Sunday, April 6, 2008

Kosambi on the Aryan Invasion

The following article has been retrieved from a Korean site. Since the page no longer exists, I have copied the full text here, and the reference to DD Kosambi is highlighted in maroon color. The name of the author of this article does not seem to appear at the site.


The Aryan Invasion theory was first propounded when linguistic similarities between Sanskrit and the major European languages were discovered by European scholars during the colonial era. In an atmosphere of raging eurocentricism, it was inevitable that any explanation of this seemingly inexplicable discovery would taken on racial and ideological overtones.

Colonial expositions of the Aryan Invasion Theory

British intellectuals were particularly nonplussed by this apparent link between the languages of the conquerors and the conquered. In the earliest phases of British rule in India, the East India Company proceeded largely unconsciously - without moral dilemmas and without overt recourse to ideological or racial superiority. But as the rule of the East India Company expanded, and battles became more hard fought and the resistance to British occupation in India grew, the ideology of European racial superiority became almost essential in justifying British presence in India - not only to assuage British conscience, but also to convince the Indian people that the British were not mere colonial conquerors but a superior race on a noble civilizational mission.

After 1857, the British education system in India had been deliberately designed to assist in the development of a narrow but influential class of deeply indoctrinated and predominantly loyal agents of British colonial rule in India. British elaborations of the Aryan invasion theory became powerful and convenient ideological tools in generating legitimacy for British rule. In its most classical and colonially tinged incarnation, it portrayed the Aryans as a highly advanced and culturally superior race in the ancient world, locating their original home in Northern Europe. It then went on to suggest that some time in antiquity, the Aryans migrated from their original home in Europe and brought with them their language and their superior culture and transcendental philosophy to civilize the primitive and materially backward Dravidian people of the subcontinent. All the greatness of Indian civilization was ascribed to the Aryans, thus implying that if

And by claiming a cultural continuity between this noble race of ancient times and themselves, the British could become inheritors of the grand Aryan tradition and assert their "legitimate" civilizational right to rule over the people of the subcontinent - not to exploit them, but so as to "reinvigorate" Indian civilization by reintroducing Aryan rule that had been disfigured and corrupted by the violent and barbaric incursions of the Muslims. Preposterous and distorted as it was, this absurdly racist proposition was made palatable to a self-doubting and repressed class of upper-caste Hindus who were told that they were descendants of the Aryans, and could identify with the manifold and globally encompassing achievements of the Aryan people by accepting British authority so as to participate in this great Aryan renaissance in India.

The theory gained rapid currency amongst upper-caste Hindus who had legitimate gripes against the Muslim nobility for having been denied equal access to power in the Muslim courts, but were too enfeebled to put up a fight on their own, and were too alienated from the mass of artisans and peasants to join in popular rebellions against the feudal dispensation. The British rulers offered the opportunity of gaining petty privileges in exchange for acquiescence to colonial rule, and the Aryan invasion theory provided the ideological justification for betraying the rest of ones nation. By placing the ancestral home of the Aryans far off in Northern Europe, the British were putting the idea in the heads of such upper-caste Hindus that they were far removed from the Indian masses and had no good reason to identify with them.

Wittingly or unwittingly, the Aryan invasion theory thus became the emotional bait for a section of the Indian population who were to aid and abet the colonial project in India. Although some of these Indians ultimately did develop national feelings, and forged a national identity that eventually came into conflict with the continuation of colonial rule, the theory continued to play an important role in confusing the psyche of the post-independence Indian intelligentsia.

Since the Aryan invasion refers to a period of considerable antiquity, and there is little physical evidence to support any authoritative conclusion, theories affirming (or opposing) the invasion hypothesis can vary from being wildly speculative at worst, to being reasonably plausible at best. Even the most diligent and objective of historians can at best come up with informed conjectures, leaving open the possibility for uncertainty, and ideologically-driven diversionary postulations. The absence of concrete data and the ambiguity involved in interpreting surviving texts from the Aryan period makes the task of combating history-writing that has been colored by colonially influenced analysis doubly difficult.

