Countless Hindus nowadays swear by the historical and linguistic theses of journalist and self-styled historian PN Oak. Twenty years ago, I expected his star to wane and get eclipsed by more sensible voices of Hindu historical revisionism, but the opposite has happened. In NRI/PIO circles, at least, he seems to enjoy a lasting popularity. What a pity.
Purushottam Nagesh Oak (1917-2007) was a soldier in Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army. That much should endear him to Hindus, fair enough. But he is better known and revered for his theories on history and etymology. And these are best put aside and forgotten, instead of being parroted by Hindus on ever larger forums.
In the main, three lines of argument have been pioneered or promoted by P.N. Oak. One is that the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort and a few other well-known Indo-Muslim buildings were really Hindu temples, not built but only usurped by the Muslims. The second is that Vikramaditya (1st cent. BCE) ruled Arabia, a claim that is then linked with the more widespread belief that the Kaaba was originally a Hindu temple featuring a Shiva Lingam. The third is that names of places and people around the globe are of Sanskrit origin and thus testify to the omnipresence and omnipotence of the ancient Hindus. All three are fanciful and totally unfounded. We will consider them in reverse order.
Etymology is the science of the original, or at least oldest traceable, forms of words. It is a tricky field and requires knowledge of older stages of a language and of related languages. You may find that seemingly similar words are unrelated while totally dissimilar words may prove to be related.
Consider e.g. the French word feu and the German word Feuer, quite similar in appearance. Moreover, they are identical in meaning, viz. “fire”. So are they cognate words? No, Germanic f- is evolved from Indo-European p-, and Feuer is related to Greek pur, meaning “fire”, whence English pyromaniac and (funeral) pyre, ultimately from IE *péhur. By contrast, French f- generally preserves an Latin f-, which in most cases evolved from IE th/dh- (compare Latin fumus, “smoke”, to Greek thumos, “spirit”, and Sanskrit dhumah, “smoke”). In this case, feu is from focus, “hearth”, and fovere, “burn” (related to Sanskrit dahati), ultimately from IE *dhegh, “burn”. (The forms marked with asterisk* are not attested in writing but reconstructed from younger attested forms.)
Or consider e.g. the English words let. Yes, word-s, for there are two identical-looking words let. Here we don’t need to move up as far as the dim Indo-European past to find their seeming identity deceptive. One is the verb meaning “to allow”, “not to prevent”. The other is less common but known in the expression “without let or hindrance”, where let is a synonym of “hindrance”, meaning “prevent”, “block”, or the very opposite of the other let in the sense of “allow”. How can that be? It becomes clear when we look back only a thousand years, to Old English, or even closer, to its nearest cognate, Dutch. In Dutch till today we have on the one hand the verb lat-en, “let, allow” and on the other the verb be-let-ten, “prevent” and the noun be-let, “hindrance, objection”. In English the distinction between the sounds of the two stems has eroded and they have ended up coinciding. The identical form conceals different origins.
This caveat against trusting appearances is systematically violated by P.N. Oak. To him, similarity proves a common origin. And that common origin is always a one-way street: any word resembling a Sanskrit word must have been borrowed from Sanskrit, never the other way around. Some fifteen years ago, I received a letter from him in which he proposed to collaborate. That proposal made no sense to me as we were working along very different lines and from radically conflicting premises, I suppose he hadn’t even noticed that. There is only one version of history approved by the Nehruvians, with which both of us disagree, but there are many alternatives, some sound and others nonsensical. In passing, he claimed that my native tongue, Dutch, is “the language of the Daityas”. A dubious compliment, for the Daitya-s are demons, kind of opposite to the Aditya-s or gods.
Similar etymological claims have been made by Oak and his acolytes in large numbers. Thus, England, named in reality after the Germanic tribe of the Angles (whence East-Anglia, Anglo-Saxon), is explained as originating from Angulisthan, which happens to mean “finger-land”. Arabia is derived from Arvasthan, “horse-land”. In fact, the name has a Semitic root attested since the Akkadian empire in the 3rd millennium BCE. Horses have nothing to do with Arabia but originate in the Eurasian plain, stretching northwest from Bactria, thousands of miles from Arabia, where they were imported only in the 2nd millennium BC. Rome is said to be derived from Rama, and Vatican (actually from vates, “inspired poet”, cognate to the Germanic theonym Woden/Odin, hence "poets' hill") from Veda-vatika, “Veda park”, incidentally “proving” that Christianity is an offshoot of Vedic dharma. In cases where a foreign name coincides completely with a Sanskrit word, such as the Amerindian ethnonym Maya and Shankara’s philosophical concept maya, there is simply no stopping the euphoric eureka-s in the Oakist camp.
