Wednesday, December 23, 2015
Are you an Aryan invader? Colonial views on fair-skinned Aryans vs dark-skinned Dravidians have wide political currency today
A south Indian politician recently accused a north Indian colleague of being an Aryan invader. I was tempted to dismiss it, at first, as another case of the usual politicking. Politicians, after all, will do what politicians do. Some condemn Turkic/Mongol invaders, others British invaders and then there are those who move on to Aryan invaders. One can certainly nurse grudges against assorted invaders; but it has nothing to do with Indians living in the 21st century. That’s obvious.
My surprise, though, emanated from this politician seemingly believing, without any doubt, in the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT). What is the AIT? We’ve been told that the Indus or Harappan civilisation was peopled by dark-skinned Dravidians (the name was a much later addition; initially the theory called them ‘indigenous people’) who were invaded by fair-skinned Aryans from Central Asia/Eastern Europe around 3,500 years ago.
The Aryans apparently massacred and then pushed the remaining Dravidians to the South, occupied the freed land and composed the Vedas along with a vast body of other Sanskrit texts. They also created the caste system to oppress the Dravidians. This theory was liked by British colonialists, who were struck by the “romantic” parallel of a fresh wave of new white-skinned invaders, repeating an ancient story.
AIT is largely based on linguistics, ie the study of languages. European scholars of the colonial era found striking similarities between Sanskrit and Iranian/European languages, suggesting a common source or intermingling. Many theories were propounded to explain this intriguing discovery. One was the AIT.
Another was the Out-of-India Theory, suggesting that people moved out from their homeland in India in a northwest direction and hence spread their language. There were other theories as well. Now, languages don’t have return addresses, so frankly, one can find enough arguments to support them all.
Linguistics is regarded as a science by some (many others may disagree), but it has inherent limitations as compared to other, more rigorous scientific disciplines. Theories based on linguistics are open to interpretations. Unfortunately, the debate in this area also takes place in a rather “mature” manner (sarcasm alert). Linguistics-driven historians, instead of conducting public and scholarly debates, indulge in name-calling. Insults are thrown freely. That’s unfortunate and childish.
Linguistics, due to its nature, may open the field to contradictory opinions, but fortunately there are other scientific disciplines to evaluate the AIT issue.
Archaeology examines history through site excavations and analysis of artefacts/physical remains. Invaders tend to leave a trail of destruction. Unfortunately for AIT proponents, there is little credible archaeological evidence for a violent invasion 3,500 years ago.
Seeing the sands shift, some proponents of AIT pirouetted and propounded a new Aryan Migration Theory (AMT), ie the so-called Aryans migrated peacefully into India and most of the so-called Dravidians of the heavily-populated Indus civilisation moved south. If this were true, there should have been a massive influx of Eastern Europeans/Central Asians into India at that time, right? Which would show up in genetic records?
Unfortunately for the (now) AMT proponents, genetic science disproves this hypothesis. Most major papers on Indian genetics published in scientific journals like Nature and American Journal of Human Genetics over the last few years agree on one thing: There was no significant addition to the Indian gene pool 3,500 years ago!
So, the AIT/AMT proponents ask us to believe that there was this small bunch of nomadic people called the Aryans who came to India 3,500 years ago. It was such a small band that they do not show up in any archaeological or genetic records at all! And this tiny group did not indulge in mass violence. But somehow, these mythical supermen managed to, peacefully, convince the far more populous, advanced and urbane Dravidians to migrate en masse to south India.
Presumably they debated the so-called Dravidians into abandoning their homes. And while doing so, these nomadic-barbarians also overturned the entire linguistic and cultural landscape of India. Moreover, this alleged foreign culture was so comprehensively absorbed that it survives to this day, thousands of years later, across the country.
Honestly, does this make any sense? Consider another paradox we are asked to believe: The so-called Dravidians who built the greatest civilisation of its time (called the Harappan/Indus civilisation today), left no literature at all. On the other hand, these nomadic-barbarian ‘Aryans’, with no settled homeland, created the largest body of literature, philosophical and technical texts of that era. Creating narratives of hi‘story’ to reconcile these huge contradictions leads to more contortions than a jalebi.
Paraphrasing the principle of Occam’s Razor, the simpler explanation is probably true. Simply put, there was probably no race called the Aryans. The Indus and Vedic cultures were likely one and the same. And most of us in India today, north or south, are descendants of that culture.
Our history books need to teach that there are serious and credible doubts among many historians (not just Indian, but global) about the Aryan Invasion Theory. These alternative theories, based on archaeology and genetics, which largely do not support AIT, must also be taught. Then let students make up their own minds.
I, for one, tend to agree with what a European friend remarked. That the Aryan Invasion Theory is the greatest piece of fiction cooked up by Europeans since the ethereal plays of Shakespeare. Perhaps it’s time to close the book.