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The Age of the Unicorn, Brought to You by IIT Kharagpur

The Age of the Unicorn, Brought to You by IIT Kharagpur

‘A Virgin with a Unicorn’ by Domenico Zampieri, c. 1602. Image: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

  • Those seeking “evidence” that the Indo-Aryans were native sons of Bharat Mata, and not immigrants from western Eurasia, just can’t stay away from the unicorn.
  • The unicorn as a symbol of a Vedic rishi is among the four “decisive evidences” the sages of IIT Kharagpur have presented in a 2022 calendar, whose stated purpose is to rebut the “Aryan invasion myth”.
  • The calendar has been produced under the auspices of the newly inaugurated Centre of Excellence for Indian Knowledge Systems at IIT Kharagpur, headed by Prof. Joy Sen.
  • Even though this calendar has thrust IIT Kharagpur into the news, the so-called “Indian Knowledge Systems” already have a home in IIT Gandhinagar, and IIT Kanpur may be next in line.

Oh, the unicorn! Those seeking “evidence” that the Indo-Aryans were native sons of Bharat Mata, and not immigrants from western Eurasia, just can’t stay away from the unicorn.

First, about two decades ago, they tried to turn an Indus-valley unicorn seal into a horse to claim that the ancient inhabitants of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro were none other than the horse-riding, horse-worshipping composers of the Vedas. Never allowing facts to stand in the way of their fantasies – the fact, for example, that no remains or representations of a horse have been found in the ruins of the Indus valley – they “computer-enhanced” the image of a unicorn on a Harappan seal to make it look like a horse.

Now that this horseplay stands exposed for the hoax that it was, the geniuses at IIT Kharagpur have come up with a new hoax that is breathtaking in its audacity: embrace the unicorn! You can’t fudge the unicorn without being caught, so you might as well claim it for your own glory. Thus, this one-horned creature of fables found all around the world is turned into a “spinal column of light … an inner trunk of Yoga that shoots above the eyebrows.”

The unicorn that appears on numerous Indus valley seals is declared to be a representation of the “sage Risya Sringa” of the Ramayana, thus “proving” that those ancient carvers of the Indus valley seals were one and the same as the Vedic people worshipping their rishis endowed with columns of light. Ergo, the “Aryan invasion” is cancelled.

The IIT Kharagpur calendar

The unicorn as a symbol of a Vedic rishi is among the four “decisive evidences” the sages of IIT Kharagpur have presented in a 2022 calendar, whose theme is “Recovery of the Foundations of Indian Knowledge System” and whose stated purpose is to “reinterpret the Indus valley civilisation” and to rebut the “Aryan invasion myth”. The calendar has been produced under the auspices of the newly inaugurated Centre of Excellence for Indian Knowledge Systems at IIT Kharagpur, headed by Prof. Joy Sen.

If this inaugural calendar is a foretaste of how future generations of engineers in India will be trained, it is time to be afraid, very afraid, for the direction in which we are headed. It is clear that the most chauvinistic, chest-thumping proponents of “Vedic India” as the cradle of world civilisation are finding a welcome home in premier science and technology institutions. Even though IIT Kharagpur has been in the news because of this calendar, the so-called “Indian Knowledge Systems” (IKS) have already found a home in IIT Gandhinagar, where it has been taught since 2015. IIT Kanpur may be next in line, as it is already hosting a ‘Gita Supersite’.

The All India Council for Technical Education is also planning new credit courses in IKS for other technical and management colleges and universities. Even without the formal tag of ‘IKS’, the history of science, insofar as it is taught at all in science and technology institutions, already has a heavy bias for glorifying the sciences of the ancients.

At a time when studies of ancient DNA are providing the strongest evidence yet for an eastward migration of populations from the central Asian steppes into India, here comes a calendar bearing the authoritative imprint of an IIT. The evocative images of the calendar are meant to remind us to disregard all scientifically attested evidence and believe in the exact opposite: namely, that the Indus Valley civilisation and Vedic civilisation are one and the same; that they go as far back as 7000 BC; and that the “invading Aryans” had nothing to offer as they knew nothing of the “subtleties” of Vedic spirituality and cosmology in the first place. To drive this message home, the calendar offers 16 images in all – 12 for each month and four extra, two with quotations from Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo, and two more to rant about the colonial “suppression, compromises, contractions and distortions”, etc.

