“A hermeneutic tradition maintains that to understand means to understand differently. Alhough originally intended to describe our understanding of texts, the premise proves especially true in the realm of history. Historiography is necessarily selective. And it is never free of twists and distortions. If an event is remembered (and how it is remembered) is not up to its actors and witnesses. For those who have to live it, history is a mess. It is only future generations that — in a complex interplay of memorizing and forgetting — give the past a meaningful and well ordered appearance” (Reinhardt, 2005).
The Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) or the theory of Indo-Aryan Migration was proposed at the height of English colonial rule in the mid-19th century by Max Muller, a German linguist and Sanskrit scholar. The theory suggests that 3500 years ago, there was a migration of “Indo-Europeans” from Central Asia to South Asia, and the “invasion” that ensued resulted in the creation of what was understood as “Indo-European” languages, the Vedas and the social order that was caste system. Although the assertions made were not based on scientific evidence, they were taken for granted since they explained the rich and awesome culture and history of India in a way that was compatible with maintaining the superiority of Europeans. In this process, Europeans retold and reshaped Indian history, as they did with numerous countries across the globe, solidifying their outlook and perspectives on this “oriental” subcontinent, regardless of how much truth there was to their claims.
What is truly unfortunate about this theory is that, despite being debunked and considered widely in academic circles as a continuance of colonial discourse, it persists in being taught across American universities. In this essay, I will be examining the most widely used book in America to discuss the Indian traditions, edited by Ainslie T. Embrie, called “Sources of Indian Tradition”, originally published in 1958 and then trivially revised in 1988. Its introduction to India begins with the Aryan Invasion Theory, although not written necessarily as a theory, making us question the very nature of this “post-colonial era”. To make my case, using Indian literature and research, I have chosen to analyse key excerpts from this introduction by Embrie which resonates with the general body of literature that exists about India in the west.
“The major source of the Brahmanical Tradition is related to the migration into the Indian subcontinent from the northwest, sometime around 2000 BC, a peoples who spoke an Indo-European language. These people, whose original homeland may have been around the Caspian Sea, are known in the Indian tradition itself as ‘Aryans’… In the Indian context, the Aryans came, by their own accounts, into a land that was already settled, but they preserved their own very distinctive culture, which profoundly affected the development of Indian civilization.
The Aryan migrants brought with them religious concepts and a pantheon of naturalistic or functional gods, a ritualistic cult involving the sacrificial use of fire and an exhilarating drink called soma, as well as the rudiments of a social order. To a certain extent their religion derived from primitive Indo-European times; that is to say, some of the gods mentioned in the scriptures of these people have mythological counterparts in other Indo-European traditions, particularly those of Iran, Greece, and Rome, and thus indicate a common origin of such gods in prehistoric times. In addition to such specifically Indo-European concepts, the religion of the Aryans involved other ideas that may have been developed in the course of their eastward migrations or may have resulted from the assimilation of indigenous religious notions encountered in the Indian subcontinent itself. From a sociological standpoint, the religion introduced by the Aryan invaders was limited to persons of Aryan birth, the some non-Aryan beliefs seem to have been accepted in a modified form or at least tolerated by the priesthood of the conquering Aryans.
The religion thus developed by the Aryans from the time of their migration in India until roughly 500 BC was embodied in a collection of hyms, ritual texts, and philosophical treatises called the Veda. From Aryan times down to the present, Hindus have regarded the Veda as a body of eternal and revealed scripture. Its final authority is accepted to some extent by all Hindus as embodying the essential truths of Hinduism. The earliest portion of the Veda consists of four metrical hymnals known as Samhitas and called Rg Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda. The earliest of these texts is that of the Rig Veda, and it is the collection of hyms (rc) that constitutes the earliest source of knowledge concerning the Aryan religion” (Embree, 1988).
It seems appropriate to begin with listing some key terms, phrases and glitches above that reflect a problematic theme in the field of academia — the connotation that certain understandings are being taken for granted as truth. These would include “Brahminical Tradition”, “These people… are known in the Indian tradition itself as ‘Aryans’”, “ritualistic cult”, “Indo-European”, “gods”, “religion of the Aryans”, “indigenous religions”, contradictory use of “[Aryan] migrations” and “Aryan invaders”, “sociological standpoint”, and “Hinduism”. Many of these terms will be repeated by the sources I use, I ask that the reader be cognisant of the fact that Indians often reused the language of the colonisers to respond to their attacks, which has led us to this very crisis. A crisis that can be seen replicated across the colonised world, including in Arabia at the same time, as Dr. Leela Ahmed discusses, such “was to become typical of the Arabic narrative of resistance, the opposition appropriated, in order to negate them, the terms set in the first place by the colonial discourse” (Ahmed, 1992). For this reason, instead of going into these terms and wasting more time wrestling with questions of India within what was written and framed by the English as “Indian history”, I will instead be dismantling the very premises on which their arguments, nay “facts”, lie.
