One of the most controversial ideas about Hindu history is the Aryan Invasion Theory. This theory, originally devised by F. Max Muller in 1848, traces the history of Hinduism to the invasion of India’s indigenous people by lighter skinned Aryans around 1500 BCE.
The theory was reinforced by other research over the next 120 years, and became the accepted history of Hinduism, not only in the West but in India. It even teaches that some of the most revered books of Hindu scripture are not actually Indian, and it devalues India’s culture by portraying it as less ancient than it actually is. There is now ample evidence to show that Muller, and those who followed him, were wrong.
Why is the theory no longer accepted?
The Aryan invasion theory was not based on true archaeological, linguistic and ethnological evidence. Later research has either discredited this theory by providing new evidences that combined with the earlier evidence makes other explanations more likely. Modern historians of the area no longer believe that such invasions had happened. It’s now generally accepted that Indian history shows a continuity of progress from the earliest times to today. The changes brought to India by other cultures are not denied by modern historians, but they are no longer thought to be a major ingredient in the development of Hinduism.
Dangers of the theory
The Aryan invasion theory denies the Indian origin of India’s predominant culture, but gives the credit for Indian culture to invaders from elsewhere. It even teaches that some of the most revered books of Hindu scripture are not actually Indian, and it devalues India’s culture by portraying it as less ancient than it actually is.
The theory was not just wrong, it included unacceptably racist ideas:
- it suggested that Indian culture was not a culture in its own right, but a synthesis of elements from other cultures
- it implied that Hinduism was not an authentically Indian religion but the result of cultural imperialism
- it suggested that Indian culture was static, and only changed under outside influences
- it suggested that the dark-skinned Dravidian people of the South of India had got their faith from light-skinned Aryan invaders
- it implied that indigenous people were incapable of creatively developing their faith
- it suggested that indigenous peoples could only acquire new religious and cultural ideas from other races, by invasion or other processes
- it accepted that race was a biologically based concept (rather than, at least in part, a social construct) that provided a sensible way of ranking people in a hierarchy, which provided a partial basis for the caste system
- it provided a basis for racism in the Imperial context by suggesting that the peoples of Northern India were descended from invaders from Europe and so racially closer to the British Raj
- it gave a historical precedent to justify the role and status of the British Raj, who could argue that they were transforming India for the better in the same way that the Aryans had done thousands of years earlier
- it downgraded the intellectual status of India and its people by giving a falsely late date to elements of Indian science and culture.
For a pretty long time the following four myths have been obscuring our vision of India’s past …
- Myth 1: ‘There was an Aryan Invasion of India’
- Myth 2: ‘The Harappans were a Dravidian‑speaking People’
- Myth 3: ‘The Rigvedic Sarasvati was the Helmand of Afghanistan,’ and
- Myth 4: ‘The Harappan Culture became Extinct’
In the nineteenth century a German scholar, F. Max Muller, dated the Vedas, on a very ad hoc basis, to 1200 BC. Granting that the Sutra literature may have existed in the sixth‑fifth centuries BC, he assigned a duration of two hundred years to each of the preceding literary periods, namely those of the Aranyakas, Brahmanas and Vedas and thus arrived at the figure of 1200 BC for the last‑named texts. However, when his own colleagues, like Goldstucker, Whitney and Wilson, challenged him, he stated that his dating was ‘merely hypothetical’ and confessed: ‘Whether the Vedic hymns were composed in 1000 or 1500 or 2000 or 3000 BC, no power on earth will ever determine.’ However, the saddest part of the story is that his blind followers, both in India and abroad, even today swear by 1200 BC and do not dare cross this Laksmana rekha.
Be that as it may. The first quarter of the twentieth century witnessed the discovery of an altogether unknown civilization on the Indian subcontinent, datable to the third millennium BC. Called variously the Harappan, Indus or Indus‑Sarasvati Civilization, it is characterised, amongst other things, by systematic town‑planning, an underground drainage, excellently engraved seals, a monumental script, a refined system of weights and measures and some beautiful statuary. However, recent excavations have thrown new light on various other aspects of this civilization, which call for a fresh look at many issues connected with it. Radiocarbon dates indicate that its roots go back to the 5th millennium BC, while its peak period lay between 2600 and 2000 BC, after which began its decline.
