The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate edwin bryant oxford

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The Racial Evidence

The first prominent note of discord between traditional exegesis and Western scholar- ship was sounded because of the lack of explicit mention, in the Vedic texts, of a for- eign homeland of the Aryan people. As mentioned previously, this conspicuous silence had been noted even by nineteenth-century Western scholars (e.g., Elphinstone 1841). The absence of any mention of external Aryan origins in traditional Sanskrit sources is, to this day, perhaps the single most prominent objection raised by much of the schol- arship claiming indigenous origins for the Aryan culture. This consideration was summed up succinctly by Srinivas Iyengar in 1914:

The Aryas do not refer to any foreign country as their original home, do not refer to themselves as coming from beyond India, do not name any place in India after the names of places in their original land as conquerors and colonizers always do, but speak of them- selves exactly as sons of the soil would do. If they had been foreign invaders, it would have been humanly impossible for all memory of such invasion to have been utterly obliterated from memory in such a short time as represents the differences between the Vedic and Avestan dialects. (79–80)

A few Western scholars had tried to find some oblique references or reminiscences of the pre-Vedic people during their trajectory over central Asia. In 1913, Hillebrandt found reason to suppose that the Hariyupiya in RV 6.27.8 “is the Ariob or Haliab, a source river of the Kurum” (49). Other attempts to find traces of the Indo-Aryans in Iran and other places outside of India will be discussed in chapter 7. One should also note that several other Indo-European cultures, such as those of the Greeks and Scandinavians, also preserve no mention of their migrations into their historical territories, yet we know they were immigrants there at some point. That a historical event is lost from the collec- tive consciousness of a people due to the passage of time, does not indicate that the event never took place. For the present purposes, the fact that the Vedas themselves make no mention of any Aryan invasion or immigration reveals a major epistemologi- cal concern in this debate. Scriptural testimony, Śabda pramana, in varying degrees, still holds a preeminent status as an authoritative source of historical information in the view of many Indian scholars.

Once the warning alarm had been raised regarding the lack of explicit mention of Aryan invasions, scholars began to look more carefully at the implicit evidence Western scholars had brought forward in this regard. It was the racial interpretations imposed on various Vedic passages, particularly those that referred to the battles between the Aryans and their foes, the Dasas or Dasyus, that aroused the indignation of Indian


scholars. Aurobindo (1971), again, was an outspoken, witty, and penetrating forerunner in this regard:

It is urged that the Dasyus are described as black of skin and noseless in opposition to the fair and high-nosed Aryans. But the former distinction is certainly applied to the Aryan Gods and the Dasa Powers in the sense of light and darkness, and the word anasah does not mean noseless. Even if it did, it would be wholly inapplicable to the Dravidian races; for the Southern nose can give as good an account of itself as any “Aryan” proboscis in the North. (24)

The racial interpretations of the Vedic passages were inaugurated by Max Müller, who is both the hero and the archfiend of the Indigenous Aryan school. Factually: “The first effort to find direct evidence of the physical features of the Indian aborigines in the Sanskrit texts dating from the time of the Big Bang that brought Indian civilization into existence … boiled down to a matter of noses” (Trautmann, 1997, 197).

Müller (1854b), searching for clues in the Rgveda that might provide evidence of this “big bang,” decided: “The only expression that might be interpreted in this way is that of ‘suśipra,’ as applied to Aryan gods. It means ‘with a beautiful nose’ … The Dasa or barbarian is also called vrsaśipra in the Veda, which seems to mean goat or bull-nosed, and the ‘Anasas’ enemies whom Indra killed with his weapon (RV V,29,10) are probably meant for noseless … people”. (346). Müller later recanted his interpre- tation of the word Śipra, so the evidence was reduced to a solitary word, anasa, in a single passage. This sole possible description of the Dasa nose, however, like Pinocchio's nasal organ, was to have an expanded life of its own. By 1891, H. H. Risley, who was compiling his ethnological material on Indian tribes and castes, was able to say that “no one can have glanced at the Vedic accounts of the Aryan advance without being struck by the frequent references to the noses of the people whom the Aryans found in possession of the plains of India [whom] they spoke of as ‘the noseless ones’” (249– 250; my italics). The solitary nasal reference had suddenly become a frequent one.

