as Vedic people, knows no invasion
It is not widely
known that the Mokshadharma Parva, a
sub-parvan (minor book) of the Shanti
Parva the twelfth major book of the Mahābhārata
, shows knowledge of the three most commonly occurring icons on the
Harappan seals. More remarkably, the passage in question says that these were
buried for a long time ‘underground’ and later found by Yaska. This means the
discovery of the Harappan (or Indus-Sarasvati) civilization beginning with John
Marshall and his colleagues in the 1920s was a rediscovery many centuries if
not millennia later.
remarkable discovery was made by the Vedic scholar and paleographer Natwar Jha
(1938 – 2006) and reported by him in a paper published in 1994. Jha was
interested in its implications for the language and script used by the
Harappans which is not our interest here. (See Supplement 1.) What is
interesting is that the Mokshadharma
Parva describes the symbolism of these icons in the Vedic-Puranic framework
giving them a distinctly Vaishnavite turn. They are used to bridge the
transition from the Indra worship of the Vedas to the Krishna worship that
dominates Puranic (or Classical) Hinduism.
We now come to
the icons found on the seals and their identification with Krishna who came to
supplant Indra as the supreme deity. The icons in question are the Brahma
(humped) Bull, the Unicorn and a fabulous creature with three trunks and heads
referred to as Tri-kakut. We begin
with the first, the Bull seen as the embodiment of Dharma. It invokes the
ancient etymologist Yāska, the compiler of the Vedic glossary known as the Nighanṭu and the author of the
commentary Nirukta as authority. Further,
Yaska himself is said to derive his knowledge from the primordial Kashyapa
Prajapati. The verse numberings are as given in the Critical Edition of the Mahābhārata.
Bharata Prince! Lord Dharma is renowned in all the worlds as vṛṣa, [as givenin] the Naighaṇṭuka
Padākhyāna [or the Nighaṇṭuka
Padākhyāna of Yāska and Kashyapa Prajāpati]. Understand therefore that I
[Krishna-Vishnu] of high dharma am
the Supreme Bull [vṛṣamuttamam]” This
vṛṣottama is a crucial phrase as we
shall see later.
has a two-fold symbolism. First, Krishna claiming on the authority of Kashyapa
Prajapati [through the Nighaṇṭuka
Padākhyāna] as the personification of Dharma; and secondly, his personal
identification with the Dharma Bull—the vṛṣottama—which
in the Vedas is identified with Indra. This humped bull or the Brahma bull is
among the most commonly occurring images on the Harappan seals. This
identification in such an ancient text is amazing but what follows is even more
meaning of the word kapi is varāha, the supreme being (śreṣṭha or the supreme varāha); and dharma is called vṛṣa. Because
I am the embodiment of the Supreme Varāha and dharma, Kashyapa Prjapati
proclaimed me as vṛṣākapi.” (Read kaśyapo prajāpatiḥ mām vṛṣākapim [iti] prāha.)”
and Kashyapa Prajāpati are invoked as pioneers in the science of Vedic
etymology or Nirukta-vidya with the
latter credited as being its originator. These details need not concern us
here, but the symbolism is important. Those interested in their relationship
are directed to The Deciphered Indus
Script by Jha and Rajaram, Chapter 4 in particular.
to symbolism, Ādi-varāha, the wild
boar (not to be mistaken for the domestic pig) is a very important icon as a
symbol of power and plays a major role in the Hindu tradition and history.
Several royal dynasties of India as well as other civilizations including the
Chalukyas and Vijayanagar have used Varāha
as their royal emblem. We will have more to say about this in due course, but
for the present it is useful to note that the author(s) of the passage in
question were aware of the existence of these icons and interpreted them to
give a Vedic justification for their identification with Krishna-Vishnu.
2: Eka-śṛñga or
the unicorn bull identified with Krsishna as Ādi-Varāha (an avatar of Vishnu) who by upholding the earth and the
Veda saved them
This brings us
to the most important image of all— the unicorn bull which quite appropriately
the Mahābhārata calls Ekaśṛñga (One-horned). It is also the
most commonly occurring image on the seals by a wide margin. There has been a
great deal of speculation about its identity and meaning, much of it quite
fanciful. (Iravatham Mahadevan for example identified it with the creation of
Soma juice.) But the Mahābhārata is
unambiguous: the Ekaśṛñga is nothing
other than the Ādi-Varāha, one of the
forms assumed by Krishna. This way Vishnu’s avatar as Varāha is carried over to Krishna who too later is seen as an
avatar of Vishnu.
ancient times I had assumed the form of a one-horned varāha of divine appearance (varāho
divyadarśanaḥ) to lift the earth [out of the flooding waters]. I am
therefore known as Ekaśṛñga (the
is of course the imagery of the Varāha Avatār (or Boar Incarnation of Vishnu)
that came to be integrated with the continuing Vedic tradition on the one hand
and with Harappan iconography on the other. The authority again is Kashyapa
Prajapati for we have just been told that Vṛṣākapi
is Varāha. This identification is next extended to a still more enigmatic
image (Figure 3).
3: Tri-kakut— creature
with three body parts
the unicorn bull, the fabulous creature in figure 3 has not attracted much
attention even though it is by no means rare. But the Mahābhārata again identifies it with Krishna-Vishnu and his varāha form.
trikakudo vārāham rupamasthitaḥ;
trikakut tena vikhyātah śarirasya tu
like manner, after assuming the form of varāha,
there were three kakuts [upper
and lower parts] to the body. For the reason of this body shape, I, the varāha am known also as trikakut [One with three body parts].”
easy, even disappointing explanation after the mystery and grandeur of earlier
verses. (Perhaps the three-part upper body was needed to bear the burden of the
earth— but this is just our conjecture.) Nonetheless what comes out of these
tremendous verses is first, an interpretation of these enigmatic themes in
terms of what we can assume were the beliefs at the time of composition of the Mokshadharma Parva (which would have to
be later than the end of the Harappan civilization). The authors were obviously
aware of Yāska’s work as well as the fact that their own beliefs, Vaishnavism
in particular was a departure from the Vedic practice that by then was already
quite ancient and ill understood. This raises serious chronological questions
about ancient Indian literature and history.
second fact to come out of these is the centrality of the varāha symbolism. Its importance is not properly appreciated. A
passage in the Sabha Parva of the Mahābhārata highlights this point. But
for reasons known only to the Sabha Parva
editor of the Critical Edition (Franklin Edgerton), this important passage
is left out, relegated to the Appendix I (145 and 146). We excerpt it from the
Kumbhakonam Edition where it is found in Sabha
Parva 45 (5 and 6). They describe the ādi-varāha
darbharoma brahmaśīrṣo mahātapaḥ;
divyo vedāngah śrutibhūṇaḥ. (6)
“… The (four) Vedas are his legs, the yūpa posts of the Vedic altar are his
tusks; the cayana fire altar is his
face. Agni (sacred fire) is his
tongue; darbha grass is hair; the ritvika priest stationed at the
sacrificial spot is his head; night and day are his eyes; …”
from Vrshottama to Purushottama
We may now sum
up: at the time when the Shānti Parva was
being written and made part of the Mahābhārata,
its compilers were of the belief that the Hindu civilization, now with
Vaishnavite-Puranic leanings had its roots in the Vedic tradition. They knew of
no break but only a transition. And they saw Krishna worship which is central
to Vaishnavism as part of the restoration of Vedic learning, including the
science of etymology. This they attributed to Yāska but originating in the
primordial Kashyapa Prajapati with Yāska serving as the medium. Curiously, they
saw Harappan iconography also part of this continuum, as reflecting this Indra-to-Krishna
transition. In short, we may represent the metamorphosis as follows:
(Indra) → Mahābhārata-Purāṇas (Krishna) → Classical Hinduism
have a firm chronological band for Harappan archaeology from c. 3200 BCE to
1900 BCE. Extant Purāṇas are dated to the Gupta period, but their antecedents
are ancient. For example, Āpastamba refers to the Bhavishya Purāṇa though it is unlikely to be what we have today.
(Modern editions of the Bhavishya are
a curious mix of ancient and modern, including references to Queen Victoria.)
Nonetheless we can say that the Harappan civilization represents a phase in the
transition from the Vedic to classical Hinduism. The Mokshadharma Parva preserves an account of how the Vedic Vrshottama
became the Purushottama of Hinduism.
Aryan myths or invasion
summary, people living two thousand years ago if not earlier knew the ruins of
the Harappan civilization and familiar with some of its iconography, which they
interpreted on the basis of their knowledge of their history and tradition. And
this history and tradition knew nothing of any Aryan invasion or migration.
That had to wait another two thousand years before invaders from Europe brought
their own history and beliefs and imposed it on the people of Ancient India who
were no longer around to dispute them.
note: The quoted passages establish a link between the Mokshadharma Parva of the Mahābhārata and the Puranas. While the
date of the passage cannot be fixed with certainty, they appear to show no
knowledge of Buddhist or Jain thought or personalities. Thus they appear to be
pre-Buddhistic but decidedly post-Harappan— hence may be placed in the 1500 –
500 BCE period. Neither at that time nor in the later literature including the
Buddhist is there the faintest suggestion of any Aryan invasion, that must now
be delegated to the dustbins of history.
MALCTIONING JNU: DENATIOLIZE CENTRAL UNIVERSITIES Navaratna Rajaram
It is useful to recognize that the JNU was started not as a center of higher education but as a plum for the Leftists, notably the Communists for Indira Gandhi to gain their support. As to be expected it has now become a base for anti-national propaganda, especially directed at its Hindu tradition. This explains how its unions, close to the Congress-Communist nexus has become a Pakistani outfit. By sponsoring students with lucrative scholarships, some faculty members are using the university and the students for anti-national propaganda.
Needless to say its humanities faculty was packed with communists and ‘secularists’ thanks to decades of Congress rule and control.
These scholarships amount to Rs30,00 per month in many cases, a good deal more than the salaries these people could get upon graduation, especially in the humanities. JNU has no science technology programs worth the name. All the activists come from programs like sociology and political science. Here is an example of its anti-India activities.
In 2010 a “JNU Forum Against War on People” was organised “to oppose Operation Green Hunt launched by the government.” According to the NSUI national general secretary, Shaikh Shahnawaz, the meeting was organised by the Democratic Students Union (DSU) and All India Students Association (AISA) to “celebrate the killing of 76 CRPF personnel in Chhattisgarh.” Shaikh Shahnawaz also stated that “they were even shouting slogans like ‘India murdabad, Maovad zindabad’.” NSUI and ABVP activists undertook a march against this meeting, “which was seen as an attempt to support the Naxalites and celebrate the massacre,” whereafter the various parties clashed The organisers of the forum said that “the event had nothing to do with the killings in Dantewada”
In 2015, the JNU Student’s Union and the All India Students Association objected to efforts to create instruction on Indian culture. Opposition to such courses was on the basis that such instruction was an attempt to saffronise education. Saffronisation refers to right-wing efforts to glorify ancient Hindu culture. The proposed courses were successfully opposed and were, thus, “rolled back.” A former student of JNU and a former student union member, Albeena Shakil, claimed that BJP officials in government were responsible for proposing the controversial courses.
More recently they have organized programs calling for the breakup of India and secession of Kashmir, now adding Himachal Pradesh. Here is a brief account.
2016 sedition controversy
On 9 February, a cultural evening was organized by 10 students, formerly of the Democratic Students’ Union (DSU), at the Sabarmati Dhaba, against the execution of Afzal Guru and separatist leader Maqbool Bhat, and for Kashmir’s right to self-determination. But soon went beyond self-determination to Azaadi, or turning it into an independent country, including Himachal Pradesh
Anti-India” slogans like “Pakistan Zindabad”, “Kashmir ki azadi tak jung chalegi, Bharat ki barbadi tak jung chalegi” (“War will continue till Kashmir’s freedom, war will continue till India’s demolition”) were raised at the protest meet. Protests by members of ABVP were held at the University demanding expulsion of the student organisers.
JNU administration ordered a “disciplinary” enquiry into the holding of the event despite denial of permission, saying any talk about country’s disintegration cannot be “national”. The Delhi Police arrested the JNU Students’ Union President Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid on charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy, under section 124 of the Indian Penal Code dating back to 1860.
The arrest soon snowballed into a major political controversy, with several leaders of opposition parties visiting the JNU campus in solidarity with the students protesting against the police crackdown.This prominently included Communist leaders and the Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and others. More than 500 academics from around the world, including JNU alumni, released a statement in support of the students. In a separate statement, over 130 world-leading scholars including Noam Chomsky, Orhan Pamuk and Akeel Bilgrami called it a “shameful act of the Indian government” to invoke sedition laws formulated during colonial times to silence criticism. The crisis was particularly concerning to some scholars studying nationalism. On 25 March 2016, the Google Maps search for ‘anti national’ led users to JNU campus.
2019: ‘Protests’ or riots?
The most recent riots, wrongly called ‘protests’ in which the Vice Chacellor’s office as well as security personnel were attacked, began on November 10, 2019, the day after the Supreme Court announced the resolution of the long standing Ayodhya dispute allowing the building of a Ram Temple at the site. Seemingly the riots, euphemized as protests was over fee hikes. Its anti-Hindu color was evident when the rioters went on to vandalize the statue of Swami Vivekananda including obscene comments on it.
This became clear when the riots-protests continued even after the JNU Administration rolled back the fee increases. Also the Azadi slogans reappeared even though they were totally irrelevant to the fee hikes.
Solution: Denationalize central universities
It is clear that were its origins and intentions, the JNU is no longer functioning as a bona fide university. If anything its intentions and activities are decidedly mala fide.dia, even Delhi has major problems that need serious attention: pollution, water crisis, housing shortage and the like. The JNU shows little interest in these compared to its interest in political activism. There is no reason why tax money should be used to fund them and their faculty sponsors. Worse they seem to have little concern for national security or even the law of the land.
The situation cannot be allowed to go on forever. Dr. Subramanian Swamy has suggested that the JNU should be closed down for two years and reopened after things have been set right. I feel this addresses only the symptom, relating to the recent protests-cum-admininstrative incompetence and not the heart of the problem. Even if Dr. Swamy’s suggestion is carried out, there is no assurance that the problem will not reappear at JNU or other Central institutions at a different time or even at JNU itself.
The solution in my view is to denationalize these centralized (or public sector) universities by selling them off to private bidders including religious foundations. Now, Hindus are not allowed to run educational institutions though their record as seen with the Benares Hindu University and the Venkateshwara University (Tirupati) happen to be excellent. But it was the anti-Hindu prejudice of Nehru’s Congress and the Communists that allowed only minority institutions. To be set up and run.
It is now recognized that private companies run better than government organizations, which led to denationalization (or disinvestment) of many public sector units. The same solution could be applied to central (or public sector) universities like the JNU. Their projects and centers can be funded by appropriate organizations as needed. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology is funded by NASA. I myself ran a research center at the University of Houston devoted to AI (artificial intelligence) and robotics.
To begin with, the IITs, IIMs, AIIMS (medical sciences) may be exempted as they seem to be running smoothly. But it is necessary to bring accountability into central universities, beginning with the JNU. They should be encouraged to find sponsors for their programs and activities as is done in the sciences and other professions. No one should have a free ride at taxpayers’ expense.
OF ANCIENT MATHEMATICS, INDIA AND THE WORLD I
There is now a revision of
history of mathematics, recognizing Indian contributions in both geometry and
In our study of
Indian contributions to the mathematics of the ancient world, we are faced with
two hurdles. First, extravagant claims in the name of Vedic Mathematics that
have no support in the Vedic literature. The famous book Vedic Mathematics by Swamy Bharati Krishna Tirtha (compiled by his
disciples) is a modern text by an accomplished mathematician (at a basic level)
and a capable Vedic scholar. It may have some pedagogical value in teaching
basic to intermediate mathematics, but is of no historical significance. Its
contents cannot be traced to the Atharva Veda or any Vedic texts as claimed by its proponents. [His book
Vedic Metaphysics is more sober and
useful but not as well known as it should be.]
hurdle is the attempt by some Western scholars and their followers to deny all
Indian contributions, attributing them to foreign sources like the Greeks and
the Chinese. Its perverse limit was reached probably by David Pingree in his
creation of a pseudo-Greek text based on Indian sources which he later claimed
to be the source of Indian mathematics. A prime example is the book on Indian
mathematics by Pingree student Kim Plofker. But ancient authors including
Greeks and Arabs make no such claims and freely acknowledge their indebtedness
to other sources.
But a careful
examination of the Bakshali Manuscript should have put an end these
absurdities, but for reasons known only to herself Kim Plofker seems to take no
note of its conents. Pingree too seemed to have been unaware of it when he created
his pseudo-Greek source.
