India, my Love|Mar 10, 2008 10:00 AM| by:

The Beginnings of Indian Civilisation – II

The Aryan Invasion: Was there any?

This brings us to the important question: Who are the builders of the Indus-valley civilization? Many answers have been suggested. But one of the answers which established itself in the academic community as the most authoritative explanation of the origin of Indian civilization is the Aryan Invasion theory. The most surprising element in this scholarly coup of the Aryan Invasion theory is that it gained wide acceptance among the scholastic world and entered into history textbooks and encyclopedias without any credible archaeological and literary evidence.

The theory of the Aryan invasion is a creation of European scholars based on some linguistic affinities between Indian and European languages. In the 17th and 18th Centuries, European scholars who first studied Sanskrit were struck by the similarities between its syntax and vocabulary and that of Greek and Latin. This resulted in the theory that there had been a common ancestry for these and other related languages, which came to be called the Indo-European languages. This in turn led to the notion that Indo-European speaking people had a common homeland from which they had migrated to parts of Asia and Europe. Based on such linguistic speculations, later European scholars led by German Indologist Max Mueller conceived the idea of an Aryan Invasion of India. The scenario of Aryan invasion runs somewhat like this:

A horde of nomadic Aryan barbarians from Afghanistan in Central Asia, somewhere around 1500 BC, invaded India, which was at the time inhibited by the culturally advanced Dravidians. Aryan invaders, blonde, blue-eyed and fair skinned, crude and primitive but vigorous and aggressive with a superior military technology, thundered into the Indian subcontinent in their chariots and horses, plundered and slaughtered the native dark skinned Dravidians, destroyed their cities and politically and culturally subjugated them, replacing their language with their own Sanskrit tongue, composing the Vedas and going on to build the later Indian civilization and culture. There are here three ideas or assumptions of which we have to take note. First is the idea that the origin of Indian civilization is not indigenous. Second, is the suggestion of a conflict between Aryan and Dravidian, who are considered as two distinct races; third is the assumption that Harappan civilization is pre-Vedic.

We must note here, though most of the scholastic world accepted this Aryan invasion theory and its implications, there were many scholars who even while accepting the invasion scenario admitted lack of supportive evidence for the invasion. British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler, a diehard defender of Aryan invasion theory, said, “It is best to admit that no proto Aryan material has been identified in India.”(1) Another Indian scholar and supporter of Invasion theory S.K. Chatterjee admitted: “There is no indication from the Rigveda that the Aryans were conscious of entering a new country when they came to India.”(2) And B.K. Ghose remarks: “It really cannot be proved that the Vedic Aryans retained any memory of their extra Indian association….”(3) A.L. Bhasan, who believed in the Aryan invasion, confesses honestly: “Direct testimony to the assigned fact is lacking and no tradition of an early home beyond the frontier survived in India.”(4) But all of them tenaciously clung to the idea of invasion and tried to buttress the lack of evidence with some ingenious speculations.

The first among the critical voices to question the very idea of invasion were that of two great Yogis of modern India: Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo. Vivekananda raised the issue of lack of evidence in his characteristic flamboyant style:

“Where the Europeans find an opportunity, they exterminate the aborigines and settle down in ease and comfort on their lands; and therefore they conclude that the Aryans must have done the same. But where is your proof? Guess work? Then keep your fanciful ideas to yourself! In what Veda, in what Suktha do you find that the Aryans came into India from a foreign land? Where do you get the idea that they slaughtered the wild aborigines? What do you get by talking such nonsense?”(5)

We can understand the truth behind the first part of Vivekananda’s statement, when we look at some of the scenarios constructed by invasion theorist—a horde of blue-eyed and blonde warriors coming crashing in their chariots and horses and destroying cities—the scene seems to proceed more from a dramatic imagination based on the violent and aggressive histories of European nations than from an objective consideration of facts. We are not against imagination. In fact we are very much in favour of it. But when it is used for external events of history like the Aryan invasion it has to a certain extent correspond to facts. However, if the event belongs to a very remote past where there is no possibility of any evidence or if it is related to invisible psychic, occult or spiritual realities, the imagination has to be based on an authentic spiritual intuition. The main defect of the Aryan invasion scenario is that it is an imaginative construction based exclusively on linguistic speculations without any correspondence to facts. After Swami Vivekananda, Sri. Aurobindo, taking a critical view of Aryan invasion theory, wrote:

