(This article appeared in the June 2009 edition of Pragati)
In January 2009, US network PBS telecast a documentary titled The Story of India. Hosted by Michael Wood,this six-part series narrated a compressed history of India from pre-historic times till Independence. The first episode—Beginnings—-discussed one of the most controversial topics in Indian history: the origin of the Aryans.
In this episode Mr Wood did three things. Standing at Khyber Pass, looking down at the valley of Kabul river, he quoted the translation of a verse from Baudhayana Srautasutra which reads, “some went east..but some stayed at home in the west”. This verse, Wood opined, suggests an Aryan migration from Afghanistan into India.
Second, he went to Turkmenistan to meet Viktor Sarianidi, the legendary Russian archaeologist, who besides unearthing the Bactrian gold in northern Afghanistan, found horses, wheeled vehicles and mud-brick fire altars in Gonur Tepe, Turkmenistan. According to Dr Sarianidi, the Aryans arrived there around 2000 BC and left in 1800 BC towards Afghanistan.
Third, Mr Wood mentioned a 1786 discovery by the polyglot Sir William Jones on the similarities between Sanskrit and various European languages, due to which if a Sanskrit speaker mentioned the word ashva, a Lithuanian farmer would know exactly what he meant. All these indicated that the ancestors of the Aryans were part of a language group which spread from the area between Caspian sea and Aral mountains 4000 years ago. As per this theory, these Sanskrit speaking newcomers subjugated the natives—Dravidians and tribals—and established themselves at the top of the caste hierarchy.
Sounds logical, but Mr Wood’s claims are controvertible. According to B B Lal, who was the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India, the correct translation of Baudhayana Srautasutra says that while some Aryan tribes went east and the others went west from some intermediary point. This intermediary point for Dr Lal is not the valley of the Kabul river, but that of the Indus.
In a lecture given at the 19th International Conference on South Asian Archaeology in July 2007, Dr Lal analysed Dr Sarianidi’s evidence—fire-worship, soma rituals, ashvamedha—and in the case of fire worship he proved that the direction of movement was from India to Central Asia. He also showed that there was no soma in Gonur Tepe, and the skeleton of the horse was unrelated to asvamedha.
Now genetic studies too are challenging the Aryan migration theory, the successor of the discredited Aryan invasion theory. Some studies have revealed that Southern castes and tribes are similar to each other and their gene pool is related to the castes of North India. It was not possible to confirm any difference between the caste and tribal pools and find any clean delineation between the Dravidian and Indo-European speakers. Another study compared the genes of Brahmins and tribals and found autochthnous origins for Brahmins and the caste system. Also, there was no evidence for a massive migration in the 1500-1200 BC period.
If so where did the Aryans originate? In the accompanying book, Mr Wood mentions that many Indian scholars and polemicists believe that Aryans were indigenous to India. Gavin Flood, senior lecturer in religious studies at the University of Stirling, Scotland, is neither an Indian nor a polemicist, but in his book An Introduction to Hinduism, he mentions the Aryan migration theory, but also the alternate: the cultural transformation thesis. According to this view, the Aryan culture was an indigenous development in the Indus valley, uninfluenced by invaders or migrants. Thus Hinduism evolved with the Aryan culture interacting with non-Aryan and tribal cultures. This cultural transformation thesis works well with the Out of India theory according to which India is the Indo-European homeland from where some groups migrated to Central and West Asia and Europe.
The Debates and Consequences
Fuelling the debate over Aryans and their origins are various schools—the Orientalist, the Nationalist and the Marxist—with different positions. This seems perfect since the bias of each of these schools will get corrected by opinions from other schools. Unfortunately in Indian historiography, some schools are more equal than the other. Blessed by the Indian government and aided by a list of approved scholars, only certain versions of history get into school textbooks. Thus genetic studies which overwhelmingly contradict the Aryan Migration Theory never see the light of the day. One state government—West Bengal—even goes so far as to publicly declare what is shuddho and what is ashuddo. Thus depending on the clerisy running the Indian Council of Historical Studies, the colour of history oscillates between saffron and red.
In such an atmosphere, when the government is a partner in identity politics, promoting one version of history and silencing others, the chips are not allowed to fall where it should. When a historian, who identifies himself with a label—Orientalist, Marxist or Nationalist—controls the debate, history is a prisoner of dogma. Such labelled historians silence unpopular ideas, keep inconvenient facts in the dark and display intellectual cowardice.
