In this essay, the author analyses the debate surrounding the origin of the Indo-Aryan people who constitute a majority of the population in Northern India. While the traditional view is that the Aryans migrated from outside the subcontinent, a more recent view holds that they were indigenous to the region.
By Rebecca Aranha, 13 Oct, 2011
“The truth of ancient history is indifferent to our wishes, our politics, our religion… the idea of truth in history involves the idea that exists independent of our will, and is therefore difficult to know, because our interpretations are will-bound and our facts are never independent of our theories” -Thomas R. Trautmann
The Aryan debate, ancient Indian history’s very own case of ‘whodunit’, has been raging in books, newspapers, and public forums of India for the last decade or so. It examines the following question: did the Sanskrit-speaking Aryans enter from the north-west in about 1500 BC, or were they indigenous to India and identical to the people of the Indus Civilization of 2600-1900 BC? This question is central to the debate that has shaped Indian history writing, and has been strongly contested in public discussions for over a decade.
The first position, the immigrant Aryan position that the Aryans came to India from outside in about 1500 BC, is called the standard view because it is the interpretation that has prevailed in schools and university textbooks and in academic journals and books. The second position, the indigenous Aryan position that the Aryans were the makers of Indus Civilisation, is called the alternate view, because it is challenging the established, standard view.
The resolution to the Indo-European controversy has been one of the most consuming intellectual projects for historians of Ancient India of the last two centuries. It has captivated the imagination and dedication of generations of archaeologists, linguists, anthropologists, historians, and many scholarly, and not so scholarly, dilettantes. In modern India, the discussion of Indo-Aryan migration is charged politically and religiously, with the debate having produced a lot of polemics on both sides.
Thus, apart from just being a historical debate, the Aryan debate has now acquired a political and social colour. Moreover, what used to be a debate among scholars has boiled and spilled over into the public arena, and the sober works of academicians are now swamped by the often heated writings of those who are not scholars trained in the history, linguistics and archaeology of ancient India. With such heated debates it becomes easier to be thrown off the track of historical truth in favour of political or religious objectives, thus allowing partisan politics to enter the debate. As may be questioned by many, why has this debate become so highly charged and contentious? In a general manner we may say that the past often becomes very important and debatable as ancient history serves as a character for society and marks its growth and continuance. When there are various visions about the future, it is the past, that sets precedence so to speak, that is looked upon to judge the ‘righteousness’ of the path. It also brings to light the matter of who were the ‘foreigners’ and who were the ‘natives’ and, as can obviously be seen, these matters are highly sensitive and lead to extremely charged debates!
It is extremely difficult to discover the truth behind the Aryan debate, because, as Trautmann rightly says, “the truth of ancient history is indifferent to our wishes, our politics, our religion… the idea of truth in history involves the idea that exists independent of our will, and is therefore difficult to know, because our interpretations are will-bound and our facts are never independent of our theories”.
I shall now attempt to contextualise this debate, to put it into today’s perspective. The relevance of the Aryan debate can be seen from the influence of the colonial period on India’s present to our current political scenario and, right up to controversial comments of certain Right-wing politicians in the very recent past. The present volatile situation in India has made Western, and many Indian, scholars particularly concerned about the repercussions of communal interpretations of history.
The theory of the Aryan race is not limited to historical reconstruction and is an example of how historical perceptions of the past can be related to conflictual situations of the present. This debate is intensely relevant to the constructions of several very different sets of competing identities: associations of coloniser and colonised, neo-colonial and Hindu fundamentalist, indigenous and foreigner, Hindu communal and Marxist secularist etc.
The conquest of the ‘fair-skinned Aryans’ over the ‘dark-skinned aborigines’ became the mechanism by which caste came to be viewed as a form of racial segregation and was central to Indian social institutions.
The debate over how ‘Aryanism’ was to be interpreted provides us insight into the political agendas of the groups who used it. These groups were involved in seeking identities from the past and in countering each other’s claims to these identities as well as choosing a homeland and working out a national culture. The interpretation therefore hinged on specific ideological needs. The primary concern in establishing an Indian identity was the need to define the rightful inheritors of the land. Here the question of origins and affirmations of common descent was central to nation-building. It is thus important to consider modern ideological underpinnings of this debate in India as different forces compete over the construction of national identity.
