One of the main ideas
used to interpret—and generally devalue—the ancient history of India is
the theory of the Aryan invasion. According to this account, India was
invaded and conquered by nomadic light-skinned Indo-European tribes from
Central Asia around 1500-1000 BC, who overthrew an earlier and more
advanced dark-skinned Dravidian civilization from which they took most
of what later became Hindu culture. This so-called pre-Aryan
civilization is said to be evidenced by the large urban ruins of what
has been called the ‘Indus valley culture’ (as most of its initial sites
were on the River Indus). The war between the powers of light and
darkness, a prevalent idea in ancient Aryan Vedic scriptures, was thus
interpreted to refer to this war between light and dark-skinned peoples.
The Aryan invasion theory thus turned the ‘Vedas’, the original
scriptures of ancient India and the Indo-Aryans, into little more than
primitive poems of uncivilized plunderers.
This idea – totally
foreign to the history of India, whether north or south – has become
almost an unquestioned truth in the interpretation of ancient history.
Today, after nearly all
the reasons for its supposed validity have been refuted, even major
Western scholars are at last beginning to call it in question.
In this article we will summarize the main points that have arisen.
This is a complex subject that I have dealt with in depth in my book ‘Gods, Sages and Kings: Vedic Secrets of Ancient Civilization’ for those interested in further examination of the subject.
The Indus valley culture
was pronounced pre-Aryan for several reasons that were largely part of
the cultural milieu of nineteenth century European thinking. As scholars
following Max Muller had decided that the Aryans came into India around
1500 BC, since the Indus valley culture was earlier than this, they
concluded that it had to be pre-Aryan. Yet the rationale behind the late
date for the Vedic culture given by Muller was totally speculative. Max
Muller, like many of the Christian scholars of his era, believed in
Biblical chronology. This placed the beginning of the world at 4000 BC
and the flood around 2500 BC. Assuming to those two dates, it became
difficult to get the Aryans in India before 1500 BC.
Muller therefore assumed
that the five layers of the four ‘Vedas’ and ‘Upanishads’ were each
composed in 200-year periods before the Buddha at 500 BC. However, there
are more changes of language in Vedic Sanskrit itself than there are in
classical Sanskrit since Panini, also regarded as a figure of around
500 BC, or a period of 2500 years. Hence it is clear that each of these
periods could have existed for any number of centuries and that the
200-year figure is totally arbitrary and is likely too short a figure.
It was assumed by these
scholars – many of whom were also Christian missionaries unsympathetic
to the ‘Vedas’ – that the Vedic culture was that of primitive nomads
from Central Asia. Hence they could not have founded any urban culture
like that of the Indus valley. The only basis for this was a rather
questionable interpretation of the ‘Rig Veda’ that they made, ignoring
the sophisticated nature of the culture presented within it.
Meanwhile, it was also
pointed out that in the middle of the second millennium BC, a number of
Indo-European invasions apparently occurred in the Middle East, wherein
Indo-European people– the Hittites, Mittani and Kassites – conquered and
ruled Mesopotamia for some centuries. An Aryan invasion of India would
have been another version of this same movement of Indo-European people.
On top of this, excavators of the Indus valley culture, like Wheeler,
thought they found evidence of destruction of the culture by an outside
invasion confirming this.
The Vedic culture was
thus said to be that of primitive nomads who came out of Central Asia
with their horse-drawn chariots and iron weapons and overthrew the
cities of the more advanced Indus valley culture, with their superior
battle tactics. It was pointed out that no horses, chariots or iron was
discovered in Indus valley sites.
This was how the Aryan
invasion theory formed and has remained since then. Though little has
been discovered that confirms this theory, there has been much hesitancy
to question it, much less to give it up.
discovered horses not only in Indus Valley sites but also in pre-Indus
sites. The use of the horse has thus been proven for the whole range of
ancient Indian history. Evidence of the wheel, and an Indus seal showing
a spoke-wheel as used in chariots, has also been found, suggesting the
usage of chariots.
Moreover, the whole idea
of nomads with chariots has been challenged. Chariots are not the
vehicles of nomads. Their usage occurred only in ancient urban cultures
with much flat land, of which the river plain of north India was the
most suitable. Chariots are totally unsuitable for crossing mountains
and deserts, as the so-called Aryan invasion required.
