On the Chronological Framework for Indian Culture 01
On the Chronological Framework for Indian Culture- 1

Although the assumptions at the basis of the Aryan invasion theory were arbitrary and there was little supporting evidence, the reason this theory became popular was because it fulfilled several unstated needs of the historians at the time. In particular, it reinforced the racial attitudes popular in the nineteenth century.


It has been more than a decade that Indologists started voicing the need for a radical reexamination of the ideological premises on which early Indian historiography has been based. It was to satisfy this need that several departments of the Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas organized on September 19, 1998 a day-long debate to consider the question of the earliest Indian chronology, especially as it pertains to the nineteenth- century notion of Aryan invasions1 At the end of the debate the moderator concluded that there was no evidence for any immigration/invasion into India in the prehistoric period and the Indian civilization must be viewed as an un- broken tradition that goes back to the earliest period of the Sindhu-Sarasvati (or Indus) tradition (7000 or 8000 BC).

The proceedings of the Dallas debate are just one expression of the general agreement among scholars that a new paradigm for the history of ancient India is emerging. The new paradigm, which is informed by evidence from the fields of archaeology, history of science and art, and textual analysis takes the Indian tradition to be indigenous and of great antiquity. It is this new paradigm that is compelling a reexamination of the dates of Indian texts and the development of a chronology of Indic ideas

Why have the assumptions on which, for more than a century, the aca-demic world based the chronology of Indian texts and culture unraveled? The old assumptions were partly linguistic and partly cultural. The linguistic assumptions are being recognized as methodologically flawed2, and archaeologists have found no evidence for a break in the Indian tradition going as far back as the beginnings of the Sindhu-Sarasvati tradition in Mehrgarh and other neolithic sites In fact, it is entirely possible that this tradition itself was just a late stage in the old rock art tradition that has been seen to extend back as early as 40000 BC.3 The archaeologists see their findings mirrored in the Vedic texts, which are squarely centered in northern India. In the words of Shaffer and Lichtenstein,4 “The South Asian archaeological record ..does not support.. any version of the migration/invasion hypothesis Rather, the physical distribution of sites and artifacts, stratigraphic data, radiometric dates, and geological data can account for the Vedic oral tradition describing an internal cultural discontinuity of indigenous population movement.” This indigenous population movement appears to have occurred somewhat after 1900 BC due to ecological factors, principally the drying up of the Sarasvati river, once the largest river in India.

The Myth of the Aryans

The concept of invading hordes of Aryans conquering northern India around 1500 BC arose in the nineteenth century for a variety of reasons Linguists had established that the north Indian, Iranian, and most European languages are structurally related and belong to the same family, which was given the name Indo-European A homeland was postulated, and it was assumed that the residents of this homeland spoke a common language, called proto-Indo- European (PIE), the hypothetical ancestor to the historically known ancient languages such as Sanskrit, Avestan, Greek, Latin, and so on Based primarily on linguistic considerations, several theories were proposed according to which this homeland was likely to have been in southeastern Europe or Central Asia. By assigning an arbitrary period of 200 years to each of the several layers of the pre-Buddhist Vedic literature, the period of around 1500 BC was arrived at for the entry of the Aryans into India.

This alleged Aryan invasion was then tied up with the mention of the horse in the Vedic literature by asserting that the invading Aryans brought horses and chariots with them. This hypothesis was considered proven by claiming that the domestication of the horse took place not long before 1500 BC. It was assumed that the horse provided military advantage to the Aryans, which made it possible for them to conquer the indigenous inhabitants of India.

Early objections

Scholars soon pointed out many problems with this theory. First, the earliest Indian literature has no memory of any such entry from outside, and its focus is squarely the region of the Seven Rivers, Sapta Sindhu, with its centre in the Sarasvati valleys and covering a great part of north and northwest India ranging from Sindhu to Ganga to Sarayu. Second, the traditional Indian king lists go back into fourth millennium BC and earlier; also, the lists of teachers in the Vedic books cannot be fitted into the Aryan invasion chronology. Third, it was contended that the beginnings of the vast Vedic literature needed a greater time horizon easily reaching back at least into the third millennium BC. Thus, astronomical references in the Vedic literature refer to events as early as the fourth millennium BC. The Puranas remember some migrations out of India; such migrations were invoked to explain the reference to Vedic gods in treaties between kings and to other Indic names in West Asian texts and inscriptions in the second millennium BC; but the supporters of the Aryan invasion theory interpreted these West Asian Indic references as traces of the migratory path of the Aryans into India. Fourth, the Vedic literature nowhere mentions riding in battle and the horse was rare in Vedic times; the word a ́sva for horse was often used figuratively for speed. Fifth, there was no plausible process explaining how incursions by nomads could have obliterated the original languages in one of the most densely populated regions of the ancient world. Sixth, the Vedic literature portrayed the Aryans as living in a complex society with an important urban element; there is mention of cities, ocean-going ships, numerous professions, which is contradictory to the image of barbaric invaders from the north. Defenders of the invasion theory, however, either ignored such references or wrongly attributed these cultural achievements to the non-Aryans

Although the assumptions at the basis of the Aryan invasion theory were arbitrary and there was little supporting evidence, the reason this theory be- came popular was because it fulfilled several unstated needs of the historians at the time. In particular, it reinforced the racial attitudes popular in the nineteenth century so that the highly regarded Vedas could be assigned to a time before the Aryans in India mixed with the indigenous races The con- quest of India by the British was taken to be similar to the supposed earlier conquest by the Aryans, and so this theory played an important imperialistic function Slowly, as the Aryan invasion date became the anchor that was used to fix other ancient events in the histories of the Indian, Iranian, and European peoples, scholars became ever more reluctant to question the assumptions on which it was based.

