The Vedas are collections of ancient Sanskrit poems, prayers and incantations that were passed down orally across an unknown number of generations, during which time they became the foundation of the ancient sacred literature of India. This much is agreed, but who it was that composed them, and where, are questions that lie at the heart of a whole series of interlocking disputes about the origins of India’s people and religion.
Right from the start, western scholars were happy to accept that the oldest of the Vedas, the Rig Veda, was older than classical western civilisation. They were also quite comfortable with acknowledging the evident links between Sanskrit and a range of European languages including Greek, Latin and Lithuanian. These similarities led to speculation about the existence of a family of ancient languages with eastern and western branches. It did not seem likely to European scholars, however, that the Vedas originated in India, because the descriptions they contained of daily life, in which horses played a prominent role, did not seem to be obvious depictions of India. Instead western scholars believed that the original writers, who describe themselves as Arya (noble), were nomadic steppe dwellers. Therefore, these Aryans could not have been ancient ‘Indians’, and Sanskrit must have developed on the central Asian steppes, from where it travelled, unaltered, into India. If the Aryans had originally been in India, they reasoned, then Sanskrit would have to have migrated from India to the steppes and westward – and would therefore be likely to have appeared unaltered all over Europe, instead of the related group of varied languages we actually find.
This guess about the non-Indian origin of the Aryans was not quite the dogmatic, racist, imperialist conclusion that it is sometimes portrayed as, because the Indian branch of the Aryan language family did seem rather out on a limb, whereas the other recognised members of the ‘Indo-European’ group were distributed across Persia, Russia, Scandinavia, and Western Europe as far as Ireland and Portugal. This conclusion has been vigorously disputed ever since, in its assumptions about migration, transmission and Vedic culture, but it is what western nineteenth century Orientalists believed the evidence supported.
When it also became clear that the languages of South India were not of the Aryan family but of another type, labelled ‘Dravidian’, it then seemed all too clear to western scholars that the Aryans had moved in from the north and pushed the Dravidian population of India towards the south. Detailed examination also seemed to show that interactions between Aryan and Dravidian languages betrayed a possible power relationship; there are about twenty Dravidian ‘loan words’ in the Sanskrit of the Rig Veda, while the vocabularies of Dravidian languages show very high proportions of Indo-European borrowings, sometimes exceeding 50%. The constant warnings of the philologists that ‘Aryan’ was a description of a language group and not a ‘race’ was left behind, and wider correspondences, of religious belief and skin colour, led other commentators to assume that the Aryans had actually invaded India from the northwest and physically ousted or enslaved the Dravidians, thus inventing the caste system, in which the lighter-skinned, educated Brahmins dominated the aboriginal Dravidians, who were reduced to farming, or condemned to menial and degrading work as ‘untouchables’.
This historical model, dubbed the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT), seemed to fit well with the linguistic, cultural and ethnological evidence as it then stood. Conveniently, it also fitted a number of political purposes. If other later invasions were also taken into account, this ‘Aryan Invasion’ could be taken to prove that foreign conquest was a recurrent, and perhaps a fundamental, pattern in Indian history. It also had two religious implications: one, that modern Hinduism was a degenerate form of the pure, rather more muscular religion of the virile, horse-sacrificing Aryans – practices which carried a whiff of old Norse and Germanic beliefs; two, it implied that Christianity, as an alien import, was no more alien in its origins than ‘Aryan’ Hinduism. As a whole package the AIT could easily be used to support a general contention that it was India’s fate to be invaded and dominated, and that the best of her high culture came from elsewhere.
Not surprisingly this theory scandalised many Indians, who found it demeaning and assumed that it was meant to demean. Even worse, they simply saw it as wrong. Over the years and in several ways, time has proved them right on both scores. But, sadly, a degree of overcompensation has since set in, and it has become increasingly hard to adopt a neutral stance on the many issues that have arisen.
