Taking fresh inspiration from a lecture I just heard, I would like to go into a subject that has been drawing my attention for some time. Today, 30 April, the Indology department of Ghent University hosted a lecture by Dr. K.D. Vinayachandra from Jain University in Bangalore on “The Aryan Invasion Theory” (AIT). Since we have amply dealt with the subject before, we leave out the generally known elements (which were duly enumerated in the lecture) and focus on what struck me as relevant to our own topic.
Among AIT critics in India, it is customary to foam at the mouth when speaking of the Western inventors of the AIT. They were, so to hear, evil people with imperialist motives who “concocted” a scholarly theory to suit political ends. We will first show that this is factually incorrect, then focus on the problematic mentality that produces such moralistic tales.
Genesis of the AIT
In a speech in 1786, Kolkata judge William Jones announced the common origin of the Indo-Aryan languages with Iranian, Greek, Latin, Germanic and Celtic. Among these sisters, he characterized Sanskrit as clearly the eldest and most refined. Jones was literally part of the British colonial establishment, yet his discovery of Indo-European kinship was not yet tainted by political calculations. It was still the pleasure of discovery speaking.
Since then, and with the subsequent appropriation of Sanskrit linguistics by European scholars, Indians have taken a renewed pride in Sanskrit. Modern-day Indians’ opposition to the AIT often translates into a rejection of the notion of this linguistic kinship among most North-Indian and most European languages, but the initial reaction was one of pride. I imagine the Chinese would have felt insulted if their language had been ruled cognate to that of the Western barbarians, but the Hindus felt sufficiently humbled by centuries of Muslim rule and by the increasingly invincible British paramountcy, and so they were flattered by this kinship. It constituted a form of equality or even cultural superiority, as Sanskrit was deemed older and more refined than English. The discovery went hand in hand with a great Western interest in Sanskrit literature, another source of self-flattery for the Hindus.
The first theory of a homeland for the Indo-European language family was the Out-of-India Theory (OIT). But as it was realized that Sanskrit differed from the putative common mother language Proto-Indo-European (PIE), the homeland was also removed from India, so that some version of the AIT had to be adopted. Initially not very far: Bactria remained in the running as homeland candidate all through the 19th century. Russia and the Balkans came later, and the choice of Germany or the Baltic as homeland only came in the later 19th century, the heyday of racial considerations, when Greco-Roman references to their heroes (Achilles, Cato etc.) as blond led to the unjustified assumption that the PIE-speakers must have been blond. This was the time when Benjamin Disraeli said: “All is race, there is no other truth.” (1844) and: “Race is the key to history” (1880). Though these considerations would no longer stand the test of science in our own day, the scholars acted in good faith from what they considered as relevant data, not from political calculations.
It is only in a second stage that politicians saw the potential of these homeland theories. In Nazi Germany, a European homeland was taken for granted (though Heinrich Himmler’s research unit Ahnenerbe also thought of Atlantis) because the superior Europeans could not possibly come from backward India. In India, even before the colonial rulers, it was the Christian missionaries who saw the uses of the AIT, mainly to pit Dravidians and low-castes against the “Aryan invader” Brahmins and thus make them more amenable to conversion. Even then, they did not “concoct” anything, e.g. when Friedrich Max Müller wrote to his wife (as quoted in the lecture by Dr. Vinayachandra) that India was ripe for Christianization and that his own translation of the Rg-Veda would contribute to this by disenchanting the Rg-Veda and making the Hindus understand and hence reject the root of their religion for their own good, he still based this insight on the best and sincerest translation he was capable of. And then the administrators did the same: with the AIT, they could pit communities against one another, and most of them against the Brahmins who were the backbone of the Freedom Movement. It also served to justify their own presence in India: they were purer and more enlightened cousins of the upper-caste Indo-Aryans who had done the same thing long ago, viz. invading India.
The context in which the Aryan Invasion Theory took hold in British India was the age of the British East India Company, when colonialism was changing its character. From trading lucratively but as equals with the Moghul and Maratha empires, the British increasingly insinuated themselves into the power structure and then took it over. With the abolition of slavery in the early 19th century, they saw and presented their colonial project as socially and culturally beneficial to the natives. Indeed, in Africa they presented colonization as the best weapon against Arab slavery, and in 1856 they forced the Ottoman empire, in return for support during the Crimea war, to abolish slavery as well.
