Aryan Invasion or Migration: An Update and a Look Forward
As readers look at the ongoing debate relative to ancient India (2001), they surprisingly see that the main scholars who used to support the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT)—whether leftists in India like Romila Thapar or American academics like Michael Witzel—now claim to no longer accept it. We might think that the myth of the Aryan Invasion has been exposed and is now being removed from history books.
However, the same scholars speak of the Aryans coming into India with their language, their Gods, their horses and their chariots about the same time as the old Invasion scenario (c. 1500 BCE). While some of them insist that the Aryans entered in significant numbers, most portray it as a cultural diffusion that involved only small groups of people. If we look carefully, therefore, we see that the invasionist scenario has been replaced with a not too different migration/acculturation theory. Though the main edifice of the Aryan Invasion has been removed—the invading Aryan hordes that destroyed Harappa—the conclusion that the Vedas represent an intrusive culture from Central Asia persists.
Yet instead of acknowledging that the idea of the Aryan destruction of Harappa was a great blunder which casts a shadow over their entire approach to ancient India, such former supports of the theory would simply push it under the rug. They are trying to pretend that it makes no difference. Even if the Aryans did not destroy Harappa, even if there is no evidence of significant populations coming from the northwest into India, even though the archaeological record shows an unbroken continuity of civilization from the pre-Harappan to the post-Harappan periods in the very regions described in Vedic texts—they still hold to their earlier estimation of Vedic culture as an import from Central Asia. Yet, if they were so wrong about the end of Harappa, how can they still be so right that the Vedic culture was later and not connected to Harappa?
What is more incredulous is that, even after recognizing that the idea of an Aryan destruction of Harappa was an error, these scholars have made no effort to remove this faulty scenario from textbooks. They act as if this mistaken interpretation has nothing to do with them and is not their responsibility to correct! The Aryan Invasion theory spawned many distortions and denigrations of India, as earlier portions of this booklet address. The image of the Aryans as the cruel destroyers of Harappa—the Aryans as militant fascists and racists—continues to be used by various groups inside and outside India, for political and religious advantage.
Instead of trying to correct this view that they now regard as wrong, the same scholars complain that those who connect Vedic literature with Harappan civilization are only acting out of political motives or projecting a religious bias. Therefore, whatever evidence for ancient India as a Vedic culture is proposed, they need not take seriously. They use this argument to refuse even to look at the massive Sarasvati river data, as if even geological evidence could be rejected as politically incorrect.
One might ask: What makes the Aryan Invasion/Migration theory such a big issue? After all, it concerns events of over three thousand years ago that really shouldn’t be relevant to anyone today. Does what might have happened in ancient Europe or America thousands of years ago arouse such passions today? What this debate really represents is a ‘clash of cultures’, to use a current phrase. The Aryan Invasion/Migration view represents a largely Eurocentric interpretation of Indic civilization. It holds that Vedic literature doesn’t even represent the country that has so long honored and preserved it and places a big question mark over its validity.
The real struggle behind this debate is between two views of humanity—a largely western-based view that is materialistic in nature, viewing history in terms of economics and politics, and a largely eastern view that follows a spiritual or dharmic approach. The Aryan debate reflects the West’s failure to really face, honor or accept Indic civilization. It is part of a cultural imperialism that is holding on long after the colonial armies have left. So ingrained is this prejudice that those who have it are usually not even aware of it. On the contrary, they fail to recognize any real Indic tradition from ancient times and view any attempts to propose one as dangerous—an atavistic Hindu nationalism that should be opposed by all possible means.
However, what we could call the pro-Vedic camp—those who see a deep spirituality and profound culture in the Vedas underlying the civilization of India—is not made up of poorly educated, backward or biased Hindus but includes great modern Yogis like Aurobindo, Vivekananda and Yogananda. It now has a whole array of researchers, archaeologists, linguists and geologists who have produced extensive scientific data to support it and whose work is expanding rapidly every year, while its opponents only rehash the same old failed interpretations, changing only a few terms in the process.
