Max Müller’s career illustrates how Indology and Sanskrit studies in the West have always been associated with politics at all levels. He was by no means the only ‘diplomatist’ scholar gracing colonial Indology, only the most successful. It is remarkable that though his contributions are all but forgotten, his political legacy endures. His successors in Europe and America have been reduced to play politics at a much lower level, but in India, his theories have had unexpected fallout in the rise of Dravidian politics. It is entirely proper that while his scholarly works (save for translations) have been consigned to the dustbin of history, his legacy endures in politics. This may prove to be true of Indology as a whole as an academic discipline.
Post colonial scene: passing of the Aryan gods
The post colonial era may conveniently be dated to 1950. In 1947 India became free and the great Aryan ‘Thousand Year Reich’ lay in ashes. In Europe at least the word Aryan came to acquire an infamy comparable to the word Jehadi today. Europeans, Germans in particular, were anxious to dissociate themselves from it. But there remained a residue of pre-war Indology (and associated race theories) that in various guises succeeded in establishing itself in academic centers mainly in the United States. Its most visible spokesman in recent times has been one Michael Witzel, a German expatriate like Max Müller, teaching in the Sanskrit Department at Harvard University in the United States. In an extraordinary replay of Max Müller’s political flip-flops Witzel too is better known for his political and propaganda activities than any scholarly contributions. Witzel’s recent campaigns, from attempts to introduce Aryan theories in California schools to his ill-fated tour of India where his scholarly deficiencies were exposed in public highlight the dependence of Indology on politics.
While the field of Indo-European Studies has been struggling to survive on the fringes of academia, lately it has become the subject critical analysis by scholars in Europe and America. Unlike Indians who treat the field and its practitioners with a degree of respect, European scholars have not hesitated to call a spade a spade, treating it as a case of pathological scholarship with racist links to Nazi ideology. This may be attributed to the fact that Europeans have seen and experienced its horrors while Indians have only read about it.
In a remarkable article, “Aryan Mythology As Science And Ideology” (Journal of the American Academy of Religion 1999; 67: 327-354) the Swedish scholar Stefan Arvidsson raises the question: “Today it is disputed whether or not the downfall of the Third Reich brought about a sobering among scholars working with ‘Aryan’ religions.” We may rephrase the question: “Did the end of the Nazi regime put an end to race based theories in academia?”
An examination of several humanities departments in the West suggests otherwise: following the end of Nazism, academic racism may have undergone a mutation but did not entirely disappear. Ideas central to the Aryan myth resurfaced in various guises under labels like Indology and Indo-European Studies. This is clear from recent political, social and academic episodes in places as far apart as Harvard University and the California State Board of Education. But there was an interregnum of sorts before Aryan theories again raised their heads in West.
Two decades after the end of the Nazi regime, racism underwent another mutation as a result of the American Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King. Thanks to the Civil Rights Movement, Americans were made to feel guilty about their racist past and the indefensible treatment of African Americans. U.S. academia also changed accordingly and any discourse based on racial stereotyping became taboo. Soon this taboo came to be extended to Native Americans, Eskimos and other ethnic groups.
In this climate of seeming liberal enlightenment, one race theory continued to flourish as if nothing had changed. Theories based on the Aryan myth that formed the core of Nazi ideology continued in various guises, as previously noted, in Indology and Indo-European Studies. Though given a linguistic and sometimes a cultural veneer, these racially sourced ideas continue to enjoy academic respectability in such prestigious centers as Harvard and Chicago.
Being a European transplant, its historical trajectory was different from the one followed by American racism. Further, unlike the Civil Rights Movement, which had mass support, academic racism remained largely confined to academia. This allowed it to escape public scrutiny for several decades until it clashed with the growing Hindu presence in the United States. Indians, Hindus in particular saw Western Indology and Indo-European Studies as a perversion of their history and religion and a thinly disguised attempt to prejudice the American public, especially the youth, against India and Hinduism to serve their academic interests.
The fact that Americans of Indian origin are among the most educated group ensured that their objections could not be brushed away by ‘haughty dismissals’ as the late historian of science Abraham Seidenberg put it. Nonetheless, scholars tried to use academic prestige as a bludgeon in forestalling debate, by denouncing their adversaries as ignorant chauvinists and bigots unworthy of debate. But increasingly, hard evidence from archaeology, natural history and genetics made it impossible to ignore the objections of their opponents, many of whom (like this writer) were scientists. But in November 2005, there came a dramatic denouement, in, of all places, California schools. Academics suddenly found it necessary to leave their ivory towers and fight it out in the open, in full media glare- and under court scrutiny.
It is unnecessary to go into the details of the now discredited campaign by Michael Witzel and his associates trying to stop the removal of references to the Aryans and their invasion from California school books. What is remarkable is that a senior tenured professor at Harvard of German origin should concern himself with how Hinduism is taught to children in California. Witzel is a linguist, but he presumed to tell California schools how Hinduism should be taught to children. It turned out that Hinduism was only a cover, and his concern was saving the Aryan myth from being erased from books.
Ever since he moved to Harvard from Germany, Witzel has seen the fortunes of his department and his field, gradually sink into irrelevance. Problems at Harvard are part of a wider problem in Western academia in the field of Indo-European Studies. As previously noted, several ‘Indology’ departments-as they are sometimes called-are shutting down across Europe. One of the oldest and most prestigious, at Cambridge University in England, has just closed down. This was followed by the closure of the equally prestigious Berlin Institute of Indology founded way back in 1821. Positions like the one Witzel holds (Wales Professor of Sanskrit) were created during the colonial era to serve as interpreters of India. They have lost their relevance and are disappearing from academia. This was the real story, not teaching Hinduism to California children.
Witzel’s California misadventure appears to have been an attempt to somehow save his pet Aryan theories from oblivion by making it part of Indian history and civilization in the school curriculum. Otherwise, it is hard to see why a senior, tenured professor at Harvard should go to all this trouble, lobbying California school officials to have its Grade VI curriculum changed to reflect his views.
To follow this it is necessary to go beyond personalities and understand the importance of the Aryan myth to Indo-European Studies. The Aryan myth is a European creation. It has nothing to do with Hinduism. The campaign against Hinduism was a red herring to divert attention from the real agenda, which was and remains saving the Aryan myth. Collapse of the Aryan myth means the collapse of Indo-European studies. This is what Witzel and his colleagues are trying to avert. For them it is an existential struggle.
Americans and even Indians for the most part are unaware of the enormous influence of the Aryan myth on European history and imagination. Central to Indo-European Studies is the belief-it is no more than a belief-that Indian civilization was created by an invading race of ‘Aryans’ from an original homeland somewhere in Eurasia or Europe. This is the Aryan invasion theory dear to Witzel and his European colleagues, and essential for their survival. According to this theory there was no civilization in India before the Aryan invaders brought it- a view increasingly in conflict with hard evidence from archaeology and natural history.
In this academic and political conundrum it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the Aryan myth is a modern European creation. It has little to do with ancient India. The word Arya appears for the first time in the Rig Veda, India’s oldest text. Its meaning is obscure but it seems to refer to members of a settled agricultural community. It later became an honorific and a form of address, something like ‘Gentleman’ in English or ‘Monsieur’ in French. Also, it was nowhere as important in India as it came to be in Europe. In the whole the Rig Veda, in all of its ten books, the word Arya appears only about forty times. In contrast, Hitler’s Mein Kampf uses the term Arya and Aryan many times more. Hitler did not invent it. The idea of Aryans as a superior race was already in the air- in Europe, not India.
(To be concluded)