Yet, at the same time the British made a move which, as it gradually gained momentum, would ruffle some Hindu feathers: introducing an anglicizing education policy. Mind you, in their first half-century, they had pursued an “Orientalizing” policy, consistent with their attitude of equality or even formal subservience vis-à-vis the native powers, and with their frequent intermarriages with native women whom later generations would consider racially inferior. However, Thomas Babington Macaulay declared in 1835 in his Minute on Education that the natives would be better off by having an English education. He saw this as a form of emancipation and ultimately a preparation for self-rule. Nowadays Hindu activists hate him and falsely ascribe destructive motives to him, as if he thought very highly of Hindu culture and wanted to demote it. Just the opposite is the case: he thought that one British library shelf held more knowledge than all of Sanskrit and Indian vernacular literature combined. So, he wanted to free the Indians from their underdevelopment and elevate them through English culture. The false quotation that portrays him as a wilful destroyer, and that is quoted in speeches by leading Indian politicians, is contrary to the spirit of the times among colonial administrators. They saw themselves as the forces of progress and civilization, and thought they were doing the natives a favour by freeing them from their “superstitions” and uplifting them to the British level.
Strictly speaking, Macaulay didn’t even anglicize India. He only wanted a class of “interpreters”, who could communicate British modern culture to their vernacular-speaking compatriots. Once English culture had been interiorized and its insights translated into the native languages, the Indians would be free to revert to those. Today’s omnipresence of English and the requirement of knowing English in most professions beats Macaulay’s vision a hundredfold and does not deserve to be called “Macaulayism”. It is purely the fruit of a policy option by Indian politicians, who somehow insist on subservience to English even long after the British colonizers have gone.
Hindu activists also imagine that somehow India was or is the central focus of the British colonizers, the American imperialists and everyone else. The world has it in for India, the world intends harm to India. Well, no: the world doesn’t care about India. At their worst, the British colonizers were interested in loot, in material gain, and India along with other colonies was a means to that. It is frequently said (even, to his shame, on LK Advani’s website) that the famines in British India were “the worst genocide in world history”. Apart from being an obvious excuse to sound secularist and look away from the wilful Muslim massacres, more deserving of the term “genocide”, it is simply not true. It is not that I doubt the death figures, eventhough I have learned by now that these are usually susceptible to exaggeration, but those dead were mere “collateral damage” of lucrative economic policies, not intentional victims of an extermination policy, a defining requirement for a “genocide”. The colonizers had nothing against the Indians, they merely wanted to make money. If an occasional Indian labourer died, the exploiters took that in stride, but it was not their intention, they simply didn’t care one way or the other. That is not nice, but it is not genocide either.
The tendency to portray the AIT as the result of a conspiracy is only one case of a more general problem. Activist Hindus tend to conceive most things in terms of good vs. evil. This is in stark opposition to the genius of Hindu tradition. While Christianity is all about sin, about God descending on earth just to deliver us from evil, the Vedas acknowledge the existence of evil but relegate it to the second plan, the foreground being taken by the struggle for liberation. Some people consider themselves very profound when they declare that this world is really a struggle between good and evil. In fact, this is cheap, vulgar and untrue.
Most things in this world are neither good nor evil. These categories only apply to a very small class of phenomena. When a tsunami destroys villages, the destruction is resented by the villagers and their relatives, yet the oceans and rocks had no evil designs when they unleashed this tsunami. For the unemployed construction worker, the tsunami is even good news, for it creates a big new demand for the services of those workers who will rebuild the villages. Good and evil are relative to the goals they further or thwart, and people have conflicting goals. Moreover, numerous things are simply too far removed from any human project to be able to further or thwart it. But most importantly: even things that some people are bound to resent as evil, were intended by its agents as good.
So, there is something ridiculous about the constant indignation in many Hindu activist writings. The constant attribution of evil motives and deliberate destructive strategies behind anything they don’t like, comes across as a symptom of paranoia. I have experienced this attitude numerous times among Hindus, yet I don’t blame Hinduism, on the contrary. In the Ramayana and Mahabharata, every evil deed is given a fairly decent cause. Every hero suffering reversals partly has himself to blame. It is not a simplistic black-and-white fairy-tale. It is not for children but for grown-ups, complex and, to use the Hindu term, “karmic’. In comparison to them, the story of Vishnu’s future incarnation, who has as his mission to “kill the evil-doers”, is very cheap, a sign of decadence. Similarly, the cool and detached attitude that struck me among common Hindus whom I met around tea-stalls in Varanasi in 1988, contrasts sharply with the shrill and extreme attitudes among internet Hindus.The Aryan invasion theory and the negative influence of Macaulay’s education policy should be corrected. But this should not be done, nor has it a chance of being done, by concocting these moralistic stories of pure Indians versus the evil besiegers of India.