It is generally
recognized that the so-called Arabic numerals, now used worldwide is a misnomer
and they are of Indian origin. Arabs themselves called them Hindi numerals. The
Italian mathematician Leonardo of Pisa (better known as Fibanocci) was among
the first to introduce them in Europe as well as the decimal place value system
(also from India). He states that he got it from the Arabs, then ruling Spain
but also notes that the Arabs got them from the Indians. The Fibonacci numbers
were also known to the Indians, centuries before they were discovered by
More than 500 years before Fibonacci, we
have more substantial evidence from
Syria suggesting that as early as the seventh century, knowledgeable scholars recognized
Indian mathematics to be superior to the Greek.Writing in 662 CE, Servius Sebokht
(575-667 CE)., the Bishop of Qinnesrin in North Syria observed:
I will omit all discussion of the science of the Hindus
[Indians], discoveries more
ingenious than those of the Greeks and the Babylonians:
notes in particular their
valuable method of calculation [the decimal system]; their computing that
surpasses description. I wish only to say that this computation is done by
means of nine signs.
If those who believe because they know Greek, that they have
reached the limits of
science should know these things, they would be convinced that there are also
others (than the Greeks) who know something.
appears to have been the earliest to use the decimal system with zero
The origin of the modern decimal-based place value notation
can be traced to the Aryabhatiya (c. 500), which states sthānātsthānaṁdaśaguṇaṁsyāt ”
from place to place each is ten times the preceding
though we take the decimal system as the standard, it is only a special case of
the place value system, to base 10. Now binary systems (base 2) are widely used
in computations, especially in computer science. Wilhem Leibnitz in the 17th
century is usually credited with the discovery of the binary system, but he was
preceded by others going back centuries.
The Chandaḥśāstra (c.
400 BCE or earlier), presents the first known description of a binary numeral system in
connection with the systematic enumeration of meters with fixed patterns of
short and long syllables.The discussion of the combinatorics of meter
corresponds to the binomial theorem. Halāyudha’s commentary includes a presentation of Pascal’s triangle (called meruprastāra).
Pingala’s work also includes material related to the Fibonacci
numbers, called mātrāmeru.
Use of zero is sometimes ascribed to Pingala due to his
discussion of binary numbers, usually represented using 0 and 1 in modern
discussion, but Pingala used light (laghu) and heavy (guru)
rather than 0 and 1 to describe syllables. As Pingala’s system ranks binary
patterns starting at one (four short syllables—binary “0000”—is the
first pattern), the nth pattern corresponds to the binary representation of n-1
(with increasing positional values).
credited with using binary numbers in
the form of short and long syllables (the latter equal in length to two short
syllables). Pingala used the Sanskrit word śūnya explicitly to refer to zero. This and its
derivatives are still used in Indian languages and its derivatives.
Also the modern
numeral notation from 0 to 9 are found explicitly presented in the 2000 year
old Bakshali Manuscript.
numbers in ancient Indian literature
Greeks and the
Indians approached mathematics in different spirit. Greeks are better known for
geometry, while Indians, while not ignoring geometry were focused more on the
representation and manipulation of numbers, excellent at working with large
numbers that seemed to beyond the capability of the Greeks . Evidence for this
is available from the Mahabharata, in
describing the armies engaged in the war. We are told that 18 akshauhanis (or
armies) battled it out at Kurukshetra battlefield.
An akshauhini (Sanskrit: अक्षौहिणी akṣauhiṇī)
is described in the Mahabharata as a battle formation (or army) consisting of approximately 5 lac.
warriors (500 K or half a million) i.e. 21,870 chariots
(Sanskrit ratha); 21,870 elephants (Sanskrit gaja);
65,610 horses (Sanskrit turaga) and 109,350 infantry
(Sanskrit padasainyam) as per the Mahabharata (AdiParva 2.15-23). (thus the total number of humans, warriors in
akshauhini is equal to 218,700). The ratio is 1 chariot : 1
elephant : 3 cavalry : 5 infantry soldiers. In each of these large
number groups (65,610, etc.), the digits add up to 18.
It is not our point here that such
large armies actually took part in the Mahabharata War. But only ancient
Indians were comfortable with large numbers and knew how to handle them. In
this they were helped by a vastly superior number system based on place-values
that remains the world standard even today, nearly 2000 years later if not
Life and art of Maha Vaidya Natha Shivan, one of the greatest musical geniuses the world has ever known.
In the year 1903, the celebrated Hindustani musician Vishnu Narayan Batkhande (above) published a work titled My Travels in South India. In it he wrote: “Wherever I went, I had to listen to people constantly telling me that no one could sing like Maha Vaidya Natha Iyer used to or play the ‘mridangum’ (percussion drum) like Narayana Swamy Appa. I don’t see what purpose is served by such senseless worship of the past!” (For this episode I am indebted to Sri S. Seshadri, who translated U.V. Swaminatha Iyer’s Tamil biography of Maha Vaidya Natha Iyer into Kannada.)
Had Bhatkhande heard the great man sing there can be little doubt that he would have agreed with those he was fuming about, for Maha Vaidya Natha Iyer (1844 – 1893) was a musical genius of surpassing greatness, whose music embodied the highest ideals of spiritual art. It is of course nothing new for music lovers of every generation and in every country to claim that singers today are not as good as those in the ‘good old days’. But Maha Vaidya Natha Iyer — better known as Maha Vaidya Natha Shivan — was unusual in an important respect. Those who heard him wrote: “There is no record of anyone before him who could sing like him.” So his reputation was not based on nostalgia alone.
He appeared on the musical scene in what is widely regarded as the most golden of the Golden Ages of Karnatak (South Indian) music, sharing the limelight with a galaxy of brilliant musicians never equaled in history. Yet both fans and colleagues acknowledged his supremacy without reserve. Many who heard him, including several musicians of the first rank, have left their memoirs; all are unanimous that Maha Vaidya Natha Shivan had no peer either as a vocalist or as a musician. It is important to note that he was not only the greatest performing musician, but also the greatest musical scholar and composer of the age. He was that unique phenomenon in history— the greatest musician, the greatest composer and also the possessor of the greatest voice of his or probably any generation. As a combination of composer and performer, he can be compared only to Bach and Mozart.
More than a century has passed since his death but books about him continue to be written. There are at least forty biographies, the first written by his elder brother Ramaswamy Shivan (1842 – 1898). In addition, he appears in the memoirs of almost every musician — and many non-musicians — of the period. There are also manuscripts and musical sketches — several in his own hand.
As a result there exist ample materials to get a picture of this unique artist and his career. My goal in this essay is to use some of these sources to give an idea of the life and achievements of this great artist, and, in the process, describe also the world in which he moved. Through this I hope to describe for modern music lovers — both Indian and Western — a world of music and musicians that no longer exists. In my childhood and even early youth, I saw a little of that world in its vanishing stages and knew also a few of the personalities that had been part of it. I want our young people to learn and retain something of this important and vital part of their history and heritage.
My qualifications for writing this essay are historical and literary rather than musical. I am a product of both the East and the West with an abiding love of the music of both cultures. My technical knowledge of Western music is slightly better than that of Karnatak music, but that is not saying much. I was born into a family of music lovers and patrons and had the good fortune of listening to most of the leading musicians of the 1950s and 60s — some of whom were born in the 19th century. Many were personal friends of our family; several including Veena Doriaswamy Iyengar, M.S. Subbulakshmi and T. Chowdia have performed in our house. One of them was Mysore Vasudev Achar (1865 – 1961), a legendary figure in music, who happened to be an elderly relative (distant) of mine. He knew Maha Vaidya Natha Shivan and had heard him many times. So I can claim to retain a link to that age and tradition when music was more art than commerce. Even though I had every opportunity, I never leant Karnatak music.
Later, when I went to Indiana University (Bloomington) to study mathematics (and mathematical physics), I had an unmatched opportunity to learn about Western music. Indiana at the time had the reputation of having one of the great music schools in the world, especially renowned for opera. Its music faculty included singers like Margaret Harshaw, Martha Lipton and Eileen Farrell as well as pianists and other instrumental musicians like Jorge Bolet, Sydney Foster, James Buswell, Ruggerio Ricci, Josef Gingold, Janos Starker and many others of world repute. I taught myself some piano— not to play so much as to read simple musical scores. Thanks to the encouragement of a cellist friend, Deborah Totz (nee Davis) I attended the wonderful master classes conducted by the visiting Russian musician Gorbasova. (I don’t know if she was related to Gorbachev, though the name suggests she may have been. This was in 1972 when no one in America had heard of Michael Gorbachev.) I attended also the opera workshops of Ross Allen with his encyclopedic knowledge of operatic history and performance. In fact we became good friends.
I did not find my Ph.D. work in mathematics particularly demanding— especially after I passed my qualifying exams in my first year at Indiana. This allowed me to spend a good deal of time with music and musicians. Most of my friends were musicians. They were friendly and generous with both their time and knowledge. I owe much to three musician friends of mine — Rosalee Wolfe (nee Nerheim), Miriam Gargarian and Maureen Balke — for educating me on the finer points of music performance and theory. I too contributed a little with my knowledge of history of both Indian and Western music. Musical education in the West has always struck me as narrow, and I introduced them to the work of several outstanding performers that some of them didn’t know about. These included singers Teresa Berganza, John McCormack and the Bach conductor Mogens Woldike. Thanks to several scholarships and fellowships, as well as occasional consulting assignments, I was able to entertain my friends and also visiting artists then on the verge of important careers. These parties were invariably musical in nature.
I had with me some recordings of Indian singers including M.S. Subbulakshmi (above), which fascinated my American friends. I soon had a substantial collection of records including many of historical significance like those of Fritz Kreisler, Joseph Szigetti and Mishca Elman (violin), Dinu Lipatti, Arthur Schnabel (piano) and others. I had a particularly good collection of vocal recordings including those of Enrico Caruso, John McCormack, Nellie Melba, Adelina Patti, Emma Calve and many others. All this was highly beneficial to me. Later, as a professor of engineering, it gave me particular pleasure when my student Judy Farhart wrote a thesis under me on the use of computers for analyzing musical scores.
My goal in this essay is to use some of this background to convey something of the life and times of Maha Vaidya Natha Shivan in a manner that is comprehensible to those unfamiliar with Indian music and performance. In the process I hope to convey also an idea of the social and cultural milieu in which a nineteenth century Indian musician worked, and the spirituality that sustained their art. (This includes not only Westerners, but also many ‘educated’ Indians today.)
Music of South India
Modern art music of India (or ‘classical’ music) has evolved along two main idioms— Karnatak or South Indian, and Hindustani or North Indian. For historical reasons, the southern idiom or the Karnatak has remained closer to its roots, which are believed to go back to Vedic chants, especially the Samaveda. That this is not just a pious fantasy becomes clear upon listening to properly recited Vedic chants, when one can clearly hear the intricacies of tana singing that is one of the glories of Karnatak music. But music like any other art form is not unchanging. The person who gave shape to the Karnatak idiom leading to its present form was the great Vaishnavite saint and composer Purandhara Dasa (1482 – 1564, above left). In his numerous compositions, which include pedagogical works, he laid the foundation for the great flowering of musical theory and performance that has continued to the present. His devotional songs, all in Kannada, set the pattern for future composers. Students invariably begin with his works.
While scholars today study them for their musical interest, Purandhara Dasa saw his art as the expression of his devotion for his favorite deity Purandhara Vitthala (Krishna). This tradition of composition, combining art and spirituality continued, reaching its summit three centuries later in the works of the Great Trinity of Tyagaraja (1767 – 1847), Muttuswamy Dikshitar (1775 – 1835) and Shyama Shastri (1763 – 1827). A connoisseur today may not be aware of the spiritual or the devotional impulse behind their masterpieces, but their music would not exist without it. Even purely secular works like tillana and javali bear the stamp of their spiritual inspiration. Maha Vaidya Natha Shivan, the subject of this essay, is a prime example of this spirit. He was a direct spiritual and artistic descendent of the great saint-composer Tyagaraja. He became also the main vehicle of Muttuswami Dikshitar’s music.
As this article is written with the expectation that it will be read by both Indian and Western music lovers, I shall on occasion have to make comparisons between Indian and Western musicians — especially singers — in an attempt to bridge the gulf between the two cultures and musical idioms. This I feel will be easier on most readers than trying to explain one musical idiom in terms of the idiom of the other. (It will also be easier on me with my limited knowledge of music theory.) As the main subject of this essay happens to be a singer — and a prodigiously gifted singer — it is useful to have as reference a singer of comparable natural gifts from the pantheon of Western music.
After much searching, I find that the great nineteenth century soprano Adelina Patti (1843 – 1919) (above, available on Youtube)comes closest to him in natural gifts though not in musical scholarship. (No operatic singer can compare with an Indian musician when it comes to scholarship.) There are some similarities — and differences — between Shivan and Patti that are enlightening
(For pure vocal gifts, M.S. Subbulakshmi in her prime perhaps can give an idea of Maha Vaidya Natha Shivan’s vocal gifts, though as creative musicians the two cannot be compared. She is also the only vocalist to have recorded his great cycle of composition known as Mela-raga-malika. Only a singer supremely certain of her pitch and intonation could dare it.)
Maha Vaidya Natha Shivan was born in the village of Vaiyyacheri (Tamil Nadu) on 26 May 1844 into an orthodox Smartha Brahmin family of Kaundinya gotra or lineage. For convenience I shall be using the name Maha Shivan (Shivanaal in Tamil, or Shivanavaru in Kannada as he was also known.) He was the third of four children, all sons. His father was Pancha Nada Iyer, known also as Doraiswamy Iyer; his mother was Arundhati Tayi. Most musical geniuses are of obscure origin, but Maha Shivan’s family seems to have been of some distinction. Later biographers have tended to romanticize his early life, claiming that he grew up in poverty, but facts speak otherwise. His father, a musician, turned down offers from several princely courts, and seems never to have worked for a living. He always maintained an open house and visitors to the village were offered hospitality. Contemporary accounts tell us that his mother fed at least ten poor children every day. They owned a house and some land, and no doubt Doraiswamy Iyer derived some income by performing the duties of a traditional Brahmin priest at marriages and other functions. All this suggests sufficient means to maintain a comfortable though not a luxurious household. As devout Brahmins, their needs no doubt were simple.
After he began his career as a singer, Maha Shivan’s earnings soared and he became quite wealthy. But he gave away a good part of it in charity. He could not say ‘No’ to anyone and his brother Ramaswami had to shelter him from people. Vasudev Achar (1865 – 1961) wrote: “I visited Maha Shivan at his place a few times, but we never became friendly. He was extremely reticent by nature and hardly ever spoke. His brother Ramaswami Shivan took care of all his day-to-day affairs.”
Maha Shivan’s ancestors were accomplished musicians, with several of them having enjoyed patronage at various princely courts that dotted the area. That is to say, he was born into a musical family. At the same time, like the ancestors of Johann Sebastian Bach, none of them would be remembered today but for the fact that Maha Shivan proved to be a musician of transcendent genius. His elder brother Ramaswami Shivan was also a gifted musician and composer and the two were inseparable. He often sang with his more famous brother— more ‘filling passages’ than actually singing. His musical scholarship was said to be on the same level as his younger brother’s, but it is interesting that no one who heard the two together mentioned him in the same breath. His voice, some wrote, ‘lacked power’.
Ramaswami Shivan (left) was known more as a poet than musician. His contribution to composition consisted mainly of lyrics, which his brother set to music. From recently unearthed documents it is clear that Maha Shivan often had to change his brother’s lyrics to make them suitable for music. On a few occasions these modifications had to be done during the course of the performance, when a new composition was being sung for the first time. “I saw it myself on several occasions,” wrote his student and biographer Pallavi Subbiah Bhagavatar (1859 – 1941). This sheds light on Maha Shivan’s unequaled capacity for improvisation and almost instantaneous grasp. He could master the most complicated compositions in minutes. (This was for texts only. Maha Shivan’s grasp of music was far superior to his elder brother’s. After he completed his basic training, he didn’t need to study new compositions in detail. One glance and/or hearing was enough. The same was true of Mozart.)
All authorities are unanimous on this point. There exist examples of pallavi passages — some in his own hand — of such mind-boggling complexity that no one today would even attempt them.
Both brothers were gifted with extraordinary memories. Ramaswami was an eka-santa-grahi — i.e., he could remember anything after one hearing. Maha Shivan was dvi-santa-grahi — or one who could remember after having heard twice. This allowed the two boys to play a joke on a well-known poet visiting a local court. He gave a reading of a work he had just composed in the style of the ancients. Ramaswami said it was not new but an ancient work that he had learnt long ago. The poet laughed at this boyish effrontery only to be flabbergasted when Ramaswami repeated it word for word. To make matters worse, he told the audience that his younger brother also knew the work. Maha Shivan, who had just heard it twice, also repeated it— to the poet’s mortification. Everyone including the poet had a good laugh after the boys’ father explained the joke to them.
