The big Aryan-Dravidian debate: Inventing an invasion that never took place in India
Recent studies of the artefacts found from various Harappan sites, on the other hand, show a clear continuity in cultural and religious practices from the Harappan era to the current times
“The AIT (Aryan Invasion Theory) is based purely on linguistic conjectures which are unsubstantiated”
—Klostermaier, A Survey of Hinduism, 2007, p. 21.
A few days back, IIT Kharagpur released its 2022 calendar, ‘Recovery of the Foundations of Indian Knowledge Systems’, in which among the various topics (some of which are controversial and bound to raise hackles) one is on: ‘Why an Aryan invasion myth was forged’ (September 2022). Some of the reactions on social media were negative about the topics chosen and some ‘mistakes’ were pointed out based more on ideological differences. These comments are bound to make any logical person wonder why the same people who all were completely okay for many years with distortions and false information being fed to children and adults alike in the name of history, are suddenly raising their voices on seeing actual historical data and evidence being presented to the common people.
In the era of internet and social media with all information available in just one click, it was just a matter of time before the truth would have come out anyway. With the print media’s vice-like grip gone and the common people getting back their suppressed voices, it is now the era of myth-busting and taking the false propaganda makers to task. Here I will take the much discussed and much debated topic of the Aryan invasion propaganda theory that was forced down on a very unsuspecting Indian populace for many decades.
The start of the Aryan problem
The Aryan issue started way back in the 16th Century (1584) when an Italian trader named Philippo Sessetti came to Goa and learnt some Sanskrit words and found them similar to Latin and Greek. Based only on this similarity and without any hard evidence, the nineteenth century European scholars, the famous among them being Max Müller and Muir, proposed the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) that claimed Aryan tribes invaded India in around 1500 BCE, destroyed the existing Harappan culture, moved eastward to create the Ganga-Yamuna doab culture, imposed their language and caste-based system on the original inhabitants, while quickly writing the Vedas over few centuries (Klostermaier, 2007).
This theory was pushed hard for various reasons. It not only explained the similarities between Sanskrit and Greek or Latin very easily, when one assumed that a branch of the Aryans migrated towards Europe as the other invaded India. Besides this, it also made it easy for the British rulers to show themselves as another Aryan group gifting true civilisation to India and civilising the uncouth masses. Another more sinister reason was its use to strengthen the divide and rule policy of the British, where this Aryan invasion/migration theory proved useful in widening the divisions among high-caste Indians (supposed Aryans descendants) and the tribals and lower castes (cleverly represented as original inhabitants of India), while also creating the North-South divide.
While later Max Mueller himself in a speech to the Strasburg University (1872) had accepted that the Aryan Invasion theory was not correct and Aryans were not a race, in post-independence Indian history the Nehruvian “scholars” found it better to keep the Aryan Invasion Theory running for political and ideological benefits and other vested interests. In order to keep this theory alive various steps were deliberately taken, which included “(1) invention of non-existent texts; (2) deliberate mistranslations of texts; (3) the invention of nonexistent archaeological evidence; (4) distortion of archaeological evidence; (5) basic methodological flaws such as circular reasoning, oversimplification, etc; (6) the recycling of long-discarded theories such as racial ones; (7) the misquoting, blanking out or demonising of scholars opposing the Aryan paradigm” (Danino, “Fabricating Evidence in Support of the Aryan Invasion / Migration Theory,” 2018, p. 3).
Without going into these deliberate distortions and misrepresentations, which Michel Danino has detailed in his aforementioned paper that he had presented to the ICHR, this article will just take a look at the archeological evidences from the Harappan culture that show absolutely no traces of invasions, and subsequent wars and destructions.
How the AIT theory was created
When similarities between Sanskrit and Greek-Latin (termed as Indo-European [IE] languages) were first discovered, it was immediately assumed by the European scholars that languages are mainly spread by invaders who come to conquer foreign lands. Here a convenient equation was created between race and language, wherein a language became representative of a group of people or race.
When trying to locate the relationship between the Indo-European languages, it was assumed that speakers of these now widely spread languages would have come from a single source or a group of people who spoke the ‘original Indo-European’ language, before they moved out of their ‘original homeland' to migrate or invade other lands, and which led to the modifications and branching of the original language into different modern forms of the IE languages. Of course where this ‘original homeland’ was, no one had any idea, but the Europeans conveniently placed it somewhere in Europe, and few areas in Central Asia that were adjoining the borders with Europe. While there must have been some logical reasons behind this placing of the ‘original homeland’, it was mainly based on European imperialism (at peak in those times), white-supremacist theories, German Nationalism, among various others that couldn’t believe dark skinned races could have possibly been the source and spread of languages (Kennedy 2000:80-84;].
