The Aryans and Ancient Indian History ~ Subhash Kak

February 18, 1995    

The concept of invading hordes of Aryans conquering northern India around 1500 BC arose in the nineteenth century for a variety of reasons. Linguists had established that the north Indian, Iranian, and most European languages were structurally related and belonged to the same family, which was given the name Indo-European. A homeland was postulated and it was assumed that the residents of this homeland spoke a common language, called “proto-Indo-European” (PIE), which was the ancestor to the historically known ancient languages such as Sanskrit, Avestan, Greek, Latin, and so on. Based primarily on linguistic considerations, several theories were proposed according to which this homeland was likely to have been in southeastern Europe or Central Asia. By assigning an arbitrary period of 200 years to each of the several layers of the pre-Buddhist Vedic literature, the period of around 1500 BC was arrived at for the entry of the Aryans into India.

This alleged Aryan invasion was then tied up with the mention of the horse in the Vedic literature by asserting that the invading Aryans brought horses and chariots with them. This hypothesis was considered proven by claiming that the domestication of the horse took place not too much before 1500 BC. It was assumed that the horse provided military advantage to the Aryans, which made it possible for them to conquer the indigenous inhabitants of India.

Early objections

Scholars soon pointed out many problems with this theory. First, the earliest Indian literature has no memory of any such entry from outside and its focus is squarely the region of the seven rivers,“Sapta Sindhu”, with its centre in the Sarasvati valleys and covering a great part of north and northwest India ranging from Indus to Ganga to Sarayu.

Second, Indian traditional king lists go back into fourth millennium BC and earlier; also, the more reliable lists of teachers in the Vedic books cannot be fitted into the Aryan invasion chronology.

Third, it was contended that the beginnings of the vast Vedic literature needed a greater time horizon easily reaching back at least into the third millennium BC.

Fourth, astronomical references in the Vedic literature refer to events as early as the fourth millennium BC. The Puranas remember migrations out of India; such migrations were invoked to explain the reference to Vedic gods in treaties between kings and to other Indic names in West Asian texts and inscriptions in the second millennium BC; but the supporters of the Aryan invasion theory saw these West Asian Indic references as traces of the migratory path of the Aryans into India.

Fifth, The Vedic literature nowhere mentions riding in battle and the horse was rare in Vedic times and the word “ashva” for horse was often used figuratively for speed.

Sixth, there was no plausible process explaining how incursions by nomads could have overwhelmed the original languages in one of the most densely populated regions of the ancient world.

Seventh, the Vedic literature spoke of the Aryans as living in a complex society with an important urban element; there is mention of cities, ocean-going ships, numerous professions, which is contradictory to the image of barbaric invaders from the north.

Although the assumptions at the basis of the Aryan invasion theory were arbitrary and there was little supporting evidence, the reason this theory became popular was that it fulfilled several unstated needs of the historians at the time. It reinforced the racial attitudes popular in the nineteenth century so that the highly regarded Vedas could be assigned to a time before the Aryans in India mixed with the indigenous races. The conquest of India by the British was taken to be similar to the supposed earlier conquest by the Aryans and so this theory played an important imperialistic function. Slowly, as the Aryan invasion date became the anchor that was used to fix other ancient events in the histories of the Indian, Iranian, and European peoples, scholars became ever more reluctant to question the assumptions on which it was based.

New discoveries and insights

Archaeological discoveries made in the Indian sub-continent in the past century have slowly accumulated evidence which has
led to a discrediting of the Aryan invasion model. These discoveries have been reinforced by new insights from history of science, astronomy, and literary analysis. The main points of the evidence are highlighted below:

* It has been found that the Sapta Sindhu region — precisely the same region which is the heartland of the Vedic texts– is associated with a cultural tradition that has been traced back to at least 8000 BC without any break. It appears that the Sarasvati region was the centre of this cultural tradition and this is what the Vedic texts also indicate. The term ‘Aryan’ in Indian literature has no racial or linguistic connotations.

* According to the work of Kenneth Kennedy of Cornell University there is no evidence of demographic discontinuity in archaeological remains during the period 4500 to 800 BC. In other words, there was no
significant influx of people into India during this period.

* B.B. Lal of the Archaeological Survey of India discovered fire altars in his excavations at the third-millennium site of Kalibangan. It appears now that fire altars were in use at other Harappan sites as well. Fire altars are an essential part of the Vedic ritual.

* Geologists have determined that the Sarasvati river dried up around 1900 BC. Since Sarasvati is the greatest river of the Rigvedic hymns, one conclusion that can be drawn is that the Rigveda was composed prior to 1900 BC.

