Search for common homeland?

The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture

March 8, 2002

As a judge of the supreme court in Calcutta in the 1780s, Sir William Jones wanted to gain first-hand knowledge of the laws of Manu, the ancient Hindu law-giver, and therefore embarked on the study of Sanskrit. Thoroughly trained in Latin and Greek, Sir William did not take long to recognise that Sanskrit bears so strong a structural similarity to Greek and Latin that "no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source which, perhaps, no longer exists". This famous statement led to the foundation of modern linguistics, considered to date from 1816 when Franz Bopp published his comparative grammar of some principal Indo-European languages.

In the first enthusiasm created by the European "discovery" of Sanskrit and its ancient literature, India was considered the cradle of civilisation, a point of view still asserted by many Indian scholars and politicians who defend the so-called "indigenous Aryan hypothesis", that is the belief that the Indo-European Aryans did not "invade" India from the West but originated in India. For a number of reasons, however, European scholars soon abandoned the idea that India was the original Indo-European homeland. Hundreds of different solutions have since been proposed for the homeland problem, and the search continues unabated.

Even though no unanimity could be reached as to how Sanskrit came to India, its obvious affinity with the European languages led one of the most influential admirers of ancient Indian civilisation, Friedrich Max Muller (1823-1900), a Sanskritist at Oxford, to speak of the Indians as "our elder brethren". His views did not please colonial and missionary authorities. Many British administrators despised the dark-skinned natives, while Christian priests were horrified by their "idolatrous errors, senseless mummeries... and bloody barbarous sacrifices".

The superiority of European science and technology provoked feelings of inferiority in many Indians, but some refused to accept western intellectual hegemony. Dayananda Saraswati, founder of the Arya Samaj movement, claimed that even railway trains were known to the Vedic Aryans. He wrote in 1882: "No Sanskrit book or history records that the Aryas came here from Iran... How then can the writings of foreigners be worth believing?"

Edwin Bryant's The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture , a well-written doctoral thesis, deals with the history of the Indo-Aryan migration debate, an important issue now that the past has become increasingly politicised in India. As Bryant points out, "neglected viewpoints do not disappear. They reappear with more aggression due to frustration at being ignored. The indigenous Aryan viewpoint has been around for over a century. It has hovered, until recently, on the periphery... (but) is now clamouring for attention more than ever before. It deserves a response articulated in a rigorously critical but fair and respectful fashion."

Bryant's main aim was "to excavate marginalised points of view reacting against what is perceived as flawed and biased historical construct" and "to present a comprehensive exposition and analysis of views from within mainstream academic circles addressing the issue of Indo-Aryan origins".

In doing so, he could draw on earlier studies such as Léon Poliakov's The Aryan Myth : A History of Racist and Nationalist Ideas in Europe (1971) and Thomas Trautmann's Aryans and the British (1997). He has produced a detailed and valuable review of the history of the debate. The book could even be called entertaining if it did not involve a sinister aspect: "Both Europeans and Hindus have allowed elements from within their intelligentsia to utilise academic debate in support of ideological agendas, specifically in the discourse of Aryan/Semitic in its respective manifestations of German/Jew and Hindu/Muslim."

In light of this fact, Bryant is most concerned that his "analysis of the problem, which has, on the whole, been sympathetic to many of the arguments of the indigenous Aryan position" might be "exploited... to bolster the often encountered quote that 'even western scholars have disproved the theory of Aryan invasions'." This is a wise disclaimer. Already, additions to Indian textbooks for secondary schools made in 1993 include the following statement: "(The) view is gaining strength among scholars in the country and abroad that India itself was the original home of the Aryans."

Very recently, according to the Indian press, the minister of human resource development in Delhi, Murli Manohar Joshi, stated that "the government had not breached any rule by making changes without consulting experts on the subject". Cheering members of the Arya Samaj who had gathered to support the ministry's programme of revising textbooks "demanded the arrest of historians Romila Thapar, Arjun Dev and R. S. Sharma", who have opposed the indigenous Aryan hypothesis. Bryant tries his best to remain neutral and unbiased throughout, to the extent that he asks to "be forgiven for not coming to a clear conclusion". He admits: "The indigenous Aryan critique has certainly influenced my own agnosticism." On the other hand, he says the traditional "migrationist scenario... still has much to recommend itself".

This reviewer is more definitely of the second view, as Bryant reports in his book, and I am not alone. Nevertheless, we should all greatly appreciate Bryant's intellectual effort in presenting all aspects of the debate.

Asko Parpola is professor of Indology, University of Helsinki, Finland.

The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate

Author - Edwin Bryant
ISBN - 0 19 513777 9
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £34.50
Pages - 387

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