The Aryan invasion theory also has a genesis in colonial attempts to ‘discover’ the Indian past, a discovery which was rooted in the colonial present.
During the earlier phase of the ‘homeland of the Aryans’ quest, when India was still a popular candidate, many scholars were uncomfortable about moving the Indo-Europeans too far from their biblical origins somewhere in the Near East. There were those among the British, in particular, whose colonial sensibilities made them reluctant to acknowledge any potential cultural indebtedness to the forefathers of the rickshaw pullers of Calcutta, and who preferred to hang on to the biblical Adam for longer than their European contemporaries. Even well after Adam was no longer in the picture, there was a very cool reception in some circles to the “late Prof. Max Muller who had blurted forth to a not over-grateful world the news that we and our revolted sepoys were of the same human family”. Muller noted, “They would not have it, they would not believe that there could be any community of origin between the people of Athens and Rome, and the so-called Niggers of India…”
The Indomania of the early British Orientalists was replaced by an Indophobia initiated by Evangelicalism. Charles Grant epitomised this by stressing the absolute difference, in all respects, between the British and the despicable natives of the subcontinent. Grant was by no means the first or sole Christian leader to engage in extreme denunciations against Hinduism – these continued throughout the colonial period. Christian evangelists, in fact, found advantages in discourses of Aryan kinship. For instance, Samuel Laing held that the “two races so long separated meet once more… the younger brother has become the stronger, and takes his place as the head and protector of the family… we are here… on a sacred mission, to stretch out the right hand of aid to our weaker brother, who once far outstripped us, but has now fallen behind in the race”.
Devendraswarup, a historian of the colonial period, finds the scholarly work of missionary intellectuals to be readily presenting the Brahmins as foreigners who had imposed their Vedic language and texts onto the aboriginals of India. The idea in this case was to create a sense of alienation from Brahmanical religion among the lower castes, thereby preparing them for exposure and conversion to Christianity.
Clearly, the developing pressure to justify the colonial and missionary presence in India prompted the denigration of Indian civilisation, and the shunning of embarrassing cultural and linguistic ties. Trautmann suggests that such considerations also explain why the British, despite having primary access to Sanskrit source material, did not pursue the study of comparative philology. Racial theorists paved the way for the postulate that the Aryans were an autonomous white race who brought civilisation and the Sanskrit language to the different races of India– a development Trautmann holds as pivotal to the political construction of Aryan identity developing in Germany.
The colonial view would endorse the idea that the progress of India was dependent on the return of the Aryan in the guise of the British. The British presence in the subcontinent could now be cast as a rerun several millennia later of a similar script, but a script that hoped to have a different ending. The British could now present themselves as a second wave of Aryans, again bringing a superior language and civilisation to the racial descendants of the same natives their forefathers had attempted to elevate so many centuries earlier. Devendraswarup argues that after the British were shaken by the Great Revolt of 1857, certain individuals suddenly found reason to stress their common Aryan bond with the Brahmins where others had previously shunned it. The Aryan connection was thus simply manipulated at will.
This view was partially responsible for the extreme nationalist rejection of the theory that Aryans were anything other than indigenous. Rajaram stated that the Aryan invasion theory is “the fabrication of a version of ancient history and tradition that was highly advantageous to missionary and colonial interests”. This discourse is also attacked as some claim that it attempts to promote disunity between Dravidians and northerners. Shankaracharya believed that “the Indologists and Orientalists introduced the till then unheard of concept of Aryans and Dravidians, which created mutual hatred”. Supporters of the migration theory are now faced with several accusations. The major one is that the British Raj from the 19th century to the present day promoted the Aryan invasion hypothesis in support of Euro-centric notions of white supremacy. Assertions that the highly advanced proto-Hindu Vedic culture could not have had its roots in India are seen as attempts to bolster European ideas of dominance.
I have earlier discussed how the discourse of Aryanism affected religious and political identities in post-Enlightenment Europe. I shall now go on to examine how the same theme has been utilized to support a variety of agendas on the Indian subcontinent in the modern period. It should however be kept in mind that not all scholars who have written for or against the Aryan invasion theory are politically motivated.
In this context, there are essentially two opposing interpretations, the Dalit one pioneered by Jyotiba Phule, and the Hindutva one pioneered by Veer Savarkar.
