What makes an Indian? Is it the passport? The genetics? The culture? The religion? The food? The fashion? All of the above? It’s a question that’s been hotly debated amongst the citizens of the Indian Republic since the bloody partition and independence of 1947. Praise of India’s diversity finds purchasing power both inside and outside its borders, but this diversity does come at a cost. Between religion, caste, ethnicity, language, and so many other identities, India at times seems to tear from its seams. Harbingers of hatred need no excuse to dig into the annals of history finding division and discord that can be applied today. One proposed division takes us to the time of India’s infancy. From the southern tip of the grand Indian peninsula came an ideology that posited that Dravidians, a speculative group of people who speak Dravidian languages, as the original inhabitants of the subcontinent. The patriarch of this ideology, EV Ramaswamy, known as Periyar amongst his faithful, spewed venom and violence against the “invader” north Indians and their Brahmin patriarchs and progeny.
But how accurate is this notion? Was there an idyllic, secular, and rational society prior to when the first horse hooves of the steppe stampeded into India? Did these “Aryans” bring a foreign religion called Hinduism into India as well and impose it on the Dravidians who followed a now lost faith? Half truths at least; full falsehoods at most.
Societies are stories. They are the fallout of generations of narrations about our past and who we are. Jawaharlal Nehru, freedom fighter and India’s first Prime Minister, sought to weave an “Idea of India” that was a composite tapestry of Hindu and Muslim fabrics. That tapestry has been torn to shreds for several decades now. Instead, it has been Hindutva that has supplanted the Nehruvian sacrament as the sacred fire of the yajna of yore engulfs Indians politics and a common Indian identity built on Dharma gains popularity.
But not all bow to the ritual of these ancients.
Politics Is War
There are few places where historical invasions animate the populace more than India. While much of this headspace is focused on more recent Islamic invasions of the medieval era as well as British imperialism of the colonial era, in some pockets of India, headaches originate from invasions in a time where history wasn’t even recorded in India. A missing memory of the subcontinent.
These battles are highlighted in the deep south of India, Tamil Nadu and lately have entered elite academic debates on caste. The conflict in Tamil Nadu is over the ancient peopling of India with an onus on the enigmatic Aryans. But this piece is not going to exclusively focus on the migration of the Aryans into India; there are many that do. What we will examine are the many migrations into and within India as well as the present political consequences. But first, let’s establish some quick background.
There are many stellar pieces on the peopling of India. A few I recommend are Razib Khan’s comprehensive piece, Stark Truth About Aryans: A Story of India and Aryāṃśa’s Sons of the Indus: The Indians; I will give a bare and brief synopsis below:
- The aboriginal Indian, whose genes run through the blood of nearly everyone from the Indian subcontinent, descended into the subcontinent around 50,000-70,000 years ago. This population would become known as AASI – Ancient Ancestral South Indian.
- The Iranian hunter-gatherer would enter India around 10,000 years ago and mix with aboriginals to form the Indians who gave rise to the Indus Saraswati Civilization.
- The steppe component entered India most probably in waves after 2000 BCE to 1000 BCE. They are usually the big hubbub as they are posited to be the legendary Aryans, but more on this later.
- The Austronesian component would enter from southeast Asia at a similar time of 2000 BCE to 1000 BCE.
There are other migrations into and outflows from the subcontinent as well, but for now let’s call the aforementioned out as the prominent ones we know of today. Feel free to dive into the 2 pieces I mentioned prior. I highly recommend them as they are treasure troves of information.
One of the most potent lines of rhetoric that stems from Hindutva discourse is that it is fundamentally an indigenous rights movement. “Indigenous rights” – that phrase is a sacred cow today. Conjuring the bloody European campaign of terror that walked in lock step with colonialism, those who were crushed under the European heel are today demanding their reparations and retribution. In Western discourse, you cannot dare to cross these lines of persuasion. Indigeneity evokes powerful emotions and a primordial attachment to the land, where the spirits of ancestors connect to the soil itself.