The greater issues involved in this apparently obscure debate are quite significant. If ancient India was a Vedic culture, then we would have to rewrite not only the history of India but also that of Europe and the Middle East. The whole edifice of western civilization’s interpretation of history would go down ignominiously. The ancient Europeans would be cultural offshoots of India and heir to the type of mystical and yogic vision that India has always held as the basis of its thought and culture. The Indo-European heritage from India to Ireland would be that of the largest and perhaps greatest civilization of the ancient world, Vedic India, in its cultural spread. The change in our view of history would be as radical as Einstein’s ideas that changed our view of physics.
Objections to the Aryan Migration Theory
The scholars of the Aryan Migration Theory—the new incarnation of the invasion view—place the Aryan entry after the end of Harappan culture in the 1900–1000 BCE era. In the absence of any evidence of significant migrations, the Aryan takeover of India has been reduced by most migrationists to a gradual process of acculturalization from Central Asia accomplished by a small group of elites. This absolves its proponents from needing to produce any tangible evidence for it, which they do not have. This Outside India Theory (OIT) for the Vedas, much like the Aryan Invasion Theory that it supplants, ignores major data in several areas.
Much important work has been done on the Sarasvati river over the past few years, through the Geological Society of India and other scientific groups, with dozens of papers and studies outlining the change of courses of this great river over the centuries. The migration theory, just like the invasion theory, ignores the prominence of the Sarasvati river in Vedic texts. It was the drying up of this river that brought the Harappan civilization to an end. However, such scholars even while recognizing that river changes caused the abandonment of Harappan sites, ignore the fact that the same river is central to Vedic texts. They will not equate the great lost river of ancient India with the Vedic Sarasvati, in spite of dozens of Vedic references to its size and its location. They would still date the Aryan entrance into India after the drying up of the sacred river in India that the Vedas honor as their ancestral homeland.
There have also been many new important archaeological findings that show Harappan civilization to be older and larger than previously thought. Rakhigarhi, located on the long dry Drishadvati river of Vedic fame in the Kurukshetra region, though barely excavated, has been found to be much larger than either Harappa or Mohenjodaro and perhaps the oldest city of its type. This confirms the Vedic idea that the Sarasvati-Drishadvati region was the real center and origin of civilization in ancient India. In addition, the sophisticated pre-Harappan site, Kunal in Haryana, again in the Sarasvati region, shows the earlier development of civilization in the region.
Meanwhile, Dholavira, a Harappan site in Kachchh, has been revealed as one of the largest port cities in the ancient world, dating perhaps before 3000 BCE. Dholavira is located in what is now desert, some miles from the sea, and its habitation would only make sense owing its proximity to what would have then been the delta of the Sarasvati river. At Dholavira, interesting marble pillars have been found, marking what is probably a gateway to visitors from across the sea. Note that in the Rig Veda, Varuna, the Vedic God of the sea, is associated with great pillars (RV V.62). Such maritime sites as Dholavira make perfect sense relative to the numerous references to the ocean in the Rig Veda and its pervasive maritime symbolism.
Archaeological findings are confirming the continuity of Harappan civilization into the post-Harappan era, albeit with less urban sites. Harappan arts, crafts and building practices continued long after the Harappan cities were abandoned. This makes it more difficult to draw the line between the Harappan era and the supposed intrusive Vedic culture that came later. The older, vaster and more continuous Harappan culture becomes, the more difficult it becomes to separate it from the Vedic. In this regard, we must remember that only a fraction of Harappan sites that have been found have yet been excavated and the existent boundaries of Harappan culture are continually being expanded by new finds.
Above all, the migration theory, like its invasionist ancestor, ignores the spiritual and philosophical sophistication of Vedic texts, including the poetic and metrical depth of the Vedic language, which requires a great civilization to produce. The deities and rituals portrayed in the Vedas reflect a long period of development and a synthesis of diverse groups and views, such as would be found only in the Indian subcontinent. The Vedas are not primitive texts but the bedrock that could produce the great spiritual traditions of the region which arose through history.