I will not take the easy route of amusing the readers with a long list of Oakisms. Let us only note that this line of thought has caught on in broad Hindu circles. A textbook introducing Hinduism to UK schoolchildren, Hindu Dharma (at least the first edition, perhaps it has been corrected since) claims that the Tibetan title Lama, “ordained monk”, is derived from Rama, the hero’s name. Firstly, this is not true: Lama is pure Tibetan, belonging to the Sino-Tibetan language family, unrelated to Indo-Aryan. The word was originally pronounced, and still written in Tibetan as, bla-ma, of which the first syllable means “upper”, as in bla-dakh, “high mountain-pass”, better known as Ladakh. Secondly, how would it make sense? Why should a community of celibate renunciates name itself after a romantic warrior-prince? Likewise, what is gained by deriving foreign names from Sanskrit? Proving that the ancient Hindus were big losers who once dominated the world and were then chased from all those lands except for India? It seems that a lot of Hindus, when glimpsing a mirage that flatters their collective ego, suspend their critical sense and go ecstatic.
King Vikram and the Arab ghost
On quite a few Hindu websites, you find the claim that king Vikramaditya, presumably the one whose name is linked to the Vikram Samvat calendar (starting 58 BCE, so that 2010 CE roughly coincides with 2067 VS), ruled over Arabia. One can understand where the idea originates: in confusion over genuine data, viz. his proverbial defeat of the Yavana (“Ionian”, i.e. stemming from the lands to India’s northwest) or Shaka (“Scythian”) invaders. “Defeat” can be read as “conquest”, hence conquest of their homelands, hence conquest of all the lands who armies have been labelled by the Indian defenders as Yavanas or Shakas, i.e. Central and West Asia. This could be reckoned as including even Ionia (the formerly Greek west coast of Anatolia) and definitely Arabia, land of origin of invaders like Mohammed bin Qasim, and of the religion of India’s numerous Turkic and Afghan invaders.
So, the shift from Vikram as defeater of northwestern invaders to Vikram as conqueror of the lands to the northwest is understandable. But it is unfounded all the same. There was plenty of literature in West Asia in Vikramaditya’s time, in Greek, Latin, Egyptian and various Semitic dialects, yet none ever mentions Vikramaditya. Conversely, in what little reliable historical testimony of Vikramaditya that we have, we find no recognizable description of Arabia nor a narrative of its conquest.
But, according to those Hindu websites, there is an Arabic record of Vikramaditya’s glorious presence in Arabia, the Sayar-ul-Okul, “memorable words”, said to be available in the Maktab-al-Sultania (Royal library) in Istanbul. But none of them has ever cared to go and see the book. And all of these references can be traced to P.N. Oak, apparently the only person in the world who has ever seen this spectacularly revisionist source of history. This reminds us of the manuscript purportedly left by Jesus in a Ladakhi monastery, where a late-19th-century Russian adventurer claimed to have seen it, without ever being confirmed in this finding by a second eyewitness, yet successful in setting millions of Hindus and New-Agers jubilating that “Jesus lived in India”, thereby only strengthening the missionary claim on India and on Hindu souls. For neither claim is there the slightest serious evidence. Believers who take Oak’s bait do so at their own peril: they take the risk of being outed as fools.
As for the Kaaba being a Shiva temple, this is untrue but it has a serious kernel of truth. Typologically it was of course Pagan “idol” temple. Muslims recognized Hinduism as essentially the same kind of idol-worship as the native Arab religion. The Kaaba’s presiding deity was the moon-god Hubal, similar to Shiva in that the latter is depicted as carrying the moon on his head. His three goddesses Al-Lat, Uzza and Manat, were believed by the Muslims to have taken refuge in the Somnath (Shiva) temple on the Gujarat coast. This is the reason why more than any other, that particular Hindu temple was singled out for destruction upon destruction.
