Let Us All Work For the Greatness Of India

History of India – The Vedic Age (6)


II. The Aryan Invasion Theory
B. Sri Aurobindo on the Aryan Invasion Theory (Continued from the previous Issue)

The Origins of Aryan Speech

“Among all the many promising beginnings of which the nineteenth century was the witness, none perhaps was hailed with greater eagerness by the world of culture and science than the triumphant debut of Comparative Philology. None perhaps has been more disappointing in its results. The philologists indeed place a high value on their line of study, – nor is that to be wondered at, in spite of all its defects, – and persist in giving it the name of Science; but the scientists are of a very different opinion. In Germany, in the very metropolis both of Science and of philology, the word philology has become a term of disparagement; nor are the philologists in a position to retort. Physical Science has proceeded by the soundest and most scrupulous methods and produced a mass of indisputable results which, by their magnitude and far-reaching consequences, have revolutionised the world and justly entitled the age of their development to the title of the wonderful century. Comparative Philology has hardly moved a step beyond its origins; all the rest has been a mass of conjectural and ingenious learning of which the brilliance is only equalled by the uncertainty and unsoundness. Even so great a philologist as Renan was obliged in the later part of his career, begun with such unlimited hopes, to a deprecating apology for the ‘little conjectural sciences’ to which he had devoted his life’s energies. At the beginning of the century’s philological researches, when the Sanskrit tongue had been discovered, when Max Müller was exulting in his fatal formula, ‘pitÀ, patÅr, pater, vater, father’, the Science of Language seemed to be on the point of self-revelation; as the result of the century’s toil it can be asserted by thinkers of repute that the very idea of a Science of Language is a chimera! No doubt, the case against Comparative Philology has been overstated. If it has not discovered the Science of Language, it has at least swept out of existence the fantastic, arbitrary and almost lawless Etymology of our forefathers. It has given us juster notions about the relations and history of extant languages and the processes by which old tongues have degenerated into that detritus out of which a new form of speech fashions itself. Above all, it has given us the firmly established notion that our investigations into language must be a search for rules and laws and not free and untrammelled gambollings among individual derivations. The way has been prepared; many difficulties have been cleared out of our way. Still scientific philology is non-existent; much less has there been any real approach to the discovery of the Science of Language.”1

“The first error committed by the philologists after their momentous discovery of the Sanskrit tongue, was to exaggerate the importance of their first superficial discoveries. The first glance is apt to be superficial; the perceptions drawn from an initial survey stand always in need of correction. If then we are so dazzled and led away by them as to make them the very key of our future knowledge, its central plank, its basic platform we prepare for ourselves grievous disappointments. Comparative Philology, guilty of this error, has seized on a minor clue and mistaken it for a major or chief clue. When Max Muller trumpeted forth to the world in his attractive studies the great rapprochement, pitÀ, patÅr, pater, vater, father, he was preparing the bankruptcy of the new science; he was leading it away from the truer clues, the wider vistas that lay behind. The most extraordinary and imposingly unsubstantial structures were reared on the narrow basis of that unfortunate formula. First, there was the elaborate division of civilised humanity into the Aryan, Semitic, Dravidian and Turanean races, based upon the philological classification of the ancient and modern languages. More sensible and careful reflection has shown us that community of language is no proof of community of blood or ethnological identity; the French are not a Latin race because they speak a corrupt and nasalised Latin, nor the Bulgars Slavs in blood because the Ugro-Finnish races have been wholly Slavonicised in civilisation and language. Scientific researches of another kind have confirmed this useful and timely negation. The philologists have, for instance, split up, on the strength of linguistic differences, the Indian nationality into the northern Aryan race and the southern Dravidian, but sound observation shows a single physical type with minor variations pervading the whole of India from Cape Comorin to Afghanistan. Language is therefore discredited as an ethnological factor. The races of India may be all pure Dravidians, if indeed such an entity as a Dravidian race exists or ever existed, or they may be pure Aryans, if indeed such an entity as an Aryan race exists or ever existed, or they may be a mixed race with one predominant strain, but in any case the linguistic division of the tongues of India into the Sanskritic and the Tamilic counts for nothing in that problem. Yet so great is the force of attractive generalisations and widely popularised errors that all the world goes on perpetuating the blunder talking of the Indo-European races, claiming or disclaiming Aryan kinship and building on that basis of falsehood the most far-reaching political, social or pseudo-scientific conclusions.

