In The Armchair

The Aryan Invasion Debate

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on August 31, 2010

Hot potato political topics in India are extremely hard to understand. There just doesn’t seem to be a culture of balanced or careful presentation in the Indian press. Seemingly impartial reports in top newspapers only tell half the story, and non-opinion articles have unseemly opinionation mixed in. Certain sections of the press and society seem incapable of any contribution but hammering away at popularizing their favourite viewpoint. But one of the hottest potatoes, the Aryan Invasion Theory and debates related to it, is especially hard to understand. This is because academics throughout India and the West seem to have clear political agendas when writing about this topic.

Indology, as the study of Indian religion, language and culture was known in the 18th century, started with the “discovery” of Indian culture by Europe. Initially, there was a great deal of excitement and positive press. By the mid 19th century, in tandem with the development of race theories, the denigration of Indian culture was institutionalized especially in Britain but more generally throughout Europe. This was, of course, an economic and political necessity: India was, to a great extent, the source of Western prosperity; and it had to be retained convincingly. Almost all Indologic academic endeavour in the late 19th century throughout Europe had as its eventual goal the denigration of India. There were some dissenting voices, including a few from India, but these were generally scoffed at and not taken seriously.

The theories of Aryan invasion and migration were originally created in that atmosphere, and the field of Indology developed into the corresponding field today. The tools that are used today include two old ones: archaeology and linguistics, dating back to the original Indologists, and one new tool: genetics. Those who are opposed to the idea that Aryans (or the original creators of the Vedic religion) invaded India usually claim that the Vedic culture originated in India. A basic assumption of many of this group is that the entirety or majority of the body of academic work based on linguistics is not trustworthy, because it is based on the politically and racially tainted work of 19th century European scholars, and because 20th century and current work is essentially a continuation of that work. Many of these academics claim that genetic tools show a lack of evidence for an “Aryan invasion”.

The pro-AIT Indologists generally believe that the other group have failed to answer certain archaeological and linguistic puzzles that surfaced during the 18th and 19th centuries. The anti-AIT group, they say, are not experts in archaeology or linguistics, which require careful and sustained study. They are merely dilettantes, and are thus unqualified and unable to comment on the more detailed issues. They also claim that the counter-theories advanced lack appropriate levels of academic rigour, and the anti-AIT group also tends to advance some its ideas through the press or the web as opposed to academic journals, leading to an erosion of their credibility within academic circles. And without satisfactory answers to the conundrums in the archaeological or linguistic record, one can’t simply rely on the genetic evidence to arrive at conclusions.

I’ve been reading a bunch of random online pages on this debate, and it appears that both sides have much going for their arguments. It’s pretty clear that both are very wedded to their viewpoints. The academically-heavy pro-AIT groups seems to lose its neutrality when it comes to this topic. On the other side, with the anti-AIT lobby, you have to cull out large numbers of laymen who believe their opinion has the same levels of validity as that of the academics. (This may actually be true, but if so we need an academic process to ascertain it.) Both groups acknowledge that there is some truth in the other group’s accusations, but nevertheless believe they know best.

For the interested layman (like me), it’s hard to be sure that even one argument is valid on either side. For example, the neutrally-named Archaeology Online seems to be a vehicle for the anti-AIT lobby. This is not to say the arguments there are not valid, but there is a little bit of pro-AIT bashing on the website. It also appears that some papers that seem to support the AIT are not reported on that website. On the other hand, it is hard to believe the pro-AIT lobby is neutral. There seems to be some of the usual “greatness of the West” stance in their general attitude, and since they exert total control over the academic old boy networks, it is hard to see how an anti-AIT thinker could break into their domains. They also tend to issue blanket dismissals of the anti-AIT lobby from time to time.

I’ve come across what I think is a rather balanced and important book on the archaeological and linguistic aspects of this topic: “The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture” by Edwin Bryant. Bryant’s thesis is that there should be a balance, and that viewpoints from both sides should be presented, as long as they meet some basic standards of academic discourse. I haven’t got too far into the book: about 60 of 300 pages. I think it’s a hugely important book because of its balance. The overall conclusion seems to be that, in truth, we don’t know whether there was an Aryan invasion, and barring some major new finds in primary evidence, we will never know.

So, perhaps all of the theories propounded today express the fond wishes of the theorist rather than the truth.


