The Aryan Invasion Debate
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.