by N.S. Rajaram
World's oldest writing (Part 1): Vedic origins

The recently discovered nearly six thousand year old writing is related to the Rigveda. It demolishes long held theories like the Aryan invasion, the Aryan-Dravidian divide, and points to a continuous evolution of Indian Civilization - including writing - from prehistoric times to the present.


Oldest writing
The recently discovered sample of writing at the lower level of Harappa, among the oldest examples of writing known, if not the oldest, is a more primitive form of the Harappan script of the Indus Valley. In addition, it clearly refers to Ilavarta, according to the Rigveda the sacred land bounded by the Vedic rivers Sarasvati and the Drishadvati. This is my conclusion following a careful examination of the sample, and its comparison with the writing on more than two thousand Harappan seals, that N. Jha and I have deciphered. Jha has also examined the sample and concurs with me. Several Vedic scholars that I consulted agree with my interpretation of the writing also, and its historical significance. Here is the background.

There was great excitement in scholarly circles when Dr. Richard Meadow of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University recently announced the discovery of a piece of pottery at Harappa in Pakistan, with a written message on it. The discovery was announced on the BBC (among others) where it was stated to be more than 5500 years old (3500 BC), making it the oldest example of writing known, and about a thousand years older than the bulk of Harappan writing. I was able to examine it by accessing the BBC website on which the piece of pottery with the writing was displayed. Using the methodology that Jha and I have developed to read the Harappan seals, I was able to decipher the message as ilavartate vara, which means 'Ila surrounds the blessed land (vara or best)'. This was later confirmed by N. Jha, the key figure in the decipherment of the Harappan or the Indus script.

Writing from Vedic times deciphered
by N.S. Rajaram as 'Ilavartate Vara'

Meaning and significance
In the Rigveda, Ila often refers to the Sarasvati River. As noted earlier, Ilavarta refers to the sacred Vedic heartland. The example found by Richard Meadow reflects the Rigvedic idea of the sanctity of the land associated with the Sarasvati. It could also refer to the ancient country Ilavrita, ruled by a king by the same name. He received it as a gift from his father Agnidru. Ilavrita (ila avrita) also means 'surrounded by Ila'. The decipherment of the 'oldest writing' is significant not only technically, but also historically. It shows that it has connection with the Rigveda, going back more than 5500 years.

This is the date originally claimed by Meadow in the BBC report though later changed by him, the details of which I will discuss in my next article. It cannot therefore be relied upon. From the confused statements coming from Harappan archaeologists, including Meadow, I doubt that they have either the methodology or the data to assign a date to it with any degree of confidence. This is admitted by many archaeologists, both in India and the West. But the structure of the writing - or paleography - leaves no doubt at all that it is very ancient, regardless of the claims and counterclaims of scholars following my decipherment.

I will take up this issue in the second part of my article, but for the present I will briefly summarize the features that show, on technical grounds, why the sample writing is considerably older than the bulk of the Harappan writing. This is what is important: where the Harappan writing corresponds to the later Vedic Age, pre-Harappan writing takes us closer to the Rigveda. The example of writing displayed by BBC has archaic features suggesting that it is pre-Harappan. The decipherment also tells the same story.

On this point it is worth noting that the account of ancient Indian history found in most textbooks is completely wrong. They make the Harappan Civilization pre-Vedic while the latest research shows it to be the other way. In fact, it belongs to the closing centuries of the Vedic Age. The idea that India was invaded by 'Indo-European' Aryans who destroyed the Harappan or the Indus Valley Civilization and then composed the Vedas has been thoroughly discredited. The language of the Harappans is Vedic Sanskrit and their civilization was Vedic. This was known even before the script was deciphered. There are Vedic symbols all over the place at archaeological sites - like Vedic altars, the Swastika symbol and the 'OM' sign among others. The 'Aryan invasion' and the 'Aryan-Dravidian wars' were created by European colonial and missionary scholars, to serve their own interests. Though discredited by science, in one form or another, the Aryan-Dravidian model is still favored by Western Indologists and Indian Marxists; they continue to insist against all evidence that the Harappan Civilization is non-Vedic. This I believe is one of the main reasons why many Western Indologists and their Indian followers find it impossible to accept any solution to the decipherment problem that shows the Harappan Civilization to be Vedic. (For details see Vedic Aryans and the Origins of Civilization by N.S. Rajaram and David Frawley, Voice of India, New Delhi. See also my website Kalidas Vedic India):

