Engagement - Scholarship

When Scholarship Matters:
The Indo-Aryan Origins Debate

Edwin Bryant
Rutgers University

Everyone in the field of South Asian studies by now knows about, and is likely exasperated by, the debate over the origins of the Vedic-speaking Indo-Aryans. We have all, I think, heard something of the voices that have emerged, primarily from Indian archaeologists and historians, as well as from the Hindu diaspora, challenging the idea of an external origin for this language and cultural group, and claiming an Indigenous origin for the Vedic culture (a view I have termed the 'Indigenist' position). Fueled by suspicion of the racist and elitist biases of colonial Indology, and, according to its detractors, by the imperatives of Hindu nationalism, this view provokes endless discussions, as anyone with the patience to follow the Indo-Aryan migration debates on the Indology nets and other conferences in the West can attest. These debates all-too-often degenerate into emotional name-calling, as accusations of 'neo-colonial chauvinism' from one side, and assertions of 'Hindu nationalistic dogma' from the other, inevitably start to be bandied about, while the scholarly value of the discussions rapidly evaporates.

Most western Indologists, on the whole, have remained unconvinced by the limited exposure they have had with the all-too-often selective quality of the Indigenist arguments they encounter, which they view as indicative of a nationalism that seeks authenticity in unscholarly interpretations of history and pre-history, and some scholars are becoming exasperated by the polemical rehashing of the racist genesis of western Indology. While the debate is viewed by most western Indologists as, at best, peripheral to serious scholarship and, at worst, as an annoying—and, in the present-day Indian context, politically dangerous—disturbance, it is ferociously contested in India, where it is situated in much more of a mainstream academic context.

The Indigenist stress on the continuity of Indian history, and the generic use of the term 'Vedic culture', with its ahistorical and monolithic overtones and troublesome implications for minority cultures, is the feature of the 'Indigenist' position, that is most troubling to opponents of this view. The concerns of those who fear the ideological corollaries underpinning such interpretations are by now well-known: if the Vedic Indo-Aryans are interpreted as being indigenous to India, then the 'Vedic Civilization' and all that developed from it can be construed as 'truly Indian' and all subsequent cultural groups known to have immigrated into India can be depicted as 'Others'. Indigenism, consequently, is generically stereotyped as a discourse promoting communal tension.

Predictably, an inevitable corollary of stereotyping is that it results in counter-stereotypification, and those most actively defending the theory of Aryan migrations in India (whom I have termed the 'Migrationist' school), are characterized in turn as having ideological predispositions of their own. These are usually associated with secular Marxist agendas in some Indian contexts, and neo-colonialist ones in others, and the 'Leftist' or 'secular Marxist' academic is subject to an amount of disgust equaled only by that vented upon the 'colonial stooge.' Secular Marxists are accused by Indigenists of maintaining a defunct theory in order to insist that the arrival of the Aryans is analogous to the arrival of the Muslims, Christians and numerous other groups of newcomers to the subcontinent. In such an amalgamation of immigrants, no one has more claim to indigenous pedigree or cultural hegemony than anyone else. A secular state, from this perspective, is the only political system that can protect the equal rights of all citizens to define themselves as being Indian with cultural credentials that are as good as anybody else's. Thus, Migrationist, that is, anti-Indigenist scholarship is stereotyped, in its turn, as being subservient to secular, Marxist ideology by its opponents.

As for the colonial stooge caricature, a recent book by D.K Chakravarti captures this perspective with such statements as: "the Indian historians became increasingly concerned with the large number of grants, scholarships, fellowships and even occasional jobs to be won in Western universities, [and thus] there was a scramble for new respectability to be gained by toeing the Western line of thinking about India and Indian history." The bitterness, hostility and ad hominem sarcasm seeping from the pens of participants in this debate (from both sides of the fence) when referring (increasingly by name) to those holding opposing views is apparent for all to see, and the academic value of much of the exchange—on all sides—has been singed by the emotional temperature such issues ignite. The result is an almost complete lack of communication between two mutually antagonistic and angry camps, and intransigent, cavalier, selective and often grossly inaccurate generalizations of opposing views are bandied about on both sides of the issue. Thus, an entire fascinating field of study has become inextricably linked with ideology and the politics of representation to the point where it is almost impossible to have a rational and objective conversation on the origin of the Indo-Aryans in India without becoming associated with the ideologies that are immediately correlated with pro- or contra- stances on the issue.

