Michael Witzel: rattled rat at IIC
22 July 2009
I was really sorry for Prof. Michael Witzel. After all, he was our honoured guest! Dr. Singh should not have pounced on him so mercilessly, playing the cat and the rat game – the cat looking ascetically resigned tossing the rat, the rat pretending to be dead, breathlessly looking from the corner of his eye to judge the cat’s next move, running for his life, only to be pounced upon and tossed up again. The Chair kept smiling all through at this plight of the powerful brainy Harvard Professor of Sanskrit!
Frankly, I enjoyed the wild play. Prof. Witzel was in a state of trauma: nervous, edgy, twitching his lips, dropping his eyelids recurrently, looking askance to avoid his interlocutor, constantly using his hanky to rub his nose, murmuring something inaudible to explain his errors, occasionally seeking help from his votaries who were present in good number, but more ignorant than their demi-god, and hence themselves dazed. Singh smiled all the way, his smile mischievous, eyes sadistically aglitter, untrue to his true nature, but true to the occasion.
The occasion was a lecture on the Rgveda by Prof. Michael Witzel, at the India International Centre, on 10 July 2009. Presided over by Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, it was attended by scholars of different hues and expectations. No one suspected that Witzel with his claim to be a ranking Vedic scholar knew so little that he could not answer a single query. Indeed, he appeared blank as far as the Rgveda was concerned. He rose nervously to speak on the Veda, but actually spoke on the Aryan migration from Afghanistan to Punjab !
The lecture merely reiterated what Prof. Witzel has written years ago: that north-western India was populated by Munda speaking people when Indo-Aryan speakers arrived on the scene. Old Indo-Aryan was influenced by the substrate Proto-Munda. He proposed a time bracket of 1500-1250 BC for composition of the Rgveda and suggested Book IV and Book VI were the oldest, advantage Book IV.
Witzel painted Rgvedic society as nomadic pastoralist, illiterate and with little interest in agriculture and sedentary life. There was virtually nothing in his speech that was not lifted from nineteenth century archives. He showed no awareness of recent researches in archaeology, anthropology, literature or historical linguistics, and presented even Kuiper with his pathological distortions.
Many archaeologists and professors of history attended the lecture, including your writer, Vedic scholar Bhagwan Singh. When the floor was thrown open for discussions, Bhagwan Singh introduced himself as the author of The Vedic Harappans, and said that his data contradicted each and every statement made by Witzel; he sought permission to exchange notes on a few issues. With the Chair’s permission, Singh said:
– You have reordered the Rgvedic strata, rating IV and VI to be the oldest and the rest belonging to intermediate and late stages. I have no objection to your sequence, but find your chronology miserably on the lower side. There is a reference to white pottery in one verse in Book IV (4.27.5). White pottery is a distinctive feature of Hakra Ware dated to 3000 BC. This goes against your dating of 1500-1250 BC for the Rgveda.
Witzel was dumbstruck. He murmured something inaudible, avoiding the audience, looking sideways. He tried to explain that the sequence arranged by him was based on the number of verses in a book, the smallest being the oldest. It caused Kapila ji and others to smile openly. I could not make out the reason and reminded him that Book IV is shorter than Book VI; but the shortest book is Book II! So here again, he was caught on the wrong foot.
He hesitantly managed, “There is no evidence of chariot or horse in India earlier than the mid-second millennium.”
– But Professor, the aśva in Rgveda, whatever could it have been, was brought from sea bound areas, even the aśva in the horse sacrifice, mentioned in Book I, hymn 163.
Prof. Witzel had no choice but to bite his lips in desperation.
– You say that the wheel and chariot were invented by Aryans when they were in Central Asia , but in the Book IV itself, Bhr.gus are given the credit for manufacturing wheels (4.16.20). Chariot and wheel was therefore not Aryan, but a Dravidian invention.
Witzel pretended that the inventors might have been Aryans and manufacturers Dravidians! He now forgot the antiquity of Book IV, which according to his suggestion, could have been written in Central Asia, older even than Book VI, composed entirely in Northern Afghanistan ; Dravidian speakers must have been there as well.
– You talk of substrate effect of Proto-Munda and suggest no role of Proto-Dravidian at the early stage. But Kipper had concluded that three ethnic groups participated in a cultural process. The three are conspicuously present in the Rgveda, Bhr.gus Dravidian, Angirasas Mundari, besides the Sanskrit speakers.
Prof. Witzel mumbled something for a minute; his nervousness was apparent in his evasive gestures.
Kapila ji must have taken pity at his visible discomfort. She invited others to raise doubts, if they had any. Someone at the extreme end of the hall asked a question on the distorted reading of the Sankhyayan Śrautasutra, which had exposed his culpability half a decade back. Witzel responded by referring to an article written by him, without telling us what his defence was!
After a few worthless queries, the debate shrunk back to Michael Witzel, Kapila Vatsyayan, and Bhagwan Singh.
– The problem with you, Professor, is that you are not familiar with the content of Book IV even. Hymn 57 of Book IV gives a graphic depiction of advanced agriculture, with a plough almost similar to the one that was common in India up to the mid-twentieth century, drawn by a pair of bullocks and driven by a ploughman in service. And in one of the Ŗics, the poet talks of milking the earth as a cow, year after year. It testifies to advanced agricultural activities with sedentary population and belies the myth of nomadism, pastoralism, and barbarity.
The Chair could not hold her laughter; Witzel shook in dismay.
The last nail was hammered by Kapila ji herself. In a jocular vein, she said, “The theme of the lecture was Rgveda. Vedic poetry is known for its sublimity and rare beauty. I expected Prof. Witzel to speak something on it, but he did not say even a word on the theme.”
Witzel agreed that the Hymns on Uşā are really beautiful.
I interjected, “not only Uşā Sūktas professor, the entire Rgveda. Some of it could never be surpassed, such as the Nāsdīya Sūkta, with such expression as tama āsīt tamasā gūlhmagre, darkness was entrapped within darkness.
All in all, it was an interesting evening, if not for the presentation by Prof. Witzel, then for his discomfiture.
Prof. Bhagwan Singh is a Marxist scholar who accepted the archaeological evidence against the theory of Aryan invasion of India