Plate I: Vedic symbols in Harrapan seals

Technical features
Returning to the sample displayed on the BBC program, the writing is more primitive than the Harappan but clearly related to it. It is for this reason that Jha and I call it pre-Harappan. Here a little background on ancient writing may prove useful. Most modern writing systems use two classes of letters that we call vowels and consonants. This was not the case in ancient times, when writing had no vowels; the reader had to supply the missing vowels. In the Harappan script, for example, the word 'dasharatra' ('ten nights') is written 'd-sh-r-t-r'. Similarly, 'narottama' ('best of men') is written 'n-r-tt-m'. This is true not only of Harappan writing, but all ancient writing. This point must be kept in mind in reading ancient scripts.

Writing without vowels works reasonably well except when a word begins with a vowel, which is often the case with Sanskrit, the language of the Harappan Civilization. Harappan scribes got around this difficulty by using a single U-shaped symbol to indicate all vowels coming at the beginning of a word. With this device, 'Indra' is written 'U-n-d-r'; 'Arkagni' is written 'U-r-k-g-n', 'Omasa' is written 'U-m-s' and so on. A rudimentary stroke system - as in modern Indian scripts - also came into use. Jha and I estimate that these innovations were introduced a couple of centuries before 3000 BC.

This is the system we find being used in the Harappan writing. But there is one archaic feature found on some seals indicating an older practice: the first consonant is doubled when it follows a vowel. For example: 'Apa' is written 'Appa' by doubling the 'p'; there are many such examples. This practice is described by Shaunaka in his famous Vedic grammar Rk-Pratishakhya. It is a curious feature that is entirely unnecessary in the Harappan script, which already has a U-shaped vowel sign to indicate vowel beginnings of words. After studying many such examples, Jha and I concluded that this must be an older writing practice, in use when the U-shaped vowel sign had not yet come into use; the doubled consonant indicates to the reader that the word begins with a vowel. This practice, though no longer needed, was carried over into the Harappan writing. We find other archaic features also showing that the Harappan script was a script in transition, containing some unnecessary older practices; they were later discarded.

In summary, where the Harappan script uses a single sign to indicate all the vowels, the pre-Harappan, had no vowels. Instead it used 'doubled consonants' to indicate vowels appearing at the beginning of words. This is exactly what we find in the example displayed on the BBC website. The word 'Ilavarta' is written 'llvrt'. (There is no problem with 'vara', which is written 'v-r.') The reader has to supply all the missing vowels, including the beginning 'I'. The doubled consonant 'll' indicates that the word begins with a vowel. Plate II shows the writing in the pre-Harappan script as found in the example along with the manner in which it would be written in the later Harappan script.

Plate II: Evolution of Harrapan script from pre-Harrapan

This is a simplified explanation of a necessarily technical subject. In our book, The Deciphered Indus Script, to be released later this year, Jha and I predicted that older writing, when discovered, would show this feature of writing with doubled consonants instead of vowels. Recognizing this was what allowed me to decipher the writing almost immediately. This means: in addition to deciphering pre-Harappan writing, our study of the evolution of Harappan writing has given us a way of deciding on the antiquity a sample of writing based on this feature. It is not mathematically precise but still a useful guide. This is important because, the dating methods used by Harappan archaeologists are highly unreliable and may be off the mark by a thousand years or so.

In addition to being probably the oldest writing known, the discovery and its decipherment have major implications for ancient history. It shows that Rigvedic concepts already existed in the pre-Harappan era, many centuries before the Harappan Civilization. Where Western Indologists, strongly influenced by the nineteenth century linguist F. Max Muller, still hold that the Vedas were created by the Aryans invading India in 1500 BC, David Frawley and I in our book Vedic Aryans and the Origins of Civilization concluded that the Rigveda had been completed before 3500 BC. The pre-Harappan writing and its decipherment support this view. Where the bulk of the Harappan seals reflect the Yajurveda - Brahmana - Sutra concepts, the sample found by Meadow (displayed on the BBC website) reflects Rigvedic ideas. This is another nail in the coffin of the theories trying to separate the Vedic and the Harappan civilizations.

