The Aryan Invasion: theories, counter-theories and historical significance

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The Aryan Invasion theory was first propounded when linguistic similarities between Sanskrit and the major European languages were discovered by European scholars during the colonial era. In an atmosphere of raging eurocentricism, it was inevitable that any explanation of this seemingly inexplicable discovery would taken on racial and ideological overtones. (See Refs. 1)

Colonial expositions of the Aryan Invasion Theory

British intellectuals were particularly nonplussed by this apparent link between the languages of the conquerors and the conquered. In the earliest phases of British rule in India, the East India Company proceeded largely unconsciously - without moral dilemmas and without overt recourse to ideological or racial superiority. But as the rule of the East India Company expanded, and battles became more hard fought and the resistance to British occupation in India grew, the ideology of European racial superiority became almost essential in justifying British presence in India - not only to assuage British conscience, but also to convince the Indian people that the British were not mere colonial conquerors but a superior race on a noble civilizational mission.

After 1857, the British education system in India had been deliberately designed to assist in the development of a narrow but influential class of deeply indoctrinated and predominantly loyal agents of British colonial rule in India. British elaborations of the Aryan invasion theory became powerful and convenient ideological tools in generating legitimacy for British rule. In it's most classical and colonially tinged incarnation, it portrayed the Aryans as a highly advanced and culturally superior race in the ancient world, locating their original home in Northern Europe. It then went on to suggest that some time in antiquity, the Aryans migrated from their original home in Europe and brought with them their language and their superior culture and transcendental philosophy to civilize the primitive and materially backward Dravidian people of the subcontinent. All the greatness of Indian civilization was ascribed to the Aryans, thus implying that if India were to ever achieve greatness again, a return to Aryan rule was imperative.

And by claiming a cultural continuity between this noble race of ancient times and themselves, the British could become inheritors of the grand Aryan tradition and assert their "legitimate" civilizational right to rule over the people of the subcontinent - not to exploit them, but so as to "reinvigorate" Indian civilization by reintroducing Aryan rule that had been disfigured and corrupted by the violent and barbaric incursions of the Muslims. Preposterous and distorted as it was, this absurdly racist proposition was made palatable to a self-doubting and repressed class of upper-caste Hindus who were told that they were descendants of the Aryans, and could identify with the manifold and globally encompassing achievements of the Aryan people by accepting British authority so as to participate in this great Aryan renaissance in India. (See Ref. 2)

The theory gained rapid currency amongst upper-caste Hindus who had legitimate gripes against the Muslim nobility for having been denied equal access to power in the Muslim courts, but were too enfeebled to put up a fight on their own, and were too alienated from the mass of artisans and peasants to join in popular rebellions against the feudal dispensation. The British rulers offered the opportunity of gaining petty privileges in exchange for acquiescence to colonial rule, and the Aryan invasion theory provided the ideological justification for betraying the rest of ones nation. By placing the ancestral home of the Aryans far off in Northern Europe, the British were putting the idea in the heads of such upper-caste Hindus that they were far removed from the Indian masses and had no good reason to identify with them.

Wittingly or unwittingly, the Aryan invasion theory thus became the emotional bait for a section of the Indian population who were to aid and abet the colonial project in India. Although some of these Indians ultimately did develop national feelings, and forged a national identity that eventually came into conflict with the continuation of colonial rule, the theory continued to play an important role in confusing the psyche of the post-independence Indian intelligentsia.

Since the Aryan invasion belongs to a period of considerable antiquity, and there is little physical evidence to support any authoritative conclusion, theories affirming (or opposing) the invasion hypothesis can vary from being wildly speculative at worst, to being reasonably plausible at best. Even the most diligent and objective of historians can at best come up with informed conjectures, leaving open the possibility for uncertainty, and ideologically-driven diversionary postulations. The absence of concrete data and the ambiguity involved in interpreting surviving texts from the Aryan period makes the task of combating history-writing that has been colored by colonially influenced analysis doubly difficult.

Nevertheless, it is possible to construct the contours of what may be more plausible, and at least eliminate what is obviously fiction or fantasy.