Historian Śrī A. Kalyanaraman published the first volume of Aryatarangini in 1968, a comprehensive history that, in the words of President Radhakrishnan Sarvepalli, “brings together a vast field of unfamiliar material” that attempts to write India’s pre-history, but this time based on scientific and historical evidence (Kalyanaraman, 1968). Only a limited number of physical copies of the whole series remain, of which one rests in the United States Library of Congress. I will be using his work, as well as research from across India, to explain not only the inherent contradictions in the Indo-Aryan Invasion Theory, but also touch upon what actual evidence indicates about the realities of ancient world. As Śrī Kalyanaraman, and other social scientists and scientists have found, if such a peoples did exist as a common thread that shaped culture and thought across the land, those people, the ‘Indo-Aryans’ or ‘Aryans’, were in actuality indigenous to the land of India or simply put, Indian. ‘Arya’ in Sanskrit can be most closely translated to mean ‘noble’.
“There is much to be said for this point of view, which justly deprecates the vain concept based on mere race and blood, and the self-exaltation of human beings as superior beings in special favour with God. But with all respect to this laudable anti-racist plea, it cannot be gainsaid that every available evidence (ethnic, social, religious, linguistic, artistic, et al) is overwhelmingly in favour in the assumption of a movement of peoples, at least of the elite variety, rather than a mere migration of ideas, language and cultural beneficence… It is one of the cruel ironies of fate that a people who have done so much for the spiritual and material welfare of humanity should have been the target of protracted inimical criticism… But to use a phrase now popular in the American domestic scene, “We shall overcome”. Bharat had survived many denigrations in the past; I am confident it will remain unscathed by the foul attacks on its present” (Kalyanaraman, 1968).
My starting point in this endeavor will be rectifying the timeline being used. As is mentioned in Sources above, the Vedas are of four parts. The Rig Veda is the first part and consists of 10,000 suktas that are further divided into 10 mandalas. Evidence derived through an internal analysis of the Vedas shows that around 500 years in time should have passed between each of these mandalas or chapters. This evidence is seen through “the grammar and structure of the language, the astronomical data, the nature of themes dealt with as well as the refinements in language which could only be the result of long and diligent cultivation” (Kalyanaraman, 1968).
Aryatarangini systematically breaks down the intervals between each set of scriptures, unravelling the strings that held together the justification for centuries of oppression. For example, if we take the interval between the Rig Veda and Yajur Veda, the first and third, it is traced to be “in the neighbourhood of a 1000 years”. Ergo, if the Aryan Invasion Theory took place, this would mean that the Yajur Veda would have been formulated around 100 CE, which is impossible since it has been dated to at least 600 years before the onset of the common era. (Kalyanaraman, 1968) Thus, the timeline set in place and above assertions made based on it in Sources such as the Rig Veda being “the collection of hyms (rc) that constitutes the earliest source of knowledge concerning the Aryan religion” cannot be true.
Apart from clear linguistic and archeological discrepancy, researchers in India have studied and concluded that, “both the ancestry components that dominate genetic variation in South Asia demonstrate much greater diversity than those that predominate West Eurasia. This is indicative of a more ancient demographic history and higher long-term effective population size underlying South Asian genome variation compared to that of West Eurasia”. Dr. Kumaraswamy Thangaraj from the Center for Cellular Microbiology (CCMB) has also concluded that no genetic influx occurred 3500 years ago. (Sharma, 2011) This undergirds the assertion that the Aryans, if such is the word to describe the peoples of Bharat at the time, are indigenous to India, and India precedes these other regions in history and population.
In another study by the Harvard Medical School, a “Brahmanical Tradition” encapsulated by the caste system presents itself as more a recent phenomenon than a feature of the ancient world as Sources suggests. (Cameron, 2013) Yet, the constructs of this rigid hierarchical form of tyranny that supposedly existed in India since time immemorial continue to be featured under the spotlight as central to Indian social structure for the scrutiny and judgement of all. The study concluded that since widespread mixture has occurred for the past 4000 years and only relatively recently did endogamy start to persist, such a tradition could not possibly be traced to 2000 BC. (Cameron, 2013)
Nevertheless, the English were keen on maintaining the characterisation that India was a backward country made up of an oppressive fire-worshipping ruling class or “cult” and strict social order (amongst many other things) that allowed incessant cruelty to persist, and that it had been that way for millennia. The nuances and commendable aspects of the traditions that were discovered much to the surprise of the English, however, could be explained away through the Aryan Invasion Theory. The excerpt I shared is only the beginning of the fiction novel that is Indian history and culture as we understand it today. It maintains colonialism’s legacy of painting a keen picture of the strange and uncivilised lands of heathens that needed to be conquered and saved.
Be it Islam as oppressive towards women, barbaric Africans, or any of the endless illustrations that were made during the long era of colonialism, it is time for the academy be taken back to its roots and discourse to be reclaimed by thirst for knowledge and truth.
Ahmed, L. (2011). Women and gender in Islam historical roots of a modern debate. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Pr.
Cameron D. (2013, August 8). Harvard Medical School: Genetics Proves Indian Population Mixture. Retrieved February 01, 2018, from https://hms.harvard.edu/news/genetics-proves-indian-population-mixture-8-8-13
Embree, A. T. (2015). Sources of Indian Traditions: Volume One. New York: Columbia University Press.
Kalyanaraman, A. (1968). Aryatarangini.
Reinhardt, T. (2005). 200 Years of Forgetting. Journal of Black Studies,35(4), 246–261. doi:10.1177/0021934704263816
Sharma, D. C. (2011, December 09). Indians are not descendants of Aryans, says new study. Retrieved February 01, 2018, from https://www.indiatoday.in/india/north/story/indians-are-not-descendants-of-aryans-study-148337-2011-12-10