2nd century BC Hindu Sanskrit inscription Nanaghat cave. J. Burgess (1883, d. 1892).

Skepticism, Sanskrit and the Indus Valley Script

This article first appeared in Skeptical Adversaria 3, pp 4-6.

Reproduced with permission

Words From India

As most skeptics will be aware, India – both the modern nation, otherwise called ‘Bharat’, and the wider South Asian cultural world which also embraces Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – is full of ‘fringe’ ideas, practices and entities: astrology, ‘god-men’, ayurveda, Vedantic ideas generally, reincarnation and much more. Much of the fringiness, especially where the history of India is concerned, involves linguistics, notably ideas concerning Sanskrit. Sanskrit is the ancient classical Indo-European language of Northern India, related to Greek, Latin, Old Persian, etc., and less obviously to modern languages such as English. It is the ancestor of Hindi, Urdu and related languages (the ‘Indic’ subfamily of Indo-European) and (crucially) it is the vehicle of sacred Hindu/Vedantic texts such as the Vedas. These texts are regarded as having been composed around 3200 BP (1200 BCE), though the earliest extant versions date from almost a millennium later.

Closely linked with issues surrounding Sanskrit is the matter of the interpretation of the Indus Valley Script (IVS), found on tablets in the ruins of Mohenjodaro and Harappa and dated around 4500-4000 BP. This script is the subject of a vast scholarly literature but has no accepted decipherment/interpretation. The unidentified language represented could be Indo-European (probably early Sanskrit/pre-Sanskrit), Dravidian (the main language family of Southern India – the best known language in this family is Tamil), or something else again. (There are other language families in India, and there are still other families which could conceivably have been present; it could also be an unknown language).

This is where I come in, wearing my skeptical historical linguist hat – on top of another hat of longer standing, identifying me as an Indo-European philologist.


I start with non-standard claims about Sanskrit. We must first look at the wider Vedantic background to these ideas. Like some members of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, some Hindu believers adopt non-standard views on language which relate closely to their fundamentalist religious views. These latter involve ‘Vedantic creationism’, including the belief that modern humans have existed for hundreds of millions of years (almost the reverse of the best-known brand of Judaeo-Christian creationism with its very short chronology). The most familiar manifestation of Vedantic creationism is the work of Michael Cremo and Richard Thompson, which deals with archaeology and palaeoanthropology. Books in this tradition that deal with more recent history uphold the traditional Hindu belief that India was the centre of the oldest civilisation of Asia or the Earth, with culture diffusing from there in early historic times. These notions have a nationalistic and religious appeal for some Indians.

Sanskrit predictably looms large here, especially for Indic-speaking Hindus. The orthodox position is that the language, in an early form, was brought into India around 3500 BP (i.e. after the date of IVS; perhaps concurrently with the collapse of the Indus Valley civilisation, or even associated with it) as part of the European/West-Asiatic diffusion of the Indo-European language family from a base somewhere near the Black and the Caspian Seas (the start of which is dated around 5-6000 BP). There is a serious case for the contrary view that the language was in India rather earlier and is perhaps actually represented by IVS – see e.g. Edwin Bryant’s work – though most of the linguistic evidence supports the standard view. A generally accepted decipherment of IVS – as representing Dravidian, Indo-European, or another language family again – would obviously be a very important factor in the resolution of this issue.

However, there is also a more extreme Indian tradition – e.g. the work of K. D. Sethna – upholding the truth of legends interpreted as placing Sanskrit in India much earlier (7-8000 BP, sometimes still earlier). Indeed, Sanskrit is said to be much closer to Proto-Indo-European (the unattested but reconstructed ancestor of the Indo-European family) than is thought by modern historical linguists, and in fact the usual ‘fringe’ Indian claim is that Indo-European actually originated in India and spread westwards. This extreme view is almost certainly wrong: it is clear that Sanskrit had undergone major changes of its own vis-à-vis Proto-Indo-European, and was especially close to it only in some respects.