In this acerbic debate, any one who opposes the Aryan migration theory is branded a Hindu nationalist out to eliminate other minorities from India. But Edwin Bryant, in his book, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture, notes that there are a number of Western scholars too who don’t believe in the external origins of Aryans. Among the Indian scholars who he met during his research, “one prominent Indigenous Aryanist turned out to be an atheist and very irreverent Marxist.”
The media can play an activist role in this debate. In 1993, a decision by Mexico’s education minister not to publish new history books as they did not conform to the “preferred version” resulted in considerable outrage. The Mexican media pursued the story and critically evaluated the text books the same way Indian media panned the Murli Manohar Joshi’s revisions.
Parents too can be activists. In California, upset by the representation of Hinduism in school textbooks, Indian-Americans filed a lawsuit against the Board of Education demanding edits. One of the disputes was about the Aryan theory and during the hearing, a California curriculum commissioner, Stan Metzenberg, said “I’ve read the DNA research and there was no Aryan migration. I believe the hard evidence of DNA more than I believe historians.” We have to wait and see if the text books will actually reflect the change.
Politicians too can be activists. In Kerala, there was a controversy last year over text books which highlighted communist struggles over the freedom struggle, ignored non-communist social leaders, and used a picture of a frog instead of that of Mahatma Gandhi. When it was suspected that the Communists were trying to teach atheism, Hindus, Muslims and Christians united in opposition. The Opposition staged walkouts. Finally the curriculum committee agreed to modify the text.
Such activism, from the media, from the parents, from opposition politicians, is missing when it comes to balancing the distortions in existing textbooks.
Lawsuits, protests, activism—these can be an effective tools, but there is also a need to popularise the discourse. Stephen Ambrose, David McCullough are masters of the popular history genre in the West. Barring a few honourable exceptions, in the Indian context this genre consists of writing more biographies of Nehru and Gandhi. There is a need to add more voices to this discourse—to explain how the invasion theory evolved to migration theory to Aryan trickle down theory—because this Aryan-Dravidian race theory still has serious social and political implications in India.
In 1915, Justice Mahadeo Govind Ranade lamented that the Aryan Brahmins were few in number to make any influence on the aboriginal races in the South. Opponents claimed that aboriginals were robbed by the Aryan invaders of their culture. Periyar E V Ramaswami Naicker, went one step further: he despised Hinduism, asked Tamils to liberate themselves from the Aryan yoke and claimed Ravana was the Dravidian hero, not Rama. Recently, Dravidar Kazhagam leader K Veeramani called for people to reject “Aryan” leaders. The politicians who promote a ideology of caste hatred that should not be able to get away with their fundamentalist agenda.
For this we need to evolve from Stalinized history and saffronized history to objective history— on Aryan theory, on Hindu-Muslim relations, on Independence struggle—by weeding out absurd ‘nationalist’ claims and distortions written for religious appeasement. Theories on the origins of Indian civilisation must correlate with archaeological, linguistic and genetic evidence. The standard for acceptance of theories and hypotheses must not be government approval, religious sanction or secular ideological compliance, but rather ability to withstand the scientific stress test on a level playing field.
Image Credits: Charles Haynes, Natmandu
Editing Credits: Nitin Pai
11 thoughts on “Op-Ed in Pragati: Getting Objective about it”
Can you give examples of what you mean by saffronized or Hindu nationalist version of Indian history, because many times, the unbiased and the saffron camps say the same thing?
I think these comes from a book called Gaurav Gatha.
Qutb Minar was constructed by Samundragupta, and its original name was Vushnu Sthambha ( p. 73, GG). It has also been argued that the Taj Mahal was originally built by Hindus and was called Tejomahale
Homer adapted Valmikiís Ramayana into an epic called Iliad. Alexanderís army was defeated at the hands of Puru and Alexander himself had to seek forgiveness Jesus Christ roamed the Himalayas and drew his ideas from Hinduism.
Can you elaborate more on the recent genetic research that has thrown more light on this rather old debate of AIT, AMT etc. I read your and Michel Danino’s piece in Pragati. Can you please put on more easier terms what these recent genetic findings mean?
For instance, please correct me if I’m wrong, there seems to be some consensus that Brahmins of the vedic age lived in the regions of Northwest Pakistan, Kashmir, maybe even Punjab. In other words, the upper Indus regions. There also seems some consensus they went east into the Gangetic plain and further down to south India. But there seems to be lot of argument on whether Brahmins were indigenous to Upper Indus region or did they come from further northwest.
