“The Aryan Problem”

The background:

Invasions are an integral part of the political history of India. The problem comes when these invasions become instrumental in forming national identities. The Aryan theory not only offers itself as the source of a certain socio-political-religious concept, but has also proved to be a point used by some people [wrongly though] to assert  the diverse nature of the Indian population [ After all everyone is an outsider!]. It is though that if some communities are considered to be outsiders and others are not, it would lead to communalism. Indian diversity can be celebrated even without such assertions.  As a result, an alternative view of ancient Indian history is generally taken to be an attempt by the Hindu conservatives to communalize the society and academia. Therefore, most academicians are extremely guarded while commenting on the Aryan migration/invasion. The content below analyzes this issue.

For over two hundred years, historians have been debating whether there was indeed an Aryan invasion of South Asia or not.  This is a theory that was first introduced by some European historians and linguists in the nineteenth century.  Observing the similarities between Sanskrit and classical European languages like Latin, they came up with the theory that the Europeans and South Asians belonged to the same group of people who lived in Central Asia and then one group went West and the other East.  Based on this premise the theory of the Aryan Invasion was created which claimed that light skinned Aryans invaded South Asia around 1500-1000 BCE.  They overran an earlier and more advanced dark-skinned Dravidian civilization from which they took most of what later became South Asian Vedic civilization.  This is a view that has increasingly come under attack by some scholars in India and aborad.

Over time, historians writing popular history textbooks have replaced the Aryan invasion theory with the Aryan migration theory, stating that “there was no indication that the Aryans conquered or destroyed Harappan society.”[1] Originally, some influential European historians introduced the theory of the Aryan Invasion, based on the similarities between Sanskrit and other European languages like Latin.  Similar words, grammatical structure and phonetics caused them to believe that the Vedas were composed by non-South Asian people who invaded South Asia around 1500 BCE.  Therefore, linguistics and etymology were major factors in forming the Aryan invasion/migration theories.  Peter Heehs, a well known writer on modern Indian history in his article ‘Shade of Orientalism: Paradoxes and Problems in Indian Histography’ notes that “not long after the formulation of this “Aryan invasion” theory, it was recognized that conquering or even migrating “races” are not required for dispersion of languages.”[2] The Russian structuralist, Prince Nikolaj Trubetskoj (1890-1938) argued that, “althought it is possible that the similarities between the Indo-European languages are due to a common origin, this hypothesis is not necessary.”[3] He found the notion of an original language more romantic than scientific.  Although differences between the ‘Dravidian’ and ‘Indo-Aryan’ languages is considered as valid, there are many similarities between the Dravidian languages and Indo-European languages too. These similarities are underplayed perhaps due to political reasons.  Colin Renfrew, a British anthropoligist and a retired professor from Cambridge University states that, “there is no inherent reason why the people of the Indus Valley Civilization should not already have been speaking an Indo-European language, the ancestor of the Rigveda.”[4] Furthermore, Colin Renfrew admits that speculations over migration patterns, even based on existing archaeolgical findings are hypothetical in nature.[5]

It is also noted that “the South Asians never knew for thousands of years that there was an Aryan invasion; their sacred literature is silent about the existence of a distant homeland”[6] Therefore  the Aryan invasion theory was framed by Europeans about Indian history during the nineteenth century, which has been blindly reproduced in textbooks in Indian schools by mainstream Indian historians after independence.  This is not to say that there were no European historians, linguists scientists and scholars who disagreed with the theory of an Aryan invasion/migration.  If we were to look into antiquity,  the Greek traveler and historian Megasthenes, in his work, ‘Indika’ states, “it is said that India, being of enormous size when taken as a whole, is peopled by ‘races’ both numerous and diverse, of which not even one was originally of foreign descent, but all were evidently indigenous.”[7] In the eighteenth century and nineteenth century there were many people like the astronomer Bailly, French naturalist Pierre de Sonnerat and Lord A. Curzon, governor-general of India in 1855, hailed India as “The Cradle of Civilization.”[8] However, even these claims of indigenous origin made during eighteenth and nineteenth century by some Europeans, were not based on hard evidence.  The idea of an invasion, “first was an inference, then it became a presumption, and now it has become an article of faith.”[9] Therefore, the idea of a ‘race’ based Aryan invasion was a thought that established itself along with ‘Her Majesty’s’ government in India in nineteenth century.

