To subvert an individual, to make them doubt themselves, to prevent them from confidence and assertion — we can mess with their memory. We can implant false memories, or make them question the reality of what they remember. To subvert a civilisation, to make it doubt its identity, to prevent it from asserting a bold future built upon a proud past — we can mess with its history. We can insert false narratives, or create divisions that never existed, or even distort its core motifs. In turn, we could divide, trouble and negate a civilisation weakened from such subversion. Effective means of propagating such narratives are education, pop culture and big media. Viewed through such frameworks, even newer data is fit into a pattern of thinking that creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, or a tautological rationale for itself.
One way to illustrate this is through an old and lingering debate — that of the Aryan Invasion/Migration (AI/MT). The matter is, at core, one of comparative linguistics. It is the theory of linguistic unity between 12 identified language groups- together called the Indo-European language family. This family descends from a common mother, notionally called Proto-Indo-European (PIE), or so the theory goes. Questions that naturally follow are: where did PIE originate? When was it first spoken? How did it disperse from this posited homeland to everywhere its daughters are extant today? The earliest generation of Europeans who conceived of this theory had no a priori hesitations in speculating that India might be the cradle of civilisation, or that Sanskrit might be PIE. But as European imperialism ascended, and Europe’s domination over other civilisations intersected with the emergence of race science, the idea that dark-skinned ‘savages’ of Asia or Africa could lie in Europe’s cultural or linguistic ancestry acquired cognitive distaste. Thus was born the need to explain the existence of Sanskrit, its rich literature, and a civilisation as entrenched as India through foreign ancestry.
But before pointing to an agenda, let us momentarily accept that AI/MT is true, and the original proto-Indo-European homeland was the Pontic Steppe, or anywhere outside India. Even if this is true, nowhere else in Eurasia do we find eminent historians publishing books with the title “Which of Us Are Aryans” — as if the linguistic theory justifies demographic divisions in the modern world. European nations do not find rhetoric, ideology and politics that divides their populations between invaders and indigenous. The Greeks are allowed to retain ownership of their myths, their texts, their philosophies and their knowledge — they are not reminded at every turn that these came to them from outside. Even if the horse wasn’t first domesticated in Greece or Italy, we do not credit horse-riding nomads for the sophistication of Greek philosophy or the complexity of Roman polity that even today guides some of the modern world. In fact, given that the whole matter is linguistic at core, among all extant nations where Indo-European languages found seed, only India is told her history by the domination of a linguistic hypothesis.
The AI/MT issue creates problems in our historical memory- problems that we do not find other nations facing, though they also received Indo-European languages from outside. Problems that, when left unchecked and unchallenged, manifest absurdities such as the Gurkaniya Timurids being rehabilitated as the benevolent Mughals, while pandits on the Ganga are still called “invaders of an indigenous populace.” It’s okay that Jesus and Mohammad were from the Middle East, but we continue to discuss whether Indra was from the Steppe.
This is how polarities are created in civilisational memory, and a people are made to doubt their own past and identity. Three major distortions, and the ways in which they divide us, are discussed here. At all times let us keep as our guiding light — how does a linguistic theory allow us to assert such divisions, or to cast them as being so salient even today?
1. The Negation of Civilisational Heritage: The Aryan Invasion/Migration Theory asserts that Vedic culture, and by extension a vast majority of Hinduism, have come with Indo-European languages when they entered India. The harbingers of this arrival were mostly elite male warriors, we are told, and some among them were crafty enough to devise social engineering institutions that demoted the indigenous majority and disenfranchised them for eternity. This allows us to take a significant chunk of Indian heritage and call it of foreign origin. And since India still considers that heritage its own, sans colours of invasion or conquest, it paves the way to somehow justify later invasions and colonisations of India. Nowhere in this is our civilisation’s felt-experience taken into account. It is akin to suggesting false memories to an individual, and using this to gaslight them on a later trauma.
2. Imposition of False Hierarchies: To explain how an invading/migrating linguistic minority spread language and culture across a subcontinent with an indigenous majority, a form of elite dominance is inevitably implied. Under this narrative, elite warrior and priestly lineages were at the frontier of expansion. This lends a lazy, reductive and distorted paradigm to explain India’s complex jāti-varṇa structures. As self-fulfilling prophecies, such distortions can be co-opted today to design further stratification of Indian society, affecting public policy, and most importantly demographic re-engineering and their exploitation by political entities.
3. The Great Aryan-Dravidian Divide (that wasn’t): As a fully articulated theory, AI/MT existed for many decades before the mounds of Harappa and Mohenjodaro were first discovered. In those decades, as today still, in distorted readings of the Rigveda were found ‘dark-skinned aboriginals’ and ‘fair-skinned invaders.’ The existence of another language family — the Dravidian — was co-opted to serve such distortions. Dravidian speakers were classified as the Dasas of the Rigveda, and the Aryan arrival from the northwest slowly confined them to the south of the Vindhyas. In doing so, scholars equated language to race, ethnicity and skin-colour in ways so absurd, it’s a wonder the ideas have had currency so long.
More concerningly, even if linguistic consensus moves on, India remains saddled with political parties pandering to an Aryan-Dravidian divide, lauded thinkers like Periyar built entire sociologies based on the delusion, and leading Dalit writers of Kancha Ilaiah’s ilk parrot theories abandoned decades ago, with added colour that would cause even hardline academics to redden.
AI/MT is an epitome of the problem of historical memory we describe above. It is a false memory, one that subverts our sense of civilisation and the continuum of our felt-experience. It is used in ways that question our identity, our self-definition, and at extreme edges- implicitly seeks to absolve invaders and conquerors that subverted us much more recently in history. More insidiously, given that we teach it with all its unsubstantiated implications to our children, it is instrumental in the agenda to make people scoff at their own ancestors and feel disassociated from them. Passed unchallenged among generations of academic and research echelons, such paradigms act as self-fulfilling prophecies. Hard data from archaeology, or newer fields such as genetics, is a priori explained under the established narrative. Attempts to argue against this soon forget the original point, the matter was of linguistics alone. That human migrations were common, and occurred in and out of India is not in question, what marks a specific genotype as “linguistically Indo-Aryans” is. And when we find archaeological supplements that were previously attributed to invading / migrating Aryans, such as fire-altars in Kalibangan, or chariots in Sinauli, the tautological prism of AIT is laid bare — what exactly did the migrants bring here, and why should we slice Indian identity through this notion?
(Amritanshu Pandey is a published author of historical fiction and a scholar of the history of the Indic civilisation, specialising in PIE and AI/MT. And, Sagorika Sinha is a columnist and host of the podcast — A Questioning Mind. She specialises in Communication, with focus on modern day impact via education and media)
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