Aryans and Others

How Europeans and Indians deployed myths regarding ancient Aryans in their various reform and nationalist projects.

By: Express News Service Written by Dorothy M Figueira | Updated: March 13, 2015 3:08 pm
hello Are recent claims to past and present Indian exceptionalism any different from those of Dayananda, Tilak, or Vivekananda? (Illustration by: Pradeep Yadav)

The figure of the Aryan has captivated literary imagination in both India and the West since the classical era and provides a fitting subject of inquiry for comparatists who wish to examine its cross-cultural emplotment. However, from a solely literary perspective, identifying the Aryan is a challenging task, since the texts used to delineate this figure are elusive; they function as absent authorities, often evoked but rarely cited. Moreover, the Aryan is not just the figure that historians and linguists have sought to isolate, situate and follow in its migrations, but has also been the subject of myth-making. Myths regarding the Aryan have been wielded to deconstruct identity and construct new social forms. In my book, Aryans, Jews, Brahmins: Theorising Authority through Myths of Identity, I examine how the Aryan myth is a shared myth in Europe and in India from the Enlightenment to the modern era.

My study begins by charting the initial discussions regarding the Aryan in the work of Voltaire and his quest for an Aryan urtext in the Ezour Vedam. Voltaire sought in India a sophisticated culture as far removed as possible from that of the ancient Hebrews. In this respect, ancient India provided him with an alibi in the true sense of the term, an elsewhere upon which he could superimpose his critique of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

As canonical Sanskrit texts were gradually translated into European languages and disseminated, 19th-century mythographers sought to read the history of the Aryans through their myths. Aryan India was cut to fit the Romantic ideals of a revealed monotheism and the development of a people’s unique character, and their gradual degeneration. With the appearance of Max Mueller’s edition of the Rig Veda and his voluminous commentary, the Aryans were no longer merely Europe’s distant cousins. Their textual presence finally confirmed the existence of a tradition as old as (if not older) than that of the Bible. In the West, this “discovery” of the Aryans through the Veda effectively displaced the Jews from their central position on the world stage. The Jews could now be assigned a subaltern role in history. For the remainder of the 19th century, this myth of the Aryan was employed to construct an ideal imaginary past for Europe. It fostered nationalism and, in the process, identified a mythic scapegoat in the figure of the Jew. The Jew and the Aryan would now become the operative dyad, as seen in the work of Nietzsche, Gobineau, H.S. Chamberlain, and finally in the ravings of Nazi ideologues.

At roughly the same time that the European Romantics were speculating about their imaginary Aryan ancestors, the Hindu reformer Raja Rammohan Roy was laying the foundation for the Brahmo Samaj with translations of Sanskrit scriptures into vernacular languages. In order to affect his reform, Rammohan Roy felt that this literature needed to be liberated from its Brahmin custodians. Toward this end, the raja sometimes even rewrote texts to depict an ideal Aryan past in which certain religious practices (such as idolatry and sati) did not exist. With his translations, he established rules for textual validity and corrected the excrescences that he felt had led to extreme practices. The raja’s reform strategy was subsequently emulated by Dayananda Saraswati, the founder of the Arya Samaj, who also sought to make Sanskrit canonical sources available to a wider range of believers by developing a series of interpretive strategies to extricate Vedic revelation from its hermeticism and ritualism. In order to portray the Aryans as sophisticated, Dayananda “translated” the Veda to show that they had knowledge of telegraphy and chemistry. The myth of the Aryan Golden Age promulgated by both these Hindu reform movements set the stage for the development of Hindu nationalism.

By the time of Tilak, an ideal portrait of the Aryan had been activated to foster national self-esteem. Like Dayananda, Tilak attributed to the Aryans knowledge of science and technology. As valiant survivors of an ice-age glacial catastrophe in the Arctic, the Aryans travelled from the North Pole to civilise the world. Tilak’s Aryans were so advanced that they survived this migration and brought their considerable skills (and their scriptures) to the lands they invaded. Vivekananda would further develop this theme of racial and cultural superiority. Unlike other Indian reformers, Vivekananda did not limit his campaign to the domestic front but exported it abroad. It was before Californian and Chicagoan society matrons that he detailed his vision of an Aryan future grounded in a racialist argument. In this glorification, it was clear that the Brahmin descendants of the Aryans would be the only true beneficiaries of this myth-making.