6 Responses

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  1. bekaarbokbok said, on September 12, 2010 at 5:15 pm

    I haven’t read too deeply on this.

    But my impression on the current consensus is that there was no Aryan invasion.
    Instead we had a gradual peaceful migration of people from Central Asia through Iran into India with much mixing with indigenous people.

    So, no white Aryans conquering the ‘inferior’ natives and imposing their culture, colonial style. Just a slow and peaceful migration and mix, which has happened countless times in history.

    • Armchair Guy said, on September 13, 2010 at 2:34 am

      Right, I think most scholars have moved from invasion to migration. But I think scholars including Michael Witzel believe there still was a cultural overthrow, that what’s commonly known as Vedic culture originated outside India and was imposed on (and overthrew) existing cultures. I think the current points of contention are mainly about where Vedic culture originated and whether it was imposed on “original” Indians by foreigners.

  2. Raj Rao said, on February 3, 2011 at 6:03 am

    Good post!

    I too saw that archaeology site. It is hard finding someone who does not have a prior vested interest in the issue. I want to find an author who could care less about which way it goes or does not have any ideological motivations and just simply presents the facts.

    Thanks …

    • Armchair Guy said, on February 3, 2011 at 12:29 pm


      Thanks for the comment. I agree. I am not sure about Edwin Bryant’s unbiasedness, but his book seems relatively free of bias. It is written in a somewhat academic style, but has a lot of good information. I highly recommend it!

  3. Tejaswini Vemburia (@vemburia) said, on September 21, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    It is puzzling to note that the proponents of AIT MAX MULLER/DR.ROBERT CALDWELL belonged to and believed in the cult of Free Masons–i.e.,the Grandmaster Kinight Templars/Teutonic Knights alone can save the world from PAPACY/CHRIST AS GOD/NATURAL RELIGIONS OF CELTS/DRUIDS/IBERIANS/NORSE. They considered themselves as liberators who viewed Christ as Elevated Sous on par with Jains and firms believers of LUTHERAN/ANGLICAN/AMERICAN EVANGELISM. They want to uphold the A Graeco Romanic Republic combining with Atheist Judaism. They want to disassociate from natural religions of Europe by despising it as Barbaric/Pagan and what not. The Aryan theory fits here since their assumption is it was only because of Indo Europeanism Europe became barbaric and paganized to be liberated by Graeco Romanic Atheist Judaism. It is the funniest fact that the most civilized Pharaohs entered into matrimonial alliance with barbaric Aryo Hittites It is even more funnier that the Aryans never had contacts with Hittites/Hurtites/Kassites and on entering Afghanistan they suddenly switched over to gender based words which was not in vogue. It is even more puzzling that Vedic hymns stopped abruptly and disappeared from North India giving place to Jainism and Janapadas. Indian history starts only from invasion of Punjab by Darius I. Up to Sisunagad who themselves were not Aryans there was no king but only Jain janapadas. The evidence of Asoka is traced only from Mahavamsa and the historians indulged in intellectual dishonesty by eloquently quoting Mahabharatha/Puranas which were all five hundred years after Mahavamsa. Neither the North Indians nor commonfolk ever had the ambition of conquering south but for Samudra Gupta. The Sanskrit literature which evolved only from Bhass did not know any territory beyond Amaravath since Pallavas/Cholas are conspicuous by absence in Sanskrit. It is further supported by the fact that all Sanskrit dramatists from Kalidasa to Harsha have a fascination for ship wreck of Srilankan Princess since they don’t know land route. They would either board at Brigukachcha in Gujarat or Tamralipti in Bengal.Alberuni shows his ignorance of South India by omitting to mention Cholas and Chalukyas and locating Kishkinta west of Rameswsram probably referring to River Pampa and Sabari Hills which proves that it relates only to fifteenth century AD which is further confirmed by holding Vaishnavism t be prime. During eleventh century AD KALMUKHA/MAHESWARA SECT OF SAIVISM was patronized both by Cholas and Chalukyas apart from Jainism. When the historians are not able to reconcile the complete absence of Cholas/Pallavas and absence of reference to Tamil how can they poistuate theories two thousand and five hundred years ago! Mere humbug and rubbish.India lives in contemporary times and neither proud about past nor concerned about future. When Rajiv assassination itself has been forgotten and people indulge in false glorification of LTTE twisting facts and creating myth foir which the entire political spectrum is a mute spectator what is the use in searching for five thousand years. Even if all history books are dumped in three seas nobody will bother about that. Instead of wasting energy on AIT/IVC let the people do some other fruitful work

  4. Gunzo Gunzo said, on November 7, 2014 at 8:04 pm

    Tejaswini, In all that you wrote, you humbled me into thinking that my brain is very limited. I am not very sure what you exactly wanted to say. It seems to me that you equating Caldwell’s thinking as zero. At the end you said something about LTTE is twisting things. Then you were saying that “some” historians had no knowledge of Chalukyas and Cholas and the existence of Tamil language. I am just not sure exactly what your own view of the history is.