The very concept of race has been a recent development, a development made by the Europeans during the colonial era.  The word ‘Arya’ in Sanskrit means kind or noble, and not a race or ethnicity.  The racial aspect has been an addition of the nineteenth century imperialism.  Furthermore, biologists like Sir Julian Huxley far back in 1939 spoke out against the concept of an ‘Aryan race’.  He stated that:

“In England and America the phrase ‘Aryan race’ has quite ceased to be used by writers with scientific knowledge, though it appears occasionally in political and propagandist literature….In Germany, the idea of the ‘Aryan race’ received no more scientific support than in England.  Nevertheless, it found able and very persistent literary advocates who made it appear very flattering to local vanity.”[10]

In recent times there have been other geneticists and biologists who have not only discredited the existence of an ‘Aryan race’ but have also argued that the genetic evidence suggests that the people of South Asia do not show signs of any foreign origins. Dr. Cavalli Sforza, Emeritus professor at Stanford University regarded as one of the most respectable population geneticist, along with seventeen other scientists, geneticist and biologists representing seven genetics and biology departments world wide states:

“…Indian tribal and caste populations derive largely from the same genetic heritage of Pleistocene southern and western Asians and have received limited gene flow from external regions since the Holocene.”[11]

Anthropologists like Todd Disotell of the New York University in his article ‘Human Evolution: Southern Route to Asia’ seems to endorse this stand point which states that the current genetic heritage of South Asian people goes back to the Pleistocene, or approximately 50,000 years ago and have received “limited external gene flow due to any invasion or mass migration since the Ice Age ended…[12] Dr. Sforza and his team of scientists went on to state that, “Haplogroup R1a, previously associated with the putative Indo-Aryan invasion, was found at its highest frequency in Punjab rather than in Central Asia…This finding suggests that southern and western Asia might be the source of this haplogroup.”[13] Dr. Sforza also suggests that “The phylogeography of the primal mtDNA and Y-chromosome founders suggests that these southern Asian Pleistocene coastal settlers from Africa would have provided the inocula for the subsequent differentiation of the distinctive eastern and western Eurasian gene pools.”[14]

Jim G. Shaffer and Diane A. Lichtenstein in their article “South Asian Archaeology and the Myth of Indo-Aryan Invasions” state that:

“The existing interpretative discussions postulating large scale human “invasion” [Renfrew 1987, Allchin 1995] simply do not correlate with the physical, archaeological or paleoanthropological, data [Kennedy, 2000].”[15]

“No matter how prevalent some population intrusions have been within the South Asian context since the time of Alexander the Great, the archaeological data currently available do not support a parallel scenario being drawn for the prehistoric context.”[16]

Stefan Arvidsson, assistant professor at University of Halmstad and the author of the book, ‘Aryan Idols: Indo-European Mythology as Ideology and Science’, says that even archaeologists cannot confirm the existence of any migration or invasion.  He states that “the archaeologists often place the arrival of the Indo-Europeans at a time when the archaeological source situation is confused and archaeological material is damaged, hard to interpret, or nonexistent.”[17]

Besides the genetics and archaeological evidence, there is other scientific evidence that suggest that the Vedic civilization is possibly much older than what was originally thought to be.

There have been scholars in recent times who have asserted that the Rig-Veda is older than what is widely accepted.  The Rig-Veda speaks of an ancient mighty river, Saraswati, which flowed from the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea.  For a long time it was thought to be a mythical river until “satellite pictures [from LANDSAT satellite] revealed the bed of an ancient river running from the Himalayas to the western gulf of the Arabian Sea, roughly paralleling the course of the Indus River, but lying to the east of the Indus.”[18] In spite of reservations expressed by some scholars, it is widely understood by scholars that the Saraswati River dried up sometime around 1900 B.C.E. Therefore it is now believed that the Rig-Veda had to be composed at least before 1900 B.C.E.[19] The Saraswati River had become a seasonal river around 3000 B.C.E before completely drying up in 1900 B.C.E.  Considering that the Rig-Veda mentions the Saraswati River as a mighty river flowing from the high mountains of Himalayas to the Arabian Sea, some scholars “drew the conclusion that the Rig-Veda must have been composed before 3000 B.C.E.”[20] That said, the dating of the Rig-Veda remains an unresolved issue.

Some European historians, during the colonial era had gone to great lengths to try and present Indian history as an extension of European culture.  The Indo-Aryan issue which is a topic of intense debate today has been so only for the last two hundred and fifty years.  The idea of an ‘Aryan race’, an Aryan Invasion/migration had all been attempts to root out the Indian culture from the minds and hearts of Indians and Anglo-Saxonize them so that ruling India would have become much more easy for the British government.  The idea that the Vedic culture was a product of western invasion was a way of legitimizing British rule in India.  This was done by establishing an education system that taught the British government’s interpretation of Indian history, traditions, culture and scriptures.  This was necessary if the British had to rule India as without the subjugation of the Indian people, it would have been impossible to control the whole South Asian subcontinent.  The establishment of such an education system was done by Englishmen like Thomas Babbinton Macaulay, the Chairman of the Education Board in India.  In a letter to his father in 1836, he wrote:

“Our English schools are flourishing wonderfully.  The effect of this education on the Hindus is prodigious…It is my belief that if our plans of education are followed up, there will not be a single idolater among the respectable classes in Bengal thirty years hence.”[21]

However, there was more to this than just legitimizing British rule in India.  By introducing the hypothesis that the invading Aryans forcefully pushed the indigenous dark-skinned Dravidians to the South, the British also divided the Indian society on the false notions of race.  This was a classic example of ‘Divide and Rule’ policy of the British Empire.