Arguments for and against the Invasion Theory

Opponents of the invasion theory make a somewhat plausible case that the sacrificial rites and rituals described in some of the Vedic texts bear a resemblance to practices that may have been common during the Harappan period. The similiarity of Harappan and Vedic altars is indeed intriguing. This would bolster the argument that Brahmins of the Vedic age emerged from the Harappan priesthood, and not from any Aryan invasion. But a link between the Harappan priesthood and Vedic Brahminism does not preclude the possibility of an invasion or foreign migration. It is not inconceivable that the Vedic Brahmin developed as a composite of the Harappan priest and the priest of an invading (or migrating) tribe or clan. Animal sacrifices were common amongst many tribes in that age - and it is not entirely implausible that some kind of synthesis may have taken place.

Philological Analysis

Proponents of an invasion (or migration) theory feel quite strongly that the Indo-European linguistic commonality cannot be explained in any other way, and cite philological studies that appear to bolster their case.

However, opponents of the invasion theory argue that the structural commonality of the Indo-European group of languages could have been achieved without an Aryan invasion. They observe that the Harappan civilization had extensive trade and commercial ties with Babylon as well as with civilizations to the further West. There is a remarkable similarity in seals and cultural artifacts found in Harappan India, Babylon and even the early civilizations of the Mediterranean such as Crete. Hence, they argue that a linguistic commonality may have developed quite early through trade and cultural contacts and that this common linguistic structure may have subsequently moved from South to North. Since Mediterranean Europe and the Middle Eastern civilizations developed well before the civilizations of Northern Europe, such a possibility is not altogether inconceivable.

But such a hypothesis does not preclude the possibility that invading or migrating clans may have also introduced non-Indian words into the existing Indian languages - leading to a composite language stream that incorporated both Indo-European and indigenous features. (Urdu is an example of a language that was introduced as a result of a series of invasions, adding a large body of foreign words while maintaining the syntactical structure and vocabulary base of the previous language.)

Since much of the Indo-European linguistic commonality appears to correspond to the basic vocabulary of a pastoral nomadic population, intrusions by patriarchal warrior clans from Central Asia cannot be ruled out. Authors such as Gimbutas (The Civilization of the Goddess, the World of Old Europe) present a reasonably convincing model of how the older matriarchal order in Europe was gradually broken down by migrants/conquerors who spoke a language that might account for certain common elements of the Indo-European group of languages. Although it would be inappropriate to mechanically apply the same conclusions to India, the linguistic and philological arguments are hard to ignore.

It must nevertheless be noted that there are both similarities and differences amongst the various Indo-European languages, and often, historians (and philologists) tend to downplay (or ignore) the contributions of the Adivasi and Tamil language streams in the development of the Indic languages. Philological analysis of the Indian languages points to both Indo-European links, as well as to a considerable degree of independent development. Moreover, just as South Indian languages have absorbed Sanskrit words, North Indian languages have also absorbed words from Tamil and languages related to it.

Another criticism of the inasion theory lies in the interpretation of the word "Arya" to mean race, nationality or even linguistic group. Critics suggest that the word Arya as used in the Rig Veda and other texts is better translated as one who was noble in character (or noble in deed) or perhaps hailing from a noble background. Hence, to use the term "Aryan" to describe the racial or national characteristics of an invading clan or clans would naturally be erroneous. Thus, if an invasion did take place, and if the invaders identified themselves as "Aryans", it would merely reflect their claim to noble status, and would not reflect upon their national or racial origin.

On the other hand, historians favoring the invasion theory have based many of their arguments on postulates connecting the introduction of the horse and chariot in India to invading (or migrating) "Aryans". They also point to the balladic character of some of the verses in the Rig Veda with references to armed cattle raids and warriors on horse-driven chariots who appear to portray a race or a group of clans of pastoral nomadic warriors. The imagery fits particularly well with artifacts found in Babylon and Ancient Persia (and other regions near the Caspian Sea) that depict warriors riding on horse-driven chariots. Other literary evidence from the Rig Veda also appears to connect the authors of these Rig Veda verses to the "Aryan" identified civilization of ancient Persia.

