Why ‘eminent historians’ still swear by the debunked Aryan theory – Makkhan Lal

Image depicting the imaginary Aryan invasion of India from the Caspian Sea.

“It is difficult to say that all the earliest Aryans belonged to one race, but their culture was more or less the same type. Originally the Aryans seem to have lived somewhere in the steppes stretching from Southern Russia to Central Asia. On their way to India the Aryans first appeared in Central Asia and Iran. A little earlier than 1500 BC the Aryans appeared in India.” – R.S. Sharma

“By 1500 BC when the Aryans began to arrive in India, the Harappan culture had collapsed. We do not know where they came from; perhaps they came from north-eastern Iran or the region near the Caspian Sea or Central Asia.” – Romila Thapar

Prof. Dr. Makkhan LalThe two quotations from India’s two “eminent historians” sum up their approach to the Aryan Invasion Theory. Just look at expressions “difficult to say”, “seems to have”, “somewhere in steppes”, “we do not know where they come from”, “perhaps they came from north-eastern Iran or the region near Caspian Sea or Central Asia”. Despite so many probabilities, they are certain that Aryans came from outside. When and from where? No idea!

Despite all evidence to the contrary, why does the Aryan invasion/migration theory (AIT) continue to remain the lifeline of Indian Marxist historians? Let us now look at the AIT in historical perspectives.

Linguistic Evidence

Florentine merchant, Filippo Sassetti, who lived in Goa from AD 1583 to 1588, was struck by similarities between Sanskrit and European languages, especially Latin and Greek. Later, the relationship between Sanskrit and European languages was further elaborated by William Jones and many other scholars in the service of the East India Company. The efforts made towards understanding these linguistic similarities between Sanskrit on the one hand and Greek, Latin and some other modern European languages on the other gave rise to a new discipline called ‘comparative linguistics’. Its birth had questionably motivated considerations and in the last 200 years the discipline (if at all it is a discipline) of ‘Comparative Linguistics’ has shown a far greater variety of gymnastic exercises than the sport of gymnastics itself.

Since the earliest books (i.e. the Vedas) of the Aryans and so also all human beings are written in Sanskrit, it came to be recognised as the language of the Aryans. In the beginning, all European languages, along with Sanskrit, came to be clubbed as Aryan languages, and Sanskrit got identified as not only the oldest of all but also the mother of all European languages. Lord Monboddo was convinced that “Greek was derived from Sanskrit”. Frederick Schlegel, a highly respected German linguist wrote, “The Indian language is older and others [European languages] younger and derived from it.” Thus, Sanskrit came to be recognised as the mother of “all the less ancient Indo-European languages, as well as the modern European tongues and dialects”.

But these opinions did not last very long. Local pride, racial complexes and Evangelical considerations overshadowed everything as a part of a shift from ‘Indo-mania’ to ‘Indo-phobia’.

Though William Jones could not accept the earlier view that Sanskrit is the ‘mother’ of all Aryan languages. He advocated that Sanskrit is just a ‘sister’, i.e. a co-descendant of an earlier ancestor language. Following the lead provided by Jones, F. Bopp wrote: “I do not believe that Greek, Latin and other European languages are to be considered as derived from Sanskrit. I feel rather inclined to consider them together as subsequent variations of one original tongue, which however, the Sanskrit has preserved more perfect than its kindred dialects.”

So, a search for the original homeland of a language, namely ‘Proto-Indo-European’, led different scholars to different places. This search for the imagined original language homeland also meant the search for the ‘Original Homeland of Aryans’. This also gave rise to forging labels such as the ‘Indo-Aryan’, ‘Indo-European’, ‘Aryan languages’, ‘Indo-Aryan languages’, and the ‘Indo-European languages’. Sometime around the 1820s, the word ‘Aryan’ began to be dropped and it simply became ‘Indo-European’. Some German scholars even started using the term ‘Indo-German’ on the presumption that the Sanskrit and German languages, between them, covered the entire Indo-European speaking area—the farthest language to the east being Indic and German to the west.

Sanskrit, even today, may be “the greatest language of the world” or even if it “is of a wonderful structure, more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin and more exquisitely refined” but so what? How could a language spoken by ‘niggers’ have been once the mother of languages today spoken by Europeans, i.e. white people? This position could not be accepted even by William Jones and Max Mueller, who have been so wholesome in their praise for Sanskrit.

