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History of India – The Vedic Age (4)

II. The Aryan Invasion Theory

B. Sri Aurobindo on the Aryan Invasion Theory

“I do not hold myself bound by European research & European theories. My skepticism of nineteenth century results goes farther than is possible to any European skepticism. The Science of comparative religion in Europe seems to me to be based on a blunder. The sun & star theory of comparative mythology with its extravagant scholastic fancies & lawless inferences carry no conviction to my reason. I find in the Aryan & Dravidian tongues, the Aryan and Dravidian races not separate & unconnected families but two branches of a single stock. The legend of the Aryan invasion & settlement in the Panjab in Vedic times is, to me, a philological myth. The naturalistic interpretation of the Vedas I accept only as a transference or adhyaropa of European ideas into the Veda foreign to the mentality of the Vedic Rishis & Max Muller’s discovery of Vedic henotheism as a brilliant & ingenious error.”1

The nineteenth century European Aryan Invasion Theory was apparently – only apparently, for, in truth, as we shall see latter, it was highly motivated – based on the scientific theories of early human cultures and the European sciences of Comparative Mythology and comparative Philology which were in vogue at that time. Commenting on the interpretation of the Veda based on these European sciences, Sri Aurobindo wrote, “This interpretation is in entire harmony with the scientific theories of early human culture and of the recent emergence from the mere savage which were in vogue throughout the nineteenth century and are even now dominant. But the increase of our knowledge has considerably shaken this first and too hasty generalisation. We now know that remarkable civilisations existed in China, Egypt, Chaldea, Assyria many thousands of years ago, and it is now coming generally to be agreed that Greece and India were no exceptions to the general high culture of Asia and the Mediterranean races. If the Vedic Indians do not get the benefit of this revised knowledge, it is due to the survival of the theory with which European erudition started, that they belonged to the so-called Aryan race and were on the same level of culture with the early Aryan Greeks, Celts, Germans as they are represented to us in the Homeric poems, the old Norse Sagas and the Roman accounts of the ancient Gaul and Teuton. Hence has arisen the theory that these Aryan races were northern barbarians who broke in from their colder climes on the old and rich civilisations of Mediterranean Europe and Dravidian India.

But the indications in the Veda on which this theory of a recent Aryan invasion is built, are very scanty in quantity and uncertain in their significance. There is no actual mention of any such invasion. The distinction between Aryan and un-Aryan on which so much has been built, seems on the mass of the evidence to indicate a cultural rather than a racial difference.* The language of the hymns clearly points to a particular worship or spiritual culture as the distinguishing sign of the Aryan, – a worship of Light and of the powers of Light and a self-discipline based on the culture of the “Truth” and the aspiration to Immortality, – Ritam and Amritam. There is no reliable indication of any racial difference. …

*It is urged that the Dasyus are described as black of skin and noseless in opposition to the fair and high-nosed Aryans. But the former distinction is certainly applied to the Aryan Gods and the Dasa Powers in the sense of light and darkness, and the word anÀsaU does not mean noseless. Even if it did, it would be wholly inapplicable to the Dravidian races; for the southern nose can give as good an account of itself as any “Aryan” proboscis in the North.

Nor is it a certain conclusion from the data we possess that the early Aryan cultures – supposing the Celt, Teuton, Greek and Indian to represent one common cultural origin, – were really undeveloped and barbarous. A certain pure and high simplicity in their outward life and its organisation, a certain concreteness and vivid human familiarity in their conception of and relations with the gods they worshipped, distinguish the Aryan type from the more sumptuous and materialistic Egypto-Chaldean civilisation and its solemn and occult religions. But those characteristics are not inconsistent with a high internal culture. On the contrary, indications of a great spiritual tradition meet us at many points and negate the ordinary theory. The old Celtic races certainly possessed some of the highest philosophical conceptions and they preserve stamped upon them even to the present day the result of an early mystic and intuitional development which must have been of long standing and highly evolved to have produced such enduring results. In Greece it is probable that the Hellenic type was moulded in the same way by Orphic and Eleusinian influences and that Greek mythology, as it has come down to us, full of delicate psychological suggestions, is a legacy of the Orphic teaching. It would be only consonant with the general tradition if it turned out that Indian civilisation has throughout been the prolongation of tendencies and ideas sown in us by the Vedic forefathers. The extraordinary vitality of these early cultures which still determine for us the principal types of modern man, the main elements of his temperament, the chief tendencies of his thought, art and religion, can have proceeded from no primitive savagery. They are the result of a deep and puissant prehistoric development.

Comparative Mythology has deformed the sense of man’s early traditions by ignoring this important stage in human progress. It has founded its interpretation on a theory which saw nothing between the early savage and Plato or the Upanishads. It has supposed the early religions to have been founded on the wonder of barbarians waking up suddenly to the astonishing fact that such strange things as Dawn and Night and the Sun existed and attempting in a crude, barbaric, imaginative way to explain their existence. And from this childlike wonder we stride at one step to the profound theories of the Greek philosophers and the Vedantic sages. Comparative Mythology is the creation of Hellenists interpreting un-Hellenic data from a standpoint which is itself founded on a misunderstanding of the Greek mind. Its method has been an ingenious play of the poetic imagination rather than a patient scientific research.