Nevertheless, it is possible to construct the contours of what may be more plausible, and at least eliminate what is obviously fiction or fantasy.

Arguments for and against the Invasion Theory

Opponents of the invasion theory make a somewhat plausible case that the sacrificial rites and rituals described in some of the Vedic texts bear a resemblance to practices that may have been common during the Harappan period. The similiarity of Harappan and Vedic altars is indeed intriguing. This would bolster the argument that Brahmins of the Vedic age emerged from the Harappan priesthood, and not from any Aryan invasion. But a link between the Harappan priesthood and Vedic Brahminism does not preclude the possibility of an invasion or foreign migration since North Western India attracted a constant stream of migrants and invaders.

However, the mere possibility of what may have happened cannot be the basis of an all-encomapssing theory such as the "Aryan Invasion Theory". It must be grounded on more solid evidence to withstand critics who might describe such assertions as racially-tarred speculations.

Philological Analysis

Proponents of an invasion (or migration) theory feel quite strongly that the Indo-European linguistic commonality cannot be explained in any other way, and cite philological studies that appear to bolster their case.

However, some opponents of the invasion theory argue that the observed commonality of the Indo-European group of languages could have been achieved without an Aryan invasion. They observe that the Harappan civilization had extensive trade and commercial ties with Babylon as well as with civilizations to the further West. There is a remarkable similarity in seals and cultural artifacts found in Harappan India, Babylon and even the early civilizations of the Mediterranean such as Crete. Hence, they argue that a linguistic commonality may have developed quite early through trade and cultural contacts and that this common linguistic structure may have subsequently moved from South to North. Since Mediterranean Europe and the Middle Eastern civilizations developed well before the civilizations of Northern Europe, such a possibility is not altogether inconceivable.

But such a hypothesis does not preclude the possibility that invading or migrating clans may have also introduced non-Indian words into the existing Indian languages - leading to a composite language stream that incorporated both Indo-European and indigenous features. (Urdu is an example of a language that was introduced as a result of a series of invasions, adding a large body of foreign words while maintaining the syntactical structure and vocabulary base of the previous language.)

Since much of the Indo-European linguistic commonality appears to correspond to the basic vocabulary of a pastoral nomadic population, intrusions by patriarchal warrior clans from Central Asia cannot be ruled out. Authors such as Gimbutas (The Civilization of the Goddess, the World of Old Europe) present a reasonably convincing model of how the older matriarchal order in Europe was gradually broken down by migrants/conquerors who spoke a language that might account for certain common elements of the Indo-European group of languages. However, it would be inappropriate to mechanically apply the same conclusions to India, (nothwithstanding some of the linguistic and philological arguments in favor of such a theory) because other explanations for the linguistic similarities are now being illuminated through very recent DNA studies.

It must be emphasized that while there are both similarities and differences amongst the various Indo-European languages, our essay on Indian Languages shows quite convincingly that the differences outnumber the similarities. The essay shows how the primary and dominant motive force for the development of Indian languages, (including the so-called Indo-European languages of the North) especially during the written period was indigenous. Far too often, historians (and philologists) have tended to downplay (or ignore) the contributions of the Adivasi and Tamil language streams in the development of the Indic languages. A more objective and balanced philological analysis of the Indian languages points to rather limited Indo-European links, but to a considerably greater degree of independent indigenous development. Moreover, just as South Indian languages have absorbed Sanskrit words, North Indian languages have also absorbed words from Tamil and languages related to it.

Another criticism of the invasion theory lies in the interpretation of the word "Arya" to mean race, nationality or even linguistic group. Critics suggest that the word Arya as used in the Rig Veda and other texts is better translated as one who was noble in character (or noble in deed) or perhaps hailing from a noble (or royal) background. Hence, to use the term "Aryan" to describe the racial or national characteristics of an invading clan or clans would naturally be erroneous.

