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Indus and Classical Societies

Professor Chris Minkowski on Greeks and Indians

Professor Chris Minkowski, Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford addressed the Classical and Indus societies in a joint meeting.  He kicked off with the British view of the two, and how this had changed throughout the ages.  After apologising to the Classicists, he quoted Sir William Jones, who called Sanskrit “more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either.”  This illustrated the initial Indomania, which was a result of the prevailing curiosity of the time.  It was thought that the Indians gave insight into how the Greeks had been before the rise of Christianity.  This affinity however, turned to Indophobia as race science, craniometry and the 1857 Indian Mutiny made the subcontinent fall out of favour.

Then, he went on to show the shared linguistic heritage of the Greeks and Indians.  After outlining the theoretical mother language of Proto Indo-European, he showed how it was more than just a coincidental sharing of linguistical roots.  Key formulaic phrases such as “undying fame” can be found in both Sanskrit and Greek epics.  It seems as if metric forms and storytelling themes have passed on too.  All of this went to show that there was a shared cultural inheritance between the two societies.

He then suggested that this comparative philology has historical uses too.  Little is known about the Indian civilisations, and the traditional “Aryan Invasion” theory was one that remained unquestioned for a long time.  But linguistic analysis showed that it was very unlikely that this had occurred.  What is more likely is that there were waves of attackers, leading to bilingualism for long periods of time, which may have resulted in the similarities we note today.

He concluded by mentioning some of the Greek travellers’ accounts of India and much of our current knowledge stems from this.  2300-800BC was the peak of the Indus Civilisation, but one of the great problems of palaeontology is that we have no texts from this period.  A large number of small objects which are thought to be seals remain, but they contain pictures and undecipherable symbols on them.  The problem is that there are about 200 of these symbols, which is too much to be an alphabet, but too little to be character system like Chinese.  Perhaps this was a problem for the linguist of the future. 

Gopal Kotecha KS

DATE POSTED: 06 February 2009

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