Aryan Invasion Theory: Revising History to Change the Future

Siddhartha Jaiswal
Stanford Universit

Growing up, I used to love hearing my mother tell me the stories of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, two of ancient India's greatest epic poems. Heroes like Krishna, Rama, and Arjuna were my role models and integral parts of my cultural identity. The great war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas and Rama's fourteen year trek through the jungles of India and Lanka were not just fanciful children's stories to me; this was Indian history, according to our tradition. But once I entered grade school, I was taught our history was wrong.

According to the Western view of Indian history, the Mahabharata was probably just a petty skirmish between tribes, if it ever happened at all, and Rama most likely never even existed. In fact, the only thing definitive the textbooks said about Indian history was that a group of tall, fair-skinned nomads called Aryans invaded India, displacing the native population and creating the current Indian culture. All of Indian history, as Indians understood it, was merely mythology or the musings of some talented storyteller. Moreover, the Indian civilization was not even indigenous to India; rather, it was created by the same people who had established civilization in Ancient Greece and the Middle East.

What these textbooks said greatly undermined my belief in my culture. It meant that all the stories I heard as a child were just fantasy; it meant that my culture was founded by violent barbarians; it meant that everything my culture had accomplished was lessened because it had a foreign origin. Needless to say, I, as a thirteen year old boy, was not flattered by this picture of my nation's past.

What I did not know then was that the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT), which has always been disputed by prominent Indian scholars, was falling into disrepute among current historians as well. I learned much later that AIT was developed by Eurocentric historians who had certain biases regarding Indian culture. Today, however, AIT is no longer accepted as fact. But why is the debate over AIT such a pressing issue in modern India? The answer is that AIT has several serious implications for Indians, especially in our contemporary society. First, a belief in a foreign origination of Indian culture has marginalized the importance of Indian history for many, like me. It has also led many educated Hindus to develop feelings of shame and a Eurocentric attitude toward their own culture. Second, AIT has a decidedly negative impact on the contemporary Indian political and social fabric. It has created divisions between North and South Indians, different ethnic groups, and between castes. Finally, AIT needs to be discarded by the very demands of historical truth. The Indian psyche and social system has suffered greatly because AIT, and some measure of justice must be exacted before these wounds can heal. By discrediting AIT, Indians can regain pride in their ancient and glorious history, and use it as a foundation to build a more united, stronger India.

In order to understand more fully the damaging effects AIT has had in India, it is necessary to examine the theory in some detail and explore the biases and misconceptions of those who originally proposed it. These late nineteenth century scholars, who included such luminaries as Max Muller and Max Weber, strongly believed in a race of people known as Aryans who were the ancestors and founders of culture in ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, and India. The Aryans, according to these scholars were tall, fair-skinned, light-eyed nomads. The Aryans invaded India around 1500 BC and displaced the darker-skinned native population there, eventually subjecting them to the Aryan culture and religion. They forced the natives, known as Dravidians, to move south and put them into the lowest castes of Aryan society. Eventually, through centuries of interbreeding and cultural miscegenation, the current Hindu society was formed. The main evidence for an Aryan race came from the fact that Sanskrit, the classical language of ancient India, bore a striking resemblance to Greek, Latin, and other European tongues. This similarity gave rise to a new language group: the Indo-European languages. When, in the 1920s, the ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro were discovered in northwest India, they appeared to be abandoned for no apparent reason. The invasion theorists took this as evidence that an Aryan invasion had occurred, and had displaced the earlier civilization.

In formulating this theory, the proponents of AIT had very set ideas about race and culture. "European thinkers of the era were dominated by a racial theory of man, which was interpreted primarily in terms of color" (Frawley 1996). In this era of European expansionism and colonialism, Europeans had enslaved much of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The European conquerors were primarily white, and the conquered peoples were primarily dark-skinned. Similarly, the Aryan Invasion was seen as a racial group with a common culture and language who came to India and dominated all those who were different racially or spoke a different language. They assumed that the original speakers of Indo-European language had to be lighter skinned; thus, the darker-skinned Hindus could not have been the original speakers. However, scholars are only now realizing that the simplicity of AIT does not explain the enormous complexity of Indian culture and society, nor does it even fit with the known facts. "The Aryan invasion theory is an example of European colonialism turned into a historical model" (Frawley 1994). AIT was certainly not the work of objective and open-minded scholars.

