Not all Aryans are Indian, though most Indians are part Aryan, and most Aryan ancestry is in India

Ossetian boys

This post needs to published mostly to clarify some issues in relation to terminology. The genetics is moving fast, and people are going to get overwhelmed.

First, the term Aryan, or Arya, is not exclusive to South Asia. As most of you know it was used by many (though not all!) Iranian peoples. The Indic and Iranian branches of the Indo-European language family are close enough they form a very tight clade. The only comparison might be Baltic and Slavic, though some have asserted that that is due to the fact that Baltic peoples have lived so close to Slavic peoples for such a long time.

Though in the main Iranian peoples are in close proximity to South Asia, or in West Asia (e.g., Kurds), one group is exceptional in that it has no connection to West or South Asia: the Ossetes.  These people on the northern fringes of the Caucasus are descended from Iranian steppe pastoralists who never went south. You know them as Scythians, Sarmatians, and Alans.

To my knowledge these northern Iranian peoples never called themselves Arya, so perhaps the world itself was some sort of loanword? (internet resources are of differing opinions on the provenance)

Second, the division between Indo-Aryans and Iranians predates the  arrival of the latter into the Indian subcontinent and to West Asia. The latest genetic work indicates that steppe signal did not show up at BMAC until ~2000 BC. We also know that a group of Indo-Aryan provenance was in Upper Mesopatamia 1500 BC. In contrast, Iranian peoples show up to the east of Assyria ~1000 BC, and there were Iranian peoples to the north of Turan deep into antiquity (the Sarmatians who harried the Pannonian frontier were Iranian heirs to the Scythians).

The “Indo-Aryans” who were integrated into the kingdom of Mittanni/Hanigalbat may never been resident within South Asia. Where the major pulse of migration went to the India subcontinent after 2000 BC, another wave probably sent outriders to the west.

But where the Indo-Aryans in South Asia would have  encountered collapsing IVC order, the societies of West Asia bounced back reasonably from the time of troubles around the turn of millennium, when barbarians from the northern and eastern peripheries (“wild Guti”) collapsed the Third Dynasty of Ur and Semitic pastoralists took the reins of Mesopatamian civilization.

There are suggestive but very clear Indo-Aryan aspects of the Mitanni elite culture. But, by and large it was absorbed into the Hurrian substrate of the region. The analogy here might be what happened to the Turkic Bulgars in what became Bulgaria, as they were cultural absorbed by the Slavs over whom they ruled (or, the Scandinavian Rus).

Let’s call these steppe people “Aryans.” Iranians and “Indo”-Aryans.

How many are there around today? Let’s say 10% of South Asian ancestry is Aryan. This is very conservative (see this post). That’s 150 million people, 0.10 x 1.5 billion. There are ~200 Iranian speakers. There’s no way that 75% of the ancestry among this group is steppe. It is high in Turan and eastern Iran, but in populous western Iran and in Kurdistan the steppe fraction declines (Haber et al. found 7% “pure steppe” signal in Lebanon, so it’s not trivial even in western Iran, but it’s probably not going to be more than 50%).  Most of the Aryan ancestry in the world is in India.

That being said, one should not confuse South Asian culture with Aryan culture and Aryan culture with South Asia. The two are distinct. It is hard to deny that South Asian culture was strongly shaped by the Indo-Aryans; most of us (or our recent ancestors) speak an Indo-Aryan language. The Hindu priestly caste seems to have more Indo-Aryan ancestry, and some of their rituals and customs date back to the Vedic period. Only a few groups have zero evidence of steppe ancestry, even in South India.

Indus Valley artifact

But Indian culture and Indo-Aryan culture in South Asia are not exclusively Indo-Aryan. The “Hindu religion” is diverse, but it is clearly not present outside of South Asia, except as reflux as South Asian polities and peoples moved to the margins of Turan (e.g. the Shahi kings), or through cultural and demographic diffusion to Southeast Asia (there is robust evidence of Indian genetic impact in places like Cambodia and Bali).

I do not believe that Hinduism, and Indian culture more generally, can be understood without consideration of its non-Aryan component. The cultural archaeology of this is beyond the purview of this post, but I believe that like the Greeks the Indians were strongly shaped by pre/non-Indo-European currents.

As Indian culture in the 1st millennium BC can only be understood as a synthesis between Aryan culture, and non-Aryan culture, the expansion of Buddhism into other parts of Asia, and more specifically to Turan, was not just of Indianized Aryan culture, but of an Indian culture which was a synthesis of Aryan and non-Aryan. It was something new, novel, and distinctive, that was exported throughout Eurasia.

 

Nuanced understanding of British Colonialism

Please watch this video, followed by the following video:

I have read many books on India preceding and during British rule from many different perspectives and as a child spoke to many old people who were nostalgic about the British. What does nostalgia mean? It means that they all celebrated independence and had a nuanced bitter sweet understanding of the English. They spoke about the English as they were, warts, strengths, good aspects and all. Aspects of English policy and English colonization of the mind are mixed or negative; but the Anglo people themselves enriched India greatly. Anglo means English nationals who lived a large part of their lives in British India and mixed English/South Asian ancestry descendants. One of the great tragedies of South Asian history is that many Anglos left South Asia. India would have been better off had the English lived on in India as patriotic Indian citizens and continued to serve in high positions inside India alongside their fellow Indians. Hence the bitter sweet.

Continue reading “Nuanced understanding of British Colonialism”

Book Review: The RigVeda

How many fires are there, how many suns?

How many dawns? How many waters?

I ask this, O fathers, not to challenge.