    For what it is worth, to establish my own identity (which is South Indian, aka Dravidian), my view is this: Long Long Long ago, India was inhabhited by black people. Somehow or other, these people did not have curly hair. I am not sure whether they were organized or not but I suspect that they were. Then came the people who spoke a different language called Sanskrit and these were war like people. This is evident because their own early literature mentions “Battles”, “forts”, “enemies”, “Dark skins”, “Weeping”, “victory” etc. These people formed the government among themselves and kept the locals completely out. They had their own religious rites and natives had no idea about these rites. After some time the newcomers split their own duties between administration and “rites” among themselves. As their population increased, they added a class among themselves as “traders”. All the three groups did not assimilate with the locals. The locals were left to do farming and every other tasks and were taxed. Also the new comers slept with local women at their will but any child born was kept out of their 3 groups. These children grew up with their mothers, uncles and aunts and remained locals. In certain areas of the country where the locals had their own governments (especially east and south), they coexisted with the Sanskritan regimes of the new comers (north west). That is why the languages still are separate especially south. From this point I am not interested in knowing what actually continued to happen in the north west and north but I believe it was total subjugation, annihilation and complete destruction of the governments of the locals and their language.

    In the south (and perhaps the east), the kingdoms of the locals coexisted with the Sanskritan kingdoms which means trade, wars, intermixing due to rape or convenience. The priestly class of the Sanskritan people continued to have influences in the kingdoms of the South. This is much the same way as the Christian priests operated in South India. These Sanskritan priests had a monopoly on temples, just as bible and jesuites have a monopoly in churches). These priests were also in touch with the royalty of the south. They also had a hand in the development of the local languages and in some cases even devotedly so.

    So there we stand today. North has Languages based in Sanskrit while South has languages from those “long long ago people who were like Aftricans with somewhat straight hair”.

    It seems to me that some Sanskrit speaking people are unable to accept this. They think that if they accept this theory, their identity is lost; their pride is lost. But then what is their theory? They say that Sanskritan people were indigenous to India. It is a basic fact that when we analyze long ago times, languages and their structure and roots give us a very clear picture. Everyone now agrees that Sanskrit and European languages have high degree of similarity and hence they should have been spoken by the same group of people. Of course, one could always say that these people went from India and colonized all of Europe, West and central Asia BUT NOT SOUTHERN (AND POSSIBLY EASTERN) India. This is a big hole in their theory that Sanskrit speaking people are native to India. They are completely unable to explain why South Indians are continuing to count the numbers as “onnu, rendu, moonu, Naalu, Anju, Aaru, Elu, Ettu, Ombathu, Pathu (Hathu)” totally differently from Sanskrit. In a blind manner they start saying “Sanskrit is the mother of ALL languages” without knowing anything! They quote saying that 40% of Tamil, 50 to 80% of Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada (in actuality it is far less) are Sanskrit and hence these are derived from Sanskrit but this is not the view of the scholars. Just because we may have usage of ‘Police station” in our languages and 1000 other instances, in no way it means that these languages are derived from English!

    I have no idea why some Indians have to believe that Sanskrit is the language born in India and that they arrived from central Asia. After all, even if 1000 years pass by, Australian whites will say that they came from England. Even after 1000 years pass by, Israelites will say that they toiled in Egypt for the pharos! Even if 1000 years pass by, we Tamils will not be able to get rid of “all” of the Sanskrit words in the language!!! So, it is my opinion that the Sanskritan people can accept that they came from outside the country and move on. I think that their main problem is that if they accept this, then they have to automatically accept the fact their forefathers instituted the caste system and this is what is making them to feel shameful and they do not want to admit it. Instead, they go on to blame the British, the moguls and everybody else for the caste system!


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