Sanskrit was first demoted from mother to the position of a mere sister of all the ancient and modern European languages, but later on, with further building-up of the language tree, it came to be demoted to the position of grand-daughter, when it got linked to the so-called Indo-Iranian family. Thus, the position is: Proto-Indo-European language gave birth to the Indo-Iranian, which in turn produced Sanskrit. It’s already almost 200 years and the search for the grand-mother of Sanskrit (i.e. the Proto-Indo-European) is still on. We still do not know what she (the Proto-Indo-European Language) may have looked like, of what colour she may have been, or what may have been her physical and metaphysical structure. She still remains formless even in dreams. Quite often, these practitioners of philology were so illogical, so incoherent, so absurd, so adamant and arrogant, but, indeed, their impact has been so devastating that it has aptly been termed as ‘linguistic tyranny’.

Central Place Argument and Aryan Invasion

Once Sanskrit was demoted from the honoured status of being mother to all Indo-European languages and made a mere sister or niece of the European languages, a search started for the ‘original tongue’ i.e. the ‘Proto-Indo-European’. This cleared the deck also for legitimising the Aryan invasion of India; a theory which suggested that Sanskrit was brought here from the place where this imaginary language called ‘Proto-Indo-European’ was spoken. In 1842, A.W. von Schlegel claimed: “It is completely unlikely that the migrations which had peopled such a large part of the globe would have begun at its southern extremity (i.e. India) and would have continually directed themselves from there towards the northwest. On the contrary everything compels us to believe that the colonies set out in diverging directions from a central region.”

And for Schlegel this central region consisted of the areas around the Caspian Sea.

With the increasing hold of the British on India, the colonial and the Evangelical interests soon became a force in shaping Indian history for the rest of the academic world. Following the lead provided by A.W. von Schlegel, Max Mueller reiterated his position on the issue of the Aryan invasion and said in 1887: “If an answer must be given as to the place where our Aryan ancestors dwelt before their separation … I should still say, as I said forty years ago, ‘somewhere in Central Asia’ and no more.”

However, Srinivas Ayengar wrote in 1914: “The Aryans [in their entire literature] do not refer to any foreign country as their original home, do not refer to themselves as coming from beyond India, do not name any place in India after the names of places in their original land as conquerors and colonisers do, but speak of themselves exactly as sons of the soil would do. If they had been foreign invaders, it would have been humanly impossible for all memory of such invasion to have been utterly obliterated from memory in such a short time as represents the differences between the Vedic and Avestan dialects.”

It must be reiterated that it does not refer to a single name of flora and fauna found in Central Asia, Russia and Europe. If Rig Vedic people came from Central Asia how come they have no memory of it. Historically, linguistically and as per the oral traditions it is simply impossible.

The fallacy of this central-place theory as the origin of an imaginary language and then spreading all around can be explained with a contemporary example—English. Consider a situation wherein after a couple of thousand years, people forget that England was the place where the English language developed and spread from, and start looking for the place of its origin. The Central Place Theory will exclude England in the very first instance, as it is located on the outskirts of the world of the English language. The United States of America would be the natural choice from where it spread to Europe and Asia in the east, and Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, etc, in the west and Canada in the north.

Lexicographic Evidence

Lexicography (the vocabulary of spoken/written words) is another area which was pressed in the service. Besides collecting a large number of the common words in various languages to prove their affinity, a number of words were chosen to prove the location of the language. For example, it has been argued that since there is no common word for the ocean in the Indo-European language, we can safely conclude that the Indo-European people were not aware of the ocean.

Varadpande rightly presses the points: “If we carry this reasoning further we shall have to suppose that ‘Indo-Europeans’ were living in a region where there was no air and no water, since there are no common words for air and water in all the ‘Indo-European’ Languages.”

The whole situation is that first a conjecture is turned into a hypothesis; to be later treated as a fact to be used in support of a new theory. For instance, language like Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Indo-Iranian and Proto-Dravidian are no more than hypothetical constructions, which may or may not have really existed; and yet these modern creations are often imposed on populations that lived thousands of years ago, to prove migrations theories.

