Recently there was a debate on Twitter about whether the legacy of the Indo-Aryans, one of the most impactful descendants of the Sintastha culture, was positive, significant and worthy of admiration. More generally, what have the descendants of the Yamnaya culture of the Pontic steppe done for us?
This is a complicated question. I think for Indian Hindus who revere the Vedas and the Vedic people the question has some broader and deeper implications. As I am not an Indian Hindu, any strident opinion on this is above my pay grade.
But I will repeat something that the Indo-Europeanist J. P. Mallory told me a few years ago: the reason that archaeologists fixate on the graves of these people is that these are among the few materials remains that they left. They were an agro-pastoralist society, and their arrival in Northern Europe 5,000 years ago saw the end of the ancient Neolithic traditions of megalith building. I think it is fair to say that these barbarians ushered in a “dark age” for a millennium in Europe.
What about elsewhere? In what became Greece the arrival of the steppe populations resulted in a synthetic culture that to be candid initially aped their Minoan predecessors, producing a coarser and more militaristic society. In ancient Elam, the arrival of the ancient Iranians resulted in the co-option by what became the Persians of much of the culture of the people of that region. Finally, the debates about India are endless in terms of what the influences on the Indic culture are in terms of whether they are Aryan or non-Aryan.
The daughter Indo-European societies were often quite culturally creative, in particular, the early Greeks and Indians. But I think this owes more to the fact that Indo-Europeans encountered either complexity (Minoans) or the faded elements of complexity (IVC), assimilated them, and leveraged their economic base to produce complexity and creativity societies. In contrast, Indo-European populations that remained closer to the ancient lifestyle, like the Slavs of the early medieval period, were culturally simple.
That being said, a skein of common Indo-European linguistic and oral culture did span Greece and India. Their origins were clearly brutal and barbaric, but the southern Indo-Europeans quickly assimilated and acclimated.
My previous post on Adivasis was not totally clear. So I’m going to try in shorter fragments and outline things so I’m more clear. I am not 100% correct with the model below (we’ll know more later), but this is my best current conception.
10,000 BC, end of the Ice Age, NW quadrant of the Indian subcontinent inhabited by a West Eurasian associated hunter-gatherers, related to the hunter-gatherers of the Zagros mountains in Iran, with some Siberian ancestry. The other three quadrants are dominated by hunter-gatherers with deep (40,000 years diverged) associations with East Eurasians and Australo-Melanesians. These “Ancient Ancestral South Indians” (AASI) seem to have separated from the Andaman Islanders (AI) more than 30-35,000 years ago, but the AI are their closest current relatives (AI-related populations were dominant in mainland Southeast Asia until 4,000 years ago, when rice farmers from southern China migrated into the region).
Between 7,000 and 4,000 years ago extensive admixture occurred within the IVC zone in the NW between the IVC-Iranian-related population and AASI groups moving northwest. The resultant population was far more Iranian-related than AASI (say 10-20% AASI), and these people eventually became the “Indus Valley Civilization.
To the south and east the AASI populations probably did experience reciprocal gene flow at the same time, as Iranian-related populations spread south and east
Why this distinction? I believe during the late Pleistocene the Thar desert was larger and more forbidding and blocked gene flow between the easternmost West Eurasians and westernmost East Eurasians.
Steppe ancestry likely does not show up until after 2000 BC.
I believe there was a Dravidian language spoken in Sindh, and later Gujarat and Maharashtra. These populations spread southward before and after 2000 BC, and eventually, they mixed with all the AASI groups in the same.
In the period between 2000 and 1 BC there is more and more mixing and the arrival of steppe populations that become culturally ascendant across the subcontinent. In the south, the Dravidian-speaking zone, there is a distinction between post-IVC populations that engage with the expanding Indo-Aryans and those that do not engage with the Indo-Aryans
The period between 2000 and 1 BC is essential. In some areas, like the NW, large numbers of steppe people settled, and imposed their language and culture, albeit in synthesis with the local populations, who would be mostly IVC. While the IVC seems to have expanded only gingerly into the upper Gangetic plain and Gujarat, the Indo-Aryans pushed into the eastern zones, and parts of the south. The fact that Adivasi in the south have the canonically Indo-Aryan R1a-Z93 indicates that young bands of Indo-Aryan men penetrated all across the subcontinent. Their genetic imprint is clear in non-Brahmin southern groups like the Reddys, so they were ubiquitous.
