Monday, August 16, 2010

The Aryan Myth: Who Were the Aryans?

In his book, India: A History, John Keay unravels recent historical discoveries regarding the Aryans of India. The previously held theories of Aryans as being invaders and destroyers of the original and primal cultures has been challenged by twentieth century scholarship. Keay does leave room for the assumption that the arya migrated into India and agrees that the "names of their gods predate arrival in India, many (e.g. Indra, Agni, Varuna) being almost synonymous with their counterparts in Persian, Greek, and Latin mythology." The linguistic resemblances certainly cannot be overlooked: Agni (Fire god) looks similar to the Greek Ignus (from which derives the word ignition), Varuna (God of heaven) corresponds to Ouranos (Greek for "heaven"), and Mithra means "friend" in both Sanskrit and Persian. Factually, recognition of linguistic resemblance did play an important role in the development of the "Indo-Aryan" theory. In 1788, Sir William Jones had proposed that "some common source" may be believed to be the origin of all these languages. However, he didn't push the search for that "common source" any further. Later scholars found the idea of dating texts by means of identifying linguistic development (of the forms of words and grammar) to be as rewarding as archaeology and so, using and developing this new discipline of philology, they "at first called the elusive 'common source' language (and the family of languages which derived from it) 'Indo-Germanic' or 'Indo-European'. This changed to 'Indo-Aryan', or simply 'Aryan', after it was realised that the ancient Persians had indeed used their arya word in an ethnic sense; they called themselves the 'Ariana' (whence derives the modern 'Iran')."[p.21] Keay continues to point out that numerous writers had challenged this assumption that a "shared language necessarily meant a shared ethnicity". "Yet, the idea of a single race sowing seeds of civilisation from Bengal to Donegal" he says "proved intensely exciting, and ultimately irresistible". [p.21]

Next, followed the search for an Aryan homeland and most scholars favored the steppes of southern Russia and the Ukraine, or the shores of the Caspian from where the Aryans were thought to have migrated with their language, their gods, their horses and their herds to Iran and Syria, Anatolia and Greece, eastern Europe and northern India. These Aryans were assumed to be very combative tribes that ruthlessly displaced the aborigines of India by either exterminating them or driving them off into the jungles and farther into the south. The aborigines were contrasted from the Aryans by physical structure, facial features, and complexion. They were "dark, flat-nosed, uncouth, incomprehensible and generally inferior. The Aryans, on the other hand, were finer-featured, fairer, taller, favoured above others in the excellence of their gods, their horses and their ritual magic, and altogether a very superior people." [pp.21-22]

Keay felt that this theory of Aryan supremacy aided the Colonialist complex of superiority as the "neo-Aryans" who, in the nick of time, out of the west, came and salvaged the diluted and degenerated people of India into industry, morality, and into a new and golden age. But, this illusion, he says, was rudely shattered in the 1930s through the Nazi propaganda in Europe and the recent archaeological discoveries at Mohenjo-daro and elsewhere in India. It seemed that the Harappan civilisation predated the Aryan 'invasions'. Yet, the Aryan "myth" was not immediately dumped, even by Harappanists. Sir Mortimer Wheeler proposed that if the Aryans could not possibly have created the Harappan cities, they might have been responsible for destroying them. In 1964, however, the American George F. Dales investigated the skeletons (that were thought to be evidence of "massacres") found scattered at both Harappa and Mohenjo-daro sites and concluded:
There is no destruction level covering the latest period of the city [Mohenjo-daro], no sign of extensive burning, no bodies of warriors clad in armour and surrounded by the weapons of war, [and] the citadel, the only fortified part of the city, yielded no evidence of a final defence.[G.F. Dales, "The Mythical Massacre at Mohenjo Daro", repr. in Possehl, G.L. (ed.), Ancient Cities of the Indus, p.293, quoted by Keay, p.23].
Keay expresses doubt if the "Aryan chariots and catapults could have made much impression on Harappan walls thirteen metres thick, according to the archaeologists, and every bit as high". However, that the Harappans and the Aryans had contact, could not be ruled away. Such contacts may have mutually benefited the both. It may be inferred from the more recent discoveries that the Aryans were a semi-nomadic pastoral people who migrated to the Panjab in search of pasture and may have lived an itinerant outdoor life. Later, they may have formed their first temporary settlements, and then through further migrations have built cities and founded states in India. It is not clear when the Aryans might have entered India, but it seems that they came between 1500 BC and 1300 BC. In fact, there may have been several waves of migration rather than a single mass movement. Aryanisation (through spread of Sanskrit, Brahmanism, and Caste) might have been gradual and not through migration or coercion. The Aryan "myth" may, therefore, be the myth of Aryan invasion: Aryan migration, however, is readily assumed, though it is unclear where they migrated from. Of course, there are many other questions that still remain unanswered. Perhaps, the world awaits the deciphering of the Harappan script that may throw some further light on the ancient history of India.

Keay, John. India: A History, London: Harper Perennial, 2004.
At Google Books At Flipkart

Domenic Marbaniang, August 2010.

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