Why the Aryan debate matters and why it should NOT

One of the earliest depictions of Rigvedic deities – Indra and Surya from Bhaja Caves near Lonavla.

A year after my blog post on the topic of the Aryan invasion, I am revisiting the topic on Brownpundits, not as a query into the historical question but as a question of identity and politics.

The Aryan debate touches a variety of political faultlines in India and hence is not going to be settled anytime soon I presume, yet intellectually I think it is a non-sequitur for most of the alleged issues around which the issue is discussed. Those issues being (not necessarily in order of importance)

  • Western colonialism and racism and its converse in India. (Identity)
  • The Jati-Varna system and its legacy in India
  • Dravidian nationalism
  • Islam and Christianity in Modern India.
  • Love for native antiquity and religious dogma.

My primary issue with the politics around this issue is that it clearly prevents intelligent and passionate people interested in the topic from pursuing it clear-headedly (Not that researchers don’t get illogically attached to their theories in face of overwhelming evidence). Perhaps the example of Colin Renfrew (Anatolian farmer hypothesis) accepting the Kurgan hypothesis (Marija Gimbutas) after the ancient DNA work came out is an outlier but it is still good to know such examples.

As far as the politics go, it’s fair to state that it’s the Hindutvadis who are at the vanguard of pushback against AIT/AMT (however it’s important to note that there are notable exceptions, and not all Hindutvavadis are invested in this debate). Also some non-Hindutvavadi (especially traditional Hindus and Indians with nativist anti-colonial mindset) are also invested in this debate.

Identity: Western colonialism and racism and its converse in India.

The genesis of the Aryan invasion theory was in the racist notions of white and European superiority – “White horse warriors who spoke a form a proto Sanskrit arrived in the subcontinent and subjugated the dark, stubby-nosed natives of India” (in process civilizing them). The extrapolation of this being – what the British colonizers were doing was just the latest upgrade of civilization being uploaded in the lands of relapsed natives. But then the stunning finds of the IVC began poking holes in this simplistic racist take. Though initially Indra was accused of the destruction of the IVC, later developments in the field acquitted him. However, it is important to note that as migrations became unpopular in global academia for the spread of cultures (post the Nazi Aryan theories), the Aryan migration theory remained mainstream in Indian academia (though the initial racist and simplistic narratives were rejected even by eminent Secular/Marxist historians).

Rejection of the AMT based on the circumstances of its genesis still remains a major reason for the rejection of AMT by Indians. The sentiment behind it being “No white men from outside civilized us”. However, it needs no pointing that in the academic chronology of Indian history, the Pre-Aryan IVC is the major Copper-Bronze age civilization known to us. As we discover more about pre Iron age peninsular India, we find the Stone-Chalcolithic age in the geographic region of India went far beyond the IVC and north Copper hoard sites. At this point, it is fair to assert that Rice cultivation developed somewhat independently in the region East of Punjab. Even basic ancient Indian books like Ancient India by Upinder Singh and India’s Ancient Past by RS Sharma have good length devoted to non-IVC pre-Iron age India.

No white men from outside civilized us” seems settled but its converse is commonplace in nativist Indian circles these days. The term Indus valley “civilization” is only used for the 2600bce to 1900bce Urban period, yet the web is replete with articles that push back the dates of “civilization” in IVC sites (as back as 8000 BCE), particularly Rakhigarhi which incidentally falls in modern India. This need for everything good happened in Ancient India first manifests itself in badly researched and tenous articles like this one – My response to it – here.

I see this need to find Ancient Indian examples for political or scientific advances without robust data to be the mirror to the Racist colonial theories.

Varna divisions and Dravidian faultlines:

Some critiques of the AIT/AMT take umbrage to the instrumental use of AIT/AMT by Brahmins/Kshatriyas to justify the Varna system and also by Dalit/Bahujan activists to “Smash” Brahmanism and thus by proxy Hinduism. The annual Durga-Mahishasur controversy and the Vaman-Bali Onam flamewars keep the controversy in the news.

The Eurasian-like ancestry (ANI ancestry) in India (Both Steppe pastoralist and IVC-like) is mostly correlated with the Varna status. The somewhat ethnic nature of the Varna hierarchy is unpalatable for modern Hindus to digest. However, it is important to note that such ethnic divisions in classes are commonplace around the world. While it is fair to assume in pre-modern times the interactions which led to the great mixing of the Indian subcontinent (2000BCE to 0AD) had violence and exploitation cooked into them, the reasons also could be explained without the worst subjugation imaginable.

Anyways it’s a fool’s errand to indulge in finding conclusive evidence in pre-literate history, I would argue that the question of Aryan Migration is irrelevant to this oppressor-oppressed narratives. From outsiders’ accounts, native sources as well as genetics, I think it is fair to conclude that after initial intermixing, a group of people who happened to have a higher proportion of certain ancestry (genetic/ cultural) dominated another set of people – either organically or systemically. Razib Khan makes this point very succinctly in his substack.