But where Hindutva’s call of indigeneity faces hurtles is the proposed ancient migrations into India. Keep in mind that migrations have occurred across the world, yet this notion of indigeneity is only challenged in India. The nomadic Mexica people would clear out the valley of Mexico before they established Tenochtitlan and became the Aztecs. A substantial genetic portion and culture of the ancestors of the emblematic Greeks, Romans, hell, so many Europeans come from the steppe in the model we are discussing. The ancient Egyptians did not speak Arabic nor had a 1 to 1 genetic makeup to modern Egyptians. The massive Bantu expansion across Sub-Saharan Africa was not a Mandelan march of peace. Yet it is only in India that this standard of indigeneity is upheld. Indra, who rides an Indian elephant and blesses the agricultural Indian with rain for their crops, is a steppe central Asian god; but Zeus and Thor are decidedly Greek and Nordic. I think you see the double standard here.
While much attention and ire surrounds the entry of the Aryans into India, little is sounded around the Dravidians. And therein lies the hypocrisy. Politics flows from emotion first, then logic.
As we established prior, the Indian population is a mixture of 3 large waves or migrations. This 2nd migration consists of a group that was related to, but distinct from, Iranian agriculturalists in the Zagros mountains. In the shadow of the Zagros is where the people of Elam flourished. From around 3200-540 BCE, the Elamites formed the eastern frontier of the Fertile Crescent. The Elamites worshipped a menagerie of gods, many of whom they shared with Akkadian Mesopotamians, and spoke a purported language isolate; but some believe it had a cognate. The proposed cousin is to the east, in the Indus Saraswati Civilization; a civilization that the Elamites traded with frequently. The proposition is that the ancestors of the Zagros farmers of Elam kept moving east and mingled with the AASI Indians eventually forming the base population for the Indus Saraswati peoples (and much of the genetic makeup of modern Indians themselves). Ironically, this means there was an earlier set of Indo-Iranians prior to the Indo-European speaking Indo-Iranians. History indeed loves to rhyme and repeat!
Whether the Elamites were Dravidian cousins or not, we know that there was a split between those Neolithic farmers that ended up in the Zagros and those that ended up in Himalayas. This is evidenced from recent genetic studies confirming that a woman from the ancient Indus Saraswati site of Rakhigarhi was void of any Iranian Zagros farmer ancestry. The logic of these subsequent discoveries hints that farming may have even been reared independently in India in the cradles of its holy rivers.
But how do we know that the Indus Saraswati people were Dravidian? Well now we start getting to “homeland” for these Dravidians, in the southern realms of this ancient Indian civilization. The southern stretches were primarily spread across Sindh, Gujarat, as well as parts of Baluchistan and Maharashtra. We find geographic toponyms across this region with Dravidian-esque influence. Additionally, we have some scant linguistic evidence dealing with elephants. The hypothesized Proto-Dravidian word, “pīlu,” which meant splitting and supposedly references a tooth or tusk, is found in Mesopotamia circa 1400 BCE via the Akkadian pīri or pīru meaning elephant. This would make sense as trade did exist between both these lands. Regarding the northern realms, things are a bit more murky. Some hypothesize that they spoke a language that was completely wiped out or an ancestor of a language isolate found in Gilgit-Baltistan called Burushaski. However, if we go by the prior rhetoric of evidence, things get even more muddy. Of course the northern subcontinent is dominated by Indo-Aryan toponyms, yet more curiously are recent findings showing Sanskrit words related to music and trade that bear eerie resemblance to Sumerian words, indicating some form of contact. But for now, we’ll stick to more mainstream theories.
Returning to the model of steppe migration, it seems that this was concurrent with both a Dravidian migration into peninsular India as well as a thrust of AASI enriched Indians towards the northwest. This great Indian churn reminiscent of the Samudra Manthan motif or “churning of the cosmic ocean” in the Hindu Puranas is what produced the precursors of Indian culture and society today. The modern Indian was being assembled in this churn. Even more ingredients were added to the mixture through the east through Munda migrations from Southeast Asia. These migrants would particularly populate the DNA of India’s tribals or “adivasis;” a misnomer meaning “first inhabitants” that has been hijacked by political interests to misclassify these tribals as the original people of the Indian subcontinent. As we’ve seen, this is simply not the case.