Just as Vedic literature requires a civilization to produce it, so does Harappan civilization require a great literature to reflect it. Such a vast urban culture would have left a literary mark. Certainly, it could not have been completely overwhelmed by the crude literature of a few intruders from Central Asia, particularly when that intrusive tradition was oral, not written, and the Harappans had writing! Since archaeology now shows that there was no real break in ancient Indian civilization but only a post-Harappan relocation, the literature of the region would have persisted as well.
Horse and Chariot
The issue of the horse has become the main line of demarcation for the invasionists/ migrationists. It has become a one-issue argument used to neutralize any other data. They see Vedic/Aryan culture as a movement of horse-riding people into India from Central Asia. They point out the development of a horse culture at an earlier period in Central Asia and the lack of horse remains in ancient India. They equate the Aryans with the horse and chariot and Harappa with a non-horse, non-chariot and hence non-Vedic culture. Such a simplistic equation has many flaws and ignores the many other issues. It overlooks that Vedic culture was essentially a rishi-king culture, not a horse/nomad culture.
First, one should note that horses and chariots spread throughout the ancient world from Egypt and China. It was not accompanied by a radical change of culture, language or population for an entire subcontinent as has been proposed for ancient India. Ancient Egypt and China took on horses and chariots without any break in the continuity of their civilizations. Certainly, ancient India, the largest urban civilization of its time in the world, could have taken on a new horse/chariot culture without having to change everything else as well. Therefore, even if horses or chariots came into India from the outside at some point in time, this is no reason to assume that the language and culture of the region had to change as well.
Second, a study of horse anatomy shows that there were two types of horses in the ancient world that we still find today. There is a south Asian and Arabian type that has seventeen ribs and a West and Central Asian horse that has eighteen ribs. The Rig Vedic horse, as described in the Ashvamedha or horse-sacrifice of the Rig Veda has thirty-four ribs (seventeen times two for the right and left side). This shows that the Rig Vedic horse did not come from Central Asia but was the South Asian breed. The Rig Vedic horse is born of the ocean, which also indicates southern connections. The Yajur Veda ends with an invocation of the Divine horse that has the ocean as its belly (samudra udaram, TS VII.5.25). The Brihadarayaka Upanishad identifies the day and night as the two greatnesses of the horse rooted in the eastern and western oceans (BU I.1.2).
Some scholars have argued that there are not enough horse remains or horse seals to show that the horse was as significant in the Harappan era as it appears to be in Vedic literature. In this regard, we see that the unicorn is a common Harappan image. Should we then imagine that unicorns were common animals of the time? Harappan seals contain many mythical, composite and multiheaded animals. The Rig Veda also has such mythic and composite images like the Vedic bull with four horns, three feet, two heads and seven hands (RV IV.58.3). Clearly, the Harappan seals are not an anatomical record of existent animal species!
Horse bones have now been found in Harappan and pre-Harappan sites in India, not only in the north and west but also in the south and east, showing that the horse was known to the Harappan people, though it was probably mainly the south Asian horse. At the same time, the horse evidence required to prove the Aryan invasion/migration theory is also lacking. We do not find any significant evidence of horses coming into India around 1500 BCE in the form of horse remains, horse encampments or horse images. If the Aryans came with the horse around 1500 BCE, such remains would be dramatic. There is no archaeological trail of horse bones into India around 1500 BCE. If the horse were indigenous to India, on the other hand, there would not be dramatic horse remains at one level as opposed to another. So far there are no dramatic horse finds at any level. Even in the Bactria and Margian Archaeological Complex, which is supposed to be horse rich and a staging area of successive Indo-Aryan migrations/invasions into India, not a single horse bone has been found yet. This means that other areas supposedly rich in horses do not exhibit significant horse remains either.
Moreover, there are many equus bones found in ancient India, particularly the onager (Equus hemionus), which is native to Kachchh in Gujarat. There is evidence that the onager was used to draw chariots or battle cars in ancient Sumeria and was later replaced by the stronger and faster horse. The same thing probably occurred in India. It is also likely that the Vedic people did not discriminate between the different equus animals as strictly as we do the true horse from other breeds. This means that the Rig Vedic horse (ashva) could have, at least in the beginning, been an onager, which explains its oceanic connections as its native region of Kachchh is along the sea in what would have been the delta of the Sarasvati river.