However, to this uncomfortable conclusion, it does not matter whether the ancient Arya expanded from the Kazakh steppes or the Punjab region or even Anatolia for that matter. The boundaries of Aryavarta in the subcontinent were themselves always expanding into their margins, and only after the complete expansion does the notion of Sacred geography become important; not before. Politically this point will be made either honestly or dishonestly by westerners and political opponents of Hinduism (not just Hindutva) – but there is space for a nuanced counter without indulging in ad-hoc denial which logically may be irrelevant. Even the most dogmatic adherents of sacred geography have to reflect that there was a time the geography wasn’t sacred.

Dravidian nationalism:

While most of the points made in the above passage are relevant to the question of Dravidian nationalism, its (Dravidian nationalism) basis is shakier than the Varna ethnic division. This point is made wonderfully by Razib khan here. Most probably IVC exodus had begun before the arrival of Steppe pastoralists (Arya in my opinion), so at best the pre-history can fit a model of subjugation of peninsular natives (AASI adjacent) by the farmers and pastoralists who left the collapsing IVC southwards. As mentioned before, it is a mug’s game to impose oppression Olympics on pre-history, but if it has to be done then the one mentioned in the previous line makes more sense than the Aryan-Dravidian dichotomy. The model that two elite cultures were interacting, integrating, subjugating, and co-opting natives – one in the north and one in the south while interacting with each other along the periphery seems to be the parsimonious explanation. In the mood of speculation, I would add that there was another elite culture in the mix – which Michael Witzel now calls – Kubhā-Vipāś substrate (which he earlier called Para-Munda) – corresponding to the remnants of the IVC in the North. 

Islam and Christianity:

Arguably this remains the biggest reason Hindutva remains politically opposed to AMT. The initial framing of Hindutva by Savarkar and Golwalkar made use of the insider-outsider analogy. While Savarkar saw no dissonance between his framing of Hindutva and Aryan migration, it was the religiously dogmatic and un-intellectual-ish Golwalkar whose framing of Hindutva rested on Hindus being native to the subcontinent since the beginning of time. Armed with the AIT/AMT the opponents of Hindutva have attacked this particular point scornfully in Golwalkar’s framing as a slam-dunk. Examples of this being this particularly transparent framing by Shoaib Daniyal. (given that he knows linguistics and must know that Rigvedic Sanskrit was most probably spoken in India around the same time).

However, this point shouldn’t matter for the intellectual foundation of native Indian thought (Hindutva ++) because.

  • One of the most common points made by AMT skeptics is that the Rigveda doesn’t clearly remember some older homeland. This point alone is enough to deny the Hinduism is foreign to the subcontinent argument. Firstly what we understand as Hinduism today is far different from the religion of the Rigvedic Aryans. Hinduism cannot at the same time be a British invention as well as imposed 3 thousand years ago by invading Aryans.
  • On the contrary viz. Turkic invaders who became rulers of the North and Central subcontinent were evidently aware of their foreign stock. Before most of the north Indian dynasties could go native, they were replaced by newer invaders for centuries. The Portuguese who violently brought Christianity to the coasts of India were equally sure of who they were and who they were not. As with the Parsis, Cochim Jews and British.
  • As I have argued before, current Hindu-Muslim faultlines have less to do with what the medieval invaders did and more what the Pakistan movement achieved and how Muslim intransigence and Hindutva consolidation have progressed since independence. This is a contested opinion and I plan to handle it sometime later in a separate post.
  • While Aryas and Medieval invasions remain contested and debated hotly, the dozen or so invaders who invaded post the Vedic period (barring Alexander) are not even footnotes in the discourse of the day. This brings me to the more important differentiation – data becomes sparse we go back and wrt to the Aryan migration we are truly holding at straws for building our narratives.                    Ex – the alleged anti-idolatry sentiment in the Rigvedic Aryans (wrt to some smashed Proto-linga from old Indus sites) is so flimsy and incomparable to the medieval invaders (more importantly the iconoclasm of the later kind remains as relevant today as it did in the medieval time)

Ideally in a modern democracy, all citizens have equal rights no matter whose ancestors came into the geographical entity when, but some framings of Hindu Rashtra (not all) make Muslims and Christians lesser citizens. While this yardstick continues to be used, arguments and rebuttals on this dubious point will continue (but it need not be).

