A quick look at the ‘Aryan problem’


One of the central issues of Indian history is the origin of the Indo-European speakers on India. An allied issue is the antiquity of the Vedas the oldest IE material from India.  They together may be termed the Aryan problem. These issues are of significance in understanding the development what is the only genuine surviving representative of IE culture today- Hindu or Indian culture. There has been a lot of coloration of research in this area by political movements in Europe and North America and Anti-Hindu bias. Nevertheless at least some European and Hindu scholars have attempted to tackle this problem with a fair degree of objectivity.


The current scenarios for IndoEuropean presence in India can broadly be divided into: 1) invasionist (I) scenarios in which the Aryans enter Greater India (The historical Hindu realm encompassing Modern India, Pakistan and Afghanistan) from somewhere outside and  2) nativist (N) scenarios in which the Aryans or even all IEans originated in India. The former scenario involved two different models 1) Model I-A: Invasion by a mobile conquering force of Steppe horse/chariot borne archers reminiscent of the later day Indo-European invaders such as the Shakas, Parthians and Kushanas followed by imposition of he language on the conquered population. This is the Eastern mirror image of M. Gimbutas model for Indo-Europeanization of Europe. 2) Model I-B: Migration of farmers from the Middle Eastern farming centers with demographic take over of the indigenous population. This is the Eastern mirror image of C.Renfrew’s model for IEnization of Europe by farmers.


The nativist scenarios involved origin of Aryans or IEans Central or Northern India followed by their migration into Central Asia and Europe. This scenario is best argued by S.Talageri and interestingly may considered the native model adopted by the Pauranic or sUta historians of India. Just as the historic movements of Shakas and Kushana provide a prototype for the I-A scenario the far ranging movements of the Indian vaishyas into Central Asia and the Fareast provide the historical model for the N- scenarios.


This is where the age of the oldest IE texts of the Indians- the Vedas come into picture. Only if this is fixed can the right archaeological material be compared fruitfully with the Aryan life style reconstructed from the Vedic texts. All linguistic dating methodologies cannot handle the absolute antiquity question. This is due the mutational saturation similar to what happens in the molecular evolution of biological sequences. Hence, the only objective means available is astronomical dating. This line of action was pioneered by the Indian scholar, BG Tilak. There are at least two very clear astronomical references in the atharva veda kaNda 19, hymn 7 and taittiriya saMhita 2.5.1 of the constellations at equinox and solstice. KR^ittika (k«iÄka; Pleiades) is stated to be at the 0h position (Hindu year beginning at the spring equinox) and maghA (m"a; α Leonis or Regulus) at the 6h position (summer solstice). These positions suggest that these classic mantras were associated with an age in the range of 2000-2200BC even if one accounts for a fairly rudimentary astronomical capability and low accuracy of positional determination. The R^ig vedic age was clearly prior to the classic mantra period and could have spanned a phase anywhere between 500 to a 1000 years before it (judging from the genealogies of the authors as provided in the brahminical gotra lists). This suggests that the oldest Indo-Aryan material was even as old as 3000 BC. 


The traditional genealogies of three great Aryan dynasties the pUrus (bhAratas), the ikshvAkus and the yAdavas as can be reconstructed from the mahAbharata, agni, garuDa and vishNu puraNas. These objectively reconstructed lists have between 75-90 kings from the very beginning of the lineages (manu vaivasvata) to the mahAbhArata epoch. The early kings in these lineages correspond well with the rulers frequently mentioned in the R^ig veda suggesting that these kings were generally coeval with the R^ig period. From long-lived (greater than 10 kings) historical Hindu dynasties one gets an average royal turnover rate of about 19 years. Using this one can place the start of the Aryan dynasties at least 1500-1600 years before the bhArata war. From the pauranic testimony of the war’s age relative to the reign of the Magadhan emperor Nanda one can arrive at a date close to 1350 BC for the MB epoch. With this one arrives to a R^igvedic period that is as ancient as 2500-3000 BC, similar to what can be inferred from stellar precession. Interestingly, the R^igveda provides a fragment of an ancient mythology associated with manu’s son, ashvaghna nAbhAnedhishhTha (Añ¹ na-aneixó) (RV 10.61.1-7) points to the legend of prajApati (the year beginning) associating with rohiNi. This fits well with the equinox in Taurus (circa 2800-3000 BC) for the early phase of Aryan existence. Thus we need to search for archeological cognates dating in the range of 2000-3000 BC to associate with the peak phase of the vedic saMhita period.