Let us begin with Hindutva, since this is the element of most pressing concern. The Hindutva interpretation follows a strong imperative to stress the racial unity of the Indian people prior to the coming of Islam and the solidarity of the Brahmins and non-Brahmins within Hinduism as well as the differences of Hindus from Muslims and Christians. It tends to reject an Aryan homeland outside of India, and to identify Vedic civilisation with the Indus Civilisation.
Savarkar’s Hindutva, literally ‘Hinduness’, or the essential quality of being a Hindu, has been a very influential expression of Hindu self-identity. Savarkar’s book on Hindutva was eventually adopted by the Hindu Mahasabha, and is still a seminal text of Hindu nationalist groups such as the RSS (Rashtriya Svayamsevak Sangh). Savarkar’s writings clearly reveal the crux of Hindutva – to be considered a native of Hindustan, a person’s religious faith must have an indigenous origin. What, then, of other Indians – those whose religious beliefs blossomed in other lands – where do they fit into such a scheme of things? Savarkar writes on – “That is why in the case of some of our Mohammedan or Christian countrymen who had originally been forcibly converted to a non-Hindu religion and who consequently have inherited, along with the Hindus, a common fatherland and a greater part of the wealth of a common culture are not and cannot be recognised as Hindus. For though Hindusthan to them is Fatherland, as it is to any other Hindu, yet it is not to them a holy land too. Their holy land is far off in Arabia or Palestine. Their mythology and godmen, ideas and heroes are not the children of this soil. They must set their holy land above their Fatherland…” Savarkar believes that the Muslims and Christians can never participate in the benefits (whatever they might be) of Hindutva because their prophet was born on the wrong side of the Arabian Sea!
Returning to the Aryan theme, it should be evident how the basis of Savarkar’s Hindutva is undermined if the Vedic Aryans came from central Asia. If that were the case, then the followers of Vedic religion would have to be disqualified from being Hindus, since the original founders of their faith were not born and bred in Bharat. Acceptance of the Aryan invasion theory according to Savarkar’s logic would then imply that the forefathers of the Vedic Aryans are undoubtedly foreigners and their followers essentially no different from those revering other “foreigners” such as Muhammad or Christ. Also, if the Aryans came from somewhere near the Caspian Sea area, adjacent to Persia, they would actually share close blood links with the proto-Iranians, thereby making the Vedic Aryans much closer relatives in language, proto-religion and blood with the Muslims who came to India from these areas.
Therefore, the opposition of other RSS leaders, such as M.S. Golwalkar, to the Aryan invasion theory was extremely aggressive. He said, “It was the wily foreigner, the Britisher, who to achieve his ulterior motives, set afloat all such mischievous notions among our people so that the sense of patriotism and duty towards the integrated personality of our motherland was corroded. He carried on the insidious propaganda that we were never one nation, that we were never the children of the soil but mere upstarts having no better claims than the foreign hordes of Muslims or the British over this country”. This brand of Hindu nationalism, which seems determined to alienate the Muslim community on the grounds of its lack of religious pedigree, is obliged to refute the Aryan invasion theory or risk logical absurdity.
Where Savarkar specifies the importance of India as the geographic land of religious revelation in his criteria for Hindutva, Shrikant Talageri considers the psychological bond to be more significant. He argues that while Indian culture absorbs and assimilates newcomers, Islam and Christianity do not; the leaders, founders, saints, sacred languages, scripts, holy places, traditional attire etc all owe allegiance to cultures outside India. He essentially requires that the Muslims, if not convert completely, at least accept Hindu concepts and beliefs, even those that might completely jar with their own religious sensibilities. He categorically stated, “The non-Hindu people in Hindusthan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence the Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture… or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, not even citizen’s rights”.
There can be no doubt that Hindutva is easily pressed into service in alienating and targeting the Muslim minority in communally volatile, modern-day India. Irfan Habib said in a newspaper interview: “I would like to cite the example of the Nazis, of how a particular perception of history held by a respectable section of the German intelligentsia, which was not racist at least outwardly and certainly was not anti-Jewish, was so easily utilised by the Nazis… so, here you have an example of how a historical theory is created by someone who had no idea of what use it can be put to… before 1947 the idea that Aryans went out of India was hardly espoused by any serious historian… but now, while some people deny that they espouse the Nazi race theory, they have in fact espoused it”. Not surprisingly, the various Hindutva versions either deny the validity of the linguistic analyses or else ignore them. From this perspective, archaeology is now viewed as important to the identity of the Aryans, but not so linguistics.