Issues with academic chronology:

Unlike most states who have founding myths in historic times (barring China, Egypt, and Iran I guess), the foundations of the Indian civilizational state go back well into the Bronze-Iron age. The historic timeline of Agriculture (till IVC) 3500BCE -> IVC (2000BCE) -> Vedic period (1500-700 BCE) -> MahaJanapada period (700-300 BCE) are at odds with most chronologies popular among Hindus (even Jains for that matter). While the absolutely ludicrous timelines presented by Nilesh Oak have widespread support, it is far beyond my ability to address them. However, the academic dating of Indian history makes the Rigveda a 3500-year-old text at most, the events of Mahabharata (if they really occurred) as a 3000-3500 -year-old event. I guess Hindu traditionists (not necessarily Hindutvavadis) cannot digest the inconsistencies of traditions with academic history. While this appears to be an insoluble issue, I think like scientific oriented Christians and Jews who no longer hold the Book of Genesis as a historical text, Hindus can also look at their traditions from a rational lens (though currently where the truly scientific lens differentiates from the colonial lens is contested). However, this is easier said than done as the parallels between Creationism and Indian traditions (especially Itihasa) are unfair (as especially young-earth Creationism is way easier to dismiss).


In most of the above points, the Aryan debate remains irrelevant to the political narratives if one faces them with intellectual honesty, maybe except in the case of timelines. Ex: Brits whose self-conception goes back to the Magna Carta at most, don’t care whether Romans invaded and occupied Celtic Britain. Neither do they care about the Viking invasions or Norman conquests (as much). Unfortunately, Indian self-conception as a civilizational state goes back further than the Muslim invasions. Hence to counter the inconvenient history, the pre-historic events attested in one of the earliest texts of human history remain contested. Also the “we are a 5000-year-old civilization” drum cannot be beaten endlessly if Rigveda is dated to 3500 years ago – the date is irrelevant – the idea of the antiquity of ancient texts is not. It is the notion of eternal or Sanathan Dharma that trumps considerations, whose genesis is lost in the mist of time.

Postscript:

This essay is not an attempt to convince the ideologically dogmatic about the intellectual irrelevance of the debate but to convince those who try to be intellectually honest on both sides to rethink the linkages of politics to this debate.

Also, the AIT/AMT debate is not politically used against Jainism and Buddhism – whose texts also had the Arya-Mleccha distinction. Indra continues to be a Buddhist/Jain deity even outside the subcontinent.

How the BJP Became the Bahujan Janata Party

Much of the ire of Indian elites and those left of the Indian political center simply boils down to one thing – the poor and lower-castes aren’t voting the way they want them to. Over decades, an assorted motley crew of political parties has taken the votes of India’s subalterns for granted. Through sops and social engineering, a steady support was built over the years. If you are of X caste, you must vote for Y party. And don’t ask why.

Yet, a party that venerates the idols of old has now become an iconoclast breaking the idea of voting one’s caste rather than casting one’s vote. The BJP, for years known as a “Brahmin-Baniya” party reserved for the privileged and so-called upper-castes, has shattered traditional caste calculus and come up with a new formula making established Indian political equations void. Today’s BJP is one that has been given a brute mandate by India’s Bahujans (the so-called lower-castes of India) along with its old upper-caste base. A united Hindu vote is beginning to coalesce, something that is sending shivers along the spines of the BJP’s political opponents.

But to truly understand the magnitude of these ramifications, we must peer into the past and understand the tradition of caste to grasp the revolution we are witnessing today.

Continue reading How the BJP Became the Bahujan Janata Party

The Confluence of Two Seas: India and Arabia

Centuries ago, the Mughal Prince, Dara Shikoh wrote a treatise on the similarities of Hinduism and Islam – Majma-ul-Bahrain or The Confluence of Two Seas. Wading through the songs of sages born on holy riverbanks, Dara discovered striking similarities in Vedic verses with his beloved Sufi stanzas. Dara attempted to bridge Indian and Arab minds to not only bring material peace to communities in strife but also achieve inner peace by uncovering a quintessential spiritual unity.

Dara’s quest would be cut short by his fanatic brother, Aurangzeb, who would usurp the throne and execute Dara for apostasy. A reign of religious terror followed as Aurangzeb’s extremism left permanent scars on the subcontinent until the sparks of saffron would strike back as the upstart Marathas upended the Mughals into obscurity.

Yet, this is just a part of a much more ancient interaction. Before Islam galloped across the world, Arabs were aware of the subcontinent, al-Hind, and an interesting set of interactions played out. There is no grand trend or narrative here, but I want to tell you the story of an Arabia before and after Islam and how it spoke to an India that was eternally Hindu.