The middle four images, sandwiched between Vivekananda and Aurobindo, are supposed to provide “definite” evidence that “bring the Vedic culture and the Indus valley civilisation (7000-1500 BC) under one fold.”

The logic, if it can be called that, of these four pieces of ‘evidence’ can’t be allowed to pass without critical examination. Such “logic” is hardly original to the team of designers and content writers associated with the centre for IKS: any good swayamsevak would recognise it instantly. Precisely because this style of argumentation is so pernicious and so widespread, it must be critically scrutinised every time it raises its head – more so when it bears the imprimatur of an IIT.

In that spirit, let us look at ‘evidence’ that this calendar offers.

The ‘Virgin with the Unicorn’ hoax

Let us start with Hindutva’s unicorn fixation. An illustrated page entitled “Unicorn: The Eka Sringa Rishi” accompanies the month of June (see image below). As mentioned above, the content that accompanies the illustration makes the case that the unicorns etched on Indus-valley seals are actually representations of a “spinal column of light” produced by the yogic sadhana of rishis like Rishya Sringa of the Ramayana, and that it is from India that the symbol of the unicorn spread to the rest of Asia and Europe.

A page from the IIT Kharagpur calendar, corresponding to the month of June. Image: IIT Kharagpur

But wait. If the Harrappan unicorn is a representation of a rishi from the Ramayana who was born with horns (as the legend would have it), why is it accompanied by a reproduction of ‘Virgin with a Unicorn’, a well-known painting by Domenico Zampieri[footnote]A.k.a. Domenichino[/footnote], an Italian baroque artist born in 1581? What is the connection? Just mindless cut-and-paste to add colour and style? Or is it an Indic claim over the Christian use of the unicorn motif?

This very Christian imagery of a virgin with a unicorn – the virgin represents love and innocence that could tame the fierce energy of the unicorn – actually shows the complete fallacy of appropriating the unicorn for our Vedic rishis. No one civilisation can trademark the diverse cultural meanings that this mythic beast carries in different parts of the world. It is true that among the ancient civilisations, the preponderance of unicorn images come from the Indus valley seals, although ancient Mesopotamian and Chinese artworks also depict one-horned creatures with bodies that resemble a bull, a horse, a goat or some unknown four-footed animal.

In the case of the Indus valley seals, no one really knows what animal the unicorn actually represented: a humpless bull in profile, with only one horn showing, a rhinoceros, or some now extinct animal (like the Siberian unicorn)?

It is clear that our Vedic warriors are hungry for ‘evidence’ and therefore anything goes. The calendar-makers are following in the footsteps of their illustrious predecessors, the intrepid Georg Feurestein, Subhash Kak and David Frawley who authored In Search of the Cradle of Civilisation in 1995, where they also interpret the unicorn as eka-shringa, but as a representation of the god Indra, and not of a rishi from the Ramayana!

With an undisciplined mythic imagination, combined with a commitment to making India the “cradle of civilisation,” there is no end to the ‘evidence’ that can be invented. The stories they spin would be funny if they were not so dangerous.

Shiva of the Indus valley

All the rest of the ‘evidence’ goes along the following lines: a feature – let’s call it X – of Indus valley/Vedic civilisation is not found in any ancient Indo-European tradition. So therefore the fact that X exists in India proves that “the invading Aryans, if any, had no idea of these subtle constructs” and therefore could not have contributed to the presence of X in India. Therefore no Indo-European influx of people, languages, ideas and practises into India could have possibly taken place. Whatever overlaps there are between the languages and cultural grammars of India, Iran, central Asia and Europe came out of India, while India had nothing to learn from the barbarians from the West. Case closed, and Bharat Mata ki Jai.

This mode of argument is so ignorant not just of other ancient cultures, but of the history of Hinduism’s own development that one doesn’t know where to begin. Take the pet peeve of Hindutva warriors, duly repeated in the calendar, namely, that the well-known “Pashupati seal” found in Mohenjo-Daro in 1928, which depicts a figure seated in a yoga-like posture, wearing a horned head-gear with animals surrounding him, is no “proto-Shiva” but a full-fledged Vedic-Puranic Shiva who is the “column of cosmic light and aeons of time” (whatever that means).