As these Dravidians reached Tamil Nadu, they too brought with them Vedic culture. This is something that will cause heartburn to the fanciful separatists of Tamil Nationalist bent, but the earliest Tamil literature of the Sangam Era extols the Vedas and Vedic gods such as Vishnu, Shiva, Durga, and Indra. Even the much vilified Tamil Brahmins find praise in the earliest of Tamil texts. There was no separate secular notion in the Tamil nation. This was an Aryan land.
The True Aryan
Politicized almost beyond repair, the term “Aryan” is hotly debated amongst historians, geneticists, archeologists, and edgy internet posters across the globe. But why not ask the Aryans themselves?
The term “Arya” originally occurs in the Vedas referring those who adhere to Vedic norms or spoke the Vedic tongue, Sanskrit. Perhaps in an even narrower context in the earlier verses, it refers to those belonging to the Pūru tribe or its eponymous sub-tribe, the Bharatas. In later verses, we see this “Arya” term expanded to other Vedic tribes as well as being using in an abstract sense denoting “pure” or “noble.” Later Indian literature steadies on the dual definitions of “noble” or someone who adheres to Dharmic norms as an “Aryan.”
The common characterization of these Vedic peoples is that they came into India and wiped out the natives, completely destroying their culture and bringing their traditions as the new centerpiece of Indian civilization. But this is not true either. With climate and geological changes, the Indus Saraswati civilization waned eventually collapsing prior to the entry of the steppe people. These steppe people would come into India and indeed would conquer, but they would then be integrated completely. They came, they saw, they conquered, and then they were swallowed.
The people who wrote the Vedas were in love and reverent to the land of India. The rivers, mountains, plains, forests, even the literal dirt itself was holy to them. Their gods were flanked with Indian flora and fauna. They delved into philosophies and rituals alien to the wider world. They were a profoundly unique people who would not be who they were if they did not live and die in India.
Over time, many of the gods who found the most praise in the Vedas, the lords of the elements such as Indra, Varuna, Agni, etc…, would give way to other divinities who would eclipse them in prominence. Vishnu’s greatness could be gleaned throughout the early Vedic verses as he was frequently paired with Indra, Surya, Agni, and light itself. He was referenced as the guardian of the highest home, where a soul that has broken the cycle of reincarnation resides. The dawn of Vishnu and Shiva would arrive with the transition to the Puranas and Itihasa epics. In the Yajurveda, Narayana, a popular epithet for Vishnu, is mentioned as the supreme being. The icon of the Pashupati seal of the Indus, Shiva, known as Rudra in the Vedas also makes frequent appearances as a lord of storms and destruction. Adorned with a cobra for a necklace, his home in the Himalayas, the sacred Ganga river springing from his matted locks, and donning leopard skin, Shiva’s iconic Indian brand radiates his local roots.
But it is in the tales of the Dark Lord that we see a glimpse of which gods would rule the Indian mind. While popular narratives would tell you that a skin color apartheid was enforced by the steppe folk, what’s curious is that dark skin gods would become their supreme deities. They would even beg the gods for dark skin children. The Brihadarayanka Upanishad devotes verses (6.4.16) denoting the high merits and methods needed to conceive dark skinned children; merits and methods that were greater than those needed for lighter shades. Vishnu, whose avatars and epithets possess names frequently alluding to his dark skin color, would rise as a zenith of the Hindu pantheon over the ages. A possible peek into the rise of Vishnu’s prominence lies in the tale of Govardhan.
Krishna, Vishnu’s incarnation, watched as his adoptive father, Nand, prepared to pray to Indra to bless them with rain. The young Krishna would chide his father for fearfully worshipping a god who had grown jealous and arrogant with power. He instead told his father and the villagers to pray to the mountain Govardhan and revere their cattle for those were the true guaranteers of their agricultural success. An incensed Indra would send a terrible torrent on Krishna’s home, Braj, flooding the land. The legend climaxes with Krishna lifting Govardhan with his finger, protecting Braj from the storm, and humbling Indra into obeisance. Perhaps this represents the transition of which god(s) curried the most favor with the ancient Indians. Perhaps not, but it is a convenient tale.