In Karnatak music, at the highest level, a performing artist must combine immaculate execution with the creativity of a composer. For this reason, some of the greatest performers have also been composers of distinction. Unlike a Western musician who may not know much outside the repertoire of his or her instrument, every Karnatak musician receives the same kind of training and learns roughly the same basic repertoire. (This repertoire can of course vary depending on the inclination of the teacher and the student.) The vocalist still reigns supreme— a situation that used to prevail in Europe also until Beethoven and his successors banished the singer and put instrumental music in his place. Rare is the singer in Western music who can challenge the supremacy of the instrument, let alone the orchestra. This was not the case in the seventeenth- and the eighteenth centuries, and, happily, still not the case in India. This means that an Indian musician has to be thoroughly schooled in theory. It is interesting to observe that all the great composers of Karnatak music — from Purandhara Dasa to Vasudev Achar — have been singers. One possible exception is Mysore Seshanna, but his works are primarily instrumental.
This brings out a difference between the performance practices that prevail in Western and Indian music. In listening to Western music, one gets the sense that the singer is imitating the instrument, while with Indian music it is the reverse. This was not always so. The great pianist Chopin used to say: “If you want to know how to play my music, go to the opera and listen to Pasta or Rubini sing.” It is not surprising that Western art music should have reached a dead end, as Henry Pleasant has pointed out in his Agony of Modern Music. The same will be the fate of Indian music if it ignores the singer and begins to concentrate on the instrument. Happily, there are no signs of this retrograde movement happening.
Nearly all great musicians are child prodigies, but Maha Shivan was prodigious even among musical prodigies. In him were combined the gifts of a vocal prodigy and musical genius of the highest order. The two rarely go together. We are on firm ground when it comes to evaluating his greatness as a musician, for we have his own compositions and the sangtis ¬— or cadenza-like passages — he wrote for some popular compositions by Dikshitar. Maha Shivan’s compositions are among the towering masterpieces of Karnatak music, as good as any composed by the ‘Great Trinity’ of Tyagaraja, Mutthuswamy Diskshitar and Shyama Shastri. He was nowhere near as prolific as the trinity, and perhaps for that reason, the general level of his compositions is very high. Like Mozart at his best, there is not one note or one syllable out of place. Then there is his magnificent Mela Raga Malika, which he composed to illustrate the musical features of all the seventy-two major ragas in a single cycle of compositions. It is a musical and pedagogical masterwork that may be compared to Bach’s ‘Well Tempered Clavier’, except that it is not restricted to one instrument. Maha Shivan is said to have scored it in a single week!
A raga consists of an ascending scale and a descending scale each containing from four to seven notes. A ‘mela karta raga’ is a complete scale containing all seven notes in both its ascending and descending scale. Unlike in Western music, where there are basically two such scales — the major and the minor — the Indian system of using half tones as well as occasional quarter tones gives seventy-two mela ragas. (This is an oversimplification, but will do for the moment.)
It is worth noting that not withstanding how they appear when written in Western notation, no interval of Indian music other than the octave corresponds to the Western. The same raga played according to Western notation sounds entirely different when executed by an Indian musician. The same would no doubt be true of Western music transcribed into Indian notation. This makes the tempered scale (formalized by Bach) unusable in Indian music.
By age twelve Maha Shivan (left) was recognized as an accomplished singer and musician. His phenomenal voice needed no training at all, which allowed him to concentrate on theory and composition. By fourteen he was acknowledged as the greatest in all aspects of music. He was awarded the title of ‘Maha’ or great, at a learned assembly of musicians and scholars, the only one to be so recognized. Periya Vaidya Natha Iyer (no relation), then regarded the foremost singer of the age, generously proposed that the fourteen-year old prodigy be given the title ‘Maha’ as he would soon surpass every known musician. Ever since, he was known as Maha Vaidhya Natha Iyer, or more commonly as Maha Vaidya Natha Shivan. Even today, more than a century after his death, no one refers to him without the title ‘Maha’. (Like Samuel Johnson being generally referred to as Dr Johnson.)
Tyranny of the orchestra
As just noted, in Maha Shivan were combined an incomparable voice and musical genius of the highest order. Like Adelina Patti, he was an accomplished singer at seven, recognized as an outstanding performer; he could sing pallavi before he was eight. But unlike Patti, he was also by then a superbly schooled musician entirely at home in the creative aspects of music like improvisation and variations of a raga without which no Karnatak musician is taken seriously. This is not meant to detract from the genius of Western artists. If great Western singers like Patti were not so well schooled as their Indian counterparts, the blame lies less with them than the system of excessive specialization that prevails in Western music— and the tyranny of the instrument and the orchestra.
The man and his music
While it is easy to pronounce a judgement on Maha Shivan as a musician, it is not so easy to capture in words the magic of his voice, but I’ll give it a try. Maha Shivan’s voice was the wonder of the age. When he was a child it was naturally brilliant, but apparently retained its brilliance and flexibility even when he became an adult. He did not go through the usual difficulty of a male singer as the voice breaks. As with Patti (and Subbulakshmi), it was a gift of nature and not the result of any special method of schooling. Professor Samba Murthy says: “His voice was the gift of God and owed nothing to hard work or training.” Some Hindus explain such prodigies by saying that it is the result of accumulated merit (punya) from previous births— as good an explanation as any. Fortunately his teachers had the good sense to leave it alone. Although he had a good deal of musical instruction and a thorough grounding in theory and composition, no one tried to ‘train’ his voice. More promising voices have been wrecked than helped by voice teachers.
It is somewhat difficult to get a clear picture of his vocal compass though by all accounts it was phenomenal. Professor Samba Murthy writes that it extended from anu-mandara pancama to ati-tara shadja. I shall try to explain it for those unfamiliar with Indian terminology. Maha Shivan sang to the basic pitch of G (or the ‘fifth house’ as Indian musicians denote it). The description by Samba Murthy gives his voice a range from the low D of the bass to the G above the tenor high C — or a compass of three octaves and a fourth! It is difficult to believe that any human voice — let own a male voice — could have such a stupendous range. The great musician and composer Vasudev Achar, who heard him many times, makes no mention of three-and-a-half octaves, though he does say that Maha Shivan sang effortlessly in all three octaves. This is not the same thing as saying that he had a range in excess of three octaves. Incidentally, the lowest note written for the voice is the low D, found in Osman’s aria in Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, written for the German bass Ludwig Fischer. The highest note for the male voice appears to be the F above the tenor high C written by Bellini for the tenor Rubini in Puritani. According to Samba Murthy, Maha Shivan’s voice included both. While Samba Murthy was a careful scholar, I find it difficult to accept his claim for the following reasons.
The first problem I have is subjective. I think I have heard almost all the great singers of the century of both Western and Indian classical music, either in person or on records. And I know of no singer with the range that Samba Murthy attributes to Maha Shivan. Female singers with three octaves are rare but known. In their prime, M.S. Subbulakshmi and Parveen Sultana among Indian singers and the mezzo-sopranos Marylin Horne and Teresa Berganza among opera singers commanded three octaves. No doubt there have been others. But for a male voice to exceed even two octaves is quite rare. Ludwig Fischer mentioned earlier had a vocal range of two and half octaves (D to G), which the International Encyclopedia of Music finds worth mentioning. Maha Shivan’s voice had an octave above it! Could Samba Murthy have been mistaken, perhaps because he depended on hearsay? He was born only in 1900, when Maha Shivan had been dead seven years.
Fortunately, we now have first-hand evidence that appears to settle the question. Pallavi Subbaiah Bhagavatar (1859 – 1941), a leading musician of the last century, was one of Maha Shivan’s early students. He spent nearly seven years — from 1876 to 1882 — as a member of Maha Shivan’s household, as was the custom in those days. (This is known as guru-kula-vasa or ‘living with the guru’s family’.) He seems to have been a compulsive diarist and kept a detailed record of his master’s activities during his guru-kula period. This was published as a memoir by Subbiah Bhagavatar’s son, Gomati Shankara Iyer, a well-known Veena player. And Subbiah Bhagavatar, who must have heard Maha Shivan hundreds of times, says that he sang in a range from mandara shadja to ati-tara shdja or three octaves from G to G (assuming G to have been the reference pitch). We may accept this as authentic, on the authority of an accomplished musician who had heard him many times. This singing was done effortlessly, with no strain on the voice.
At the same time, Professor Samba Murthy was a meticulous scholar whose statement cannot easily be dismissed. May be he was partly right. Maha Shivan never pushed his voice and always sang within himself. As a naturally ‘high voiced’ singer, it is possible that he did not like to reach below the low G for the fear of straining his voice. He might have possessed low notes that he did not use in public. With a naturally high tessitura, excessive use of low notes would have strained his voice, which he was careful to avoid.
Whatever be the actual range, Maha Shivan was a vocal phenomenon without equal. This was acknowledged by both Indian and Western fans. He was once invited to sing before the Governor of Madras (British) and the audience included some European guests who had heard the best opera singers of the nineteenth century. After the performance, they left in a daze, shaking their heads in disbelief. The Governor said that he did not know of another voice like it. Samba Murthy says that it was unusually rich in harmonics. “It was as loud and clear at 200 feet as at twenty feet,” wrote one of his biographers. The secret of course was perfect intonation. Some years later, the British Resident in Mysore — also a music lover — said much the same thing. Several other Western fans, who had heard the best that Opera had to offer in the nineteenth century, were of the same opinion.
During a visit to Mysore, the Maharaja (Chamaraja Wodeyar) is said to have recorded Maha Shivan singing a passage from Dikshitar’s composition Chintayama (in the Bhairavi raga) on an Edison cylinder. (This had to be in 1891 the last time that Maha Shivan visited Mysore.) He was intrigued to hear his own voice reproduced. We do not know his reaction. Adelina Patti, upon hearing her own voice on record for the first time exclaimed (in French), “How wonderful! What a voice! I now know why I am Patti!” There is no record of a similar response from the reticent and austere Maha Shivan. Unfortunately, there is no trace of the Edison cylinder. It is believed to have been destroyed in a fire in the Mysore Jaganamohan Palace, now a museum. (My inquiries at the Jaganmohan Palace Museum turned up empty.)
Another feature of his voice was that it never needed any practice— a feature that he again shares with Patti. The voice was always ready as long as the mood was not disturbed. He was highly sensitive by nature and his family members took great care to see that nothing disturbed him. They regarded his voice as a family treasure, which it was. His elder brother Ramaswamy Shivan completely sheltered him from the affairs of the world. It is known that Patti also never practiced more than a few minutes a day of vocalizing. She learnt new roles from the score and placed them mentally, trying out a few special effects like fioritura. Maha Shivan followed a similar method. He studied the music and grasped its details. His voice was preserved for public performance. (Also, he rarely sang more than a handful of compositions by others, mainly Tyagaraja and Dikshitar. About half the program was devoted to his own and his brother’s compositions.)
Here is an interesting account of his extraordinary vocal gift. The well-known Tamil scholar Swaminatha Iyer once accompanied Maha Shivan and his brother to a performance. As they were approaching the place, Maha Shivan called out his brother in full voice, “Ramaswami, Ramaswami!” Swaminatha Iyer wondered why Maha Shivan had to call his brother by name when he was walking just next to him. After the performance, he picked up enough courage to ask Ramaswami Shivan. He replied that Maha Shivan was simply trying out his voice before the performance!
(I was witness to a somewhat similar phenomenon in 1958, when M.S. Subbulakshmi sang for my grandfather at our home. Without bothering to warm up her voice, or even waiting for the accompanists, she began to sing. When they followed a couple of minutes later she was found to be dead on pitch. The Austrian music critic Eduard Hanslick writes that Patti was similarly gifted.)
As his voice needed no training, he had ample time on his hands to study music theory and composition and also Tamil and Sanskrit literature. He was also deeply religious and a devotee of Lord Shiva. He seems to have spent more time studying philosophic works than music. (His admirers believed that he was blessed by Lord Shiva himself. He was always addressed as ‘Shivanal’ or Maha Shivan, and never by his given name of Vaidya Natha. Relatives and close friends called him ‘Vaithi’.) In his own day he was as well known for his exposition of Shiva Puranas or Shiva-katha as his musical recitals. It is a special art that combines musical prose and poetry with singing— something like combining recitatives and arias in eighteenth century operas. On rare occasions he gave Hari-kathas or stories and myths associated with Lord Vishnu. He was not as well read in the Vaishnava Puranas, but had sufficient familiarity with the classics to conduct Hari-katha performances. Shiva was his ishta or favorite deity, but there was no sectarianism in the man. He gave performances at Vaishnava centers also.
The musical milieu
Although he observed the caste rules of the day, some of his closest friends and most patrons were not Brahmins. The person he most admired was the great Tamil scholar Minakshi Sundaram Pillai, who was not a Brahmin. In this, Maha Shivan was by no means exceptional among learned Brahmins. I mention this because there is a tendency among modern writers — especially left-leaning academics — to paint a picture of Hindu society as a caste-ridden hell in which Brahmins did nothing but oppress others. This is a grotesque caricature. They were neither the wealthiest nor the most influential group. The idea of ‘Brahminical oppression’ is an invention of Christian missionaries of the colonial era who saw attacking Brahmins and their learning as the most effective means uprooting Hinduism, in their program of converting India to Christianity. They made no secret of their plans— that the most effective method was to destroy the intellectual basis of the Hindu Civilization by attacking the Brahmins and their learning.
The reality is quite different. Brahmins were required to follow a very strict regime simply to qualify as priests, to be called to perform religious rites. Their livelihood depended on it. For example, in eighteenth century Mysore, Brahmins, if found drunk, could be whipped in public. They were supposed to set an example for the rest of society and uphold dharma, in return for the respect that the community gave them. They could not afford to antagonize the rest of society on whose patronage their livelihood depended. To draw a comparison, being an orthodox Brahmin in those days was like being a Kosher Jew.
Maha Shivan began studying music with his own father and other musicians in the village, but was soon sent to Manambu-chavadi Venkatasubbiah— the foremost teacher of the age, who had studied under the great Tyagaraja himself. (Of the great trinity of Karnatak music, Tyagaraja is regarded the first among equals.) In this sense Maha Shivan was directly in the line of Tyagaraja’s tradition. But his style was his own and had little in common with the other outstanding pupils of Venkatasubbiah, notably his great contemporary Patnam Subramanya Iyer (1845 – 1902). It is possible that Patnam was closer to Tyagaraja in style and execution, while Maha Shivan had evolved a unique style based on his incomparable vocal gifts. It is also possible that Tyagaraja, a vocal prodigy himself, was capable of both styles and Patnam and Maha Shivan carried forward different aspects of it.
Patnam once highlighted the difference between the two to his student Vasudev Achar of Mysore: “You see Vasu, one must evolve a style that suits one’s voice. Can I sing using the rapid tempo of Maha Shivan? No! Can he sing compositions emphasizing moderate tempo and variation the way I do? Again, no! Why? Because our voices are different. A good musician always sings in a style that is natural for the voice.”
Patnam’s (left) style — also taking root in Tyagaraja — has come down to us. He was the foremost teacher of his day and the singing of some of his students’ students is available on records, and their students are still performing. Maha Shivan’s style is more elusive. He sang at an extremely rapid tempo. What was druta (fast) for others was his beginning tempo, but there was no distortion or dropping of notes. Vasudev Achar writes: “Every note, every syllable and word was clear even at the highest tempo. Each passage was like a string of dazzling brilliants. His creativity in swara-kalpana [improvised passages] was breathtaking. At the same time, his singing was clarity itself and left the audience in a trance.”
In other words, his singing was full of fire— both in creation and execution. Recognizing this, his great contemporary Patnam, only a year younger and his life-long colleague, had cultivated the totally opposite style of moderate tempo and unhurried exposition. This also suited his easy-going — some would say pleasure loving — temperament. The two artists, total opposites in style and temperament, were the foremost singers of the second half of the nineteenth century. There were many other outstanding musicians — both vocal and instrumental — making it the golden age of Karnatak music. It drew its inspiration from the burst of creative genius of the Great Trinity of Tyagaraja, Muttuswamy Dikhshitar and Shyama Shastri in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth century. As previously noted, this creative burst was made possible by innovations in music theory and performance beginning with Purandara Dasa (left). It is interesting that the Great Trinity was contemporary with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, which gave Europe its own Classical Age.
To return to Maha Shivan’s style, one can try to get some idea of it from his students. Patnam sent some of his advanced students to Maha Shivan to polish up the kalpana-swara singing. One of them was Ramnad Srinivasa Iyengar (or ‘Poocchi’) who sang in this century. It is said that his singing had echoes of Maha Shivan’s style. The same cannot be said of Poocchi’s foremost pupil Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar who sang well into the fifties and is available on records. One of Maha Shivan’s important students was Konerirajapuram Vaidya Natha Iyer who left behind one great student— Maharajapuram Vishwa Natha Iyer. Perhaps in Maharajapuram in his glory days we can hear the style of the master, especially in kalpana-swaras. Some of my musician friends tell me that there are times when the modern singer Balamurali Krishna, with a style all of his own, displays some features of Maha Shivan’s style, though vocally the two cannot be compared. (Also Balamurali’s singing is often marred by excesses and unevenness that Maha Shivan would not have tolerated.)