But it is culture that matters more. The synthesis that developed in Punjab and Upper Gangetic plain eventually spread across the whole subcontinent and explains why Sangam literature has Sanskrit loanwords. The distinction between Adivasi and caste Hindu emerges from the distance to the expanding proto-Hindu culture based on a core of Aryan culture with indigenous accretions. This was a diverse religious and cultural matrix, but there were broad family similarities, and again, the Sangam literature alludes to “brahmins,” indicating that there was an early penetration of Aryan ritualists in the south. The Adivasi emerges not as a relict or the remnant of an early population, but as a set of societies at one of the spectra of the Aryan-indigenous synthesis that characterized the subcontinent.
The Aryan can become an Adivasi, as is attested by the Aryan men who clearly integrated themselves into those communities and lost their cultural distinctiveness. Similarly, Adivasis can become caste Hindus by adopting the norms of caste Hindus.
Rishi Sunak will lead the nation just below India in the world GDP nations. Racial or cultural triumphalism is gauche, so nice to see that that’s low-key so far. But I personally hope that this will be an opportunity for Indian elites to fixate less on the British past and engage more forthrightly with their Asian future.
The Conservative party looks to be in serious trouble, and Britain looks to be in for a rough few years. Good luck to him, he’ll need a lot of it.
Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on Libsyn, Apple, Spotify, 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!
In this episode of the history podcast, Omar and Jay discuss the period of Delhi Sultanate with Jay and Gaurav. We go over all the major dynasties and also discuss the religious, economic aspects of this time.
As Omar Ali puts it, the legacy of Delhi Sultanate is the legacy of Islam in the subcontinent.
1. The Emergence of the Delhi Sultanate, 1192-1286 by Sunil Kumar
2. The History and Culture of the Indian People: Volume 6: The Delhi Sultanate
3. India in the Persianate Age: 1000-1765 by Richard M. Eaton
4. Medieval India – Vol. 1 by Satish Chandra
5. Advanced Study in the History of Medieval India: Volume I by J L Mehta
6. A Comprehensive History of India: The Delhi Sultanat (A.D. 1206-1526), ed. by Mohammad Habib and Khaliq Ahmad Nizami
Indian cultural influence is remarkable in present-day Mainland Southeast Asia (MSEA), and it may have stimulated early state formation in the region. Various present-day populations in MSEA harbor a low level of South Asian ancestry, but previous studies failed to detect such ancestry in any ancient individual from MSEA. In this study, we discovered a substantial level of South Asian admixture (ca. 40% – 50%) in a Protohistoric individual from the Vat Komnou cemetery at the Angkor Borei site in Cambodia. The location and direct radiocarbon dating result on the human bone (95% confidence interval is 78 – 234 calCE) indicate that this individual lived during the early period of Funan, one of the earliest states in MSEA, which shows that the South Asian gene flow to Cambodia started about a millennium earlier than indicated by previous published results of genetic dating relying on present-day populations. Plausible proxies for the South Asian ancestry source in this individual are present-day populations in Southern India, and the individual shares more genetic drift with present-day Cambodians than with most present-day East and Southeast Asian populations.
No surprise to readers of this weblog. South Asians obsess about possible admixture/contact with West Asia and Europe for obvious reasons, but it’s been pretty clear for a while that the “Indian cultural influence” on Southeast Asia was also demographic. Mainland Southeast Asia and the western part of Maritime Southeast Asia have minor but consistent levels of Indian ancestry. It showed up decades ago in Cambodian males who carried R1a Y haplogroup. And it showed up in a 2012 methods paper that detected gene flow from Pakistanis to Cambodians (no Indian samples in the dataset):
Genetics is basically done now. You can observe, for example, that lowland Thai populations have Indian ancestry, while highland tribes don’t have it.
