A Fresh Look

at the Aryan Controversy

Anexhibition
preparedforFACT
d f FACT
byMichelDanino

Whatthetextbookssay…
We find in textbooks used in Indian schools varying versions of the Aryan invasion
theory. In Tamil Nadu especially, the following statement is bound to leave a
psychological scar on young minds:
It is believed that the earliest inhabitants of India were the Dravidians,
Dravidians who
“It
were ... the people who lived in Mohenjodaro and Harappa.... The Aryans
migrated from Central Asia and drove away the Dravidians after fierce battles….
The culture of the Aryans was entirely different from that of the Dravidians.”
(From a textbook used in Class 4 a few years ago. The most recent textbooks
perpetuate this scenario.)
Accompanied by purely imaginary depictions for greater effect (below), such
statements are misleading and based on no evidence.

ThebirthoftheAryantheory
To explain the kinship between Sanskrit and European languages, 19thcentury European Indologists — in particular Max Müller, a German
Sanskritist who lived in Oxford and published the full text of the Rig Veda
for the first time — propounded that:
¾ An “Aryan race” speaking a “proto-Indo-European language” (PIE) somewhere in
Central Asia, split into several groups: one migrated towards Europe, the other
towards Iran and finally
y India,, which they
y entered around 1500 BCE.*
¾ They subjugated “indigenous tribals” (this was revised later to include
“Dravidians”), composed the Rig Veda soon after their conquest of northwest India,
and gradually spread Sanskrit, Vedic culture and the caste system throughout India.
¾ India was thus composed of distinct “races,” languages, literatures, and cultures,
which turned the Aryan dogma into a political instrument of division between North
and South, upper (= Aryan) and lower (= non-Aryan) castes. The British colonial
powers also
l argued
d that
th t they
th had
h d come to
t bring
b i about
b t a “reunion”

i ” off the
th greatt Aryan
A
family; they were, after all, no more than a new wave of “Aryan” invaders of India!
¾ The concept of an aggressive, conquering “Aryan race” was devoid of evidence, but
it suited the dominance of the white man in the colonial age.
age Other “races”
races , including
the Jews and the Blacks, were regarded as inferior and unsuited to lead humanity. It
was the same racial theory that Hitler later took over and used to assert that the
Aryans were the “master race” (Herrenvolk) and had the right to rule the world and
exterminate inferior races.
* BCE = “Before Common Era” (= Before Christ). CE = “Common Era” (= AD).

Four approaches
The Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) remains an object of heated
controversy in India, but is rarely debated on the basis of hard
evidence and rational inquiry. Let us examine it from several
angles:
1.

Literary & geographical

2
2.

A h
Archaeological
l i l & cultural
lt
l

3.

Anthropological & genetic

4.

g
Linguistic

(Note: Other disciplines, such as archaeoastronomy or
archaeometallurgy
gy , also have evidence to contribute;; they
y are
not discussed here.)

1a. Literary Evidence
¾ Th
The Rig
Ri Veda
V d is
i supposed
d to
t have
h
been
b
composed
d by
b invading
i
di Aryans.
A
But
B t it contains
t i no
reference whatsoever to a distant homeland or to an invasion / migration into India. Most
importantly, the “battles” with the Dasyus, described as dark beings, are clearly of a
y
g
character,, similar to the PurƗnas’ battles between devas and asuras.
mythological
ƒ Swami Vivekananda: “There is not one word in our scriptures, not one, to prove that the
Aryan ever came from anywhere outside India. ... The whole of India is Aryan, nothing else.”
ƒ Sri Aurobindo: “There is no actual mention of such an invasion [in the Rig Veda]. ... There is
no reliable indication of any racial difference [between Aryans and Dasyus].”
ƒ George Erdosy, Canadian historian: “Even apparently clear indications [in the Rig Veda] of
historical struggles between dark aborigines and Arya conquerors turn out to be
misleading ”
misleading.
ƒ B.R. Ambedkar: “The theory of invasion is an invention. ... There is no evidence in the Vedas
of any invasion of India by the Aryan race and its having conquered the Dasas and Dasyus
supposed to be the natives of India. ... [The Aryan race theory is] so absurd that it ought to
have been dead long ago.”

