Getting objective about it

In January 2009, PBS, a US television network, ran a documentary titled The Story of India. Hosted by Michael Wood, this six-part series narrated a compressed history of India from pre-historic times till Independence. The first episode—Beginnings—discussed one of the most controversial topics in Indian history: the origin of the Aryans.


In this episode Mr Wood did three things. Standing at Khyber Pass, looking down at the valley of Kabul river, he quoted the translation of a verse from Baudhayana Srautasutra which reads, “some went east..but some stayed at home in the west”. This verse, Wood opined, suggests an Aryan migration from Afghanistan into India.

Second, he went to Turkmenistan to meet Viktor Sarianidi, the legendary Russian archaeologist, who besides unearthing the Bactrian gold in northern Afghanistan, found horses, wheeled vehicles and mud-brick fire altars in Gonur Tepe, Turkmenistan. According to Dr Sarianidi, the Aryans arrived there around 2000 BC and left in 1800 BC towards Afghanistan.

Third, Mr Wood mentioned a 1786 discovery by the polyglot Sir William Jones on the similarities between Sanskrit and various European languages, due to which if a Sanskrit speaker mentioned the word ashva, a Lithuanian farmer would know exactly what he meant. All these indicated that  the ancestors of the Aryans were part of a language group which spread from the area between Caspian sea and Aral mountains 4000 years ago. As per this theory, these Sanskrit speaking newcomers subjugated the natives—Dravidians and tribals—and established themselves at the top of the caste hierarchy.

Sounds logical, but Mr Wood’s claims are controvertible. According to B B Lal, who was the director general of the Archaeological Survey of India, the correct translation of Baudhayana Srautasutra says that while some Aryan tribes went east and the others went west from some intermediary point. This intermediary point for Dr Lal is not the valley of the Kabul river, but that of the Indus.

In a lecture given at the 19th International Conference on South Asian Archaeology in July 2007, Dr Lal analysed Dr Sarianidi’s evidence—fire-worship, soma rituals, ashvamedha—and in the case of fire worship he proved that the direction of movement was from India to Central Asia. He also showed that there was no soma in Gonur Tepe, and the skeleton of the horse was unrelated to asvamedha.

Now genetic studies too are challenging the Aryan migration theory, the successor of the discredited Aryan invasion theory. Some studies have revealed that Southern castes and tribes are similar to each other and their gene pool is related to the castes of North India. It was not possible to confirm any difference between the caste and tribal pools and find any clean delineation between the Dravidian and Indo-European speakers. Another study compared the genes of Brahmins and tribals and found that they shared the same origins. Also, there was no evidence for a massive migration in the 1500-1200 BC period.

If so where did the Aryans originate? In the accompanying book, Mr Wood mentions that many Indian scholars and polemicists believe that Aryans were indigenous to India. Gavin Flood, senior lecturer in religious studies at the University of Stirling, Scotland, is neither an Indian nor a polemicist, but in his book Introduction to Hinduism, he mentions the Aryan migration theory, but also the alternate: the cultural transformation thesis. According to this view, the Aryan culture was an indigenous development in the Indus valley, uninfluenced by invaders or migrants. Thus Hinduism evolved with the Aryan culture interacting with non-Aryan and tribal cultures.  This cultural transformation thesis works well with the Out of India theory according to which India is the Indo-European homeland from where some groups migrated to Central and West Asia and Europe.

The Debates and Consequences
Fuelling the debate over Aryans and their origins are various schools—the Orientalist, the Nationalist and the Marxist—with different positions. This seems perfect since the bias of each of these schools will get corrected by opinions from other schools. Unfortunately in Indian historiography, some schools are more equal than the other. Blessed by the Indian government and aided by a list of approved scholars, only certain versions of history get into school textbooks. Thus genetic studies which overwhelmingly contradict the Aryan Migration Theory never see the light of the day. One state government—West Bengal—even goes so far as to publicly declare what is shuddho  and what is ashuddo. Thus depending on the clerisy running the Indian Council of Historical Studies, the colour of history oscillates between saffron and red.

In such an atmosphere, when the government is a partner in identity politics, promoting one version of history and silencing others, the chips are not allowed to fall where they should. When a historian, who identifies himself with a label—Orientalist, Marxist or Nationalist—controls the debate, history is a prisoner of dogma. Such labelled historians silence unpopular ideas, keep inconvenient facts in the dark and display intellectual cowardice.

In this acerbic debate, any one who opposes the Aryan migration theory is branded a Hindu nationalist out to eliminate other minorities from India. But Edwin Bryant, in his book, The Quest for the origins of Vedic culture, notes that there are a number of Western scholars too who don’t believe in the external origins of Aryans. Among the Indian scholars who he met during his research, “one prominent Indigenous Aryanist turned out to be an atheist and very irreverent Marxist.”

The media can play an activist role in this debate. In 1993, a decision by Mexico’s education minister not to publish new history books as they did not conform to the “preferred version” resulted in considerable outrage. The Mexican media pursued the story and critically evaluated the text books the same way Indian media panned the Murli Manohar Joshi’s revisions.

Parents too can be activists. In California, upset by the representation of Hinduism in school textbooks, Indian-Americans filed a lawsuit against the Board of Education demanding edits. One of the disputes was about the Aryan theory and during the hearing, a California curriculum commissioner, Stan Metzenberg, said “I’ve read the DNA research and there was no Aryan migration. I believe the hard evidence of DNA more than I believe historians.” We have to wait and see if the text books will actually reflect the change.

Politicians too can be activists. In Kerala, there was a controversy last year over text books which highlighted communist struggles over the freedom struggle, ignored non-communist social leaders, and used a picture of a frog instead of that of Mahatma Gandhi. When it was suspected that the Communists were trying to teach atheism, Hindus, Muslims and Christians united in opposition. The Opposition staged walkouts. Finally the curriculum committee agreed to modify the text.

Such activism, from the media, from the parents, from opposition politicians, is missing when it comes to balancing the distortions in existing textbooks.

Lawsuits, protests, activism—these can be an effective tools, but there is also a need to popularise the discourse. Stephen Ambrose, David McCullough are masters of the popular history genre in the West. Barring a few honourable exceptions, in the Indian context this genre consists of writing more biographies of Nehru and Gandhi. There is a need to add more voices to this discourse—to explain how the invasion theory evolved to migration theory to Aryan trickle down theory—because this Aryan-Dravidian race theory still has serious social and political implications in India.
In 1915, Justice Mahadeo Govind Ranade lamented that the Aryan Brahmins were few in number to make any influence on the aboriginal races in the South. Opponents claimed that aboriginals were robbed by the Aryan invaders of their culture. Periyar E V Ramaswami Naicker, went one step further: he despised Hinduism, asked Tamils to liberate themselves from the Aryan yoke and claimed Ravana was the Dravidian hero, not Rama. Recently, Dravidar Kazhagam leader K Veeramani called for people to reject “Aryan” leaders. The politicians who promote a ideology of caste hatred that should not be able to get away with their fundamentalist agenda.

For this we need to evolve from Stalinised history and saffronised history to objective history— on Aryan theory, on Hindu-Muslim relations, on Independence struggle—by weeding out absurd ‘nationalist’ claims and distortions written for religious appeasement. Theories on the origins of Indian civilisation must correlate with archaeological, linguistic and genetic evidence. The standard for acceptance of theories and hypotheses must not be government approval, religious sanction or secular ideological compliance, but rather ability to withstand the scientific stress test on a level playing field.

This piece was first published in June 2009 in Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review.

Photo: Alessandro Comuzzi