With the discovery of the Harappan Civilization there also started a debate about its authors. Because of Max Muller’s fatwa that the Vedas were not earlier than 1200 BC, it was argued that this civilization could not be associated with the Vedic people. Since the only other major language spoken on the subcontinent was the Dravidian it was but natural at that point of time to assume that the Dravidian‑speakers were its authors.
In 1946 Sir Mortimer Wheeler carried out further excavations at Harappa and discovered a fortification wall around one of the mounds. However, his interpretation of it was nothing more than a mere flight of imagination. Since the Rigveda refers to Indra as puramdara (destroyer of forts), he jumped at the idea that there was an ‘Aryan invasion’ which destroyed the Harappan Civilization, and the latter became ‘extinct’. To give a prop to his thesis, he referred to certain skeletal remains found at Mohenjo-daro, which, he held, provided evidence of a ‘massacre’ by the invaders.
If these skeletons are at all to be associated with a massacre by invaders, one expects that these would have come from the latest level. But the hard fact is that these came from various levels, some from the middle and some from the late, and some were found in deposits which accumulated after the site had been abandoned. Thus, there is no case for a massacre; and Professor George F. Dales of the University of California, Berkeley, has rightly dubbed it as a ‘mythical massacre’. Further, if there at all was an invasion, one expects at the site the weapons of warfare as also some remains of the material culture of the invaders. But there was no such evidence. On the other hand, there is a clear case of cultural continuity, not only at Mohenjo‑daro but also at other Harappa Culture sites.
Commenting on this issue, Lord Colin Renfrew (UK) avers: ‘If one checks the dozen references in the Rigveda to the Seven Rivers, there is nothing in any of them that to me implies invasion. … Despite Wheeler’s comments, it is difficult to see what is particularly non‑Aryan about the Indus Valley Civilization.’
After a thorough analysis of the skeletal data, Professor Hemphill (of USA) holds: ‘As for the question of biological continuity within the Indus Valley, two discontinuities appear to exist. The first occurs between 6000 and 4500 BC. The second occurs at some point after 800 BC but before 200 BC.’ It is, thus, abundantly clear that no new people entered the Indus Valley between 4500 BC and 800 BC. So, where is any case for an ‘Aryan invasion’ around 1500‑1200 BC?
Now to the second myth, viz. the ‘Harappan = Dravidian’ equation. It has been made out that the Aryan invaders drove away the ‘Dravidian‑speaking’ Harappans to South India but a small section somehow managed to stay on in Baluchistan, speaking the Brahui language. However, many scholars do not agree that Brahui belongs to the Dravidian group. Some even hold that the Brahui‑speaking people migrated to that region from elsewhere during the medieval times. Further, if the so‑called Dravidian‑speaking Harappans were pushed down to South India, one expects some Harappan sites over there. But the hard fact is that in none of the four Dravidian-speaking States of South India, viz. Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala do we have even a single site of the Harappan Culture !! On the other hand, what we do have in South India about that time is a neolithic culture. Do then the proponents of the ‘Harappan = Dravidian’ equation expect us to believe that the urban Harappans, on being sent away to South India, shed away overnight their urban characteristics and took to a Stone Age way of living?
Again, it has been observed all over the world that even if the original inhabitants are pushed out of an area, some of the rivers, mountains and towns in that area continue to bear the original names. Thus, for example, even after the Europeans overran North America and gave their own names to the towns, such as New York, New Jersey, etc., many of the names of the towns and rivers given by the earlier inhabitants, viz. the Red Indians, may still be noted: for example, Chicago and Massachusett as those of towns and Missouri and Mississippi as of rivers. But in the entire region once occupied by the Harappans there is not even a single name of river, mountain or town which can claim a Dravidian origin. Why ? The obvious answer is that the Harappans were not a Dravidian‑speaking people.