McDonnell and Keith (1967), while at least acknowledging that both the pada text and Sayana, the oldest existing commentator on the Rgveda, had interpreted the word anasa as meaning the equally valid alternative translation ‘without face’ (which is how Geldner and Grassman had accepted it) as opposed to ‘without nose’, nonetheless further cemented Müller's identification with their approval. As far as they were concerned, it “would ac- cord well with the flat-nosed aborigines of the Dravidian type, whose language still per- sists among the Brahuis, who are found in the North-West” (348). Müller had construed the word as a-nasa, ‘without nose’, as opposed to an-as ‘without mouth or face’, as Sayana had construed it. The word occurs in a passage where the Dasyus are also described as mrdhavacah, which is glossed by Sāayana with himsitavāgindriyān ‘having defective organs of speech’. This could reasonably simply refer to people considered rude or uncultivated barbarians by their Aryan detractors rather than to any racial term. However, the quest for textual evidence of the Aryan invasion caused the racial interpretation to be favored, and it is this interpretation that has continued to surface up to the present day: “The Vedas recognize a dichotomy between the Indo-Aryans and their dark-skinned enemies, the Dāsa, who are on one occasion described as ‘nose-less,’ which has generally been interpreted as a pejorative reference to Dravidian physical features” (Mallory 1989, 45).


Srinivas Iyengar, in 1914, was not convinced by this type of “great scientific hardi- hood”:

One solitary word anasa applied to the Dasyu has been quoted by … Max Müller … among numerous writers, to prove that the Dasyus were a flat nosed people, and that, therefore, by contrast, the Aryas were straight-nosed. Indian commentators have explained this word to mean an-asa, mouthless, devoid of fair speech…. to hang such a weight of inference as the invasion and conquest of India by the straight nosed Aryans on the solitary word anasa does certainly seem not a very reasonable procedure. (6)

Iyengar is equally unimpressed by the racial interpretations of other passages in the Veda that had been given by Western scholars:

The only other trace of racial reference in the Vedic hymns is the occurrence of two words, one krishna in seven passages and the other asikini in two passages. One of the meanings of these two words is “black,” but in all the passages, the words have been interpreted as referring to black demons, black clouds, a demon whose name was Krishna, or the pow- ers of darkness. Hence to take this as evidence to prove that the invading Aryans were fair-complexioned as they referred to their demon foes or perhaps human enemies as black is again to stretch many points in behalf of a preconceived theory. (6–7)

Iyengar is well worth quoting at length, because his arguments are well researched and penetrating:

The word … Arya occurs about 33 times [in the Rgveda]…. the word Dasa occurs about 50 times and Dasyu about 70 times…. The word Arya occurs 22 times in hymns to Indra and six times in hymns to Agni, and Dasa 50 times in hymns to Indra and twice in hymns to Agni, and Dasyu 50 times in hymns to Indra and 9 times in hymns to Agni. The constant association of these words with Indra clearly proves that Arya meant a worshipper of Indra (and Agni)…. The Aryas offered oblations to Indra…. The Dasyus or Dasas were those who were opposed to the Indra Agni cult and are explicitly described thus in those passages where human Dasyus are clearly meant. They are avrata without (the Arya) rites, anyavrata of different rites, ayajavana, non-sacrificers, abrahma without prayers, also not having Brahmana priests, anrichah without Riks, brahmadvisha, haters of prayers to Brahmanas, and anindra without Indra, despisers of Indra. They pour no milky draughts, they heat no cauldron. They give no gifts to the Brahmana…. Their worship was but enchantment, sorcery, unlike the sacred law of fire-worship, wiles and magic. In all this we hear but the echo of a war of rite with rite, cult with cult and not one of race with race. (5–6) 2

Others have voiced just as penetrating critiques:

In the attempt to ransack the latter-day Sanskrit texts for proofs of Nordic characteris- tics, … we forget that if in latter day Sanskrit texts sentences such as “Gaura [white, yellowish], … pingala [reddish brown, tawny, golden], kapilkesa [brown or tawny hair]” are to be found in Patanjali's Mahabhasya (V. 1. 115) and if Manu has said that a Brahmana should not marry a girl with pingala hair (38) there are other sentences in previous ages which contradict the strength of these characteristics. But with the help of these two sentences attempt is being made to prove the existence of Nordic characteristics amongst the Indian people…. The God Rudra is described to have possessed golden hair … yet we cannot make a Nordic viking out of him, as he had brown-hued skin-colour and golden-coloured arm…. Surely we cannot take the god Rudra as a specimen of race-


miscegenation…. we beg to state that these allegories should be accepted as poetic fancies. They cannot be used as scientific data, for anthropological purpose. (Dutta 1936, 248–252)

