India, my Love|Apr 11, 2008 5:27 AM| by:

The Beginnings of Indian Civilisation – III

The Aryan Invasion: Was there any?

(continued from the previous issue)

However, before proceeding further with our discussion on the Aryan invasion debate we have to answer a legitimate question which may arise in the mind of a thoughtful reader. What is the need for giving so much space and attention to an academic debate on an external historical event in a study which is focused on the spiritual and cultural genius of India? First of all, the ongoing debate on Aryan invasion is an important event in the intellectual and cultural history of India. A new idea related to the origins of Indian civilization is fighting against an old, established idea and trying to dislodge it. Secondly, the debate raises some ticklish cultural issues like the distinction between the Dravidian and the Aryan people and the meaning of the term ‘Aryan’ which has acquired harmful racial overtones due to misunderstanding of the word by modern western scholarship. Thirdly the debate is related to the question on the origins of India’s spiritual and cultural genius: Is it entirely indigenous or of alien origin? Keeping these factors in our mind, let us now examine some of the arguments advanced by the new school of thought against the Aryan invasion theory.

The first argument is the one voiced forcefully by Vivekananda. There is no trace of any aggressive invasion in the memory, records, literature, legends and archaeological remnants of the Invaded or the Invader. How can such an allegedly massive invasion which affected an entire civilization as vast as India leave no trace or record in the memory of the invaded or invading people? This is a mystery which the invasion theorists were never able to explain satisfactorily.

The second argument is that invasion theory attributes incredible feats of cultural advancement and assimilation to a horde of nomadic barbarians. According to invasion theorists, invading ‘Aryans’ after politically and militarily subjugating the more culturally advanced native population, the ‘Dravidians’, either imposed their culture or entirely assimilated all the cultural achievement of the natives, invented a new language or replaced the language of the natives with their own highly sophisticated Sanskrit language and went on to develop one of the most spiritually advanced civilizations of the world. For example, how can a group of primitive and uncivilized nomads invent a language like Sanskrit which was described by British indologist Sir William Jones as, “…more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either.” Such fantastic feats of cultural or spiritual assimilation was possible if the invaders are more spiritually and culturally advanced than the natives. A certain amount of cultural assimilation happens when a primitive tribe invades a more advanced civilization, but never on such a massive scale as suggested by invasion theorists. As Sri Aurobindo, pointing this cultural anomaly in the Aryan invasion scenario, says:

“We have then to suppose that entering a vast peninsula occupied by civilized people, builders of great cities, extensive traders, not without mental and spiritual culture, they were yet able to impose on them their own language, religion, ideas and manner. Such a miracle would just be possible if the invaders possessed a very highly organized language, a greater force of creative mind and a more dynamic religious force and spirit.”(1)

The third argument is that all the recent archaeological, literary and other evidences indicate a continuity and concordance between the Vedic and Harappan culture and the later development in Indian culture. None of the archaeological or literary data in the Harappan civilization or in the Vedic literature suggest a discordant note of an alien invasion. We have already mentioned one of the evidences, the Yoga posture in the Harappan. The other important evidence is the sacrificial altars discovered in some of the Harappan sites. Sacrificial oblations in fire-altars was one of the important outer forms of the Vedic religions. The Yoga-seal and fire-altars found in Harappan sites show that Harappans were following the Vedic religious and spiritual traditions and practices.

The fourth argument is that nowhere in Indian history or tradition do we find any trace of conflict between “Aryans” and “Dravidian” based on racial feelings. One of the factors behind the Aryan invasion theory is the attempt to explain two distinct language groups in India and its dialects Tamil in the south and Sanskrit in the north, with a certain amount of corresponding variation in culture and tradition and physical characteristics of people. But the Aryan invasion theorists made these variations (which could be due to cultural or climactic factors) into a race conflict. First of all, the word “Arya” in the Vedas or in the Indian tradition, did not mean “race”. It meant a state of culture, refinement or higher aspiration. Here are some definitions of Arya from the Vedas and Indian epics:

“Arya is one who hails from a noble family, of gentle behaviour and demeanour, good natured and righteous conduct.”

“Children of Aryan seek and are led by Light.”

“Arya is the one who cared for the equality of all and was dear to everyone.”

Even Buddha who rejected the Vedic tradition described the Path He preached as the “Aryan Path.”