¾ Ancient Tamil Sangam literature, from the 2nd century BCE remembers no migration from
the North and no conflict with “Aryans” or anyone else. Moreover Sangam literature, even
in its earliest anthologies,
anthologies often praises Vedic gods,
gods Indra,
Indra Vishnu,
Vishnu Agni etc.
etc It also shows
high regard for the Vedas, the chanting of Vedic hymns, Brahmins, the Himalayas, etc.
¾ India’s oldest literatures, whether from the North or the South, are therefore silent on an
“Aryan
y invasion” and also on a North-South divide. It is irrational to expect
p
that both the
Rig Veda and the Sangam literature should have forgotten everything about an event (the
Aryan invasion) that is said to have changed India’s cultural landscape radically.

1b. Geography:
Rivers & Oceans in the Rig-Veda
¾ The Rig-Veda has numerous references to the ocean (samudra), India’s
“eastern
eastern and western seas”
seas , ships,
ships sailing
sailing, storms,
storms waves
waves, etc
etc. — all of which
invaders from Central Asia would have been ignorant of.
¾ The Rig-Veda often mentions the Saptasindhava (“seven sindhus” or rivers):
the Indus
Indus, Sindhu,
Sindhu its five tributaries
tributaries, and the SarasvatƯ
SarasvatƯ. That is the geography
of the Northwest of the Indian subcontinent.
¾ The SarasvatƯ* is described as a “mighty river” flowing “unbroken” “from the
mountain to the sea
sea.” An important “hymn
hymn in praise of rivers
rivers” (10.75)
(10 75) locates it
between the Yamuna and the Sutlej. In the nineteenth century, British
surveyors, topographers and geologists identified it with the huge dry bed of
the Ghaggar–Hakra, which runs from Haryana to the Rann of Kachchh.
Archaeology shows that this river, which nurtured hundreds of Harappan
sites, started breaking up around 2700 BCE, and its central basin had dried up
from 2000 BCE. Aryans invading India around 1500 BCE could not have
worshipped
hi
d the
th dry
d bed
b d as a “mighty
“ i ht river
i
flowing
fl i
from
f
the
th mountain
t i to
t the
th
sea”. The composers of those hymns must have lived on the river’s banks
while it was in full flow—in the third or fourth millennium BCE.
* For a fuller treatment, see my separate
presentation, “SarasvatƯ, the Lost River”.

This geography of the Rig Veda (above)
coincides with that of the Indus or
Harappan civilization (right). Note the
hi h density
high
d
it off Harappan
H
sites
it along
l
the
th
SarasvatƯ.
But only one culture was found spread
over this whole region, not two: the
Harappan.*

* For a fuller treatment, see my separate presentation,
“Glimpses of the Indus-SarasvatƯ Civilization”.

2a. The verdict of archaeology: negative
¾ Had the Aryans migrated into India, we should expect some evidence of
different tools, weapons, objects of daily use, pottery style, art forms, etc. The
opposite is the case: after more than a century of archaeological
investigations, no physical evidence for the arrival in India of a new people in
the 2nd millennium BCE has come to light.
¾ B
B.B.
B Lal,
Lal Indian archaeologist: “The
The supporters of the Aryan invasion theory
have not been able to cite even a single example where there is evidence of
‘invaders,’ represented either by weapons of warfare or even of cultural
remains left by them.”
¾ J.M. Kenoyer, U.S. archaeologist: “There is no archaeological or biological
evidence for invasions or mass migrations into the Indus Valley between the
end of the Harappan Phase, about 1900 B.C. and the beginning of the Early
Historic period around 600 B.C.”
BC”

¾ The Indus cities begin to collapse around 1900 BCE: even if Aryans had come
around 1500 BCE, they would have had nothing to do with their destruction.
Moreover there is no trace of man-made
Moreover,
man made destruction or warfare anywhere in
the Indus civilization. There is therefore no justification for the crude
misrepresentations found in textbooks depicting Aryans attacking Harappan
cities. That is why
y even those scholars who today
y continue to believe in the
arrival of Aryans have downgraded it to a peaceful immigration.