Let us deal with the third myth, viz. that the Helmand of Afghanistan was the Rigvedic Sarasvati. This is totally wrong. According to RV 10.75.5, it lay between the Yamuna and Sutlej (imam me Gange Yamune Sarasvati Sutudri stotam sachata Parusnya…). RV 3.23.4 states that the Drishadvati and Apaya were its tributaries (Drishadvatyam manusa Apayam Sarasvatyam revadagne didihi… ). Further, RV 7.95.2 clearly mentions that the Sarasvati flowed all the way from the mountains to the sea (ekachetat Sarasvati nadinam suchir yati giribhya a samudrat… ). In Afghanistan there are no rivers by the name of Yamuna and Sutlej, nor are there Drishadvati and Apaya. Further, there is no sea in Afghanistan. So how can the Rigvedic Sarasvati be placed there? All this evidence ¾ positive in the case of India and negative in the case of Afghanistan ¾ clinches the issue: the present‑day Sarasvati-Ghaggar combine, though now dry at places, does represent the Rigvedic Sarasvati (see Figs. 1 and 2); the Helmand of Afghanistan does not.
Earlier we had established that the Harappans were not a Dravidian‑speaking people. Were then they the Sanskrit‑speaking Vedic people? Against such an equation the following four objections have been raised. First, the Vedic Aryans were ‘nomads’, whereas the Harappan Civilization had a major urban component. Secondly, the Vedas refer to the horse, whereas the Harappan Civilization is thought to be unfamiliar with it. Thirdly, the Vedic carts had spoked wheels, whereas the Harappan vehicles are supposed to be bereft of such wheels. And finally, since according to the dating of Max Muller the Vedas cannot be earlier than 1200 BC and the Harappan Civilization belonged to the third millennium BC, how can the two be equated?
Myth of Aryan Invasion
It is not surprising that the colonial rulers of British India, missionaries and bureaucrats in particular, were interested in presenting history of Indian Subcontinent in such a way that it would suit them most. It is obvious: 'He who rules, he dictates!' Thus, a definite bias and prejudice is bound to creep in the study and recording of the history. The important point is to correct such distortions on the basis of new discoveries made by modern science and knowledge, based on objectivity, rationality and reason. It would take quite some time to accept the corrected versions about history, but let it be so. It is essential to open our mind to new discoveries and facts, arguments and evidences, setting aside our biases and prejudices. Such is the case in relation to historical distortions about ancient India brought about by British and German 'scholars'.
British, Germans, Europeans as a whole, and interestingly Indian intellectuals in British-ruled India as well, believed that about 1500 BC a nomadic people, called Aryans, invaded northwest frontiers of India, coming from the Central Asia or some part of Europe through the passes like Khyber in Hindkush Mountain Range (now in Afghanistan) and defeated and drove away the local inferior Dravidians. These Aryans were superior to local Dravidians in every respect: physique, intelligence and culture. In the fertile land of India, in the calm serenity of weather and atmosphere they developed agriculture and produced great wealth. But their most important contribution was development of Sanskrit language and composition of first literature in the form of Rig Veda around 1200 BC!
Recent discoveries in the Northwest regions of Indian Subcontinent (India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan) have proved that a highly developed society and civilization was firmly existent on the banks of river Saraswati. This period, when Rig Veda, the first authentic record of human wisdom and knowledge, was composed, should be taken as the beginning of the Ancient Indian history. This is because there is erroneous belief that civilization of Harappa and Mohen-jo-Daro is the oldest period of Indian history. But the recent findings and knowledge available on the basis of archeology, ancient mathematics, astronomy, some success in deciphering the language of Harappan seals, and satellite imagery has proved beyond doubt that pre-Harappan period, the Vedic period, is as important as Harappan era for correct understanding of world history.