Jyotirao Phule and B.R. Ambedkar, however, recognised that these various theories needed reinterpretation in order to locate the struggles of the oppressed castes within the historical perspective of the Aryan conquest of India. Phule began by revising the Aryan invasion theory to define culture by its subculture. He turned the myth of the Aryan back upon the elite, by taking just those strengths and virtues attributed to the Aryan by Western Orientalists and Brahmin reformers and transferring them to the lower castes. Instead of appealing to an Aryan Golden Age, Phule called for the reestablishment of an alternative mythical age — a non-Aryan Golden Age during the reign of King Bali. More importantly, by challenging the myth of a utopian Indian past, he introduced the new category of reason into the discussion.

Ambedkar began his mission where Phule left off. Ambedkar started by challenging the authority of the Veda as the source of Aryan identity. He called into question its canonicity and infallibility and rejected its racial portrayal of the Aryans. He also questioned textually based social reform that clearly served the needs of the privileged, lettered castes. Ambedkar concluded that all privileged-caste Hindu speculation regarding the Aryans was nothing but a strategy devised to support Brahmin superiority, justify their overlordship over non-Brahmins and satisfy Brahmin arrogance. In their anti-Aryan polemics, both Phule and Ambedkar launched a radical attack on Hindu revivalism, codified as it was in the elite myth of the past.

Valorising the irrational in myth was (and is) symptomatic of the same disease that enables the irrational to flourish in politics. It is this “underside” of myth that my book examines: how Europeans and Indians deployed myths regarding the ancient Aryans in their various reform and nationalist projects. In both the East and the West, the resulting conclusions were, unfortunately, the same. If you did not possess Aryan blood, you could not be civilised and those peoples identified as non-Aryan “others” needed to be neutralised or even destroyed. Phule and Ambedkar saw the danger inherent in the Aryan myth, challenged it, and sought to debunk it.

If someone had told me when I was writing this book that its thesis would be relevant today, I would have been surprised. But as I assess the present situation, I am astonished by the degree to which its thesis resonates today. I never envisioned that the Aryan myth could be resuscitated so easily, as in those instances when the elected leader of a secular India discusses the genius of the ancient Indians having knowledge of plastic surgery, aeronautics and reproductive technology; or when, on a recent visit to New York, he praises the superiority of modern diasporic professional Indians. Are such recent claims to past and present Indian exceptionalism any different from those of Dayananda, Tilak, or Vivekananda? The myth of Indians inhabiting a Golden Age of technological and moral advancement is the same. It has its believers, as recent events have demonstrated. In light of this ongoing deployment of the Aryan myth, our task becomes clear. We must remember the work of Phule and Ambedkar, and look to their legatees to challenge this mythmaking and offer a counter-narrative.

Excerpted from the preface to ‘Aryans, Jews ,Brahmins’ (2015) published by Navayana. Figueira is professor of comparative literature at the University of Georgia, US.

