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The Riddle of India’s Ancient Past
An Overview of the Aryan Problem

By Michel Danino

A revised version of a paper presented at a seminar on Value Education
organized by the Chinmaya Mission at Coimbatore on February 4-5, 1999.

I have been asked to speak a few words on India’s ancient past, a subject which ought to be of interest to every Indian, and especially to teachers, since students should be naturally curious to know the remotest origins of their country. The birth of Indian civilization is a subject I have been studying for some time, first of all because I find it fascinating: to explore the roots of a great and living civilization spanning over 6,000 years is something we can probably do only in India, since all other ancient civilizations have long disappeared. There is, however, another reason for my interest, and that will be the focus of this brief presentation; it is the so-called Aryan problem.

As you all know, what our history textbooks today teach is still basically the theory of a few nineteenth-century European scholars (including the famous Max Müller). According to them, around 1500 B.C., hordes of semi-barbarian, pastoral nomads, the so-called “Aryans,” poured out of Central Asia into Northwest India, and drove south the ancestors of today’s Dravidians; then, over a few centuries, they composed the Vedas, gradually got their “Aryan” culture (with its language, Sanskrit) to spread all over India, and eventually built the mighty Ganges civilization. This, with some variations, is still today what the school-going child is taught. Not only textbooks, even respectable dictionaries and encyclopaedias will tell you more or less the same thing.

So at first sight, there would seem to be little scope for differing views on the matter. Yet there are widely differing views, even a raging debate—and it rages not only in India but in Western universities and among eminent scholars and archaeologists. As a matter of fact, many of them have in recent years called for a new look at the established theory. In India that includes reputed archaeologists such as B. B. Lal, Dilip Chakrabarti, S. R. Rao, V. N. Misra, J. P. Joshi, S. P. Gupta, R. S. Bisht, K. M. Srivastava, Madhav Acharya, etc.; in the West, Jim Shaffer, J. M. Keyoner, G. F. Dales, Colin Renfrew, J.-F. Jarrige, K. A. R. Kennedy and many others. They are joined by scholars from various fields, such as David Frawley, Koenraad Elst, N. S. Rajaram, Subhash Kak, Klaus Klostermaier, K. D. Sethna, A. K. Biswas, Shrikant Talageri, Bhagwan Singh, etc. All of them agree that archaeological evidence entirely fails to support the Aryan invasion theory and actually goes against it; many of them also find the linguistic evidence that was used to buttress it quite shaky. But this debate, as we shall see, is by no means limited to the academic world; it is not a dry scholarly matter, and it has far-reaching repercussions on today’s India, especially where her unity is concerned.

I have studied the question not only from an archaeological point of view, but also taking into account the views of great Indians such as Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo and several others (my starting point was in fact Sri Aurobindo’s own research into the Veda[1]). For it is a vast subject which touches not only on archaeology and linguistics, not only on astronomy, ancient mathematics, geology, metallurgy, even ecology, but also on Indian Scriptures, culture and tradition. A few years ago, I summarized some important points in a small book.[2] Today, however, I will limit myself to a few main lines of argument which, to my mind, are sufficient to show that the “new school” of archaeologists and scholars is right in calling for a radical review of India’s remote past.

At the center of the riddle of India’s ancient past lies the famous Indus Valley (or Harappan) civilization, one of the world’s oldest. It was certainly the most extensive by far, since it covered today’s Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, much of Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Kashmir, western Uttar Pradesh, the whole of Pakistan, even parts of Afghanistan ; it was also one of the most sophisticated in terms of urbanization, industry, technology, trade and sailing. Its art and crafts were varied and refined, though much less abundant than in contemporary Egypt or Mesopotamia. However, its hallmarks were a remarkably peaceful civic organization based on cultural integration, and the care it bestowed on its humblest inhabitants. Its sanitation and water management, for instance, were of such a level that one wishes our municipal corporations would follow them today. In its fully developed phase (the “mature phase,” as archaeologists call it), it lasted from about 2600 to about 1900 B.C. ; its early phase dates back to at least 3500 B.C. (J. M. Kenoyer opts for 5000 B.C.). A few sites, such as Mehrgarh, even show a continuity of preceding cultures going back to 7000 BC. So far, over 2,600 sites have been identified, over half of them in India, with 700 along the dry bed of a mighty river to which we will soon return. While the best-known cities, Mohenjo-daro (on the Indus river) and Harappa (on the Ravi), now lie in Pakistan, Indian archaeologists have since Independence unearthed a number of important settlements, such as Dholavira and Lothal in Gujarat, Kalibangan in Rajasthan, Rakhigarhi and Banawali in Haryana.