One recent manifestation of this belief system is Stephen Knapp’s 2000 book Proof Of Vedic Culture’s Global Existence, which is considerably less scholarly than Sethna’s and is also much more accessible outside India. Knapp himself is a convert to Hinduism and a fervent promoter of all these ideas. He argues that Vedic ideas, together with the Sanskrit language, were once spread all over the Earth by a technologically advanced Hindu civilisation which provided the impetus for civilisations from China to Peru. Proto-Indo-European – as distinct from Sanskrit – never existed. Indeed, Sanskrit is the ancestor not only of Indo-European but of all languages, i.e. it is (or is close to) the Ursprache/Proto-World (if indeed there was one Proto-World: most linguists think that we cannot be sure even of that)!

At a detailed level, Knapp and his sources make extensive use of language data by way of support for their historical claims. However, most of Knapp’s linguistic claims are simply wrong in the usual amateur way; they are based on superficial, unsystematic similarities between words with similar meanings, a method which, as we have long known, is unreliable. And many of them fly in the face of known etymologies. One example involves the name Australia, which is a known modern coining transparently based on Latin, where it would mean ‘southern’ (land, etc). Knapp states that it is from Sanskrit Astralaya, meaning ‘land of missiles’; he suggests that the pilots of vimanas (flying vehicles reported as used by Hindu gods, here interpreted as actual aircraft) practised firing missiles in Australia, creating the deserts!

Knapp is not the most extreme manifestation of this ‘fringe’ tradition; that ‘distinction’ belongs to Gene Matlock. Matlock’s work is about the alleged diffusion of Hindu culture, the ‘true’ basis of Hinduism, and many features of the Sanskrit language to groups such as the Biblical Israelites, early Europeans, including the inhabitants of the British Isles, and Amerindians (especially those in the South-West of the modern USA and in Mexico). His procedures are similar to Knapp’s but ‘further out’. He knows virtually no linguistics and shows himself to be a believer in various non-linguistic ‘fringe’ ideas.

Knapp and Matlock draw much inspiration and many examples from P. N. Oak, a now elderly writer living in Pune, India. Oak attacks the accepted etymologies for hundreds of English and other non-Indian words, place-names etc, and proposes new Sanskrit etymologies – most of them ludicrous both linguistically and historically. Like Knapp and Matlock, he gives no evidence for most of his etymologies, but merely invites readers to agree that they are obviously correct. Oak simply does not know enough about the subject or about the history of any language other than Sanskrit. Even for Sanskrit, he uncritically adopts Vedic ideas about its vast antiquity: he thinks it was used in happy Hindu communities worldwide for 2000 million years (sic) until wicked Christians, scientists and such subverted all this and re-wrote history!

Other religious and quasi-religious groups with links with Hinduism, including some based in ‘the West’, also focus on Sanskrit. With aid from its supposed spiritual allies, the Aetherius Society still forges ahead on its mission to save Earth from its extra-solar foes. It regards Sanskrit not merely as the ancestor of all human speech but as vastly ancient and the main lingua franca of a whole swathe of inhabited planets! Naturally the Theosophical Society also focuses on Sanskrit; Blavatsky’s ideas on the language and on linguistics, which were strange and dated even in her own time, continue to command respect.

Some writers with no connection with India also trace remote languages to Sanskrit – see for instance my previous newsletter article on New Zealand for a discussion of Tregear, who traced Maori/Polynesian to Sanskrit.