The Dalit interpretation, on the other hand, maintained that the lower castes were the indigenous inhabitants who had been conquered and oppressed by Brahmins who represented the Aryan conquest. This view was expounded initially by Jyotiba Phule. Writing in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Phule argued that the original inhabitants of India were the Adivasis, among whom he included the Sudras, the ati-Sudras and the untouchables, who were descendants of the heroic peoples led by the Daitya king, Bali. The indigenous peoples under the leadership of Bali, fought the arrival of the Brahmins who for Phule represented the Aryan invasion, but the Adivasis were conquered and subordinated. Phule’s ‘golden age’ was the period prior to the Aryan invasion when Sudras were cultivators, landowners and warriors, and had their own culture. The Brahmins are said to have deliberately invented caste so that the Sudras would be kept permanently servile and divided among themselves. He argued that the rightful inheritors of the land were the lower castes, not the Brahmins.
Phule was not merely concerned with the indigenous origins of the lower castes but he was also a ‘social reformer’ working towards educating Sudras and women with the intention of providing them with a sense of relative independence. In the colonial-nationalist divide, his views were not entirely supportive of either.
The dichotomy between Brahmin and non-Brahmin was seen to provide a rational expression for the pattern of history and the suppression of the non-Brahmin by the Brahmin. Brahmins were seen as Sanskrit-educated Aryans and the other castes using Dravidian languages were the non-Aryans. The use of language for demarcation was perhaps one reason for the non-Brahmin movement being more influential in peninsular India (the heartland of Dravidian languages) than elsewhere.
There are others who support the Aryan invasion theory, but do not necessarily share Phule’s ideas, including Romila Thapar. She remarks: “The theory of the Aryans being a people has been seen as fundamental to the understanding of the identity of modern Indians and the question of identity is central to the change in Indian society from caste to class. The upholding of a false theory is dangerous. The next step can be to move from the indigenous origin of ‘the Aryans’ to propagating the notion of an ‘Aryan nation’”.
This ‘school’ of scholars is often branded ‘Left-liberal’ or ‘secular Marxist’ by opponents of the invasion theory, because its model of invasion and subordination corresponded to Marxist concepts of class struggle and ideology. Secular Marxists are accused of maintaining a defunct theory in order to insist that the arrival of the Aryans is analogous to the arrival of the Muslims, Christians, and other groups of newcomers to the subcontinent. In such an amalgamation of immigrants, no one has more claims to indigenous pedigree or cultural hegemony than anyone else.
Chakrabarti, an Indigenous Aryanist, has nothing but scorn for the Indian intellectual elite who “fail to see the need of going beyond the dimensions of colonial Indology, because these dimensions suit them fine and keep them in power”. The most maligned figureheads are precisely those who have most publicly opposed the Indigenous Aryan position, particularly R.S. Sharma and Romila Thapar. She, in turn, holds that “indigenism is intellectually and historiographically barren with no nuances or subtleties of thought and interpretation”. In India, some Indigenous Aryanists, being branded communal, then label their detractors either “colonial stooges” or “secular Marxists” who are motivated by their own political agendas.
The question of Aryanism and the beginnings of Indian history remains a complex problem because it still carries, at the popular level, the baggage of nineteenth century European preconceptions, even if in the European context it has now been rejected as a nineteenth century myth. It has overwhelmed Indian history, but is now less important to a nationalist reconstruction of the past, although the Hindutva version claims to derive from a nationalist cause and accuses those who disagree of being anti-national. Its real function in their hands is political, in that it is used to separate the supposedly indigenous Hindu Aryan from the alien, the Muslim and the Christian; or, in the case of the Dalit interpretation, the indigenous lower castes from the alien upper castes.
The crux of the debate is the crisis of identity and status in the claims to political and social power and a contestation over what is viewed as alternative forms of national culture and ethnic homogeneity. Though the debate itself may never truly be resolved for a lack of concrete evidence it continues to be relevant today not only in its controversial content but also because it shows us how misguided perceptions, narrow-mindedness and political agendas can be detrimental to the development of a nation and its international relations, the peaceful co-existence of its people as well as the analysis of its history.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect InPEC’s editorial position.