Continue reading The Confluence of Two Seas: India and Arabia

Hindu Integration: Brahmanas and Gramadevatas

Annual Waari – Kalyani Bhogle

The pluralism in Hindu thought is often pegged back to the philosophically sophisticated एकं सत् विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति  from Rgveda – first mandala. While that message underlies a lot of Hindu thought as we know it, it’s often overstated as it sounds sophisticated to the scholars/amateurs studying it. On the other hand, some hymns from the family books, particularly the Rgvedic Hymns 7-82 to 7-89 give a fascinating peek into the mind of the Bharata purohit Vasishta after the Dasarajna Yuddha. The hymns which are very repetitive mostly praise Indra and Varuna for the help given to Sudas(Bharatas) and the Trstus in the Dasarajna where the enemies also worshiped Indra. The important point to glean here is the different functional roles for which these deities are evoked. Indra for war, Varuna for prosperity, Aditi for light, etc. Varuna who is often paired with Mitra or Aryaman, gets paired with Indra here – which scholars (RN Dandekar, Michael Witzel, etc) see as conciliatory.

According to Dandekar, it was out of this experience of bhakti that Vasistha became essential in the conciliation of the Indra- and Varuna-cults and especially in “averting a schism in the Vedic community” by demonstrating “that Varuna and Indra were not antagonistic to each other but… essentially
complementary. ‘Indra conquers and Varuna rules.”

It is fair to speculate that such a conciliatory approach would go on to shape interactions the mainstream Vedic thought would have with non-Vedic deities as these hymns are the victor’s recollection. This conciliation and integration (A) appear much more pragmatic and economic than abstract ideals (B) espoused by एकं सत् विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति or other sophisticated thought from Upanishads or Gita. For B to emerge and sustain, A appears essential. With A established, B in some form or other would follow as evidenced by other Eastern faith systems which also tend to be inclusive. It is fair to say a combination of A and B lays the foundation for the emergence of quintessential pluralism of Hinduism.

Let us segway into a short story: 

  • In a village in Vengurla (South Konkan), there was a local Saint/Warrior (non-Brahmin) who was extremely popular with the masses. 
  • He passed away and his devotees wanted to make a shrine/temple for him. A Kaashyap Brahmin who was a respected man in the village objected. His objection stemmed from the deification of a man (probably Shudra) and placing him on the same pedestal as the Devas. 
  • The Brahmin (who had quite a bit of clout in the village) opposed this Adharma with all his might but was almost overpowered by the “uncouth masses” in the story.
  • The landed or Kshatriya(ish) castes sided with the masses instead of the Brahmin and as a result, the Brahmin couldn’t prevent the deification.
  • Additionally, the humiliated Brahmin was expected to condone the practice and give the shrine his blessings.    
  • He couldn’t be part of this Adharma and hence left his lands, wealth, position, and went northeast and settled in Ichalkaranji near Kolhapur preferring his descendants living in abject poverty over condoning Adharma.
  • The replacement Gaargya Brahmin was happy to support the deification of the Saint. His descendants flourish economically in the village with large lands and respect but suffer spiritually.    
  • The shrine/temple remains popular to this day and most villagers have forgotten about this tale around the origin of that particular deity. 
  • The spiritual suffering of the current Brahmin was removed by the forgiveness of the descendent of the Kaashyap Brahmin some years ago.
Ravalnath

This is the fanciful tale of my great-great ancestor as told to me by my Chachera uncle (first cousin once removed). The Gotras are not important to this piece but the emphasis and obsession on Gotra is a salient feature of Brahmanism which deserves some attention. This tale is not very atypical. There have been other documented cases of such squabbles between village Hinduism and Brahmanism. This tale echoes many other tales from South Konkan – those of Ravalnath, Betal, etc. I am unsure if the deity in the tale of my ancestor is Ravalnath or Betal or something else entirely. But the contours of the tale are very similar. In both the cases of Ravalnath and Betal, there was initial resistance to these deities from local Brahmins in the medieval times – especially due to local traditions that involved blood sacrifices and other things frowned upon by Brahmins, but over time these deities got wider acceptance – even among local Brahmins. BetalWhile Ravalnath is a Kuladevata for most Goans (all castes), Betal is a Gramadevata of some local communities. Vithoba, the popular God of Pandharpur( the annual Waari) is a very important figure of the Bhakti movement. Religious scholar and Sahitya Akademi winner RC Dhere who extensively studied Vithoba also hypotheses pre Vedic origins of Vithoba. Khandoba is another deity whose origins are similarly muddy with a range of theories explaining him as the fusion of earlier deities including Kaal Bhairav. Interestingly in the Puranic tale of Kaal Bhairav “his struggle for the atonement of Brahmanhatya” is central. Khandhoba of Jejuri remains a deity for not only the Sudra castes, but Brahmins, Jains, Lingayats, and even some Muslims including the patronage of comparatively tolerant Bijapur Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah. While it would be tempting to dismiss this as some tenuous Donigerish take, the sheer numbers of such stories spread across the country strengthen the hypothesis.

