are looking to spiritual practices, they employ mainly Indic terms of dharma, karma, dhyana, prana, shakti, kundalini, and chakras. Most of these terms can be found in the Rigveda itself! If we are looking for practical way to develop a higher consciousness and connection with the universal mind, it is in the Indic Yoga tradition that we can find the way, not in the mainstream of western civilization which has not been concerned with such higher realities.


In terms of philosophy, the Indic tradition is similarly older, more continuous and more diverse than that of the West. From the six systems of Vedic philosophy, the Nyaya-Vaisheshika, the Samkhya-Yoga and Purva and Uttara Mimamsa, to the four schools of classical Buddhist philosophy, the Tantric schools like Kashmiri Shaivism, or the materialistic Charavaka school, it has an extraordinary sweep of the human mind and the universe itself. And there is in all of this no mention of the Greek philosophers that the West has emulated as the greatest in this field, who clearly came later than the main traditions of India. As the work of modern philosophers like Sri Aurobindo indicates, it is a living tradition. India maintains a tradition of spiritual, ontological and meditational philosophies that have not yet succumbed to the materialist and scientific paradigms of the West that more or less put an end to such an independent philosophical tradition in the West over a hundred years ago.


������ One could argue, therefore, that India is not a backwater of civilization but rather that Western Indologists represent a backwater of scholarship. They have so far failed to really study or get to know their subject. They are content with secondhand views, stereotypes, or speculation based upon their Eurocentric mindset. Their knowledge of Sanskrit is often poor. Their direct examination of Vedic texts is limited. In short, their proposed history of India is not deeply researched and has not yet changed from the original colonial views in the nineteenth century. In fact, Western Indology has contributed almost nothing, and certainly nothing significant in recent decades, to the understanding of India or to the unique nature of its civilization.


������ A more progressive western scholarship exists relative to Africa than to India. What few Indology departments exist in the West are being downsized and are generally dominated by scholars who do not feel any real affinity to the Indic tradition. They use Indology to promote their own political or intellectual views that are often anti-Hindu, if not anti-India. Western Indology remains more defined by Marx, Freud or the Bible than anything authentically Indic. This is very different from departments on China, the Middle East or Christianity and Islam that are dominated by scholars who have a real appreciation of these traditions. With representatives like these, India does not need enemies in the academic world.


������ Today, the West, except for spiritual seekers, has yet to really confront, much less understand the civilization of India. The civilization of India has different values and different goals. It cannot fit into western models of culture, whether monotheistic religion, western intellectual culture or materialistic science. It is not that the civilization of India is wanting but that the standard used to judge it is insufficient. Its traditions go deep and remain alive, in spite efforts to denigrate them. Note the recent Kumbha Mela in which over thirty million people took a sacred dip in the Ganga on one day. There is no gathering comparable to this in western civilization. Yet while this was the largest gathering in world history and the largest religious and spiritual event, the American media scarcely noticed it (though that in UK did give it some attention).


������ The West has defined India according to its own vision and an external contact with the region that has seldom been deep or even open-minded. The West defines India according to its contact with the West, which according to its own image. It ignores that the subcontinent of India is a well-defined cultural and geographic sphere, whose main associations historically have been to the east and the south. Its reduction of Indic civilization has caused a similar reduction of the related civilizations of Southeast Asia, Indochina and Indonesia, which are not given much place in world culture either.


Today there needs to be a new examination and definition of Indic civilization, what is traditionally called Bharatiya Samskriti. It must be judged by its own standard, not that of an alien tradition. Indic civilization must be redefined not only for the past, but also for the present and the future. It has a great history and the world�s most ancient and sophisticated literature that the world has preserved. It has not been a borrower of culture but an originator of culture. If we look to Asia, Indic culture and religions have created the dominant tone for the entire region from China to Indonesia to India, and to Central Asia in the pre-Islamic period.


������ The coming century will see an awakening in Asia on all levels, just as Asiatic religions are spreading to the West. Even Catholicism is seeking to enrich itself spiritually through its encounter with Buddhism and Vedanta. For this a reexamination of Indic civilization is crucial. It is time for the West to give up its cultural arrogance and look to Mother India anew. It is time for Indian intellectuals to give up their cultural alienation and drink deep from the well of their own traditions. While certainly there are superstitions and backward customs in the country that need correction, the core of civilization that has persisted since Vedic times, remains pure. It can generate a new and higher culture if its own if given the chance. May that Rishi culture again come forth for the benefit of all!




Back to

Back to

Next �