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  1. C
    Charles dawn
    Mar 13, 2015 at 9:38 am
    Once again a person calls himself expert in Indian Aryan cultural history and tries to down grade a religious text. Wonder what research he/she might have done. Have ever read upnishad or rig , atharva or any Vedas. Does he/she even know Sanskrit before commenting so harshly on it. What proof of phule n ambedkar were against Hinduism. Yet another western try to divide Indian diaspora. Shame on u the auther
    Reply
    1. J
      Janaki Narayanan
      Mar 13, 2015 at 8:15 pm
      The blind describing what is eyesight.
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      1. Z
        Zina
        Mar 14, 2015 at 4:39 am
        This book is published by none other than NAVAYANA - "NAVAYANA RUN BY STEPHEN ANAND". Stephen Anand is a rabid rabble rouser. This publication is another one of his rabble rousing act. Every paragraph that is written in this book promotion is meant to divide the society and promote Mr. Anand's views. Vivekananda was not a Brahmin. He worked for a unified India. This book is up to mischief.
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        1. V
          Vikrant
          Mar 14, 2015 at 4:05 am
          It is surprising to hear from all these wise men about Aryans migrating to India but no where being able to trace its origin. It all seems Aryans acquired all their knowledge after they came to India as we dont find any books customs rituals attributed to Aryans nd prevelant in India existing in any other part of world. These westerners would want us to believe that Vedas borrowed from Bible and not the other way round. Western indophiles do not want to accept the superiority of Indian civilization compared to theirs have tried to make this culture alien to India nd something that came to India from a place closer to their home
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          1. A
            Anang Sen
            Mar 13, 2015 at 4:31 pm
            The entire 'aryan invasion theory' has been thoroughly discredited as imperialist, white supremacist propaa. Genetic research conclusively points to Africa as the cradle of mankind and India as the cradle of civilisation. This latter point shall be borne out further and more emphatically as research (not wishful fantasy) progresses.
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            1. A
              anupam
              Mar 14, 2015 at 6:09 am
              Many people have interpreted Hinduism in their own way. No other religion have accepted so much changes from time to time except it. As I see author is criticised more than being appreciated have shown how we Indians are still proud of mythological baseless proofless myths. and why brahmins don't follow Buddha's teaching if he is the reincarnation of lord Vishnu as they said so..Swami Vivekananda is the only one who saved Hinduism from intellectual criticism by interpreting it in totally different way...
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              1. B
                BALASHANMUGAM
                Mar 13, 2015 at 10:23 pm
                The Sanskrit word Aryan simply means 'A WISE PERSON' I.e. one who seeks Self knowledge by taking up spiritual Sadhana to realise himself. To say that they came from the Arctic is ridiculous & shows the author's gross ignorance.
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                1. V
                  vidya
                  Mar 13, 2015 at 10:09 pm
                  Vivekananda was not a brahmin. He spoke of advaita vedanta, not of aryan supremacy. Hitler got his antipathy to jews from his catholic upbringing, and not from his aryan origin. Ambedkar adopted Buddhism, which is an ofshoot of hinduism.Fundamentalist Christians are worried about the growing influence of Hinduism in western countries, therefore they are carrying out a strategized attack on Vivekanand and Hinduism.
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                  1. D
                    DA
                    Mar 13, 2015 at 10:00 am
                    BTW, the telegraph has officially been done away with. It's shelf life was about a 100 years in India. The Zero, in comparison, endures. I wonder which is the more useful of inventions.
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                    1. D
                      DA
                      Mar 13, 2015 at 9:58 am
                      What a load of rubbish. This myth-making is what students of arts always do, and politicians then tell a story from it. To the extent that it ignited self-pride in India, and laid the ground for getting rid of British colonial rule, the myth was very useful. This surrepious narrative about this being a brahminical conspiracy displays the author's relative ignorance. Rammohan Roy had set us the Arya samaj, and one one of the thrusts was that it would rid Hindu society of the caste divisions. We see the effect of that today, if there is one state where caste has ceased to matter in politics, it is Bengal. Interesting also is the fact that Phule and Ambedkar debunked this (in the author's view). Were the learned gentlemen, then, telling us that the Brahmins were NOT superior, as they were NOT Aryans, and hence acknowledging the superiority of the European race? I find it astounding, borderline hate speech, that this sort of narrative finds place in academic circles. I feel better - up until now I had believed it was only in Indian universities that one had fuax experts, preaching down to all of us at taxpayer's expense. Looks like the west is no better, and this sort of fraud is a global phenomenon.
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                      1. S
                        Srilata
                        Mar 18, 2015 at 11:09 pm
                        Not all Indian Brahmins accepted this Aryan myth. For example, Dwijendralal Roy wrote a hilarious poem whose first few lines were Max Mueller has said we were Arya--hearing this we have given up karya.
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                        1. G
                          geekay
                          Mar 14, 2015 at 4:06 am
                          Little knowledge of India and the people like Dayanand Saraswati etc and painting then with broad brush, one can only sympathaise with your situation. You want to sound knowledgeable but managed to scratch the surface of this w topic. Dayanand Saraswati was promoting caste less society -Equality of all human beings. Just check on wiki. I can also say - what's wrong in praising the diaspora by the PM specially when they are doing best among all ethnicities in US.
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                          1. G
                            Gopal
                            Mar 13, 2015 at 9:28 am
