Myth as History and History as Myth
Dr. N.S. Rajaram
For reasons we need not go into at the present time, some myths are projected as history and while some others, though factual are relegated to the level of myths. This is particularly the case in India where for the most part history has for long been written by foreigners and by those strongly influenced by foreign ideas. Though India became independent more than sixty years ago, these foreign influences have persisted. Even more, while the people, mainly Europeans who created these historical myths have given up these ideas as false, their Indian followers, long after the end of European rule in India. Nothing illustrates this more than the idea of Aryans as race and their supposed invasion that brought the Sanskrit language and the Vedas to India.
Many history books and almost all encyclopaedias claim that Indian history begins with the invasion of a people called the Aryans. It is suggested, if not asserted that these fair skinned or ‘Nordic’ people invaded India around 1500 BCE (Before Common Era formerly called B.C.) and drove away the Dravidians to the south. It is further claimed, but never proved that the famous Indus Valley Civilization represented by Harappa and Mohenjo Daro was destroyed by these invaders. (It is commonly known as the Harappan Civilization and its people as Harappans.) It is implicit in this model that the original inhabitants of India and of Indus Valley in particular were Dravidians.
This is essentially a nineteenth racist idea, conceived before modern science discredited the whole notion of the Aryan-Dravidian race, and in fact, the whole notion of race. We will have more to say about this later.
Given the Aryans’ importance to their worldview, it is remarkable that even after two hundred years scholars cannot identify them— either their origin or their language. Originally they were claimed to be a race related to Europeans but science has discredited it. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, scholars avoid overtly racial arguments but the basic idea of an invasion by Europeans bringing civilization to India is retained even if they acknowledge that ancient Indian records know nothing of any such invasion. All we have are dogmatic assertions of their central belief, like the one below, made by the late Murray Emeneau, a leading figure in Indo-European linguistics:
At some time in the second millennium B.C., probably comparatively early in the millennium, a band or bands of speakers of an Indo-European language, later to be called Sanskrit, entered India over the northwest passes. This is our linguistic doctrine which has been held now for more than a century and a half. There seems to be no reason to distrust the arguments for it, in spite of the traditional Hindu ignorance of any such invasion. (Emphasis added.)
From this it is clear that it is a ‘doctrine’, of a belief and not a scientifically determined fact. If the author of the above passage (Murray Emeneau) had any scientific evidence, he would have called it a scientific fact and not a doctrine. A scientist would never get away with such a statement. Let us next look at what science has to say about the whole thing.
Scientists had long ago dismissed the idea of the Aryan race. The British now admit that it was a political ploy created to make their rule acceptable to Indians. As far back as 1939, Sir Julian Huxley, one of the great biologists of the twentieth century wrote:
In England and America the phrase ‘Aryan race’ has quite ceased to be used by writers with scientific knowledge, though it appears occasionally in political and propagandist literature…. In Germany, the idea of the ‘Aryan race’ received no more scientific support than in England. Nevertheless, it found able and very persistent literary advocates who made it appear very flattering to local vanity. It therefore steadily spread, fostered by special conditions. (Emphasis added.)
These ‘special conditions’ were the rise of Nazism in Germany and British imperial interests in India. Its perversion in Germany leading eventually to Nazi horrors is well known. The less known fact is how the British turned it into a political and propaganda tool to make Indians accept British rule. A recent BBC report acknowledged as much (October 6, 2005):
It [Aryan invasion theory] gave a historical precedent to justify the role and status of the British Raj, who could argue that they were transforming India for the better in the same way that the Aryans had done thousands of years earlier.
That is to say, the British presented themselves as ‘new and improved Aryans’ that were in India only to complete the work left undone by their ancestors in the hoary past. This is how the British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin put it in the House of Commons in 1929:
Now, after ages, …the two branches of the great Aryan ancestry have again been brought together by Providence… By establishing British rule in India, God said to the British, “I have brought you and the Indians together after a long separation, …it is your duty to raise them to their own level as quickly as possible …brothers as you are…”
Need we say more? One wonders though in what language God revealed this to Prime Minister Baldwin! In any event, this shows that theories based on the Aryan myth are modern European creations having little to do with ancient India. It is time now to look at the origin of the word Arya and the extraordinary importance given to it in history books.
The word Arya appears for the first time in the Rig Veda, India’s oldest text. Its meaning is obscure but seems to refer to members of a settled agricultural community. It later became an honorific and a form of address, something like ‘Gentleman’ in English or ‘Monsieur’ in French. Also, it was nowhere as important in India as it came to be in Europe. In the whole the Rig Veda, in all of its ten books, the word Arya appears only about forty times. In contrast, Hitler’s Mein Kampf uses the term Arya and Aryan many times more. Hitler did not invent it. The idea of Aryans as a superior race was already in the air— in Europe, not India.