My questions are the following:
1. Is there any new evidence to suggest that Harappan civilization which flourished in the lower Indus regions also included Brahmins.
2. How similar are the genes of Brahmins and non-Brahmin castes in North India. How similar are those two groups with respect to tribals?
3. Is there similarity between the genes of non-Brahmin castes in north and south India. And among tribals in north and south india.
4. Are there any noticeable genetic similarities between Brahmins and Parsis?
Sorry if I don’t make much sense above.
ps: I’m using the word Brahmin instead of Aryan becos I think Aryan is a linguistic and cultural grouping rather than ethnic. While linguistically most north-indians can be called Aryans, I suspect the Brahmins/non-Brahmin castes/tribals are genetically different even in north India.
This is the response from Michel Danino
You can find more detailed explanations and references in my full article:
Not just “upper” Indus, also lower, and towards Yamuna-Ganga. The geography of the Rig-Veda is the Sapta Sindhava, more or less the whole Indus and
Sarasvati basins. In the Brahmana literature (which is technically part of the “Vedic Age”) you will have to include much of the Gangetic plains.
There is no way to tell. We could tell only if Brahmins had an identifiable physical type distinct from others, which isn’t the case. Prof. Kenneth Kennedy has written at some length on this, and in short Brahmins can never be identified from the skeletal remains; the same conclusion is reached by
genetic studies. And since we can’t read the Harappan script, we cannot draw a conclusion. Finally, although there is some evidence of social stratification in Harappan society, a caste system as we understand it today seems rather unlikely.
Please see some answers in my above-mentioned paper. In short, genetic proximity is generally on a geographic basis, not on a caste basis; in other words, a Brahmin of North India is genetically closer to other communities of his regions (including tribals) than to a Brahmin of South India. This is
a general rule: there could be exceptions, which we will know when larger samples of India’s population have been studied.
There are always “similarities”, the question is how much. We must think in terms of genetic distances. See the map in my paper, borrowed from one of the research papers. We would ideally need a far more complete map that
would include important Indian communities. In any case, remember that India’s genetic heritage is the most varied in the world after Africa.
If by “Aryans” you mean the Vedic clans mentioned in the Rig-Veda, there is no way to tell whether they were “Brahmins” or even if the concept existed then. I personally prefer the neutral term “Vedic people”. And again,
communities are always “genetically different” from each other, the question is by how much. In genetics difference is always relative, not absolute.
In summary, if you are hoping to genetically define a Brahmin identity, I don’t think this will work. There is no “Brahmin haplogroup”, for instance.
yes. the term ‘Vedic people’ seems appropriate. thanks for linking Danino’s paper. will read it.
do you know if the Harappan ruins point to significant sacrificial rituals?
i didn’t know Geographical location affects genetics. is this true among jews, parsis as well? i had assumed that jews, parsis and brahmins (assuming they didn’t intermarry with other ethnic people) will be genetically distinguishable irrespective of their geographical location.
in my prev comment, “i didn’t know Geographical location affects genetics.”
lest it sound too dumb, what I mean is how long does it take for geography to have significant impact on the genetics. if the Brahmins of south india aren’t significantly differenct from other communities (lets exclude kerala which seems to have had intermarriages), is that also true among Parsis and others in western India.
When Israel claimed their long lost tribe in North-east India, was genetics one of the factors? Also what about the research which identifies some tribes in Nilgiris with the earliest African tribes who apparently migrated to India.
Can you pass on the following observations to Danino?
1. Biology was my weakest subject. So excuse my incredulity in asking this question. If mtDNA is necessarily a female chromosome line, how is that useful in explaining the Hindu, Muslim genetic similarities? Doesn’t Indian history suggest conversions to Islam as well as intermarriages between foreign males and Indian females. How will Hindu and Muslim communities, predominantly sharing the same maternal lines, have significant mtDNA differences?
2. Concluding that 80 to 90% upper castes share genetic similarities with lower castes and tribals raises more questions than answers. How much of Indian History was taken into consideration before initiating this research? Brahmins constitute less than 10% of the population even today and is likely to have been much less in the past. I don’t think anyone ever argued that non-Brahmin ‘upper castes’ were genetically dissimilar to ‘lower castes’. Isn’t the caste system in India based on profession and to what extent each caste accepted Brahmin rituals?