Friedrich Max Muller [December 6 1823- October 28 1900] is best known for his translation of various Sanskrit texts, the Rig-Veda being the most prominent of his translations.  He was a German national who worked at the Oxford University.  He was also one of the major proponents of the Aryan race theory.  The Aryan race theory was later used by the Nazis who believed his the concept of a superior Aryan race.  Max Muller however did not necessarily believe the concept of Aryan race as the Nazis did or even some of the earlier German nationalists did.  “In 1872…he dramatically denounced the German doctrine of the Aryan race!  But his past position kept dogging him, and politicians and propagandists kept citing him as authority for their race theories.  Finally he lost all patience and burst out in 1888 and said:

“I have declared again and again that if I say Aryan, I mean neither blood nor bones, nor skull nor hair; I mean simply those who speak the Aryan language…”[22]

This shows that even Max Muller’s idea of Aryan race/people was based on linguistics.  His work on India and on Sanskrit language have been very widely read and accepted in academia around the world including in modern India.  His theories on Indian civilization taught that the Vedic Indian culture was the result of foreign invasions/migrations thousands of years back.  This was used as a way of legitimizing Britsh rule in India as according to this theory, India had always been ruled by foreigners and its culture was noting but a “melting pot” of different cultures.  However, in recent times, controversy has arisen in India over Max Muller’s interpretation of Vedic culture and of the Sanskrit language.

Max Muller was appointed to translate the Hindu scriptures by Thomas Babbinton Macaulay [Chairman of the Education Board, India].  Helped by his Prussian patron Baron Bunsen, Max Muller, accepted the challenging task of translting the Hindu scriptures, The Vedas.[23] Max Muller was appointed for this task as “Macaulay needed someone who could translate and interpret Indian scriptures, especially the Vedas, in such a way that the newly educated Indian elite would see the difference between them [Vedas] and the Bible and choose the latter.”[24] In a letter to his wife in 1866, Max Muller observed:

“It [Rig Veda] is the root of their religion and to show them what the root is, I feel sure, is the only way of uprooting all that has sprung from it during the last three thousand years. (See Vedic Aryans and the Origins of Civlization, op.cit, pp.33-4).”[25]

In a letter to the Duke of Argyle [acting Secretary of State for India] he wrote; “the ancient religion of India is doomed.  And if Christianity does not take its place, whose fault will it be?”[26] His Divinity, Swami Prakashanad Saraswati, a Sanskrit scholar and an authority on Hindu scriptures has commented on Max Muller’s translation of Sanskrit into English.  Among many other examples, he gives examples of basic words that were mistranslated into English.  For example:  The word Hiranyagarbh, means the “manifested form of maya which is associated and represented by God, which holds and contains all worlds within.  This word was translated by Max Muller as “the golden germ.”[27] There are other examples like Pashupati, one of the names of Lord Shiva that means ‘Lord of Souls’, which was translated as ‘Lord of the creatures’.  “Garbha griha, which means the inner chamber of the temple was translated as ‘the womb house’.”[28]

Based on his inability to accurately translate Sanskrit into English, and his apparent limited knowledge of the Sanskrit language, it seems unfair that he call the Vedic language absurd, foolish and childish.  In one of his many statements he stated that “It is easy to call these utterances (of the Vedas) as childish and absurd…”[29].  In his defense, not all of his mistranslations may have been deliberate.  For example, the word Pashu, not only means soul, but it also means animals.  The word garbh, not only means temple, but also means the womb.  Therefore to term all his mistranslations as deliberate would be wrong.  But Max Muller in no way was the only one mistranslating the Sanskrit scriptures.  There were others like H.H.Wilson [translated Rig-Veda into English] and F.E. Pargiter [Vice President of Asiatic Society, London] who contributed to the mistranslations similar to the ones mentioned above.  Such inaccurate theories about ancient South Asian civilization have made their way into accademics and continue to exist in one form or another.