If we look at the results of the method, we find an extraordinary confusion of images and of their interpretations in which there is nowhere any coherence or consistency. It is a mass of details running into each other, getting confusedly into each other’s way, disagreeing yet entangled, dependent for their validity on the licence of imaginative conjecture as our sole means of knowledge. This incoherence has even been exalted into a standard of truth; for it is seriously argued by eminent scholars that a method arriving at a more logical and well-ordered result would be disproved and discredited by its very coherency, since confusion must be supposed to be the very essence of the early mythopoeic faculty. But in that case there can be nothing binding in the results of Comparative Mythology and one theory will be as good as another; for there is no reason why one particular mass of incoherence should be held to be more valid than another mass of incoherence differently composed.”2

In the light of the above, the only remaining basis for the Aryan Invasion Theory is the apparent similarity between certain European languages and Sanskrit but this need not necessarily imply any invasion or settlement of the so called European barbaric hordes into ancient India. It may be the result of a common culture covering a great part of the globe with India as a centre.

In a letter to “The Hindu” published in its 27 August 1914 issue and written in response to certain remarks about the “Secret of the Veda” that had appeared in this paper’s review of the “Arya”, Sri Aurobindo wrote “I do not claim that mine is the first attempt to give an adhyatmic interpretation of the Veda. It is an attempt – the first or the hundredth matters little – to give the esoteric and psychological sense of the Veda based throughout on the most modern method of critical research. Its interpretation of Vedic vocables is based on a re-examination of a large part of the field of comparative Philology and a reconstruction on a new basis which I have some hope will bring us nearer to a true science of Language. This I propose to develop in another work, the ‘Origins of Aryan Speech’. I hope also to lead up to a recovery of the sense of the ancient spiritual conceptions of which old symbol and myth give us the indications and which I believe to have been at one time a common culture covering a great part of the globe with India, perhaps, as a centre.”3

That which was perceived by Sri Aurobindo one hundred years ago has been proved beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt by the studies based on modern genetic science. One important recent book on such studies is by Stephen Oppenheimer of Oxford University who is a world-recognised expert in the synthesis of DNA studies with archeological and other evidence to track ancient mysteries. In the Preface to his book entitled “The Real Eve”, he writes, “Imagine an Airline Check-in Queue in Chicago or London. Seven people stand there, looking in different directions. One is a solicitor of Afro-Caribbean origin, another a blonde-haired girl whose family come from northern Europe, another a computer expert who was born in India. The fourth is a Chinese teenager listening to music on a Walkman. The fifth, sixth, and seventh are all attending a conference on rock art and come respectively from Australia, New Guinea, and South America. All seven are quiet, and avoid eye contact because they neither know one another nor feel related in any way. Yet it can be proved they are all related and ultimately all have an African female and male ancestor in common.

In all our cells we have genes. Genes are made up of DNA, the string-like code of life that determines what we are, from our fingernails to our innate potential for playing the piano. If we analyse the genes of any one of these seven people, we can trace the geographic route taken by their ancestors back to an ultimate birthplace in Africa, at the dawn of our species. Further, if we take any pair of them and compare their genes, we well find that they share a more recent ancestor – living, in all probability, outside Africa. …What is more, I believe that we can now prove where those ancestors lived and when they left their homelands. This remarkable proof has become fully possible only within the last decade, as a result of pioneering work by a number of people.

Many of us have wondered what we would find if we could perhaps board a time machine and travel back through the generation of our ancestors. Where would it take us? Would we find ourselves to be distantly related to some famous or notorious person? How many generations would we pass through before we arrived at the first humans? Does our line continue back to monkeys, and beyond to worms and single-celled creatures, as Darwin maintained? We know from dry biology lessons at school that this ought to be so, but as with the uncertainty of what happens to us after we die, it is hard to grasp.

We are now so used to the pace of technical advances that the sense of wonder fades with each new one. Yet, until very recently, geneticists could only dream of using our genes to trace the detailed history of how we conquered the world. The reason for their pessimism was that the majority of the genes they examined shuffled themselves around at each generation and were common to most populations anyway. Their task was like trying to reconstruct a previously played card game from the pack of cards after it has been shuffled. So it was nearly impossible to draw an accurate genetic family tree going back even a few hundred years, let alone back to the beginning of our species. Most human populations look very similar beneath the skin, so where could one start?

The use of gender-specific gene lines, the so-called Adam-and-Eve genes, has in the last ten years changed all that. In contrast to all other genes, mitochondrial DNA (a collection of genes outside the cell nucleus) is inherited only through our mothers, and the Y chromosome is inherited only by men. These two sets of gender-linked genes are passed on unchanged from generation to generation, with no shuffling, and can therefore be traced right back to our ancestors, to the first mammals, and even beyond to worms and worse. We can thus construct two family gene trees, one for our fathers and one for our mothers. As a result, in any population, of whatever size, we can trace any two individuals through one of these two gene trees back to a most recent shared ancestor on the tree. Such an ancestor may have lived 200, 5,000, or 150,000 years ago, but all ancestors can be assigned a place on the newly constructed Adam-and-Eve genetic trees. These are real family trees of modern human gene lines, with real branches. Each branch on each tree can be dated, although the accuracy of such dating still leaves much to be desired.4

(To be continued…)


1. Sri Aurobindo Archives and Research, December 1984, Page 136

2. Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo 15, Pages 25-28

3. Ibid, Page 596

4. Oppenheimer, Stephen, The Real Eve: Modern Man’s Journey Out of Africa, Carroll and Graf, 2004, Pages xvii-xix

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