That the Vedic culture
used iron – and must hence date later than the introduction of iron
around 1500 BC – revolves around the meaning of the Vedic term ‘ayas’,
interpreted as iron. ‘Ayas’ in other Indo–European languages like Latin
or German usually means copper, bronze or ore generally, not specially
iron. There is no reason to insist that in such earlier Vedic times,
‘ayas’ meant iron, particularly since other metals are not mentioned in
the ‘Rig Veda’ (except gold that is much more commonly referred to than
ayas). Moreover, the ‘Atharva Veda’ and ‘Yajur Veda’ speak of different
colours of ‘ayas’ (such as red and black), showing that it was a generic
term. Hence it is clear that ‘ayas’ generally meant metal and not
Moreover, enemies of
Vedic people in the ‘Rig Veda’ also use ‘ayas’, even for making their
cities, as do the Vedic people themselves. Hence there is nothing in
Vedic literature to show that either the Vedic culture was an iron-based
culture or that their enemies were not.
The ‘Rig Veda’ describes
its Gods as ‘destroyers of cities’. This was used also to regard the
Vedic as a primitive non-urban culture that destroys cities and urban
civilization. However, there are also many verses in the ‘Rig Veda’ that
speak of Aryans as having cities of their own and being protected by
cities up to a hundred in number. Aryan Gods like Indra, Agni, Saraswati
and the Adityas are praised as being like a city. Many ancient kings,
including those of Egypt and Mesopotamia had titles like destroyer or
conqueror of cities. This does not turn them into nomads. Destruction of
cities also happens in modern wars; this does not make those who do
this nomads. Hence the idea of Vedic culture as destroying but not
building the cities is based upon ignoring what the Vedas actually say
about their own cities.
revealed that the Indus Valley culture was not destroyed by outside
invasion, but according to internal causes and, most likely, floods.
Most recently a new set of cities has been found in India (like the
Dwaraka and Bet Dwaraka sites by SR Rao and the National Institute of
Oceanography in India), which are intermediate between those of the
Indus culture and later ancient India as visited by the Greeks. This may
eliminate the so-called ‘dark age’ following the presumed Aryan
invasion, and shows a continuous urban occupation in India back to the
beginning of the Indus culture.
The interpretation of
the religion of the Indus Valley culture made incidentally by scholars
such as Wheeler who were not religious scholars, much less students of
Hinduism – was that its religion was different from the Vedic and more
like the later Shaiv-ite religion. However, further excavations – both
in Indus Valley sites in Gujarat, like Lothal, and those in Rajasthan,
like Kalibangan – show large numbers of fire altars like those used in
the Vedic religion, along with bones of oxen, potsherds, shell jewellery
and other items used in the rituals described in the ‘Vedic Brahmanas’.
Hence the Indus Valley culture evidences many Vedic practices that
cannot be merely coincidental. That some of its practices appeared
non-Vedic to its excavators may also be attributed to their
misunderstanding or lack of knowledge of Vedic and Hindu culture
generally, wherein Vedism and Shaivism are the same basic tradition.
We must remember that
ruins do not necessarily have one interpretation. Nor does the ability
to discover ruins necessarily give the ability to interpret them
The Vedic people were
thought to have been a fair-skinned race like the Europeans, owing to
the Vedic idea of a war between light and darkness, and the Vedic people
being presented as children of light or children of the sun. Yet this
idea of a war between light and darkness exists in most ancient
cultures, including the Persian and the Egyptian. Why don’t we interpret
their scriptures as a war between light and dark-skinned people? It is
purely a poetic metaphor, and not a cultural statement. Moreover, no
real traces of such a race are found in India.
observed that the present population of Gujarat is composed of more or
less the same ethnic groups as are noticed at Lothal in 2000 BC.
Similarly, the present population of the Punjab is said to be ethnically
the same as the population of Harappa and Rupar 4000 years ago.
Linguistically the present day population of Gujarat and Punjab belongs
to the Indo-Aryan language-speaking group. The only inference that can
be drawn from the anthropological and linguistic evidences adduced above
is that the Harappan population in the Indus Valley and Gujarat in 2000
BC was composed of two or more groups, the more dominant among them
having very close ethnic affinities with the present day
Indo-Aryan-speaking population of India.
In other words there is
no racial evidence of any such Indo-Aryan invasion of India but only of a
continuity of the same group of people who traditionally considered
themselves to be Aryans.
