The Aryan Hypothesis and Indian Identity | Vedas | Religion And Belief

The Aryan Hypothesis and Indian Identity: A Case Study in the Postmodern Pathology of National Identity. By J.

Randall Groves, Ph.D. Professor of Humanities Ferris State University The use of the concept of identity in historical studies is somewhat problematic since it may result in overly simple essentialisms. It can also be used 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 making at least provision identifications. It is important, however, that provisional identifications 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 even the exclusion and oppression of certain groups. Historical studies are full of such reifications, and this is particularly true of the Aryan hypothesis explanation of early India. In this paper I trace various uses of the Aryan hypothesis by different groups of Indian and non-Indian scholars of Indian history in order to show how this hypothesis 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 is suffering a pathology of identity in response to the modern and postmodern stresses it is undergoing. India is not alone in its present postmodern pathology. We see the same phenomenon in various parts of the world with the conservative and religious revivals in the Islamic world, Israel and the United States. The Aryan hypothesis has taken many forms since its inception. The following is a list of some of these standard forms: 1. The linguistic thesis that Sanskrit shares a common origin with several Meditteranean, Near Eastern and European languages. 2. The AIT, or Aryan invasion thesis that argues that Vedic culture in India 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 originally from India and spread out from there to the rest of the world. The Aryan hypothesis is useful to the study of cultural identity because it shows the complex interrelationships between self and other in the formation of identity. In India as well as other parts of the world, it has functioned as a myth of origins, and as mythologists understand, creation myths are often reiterated precisely in crisis periods in which the structure or basic order of a society 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, the Mediterranean and Europe. Then it is taken up in Germany to ground Nazi race 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 the scene of a political contest of wills between Indian Nationalists and their opponents. Thus the Indo-Aryan hypothesis played an important role in the formulation 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, with special 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 very different 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 important similarities between several European languages such as Greek, Latin, Gothic and Celtic on the one hand, and Sanskrit on the other. These similarities cried out for explanation, and Jones, a believer in the truth of the Christian 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 an Aryan migration into India by looking for the homeland of Indo-Aryans from linguistic evidence from the Vedas. This evidence led Müller to believe that the early Indo-Aryans were a nomadic and pastoral people from several possible locations, all outside of India. If the Aryans came from outside India, then they must have invaded India and brought their culture, particularly the Vedas, with them. More textual evidence for the Aryan Hypothesis comes from the text of the Vedas. Muir and more recently, Witzel, have argued that one can trace the movements of peoples from reading the stories contained in the Vedas.1 Indian scholars were not particularly impressed at first with Aurobindo, Ramchandra Rao and Aghorechandra Chahattopadhyaya all voicing reasonable objections to the theory, particularly the problem of a group of people giving rise to such great civilizations as the Greek, Roman, Vedic and Persian without leaving any trace of itself. They also noted the problems of associated with a primitive nomadic people managing to "formulate a language as intricate and complex as Indo-European."2 Interestingly, these objections seem to have been largely powerless to resist the popularity of the Aryan 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 Vedas were written around 1200 BCE by working forward from the date of the construction of the Tower of Babel after the flood, around 2500 BCE, and backward from the date of the Buddha, around 500 BCE. The Biblical argument became less convincing to later scholars, but the dates stuck in Western philology as the probable dates of the Vedas. There could be no clearer case of the other bringing his or her cultural assumptions into play in interpreting a foriegn culture. Müller was deeply interested in India, but he was also so imbued with his own culture that he simply could not bring himself to examine it on its own merits. India was thus first presented to the West in the only terms Müller had at his disposal, Christian terms. The Indus Civilization:

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)

Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture, Oxford; Oxford UP, 2001, 58-9.