How can I explain this to my Western readers? The first point is that even the best singer of Western art music today does not have the tradition of improvising variations— at least at the creative level that one expects from a major artist in Indian music. (How many Western singers have been composers of note?) As a natural genius Maha Shivan was on the level of Mozart, while as a singer he was without peer. To go with this his style was fiery. To get an idea of the combination of a fiery singing style and creativity of the highest order, one must go to the best Mozart singing on records of examples that emphasize the fiery spirit found in his operas. In my view, the finest execution of Mozart on records is the recitative and the aria Come Scolio from the opera Cosi Fan Tutti rendered by the great Spanish coloratura singer Teresa Berganza. In her singing spanning space, time and civilizations, I can hear an echo of the fire and artistry of Maha Vaidya Natha Shivan.
(For those who might be interested here is something to chew on. The finest singing recorded in Western music are: the Mozart arias by Teresa Berganza just noted; the Donna Anna arias from Don Giovanni recorded by Lilli Lehman, in 1906 I believe; and the aria Il mio Tesoro from Don Giovanni along with Handel’s Care Selva and O Sleep, why dost thou leave me recorded by John McCormack. This is purely subjective of course, considering I belong to the school of thought that holds that a singer who cannot sing Mozart is no singer at all.)
An unusual feature of Maha Shivan’s recitals was that they were short by contemporary standards. In an age when people thought nothing of three-hour programs, Maha Shivan rarely sang for more than an hour and a half or two hours. For one he began his program at full tilt, without the warm-up pieces that other singers use before getting to the main part of the program. He had the voice to pull it off. His style, which wasted no time on non-essentials, ensured that the full length of the program was devoted to the best music. The emphasis was on mano-dharma sangita, or ‘creative music’, where compositions of Tyagaraja and Dikshitar were used as vehicles for the exposition of a particular raga. The latter part of the program was devoted to his own compositions. His rapid tempo and fiery style covered more musical ground than others did in programs twice the length. The highlights of his program were alapana and pallavi or singing variations around a basic text followed by kalpana-swaras.
Above all it was the creativity displayed in his mano-dharma sangita that made him stand head and shoulders above his contemporaries. It may be argued that even without his extraordinary voice, his creativity and musical scholarship would have ensured his supremacy. His kalpana-swaras were so extraordinary that musicians copied down his extempore creations and adopted them as part of existing compositions. They are still in use as part of some of the most popular Dikshitar compositions. Not one music fan in a hundred probably knows that some of the best passages (sangtis) of famous Dikshitar compositions like Vatapi ganapatim bhaje’ham (Hamsadhvani raga), Chintaya ma kanda mula kandam (Bhairavi raga), Sri Subramanyaya Namaste (Kamboji raga) and others were introduced by Maha Vaidya Natha Shivan in his performances and not in the original composition. These have now become integral part of the composition. It may be said with justice that the popularity of Dikshitar’s music owes as much to Maha Shivan as to the Dikshitar. They give us a glimpse of his creative genius as a performing artist.
His great contemporary (and neighbor) Patnam sent his best students to Maha Shivan to complete their training, especially to learn the latter’s method of kalpana-swaras. Not all could learn such a transcendent art, but a few — notably Poocchi Srinivasa Iyengar and possibly Tiger Varadachar — did imbibe something of the great man’s method. It speaks volumes for the generosity of Patnam that he acknowledged the greatness of Maha Shivan even to his students. Patnam, unlike Maha Shivan, was not a vocal prodigy; he had to labor hard and long to bring his unruly instrument under control. And perhaps for that reason, he became an excellent and patient teacher. He had evolved a totally different style that emphasized fundamentals and fidelity to the composer’s mood and intentions. Maha Shivan was one of his foremost admirers and never missed a recital by Patnam, to the extent his busy schedule allowed.
The two were the best of friends, though their busy schedule did not allow them much time to socialize outside musical events. One occasion when they always met was the annual Upakarma ceremony, when orthodox Brahmins renew their vows by replacing the sacred thread (yagnopavitam). Patnam would visit Maha Shivan at his house and seek his blessings. The first time it happened, Maha Shivan, who was barely a year older than Patnam, was acutely embarrassed. “Such a great artist as you should not come to me for blessings,” he protested. “By saluting you,” Patnam retorted, “I am only seeking Lord Shiva’s blessings.”
The two — Patnam and Maha Shivan — were often invited to sing together by patrons and princes including the Maharaja of Mysore. Their contrasting styles must have made such programs memorable. It is interesting that on such occasions, Maha Shivan’s brother Ramaswami did not appear on the stage. (This is clear from photographs.) This suggests that he was not in the same league as the two stalwarts. But this did not stop his followers and admirers from trying to show that Maha Shivan owed much of his success to the guidance of Ramaswamy Shivan, possibly with the latter’s connivance. This took an unfortunate turn soon after Maha Shivan’s death in 1893.
His brother’s untimely death (not yet 49) was a severe blow to Ramaswami Shivan. It is understandable that he should have done everything to perpetuate the memory of his great brother. But he went beyond the need, going to the extent of bending the truth. He published a biographical work he called Vijaya Sangraha (‘Compilation of Victories’) that was supposed to chronicle Maha Shivan’s triumphant career as a musician. In it he sought to elevate his brother’s stature by denigrating the art and the character of some of his contemporaries, notably Patnam, whom he portrayed as a jealous rival afraid to face Maha Shivan. This infuriated Patnam who published a retort titled Vijaya Sangraha Khandana (‘Refutation of Vijaya Sangraha). This drew a ‘Refutation of the Refutation’ from a student, one Veena Mayavaram Vaidya Natha Iyer (no relative). The unseemly controversy seems to have ended only with Ramaswami Shivan’s death. Had he been alive, Maha Shivan would have nipped it in the bud.
The episode shows Ramaswami Shivan in less attractive light compared to his great brother— more materialistic and also capable of petty malice. He probably resented his brother’s admiration for Patnam’s art. Subbiah Bhagavatar, who had studied with the Shivan brothers, wrote:
“I saw Ramaswami Shivan’s little book Vijaya Sangraha in 1894. It seemed to me to be full of exaggeration. Even though Ramaswami Shivan was my esteemed teacher, I could not ignore its deficiencies. So I made a note of factual errors in the book.” This was an admirable act that showed his concern for truth, but as a traditional Hindu brought up to regard his teacher as worthy of worship, it bothered Bhagavatar. He writes: “To clear my conscience I served God by writing three books on Vedanta.”
This sheds interesting light on the attitude of a devout Hindu in those days. He had to respect truth, but he also had to respect his teacher. When a conflict arose, truth was more important. But to compensate for denigrating his teacher, however mildly, he had to undertake a worthy task as penance.
Bhagavatar was not prepared to leave it at that. He saw Ramaswami Shivan in 1895 and asked: “Why did you have to write that such great artists as Patnam Subramnia Iyer, Kunnakudi Krishna Iyer and others were afraid of singing in the company of your brother?”
Ramaswami Shivan gave a lame excuse. He cited an instance when a local prince asked Patnam and Kunnakudi to join Maha Shivan in a joint recital at a wedding. They declined saying that such a recital would not allow scope for them and would also lower the dignity of the profession by making it look like a wrestling contest. This, Ramaswami claimed, showed fear on the part of Patnam, Kunnakudi and a few others. Ramaswami was wrong and the musicians were right. They could not allow some minor prince to use them as exhibits to project himself as a great patron of the arts before friends and relatives at a family wedding. The same musicians sang with Maha Shivan on other, purely musical occasions.
This distressed Bhagavatar. He went on to observe: “Patnam and Kunnakudi were great artists who always respected Maha Shivan as their superior. His supremacy was conceded by all. Maha Shivan’s standing in the musical world is in no way diminished by acknowledging the greatness of others. It gained nothing by denigrating other artists.” The great man himself was always generous with praise, so long as it was well deserved. No unkind word ever escaped his lips. But Ramaswami Shivan had neither the artistic merit nor the generosity of spirit of his brother that made him as great a man as a musician.
While the greatest of them like Patnam had no fear of Maha Shivan, the same could not be said of lesser musicians. Many of them, finding Maha Shivan in town, would pretend that they had come on some other business. They could not hope for an audience when the great man was around. What was said of Franz Lizst, “when Lizst appeared, other pianists disappeared,” was literally true of Maha Shivan. Their patrons usually recognized the problem and gave them the customary honorarium of ten varahas (about 35 rupees) even when they didn’t perform. Maha Shivan also was sensitive to the problem and insisted that the patrons who invited him should compensate lesser musicians also.
Three traits distinguish Maha Shivan’s character: spirituality, generosity and concern for his art and the dignity of his profession. He was a deeply spiritual man who saw his art as an expression of his devotion to Lord Shiva. Although a musician by profession he spent more time studying philosophy and sacred works. And he was a man who practiced what he believed in. He was generous to a fault who had difficulty saying ‘No’ to any request. His wife Kamakshi was equally generous and helped poor families on occasions like their daughters’ marriage. This was one of the reasons why his brother Ramaswami Shivan managed all his affairs, shielding his brother from people who might take advantage of his generosity.
On one occasion, Maha Shivan promised all his income from a concert tour, including a priceless jewel necklace, to a temple charity and poor students’ home. This made Ramaswami Shivan furious and the two brothers were not on speaking terms for over a month. Finally, Maha Shivan had his way, and made his brother personally hand over both the money and necklace at an official ceremony. This shows that there was some steel in his otherwise mild personality.
Such inclination for charity appears to be a common trait among performing artists— both Indian and Western. The great Swedish soprano Jenny Lind in the nineteenth century and M.S. Subbulakshmi in our own time have also been lavish in their charity. But for each generous artist, one can find the opposite kind. Adelina Patti for example was known to be a tough bargainer. Her fee was $5000 dollars a performance— and this more than a century ago! And the money had to be paid in cash before each performance. There is a famous story of how she put on her full costume except for one shoe, when the opera manager Mapleson had paid her only $4800. She kept both the audience and the orchestra waiting until he came up with the balance of $200. Mapleson wrote that Patti, after being paid the full amount, “her face radiant with benignant smiles, went on the stage.”
He was filled with admiration for Patti, calling her the most successful singer that ever lived. “Vocalists as gifted, as accomplished, may be named,” Mapleson ruefully wrote, “but no one ever approached her in the art of obtaining from a manager the greatest possible sum he could by any possibility contrive to pay.”
This of course is Mapleson’s version of the story. Unlike singers and other performing artists, managers and impresarios (like Mapleson) are not known for their charitable instincts. They are out to make money and many artists have been ruined by trusting the likes of Mapleson. (Just think of Michael Jackson.) Patti was right in insisting that she be paid in full before the performance. She knew what she was worth and Mapleson had the choice of engaging someone else if he thought Patti’s fee was unreasonable. This is precisely what the great singer Gaeteno Caffarelli (below) once told the French king. Here is the story.
Caffarelli (left), one of the most celebrated opera singers of the 18th century was the toast of Paris. Naturally royalty wanted him to sing at the palace. One of the King’s ministers came to Caffarelli, bringing some presents from the palace. The singer looked at them with disdain and pointed to some of the presents he had already received. “But Signor Caffarelli!” the minister exclaimed, “His Majesty gives such presents only to ambassadors!” “Then ask your ambassadors to sing for His Majesty,” advised Caffarelli.
Among Indian musicians, Tirukkodikavil Krishna Iyer (1852 – 1915) was known for his fondness for money. He was almost as famous a violinist as Maha Shivan was a singer. He was once invited by the Maharaja of Mysore (Chama Raja Wodeyar) to play at the palace, which was a great honor for any musician. To the horror of court officials, he insisted that the Maharaja should agree to pay 500 rupees for his performance— an enormous sum in those days. The custom was for the visiting musician to accept as an honor whatever the Maharaja paid. But Krishna Iyer would have none of it, so someone had to convey his demand to the Maharaja. Finally, the court musician Veena Subbanna, who was close to the Maharaja, informed him. The Maharaja told Subbanna that he was willing to pay him Rs 500.
The recital was brilliant for Krishna Iyer was probably the greatest violinist that India has ever produced— a true Paganini but with much better musicianship and taste (but not a composer). After the performance, the Maharaja addressed the violinist and the audience: “Sir, you are the greatest violinist I have ever heard. No one can put a price on your artistry. I was planning to give you a thousand rupees, but you insisted on five hundred. I am paying you five hundred because it would be improper for me to go against the wishes of a great artist like you.”
Vasudev Achar (left) relates another incident, also at the Mysore palace, when the violinist got a measure of revenge. On this occasion, the Maharaja did pay Krishna Iyer a thousand rupees. The sight of a plate filled with a thousand silver coins delighted the violinist who had never seen so much money at one time. He sat there on the ground and tested each coin for purity by tossing it and listening to the sound as it fell. He found two that seemed suspicious because of their hollow sound. He turned to the Maharaja and requested that they be replaced saying that it was not proper for a real king to give counterfeit coins. The Maharaja complied with his request, controlling his laughter with the greatest difficulty.
There were no two opinions about Krishna Iyer’s music and uncompromising standards. Once he was asked to accompany a singer who was unaware the violinist’s identity. This singer, a master technician, sang to the gallery, indulging generously in pyrotechnics and vocal gymnastics. Krishna Iyer accompanied as best as he could, while displaying his own artistry whenever the opportunity came. After the concert, the singer turned to Krishna Iyer and said: “Your playing sir, was like a shower of music (sangita-varsham).” “Your singing sir,” Krishna Iyer retorted, “was like a shower of stones (shila-varsham).”
Maha Shivan was once involved in a similar episode, where he had to stand up for what he felt were musical values. This was at a concert in which he shared the stage with the famous pallavi singer Sesha Iyer. Sesha Iyer sang a highly involved pallavai (variations around a recitative) using a complex text. It was clear that he had spent many days preparing for the occasion. He then invited Maha Shivan to sing the same pallavi in his own style. “Would you be kind enough to repeat the sahitya (text or libretto) one more time?” he requested. “Why repeat such a simple thing?” Sesha Iyer retorted.
“There would be no need for such a request,” was Maha Shivan’s polite but firm reply, “if only your pallavi had been composed according to the best traditions of music — with the text enhancing the music. But what you gave is just a jumble of words — a verbal circus leaving little scope for music.”
Krishna Iyer was Maha Shivan’s favorite accompanist, in fact the only violinist of the time who could keep up with his singing. They were the opposite in temperament. Where Maha Shivan was austere and reserved, Krishna Iyer was friendly and outgoing. Also, where Krishna Iyer was thrifty, Maha Shivan was generous to a fault. Maha Shivan, like his parents, maintained an open house. Thirty to forty people were fed at lunch daily, mostly a few visitors and poor children. A member of the household once complained that it was costing too much money to feed all these people. “It is only because of their happy blessings that I have prospered.” he retorted. “As long as I have the means, no one will be denied hospitality.”
Maha Shivan could not stand to see anyone getting hurt. One day at lunch, a young stranger — probably a village boy — came in and sat in the seat normally reserved for the great man. A family member tried to shoo him off, but Maha Shivan would have none of it. Once seated, the guest, no matter how humble, had to be fed. It was his firm belief that it was the blessings of such people that had made him a great artist. He was equally gentle to his students. It was normal practice in those days for students staying with the teacher (guru-kula students) to be given household chores like washing clothes. Maha Shivan would not allow it. But his brother Ramaswami Shivan, who did most of the basic teaching anyway, made sure that the students were kept busy.
While he maintained an open house where visitors were generously fed, his own habits were frugal in the extreme. He did not like spicy foods or sweets, or anything containing fat. He was a strict vegetarian, but he also wanted the vegetables to be dried before being cooked. He felt that such a regime was beneficial to his voice. In addition he could not stand strong smelling flowers and fruits. This suggests that he had allergy problems, but no one understood it at the time. His strict diet was for himself; guests and other members of the household were served normally cooked food. Some of his friends believed that his eccentric diet, lacking in proper nutrition was partly responsible for his untimely death.
His extreme austerity greatly amused his friend Patnam, a noted gourmet. “What is the point in working so hard if you have to starve just to keep your voice in shape?” he once asked his pupil Vasudev Achar. “Should my voice serve me or should I to serve my voice?”
In appearance, he was slim, of medium height and strikingly handsome, who maintained a youthful appearance to the end. His untimely death of course served to keep his youthful image alive. This was true of Adelina Patti also who remained slim and beautiful through most of her career. This is unusual. Singers — both Indian and Western — tend to corpulence well before middle age. But Patti, like Maha Shivan, maintained a strict regime. “Such a life!” exclaimed Clara Louise Kellogg, who knew Patti well. “Everything divided off carefully according to regime: —so much to eat, so far to walk, so long to sleep, just such and such things to do and no others!” Her only indulgence was husbands, of which she had three. Maha Shivan on the other hand was happily married to Kamakshi and had two sons and a daughter.
Maha Shivan was highly sensitive by nature. His mood was easily disturbed by untoward incidents, especially when he felt that some injustice was being done to someone. One incident that took place in Chennai (Madras) towards the end of his career speaks volumes for his generosity of spirit.