Blanket stereotypification of the Aryan debate with Hindu nationalism was a source of great annoyance amongst numerous scholars I interviewed in India who were questioning the theory of external Aryan origins. In such generalizations, distinctions are often not made between communal revisionism and post-colonial reconsideration. Of course, these two ingredients are not always easily distinguishable, nor detachable, but, tiresome or not, this anti-imperialistic, post-colonial dimension of the issue is nevertheless an inherent and essential ingredient. Many members of the Indigenist school are quite understandably uncomfortable about inheriting an account of their ancient history that was assembled for them by their former colonial masters, and are committed to reclaiming control over the reconstruction of the ancient history of their country. A principal motive of many Indian scholars in this debate is the desire to reexamine the infrastructure of ancient history that is the legacy of the colonial period and test how secure it actually is by adopting the very tools and disciplines that had been used to construct it in the first place. While the more dogmatic, polemical and sometimes amazingly ill-informed publications do not exactly help the case along, some Indigenists have presented some quite compelling arguments that do merit consideration. There are a number of quite legitimate reasons to question a good deal of the data that has been produced to support a Migrationist position.

Moreover, the opinions of significant numbers of Indian intellectuals about the history of their own country cannot simply be dismissed by those engaged in research on South Asian proto-history, or be relegated to areas outside the boundaries of what is considered worthy of serious academic attention. One must beware of falling into a kind of uncritical Indological McCarthyism towards those open to reconsidering the established contours of ancient Indian history, irrespective of their motives and backgrounds, and of lumping all challenges into a simplistic, convenient and easily-demonized 'Hindu Nationalist' category. Neglected viewpoints do not disappear. They reappear with more aggression due to frustration at being ignored. The western academy must, in my opinion, revisit the entire issue of Indo-Aryan origins, respond respectfully to the objections that have been raised by the Indigenous school against the prevailing western consensus of Indo-Aryan migrations, and submit their own presuppositions, inherited or otherwise, to fresh scrutiny—an exercise that is surely healthy for any scholar committed to striving for objectivity, (and especially so given both the critique of 'Orientalism,' and the present-day, post-colonial environment of South Asian studies).

Having said that, it seems fair to state from the other side, that while pointing out colonial biases is of fundamental importance—cleansing Indology from the ghosts of the past is a process that is by no means passé—there is still solid empirical data that need to be confronted and addressed if one chooses to tackle a problem like that of the Indo-Aryans; suspicion of colonial motives does not make such evidence disappear. Besides, this is no longer the colonial period; it is still a post-modern one where alternative, suppressed and subaltern views are, if anything, glamorized. Established paradigms have been subverted left, right and center throughout humanities departments all over western academia. Why on earth would present-day western Indologists still be invested in an 'Aryan Invasion' theory anyway? Whatever may have been the agendas underpinning 19th century scholarship, the fact is that most present-day western scholars have been unconvinced by the polemical and all-too-often embarrassingly ill-informed arguments they encounter, not because they somehow have some mysterious investment in insisting on an external origin for this language group. There were, and still are, some very good reasons to retain the theory of Aryan migrations, and this evidence needs to be addressed. Simply aggressively promoting only those selective aspects of the data that are amenable to a specific alternative view with troubling ideological underpinnings is to duplicate the errors and excesses of the much-maligned 19th century European Indological enterprise. Two wrongs do not make a right: European racism and elitism cannot be replaced by Hindu chauvinism. History cannot be written by decibel.

Casting off the legacies of colonialism opens up exciting new possibilities for the understanding of Indian proto-history provided the constraints of the colonial period are not replaced by an equally constraining insistence on a different ideologically driven reading of the historical evidence, whether 'western elitist,' 'secular Marxist' or 'Hindu nationalist.' Unless attitudes to this issue change from all sides, I foresee the perpetuation of two widening divides as the 'Indigenist' position becomes more vociferous: one between western Indologists, and the more persistent voices from the Hindu diaspora, and the other much more serious confrontation between 'leftist' and 'rightist' academics in the subcontinent itself. Most unfortunate, if this trend continues, will be that the entire field will suffer due to loss of communication between differing opinions and points of view—the lifeblood of a progressive field of study.