How Sanskrit triggered the question of the origin of Indians

How Sanskrit triggered the question of the origin of Indians

Celebration and promotion of diversity has been an integral part of Indian mind since times immemorial. When we talk of ‘Origin of Indians’, we have in mind a diverse family of all the various groups of people – the Vedic people and the non-Vedic people – who have lived together in this part of the Earth, called Bharatvarsh.

People of India have been taught since the time of British rule that large groups of ‘Aryans’ had invaded India in very ancient times and they settled here and spread their language, culture and religion. How true is this view of ancient Indians developed by European scholars? The traditional belief of Indians has always been that all Indians are the original inhabitants of India. But, for about two hundred years, a debate has been going on in intellectual circles in India and the western world, of course not without political overtones, on what is the origin of Indians. Are Indians the original natives of India or they are migrants from some other parts of the world.

Mass migrations of human beings have frequently taken place in pre-historic times from one part of the earth to another. But, when a group of humans acquires an identity in terms of language, religion and culture, then large migration of such groups of people assume greater significance and arouse more interest.

In this context, there are two views vying for acceptance in the current intellectual scenario. There is one view propounded by the European intellectuals that large sections of Indians are the descendants of those people who entered India in very ancient times from somewhere near South Russia and brought with them their (Aryan) language, religion and culture. The widest manifestation of this view is in the argument that every Indian of today had ancestors who came from outside. Presently, among the numerous invasionist scholars Michael Witzel is the most prominent western scholar of this view, and the most known person in India as the representative of this view is Tony Joseph who in his recent book ‘Early Indians’ brings together all the facts and arguments in support of this view and in a way concludes prominently that “We are all migrants”.

The other view which is rooted in India’s traditional understanding of herself started a little late in asserting itself as it felt relaxed in the age-old belief of Indians that Bharatvarsha is their sacred land and their motherland and so there was not much need to feel involved in the debate. But, gradually the socio-political fall-outs of the above-mentioned view aroused some intellectuals to build up their arguments to strengthen their traditional view that all Indians are the original natives of India. Some leading names making intellectual contribution for this view including some western scholars are Shrikant Talageri, Subhash Kak, Keonraad Elst, David Frawley, Michel Danino and Nicholas Kazanas. This two-hundred year old debate needs to be seen in its various aspects to build a true understanding of the issue of ‘Origin of Indians’.

When Europeans came in cultural contact with Indians during late 1700s, they developed an interest in Indian languages, particularly the Sanskrit language. They learnt about the rich ancient literature in Sanskrit and also discovered a lot of similarities between Sanskrit and the European languages like German, Russian, Lithuanian and Asian languages such as Persian (Iran). Take the words used for ‘mother’ in these languages as an example: Maatri (Sanskrit), Mutter (German), Mati (Slavic), Motina (Lithuanian), Mater (Persian). A question arose in their minds – what might have brought about this similarity? The European scholars believed that this similarity exists because a large number of ancient Indians must have migrated to the western and northern directions in Asia and Europe carrying with them Sanskrit; and their mingling with local people led to such similarities in languages.

These scholars, as they studied the Sanskrit literature in more detail, became familiar with the word ‘Arya’. Although in the Indian tradition the word ‘Arya’ always connoted nobleness of a person and not a ‘race’, the Europeans felt that ‘Arya’ must have been the name of a powerful race of the world in ancient times, which spread from India to Asia and Europe and took with them their Sanskrit language.

Some scholars, on the other hand, proposed that the similarity in languages was not because of Sanskrit influencing the European languages but was there because Sanskrit and European languages evolved from a common hypothetical ‘ancient Indo-European language’ that was used by those Indo-Europeans or the ‘Aryan’ race. Hence, there were now two possibilities in front of scholars – either the ‘Aryan race’ originated in India and some sections of them migrated towards Europe carrying with them their language Sanskrit and influencing other European languages, or, the ‘Aryan race’ originated somewhere in Europe and migrated towards India and other parts of Europe carrying with them an ‘ancient language’ which evolved into European languages and Sanskrit. The early 1800s was a period of emergence of nationalism in Europe, especially in Germany, and it ignited a fire in the European minds to own up the legacy of the ‘great Aryan race’ and thus the latter view on Aryans being native to and migrating out of Europe started getting recognition by the European scholars.