So even while there was no evidence it was also automatically assumed the homeland of the IE languages (Sanskrit being one of them) was outside India. With it was theorised that around sometime in the 1500 BCE a group of Sanskrit speaking race (the ‘Aryans’, who descended from the ‘original Indo-European’ language speakers) invaded India, and forced their language on the ‘original’ non-Aryan inhabitants (the ‘Dravidians’) of India. To back these biased assumptions and with archaeology not really existing at that time, evidences for invasions were searched for in the Rig Veda. Wrong understanding and willful misinterpretations of the verses from the Rig Veda made by the so-called ‘Indologists’ holding major preconceived biases were used to conclude that the Sanskrit speaking tall and fair-skinned Aryans from Europe had conquered and subjugated the dark and short non-IE speaking ‘original inhabitants’ of India.
So when the Harappan culture was discovered in the 1920s, it became essential that signs of invasions be found to back the Aryan Invasion Theory; and meanwhile, even before any archaeological artifacts could be excavated, the AIT was automatically imposed on the new archaeological discovery by armchair historians only too eager to prove the AIT. By some crooked logic, backed by zero evidences, attempts were made to equate the Harappan culture with Dravidian culture (a group that includes speakers of Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Tulu, Kodagu, Malto, and other languages of south India; a delineation made in the 19th Century).
As more new sites were discovered and excavated, the sophisticated city planning and advanced water management systems of the Harappan cities overturned the earlier theories of AIT that had assumed original Indians lived a primitive life with poor cultural values, and the superior Europe origin Aryan race had ‘gifted’ them with civilisation. Henceforth, the theories started changing overnight wherein proposals and claims were made that a group of nomadic ‘Aryan invaders’ destroyed the sophisticated and advanced ‘Dravidian culture’ (Harappan), bringing forth a ‘Dark Age’ that continued for a long time, until the Janapadas and the Mahajanapadas came into existence.
In terms of archaeology, if the Aryan people had indeed invaded and settled in this area, they would have not only left behind tell-tale signs of widespread destruction, but would have brought with them an entirely new culture comprising new types of weapons, new art forms, new pottery, etc. However, the archaeologists excavating the Harappan sites have not found signs of existence of any such new culture in the 2nd or 1st millennium BCE. The 2nd millennium BCE saw the growth and decline of Harappan urban sites, but there was still no evidence of any war-related or manmade large-scale destruction, thus causing the AIT to break down. In fact, the excavated sites showed clear signs of slow abandonment and a gradual cultural decay, a breakdown of an advanced urban society probably owing to intermittent periods of internal chaos, stemming from a steady breakdown of social and political systems.
Mortimer Wheeler’s story of ‘The mythical massacre at Mohenjo-daro’ is well known, where he (in 1947) identified mound AB at Harappa as a citadel, linked it with foreign elements at Cemetery H burials, and claimed to have evidences that outsider Aryans had invaded the Harappan culture, ending it violently (Agarwal, “What is the Aryan Migration theory,” 2001). This conclusion was however a classic example of reading too much into nothing. Wheeler in reality had turned 33 skeletons that were found in various houses and streets into evidences of ‘violent Aryan destruction’.
As expected this theory was strongly rejected by both the archaeologists and anthropologists (BB Lal 1954; George Dales 1961-62; KAR Kennedy, etc). George V Dales (1961-62) in his rejection of the skeletons’ theory said that “we cannot even establish a definite correlation between the end of the Indus civilisation and the Aryan invasion. But even if we could, what is the material evidence to substantiate the supposed invasion and massacre? Where are the burned fortresses, the arrowheads, weapons, pieces of armor, the smashed chariots and bodies of the invaders and defenders? Despite extensive excavations at the largest Harappan sites, there is not a single bit of evidence that can be brought forth as unconditional proof of an armed conquest and the destruction on the supposed scale of Aryan invasion.”
Despite scholars and experts putting a firm end to the theory, a few decades later, Shereen Ratnagar again took up the topic of Mohenjo-daro’s skeletons and spoke of “intense enmity and hatred.” However, when asked for evidences, finding none in the Harappan culture, Ratnagar strangely provided some examples from the far flung Mesopotamian civilisation where some tablets were found that had spoken of damaged cities! What had damaged cities in Mesopotamia to do with the ‘Aryan invasion’ in Mohenjo-daro, is of course a million-dollar question.
Recent studies of the artefacts found from various Harappan sites, on the other hand, show a clear continuity in cultural and religious practices from the Harappan era to the current times. From Harappan seals with deities in yogic postures (eg: mulabandhasana), to female figurines with sindoor in the parting of their hair, to figures performing various asanas (such as namaskara mudra), worship of Mother Goddess, fire altars, jewellery, terracotta toys (still made in rural parts of West Bengal and other states), swastika, worshipping the aswattha tree, etc, all are still relevant and widely used in the context of Indian religions and cultures — thus dispelling the myth of a new ‘Aryan’ cultural invasion and the forced imposition of a new language and social values on the native ‘original inhabitants’ of India.
The author is a well-known travel and heritage writer. Views expressed are personal.
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