New discoveries and insights

The recent discrediting of the Aryan invasion model has been caused primarily by archaeological discoveries These discoveries have been reinforced by new insights from the history of science, astronomy, and literary analysis The main points of the evidence are highlighted below:

  • It has been found that the Sapta Sindhu region—precisely the same region that is the heartland of the Vedic texts—is associated with a cultural tradition that has been traced back to at least 8000 BC with- out any break. It appears that the Sarasvati region was the centre of this cultural tradition, and this is what the Vedic texts also indicate. The term “Aryan” in Indian literature has no racial or linguistic connotations
  • According to the work of Kenneth Kennedy5 of Cornell University, there is no evidence of demographic discontinuity in the archaeological remains during the period 4500 to 800 BC. In other words, there was no significant influx of people into India during this period.
  • Fire altars have been discovered in the third-millennium site of Kalibangan6 It appears now that fire altars were in use at other Harappan sites as well. Fire altars are an essential part of the Vedic ritual.
  • Geologists have determined that the Sarasvati river dried up around 1900 BC. Since Sarasvati is mentioned in the Rigvedic hymns as the largest river, one conclusion that can be drawn is that the Rigveda was composed prior to 1900 BC.
  • Study of pottery styles and cultural artifacts has led archaeologists such as Jim Shaffer of Case Western Reserve University to conclude that the Sindhu-Sarasvati culture exhibits a continuity that can be traced back to at least 8000 BC. Shaffer summarizes:7 “The shift by Harappans [after the drying up of the Sarasvati river around 1900 BC] is the only archaeologically documented west-to-east movement of human populations in South Asia before the first half of the first millennium BC.” In other words, there has been no Aryan invasion
  • A. Seidenberg reviewed the geometry of the fire altars of India as sum- marized in early Vedic texts such as the Satapatha Brahmana and com- pared it to the early geometry of Greece and Mesopotamia. In a series of papers,8 he made a strong case for the view that Vedic geometry should be dated prior to 1700 BC.
  • It has now been discovered9 that altar constructions were used to rep- resent astronomical knowledge. Furthermore, an astronomical code has been found in the organization of the Vedic books This code estab- lishes that the Vedic people had a tradition of observational astronomy, which means that the many astronomical references in the Vedic texts that point to events as early as 3000 or 4000 BC can no longer be ignored.
  • Recent computer analysis10 of the texts from India have shown that the Brahmi script, the earliest example of which comes from Sri Lanka around 500 BC,11 is derived from the earlier script of the Sindhu- Sarasvati age. This again is strong evidence of cultural continuity. There is also continuity in the system of weights
  • The archaeological record shows that the Sindhu-Sarasvati area was different from other ancient civilizations in many cultural features For example, in contrast to ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia, it shows very little monumental architecture. It appears that the political organiza- tion and its relationship to other elites in the Indian society was unique. This is paralleled by the unique character of the Vedic literary tradition with its emphasis on knowledge and the nature of the self.
  • Remains of the horse have been discovered in the Harappan ruins12 A clay model of a horse was found in Mohenjo Daro. New findings from the Ukraine show evidence of horse riding as early as 4000 BC. Given the trade routes connecting the Harappan world with Central Asia and onward to the Ukraine and beyond, there is no reason to suppose that the Harappans were not familiar with the horse.

Taken together, the cumulative evidence completely belies the Aryan invasion theory. If an influx of people into India took place, it had to be much earlier than 4500 BC (if one considers the demographic evidence) and per- haps before 8000 BC (if one considers other related evidence). On the other hand, it is equally plausible that the Sapta Sindhu region was the original homeland of the Indic people from where their ideas and culture diffused to Iran and Europe, as remembered in Puranic legends

Linguistic issues

Recently, linguists have called into question the very assumptions that are at the basis of the genealogical model of the Indo-European family of languages13 It is accepted that the ancient world had great language diversity, and that population increase, greater contacts and trade with the emergence of agri- culture, coupled with large-scale political integration, led to extinction of languages and also to a transfer of languages across ethnic groups In such a complex evolutionary process, it is meaningless to pin a specific language on any racial type.

In the Indian linguistic area itself there exist deep structural relationships between the north Indian and the Dravidian languages It is likely that the Vedic period represents an age long after the contact between these two linguistic families had begun; in other words, the early Vedic period might represent a synthesis between the north Indian and the Dravidian cultural histories For some time it was fashionable to assume a Dravidian invasion of India before the Aryan invasion, but there is no good reason why we should place the majority of neolithic Dravidians anywhere outside of India.

To be continued …

This article has been republished with permission from the author.

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