In 1921, the ruins at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro were identified as the remains of the Indus civilization 3 This civilization was dated at 3000 BCE and therefore, if the date of the Aryans is thought to be around 1500 BCE, as it is for those who believe in the AIT, then this gives rise to the view that the Indus peoples were not Aryans. Further, the scholar Mortimer Wheeler interpreted skeletons found in Mohenjo-Daro as evidence of military conquest of the Indus by the Aryans. Later scholars have dated the demise of the Indus civilization at 2000 BCE, thus by the time of the alleged arrival of the Aryans the Indus civilization had already expired. If the Indus were already gone, they could not have been conquered by the Aryans. The argument now given most support by all sides in the debate says that the Sarasvati river, which was the ecological center of the Indus civilization, changed its course and dried up.4 Caste and Race: The idea that there was an Aryan invasion was quickly linked to the idea that the upper castes were descendants of the Vedic Aryans, while the lower castes were the conquered Dravidians. The idea is that the conquerors used caste as a way to solidify their position as ruler of India and to keep their people separate from the Dravidians through marriage restrictions based on caste. This, in turn, supported the racial interpretation of the caste system and of Indian society generally. Some passages in the Veda were thought to imply racial differences between Aryans and Dravidians (or Dasas). Skin color and nose size were thought to have been indicators that the Aryans were a different race from the Dravidians. Both these criteria have since been debunked by more careful readings of the Vedas, but the racial interpretation, as we shall see, will be very important in the formulation of Indian identity. Trautman and Inden give extensive treatments of European views of India, and the Aryan hypothesis is a key element in their accounts.


Padma Manian. “Harappans and Aryans: Old and new Perspectives of Ancient Indian History,” The History Teacher, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Nov., 1998), 23. 4 See, for example, Charles Keith Maisels Early Civilizations of the Old World (London: Routledge, 1999) 239.

Indian identity: Romila Thapar writes, “Identity in pre-colonial India was dependent on various features such as caste, occupation, language, sect, region and location. As late as the eighteenth century caste was often given primacy over religion, although caste and religious sect could overlap. But in the colonial reconstruction of society religion was given primacy, particularly as the imprint of identity.”5 Thapar’s view of Indian identity is consistent with the common understanding of India as primarily a Hindu country with a large minority of Muslims and lesser minorities of Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists and so on. Another key component of Indian identity involves the colonial and postcolonial experience. As Frantz Fanon pointed out, the colonized must come to terms with the colonial experience of defeat and domination. While Fanon’s thesis was primarily a psychological one, it is clear that the same is true an a broader cultural sense. These two elements, religion and the colonial experience are key to understanding contemporary Indian identity. The Aryan Hypothesis is uniquely formulated such that it engages both aspects of Indian identity. It addresses, on the one hand, what it means to be Hindu and what role Hinduism had at the beginning of Indian history, and it raises all the suspicions that come with any investigation that could be regarded as part of the colonial experience or part of the contemporary nationalist movement. It is not surprising then that the Aryan Hypotheses, whether it be the AIT, AMT or the Indigenous positions, raises deep issues of identity and the corresponding decibel level of argument. In this paper I am not interested in adjudicating any of the issues, which are highly complex and contentious. I am only interested in the interplay of the research on the Aryan Hypothesis and the idea of Indian identity.


Romila Thapar. Early India, (Berkeley: UC Press, 2002) 20.

From the British point of view, the Aryan Hypothesis made India into the childhood of Europe, in fact, a permanent child without the intervention of the British. The view of India as a “land of dreams,” as it was for the German philosopher Hegel is, of course, meant as a contrast with the a supposedly more rigorously thinking European culture. Some early orientalists saw India as a spiritual contrast to materialistic Europe, and thus implicitly criticized their own civilization. This idea of India as a spiritual nation was somewhat at odds with the notion of conquering Aryans, but Hegel’s answer was simply that the settling down of the Aryans into the warm weather of India made the physically wandering Aryans into “spiritually wandering” Aryans. James Mill saw in India mostly a need for reform and thus a corrupt and primitive version of Britain. The idea of an India, an other, that was less developed than Britain was a source of pride and confidence for the British. Their ability to defeat and dominate the much larger India only convinced them of British cultural superiority. This superiority, in turn, justified colonialism in order to bring British civilization to backward India. Romila Thapar surveys the Indian reactions to the Aryan hypothesis and points out how it came to be used and continues to be used in the political confrontations of various groups.6 We shall see that each one of these uses is one that engages the notion of Indian identity. She begins with Jyotiba Phule, who accepted the AIT, and used it to argue that the upper caste Brahmins were descendants of the Aryans and thus were alien to India. Therefore the lower castes, now associated with the indigenous people of India, were “more Indian” than the upper castes. This argument was used to justify various political movements, particularly in South India, to undermine Brahmin dominance and privilege. It is interesting that the AIT was used to bring former “outsiders,” who were regarded as less Indian than the upper castes, to the “inside” of Indian identity in a sort of Nietzschean “transvaluation” of Indian identity. Hindutva ideology, a variety of Hindu nationalism, started out supporting the Aryan hypothesis, but later turned against it altogether, arguing that the Aryans were indigenous to India and that there was no invasion at all. This is, of course, the Indigenous position. Interestingly, this argument configures Indian identity so that being Indian is a matter of being a member of a religion that originated in India, and therefore the outsider is the Muslim, the Christian and even the Marxist. This view rejects the whole interpretation of caste distinction as a remnant of the Aryan invasion. Sometimes it is argued

