Beyond the Aryan Invasion – Look East and South
Column by NS Rajaram
India’s ties with East and Southeast Asia have been much closer than with Central Asia or Eurasia. Recent findings suggest the exact opposite of AI — South and Southeast Asia made a major contribution to the growth of Vedic civilization.
Ancient Indian history has been dominated by the debate over the Aryan Invasion. This is a fallout of European colonialism. Beginning about the middle of the nineteenth century, or roughly from the time the British established control over all of India, it has been the official position that the Vedas and the ancestor of the Sanskrit language were brought by invaders from Central Asia or Eurasia or even Europe— that is to say by the ancestors of the people who colonized India! While this is now discredited as history, this Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) goes to show that history is always written by the winners. As a product of the European colonial period, it is only natural that the AIT should reflect European biases.
The theory was created at a time when Indian archaeology was in its infancy, and scientific data from fields like biology, ecology and others was virtually non-existent. Scholars had little to go by beyond the new field of Comparative Linguistics made possible by the European discovery of Sanskrit and its affinities to the languages of Europe. This led them to postulate a common ancestral language (proto-Indo-European) and a common ancestral home they called the Aryan Homeland. It is now called the Indo-European Homeland. These Aryan invaders were said to have entered India and subjugated the natives, imposing their own language and culture upon them. These original inhabitants were said to be Dravidians, who were driven south by the Aryans. The Vedic literature, the Rigveda in particular, was interpreted in the light of this theory.
Beginning in the early decades of the twentieth century, scientific data became available, especially from archaeological excavations, notably of the Harappan or the Indus Valley Civilization. It was natural that there should have been attempts to fit these new findings to the already existing Aryan Invasion Theory— an attempt that still continues. It was suggested that the Harappan Civilization was ‘Dravidian’, which was destroyed by the Aryan invaders.
This creates a permanent divide between Harappan archaeology and the Vedic literature. But it was not long before scholars began to notice serious difficulties. Without going into technical details, these may be summarized as follows: the Harappans, the creators of one of the greatest material civilizations of antiquity have no literature, while the Vedic Aryans, the creators of the greatest literature of the ancient world have no archaeological existence. This is all the more puzzling when we recognize that the Harappans possessed writing, while the Vedic Aryans were said to be illiterate who depended on memory for preserving their literature. And yet it is the literature of the illiterate Aryans that has survived in abundance while the literate Harappans have vanished without a literary trace!
Verdict of science: the genetic imprint
As more technical data became available, scholars began to notice serious contradictions between data and the theory. For example, genetic studies showed that the presence of any genetic input from Eurasia or Europe in the Indian population was negligible to non-existent. Further, this insignificant imprint was the same in North and South India, which flies in the face of the Aryan-Dravidian division. A scientifically more acceptable explanation is that the physical differences among Indians is the result adaptation to the environment by natural selection. (This difference is noticeable in Europe— also: people get fairer as you move from Italy in the south to Scandinavia and Iceland.) This takes tens of thousands of years and not centuries or millennia. All this suggests that the Indian population is very ancient and not the result of any recent migrations or invasions.
There is now a new dimension to this scenario. Throughout history, going back untold millennia, India’s ties with East Asia and Southeast Asia have been much closer than that with Central Asia or Europe. This was interrupted by three centuries of European colonialism in the region, leading to a Eurocentric version of history being imposed on it. (The Aryan Invasion Theory was a key part of this.) In recent years, scholars have begun to reexamine many assumptions of the colonial period, looking in particular at the physical and biological imprint in the region.
This has to begin with the recognition that Indian climate as well as flora and fauna are closely related to those of Southeast Asia. In particular, Indian cattle (Bos Indicus) are domesticated versions related to the wild cattle of Southeast Asia known as the Banteng (Bos Banteng or Bos Javanicus). Similarly, the Indian horse is a native breed, close to an ancient species known as Equus Sivalensis (the ‘Siwalik Horse’). A species related to it appears to be the horse described in the Rigveda— and not the Central Asian or the Eurasian variety, which is anatomically different.
The Rigveda describes the horse as having thirty-four ribs like the Sivalensis, while Central Asian breeds have thirty-six. Thus the widely propagated claim (notably by Michael Witzel) that horses were unknown in India until they were brought by invading Aryans has no support. It is a last ditch effort to save the Aryan invasion.
It is a similar story when we examine the human imprint on the region, especially the genetic evidence. As several experts like Manansala and Kennedy have pointed out, the skeletal record shows that in most ways the Indian population is quite unique. More advanced genetic analysis leads to a similar conclusion— that the Indian population is very ancient to which the contribution of Eurasian strains is negligible to non-existent. It is a different story when we compare Indian and Southeast Asian populations. Paul Kekai Manansala points out:
“The overall genetic picture indicates a very old biological relationship, probably extending in part at least to the original migration out of Africa.” The current understanding is that Africa was the original home of the entire human population now distributed all over the world. The overall genetic picture of Indians is that they are closely related to the Southeast Asians, going back tens of thousands of years. In contrast, their links to Eurasia or Europe find no scientific support. As a result, one thing can safely be asserted: Indians are ancient inhabitants of India and Southeast Asia (or Greater India) and not recent immigrants.