Other scholars have noted that the Rig Veda knows of a light spoked-wheel chariot that did not appear in the Middle East until around 2000 BCE, suggesting it must be later than this period. They point out the lack of chariot remains in Harappan sites. Countering this view, the spoked-wheel is a common Harappan writing symbol. So there is evidence that the spoked wheel chariot had considerable antiquity in Harappan India.
Genetics is offering us important new information, both in regard to human and animal populations. India’s climate, flora and fauna are closely related to those of Southeast Asia, much more so than to Central Asia or the Middle East. In particular, Indian cattle (Bos Indicus) are domesticated versions of the wild cattle of Southeast Asia known as the Banteng (Bos Banteng or Bos Javanicus, a close relative of the Indian bison or gaur).
The Indian cow is an indigenous breed going back tens of thousands of years and not an offshoot of the Central and West Asian cow. Cattle husbandry is an independent development in India, not brought in from the west. Cattle genetics is even more detrimental to the migration theories because unlike invaders, migrants would always travel with their cattle and horses. Cattle genetics does not show this. As both the ancient Indian cow and horse reflect native breeds, one can no longer propose that the invading Aryans brought them in. That the invading Aryans left their cows and horses behind and adapted those of the indigenous Indians would be a rather silly proposition.
An examination of human skeletal remains also does not show any discontinuity from 1900-800 BCE, the period of the proposed Aryan entrance into India. In a recent article, Hemphill et al state that there are two discontinuities in the area in so far as the human remains are concerned. One occurred between 6000-4500 BCE and the other occurred between 800-200 BCE. In the intervening period, there is a general biological continuity, notwithstanding a limited interaction with the populations from the west that has always occurred to some degree.
Human populations in India show the persistence of the same main population groups back to the pre-Harappan period and before. There is no evidence of an intrusion of new populations from West Asia that altered the genetics of humans in India at the time of the proposed Aryan intrusion. The skeletal record shows that in most ways the Indian population is quite unique. As a result, one thing can safely be asserted: Indians are ancient inhabitants of India and Southeast Asia (or Greater India) and not recent immigrants. Their literature should also belong to them.
One of the criticisms of those who reject the invasion/migration theory is that those who hold that Vedic culture is indigenous to India have not explained the linguistic situation in India, in which Sanskritic or Indo-European dialects prevail in the north of India and west into Central Asia, Iran and Europe, with Dravidian tongues in the south.
To counter this, I have proposed a model of ‘Sanskritization’, which is a Hindu term referring to a model of ‘cultural elite predominance’, to explain the spread of Indo-European languages. It resembles how English has spread in the modern world, not so much by migration as by a dominant culture. Harappan India with its many urban sites provides such a dominant culture that could have had a far reaching influence on different peoples and their dialects. Vedic literature provides a vehicle for this. In this regard, all the river and place names of North India are Sanskritic as far back as can be traced, confirming it. Even South India has many Sanskrit place names of great antiquity.
The Rig Vedic language was a synthetic language, combining elements of the different languages of the region, upholding an older and sanctified terminology for spiritual and religious purposes. Vedic Sanskrit, called ‘chhandas’ or meter, was probably a poetic language acceptable to the various peoples of the region at least on a religious level. Hence, it could travel far and be accepted by various groups, even those speaking rather different common dialects.
While linguists have argued that an elite Aryan culture from Central Asia could change the languages of India, they have missed the basic facts of culture and demographics. The civilization of ancient India was larger, older and more populous than that of Central Asia. Any primary cultural diffusion would have been from east to west, not west to east. This is what history shows us, with ancient Indo-Europeans like the Persians, Greeks and Celts coming originally from regions to the east of their later homelands.