Paganism has thrown up similar deities in widely separated parts of the globe. The Arabs could easily think up a moon god and a triple goddess without ever having heard of Shiva and his Parvati, Durga and Kali. And if at all there was a Hindu influence at work here, it can easily be explained through the well-attested trade contacts rather than through a fairy-tale of King Vikram.
The Taj Mahal a Shiva temple?
In autumn 2009, one Dr. Radheshyam Brahmachari posted an article series, “Distortion of Indian History For Muslim Appeasement” to various Hindutva lists and to the vanguard Islam-critical website faithfreedom.org, e.g.
(where it seems to have been pulled sometime since, probably under the impact of the kind of criticism that I will now formulate). The message he develops is entirely based on PN Oak’s influential thesis that the Taj Mahal is a Shiva temple usurped by the Moghuls. Other mighty instances of Indo-Muslim architecture including the Red Fort are likewise claimed to be originally Hindu structures.
In fact, Hindu tradition has handbooks on temple-building, and none contain the groundplan and features of the Taj Mahal. Nor is there any Hindu temple past or present that looks like the Taj Mahal even remotely. The building may well stand on the site of a Rajput pavilion expropriated by or gifted to the Moghul, but it never ever was a Shiva temple.
In defence of his thesis, Brahmachari challenges the sceptics to explain one particular inscription dedicating an unspecified marble temple in the area to Vishnu. It is not clear from the inscription as given by him that one of the temples stood at the very site of the Taj Mahal. According to his own data, at any rate, the inscription is from ca. 1150 AD. That is well before the destruction of just about every temple in North India by Ghori and Aibak in 1192-94 and by their successors in the Delhi Sultanate. Especially in Agra, lying on the main route of Muslim advance and a sometime Muslim capital, no sizable temple could have been left standing in that orgy of iconoclasm. So there is some 500 years between the destruction of the said marble temples and the appearance of the Taj Mahal.
At any rate, even if standing on a Hindu site, the Taj Mahal is absolutely no Hindu building. It entirely follows the conventions of Indo-Saracenic architecture, with domes and arches borrowed by the first Muslims in West-Asia from the Byzantines, with no Hindu connection in sight anywhere. As a grave, too, it is wildly contrary to Hindu sensibilities. Only accomplished (jivanmukta) sages are buried, other human bodies are cremated or, in related (Parsi, Tibetan) traditions, left to disintegrate under the impact of animals and the elements. The idea of keeping decomposing human bodies close to human centres of habitation in graveyards is repulsive to the Hindu mind. It is a sign of Hindus’ estrangements from their roots that they insist on claiming this un-Hindu site, probably because (Brahmachari writes as much) it is applauded world-wide. Well, proud Hindus don’t care for the poor taste of Western tourists and may point out that the Taj Mahal is bland and vulgar when compared with Ajanta and Ellora, the Meenakshi temple or the Elephanta caves.
The typical Oakist argument exemplifies some flaws in the Hindu nationalist mind. In his very first sentence of his Taj article, Brahmachari falsely claims that three Western authorities have confirmed that the Taj was built in the Hindu temple style. None of them, however, is quoted as explicitly saying so. I won’t accuse Brahmachari of lying; the far more common source of untrue claims is self-delusion. Misreading bonafide documents, like a child misunderstanding a text by and for grown-ups, is probably the most common source of Hindutva misconceptions. Every reader who checks with the original, or who even only knows the field in general, will see through these false claims, the main exception being some even sillier fellow Hindus egged on by their eagerness to find some soothing delusion to indulge. At any rate, if a Westerner or anyone else can believe that the Taj is in the Hindu temple style, he clearly has never seen a temple. And hence is not an "authority".
The appeal to authority is one particularly harmful Hindutva trait. Rather than thinking for themselves, Hindutva polemicists prefer to latch onto some all-knowing Guru and unwisely expect everybody else to be equally taken in by this mindless reliance on authority. It's like in the crisis in the BJP, where most arguments are not about: "What line should we, the BJP membership, take?", but rather: "Which big man can come and save us from this mess?"