On the other hand, there is no tangible evidence of warrior clans in the numerous urban settlements that comprise the Harappan civilization. There are also few references to pastoral nomadism or cattle raids. The Harappans appear to have been a relatively urbanized people and based their existence on what seems to be primarily settled agriculture. The character of such verses in the Rig Veda texts does not fit well with a people who designed vast granaries, roads, urban bungalows, and for their time a highly sophisticated drainage system. And while there is evidence to suggest that the Harappans had a priestly class, there is almost no evidence of standing armies. There is evidence of a local police force but there is little to suggest that the police forces were as well armed or proficient in the use of archery as were the warrior tribes that find mention in the Rig Veda. Unlike the contemporaneous civilizations of Babylon and old Persia, where the institution of monarchy may have been already established, requiring the existence of standing armies and warrior clans to support the monarchy, the Harappan civilization seems to have been largely republican in character, with a much weaker and smaller police force to ensure stability. Based on a survey of surviving physical artifacts, it is possible to surmise that priests may have played a greater role in ensuring the legitimacy of the Harappan state, whereas the warriors may have begun to play a more powerful role in the civilizations of the Middle East and Central Asia.

It is therefore, not unlikely that the introduction of monarchy and standing armies (and the introduction of the Kshatriya caste and the subsequent institutionalization of the caste system) may have come about, at least indirectly, as a consequence of an invasion or conquest. Another argument favoring some kind of an invasion is the evidence for Aryan-like invasions of other settled civilizations such as in Greece, and other parts of the Near East and Europe, and references in the Manusmriti to ruling clans who were clearly of non-Indian origin. Considering how frequently the subcontinent has faced invasions from the North West, an "Aryan" identifying invasion would not be entirely out of character with the experience of the subcontinent. As to the physical origins of these possible invaders, it is very hard to be definitive - but in all likelihood, their origins could not have been too far from the Caspian region.

Some verses in the Rig Veda paint a picture of a people who were familiar with settled agriculture, but whose economic life was dominated by animal husbandry, and who had been exposed to a large body of water such as the Caspian Sea. Geographically, parts of Persia fit quite well with such a description as might other regions bordering on the Caspian or located in the geographical vicinity of the Caspian. These regions offered rather limited possibilities for settled agriculture and shepherding played an important role in the semi-urban civilizations that emerged around the Caspian basin.

The Aryan identifying warrior clans could have been a branch of the ruling warrior clans of early Persia, or else they may have originated in Central Asia or Southern Russia with a civilization that closely resembled the civilization of the old Persians. While some of the verses in the Rig Veda point to a Persian connection, other verses suggest that while these warrior tribes who came to India followed practices that closely resembled those of the Persians, they may not have originated in Persia. The close similarities between names for various kinship ties and familial relationships in India and Russia appears to place these Aryan identifying clans or tribes on the northern side of the Caspian. An explanation that reconciles this apparently conflicting evidence is that there was not a single invasion but a series of intrusions (or migrations) by different Aryan identifying clans - some of whom collaborated with each other while others saw each other as rivals or enemies.

Examples from more recent history might also offer us some clues of what may have occurred. Just as India was confronted by a series of invasions by Islamic rulers from different parts of the Middle East and Central Asia, it is not implausible that several Aryan identifying tribes or clans developed certain common cultural features that spanned Persia, Central Asia and the South Caucasus region and then spread South East towards India, (and also North and West into greater Russia, Europe and the Mediterranean). Of course, it is possible and likely that upon their entry into India, they also borrowed from the settled agriculture civilizations of India who may have been culturally more advanced in many ways.

Alternatively, the invaders of the Rig-Vedic period may have been like the Rajputs or Gujjars, entering India as warrior clans, conquering territories in India, but adopting the culture of India albeit with certain modifications, and enjoining their balladeers to introduce into the Rig Veda, verses that glorified their conquests, and expressed their particular world view. This would not be too dissimiliar from how the Rajputs and other ruling dynasties had local court chroniclers invent fictional noble lineages to create an impression of continuity.