Returning to the Harappan writing, it is not hard to see that scholars trying to decipher its script, assuming a Proto-Dravidan language unrelated to Sanskrit were attempting the impossible. They were trying to read an unknown script using a non-existent language like Proto-Dravidian. All these scholars, like Father Heras of Bombay, Asko Parpola of Finland, Iravatham Mahadevan of Chennai and many others, they could not read a single seal in more than seventy years. We have read over two thousand. Our decipherment and the readings totally disprove these old theories based on the Aryan invasion. Our methodology can decipher pre-Harappan writing also.

Even without the decipherment, it was not hard to see that the Indus Civilization was Vedic. Harappan sites have Vedic altars used for sacrifices. There is the famous 'Swastika' sign used by Hindus and later misused by the Nazis. There is even the sacred 'OM' sign from which 'OM' in all Indian scripts is derived. (See Plate I.) So there were indications all along that the Indus Civilization was Vedic. In fact, it was the closing phase of the Vedic Age or the period after the Rigveda. The pre-Harappan writing discovered that I was able to read is related to the Rigveda. As I highlight in my next article, scholars have deliberately ignored and obscured all this.

What we have therefore is a continuous evolution of both culture and writing recorded in archaeology, literature and tradition. The Indus writing evolved into the later Brahmi script from which all later Indian scripts are derived. Similarly, the Vedic religion gradually evolved into later Hinduism. This demolishes the model of the 'invasion' or some other catastrophic event used to account for the evolution of the Vedic Civilization independently of the Harappan. In addition, the date of the Rigveda given by Indologists is too late by two thousand years or more! This means that the methodology of these scholars leaves a great deal to be desired. It is dogma, not science that makes these scholars hold on to discredited theories.

A point worth repeating here is that regardless of the dating techniques used by archaeologists, on paleographical grounds there can be no doubt at all that the sample displayed on the BBC website represents very ancient writing indeed. This point is worth emphasizing because an unnecessary effort is being made in some circles to obfuscate the issue following my decipherment and readings - later confirmed by Jha. There is an attempt to counter our findings by invoking undetermined dates and unscientific methods - and changing previous statements. Contradictory claims have been made about the same data suggesting that there is no systematic organization of field data. I'll highlight this problem in the second part of my article.

Against the background of this sad state of affairs, I see a fundamental problem with the discipline of Indology, especially in the West. When Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro belonging to what we now call the Harappan Civilization were discovered eighty years ago, Indologists should have re-examined their beliefs, but they did not. Instead, they continued with their old theory based on the Aryan invasion and tried to fit every new finding to it. All they did was to change Aryan and Dravidan races to Aryan and Dravidian languages - or put old wine in a new bottle. This has been fully discredited by science but its legacy still remains in books. This is not a healthy situation in any subject.

A basic problem with Western scholarship is that it tries to see Vedic India as a dead civilization - like Egypt or Babylonia. In the same spirit, it calls Sanskrit a 'dead language', which is emphatically not true. The Vedic civilization, including its language and practices continue to the present day. There are millions of Indians who study the Vedic language, Sanskrit, and also thousands of Vedic priests and priestly families all over India that have kept the tradition alive. This is not the case with ancient Egypt or Babylonia, which are now museum specimens. One should not study India, creating one's own theories, while ignoring traditional Vedic learning. But this is precisely what Western Indologists are trying do. Their latest attempt at obfuscation is simply another in a long line of attempts to preserve their theories from crumbling in the face of science. If it goes on like this, the field will die out in a generation; in fact, it is already dying.

In summary, the greatest contribution of the decipherment of the Harappan script is that we now have a clearly defined historical context for both Harappan archaeology and the Vedic literature. Until recently, we had the archaeological remains of this vast and ancient civilization, but no literature. On the other hand, we had the Vedic literature, the greatest the world has ever known, but no archaeological records. Western Indological scholarship wants us to believe that the two had no connection. But how is that possible? The decipherment tells us that the two are part of the same civilization. As I shall highlight in my next article, this is something that Western scholarship seems unwilling to face, going to considerable lengths in its efforts to preserve the colonial legacy known as Indology.

(stay posted there's more to come...)

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