There are many points in
fact that prove the Vedic nature of the Indus Valley culture. Further
excavation has shown that the great majority of the sites of the Indus
Valley culture were east, not west of Indus. In fact, the largest
concentration of sites appears in an area of Punjab and Rajasthan near
the dry banks of ancient Saraswati and Drishadvati rivers. The Vedic
culture was said to have been founded by the sage Manu between the banks
of Saraswati and Drishadvati rivers. The Saraswati is lauded as the
main river (naditama) in the
‘Rig Veda’ & is the most frequently mentioned in the text. It is
said to be a great flood and to be wide, even endless in size. Saraswati
is said to be ‘pure in course from the mountains to the sea’. Hence the
Vedic people were well acquainted with this river and regarded it as
their immemorial homeland.
The Saraswati, as modern
land studies now reveal, was indeed one of the largest, if not the
largest river in India. In early ancient and pre-historic times, it once
drained the Sutlej, Yamuna and the Ganges, whose courses were much
different than they are today. However, the River Saraswati went dry at
the end of the Indus Valley culture and before the so-called Aryan
invasion, or before 1500 BC. In fact this may have caused the ending of
the Indus culture. How could the Vedic Aryans know of this river and
establish their culture on its banks if it dried up before they arrived?
Indeed the Saraswati as described in the ‘Rig Veda’ appears to more
accurately show it as it was prior to the Indus Valley culture, as in
the Indus era it was already in decline.
Vedic and late Vedic
texts also contain interesting astronomical lore. The Vedic calendar was
based upon astronomical sightings of the equinoxes and solstices. Such
texts as ‘Vedanga Jyotish’ speak of a time when the vernal equinox was
in the middle of the Nakshtra Aslesha (or about 23 degrees 20 minutes
Cancer). This gives a date of 1300 BC. The ‘Yajur Veda’ and ‘Atharva
Veda’ speak of the vernal equinox in the Krittikas (Pleiades; early
Taurus) and the summer solstice (ayana) in Magha (early Leo). This gives
a date about 2400 BC. Yet earlier eras are mentioned but these two have
numerous references to substantiate them. They prove that the Vedic
culture existed at these periods and already had a sophisticated system
of astronomy. Such references were merely ignored or pronounced
unintelligible by Western scholars because they yielded too early a date
for the ‘Vedas’ than what they presumed, not because such references
did not exist.
Vedic texts like ‘Shatapatha Brahmana’ and ‘Aitereya Brahmana’ that
mention these astronomical references, list a group of 11 Vedic Kings,
including a number of figures of the ‘Rig Veda’, said to have conquered
the region of India from ‘sea to sea’. Lands of the Aryans are mentioned
in them from Gandhara (Afghanistan) in the west to Videha (Nepal) in
the east, and south to Vidarbha (Maharashtra). Hence the Vedic people
were in these regions by the Krittika equinox or before 2400 BC. These
passages were also ignored by Western scholars and it was said by them
that the ‘Vedas’ had no evidence of large empires in India in Vedic
times. Hence a pattern of ignoring literary evidence or misinterpreting
them to suit the Aryan invasion idea became prevalent, even to the point
of changing the meaning of Vedic words to suit this theory.
According to this
theory, the Vedic people were nomads in the Punjab, coming down from
Central Asia. However, the ‘Rig Veda’ itself has nearly 100 references
to ocean (samudra), as well as dozens of references to ships, and to
rivers flowing in to the sea. Vedic ancestors like Manu, Turvasha, Yadu
and Bhujyu are flood figures, saved from across the sea. The Vedic God
of the sea, Varuna, is the father of many Vedic seers and seer families
like Vasishta, Agastya and the Bhrigu seers. To preserve the Aryan
invasion idea it was assumed that the Vedic (and later Sanskrit) term
for ocean, ‘samudra’,
originally did not mean the ocean but any large body of water,
especially the Indus river in Punjab. Here the clear meaning of a term
in ‘Rig Veda’ and later times – verified by rivers like Saraswati
mentioned by name as flowing into the sea – was altered to make the
Aryan invasion theory fit. Yet if we look at the index to translation of
the ‘Rig Veda’ by Griffith for example, who held to this idea that ‘samudra’ didn’t really mean the ocean, we find over 70 references to ocean or sea. If ‘samudra’ does
not mean ocean, why was it translated as such? It is therefore without
basis to locate Vedic kings in Central Asia far from any ocean or from
the massive River Saraswati, which form the background of their land and
the symbolism of their hymns.
One of the latest
archaeological ideas is that the Vedic culture is evidenced by Painted
Grey Ware pottery in north India, which appears to date around 1000 BC,
and comes from the same region between the Ganges and Yamuna as later
Vedic culture is related to. It is thought to be an inferior grade of
pottery, and to be associated with the use of iron that the ‘Vedas’ are
thought to mention. However it is associated with a pig and rice
culture, not the cow and barley culture of the ‘Vedas’. Moreover it is
now found to be an organic development of indigenous pottery, not an
introduction of invaders.