O Sages, I ask it to know

(RigVeda Book 10, hymn 88)

Full Disclosure: I have not actually read the entire RigVeda; all I did was read multiple hymns in each of the 10 books of the RigVeda. The hymns are (as expected) very repetitive, but they do give you a picture of the culture of the Indo-Europeans who came to India around 1800 BC (or so we believe these days, this may be adjusted as ancient DNA from Indian sites yields its secrets). It is a window (and probably the most complete and most ancient window we have) into the Indo-European world that played such a huge role in the creation of the present cultures of much of Eurasia, from Western Europe to India (and beyond). The book is thus a window into our own “heroic age”, so to speak and should be of interest to all, above and beyond their obvious status as shruti (heard, i.e. revealed, as opposed to composed by latter day humans) holy books in Hinduism.

The translation I read is by Indologist Ralph Griffith, who lived most of his life in India (he was the pincipal of Benares college in the Hindu holy city of Benares) and is buried in South India (i.e. one of those Englishmen who came to India and fell in love, or like JBS Haldane, fell in love and came to India). A more recent and scholarly translation is now available but is very expensive. This one is free and available in its entirety at this site:  (http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/index.htm)

In the original Sanskrit, the hymns are arranged in stanzas and follow particular rules of rhyme and meter (hear a sample at the end of this review). They are meant to be memorized (with extreme fidelity to the text and its correct pronunciation) and then sung/recited (as they still are), in religious ceremonies and sacrifices to the Gods.  In this sense, my use of them as a “window into the heroic age” has little to do with their use and status in Hinduism. But then, I am not a Hindu (unless we are following Savarkar’s definition, in which case I guess I am a little bit Hindu too). Anyhow, on with the review. Continue reading “Book Review: The RigVeda”

To be brown is to be a civilization


Though I often disagree with him, I do enjoy Zach’s perspective on things because they are different from mine, though we exhibit similarities (e.g., both of us generally align with the center-Right in Anglophone societies). Zach may be one of the first cosmopolitan desis in his pedigree; he, himself of part-Persian heritage, marrying a South Indian Sindhi, probably to raise a family in England. In contrast, I may be the last brown person in my pedigree for a while, fading into legend and myth (or infamy!).

But one of the things I think is important to emphasize is South Asia is a civilizational entity straight-jacketed for historical reasons into a few nation-states. Though India and China are often compared together, they are totally incomparable insofar as the Han majority of China exhibit a racial and linguistic unity which South Asians do not (even though southeast Chinese dialects are unintelligible with Mandarin, the written language is the same).

By and large, I am predisposed to agree that someone like Zach is more prototypically South Asian than I am. Despite his religious heterodoxy his cultural rootedness in the Northwest quadrant of the subcontinent does put him at the “center of the action,” so to speak. In contrast, my own family’s recent origins are on the far eastern fringe of recognizably desi territory…. That is, my family is from the eastern portion of eastern Bengal (my grandmother was almost killed by the crazy elephant of the maharani of Tripura!). It’s interesting that 3,000 years after the emergence of Iron Age South Asian cultures the fulcrum of South Asian identity is where it began all those millennia ago (there was a period between the Mauryas and the Guptas when Bihar was the center).

Talking about what is more prototypically desi is like talking about what is more prototypically “European.” Being French or German is more prototypically European than being Albanian or Russian. We could argue why, but in your heart you know it’s true. There are definitions of Europeans which exclude Albanians and Russians (even though I’d disagree with those personally), but no plausible ones which exclude French and Germans.

Finally, I do think it indicates the limits and flexibility around race and brown identity. As Zach has said repeatedly he is very light-skinned (and part Iranian to boot). Myself, I don’t think anyone would describe me as either light-skinned or dark-skinned; I’m pretty much the average South Asian in complexion. Brown. Not light brown. Or dark brown. Literally just brown. But that doesn’t really weight much in terms of who is “more desi” or not. I have never watched a Bollywood film all the way through. That matters more.

Aryan Migration and its Discontents

The debate about the origins of the “Aryans” and their arrival in India has flared up again, this time triggered by new genetic findings that appear to confirm with a great deal of certainty that large numbers of Indo-Europeans herders migrated into the Indian subcontinent about 4000 or so years ago.  Razib Khan (one of the best informed and unbiased bloggers on this topic) has written in detail about this topic in several posts, the most recent of which is here. I am not going to go into the genetics or the details, I just wanted to recap the story in very simple layperson outline and focus mostly on some of the politics around this topic. My basic argument is that the Hindutvavadi reaction to the political uses of “Aryan Invasion Theory” is relatively justified, but opting to take a stand against population genetics and common sense in the form of a relatively recently concocted (and very unlikely) “Out of India” (OIT) theory is an unfortunate and self-defeating mistake.

The Indo-Europeans who migrated into India were one of several migratory stream that, between 4000-2000 BCE, spread in all directions out of the Pontic Steppe (what is now Eastern Ukraine and Southern Russia, North and North-East of the Black Sea). They were cattle herding, horse breeding steppe dwellers who, like practically all other human populations, were themselves a product of the layers of human settlement and migration that have woven the intricate net of human racial groups since the first emergence of modern humans in Africa. They were also a very successful, capable and warlike people who had developed light, fast, spoke-wheeled chariots (and possibly, the composite bow) that were the wonder weapons of their time.

Continue reading “Aryan Migration and its Discontents”

Indian genetics, part n of many

I put up close to definitive piece for me in relation to South Asian historical population genetics. At least until new research is published. I did leave out some stuff about my own vague thoughts…but I think the takeover of Hattian and Hurrian cultures by the Nesha (Hittites) and Haryannu (Mitanni) have something to teach us….