When this civilization was discovered in the 1920s, the attempt was naturally to fit it into the accepted framework. It was therefore assumed that its inhabitants were Dravidians, that the invading Aryans destroyed its great cities, and that the surviving Dravidians fled south for refuge. But today, no one (except our textbook writers perhaps) takes this assumption seriously, since there is no evidence on the ground to corroborate it. Archaeologists, whatever their school of thought, whether Indian or Western, agree at least on these three point :

First, as surprising as it may seem, there is no physical trace whatsoever of any invaders, Aryan or other, from the Northwest or elsewhere, and no findings have been made which could be associated with an Aryan people coming into India—neither pottery nor utensils nor tools nor weapons nor graves nor any form of art. It is hard to imagine how a people supposed to have conquered the subcontinent failed to leave the slightest physical trace! Not only that, there is also no trace of any major conflict in any of the cities, and no evidence of any southward population movement ; the only clear movement, about the end of the Harappan civilization, is eastward and more precisely towards the Gangetic basin. B. B. Lal, former director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India, observes,

The supporters of the Aryan invasion theory have not been able to cite even a single example where there is evidence of “invaders,” represented either by weapons of warfare or even by cultural remains left by them.[3]

J. M. Kenoyer, who is still pursuing excavations at Harappa, is even more categorical :

There is no archaeological or biological evidence for invasions or mass migrations into the Indus Valley between the end of the Harappan Phase, about 1900 B.C. and the beginning of the Early Historic period around 600 B.C.[4]

Second, experts analyzing the skeletons found in Harappan cities (especially in Sindh, Punjab and Gujarat) concluded that the physical traits of their inhabitants were not markedly different from those of the populations found today in the same regions. There is no sign of any sudden disruption in population patterns, only the gradual changes that one would expect to take place naturally over the centuries. Kenneth A. R. Kennedy, biological anthropologist at Cornell University, U.S.A., who has worked extensively on Harappan sites to study human skeletal remains, concludes unambiguously:

Biological anthropologists remain unable to lend support to any of the theories concerning an Aryan biological or demographic entity.... What the biological data demonstrate is that no exotic races are apparent from laboratory studies of human remains excavated from any archaeological sites, including those accorded Aryan status [by the old school]. All prehistoric human remains recovered thus far from the Indian subcontinent are phenotypically identifiable as ancient South Asians.... In short, there is no evidence of demographic disruptions in the north-western sector of the subcontinent during and immediately after the decline of the Harappan culture.[5]

Third, as mentioned earlier, the highest concentration of Harappan settlements is found along a huge and now dry river, which follows with some precision (though more to the North) the traditional Sarasvati, and once flowed across Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Sindh and Gujarat, joining the Arabian sea in Kutch. Its exact course has been plotted by geologists and confirmed by satellite photography; the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre has even found that in parts of Rajasthan, “in extreme desert conditions,” the water of the Sarasvati “remains available at a depth of fifty to sixty metres,” and radiocarbon measurements of some water samples have shown them to “range from 2400 to 7400 Before Present,” with “no modern recharge discernible.”[6] Today, scientists agree that this river, whose bed was three to ten kilometres wide, could only have been the ancient Sarasvati—the same river that is often praised in the hymns in the Rig-Veda. (This identification is accepted by most archaeologists, for instance Kenoyer, Raymond and Bridget Allchin, G. L. Possehl or D. P. Agrawal.) But it so happens that this river dried up in stages, and its final disappearance has been scientifically dated to about 2000 B.C. Then why did the supposed Aryans, who are said to have invaded India five hundred years later and to have composed the Rig-Veda still later, lavish so much praise on a long dried-up river? It stands to reason that the composers of the Vedic hymns lived near the Sarasvati while it was still in full flow, and that again fits perfectly well with the Harappan era.

In addition, had Dravidians fled to the South as was supposed, many scholars have asked why they should have forgotten the famous Indus script on the way, so that no trace of it is found in Southern India, and the oldest extant Tamil inscriptions had to wait another two thousand years, that too in the Brahmi script? Similarly, nowhere do we find in the South artefacts associated with Harappan culture, much less any trace of the urban skills found in Indus cities—in fact urbanization in the South grew only from the third century B.C., probably under Mauryan and Roman influences.