3. How are primitive genes like U and m17 helpful in concluding anything about a alleged historical event as recent as 4000 years old?
Maybe restating the problem statement might be helpful in solving the AMT conundrum.
“Are Brahmins genetically distinguishable from other communities in India especially using the mtDNA research. If not is this research in anyway useful in proving or disproving the AMT hypothesis?”
In anycase, even the most fervent AMT or trickle supporters only claim that Brahmins (or vedic people) originally lived in a small region comprising eastern Iran, northern Afghan, north-northwest pakistan. Practically all regions to the north and northwest of the Indus valley. And some time after the demise of the Harappan civilization (no way attributable to any Aryan Invasion or Migration), these people expanded their physical presence in north India (Indus and Gangetic plains) during the vedic period and then spread their culture (not genes) across India during the ‘epic’ period.
So trying to prove or disprove fantastic claims like Indo-Aryans have Caucasian origins maybe useful in Europe but may not have any relevance in India.
Please take a look at The Indian origin of paternal haplogroup R1a1* substantiates the autochthonous origin of Brahmins and the caste system. You can download the paper from that site.
As always, a good article from you. One minor nitpick: You mention about the BSS verse on migration and say that B.B. Lal interprets it differently. But iirc, Michael Witzel used it to claim it as an evidence of Vedic people remembering their migration and it was Koenraad Elst who showed that it actually suggests both a westward and eastward movement from the Saraswati region.
Easwaran, Thanks for the nitpick. I did not know that.
The AryoDravido theology will not get erased easily since Indians generaly in the whole of sub continent are not mentally strong to accept inefficiency and use this tool as an escapist medium. The most fundamental points the protaganists omit is that North Indians are dominating but not imperialistic. Barring Asoka no North Indian king ever invaded south. Even here Mauryas can never be considered as Hindustani in view of specific reference of Megasthenes linking with Greek Gods Herculese, Diosysius and Bacchus and the similarity of stories of Alexander and Chandragupta Maurya and inscriptions of Darius I to Asokan edicts with reference structure content and orders. On the other hand South Indian kings are always boastful and their mission is to plant their flags in Himalayas. The Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas,Colas and lastly Vijayanagar kings plundered Central and East India.Even now North Indians are disinterested in South but in the south it is fashion to name all North Indian leaders and especially people in Tamilnadu are fascinated in naming Global leaders. The Sanskrit literature including Ramayana, Maahabharatha, Kalhana Kalidasa and lastly Alberuni were completely ignorant of territory between south of River Krishna-Godavari upto Tondi. It is amazing that while Chola inscriptions extensively deal with all North Indian and East asisan teritories the Sanskrit literature and Alberuni completely fail to mention Chola-Pallavas. Thus while Chola-Chalukya inscriptions never indicate sack of Somnath and Alberuni does not mention Cholas Who is inaccurate?Reading India through Alberuni one has to dismiss Cholas and reading through Chola inscriptions one has to dismiss Gazni since the concept of Someswara is a favourite theme of Cholas. One has to frankly admit that all North Indian sources includng Kalidasa folowed only Greek geographers i.e., they did not know land route to Srilanka. That is why the theme of Srilankan Princess caught in shipwreck during a sojourn to North India is a favourite theme of Sanskrit dramatists. Till 1070AD There was no word Chola in Chinese chronicles bur denoted by Dravida. It was only afterwards DRAVIDA was replaced by CHOLA. Even while eugolising Pandiyas Kalidasa mention heir capital as Uragapura which can never be Uraiyur since during Kalidasa’s period Uraiyur lost its glory and translation of Uragapura into Tamil can only be Nagapattinam. Further as per Hieun Tsang Chulia was nearer to Kanchipuram i.e., Andhra Cholas and probably what Kalidasa meant would have been a place in Andhra-Chola territory.The whole Indian history is a gymmic and it has to be completely set aside. When Sanskrit literture is not able to identify South even during 300AD-800AD what is the use of tracing history in Vedas? Let the historians honestly trace the history of Tamil/Tamilnadu through Sanskrit literature and then analyse Vedas. Lastly there is no reference to Tamil in Sanskrit literture and Dravida in Sanskrit as well as Ceylonese chronicles refer Dravida only to Krishna-Godavari basin where Buddhism first appeared.