Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

August 19, 2011

First published August 18, 2011

 in First Cry

Politics of Origin

Published in First City, July 2011,

Typically, the quest for Hinduism’s origin begins by locating the Veda to an objective point in history and geography using scientific methods such as philology, archeology, astronomy, epigraphy, geo-satellite imaging and carbon-dating.

Scholars hailing from Europe andAmerica, generally date the hymns to around 1500 BC based on the structure of the language. They conclude that the hymns were composed by Aryans, a race of cattle-herding people who radiated out of Central Asia to India in the East and Europe in the West. They affirm this foreign origin by pointing out that the horse, highly celebrated in Vedic hymns, is not an animal native to India.

Indian scholars, however, insist that the hymns were composed locally and in a much more distant past. They tend to date the Vedas to 10,000 BC based on descriptions of the starry sky found in the hymns themselves. According to them, the composers of these hymns called themselves the noble ones, or Aryas, as they were inspired by noble ideas. Some were horse-riding cattle-herding nomads while others, settled farmers. Life revolved around cities that thrived on the banks of the Indus and the now-dry river, Saraswati, identified by geo-satellite images and referred to in many Vedic hymns. They explain the decline of the cities and the move to villages as a migratory pattern observed repeatedly in India over centuries in response to  any calamity, both human or environmental.

Beneath the veneer of logic throbs the politics of power, and the animal desire to dominate. Political power seems to be rooted in history and geography. If it is older, it is more valid. If it is local, it is more legitimate !

Anyone who supports the 1500 BC foreign origin theory then becomes an India-hating Westernized scholar, and accused of racism and imperialism. Anyone who supports the 10,000 BC local origin theory becomes a radical chauvinistic nationalist. Everyone involved in the debate however is convinced they are rational but the others are not. So much for the dispassionate nature of science!

This obsession for things scientific and preference for the objective began with the European interest inIndia. Initially, in the 16th century, when the Portuguese came, they found a land where the rulers were Muslims but the subjects were followers of a religion that celebrated polytheism and idolatry. They dismissed the customs and practices of the natives as pagan and heathen.

By the 18th century this view had changed dramatically. Hindu texts had been translated and were found to be complex, profound and altogether different from anything previously encountered. It warranted further investigation. This gave rise to many a Sanskritist, Orientalist and Indophile who devoted their entire lives researching the religion they ultimately termed, Hinduism.

The research revolved mostly around texts. Texts were important in Europe. Every major religion that Europeans knew about was based on a text: Judaism had its Talmud, Christianity had its Bible, and Islam had its Koran. Further, thanks to the Scientific Revolution that had gripped Europe since the 15th century, greater value was given to the written than the spoken word, as the former was considered objective, free of all human prejudices. They were children of a culture that believed, in the beginning was the Word; humans came later.

A wide gap was observed between what the ideas presented in the texts and the practices encountered on the ground. It seemed that Indiaof the 18th century was very much like Europe of the 15th century, locked in the Dark Ages, unaware of its own wisdom. Sanskrit was Hinduism’s Latin and the Brahmins were Hinduism’s clergymen. The European intellectuals saw this as an opportunity to do what Calvin and Luther had done for Christianity and give Hindus their very own Protestant Reformation!

Initially, in the 18th century the focus of the investigation was on the content of the texts, but later, by the 19th century, as scientific study of literature gained popularity, it became more about its historicity and its authorship.

Language experts revealed the Vedic hymns to be the oldest of the Hindu scriptures, and therefore more valid than later ones, in the eyes of the researchers. They also found many similarities between the language of the Vedas and the languages of Europe. This led to the conclusion, at a time when race theories were rife in Europe, that the Indian race and the European race probably sprang from the same source. The European colonization of India was in fact a meeting of two long lost branches of the same family tree. The question was: was the Indo-European tree rooted in India or Europe, or somewhere mid-way in Central Asia?

These questions acquired urgent attention in 19th century with the rise of social sciences. Increasingly people were seeking rational explanations for legitimacy of political power. Questions were being raised on the notions of liberty, equality and the rights of immigrants and invaders. Monarchies were being challenged and democracies were rising. The English, who had driven out the Portuguese and French, could no longer justify their occupation of India on religious terms: it was no longer about the divine right of kings and queens, or the need to harvest souls for the Church. A scientific explanation was needed. Their role as reformers and harbingers of scientific thought kept them going for a long time. But then, in the late 19th century, Indian economists started publishing papers providing evidence of the drain of India’s wealth into English coffers. A new logic was needed.

An opportunity for a new logic was provided by the discovery in early 20th century of a much older civilization on the banks of the river Indus.TheIndus Valley civilization presented an urban world quite different from the cattle-herding world of the Aryans. The dating of the earliest Vedic hymns to 1500 BCE, a time when the river valley cities were on their decline, led to the formulation of the very popular and still hotly contested Aryan invasion theory.

This theory stated that chariot-riding, hymn-chanting Aryans smashed the cities of the Indus valley and aggressively made their way into the Indian subcontinent from the West, subjugating the dark-skinned natives, the Dravidians, turning them into servants and slaves, or pushing them to the south. The existence of Vedic hymns that placed Brahmins on top of the social pyramid, the reality of untouchables in every Indian village, and the difference in languages, customs and complexions of people in the south sealed the argument.

With this theory, the English were successful in delegitimizing the Hindu elite and dividing India forever. Brahmins were, according to this theory, invaders and immigrants, much like the Europeans, and the Muslim warlords before them, only worse because they dehumanized the lower strata of society by imposing the caste system. The English, on the other hand, were working towards creating a world that was more just and equal.

This theory also pitted dark-skinned south Indians against the not-so-dark north Indians.  The Indian National Movement lost its moral high ground. It now faced internal issues: justice for the untouchables, tyranny of northern languages, domination of Hindus, especially the upper caste elite, over all things Indian and even the very notion of a single people.

Aryan Invasion theory was based on a popular 19th century Western template where every major historical event is the result of a dramatic violent conflict, with the winner overwhelming the loser. From this template came the tales of how the Greeks destroyed the city of Troy, how the Hyksos rode into Egypt, how the Hebrews entered the Promised Land, how Alexander destroyed Persepolis, how the Barbarians laid claim over Rome, how Vikings plundered Europe, how Charlemagne drove the Muslims out of Europe and how the Muslims drove the Christians out of Jerusalem and Constantinople. In keeping with this template, the cities of theIndus valleys had to be smashed and replaced by a new civilization. The idea of waning of one thought and waxing of another, with both coexisting in different proportions, and neither disappearing totally, made little sense to the European mind.

The brilliance of the Aryan Invasion theory rests in its simplicity, which ensured its popularity. Any alternate theory, howsoever rational, as a result, sounds defensive and apologetic, and so is invalidated even before it is presented.

Today, it is increasingly obvious that there was no invasion and the cities of the Indus and Saraswati succumbed to environmental changes. But the dating and location of the Aryas, and their horses, and their relationship with the cities of the Indus valley remains a contentious issue.

Significantly, Vedas are identified as sanatan, timeless and universal. Which means they cannot be anchored to any period or place, or even to a people. So the very discussion of its historical and geographical origins seems like a pastime of academicians and politicians, who value every thing about the Vedas except the wisdom of its content.

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