We must note that linguistic diversity was a characteristic feature of the entire ancient world. No region—whether Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Europe or the Mediterranean—had only one linguistic group. India would not have been different. The persistence of linguistic diversity in India may not be a sign of an Aryan migration but of the existence of several old cultures in the region. Just as there are both Indo-European and Dravidian dialects in India, so there are both Indo-European dialects in Europe and non-Indo-European like the Finno-Hungarian and Basque languages. Mesopotomia has Indo-European (predominantly Iranian) dialects as well as Semetic and other groups like the Caucasian languages or ancient Sumerian. The division of linguistic groups in India is no different than that of other regions. Just as Mesopotamian groups like the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Kassites and Assyrians shared the same basic cultures and deities, though having several different language groups, so was the situation in ancient India.
However, even if a migration or invasion is required to explain the different language groups in India, it must have occurred prior to 3000 BCE, before the beginnings of urban civilization in the region. After that period the region was too populated and the basic culture too well formed to allow for such a massive change of languages without significant migrations or a clear archaeological record to support it. Therefore, even if one is compelled to accept certain linguistic constraints, there is no reason for an invasion/migration of 1500 BCE.
Southern and Northern Vedic Cultures
A close study of Vedic literature reveals that there were two related cultures in ancient India. This is one of the main points of my book, the Rig Veda and the History of India. The first was a northern kingdom centered on the Sarasvati-Drishadvati river region. It was dominated by the Purus and the Ikshvakus and their mainly Angirasa gurus that produced the existent Vedas texts that we have. The second was a southern culture along the coast of the Arabian Sea in the Sarasvati delta, and into the Vindhya Mountains. It was dominated by the Turvashas and Yadus and their mainly Bhrigu gurus and extended into groups yet further south.
These two groups vied for supremacy and influenced each other in various ways as the Vedas and Puranas indicate. That is why in Vedic literature the Turvashas and Yadus, the southern people are the main enemies, though originally kinsmen, of the Vedic Bharatas. Great Vedic kings like Divodasa, Srinjaya and Sudas have the Turvashas and Yadus as their main opponents. The mythical ancient Deva-Asura war of the Vedas and Puranas involves the Angirasas and Bhrigus (Brihaspati and Shukra) or the northern and southern rishi families.
Similarly, in Puranic literature it is the Yadus who cause the most conflicts. The great king Sagara of the Ikshvakus defeated the Yadus. So did Parshurama, the great avatar of lord Vishnu. The Ramayana shows a similar north-south battle, with Ravana as a Brahmin with connections to the Yadus. The northern or Bharata culture ultimately prevailed making India the land of Bharata and its main ancient literary record the Vedas, though militarily the Yadus remained strong throughout history.
The southern culture was probably the older of the two, reflecting the fact that north India was a desert prior to the ending of the last Ice Age. The Vedic people probably came originally from the south, not the northwest, spreading gradually northwards after the end of the Ice Age which turned the desert of North India into a fertile region for agriculture. This southern connection is the basis of the maritime symbolism at the core of Vedic thought, which reflects an ancient heritage. There was much borrowing and intermixture between these two groups who shared a common culture. However, we should not think of the two as some Aryan-Dravidian racial divide but as a division within the same basic peoples. That is why many Bhrigus remain prominent in Vedic and post-Vedic literature.
In addition, there was a third or northwest Vedic culture in Punjab and Afghanistan—that of the Anus and Druhyus who were closely related to the Puru-Bharatas. This was first part of the northern kingdom but gradually developed its own identity. It was partly assimilated by the Bharatas as they became the dominant northern people. Another portion of it extended north and west outside of the Indian subcontinent. Its influence was secondary to that of the northern and southern kingdoms and much of it passed out of the Indic sphere of civilization altogether. Sometimes this northwest group of the Anus and Druhyus allied with the southern group of Turvashas and Yadus against the Bharatas, as in the story of Sudas and the Battle of the Ten Kings.
However, this northwest Vedic culture was the basis of the Indo-European cultures that we find in Europe, Central Asia and the Near East. Much of what western scholars have done to show the origin of the Indo-Europeans in Central Asia is really a discovery of this western branch of the Vedic people, not a discovery of the real origins of Indo-European languages or culture as a whole.