Vedic people were maritime, not Eurasian nomads
From all this it is safe to conclude that in order to understand the origins of the Vedic civilization, and its history, it is necessary first to drop the west-northwest bias that has dominated discourse for nearly two centuries, and replace it with an East-Southeast orientation. One of the keys to this is recognizing the maritime background of Vedic civilization. In this context it is worth recording that the Rigveda is preeminently an Indian document. While there are occasional references to the lands beyond the Indus, these are greatly exceeded by references to oceans and maritime activity. Prayers for the safety of ships and navigators occur in many parts of the Rigveda. This again shows a southern-peninsular rather than a northwestern orientation.
Recognizing this will allow scholars to break free of the shackles of the northwest, particularly the Aryan Homeland myth, which has been a major obstacle to a rational study of India. The next logical step is to explore links between the Vedic Civilization and movements from the south and the east, and the resulting exchanges of people and ideas between different regions. Ecological changes, notably the ending of the last Ice Age contributed to it in a major way, in the form of two momentous developments. First, rising sea levels led inhabitants of the coastal regions, and possibly also from now submerged regions, to move to the interior and the north seeking safer ground. Next, the melting of ice caps in the north resulted in the release of the rivers of the northern plains—making this formerly arid region fertile and inhabitable.
These two epochal events are encapsulated in the two most significant myths of ancient India— the Flood Myth of Manu and the Indra-Vritra Myth. The Rigveda appears to be the product of the mix of two groups of people: tribes and ruling families that inhabited the north and poets and sages from the coastal regions and the south — some possibly from beyond the seas — who brought with them their maritime memories and experiences. This explains why the Rigveda, though composed in the Sarasvati heartland, abounds in oceanic symbolism and maritime activity. But soon the distinction between the northern rulers and the southern sages came to be blurred as the two groups became intermixed.
It is therefore no accident that the two most important seer families of the Rigveda — the Vasishthas (including brother Agastya) and the Bhrigus — should have strong maritime connections. It is important also to know that the south or the peninsular India and beyond was known to the Vedic people, especially the seer families. But much information about it has been overlooked or misinterpreted in attempts to make data fit the northwestern orientation of scholars over the better part of two centuries. Even so-called ‘nationalistic’ scholars like Tilak and Savarkar have not been able to escape its hold. The main point is that in studying the Vedas, science demands that we pay much greater attention to the south and southeast than has been the case so far. This calls for a radical reorientation.
Recognizing the southern contribution to the Vedic civilization clarifies many literary, linguistic and historical puzzles in the ancient texts. It is inconceivable that these poets and sages, who brought with them the oceanic imagery and the maritime experiences that pervade the Rigveda did not also bring linguistic elements and spiritual ideas that went into the Vedic language and literature. It becomes clear that many ancient peoples and even places have been grossly misidentified in attempts to fit history and geography to the idea of an ‘expansion of Aryans’ from the northwest to the south and southeast.
For example, the Ramayana has been misinterpreted as the expansion of Aryan civilization into the peninsula. In reality, what Rama found in the south, even in Lanka, was a Vedic civilization. Rama was enchanted by the purity of Sanskrit spoken by Hanuman. The Uttarakanda of the Ramayana is a goldmine of information about the southern, largely maritime people known as the ‘Rakshasa’. The river Narmada appears to have served as the boundary between the ‘spheres of influence’ of the Rakshasas of the south and Ikshvakus and Bharatas of the north, with the Yadus somewhere in between. And Rakshasa leaders often retreated to Rasatala — the ‘nether lands’ (or ‘Down Under’) — when threatened. This Rasatala was probably part of Indonesia or some other region of Monsoon Asia.
So, what we have is not any ‘expansion of Aryans from the northwest and the north’, but a free exchange of people and ideas among different regions— much as it has existed throughout history including today. And this included lands beyond the oceans. It was interrupted, as previously noted, during the period European domination of the region. Naturally enough, they looked at history and culture of the region through Eurocentric glasses.
Mahabharata says “Look east”
The extraordinary thing is that there is a passage in the Mahabharata (Udyoga Parva 108), which explicitly points to the east as the earliest source.
“This quarter is called purva [east and also ancient] O! Brahmana, for the reason that in far older times, it was first overspread by the Devas. Here first chanted the Vedas, the glorious God who promotes the welfare of the worlds. Here was recited to the chanters of the Vedas, the Savitri by Savitar the Sun God. [Sic: The famous Gayatri mantra.]… Here in the old days of yore, O best among the twice born, took place the birth, the acquisition of renown and death— of the famous rishi Vasishta.”
In summary, bringing in this southern and eastern orientation to ancient India resolves many of the puzzles and paradoxes that plague current theories that carry a west-northwest bias. This bias was created during the three centuries of European domination through colonialism. It began with the coming of the Portuguese and ended with the exit in rapid order of the British, the Dutch and the Portuguese (in Goa). That this discredited interpretation has persisted in Western academia is only to be expected. It has persisted in India because Indian scholars and other leaders still haven’t gained the self confidence to challenge the West.
What all this suggests is that looking south and east is an important but sadly neglected area that merits serious study. Of one thing we can be certain: trying to explain the origin and growth of the Vedic Civilization in terms of migrations/invasions a few thousand years ago runs into formidable scientific and literary obstacles. We should learn from this experience and first build a scientific foundation that makes use of all data available today. Only then can we hope to recover the history of that hoary age based on the records they left behind.
If supporters of the Aryan myth want to hang on to their gospel, it is their prerogative—just as it is their prerogative to believe in a Flat Earth. But call it a theory and expect others to accept it as true is asking too much. As Albert Einstein once said: “A theory must not contradict empirical facts.”