Shaffer writes: “The Indo-Aryan invasion(s) as an academic concept in 18th-19th century Europe reflected the cultural milieu of that period. Linguistic data was used to validate the concept, which in turn, was used to interpret archaeological and anthropological data. What was theory, became an unquestioned fact that was used to interpret and organise all subsequent data. It is time to end the ‘linguistic tyranny’ that has prescribed interpretative frameworks of pre-and proto-historic cultural development in South Asia.”

The question of Aryan invasion/Aryan migration vis-a-vis philology has always been questioned. In the beginning of the last century, Aurobindo, while commenting on the philology, wrote: “Comparative philology has hardly moved a step beyond its origins; all the rest has been a mass of conjectural and ingenious learning of which the brilliance is equalled only by the uncertainty and unsoundness. … The very idea of the science of language is chimera.”

It is important to point out that in the last 30 years renowned linguists like Ram Bilash Sharma, S.S. Misra, S.G. Talgeri, N.S. Rajaram and Koenraad Elst have proved, on the basis of linguistic evidence itself, that this whole theory of Aryan invasion/migration is a fallacy.

Aryans, Racialism and Rig Veda

Subjugation of India by the British filled the masters with a desire to prove their all-round superiority. Racialism was one angle of it. Writings of Grant, Mill, Marx, Macaulay and their accomplices denigrated Indian people, culture, civilisation, society, history and religion.

Trautmann has traced the emergence of racialism and the development of physical anthropology as a resolution of the inescapable philological reality with the colonial need for cultural superiority over the natives of India. One of the most striking types of evidence of such an attitude is best seen in the writings of ACL Carlleyle. In 1879 he wrote: “We, British Europeans are Aryans, and far more pure and genuine Aryans than the Hindus, and no talk of the Hindus can alter our race, or make us any less or any different from what we are. It is the Hindus who have altered and deteriorated, and not we. The Hindus have become the coffee dregs, while we have remained the cream of the Aryan race. The Hindus are like the monkey.”

Some scholars think that the linguistic affinities of Indians and Europeans were also responsible for the development of physical anthropology leading the whole debate towards racialism. Most of the European scholars could not accept the view that Indians (‘niggers’, that is how most of the time Indians have been referred to in those writings) could have been once related to them and could have, indeed, been their forefathers, a conclusion which comparative linguistics was suggesting.

Edwin Bryant expresses it in the following words: “Even during the earlier phase of the homeland quest, when India was still a popular candidate, many scholars were uncomfortable about moving the Indo-Europeans too far from their biblical origins somewhere in the Near East. There were those among the British, in particular, whose colonial sensibilities made them reluctant to acknowledge any potential cultural indebtedness to the forefathers of the rickshaw pullers of Calcutta, and who preferred to hang on to the biblical Adam far more than their European contemporaries.”

Max Mueller himself was sad to note the mood of the day: “They would not have it, they would not believe that there could be any community origin between the people of Athens and Rome, and the so-called niggers of India.”

The newly developing science of physical anthropology was pressed into service to project Aryans as tall, white-skinned, blue-eyed, with sharp and high nose, and dolichocephalic. The non-Aryans came to be identified as natives with dark skin, flat nose, short stature, and so on. The dasas mentioned in the Rigveda were made to represent non-Aryans, i.e., the indigenous local population of India. Thus, the frame of the invasion of Aryans and the subjugation of the non-Aryan local population got corroborated with the evidence from Physical Anthropology.

The racial theory had a devastating impact on European polity. Each nation/state started claiming to be the real descendent of the Aryan race and considered others as inferiors. Max Mueller tried to intervene by declaring again and again: “If I say Aryans, I mean neither blood nor bones, nor hair nor skull. … How many misunderstandings and how many controversies are due to what is deduced by arguing from language to blood-relationship or from blood-relationship to language. … An ethnologist who speaks of an Aryan race, Aryan eyes and hair, and Aryan blood is as great a sinner as a linguist who speaks of a dolichocephalic dictionary or brachycephalic grammar.”