To understand this, it is necessary to recognize that musicians those days were paid by patrons. For wealthy men and women, it was a status symbol to be known as a patron of great artists. When a recital was held in a public place like a temple or a school, there was no admission fee and anyone could attend. A wealthy merchant of Madras (Chennai) invited Maha Shivan to perform at a school. Maha Shivan agreed. But this merchant introduced an innovation. Without telling Maha Shivan, he decided to charge admission to the program. When Maha Shivan, accompanied by violinist Krishna Iyer and the Mridangam player Tukaram arrived at the place of recital, he was surprised to see money changing hands. He saw also several men and women with disappointment writ on their faces. On inquiry, he was told that they were being denied admission because they had no money to buy tickets. He cancelled the program.
“Please return the money,” he told the organizers. “My mind is too disturbed by all this and I cannot sing today. But I will sing tomorrow at the Parthasarathy Temple (in Triplicane) with the same accompanists. I invite all of you to come and enjoy the music and receive also the blessings of Lord Krishna.”
Following the performance the next day, the patrons showered Maha Shivan with cash and jewelry worth about 750 rupees — a princely sum in those days when an average musician’s fee was only about 35 rupees. He gave 250 rupees each to his two accompanists and donated his share to the temple, to be given to the poor.
The merchant who had invited Maha Shivan was faced with public disgrace. He approached Maha Shivan and said: “Sir, my only intention in collecting money was to honor you with a larger purse. Your canceling the program will bring disgrace upon me. I’ll never be able to show my face in this town. You must save my reputation by performing at my house. I’ll promise that no one will be denied admission.”
Maha Shivan agreed, but told him: “God has made you wealthy and there is no need for you to take money from others. Why should poor people be denied the pleasures of music? Are there no music lovers among the poor? Don’t the poor also have taste in music? Should only rich people enjoy music? Fortunate people like you and me should help the less fortunate in every way.”
It was this spirit of generosity as much as his incomparable genius that made Maha Shivan universally respected.
For all his greatness and easygoing spirit, Maha Shivan was the target of envy and was also drawn into disputes that he preferred to avoid. As the greatest musical scholar of the day, he was asked to settle disputes relating to some theoretical point or other. These often have no set answers. As Vasudev Achar tells us: “Some musicians think that theory and tradition must be followed to the letter, but in practice, a composer or a performer can use them only as guides. One has to adapt to circumstances. No one can set down rules for ever.” So, in settling disputes, it is necessary to balance theory with practical needs. (The famous conductor Toscanini went further: he claimed that tradition was nothing but the last bad performance.)
One dispute involved Maha Shivan’s colleague Patnam himself. The dispute was between two well-known musicians of Madras. A contest between the two was arranged to decide who was right. Patnam reluctantly agreed to be the judge. During the contest, Maha Shivan, who happened to be in town and heard about it, walked into the auditorium. Patnam gave his judgment but said he would abide by the decision of Maha Shivan as his senior. Maha Shivan supported Patnam’s decision, but went on to gently admonish the contestants.
“When there is a dispute between musicians,” he told them, “it should be settled among ourselves— in an assembly of scholars and musicians. Doing it in public makes us look like wrestlers in a pit. It lowers our dignity in the eyes of the public. It also doesn’t help the cause of music.”
Not many musicians — then or now — think beyond their own interests. For all his gifts, Maha Shivan began to feel the pressure of performing and maintaining such high standards. The Raja of Venkatagiri once invited him to spend a couple of days with him to enjoy his company. Surprisingly, for all his reserve and reticence, Maha Shivan was a witty and entertaining companion. He was relieved to learn that the Raja wanted only to discuss some points of music theory and did not ask him to sing. He later told his friend Swaminatha Iyer: “He paid double the normal fee but didn’t ask me to sing. Usually, such people wring you dry.”
This shows that singing for him was not as easy it appeared on the outside. His exacting standards took their toll. In addition, he had to face challenges from rivals trying to upstage him. Early in his career, he was challenged by the great composer Tyagaraja’s grandson also named Tyagaraja. He had studied under Manambu-chavadi Venkatasubbiah who was also Maha Shivan’s teacher. When he learnt of Tyagaraja’s plan to challenge Maha Shivan, Manambu-chavadi warned him against it: “Don’t go near him. He is a fire that can reduce you to ashes.” This is exactly what happened. Tyagaraja was thoroughly trounced and never recovered from the experience. He is remembered today for that one unhappy episode.
The experience left its mark on Maha Shivan also. Though triumphant, his sensitive nature recoiled from the thought of hurting another musician. But in early 1892, while returning from a lengthy visit to Mysore, he was challenged by one Venu (full name Venugopala Naidu) who was known to be a phenomenal technician, especially at pallavi singing. Much as he tried, Maha Shivan could not escape it. The contest was to be held in Madras with Venu’s teacher Masalamani Mudaliar acting as referee. (Masalamani wanted no part of it, but he was left with little choice.)
The rules of the contest decreed that each was to sing a raga of one’s choosing to be followed by a pallavi in the same raga by the other. The same pallavi had to be sung by the one who began the contest with the raga. Venu waived his turn and said that Maha Shivan could begin in any raga he wished. Anticipating that Maha Shivan would choose one of the popular, major ragas, Venu had come prepared with highly intricate pallavis in all the major ragas to throw as challenge. Maha Shivan was accompanied by his friend, violinist Venkoba Rao. Venu’s plan seemed to be working when Maha Shivan began preparations to sing the major raga Shankarabharam. This would be playing right into the hands of Venu who was ready with an extraordinarily complex pallavi, which he could throw as a challenge— or so he thought.
Venkoba Rao sensed a trap. He drew Maha Shivan’s attention by tapping him on the shoulder, advising him to sing the little known raga Narayana-gowla. This was conveyed using a coded language. Here Maha Shivan had a distinct advantage as a much greater scholar than Venu who was a technician who had concentrated on just one aspect of music. Maha Shivan gave a beautiful exposition, but Venu was flabbergasted. He could not even identify the raga, let alone challenge him with a pallavi in that raga. He left the auditorium in a huff. The judge Masilamani Mudaliar honored Maha Shivan with a shawl and a gift of 750 rupees.
It was another triumph, but left a bad taste in his mouth. His public performances became less and less frequent until one day he stopped altogether. Vasudev Achar who was present on the occasion gives a vivid account of how it came about. It was at the home of a wealthy patron, with gifts and jewelry to be given to Maha Shivan displayed on a table for all to see. Maha Shivan had just completed a magnificent rendering of Dikshitar’s composition Chintaya maa in the Bhairavi raga, when the patron — a wealthy landowner — sent him a note. It asked Maha Shivan to sing a particular composition. Vasudev Achar described what happened as follows.
“I can never forget what happened,” he wrote more than fifty years later. “Ramaswami Shivan glanced at the note and his face turned dark like thunder. ‘Wrap up your tamburi,’ he roared, turning to his brother. ‘The day is gone when an artist could sing following his inspiration and ideal. We are now asked to perform like servants— to please those who pay us. From now on your music is only for yourself, for the elevation of your soul— not for others. Let us take leave of this life.’ ”
Without a word, Maha Shivan got up and followed his brother out of the recital hall. He never again sang in public. This was in 1892. Within a few months, on 27 January 1893, he was dead, not yet forty-nine. On that day, sensing he was nearing death, with a great effort, he walked to the temple, worshiping his favorite deity Shiva and his consort Goddess Parvati. He returned home and collapsed. It was an appropriately dramatic end to the eventful life of Maha Vaidya Natha Shivan, the greatest musical genius after Tyagaraja. As his life showed, the great artist was also a great man. This above all is the secret of the universal respect that he continues to command.
Fighting terrorism must be seen as warfare and not just a law enforcement problem. It calls for unconventional methods and cannot be handled by the police and law enforcement agencies. Platitudes like terrorism has no religion are false. Jihad is the ideology of terror, given religious colour.
Understanding terrorism in the name of god
There is new publication (see above) that explains Pakistan’s ideology and modus operandi.
The recent attack by the Pakistan-sponsored Islamist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed leading to the death of 40 Indian troops shows that the world has made little progress in defeating terrorism in the nearly twenty years since the 9/11 attacks in New York followed by others in Mumbai, London, Paris and other places.
The problem is two-fold. First, the large supply of terrorists sponsored by the failed state of Pakistan, and the reluctance of the rest of the world to see Islam for what it is- an aggressive imperial ideology masquerading as religion. As a reason, even its victims are unwilling to criticize its beliefs, under the misguided notion of hurting the religious sentiments of Muslims. This has allowed terrorists and their sponsors to hide behind the holy mask of religion.
It is time to remove this mask and show its true brutal face. We must face the truth that there is no soft way of fighting terrorism. As the Indian thinker Chanakya (4th C BCE) put it, brutal methods can only be defeated by ruthless means.
This we must first understand the nature of the challenge before us.
The goal of Islamic terrorists is to overthrow the government and replace it with a state ruled by shariah. To this end jihadis are carrying out terror attacks on both sides of the border with the goal of eventually reducing the victims into a state of terror. This is true in Kashmir as well as places like Syria, under the grip of ISIS.
Unlike other wars that are fought for material gains like territory, the strategy of jihad is to induce terror. This is made clear in the book, The Quranic Concept of War, written by Pakistani Brigadier SK Malik and sponsored by the Gen Zia-ul-Haq. It is a serious error to see this as a law-and-order problem to be dealt with by the police. It is to Islamists what Hitler’s Mein Kampf was to the Nazis, but more sinister because of its religious cloak.
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, there was a workshop of security experts in Washington DC on how to fight terrorism. Among its conclusions, two things stood out: Terrorists are not lawbreakers but soldiers driven by an ideology who need to be seen as enemy soldiers in a war; and, we need to monitor how they think and move — this calls for high level of intelligence apparatus and constant vigil. Terrorists prefer to avoid fighting soldiers and choose soft targets like schools, hospitals, churches, temples and the like. The goal is to induce long-lasting terror amongs the victims.
Finally, as in every war there will be loss of innocent lives; terrorists target innocents, and security forces too may kill innocent people by mistake. We must accept such losses if we want to defeat the enemy. The point was and still is — don’t expect the regular police and other law enforcement agencies to fight and control terrorism, though their help is certainly needed. This also means, as in the case of any war, there will be casualties involving innocent people. We must avoid it to the extent possible and compensate the victims, but not demoralise those fighting terrorists because it is a tough job and also a thankless one. No one thanks you when you stop an attack, but people are ready to blame you if you cause a mishap.
At the same time, victims of terrorist attacks will always be innocent people. The idea of terrorists is that with such random killings at unexpected locations — at place and time of their choosing — they can create a climate of fear. Unfortunately, India does not take terrorism — or even national security — with the seriousness it deserves. Worse, there are people, including those in responsible positions, who engage in flight from reality and indulge in diversionary tactics.
Who can forget Indian leader Rahul Gandhi surreptitiously telling former US Ambassador Timothy Roemer that Hindu extremist organisations are a greater threat to security than lashkar-e-Tayyeba. This is cowardice which terrorists want to induce in everyone.
Another recent instance of such obfuscation was the statement by India’s former Defense Minister AK Antony following the Pakistani attack on Indian positions on the border. He claimed that some militants dressed in Pakistan military uniform attacked Indian positions. What was gained by this crude whitewashing?
Pakistan’s Mein Kampf
Fortunately, we have a lucid explanation of jihad and terrorism by Gen Zia-ul-Haq. He clearly said that jihad was an all-out war waged to create terror. He sponsored one Brig Malik to produce an authoritative military manual on jihad called The Quranic Concept of War. Here Brig Malik writes, “The Holy Prophet’s operations… are an integral and inseparable part of the divine message revealed to us in the Holy Quran… The war he planned and carried out was total to the infinite degree. It was waged on all fronts: Internal and external, political and diplomatic, spiritual and psychological, economic and military.”
This is total war, and confessedly, religion is just a cover. But the world seems to have swallowed it.
Another point made by the author is that the war should be carried out in the opponent’s territory. “The aggressor was always met and destroyed in his own territory.” The ‘aggressor’ here is anyone who stands in the way of jihad, even when defending his own land! It doesn’t stop here, as Brig Malik assures us: “Terror struck into the hearts of the enemy is not only a means, it is the end in itself. Once a condition of terror into the opponent’s heart is obtained, hardly anything is left to be achieved… Terror is not a means of imposing decision upon the enemy; it is the decision we wish to impose upon him.”
That is to say that these attacks are meant to induce terror in the heart and minds of people — make them live in a state of perpetual terror. We should be grateful to Brig Malik and Gen Zia for spelling it out with such clarity. There should be no denial or obfuscation.
Though little known in the West, The Quranic Concept of War is widely studied in Islamic countries. It has been translated into several languages, including Arabic and Urdu (the official language of Pakistan). Indian soldiers have recovered Urdu versions of the book from the bodies of slain militants in Jammu & Kashmir. It is no coincidence that the trail of terrorism today should lead to Gen Zia. By making jihad the centrepiece of Pakistan’s politics he ensured that jihadi thinking would dominate all aspects of Pakistani politics in both domestic and foreign affairs.
Jihad allowed imperial expansion
As the late Anwar Shaik (a lapsed Muslim) pointed out, Islam is nothing but Arab nationalism turned imperialism. Jihad is its tactical tool. There is nothing spiritual about it, though some sophists, both Muslim and deluded Islam apologists claim Jihad entail struggle against one’s own negative instincts. Even if true, which is doubtful, the terrorists worldwide are not seeking any spiritual solace but engaged purely in secular terrorist activities.
The magum opus on Jihad that explains its scope and role in the history of the expansion of Islam is The Legacy of Jihad by Andrew Bostom. (See left)
Defeating terrorism: unconventional means
Once we recognize terrorism as unconventional warfare, we have to device effective methods for defeating it, using unconventional methods as needed, for as Krishna pointed out thousands of years ago, devious enemies call for unusual methods. (Krishna calls it maya). We need to locate their weaknesses.
In the case of Pakistan, it is economic. Most Muslim rulers lived on plunder, and evolved no productive enterprises. Pakistan is no different, especially the army which now rules the country. It has no worthwhile economic activity, so will have trouble recovering from heavy economic damage. This is its Achilles Heel.
This suggests instead of just killing people alone, which has no end, India should attack targets of economic value, like dams, power plants, fuel storages, key bridges and the like. These will have a major impact on its economy and its leaders will be forced to divert the country’s scant resources to rebuild its infrastructure.
Since linguists who have dominated Vedic studies for over a century do not use quantitative methods, being unfamiliar with mathematics. Hence they tried to apply techniques borrowed from linguistics, resulting in absurd conclusions, like Vedas and their language being foreign impositions dating to 1200 BCE or so when we have demonstrably Vedic architectural remains in Indian archaeology more than a thousand years older. They have tried to separate them by claiming archaeological remains as the result of the depredations of the invading Aryans, a mythical people.
But it was not long before the field began to attract competent scientists including mathematicians like A. Seidenberg, B.B. Datta and N.S. Rajaram. This has been discussed in detail in the book Vedic Aryans and the Origins of Civilizations by Rajaram and Frawley, which brought to the fore the importance of Vedic Mathematics of the Sulbasutras for the first time.
(Not to be confused with the work Vedic Mathematics by Swami Bharati Krishna Tirtha, which is a modern work and not part of the Vedic literature.)
The following article by Dr. Koenraad Elst summarizes some of its principal findings in a highly readable form.
Dating the Rg-Veda by Dr. Koenraad Elst
(Edited by N.S. Rajaram)
The determination of the age in which Vedic literature started and flourished has its consequences for history. The oldest text, the Rg-Veda, is full of precise references to places and natural phenomena in what are now Punjab and Haryana, and was unmistakably composed in that part of India. The date at which it was composed is a firm terminus ante quem for the presence of the Vedic Aryans into India. They may have come from abroad or they may have been fully native, but by the time of the Rg-Veda, they were certainly Indians without memory of a foreign homeland.
In a rather shoddy way, Friedrich Max Muller launched the hypothesis that the Rg-Veda had to be dated to about 1200 BC, and even though he later retracted it, that arbitrary guess has become the orthodoxy. It is forgotten too often that in his own day, other scholars rejected this extremely late date on a variety of grounds. Maurice Winternitz based his estimate on purely philological considerations: “We cannot explain the development of the whole of this great literature if we assume as late a date as round about 1200 BC or 1500 BC as its starting-point. Isn’t it refreshing to find how logical and unprejudiced the early researchers were? You cannot credibly cram the complicated linguistic, cultural and philosophical developments which are in evidence in Vedic literature, into just a few centuries.
But since this argument of plausibility can always be countered with the argument that unlikely developments are not strictly impossible, we need a firmer basis to decide this chronological question. The most explicit chronology would be provided by astronomical markers of time.
