Ancient Civilisations and the Aryan Myth

The belief of Aryan superiority and identifying Aryans with white skin and blue eyes was a strong component of Nazi Germany’s racial beliefs. It was intimately connected to the larger racial construction underlying imperialism. A number of scientists used the emerging disciplines of anthropology, linguistics and biology to justify brutal colonial oppression and even genocide with evolutionary arguments of survival of the fittest. It is not surprising that the RSS, with their admiration for Hitler, should seek to use the superior Aryan race theory for its reconstruction of Indian history. In this exercise, it is helped by a set of “academics”, largely Non Resident Indian (NRI) engineers turned historians, who attempt to use a little history and science with very large doses of “magical” thinking to substantiate the RSS view of history. These are the “revisionist” historians who believe that India is being denied its “rightful” place in world history due to machinations of establishment “western” historians.

Before we examine the RSS view of history, it is important to understand the terms of the debate. In any serious scholarship today, nobody talks about Aryans in the racial sense. It is now referred to as Indo-European language group with the understanding that the Indo-European languages have a common origin. The common origin of Indo-European language does not mean that one group of people — the Aryans — speaking this language spread physically all over the Europe and South Asia. All it signifies is that their language spread, probably by conquest and repeated migrations, with the people thus conquered adopting the language of the victors. This does not necessitate large-scale demographic changes along with the conquest nor does it mean large-scale invasion by Aryans in the past of all lands today speaking the Indo-European languages.

The Aryan race theory fell into disrepute as the racial stereotypes constructed in 19th early 20th century were found to have little validity with advances in knowledge. It is now clear that genetic differences between races are small compared to genetic variations within any population group and that skin colour co-relates poorly to any such genetic difference. Particularly damning for racism is the discovery that Homo sapiens or modern human beings evolved first in Africa only about 200,000 years back, leaving Africa for Middle East and Europe only 50,000-70,000 years back. Genetic mapping and linguistic studies have been used to examine the diffusion of Homo sapiens across the globe. The picture that emerges is one of fairly late diffusion out of Africa and therefore explains the relatively low genetic variation between races.

The belief in racial myths dies slowly as they are constructed to legitimise existing social and economic relations. That is why Aryan supremacists and neo-Nazis still continue to hold to their beliefs of a superior white or the Aryan race. The IQ debate on the inferior IQ of African Americans compared to white Americans are all a part of this superior white race theory. The RSS shares not only a fascination for fascism along with the neo Nazis of today, they also share this common core of belief with them about superior Aryans, preferably white skinned and looking an upper caste North-Indian.

The problem that both RSS ideologues and the European racist scholarship faced was the manifest superiority of the non-Aryan civilisation in ancient times. Egypt and Babylon predate the Greek civilisation just as the Harappan civilisation predates the commonly held chronology of Vedic Indians in India. The European scholars did initially try and argue of an older Indian Aryan civilisation which helped develop Egyptian and Babylonian civilisations. However, they give up this theory faced with the difficulty of finding an early enough date for the Indian civilisation. Instead, they concentrated on terming all other civilisations as primitive in various ways while extolling the Greaco-Roman one — termed classical — as the first truly developed civilisation. A few scholars have tried to argue that the Harappan civilisation was “Aryan”, using dubious astronomical claims from the Rig-Veda. However, once it was found that ancient Egypt predates Harappa, this was not pursued further. Martin Bernal’s remarkable work in which he showed the Egyptian and Phoenician roots of Greek civilisation has now shown up the arguments regarding superior classical civilisation as a racist construction, created largely in the 19th and early 20th century.

The RSS not only have the problem of an inferior non-Aryan race building the superior Harappan civilisation; they also have the problem of the Vedic people coming from outside India. If the Vedic Aryans came from outside India, Vedic Hinduism, like Islam, is essentially non-indigenous and therefore foreign. What happens then to the Savarkar thesis, the ideological bedrock of the RSS that Bharat is not only Pitribhumi (fatherland) but also Punyabhumi (Holy Land)? That Hinduism is older than Islam does not particularly strengthen their case against Muslims (and Christians) as aliens. After all Islam is in India for more than a 1000 years. Therefore, the RSS ideology demands a completely indigenous origin for Vedic Hinduism and the Aryans.

It is to get around this problem that the current crop of RSS ideologues and their allies — some of them old fashioned Aryanists — want to rework the original Aryan paradigm. In their view, the Rig-Veda originated in India well before the Harappan civilisation or is at least co-terminus with it. The Harappan script is sought to be related to Brahmi and claimed to be a written form of Sanskrit. In this view, Sanskrit subsumes all the Indian languages: the Dravidian group of languages is derived from southern Prakrit while the North Indian ones from northern Prakrit. The internal evidence of Rig-Veda regarding a largely pastoral and nomadic people is discarded to argue for an urbanised Vedic civilisation. A wily Subhash Kak claims not to recognise Aryans as a valid category but his American colleague and co-author David Frawley has no hesitation in calling the Vedic people Aryan. For Kak, it is enough to place the origin of Vedas in hoary antiquity and make Vedic Hinduism indigenous.