Coming back to the descendants of the uncompromising Brahmin from Vengurla. Today my extended family proudly worships all the Gramadevatas from Ichalkaranji whose origins may be very similar to the one whose foundation my ancestor had objected to. Ironically most of my paternal family follow a plethora of local Saints (in addition to the popular Bhakti Saints), whose tales of the origin have occurred within living memory and hence are far easier to negate. I would not go into rants about these Saints (esp Gajanan Maharaj) whose followers number in millions. While some traditional elite Hindus (especially Urban) are known to have disparaging views of Saints & local deities, mostly these distinctions have weathered away. It is not unlikely to find Hindus who fast on Mondays for Shiva also fast on Thursdays for some local Saint (who mostly claim intellectual or avatarish descent from Dattatraya).  Despite some initial friction, the Brahmanical thought has made its peace with such traditions. Most scholarship refers to this as – the local traditions (non-Vedic) being co-opted by Brahmanism. IMO this is an incomplete way of looking at it as it conflates organic integration which typically occurs over generations with the realization of some highly foresighted plan. Typically humans are not foresighted enough to pull off multi-generational machinations. From a multi-generation evolutionary paradigm, these would make sense but not if you take a snapshot at any particular moment in history.

With this background, we go into realms of pure speculation and come to the Post Vedic deities in Hinduism. The origin of some of these deities is highly contested – especially that of Shiva. While the Rgvedic Rudra is often said to be the precursor of Shiva, the meaning of Shiva is certainly in contrast with Rudra. Whether the Pashupati seal from IVC or other Proto-Lingas are Proto-Shiva or not will likely not be resolved till we decipher the IVC script, but these speculations seem very plausible. Even Parpola doesn’t dismiss them in his Roots of Hinduism. In addition, Parpola makes a good argument in the IVC origins of Durga with seals of Tiger riding goddesses from Kalibangan. Similarly, we can say the Dravidian Murukan and the Vedic Skanda gave rise to the Karthikeya we know today. We still don’t have any intelligent speculation about the origins of Ganesha (other than some references to Gajapati), buts it fair to assume the elephant-headed god is a pretty late addition to the Hindu pantheon. The aim here is not to discuss and speculate the origins of these deities but to guess the mechanisms of integration of these deities and customs into Brahmanism. Brahmins had a huge ritualistic/moral capital, but given the tenuous or conflicting relations they had with the Kshatriyas and other dominant castes (as seen through numerous puranic stories especially those of Parshuram) it is fair to assume Brahmins would not often get their way with subtracting traditions they found Adharmic or uncouth, yet they could continue to shape these traditions from inside with participation. Pressure both from the masses and Brahmins would’ve actively shaped the integration of these traditions for centuries to the point where it’s often hazy where Brahmanism ends and where “Non-Brahmanical” traditions begin. (This probably happened with Sramana or Proto-Sramana traditions competing with Brahmanism but that is a different discussion)

IVC goddess riding Tiger

While it is generally said Brahmanical thought absorbed the local traditions, it is equally or more appropriate to say that the village Hinduism made space for Brahmanism & tamed it – into the diverse and plural fold and this process was not complete for the entire subcontinent when Mahmud of Ghazni attacked Somnath. Scholars like to emphasize Adi-Shankara’s Advaita and Mutts, Upanishads, Rgvedic “एकं सत् विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति” as it appears sophisticated and intellectual. However, the tendency of humans to pragmatically negotiate the boundaries of their traditions (in absence of exclusionary universalist ideas) when they already have multiple modes of worship tends to be underemphasized as it appears uncouth or folk. Roman religion easily absorbed Isis and Cybele into the Roman fold but couldn’t absorb the God of Abraham. In contrast, when Christianity conquered Europe it absorbed the old gods into the Christian fold as Saints but kept them subordinate to the one true god. However, Shiva and Ganesh did not bow done to Indra, and by the time of the Puranas, the mighty Vedic Indra was reduced to an insecure and somewhat petty King of Gods.

Maybe the Brahmin elites & Sanskrit managed to maintain a cohesive identity-based on sacred geography only because they themselves were tamed in similar mechanisms by the natives of the geography. If yes, then Hindu Pluralism and Syncretism is as much a legacy of numerous lost stories as it is of the philosophical moorings of the Vedas, Itihasas, and Upanishads. 

Postscript:

I had been thinking along these lines since my discussion with Mukunda and Omar on the Brown-cast about the roots of Indian pluralism. While commenting please stick to the topic and be civil & constructive. I will delete off comments for this piece.

From OIT to AIT

For TL;DR jump to My reasons for this position today are


Yesterday I tweeted about how OIT is becoming an Article of Faith on the Hindutva Wing in a thread related to Ruchir Sharma podcast where he dodged the AIT question. I further tweeted the change in my position of one supporting OIT (till 2018) to AIT by 2018 especially in face of the recent genetic evidence and following the work by Razib Khan. I was contacted by BP regular guest and host of the Carvaka podcast – Kushal Mehra and we had a long (3 hours) chat. His reading of the issue (Archeology and Rgveda) is much more robust than mine and I felt as Hemu’s army would’ve felt battling Babur’s projectiles. (though I am still not convinced by his argument). Hence I write this piece to evaluate my evolution with the Aryan question and also putting my current position & its defense in digital ink.