Finally, it is increasingly recognized that there are strong links between the Veda and the Harappan culture: We find statues and seals depicting yogis and yogic postures, we find a Shiva-like deity, worship of a mother-goddess, fire altars, all of which are suggestive of Vedic culture. Harappan symbols include the trishul, the svastika, the conch shell (also used as a trumpet), the pipal tree, all of which are central to later Indian culture. The Rig-Veda itself is full of references to fortified cities and towns, to oceans, sailing, trade and industry, all of which are found in the Harappan civilization. Studying Harappan town-planning, R. S. Bisht, director at the Archaeological Survey of India and excavator of the well-known site of Dholavira in the Rann of Kutch, finds that city “a virtual reality of what the Rig-Veda, the world’s oldest literary record, describes.”[7] S. P. Gupta, chairman of the Indian Archaeological Society, agrees : “Our analysis shows that [. . .] the Indus-Sarasvati civilization reflects the Vedic literature.”[8]

So it is clear that objective data repudiate the old invasion theory. Archaeology completely fails to support the existence and arrival into India of any supposed Aryan people. On the other hand, there is much evidence to suggest that from a cultural point of view the Harappan civilization had a Vedic backdrop, which would make the Rig-Veda at least 5,000 years old.

Of course, many questions remain. (I am leaving out here the linguistic question, which is briefly discussed in The Invasion That Never Was.) For instance, what about the mysterious Indus script found on thousands of seals? The fact is that several scholars worked for decades trying to show that the language behind the script was some form of proto-Dravidian, but without any conclusive success at deciphering it. Most of them have now abandoned their attempt. Other scholars (such as S. R. Rao or N. Jha) worked on the opposite line, trying to show that the language was some form of Sanskrit, but their decipherments have not received general acceptance either. Only the discovery of a bilingual inscription, or a sufficiently long one (since most of the inscriptions on the seals are very brief) could clinch the issue.

So that is, briefly, what science has to tell us. One question that has interested me a good deal is : What does Indian tradition have to tell us on the same subject? Does it agree with science, or does it support the old Aryan theory? Does it also support the division between Aryans and Dravidians which comes as a result of the theory? The answer leaves no room to ambiguity: No Indian scripture makes any mention of an invasion from the Northwest or of a previous homeland outside India. In fact, the Vedic homeland most frequently referred to in the Rig-Veda is Saptasindhu, in other words, the Indus and Sarasvati basins, which is exactly where the Harappan civilization flourished. Let me quote here Swami Vivekananda :

There is not one word in our scriptures, not one, to prove that the Aryans ever came from anywhere outside India.... The whole of India is Aryan, nothing else.[9]

Some may say that this concerns the tradition of North India only. So let us take a look at the South. In the Sangam literature, we find the legendary origin of the Tamilians not in the North, but further South, in a now submerged island or continent called Kumari Kandam. This may be an embellished memory of the submergence of Poompuhar, the city described in the Shilappadikaram and Manimekhalai epics, a submergence confirmed by preliminary underwater explorations (note that marine archaeology in India is only beginning : we can hope for some major discoveries in the years ahead).

What about the so-called “Dravidian culture,” then? No one will dispute the greatness and richness, even the distinctiveness of the Tamil genius, but I will certainly dispute what some like to call its “separateness.” Early Tamil culture was no more “separate” than, say, Bengali or Gujarati cultures. All of them have their own stamp and own original contribution, but all are branches of the same tree. If you take a look at the Shilappadikaram again, you will see vivid references to Indra, Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna, Durga, Lakshmi, and several mentions of the Veda; King Shenguttuvan is shown as bringing the stone for Kannagi’s idol from the Himalayas, where his ancestors are said to have carved their emblem; he does fight North Indian kings, but there is no hint that their culture is regarded as different. In historical accounts, we find Chola and Chera kings proudly claiming descent from Rama or from kings of the Lunar dynasty—in other words, an "Aryan" descent. We are told that the greatest Chola king, Karikala, was a patron of both the Vedic religion and Tamil literature, while the Pandya king Nedunjelyan performed many Vedic sacrifices, and the dynasty of the Pallavas made their capital Kanchi into a great centre of Sanskrit learning and culture. Another Pandya king is said to have fed the armies on both sides during the Bharata war. And let us not forget the reverence accorded in the South to Agastya, the great seer (rishi) from the North. Countless similar examples could be cited from Sangam poetry or even the ancient Tamil grammar Tolkappiyam.[10] None of this suggests any clash of culture ; rather the contrary, it was a mutual enrichment. While Vedic culture was welcomed in the South and harmonized with local elements, what has come to be called “Hinduism” owes much to the generous contribution the Tamil land made in return, for instance in music, dance, architecture, or the bhakti movement.