The melting of ice from the snow capped peaks of the Himalayas started around ten thousand years back. The opulent flow of clean and pure water hurried itself into streams and currents and turned into confluence as mighty rivers flowing down the slopes into the plains of northwest India. Saraswati, Indus, Yamuna or Jamuna, Ravi, Beas, Sutlej, and Ganges are a few rivers that can be named as having formed out of this melting of ice caps. These rivers flowed through the plains bringing with them life and prosperity on their banks. Agriculture prospered and so also the culture of ancient India. The plentiful bounty of agriculture produce offered leisure to the talented and pious Rishis for meditation and contemplation on the intricacies of the origin of the universe, awesome surprises of the nature, and purpose of human birth. In their gratitude to the bountiful nature, they offered not the floral tributes but the tributes of exquisite verses, rich in content and form. These verses later became the Vedas. The favour and the fear offered by the nature reflected in their creation of Idol worship, with Nature with her constituent parts became symbols of God. Indra, Varun, Marut, Rudra, Kuber, and Yaksha are but to name a few. Mountains and rivers, serpents and birds, trees and animals also later found symbolic value as images of Gods.
The discovery and ability to handle fire for beneficial purposes made them realize its value, and the gratitude turned into devotion, culminating into worship of Fire as Supreme God. Hence, the sun and the moon, lightning and fireplaces became the objects of reverence and worship. To complete the natural flow of gratitude these people of ancient India, Aryans, as they were called, started offering sacrifices in the fire. The places of sacrificial rituals find great importance in the ancient Indian civilization. Building of these 'Yajna Kunda' or sacrificial altars required knowledge of algebraic geometry. Thus, ancient mathematics plays important role in pinpointing the historical age of this ancient civilization.
The second important invention of the Aryans relates to creation of a 'wheel'. Today, out of familiarity, we may not understand the true import of this discovery, but if we look back into the past of about 5000 BC, we cannot but remain amazed at the knowledge of mathematics of these very ancient people. Recent discoveries point to this age of this civilization as C. 6000 BC.
One proof for this claim is the discovery of a metallic relic, the 'Head of Vashishtha'. In the year 1958 one American collector by name Harry Hicks procured a metallic antic piece in India, New Delhi, in the form of 'head of a seer'. After due scientific investigation he came to the conclusion that it was sculpted around 3800 BC. The carbon-dating techniques and nuclear research proved this beyond doubt. Such highly developed technique of metal refinery reflected equally developed culture and civilization. In the face of such factual discovery it was somewhat difficult to accept the 'Aryan Invasion' around 1500 BC. What was there during the intervening period of 2300 years! How could we say that these 'Dravidians' living in northwest India were ignorant, backward, and inferior to the 'invading Aryans'? Indeed, the doubt can be raised about the very theory of 'Aryan Invasion'.
The doubt is further corroborated by finding of the mention of the word 'Aryan' several times in Rig Veda, and it can be shown that this Rig Veda was composed around 4200-4800 BC. How can one explain the mention of the word Aryan 3000 years prior to their own invasion! In fact, the word Aryan does not pertain to any race, it was just an honorific word meaning 'Sir' or 'Sri', a person of noble character and bearing.
Third interesting point is about the discovery of mighty Ancient River Saraswati, flowing from north to south between present-day Indian states Punjab and Uttar Pradesh towards Gujarat (this river has dried up since then). The river finds mention in Rig Veda at several places, while the Ganges and the Indus are seldom mentioned. On the banks of the river Saraswati are scattered places of human settlement, as proved by excavation and satellite photography. The period is much older than that of Indus civilization of Harappa and Mohen-jo-Daro from where most of the historians want to begin their study of ancient Indian history. It is proved now that an unusual drought lasting for three hundred years from 2200 BC to 1900 BC dried up this mighty river Saraswati. Additional cause for it's drying was that its main tributaries, river Yamuna and Sutlej changed their course and joined the Ganges and Indus respectively.
Thus, these ancient people of Vedic culture and period shifted westward, eastward, and southward in their natural instinct to survive. Human settlements with corresponding cultures were established thence on the banks of the river Indus (west), the Ganges (east), and in Gujarat in the south. From Afghanistan to Gujarat we get archeological proofs of such displacement and resettlement. What we have found in Harappa and Mohen-jo-Daro are the remnants of this civilization of around 1900 BC. The spread of these displaced people due to prolonged drought was not restricted to parts of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan alone, but it went farther to central Asia and even Europe. Thus it can be said with conviction that Aryans did not come from Europe or central Asia, but they were the inhabitants of ancient Vedic India who in turn spread outside India. However, taking Harappan civilization as the ancient civilization, the British and the other European scholars conjured up Aryan Invasion (around 1500 BC) theory.