In India the Indus valley Civilization (IVC) is a prominent option.  The presence of many rivers, knowledge of the sea and a cattle based economy are features of the Indus civilization that match with aspects of the reconstructed Vedic life. The mention of four very Indian animals the gaur (gaEr), the porpoise (izzumar), peacock (myUr) and the elephant (hiSt) in the R^igveda also supports this identification. The identification of the vedic culture with the IVC is key to either the N scenario of many Hindu scholars or the I-B scenario of Renfrew. However, there are major problem with this equation of vedic civilization with the IVC. The vedic texts including at least one of the hymns with an unambiguous astronomical signature mention horses. This is one animal very poorly represented in the IVC if not entirely absent. While this may be a preservation artifact, the troubling point is its noticeable lack on the wide range of animal seals that are typical of the Indus culture. The centrality of the horse to the vedic culture has a close resemblance to its centrality in the Turko-Mongol culture (See the Kültegin epic[1]). The ashvamedha rite and its precursors, the quintessential cattle raid or gavishTi, the ushTra or the camel are very typical cultural features of several central Asian and steppe cultures independent of the Aryans. The Aryans were associated with the horse from their earliest reliably datable phase (2500-3000 BC) hence the candidates for the Aryan cultures should be associated with the horse right from the inception. Further, right from this phase the Aryans differentiated a number of equids namely the horse- ashva, the donkey-rAsabha and the hermione or onager- kakuha. This eliminates the IVC ass from substituting for the horse.   Thus this line of evidence is more consistent with the steppe and the surrounding territory being the best cultural milieu for the early Aryans.


In archaeological terms there is evidence of domestic horses on steppes from at least 4000 BC. There are many rivers in this region, some of which like the Don still bear a noticeably Aryan name that can fit the Vedic situation of multiple rivers. There is the tribe of the putative Indo-Aryan Sindes tribe of Herodotus that was situated on the banks of the Don that may suggest that the river might have also been known as sindhu (isNxu). The super-lakes namely the Black Sea and Caspian Sea would allow the development of the concept of the sea (smuÔ) that is present in the R^igveda. Even the Mongols had a sea/ocean concept (See the name of Chingiz Kha’Khan) derived largely from the super-lakes. Finally two linguistic peculiarities provide support for this position of the Aryans. The presence satem features in Slavic that suggests that Aryan and Slavic had an ancient neighborly association. The Uralic languages also originating in the steppes also bear a few Aryan loan words. The aryans were clearly very familiar with snow and feared cold and winters the most. This does not match well with the Punjab or the Indus lowlands where it may get cold but without snow.


Thus from the Vedic evidence one is left with a puzzling motley of features some very suggestive of an Indian locale while others suggestive of the steppes. In response to this conundrum, most modern Western scholars accept an Indian locale for the Vedic culture but place it post-IVC in the same horizon following an I-A scenario. This was way they explain away the steppe connection as reminiscence of the past. The western scholars also abhor astronomical evidence (plainly due their innate bias[2]) and try to explain it away again as reminiscences. This view is entirely flawed when one views the context of the above referred hymns that provide the astronomical statement. Furthermore, the vedanga jyotisha (VJ) text provides astronomical evidence for its composition around 1350BC (the ‘mahAbhArata era’) when the westerns postulate the peak of the Vedic period. VJ is in clearly post/late- vedic language and again they dismiss the VJ reference as reminiscence. This results in a very absurd position allowing one to reject outright these western hypotheses.