But if language is no sound factor of ethnological research, it may be put forward as a proof of common civilisation and used as a useful and reliable guide to the phenomena of early civilisations. Enormous, most ingenious, most painstaking have been the efforts to extract from the meanings of words a picture of the early Aryan civilisation previous to the dispersion of their tribes. Vedic scholarship has built upon this conjectural science of philology, upon a brilliantly ingenious and attractive but wholly conjectural and unreliable interpretation of the Vedas, a remarkable, minute and captivating picture of an early half-savage Aryan civilisation in India. How much value can we attach to these dazzling structures? None, for they have no assured scientific basis.”2

“The present theory is wholly illusory; for it assumes that common terms imply a common civilisation, an assumption which sins both by excess and by defect. It sins by excess; it cannot be argued, for instance, that because the Romans and Indians have a common term for a particular utensil, therefore that utensil was possessed by their ancestors in common previous to their separation. We must know first the history of the contact between the ancestors of the two races; we must be sure that the extant Roman word did not replace an original Latin term not possessed by the Indians; we must be sure that the Romans did not receive the term by transmission from Greek or Celt without ever having had any identity, connection or contact with our Aryan forefathers; we must be proof against many other possible solutions about which philology can give us no guarantee either negative or affirmative. The Indian suraÚga, a tunnel, is supposed to be the Greek surinx. We cannot, therefore, argue that the Greeks and Indians possessed the common art of tunnel-making before their dispersion or even that the Indians who borrowed the word from Greece, never knew what an underground excavation might be till they learned it from Macedonian engineers. The Bengali term for telescope is durbÈn, a word not of European, origin. We cannot conclude that the Bengalis had invented the telescope independently before their contact with the Europeans. Yet on the principles by which the philologists seem to be guided in their conjectural restorations of vanished cultures, these are precisely the conclusions at which we should arrive. Here we have a knowledge of the historical facts to correct our speculations; but the prehistoric ages are not similarly defended. Historical data are entirely wanting and we are left at the mercy of words and their misleading indications. But a little reflection on the vicissitudes of languages and specially some study of the peculiar linguistic phenomena created in India by the impact of the English tongue on our literary vernaculars, the first rush with which English words attempted to oust, in conversation and letter-writing, even common indigenous terms in their own favour and the reaction by which the vernaculars are now finding new Sanskritic terms to express the novel concepts introduced by the Europeans, will be sufficient to convince any thoughtful mind how rash are the premises of these philological culture-restorers and how excessive and precarious their conclusions. Nor do they sin by excess alone, but by defect also. They consistently ignore the patent fact that in prehistoric and preliterary times the vocabularies of primitive languages must have varied from century to century to an extent of which we with our ideas of language drawn from the classical and modern literary tongues can form little conception. It is, I believe, an established fact of anthropology that many savage tongues change their vocabulary almost from generation to generation. It is, therefore, perfectly possible that the implements of civilisation and culture ideas for which no two Aryan tongues have a common term may yet have been common property before their dispersion; since each of them may have rejected after that dispersion the original common term for a neologism of its own manufacture. It is the preservation of common terms and not their disappearance that is the miracle of language.

I exclude, therefore, and exclude rightly from the domain of philology as I conceive it all ethnological conclusions, all inferences from words to the culture and civilisation of the men or races who used them, however alluring may be those speculations, however attractive, interesting and probable may be the inferences which we are tempted to draw in the course of our study. The philologist has nothing to do with ethnology. The philologist has nothing to do with sociology, anthropology and archaeology. His sole business is or ought to be with the history of words and of the association of ideas with the sound forms which they represent. By strictly confining himself to this province, by the self-denial with which he eschews all irrelevent distractions and delights on his somewhat dry and dusty road, he will increase his concentration on his own proper work and avoid lures which may draw him away from the great discoveries awaiting mankind on this badly explored tract of knowledge.