That the present day beliefs about ancient Indian history are factually incorrect. They are based on European perspective with gross distortions due to colonial bias and interests.
Prior to Indus Valley Civilization of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, there flourished a much progressive culture and civilization, which we may label as Vedic Period of ancient India. Recent discoveries in archeology, astronomy, ancient mathematics, and satellite photography lend unequivocal support to this claim.
Based on these new facts, it can be safely said that the 'Aryan Invasion' theory is but a myth, and instead, in reality it were the Indo-Aryans who later migrated to far off west as Indo-European race. The linguistic similarities between ancient European languages, Sanskrit, and Indian languages are not because 'the Aryans brought Sanskrit from Europe to India' but quite the opposite. 'Daughter' in English, 'Doch' in Slav, or 'Tochter' in German has not become 'Duhita' (Sanskrit, meaning one who used to milk the cows in ancient Aryan family), but reverse is the case. Ignite has not become Agni, but Agni becomes ignite and so on.
Let us conclude by quoting a paragraph from the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Vol. 5, pages 534-535):
"And what your European Pundits say about the Aryan's swooping down from some foreign land, snatching away the lands of the aborigines and settling in India by exterminating them, is all pure nonsense, foolish talk! Strange, that our Indian scholars, too, say amen to them; and all these monstrous lies are being taught to our boys! This is very bad indeed. … 'You are learned men, hunt up your old books and scriptures please, and draw your own conclusions'."
Acknowledgment: The article is based on my understanding of the studies and books by Dr. N. S. Rajaram and David Frawley.
Professor Dr.Michael Witzel, a racist scholar wedded to the cause of Evangelization of India and the world (if that is feasible) and total distortion of Indian History, divorced from all known principles of classical historiography is now in Chennai city delivering lectures on the languages and cultures revealed by the Rigveda.
The greater issues involved in this apparently obscure debate are quite significant. If ancient India was a Vedic culture, then we would have to rewrite not only the history of India but also that of Europe and the Middle East. The whole edifice of western civilization’s interpretation of history would go down ignominiously. The change in our view of history would be as radical as Einstein’s ideas that changed our view of physics
A recent Western academic paper argues that the Aryan invasion theory is wrong and that there is an indigenous development of civilization in India going back to at least 6000 BCE (Mehrgarh). It proposes that the great Harappan or Indus Valley urban culture (2600 - 1900 BCE), which it notes was centered on the Sarasvati river of Vedic fame, had much in common with Vedic literary accounts. It states that the Harappan culture came to an end not because of outside invaders but owing to environmental changes, most important of which was the drying up of the Sarasvati. It argues further that the movement of populations away from the Sarasvati to the Ganges, after the Sarasvati dried up (c. 1900 - 1300 BCE), was also reflected in the literature. It thereby proposes a complete continuity of cultural development in India revealed both through archaeology and through ancient Indian literature.
We all understand how the 19th century construction of the Orient by the West satisfied its needs of self-definition in relation to the Other. To justify its ascendancy, the Other was defined to be racially mixed and inferior; irrational and primitive; despotic and feudal. This definition was facilitated by a selective use of the texts and rejecting traditional interpretations, an approach that is now called Orientalism. The terms in the construction were not properly defined. Now we know that to speak of a “pure” race is meaningless since all external characteristics of humans are defined in a continuum. In the 19th century atmosphere of European triumphalism, what obtained in Europe was taken to be normative. With hindsight it is hard to believe that these ideas were not contested more vigorously.
In the history book currently in use in the Indian schools, the beginning of the Vedic civilisation coincides with Aryan invasion. History, which records actual events, accomplished facts and hard realities, should have nothing to do with personal beliefs or pre-conceived notions and should depict factually the actual happenings. Though history deals with the past, it has its own contribution to make in tackling the current problems and in shaping the future. In his “Discovery of India”, Pundit Nehru says: “Out of that distant past, which is history and the present, which is the burden of to-day, the future of India is gradually taking shape. We must have an intellectual understanding of these mighty processes of history. We must have even more, an emotional awareness of our past and present, in order to try to give right direction to the future.”