                            This article is complete nonsense. By the perverse logic of this article, if any group of oppressed people claim a great historical legacy (some of which is a myth) then they are using the Aryan myth making technique. It is further troubling that the Aryan theory was introduced into India by the British and served to differentiate Indians, a fact that the writer ignores. It is also ironical that the chief supporters of the Aryan invasion theory in India today are the left wing historians. The Aryan theory has been completely exposed as a false by historical evidence including DNA studies. Just because some politicians declare great scientific accomplishments in the past does not make them votaries of the Aryan theory.
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                            1. G
                              guestfromindia
                              Mar 13, 2015 at 11:26 am
                              Basically Figueira restates what Doniger, Thapar, Witzel et al have been saying for decades. That the Hindus don't have anything to be proud about. That the Brahmins are evil. That Aryans, s and Hindus are the same. Atleast she doesn't state how the Aryans came thundering down the pes on their horses. Do us all a favor, Figueira. Research living Hinduism. How actual Hindus live. Go spend time with practicing Hindus. Since your claim to have advanced reading knowledge in Sanskrit, perhaps you could attempt to read the Bhagavad Geetha and maybe a few Upanishads? Then you could perhaps try reading one Veda? Here's the bottom line - if academics like you continue to attack and weaken Hinduism, it is to your loss. Hinduism is one of the few religions that tolerates dissent, debate and reform. You kill that and your only hope will be Democratic systems in the West. Everything else will be a waste land.
                              Reply
                              1. K
                                Kirpal
                                Mar 14, 2015 at 7:01 am
                                We Indians are the cross breed between so called Aryans, Greeks, Huns,Jats, Gujars, Rajputs, Arabs and native Drawidians as waves and waves of humans kept on coming here for last 5000 years. We should live amicably and peacefully in India rather than claiming superiority over others which is a negative trait and we possess it overwhelmingly. World will accept as good people if we remove poverty, filth from our streets, corruption from our administration and stop breeding like flies. Remember self praise is no recommendation
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                                1. H
                                  Harsh
                                  Mar 13, 2015 at 12:34 pm
                                  If you understand that the Aryan, Nobel and Pak are synonymous word, then only it become easy to understand the truth. Why anybody called himself/herself as a Nobel when he/she wants to impose their superiority on others so, this give them right of exploitation of others. In case of Bharath, the story is little different, I called Bharath because India and Hindustan are also synonymous word. When human race comes out of cave and started farming, they group themselves as a settlement to meet day to day need of food, shelter and security. Lord Shiva was the first who embled all these settlement and give them a shape of country we can called it Bharath. Because of natural richness, Bharath always remain under invasion from those who has the search of food and money. Some invaders try to impose their superiority in the form of political power and all the Puran Katha are full of these initial struggle of superiority. In this churning process they found the middle path and established their respective superiority and give it a legal form to practice it in day to day life in the name of Mmriti. Mmriti was first time challenged in the form of Buddhism for time being but it was again firmly established by demolishing Buddhism. Second time hi challenged Mmriti in the form of congress and Indian consution. And interestingly the process of dismantling it has already started and you may find its significant effect in next century. In short, the process of superiority establishment and marginal challenged to it is a continuous process. However, victory of superiority for few is certain name may be different to exploit majority of people for several years to come. Thus, humanity, democracy are a good word to dream about but the truth is inequality, discrimination to established superiority to get legal right of exploitation you may call it God, King or Multimillionaire for sake of convenience.
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                                  1. P
                                    politicalonion
                                    Mar 13, 2015 at 3:01 pm
                                    I purposely do not correct spelling and gramatical mistakes, even when auto correct is very to use, so that you have to put an effort to work it out, so that you understand that if I am able to convey what matters then that is all that matters,so that you understnad english is not our mother tongue and we are just USING it, we dont care to make it look or sound proper.
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                                    1. P
                                      politicalonion
                                      Mar 13, 2015 at 12:08 pm
                                      If this article is used as an indication, the book will be a om amalgamation of selective reading without any meaningful analysis coming out of it.
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                                      1. F
                                        foolonthehill
                                        Mar 13, 2015 at 11:05 am
                                        in todays world,Indian aryan is probably as racist as white racism in europe,north america or arab racism in middle east,its the order of who holds and how desperately to power, which is probably why they are miles away from christian love or islamic equality.. for all is brahman and thats the only reality in the vedic religion.
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                                        1. K
                                          Kumar
                                          Mar 13, 2015 at 8:43 pm
                                          Discredited only by RSS
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                                          1. B
                                            BABAREBABA
                                            Mar 14, 2015 at 9:38 am
                                            Did Mr. Nikhil talk about iron or diamond mines??? Do some research, there is ample proof that ancient india comparatively was more advanced than some others. Indian steel was well known. There is enough proof of our ancestors knowledge of astronomy and maths and medicines, not to forget yoga and meditations. That does not make us superman, but to deny that, or to cast evil eye on it, is betrayal of your ancestors and sucking up to the invaders culture.
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