But the affinities of languages to each other are, at least, a proper field for the labours of philology. Nevertheless, even here I am compelled to hold that the scholarship of Europe has fallen into an error in giving this subject of study the first standing among the objects of philology. Are we really quite sure that we know what constitutes community or diversity of origin between two different languages – so different, for instance, as Latin and Sanskrit, Sanskrit and Tamil, Tamil and Latin? Latin, Greek and Sanskrit are supposed to be sister Aryan tongues, Tamil is set apart as of other and Dravidian origin. If we enquire on what foundation this distinct and contrary treatment rests, we shall find that community of origin is supposed on two main grounds, a common body of ordinary and familiar terms and a considerable community of grammatical forms and uses. We come back to the initial formula, pitÀ, patÅr, pater, vater, father. What other test, it may be asked, can be found for determining linguistic kinship? Possibly none, but a little dispassionate consideration will give us, it seems to me, ground to pause and reflect very long and seriously before we classify languages too confidently upon this slender basis. The mere possession of a large body of common terms is, it is recognised, insufficient to establish kinship; it may establish nothing more than contact or cohabitation. Tamil has a very large body of Sanskrit words in its rich vocabulary, but it is not therefore a Sanskritic language. The common terms must be those which express ordinary and familiar ideas and objects, such as domestic relations, numerals, pronouns, the heavenly bodies, the ideas of being, having, etc., – those terms that are most commonly in the mouths of men, especially of primitive men, and are, therefore, shall we say, least liable to variation? Sanskrit says addressing the father, pitar, Greek patÅr, Latin pater, but Tamil says appÀ; Sanskrit says addressing the mother mÀtar, Greek mÅter, Latin mater, but Tamil ammÀ; for the numeral seven Sanskrit says saptan or sapta, Greek hepta, Latin septa, but Tamil eËu; for the first person Sanskrit says aham, Greek egÎ or egÎn, Latin ego, but Tamil nÀn; for the sun, Sanskrit says sÓra or sÓrya, Greek helios, Latin sol, but Tamil ÜÀyir; for the idea of being, Sanskrit has as, asmi, Greek has einai and eimi, Latin esse and sum, but Tamil iru. The basis of differentiation, then, appears with a striking clearness. There is no doubt about it. Sanskrit, Greek and Latin belong to one linguistic family which we may call conveniently the Aryan or Indo-European, Tamil to another for which we can get no more convenient term than Dravidian.

So far, good. We seem to be standing on a firm foundation, to be in possession of a rule which can be applied with something like scientific accuracy. But when we go a little farther, the fair prospect clouds a little, mists of doubt begin to creep into our field of vision. Mother and father we have; but there are other domestic relations. Over the daughter of the house, the primaeval milk-maid, the Aryan sisters show the slight beginnings of a spirit of disagreement. The Sanskrit father adresses her in the orthodox fashion, duhitar, O milkmaid; Greek as well as German and English parents follow suit with thugather, tochter, and daughter, but Latin has abandoned its pastoral ideas, knows nothing of duhitÀ and uses a word filia which has no conceivable connection with the milk-pail and is not connected with any variant for daughter in the kindred tongues. Was Latin then a mixed tongue drawing from a non-Aryan stock for its conception of daughterhood? But this is only a single and negligible variation. We go farther and find, when we come to the word for son, these Aryan languages seem to differ hopelessly and give up all appearance of unity. Sanskrit says putra, Greek huios, Latin filius, the three languages use three words void of all mutual connection. We cannot indeed arrive at the conclusion that these languages were Aryan in their conception of fatherhood and motherhood, but sonhood is a Dravidian conception, – like architecture, monism and most other civilised conceptions, according to some modern authorities; for Sanskrit has a literary term for child or son, sÓnuÕ, with which we can connect the German sohn, English son and more remotely the Greek huios. We explain the difference then by supposing that these languages did possess an original common term for son, possibly sÓnu, which was dropped by many of them at least in a colloquial expression, Sanskrit relegated it to the language of high literature, Greek adopted another form from the same root, Latin lost it altogether and substituted for it filius as it has substituted filia for duhitÀ. This sort of fluidity in the commonest terms seems to have been common – Greek has lost its original word for brother, phraÒor, which its sisters retain, and substituted adelphos, for which they have no correspondents, Sanskrit has abandoned the common word for the numeral one unus, ein, one and substituted a word eka, unknown to any other Aryan tongue; all differ over the third personal pronoun; for moon Greek has selene, Latin luna, Sanskrit candra. But when we admit these facts, a very important part of our scientific basis is sapped and the edifice begins to totter. For we come back to this fatal fact that even in the commonest terms the ancient languages tended to lose their original vocabulary and diverge from each other so that if the process had not been arrested by an early literature all obvious proof of relationship might well have disappeared. It is only the accident of an early and continuous Sanskrit literature that enables us to establish the original unity of the Aryan tongues. If it were not for the old Sanskrit writings, if only the ordinary Sanskrit colloquial vocables had survived who could be certain of these connections? or who could confidently affiliate colloquial Bengali with its ordinary domestic terms to Latin any more certainly than Telugu or Tamil? How then are we to be sure that the dissonance of Tamil itself with the Aryan tongues is not due to an early separation and an extensive change of its vocabulary during its preliterary ages? I shall be able, at a later stage of this inquiry to afford some ground for supposing the Tamil numerals to be early Aryan vocables abandoned by Sanskrit but still traceable in the Veda or scattered and imbedded in the various Aryan tongues and the Tamil pronouns similarly the primitive Aryan denominatives of which traces still remain in the ancient tongues. I shall be able to show also that large families of words supposed to be pure Tamil are identical in the mass, though not in their units, with the Aryan family. But then we are logically driven towards this conclusion that absence of a common vocabulary for common ideas and objects is not necessarily a proof of diverse origin. Diversity of grammatical forms? But are we certain that the Tamil forms are not equally old Aryan forms, corrupted but preserved by the early deliquescence of the Tamilic dialect? Some of them are common to the modern Aryan vernaculars, but unknown to Sanskrit, and it has even been thence concluded by some that the Aryan vernaculars were originally non-Aryan tongues linguistically overpowered by the foreign invader. But if so then into what quagmires of uncertainty do we not descend? Our shadow of a scientific basis, our fixed classification of language families have disappeared into shifting vestibules of nothingness.

