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.