It is interesting to note that a book on Indian History published recently by Encyclopedia Britannica shows a much better understanding of the concept of Arya than the earlier European scholars. On the meaning of the Arya in the Vedas, this publication by Britannica says:

“Rita the order of the cosmos is a main theme of the Rigveda, which distinguishes humans as votaries of rita or enemies of rita. Rita (right, rite) invokes the principle of order, restraint, generosity and altruistic compassion. It is universal law that works for the benefit of all creation. The gods and sages preserves this order, and the right thinking man must do likewise and if he does he is an arya (noble). Those whose inclination is for pleasure, power and possession violate the Rita, knowingly or unknowingly; and they are unarya (ignoble).” (2)

However, it is quite possible that ancient India was a multi-ethnic society with each group following a distinct tradition and culture. It is also possible that there existed in ancient India two distinct cultures or spiritual traditions in different geographical regions. As Sri Aurobindo states:

“The one thing that seems fairly established is that there were at least two types of ancient cultures in ancient India, the ‘Aryan’ occupying the Punjab and Northern and central India, Afghanistan, and perhaps Persia and distinguished in its cult by the symbols of the Sun, the Fire, and the Soma sacrifice, and the Un-Aryan occupying the East, South, and West, the nature of which it is quite impossible to restore from the scattered hints which are all we possess.” (3)

For example, along with the Vedic or the ‘Aryan’ religious and spiritual tradition and culture created by the Vedic sages with Sanskrit as the main language, there was in ancient India an equally deep and profound spiritual tradition of the Siddhas in the South created by great Yogis, with Tamil as its main language and its own distinct philosophy, literature, culture, and Yogic practices. Such things are possible in a spiritual civilization like India shaped by sages who created from the innermost depth and sources of their being in direct communion with divinity. A spiritually illumined sage can create a new and original language, tradition and culture. In fact, according to an Indian legend, Tamil language is created by the sage Agastya who is a Vedic sage. If there were many sages there could be many original languages, traditions, and cultures.

However, when we examine the history and literature of ancient India, we never find any conflict between the ‘Aryan-Sanskrit-Northern’ and the ‘Dravidian-Tamil-Southern’ cultures. As we have mentioned earlier, one of the Indian legends says that Tamil was created by Agastya who was a Vedic sage, but he is also venerated in the Siddha tradition in the South as one of its founders. Another Indian legend says that both Tamil and Sanskrit emanated from the Drum, Damaru of Shiva, ascribing equal divine origin to these two great and ancient languages of India. Southern kingdoms of India like the Chola, Pandya, Pallava, and Vijayanagara, where Tamil and other South Indian languages were spoken, actively and vigorously promoted Sanskrit and Vedic learning. In fact, some of the important and prestigious schools of Vedic learning were in South, for example, Kancheepuram. Similarly some of the greatest exponents of Vedic culture, who made important contributions to the preservation and propagation of Vedic culture, for example, Sankara, Ramanuja, Madhwa, Sayana, Baudhayana, belong to the South. Thus, there is no sign of any conflict between the ‘Aryan’ and ‘Dravidian’ people. So to convert cultural differences into a race conflict is a mischievous distortion which, as Sethna pointed out, can have harmful consequences for the solidarity of the Indian nation.

The difference in the structure of the language between Sanskrit and Tamil was cited by the invasion theorists as a strong argument in favour of their racial ideas. But when we examine more deeply and closely both these ancient languages of India, we may perhaps find that the difference is not as big or radical as it was made out by European scholars. However, such a statement can be made only by those who have made a deep comparative study of these two languages. To close with remarks by Sri Aurobindo:

“And there was always the difference of language to support the theory of meeting of races. But here also my preconceived ideas were disturbed and confounded. For on examining the vocables of the Tamil language, in appearance so foreign to the Sanskritic form and character, I yet found myself continually guided by words or by families of words supposed to be pure Tamil in establishing new relation between Sanskrit and its distant sister Latin and occasionally between Greek and Sanskrit. Sometimes the Tamil vocables not only suggested the connection, but found the missing link in a family of connected words. And it was through this Dravidian language that I came first to perceive what it seems to me now the true law, origin, and as it were, the etymology of the Aryan tongues. I was unable to pursue my examination far enough to establish any definite conclusion, but it certainly seems to me that the original connection between the Dravidian and Aryan tongue was far closer and more extensive than is usually supposed and the possibility suggests itself that they may even been two divergent families derived from one lost primitive tongue.” (4)


            The Beginnings of Indian Civilisation

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



[1] Sri Aurobindo, SABCL, Vol. 14, pp 36
[2] Indian History – Ancient and Medieval India, pub, Encyclopedia Britannica, pp.241
[3] Sri Aurobindo, SABCL,Vol. 17, pp 278
[4] Sri Aurobindo, SABCL,Vol. 14, pp 35

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