2b. The verdict of archaeology: positive
Continuity between
Indus-SarasvatƯ civilization
and classical India
According to the Aryan invasion theory, the Indus civilization (3rd
millennium BCE) is “pre-Aryan” and “pre-Vedic,” while the later
Gangetic civilization (1st millennium BCE),
BCE) supposedly created by
the Aryans, is of Vedic culture.
This implies a complete cultural break between these two
civilizations.
i ili ti
Let us examine the evidence.

Top: Kalibangan, 2800 BCE: a
field with perpendicular rows
of furrows, an ingenious
system of intercropping for
the winter season. Taller crops
(mustard, etc.) can be grown
in the north-south long
furrows, without their
shadows affecting shorter
crops (gram etc.) in the eastwest furrows.
Bottom: At Kalibangan, a field
ploughed
p
g
in the 1960s,, while
excavations were going on.
Peasants were still using the
4,800-year-old
4,800
year old system!

There is continuity between Harappan
weights (right) and India’s traditional
weights, used till the 20th century, for
instance in medicinal preparations or
jewellery as this table shows:
jewellery,

256

There is also continuity
y between
Harappan units of length: Lothal’s
ivory scale points to a unit of 1.77
mm; Kaligangan’s terracotta scale
(right) to 1
1.75
75 cm
cm. This agrees with
India’s traditional angula of 1.77 cm.

712

Left: A tablet from Mohenjo-daro depicting
a boat with raised sides and a central
cabin. Right: A traditional Mohana boat on
the Indus, with precisely the same shape.

Chess-like gamesmen from
Lothal (left) and dice from
Harappa (right) offer strong
evidence of cultural
continuity.

Left: The “dancing girl,” bronze
statuette
t t tt ffrom M
Mohenjo-daro,
h j d
displays
di l
continuity in the wearing of bangles:
rural women in Rajasthan and Gujarat
often wear bangles over the whole left
arm. The bronze-casting technique
(“lost wax technique”) is still used by
traditional craftsmen in India today
(
(see
th
the Swamimalai
S
i l i bronze
b
casters).
t )

Continuity of craft techniques,
cutting, drilling, bleaching, etc., of
semiprecious stones, metals and
shells and even designs has been
demonstrated between Harappan
jewels (right) and those
manufactured till recently in the
Khambat (Cambay) region.

Several important Harappan symbols
survived
i d into
i t historical
hi t i l times.
ti
The
Th
“endless knot” is shown here on a
Mohenjo-daro copper plate (far left)
and on a Gujarat inscription of the 9th
century CE (near left).

This Harappan symbol is
very frequent on tablets,
pottery etc
etc. It is clearly the
precursor of the Hindu,
Buddhist and Jain swastika.

This statuette from Nausharo, Baluchistan, 2800
BCE reveals the use of vermilion (sindnjr,
kumkum) at the parting of the hair
hair, just where
married Hindu ladies apply it today.

Modest Harappan graves
show respect for the dead
dead,
but unlike in ancient Egypt,
where the Pharaoh, high
priests or officials had
glorious tombs, here the
wealth was not buried with
the dead; it remained with
the living: death was not
regarded as all-important.
This is a typical Indian
attitude.

Evidence of animal sacrifice
(carefully built sacrificial pit from
Kalibangan)

Other elements of Harappan
religion: ritual purification
f
through
water (left) at Mohenjo-daro’s
“Great Bath”.
Bottom left: tree worship.
Harappans used conch shells just
like today’s Hindus: with the mouth
cut open and used to pour libations
(b tt ) and
(bottom);
d with
ith the
th tip
ti cutt off
ff for
f
trumpeting (bottom right).