Links between Harappan and Vedic Civilization

However, it should be noted that regardless of the geographical origin of such invaders, it is almost certain that the ruling clans of the Gangetic plain included both locals and invaders (or migrants). Later texts (such as the Manusmriti) describe a large number of ruling clans (of varied national origin, including Dravidian origin) as being "Aryan" i.e. of noble descent. Hence, it would be incorrect to argue that the ruling clans of the Vedic period were exclusively made up of "invading Aryans".

There is also compelling circumstantial evidence linking the settlers of the Gangetic plain to earlier Harappan settlements. For instance, emerging geological evidence pointing to ancient river systems drying up and changing course, and the excavation of numerous settlements along the banks of these ancient river systems (such as the Saraswati basin that ran in parallel to the Indus) lends credence to the argument that the settlers of the Gangetic plain must have been predominantly domestic migrants.

Finds of Shatranj (chess) pieces, dice and terracotta animal and goddess figurines also point to connections between Harappan and later civilizations. It is also quite remarkable how the ornamentation of some temples in Rajasthan and Western Madhya Pradesh appears to derive from some of the excavated jewelry from Harappan sites in Northern India.

Some scholars also see a continuity between the Sulva Sutras and the Harappan civilization which owing to it's material advance must have very likely developed a level of arithmetic and ritual and abstract philosophy concomitant with it's achievements in urban planning and agricultural management. The evidence for decimal weights and measures in the Harappan civilization, and the later perfection of a decimal numeral system in India lends further substance to such claims.

Relevance of the Aryans

All this suggests that there is a much greater degree of continuity in Indian civilization than previously realized, and further examination of the Indian historical record will demonstrate that the numerous developments in philosophy and culture that have taken place in India cannot be attributed to "Aryan" invaders. In fact, the main significance of the invasion theory lies not in the determination of whether such an invasion took place or not, but rather in how much of a debt Indian civilization might owe to such an invasion.

For instance, prior to the series of Islamic invasions, and long after the Aryan period of Indian history, there have been numerous other invasions that had an impact on the subcontinent. Yet it is only the "Aryan" invasion that attracts popular and scholarly attention. This is primarily because of the importance ascribed to the "Aryan" invasion by British colonial historians. Before the invention of the "exalted" Aryan by British ideologues, references to the Aryans in the Rig Veda were not treated with any particular importance, and few Indians had any conscious memory of an "Aryan" warrior past. This is not surprising, because the legacy of such invading warrior tribes or clans to Indian civilization is not especially significant.

Prior to any "Aryan" invasion, India already had a relatively advanced settled-agriculture based urban civilization. And within a few centuries after their possible introduction in India, the Aryan-identified gods described in the Rig Veda ceased to be worshipped and gradually faded from Indian consciousness. Brahmin gotra (clan) names mentioned in the Rig Veda also lost their import and the vast majority of Brahmin gotra (clan) names that came into common use could not have had any "Aryan"-invasion connection. As Kosambi convincingly points out in his Introduction to Indian History, many of India's Brahmins rose from 'Hinduised' tribes that earlier practised animism or totem worship, or prayed to various fertility gods (and/or goddesses), or revered fertility symbols such as the linga (phallus) or the yoni (vagina). A majority of these Hinduised tribes retained many elements of their older forms of worship, and several Brahmin gotra (clan) names are derived from pre-Aryan clan totems and other tribal associations.

For instance, one of the most popular gods in the Indian pantheon - Shiva - appears to have no connection with any Aryan invasion, and may in fact have it's prototype in the fertility god of the Harappans. Similiarly, Hanuman, Ganesh, Kali, or Maharashtra's Vithoba - none could have any Aryan connection, since they don't even find any mention in the Rig Veda. Whether in matters of popular religion or in matters of high philosophy, there is little contribution of note that can be traced directly to an "Aryan invasion".

Uniquely Indian Aspects of Vedic Literature

It is important to note that much of the Vedic literature - both in the style and substance of it's verses, appears to be uniquely Indian, and it is not impossible that at least some of the verses may have Harappan origin. Many of the philosophical themes that are explored and developed in the Vedic literature have insightful naturalist references that are consistent with Indian geography. In addition, there are certain philosophical aspects of the Vedic literature that don't appear to be replicated in quite the same way in any other civilization that was contemporaneous to the Vedic civilization.