We now know that the influence of Indian culture of a southern flavor to Southeast Asia was mediated by large numbers of humans. Indian genetic imprint on Burma can be chalked up to being Bengal’s neighbor, but you can’t say the same about Cambodia or Bali. Who were these people? Well, in a way, you could say that they were the “Brown Rajahs” for ancient Sarawak…
I want to make a short and quick comment about a style of argumentation that I’ve noticed in people from the Indian subcontinent (though not exclusive to them). In addition to verbosity, there tends to be an aggressive hyperbolic emotionality. That’s fine if you want to scream on cable television, but it’s really hot air that doesn’t move a conversation forward.
I’ll bring up the class example with the Mughals.
Muslims in the subcontinent admire the Mughals, on the whole, and take pride in their accomplishments. Whether you think that that pride is warranted or not, it is there, and it makes it difficult for Indian Muslims to evaluate the Mughals with any degree of detachment. The fundamental reality is to a great extent the Mughals were a colonial and alien power that control the subcontinent for centuries. To some extent, they were more foreign than some of the post-Delhi Sultanate Muslim kingdoms. The Mughals imported Turkic warriors and Persian bureaucrats for many centuries, and for decades continued to speak Chagatai Turk among themselves. Up until Aurangzeb, they were keen on conquering their ‘ancestral’ homeland. The Mughals had a racial caste system, and continued to differentiate between the foreign Muslims, and those of native subcontinental stock (arguably native Indian Muslims did better under some of the Delhi Sultanate successor states).
But what about Hindus? Whereas Muslims get very defensive about their “Mughal ancestors,” many Hindus detest them because they were colonial interlopers. I think it is a reasonable assertion, but then Hindus take a step further. Along with their precursors, the Delhi Sultanate the Mughals killed millions and engaged in a campaign of mass rape and murder. Often if the Hindus are talking verbally there is a lot of emotion in their voice, and I wonder if they are going to cry. The reality is the genetics is clear that Hindus have almost no West Asian ancestry, and the fraction of Indian Muslims is quite small. If the Mughals were raping a lot, they were quite sterile.
The reality is it seems to me that though the Mughals synthesized themselves with India, for much of their early and mature period they were more a colonial skein over the substrate of India, the vast majority of which remained loyal to its indigenous religious traditions. This means that their interaction with the natives was mostly a matter of resource extraction, that is, rents.
I don’t know if more discussion with help India resolves its internecine religious fractures. Probably not. But I wish people would comport themselves like they were actually trying to discuss, rather than emotionally screaming at each other.
Patrick Wyman interviewing a specialist on the IVC. Pretty interesting, though I’m mildly skeptical of the idea of what seems like a pre-state primitive democracy being the political system in the IVC.
Ferry was from Talaimannar to Rameshwaran Island and part of rail link from Colombo to Madras (I think). There was a small ferry for each vehicle from Rameshwaran Island to Mainland India.
22 miles, the same distance from Dover to Calais. Couple of guys have swum it too. One such was Kumar Anandan, swimming from Sri Lanka to India and back in 51 hours, in 1971. While attempting to swim the English Channel on 6 August 1984 he collapsed and died due to heavy currents. Other trivia; Kumar Anandan hailed from Valvettithurai, the village of the Thalaivar, i.e. Prabhakaran.
Almost all Tea Estate indentured workers were brought by Ferry and had to walk thru thick jungle to Tea estates in the hill country. Quite a few died, no records were kept.
The Brits did not give the Estate indentured labor Ceylon Citizenship. Because that would mean they would be under Ceylon Labor Laws which were quite reasonable. Would defeat the whole purpose of getting slaves in all but name.
It became an issue after independence. The estate Tamils were almost 15% of the population. Half were repatriated back to India, with even Ceylon Tamils voting for the move.