Interestingly, almost a full century after Indian scholars started objecting to the racial interpretations imposed on the Arya-Dasa dichotomy, Western scholars have recently also started drawing attention to nineteenth-century philological excesses. Levitt (1989), in his analysis of the word anasa, points out that even if it does mean ‘noseless’, an equivalent term in the language of the Bhil tribe is used in an ethical as opposed to a racial sense to indicate someone who is untrustworthy. Schetelich (1990), in turn, has analyzed the three occurrences of the phrase krsna (or asikni) tvac used in conjunction with the dasyu, which has generally been translated as ‘dark skin’ (247). Her conclu- sion is that the word is a symbolic expression for darkness. Witzel comments on the same term that “while it would be easy to assume reference to skin colour, this would go against the spirit of the hymns: for Vedic poets, black always signifies evil, and any other meaning would be secondary in these contexts” (1995b, 325, fn). These realiza- tions can be found in any number of Indigenous Aryan publications stretching back for at least a century. Trautmann (1997), in his analysis of the development of, and inter- action between, ethnology and philology in the nineteenth century, finds his own experi- ment of subjecting the evidence for the racial interpretation of Indian civilization to a minimizing reading revealed just how soft that evidence is and the amount of overreading upon which it is based (213). He points out that the racial theory of Indian civilization is the product of the late nineteenth century, when the relations between whites and other ethnic groups in the Anglo-Saxon world were being reconfigured with ideological support from a spate of racial essentialism (208). Trautmann concludes: “That the racial theory of Indian civilization still lingers is a miracle of faith. Is it not time we did away with it?” (215).

Hock (1999b) suggests that the reluctance to review this racial material is due to the failure to live up to the scholarly ideals of constantly reexamining the evidence. He, too, undertook a similar exercise by extracting all the passages that Geldner had construed in a racial sense in his translation of the Rgveda and found them all to be either mis- translated or, at least, open to alternative nonracial interpretation. The reason racial readings were preferred was due to the “quasi-scientific attempts to provide a justifica- tion for ‘racially’ based European imperialism…. Moreover, the British take-over of India seemed to provide a perfect parallel to the assumed take-over of pre-historic India by the invading Indo-Aryans” (1999b, 168).

It seems fair to note, however, that for over a century many Indian scholars have been aware of, and objected to, such biased readings all along: “Thus ‘Arya’ moved from the Vedic literature to the European political arena…. They thought that as the Vedic people were the most cultured people of antiquity, they cannot but be ‘white men,’ no matter whether blonde or brunette, who conquered the noseless dark people of the Indus Valley” (Chandra 1980, 123). 3 B. R. Ambedkar (1946) delivered a particularly scathing critique of the whole enterprise of attempting to establish invasions on the basis of racial evidence in the Rgveda and concludes:

Why has the theory failed? … The theory of an invasion is an invention. This invention is necessary because of a gratuitous assumption which underlies the Western theory. The


… assumption is that the Aryans were a superior race. This theory has its origin in the belief that the Aryans are a European race and as a European race it is presumed to be superior to the Asiatic ones…. Knowing that nothing can prove the superiority of the Aryan race better than invasion and conquest of the native races, the Western writers have proceeded to invent the story of the invasion of India by the Aryans, and the con- quest by them of the Dasas and Dasyus…. The originators of the Aryan race theory are so eager to establish their case that they have no patience to see what absurdities they land themselves in. They start on a mission to prove what they want to prove and do not hesitate to pick such evidence from the Vedas as they think is good for them. (72–75)

Of course, despite offering elaborate and, in places, well-argued and legitimate refuta- tions of the racial evidence along some of the lines outlined here, Ambedkar's research was not without a clear, and philologically questionable, agenda of its own, as was noted in chapter 2. But his point here holds good.

Philologists are not alone in being unable to identify any compelling racial traits in the Rgveda. 4 Present-day archaeologists also concur that there are no innovations in the skeletal remains of humans found in the subcontinent that necessarily correspond to an incoming group of people that are in any way distinct from a separate indigenous group of people. This evidence will be discussed in chapter 11. In terms of the literary material, in addition to the so-called racial references, another body of philological evi- dence has been very influential in supporting the position that the Aryans were immi- grants into the subcontinent. This is based on the geographic boundaries alluded to in the texts themselves.

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