EvidenceoffireworshipinHarappanreligion

(Left) A fire altar, about 2.6 x 2.6 m in a street at Lothal; the pit was
found to be full of ash and terracotta cakes; the big jar must have
been used to keep liquid offerings, perhaps oil or ghee. Such a
structure in a public place could only have been used for ritual
purposes. (Right) Fire temple at Banawali, Haryana, with the central
apsidal (semicircular) structure also found to be full of ash.

The Harappans worshipped a mothergoddess left.
goddess,
left This terracotta figurine
has two basket-like cups on either
side of the head, which were used as
oil lamps: traces of soot were found
in some of them.

Religion apart, the iconography
also shows continuities, left: a
Harappan mother-goddess;
right:
i ht a mother-goddess
th
dd
off the
th
rd
3 century BCE. Both sport a
headdress of large flowers,
g ear-rings,
g , a large
g necklace
huge
and a pendant.

Evidence of linga
g worship
p (above
(
left: Kalibangan)
g ) and of the trishnjla
(above right) is a strong argument for cultural continuity.

The ritual slaying of a
buffalo on this terracotta
t bl t evokes
tablet
k the
th
Mahishamardini theme,
Durga’s slaying of the
buffalo-asura.

Morepossible
parallels between
parallelsbetween
HarappanandVedic
cultures
Indus seals: (Top left) A Vedic bull? (Top centre) The Unicorn: the Rig Veda speaks
of a bull “with
with a sharpened horn
horn”;; Krishna in the MahƗbhƗrata,
MahƗbhƗrata “In
In days of old ... I
was known by the name of Ekashringa [one-horned].” (Top right) Triple-headed
mythical creatures: in the Rig Veda, Agni is “three-headed”.

A three-faced god in yogic
posture, mnjlabandhƗsana
expresses mastery over wild
animals: an early
representation of Shiva? Shiva
g
is the “Lord of Yoga”
(YoganƗth) and also the “Lord
of the Beasts”.
A note of caution: Since the Indus script remains undeciphered, Harappan culture seen through archaeology is a
folk culture, while the Rig Veda is a specialized text intended to invoke divine powers. Although bridges between
the two are visible, they cannot be simply equated, just as today’s Hinduism practised in rural India is a mix of
mainstream, folk and tribal deities and rituals.

Harappan figurines in Ɨsanas attest to some practice of yoga.

Left: The so-called
“priest-king” (from
Mohenjo-daro) in deep
meditation. Right: the
origin of India’s
“namaste” (a figurine
from Harappa).

The verdict of archaeology:
gy p
positive
¾

Between the Harappan and the Gangetic civilizations, we find numerous
continuities on the material level, in agriculture, technologies and crafts.

¾

Harappan religion practises:
ƒ
ƒ
ƒ
ƒ
ƒ
ƒ
ƒ
ƒ

¾

the ritual use of water
fire worship
Nature worship: trees and animals
Linga worship
Mother-goddess worship
animal sacrifice
religious processions
Yoga and meditation

All these are also characteristic features of Hinduism. Hence:

ƒ “The [Harappan] religion is so characteristically Indian as hardly to be
distinguished from still living Hinduism....” John Marshall, 1931
ƒ “Current studies of the transition between the two early urban civilizations
claim
l i that
th t there
th
was no significant
i ifi
t break
b
k or hiatus.”
hi t ” Jonathan
J
th M.
M Kenoyer
K
ƒ “It is difficult to see what is particularly non-Aryan about the Indus Valley
civilization.” Colin Renfrew
The cultural and religious traditions of the Harappans provide the
ƒ “The
substratum for the latter-day Indian Civilisation.” D.P. Agrawal