This essay is highly speculative in nature and I have many doubts about many of the things stated below, but I have tried to coherently bring together distinct threads of early Indian history into an explanation for the great stratification of Jati-Varna
Ancient history is in general a tricky subject to delve into, but when it comes to ancient Indian history, the tricky becomes almost entirely speculative. The entire narrative is based on a series of texts, from the Vedic canon to Pali texts – none of them are dated precisely in absolute terms. The paucity of inscriptions from ancient India makes dating much more difficult as oral texts are much harder to accurately date.
One of the early inscriptions from Ancient India, Ashoka’s 13th major rock edict from Kandahar reads
Except among the Greeks, there is no land where the religious orders of Brahmanas and Sramanas are not to be found, and there is no land anywhere where men do not support one sect or another.
Here Brahmanas are mentioned but not as a Varna per se but as analogous to various Sramanas (priests / philosophers). Some academics have come to regard the Sramana traditions as somewhat antagonistic to the orthodox Brahmanical traditions. However, the earliest written reference to these traditions, Ashoka’s Rock Edicts mention them always together. Patanjali and others too mostly mention them together and never as quite as antagonistic as later Sramana canon or modern scholarship would have us believe.
However, it is undeniable that one cannot be understood without the challenges presented by the other. Ahimsa and Vegetarianism are generally acknowledged (and contested) to be Sramana influences on Classical Hinduism. A lot of digital and literal ink has been spilled to answer the question of how these two currents have interacted and shaped each other – mostly through the lens of Ahimsa, Dha(r/m)ma, Moksha and only rarely Karma.
Johannes Bronkhorst’s Greater Magadha thesis offers a tenuous but interesting take on these interactions. The basic premise of the thesis is that the region of Greater Magadha was home to the Proto-Sramana traditions while the Kuru-Panchala region to the Vedic Brahmanas and that many ideas central to classical Hinduism like Karma, Rebirth, and Ayurveda came into it from the Sramana traditions of the Greater Magadha via the esoteric Upanishads (especially the ones which were composed in the horizon of Greater Magadha). The whole thesis rests on the revised chronology which only makes sense if the thesis is true – so I doubt the book is going to convince anyone. But it has catalyzed a rudimentary and dormant theory that came to my mind years ago while reading Ambedkar’s writings.
The composition of the Manava Dharma Shastra (100 BCE to 200 AD) is generally considered to be an indication (or instrument) of Varna ossification. The Varna system in some form ought to have existed (especially in the Gangetic heartland) since the late Vedic period (Purusha Sukta), yet both textual and genetic evidence points to this period as being one of great mixing. Hence it is fair to assume that whatever rudimentary Varna system existed, it was not very rigidly followed in these times. Also its important to note that traditional Varna system may have never been a reality south of the Vindhyas.
It is difficult to pin the Varna ossification to any particular political period. The only pan India ancient empire – the Mauryas are unlikely to have imposed any Varna hierarchy on their subjects as the pedagogic Ashoka doesn’t once mention Varna in his Rock Edicts. The Shungas are seen as the Brahmanical pushback against excesses of the Mauryan state but their power was both too limited in time and too restricted in region to have made any major impact. The same is true for most other political powers in the country for the next 500 years.
Brahmins had begun moving out of the Gangetic heartland as early as the late Vedic period itself. So why did the Varna system, suddenly begin to ossify centuries later? Surely some metaphysical, philosophical, and/or political explanation is required to make sense of this phenomenon. Also, Jati endogamy which is the true hallmark of the Indian Caste system cannot be explained by the Brahmanical Varna system – even the rigid one prescribed in the Manusmriti. The answers may lie in a core philosophy of the Indic faith systems.