The best of the Vedic Shlokas refer to a common life-spirit that links all living creatures, to human social-interconnectedness, to the notion of unity in diversity and how different sections of society might have different prayers and different wishes. Whereas some verses point to god as being a source for wish-fulfillment, in other verses, there are doubts and queries about the nature of god, whether a god really exists, and whether such questions can every be really answered. These aspects of Vedic thought were elaborated upon by later schools of Indian philosophy, and recur frequently in Indian literature and philosophy.

While some of India's rational schools developed in parallel with the Vedas, and are included as appendices to the Vedic texts, others developed practically independently of the Vedas, or even in opposition - as polemics to the Vedas (such as those of the Jains and the Buddhists). (See Philosophical development from Upanishadic theism to scientific realism) The Upanishads, the Sankhya, and the Nyaya-Vaisheshika schools, the numerous treatises on medicine, ethics, scientific method, logic and mathematics clearly developed on Indian soil as a result of Indian experiences and intellectual efforts.

India's great surviving temples and Stupas with their rich carvings and sculpture were all created with aesthetic principles and formulations that developed centuries after any invading or migrating "Aryans" would have completely melted into Indian society. And though it is possible that these foreign "Aryans" may have introduced certain technological innovations and inventions (possibly in the realm of metallurgy, metal tools or carpentry, and may have thus facilitated the spread of settled agricultural civilizations along the Gangetic plain), knowledge of textile production, tool-making, and metallurgy was already available to the Harappans.

The grammar of Sanskrit and its highly systematized alphabet also had little to do with any "Aryan" invasion. Sanskrit is a highly structured and methodical language, optimized for engaging in rational debates and expressing mathematical formulas. And its skillfully organized alphabet bears little resemblance to the rather random and arbitrary alphabet of its European "cousins". Much of its vocabulary and syntax developed long after any supposed invasion, and although the structure of the South Indian languages may differ from those of the North in some respects, the majority of India's languages (both Northern and Southern) share a large base of a common Sanskrit-derived vocabulary. In addition, what is especially significant is how the North Indian scripts share so much in common with the scripts of Southern India. The phonetic organization of consonants and vowels, phonetic spelling, and the many other commonalities that bind all of India's syllabic scripts weakens the entire linguistic premise of the Aryan invasion theory. In fact, when it comes to scripts, consonant and vowel sounds, all Indian languages are closely related, and their closest relatives are to be found in South East Asia, Ethiopia (and even Korea and Mongolia to some degree) but not in Europe. (See Ref.6)

It is thus curious, to say the least, when Indian civilization is described as synonymous with an imported "Aryan" civilization - and the self-esteem of so many Indians is tied up with trying to disprove the Aryan invasion theory. Other than perhaps accelerate the demise of republicanism in India, and possibly hasten the spread of settled agriculture along the Northern plains, there appears to be few other tangible and long-lasting effects that could be ascribed to an "Aryan" invasion.

Not only is it unclear as to how much any invading or migrant "Aryan" clan may have introduced into the Vedic literature, Vedic civilization itself is only a subset of Hindu civilization.

While the Aryans of the Vedas may be credited with laying the foundations of "Hindu" civilization in the Gangetic plain, the essence of Hindu civilization emerged gradually, taking several centuries to crystallize. Undergoing both internal reform and fusion with pre-existing tribal and matriarchal cultures, the Hinduism of both the rulers and the masses kept evolving. Even as it retained certain philosophical elements from Vedic literature, it also broadened and in some ways diverged completely from the Vedas.

Beyond the Northern (Yamuna/Gangetic) plains, the influence of Aryan-identified Vedic civilization was generally more limited. Vedic influences on the civilizations in Bengal, Assam and Orissa were initially almost minimal, and these Eastern civilizations largely followed their own (and somewhat unique trajectories), as did the civilizations of South India - absorbing Vedic philosophical concepts gradually and only partially. Throughout India, Buddhism and Jainism also found converts, and in Kashmir, the North West, and in the East - Buddhism had a particularly profound influence, while in Western India (such as in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Western Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka) Jainism was very influential. In Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh, West Bengal and Orissa, Tantric influences were important.