Ancient Hindu astronomy hits Biblical superstition
One of the earliest estimates of the date of the Vedas was at once among the most scientific. In 1790, the Scottish mathematician John Playfair demonstrated that the starting-date of the astronomical observations recorded in the tables still in use among Hindu astrologers (of which three copies had reached Europe between 1687 and 1787) had to be 4300 BCE. His proposal was dismissed as absurd by some, but it was not refuted by any scientist.
Playfair’s judicious use of astronomy was countered by John Bentley with a Scriptural argument which we now must consider invalid. In 1825, Bentley objected: “By his [= Playfair’s] attempt to uphold the antiquity of Hindu books against absolute facts [as in the Bible], he thereby supports all those horrid abuses and impositions found in them, under the pretended sanction of antiquity.
Nay, his aim goes still deeper, for by the same means he endeavors to overturn the Mosaic account, and sap the very foundation of our religion: for if we are to believe in the antiquity of Hindu books, as he would wish us, then the Mosaic account is all a fable, or a fiction. [Which it is, editor]
Bentley did not object to astronomy per se, in so far as it could be helpful in showing up the falsehood of Brahminical scriptures. However, it did precisely the reverse. Falsehood in this context could have meant that the Brahmins falsely claimed high antiquity for their texts by presenting as ancient astronomical observations recorded in Scripture what were in fact back-calculations from a much later age. But Playfair showed that this was impossible.
Back-calculation of planetary positions is a highly complex affair requiring knowledge of a number of physical laws, universal constants and actual measurements of densities, diameters and distances. [Especially then when there were no computers. Even today it is not always easy, NSR]
Though Brahminical astronomy was remarkably sophisticated for its time, it could only back-calculate planetary position of the presumed Vedic age with an inaccuracy margin of at least several degrees of arc. With our modern knowledge, it is possible to determine what the actual positions were, and what the results of back-calculations with the Brahminical formulae would have been, e.g.:
“Aldebaran was therefore 40′ before the point of the vernal equinox, according to the Indian astronomy, in the year 3102 before Christ. (…) [Modern astronomy] gives the longitude of that star 13′ from the vernal equinox, at the time of the Calyougham, agreeing, within 53′, with the determination of the Indian astronomy. This agreement is the more remarkable, that the ancient sages , by their own rules for computing the motion of the fixed stars, could not have assigned this place to Aldebaran for the beginning of Calyougham, had they calculated it from a modern observation. For as they make the motion of the fixed stars too great by more than 3” annually, if they had calculated backward from 1491, they would have placed the fixed stars less advanced by 4or 5 degrees, at their ancient epoch, than they have actually done. So, it turns out that the data given by the sages corresponded not with the results deduced from their formulae, but with the actual positions observed, and this, according to Playfair, for nine different astronomical parameters. This is a bit much to explain away as coincidence or sheer luck.
Ancient observation, modern confirmation
That Hindu astronomical lore about ancient times cannot be based on later back-calculation, was also argued by Playfair’s contemporary, the French astronomer Jean-Sylvain Bailly: “the motions of the stars calculated by the Hindus before some 4500 years vary not even a single minute from the [modern] tables of Cassini and Meyer. The Indian tables give the same annual variation of the moon as that discovered by Tycho Brahe — a variation unknown to the school of Alexandria and also to the Arabs.
Prof. N.S. Rajaram, a mathematician who has worked for NASA, comments: “fabricating astronomical data going back thousands of years calls for knowledge of Newton’s Law of Gravitation and the ability to solve differential equations. Failing this advanced knowledge, the data in the ancient records must be based on actual observation. Ergo, the Sanskrit-speaking Vedic seers were present in person to record astronomical observations and preserve them for a full 6,000 years: “The observations on which the astronomy of India is founded, were made more than three thousand years before the Christian era. (…) Two other elements of this astronomy, the equation of the sun’s centre and the obliquity of the ecliptic (…) seem to point to a period still more remote, and to fix the origin of this astronomy 1000 or 1200 years earlier, that is, 4300 years before the Christian era.
All this at least on the assumption that Playfair’s, Bailly’s and Rajaram’s claims about the Hindu astronomical tables are correct. Disputants may start by proving them factually wrong, but should not enter the dispute arena without a refutation of the astronomers’ assertions. It is something of a scandal that Playfair’s and Bailly’s findings have been lying around for two hundred years while linguists and indologists were publishing speculations on Vedic chronology in stark disregard for the contribution of astronomy. [and mathematics, and archaeology as well.]
2.3. The start of Kali-Yuga
Hindu tradition makes mention of the conjunction of the “seven planets” (Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury, sun and moon) and Ketu (southern lunar node, the northern node/Rahu being by definition in the opposite location) near the fixed star Revati (Zeta Piscium) on 18 February 3102 BC. This date, at which Krishna is supposed to have breathed his last, is conventionally the start of the so-called Kali-Yuga, the “age of strife”, the low point in a declining sequence of four ages. However, modern scholars have claimed that the Kali-Yuga system of time-reckoning was a much younger invention, not attested before the 6th century AD.
Against this modernist opinion, Bailly and Playfair had already shown that the position of the moon (the fastest-moving “planet”, hence the hardest to back-calculate with precision) at the beginning of Kali-Yuga, 18 February 3102, as given by Hindu tradition, was accurate to 37′.9 Either the Brahmins had made an incredibly lucky guess, or they had recorded an actual observation on Kali Yuga day itself.
Mathematician Richard L. Thompson claims that in Indian literature and inscriptions, there are a number of datelines expressed in Kali-Yuga which are older than the Christian era (and a fortiori older than the 6th century AD).More importantly, Thompson argues that the Jyotisha-shastras (treatises on astronomy and, increasingly, astrology, starting in the 14th century BC with the Vedanga Jyotisha as per its own astronomical data, but mostly from the first millennium AD) are correct in mentioning this remarkable conjunction on that exact day, for there was indeed a conjunction of sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Ketu and Revati.
True, the conjunction was not spectacularly exact, having an orb of 37’ between the two most extreme planetary positions. But that exactly supports the hypothesis of an actual observation as opposed to a back-calculation. Indeed, if the Hindu astronomers were able to calculate this position after a lapse of many centuries (when the Jyotisha-Shastra was written), it is unclear what reason they would have had for picking out that particular conjunction. Surely, such conjunctions are spectacular to those who witness one, and hence worth recording if observed. But they are not that exceptional when considered over millennia: even closer conjunctions of all visible planets do occur (most recently on 5 February 1962).11 If the Hindu astronomers had simply been going over their astronomical tables looking for an exceptional conjunction, they could have found more spectacular ones than the one on 18 February 3102 BC.
The precession of the equinox The slowest hand on the clock (see above)
The truly strong evidence for a high chronology of the Vedas is the Vedic information about the position of the equinox. The phenomenon of the “precession of the equinoxes” takes the ecliptical constellations (also known as the sidereal Zodiac, i.e. those constellations through which the sun passes)12 slowly past the vernal equinox point, i.e. the intersection of ecliptic and equator, rising due East on the horizon. The whole tour is made in about 25,791 years, the longest cycle manageable for naked-eye observers. If data about the precession are properly recorded, they provide the best and often the only clue to an absolute chronology for ancient events.
The very fact the ancient sages were aware of the phenomenon of the precession (See Gods, Sages and Kings by David Frawley) indicates they had been observing the skies for thousands of years.
If we can read the Vedic and post-Vedic indications properly, they mention constellations on the equinox points which were there from 4,000 BC for the Rg-Veda (Orion, as already pointed out by B.G. Tilak, see above) through around 3100 BC for the Atharva-Veda and the core Mahabharata (Aldebaran) down to 2,300 BC for the Sutras and the Shatapatha Brahmana (Pleiades).
Other references to the constellational position of the solstices or of solar and lunar positions at the beginning of the monsoon confirm this chronology. Thus, the Kaushitaki Brahmana puts the winter solstice at the new moon of the sidereal month of Magha (i.e. the Mahashivaratri festival), which now falls 70 days later: this points to a date in the first half of the 3rd millennium BC. The same precessional movement of the twelve months of the Hindu calendar (which are tied to the constellations) vis-a-vis the meterological seasons, is what allowed Hermann Jacobi (left)to fix the date of the Rg-Veda to the 5th-4th millennium BC.15 Indeed, the regular references to the full moon’s position in a constellation at the time of the beginning of the monsoon, which nearly coincides with the summer solstice, provide a secure and unambiguous chronology through the millennial Vedic literature.
Chronological conundrum: Kalidasa’s date
It is not only the Vedic age which is moved a number of centuries deeper into the past, when comparing the astronomical indications with the conventional chronology. Even the Gupta age (and implicitly the earlier ages of the Buddha, the Mauryas etc.) could be affected. Indeed, the famous playwright and poet Kalidasa, supposed to have worked at the Gupta court in about 400 AD, wrote that the monsoon rains started at the start of the sidereal month of Ashadha; this timing of the monsoon was accurate in the last centuries BC.16 This implicit astronomy-based chronology of Kalidasa, about 5 centuries higher than the conventional one, tallies well with the traditional “high” chronology of the Buddha, whom Chinese Buddhist tradition dates to ca. 1100 BC, and the implicit Puranic chronology even to ca. 1700 BC.
These indications about the precessional phases may be unreliable insofar as their exact meaning is not unambiguous. To say that a constellation “never swerves from the East” (as is said of the Pleiades in the Shatapatha Brahmana 2:1:2:3) seems to mean that it contains the spring equinox, implying that it is on the equator, which intersects the horizon due East. But this might seem insufficiently explicit for the modern reader who is used to a precise and separate technical terminology for such matters. But then, the modern reader will have to accept that technical terminology in Vedic days mostly consisted in fixed metaphorical uses of common terms. This is not all that primitive, for the same thing will be found when the etymology of modern technical terms is analyzed, e.g. a telescope is a Greek “far-seer”, oxygen is “acid-producer”, a cylinder is a “roller”. The only difference is that we can use the vocabulary of foreign classical languages to borrow from, while Sanskrit was its known classical reservoir of specialized terminology.
Another factor of uncertainty is that the equinox moves very slowly (1degree in nearly 71 years), so that any inexactness in the Vedic indications and any ambiguity in the constellations’ boundaries makes a difference of centuries. This occasional inexactness might possibly be enough to neutralize the above shift in Kalidasa’s date — but not to account for a shift of millennia (each millennium corresponding to about 14 degrees of arc) needed to move the Vedic age from the pre-Harappan to the post-Harappan period, from 4000 BC as calculated by the astronomers to 1200 BC as surmised by Friedrich Max Muller.
On the other hand, it is encouraging to note that the astronomical evidence is entirely free of contradictions. There would be a real problem if the astronomical indications had put the Upanishads earlier than the Rg-Veda, or Kalidasa earlier than the Brahmanas, but that is not the case: the astronomical evidence is consistent. Inconsistency would prove the predictable objection of AIT defenders that these astronomical references are but poetical fabulation without any scientific contents. However, the facts are just the opposite. To the extent that there are astronomical indications in the Vedas, these form a consistent set of data detailing an absolute chronology for Vedic literature in full agreement with the known relative chronology of the different texts of this literature. This way, they completely contradict the hypothesis that the Vedas were composed after an invasion in about 1500 BC. Not one of the dozens of astronomical data in Vedic literature confirms the AIT chronology. (This is extraordinary. So their are unsupported by any material evidence– astronomy or archaeology.) As already shown in my earlier post Genes of Time, it is contradicted by data from natural history and population genetics.
The Taj Mahal is claimed by its admirers to be the most beautiful building in India if not the world. While this is open to dispute since beauty is subjective, and as the old saying goes, beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. But there is no disputing the fact that it is a top to the tourist attraction. No visitor to India would miss visiting it. Its great celebrity (or notoriety) has made it a magnet for idiosyncratic theories in which the late P.N. Oak has been notably prominent, claiming variously that it used to be a Shiva Temple that was commandeered by Shah Jahan, and more plausibly it was Raja Jai Singh’s palace converted into a Mausoleum.
Humayun’s Tomb in East Nizamuddin (Delhi)
For a building so prominent, there is a surprising paucity of records. This has led to much speculation and unsupportable conjectures. Some claim that the architectural style is not Mogul. This is easily refuted by looking at Humayun’s Tomb located east of Delhi (see above) built by Humayun’s wife Hamida Banu (Akbar’s mother). Even a non-expert can recognize it as a possible proto-type for the Taj Mahal. Many regard it as a better building than the more famous Taj.
The following study by a professional architect might will put many of the myths to rest. It is in the nature of a detailed review of a book on the Taj Mahal by two historians who have surveyed nearly all records available. One is again struck by the paucity of records for such a major undertaking.
AN ARCHITECT LOOKS AT THE TAJ MAHAL LEGEND
Professor Marvin H. Mills
Pratt Institute, New York
(Edited by N.S. Rajaram)
In their book TAJ MAHAL-THE ILLUMINED TOMB, Wayne Edison Begley and Ziyaud-Din Ahmad Desai have put together a very commendable body of data and information derived from contemporary sources and augmented with numerous photo illustrations, chroniclers’ descriptions, imperial directives plus letters, plans, elevations and diagrams. They have performed a valuable service to the community of scholars and laymen concerned with the circumstances surrounding the origin and development of the Taj Mahal.
But these positive contributions exist within a framework of analysis and interpretation that distorts a potential source of enlightenment into support for fantasy and misinformation that has plagued scholarship in this field for hundreds of years, thus obscuring the true origin of the Taj Mahal complex. The two basic procedural errors that they make are to assume that the dated inscriptions are accurate and that court chroniclers are behaving like objective historians.
As an architect, my principal argument with the authors is their facile acceptance of the compact time frame that they uncritically accept for the coming into being of the Taj from conception to its first Urs (anniversary) of the death of Mumtaz and the completion of the main building. Construction processes that had to consume substantial blocks of time are condensed into a few months. They feel justified in relying on what evidence is available, but fail to consider the objective needs of construction. They regret the loss of what, they say, must have been millions of Mughal state records and documents produced each year on all aspects of the Taj’s construction. They do not consider that the lack of drawings, specifications and records of payment may be due to their not being generated at the time. Nor do they consider Shahjahan’s potential for deception as to when and by whom it was built. Yet they point out Shahjahan’s careful monitoring of the contents of court history:
“Shajahan himself was probably responsible for this twisting of historical truth. The truth would have shown him to be inconsistent and this could not be tolerated. For this reason also, the histories contain no statements of any kind that are critical of the Emperor or his policies, and even military defeats are rationalized so that no blame could be attached to him. … effusive praise of the Emperor is carried to such extremes that he seems more a divinity than a mortal man.” (p. xxvi)
(Editor’s comment: Shajahan was notorious for this. Even his defeats that led the loss of parts of Afghanistan, including Kandahar to Abbasid Persia are presented as triumphs. NSR)
With the court chroniclers’ histories carefully edited, and with the great scarcity of documents we are fortunate to have four surviving farmans or directives issued by Shahjahan to Raja Jai Singh of Amber-the very same local ruler from whom the Emperor acquired the Taj property. On the basis of these farmans, the court chroniclers and a visiting European traveler, we learn that: (i) Mumtaz died and was buried temporarily at Burhanpur on June 17, 1631; (ii) her body was exhumed and taken to Agra on December 11, 1631; (iii) she was reburied somewhere on the Taj grounds on January 8, 1632; and (iv) European traveler Peter Mundy witnessed Shahjahan’s return to Agra with his cavalcade on June 11, 1632.
The first farman was issued on September 20, 1632 in which the Emperor urges Raja Jai Singh to hasten the shipment of marble for the facing of the interior walls of the mausoleum, i.e., the Taj main building. Naturally a building had to be there to receive the finish. How much time was needed to put that basic building in place?
Every successful new building construction follows what we call in modern-day construction a “critical path”. There is a normal sequence of steps requiring a minimum time before other processes follow. Since Mumtaz died unexpectedly and relatively young (having survived thirteen previous child-births), we can assume that Shahjahan was unprepared for her sudden demise. He had to conceive, in the midst of his trauma, of a world class tomb dedicated to her, select an architect (whose identity is still debated), work out a design program with the architect, and have the architect prepare designs, engineer the structure and mechanical systems, detail the drawings, organize the contractors and thousands of workers, and prepare a complex construction schedule. Mysteriously, no documents relating to this elaborate procedure, other than the four farmans have survived.
Jai Singh’s palace?
We cannot assume that the Taj complex was built additively with the buildings and landscaping built as needed. It was designed as a unified whole. Begley and Desai make this clear by their analysis of the grid system that was employed by the designer to unite the complex horizontally and vertically to into a three-dimensional whole. If one did not “know” that it was a solemn burial grounds, one would believe that it was designed as a palace with a delightful air of fantasy and secular delights of waterways and flowering plants. Could it be that this is Raja Jai Singh’s palace, never destroyed, converted by decree and some minimum face-lifting to a Mughal tomb?
Assuming that Shahjahan was galvanized into prompt action to initiate the project on behalf of his deceased beloved, we can safely assume that he needed one year minimum between conception and ground-breaking. Since Mumtaz died in June 1631, that would take us to June 1632. But construction is said to have begun in January 1632.
