When History Gets Political: India’s Grand 'Aryan' Debate and the Indus Valley Civilization

 
 

In past articles, I’ve discussed the development of agriculture and civilization in South Asia, which originated in the Indus Valley region. However, much of the history of the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) and its aftermath is shrouded in a pseudo-historical controversy with political undertones.

The release of an ahistorical Bollywood film set in the IVC, Mohenjo Daro, has expanded this debate. Much of the debate is spurred by the fact that most people simply are not aware of the latest scholarly work on this ancient era; there is so little solid information that any non-expert can present their view of the IVC and argue that it is plausible. The movie shows people in the IVC using horses and speaking a Hindi that stands in for Sanskrit. There is no evidence that this was actually the case for the IVC as it existed. In modern India, such portrayals have come to be seen as evidence of a right-wing conspiracy.

At the root of the historical debate over the IVC are right-wing theories in India about the origins and age of Indian civilization. The present modern Indian civilization is the direct continuation, with later Muslim and Western influences, of the ancient Vedic civilization (so named because the most antique literature of India is the Vedas). The ancient bearers of this civilization spoke Sanskrit and called themselves arya, or noble; thus, they are sometimes called the Aryans in modern circles (entirely unrelated to the Nazi conception of Aryan as white, blond, and blue-eyed).

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Based on various calculations and periods of times mentioned in ancient Hindu scriptures, many modern Hindu nationalists have come to believe that the Vedic civilization is thousands of years old and that Sanskrit is indigenous to India. Most modern scholars believe that Sanskrit and some of the Aryans originated from outside of India; they then migrated in, bringing with them the horse, which is not native to the subcontinent. This theory is offensive to nationalists, who claim that it is a Western conspiracy designed to discredit the antiquity of Indian civilization; more broadly, many in India find the idea offensive that the forebears of Indian civilization might have brought civilization to India from the outside.

If the Hindu nationalists are right—and most of them are not historians in any meaningful sense—the ancient Vedic civilization was spread out all over India; the Hindu epic the Ramayana occurred around 7,000 B.C.E., at a time when, according to archaeologists, only the bare beginnings of towns were arising in today’s Pakistan (this is not to deny that the events of the Indian epics were rooted in real occurrences a few millennia ago). In the Hindu-nationalist viewpoint, the IVC is only the tip of the iceberg, the only portion of the ancient Vedic civilization unearthed so far because it has been preserved in a dry climate.

Less literalist and more secular nationalists may disagree with this, but hold that the IVC itself was the ancient Vedic civilization, which then spread eastward and southward. On the other hand, Dravidian nationalists (Dravidian languages are a group of south Indian languages not related to the modern north Indian ones descended from Sanskrit) argue that the IVC was the indigenous civilization of their ancestors, destroyed by Aryan invaders, a theory first developed by British historians and now subsequently discredited due to lack of evidence.

Thus, it is clear why the history of the IVC is politicized, as it raises numerous questions about India’s demographic, religious, and ethnic origins. Yet these debates entirely ignore the archaeological evidence. Genetic and agricultural evidence reveal that there has been no major break or demographically impactful change in South Asia for thousands of years. The genetic differences between north and south Indians are minor, and all Indian ethnic groups are genetically more similar to each other than to non-Indians. The IVC didn’t collapse from invasion but de-urbanized and spread out agriculturally through the subcontinent by 1300 B.C.E. This culture may not have been the Sanskritized civilization of the Hindu epics but it was still a pillar of what soon developed into the present Indian civilization. These agricultural communities soon organized into states, primarily in the Ganges Valley, by 600 B.C.E.

Yet, there is still evidence of outside influence on South Asia around 1500 B.C.E. Nobody knows what language was spoken in the IVC. It was most probably not Sanskrit, and while likely a Dravidian language, even Dravidian languages are newcomers to India, having spread from the Iranian plateau a few thousand years before and displacing the Austro-Asiatic languages (related to Khmer) previously spoken in India. We may not know for decades, as the IVC script has not been deciphered. There is strong evidence that some people speaking Sanskrit did enter India during the process of the IVC’s collapse; the IVC didn’t have the horse, which originated in Central Asia, and Vedic Sanskrit has no native words for plants and animals found in India, implying it came from somewhere else. The Rig Veda itself seems to have little awareness of urban settlements, cotton, and elephants. Linguists who compared Sanskrit and other related Indo-European languages like Latin, Greek, and English, have deduced from common shared vocabulary that the speakers of such languages lived in a grassy, temperate climate.

So what happened? As there is no evidence of an ‘Aryan invasion,’ it seems likely that small groups of ancient ‘Aryans’—so small as to not have made a demographic impact—migrated to the northwest of the subcontinent from Central Asia or Afghanistan. Once in India, perhaps at the invitation of communities facing leadership crisis as a result of the collapse of urban culture, these small groups of Aryans became leaders and assimilated. However, in the process, the Aryan language, and elements of their religion and social structure were grafted onto an otherwise unchanged agricultural culture. The resulting product was a mix of both the old and the new. This Vedic culture, with Sanskrit language rituals and a social hierarchy, proved enormously durable in India and probably spread by imitation and by incorporating local elites, a process that continued well into historical times.

This process of “elite dominance,” wherein a small elite’s language is adopted by the majority, even when other customs like food and clothing remain constant, is well known. It occurred in Turkey and the Arab countries in the past 1,500 years. It is occurring in many circles in India itself today, with the spread of the English language and Anglicized culture among a population that is still genetically Indian, eats Indian food, and follows Indian religions. And yet, whatever language they speak, the achievements of these Indians are Indian achievements, not British ones.

Thus, the probable truth about the Indus Valley Civilization, the Aryans, and early Indian civilization is a mix of every leftist, nationalist, and ethnic pet theory, but not fully satisfactory to anyone. Such is the nature of historical investigation. Personally, while I find ancient archaeology in South Asia to be immensely interesting, I don’t think that the origins of Indian civilization ought to be a matter of angst or worry, because wherever it originated, Indian civilization developed in India and under Indian conditions. The majority of Indians are descended from ancient Indian farmers who at some point adopted, for cultural reasons, a language and some customs and technology from Central Asia.

Whether or not certain historical events occurred in the past is not really a matter of “belief.” You can’t believe or not believe in historical evidence on the basis of your ideology of choice or feelings (the director of Mohenjo Daro, for instance, said he “related best with” the theory that held the IVC was an ‘Aryan’ civilization). While modern political figures or amateur historians try to understand the past, ancient history is not a function of ideology, but of the sciences of archaeology, textual analysis, and epigraphy. This ought to be emphasized more in India, not only by historically minded right-wing individuals, but by a left that is all too happy to reject any theory that may prove something the Hindu right says to be correct.

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