The Aryans of India

 

aryan migration

During my mid-twenties, one of my aunts told me that we (ethnic Punjabis) were descended from the Aryans of ancient India.

I first learned about these Aryans while studying Indian history during my undergraduate degree. I learned that that the Aryans had originally migrated into India from the north-west and that they first settled in the Punjab around 1500 BCE. I also learned that their religious beliefs and lifestyle were recorded around 1200 BCE in a literature known as the Vedas.

Like me, most peoples of the subcontinent (particularly northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) claim to be descended from the (Indo) Aryans. The term Indo-Aryan refers not only to an ethnic group (which is religiously, culturally and regionally diverse), but also to a family of languages spoken by this group, including Punjabi, Hindi/Urdu, Bengali and Gujarati.

Of course, not everyone believes that the Aryans migrated to the subcontinent from the outside. Few are more outspoken in their opposition than the Hindu Nationalist who believes that the Aryans were indigenous to India.

This is, of course, really just a political claim. To claim that the ancestral religion of Hinduism (in the Vedas) is native to India is to claim that it “belongs” to India in opposition to those Indians belonging to “foreign” religions (i.e. Muslims and Christians).

Fantasizing about purity of race and origin, however, turn deadly. We can think of Hitler’s ideas about the Aryan Race as German, the Ku Klux Klan theory of the Teutonic Race or the Japanese idea of the Yamato Race during World War II.

Over the past nearly thirty years, Hindu Nationalism has stirred up pogroms, vandalism and attacks on India’s minority groups (especially Muslims, Christians and Dalits or lower-castes). Its pogroms, including the Gujarat “riots” of 2002 against Muslims has left thousands dead and their homes and places of worship vandalized or destroyed.

Hindu Nationalism basically seeks to rationalize and politicize an emotional need: the need to belong and to know oneself. Mythology is a human institution that fulfils that need by giving us a sense of where we come from. Mythologies like those in the Vedas are Puranas, like those in the Bible or King Arthur are valuable in giving us a sense of who our ancestors might have been without needing to be factually verifiable.

To that extent, I have read the Puranas and the Mahabharata.  I am fascinated, as someone of Indian origin, about where I come from and how my ancestors thought of themselves as a people and about my origins. But my fascination is much the same as someone who reads old genealogies of the Bible or of a Han Chinese taking pride in his descent from the Yellow Emperor.

So, I will call myself Indo-Aryan, Punjabi, Sikh, British, Canadian and Buddhist. I can have a sense of where I come from in terms of mythology without proclaiming it as history for political purposes or otherwise. Living on the land of the Coast Salish People in British Columbia, I realize that they too were like the ancient Aryans in migrating across territories rather than being bound by them.

Imagining Ancient India

Mohenjo_Daro_first_look_poster

Written by Randeep Singh

Ashutosh Gowariker recently released his trailer for Mohenjo Daro, an action-adventure set in ancient India’s Indus Valley civilization, c. 2016 BCE.

For years, ancient India has been imagined as Hindu in TV and film. The mythological serials, Ramayan and Mahabharata, set the standard back in the 1980s with their recreation of an imagined Aryan/Vedic/Brahmanic society and culture. The vision of Ancient India as a Hindu India has been constructed with every palace wall, turned with each roll of the chariot and uttered in every Sanskritized syllable in Hindu mythological serials and in semi-historical serials like Chakravartin Ashoka Samrat.

It’s also apparent in films like Mohenjo Daro. True, it looks less like the Mahabharata, but also, unlike the epics, Mohenjo Daro was a historical reality. The Indus was India’s first civilization, declining around 1900 BCE. The Aryans thereafter migrated to the Indus Valley from beyond the Hindu Kush around 1500 BCE, giving India the Vedas, the earliest Hindu religious texts.

Gowariker helps popularize the claim of Hindu Nationalists that the Indus civilization was (in part) an Aryan society and civilization. Whereas the people of the Indus are believed to have been dark-skinned Dravidians, the hero in Mohenjo Daro is a light-eyed Hrithik Roshan with blondish locks and a trident. The statues of the Indus gods are recognizably Hindu, the language Sanskritized and the film features horses, animals not known to the civilization and introduced to India centuries later by the Aryans.

Films like Mohenjo Daro suggest what India was and how we see the past. And like the many mythological and semi-historical TV serials and films before it, Mohenjo Daro is less an attempt at faithfully reconstructing a historical India than imagining a perennially Hindu one.