In Pragati: An Outdated Syllabus

(Photo: Justin Gaurav Murgai)

(a shorter and sweeter version of this article appeared in the Nov 2010 issue of Pragati)

Recently M. Night Shyamalan kicked off a race row with his latest movie The Last Airbender (2010). In the TV series, the characters, Aang, Katara, Sokka are Asian, but in the movie, they were portrayed by white actors; the casting call specifically asked for Caucasian actors. Shyamalan was accused of “whitewashing” and “racebending.” Another movie which attracted similar attention was Walt Disney’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) where actor Jake Gyllenhaal played an Iranian Prince. But in this case, most Iranians were pleased that a fair skinned actor played the role because it accurately represented how “Aryan” Iranians looked before Islam was forcibly imposed.

In Iran, the external Aryan ancestry is a non-issue, but in India it is a matter of angry controversy. The fact that it is a source of controversy in India has been bothering scholars in Western universities. In his course, History of Iran to the Safavid Period, Prof. Richard W. Bulliet, an Iranian specialist at Columbia University ridicules the people who oppose Aryan invasion theory and tells students that Indians believe that proponents of the Aryan Invasion Theory are members of CIA who want to portray India as a wimpish state; he specifically mentions members of BJP as belonging to this group.

In the first lecture he mentions the similarities between Old Iranian and Vedic and their relation to the Indo-European languages. For him, this similarity indicates invasion, and this invasion theory is supported not just by philologists, but also by archaeologists and historians. This Grand Canyon wide gap between scholarly consensus and what is being taught in American universities is not surprising. Last Fall, in a course titled  History of India, at University of California, Los Angeles, Prof. Vinay Lal lectured about rejected 19th century racist concepts like “subdued snub-nosed and dark skinned people known as the Dasas” and how forts and citadels were attacked by the invading Aryans.

These professors are wrong — about the Aryan Invasion Theory, about race, about the people who dispute it and the reason they dispute it. Though nationalism and sometimes Hindu nationalism is blamed, the reason why Indians are suspicious of colonial theories will become obvious as we look at an example where “scientific” European minds applied pseudoscience and divided the Indian population.

First, let us look at the Aryan Invasion Theory. In his book The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (2004), Prof. Edwin Bryant who looks at both sides of the Aryan debate concludes that, “there is general consensus among South Asian archaeologists that, as far as archaeological record is concerned, clear, unambiguous evidence of invading or immigrating Aryans themselves is nowhere to be found either in central Asia or in the Indian subcontinent.” Romila Thapar writes in Early India: From the origins to the AD 1300 (1995), that, “The theory of an Aryan invasion no longer has credence.”

Second, when it is mentioned that only members of the BJP are against the Invasion Theory, it is incorrect. Edwin Bryant is not an Indian; Romila Thapar is an antagonist of Hindu Nationalists. Truth is the casualty when he says that opponents of Aryan Invasion Theory have been ignoring archaeological evidence for Prof. Bryant’s survey shows that it is the lack of archaeological evidence, among other things, which prompted many historians to re-think. Instead of the invasion theory, many scholars now believe in a migration theory.

Finally, Prof. Bulliet says that opponents of the invasion might take refuge in the writings of his colleague Edward Said, the author of the seminal book Orientalism. On this point, he is absolutely right. It was the colonial historian who gave us the concept of race. 19th century Europe was the center of racial studies; scientists measured the volume of the skull for various races and found that the white race was the largest and hence of superior intellect.

From 1891, the British official, Herbert H. Risley defined 2378 castes as belonging to 43 races on the basis of their nasal index. Also, Indo-European, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, Tibeto-Burman linguistic groups were identified as different races with Indo-European speakers or Aryans at the top of the tree. Based on this mythology, the skeletons found in Mohenjo-daro were classified as belonging to various races, mostly non-Aryan.  Coming to the Vedic texts, a racial interpretation was assigned to various passages. The dark skinned and nose-less Dasyu was considered of a different race than the fair and high-nosed Aryan. This racial identification was objected to by Indian scholars like Srinivas Iyengar as early as 1914, but such dissenting voices were not the ones writing history.