Dr. Brahmachari’s and Mr. Oak’s own writings exemplify yet another eyesore trait of Hindutva polemic. When a Hindutva history-rewriter uses logical connectors like "this proves", "therefore", "this provides another evidence for...", you'd better watch out. Invariably, a non-sequitur or other logical fallacy is following.
In the Oakist case for the Red Fort as a Hindu building, we get the following instance, among others. The whole case is built on the presence of Hindu motifs in the Red Fort. Part of this claim is simply false. The so-called Aum sign next to the sun wheel in the gate is just a flourish, distinctly different from the real, Aum sign (e.g. vertically symmetrical, which the OM sign is not). But even to the extent that the claim is true, it doesn’t prove what Oak deduces from it. Firstly, the building was built by a Muslim ruler, in the sense that he ordered it built, but in actual stone it was built by Hindu masons, who slipped a few Hindu elements in. There are numerous instances of this in Moghul architecture. But they couldn't go too far, so you don't see any Hindu deities depicted, or emphatically Hindu symbols. The presence of elephants, cited as distinctly un-Islamic, is a borderline case in Muslim sensitivities, but not off-limits and in fact fairly common in Moghul Indo-Saracenic art (indeed, even humans are routinely depicted, at least in the Moghul school of painting).
Secondly, a certain amount of Hindu presence was a deliberate part of Muslim building policy. Theologically, it made good sense to Muslims to incorporate recognizably Hindu (but non-deity) elements in their architecture as a sign of the submission of Hindus to Islam, vide e.g. the parts of the Kashi Vishvanath temple visibly present in the mosque that forcibly replaced it. Orthodox theologians like the Wahhabis did indeed reject this syncretism, and took it as a sign of the Islamic laxism that in their view caused the downfall of the Moghuls,--- thereby implicitly testifying to the presence of non-Islamic elements in Moghul art. So, even if some Hindu elements could be discerned in the Red Fort, it still does not deny its belonging to the Indo-Muslim building style.
In my close involvement with the Ayodhya debate, I noticed how excellent Hindu historians and archaeologists were very successful at finding evidence, but rather poor in presenting a coherent picture of where exactly their findings fit into the argumentation (a job with which I busied myself). If that is true for real historians, it is all the more true for amateurs like Oak and Brahmachari. For even if their case that the Red Fort was built by a Hindu rather than a Muslim ruler were true, what would it prove? That even when in possession of such a mighty stronghold, the Hindus were too incompetent to retain Delhi in the face of aggression by the militarily far less sophisticated Muslims? That Muslims were incapable of building forts of their own, though the Muslim world inside and outside the subcontinent has quite a few? PN Oak and his followers are not only unable to prove their points, they are also totally confused about why perforce they should want to prove those specific points.
This self-defeating Quixotic exercise can only compromise the credibility of its authors, and of all those trusting enough to convey it. That is why it is grimly irresponsible to contaminate with this nonsense a spearhead website in the struggle for the hearts and minds, faithfreedom.org. That website was created by ex-Muslims who try to help Muslims break free from the mental prison of Islam. Its only weapon is the truth, factual data presented in a scholarly manner, the light of reason that alone is able to defeat Islamic obscurantism. The enemy will love it if such a centre of truth gets tainted with the eager but silly delusions peddled by the Oakist crowd. If Dr. Brahmachari were perchance an enemy agent, he would do exactly what he has actually done in this case. Hare-brained Hindutva polemicists are ten a penny, but one who is in a position to drag down with himself a quality entreprise, that's exceptional.
The popularity of PN Oak’s theses is a sign of gross immaturity among contemporary Hindu activists. It indicates confusion regarding the facts of religious conflict in Indian history, along with a narcissistic greed, a morbid desire to lay ludicrous ownership claims to all manner of precious objects produced by outsiders (as if Hindu Dharma’s genuine achievements weren’t enough to be proud of). In that respect, it is of one piece with claims that Hindus in Rama’s age already used helicopters. But helicopters would at least be a more progressive and scientific achievement to show off than a mere grave, no matter how embellished. No, the best thing to do here is to take the advice of genuine Hindu historians like R.C. Majumdar and Sita Ram Goel, which is to ignore the P.N. Oak school of history. Let it pass gently into the night.
(The author welcomes reactions, here or at email@example.com, and may consider a sequel if warranted by the feedback.)