Pick up any textbook on Hinduism, and chances are that the beginning of Hinduism is identified with the ‘Aryan invasion of India’, dated around 1500 BCE, and their composition of the Rig Veda. According to this viewpoint, the ‘Aryans’ were a tall, fair skinned people who originated from outside India, and who are responsible for the composition of the Vedas and thus the founding of Hinduism.
What these textbooks do not mention is that the Aryan invasion is based on little more than speculation, with no archaeological or literary evidence to support it.
Some European scholars formulated the ‘Aryan Invasion Theory’ in the late 19th century, and it was resisted as unfounded by several voices from the beginning. Nevertheless due to prevailing circumstances, the Aryan Invasion Theory became accepted as truth, and gradually found its way into virtually every textbook of Hinduism or ancient India.
However, in the light of recent archaeological finds, the Aryan Invasion Theory has become less and less feasible as a model of ancient Indian history, for reasons that shall be briefly discussed here.
Religious factors in the formulation of the Aryan Invasion Theory
The attempt to fix a chronology for India’s past was overshadowed by commonly held religious beliefs, which were still prevalent in 19th century Europe.
Adam and Eve were believed to have been created directly by God in 4005 BCE, and all the people on Earth are supposed to be descendants from one of the sons of Noah, the only human to survive the Great Flood, which was dated 2350 BCE.
Such ‘scholars’ of 19th century Europe could not conceive that the history of Hinduism could extend back to before 4005 BCE – it was simply impossible! They had to fit Hinduism and Hindu history into their preconceived chronology.
The French Missionary Abbe Dubois (1770-1848) spent over three decades in India, during which he collected large amounts of material on the customs and traditions of Hindus. His French manuscript was later republished in English, under the title ‘Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies’, in 1897. Abbe Dubois stated his belief that India was inhabited shortly after the Biblical Flood, and ventured Indians to be descendents of the people of Japhet, who reached India from the North. The reasons he provides to support his theory are very unconvincing, yet he goes on to build the rest of his migration theory (which did not yet mention ‘Aryans’ or an ‘Invasion’) on this shaky foundation.
The real architect of the Aryan Invasion Theory was Max Muller (1823-1903). He wrote a preface to the English edition of Abbe Dubois’s work, in which he praises it as a “trustworthy authority…which will always retain its value”, thus showing that Max Muller was close in thinking to earlier scholars who unquestioningly used the Bible as the basis of their chronology of ancient India. It is amazing that a history created in the shadow of such absurd chronological beliefs could ever have acquired such prestige, that it still dominates most textbooks in the 21st century.
Max Muller built the Aryan Invasion Theory based on another finding that came to light after the time of Abbe Dubois. When the affinity between many European languages and Sanskrit became a commonly accepted notion, European scholarship almost automatically concluded that the Sanskrit (or proto-Sanskrit) speaking ancestors of the present day Indians had to be found somewhere halfway between India the Western borders of Europe, for example Scandinavia or Southern Russia, from which they invaded the Punjab.
When the ancient Indian Harappan sites (of the Indus Valley civilisation) were discovered, it was clear that these reflected a much older civilisation than could be attributed to the supposed coming of the Vedic Aryans in 1500 BCE. At this point, the Aryan Invasion Theory underwent an adaptation, which made the Aryans the destroyer of the older Indian civilisation, and that the dark-skinned indigenous Indian were the ones on whom the Aryans imposed their Vedic religion and caste system. The indigenous people were identified with the races that live in the South of India.
This was a model of history that would later have important political consequences in India society – pitting region against region and caste against caste. Thus, Lord Rama was made into a high caste Aryan invader who came to harass the South, which was defended by the Dravidian king Ravana. The Ramayana itself opposes such ridiculous notions, which suggest that Ravana himself was a wayward Brahmin, the descendent of the Rishi Pulasyta, and himself a chanter of the Sama Veda, and most probably descended from further North India.
Towards the end of his career, Max Muller himself conceded that the Vedic chronology that he has formulated might not be true. In his last book, ‘The Six Systems of Indian Philosophy’, published shortly before his death, he admitted: “Whatever may be the date of the Vedic hymns, whether 1500 or 15,000BC, they have their own place and stand by themselves in the literature of the world.” This reflects a tacit acknowledgement that there were plausible voices within the scholarly world, such as Moriz Winternitz and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who disagreed with his chronology and postulated a much earlier date for the Rig Veda.
These scholars pointed out that there was no reference in the Vedas of a migration from outside of India, and that all the geographical features mentioned in the Rig Veda reflect the flora and fauna of India, with no knowledge of another homeland. On the other hand there were references to constellations in the Vedic works whose time frame could be re-established by commonly accepted astronomical calculations. The dates arrived at, however, 4500BCE for one observation in the Rig Veda, 3200 BCE seemed far too remote to be acceptable, especially if one assumed – as many 19th century European scholars did, that the world was only about 6000 years old and that the flood had taken place only 4500 years ago.
The problems regarding ancient Indian history resolve themselves when one stops trying to separate the Indus Valley civilisation from the Vedic people. Traditionally, European scholars never conceived that these sophisticated towns and cities could be attributed to the Vedic people, who they preferred to think of as semi-nomadic warriors.
However, a closer study of Vedic literature, a subsequent archaeological examination of the Indus Valley sites, and the relatively later discovery of numerous towns and cities centred around a huge dried up river which can be identified as the ‘Sarasvati River’ of the Vedas points strongly to the Vedic character of the Indus Valley civilisation.
The Sarasvati was a river that is commonly referred to in Vedic literature. It dried up approximately 4,000 years ago. The discovery of the Saraswati River, in modern day Haryana and Rajastan, together with numerous cities and towns along its banks shows that Vedic civilisation was centred in these regions of India, and has a chronology reaching much further back than postulated by the Aryan Invasion Theory. In fact, the sites around the Sarasvati river are significantly older than those of the Indus Valley sites, suggesting that the Indus Valley sites represent a relatively later period of Vedic civilisations.
The Indus-Sarasvati archaeological sites are the most extensive remains of the ancient world. Without the Vedas, these sites are a civilisation without a literary record. And without this civilisation, the Vedas are an extensive literature about a society of which there is no record. This corrects itself once the Vedas are seen as a product of the Indus-Saraswati people – the earliest phase of Hindu civilisation. The frequent findings of fire altars in these cities, which were commonly used in Vedic rituals, further attests to their Vedic character.
There were also other artefacts that support this line of thought. One of the most striking was a beautifully sculpted bronze head, called ‘Vashista’s Head’ (right), which was found near Delhi, dated through radiocarbon testing to around 3700 BCE, the time when some scholars believe that the ‘Battle of the Ten Kings’, the greatest war attested to in the Vedas, took place. Vashista is mentioned in the Rig Veda as the advisor to King Sudas.
The abandonment of the many ancient population centres around the Sarasvati River was due to climate changes rather than invasions. The population shifted towards the Ganga River. Hindu literature shows a population shift from the Saraswati (Rig Veda) to the Ganga (Brahmana and Puranas), and this is also evidenced by archaeological finds.
So as we see, over time archaeological findings and scholarship are now actually bringing us closer to traditional Hindu viewpoints of Indian history rather than the version of history composed by 19th century Europe.