Excavation must have presented a formidable task. First, the demolition of Raja Jai Singh’s palace would have had to occur. We know that the property had a palace on it from the chronicles of Mirza Qazini and Abd al-Hamid Lahori. Lahori writes:
“As there was a tract of land (zamini) of great eminence and pleasantness towards the south of that large city, on which before there was this mansion (manzil) of Raja Man Singh, and which now belongs to his grandson Raja Jai Singh, it was selected for the burial place (madfan) of that tenant of paradise.[Mumtaz]” (p. 43)
Measures would have to be taken during excavation of this main building and the other buildings to the north to retain the Jumna River from inundating the excavation. The next steps would have been to sink the massive foundation piers, put in the footings, retaining the walls and the plinth or podium to support the Taj and its two accompanying buildings to the east and west plus the foundations for the corner towers, the well house, the underground rooms, and assuming the complex was done at one time, all the supports for the remainder of the buildings throughout the complex. To be conservative in our estimate, we need at least another year of construction which takes us up to January 1634.
But here is the problem. On the anniversary of the death of Mumtaz, each year Shahjahan would stage the Urs celebration at the Taj. The first Urs occurred on June 22, 1632. Though construction had allegedly begun only six months earlier, the great plinth of red sandstone over brick, 374 yards long, 140 yards wide, and 14 yards high was already in place! Even Begley and Desai are somewhat amazed.
Where was all the construction debris, the piles of materials, the marble, the brick scaffolding, the temporary housing for thousands of workers, the numerous animals needed to haul materials? If “heaven was surpassed by the magnificence of the rituals”, as one chronicler puts it, then nothing should have been visible to mar the exquisite panorama that the occasion called for.
But by June 1632, it was not physically possible that construction could have progressed to completion of excavation, construction of all the footings and foundations, completion of the immense platform and clearing of all the debris and eyesores in preparation for the first Urs.
Begley and Desai have little use for the testimony of the European travelers to the court of Shahjahan. But they consider Peter Mundy, an agent of the British East India Company, to be the most important source on the Taj because he was there shortly before the first Urs at the new grave site, and one year later at the second Urs.
Missing gold railing
It was Mundy who said that he saw the installation of the enameled gold railing surrounding Mumtaz’s cenotaph at the time of the second Urs on May 26, 1633. But there is no way that construction could have moved ahead so vigorously from January 1632 to May 1633 as to be ready to receive the railing. After all, the railing could not have stood forth in open air. It means that the Taj building had to be already there. It must have been immensely valuable since the cost of the Taj complex was reported to be fifty lakhs, while the cost of the gold railing was six lakhs of rupees. The gold railing was removed by Shahjahan on February 6, 1643 when it was replaced by the inlaid white marble screen one sees now.
An alternate interpretation of events regarding the railing is that Shahjahan revealed the gold railing of Raja Jai Singh at the first or second Urs. In 1643 he appropriated it for himself and put in its place the very fine marble screen with its inlaid semi-precious stones, a screen that was not nearly as valuable as the gold railing.
If Shahjahan’s construction and interior adornment of the Taj are in question, what rework of the Taj can we attribute to him? The inscriptions were undoubtedly among the few rework tasks that he was obliged to do. He may also have removed any obvious references to Hinduism in the form of symbolic decor that existed.
The book’s plate illustrations show that the inscriptions are almost always in a discrete rectangular frame which renders them capable of being modified or added to without damaging the adjascent material. In my judgement the black script on the white marble background seems inappropriate esthetically in the midst of the soft beige marble that surrounds it. By adding the inscriptions Shahjahan probably sought to establish the credibility of its having been his creation as a sacred mausoleum instead of the Hindu palace that time will undoubtedly prove that it was.
Based on the latest inscriptions dated 1638-39, which appear on the tomb, the authors estimate a construction period of six years. Six years in my judgement is simply not enough time. As reasonable approximation of the total time required to build the Taj complex, we can consider Tavernier’s estimate of twenty-two years. Although he first arrived in Agra in 1640, he probably witnessed some rework or repair. The time frame of twenty-two years may have been passed on to him by local people as part of the collective memory from some previous century when the Taj was actually built.
The issue of repairs is taken up by the authors in their translation of the original letter of Aurangazeb to his father dated December 9, 1652. He reports serious leaks on the north side, the four arched portals, the four small domes, the four northern vestibules, subchambers of the plinth, plus leaks from the previous rainy season. The question the authors do not raise is: Would the Taj, being at most only thirteen years old, already have shown symptoms of decay? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to believe that by 1652 it was already hundreds of years old and was showing normal wear and tear.
Who built the Taj? The authors say it was Ahmad Ustad Lahori, chief architect for Shahjahan. They base this belief mainly on the assertion by Luft Allah, the son of Lahori, in a collection of verses, that Shahjahan commanded Lahori to build both the Taj and the Red Fort at Delhi. As evidence this is quite weak.
The court historians are unfailing in their praise for the Emperor’s personal participation in his massive architectuaral projects and they are never lacking in glorifying his sterling character. But the European travelers have other things to say about his personality and his inability to focus on anything for long except his lust for women. Nor is the object of his supposed great love either tender or compassionate. It seems that both “lovers” were cruel, self-centred and vicious. To believe that out of this relationship, with the support of Shahjahan’s alleged great architectural skills, came what many consider to be the most beautiful building complex in the world, is sheer romantic nonsense.
While Begley and Desai are sceptical of the Taj Mahal’s being a consequence of romantic devotion, they yield not an inch in asserting its Mughal origin. They support this traditional view by overlooking some key problems:
Consider the identical character of the two buildings on either side of the Taj main building. If they had different functions-one a mosque, the other a guest residence-then, they should have been designed differently to reflect their individual functions.
Why does the perimeter wall of the complex have a Medieval, pre-artillery, defense character when artillery (cannons) was already in use in the Mughal invasions of India? [Why does a mausoleum need a protective wall in the first place? For a palace it is understadable.]
Why are there some twenty rooms below the terrace level on the north side of the Taj facing the Jumna River? Why does a mausoleum need these rooms? A palace could put them to good use. The authors do not even mention their existence.
What is in the sealed-up rooms on the south side of the long corridor opposite the twenty contiguous rooms? Who filled in the doorway with masonry? Why are scholars not allowed to enter and study whatever objects or decor are within? (Comment: The archaeologist in charge of the Taj personally informed this editor, he found nothing in those rooms. NSR)
Why does the “mosque” face due west instead of facing Meccah? Certainly, by the seventeenth century there was no problem in orienting a building precisely!
Why has the Archaeological Survey of India blocked any dating of the Taj by means of Carbon-14 or thermo-luminiscnece? Any controversy over which century the Taj was built could easily be resolved. [Radiocarbon dating of a piece of wood surreptiously taken from one of the doors gave 13th century as a possible date. But more data is needed.]
If Shajahan did not build the Taj for the love of Mumtaz, then why did he want it? His love for Mumtaz was evidently a convenient subterfuge. He actually wanted the existing palace for himself. He appropriated it from Raja Jai Singh by making him an offer he could not refuse, the gift of other properties in exchange. He also acquired whatever was precious within the building including the immensely valuable gold railing.
By converting the complex into a sacred Moslem mausoleum he insured that the Hindus would never want it back. Shahjahan converted the residential quarters to the west of the main building to a mosque simply by modifying the interior of the west wall to create a mihrab niche. He added Islamic inscriptions around many doorways and entries to give the impression that the Taj had always been Islamic. Sure enough, the scholars have been silent or deceived ever since.
Yet, we must thank Begley and Desai for having assembled so much useful data and translated contemporary writings and inscriptions. Where they failed is in accepting an apocryphal legend of the Taj for an absolute fact. Their interpretations and analyses have been forced into the mold of their bias. It would be well to take advantage of their work by scholars and laymen interested in deepening their knowledge of the Taj Mahal to read the book while keeping an open mind as to when and by whom it was built.
A leading Indian architect, former professor of architecture at Mysore University adds:
There are fundamental problems with the current theory of Islamic Architecture in India of which the following may be noted.
(1) Unlike in the case of Hindu architecture, where there are literally hundreds of works on Vastu in several Indian languages, there seem to be almost no texts or manuals on Islamic architecture. It is difficult to see how a great school of architecture lasting 600 years could flourish without any technical literature.
(2) Hindu architectural practices and traditions are maintained by thousands of mason families, especially in South India. These are known as Vishwakarmas or Vishwa Brahmanas. They are greatly in demand all over the world. No such Muslim families are known.
(3) There are no standards of units and measurements for Islamic architecture in India. It is inconceivable that great works of architecture could come up without them. This is an objective requirement.
TAJ MAHAL-The Illumined Tomb, an anthology of seventeenth century Mughal and European documentary sources, by W.E. Begley and Z.A. Desai: Published by the University of Washington Press, Seattle and London, 1989 (The Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture).
The reviewer Marvin Mills is a leading New York architect and professor of architecture at the Pratt Institute.
Pagans’ idea of the sacred is rooted in nature and not necessarily in a book or a founder. Also divinity of the female is integral to paganism, which is not acknowledged in Abrahamaic creeds.
The distinguishing feature of pagan beliefs and cultures is their sense of the sacred— of sacredness as something that pervades the universe, its every nook and cranny, its every creation. Krishna in the Bhagavadgita (4.11) says: “All creatures great and small— I am equal to all; I hate none nor have I any favorites.” And this, as we shall soon see, extends to all creation, animate and inanimate.
In contrast, revealed faiths like Christianity and Islam cannot exist without favorites: sacredness is confined to an anthropomorphic icon called the Messenger of God, Son of God, the Prophet or any of the sundry intermediaries that block or control access to an anthropomorphic God who created man “his own image.” As a consequence nothing else is sacred. This means the world, with all its creations was created for man’s exploitation. Here is how the Bible (Genesis 9.2 – 3) puts it:
“…the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast on the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes in the sea; into your hand they are delivered.
“Every moving thing that moveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given all things.”
The pagan view is totally different. The celebrated Isa Upanishad opens with the injunction: Isavasyamidam sarvam, yat kincit jagatyam jagat; tena tyaktena bhunjitva ma gridhah kasyavaitdhanam.
This may be summarized as: “The divine lives in everything, in the minutest creation in the universe. Enjoy what is rightfully yours, covet not that which belongs to another.”
This accounts for the worship of female deities in paganism. Even nationalistic slogans like “Bharat Mata ki Jai” (Glory to mother India) are found offensive by Indian Muslims whose God and prophet are both severely masculine.
The pagan idea holds two ideas— divinity resides everywhere and in everything, in every nook and cranny. See left above for a pre-Christian Celtic pagan icon from Denmark
And one should take no more than what one needs. As the Isha Upanishd says,”Divinity resides in everything, in every nook and cranny. Covet not that which belongs to another,” includes nature also, for nature too owns its share. This means nature with all its creations is sacred. So, with pagan traditions God is not necessarily anthropomorphic— an idea by no means limited to Hinduism. Pagans have sacred plants like the ashvattah and the mistletoe (of the Druids), sacred animals like the Hindu cow and the bull of the ancient Egyptians, and any number of them among the natives of pre-Columbian America.
This idea of the sacred in animals gives rise to the interesting phenomenon of composite creatures and even human-animal combinations. (See above left) In Hinduism this is well known: the elephant-headed Ganesha, half-man half-lion Narasimha and many more. Similarly, the Egyptians had the Sphinx, pagan Greeks Pan (goat-man), and any number of such creatures among the Incas, the Aztecs and other peoples of pre-Columbian America. The idea in all this is man’s oneness with nature. Unlike in the revealed (Semitic) religions, which look down upon creations other than man, the pagans exalted both the animal and the human by combining them. They are all part of the same creation.
The assault on pagan civilizations by imperial movements let loose by revealed religions like Christianity and Islam involved to a great degree the destruction of this sense of the sacred— the sense of divinity everywhere and in everything. This is part of what is called “conversion.” It makes one shift allegiance from one’s culture rooted in nature and the surroundings to an alien anthropomorphic God and his intermediary who claims to speak for God. AS V.S. Naipaul observed (see below). Conversion goes further: it makes imperial demands. It is not enough to shift allegiance; the convert has to destroy everything, including the history of his former self. And this is what the imperial ‘jealous’ God ultimately demands.
Since God in revealed religions is knowable only through the intermediary, conversion entails a change from worship of nature and all of God’s creation to the worship of man. To understand the pagan sense of sacredness, and the cataclysmic impact of conversion, is it is necessary to understand what the revealed creeds like Christianity and Islam demand of their flock. This is what we may examine next.
God or Man-God as substitute?
The idea of the divine in everything in pagan traditions, especially in Hinduism, introduces a profound concept— of religion, or more properly spirituality as a-paurusheya. A-paurusheya in Sanskrit means “not of human origin.” (From purusha, human in Sanskrit.) This has many dimensions, but mainly that spirituality must be in harmony with the cosmos. It is not for any human to claim any special privilege in creation. All are equal in the eyes of God— or “I hate none, nor have I any favorites,” in Krishna’s simple words. Any teaching like the Vedas simply exposes cosmic principles discovered by human sages, but the principles themselves, like scientific laws are eternal and owe nothing to human existence.
For this reason, A Vedic seer like Vasishta or Vishwamitra is simply a drashtara— or one who ‘sees’ the truth of the cosmic order. The same is true of scientific seers like Newton and Einstein. They perceived cosmic truths like the Law of Gravitation and the Mass-Energy Equivalence. But these truths existed without them as part of the cosmos; they are eternal. Even Krishna in his Bhagavadgita makes no claim to originality. In his words:
“I taught this imperishable Yoga to Vivswan, who taught it to Manu. Manu then bequeathed it to King Ikshwaku. This ancient wisdom transmitted through generations of royal sages became lost in the tides of time. I have taught to you, my friend and best disciple, this best and most mystical knowledge.”
In contrast, revealed religions like Christianity and Islam cannot exist without a privileged human claiming exclusive access to God. This makes them paurusheya— or ‘man originated.’ Jesus is the purusha of Christianity while Mohammed is the purusha of Islam. Without these purushas, neither Christianity nor Islam can exist. Pagan beliefs like Hinduism have no such human founder or purusha. In the words of philosopher Ram Swarup below left):
“The spiritual equippage of Islam and Christianity is similar; their spiritual contents, both in quality and quantum are about the same. The central piece of the two creeds is “one true God” of masculine gender who makes himself known to his believers through an equally single, favored individual. … (Emphasis added.)
“The whole prophetic spirituality whether found in the Bible or the Quran, is mediumistic in essence. Here everything takes place through a proxy, through an intermediary. Here man knows God through a proxy; and probably God too knows man through the same proxy.
“In fact, to these religions, the chosen individual is not merely an intermediary, he is also a savior, a mediator. He intercedes on behalf of his flock with God. He can even delegate his authority to his disciples, who, in turn, appoint their own officials who too have the power to ‘bind and loose.’ As a result, these religions tend to deal not with God but with God-substitutes.”
The chosen intermediary cannot tolerate a rival for he is the sole intermediary. Such a religion demands a single God— a jealous God (of the Old Testament), who, like his spokesman, brooks no rivals. This is what is behind the Only Son of God and the Final Prophet. The authority for this proxy spiritualism is found in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 18.18):
“I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, …, and will put my word in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him.”
This virtually defines exclusivism, which implies that the intermediary is authorized to be the exclusive spokesman of God, and there can be none other. It means that man cannot know God save through the intermediary, there can be no direct access. This exclusion of direct access to God shuts out alternative paths of exploration. As a result, any mystical exploration is treated as heretical and open to persecution.
The pagan approach to spirituality and mysticism is the antithesis of this. Here, there is no intermediary to bar access to the divine. This leads to freedom of choice in experiencing the divine. God resides within the soul of every individual, accessible to anyone through mystical seeking. As a result, pluralism is the rule in pagan cultures. And God being individual to the seeker, there are as many Gods — and as varied — as there are souls that seek. There is no intermediary to enforce any belief in the name of God. Socrates expressed it in this fashion (Dialogues of Plato, Cratallus 400-1):
“Of the Gods we know nothing, either of their natures or of the names by which they call themselves. …but we are enquiring about the meaning of men in giving them these names.” (Socrates, above left)
That is to say God (or Gods) is the result of spiritual seeking, the mystical search for cosmic reality. This is as varied and as manifold as the human experience and capacity. Dirghatamas, probably the most mystical of the Vedic poets (above left) recognized this truth when he said (Rigveda I.164.48):
“Cosmic reality is one, but the wise perceive it in many ways: as Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, the mighty Garutman, Yama, and Matarishvan— the giver of breath.”
Renaissance was re-paganization
This links the diverse pathways of the search for cosmic truth to the pluralistic pantheon that adorns every pagan culture. ‘Conversion’ to a revealed creed involves a wrenching from such a free-spirited mystical milieu to be cast among a throng whose spiritual life is regulated by God-substitutes. It entails a total uprooting from the land and culture of oneself and one’s ancestors. The spiritual loss is immense.