* Study of pottery styles and cultural artifacts has led archaeologists such as Jim Shaffer of Case Western Reserve University to conclude that the Indus-Sarasvati culture exhibits a continuity that can be traced back to at least 8000 BC. Shaffer summarizes:
“The shift by Harappans [after the drying up of the Sarasvati river around 1900 BC] is the only archaeologically documented west-to-east movement of human populations in South Asia before the first half of the first millennium BC.” In other words, there has been no Aryan invasion.

* A. Seidenberg of University of California at Berkeley reviewed the geometry of the fire altars of India as summarized in early Vedic texts such as the Shatapatha Brahmana and compared it to the early geometry of Greece and Mesopotamia. In a series of papers, he was able to establish that this Vedic geometry should be dated prior to 1700 BC.

* It has now been discovered that altar constructions were used to represent astronomical knowledge. Furthermore, an astronomical code has been found in the organization of the Vedic books. This code
establishes that the Vedic people had a tradition of observational astronomy which means that the many astronomical references in the Vedic texts that point to events as early as 3000 or 4000 BC can no longer be ignored.

* Recent computer analysis of the texts from India have shown thatthe Brahmi script of the times of the Mauryan king Ashoka is derived from the earlier third millennium script of the Indus-Sarasvati age. This again is strong evidence of cultural

* The archaeological record shows that the Indus-Sarasvati area was different from other ancient civilizations in many cultural features. For example, in contrast to ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia, it shows very little monumental architecture; it appears that the political organization and its relationship to other elites in the society was unique. This is paralleled by the unique character of the Vedic literary tradition with its emphasis on knowledge and the nature of the self.

* Remains of the horse have been discovered in the Harappan ruins. A clay model of a horse was found in Mohenjo Daro. New findings from Ukraine show evidence of horse riding as early as 4000 BC. The notion that the Aryans burst into history as horse riding nomads sometime after 2000 BC stands totally rejected.

Taken together, the cumulative evidence completely belies the Aryan invasion theory. If an influx of people into India took place it should be earlier than 4500 BC if one considers the demographic evidence, and perhaps before 8000 BC if one considers other related evidence. On the other hand, it is equally plausible that the Sapta Sindhu region was the original homeland of the Aryans from where they migrated to Iran and Europe, as remembered in Puranic legends.

Linguistic issues

Recently, linguists have called into question the very assumptions that are at the basis of the genealogical model of the Indo-European family of languages. It has been suggested that the ancient world had very many language families and that population increase and greater contacts and trade with the emergence of agriculture coupled with large-scale political integration led to extinction of languages and also to a transfer of languages across ethnic groups. In such a complex evolutionary process it is meaningless to pin a specific language on any racial type.

In the Indian linguistic area itself it has been found that there exist deep structural relationships between the north Indian and the Dravidian languages. It is likely that the Vedic period repesents an age much after the contact between these two linguistic families had begun; in other words, the early Vedic period might represent a synthesis between the north Indian and the Dravidian cultural histories.

Chronology of the Vedic literature

The collapse of the Aryan invasion theory, and the assumptions upon which it was based, opens many other questions related to the chronology of the Vedic literature. Certain key dates in Indian literature were decided by assuming the flow of ideas from Greece to India. For example, the Sutra literature was dated to after 300 BC primarily because it was assumed that the geometry of the Shulba Sutras came after Greek geometry. Now that Seidenberg has shown that essentially the same geometry was present in the earlier Brahmanas, which definitely predate Greek geometry, the question of the chronology of the Sutra literature becomes important. Using astronomical references it appears that the Vedic Samhitas should be dated to the third millennium BC, the Brahmanas to the second millennium BC, with the Upanishads and the Sutras coming somewhat later. But further research is needed here.

An interesting question that arises is: why did the Aryan invasion theory hold sway for so long? The answer is complex and related to the use of a flawed method. The invasions were considered verified by a circular logic. The dates within the invasion theory were used to characterize the nature of the evolution of Vedic Sanskrit, and this was in turn related to observed peculiarities of other ancient Indo-European languages such as Hittite, Avestan, Armenian, Greek, Latin, and so on. Migrations at different times from the supposed homeland were then invoked to explain these peculiarities. This is circular logic, and consequently no amount of linguistic evidence can lead to the falsification of the model.

The debunking of the Aryan invasion theory raises many questions about the earliest periods of the Indo-European linguistic groups and the connections between their cultures.

Subhash Kak is a professor at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge