By Dr V.B.L. Sharma
MICHIGAN: There is a process of globalization afoot (see Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat) which seems unstoppable. An undesirable part of it is the homogenisation of cultures, which deserves rigorous discussion. Societies, even whole cultures, are disappearing. Those that are at the margin, the brink so to speak, are fraying badly. Inevitably, a lot stands to be lost. Moreover, we risk forgetting the ambience and the ethos that added such rich, varied textures even uniqueness to our legacy. Therefore, we need to record as much as we can, even if we cannot salvage it all.
A person attempting to profile an individual culture or its component social elements faces two kinds of compunction. First, despite every attempt you make, suspicion abounds that you are staking out a hierarchy in which your tribe or caste is presented as superior in terms of some metric or the other. (The “my village” syndrome in anthropological literature often betrays this tendency.) There is another part to this political caveat. The writer stands to be accused of undermining national unity; ultra-nationalists would even accuse one of sedition, if not outright treason!
Secondly, besides politics, there is another caveat, rooted in academic conflict. The writer has to take cognizance of the recent controversy that has roiled academe: at the one end there is doubt as to what happened and where after hominids left Africa some 200,000 years ago. Four hominins (sic) have been identified in the ongoing, vigorous human genome project: Neanderthals, Denisovans, Flores, and us; at the other end, the same uncertainty regarding inter-breeding has begun to loom large regarding micro-group formations.
The latter phenomenon is of greater relevance to us as we begin to zero into how castes, tribes and nations emerged from the amorphous, inchoate, nebulous primal source of hominins 100,000 years ago and through the relatively well recorded, and yet uncertain, continuum of cultural diffusion over the past 5000 years.
In his latest book, Bhupinder Singh Mahal shows no desire to present the Jats as superior or inferior; and in a carefully researched and well written account he shows awareness of the dispute regarding diverse origins of species and the nature of cultural diffusion. Since he has handled well those two caveats, socio-political and anthropological, it adds a lot to the importance of his book (Origin of Jat Race: Tracing Ancestry to the Scythians of Antiquity, by Bhupinder Singh Mahal, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi, 2015.)
As the focus turns to the Indian Subcontinent, we have to juxtapose Mahal’s carefully researched and well written account with the raging controversy over how the Indian nation was formed. Historical India’s Adivasis, the Hindu-Sikh-Buddhist-Jain complex and the Muslims are seen by some basically as an amalgam of two main strains: Aryans and Dravidians. Others dispute that; they doubt the Aryan invasion theory. They contend that diverse peoples were milling around the subcontinent for thousands of years; moreover, this cultural diffusion included trans-montane diasporas across the Hindu Kush massif.
This is where Mahal’s findings begin to make great sense. Scythians (as also many others) may have entered Punjab long before 1500 B.C. (the focal point of the “Aryan invasion” thesis); it’s equally clear that Scythians were of Iranian-Aryan stock to use the latest widely accepted nomenclature. This appellation applies equally to studies regarding the origin of the Siddis, Rajputs, Lohanas, Marwaris, Khojas, Bohras, Ithnasaris, Memons.
It’s invidious to make comparisons; but Mahal’s research comes across as more rigorous and plausible. It fits in well with the consensus forming around the notion of thousands of years of wide-spread cultural intercourse. As he points out, the Eurasian steppe was full of political upheavals which constantly shifted whole groupings from one location to another; indeed, the Scythians are shown to have dispersed helter-skelter across more than a thousand miles.
During one such upheaval, around 519 BCE, Emperor Darius of Persia caused the uprooting of a large chunk of dissident Aryans of Scythian stock. (They were rooted in the Altai-Sayan region of Central Asia.) The tribe as also its predecessors and successors of the same ilk settled in India in at least five waves. Gradually, this distinct cultural group came to be identified as Jats. From the Indus valley, the Jats radiated mostly across North India (including the Pakistani part of Punjab).
The term Scythian has no ethnographic connotation; scholars use it to refer to an ever-changing, patchwork of Central Asian confederacy of culturally similar pastoral tribes. This fits in well with increasing evidence that there was wide and profuse cultural diffusion, including the Scythians, across time and space.
A major Scythian tribe vanquished and forced out from its homeland by Darius was called Massagetae, which name got shortened to Getae. In a lingual transition (similar to how Sindhu led to the name Hindu), Getae (pronounced Je-te) gives way eventually to the name Jat. First Buddhism and then Hinduism was the faith adopted by the Jats. Later, a huge bulk of them converted to Islam. But the faith with which the non-Muslim Jats came to be very largely identified was Sikhism.
Mahal has embarked on some speculation with which the reader may disagree. For example, he says that the Jats were drawn to Sikhism because of its rectitude and egalitarianism. The desire to do good is a common denominator that suffuses all religions. Furthermore, like all others, Sikh sovereignties were quite hierarchical.
Indeed, Mahal’s pointing out that the Jats were never quite a monolith resonates well with the present suit being pressed by many Jats, especially in Haryana. Indisputably poor, many Jat groups in Haryana are asking to be designated as an underprivileged minority, deserving Affirmative Action. Clearly, as Mahal indicates, the Jats are heterogeneous; Pakistani Jat fiefs lord over their Jat quasi-serfs in the same manner as Indian Jat zamindars do over ‘their’ poor Jats.
The author convincingly dwells on a similarity between Scythian lore and the Jat notion of an individual’s right to exact revenge. This ‘right’ seems to be an alien import in the Indian social milieu. The Jats, no doubt, gave to Sikhism as much as they took from it. Mahal recounts among these ritual equality; oath of fellowship; revering the double-edged sword; council of elders; wearing of gold jewelry by both men and women; coiling of hair and fastening with a comb under the male turban, etc. (pages 63-84). Khushwant Singh, the pre-eminent scholar of Sikh history, is quoted to indicate how much the Jats contributed not just to Northern India but also to the principle of grass-root governance.
The author draws a similarity between the hopak of the Scythian Cossack and the Bhangra quite a hop. Be that as it may, it’s interesting to learn that Guru Gobind Singhji forbade smoking because of its association with the marijuana habit rampant among the Jats.
Bhupinder Singh Mahal has amply scrupled to distinguish between research and speculation. A large bibliography gives clear evidence of his toil. Where he was unable to pinpoint a water-tight source, he has flagged the tentativeness of his conjecture. Fact and fancy, especially when clearly marked, together with his proclivity to not let language get in the way of communication makes Jats delightful reading.
(Dr V.B.L. Sharma is Emeritus Professor of Social Science at Western Michigan University)