As we continue along the lines of “whataboutery” regarding these Aryans, one eventually reaches a meditating monk under a tree. The Buddhist and Jain traditions, known as Śramanism, are postulated as rebellions or descendants of pre-Aryan Dravidian Indian religion. Yet as we’ve already established the deep roots of Hinduism in pre-steppe India, we must also establish the Aryan roots of Buddhism and Jainism. Both religions recognize caste as a feature of Indian society and even endorse it in some scriptures. Buddha self-designates his way as the Arya Dharma, a reviving of the true way of the Vedas not the corrupted version of his time. He colors his commentary with decidedly Hindu motifs that link his message and incarnation with the great tales and people of India’s Vedic past. Śramanism was a descendent of Vedic thought that would run parallel to orthodox ancient Hinduism (or Brahminism as it is maliciously termed by academia and activists), and both became intertwining strands of a common multifarious Indian Dharma, borrowing from each other with ease and synchronizing concepts with harmony.
“War is deceit,” so said the Prophet Muhammad ages ago amongst the sands of Arabia. Many movements that outwardly appear to be extremely ideological in fact are power struggles for resources on ground. Periyar and his cohort of powerful landed castes in Tamil Nadu, used the garb of Dravidianism and mythical millennia old battles to oust the franchised Brahmins from their powerful positions in Tamil society. Endowed with British cooperation and historical success, the Brahmins of the Tamil country occupied both landlord and administrative roles in the colonial era as well as possessed a culture that strongly emphasized education. Periyar’s poison would flow across the veins of Tamil society with an intense animus of hatred directed towards the Tamil Brahmins. The offensive attire of fanciful rhetoric and minimalistic reductions of ancient migrations resulted in the gradual emigration of many Tamil Brahmins from Tamil Nadu. Additionally, we see almost anti-semitic-like conspiracy theories surrounding the minuscule yet prosperous Brahmin minority, where many blame every evil and sin of society on the conniving control and domination of Brahmins.
The power vacuum left by the Brahmins would be taken up by castes allied with Periyar. To buttress diatribes against the Brahmins, Periyar made it a point to paint Brahmins as Aryan invaders who imposed their religion on the Dravidian society, which he deemed as “secular” and “rational” as opposed to the “superstitious” and oppressive Aryan faith of Hinduism. Periyar would go so far in his malice towards Brahmins so as to encourage the literal hunting and killing of Brahmins in Tamil Nadu. While Dravidianism was supposed to be a panacea to casteism, still we see it unfortunately practiced in Tamil Nadu today. Meanwhile, increasingly violent and xenophobic oratory attempts to cleave the great Tamil culture from the Indian civilization.
So ironic this is, as much of India owes itself to Tamil Nadu. From the wise Vedanta philosopher, Ramanuja, whose ideas catapulted the Bhakti movement across all of India to the great Chola emperors (who funny enough referred to themselves as Aryans) who carried the Tamil crown across the subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Tamil Nadu functioned as the incubator and refuge of a Hinduism ravaged in the north during medieval invasions. Scores of Tamil scientists, especially the former Indian President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, would push Indian technology and capability forward making the lives of all Indians better. Yet today, it is Periyar’s ideology that dominates the Tamil political sphere.
One of the more disturbing parts about the effect of such simplistic takes on ancient Indian migrations is a niche form of genetic supremacy that is developing. While some embellish the stature of their steppe DNA, others claim themselves as the true aboriginal of the land due to their large proportion of AASI lineage. They go so far as even asking for reparations based on this poppycock of logic. While there is some correlation between mixes of steppe, IVC, and AASI lineages around caste, it is an imperfect and a diverse amount that is in the end, a mixture. All Indians are an amalgamation of these people to various degrees. There is almost no pure steppe, IVC, or AASI person in the subcontinent (the Andaman Nicobar people may be sole exception on the AASI front). The movement towards heightened caste consciousness combined with the advocation of an almost racial element to caste could be potentially disastrous for India.
India’s history is one of syncretism and synchronization. Multiple identities, ideas, and itihasas were welded together by the Vedic verses millennia ago. Both the Brahmins and Śramanas or priests and ascetics traversed the Indian expanse and spread the message of Dharma. Still, they all agreed on the inherent divinity and sacredness of the subcontinent, of Bhārata. That is what distinguishes these people, these ideas, and these philosophies from the rest of the world. Indeed, as one delves into the story of India, a story that encapsulates much of human history and audacity of both thought and action, one attains the truth in the Mahabharata’s triumphant epilogue: