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The Aryan Hypothesis and Indian Identity

The Aryan Hypothesis and Indian Identity

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The Aryan Hypothesis and Indian Identity: A Case Study in thePostmodern Pathology of National Identity.
By J. Randall Groves, Ph.D.Professor of HumanitiesFerris State UniversityThe use of the concept of identity in historical studies is somewhat problematic since it may result in overly simple essentialisms. It can also beused to exercise power over those being identified. Thus the description or construction of an identity often leads to deep disagreement among scholars.On the other hand it is clearly impossible to do area studies without makingat least provision identifications. It is important, however, that provisionalidentifications not become reified or ontologized into something that later loses its provisional status. When this happens it can result in a pathology of identity that can lead to a negative characterization of some groups, or eventhe exclusion and oppression of certain groups. Historical studies are full of such reifications, and this is particularly true of the Aryan hypothesisexplanation of early India.In this paper I trace various uses of the Aryan hypothesis by different groupsof Indian and non-Indian scholars of Indian history in order to show how thishypothesis has taken several forms as it was put to use in the construction of Indian identity. These constructions of Indian identity will show that India issuffering a pathology of identity in response to the modern and postmodernstresses it is undergoing. India is not alone in its present postmodern pathology. We see the same phenomenon in various parts of the world withthe conservative and religious revivals in the Islamic world, Israel and theUnited States.The Aryan hypothesis has taken many forms since its inception. Thefollowing is a list of some of these standard forms:1.The linguistic thesis that Sanskrit shares a common origin with severalMeditteranean, Near Eastern and European languages.2.The AIT, or Aryan invasion thesis that argues that Vedic culture inIndia is the result of an invasion of outsiders.3.The AMT, or Aryan migration thesis that says there was no invasion,merely a migration.
 
4.The “indigenous Aryan” thesis that says the Aryans never invaded nor migrated into India, they were already there.5.The OIT, or “out of India” thesis that says that Aryans are originallyfrom India and spread out from there to the rest of the world.The Aryan hypothesis is useful to the study of cultural identity because itshows the complex interrelationships between self and other in the formationof identity. In India as well as other parts of the world, it has functioned as amyth of origins, and as mythologists understand, creation myths are oftenreiterated precisely in crisis periods in which the structure or basic order of asociety has been called into question.The theory begins as a view about Sanskrit linguistics, becomes a theory of invasion and migration concerning not only India, but also Iran, theMediterranean and Europe. Then it is taken up in Germany to ground Nazirace theory and in Britain and India to explain caste in terms of race in India.It is also the means by which Indians come to terms with the psychological burden of defeat and colonial domination. In recent times it has become thescene of a political contest of wills between Indian Nationalists and their opponents. Thus the Indo-Aryan hypothesis played an important role in theformulation of identity in both Nazi Germany and modern India. In this paper I will focus on the role the Aryan Hypothesis has played in India, withspecial attention to how the view of the other is basic for a dialectic of identity.
The Aryan Hypothesis: Linguistic Roots
The use of the concept of identity in historical studies is highly contested.While most historians have is a highly controversial view in recent studies of Ancient India. Originally a result of Western scholarship, the supporters of the Aryan Hypothesis in India and the West have used it to support verydifferent conceptions of Indian identity. Interestingly, so have its detractors.The linguistic argument for Indo-Aryan as the ancestral language of Greek,Latin and Sanskrit comes from William Jones, who noted importantsimilarities between several European languages such as Greek, Latin,Gothic and Celtic on the one hand, and Sanskrit on the other. Thesesimilarities cried out for explanation, and Jones, a believer in the truth of theChristian Bible, believed it was because they were all descendants of Ham,one of Noah’s sons.The Aryan invasion hypothesis, the idea that Indian culture is the result of the synthesis of two peoples, one indigenous, the other a group of invaders
 
called “Aryans,” was taken up by Max Müller, who deduced the idea of anAryan migration into India by looking for the homeland of Indo-Aryansfrom linguistic evidence from the Vedas. This evidence led Müller to believethat the early Indo-Aryans were a nomadic and pastoral people from several possible locations, all outside of India. If the Aryans came from outsideIndia, then they must have invaded India and brought their culture, particularly the Vedas, with them. More textual evidence for the AryanHypothesis comes from the text of the Vedas. Muir and more recently,Witzel, have argued that one can trace the movements of peoples fromreading the stories contained in the Vedas.
1
 Indian scholars were not particularly impressed at first with Aurobindo,Ramchandra Rao and Aghorechandra Chahattopadhyaya all voicingreasonable objections to the theory, particularly the problem of a group of  people giving rise to such great civilizations as the Greek, Roman, Vedicand Persian without leaving any trace of itself. They also noted the problemsof associated with a primitive nomadic people managing to "formulate alanguage as intricate and complex as Indo-European."
2
Interestingly, theseobjections seem to have been largely powerless to resist the popularity of theAryan hypothesis over time. We shall see below that this was even true of Indian scholars.
The Vedas
:When Max Müller first came up with a date for the Vedas, he drew upon his belief in the literal interpretation of the Bible and determined that the Vedaswere written around 1200 BCE by working forward from the date of theconstruction of the Tower of Babel after the flood, around 2500 BCE, and backward from the date of the Buddha, around 500 BCE. The Biblicalargument became less convincing to later scholars, but the dates stuck inWestern philology as the probable dates of the Vedas. There could be noclearer case of the other bringing his or her cultural assumptions into play ininterpreting a foriegn culture. Müller was deeply interested in India, but hewas also so imbued with his own culture that he simply could not bringhimself to examine it on its own merits. India was thus first presented to theWest in the only terms Müller had at his disposal, Christian terms.
The Indus Civilization
:
1
J.Muir,
The Original Sanskrit Texts
, (Oxford: Tuber, 1860) and Michael Witzel,“Tracing the Vedic Dialects.” In
 Dialectes dans les littérateurs Indo-Aryennes
. Ed. C.Caillat (Paris: Institut de Civilisation Indienne., 1989)
2
Edwin Bryant,
The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture
, Oxford; Oxford UP, 2001, 58-9.

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