Like most Indians, I had read about the Aryan invasion theory as a historic fact and only got introduced to the inherent racism in the initial framing of the AIT after my schooling. In 2008 the paper, Reconstructing Indian Population History came out and the terms ANI and ASI got popularized. The media commentary on the paper (as with the Rakhigarhi paper) seemed to suggest the genetic data had refuted the AIT. Influential public figures like Subramanian Swamy (who appeared a lot more respectable to me in 2008-09) and few lesser-known Marathi influencers and others championed the debunking of the AIT myth in the public sphere which was not refuted except well enough except by historians like Romila Thapar (in whom I have low trust around politically charged topics as proven in Babri case). Things started getting heated in Indian Media around 2013-14 with after the publication of Genetic Evidence for Recent Population Mixture in India. But my interest in the Aryan issue came due to this article by scientist and influencer Anand Ranganathan on newslaundry (before then I had been largely ignored the arguments and counterarguments). I had some instinctive unease with these ANI/ASI argument against AIT but chose to ignore my doubts as Geneticists from India & commentators like Anand Ranganathan (who is a scientist), Sanjeev Sanyal, even anti-Hindutva Shashi Tharoor chose to concur with the views refuting the AIT.

In the following year or two, I read the following

  • Romila Thapar on Ancient History (small bands of herders)
  • Upinder Singh (who is non-committal)
  • Michael Daninos Lost River (the most reverent Sarasvati)
  • Free Papers on Academia – especially the Michael Witzel and Shrikant Talegeri debate.
  • Koenraad Elst’s blogs.
  • Edwin Bryant’s Indo Aryan controversy book.
  • Sections of Mallory’s book
  • Ambedkar’s book on Shudras

I particularly saw the linguistic arguments for AIT to be weak largely attributable to my ignorance of the field. I see myself as extremely ignorant about history in general around then, for my interest in non-fiction is very recent (2015 onwards). In some ways, I am still not well-read compared to most authors/commentators here. I  haven’t read any history from outside India other than British, American, and WW2.

Hence I was moderately convinced by Danino’s Sarasvati argument back then. Additionally following the Witzel-Talageri debate I found a lot of criticism of Talageri ad-hominem and patronizing. The dismissal of Talageri’s work as a bank clerk’s revisionist Hindutva did not seem scholarly to me (I mean Witzel’s criticism did not appear scholarly but ad-hominem). In my view, Edwin Bryant’s book confuses as it doesn’t take a position after 500+ pages. However in the end the lack of Archeological support for AIT (no significant change in material culture) made me convinced that the AIT was flawed. As I see this as a binary problem i.e either AIT or OIT has to be true to explain the spread of Indo-European languages, my position was that of OIT. I also felt AMT is a workaround for the problematic parts and holes in the AIT.

In 2017-18, around the time The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia hit the biorxiv and created quite a few waves in the Indian media, articles by Tony Joseph, Shoaib Daniyal, and Hartosh Bal made enough noise on my twitter timeline to make me take a renewed interest in the controversy. Around that time David Reich’s book was published and most AIT guys used Reich’s book to bolster their claims. By the time I had completed Reich’s book I was almost convinced of the AIT yet I made an effort to cross-check the counterviews. I reached out to Anand Ranganathan who sort of dodged my cross-questions. I also reached out to Swarajya Magazine (of whom I was a subscriber in 2018/19) and was not at all convinced by the explanation given by them here and here. On reading work by Razib & other genome bloggers who got a shout out in David Reich’s book I was even more convinced by their arguments. I read Tony Joseph’s Early Indians and it does a good job of laying out the data IMO. However one always notices the author’s political biases coming up especially around his handling of Caste( I find it extremely stupid to look back at events that are speculated 2000 years ago with today’s moral compass and use it making political points calling the Brahmins in 100 AD the original Tukde-Tukde gang.)

I have since, also read David Anthony’s book, Narsimhan and Shinde papers, read most BP blogs (including JR’s pieces) and comments on AIT/OIT, followed a small bit of linguistics, and listened to the views of Niraj Rai, Shrikant Talageri (on Carvaka), Koenrad Elst. I still continue to hold the view that AIT probably happened and more importantly OIT seems highly implausible.