Alas! It was too late. The djinn created by Max Mueller had now grown up and was no longer under Mueller’s command. In the twilight years of his life, Max Mueller realised the devastating impact of distortions that he had made in Indian history in order to please his employers and the newly acquired faith. He died a sad man, preaching at the end of his career things like India: What Can It Teach Us.

He described India as: “The country most richly endowed with all the wealth, power and beauty that nature can bestow, … a very paradise on earth, … [a place where] human mind has most fully developed some of its choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered on the greatest problems of life.”

Racialism and DNA Evidence

In this context it will be useful to recall the studies carried out by K.A.R. Kennedy and his colleagues. For almost five decades they carried out a detailed study of a large number of pre- and proto-historic skeletons found in excavations from a large number of archaeological sites from all over the Indian sub-continent.

On the basis of their research, Kennedy and his colleagues concluded: “As for the question of biological continuity within the Indus valley, two discontinuities appear to exist. The first occurs between 6,000 and 4,500 B.C. The second occurs at some point after 800 B.C. but before 200 B.C.”

Both discontinuities exclude any adjustment for Aryan Invasion.

Besides the studies of Kennedy and his colleagues on ancient skeletons, an important study has come out recently on modern humans. Keeping in mind the AIT, Kivishield and his colleagues carried out a detailed study on gene pools of Western Eurasians and people of the Indian subcontinent. They studied the ‘genetic inheritance aspect’ of genes through the Mitochondrial DNA Test. It may be mentioned here that the mitochondrial DNA test can reveal the whole history of genetic changes and mutations that may have taken place even in the remote past i.e. several thousand years ago.

Kivishield and his colleagues have reached the conclusion that the Mitochondrial DNA, typical of Western Eurasians, is present among Europeans up to 70 percent whereas among Indians it is only up to 5.2 percent. The DNA gene pool of Western Europeans is very different from that of Indians. It has been very clearly stated that if there was any Aryan invasion of India a few thousand years ago, it must be visible in the mitochondrial DNA tests in terms of a splash in percentage of Western Eurasian genes. But this is not so. Further, the percentage and types of Western Eurasian genes present among south Indians and north Indians are almost the same. This fact establishes that there is no difference between the south Indian and north Indian gene pools, and the same goes against the Aryan invasion theory.

Conclusions

Now over a period of 200 years, the meaning of ‘Aryans’ has been constructed and reconstructed as being nomadic, pastoralists, sedentary agriculturists, dolichocephalic, brachycephalic, blond and fair, and from brown-haired to dark-haired. The Aryan homeland has been located and relocated everywhere, virtually from the North Pole to the South Pole, and from the shores of the Atlantic to Chinese deserts—South India, North India, Central India, Tibet, Bactria, Iran, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, Lithuania, the Caucasus, the Urals, the Volga Mountains, South Russia, the Steppes of Central Asia, Western Asia, Palestine, Anatolia, Scandinavia, Finland, Sweden, the Baltic, western Europe, northern Europe, central Europe, and eastern Europe.

The Aryan homeland, however, still remains elusive. J.P. Mallory has put the whole thing very succinctly: “One does not ask, ‘Where is the Indo-European homeland?’ but rather ‘where they put it now?’”

Anthropologist Edmund Leach of Cambridge University has most aptly summed up the whole question of the Aryan Invasion Theory. In 1990 in his article, Aryan Invasions over Four Millennia, Leach wrote: “Why do serious scholars persist in believing in the Aryan invasion? Why is this sort of thing attractive? Who finds it attractive? Why has the development of Sanskrit come so dogmatically associated with the Aryan invasion? The details of this theory fit in with this racist framework. … The origin myth of British imperialism helped the elite administrators in the Indian Civil Service to see themselves as bringing ‘pure’ civilisation to a country in which civilisation of the most sophisticated kind was already nearly 6,000 years old. Here, I will only remark that the hold of this myth on the British middle-class imagination is so strong that even today, 44 years after the death of Hitler and 43 years after the creation of an independent India and independent Pakistan, the Aryan invasions of the second millennium BC are still treated as if they were an established fact of history. … The Aryan invasion never happened at all.” – Firstpost, 20 July 2022

  Prof. Dr. Makkhan Lal is a well-known historian and the founder director of the Delhi Institute of Heritage Research and Management.

Rig Veda