Thapar. Early India, 14.

that the AIT idea of caste conflict is meant to divide India against itself for the political gain of some groups. This has been one of the criticisms of the “Marxist” historians, such as Thapar and Sharma, whether it is a fair criticism or not. The counter-argument is that Hindutva ideology is skewing the evidence in order to support a nationalist agenda that some worry is akin to an Indian version of Fascism that has the motive of attacking the Muslim community and its place in the idea of India. This ideology then functions to confer a unique “invader” and “outsider” status to the Muslim community. It is easy to see why the Hindutva might have hostility to the AIT since, if it is true, the Aryans become just another set of invaders/outsiders comparable to the Muslims and the British. Indeed, if we add recent work that suggests an earlier Dravidian migration into India, Indian identity becomes one of mere geography, with several groups possessing equal standing and equal rights to Indian identity. This is precisely what Arun Shourie fears as he writes: “They have made India out to have been an empty-land, filled by successive invaders. They have made present-day India, and Hinduism even more so, out to be a zoo—an agglomeration of assorted, disparate specimens. No such thing as ‘India,’ just a geographical expression, just a construct of the British…” Shourie’s mention of Hinduism as a zoo raises another argument, namely, that Hinduism, which is generally taken as a sort of base-line of Indian identity in the face of other sorts of diversity, is itself a diverse group of doctrines and beliefs separable into Vaishnaivism, Shaivism and so on. Even Hinduism is an “imagined community.” Others find the “diverse India” view liberating, as it casts aside historical conflicts between groups and argues for the unification of an India that includes Hindus, Muslims, and everyone else in the present to make up for the torn condition of the historical India.7 This was Jawaharlal Nehru’s view. Nehru believed that it was “undesirable to use Hindu or Hinduism for Indian culture.”8 The emphasis of this position is on India as a project in identity formation. This is the “Congress” and the Marxist view of a secular India. “A secular state, from this perspective, is the only political system that can protect the equal rights of all citizens to define themselves as being Indian with cultural credentials that are as good as anybody else’s.”9 Later in this

A contemporary historical account that sees India as conglomeration of successive migrations of different peoples is that of M.L. Bose. Social and Cultural History of Ancient India (New Delhi: Concert Publishing, 1998, 1990) 21-30. 8 Jawaharlal Nehru. The Discovery of India (New York: John Day Company, 1946), 65, quoted in “PostOrientalist Third World Histories,” Gyan Prakash. Comparative Studies in society and History, Vol.32, No. 2 (Apr., 1990) 389. 9 Edwin Bryant. The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001) 280.

paper I will defend this view as the “healthiest” or least pathological of the views of Indian Identity. Early mainstream historians who accepted the AIT felt that it gave a foundation to Indian history, and this view appealed to the upper castes, who identified themselves as descendants of the ancient Aryans. Some, such as Keshab Chunder Sen, even went so far as to claim kinship with the British, claiming the British colonial experience to be one of reuniting lost cousins.10 The British also found this view conducive to the needs of empire stability since it meant the British were merely returning India to its roots. Thus they were willing to take on an identity in the eyes of the other that they might not fully agree with in the last analysis in order to further their purposes. It is often forgotten how often we take on identities for strategic purposes. Here we see a dialectical interplay between British views of India, British views of themselves, Indian views of the British and Indian views of India in the framework of the colonial experience. Critics would see the “lost cousins view” as an example of the oppressed attempting to identify with the oppressor as the expression of a psychological need to construct subaltern identity in a more positive sense. As Indians became more hostile to this sort of response, it became less palatable. It was also undermined by the discovery of Indus Valley civilization. The discovery of the Indus civilization meant that there was an important part of Indian history that was not Aryan, thus claims for a linear history for the Hindus that was identical with a linear history of India was now impossible. This has led some to attempt an identification of the Aryan and Indus Valley civilizations by pushing back the date of the Aryans and the Vedas to the point where the Indus Valley civilization is also Aryan and Vedic. We see again a dialectical process in which the Aryan is reinterpreted to be Indus and the Indus to be Aryan. The dating of the Vedas to the time of the Indus will bring the Aryans to the Indus, and the attempts to decipher the Indus seals as a form of Sanskrit brings the Indus to the Aryan in a double movement of identity construction. Another strain of identity construction occurs in the form of the Theosophist movement that sees India as the cradle of all civilization. The theosophist holds to an “out of India” position in which not only was there no Aryan invasion into India, the invasion in fact went the other way. Migrating Indians brought their superior civilization to the world and became the basis of Greek, Roman, Persian and European civilizations, indeed, the foundation