The most basic of these is the actual age of the Vedas. The first scholarly attempt to date them was made by Max Müller (1823-1900), a brilliant linguist, born and trained in Germany, who found himself in London in 1846, where he picked up a commission from the East India Company to assemble and edit a definitive text of the Rig Veda. In trying to fix a date for the composition of the Vedas he took a wide view of Asiatic history, and noted in particular the resemblances between Sanskrit and Avestan, the language of the Zoroastrian scriptures. All the evidence led him to a date somewhere between 1500 and 1200 BCE. Müller made one other pronouncement about the Vedas, namely that the Aryans probably originated ‘somewhere in Asia’. He would never expand on this, and he willingly accepted that neither the age nor the original ‘homeland’ of the Vedic Aryans would ever be known with precision. Indian nationalists, many of whom loathe Müller and cast him as the father of German ‘scientific’ racism, have since attempted to prove him wrong in both his guesses.
As a consequence, much energy has gone into trying to show that the Vedas describe, very exactly, the flora and fauna of North India, while a less reputable project has tried to show that the Vedas are incredibly ancient. This is, of course, not a provable contention about an oral tradition that was not written down till around 300 BCE, but this has not stopped devout and serious Hindus who, based on (supposedly definitive) astronomical references contained in the material, place the Rig Veda much earlier, most putting it at about 3100 BCE, though others go much further, to dates tens, hundreds or even millions of years earlier. The astronomical information contained in the Vedas is based on identifications that are not always very secure, but the intoxicating idea that the Vedas are enormously old has taken root in certain quarters and will probably never be shifted.
The whole AIT controversy remained largely a paper affair until the 1920s when, to general surprise, a large, well-formed, urban civilisation was discovered in northwestern India. This was the Indus Valley Civilisation, now referred to as either the Harappan civilisation, after its largest site, or as the Indus-Saraswati civilisation, after its two main rivers. This was probably the first major test for the AIT, in terms of physical artefacts and cultural legacy – and it passed it. The British archaeologists who first interpreted the sites declared that these ancient cities had been suddenly abandoned around 1500 BCE. This seemed to fit perfectly with the arrival of horse-riding Aryans humming selections from the Rig Veda, but the theory was easier to manipulate than the actual evidence, and gradually the idea that the Harappan finds support the AIT has slipped away. By now the civilisation is generally reckoned to have lasted from about 2800 BCE to around 1900 BCE, at which point the whole society did not collapse under force of invasion, but gradually moved and dispersed, possibly because of major climatic changes, including the drying up of the Saraswati.
But the new Harappan material still left two old questions unanswered; who were the Aryans, and where did they come from? It also added two new ones – who were the Harappans, and where did they come from? It became especially important to try to find out what language the Harappans spoke, because if they spoke Sanskrit then they were in all probability the Aryans themselves. Two peoples would become one, no invasion need be imagined. And either way, Indians would be able to claim their own ancient civilisation to put on a par with Sumer and Egypt. Before the discovery of Mohenjo Daro, India had always lacked a solid ancient past to compare with the Middle Eastern societies whose remnants filled so many European museums and were treated with awe. By contrast, in the years before the Harappan discoveries, ancient Indians were assumed to have been nothing more complicated than Dravidian farmers or Aryan nomads.
A huge amount of intellectual capital has been invested by Indian nationalists in attempts to prove that the Harappans were identical with the creators of the Vedas, but the case is still not proven. Meanwhile the Aryans have been turned (by pretty well everyone) from combative invaders into peaceful migrants, or slow moving, nature-loving farmers. Archaeological evidence, albeit scanty, has gradually been turning up to show the movement of peoples at around the relevant time through what is now north west Pakistan. An Aryan Migration Theory (AMT) has developed to allow the Aryans to ride or walk ever more slowly into India. Horse-riding, chariot-steering warriors have been softened into much more humane and cultured people.
Where they are thought to have started from has also gradually changed. Müller’s generation, and several afterwards, were all keen on Central Asian homelands for the Aryans, as this location seemed to make good sense in terms of the distribution of Indo-European derivatives, which mark out a complex, radial pattern. Modern scholarship has now placed the original Aryans in areas around the Caspian Sea, or even in eastern Anatolia.
But a militant faction in India decided to solve all these problems by a more radical view – that the Aryans started in India, were entirely Indian, and went on to spread their language and culture all across the globe from there. The Aryan homeland was northwest India, and there had actually been an Aryan ‘exvasion’. Scholars disliked this idea as it seemed too unrelated to the evidence as it stood, but hard-line nationalists loved it, and many have stuck to it ever since.
