The Unravelling of the AMT

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The thought of writing this article came as I recalled a recent interview of Vagheesh Narasimhan with the Caravan magazine, where he explains how in his view, the Indo-Aryans must have spread across South Asia.

Before coming to what Vagheesh said in the interview, let us take a brief detour so that his comments could be understood in its proper context.

The Textual Evidence for AMT

Except for the truly ignorant on the subject, it is clear as daylight to all scholars, whether Indian or Western, that the Rigvedic geography is centred in North India, more specifically around Punjab, Haryana & Western UP.  The westernmost lands mentioned in Rigveda are the eastern regions of Afghanistan and these were certainly peripheral in the scheme of things of Rigvedic Aryans.

Yet, through the last two centuries several attempts have been made to parse out some sort of evidence from Rigveda or any of the early Vedic texts, in the form of memory or otherwise, that could support the argument of an extra-Indian homeland of the Rigvedic Indo-Aryans. However all such attempts have come to naught.

Let us go through the opinion of the mainstream western Indologists on the matter so that there remains no room for doubt on the matter.

Edwin Bryant notes in his seminal book,

The first prominent note of discord between traditional exegesis and Western scholarship was sounded because of the lack of explicit mention, in the Vedic texts, of a foreign homeland of the Aryan people. As mentioned previously, this conspicuous silence had been noted even by nineteenth-century Western scholars (e.g., Elphinstone 1841). The absence of any mention of external Aryan origins in traditional Sanskrit sources is, to this day, perhaps the single most prominent objection raised by much of the scholarship claiming indigenous origins for the Aryan culture. (pg 59)

Already in the middle of the 19th century we have scholars such as Curzon (1855) who argues, “Is it legitimate … to infer that because the Aryans early spread to the South . . . and extended themselves over the peninsula, they also originally invaded, from some unknown region and conquered India itself?” (pg 65) and Muir(1860) who notes that “none of the Sanskrit books, not even the most ancient, contain any distinct reference or allusion to the foreign origin of the Indians” (pg 63)

Bryant quotes Srinivas Iyengar, who in 1914 quite pertinently said,

The Aryas do not refer to any foreign country as their original home, do not refer to themselves as coming from beyond India, do not name any place in India after the names of places in their original land as conquerors and colonizers always do, but speak of themselves exactly as sons of the soil would do. If they had been foreign invaders, it would have been humanly impossible for all memory of such invasion to have been utterly obliterated from memory in such a short time as represents the differences between the Vedic and Avestan dialects. (pg 59)

Bryant refers to Indian scholars as early as the latter half of the 19th century who object to the external origins of the Indo-Aryans, which should clear the doubts of those who think that opposition to AIT/AMT is a modern Hindutva invention.

As per Bryant, “… the fact that the Vedas themselves make no mention of any Aryan invasion or immigration reveals a major epistemological concern in this debate. ” (pg 59)

Bryant concludes the chapter thus, “The sequence of texts does seem to suggest a movement of the Brahmanic geographical horizons from the Northwest to other parts of India. Nonetheless, the Indigenous response needs to be considered: the texts give no obvious indication of a movement into India itself. Indigenous Aryanists, on the whole, are prepared to accept a shift of population from the Sarasvatl region eastward toward the Gangetic plain…But they do not feel compelled to then project this into preconceived hypothetical movements into the subcontinent itself in the pre- and protohistoric period.”

Hans Henrich Hock, a well-known linguist and Sanskritist, in his contribution to this major volume, The Indo-Aryan Controversy, also observes,

Some publications claim that the Rig-Veda contains actual textual evidence for an Aryan in-migration…suffice it to state that none of them provide unambiguous clues that the point of origin for these travels was further (north-)west or outside of India/South Asia, or that the direction of travel was to the east or further into India/South Asia. (pg 290)

Hock rather candidly tells us that “…the passages cited by Biswas and Witzel do not provide cogent evidence for Aryan in-migration and thus cannot be used to counter the claim of opponents of the so-called “Aryan Invasion Theory” (e.g. Rajaram and Frawley 1997: 233) that there is no indigenous tradition of an outside origin.” (pg 291)

Another major linguist George Cardona concurs that “… there is no textual evidence in the early literary traditions unambiguously showing a trace of such migration. “(pg 38)

Cardona goes one step further and analyses a particular passage Michael Witzel, an ardent proponent of the AMT, cites from the Baudhayana Srauta Sutra, to support his argument of textual evidence.

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Aryan Migration and its Discontents

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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.

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