In something of a reversal of the view that Sanskrit is an Ursprache, some other writers (predictably, they appear to be Muslims) claim that it is Urdu, the main Islamic version of Indic, that should be seen as basic. On the basis of grotesquely feeble arguments, they claim: (a) that the grammar of Hindustani (Urdu and Hindi together, the two being very similar), which they describe as ‘especially simple’ (on the basis of one feature!), cannot possibly be derived from that of Sanskrit, which they regard as an unnecessarily complex and ‘primitive’ language; (b) that only 10% of the Hindustani vocabulary is of Sanskrit origin (this figure is arrived at partly by deriving many such words from genuine cognate forms in Persian, which they find more congenial as it is the language of an Islamic country); (c) that phonological elements in Urdu borrowed from Arabic are in fact ancestral; and so on. None of this holds up.

Indus Valley Script

Anand Sharan, a Newfoundland-based physical scientist, provides an example of a non-Indo-European interpretation of IVS, which he believes is still in use far away in Bihar State, India. He thinks it represents Dravidian (the most popular scholarly view); and – like most who share this view – he invokes Brahui, the isolated surviving Dravidian language of the Indus region. Unlike many Indian thinkers with other (Indo-European) loyalties, he therefore accepts an invasion of users of Indo-European (very early Sanskrit) around 3500 BP, but (as a ‘Dravidian supporter’) he also denies that the Dravidian-speakers were culturally and technologically inferior to these invaders. His account of how in that case Dravidian came to be pushed south is not entirely convincing. And of course it is not agreed that IVS is indeed still in use, in Bihar or anywhere else. This material may be worth reading, though; see Sharan’s website.

Of course, the above-mentioned Indian thinkers with Indo-European loyalties continue to promote the view that IVS (as ‘deciphered’ by activists) represents early Sanskrit, which was therefore in India much earlier than orthodox scholarship maintains. I have referred to Bryant’s advocacy in more scholarly terms of a version of this position, and there are also some other fairly scholarly (but nevertheless slanted) works advancing such theories. One book of this nature was published by Rama Sarker in 2002. But more extreme books and websites also proliferate, most of them altogether amateur as far as the linguistics is concerned and some of them ludicrously one-sided and/or overtly religious in inspiration.

Again, even non-Indian ‘fringers’ have been drawn into the IVS question. For instance, Clyde Winters and other Afrocentrists decipher it as Dravidian; they go on to link Dravidian generally, Sumerian and even Chinese with African languages held to have been widely diffused by an early African diaspora. And Joseph Mahan, one of the hyper-diffusionist ‘American Epigraphists’, identified some Amerindian tribes as part of an Indus Valley diaspora. He was unable to incorporate linguistic evidence seriously in his argument, simply because the script has no accepted decipherment, and he relied largely on artefacts and place-names; but his thesis implies that linguistic links would also be found in the event that IVS was finally cracked. Indeed, Barry Fell, the guru of the Epigraphists, was yet another who thought he had deciphered it – as early Sanskrit/pre-Sanskrit.

Other Issues

Other non-standard theories involving India involve claims to the effect that important events and figures normally identified with other areas should be relocated to India. For instance, H. D. Daunt placed the events of the Old Testament in India, equating Biblical characters with figures from Indian history and myth. He supported these claims with linguistic equations of the usual amateur kind, involving superficial similarities between isolated words.

Another set of claims in this vein involves Jesus, who is said to have spent some of his ‘missing’ years in the region, and/or to have survived his crucifixion and then to have relocated to Kashmir (or elsewhere in India), eventually dying there. One author who has argued along these lines is Andreas Faber-Keiser.

And so it goes on…

Mainstream Indologists (including some who do not specifically identify as skeptics) have on occasion gone so far as to draw attention to the non-scientific nature and Hindu bias of much of the material on IVS; one such piece appeared in 2000. Perhaps predictably, however, the pace has not slackened noticeably in the interim. The same can be said for other aspects of Indian nuttery, whether or not it involves linguistics. The subcontinent will doubtless remain a happy skeptical hunting-ground for some while yet!

Newbrook, Mark. 2004.

Dr Mark Newbrook is a skeptic, linguist and football hooligan. He managed to combine two of these interests to help pioneer the field of Skeptical Linguistics.