Aryans: A people or an obsession?
The Aryan problem is a modern European creation that has no relevance to ancient India. The invasion is the tail wagging the Aryan dog, writes N.S. Rajaram
Who were the Aryans?
No single aspect of ancient Indian history and historiography has so dominated discourse as the so-called ?Aryan problem?. There is the Aryan invasion (or migration), which is supposed to have brought in the Vedic civilisation and the ?Aryan? language (Sanskrit), the Aryan race and even an Aryan nation thousands of years later, of all places, in Germany! Even archaeology has not escaped the Aryan assault with scholars claiming that the Harappan civilisation was non-Aryan, destroyed by the invading Aryans, who, of all things, are supposed to have introduced the horse into India. Never mind the fact that horse fossils in India are over a million years old, but what is the reality?
In the whole of the Rigveda, consisting of ten books with more than 1,000 hymns, the word Arya appears fewer than 40 times. It may occur as many times in a single page of a modern European work, like for example, in Hitler'sMein Kampf. As a result, any modern book or even a discussion on the ?Aryan problem? is likely to be a commentary on the voluminous 19th and 20th century European literature on the Aryans having little or no relevance to ancient India. This is simply a matter of the sources: not only the Rigveda, but also the whole body of ancient literature that followed it have precious little to say about Aryans and Aryanism. It was simply an honorific, which the ancient Sanskrit lexicon Amarakosha identifies as one of the synonyms for honorable or decent conduct. There is no reference to any ?Aryan? type.
A remarkable aspect of this vast ?Aryanology? is that after two hundred years and at least as many books on the subject, scholars are still not clear about the Aryan identity. At first they were supposed to be a race distinguished by some physical traits, but ancient texts know nothing of it. Scientists too have no use for the ?Aryan race.? As far back as 1939, Julian Huxley, one of the great biologists of the 20th century, dismissed it as part of ?political and propagandist? literature. Recently, there have been attempts to revive racial arguments in the name of genome research, but eminent geneticists like L. Cavalli-Sforza and Stephen Oppenheimer have rejected it. The M17 genetic marker, which is supposed to distinguish the ?Caucasian? type (politically correct for Aryan), occurs with the highest frequency and diversity in India, showing that among its carriers, the Indian population is the oldest.
This article is based on the latest findings in history and natural history. It is part of a pathbreaking effort to place ancient history on a scientific foundation. (Source: Out of Eden by Stephen Oppenheimer (2003), Wiedenfield and Nicholson: London.)
Natural history of modern humans
There have been some strange claims in the name of genome research, going so far as to claim that they support the Aryan invasion. But here is what world leading geneticists like L. Cavalli-Sforza and S. Oppenheimer have to say: Our ancestors used to live in Africa 150,000 years ago. A small group of homo sapiens left Africa some 80,000 years ago and settled along the South Asian coast from where they spread out to colonise different parts of the world. All non-Africans in the world today are descendants of a small group of South Asians living south of a line from Yemen to the Himalayas, especially along the Indian coast. This ?founder group,? from which all non-Africans are descended, barely survived the fallout from a volcanic eruption in Sumatra known as the ?Toba Explosion? 74,000 years ago.
This is roughly the story of our past growing out of more than fifty years of intensive mapping of human genes and climate changes by different scientists. By relating these movements to ecological upheavals, what we obtain is the genetic history of modern humans correlated with the natural history of our planet. Climate changes have been the drivers of both evolution and migration, and hence the growth and decline of civilisations.
Equally interesting is the message of the M17 genetic marker, which some have sought to identify with the ?Aryan? gene. It appears in India, Iran, Eurasia and Europe, but exhibits the greatest frequency and diversity in India showing that among its carriers, the Indian population is the oldest. This means that proponents of the Aryan invasion (or migration) have got both the origin and the direction of movement wrong. (See migration map. Source: Out of Eden by Stephen Oppenheimer.)
It is important to interpret this properly. It does not mean that there were no non-African humans before the Toba Explosion, but only that no descendants of those earlier populations have survived outside Africa. A group out of Africa 120,000 years ago made its way to Egypt but disappeared 90,000 years ago without a genetic trace. All Europeans living today are descended from South Asians, possibly as recently as 40,000 years ago. South Asia, India in particular, was the jumping off point for the colonisation East Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia and ultimately the Americas.
This raises some questions for theories about Indian history and anthropology created during the colonial era. Leaving aside pseudo-scientific theories about race and language, which have been discredited by science but continue in various guises in some academic circles, it shows that both the so-called adivasis (tribals or aborginals) and the caste Hindus share a common African origin. The same is true of Dravidians and Dalits.
A remarkable aspect of this vast ?Aryanology? is that after two hundred years and at least as many books on the subject, scholars are still not clear about the Aryan identity. At first they were supposed to be a race distinguished by some physical traits, but ancient texts know nothing of it. Scientists too have no use for the ?Aryan race.?
Tail wagging the dog
It is a similar situation with the Aryans as a linguistic group, which is what some scholars, sensitive to the disrepute that race theories have fallen into are proposing. But the vast body of Indian literature on linguistics, the richest in the world going back at least to Yaska and Panini, knows nothing of any Aryan language. The German-born Friedrich Max M?ller made his celebrated switch from Aryan race to Aryan language only to save his career in England following German unification, when the British began to see Germany as a major threat. The ?Aryan nation? was the battle cry of German nationalists. It was German nationalists, not ancient Indians who were obsessed with their Aryan ancestry.
All this means that the ?Aryan problem? is a non-problem- little more than an aberration of historiography. It has been kept alive by a school of historians with careers and reputations at stake. According to its advocates, the Vedic language and literature are of non-Indian origin. In the words of Romila Thapar, a prominent advocate of the non-indigenous origin theory: ?The evidence for the importation of the earliest form of the language [Vedic] can hardly be denied.? (Foreword to Aryans and British India by Thomas Trautmann (1997), Vistaar Publications: New Delhi, page xiv.)
In other words, Aryans are needed because without them there can be no Aryan invasion (or migration). The invasion is the tail that wags the Aryan dog.
In the face of this overwhelming evidence, it is best ignore labels and stereotypes like ?Aryan? and ?Dravidian? and look simply at the record of the people who lived in India and created her unique civilisations. This is the spirit in which my colleagues and I study history- as a combination of natural history and the human record.
(The author has written several books on ancient history including Vedic Aryans and the Origins of Civilisation with David Frawley and The Deciphered Indus Script with Natwar Jha.)