Every few months, and nowadays, with the appearance of each new article on genetic makeup of Indians, a controversy is stirred up claiming that there was a migration into India of people called ‘Aryans’ bringing the Vedas and the Sanskrit language (or its precursor) with them. This theory of ‘Aryan migration’ or ‘Aryan invasion’ is vigorously disputed by scholars with evidence to the contrary. Here is an attempt to rewind to the start of the controversy and relate how it all began and how its origins match up with known facts.
At the outset, it must be understood that there are a sizeable number of Indians, who believe that there existed two groups of people called ‘Aryans’ and ‘Dravidians’. Some of these people believe that they are descendants of Aryans while others believe that they are descendants of Dravidians or like to call themselves Dravidian. Aryans are, by under-informed popular belief, believed to be tall and fair skinned, speaking “Aryan or Indo-European languages” like Hindi, Bengali or Gujarati, while Dravidians are supposed to be dark-skinned south Indians speaking Dravidian languages like Tamil. Indians, who like to be thought of as being of Aryan descent, believe themselves to be rooted in the soil of India, while the political choice made by some people claiming Dravidian affinity is to accuse Aryans of being outsiders, who came from a foreign land.
It is necessary to unravel how these beliefs became established among Indians and then try to look at whether Aryans or Dravidians really exist as separate groups of people bearing their stereotypical physical characteristics. Whether an Indian thinks he is Aryan or Dravidian or neither – everyone accepts that Indian history goes back at least 3,500 years to 1500 BC (or earlier by many accounts). Among Indians there was no awareness of Aryan or Dravidian till about 200 years ago. So how did a nation of hundreds of million of people, with 3,000 plus years of history, suddenly divide themselves up into people of Aryan or Dravidian descent?
When European scholars came to India along with the British, they were surprised to discover the similarity between Sanskrit and European languages like Latin, French, German and English. Even more significant was the discovery by Europeans of Sanskrit grammar. Until then, European linguists knew that their own languages in Europe were somewhat similar, but it was the revelation of Sanskrit grammar that made them aware of how and why European languages were related.
Max Muller wrote:
The world had known Latin and Greek for centuries, and it was felt, no doubt, that there was some kind of similarity between the two. But how was that similarity to be explained? [..] But how such a likeness between these languages came to be, and how, what is far more difficult to explain, such striking differences too between these languages came to be, remained a mystery..[..] As soon, however, as Sanskrit stepped into the midst of these languages, there came light and warmth and mutual recognition.
Initially, European ‘Indologists’ , ‘philologists’ and ‘Orientalists’ thought that Sanskrit may be the mother language of European languages. Translations of Sanskrit works into European languages threw up the word ‘Arya’ or ‘noble people’. European scholars did not find it necessary to include the idea that Arya referred to people, who strictly followed the traditions of Hindu Dharma. For example, the character Yudishthira in the Mahabharata would be a classic Arya in his rigid adherence to the principles of Dharma. To Europeans coming from a different culture Arya simply indicated a superior race. And that superior race could not be coffee or chocolate coloured Indians. From this was born the idea that Aryans came from the west, bringing a superior language and grammar to India, where it had to be protected from the degradations that it was exposed to by the black Dravidians.
A caste system was created by Aryans to protect the fair-skinned Aryan’s knowledge from dark skinned natives. Despite that, over centuries, the superior Aryans in India interbred with the black people producing the degraded races of India. So the story grew that great white races from Europe came to India, defeated Dravidians and sent them south and settled in India but gradually degenerated into current day Indians, who were not equal to white skinned Aryans.
These theories, over time, came to be accepted as true and filled up scholarly texbooks making superior Aryans, the speakers of ‘Indo-Aryan languages’ and dark skinned ‘Dravidians’, speakers of ‘Dravidian languages’ an accepted ‘scientific’ fact. This was the ‘knowledge’ imparted to Indian schoolchildren as Indians started getting recruited by the British to work for British India. Aryans and Dravidians, who did not previously exist in the history or narrative of India, gradually became part of the Indian narrative and is now ‘accepted fact’ among a large number of Indians as well as accepted scholarly wisdom in the west.
European linguists and historians set about trying to find ‘proof’ of a mother language that linked Sanskrit to European languages – which were all grouped under the name ‘Indo-European languages’ (changed from the former name ‘Indo-Aryan languages’) . It turned out that there was no proof of any language available. Sanskrit existed as a language handed down orally, with no written texts and there were no European written texts of adequate antiquity for comparison.
Linguists and historians then started to try and find archaeological links between the proposed European place of origin of Indo-European languages and India to fix a route of spread. Europe and Eurasia had archaeological finds but no evidence of language. India had the preserved ancient language but no archaeological links. No direct connection could be made. Then, apparently out of the blue, it was decided that the Vedas represented a ‘horse culture’. This idea was not sourced from Vedic scholars but from German and English translations of Vedas.
To an educated reader these translations read like ludicrous mumbo-jumbo written by half-wits. However – since the Vedas were ancient, it was acceptable to imagine that poems could be the work of primitive humans of lower intelligence. The fact that the laughably faulty translations of the Vedas had more references to cows and fire worship than horses was ignored while declaring the Vedas as part of a ‘horse worship culture’.