However, recently the California State Education Board came under the spotlight when many of the changes regarding Indian history were taken into consideration including changes regarding the Aryan migration theory.  However, certain groups have accused these changes as ’saffronizing of Indian history’.  Dr. Stan Metzenberg who is a professor of biology at California State University, Northridge, and the commissioner of California Carriculum Commission denied these allegations on the basis of DNA evidence that did not seem to hint towards either an Aryan invasion or an Aryan migration.[30]

It is important to understand that all the attempts at rewriting history or taking a fresh look at this issue must not be patented as being Hindu fundamentalism or quasi-Facist ideology.  What needs to be understood is that there is a genuine controversy regarding the Aryan invasion or migration of ancient South Asia which needs critical examination.  There is also a need to include a greater number of South Asian scholars with reasonable influence over what is written about South Asian history in textbooks.  It is time to shed off old Imperial world view of South Asian history and acknowledge the presence of legitimate views on South Asian history based on credible evidence and which is contrary to the widely accepted version of South Asian history.

[1] Bentley & Ziegler, Traditions & Encounters, A Global Perspective on the Past, 2 edition, McGraw-Hill 2003, pg. 96

[2] Heehs, Peter. Shades of Orientalism: Paradoxes and Problems in Indian Historiography. History & Theory 42, no. 2 (2003): 169-195. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed February 28, 2007).

[3] Arvidsson, Stefan.  Aryan Indols: Indo-European Mythology As Ideology and Science.  University of Chicago Press 2006. pg. 296

[4] Renfrew, Colin. Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins.  The Aryan Debate. Ed. Trautmann, Thomas R.  Oxford University Press, 2005.  pg.208.

[5] Ibid. pg.210

[6] Bryant, Edwin. The Quest For The Origins Of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate. Oxford University Press 2001. pg. 293

[7] Megasthenes: Indika, http://projectsouthasia.sdstate.edu/docs/history/primarydocs/Foreign_Views/GreekRoman/Megasthenes-Indika.htm

[8] Bryant, Edwin. The Quest For The Origins Of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate. Oxford University Press 2001. pg.  18

[9] Bryant, Edwin. The Quest For The Origins Of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate. Oxford University Press  2001. pg. 293

[10] Rajaram, N.S, Sarasvati River and the Vedic Civilization, History, Science and Politics, Rajatha Manor 2006, pg.127

[11] Kivisild, T., et al. The Genetic Heritage of the Earliest Settlers Persists Both in Indian Tribal and Caste Populations. American Journal of Human Genetics 72, no. 2 (2003): 313. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed February 28, 2007).

[12] Disotell, Todd R,  Human evolution: The Southern route to Aisa, Current Biology, Vol.9, Issue 24, December 30, 1999, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6VRT-44F75JB-D&_user=2832429&_coverDate=12%2F30%2F1999&_rdoc=1&_fmt=full&_orig=search&_cdi=6243&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_acct=C000058898&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=2832429&md5=2f99c2e66ac1214d5b841695fb4fa8b6&artImgPref=F

[13] Kivisild, T., et al. “The Genetic Heritage of the Earliest Settlers Persists Both in Indian Tribal and Caste Populations.” American Journal of Human Genetics 72, no. 2 (2003): 313. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed February 28, 2007).

[14] Kivisild, T., et al. “The Genetic Heritage of the Earliest Settlers Persists Both in Indian Tribal and Caste Populations.” American Journal of Human Genetics 72, no. 2 (2003): 313. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed February 28, 2007).

[15] Shaffar, J.G, Lichtenstein, D.A, “South Asian Archaeology and the Myth of Indo-Aryan Invasion”. The Indo-Aryan Controversy, Ed. Bryant, Edwin and Patton, Laurie,  Routledge 2005, pg.81.

[16] Ibid. pg.81.

[17] Arvidsson, Stefan.  Aryan Indols: Indo-European Mythology As Ideology and Science.  University of Chicago Press 2006. pg. 297

[18] Chandler, Kenneth,  Origins of Vedic Civilization,   http://sanskrit.safire.com/pdf/ORIGINS.PDF

[19] Gautier, Francois,  Rewriting Indian History,  India Research Press 2003, pg. 7

[20] Chandler, Kenneth,  Origins of Vedic Civilizationhttp://sanskrit.safire.com/pdf/ORIGINS.PDF

[21] Rajaram, N.S,  Sarasvati River and the Vedic Civilization, History, Science and Politics, Rajatha Manor 2006, pg. 46

[22] Ibid. pg50

[23] Ibid. pg. 48

[24] Ibid. pg. 48

[25] Ibid. pg. 48

[26] Ibid. pg. 48

[27] Saraswati, Prakashanand Swami,  The True History and the Religion of India, A Concise Encyclopedia of Authentic Hinduism,  Jagadguru Kripalu Parishat 2003,  pg. 291.

[28] Ibid. pg. 291

[29] Ibid. pg. 290

[30] Chaudhary, Ved. P,  California School Board under pressure to show fairness to the heritage of India, December 5, 2005, http://www.eshiusa.org/PressRelease/ESHI_Press_Release_120605.pdf

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