In addition, those who proposed the theory were often ardent nationalists or Christians, opposed to anything that would glorify a great culture of non-European, non-Christian origin. Max Muller had set the date for Aryan invasion at 1500 BC But Muller's basis for such a date was completely speculative. "Max Muller, like many of the Christian scholars of his era, believed in Biblical chronology" (Frawley 1994). Given then that the world was created in 4000 BC and the flood occurred in 2500 BC, it was impossible to give the Aryan invasion a date earlier than 1500 BC Also, many of these scholars had dubious credentials and motives. "Max Muller in fact had been paid by the East Indian Company to further its colonial aims, and others like Lassen and Weber were ardent German nationalists, with hardly any authority on India, only motivated by the superiority of German race/nationalism through white Aryan race theory" (Agarwal 1995).

To what ends was AIT used by the colonizers in India? It served primarily as a tool for justification of the British presence in India. The British argued that they were doing only what had been done by the Aryans centuries before (Agarwal 1995). In effect, it gave the British a way to rationalize their brutal exploitation and domination of India. It also seemed to lessen the severity of the equally brutal Muslim invasions of India prior to the British arrival. This is perhaps the most terrible use of AIT by the historians. India was described as a land dominated by foreigners ever since its inception. Karl Marx even wrote that the whole history of India was a series of invasions (Sukhwal 1971). How could such a "dominated" people find value and pride in their culture? Of what use were Rama and Krishna when they inevitably lost to the hordes of barbarians that plundered India?

The British also used AIT to 'divide and conquer' India. "They promoted religious, ethnic, and cultural divisions among their colonies to keep them under control" (Frawley 1996). Often, various principalities and kingdoms were played off against each other by inciting regional or cultural tensions in order to make British domination that much easier. Unfortunately, many of these divisions are still present in Indian society today.

The primary schism caused by AIT is the north/south divide of India along racial lines. The European scholars interpreted certain verses in the Vedas (Hinduism's oldest surviving texts), which described wars between lightness and darkness, to mean that clashes between light-skinned Aryans and dark-skinned Dravidians occurred (Frawley 1996). As evidence for their claim, they point to the constant references to people described as 'Aryan' in the Vedas. However, this is a skewed interpretation of Hindu texts based on European ideals. "In Vedic literature, the word Arya is nowhere defined in connection with either race or language" (Agarwal 1995). Arya, instead, is a title of respect, similar to the English title 'sir'. An Aryan is one who is truly noble by his deeds, intelligence, and sense of duty: "Intrinsically, in its most fundamental sense, Arya means an effort or an uprising and overcoming" (Aravind 1996). In the Vedas, many of the defeated kings of supposedly Dravidian stock are described as Aryan. Many of these kings also trace back their lineage to Manu, the first man, as do the 'Aryan' kings. There simply is no Vedic evidence of a racial connotation for the term Arya. Eventually, a number of the European scholars, including Max Muller, recanted their belief that Aryan denoted a race. However, this was largely ignored by others who became enamored by the idea of an Aryan race and exploited this idea for political gain.

In fact, this idea of North and South Indians being explicitly different has been a major source of tension in the modern Indian republic. According to Romila Thapar, a professor of Ancient Indian history, "The theory of Aryan race has not only served cultural nationalism in India but continues to serve Hindu revivalism and, inversely, anti-Brahman movements" (Thapar 1992). After India gained independence in 1949, there was a call for reorganization of Indian states on the basis of language and cultural identity. A Dravidian movement in South India, encouraged by the idea of Aryan domination of Dravidian people, developed in several southern states. Its goal was nothing short of secession, and creation of a 'Dravinadu' nation. Fortunately, the movement never gained force, but it left wide rifts between North and South India. In its wake came the formation of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party in 1967. Their basic platform was that "Dravidians, the folk of South India, were systematically expropriated and enslaved by Brahmans and their ideology of brahmanical superiority, which they-originally migrants from North India-derived from the Sanskrit texts of north-Indian Hindu injunctive culture" (Stern 1993). These Dravidian movements have lasted to the present and continue to have an affect in Indian politics and serve to divide the nation.

There is, however, no logical basis for this schism. Other than linguistic differences, North and South India share much of the same culture and religion. The major cause of this undue tension is the belief in separate Aryan and Dravidian races. Some historians have classified the Indian pantheon of deities into two types: Northern gods and Southern gods. Vishnu is supposedly the most prominent Northern god because he is mentioned several times in the Vedas. Shiva is not considered an Aryan god because he is not prominent in the Vedas. However, Shaivism and hero-worship of Krishna are common throughout India. My family, which is North Indian, worships both of these figures. I have never been taught that darker-skinned gods are Dravidian and therefore inferior. In fact, Rama and Krishna are both depicted as dark complexioned, and they are the most famous of all the Indian heroes. Unfortunately, though there is no true division of Hinduism into Northern and Southern sects, regional differences in culture have been exploited and used to divide India.