It is a known fact that most of the original proponents of AIT were not historians or archaeologists but had missionary and political axe to grind. Max Muller in fact had been paid by the East India Company to further its colonial aims, and others like Lassen and Weber were ardent German nationalists, with hardly any authority or knowledge on India, only motivated by the superiority of German race/nationalism through white Aryan race theory. And as everybody knows this eventually ended up in the most calamitous event of 20th century: the World War II. Even in the early times of the AIT's onward journey of acceptability, there were numerous challengers like C.J.H. Hayes, Boyed C. Shafer and Hans Kohn who made a deep study of the evolution and character of nationalism in Europe. They had exposed the unscientificness of many of the budding social sciences which were utilized in the 19th century to create the myth of Aryan Race Theory.
Michael Witzel and a small group of his followers, mainly Europeans and the usual Indian hangers-on like Romila Thapar, are almost the last holdouts for the foreign origin theory of the Vedas and Sanskrit as products of the Aryan invasion. Their academic reputation, what is left of it, rests on the survival of their Aryan theories. Though largely ignored by the Indian media, two major developments have sounded the death knell of the Aryan invasion theory. These are: (1) genetic evidence showing that the Indian population is almost entirely indigenous with negligible input from outsiders going back to the last Ice Age (more than 10,000 years); and (2) British admission that the Aryan invasion theory was concocted to serve imperial interests, because, "it gave a historical precedent to justify the role and status of the British Raj, who could argue that they were transforming India for the better in the same way that the Aryans had done thousands of years earlier."
Indian studies in the West (especially the US and the UK) are overwhelmingly hostile to their object of study. In the first place, ethnocentric and parochial perceptions will usually dominate when one culture critically evaluates another. And once the resulting interpretative canon becomes firmly established through common consent, prolonged practice and appropriate imprimaturs, it becomes painfully difficult to dislodge, even if it is motivated by an intellectually disingenuous political rationale. In the case of the contemporary Western critique of India, and increasingly Hinduism, its rationale and sheer perversity can be attributed to mundane political reasons and international power politics.
One of the main ideas used to interpret and generally devalue the ancient history of India is the theory of the Aryan invasion. According to this account, India was invaded and conquered by nomadic light-skinned Indo-European tribes from Central Asia around 1500-100 BC, who overthrew an earlier and more advanced dark-skinned Dravidian civilization from which they took most of what later became Hindu culture. This socalled pre-Aryan civilization is said to be evidenced by the large urban ruins of what has been called the "Indus valley culture" (as most of its initial sites were on the Indus river). The war between the powers of light and darkness, a prevalent idea in ancient Aryan Vedic scriptures, was thus interpreted to refer to this war between light and dark skinned peoples. The Aryan invasion theory thus turned the "Vedas", the original scriptures of ancient India and the Indo-Aryans, into little more than primitive poems of uncivilized plunderers.
The purpose of this essay is to highlight the growing dissatisfaction on the part of the Indian American Hindu Diaspora with the way Hinduism, Hindus, and India have been depicted and mis-portrayed in the American education system, and about the urgency to engage the system along the same lines as is already being done by other American minorities, such as the Native-Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans. This article also explores how Hinduism and India studies directly or indirectly forms American perceptions of India and its culture, its products and services, and of the Indian American minority, and the need to bring objectivity and balance to these studies.
Now that India has been free for a number of decades from British rule, researchers, historians, and archeologists can all begin to take a new look at the true history of India. We can have a more unbiased view of the numerous new findings that keep cropping up that give an increasingly accurate understanding of how ancient and how advanced was the Indian Vedic civilization. Now more than ever there is a serious lack of support and opposing evidence for the theories that were made popular by the British, such as the Aryan Invasion Theory, or that it was the invading Muslims who gave India the great contributions to Indian art, music, or even architecture with the construction of such buildings as the Taj Mahal, Delhi's Red Fort, Kutab Minar, and other buildings throughout India. With the newer and more accurate historical findings, many of these ideas are falling apart like a house of cards.
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