So what is the common characteristic that defines Indian religious thought? The answer is easy – the concept of Karma, Rebirth and Dharma. Even if we reject the thesis of Greater Magadha, we have to accept that the concepts of Rebirth and Karma are explored in far more detail in the Sramana schools – namely Buddhists, Jainas, and Ajivikas. The whole philosophical aim of the Sramana schools is to avoid Bad Karma to primarily get Good Karma and finally Moksha. This is in clear contrast with mainstream Vedic thought. Though the early Upanishads (Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka) touch the Karma doctrine it’s in no way as critically dissected as by the Sramanas. The lengths to which the Jainas and Ajivikas go to avoid all Karma; the detailed linking of the intention of the “Actor” to the Karma done by Buddha illustrate that the Sramanas, in general, were way more focused on Karma than their Brahmana counterparts. More importantly, the concept of Karmic retribution in Rebirth is much more detailed in early Sramana traditions than the Upanishads (Yajnavalkya doesn’t link Karma directly to Rebirth but discusses both separately). So it remains fair to assume that even if doctrines of Rebirth and Karma didn’t come into Classical Hinduism as an import from Sramana traditions, it can surely be thought that the Sramana innovations in the Karma and Rebirth doctrines challenged the more “this-worldly outlook” of the Vedic Brahmanas.
But how does this matter to the Jati Varna matrix? The initial conception of Varna sees it as a natural order of things (not unlike stratification seen in most ancient societies). Moreover, this conception is in no way rejected by the Sramana traditions even Buddhism – thought Buddha did not give Varna the emphasis it received from the Vedic Brahmanas. Even today caste is practiced in the Jainas. So how did the conception of Karmic retribution affect this system? The answer seems obvious enough. It meant that the position of one in the Varna hierarchy could be justified as the fruit of Karma of previous births and not only as a Natural order. In other words, the ritual status was awarded to certain births for their good Karma and vice-versa. In many ways, Karmic retribution is a fundamental shift from the “this-worldly” ways of the composers of Rigveda.
This change is captured in the Bhagavat Gita, arguably the most important book of the Hindu canon. While there continue to be many interpretations of the doctrine of Karma espoused in the Gita, the one reading tells us to fulfill the Dharma (of your Varna/ Position/ Situation) with the implication that it would result in Good Karma and better Rebirths – the ultimate aim of Moksha notwithstanding. That indeed seems to be one of the simplistic messages of the Gita which would have begun spreading in the society with the final versions of Mahabharata. The prescriptive Manusmriti is one thing, but the bonafide revelation of Gita is another (though it is not my point that Karmic retribution is the core message of Gita but it is hard to argue against it being a vehicle of the spread of these memes). This doesn’t mean that Varna became birth-based at this moment in history – it is fair to assume it always was at least partially birth-based though more flexible. But we can state that at this stage, one’s Birth became Karma-based and Varna also became inextricably linked to Karma.
This could have resulted in two primary effects:
It would mitigate the sense of injustice perceived by sections of the society who had it tough. The injustice of birth was not injustice but the karmic justice of previous births.
It associated “ritual Varna hierarchy and division of labor” with moral dimension (Karma of previous birth). Potentially this moral dimension would buttress the existing Varna hierarchy.
It’s easy to imagine how this would in turn result in decreasing porousness between Varnas. Incidentally, this is attested through the first/second-century inscription near Nasik by Brahmana Satavahana Queen Gotami, which praises how her son prevented the mixing of the Varnas. This is one of the most solidly dated references against the mixing of Varnas (as it is an inscription) issued by a political authority (not just religious abstractions).
However in a pre-modern subcontinent without a strong centralized state, these ideas would have spread very slowly through the network of Brahmins and various (particularly) Vaishnava sects through the vehicle of Gita. The Hindu Golden age of the Imperial Vaishnavite Guptas – who ruled the second-largest and arguably the richest empire of ancient India, in the fourth/fifth century AD nicely correlates with these timelines. Thus we could say that by the time of the Huna invasions of the 5th and 6th century the Varna ossification was prevalent, but even that doesn’t explain the complete story. Still, we have no philosophical or scriptural basis for Jati endogamy.