Painted Grey Ware
culture represents an indigenous cultural development and does not
reflect any cultural intrusion from the West i.e. an Indo-Aryan
invasion. Therefore, there is no archaeological evidence corroborating
the fact of an Indo-Aryan invasion.
In addition, Aryans in
the Middle East, most notably the Hittites, have now been found to have
been in that region at least as early as 2200 BC, wherein they are
already mentioned. Hence the idea of an Aryan invasion into the Middle
East has been pushed back some centuries, though the evidence so far is
that the people of the mountain regions of the Middle East were
Indo-Europeans as far as recorded history can prove.
The Aryan Kassites of
the ancient Middle East worshipped Vedic Gods like Surya and the Maruts,
as well as one named Himalaya. The Aryan Hittites and Mittani signed a
treaty with the name of the Vedic Gods Indra, Mitra, Varuna and Nasatyas
around 1400 BC. The Hittites have a treatise on chariot racing written
in almost pure Sanskrit. The Indo – Europeans of the ancient Middle East
thus spoke Indo-Aryan, not Indo-Iranian languages, and thereby show a
Vedic culture in that region of the world as well.
The Indus Valley culture
had a form of writing, as evidenced by numerous seals found in the
ruins. It was also assumed to be non-Vedic and probably Dravidian,
though this was never proved. Now it has been shown that the majority of
the late Indus signs are identical with those of later Hindu Brahmi,
and that there is an organic development between the two scripts.
Prevalent models now suggest an Indo-European base for that language.
It was also assumed that
the Indus Valley culture derived its civilization from the Middle East,
probably Sumeria, as antecedents for it were not found in India. Recent
French excavations at Mehrgarh have shown that all the antecedents of
the Indus Valley culture can be found within the subcontinent, and going
back before 6000 BC.
In short, some Western scholars are beginning to reject the Aryan invasion or any outside origin for Hindu civilization.
data do not support the existence of an Indo- Aryan or European invasion
into South Asia at any time in the pre- or proto-historic periods.
Instead, it is possible to document archeologically a series of cultural
changes reflecting indigenous cultural development from prehistoric to
historic periods. The early Vedic literature describes not a human
invasion into the area, but a fundamental restructuring of indigenous
society. The Indo-Aryan invasion as an academic concept in 18th and 19th
century Europe reflected the cultural milieu of the period. Linguistic
data were used to validate the concept that in turn was used to
interpret archaeological and anthropological data.
In other words, Vedic
literature was interpreted on the assumption that there was an Aryan
invasion. Then archaeological evidence was interpreted by the same
assumption. And both interpretations were then used to justify each
other. It is nothing but a tautology, an exercise in circular thinking
that only proves that if assuming something is true, it is found to be
Another modern Western
scholar, Colin Renfrew, places the Indo- Europeans in Greece as early as
6000 BC. He also suggests such a possible early date for their entry
As far as I can see
there is nothing in the Hymns of the ‘Rig Veda’ which demonstrates that
the Vedic-speaking population was intrusive to the area: this comes
rather from a historical assumption of the ‘coming of the
When Wheeler speaks of
‘the Aryan invasion of the land of the 7 rivers, the Punjab’, he has no
warranty at all, so far as I can see. If one checks the dozen references
in the ‘Rig Veda’ to the 7 rivers, there is nothing in them that to me
implies invasion: the land of the 7 rivers is the land of the ‘Rig
Veda’, the scene of action. Nor is it implied that the inhabitants of
the walled cities (including the Dasyus) were any more aboriginal than
the Aryans themselves.
comments, it is difficult to see what particularly non-Aryan about the
Indus Valley civilization is. Hence Renfrew suggests that the Indus
Valley civilization was in fact Indo-Aryan even prior to the Indus
This hypothesis that
early Indo-European languages were spoken in North India with Pakistan
and on the Iranian plateau at the 6th millennium BC, has the merit of
harmonizing symmetrically with the theory for the origin of the Indo-
European languages in Europe. It also emphasizes the continuity in the
Indus Valley and adjacent areas, from the early Neolithic through to the
floruit of the Indus Valley civilization.
This is not to say that
such scholars appreciate or understand the ‘Vedas’ – their work leaves
much to be desired in this respect – but that it is clear that the whole
edifice built around the Aryan invasion is beginning to tumble on all
sides. In addition, it does not mean that the ‘Rig Veda’ dates from the
Indus Valley era. The Indus Valley culture resembles that of the ‘Yajur
Veda’ and they reflect the pre-Indus period in India, when the River
Saraswati was more prominent.