However, this later Aryan Exvasion Theory (also called the ‘Out of India’ Theory or OIT) is not accepted by all Indians. Many, over time, have been quite willing to accept an Aryan entry in either its earlier, more dogmatic version, or in its later milder form. Brahmins can easily accept either, without doing violence to their views of world history or undermining their lofty social position within Indian society. Tamil, Dravidian nationalist, and Dalit (Untouchable) spokespersons also willingly accept that there was an Aryan invasion. It fits neatly into a wider model of history in which the ancient, gentle people of India were strong-armed out of their inheritance by the arrival of cruel, central Asian Aryans. Demands for social justice and restitution follow on.
Many Raj-era nationalists accepted the AIT. Veer Savarkar did not dispute it, and never considered that central Asian origins for the Aryans undermined Indian national identity in any way. B G Tilak fitted Indian Aryan descent into a theory that the original Aryan homeland was in the Arctic Circle, an idea he based on an allegorical reading of the struggle against ‘darkness’ that the Vedas seem to narrate. In 1939 M. S. Golwalkar, shortly to become the second leader of the RSS, invented an ingenious way to reconcile Tilak’s Aryan polar homeland with his own desire to believe that the Aryans originated in India. Golwalkar simply declared that in ancient times Bihar and Orissa were at the North Pole. ‘It was not the Hindus who migrated to that land [Bihar and Orissa] but the Arctic zone which emigrated … and left the Hindus in Hindustan’ (We, or Our Nationhood Defined, p. 8).
This must rank as the most brilliant piece of knot cutting since Alexander, but as a theory it found no support, and has since, unsurprisingly, drifted off the nationalist radar. Milder nationalists, including Jawaharlal Nehru, were comfortable with the AIT, and felt that it was no more damaging to Indian amour-propre than the European origin of many modern Americans was to US national pride. However, a large number of other major Indian figures, including Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo and Dr Ambedkar, opposed it, and their successors have become increasingly impatient with the idea in roughly the same proportion as western scholars have stopped believing in it. By now, the AIT is a straw theory, while vigorously, elaborately, and sometimes implausibly discrediting it is an obsession of the Hindu right.
Denial of an invasion broadly implies that the Aryans and Harappans were one. Belief in the Exvasion is coupled to belief in the Vedic cultural colonisation of the rest of the world, which also implies that Sanskrit is either the mother of all other languages, or extremely close to it. Academic linguists do not accept this. They hold to the idea, originally floated by Sir William Jones, that all Indo-European languages are descended from a single original source – Proto-Indo-European (PIE). This is a semi-mythical, putative language, which has not survived and of which we have no examples.
Hindu nationalists regularly come up with an alternative theory, which is that Sanskrit is PIE. There is no way to resolve this satisfactorily, because we have no concrete evidence either way. However, extensive theorising and a great deal of ‘modelling’ has convinced academic philologists that classical Greek and Latin could not have descended directly from Sanskrit. Lady Sanskrit is thus not the mother of all tongues. She is definitely a cousin of the western Indo-European languages, and she might possibly even be as close as an aunt. Instead, in the opinion of all the people paid to decide on these matters, we are currently looking for a shared ancestor tongue, now lost to us. Many Indian nationalists will not accept this. So we have a bunch of professionals and a bunch of amateurs sneering at each other, and neutrals are obliged to decide which side is doing it more convincingly that the other.
The potentially most helpful, and certainly the most intriguing evidence to come out of the Harappan excavations is the wide range of seals, bearing symbols that resemble elements of writing. If this ‘script’ could be deciphered it would resolve a great many of the disputes surrounding the whole subject, but in the highly charged atmosphere that clings to ancient Indian history, these seals, and the marks they carry, have merely produced further controversy. Some say that insufficient evidence has been uncovered, and that a full script will become decipherable in time: others say the marks can never constitute a regular writing system, because within the large number of symbols we have, only a few are commonly found; yet others say that they have indeed deciphered it. But, among those who claim to have unlocked the script, there is wide disagreement over what sounds the symbols stand for, what language it is written in, and even in what direction it should be read.
