Lent Week 4: “Philology, Mythology and Geology in Colonial India”

Summary of the paper that Joydeep Sen, (University of Kent) gave at Cabinet on the 10th February

I am currently working with Dr Pratik Chakrabarti on a project entitled ‘An Antique Land: Geology, Philology and the Making of the Indian Subcontinent, 1830-1920’. The aim is to consider the relationship between science, culture and antiquity in India, through focusing on how geology contributed to the development of new theories regarding Indian and world heritage. This paper was based on the initial part of the research, elucidating how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philological studies of ancient mythology established critical methodological and interpretive frameworks for stratigraphy and palaeontology in colonial India. Moreover, I hoped that some of the themes and concepts explored would help to encourage critical reflection on the practice of ‘geomythology’ in modern-day historical and scientific scholarship.

The paper focused on the interaction of philology and geology in India as evinced in the careers of Francis Wilford (1761?-1822), H.T. Colebrooke (1765-1837) and Hugh Falconer (1808-1865). Through their scholarly interventions, we saw the multifarious  influence of Indian mythology, and with that, a remarkable series of paradigmatic shifts associable with the emerging discipline of Indian geology.

Wilford was not a geologist himself, but his significance to Orientalist scholarship was in pioneering the approach of invoking mythology to support intellectual enquiries into ‘man and nature’. While he considered Indian mythology to be lacking in historical credibility, and replete with absurdities, he nonetheless believed that some of its hidden meanings could help him to construct a ‘Hindu geography’. Moreover, though some of his spurious claims about Indian and global antiquity were ultimately discredited, his approach of mythology-focused philological enquiry seemed to remain a strong influence on geologists seeking to understand Indian rocks and fossils on a supposedly rational footing.

The relevance of mythology to palaeontology in colonial India was apparent in the European discovery of shaligrams. While scholars initially turned to philological studies of mythology in order to understand the place of these stones in the religious culture of India, Colebrooke recognised shaligrams as both Vaishnava representations of Vishnu and fossil ammonites. As sacred artefacts were thus ‘translated’ into scientific ones, they started to feature in the reconstruction of the geological timescale, though in the process, mythological references were gradually discarded.

With Falconer’s famous work on the Siwalik fossils, we saw a quite dramatic reassertion of the influence of mythology-focused philological enquiry on Indian geology. Falconer ultimately proposed a new theory regarding the geological formation of India, explaining the formation of the Siwalik hills and Himalayan mountains, and he notably gave his fossils appellations drawn from Indian mythology. Yet as significant as this was his implication that Indian mythological traditions could be of substantive use in elucidating facts about those fossils.

One of Falconer’s most important artefacts was his (re)constructed Colossochelys atlas, the great tortoise, and in 1844, he famously suggested that a clue to the circumstances of the giant tortoise’s extinction lay in the ‘cosmogonic speculations of almost all Eastern nations’, in which ‘the infant world [was] placed on the back of an elephant, which was sustained on a huge tortoise’.

Forbes Elephant and Tortoise

‘Elephant Victorious over the Tortoise’ by Professor Edward Forbes in Falconer’s notebook.

Though Falconer conflated a number of different Indian mythological references to a tortoise, this was, in part at least, a reference to the Kurma avatar of Puranic tradition. Moreover, Falconer’s intervention, in contrast to the likes of Wilford, was significant in taking such allusions as authentically historical as opposed to just mythological, and that too despite their supposed exaggerations. His important contention – often missed in historical study of Falconer – was that traditions about Kurma in texts like the Puranas were not allegorical, but rather a description of a creature actually seen by the authors of the scriptures.

While Falconer’s suggestion that the giant tortoise was coexistent with man was later disproved, it is not impossible to imagine proponents of modern-day geomythology claiming that the authors of the Puranas had at least seen fossilised forms of the extinct creature; and so, our historical exploration raises questions about this fascinating but controversial area of study in modern-day historical and scientific scholarship

For scholars who insist that ancient civilisations were familiar with the observation and collection of fossils, ‘geomythology’ has indeed become a key concept. In short, geomythologists argue that several myths or legends encode real geological phenomena, and through decoding them (like some of our historical characters, though ostensibly with greater sensitivity), they aim to ‘convert mythology back into history’. The insistence that (modern) geological knowledge has in fact existed in several (pre-modern) cultures for centuries has been applied to the context of India. For example, there are claims that ancient scriptures foreshadow the geological truths belatedly uncovered by modern science, with the focus often on the supposed evolutionary significance of Vishnu’s incarnations such as Kurma.

But such approaches surely need to be problematised. There is no doubt that history as a discipline, and by extension the sciences, need to think more carefully about what exactly ‘myths’ are, rather than condescendingly treating them as ahistorical or pure cultural fiction. Yet while geomythologists seem convinced that they can explain the geology supposedly encoded in myths, thereby elucidating historical processes, they are arguably complacent in their own assumption of continuity in ways of knowing. The key, rather, is surely to explore mythological traditions according to their own texture. Moreover, we have to leave room for changing scientific interpretation, rather than making ancient literature conform to whatever is at present scientific consensus.

So, this historical exploration of the relationship between philology, mythology and geology in colonial India hopefully enables us not only to understand something of the making of Indian geology, but also to question how we ourselves approach traditions at the interstices of what we understand as historical, semi-historical and non-historical. We might bear in mind some of these reflections as we continue to explore the history of geology and ‘fossil folklore’ in India and elsewhere.

Joydeep’s departmental page: http://www.kent.ac.uk/history/staff/profiles/sen.html


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