It is now time to conclude, and to my mind there are several important lessons to be drawn from our brief study of the Aryan controversy.

The first is that there was never any Aryan invasion of India and that our textbooks will have to be revised in the light of sound scientific findings. To quote Dr. Ambedkar: "The theory of [Aryan] invasion is an invention. It is a perversion of scientific investigation, it is not allowed to evolve out of facts.... It falls to the ground at every point.”[11] All available evidence shows that India’s civilization, whose roots go back even before the Harappan civilization, grew on Indian soil. As the U.S. archaeologist Jim Shaffer puts it :

Current archaeological data do not support the existence of an Indo-Aryan or European invasion into South Asia any time in the pre- or protohistoric periods. Instead, it is possible to document archaeologically a series of cultural changes reflecting indigenous cultural developments from prehistoric to historic periods.[12]

Naturally, this new view will have considerable repercussions on the history of ancient India and of the ancient world, and we can safely predict that India will be shown to have been the source of much of Western civilization. This had been anticipated by a number of Western thinkers, such as the French philosopher Voltaire, who said more than two hundred years ago :

I am convinced that everything has come down to us from the banks of the Ganges, astronomy, astrology, metempsychosis, etc. . . [13] It does not behove us, who were only savages and barbarians when these Indian and Chinese peoples were civilized and learned, to dispute their antiquity.[14]

The second lesson is that those who today still insist on Aryan-Dravidian divide do so not only in disregard of archaeological findings, but also in complete disregard of Indian tradition (whether from the North or from the South); they prefer to blindly follow a few nineteenth-century European scholars who made up the invasion theory simply because they would not accept that ancient civilization could have flowed out of India. It had to be the white man who brought it to India. Moreover, in that colonial age, they were eager to divide India further into Aryan and Dravidian, North and South, upper and lower castes, so as to encourage conversions to Christianity and justify the British presence in India. Certain present-day followers of those scholars are equally interested in this job of division; the best proof of it is that they shy away from serious debates, preferring to hurl invectives at serious and respected archaeologists or historians, whom they call “communal,” “parochial,” etc. for suggesting, for instance, that Vedic culture was indigenous and formed the backdrop of the Harappan world. In other words, if you look into the problem objectively you are communal, while if you propagate outdated theories for political ends, you utter gospel truths that no one should dare dispute. This is not only unscientific and irrational, it is obscurantism plain and simple.

The third lesson is that Indian culture is essentially one, though with considerable regional variations, which only go to enrich it. Sri Aurobindo never tired of stressing this essential unity. “In India,” he said, “at a very early time the spiritual and cultural unity was made complete and became the very stuff of the life of all this great surge of humanity between the Himalayas and the two seas.”[15]

Western civilization, not even three centuries after the Industrial Revolution, is now running out of breath. It has no direction, no healthy foundations, no value left except selfishness and greed, nothing to fill one’s heart with. India alone has preserved something of the deeper values that can make a man human, and I am convinced that the world will be turning to them in search of a remedy to its advanced malady. Once India’s ancientness is recognized, we will better understand the strength that has enabled her to survive through all those ages. Whether she will survive her present phase of degradation and lead the world to a new phase is the question.

I will end with these words from Sri Aurobindo :

A time must come when the Indian mind will shake off the darkness that has fallen upon it, cease to think or hold opinions at second and third hand and reassert its right to judge and enquire in a perfect freedom into the meaning of its own Scriptures. When that day comes we shall, I think, [. . .] question many established philological myths—the legend, for instance, of an Aryan invasion of India from the north, the artificial and inimical distinction of Aryan and Dravidian which an erroneous philology has driven like a wedge into the unity of the homogenous Indo-Afghan race.[16]

When the most advanced minds of the occident are beginning to turn in this red evening of the West for the hope of a new and more spiritual civilisation to the genius of Asia, it would be strange if we could think of nothing better than to cast away our own self and potentialities and put our trust in the dissolving and moribund past of Europe.[17]

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