Once the Vedas became ‘horse culture’, it was easy to link them with graves with horse burials and evidence of horse-meat eating in Eurasia. There are no horse graves with chariots or evidence of horse-meat eating anywhere in Afghanistan, Pakistan or India. But the Vedas are firmly rooted in the Punjab region of India. Nevertheless, it was declared that the Vedas actually refer to a horse culture that existed in Eurasia – a group of people who came as conquering invaders with horses and chariots into India. Perhaps this theory is perfectly true.
Perhaps those people really did come – but there is no evidence of the language they spoke. It is assumed that it must have been a precursor of Sanskrit. There is no archaeological evidence of Eurasian horse culture in India and there is no evidence of the language spoken by the horse-burying and horse-eating people of Eurasia. Even if those people did ride into India victoriously – it cannot be assumed that they brought a particular language with them. The horse graves are in Eurasia. The language is in India. These facts remain unchanged to this day.
Surprisingly, or perhaps characteristically in this debate, lack of evidence has not stopped historians from assuming that horse riding people brought language to India. It did not matter that the Vedas actually have a passage, where the number of ribs of a horse is mentioned and this number corresponds to the rib-count of the Arabian horse – from an area with which India had proven ancient contacts.
The Eurasian horse has a different number of ribs. It did not matter that the Vedas are full of references to cows, cows milk and ghee and not a single reference to mare’s milk. But the Eurasian horse culture archaeology has evidence that the people drank mare’s milk. These inconsistencies have been ignored to declare that Eurasians brought the language to India. And the date that the language is said to have come – corresponds to a date after 2000 BC – because the horse graves of Eurasia date back to 2000 BC. Therefore, it is stated that the Vedas were brought to India by people from the north and west around 1500 to 1000 BC.
With no direct or indirect evidence of language movement, we now have ‘established knowledge’ about where and when language came to India, created out of thin air and a fertile imagination.
Genetic findings conclusively prove that there have been numerous migrations into India. There is no denying that. But genetics also shows migrations out of India. One subset of the much bandied about “R1” gene carried by men and found in India and Europe actually originated in India and travelled later as far north as Poland. That said – genes do not provide any evidence of the language people spoke. There have been migrations into India 60,000 years ago, also 12,000 years ago, and even 4,000 years ago and later. But linguists and historians are obsessed with the ‘4,000 years’ date because it fits in with their theory of victorious horse riding Aryans coming to India. Migrations that may have occurred 12,000 years ago are too early for this theory; 1,500 years ago is too late.
Because linguists and historians have already assumed a 1500 BC date for the arrival of language and the composing of the Vedas – any genetic evidence of migration near about those dates is automatically assumed as the very migration that brought the language – the famous Aryan migration.
There are innumerable problems with this theory. While it is easy to concentrate on the word ‘horse’ in the Vedas and ignore ‘cow’ and ‘fire’ it gets even more difficult to ignore the references to astronomy and dates in the ancient texts. Contemporary scientists like Nilesh Oak, steeped in scientific method, and Vedic scholars like David Frawley refer to astonomical events within India in Sanskrit texts that date back to 5000 BC or earlier. And these are not newly charged up ‘Hindu rightwing activists’ coming up with outlandish theories. They are only the latest observers of dates that have been previously written about by others.
In 1893, Bal Gangadhar Tilak had noted a reference in the Rig Veda of the occurrence of the vernal equinox in the constellation Orion, dating the event back to 4,000 BC. Hermann Jacobi , who was both a Sanskrit scholar and an astronomer, discovered in 1909 a passage in the Rig Veda V.18-19 that described a full moon on the day of the winter solstice in the month of Phalguna, which Jacobi dated to a time in the third millennium BC or earlier.
Ancient post Vedic texts have ‘internal evidence’ that dates them back to a time far earlier than 1500 BC. They also have similar internal evidence of being firmly rooted in the geography of north-west India. “Aryavarta” – the land of the Aryas is clearly described in ancient Sanskrit texts with geographic references to India that include the Vindhya mountains and the Himalayas, apart from local river names. All the evidence points to the Sanskrit language and the Arya (noble Dharma-abiding people) as having existed in India before 1500 BC.
But these facts are fatal to the theory that postulates a “migration of horse riding Aryan people” bringing Sanskrit and the Vedas to India around 1500 BC. This does not stand up to scrutiny. It may be argued that the Vedas did come from somewhere else – but the date has to be far earlier than 1500 BC and the geographic roots in India need to be explained completely without selectively ignoring some data as has been done in the past. A date for the Vedas (and the Sanskrit language) earlier than 1500 BC is extremely inconvenient to historians and linguists because it demolishes fondly held 200-year-old assumptions about language spread from west to east by horse-eating, horse-riding people on chariots.
Historians and linguists who have spent lifetimes trying to fit evidence to their theory are understandably displeased at upstarts, who make alternate claims to the dating of the Vedas and the Sanskrit language. Obfuscation and denial are no substitute for good science. It should not be difficult to accept that many people have migrated to India in the past, some as conquerors. But there is no evidence that they brought the precursor of the Sanskrit language, or the Vedas with them or that they were Aryans defeating Dravidians.
These well entrenched hypotheses will be discarded when all the facts are taken in toto. There were no Aryans and they did not defeat black Dravidians. These racist concoctions need to be consigned to the scrap heap where they belong.
By Dr Shiv Shastry