Aryans myth is politics, not science
Before we leave the topic as a modern myth, it is worth taking a brief look at what science and scientists have to say about Aryans as a people. Until the emergence of molecular genetics and DNA analysis, people went by physical appearance or observable features like skin color, eyes, hair etc. This is what geneticists call phenotype. But phenotype represents the result of the interaction with the environment. People get darker as they get closer to the equator.
What is really important is to look at genotypes or features that are coded in the DNA. This is what distinguishes inherited features from those that are the result of adaptation to the environment or phenotype. This is now possible thanks to progress in molecular genetics. They tell a different story. We now have extensive knowledge based on world wide genetic analysis. World’s foremost authority on the subject Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza of Stanford University. A recent important article based on a study of Indian tribal and caste populations by Cavalli-Sforza and his colleagues observe:
Taken together, these results show that Indian tribal and caste populations derive largely from the same genetic heritage of Pleistocene southern and western Asians and have received limited gene flow from external regions since the Holocene. The phylogeography [neighboring branches] of the primal mtDNA and Y-chromosome founders suggests that these southern Asian Pleistocene coastal settlers from Africa would have provided the inocula for the subsequent differentiation of the distinctive eastern and western Eurasian gene pools. (Italics added.)
Put in non-technical language, it means that the Indian population—upper castes, tribes (supposedly indigenous peoples), Dravidians and so forth—are mainly of indigenous origin and the contribution of immigrants (gene flow) is negligible. And this covers a span of 40,000 years or more. This should settle the issue of India being populated by recent migrants. So theories like the Aryan invasion simply cannot be true.
To understand the persistence of these ideas, we need to place these Aryan theories in their historical context— as part of European thinkers’ striving to give themselves an identity based on their history and folklore. In a recently published book Aryan Idols: Indo-European Mythology as Ideology and Science (2006, University of Chicago) Swedish scholar Stefan Arvidsson points out:
For over two hundred years, a series of historians, linguists, folklorists, and archaeologists have tried to re-create a lost culture. Using ancient texts, medieval records, philological observations, and archaeological remains they have described a world, a religion, and a people older than the Sumerians, with whom all history is said to have begun.
These are the mythical Aryans, now being called Indo-Europeans. This is because the Nazis and Hitler made the term Arya disreputable, so they had to coin a different term to express the same racial idea. After two hundred years of intensive search, the now-called Indo-Europeans remain elusive, but Indo-European scholars have not given up on them. Just as they created an Aryan invasion without any Aryans they have created Indo-European Studies based on the equally non-existent Indo-Europeans. As Arvidsson observes:
No objects can definitely be tied to them, nor do we know any ‘Indo-European’ by name. In spite of that, scholars have stubbornly tried to reach back to the ancient ‘Indo-Europeans,’ with the help of bold historical, linguistic, and archaeological reconstructions, in the hopes of finding the foundation of their own culture and religion there.
The only literature we have that goes back to such antiquity is Indian literature. But Europeans of the colonial era could not conceive of an Indian source for their culture. India was taken out of Indo-European Studies, and made the recipient of European thought, culture and even language via the Aryan invasion. In Arvidsson’s words: “The theory about India as the original home of the Indo-Europeans, and the Indians as a kind of model Aryans, lost supporters during the nineteenth century, and other homelands and other model Aryans took their place instead.” (Emphasis added.)
The Aryans (or Indo-Europeans) and their homeland were gradually moved westward until they were made to settle in Eurasia and even Germany. In the hands of German scholars, Aryans and their language became “Indo-Germanische.” It is this worldview, and its academic manifestation calling itself Indo-European Studies that these scholars are fighting to save from extinction though science has discredited it.
The goal of Indo-European studies is not so much to understand India as it is to “show that there existed a rich ‘German’ mythology that could successfully compete with classical Judeo-Christian traditions.” It is hardly surprising that anti-Semitism was tied up with it. Their anti-Hinduism which has now taken the place of anti-Semitism is more cultural than religious, just like anti-Semitism in pre-War Europe. Its goal is to detach their mythical Indo-European ancestors from India. That is precisely what is behind what Arvidsson calls ‘ideological abuse’ that Indo-European Studies has been guilty of:
There is something in the nature of research about Indo-Europeans that makes it especially prone to ideological abuse— perhaps something related to the fact that for the past two centuries, the majority of scholars who have done research on the Indo-Europeans have considered themselves descendants of this mythical race.
This ‘ideological abuse’ reached its climax in the Nazi regime. So the Aryan myth is wholly a political creation. This means that any discussion or debate about Aryans and Aryanism relates to modern European ideas and has nothing to do with ancient India. The same is true of the politically charged Aryan-Dravidian divide. It is entirely a political creation that has no scientific or historical basis.
It is time to say goodbye to this divisive unscientific doctrine and look at what our ancestors have left behind in archaeology and literary works without attaching any labels like Aryan and Dravidian.
Dr. N.S. Rajaram is a scientist and historian who has written extensively about ancient history. His book Sarasvati River and the Vedic Civilization: History, science and politics discusses these ideas in greater detail. It is published by Aditya Prakashan of New Delhi.