This problem of the north/south divide is indicative of an even larger problem in India: the question of national unity. If one accepts that modern India is the result of an Aryan invasion of a random assortment of native tribes and peoples, then the question of Indian unity is resoundingly negative. This, in fact, is the view that many British scholars had of India. Sir John Seeley, a British historian, wrote in 1883:

The notion that India is a nationality rests upon that vulgar error which political science principally aims at eradicating. India is not a political name, but only a geographical expression, like Europe or Africa. It does not mark the territory of a nation and a language, but the territory of many nations and many languages (Handa 1983).

The result of this type of thinking has lasted into the present, and has led to calls for secession from all sorts of ethnic groups ranging from Punjabis to Bengalis to Keralis. Fortunately, there have been voices which have opposed this colonial mindset and brought to light the cultural unity of India. Sardar K.M. Panikkar, a Congressman, stated that "there was no such thing as Assamese, Bengali or Kerala culture; there was only one Indian culture which emanated from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana" (Sukhwal 1971).

In fact, all of the Vedic rishis are in agreement that, according to scripture, there was only one Indian culture, and it was founded by Manu at the time of the flood. Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu guru who toured the West in the late nineteenth century, wrote: "The only explanation can be found in the Mahabharata, which says that in the beginning of Satya Yuga there was only one caste, the Brahmanas, and then by difference of occupation they went on dividing themselves into castes" (Vivekananda 1893). Madhav M. Deshpande, of the Department of Linguistics at the University of Michigan, asserts that, "If we remove the mantle of mythology and mysticism, the classical Indian literature shows an awareness of this notion of India as a cultural area" (Deshpande 1983). Thus, according to Indian history, India was in the past a unified nation of one people with a common tradition and culture. Only by accepting a European view of Indian history does the notion of a divided India arise. Unfortunately, those who receive a Westernized education, like me, only see the European view of world history.

Not only has AIT served to justify British conquest of India and divide the country on racial and ethnic lines, but it has also had a negative effect on Indian nationalism. Perhaps the single greatest blow to Indian nationalism dealt by AIT was its denial and marginalization of Indian history according to Indians. Indian history is seen as secondary to the history of the West. The Vedic culture is considered to be an offshoot of Middle Eastern cultures. The sciences of India were also considered to be derived from the Greeks. Vedic advances in astronomy and mathematics were largely ignored because of the 'primitive' nature of the Vedic culture. AIT also discredited many of the great historical works of Indian literature, such as the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and the Puranas. All of the great Indian heroes, including my favorites Rama and Krishna, were dismissed as fictional characters without historical basis. This rejection of Indian tradition is tantamount to "disowning and discarding the very basis and raison d'être of the Hindu civilization" (Agarwal 1995). The net result of this demeaning of Indian culture was to generate feeling of shame at Hindu culture, a feeling that "its basis is neither historical nor scientific, but only imaginary, while being actually rooted in invasion and oppression" (Frawley 56). It made Hindus feel like their culture was based on the writings of nomadic barbarians and was inherently inferior to the Western civilization.

Even in India today, schools teach Western views of Indian history and use European translations of the great texts. Children are being taught that their culture is inherently inferior to the Western tradition and that Hinduism is an archaic and outdated pagan religion. This creates a dichotomy within the educated Indian's mind between observing tradition and risk being considered 'backward', or rejecting Indian culture altogether in favor of a more rational, Western attitude. It is not surprising that the notion of an Aryan invasion was welcomed by some Indians who accepted the Western view of Indian civilization: "There was an appeal to some middle class Indians that the coming of the English represented a reunion of parted cousins, the descendants of two different families of the ancient Aryan race" (Thapar 1992). For the Indian living in a Western society, this dichotomy is at the forefront of his identity. For me, accepting Indian culture and tradition after reading about it in Western books was a difficult, if not impossible task. Not until I discovered the dubious origins and factual inconsistencies of AIT, and the implications therein, did I could regain the sense of pride I once found by reading the stories of Rama and Krishna.

Over the past fifteen years, a tremendous amount of new evidence has surfaced that refutes the Aryan Invasion Theory. Provided here is a brief summary of some of the evidence to date. First, there is absolutely no evidence of a foreign origin for the so-called Aryans in any of the Indian texts. The Vedas, the most important and oldest texts in the Hindu religion, make no mention of foreign lands or invasions (Talageri 1993). If the Vedas are the foundational texts of the Aryans, why do they not make mention of anything outside of India?