Anthropologist Irawati Karve in her book “Hindu society” was one of the earliest to claim that the Jati system was a pre-Aryan reality upon which the abstraction of the Aryan Varna system was imposed. Academically her work has been contested and not accepted in mainstream Indology, but her case is very compelling, given that it is based on her immense fieldwork in “Non-Aryan” tribes who have maintain very strict endogamy. But how does her thesis map onto what we know from genetics? Endogamy in India roughly seems to have ossified between 0 AD and 500 AD but who is to say that less rigid endogamy (not detectable) was not the norm earlier? Is it possible that the self-conception of Jatis is indeed is an ancient Pre-Aryan reality that was less rigid during the Vedic times? Clearly, there are no easy answers as all we can do is speculate and wait for Ancient DNA from India to show if there existed any pre-Aryan structure in the populations of the Indus valley.
Many tribal (hunter-gatherer) societies have endogamy baked into their cultures. But generally, as these tribal societies get integrated into the agricultural societies, this endogamy tends to break down – as evident for recent genetic findings (particularly Europe). But what if the tribal societies which integrated into the emerging Urban civilizations (first the Indus and then the Ganga) , never fully gave up their tribal/clan identities? The hundreds of excavated IVC villages point to sophisticated trade/occupational specialization. If both the sexes work in their ancestral trades per se, it would naturally result in tribal endogamy as it makes occupational sense. But that would not necessarily lead to rigid endogamy to the levels we see in the subcontinent- probably because this doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world. Though the identities of groups by kinship (precursor to Jati) may have existed even before the Varna system began to take form (let alone become rigid).
But why does this Jati endogamy become sharper with the ossification of the Varna system? Some take the explanation as Jatis arising out of the mixing of Varnas seriously, but that thesis (ludicrous imo) can be jettisoned without a second thought as Jatis exists even in those who are outside the Varna hierarchies. A potential answer may again lie in the doctrine of Karmic retribution.
Unlike the original simplistic Varna hierarchy – the concept of Karmic retribution enables hierarchies within hierarchies. Every Jati can be ranked within the Varna hierarchy based on the perceived moral inheritance (Karma) of their profession. Additionally, better births and even salvation are promised to the ones following their Jati-Varna Dharma. Thus Jatis would have both religious as well as occupational/cultural reasons for enforcing stricter endogamy which is far more believable than assuming these norms were somehow imposed across the subcontinent in pre-modern times by machinations of Dvija Varnas.
None of the above points are sufficient but all are necessary to explain the great vivisection of Indian society. Chronologically first the kinship-based (not gotra) groups were integrated into the expanding Aryavarta both culturally and genetically while the late Vedic abstractions of Varna and ritual purity began to take root in the orthodox Vedic traditions. When the rudimentary conceptions (Vedic or non-Vedic) of Karma and Rebirth were taken up by the Sramanas, taking them to a complex, philosophical, and rigorous extreme, they began to affect the Vedic philosophies.
In essence, the religious innovations of Karma, Rebirth and Dharma when coupled with pre-existing concepts of Varna, ritual purity, and tribal occupational endogamy conjure up a perfect storm that continues to flow through the blood of around 1/4th of humanity, in form of thousands of distinct streams.
What is not discussed above is the impact on the subcontinent of the violent Huna invasions which along with internal strife resulted in the collapse of the Gupta empire. The rapid de-urbanization which is speculated to have occurred in the fifth and sixth centuries would have also played a crucial role in this ossification. The second millennium with the Turkic invasions would have also played some role in the maintenance of this now-steady state.
I continue to have a lot of doubts about the above speculations, but when I read books on Indology and Indian prehistory, I find even more tenuous speculations (made by professional academics) than the ones I have proceeded to make in this essay. At least these speculations seem to align with the history alluded by the genetic data of caste (Or I have made them align).
I had thought along these lines even before reading about the interactions of Brahmanas and Sramanas but while reading the Greater Magadha thesis and following a YouTube seminar I thought the thrust of my current argument was staring me in the eye. I expected someone to draw the conclusions I had drawn, but was extremely surprised than no one has gone there.
The references for this essay are numerous and diverse to be noted here. Anyone interested please reach out to me.