On the Excavation of Theories
March 21, 2016 § 9 Comments
According to Arthur Basham, tall, fair, long haired men in light horse-drawn chariots with spoked wheels, came to India in waves, smashed through Harappa several times, forcing the locals to rebuild their western walls again and again, until the last time, when the city was destroyed and the inhabitants murdered en masse; the Aryans then spread to the Ganga valley and beyond, eventually becoming…us.
By the time I learnt history in school, questions had been raised about this theory. Mohenjodaro’s and Harappa’s demise was now laid at the door of climatic changes and the fluctuating course of rivers. But the question of what happened to the Indus valley people was never resolved, and the story of the Aryans coming in was preserved.
Experts argued hotly, meanwhile, about whether the Aryans originated in Central Asia or in Lithuania in Europe. But the indigenous Aryan theorists, on the other hand, have always maintained that the Aryans originated in India, and to the extent that there is much in common, linguistically, culturally, mythologically and genetically, between India, central Asia and large parts of Europe, these theorists argued that it could as easily be explained by movement in the opposite direction, out of India.
Romila Thapar and other eminent Indian historians believe that the theory of a massive Aryan invasion is not supported by archaeological evidence. But the extraordinarily close cultural connections need to be explained, and Thapar and others believe that external cultural influences did diffuse into India over centuries, either through trade or a small group of migrants who merged into the larger local population but managed to make a big cultural impact. Cultural diffusion has no need for invading armies; people can stay in their own countries but exchange cultural, religious and technological ideas in both directions. To Thapar, Aryanism was not a racial but a cultural entity that spread over a large area in Eurasia, mixing with earlier local traditions everywhere, perhaps in the same way that Christianity spread to Britain: not by hordes of invading Palestinians, but without being indigenous either.
According to radical thinkers like DD Kosambi, all of five “Aryan” tribes made it into India from places like Phrygia and lost their identities in the melting pot; he believed that Brahmins were priests of the earlier autochthonous order, defeated by these tribes because of their superior war technologies, but clawing back their way in the social hierarchy by incorporating alien theologies into the older faith and becoming the priests of the new order.
Sanjeev Sanyal, whose book I reviewed recently, tilts toward the indigenous theory, citing genetic evidence; he believes that the Rig Veda was written by the inhabitants of Harappa, who then got up and moved eastwards in search of greener pastures once the mighty Saraswati changed its course and became the lowly Ghaggar.
The Aryan question is an intellectual curiosity, completely irrelevant to the reality and future of today’s India. And yet, it has – incredibly – become political dynamite. Extreme nationalists claim that the theory that people came into India and influenced Hinduism is a Western conspiracy concocted to denigrate Indians, and that the Indian historians who continue to propound the theory are unpatriotic communists. Liberals are equally incensed by what they see as an unscientific attempt to conjure up a spuriously glorious past in the name of nationalism.
G. A. Qamar is a retired archaeologist, and his book, while very recent, reflects a position that is a hark back to Arthur Basham. Qamar believes, plausibly, that the Indus Valley people were culturally closely linked to Iranians. Based on a preponderance of archaeological, linguistic and scriptural similarities, he has reached the conclusion that the Aryans were indeed a racial group that originated in Central Asia and spread from there, splitting first into the Indo-Europeans who headed westwards and the Indo-Iranians who lived in Iran for a long time. This second group then split again, says Qamar, and a group that had developed a deep animosity towards their Persian cousins, moved eastwards into India, where it took root after absorbing mythological and linguistic elements from the aboriginal inhabitants.
I don’t know. The fact that Qamar’s book is poorly edited and contains many grammatical and other errors makes it difficult to read, and even tougher to find persuasive. The archaeological and other similarities with ancient Iran so painstakingly documented by Qamar are too numerous to ignore, but neither the presence of identical pottery nor that of identical poetry can definitively prove that a large number of people moved bag and baggage from either one to the other. What if it was the ideas behind the painted pots and passionate poems, that diffused between the cultures, on the back of a small number of travelers, soldiers, tradesmen, or missionaries? Simplistic explanations of any variety are likely to be wrong in the real world, as Qamar doesn’t seem to understand. As Qamar himself quotes V Gordon Childe, the Australian archaeologist, as saying about the Aryan question:
“ the Aryan history is a veritable labyrinth of complicated and intermingled cultures each with a long and intricate history of its own behind it. There is no single thread to guide us certainly out of maze, but rather a multitude of strands intertwined and entangled and leading along the divergent paths.”
Qamar’s is one of four books that I picked up recently in an attempt to understand the topic better (I have already read Basham, Thapar, Kosambi and Sanyal on the topic). Whether the Aryans came in from outside, went out from inside, or never existed, doesn’t change a thing about life. But it is easy in today’s world to hold an opinion because you read it on your Facebook feed and it is broadly in line with the prejudices you already subscribe to. I intend to buck the trend and arrive at an opinion after reviewing the arguments on all sides. Unfortunately, Qamar’s book, while rich in archaeological evidence and in its survey of existing research, did not help much. I will have to dig deeper.