The Indian scholars follow the N-scenario and try to gloss over the horse by saying that it was there but not represented in the IVC or that it is a now extinct species of Equus or that ashva meant some other equid. No evidence supporting any of these propositions is seriously offered. It would be very difficult to dispel the case made by the great ashvamedha hymn of dirghatamA auchathya of the clan of the gotamas that reeks so strongly of the steppes and not riverine valleys of the Indus. Additionally they try to associate the Vedic rivers with modern Indian rivers. The strongest case is that of sarasvati that is described as flowing from the mountains to the sea. However, it is common historic feature for river and place names to be reused in the newly colonized lands thus these names could have been transferred later to the Indian rivers. Evidence for sarasvati being entirely a real river rather than a water cycle goddess with very general attributes of big rivers is also not strong.


Hence one is left with the task of blending the steppe related and Indic features of the Vedas into a proper scenario that is most parsimonious in terms of locus and accounts for the strongest issues namely the astronomical evidence and the centrality of horses and cattle in Vedic culture. With current state of evidence the only way out of this is to propose an Aryan homeland in the steppes with a degree of contact with India through the IVC. The Indic faunal elements that are the main support of an Indian setting are very sporadic elements in the R^ig Veda. Hence, they could very well represent knowledge acquired due to close economical contact with the Indus culture. This is analogous to the elephants acquired and used by historical figures like the Seleucids and the Timurids. In this context the more extensive prehistoric forests to the north of India also need to be taken into account.


Summing these lines of evidence we may conclude that the Aryans originated on the steppes and did enter India at some unspecified point in time. This time can only be determined by better analysis of the Indus sites for the so called late Harappan phase and the now inaccessible Bactria-Margiana complex sites in Afghanistan. Given the postulated close contact between the Indus and the Aryan steppes one should not be surprised if Aryan words are found in the Indus language if ever it is cracked. This does not mean the IVC was an Aryan culture they may be just loanwords as those found in the Hurrian kingdoms of the Middle East. The only chance of this scenario to be reversed to a N scenario is the finding of the “native Indian” horse. This is the Indian archaeological equivalent of the finding of a really ancient true pre-Clovis site in American archaeology.


It may be safely concluded that most models with late vedic chronologies, particularly common with European scholars are unlikely to be of any value in addressing the issue ‘ of the ‘Aryan problem’.


Implications for modern India

The importance of the foreign origin of the Aryans for the politics of modern India has been vastly overstated. Hindus (Aryans) have lived for millennia without being concerned about it, so they need not have any deep fear of it now. The enemies of the Hindus believe that their partial foreign origin may be a potent weapon to justify their grabbing of Hindu territory. However, the Hindus must simply ignore such ideological quibbles and repudiate the enemies of their nation and religion in the way the Vedic Aryans dealt with their enemies[3]. For the open-minded the Aryan inclusivism and syncretism offer a conduit for reformation and peaceful assimilation. This system however has NO room for historically compulsive trouble-mongers.



Foot Notes

[1] The first Turkic epic describes the valorous deeds of the Turko-Mongol Kha’khan Kültegin against the Chinese and Türgish armies. The epic structure shows the convergent features with Aryan epics and these show the unmistakable mark of the steppes (the horse borne archer hero).


2 D. Pingree a student of ancient Indian astronomy shows loads of this bias due to the pre-conceived belief of Greek superiority over Indians.


3 iv n? #NÔ/ m&xa?e jih nI/ca y?CD p&tNy/t>, A/x/m< g?mya/ tmae/ yae A/Sma~ A?i-/ds?it.

[1] The first Turkic epic describes the valorous deeds of the Turko-Mongol Kha’khan Kültegin against the Chinese and Türgish armies. The epic structure shows the convergent features with Aryan epics and these show the unmistakable mark of the steppes (the horse borne archer hero).

[2] D. Pingree a student of ancient Indian astronomy shows loads of this bias due to the pre-conceived belief of Greek superiority over Indians.

[3] iv n? #NÔ/ m&xa?e jih nI/ca y?CD p&tNy/t>, A/x/m< g?mya/ tmae/ yae A/Sma~ A?i-/ds?it.