Following World War II, Western anthropologists realized that race cannot be scientifically defined, based on cranial size or nasal index. According to Prof. Kenneth A. R. Kennedy, who has studied the Harappan skeletal remains extensively, “Biological anthropologists remain unable to lend support to any of the theories concerning an Aryan biological or demographic entity.” According to Prof. Gregory Possehl, an anthropological archaeologist at the University of Pennyslvania, “Race as it was used in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has been totally discredited as a useful concept in human biology.” Thus there is nothing to distinguish the invaders from the natives; in short, there is no Aryan or Dravidian race.

A century after Indian scholars raised objections, Western scholars are realizing that the racial interpretation was based on over reading soft evidence; it was a consequence of the 19th century racial insanity that ruled Europe. In 1999, Hans Hock reexamined the supposedly racial Vedic material and found them either to be mistranslated or open to alternative non-racial interpretations. Among multiple interpretations, the racial one was preferred because it favoured colonialism. Still the Professor at UCLA still talks about the snub-nosed Dasyus, even though Indian scholars have interpreted that the Vedic word means one devoid of speech, not nose.

Over the years, historians have accepted that various language groups are just that — language labels — and does not map to racial identity. In the 11th Neelan Thiruchelvam Memorial Lecture given in Colombo on Aug 1, 2010, Prof Romila Thapar made this very clear. According to her the notion of separate Aryan and Dravidian racial identities has no basis in history. According to Prof. Thomas Trautmann, “That the racial theory of Indian civilization still lingers is a matter of faith. Is it not time we did away with it?” But even in the last general elections, the Dravidar Kazhagam party leader exhorted his followers to reject “Aryan” candidates.

It is such non-benign theories and their consequences that has caused Indian scholars to view Western theories with suspicion. Prof.  Edwin Bryant writes, “I argue that although there are doubtlessly nationalistic and in some quarters, communal agendas lurking behind some of this scholarship, a principal feature is anti-colonial/imperial.” Thus the issue is not what members of BJP believe or do not believe; the issue is what is the latest scholarly consensus and why is it not being taught to students. Maybe the Prince of Persia can investigate if the CIA is involved.


  1. Michel Danino, The Indus-Sarasvati Civilization and its Bearing on the Aryan Question
  2. Michel Danino, Genetics and the Aryan Debate, Purtattva, Bulletin of the Indian Archaeological Society No. 36 (2005- 06): 146-154.
  3. Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004).
  4. History of Iran to the Safavid Period, Columbia University (Podcast, Lecture 1)


  1. Have you had a look at the recent book by David Anthony “The horse, the wheel, and language”? It places the origins of the Indo-European language group firmly into the steppes of southern Russia and the Ukraine, combining linguistics and a wealth of archaeological research from the Soviet Union and modern Russia:
    The Indo-Iranian language group branched off from there, probably via the Sintashta culture, and made its way south to India and Iran. What form this took – invasion or acculturation or whatever – is open to debate and subject to further study.

    1. I have heard of the book, but not read it. It is indeed possible that Indo-European languages originated there and reached India. So far there is no material evidence of invasion. Genetic studies do not show massive levels of migrations. So maybe it happened much earlier than currently thought.

  2. A seemingly far fetched but interesting factoid:

    While performing puja, we say “मेरोः दक्षिण दिग्भागे जम्बुद्वीपे भारतवर्षे भरतखण्डे दण्डकारण्ये … ”
    meaning that this puja is being performed “To the south of Mount Meru, In the island of Jambu, In the country of bharata , in the land of bharata, in the forest of dandaka (the deccan region)…”

    It is said that(I will try to find references for this) Jambudveepa is the island of Eurasia (we know of “saptadveepaa vasundharaa– the earth is made up of seven islands, or continents) which lies to the south of Mount Meru, and bharatavarsha is said to lie to the south of Jambudveepa. Bharatavarsha seems to be our word for all Indic empires at that time put together and Bharatakhanda, our word for India proper.

    But since there is no mountain of that stature to the north of Asia, some have opined that Meru could be a reference to the North Pole itself.

    With this sort of awareness, the word “Indo-european” loses meaning.

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