The Horse and Chariot Theories

Notably, historians favoring the invasion theory have based many of their arguments on postulates connecting the introduction of the horse and chariot in India to invading (or migrating) "Aryans". They also point to the balladic character of some of the verses in the Rig Veda with references to armed cattle raids and warriors on horse-driven chariots who appear to portray a race or a group of clans of pastoral nomadic warriors. The imagery fits particularly well with artifacts found in Babylon and Ancient Persia (and other regions near the Caspian Sea) that depict warriors riding on horse-driven chariots. Other literary evidence from the Rig Veda also appears to connect the authors of these Rig Veda verses to the "Aryan" identified civilization of ancient Persia.

However such historians have failed to notice that there are drawings of horse and horse-drawn vehicles (tangas) in the caves of Bhimbhetka and other sites that counter the notion that the horse was unknown in India till an "Aryan Invasion/Migration". This would then suggest that the chariots described in the Rig Veda could have simply been an evolution of the Indian tanga. And while there is little tangible evidence of warrior clans in the numerous urban settlements that comprise the Harappan civilization, it is not unlikely that as settled civilization developed in India, and as urbanization spread to new areas, warrior clans may have emerged entirely due to indigenous processes.

Commonalities of Vedic Gods with the Middle East

Other evidence to bolster the "Aryan Invasion Theory" lies in certain common names/references and features of some Vedic Gods that appear to be pan-West Asian. While this might suggest a certain ancient link between the North Indian nobility and the nobility of Persia and Western Asia, it does not substantiate the claim that the "Aryans" were Europeans or Caucasians. Moreover, there are many different ways in which such commonalities may have developed.

Since there are references in the Manusmriti to ruling clans who were clearly of non-Indian origin, there is no doubt that various foreign tribes/clans must have entered India as migrants or invaders. There are references to Greeks, Persians as well as to Chinese amongst India's ruling "Aryan" families. But there are also references to South Indian or "Dravidian" "Aryan" clans. To conflate these royals "Aryans" exclusively with European invaders would be clearly inappropriate. Moreover, to identify the timing of such an invasion with the period of the Rig Veda would also be entirely speculative.

This is not to say that India could have never been invaded by Caucasian or other clans, but rather that even if such invasions may have taken place, these invasions would have been neither unique nor decisive in shaping Indian history.

While it is not inconceivable that some of the ruling clans described in the Rig Veda may have entered India as invaders, the notion that the "Aryans" were exclusively outsiders, and that too European, and brought with them the entire text of the Vedas, and hence, laid the foundations of Indian civilization is what is most untenable, and is easily exposed if developments in Indian culture and philosophy are adequately studied in depth and with unbiased eyes.

As Indian critics of the Aryan invasion theory have demonstrated, (apart from the few common gods that are also referenced outside India) much of the imagery of the Vedas is indigenous. To many Indians - the references to plants and animals, and the climactic and geographical descriptions suggest a connection to Indian soil. Some of the spiritual values (and cultural mores and traditions) that emerge from the Rig Ved seem to have a distinctly Indian sources that many Indians can identify with intuitively and instinctively.

Links between Harappan and Vedic Civilization

In fact, there is some compelling circumstantial evidence linking the settlers of the Gangetic plain to earlier Harappan settlements. For instance, emerging geological evidence pointing to ancient river systems drying up and changing course, and the excavation of numerous settlements along the banks of these ancient river systems (such as the Saraswati basin that ran in parallel to the Indus) lends credence to the argument that the settlers of the Gangetic plain must have been predominantly domestic migrants.

Finds of Shatranj (chess) pieces, dice and terracotta animal and goddess figurines also point to connections between Harappan and later civilizations. It is also quite remarkable how the ornamentation of some temples in Rajasthan and Western Madhya Pradesh appears to derive from some of the excavated jewelry from Harappan sites in Northern India.

And remarkably, there are no parallels to such motifs outside India.