Romila Thapar, ‘The Theory of Aryan Race and India,” in Cultural Pasts (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000, 2003) 1114.

of knowledge itself. We might call this the “universalist” or “cosmopolitan” notion of identity, as paradoxical as that might sound. There are those who wish to extend their sense of solidarity to all people to the extent that they postulate common origins in order to transcend the innumerable divisions between peoples. Indigenous Indians use of the Aryan hypothesis: Several native Indian thinkers, Raja Rammohan Roy, Dayānand Saraswatī, Justice Ranade and Lokamānya Tilak, and Vivekananda all made use the Aryan hypothesis in ways that serve to configure Indian identity. In what follows I will draw heavily upon Dorothy Figueira’s insightful analysis of these thinkers but focus on these thinkers use of the Aryan hypothesis to reconfigure Indian identity.11 Roy, the founder of Brāhmo Samāj, was convinced of the similarity of Christianity and Hinduism and worked to rehabilitate and reform Hinduism ‘by proving that Sanskrit literature espoused monotheism and rejected idol worship.12 Roy was instrumental in the movement against sati and tried to undermine polytheism. He believed the Vedas had been misread, sometimes out of Brahmin self-interest, and decided to do a translation into the vernacular, thus making him a sort of Hindu Martin Luther. Thus Hinduism had descended into superstition and needed to be returned to its Aryan golden age. Roy was in a two-way contest of wills with the Brahmins and the Christian Trinitarians, the later of whom he believed were also guilty of polytheism. This two-way battle is representative of Roy’s position between Indian orthodoxy and British colonial power. Some commentators, such as Ashis Nandy, believed that Roy identified with the British oppressor as an ego defense mechanism.13 Whether or not Nandy is correct, it is clear that the Aryan hypothesis puts Indian adherents in a difficult position with regard to British colonial power, particularly those who felt Hinduism was in need of reform. This was especially true of those like Roy, who also were enamored with those aspects of Christian belief that were critical of Hinduism. Dayānand Saraswatī, founder of the Ārya Samāj, also believed in an Aryan golden age and that Hinduism had strayed from the example of the ancient Aryans. His reform efforts went beyond those of Roy, and included such issues as female equality in education, child marriage, choice in marriage and remarriage for widows. Saraswatī, like Roy, reinterpreted the Vedas in
11 12

Dorothey M. Figueira. Aryans, Jews, Brahmins (Albany: SUNY Press, 2002) Figueira. Aryans, Jews, Brahmins, 92. 13 Ashis Nandy. The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recoverey of Self under Colonialism (Delhi: Oxford UP, 1983)

ways that supported his reforms and his belief in an Aryan golden age. He was also conceptually opposed to transmigration and karma because they led to passivity. This passivity had deprived India of much of its intellectual and physical vigor that the Aryans had when they migrated from Tibet and established Āryavarta, homeland of the Aryans, which was previously uninhabited. Here it is important to notice this detail. The fact that there were no previous inhabitants made the Aryans the rightful owners of India. But the effect of the Aryans went well beyond Āryavarta. The Aryans taught Greece, Egypt and Europe whatever initial knowledge they had. This land was regarded as a place of high virtue, a virtue that was only undermined by the Mahābhārata war. The degeneration of the Hindu culture led to the weakness that enabled the British to overcome India. Only by recovering its Aryan cultural strength may India become an equal to British power. Here again we see the Aryan hypothesis in service of the psychological need to come to terms with British colonial dominance in such a way as to rehabilitate Indian identity. Justice Ranade regarded the British as uncorrupted Aryans who were sent by providence to reform the Indians. Ranade writes, “we now have a living example before us of how pure Aryan customs, unaffected by barbarous laws and patriarchal notions, resemble our own ancient usages…and restore the old healthy practices.”14 We see in this a complete acceptance of the rule of the oppressor and a blueprint for restoring an acceptable Indian identity. India should not reject British criticisms; it should reform itself in light of them. Restoration had been attempted before, but Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Scythians or Dravidians always interrupted it. Dravidian influence was particularly damaging since it helped cause the weakness that set the stage for defeat by the Muslims. In each case we see the construction of a pernicious “other” that serves to undermine Aryan culture and explains how it could come to pass that a virile culture could be overwhelmed by decadent cultures. Bal Gangadhar Tilak calculated from astronomical data contained in the Vedas that the Aryan homeland must have been in the arctic, which was much more mild at the time. In 8000 BCE the climate changed and the Aryans were set to wandering. In the face of such a catastrophe, it isn’t surprising that the sacred texts might be corrupted. Nevertheless, the Aryans culture was so superior to all others that they were able to conquer and spread Aryan culture across the world. Swami Vivekananda, who felt that