As a result, one can think of the European Renaissance as a movement of re-paganization, an attempt to recapture the freedom of spirit characteristic of their pagan Greek ancestors. This was followed by the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
V.S. Naipaul: the sacred place
It is not easy for a human to give up everything, from the soul to the sacred land in which one was born and raised and surrender to a remote land and an unfamiliar Man-God— or God-substitute in Ram Swarup’s picturesque phrase. This must wreak havoc on the psyche. In the case of conversion to Islam it means, as Nobel Prize winning author V.S. Naipaul puts it: “A convert’s world view alters. His holy places are in Arab lands; his sacred language is Arabic. His idea of history alters.”
Naipaul might also have said that this is accompanied by an inveterate hatred of one’s ancestors and the culture into which they were born. A hatred deep enough to want to destroy one’s own land and join the ranks of the violators of ancestral land and culture, at least in spirit. Pakistan is an example. Its heroes are not the Vedic kings and sages who walked the land, but invading vandals like Ghaznavi and Ghori who ravaged them. Again as Naipaul puts it: “Only the sands of Arabia are sacred.”
This idea of the destruction of the sense of the sacred is not widely recognized. The pagan spirit, including the Hindu, attaches great significance to his sense of punya-bhumi, to tirthas made sacred by association with heroes and sages from the hoary past. Conversion entails giving up this attachment to one’s sacred land and symbols and even turning against it with destructive zeal. This is movingly chronicled in Naipaul’s Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples. Naipaul, whose ancestors were from India, was born and grew up in Trinidad. Its original pagan inhabitants along with their sacred places had been obliterated by European invaders. It was only after he had left the island, some forty years later, that he began to notice this lack. What brought this realization was his coming into contact with India, the punya-bhumi. As he wrote:
“… it was much later, in India, in Bombay, in a crowded industrial area — which was yet full of unexpected holy spots, a rock, a tree — that I understood that, whatever the similarities of climate and vegetation and formal belief and poverty and crowd, the people who lived so intimately with the idea of the sacredness of the earth were different from us. …Perhaps it is this absence of the sense of sacredness — which is more than the idea of the ‘environment’ — that is the curse of the New World, and is the curse especially of Argentina and ravaged places like Brazil. And perhaps it is this sense of sacredness — rather than history and the past — that we of the New World travel to the Old to rediscover.”
And Europeans of the Renaissance traveled to Greece, at least in spirit. Some like Poet Byron gave their lives to recover the sacredness of Greece.
It is this sense of sacredness that Christianity and Islam have destroyed wherever they have gone. This anti-sacred feeling is particularly virulent in lands converted to Islam. Again, as Naipaul observes: “…in the converted Muslim countries — Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia — the fundamentalist rage is against the past, against history, and the impossible dream is of true faith growing out of a spiritual vacancy.”
I have noticed the same rage, though perhaps more subdued and certainly less violent, among the converted Christians in India, many of who have never reconciled to the loss of colonial patronage. They are blind to sacredness around them, still clinging to the impossible dream of Western ‘Christendom’ coming to their aid in their hopeless, unnecessary struggle against the pagan Hindus.
In my travels in Central America, I had noticed that this sense of sacredness is not altogether lost among the converts, especially Native American tribes. Though nominally Christian, they retain their ancient beliefs and practices. They even paganize Christianity by identifying Christian figures with pagan gods and goddesses; in parts of Mexico, Virgin Mary becomes Our Lady of the Guadalope and Aztec sacred symbols take the place of the cross.
Similar pagan remains with its sense of the sacred can be found among some Muslims of Indonesia. Naipaul found that among some of the people of Sumatra, there was great reverence for nature— a most un-Islamic idea. They believed that certain trees and springs had spirits. Speaking of her childhood in the village, an Indonesian woman told Naipaul: “We always have to ask permission when we cut down a big tree, or drain a spring, or build a house. We have to follow certain rituals, ceremonies, to appease guardian spirits.”
This of course is a throwback to their Hindu past, before the coming of Islam. Naipaul later visited the village, an enchanting place where rice had been cultivated in the same way, in the same place for time immemorial. So were the practices and the rituals. In his words:
“And yet very little was known of this immense history. There were no documents, no texts; there were only inscriptions. Writing itself was one of the things that came from India with religion. All the Hindu and Buddhist past had been swallowed up. …People’s memories could go back only to their grandparents or great-grandparents. The passing of time could not be gauged; events a hundred years old would be like events a thousand years old. All that remained of two thousand years of great social organization here, of a culture, were the taboos and earth rites…”
All this ancient tradition, with its sacred land and guardian spirits were uprooted by the coming of Islam with its tribal Arab God and his Prophet who brooks no rivals, brought by an army of God-substitutes. As Naipaul sees it: “The cruelty of Islamic fundamentalism is that it allows only one people — the Arabs, the original people of the Prophet — a past, and sacred places, pilgrimages and earth reverences. These sacred Arab places have to the sacred places of all the converted peoples. Converted peoples have to strip themselves of their past. …It is the most uncompromising kind of imperialism.”
The result is rage without end. Having lost one’s own identity, the convert must destroy everyone else’s. The convert can never be at peace with himself or with the world.
Naipaul, V.S. (1998) Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples.
Viking-Penguin, New Delhi.
Rajaram, N.S. (2003) A Hindu View of the World: Essays in the Intellectual Kshatriya
Harappan archaeology flourished in the geographical area long recognized as the Vedic heartland. There is no reason to suppose that its language and culture were unrelated to the Vedic except to preserve the Aryan Invasion Theory.
In the year 2000 the great Vedic scholar Natwar Jha (now deceased, above left) and I published a book that we called The Deciphered Indus Script (see at the top) in which we offered a solution to a problem that had occupied the interest of archaeologists and historians for nearly eighty years— the identity of the language and script found on seals and other artifacts found at archaeological sites belonging to the Harappan or the Indus Valley civilization.
Archaeology and literature
The relationship between Vedic and Harappan civiliations is best studied by looking at Harappan archaeology and the Vedic literature.
The connections between Harappan archaeology and the Vedic literature are so many and so diverse, that no more than a survey is possible within the confines of a single article. Broadly speaking, they may be classified into two groups: (1) connections between the iconography depicted on the seals and the symbolism described in the Vedic literature; (2) the readings obtained by Jha’s decipherment of the Indus script and their references to themes and passages in the Vedic literature. These range from the Samhitas, the Upanishads to the Sutras. The written messages on the seals are mainly in sutra form, and in fact are mainly sutras that often serve as indexes to Vedic passages. Of course, Vedic indexes like the Anukramanis are well known. The seal indexes are very brief and may be called the Laghu Anukramani. Even these are few and far between. Mostly, they refer to mundane stuff.
The present article discusses mainly the connections between the Harappan iconography as found on the seals and their connections to Vedic themes from the Upanisads and the Samhitas. The paper will also show that establishing this connection between Harappan archaeology and the Vedic literature can lead to fundamental advances in our knowledge of ancient history.
Background: The ‘Aryan invasion’
There are currently two views of the origins of the Vedic Civilization. One sees it as an indigenous development, while the other traces it to ‘Aryan invaders’ who originated in Central Asia, Eurasia or even Europe. The latter view came into being following the discovery of the Sanskrit language and its closeness to European languages by Sir William Jones in 1784. For almost two centuries, this formulation, which places the origins of Veda and the Sanskrit language outside India, has made Indian history and civilization subordinate to Europe. The main instrument in the propagation of this version of history has been the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT), now being called the Aryan Migration Theory (AMT). According to this theory, the Vedic Aryans, said to be one branch of a Eurasian people called ‘Indo-Europeans’, brought both the Vedas and the Sanskrit language in an ‘Aryan invasion’ of India in 1500 BC. There was no civilization in India prior to this.
Beginning about 1921, the work of Indian and British archaeologists revealed the existence of a vast urban civilization in India, dating to more than a thousand years before the supposed arrival of the Aryans. We know this as the Indus Valley or the Harappan Civilization. This posed a direct challenge to the idea of no civilization in India before the supposed ‘Aryan invasion’. To account for this some scholars in India and the West assert that the Harappan civilization went into decline and disappeared as a result of the Aryan invasion. This is essentially the scenario found in history books, though, recently, some textbooks are beginning to admit the possibility that the Vedic civilization was an indigenous development.
The Aryan invasion model gives rise to a peculiar situation: Harappan archaeology and the Vedic literature, both of which arose and flourished in the same geographic region, are treated as unrelated, even mutually hostile entities. According to this scenario, the Harappan Civilization (c. 3100 – 1900 BCE) preceded the Vedic by more than a thousand years, and fell due to the depredations of the latter. If, on the other hand, the Harappan Civilization is shown to be Vedic, the Aryan invasion/migration theory collapses. This has led some scholars, especially in the West, to deny any Vedic-Harappan connection, in order to preserve the invasion theory.
Any theory should account for all the data— both archaeological and literary. Trying to separate the archaeology from literature, both of which flourished in the same geographic region, in order to preserve an old theory is perverse. The present article will explain how a careful study of Harappan artifacts, especially the symbolism of the seals, allows us to remove this contradiction. The rest of the article shows that the two — the Harappan and the Vedic — are but different aspects of the same civilization. Harappan archaeology represents the material remains of the civilization described in the Vedic literature. The Aryan invasion is therefore a myth. It is necessary to find an alternate historical model that does not contradict hard data.
Vedic symbols in Harappan archaeology
One can begin with the practice of Yoga, which is Vedic in origin. There is strong evidence suggesting that the Harappans practiced yoga. The figure (Figure 1) displays several terra cotta figurines in yogic postures or asanas. These were found at various sites like Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro.
Figure 1: Examples of Yoga in the Harappan archaeology
To see further this Vedic-Harappan connection, one can begin with familiar sacred symbols like the swastika signs. Harappan sites are replete with the swastika. Swastika stands for svasti-ka, meaning ‘maker of welfare’. They appear singly as well as in combination with other signs. Figure 2 shows a string of five swastikas. This is related to the sacred panca-svasti mantra found in the Yajurveda (25.18 – 19), in which the word ‘svasti’ (welfare) appears five times. It may be paraphrased as:
Figure 2: A string of five swastikas (panca svasti)
We invoke Him who may bring us welfare.
May the respected Indra guard our welfare,
May the omniscient Pushan guard our welfare,
May the Universal Creator guard our welfare,
May the Great Protector bring us welfare.
These invocations appear also in the Rigveda. The Harappan swastika string is obviously related to this Vedic prayer. Such connections are not limited to the Rigveda and the Yajurveda; they span the whole gamut of the Vedic literature, including the Brahmanas, Upanishads and others. This can be illustrated looking at the OM sign, known also as pranavakshara. Figure 3 shows the seal known as ‘Onkara Mudra’ or the Om seal. The same figure displays also line drawings of the seal in two positions— original and rotated by 90 degrees. The one on the right — i.e. rotated by 90 degrees — is practically the Devanagari ‘om’. Scripts like Kannada and Telugu have retained the original orientation of the Harappan ‘om’, while elongating it a little. All of them derive from the Harappan ‘Om’ and have deep connections with Vedic thought as follows.
This ‘bow-shaped’ Harappan ‘Om’ is described at many places in the Vedic literature. The Mundaka Upanishad (2.2.4) describes it as: “Pranava (Om) is the bow, the soul is the arrow, Brahma is the target. With full concentration, aim at the target and strike, to become one with Brahma, just as the arrow becomes one with the target.” This is almost a visual description of ‘OM’ as found on a Harappan seal.
Figure 3: The ‘om’ seal and its two positions (below): Harappan and South Indian (left) and Devanagari (right.
The ‘om’, which is adorned by ashvattha leaves and branches, highlights the sacredness attributed to the ashvattha, a Vedic idea. The Katha Upanishad (2.3.1) describes ashvattha (pipul) tree as embodying the essence of sacredness: “This is the eternal ashvattha tree, with the root at the top (urdhvamoolo), but branches downwards. It is He that is called the Shining One and Immortal. All the worlds are established in Him, none transcends Him.” The same idea is echoed in the Bhagavadgita (15.1): “He who knows that ashvattha tree with its root above and branches down, whose leaves are the Vedas said to be imperishable. And he who knows it knows the Vedas.”
In all this there is the symbolism of the ashvattha as the seat of sacred knowledge (or Veda), and the abode of the Gods. This idea goes back to the Rigveda itself (X.97.5): “Your abode is the ashvattha tree, your dwelling is made of its leaves.” With such explicit Vedic symbolism, there cannot be the slightest doubt that Harappan archaeology contains physical representations of Vedic ideas. What is given here is a miniscule sample of the Vedic symbolism that pervades Harappan archaeology. It is discussed in more detail in the forthcoming book Vedic Symbolism in Indus Seals by N. Jha and this writer.
Horse and Vedic symbolism
The horse and the cow are mentioned often in the Rigveda, though they generally carry symbolic rather than physical meaning. There is widespread misconception that the absence of the horse at Harappan sites shows that horses were unknown in India until the invading (or migrating) Aryans brought them. ‘No horse at Harappa’ has assumed almost the status of a sacred dogma for the upholders of the Aryan invasion. This is unfounded, for such ‘argument by absence’ is hazardous at best. To take an example, the bull is quite common on the seals, but the cow is never represented. We cannot from this conclude that the Harappans raised bulls but were ignorant of the cow. In any event, both horse remains and their artistic depictions are known at Harappan sites as the two artifacts in Figure 4 indicate.
Figure 4: Horse images at Harappan sites
More fundamentally, it is simply not true that horses were unknown to the Harappans. The just released and authoritative The Dawn of Indian Civilization, Volume 1, Part 1 observes (pages 344 – 5): “… the horse was widely domesticated and used in India during the third millennium BC over most of the area covered by the Indus-Sarasvati [or Harappan] Civilization. Archaeologically this is most significant since the evidence is widespread and not isolated.”
In fact, as far back as 1931, comparing a horse specimen found at Mohenjo-Daro with other specimens John Marshall wrote (Volume II, p 654): “It will be seen that there is a considerable degree of similarity between these various examples, and it is probable that the Anau horse, the Mohenjo-Daro horse, and the example of Equus caballus of the Zoological Survey of India, are all of the type of the Indian “country-bred”, a small breed of horse, the Anau horse being slightly smaller than the others. (Emphasis added.)” It is important to recognize that all this is much stronger evidence than mere artifacts, which are artist’s reproductions and not anatomical specimens that can be subjected to scientific examination.
Actually, the Harappans not only knew the horse, the whole issue of the ‘Harappan horse’ is irrelevant. In order to prove that the Vedas are of foreign origin, (and the horse came from Central Asia) one must produce positive evidence: it should be possible to show that the horse described in the Rigveda was brought from Central Asia. But this is contradicted by the Rigveda itself. In verse I.162.18, the Rigveda describes the horse as having 34 ribs, while the Central Asian horse has 18 pairs (36) of ribs. We find a similar description in the Yajurveda also.
This means that the horse described in the Vedas is the native Indian breed and not the Central Asian variety. Fossil remains of Equus Sivalensis (the ‘Siwalik horse’) show that the 34-ribbed horse has been known in India going back to very ancient times. This makes the whole argument based on ‘No horse at Harappa’ irrelevant. The Vedic horse is not the Central Asian horse. As a result, far from supporting any Aryan invasion, the horse evidence furnishes one of its strongest refutations.
In summary it can be said that the recent controversy over the ‘Harappan horse’ is due to unfamiliarity with the literature and lack of attention to detail, accompanied by a stubborn attachment to a disproved theory by denying well-known facts.
More to the point, the word ‘ashva’ in the Rigveda often carries symbolic meaning like power, speed, and sometimes prana (life essence). Composite animals that include the horse are described in the Rigveda. For example the verse I.163.1 describes a mythical horse as: “possessed with the wings of a falcon and the limbs of a deer.” Figure 5 displays a vase found at Mehrgarh, a pre-Harappan site, on which this mythical animal is depicted. Notice also the ashvattha leaves, again linking it to Vedic thought. It is a very ancient artifact from the pre-Harappan period, said to go back to 3500 BC or earlier. So Vedic ideas were current even then. This means parts of the Rigveda must be at least that old, not brought into India by any ‘Aryan invaders’ in 1500 BC.
In summary, the Vedic and Harappan civilizations were one. Harappan artifacts are material representations of ideas and thoughts found in the Vedic literature. The Harappans therefore were Vedic Harappans.
Figure 5: Pre-Harappan vase showing Vedic themes
Jha, N. and N.S. Rajaram (2000) The Deciphered Indus Script: Methodology, Readings,
Interpretations. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan.
Marshall, John, Editor (1931) Mohenjo-Daro and the Indus Civilzation, 3 volumes.
London: Arthur Probsthain.
Pande, G.C., Editor (1999) The Dawn of Civilization Upto 600 BC, Volume I, Part I.
New Delhi: PHISPC.
Rajaram, N.S. and David Frawley (2013) Vedic Aryans and the Origin of Civilization,
4th Edition. New Delhi: Voice of India.