This theory of migration of Aryan population from Europe to Asia including India in ancient times was further supported by the British rulers in India. It was propounded that during ancient times, hordes of Aryans migrated from a part of Europe, most probably the Steppes of South Russia, and branched off to other parts of Europe and to Asia; a branch of Aryans invaded India, killed and subdued the indigenous people and established their culture, language and overall domination in North and North-West India; these invading Aryans became a dominant part of the Indian society, developed Sanskrit and created the entire ancient Indian literature – the Vedas, Puranas, etc. The entire Vedic culture and civilisation in India is attributed to these ‘Aryans’. This theory was termed as the ‘Aryan Invasion Theory’ (AIT). Numerous European and British scholars including John Wilson, Max Mueller, Dr Chevers, Samuel Laing etc made intellectual contributions to strengthen the Aryan Invasion Theory during 1840s and 1850s.

The AIT was made an established part of the history of India by the British and has been taught to the people of India ever since. The British sought to achieve two main objectives by propagating this theory. First, they wanted to justify their own invasion of and rule over India by suggesting that even in the past, Europeans (Aryans) had invaded India and ruled her. So what is wrong if they are doing it again to meet their ancient cousins.  “What has taken place since the commencement of British Rule in India is only a reunion, to a certain extent, of the members of the same great family” (John Wilson, British scholar).

Second, they wanted to create divisive tendencies within the Indian society by suggesting that the so-called upper castes in Indian society were the Aryan invaders from outside and the indigenous people who were killed or subdued by them, either became the “lower castes” or had to migrate southward and settle there (the Dravidians). Historian Devendra Swarup states that the “the main object of the British imperialist policy after the 1857 revolt was to reconcile the ‘upper castes’ to the British rule to implement the policy of ‘Divide and rule’ by giving Indian diversity and institutions a racial interpretation and to uproot all bonds of unity (among the Indian people)”.

For the people of India under the British Raj, this theory on ancient Indian history must have come as a shock since in their collective memories, folklore, mythology or literature, there was no trace of a foreign land being their homeland or of a migration therefrom. However, sections of the Indian people accepted this theory for their own reasons. The “upper castes” had suffered a lot during the previous centuries of Mughal rule and lived their lives in a state of acute insecurity and inferiority. Many of them felt somewhat comforted by the thought that they were akin in superiority to their European rulers. British historian Sir Henry Maine has stated, “Probably if we could search into the hearts of the more refined portions of the native (Indian) community, we should find that their highest aspiration was to be placed on a footing of real and genuine equality with their European fellow citizens.”

Even for the so-called lower castes, the invasion theory provided fuel to their anger and grievances towards the “upper caste” for the injustices of the past centuries.

As stated earlier, the study of the Sanskrit language by modern Europeans gave rise to two views in their minds on what might have happened in India’s ancient past. Initially they went with the traditional Indian view that all Indians are the original natives of India. The other view – the Aryan Invasion Theory – later got propounded and accepted by large sections of European scholars and it influenced the socio-political ideas of our country during the British Raj. However, there were further researches and analyses done that opened again the question of the origin of Indians and brought back to the fore the view that all Indians were native to India and out of them only some groups spread to Europe and Asia. Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the father of India’s constitution and the messiah to millions of so-called lower castes in India, was one of such celebrated scholars who completely rejected the Aryan Invasion Theory on the basis of his detailed study of theRigveda. What conclusions did he derive on the matter? What insights does Rigveda, being the oldest book of the world, provide on the question of ‘Origin of Indians’. What information do we have on the various non-Vedic groups of people of India. What did the archaeological findings in the 1900s reveal? What other methods were used to understand our past better?

We’ll continue our journey into the past of India in our Episode #2: Rigveda- the critical source in the debate