3. Anthropology & Genetics
¾ K.A.R. Kennedy, U.S. bioanthopologist, after studying hundreds of skeletons of
Harappan and later times: “Biological anthropologists remain unable to lend
support to any of the theories concerning an Aryan biological or demographic
entity.... There is no evidence of demographic disruptions in the north-western
sector of the subcontinent during and immediately after the decline of the
Harappan culture.” In other words, no demographic disruption by “Aryans”.
¾ S.P. Gupta: “There was neither an Aryan race nor a Dravidian race. The concept of
‘race’ itself is a myth.”
¾ Today’s
Today s biologists and anthropologists no longer use the term of “race”,
race , which is
an unscientific concept: it is impossible to biologically define a “race”. Biologists
speak of human types, ethnic groups, or haplogroups, which reflect the great
complexity of our human genetic heritage.
¾ Contrary to a widespread misconception, darkness of skin is not related to “race”
or to any ethnic grouping: it depends purely on the latitude. Melanin, a dark
pigment in our skin, acts as a barrier against the effects of the ultraviolet rays of
sunlight. The closer we move to the tropics and equator, the higher the content of
melanin. Central Africans are black while North Africans are not; Italians are
noticeably darker than Swedes. The darker skin tones of south Indians (with
exceptions) have no other meaning; inhabitants of northern Karnataka or Andhra
are already much fairer (though linguistically Dravidian).

Recent genetic studies of Indian
populations have failed to detect
the impact of an Aryan invasion
/ migration in the 2nd millennium
BCE on India’s
India s gene pool.

¾ Indian populations have great genetic
y In a map
p of g
genetic distances
diversity.
(bottom left), the Chenchus, a Dravidianspeaking tribe of Andhra Pradesh, are much
closer to Central Asia than Brahmins of the
Goan region or Punjabis.
Punjabis
¾ Y-DNA studies show that the “deep, common
ancestry” between India and Central Asia is
readily explained by northward migrations
from India’s Northwest some 40,000 years ago
(Sanghamitra Sahoo et al, 2006).
g castes share more than 80 per
p cent of
¾ “High
their maternal lineages [mtDNA] with the lower
castes and tribals.” (Kivisild et al, 2000)
Brahmins and the caste system are of
autochthonous origin”
origin (Sharma et al
al, 2009).
2009)
“autochthonous
Geneticists have started speaking of a “castetribe continuum”: the notion of ƗdivƗsi has no
scientific validity.
¾ India’s populations are linguistically and
ethnically very diverse, but share a
“fundamental genomic unity” traceable to the
original
i i l peopling
li off India
I di by
b migrants
i
t from
f
Africa some 50,000 years ago.

4. Linguistics
Problems with the linguistic scenario proposed by 19th-century
century European linguists:
¾

¾

¾

¾

¾

¾

It is a fact that Sanskritic and European languages belong too the same family. But even
after two centuries, linguists remain unable to agree on the location of the “original IndoEuropean [= Aryan] homeland.
homeland ” Proposed homelands still today spread from Northern
Europe to Southern Russia to the Caspian Sea or even Bactria.
Language need not spread through invasion / migration alone. For example, Sanskrit
spread through much of Asia in the first centuries CE but without any invasion by, or
migration of, Indians; its spread was a cultural, not a demographic, migration.
Beyond the “tree model”, with a hypothetical Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) as the
trunk of the tree, more complex models have been proposed to take “lateral influences”
into account. Linguists
g
agree
g
that PIE is a convenient model but probably
p
y was never a
ground reality.
One recent model (by Russell Gray & Quentin Atkinson) argues in favour of an early
dispersal of PIE from Anatolia, from 6000 or 7000 BCE onward. With such a time-frame,
dispersal from India is equally possible.
possible In fact,
fact another recent model (by U.S.
U S linguist
Johanna Nichols) takes Bactria to be the original homeland; Bactria (today’s northeast
Afghanistan) was part of India’s cultural sphere. Scholars Koenraad Elst and Nicholas
Kazanas argue that PIE migrated out of India.
Dravidian languages (the four south Indian languages and a few other dialects) are distinct
from the Indo-European family, but linguistics remains unable to pinpoint their origin.
However, language and culture are distinct and should not be confused (e.g., Switzerland
has three languages but one culture; English covers many different cultures.)
In the end, linguistics, though an important discipline, is soft evidence which can be bent
to various interpretations. It cannot clinch the issue.