In essence, Indian civilization whether Hindu, Buddhist or Jain, or any other, developed primarily from the unique (and varied) conditions of Indian geography and the human exertion that went into modifying those conditions to advance agriculture and settled civilization. Taken in the general context of say three or four thousand years of Indian history, it is hard to ascribe to an "Aryan" invasion/s the sort of paramountcy assigned by the British. While British motives in magnifying the "Aryan" character of Indian civilization are only too apparent, this contemporary obsession with the "Aryan" question that appears to have gripped large sections of the Indian intelligentsia suggests that the ideological confusion created by the British has not yet been fully sorted out.

One consequence of this is that the debate on the Aryan question has been highly contentious, with historians adopting strident and extreme positions, not seeing that there can be both continuities and discontinuities in the development of Indian civilization. It has also diverted many of India's historians from equally (or more) important tasks - such as describing and integrating those periods of Indian history where considerable new archeological material is now available and needs to be incorporated into the presently known and documented view of Indian history.

Key aspects of Indian history remain poorly researched and documented. Many Sanskrit and vernacular texts have not been studied and assimilated by English speaking historians. Regional variations in Indian history have not been studied enough. A deeper understanding of some of the lesser known kingdoms all across India is required to correct false generalizations about Indian history. Much more effort is required in understanding social movements, gender and caste equations. Simplifications and generalizations based on antiquated documents like the Manusmriti (which was mainly resurrected by British historians) provide a very incomplete and distorted picture of actual social relations and practice in India. The Manusmriti also offers little in terms of understanding local and regional peculiarities in matters of social relations. (See Ref.3)

Considerable work is also required in unifying haphazard and scattered studies in the area of India's economic history and the history of philosophy, science, technology and manufacturing. It is also important that the vast body of work that has been published since independence in English be translated into the nation's many languages and regional dialects. It is tragic that so much of the best research done in Indian history is available only to English speakers. These are just some of the tasks that need greater attention from the community of Indian historians.

Intriguing as the Aryan-origin debate may be, it is in the end only one facet of Indian history, and merits further attention only if historians and archeologists can offer fresh and new insights on this subject and relate them to the broad dynamics of Indian civilization.

Notes and References:

1. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, famous for his work on the Indian Constitution, as well as his campaign in support of the nation's dalit community noticed the racial overtones underlying the theory and described the British espousal of the Aryan Invasion theory in the following words: "The theory of invasion is an invention. This invention is necessary because of a gratuitous assumption that the Indo-Germanic people are the purest of the modern representation of the original Aryan race. The theory is a perversion of scientific investigation. It is not allowed to evolve out of facts. On the contrary, the theory is preconceived and facts are selected to prove it. It falls to the ground at every point."

b. British anthropologist, Edmund Leach also termed the Aryan invasion theory as being born out of European racism.

2.. "What has taken place since the commencement of the British rule in India is only a reunion, to a certain extent, of the members of the same family," John Wilson, a colonial missionary, declared with a straight face, and naturally this happy reunion had now brought India into contact "with the most enlightened and philanthropic nation in the world." - quoted by Sri Aurobindo: The Origins of Aryan Speech, (The Secret of the Veda, p. 554).

3. See Madhu Kishwar: Manusmriti to Madhusmriti

4. See Marija Gimbutas: The Civilization of the Goddess, The World of Old Europe on the philological commonalities of the Indo-European languages, and how these commonalities relate to the culture and ethos of pastoral nomadic patriarchal warrior clans.

5. P.T. Srinivasa Iyengar (History of the Tamils) makes a similar case emphasizing the essentially indigenous development of Tamil language and civilization. Although some of his conclusions appear to be somewhat conjectural (such as those pertaining to Tamil Nadu possibly being the "original" homeland of the Sumerians), his assertion that Tamil language and culture arose from the very geography of the Tamil country is well substantiated. He does this by citing the anthropological observations of the ancient Tamils and demonstrating how the distinct geographical features of the Tamil country influenced the development of distinct modes of production and patterns of living, which in turn, helped shape their culture and language.

6. See, for instance, Wikipedia's on-line article on Indian and other Syllabic/Abugida scripts.

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