“But the indications in the Veda on which this theory of a recent Aryan invasion is built are very scanty in quantity and uncertain in their significance. There is no actual mention of any such invasion. The distinction between Aryan and Non-Aryan on which so much has been built seems on the mass of evidence to indicate a cultural rather than a racial difference….” (6) Sri Aurobindo came to the following conclusion on Aryan invasion: “…it is indeed coming to be doubted whether the whole story of Aryan invasion through the Punjab is not a myth of the philologist.”(7)

However, since Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo did not belong to the academic community and made no attempt to substantiate their critique of Aryan invasion theory in a systematic way, their views remained outside the academic mainstream. This work of bringing the critique of the Aryan invasion theory to the academic mainstream was done by K.D.Sethna, an Indian scholar, poet and a disciple of Sri Aurobindo. In his brilliant, meticulously researched studies on ancient India, Sethna systematically negates the Aryan invasion theory and provides new insights on ancient Indian history based on Sri.Aurobindo’s thoughts. Sethna’s thesis reiterates Sri Aurobindo’s views on ancient Indian civilization as of indigenous origin and inhabited by homogeneous people. Rig Veda, according to Sethna, is pre-Harappan, that is, Harappan civilization is placed somewhere in the post-rigvedic Suthra period in Vedic literature and viewed as “a derivative, a development and a deviation” from the Rig Vedic culture. Sethna arrived at this conclusion through a keyword for cotton, Karpasa, in Rig Veda. He found that the word Karpasa for cotton appears for the first time in the post-Rigvedic Suthra literature. The earlier Vedic literature shows no knowledge of cotton. But Harappan archaeology reveals widespread use of cotton. Sethna was also the first among Indian scholars to recognize and state the fact that the Aryan problem is not merely of academic interest but has social and political ramifications for modern India. In his book, Problems of Aryan Origin, Sethna writes:

“In India the problem of Aryan origins has not only a bearing on the remote past. It has also a relevance to the immediate present. Ever since Western historians pronounced, and the historians of our country concurred, that a Dravidian India had been invaded by the Aryans of the Rig Veda in the second millennium B.C., there has been a ferment of antagonism, time and again, between the North and the South. The Northerners, figuring in their own eyes as Aryan conquerors, have occasionally felt a general superiority to the Southerners who have come to be designated Dravidians. The people of the South have often resented those of the North, as being, historically, intruders upon their indigenous rights. An unhealthy movement has arisen in the Tamil lands, sometimes erupting in violent strength and otherwise flowing as a subtle pervasive undercurrent which tends to make for a touchy and suspicious relationship between the two parts of our subcontinent, in spite of a broad unifying sense of nationhood”(8)

The other problem with Aryan invasion is that most of the cultural and spiritual achievements of India are attributed to an alien influence, which is a distortion of history. So, the problem of ‘Aryan’ origins has ramification in education, society, and politics. If an idea which has crept into the mainstream of national education turns out to be unsound, lacking in evidence, distorts history and likely to be harmful to the solidarity of the nation, then all its defects have to be highlighted and exposed to the student and the public, and alternative views have to be presented so that people may choose what they think or feel to be true. But, at the same time national interests should not be allowed to cloud our objectivity as historians. As Sethna points out:

“But, of course, the fact that the extra-Indian origins of Aryanism has been a pernicious force amongst us and that its demolition would lead to greater harmony and cooperative creativity in India must not prejudice us as historians. We have to be calm and clear in our approach to the problem even while realizing that we cannot afford to be lax about a matter that keenly affects our collective future.”(9)

After Sethna, an increasing number of scholars, from India and abroad, are rejecting the Aryan invasion model and some of them are trying to evolve a new paradigm of Indian history based on the idea of indigenous origins of Indian civilization. This emerging trend of scholarship can be considered as a new school of thought in Indian history with Sri Aurobindo, Vivekananda and Sethna as its leading pioneers. This school of thought accepts in principle the views of Sri Aurobindo and Sethna on the origins of Indian civilization and further develops the leads and clues given by them with more supportive thoughts, arguments, facts and evidences. The exponents of this new school of thought, armed with new discoveries in archaeology, science and other sources have presented an impressive array of arguments and evidences against the Aryan invasion theory.


          The Beginnings of Indian Civilisation 

                       Part I   |   Part II   |   Part III   |   Part IV   |   Part V      :   



1-4. K.D Sethana, “The problem of Aryan Origin” pp.10 to 12
5. Swami Vivekananda, Collected works
6. Sri Aurobindo
7. Sri Aurobindo
8. K.D.Sethna. “The problem of Aryan origin”. pp.1
9. ibid 1-2

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