A page from the IIT Kharagpur calendar, corresponding to the month of July. Image: IIT Kharagpur

According to the write-up that accompanies the image of the aforementioned seal for the month of July, it is a colonial conspiracy to “misinterpret Shiva as a Pre-Aryan Dravidian godhead isolated from portions of the Vedas … On the contrary, Shiva is an integral part of the Vedic literature and the Indus valley archaeology, which refutes the very foundation of the Aryan Invasion.”

One assumes that the people behind this calendar will have a similar objection to calling the dome-shaped erect structures found in Mohenjo-Daro ‘linga’, or phallus, rather than a “column of cosmic light”. The point the calendar is making is that the Shiva of the Vedas and Puranas was always there, at least as far back as 7,000 years before the common era in the Indus valley itself. The possibility that the Vedic Hinduism may have incorporated this Indus valley motif into its own religious vision is ruled out.

But our calendar-makers are comparing apples and oranges. The deity Shiva as the ‘Lord of Yoga’, meditating on the Kailash parvat – and therefore a “column of light” “aeons” – is nowhere to be found in the early Vedic corpus that would be closer to the Indus valley dates. The Shiva-as-yogi, with all the attributes associated with him – the trident, the wife Parvati and the son Ganesha, the dance, the linga, etc. – makes an appearance only at the tail end of the Vedic era, around the fifth to fourth centuries before the common era, around the time of the Mahabharata.

This is the period when the Svetasvatara Upanishad first elevated the Vedic god Rudra to a more prominent position as a supreme being who created the cosmos and yet transcends it. The Rg Veda only knows Rudra as a peripheral god who is the opposite of a pashupati-kind of god, which the seal in question is supposed to represent. Rather than a protector of cattle, horses and other animals, Rudra injures them. Prayers to Rudra were meant to appease him so that he would not attack the animals. It is hard to imagine that the “pashupati seal” could be a representation of Rudra, who is the Vedic proto-Shiva. Our intrepid calendar-makers are projecting a later Shiva into early Indus-valley artefacts and claiming the latter for the glory of the former.

But if we were to compare apples with apples and not with oranges, the Indus valley artefacts have to be compared with those from other Indus and pre-Indus locations, with contemporaneous civilisations that the Indus Valley people were in contact with, and with the early Vedas. Such comparative pre-history shows striking resemblances between the pashupati seal and fertility gods represented on Mesopotamian cylinder seals dating to the Akkadian period (2330-2180 BC). Far from Shiva, the Lord of Yoga, being coterminous with the Indus valley, the famous pashupati seal does not even represent a “proto-Shiva” but rather a ‘Lord of the Animals’ motif that was very widespread among ancient Eurasian societies.

Deciphering the meaning of long-lost civilisations is not an easy task, especially in the case of the Indus valley, where the inscriptions are not intelligible. Such an enterprise requires careful analysis of the iconography and textual materials. Simply rushing in with preconceived agendas and inventing evidence to confirm these agendas, as this calendar does, simply muddies the waters.

Swastika and the rewriting of history

Considering Prof. Joy Sen’s earlier discovery that the swastika existed in India 11,000 years ago, it was only to be expected that it would show up in the calendar as evidence for the unbroken continuity of Indian history.

Prof. Sen’s earlier work was published in 2016 as a monograph, entitled ‘Swastika is Pre-Aryan Invasion, if any; Dates Back 11,000 Years in Vedic India: Evidences and Exploration’ by SANDHI at IIT Kharagpur, a forerunner to the newly minted Centre of Excellence for Indian Knowledge Systems. In this monograph, the investigators, led by Prof. Sen, claim to find an ancient cosmological map that contains geometrical designs resembling swastikas in a rock painting from a rock shelter at Jaora, on the Malwa Plateau in Madhya Pradesh. This, they claim, is the oldest swastika, older than that found in Mezine, Ukraine, which is supposed to be 10,000 years old.