Nahadev Govind ranade. Religious and Social Reform. Ed. M.B. Kolaskar. (Bombay: Manoranjan Press, 1902) quoted in Figueira, p.123.

the Aryan race was the only really civilized race in the world, took the superiority of Aryan culture to the next level. Any civilization in the world is the result of intermixing with Aryan blood. Aryan culture in India, which is identified by Vivekananda as best exemplified by the upper castes, was so superior that it should be exported to the West. There even exist some racially pure Aryans living in the Himalayas who are close to supermen in intelligence, beauty and virtue. These pure Aryans are in stark contrast to India’s first peoples, whom he regarded as wild and sometimes even cannibals. For Vivekananda, there can be no real kinship between northern and southern India. In Vivekananda, then, the need to structure a healthy Indian identity led to a racist doctrine that separates the good races from the degenerate races. In contrast to the earlier reformers like Roy and Saraswatī, who were led by colonial experience in combination with the Aryan hypothesis to question the separation of races and castes, Vivekananda built the same combination into a justification from a defense of racism and caste. It is almost as if the Aryan hypothesis, once in place in the colonial context, was destined to run through all possible uses of the idea, some co-opting the British, others rejecting them, some using it to reform, others using it to defend tradition. In all cases, however, it was used to construct a new identity, an identity that all seemed to feel needed reconstruction in the face of British domination. British domination was simply a fact that struck so deep into Indian self-consciousness that it required an ideological response at various levels. The Aryan hypothesis, an idea supplied by British scholars, was both absorbed and rejected, depending on whether the thinker felt it would be more useful to accept or to reject. Gyan Prakesh points out that there is a common assumption among most nationalist views of Indian identity I would add that this is in fact true of most view of identity. Prakesh characterizes this assumption as saying that “India was an undivided subject, that is, that it possessed a unitary self and a singular will that arose from its essence and was capable of autonomy and sovereignty. From this point of view, the task of History was to unleash this subjectivity from colonial control…”15 This denial of obvious diversity is pathological in my view. In a separate work, I have identified two contrasting kinds of health among cultural unities. At the level of the self, it is pathological to operate with more than one identity. We call that the mental illness of multiple personality. Conversely, at the level of the nation, too great an emphasis on unity in the face of diversity is pathological. Tom Nairn views all nationalism as “the pathology of modern developmental

Prakesh, 389.

history, as inescapable as “neurosis’ in the individual, with much the same essential ambiguity attaching to it, a similar built-in capacity for descent into dementia, rooted in the dilemmas of helplessness thrust upon the world and largely incurable.”16 I do not go so far as Nairn, but I do put a limit to the degree of unity that it is healthy for a nation to claim. As with the self, there is a legitimate psychological and cultural need for a unified, single identity at the level of the nation, but at the national level it is as dangerous to be “too unified” as it is to be too disunited. The focus on authenticity based on a myth of origins in order to claim an historical identity may not be pathological, but it is a mistake that contributes to the pathology. It is simply bad faith in the existentialist sense to claim a “core” identity for something as diverse and changing as the nation and culture of India. Cultural identities are always narrative projects. This is what the modern founders of India believed, and they were correct. The right in India is engaged in a narrative project as well, they simply regard it as returning India to its roots, and their rejection of the AIT and AMT is an attempt to accomplish that. The left in India is nevertheless correct to fear the recent efflorescence of right-wing nationalism, whatever the benefits that accrue to India from a long-needed change of leadership. But it is also important to see the phenomenon of right-wing and religious conservative movements as part of a world-wide phenomenon in which societies respond to modernization and internationalization (and often westernization) by turning to communalism.


Tom Nairn. The Break-up of Britain (London, 1977) 359.

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