An outdated syllabus
Walt Disney’s blockbuster film Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time saw actor Jake Gyllenhaal playing an Iranian prince. Many Iranians were pleased that a fair-skinned actor played the role because it accurately represented how “Aryan” Iranians looked. In Iran, Aryan ancestry is a non-issue, but in India it is a matter of angry controversy, a fact that has long bothered scholars in Western universities.
In his course, “History of Iran to the Safavid Period,” Richard W Bulliet, an Iranian specialist at Columbia University, ridicules those who oppose the Aryan Invasion Theory and informs students that Indians believe the theory’s proponents are conspirators working at the behest of the CIA, who want to portray India as a wimpish state; he specifically mentions followers of the BJP as belonging to this group. In his first lecture, he discusses similarities between Old Iranian and Vedic and their relation to the Indo-European languages. In his view, this similarity suggests invasion, and this invasion theory is supported not just by philologists, but also by archaeologists and historians. Similarly, in a course on Indian history taught last year at the University of California, Los Angeles, Vinay Lal lectured about concepts like “subdued snub-nosed and dark-skinned people known as the Dasas” and Aryan attacks on fortified settlements on the subcontinent.
The Aryan Invasion Theory has for some time been discredited by several leading scholars and critically questioned by others. In his 2004 book The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate [Kindle Edition], Edwin Bryant, who looks at both sides of the debate, concludes that there is a general consensus among South Asian archaeologists that, as far as the archaeological record is concerned, there is no clear or unambiguous evidence of invading or immigrating Aryans. Romila Thapar, one of India’s best-known historians, writes in Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300, “The theory of an Aryan invasion no longer has credence.”
It is just as important to note that critics of the Invasion Theory are not just members or followers of the BJP. Mr Bryant is not an Indian; Ms Thapar has long antagonised Hindu nationalists. Despite arguments to the contrary, archaeological evidence has not been ignored—Mr Bryant’s survey shows that it is the absence of archaeological evidence, among other things, which prompted many historians to re-think the Invasion Theory.
Mr Bulliet does argue that opponents of the invasion might take refuge in the writings of his late colleague Edward Said, the author of the seminal book Orientalism. On this point, he is absolutely correct. Concepts of race were indeed borne out of colonialism. Nineteenth century Europe was the centre of racial studies; scientists measured the skull volumes of various races and used such studies to extrapolate conclusions about intellect and superiority. Herbert H Risley, a British official, categorised 2378 castes belonging to 43 races on the basis of their nasal index. Around the same time, various linguistic groups—Indo-European, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, and Tibeto-Burman—were identified as different races. Based on this mythology, the skeletons found in Mohenjo-daro were classified mostly as non-Aryan. A racial interpretation was even assigned to passages of Vedic texts. The dark-skinned and flat-nosed Dasyu was considered to be of a different race than the fair and high-nosed Aryan. Scholars like Srinivas Iyengar objected to such racial interpretations as early as 1914, but dissenting voices like his were not the ones writing history.
After World War II, Western anthropologists realised that race could not be scientifically defined, let alone based on cranial size or nasal index. According to Kenneth A R Kennedy, professor emeritus at Cornell University, who has studied the Harappan skeletal remains extensively, “biological anthropologists remain unable to lend support to any of the theories concerning an Aryan biological or demographic entity.” Gregory Possehl, anthropological archaeologist at the University of Pennyslvania, writes, “race as it was used in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has been totally discredited as a useful concept in human biology.” In 1999, Hans Hock, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, re-examined the supposedly racial Vedic material and found it either to be mistranslated or open to alternative non-racial interpretations. Racial interpretations were preferred because they favoured a colonial agenda. Yet UCLA’s Mr Lal continues to talk about “snub-nosed Dasyus”, even though Sanskrit scholars have interpreted the Vedic word as meaning one devoid of speech, not nose.
Over the years, historians have accepted that various language groups are just that—language labels—and do not conform to racial identities. At the 11th Neelan Thiruchelvam Memorial Lecture given in Colombo on August 1, Ms Thapar made this very clear. According to her, the notion of separate Aryan and Dravidian racial identities has no basis in history. Another expert, Thomas Trautmann, professor at the University of Michigan, has stated that racial theories of Indian civilisation linger as a matter of faith: “Is it not time we did away with it?” But the political utility of such theories has not yet dissipated. Even in the last general elections, Dravidar Kazhagam leader K Veeramani exhorted his followers to reject “Aryan” candidates.
It is perhaps natural that the controversial origins of such Western theories and their political consequences have caused Indian scholars to view them with high levels of suspicion. The issue at hand is not what members of the BJP believe, but rather what the latest scholarly consensus is and why it is not always being taught to students.
Jayakrishnan Nair is a resident commentator on The Indian National Interest and blogs at Varnam