Thehorsecontroversy

Proponents of the Aryan theory often claim that Harappans did not know the horse, while Vedic
people did. The argument has many flaws.
¾ Top left: Figurine of a horse from Mohenjo-daro, identified as such by Mackay. Top centre:
Figurine from Lothal. Top right: Horse bones from Surkotada, Gujarat, among horse
remains from a dozen sites certified by the best experts
experts. The Harappans did know the
horse, although it is true that they did not depict the animal on their seals.
¾ If Aryans had introduced the horse into India around 1500 BCE, we should see an increase
of horse remains and depictions; there is none. The horse remains very rarely depicted in
India until the Mauryan age and many historical sites have no horse bones
bones.
¾ In the Rig Veda, the adversaries of the Ɨryas (the dasyus and panis) also have “horses”
(ashva). The equation horse = Vedic is a crude oversimplification.
¾ In Vedic hymns to the dawn, Ushas is praised as “gomati ashvavati ”— literally “full of
cows and horses”! A literal reading of the Veda can only lead to such absurdities; the true
meaning is “full of light (go) and speed/energy (asva)”. We need to look at the Veda afresh.

S
Summary&Conclusions
&C l i

No sign of confrontation / man-made destruction anywhere in Harappan
cities during and after the Mature (urban) phase.

g of the arrival of a new population
p p
in the 2nd millennium BCE: no
No sign
archaeological or anthropological discontinuities of the kind an invasion
should have caused.

Harappan
pp culture has many
y similarities with later classical Indian culture:
there is no cultural break of the kind imposed by the Aryan theory.

The Vedic geography coincides with the Harappan civilization — but only
one culture has been found in India
India’s
s Northwest, not two.

There is no ground for the survival of divisive theories conceived in
colonial times and unsupported by any hard evidence.

Suggested Further Reading
¾ Aurobindo, Sri, The Secret of the Veda, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1998
¾ Bryant, Edwin, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate,
Oxford University Press,
Press 2001
¾ Chakrabarti, Dilip K, Colonial Indology: Sociopolitics of the Ancient Indian Past, Munshiram
Manoharlal, 1997
¾ Danino, Michel, The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati, Penguin Books India, 2010
¾ Danino,
D i
Mi
Michel,
h l The
Th Dawn
D
off Indian
I di Civilization
Ci ili ti and
d the
th Elusive
El i Aryans,
A
f th
forthcoming
i
¾ Elst, Koenraad, Update on the Aryan Invasion Debate, Aditya Prakashan, 1999
¾ Feuerstein, Georg, Kak, Subhash & Frawley, David, In Search of the Cradle of Civilization, Motilal
Banarsidass, 1999
¾ Frawley, David, Gods, Sages and Kings: Vedic Secrets of Ancient Civilization, Motilal
Banarsidass, 1993
¾ Kazanas, Nicholas, Indo-Aryan Origins and Other Vedic Issues, Aditya Prakashan, 2009
¾ Lal,
Lal B
B.B,
B The Sarasvati Flows On: The Continuity of Indian Culture
Culture, Aryan Books International
International, 2002
¾ Lal, B.B, The Homeland of the Aryans: Evidence of Rigvedic Flora and Fauna, Aryan Books
International, 2005
¾ Rajaram, N.S. & Frawley, David, Vedic Aryans and the Origins of Civilization: A Literary and
S i tifi P
Scientific
Perspective,
ti
V i off India,
Voice
I di 3rdd ed,
d 2001
¾ Staal, Frits, Discovering the Vedas, Penguin Books, 2008
¾ Talageri, Shrikant G, The Rigveda: A Historical Analysis, Aditya Prakashan, 2000
y
and British India, Vistaar, 1997
¾ Trautmann, Thomas R, Aryans
¾ Trautmann, Thomas R, ed., The Aryan Debate, Oxford University Press, 2005