Interestingly, relatively mediocre NRI engineers are crafting the bulk of these so-called revisionist histories. Two of the main protagonists: Subhash Kak and S.Rajaram are in obscure computer science departments in the US. The other actor is David Frawley, whose claim to historical knowledge stems from a short stint in Varanasi where he “discovered” Hinduism. In the quest for antiquity, not only “creative” exercises in interpretations are being carried out, even outright fraud is being used. N.S. Rajaram recently co-authored a book with N.Jha (The Deciphered Indus Script: Methodology, readings, interpretation) and claimed to have deciphered the Harappan script as a variant of Brahmi and the Harappan language as late Vedic Sanskrit. While Jha had produced a monograph on this about five years back, it made little impact then amongst scholars as its methodology was too “flexible”; using such methods the Harappan script can be “recognised even as Old English! The peculiar twist that Rajaram imparts is his discovery of horse in one of the Harappan seals and a host of “references” to horses in the deciphered Harappan inscriptions.

Unfortunately for Rajaram, his “horse seal” was found to be an outright fraud: it was a computer enhanced image of a cracked seal in which the horse head is allegedly visible in the portion of the seal that was cracked and broken in the original seal. Even worse, Rajaram failed to mention where he had found this evidence. It was finally tracked down after a detailed search of various archival materials to a 1937 photograph when it became clear that the image that Rajaram produced in his book was not the same one in the photograph. This led to Rajaram’s admission that he had “enhanced” the image using a computer. He still fails to explain how the computer was able to extract an image from a portion of the seal that is missing in the original. A detailed description of the fraud can be found in the latest edition of Frontline where two scholars — Michael Witzel and Steve Farmer  — give details of the fraud (Horseplay in Harappa: the Indus Valley decipherment Hoax, Frontline, October 13).

Why was it so important for Rajaram to discover the horse in Harappa? The horse is obvious in its importance to the Vedic way of life. There are numerous references to it in Vedic literature. Its lack in the Harappan seals and not finding its remains in India before 2000 BC, therefore queers the pitch for the Hindutva ideologues who claim that the Harappan civilisation was Aryan. It matters little to serious historians who came from where. If the Indo-Europeans originated from India it is a matter of revising our current notions of the past; it does not make the Indians either superior or inferior to others. Nobody is arguing that the Asian steppe region, currently held as the origin of the Indo-European speakers, produced a superior race or a superior culture. However, if Aryan superiority is accepted, then the need to claim a glorious Aryan past and also the need to appropriate this for Hinduism.

Historians can dialogue differences if they accept a common method: careful sifting of all evidence – archaeological, linguistic, textual, etc. — in order to evaluate contesting theories. The RSS ideologues of history have no such criteria. In their bar, only positive evidence counts. Thus, old and discredited astronomical theories of Jacobi regarding the Rig-Veda are paraded as new findings by Kak. Uncomfortable facts such as linguistic structures and philological differences between Dravidian and Indo-European group of languages are not even mentioned. This has very little to do with history: it is prejudice, dressed up to masquerade as scholarship.

Why is there a need to impose such a schema on the past? The contentions are not about history: History is merely the terrain on which current political battles are being fought. If we want a monolithic homogenised Hindu India, projecting this back into the past would considerably strengthen this idea. Thus, the attempt is to create a past that reflects the RSS image of a future India. In such a scheme, the Muslims will be Mohmadiya Hindus, Christians Ahemdeiya Hindus and Dravidian group of languages will be considered a derivative of Sanskrit (or Indo-European Prakrit) and therefore the Dravidian movement and people can be Aryanised. Once they are Aryanised, they are unlikely to object to the RSS appropriation of the Harappan civilisation for the Aryans. The historical contortions can only be understood if we look at the RSS project of a homogeneous Hindu India.

The project of “revising” history then has little to do with a scientific examination of the past. It is to do with the project of creating a homogenised Hindu India, and demanding that other religious groups: Muslims and Christians accept Hindu suzerainty. This is why Sudershan is calling for Christians to severe link with churches abroad. Homogenising the future demands a homogeneous past: spoilt only by recent alien incursions of Islam and Christianity. This is the driving force of the current crop of “revisionist” historians. The battle for the future is being fought in the terrain of the past; and true to the RSS style, it is being fought with deceit, half-truths and outright fraud.