As things stand, claims that the ‘writing’ is decipherable are not likely to survive close scrutiny. The fact that the Harappan script consists of about 400-600 symbols (so far) would tend to suggest that these symbols are neither an alphabet nor a syllabary. No known example of either system contains anything like that number of symbols. And of the hundreds of recognised symbols, only about ten appear with any regularity – probably a number low enough to exclude normal linguistic expression. In addition, the fact that most Harappan inscriptions consist of about four or five symbols would also suggest that these marks, whatever they are, are not sentences. This brevity would seem to indicate something simpler, perhaps some form of ownership mark. The longest Harappan inscription so far discovered consists of twenty-six characters, and although this might indicate a direct relationship to grammatical language (if the symbols are entire words or syllables) there are simply not enough extended examples available to us to use frequency analysis in order to tease out whatever meaning they may have.
Considering that the forms of ancient writing that we do know about – Egyptian, Chinese and Babylonian – all developed sufficiently to support a variety of functions, including bureaucratic record keeping, religious scripture and literary works, the cultural range of Harappan writing seems rather narrow by comparison. Perhaps further discoveries can enlighten us, but until then the idea that this script somehow indicates that the Harappans were the ancient world’s prime intellectual achievers seems a little threadbare, and we should all perhaps await the further verdict of time before making grandiose claims.
It is almost certain that the language is not Sanskrit, but this does not reduce the pressure on the issue because if the Harappans could somehow be shown to have spoken Sanskrit, then nationalist claims that the Aryans were entirely Indian would be vindicated. The game is still on.
There are other factors that distance the Vedas from the Harappans. One is iron. The Aryans seemed to have had iron and the Harappans did not; no iron has been found in north India before 1800 BCE at the earliest. There are ways round this difficulty, and the lack of Harappan iron finds has been remedied by creative retranslation of the Vedas themselves. So where the Sanskrit ayas is usually translated as ‘iron’, now to some writers it ‘appears to have stood for copper or bronze’ (In Search of the Cradle of Civilisation, Feuerstein, Kak and Frawley, p. 160). Another troubling problem is horses. Vedic literature is full of horses and chariots. Horses, native to the central Asian steppes, are not considered to have been introduced to north India until around 1800 BCE. Nationalists are therefore constantly concerned to find ‘proof’ of the presence of horses in Harappa prior to that date. So far there is almost nothing to comfort them, but any vaguely horse-like bone is hailed as clinching proof of equine Harappan citizens. Yet another amateurs vs. professionals face-off has resulted, with all sorts of learned discussion about skeletal characteristics of proto-horses, half-asses and ancient onagers. Yet if the horse was important to the Harappans there should be widespread, consistent finds. And no such finds exist (yet).
More damaging to the Aryan Harappans theory is that the Harappans themselves did not depict horses on their highly pictographic seals. They represented all sorts of other recognisable creatures, especially bulls, but no horses. Ever. This deficiency was also supplied in a notorious incident involving Mr. N. S. Rajaram, a believer in Vedic world conquest. In 2000, Mr. Rajaram and Dr. N. Jha published an ‘enhanced’ image of a seal that allegedly depicted a horse. Experts were sceptical, because the seal in question was well known. It had a distinctive broken edge, and this edge had somehow come to resemble the neck of a horse after an accident, or perhaps a whole series of accidents, with a scanner, some graphic software and a photocopier, which resulted in the appearance of this hitherto unsuspected ‘horse’ in the seal. In Frontline magazine of November 2000, India’s leading expert on the Harappan script, Iravatham Mahadevan, called the horse an ‘optical illusion’, and Rajaram and Jha’s accompanying decipherment of the script ‘completely invalid’. Professor Asko Parpola, one of the world’s leading authorities on Harappan seals, went further and accused Rajaram of ‘dishonesty’ and of ‘falsifying evidence’. Rajaram and Jha subsequently backtracked.
Whatever the details of accidental horses or disappearing iron, there remain intractable problems with any attempt to make a definitive identification of the Harappans as Sanskrit-speaking Aryans. Just to conclude that the Aryan Invasion Theory was wrong in its original form is not to give a free pass to any other theory that seems sufficiently pleasing. The Aryans were fire-worshipping, mobile, rural pastoralists, with spoked wheels on their chariots. This is not the life of the urban Harappans, and indeed it is not even the life of unmistakably ‘Hindu’ people.
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