My reasons for this position today are:

  1. I am partial to the view that Genes and Languages are moderately correlated. There are exceptions as readers of this blog would know, but they are exceptions. As the genetic data points out that 10-20% of Indian ancestry comes from Bronze Age Steppe, I find it highly implausible that such large changes wouldn’t result in some language change – especially given the gradients of Steppe wrt North/South and Caste. Additionally, the complete absence of AASI like genetic ancestry beyond the boundaries of the Mauryan & Mughal empires at their zenith is big deal. If any kind of OIT that doesn’t explain satisfyingly falls short. (Roma Gypsies have AASI)
  2. On the whole, I find the Steppe hypothesis works well linguistically and archaeologically to an exceptional degree in my reading – for Europe. By Occam’s razor, it would be fair to assume India isn’t an outlier among regions speaking Indo-European. Small objections like this don’t debunk the entire Steppe hypothesis IMO.
  3. The lack of material culture change associated with AIT is a problem, but the same objection is also present for OIT. Lack of evidence isn’t the absence of evidence. At best archaeologically the AIT/OIT debate is a Tie.
  4. I find Talageri’s work lays excessive claim on his interpretation of Rgveda and Avesta. I find the Rgveda has no memory of invasion argument weak. What we know of the Rgveda might just the memory preserved post the Bharata victory in the Dasarajna (Victor’s memory). It would be plausible that memories of invasion may be lost by accident of history. I am no expert on either Rgveda or Linguistics (I have read only 4-5% of Ralph T.H. Griffith translation) but I still find the lack of scholarly approval of Talageri’s work a problem from believing his work. However, on Kushal’s advice, I am going to read his entire work – 3 books hopefully by sometime next year.
  5. I take the Horse argument seriously. The paucity of equid bones IVC itself is significant. Especially if you compare them to Steppe sites. (The Botai & other steppe sights are extreme in the sheer quantity of horse bones). On the whole, I find Anthony’s horse hypothesis holds in face of the data we have today.
  6. I don’t see the Sanuali find as a game-changer. The Daimabad hoard Bull drawn cart/chariot has been known for decades. I don’t think the argument for Sanauli chariot being Horse-drawn is convincing yet. Also, the lack of spoked wheels would make the chariot less agile which would make it not a War-chariot like Sintasta. Anthony had to fight a lot for years before even his finds (which are far more impressive than Sanauli) at Sintasta were taken seriously as a war chariot by the community. His chariots were disproved by peers for things like width, length, etc. At the least, it’s premature to call the Sanauli chariot as a deal-breaker for AIT. Additionally latest the dating of Sanauli at 1800BCE isn’t far enough from the 1500+-200 date given for AIT. Rather the 1800BCE dating appears consistent with Asko Parpola’s first Pre Rgvedic Arya migration theory.
  7. I have heard Slapstik’s BP podcast, read his comments, and also those of some others who know linguistics along with some light reading of linguistics. The linguistic argument appears robust enough for my non-expert ears.
  8.  In historic times, since the Persian invasion during the time of Bimbisara to the invasion of Abdali – the flow of invasions has been Strictly One Way – from the Bolan/Khyber pass to the Subcontinent. (in some cases as speculated with some Hunas – via Kashmir). Examples of these being Persians, Greeks, Sakas, Parthians, Kushanas, Hunas, Arabs, Turko Afghans, Mongols, Mughals, Persians, and Afghans. These invasions have a concrete economy to them – the fertile and prosperous lands of the Indo-Gangetic plains. So it begs the question – why would Indo-Aryans go out if they were indigenous. Many reasons for coming IN & almost no for going out.
  9. I find the arguments over Sarasvati which convinced me once unconvincing today. I think the argument comes from the position of reverence to the holy Sarasvati from the Rgveda & laying excessive emphasis on it. I am convinced by the general argument of the same names being used for rivers by migrating people and we have many examples of that in the country. Additionally, the Shtich that the Yamuna changed course and dried up Sarasvati made famous by Amish’s fiction appears on its face – an extraordinary claim with almost no concrete evidence.

Closing comments:

  1. It’s fair to say both sides in India are fairly motivated by politics. I don’t find the OIT arguments as ridiculous as some AIT supporters find, but one can’t ignore the identity politics and question of Islam being catalytic in the debate. Personally, I don’t think this is a coherent position, I supported the OIT while being a Liberal opponent of Hindutva for almost 2-3 years and even today I am open to change my mind in face of new evidence. However, I think it’s unlikely that I will be easily convinced without some genetic data or more archaeological data (more chariots around 2500 BCE with horses).
  2. A salient point made by Talegiri is worth noticing. He claims that the Indians who continue to support AIT are Brahmins who have not yet given up their supremacist mindset. He also conjectures such support for AIT goes hand in hand with the defense of Varna. Growing up as a Chitpavan Brahmin I know this argument has some truth to it, though Maharashtrian Brahmin communities have given up those supremacist ideas in 2020. In a way, Hindutva has united what Varna/Jati had divided.
  3. A version of OIT seems to be too fantastic to be true but works with genetics and archaeological findings. This theory being Aryas composed the Vedas before 3000 BCE, some of them settled in IVC cities, some went out into the Steppe. And then these Steppe people spread the languages and a pulse came back around 1500 BCE and composed the latter Rgveda. I naturally don’t buy this 🙂
  4. In the end, the difference is what kind of evidence people are willing to buttress their arguments on. Most of the time such opposing views would talk past each other. I get a feeling no amount of Ancient DNA will convince OIT folks who take the Rgvedic & archeological arguments over Genetics/Linguistics. Personally, I am partial to Genetics\Linguistics as I find it more Sciency than Reconstruction from texts & archaeology (or lack thereof).