Some scholars also see a continuity between the Sulva Sutras and the Harappan civilization which owing to its material advance must have very likely developed a level of arithmetic and ritual and abstract philosophy concomitant with it's achievements in urban planning and agricultural management. The evidence for decimal weights and measures in the Harappan civilization, and the later perfection of a decimal numeral system in India lends further substance to such claims.

Relevance of the Aryans

All this suggests that there is a much greater degree of continuity in Indian civilization than previously realized, and further examination of the Indian historical record will demonstrate that the numerous developments in philosophy and culture that have taken place in India cannot be attributed to "Aryan" invaders. In fact, the main significance of the invasion theory lies not in the determination of whether such an invasion took place or not, but rather in how much of a debt Indian civilization might owe to such an invasion.

For instance, prior to the series of Islamic invasions, and long after the "Aryan" period of Indian history, there have been numerous other invasions that had an impact on the subcontinent. Yet it is only the "Aryan" invasion that attracts popular and scholarly attention. This is primarily because of the importance ascribed to the "Aryan" invasion by British colonial historians.

Before the invention of the "exalted" Aryan (of European origin) by British (and other European and Western) ideologues, few Indians had any conscious memory of an "Aryan" warrior past since later ruling families in India had long since expanded and diversified from what may have been the ruling "Aryan" clans of the time of the Mahabharatha or even the Manusmriti. Not only had the "Kshatriya" caste expanded to accomodate several new clans, many of India's most illustrious Northern rulers (such as the Nandas, the Mauryas and the Guptas) were non-Kshatriyas.

Prior to any supposed "Aryan" invasion, India already had a relatively advanced settled-agriculture based urban civilization. And within a few centuries after their possible "imported" introduction in India, some of the "Aryan"-identified gods described in the Rig Veda ceased to be worshipped and gradually faded from mainstream Indian consciousness. Brahmin gotra (clan) names mentioned in the Rig Veda also lost their import and the vast majority of Brahmin gotra (clan) names that came into common use could not have had any "Aryan"-invasion connection. As Kosambi convincingly points out in his Introduction to Indian History, many of India's Brahmins rose from 'Hinduised' tribes that earlier practised animism or totem worship, or prayed to various fertility gods and/or goddesses, or revered fertility symbols such as the linga (phallus) or the yoni (vagina). A majority of these Hinduised tribes retained many elements of their older forms of worship, and several Brahmin gotra (clan) names are derived from non-Aryan clan totems and other tribal associations.

For instance, one of the most popular gods in the Indian pantheon - Shiva - appears to have no connection with any possible "Aryan" invasion, and may in fact have its prototype in the fertility god of the Harappans. Similiarly, Hanuman, Ganesh, Kali or Durga, or Maharashtra's Vithoba - none could have any external "Aryan" connection, since they don't even find any mention in the Rig Veda. Whether in matters of popular religion or in matters of high philosophy, there is little contribution of note that can be traced directly to a supposed "Aryan invasion".

Uniquely Indian Aspects of Vedic Literature

As noted earlier, much of the Vedic literature - both in the style and substance of its verses, appears to be uniquely Indian, and it is not impossible that at least some of the verses may have Harappan origin. Many of the philosophical themes that are explored and developed in the Vedic literature have insightful naturalist references that are consistent with Indian geography. In addition, there are certain philosophical aspects of the Vedic literature that don't appear to be replicated in quite the same way in any other civilization that was contemporaneous to the Vedic civilization.

The best of the Vedic Shlokas refer to a common life-spirit that links all living creatures, to human social-interconnectedness, to the notion of unity in diversity and how different sections of society might have different prayers and different wishes. Whereas some verses point to god as being a source for wish-fulfillment, in other verses, there are doubts and queries about the nature of god, whether a god really exists, and whether such questions can every be really answered. These aspects of Vedic thought were elaborated upon by later schools of Indian philosophy, and recur frequently in Indian literature and philosophy. But such verses appear to have no direct parallel in civilizations to India's West.