The acceptance of such
views would create a revolution in our view of history, as shattering as
that in science caused by Einstein’s theory of relativity. It would
make ancient India perhaps the oldest, largest and most central of
ancient cultures. It would mean that the Vedic literary record – already
the largest and oldest of the ancient world even at a 1500 BC date –
would be the record of teachings some centuries or thousands of years
before that. It would mean that the ‘Vedas’ are our most authentic
record of the ancient world. It would also tend to validate the Vedic
view that the Indo-Europeans and other Aryan peoples were migrants from
India, not that the Indo-Aryans were invaders into India. Moreover, it
would affirm the Hindu tradition that the Dravidians were early
offshoots of the Vedic people through the seer Agastya, and not un-Aryan
In closing, it is important to examine the social and political implications of the Aryan invasion idea:–
First, it served to
divide India into a northern Aryan and southern Dravidian culture which
were made hostile to each other. This kept the Hindus divided and is
still a source of social tension.
Second, it gave the
British an excuse in their conquest of India. They could claim to be
doing only what the Aryan ancestors of the Hindus had previously done a
Third, it served to make
Vedic culture later than and possibly derived from Middle Eastern
cultures. With the proximity and relationship of the latter with the
Bible and Christianity, this kept the Hindu religion as a sidelight to
the development of religion and civilization to the West.
Fourth, it allowed the
sciences of India to be given a Greek basis, as any Vedic basis was
largely disqualified by the primitive nature of the Vedic culture.
This discredited not
only the ‘Vedas’ but the genealogies of the ‘Puranas’, and their long
list of the kings before the Buddha or Krishna were left without any
historical basis. The ‘Mahabharata’, instead of a civil war in which all
the main kings of India participated as it is described, became a local
skirmish among petty princes that was later exaggerated by poets. In
short, it discredited most of the Hindu tradition and almost all its
ancient literature. It turned its scriptures and sages into fantasies
This served a social,
political and economic purpose of domination, proving the superiority of
Western culture and religion. It made the Hindus feel that their
culture was not the great thing that their sages and ancestors had said
it was. It made Hindus feel ashamed of their culture – that its basis
was neither historical nor scientific. It made them feel that the main
line of civilization was developed first in the Middle East and then in
Europe and that the culture of India was peripheral and secondary to the
real development of world culture.
Such a view is not good
scholarship or archaeology but merely cultural imperialism. The Western
Vedic scholars did in the intellectual sphere what the British army did
in the political realm – discredit, divide and conquer the Hindus.
In short, the compelling
reasons for the Aryan invasion theory were neither literary nor
archaeological but political and religious – that is to say, not
scholarship but prejudice. Such prejudice may not have been intentional,
but deep-seated political and religious views easily cloud and blur our
It is unfortunate that
this approach has not been questioned more, particularly by Hindus. Even
though Indian Vedic scholars like Dayananda Saraswati, Bal Gangadhar
Tilak and Aurobindo rejected it, most Hindus today passively accept it.
They allow Western, generally Christian, scholars to interpret their
history for them, and quite naturally Hinduism is kept in a reduced
role. Many Hindus still accept, read or even honour the translations of
the ‘Vedas’ done by such Christian missionary scholars as Max Muller,
Griffith, Monier- Williams and HH Wilson. Would modern Christians accept
an interpretation of the Bible or Biblical history done by Hindus,
aimed at converting them to Hinduism? Universities in India also use the
Western history books and Western Vedic translations that propound such
views that denigrate their own culture and country.
The modern Western
academic world is sensitive to criticisms of cultural and social biases.
For scholars to take a stand against this biased interpretation of the
‘Vedas’ would indeed cause a re-examination of many of these historical
ideas that cannot stand objective scrutiny. But if Hindu scholars are
silent or passively accept the misinterpretation of their own culture,
it will undoubtedly continue, but they will have no one to blame but
themselves. It is not an issue to be taken lightly, because how a
culture is defined historically creates the perspective from which it is
viewed in the modern social and intellectual context. Tolerance is not
in allowing a false view of one’s own culture and religion to be
propagated without question. That is merely self-betrayal.
Frawley is an American Hindu author, who has written several books
Vedas, Hinduism, Yoga, Ayurveda and Vedic Astrology. He is also the
founder and director of American Institute of Vedic Studies in Santa Fe,