Postscript:

I plan to read Talageri’s books, Asko Parpola’s Roots of Hinduism, Mallory’s book again in the coming years as I find the issue fascinating. I guess that Razib, Slapstik, and others who have been at this topic for years on the blog might be finding the topic boring by now. Still, I would urge them to comment and point out any inconsistencies or blindspots I may have had in my summary above. Same for OIT guys – as already mentioned I will be reading Talegiri – is he the main guy you rely on? How many of you are patrons of Kushal’s AIT/OIT work ? which appears to be very extensive.

I said above that Talageri is not Hindutva but have been corrected by Kushal made the change in the blogpost.

On Language wars and the rise of the Vernacular in history

Language wars are a constant feature of Indian public life. Most recently there was much discussion on Language on Indian twitter triggered by the National Education Policy (NEP 2020). But amidst the language squabbles, we tend to reflect less on the root cause of all the language schisms –  The rise of the Vernacular. A relatively recent phenomenon in Indian history.

Back in 1000 CE, Sanskrit reigned supreme as the primary literary tongue of India. There was some Prakrit literature and considerable literature in some of the older Southern languages – Tamil and Kannada in particular.  But for the most part Vernaculars had a position secondary to Sanskrit.

The language of prestige and literary expression was undoubtedly Sanskrit, though it was hardly the mother tongue for a large percentage of Indians. Vernaculars reigned at home, and in common speech. Yet in an age of limited literacy, they never competed with Sanskrit for “prestige”. This was very much the case not just in India, but in much of the western world as well. In Europe, as late as 15th century, 70% of the printed literature was in Latin!

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The Middle Path: Towards a Liberal Conservatism in India (Part 1)

I listened with interest to Brown Pundits’ recent podcasts with Gaurav and Tony on the current state of Indian politics. I could relate to some of their agonies and predicaments, although I profoundly disagree with some aspects of Tony’s worldview.  Slapstik’s recent post Indian woke wears saffron also contains some good insights on the nature and roots of the current Hindutva movement. In this post, I have picked on three strands of Slapstik’s argument: the comparison between Hindutva and woke culture, the genesis of the Bhakti movement and the nature of the leadership of the Indian National Congress both before and after independence.

While I share Slapstik’s assessment of the importance of the Bhakti movement, I do not regard the Bhakti movement as a radical rupture from the pre-Islamic Dharmic traditions. I also argue that by only highlighting the role and influence of the liberal modernist elements of the Indian political leadership in the colonial and early post-colonial periods, Slapstik overlooks the equally if not more salient part of the leadership that sought its inspiration from the country’s indigenous Indic heritage. In doing so, I seek to highlight the deep and abiding roots of India’s Dharmic consciousness that is characterised by cultural continuity.

Continue reading The Middle Path: Towards a Liberal Conservatism in India (Part 1)

Belief and Reclamation

For eons, ascetics and wanderers would journey to the sacred snow-clad Himalayas to test the fires of their belief. Where the skies met the earth and the heavens met the material world, humans met enlightenment; and their discoveries would cascade down the subcontinent. These beliefs would be ossified by ritual and rite, and a culture would engulf the land between the great Himalayas and an endless ocean – India, that is Bhārata.

And it is this legendary journey from the foothills of the Himalayas to the tip of the subcontinent that a civilizational epic takes place – the Rāmāyana. On August 5th, 2020, the ancient song of Valmiki will echo in the villages, in the cities, in the deserts, the fields, the jungles, the mountains, the waters, and especially in the minds of those who believe. A civilization will enact its long-awaited reclamation.

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Browncast Episode 112: Tarun Sridharan from Odd Compass – Rajas and Sultans

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify,  and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!

You can also support the podcast as a patron. The primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else. This website isn’t about shaking the cup, but I have noticed that the number of patrons plateaued a long time ago.

I would though appreciate more positive reviews! Alton Brown’s “Browncast” has 30 reviews on Stitcher alone! Help make us the biggest browncast! At least at some point.

This episode features Razib and Akshar talking history with Tarun Sridharan, the man behind a very interesting Youtube Channel – Odd Compass. We discuss the Malacca Sultanate, Vijaynagara’s downfall, Maratha success, and various other topics in history. Make sure to check out his Instagram and especially youtube channel which has beautiful and well-researched videos on history (especially Indian!).

Check out his latest video on the history of war elephants: