Culture

Question: Are Hindus essentially Aryans who invaded the Indian subcontinent and imposed the caste system?

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Answer: Aryans never invaded the Indian subcontinent or South Asia. Nor did anyone impose the caste system here. So the simple answer to the question is no.

The word Aryans is loosely used for a set of people who spoke the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language that spread to different parts of the world, giving rise to the Indo-European family of languages such as Sanskrit and Latin, from which various Indian and European regional languages emerged.

These people domesticated the horse, herded cattle, and were familiar with the wheel with spokes and agriculture. There has been a great debate as to where they originated from: Europe, Turkey (Anatolia), India or Eurasia.

The racial theory of the 19th century assumed that blonde blue-eyed warriors on horse-drawn chariots smashed their way into India by overpowering the cities of the Indus Valley, enslaving their people. This theory explained the collapse of the Indus Valley cities and the ubiquitous caste system of India. This theory was however part of the European propaganda machinery. The Germans used it as part of nationalist mythology, celebrating their pre-Semitic Nazi heritage. The British used it to delegitimise Hindus, claiming that ‘upper caste’ Hindus were as much invaders and conquerors of India, as Muslims and Europeans, and so they have no moral right to claim India as homeland.

Naturally, it got every self-respecting Hindu nationalist riled up. But this theory lacked scientific evidence. Research has shown that the cities of Indus Valley collapsed because of climate change, not invasion, long before the Vedic hymns were compiled or composed.

Genetic data has revealed that genetic mixing was common in India 4,000 years ago. Rigid marriage rules based on caste that created unique genetic clusters can be traced only from around 2,000 years ago. Despite being proved wrong, in popular imagination, this propaganda still rings true owing to its simplicity.

The Anatolian theory states that the original homeland of Indo-Europeans was the region we now associate with Turkey and that the migration took place 8,000 years ago. This theory has been rejected as the language itself emerged 7,000 years ago and genetic studies show massive migration only around 5,000 years ago.

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An illustration by Devdutt Pattanaik
An illustration by Devdutt Pattanaik

The Out of India theory emerged in the 1980s. According to this, India is the homeland of the Aryans. The Aryans composed the Vedas and built the Indus Valley cities. They migrated out to Iran, and to Europe thereafter. This argument is based on sound logic, however recent genetic studies clearly tilt the evidence in favour of Aryan migration. Later research may prove otherwise.

Current data from linguistic, archaeology, and most importantly, genetic studies favours the Eurasian origin of Aryans. The language developed around 7,000 years ago, around the time the horse was domesticated. Climate change, around 5,000 years ago, forced migration. One group moved westwards towards Europe and the other group moved eastwards, around 5,000 years ago.

The westward brand left the only epigraphic record available of gods mentioned in the Vedas - Indra, Mitra and Varuna, in the Mittani inscription, in Mesopotamia, dated to 3,500 years ago. The eastward branch was unique as they both spoke of a narcotic substance homa/soma. This split into two groups about 4,500 years ago. There was an Iranian arm, which eventually venerated the Avesta where ‘devas’ are demons which then gave rise to the Zoroastrian religion. And there was an Indian arm that eventually venerated the Vedas where ‘devas’ are gods, which eventually gave rise to what we now call Hinduism.

These Aryans entered the Indian subcontinent around 4,000 years ago, a period when the cities of the Indus-Saraswati valleys had already declined. These cities were first established as early as 8,000 years ago, as per current evidence, but after thriving for nearly 3,000 years, had collapsed following climactic change and poor agricultural patterns. The Aryans brought horses and PIE language with them, but not quite the Vedas.

In the Indus Valley and dry river beds of Saraswati, in the decaying brick cities, as they mingled with local people who had memories of the great Saraswati river that once flowed in this region. The Aryans refined old hymns, composed new hymns that eventually were compiled to form the Rig Veda, in a language we now know as Vedic, or pre-Panini, or pre-classical, Sanskrit. This language has nearly 300 words borrowed from the Munda language, considered as a pre-Vedic Indian language, indicating local influence. It is key to note that the hymns speak of no Eurasian homeland, But there is clear awareness of the river Saraswati. One can speculate that the hymns were composed in North West India, generations after the actual migration.

About 3,000 years ago, the migration continued eastwards to the lush green Gangetic plains, where Yajur, Sama and Atharva Vedas were composed. Here eventually, 2,500 years ago, the Upanishadic revolution and the rise of Buddhist and Jain monastic orders refined one idea that makes Indic thought unique - faith in karma, or rebirth.

In conversations about Aryans, we need to ask ourselves, why do we give race so much importance? Why is it important to prove that Indus Valley and Vedas are the creations of ‘original Indians’, and has nothing to do with migrants?

British colonisers used racial theories such as Aryan invasion theory as part of their ‘divide and rule’ policy. Are we being racist in our discomfort with the Aryan migration theory? In the vociferous rejection of this theory, there seems to be implicit suggestion that all things good in India from Vedas to Indus Valley civilisation to discovery of zero are purely Indian, while all things bad in India from untouchability to misogyny to homosexuality came with foreigners such as Greeks (who were repelled by Hindu kings) or Muslims and Europeans (who used cunning to overthrow Hindu kings). This reeks of the fear of contamination and the desire for purity. Can immigrants and invaders not be Indians?

We must be careful about the ‘politics of origin’ according to which a land belongs to people who originated there; this delegitimises all immigrants and nomads.

We must be careful also of ‘politics of purity’ that is hostile to all foreigners. Our earliest ancestors emerged from Africa, and populated the whole world, forming various groups, tribes, clans, races, ethnicities, communities and nationalities.

Due to natural calamities (climate change, famine) and cultural calamities (war), people have had to migrate again and again in different directions, often returning to spaces their ancestors abandoned thousands of years earlier.

So every land is populated by waves of people who have come in at different points of time, from different spaces, each one bringing new ideas and new technologies. There is no such thing as a pure and homogenous society. Every society is hybrid and heterogeneous. This is the reason perhaps why Puranas say that even if we have different fathers, we have a common grandfather, Brahma. And it is ok, if he was African.

We start a weekly column that offers dignified and informed answers to awkward questions about Hinduism. Please write in with questions that you may have been asked, at askdevdutt@swarajyamag.com.

Disclaimer: Views and opinions expressed here are the writer’s and not that of Swarajya’s. We welcome comments and rebuttals in the interest of a healthy debate.