Nor is this all the havoc that more mature consideration works in the established theory of the philologists. We have found a wide divergence between the Tamil common terms and those shared in common by the “Aryan” dialects; but let us look a little more closely into these divergences. The Tamil for father is appÀ, not pitÀ; there is no corresponding word in Sanskrit, but we have what one might call a reverse of the word in apatyam, son, in aptyam, offspring and apna, offspring. These three words point decisively to a Sanskrit root ap, to produce or create, for which other evidence in abundance can be found. What is there to prevent us from supposing appÀ, father, to be the Tamil form for an old Aryan active derivative from this root corresponding to the passive derivative apatyam? Mother in Tamil is ammÀ, not mÀtÀ; there is no Sanskrit word ammÀ, but there is the well-known Sanskrit vocable ambÀ, mother. What is to prevent us from understanding the Tamil ammÀ as an Aryan form equivalent to ambÀ, derived from the root amb to produce, which gives us amba and ambaka, father, ambÀ, ambikÀ and ambi, mother and ambarÈØa, colt of a horse or the young of an animal. Sodara, a high Sanskrit word, is the common colloquial term in Tamil for brother and replaces the northern vernacular bhÀi and classical bhrÀtÀ. AkkÀ, a Sanskrit word with many variants, is the colloquial term in Tamil for elder sister. In all these cases an obsolete or high literary term in Sanskrit is the ordinary colloquial term in Tamil, just as we see the high literary Sanskrit sÓnuÕ appearing in the colloquial German sohn and English son, the obsolete and certainly high literary Aryan adalbha undivided, appearing in the colloquial Greek adelphos, brother. What are we to conclude from these and a host of other instances which will appear in a later volume of this work? That Tamil is an Aryan dialect, like Greek, like German? Surely not, – the evidence is not sufficient; but that it is possible for a non-Aryan tongue to substitute largely and freely Aryan vocables for its most common and familiar terms and lose its own native expression. But then we are again driven by inexorable logic to this conclusion that just as the absence of a common vocabulary for common and domestic terms is not a sure proof of diverse origin, so also the possession of an almost identical vocabulary for these terms is not a sure proof of common origin. These things prove, at the most, intimate contact or separate development; they do not prove and in themselves cannot prove anything more. But on what basis then are we to distinguish and classify various language families? Can we positively say that Tamil is a non-Aryan or Greek, Latin and German Aryan tongues? From the indication of grammatical forms and uses, from the general impression created by the divergence or identity of the vocables inherited by the languages we are comparing? But the first is too scanty and inconclusive, the second too empirical, uncertain and treacherous a test; both are the reverse of scientific, both, as reflection will show, might lead us into the largest and most radical errors. Rather than to form a conclusion by such a principle it is better to abstain from all conclusions and turn to a more thorough and profitable initial labour.

I conclude that it is too early, in the history of philological research, we have made as yet too crude and slender a foundation to rear upon it the superstructure of scientific laws and scientific classifications. We cannot yet arrive at a sound and certain classification of human tongues still extant in speech, record or literature. We must recognise that our divisions are popular, not scientific, based upon superficial identities, not upon the one sound foundation for a science, the study of various species in their development from the embryo to the finished form or, failing the necessary material, a reverse study tracing back the finished forms to the embryonic and digging down into the hidden original foetus of language. The reproach of the real scientist against the petty conjectural pseudo-science of philology is just; it must be removed by the adoption of a sounder method and greater self-restraint, the renunciation of brilliant superficialities and a more scrupulous, sceptical and patient system of research.”3
(To be continued…)
1. Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library 10, pp. 551-52
2. Ibid, pp. 553-54
3. Ibid, pp.555-62

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