Therefore, we must look to the south and the east to understand Indic civilization and the Vedas themselves. The connections west to the Europeans and Iranians were more an outflow, while the southern connections were more original and enduring. Western scholars, dominated by a European mindset, only trace Indo-European culture from Europe and the Middle East to India as its eastern border. They fail to see that the boundary is only in their minds. We can also trace linguistic, cultural and religious influences east and south from India as far as Indonesia, not only during the classical Hindu-Buddhist period, but also in the Vedic period itself. We must, therefore, look to the Rig Veda in terms of southern and eastern connections, recognizing the influences of the greater subcontinent itself which is part of South Asia.
The Rig Veda as the First Bharata
A more sensitive study of the Rig Veda shows it as a book of great kings and seers (rajas and purohits). The Vedas reflect great kingdoms and a sophisticated ancient culture, with the main Vedic rishis like Vasishta being the purohits or chief priests of great emperors like Sudas, said to have ruled India from sea to sea in Brahmanical literature. The Vedas look back to many generations of kings and seers in their Sarasvati homeland. They are not the kind of primitive or barbaric poetry that the invasion/migration scenario requires. Even their glorification of horses and chariots is that of an urban nobility, such as occurred in the ancient literature of Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia, not of primitive invaders.
The Rig Veda lasted because it was the main literature of the subcontinent and its dominant rishi and royal families. The main kings and rishis of the Rig Veda are those of the Bharata dynasty that ruled on the Sarasvati river, from whom India gained its traditional name as Bharata. Just as the Mahabharata later endured because it was a natural literature, so did the Rig Veda itself. The Vedic as a royal literature of the region explains its power to endure. As nomadic poetry, there is no reason why it could have ever been preserved.
Moving Forwards: Towards a New Spiritual Vision of the Vedas
Our view of history evolves along with civilization. Every generation interprets history anew. The views about ancient India set forth in the colonial era are no more the last word then are the colonial views on any civilization. India is now independent and must rewrite its own history. This does not mean to ignore the findings of modern science and archaeology but it also does not mean to ignore the soul and dharma of the country, its yogic and spiritual vision. It is no longer possible to reinvent the Aryan Invasion as a migration or anything else. There is simply no data for it, and the data against it, like the Sarasvati river work, grows stronger every day.
Yet, a revision of the history of ancient India is only the beginning of a greater examination. The real work that lies ahead is an encounter with Vedic literature on a spiritual level. The Vedas contain, at least in seed form, the great wisdom that we find more clearly articulated to us in the Vedantic, Yogic, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh traditions of the region—perhaps even something more. They hold a mantric power in their teachings that later traditions relied only on a portion of, like the power of the great Vedic mantra OM itself. Even modern Hindu teachers like Swami Dayananda of the Arya Samaj, Sri Aurobindo or Pandurang Shastri Athavale have used the great Vedic mantras to energize new yogic paths today.
So far, we have just touched the great spiritual power of the Vedas that can transform our civilization in the light of consciousness. Modern scholars have served not to help open the doors to that great Vedic vision, but have worked hard to keep them shut, not even suspecting the great treasure that lies behind them. In so doing they have taken the role of the proverbial Vedic Panis, the anti-gods who hide the light of truth and joy and keep it constricted by greed and ignorance.
After we have removed the cobwebs of historical misinterpretation fostered by the Aryan Invasion/Migration theory, we can move directly into the real Vedic world. The wonders there will astound us. They will connect us not only to the Divine but also to our inner Self. They will dwarf our estimation of revelation or of science, helping to unfold the secrets of the great conscious universe in which we live and which lives inside of us. The Vedas provide us this deeper vision of humanity. Only if we reintegrate our present culture with that of the ancient seers can we truly go forward to the enlightened world that all sensitive human beings truly wish to create.
May that Vedic vision again come forth for the benefit of all creation.
May the misinterpretations that obscure it disappear like the darkness at the rising of the Sun!