So far, so good: we found ancient art work in a cave in Madhya Pradesh that contains the earliest recorded swastika sign. What is startling is how Prof. Sen rides on the back of this finding to rewrite the history of Vedic India. This is what he told the Times of India (emphasis added):

“We have found the most mature and geometrically ordered Swastika in the form of seals in pre-Harappan time. We have also been able to trace the mention of the Swastika in the Vedas around the same time. These are scintillating findings that will help us announce that the Indian civilisation is far more ancient than what is written in accepted history books, mostly by Europeans.”

So the Vedas existed 11,000 years ago? Well, aren’t the Vedas eternal and eternally true, without a beginning, without an author and therefore without any scope of falsifiability? Isn’t this the orthdox Mimamsa view of the Vedas? What is 11,000 years here or there when you are talking in terms of eternity? In this revisionist history-writing, not just the Arayan “invasion” but history itself gets deleted.

The swastika shows up in the calendar for the month of February, but this time as the bearer of gnostic knowledge of karma and rebirth supposedly unique to Indian spirituality. The images of swastikas, interspersed with some random unicorn-like creatures, is captioned “Cyclic Time and Reincarnation” and uses rebirth, apparently known only to the Hindus, to once again challenge the “Aryan invasion, if any”. The accompanying text reads (emphasis added):

“The gnostic foundations of Indian spirituality is an alien or unknown element to civilisations in Europe, whether from the Caucasus Eurasia or from the Steppes. It is also missing in the Semitic foundations of religions practised in the West and in the Middle East. Therefore, the invading Aryans, if any, had nothing to offer to the development of Indian cosmology.

The claim is that “the cyclic or non-linear patterns of swastika and arrow of time” represent cyclic time and rebirth, ideas unique to Indian spirituality and unknown to the rest of the world.

A page from the IIT Kharagpur calendar, corresponding to the month of February. Image: IIT Kharagpur

Swastikas in India, as far as one can tell from contemporary use, are symbols of auspiciousness. I have yet to meet anyone who thinks ‘punarjanam’ while drawing a swastika on the door of their house on Diwali, or on an invitation card for a wedding.

But be that as it may, the notion that rebirth is unique to “Indian spirituality” is factually wrong. Ideas of rebirth were as widespread around the world in antiquity as was the use of swastika. It is well-known that the ancient Greeks, from Pythagoras to Plato, held beliefs about reincarnation conditioned by moral actions, the knowledge of which they credited to the Egyptians and the Chaldeans. But whether the Greeks or other ancient societies knew of rebirth has no bearing on “Aryan invasion, if any”. It is nobody’s claim that the idea of samsara and rebirth came to India from outside. That there was an influx of Indo-European people into South Asia does not mean that everything that developed afterwards was Indo-European.

What is most troubling is the ignorance our calendar-makers display towards the historical evolution of “Indian spirituality” itself. As Johannes Brokhorst convincingly showed in his 2013 book, Greater Magadha, the idea of rebirth guided by karmic retribution was originally a Buddhist and Jain idea that was only later absorbed in the Vedic tradition, in the later Upanishadic phase. The Rg Vedic idea of death and rebirth is devoid of any karmic burden carried over from this or previous lives. By making such “gnostic knowledge” foundational to “Indian spirituality” supposedly present in the Vedas “11,000 years ago”, they are eternalising the Vedas, removing them from historical change and development.

Dark Age of the Unicorn

This calendar is supposed to showcase and celebrate what Indian Knowledge Systems have to contribute to “a holistic framework of education based on integration of the Indian value systems and deep ecosystem approach, and the modern sciences.”

To that end, it promises to offer courses in everything from ‘jyotish’, ‘Vastu’, ‘Rasayana’ and Ayurveda along with the classic schools of philosophy of ‘Samkhya’ and ‘Nyaya’. So apparently now engineers-in-training will be taught astronomy that is geocentric, biology that admits only five bhutas and three gunas, and a metaphysics of purusha and prakriti that goes against everything that we know about the physical world and its evolution. Ideas that should be consigned to museums are now going to be taught in a “Centre of Excellence” in a premier technology institute.

If this calendar is any indication, we are entering a Dark Age of the Unicorn.

Meera Nanda is a historian of science.

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