Already in the Vedic period, there is an amorphous quality to spiritual beliefs that included atheistic, agnostic and soul-based (as opposed to god-based) philosphical assertions and queries that gave Indian spiritual practice and organization its own and somewhat unique flavor.

While some of India's rational schools developed in parallel with the Vedas, and are included as appendices to the Vedic texts, others developed practically independently of the Vedas, or even in opposition - as polemics to the Vedas (such as those of the Jains and the Buddhists). The Upanishads, the Sankhya, and the Nyaya-Vaisheshika schools, the numerous treatises on medicine, ethics, scientific method, logic and mathematics clearly developed on Indian soil as a result of Indian experiences and intellectual efforts.

's great surviving temples and Stupas with their rich carvings and sculpture were all created with aesthetic principles and formulations that developed centuries after any invading or migrating "Aryans" would have completely melted into Indian society. And though it is not impossible that these foreign "Aryans" may have introduced certain technological innovations and inventions, knowledge of brick-making, textile production, tool-making, pottery and metallurgy was already available to the Harappans and residents of the Indo-Saraswati civilization.

The grammar of Sanskrit and its highly systematized alphabet also had little to do with any "Aryan" invasion. Sanskrit is a highly structured and methodical language, optimized for engaging in rational debates and expressing mathematical formulas. Its skillfully organized alphabet bears little resemblance to the rather random and arbitrary alphabet of its European "cousins". Much of its vocabulary and syntax developed long after any supposed invasion, and although the oral structure of Tamil may differ from those of the North in some respects, the majority of India's languages (both Northern and Southern) share a large base of a common Sanskrit-derived vocabulary. Besides, words travelled from South to North and from Adivasis to non-Adivasis as well.

In addition, what is especially significant is how the North Indian scripts share so much in common with the scripts of Southern India. The phonetic organization of consonants and vowels, phonetic spelling, and the many other commonalities that bind all of India's syllabic scripts weakens the entire linguistic premise of the Aryan invasion theory. In fact, when it comes to scripts, consonant and vowel sounds, all Indian languages are closely related, and their closest relatives are to be found in South East Asia, Ethiopia (and even Korea and Mongolia to some degree) but not in Europe.

While the Aryans of the Vedas may be credited with laying the foundations of "Hindu" civilization in the Gangetic plain, the essence of Hindu civilization emerged gradually, taking several centuries to crystallize. Undergoing both internal reform and fusion with pre-existing tribal and matriarchal cultures, the Hinduism of both the rulers and the masses kept evolving. Even as it retained certain philosophical elements from Vedic literature, it also broadened and in some ways diverged completely from the Vedas.

Beyond the Northern (Yamuna/Gangetic) plains, the influence of Aryan-identified Vedic civilization was generally more limited. Vedic influences on the civilizations in Bengal, Assam and Orissa were initially almost minimal, and these Eastern civilizations largely followed their own (and somewhat unique trajectories), as did the civilizations of South India - absorbing Vedic philosophical concepts gradually and only partially. Throughout India, Buddhism and Jainism also found converts, and in Kashmir, the North West, and in the East - Buddhism had a particularly profound influence, while in Western India (such as in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Western Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka) Jainism was very influential. In Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh, West Bengal and Orissa, Tantric influences were important.

In essence, Indian civilization whether Hindu, Buddhist or Jain, or any other, developed primarily from the unique (and varied) conditions of Indian geography and the human exertion that went into modifying those conditions to advance agriculture and settled civilization. Taken in the general context of say three or four thousand years of Indian history, it is hard to ascribe to an "Aryan" invasion/s the sort of paramountcy assigned by the British. While British motives in magnifying the "Aryan" character of Indian civilization are only too apparent, this contemporary obsession with the "Aryan" question that appears to have gripped large sections of the Indian intelligentsia suggests that the ideological confusion created by the British has not yet been fully sorted out.

