The beginnings of Indian history have become a hot topic of discussion today attracting complex and controversial arguments relating partly to archaeological evidence and to the advances made in the study of historical linguistics and partly to the new theories of interpreting the data. What happens as a result is that interpretation assists in supporting ideologies of identity in present times. Interpretations tend to deviate from scholarly concerns adding to problems faced in co-relating complex data. What the historian is concerned with is not just the ?the Aryan? as a category but the range of societies that co-existed between 3000 and 500 BC and their mutual interaction. ?Some were agro-pastoral, others agricultural and yet others, urban, with much interdependence,? says historian Romila Thapar.
The book under review attempts to set out the parameters of the problem in terms of the various aspects that impinge upon it: the history of the concept and how it has influenced historical thinking about the beginnings of Indian history. Here four essays have been compiled together by different historians to present four different aspects of the discussion that have gone into the making of what is now called ?the Aryan? and Aryan culture.
Romila Thapar says that if one seeks for a narrative of the beginnings of Indian history from Indian sources, such a narrative can be found in some of the Puranas. She says that significantly the view of the beginnings of Indian history makes no mention of the original ancestors being ?Aryan?, in part perhaps because the term ?Aryan? was not an ethnic label. The names in the descent lists of the Puranas are not listed as Aryan or non-Aryan and the ?ancestry of some is distinctly uncertain?.
She is of the view that the Vedas were composed earlier than the Puranas and were therefore taken as the starting point of Indian history. She continues, ?Aryan identity was encouraged by the pre-eminence given to the Vedas by the Brahmanical tradition which also ensured that they become the primary texts for European scholars working on Indian civilisation? and that the theory of Aryan race was viewed ?as foundational to Indian history largely through what has been called the twinning of the theories of British Sanskritists and ethnographers.?
She even refers to Jyotiba Pule'sperceptions which became important to the Dalit perspective on Indian history and Dayanand Saraswati'sthesis set out in the Satyarth Prakash, so much so that at one point of time the Theosophical Society and Saraswati'sArya Samaj held identical views ? Caste Hindus were Aryans and Aryans were indigenous to India. Non-Hindus were foreign and thus were the Muslims, Christians, Parsis, and the communists as well. All these were aliens since India was neither the land of their birth ? pitrbhumi nor the place where their religion originated ?punyabhumi. She summarises the concept of the Aryan theory which ?has been influenced by various nationalisms and imperialisms and continues to be so in some cases.?
Jonathan Mark Kenoyer uses the word ?factoids? to describe archaeological studies on the concept of ?Aryan? race. He counters the term ?Aryan? which is derived from the term ?arya? found in the Rigveda and those linguists who considered Sanskrit a branch of Indo-Aryan languages. He says that classification of a person'sgenetic heritage is totally misleading and factually incorrect because a person'slanguage does not always correlate to the person'sgenetic history. He cites another example of ?factoid? and that is the destruction of Mohenjodaro by so-called ?Aryan? invaders. He quotes Kenoyer and Possehl who said that the decline of Mohenjodaro is no longer attributed to the Indo-Aryan invasion or migrations, disease or floods but rather to a ?combination of factors that include the changing river system, the disruption of the subsistence base and a breakdown in the integrative factors of trade and religion.?
He refers to the claim of various historians and archaeologists regarding the Harappan culture, the Indus or the Indus-Saraswati civilisation and discusses in detail the Indus tradition which began with the period of initial domestication and settled village communities, the Indus burial tradition and the decline and transformation of Indus civilisation. He talks of the material Vedic culture as revealed by ritual fire altars, the use of the horse and other animals for sacrificial purposes and the conspicuous lack of writing.
Regarding the terms ?Arya? and ?Anarya?, Madhav M. Deshpande says that the term ?Arya? is an ethnic term seen only in the ancient linguistic materials found in Iran and India. He continues, ?The ancient linguistic material of the Indo-Iranian branch consists of the Vedic texts of ancient India, and the Avestan and Old Persian texts of ancient Iran? and that linguistic research indicates the likely path taken by the Indo-Iranians from areas to the north of the Central Asian region, through that region and finally into the areas of Iran, Afghanistan and India. He concludes that much of the ?research combines linguistic and archaeological insights.?
Shereen Ratnagar in her essay says that the extant language families under Indo-European dispersed geographically from the grasslands of Europe and Central Asia with Indo-Iranian representing one cleavage branching into two and resulting in the development of Avestan language of speakers who went to Iran and of Vedic Sanskrit (Indo-Aryan) of speakers who went to India. The author concludes, ?The Rigvedic society tribal, its ancestor rituals being of commensurate importance, the Rigveda grama was not a village in the sense understood today, but as a group that on the move. In this culture greater value was attached to cattle and horses that to fields or to piling of stacks of grain.? Cattle were the social currency figuring as the best form of wealth. ?The Iranian Gathas reveal a similar feature, utilising the metaphors of the herd, the protecting herdsman, etc.?
The book is a scholarly contribution to historiography through archaeological, linguistic, anthropological and historical evidences and makes for a better understanding of the ?Aryan? and the Aryan culture.
(National Book Trust, India, A-5 Green Park, New Delhi-110016.)