Second, new archaeological findings at the ancient sites of the Harappan culture show no evidence of a foreign invasion. These sites, which supposedly predate Vedic culture by at least a thousand years, show evidence of Vedic religious practice (Agarwal 1995). In addition, the lost city of Dwaraka, which is mentioned in the Mahabharata as being gradually submerged into the ocean, was recently found in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Gujarat, and dated at 3000-1500 BC This confirms both the antiquity of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, as well as the historical truth of the works. Also, a study of ancient Middle Eastern cultures has shown evidence of a thriving Vedic culture for a thousand years after the Harappan culture, suggesting an east to west migration of people from India, and not vice versa.

Third, new philological evidence has surfaced with the deciphering of the Harappan civilization script. The script has been deciphered by Dr. S.R. Rao, and has been confirmed to be of an Indo-Aryan base. Hence, the inhabitants of the Harappan civilization could not have been Dravidians, as proposed in AIT.

Finally, there is no racial evidence that there is any real racial difference among the peoples of India. In fact, according to a recent landmark study of race (The History and Geography of Human Genes), Europeans, Middle Easterners, and all Indians belong to a single race of Caucasian type (Agarwal 1995). In addition, anthropological evidence indicates that the inhabitants of ancient Gujarat and Punjab are ethnically the same as the present day populations of those areas (Frawley 1994).

The reevaluation of history occurring in India is part of a larger, growing trend of non-European cultures to rectify the injustices done to their nations' histories. The implications for India, and for the world at large, are significant. For India, the refutation of AIT places Hinduism and the culture of India in a much older and significant context in the annals of history. If AIT is rejected, it would mean that the Vedas are the oldest religious texts in the world, Hinduism the oldest surviving religion, and the Indian culture the oldest living culture in the world. It would also serve to unify the country by proving its past solidarity and the common history of its peoples. Finally, it would put Indian literature and science, long regarded as primitive, into a place of historical importance. But the larger implications of challenging AIT are as equally important. If Indian scholars can successfully challenge what has long been regarded as truth by the European tradition, then other cultures will also have the same hope of rewriting their histories from a non-Western point of view. For too long, the development of Western civilization has been regarded as the only important one in world history, with other equally important cultures given only token acknowledgment. After all, how a culture views itself historically ultimately determines what kind of future it can build. And finally, the refuting of AIT will help heal wounds on a personal level. I know that discovering that AIT is not necessarily factually true has made me come to terms with my culture and helped me learn to respect the greatness of its tradition. My hope is that it will help others to do the same.

 

References

Aravind, Yogi. (1996). Arya: Its Significance [Online]. Aryan Invasion Theory Links. Available Internet: http://rbhattnagar.ececs.uc.edu:8080/hindu_history/ancient/aryan/ aryan_link.html

Agarwal, Dinesh. (1995, November 8). Demise of Aryan Invasion/Racial Theory [Online]. Available Internet: NEWS: soc.religion.hindu

Deshpande, Madhav M. (1983). Nation and Region: A Socio-Linguistic perspective on Maharashtra. In Milton Israel (Ed.), National Unity: The South Asian Experience (pp. 111-134). New Delhi: Promilla.

Frawley, David. (1996). The Aryan-Dravidian Controversy [Online]. Aryan Invasion Theory Links. Available Internet: http://rbhattnagar.ececs.uc.edu: 8080/ hindu_history/ancient/aryan/ aryan_link.html

Frawley, David. (1994). The Myth of the Aryan Invasion of India. New Delhi: Voice of India.

Handa, Madan L. (1983). National Unity, Social Justice and Education: The Indian Experience. In Milton Israel (Ed.), National Unity: The South Asian Experience (pp. 47-76). New Delhi: Promilla.

Stern, Robert W. (1993). Changing India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sukhwal, B.L. (1971). India: A Political Geography. New Delhi: Allied.

Talageri, Shrikant G. (1993). The Aryan Invasion Theory: A Reappraisal. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan.

Thapar, Romila. (1992). Interpreting Early India. New Delhi. Oxford Universiy Press.

Vivekananda, Swami. (1893). [Speech in Madras]. Aryan Invasion Theory Links. Available Internet: http://rbhattnagar.ececs.uc.edu: 8080/ hindu_history/ancient/aryan/ aryan_link.html