Two years ago on a train in South India, I struck a conversation with a middle-aged Indian from New Jersey, traveling to visit his parents. He worked as a researcher at Colgate-Palmolive and held an advanced degree in science. Early in our conversation, after I told him about my extended travel in India, he professed a deep interest in Indian history. He even taught it as a hobby to the kids of middle-class Indian immigrants like himself, "keen on taking pride—some self-respect and dignity—in the culture and traditions of their original homeland." *
Among the things he taught was the truth about the ancient Aryans in India. Aryans are a big lie, he said; they never came. Instead, there was a migration out of India to West Asia. The people of the Indus Valley Civilization—who spoke a proto-Sanskrit—were the sole precursors of those who later wrote the Vedas in Sanskrit, which has been shown to be the mother of all Indo-European languages. By this time, we were engaged in a vigorous debate. He marshaled "evidence" for his claims: no archaeological dig has revealed signs of an Aryan invasion; population genetics has not revealed the presence of foreign traits; Indus valley seals show the early worship of Shiva; fire rituals existed in Indus Valley culture. He recited names of people who had confirmed such findings and dismissed linguistic and philological data as contradictory and unscientific.
Not only was he terribly mixed up on dates, he also evinced a strong tendency to regard Hindu scriptures as vessels of literal history. When I pushed him, he claimed that Lord Rama lived 1,725,000 years ago, when he also built the Ram Setu to Lanka (click to read what an Indian software engineer in the US has to say about it—he represents an outlook shared by a fair percentage in this demographic). He even tried to prove the historicity of Lord Krishna, citing the submerged ruins of an Indus Valley settlement discovered off the coast of Gujarat in the 80s, which he claimed was Krishna's kingdom of Dwarka.
I looked around and noticed that our debate had become a spectacle and many strangers were staring at us. Since neither of us was going to budge, I tried to end the debate. Fortunately, our destination soon arrived, and we said awkward goodbyes. I reflected later that he had invoked scientific jargon to make his case, but, as with so many other Indian scientists, he had internalized only the authority of science, not much of its spirit. He was clearly able to compartmentalize his reason—so he could innovate and achieve results in his scientific profession—while remaining quite innocent of critical thought in other spheres of his life. I felt sorry for the unsuspecting kids this man was teaching twice a week. Upon his return to the US, he emailed me pointers to websites that supported his view of history. A quick web search revealed that he was a bona fide Hindu chauvinist, a card-carrying member of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS).
Few topics in ancient history are as disputed today as the role of the Indo-Aryans in ancient India—disputed less in the halls of scholarship committed to facts and the dialectical process, more by (largely Indian) religious, nationalistic, and postcolonial establishments. The trouble is that the latter have even infiltrated major US universities and have been so voluble that it is now hard to find real scholarship on this topic on the web. Google searches are full of the kind of pseudo-history that my fellow traveler dispensed, at times dressed in a sophisticated academic language. The uninitiated reader must often fall prey to it. One of my own professors from graduate school, Subhash Kak (currently head of the department of computer science at Oklahoma State University), whose academic research areas include artificial intelligence and quantum computing, is also a major revisionist historian of India and the author of several impassioned books on the topic.
I recently came across a brilliant paper by Michael Witzel, professor of Sanskrit at Harvard. In this paper, Witzel gets into a combative mood and decisively demolishes the case made by these revisionist historians (Amartya Sen, a colleague of Witzel, uses a similar approach in The Argumentative Indian; Witzel furnishes more hard data). He also highlights some genuine problems that remain (including the undeciphered Harappan "script") and some new thinking on the topic (for e.g., the Aryan "invasion" was a series of smaller intrusions, coming long after the high urban life of the Indus Valley Civilization had dissipated into villages, and resulting in a new fusion culture). Witzel introduces the subject thus:
The ''Aryan question'' is concerned with the immigration of a population speaking an archaic Indo-European language, Vedic Sanskrit, who celebrate their gods and chieftains in the poems of the oldest Indian literature, the Rigveda, and who subsequently spread their language, religion, ritual and social organization throughout the subcontinent. Who were the 'Aryans'? What was their spiritual and material culture and their outlook on life? Did they ever enter the Indian subcontinent from the outside? Or did this people develop indigenously in the Greater Panjab? This, the 'Aryan' question, has kept minds -- and politicians -- busy for the past 200 years; it has been used and misused in many ways. And, its discussion has become a cottage industry in India during recent years. In this paper, it will be attempted to present the pros and contras for the (non-)occurrence of a movement of an 'Aryan' population and its consequences. First, a summary of the traditional 'western' theory, then the recent Indian counter-theories; this is followed by an evaluation of its merits; the paper concludes with some deliberations on the special kind of 'discourse' that informs and drives the present autochthonous trend.
After about 75 pages of analysis, evidence, and rebuttal, he reaches the following devastating conclusions:
The autochthonous theory, in its various forms, leaves us with multiple internal contradictions and open questions as far as time frame, cultural content, archaeological, zoological, astronomical, mathematical, linguistic and textual data are concerned. If such contradictions are noticed at all by the revisionist and indigenist writers they are explained away by new, auxiliary assumptions and theories -- that is, by special pleading, and often by extra-ordinarily special pleading. In short, all things being equal, the new, disjointed theory falls prey to Occam's razor.
If we would in fact assemble all of the autochthonous ''evidence'' (as has been attempted here in brief form) and think it through ... we would have to rewrite not only Indian history, but also many sections of archaeology, historical linguistics, Vedic literature, historical geography, zoology, botany, astronomy, etc. To apply the new "theory" consistently would amount to a "paradigm shift" in all these fields of study. But biologists, for example, would not be amused.
To sum up: even when neglecting individual quirks, the various autochthonous proposals simply do not present a cogent picture. They almost completely neglect the linguistic evidence, and they run into serious chronological and geographical difficulties: they have horse drawn chariots in S. Asia before their actual invention, horses in S. Asia before their introduction from Central Asia, use of iron tools at 1900 BCE before its first use at c. 1200/1000 BCE. They have the Rigvedic Sarasvati flowing to the ocean while the Rigveda indicates that it had already lost its main source of water supply and must have ended in a terminal lake (samudra).
They must also distort the textual evidence of the Rigveda to make it fit supposed Harappan fire rituals, the use of the script, a developed town civilization and its stratified society of traders and artisans, and international maritime trade. And, they must rewrite the literary history of the Vedas to fit in improbable dates for the composition of most of its texts so that they agree with supposed contemporary astronomical observations -- when everything else in these texts points to much later dates.
The revisionist and autochthonous project, then, should not be regarded as scholarly in the usual post-enlightenment sense of the word, but as an apologetic, ultimately religious undertaking aiming at proving the 'truth' of traditional texts and beliefs. Worse, it is, in many cases, not even scholastic scholarship at all but a political undertaking aiming at 'rewriting' history out of national pride or for the purpose of 'nation building'.
If such writings are presented under a superficial veneer of objective scholarship they must be exposed as such, at least in the context of critical post-enlightenment scholarship. Alternatively, they could simply not be taken seriously as historiography and could be neglected (which seems to be the favorite attitude of most scholars in Indology/Indian Studies). In both cases, however, they must be clearly understood and described as traditional, (semi-)religious writings. Therefore they should be regarded and used, not as scholarly contributions, but as objects for the study of the traditional mind -- uncomfortable as this might be for some of their proponents, many of whom combine, in facile fashion, an education in science with a traditional mindset.
Read Witzel's full paper here.