One consequence of this is that the debate on the Aryan question has been highly contentious, with historians adopting strident and extreme positions, not seeing that there can be both continuities and discontinuities in the development of Indian civilization. It has also diverted many of India's historians from equally (or more) important tasks - such as describing and integrating those periods of Indian history where considerable new archeological material is now available and needs to be incorporated into the presently known and documented view of Indian history.

Key aspects of Indian history remain poorly researched and documented. Many Sanskrit and vernacular texts have not been studied and assimilated by English speaking historians. Regional variations in Indian history have not been studied enough. A deeper understanding of some of the lesser known kingdoms all across India is required to correct false generalizations about Indian history. Much more effort is required in understanding social movements, gender and caste equations. Simplifications and generalizations based on antiquated documents like the Manusmriti (which was mainly resurrected by British historians) provide a very incomplete and distorted picture of actual social relations and practice in India. The Manusmriti also offers little in terms of understanding local and regional peculiarities in matters of social relations.

Considerable work is also required in unifying haphazard and scattered studies in the area of India's economic history and the history of philosophy, science, technology and manufacturing. It is also important that the vast body of work that has been published since independence in English be translated into the nation's many languages and regional dialects. It is tragic that so much of the best research done in Indian history is available only to English speakers. These are just some of the tasks that need greater attention from the community of Indian historians.

Intriguing as the "Aryan"-origin debate may be, it is in the end only one facet of Indian history, and merits further attention only if historians and archeologists can offer fresh and new insights on this subject and relate them to the broad dynamics of Indian civilization.

Notes and References:

1. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, famous for his work on the Indian Constitution, as well as his campaign in support of the nation's dalit community noticed the racial overtones underlying the theory and described the British espousal of the Aryan Invasion theory in the following words: "The theory of invasion is an invention. This invention is necessary because of a gratuitous assumption that the Indo-Germanic people are the purest of the modern representation of the original Aryan race. The theory is a perversion of scientific investigation. It is not allowed to evolve out of facts. On the contrary, the theory is preconceived and facts are selected to prove it. It falls to the ground at every point."

2. British anthropologist, Edmund Leach also termed the Aryan invasion theory as being born out of European racism.

What has taken place since the commencement of the British rule in India is only a reunion, to a certain extent, of the members of the same family
," John Wilson, a colonial missionary, declared with a straight face, and naturally this happy reunion had now brought India into contact "with the most enlightened and philanthropic nation in the world." - quoted by Sri Aurobindo: The Origins of Aryan Speech, (The Secret of the Veda, p. 554).

3. See Madhu Kishwar: Manusmriti to Madhusmriti

4. See Marija Gimbutas: The Civilization of the Goddess, The World of Old Europe on the philological commonalities of the Indo-European languages, and how these commonalities relate to the culture and ethos of pastoral nomadic patriarchal warrior clans.

5 P.T. Srinivasa Iyengar (History of the Tamils) makes a similar case emphasizing the essentially indigenous development of Tamil language and civilization. Although some of his conclusions appear to be somewhat conjectural (such as those pertaining to Tamil Nadu possibly being the "original" homeland of the Sumerians), his assertion that Tamil language and culture arose from the very geography of the Tamil country is well substantiated. He does this by citing the anthropological observations of the ancient Tamils and demonstrating how the distinct geographical features of the Tamil country influenced the development of distinct modes of production and patterns of living, which in turn, helped shape their culture and language.

6. See, for instance, Wikipedia's on-line article on Indian and other Syllabic/Abugida scripts.


Anonymous said...

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Madhura said...

Well this is absurd!
What if I say that Indra(god of rain and thunder,who mentioned in the Rig Vedas) was also a god in ancient Persia.
(But later Zoroaster/Zarathustra arrived and he changed the meaning of the word 'God' to 'demon'.)

Madhura said...

Well this is absurd!
What if I say that Indra(god of rain and thunder,who is mentioned in the Rig Vedas) was also a god in ancient Persia?
(But later Zoroaster/Zarathustra arrived and he changed the meaning of the word 'God' to 'demon'.)