Closing the Chapter on the Aryan Problem


By Navaratna Rajaram


No single aspect of ancient Indian history and historiography has so dominated historical discourse as the so-called 'Aryan problem.' There is the Aryan invasion that is supposed to have brought the Vedic civilization and the 'Aryan' language (Sanskrit), the Aryan race, and even an Aryan nation thousands of years later, of all places in Germany!   Even archaeology has not escaped the Aryan assault, with scholars claiming that the Harappan civilization was non-Aryan, destroyed by the invading Aryans, who, of all things are supposed to have introduced the horse into India, ignoring the fact that horse fossils in India are over a million years old.

Recent findings in population genetics, literary studies and official British admission regarding the 'special conditions' (as Huxley called it) that led to its being foisted as the central dogma of ancient Indian historiography allow us to close the sorry chapter on the so-called Aryan problem. These 'special conditions' grew out of nineteenth- and twentieth century political currents-- of German nationalism and British imperial needs.

We will close the article by presenting in one place a summary of the basic scientific facts that will put an end to all Aryan theories. This will give this pernicious myth its long overdue burial.

Aryan myth fostered in 'special conditions'

The notion that Indians are one branch of a common stock of people who lived originally in Central Asia or in the Eurasian steppes arose in the late eighteenth century.   It began as a linguistic theory to account for similarities between Sanskrit and classical European languages like Greek and Latin. From this modest beginning it soon acquired a life of its own when scholars, especially in Germany, concluded that Europeans and ancient Indians were two branches of a people they called Aryans and later as Indo-Europeans. A whole new academic discipline called Indo-European studies came into existence whose very survival is now at stake.

The Aryan theory, which began life as a linguistic theory soon acquired a biological form. Scholars, mostly linguists, began to talk about not just Aryan languages, but also an Aryan race. Since Indology had its greatest flowering in nineteenth century Germany, it is not surprising that racial ideas that shaped German nationalism should have found their way into scholarly discourse on India. The Indo-European hypothesis and its offshoot of the Aryan invasion (or migration) theory came to dominate this discourse for over a century. The German born Oxford linguist Friederich Max Müller was the most influential proponent of this theory. (1)

It is important to recognize that the people who created this theory were linguists, and even theologians like Bishop Caldwell-- not biologists. Scientists, including German scientists had little use for it. As far back as 1939, Sir Julian Huxley, one of the great natural scientists of the twentieth century observed: (2)

In 1848, the young German scholar Friederich Max Müller (1823 - 1900) settled in Oxford.... About 1853 he introduced into the English language the unlucky term Aryan as applied to a large group of languages. ...

Moreover, Max Müller threw another apple of discord. He introduced a proposition that is demonstrably false. He spoke not only of a definite Aryan language and its descendants, but also of a corresponding 'Aryan race'. The idea was rapidly taken up both in Germany and in England. ( Ibid. )

            Here is what Huxley had to say regarding the scientific view at the time (1939):

      In England and America the phrase 'Aryan race' has quite ceased to be used by writers with scientific knowledge, though it appears occasionally in political and propagandist literature.... In Germany, the idea of the 'Aryan race' received no more scientific support than in England. Nevertheless, it found able and very persistent literary advocates who made it appear very flattering to local vanity. It therefore steadily spread, fostered by special conditions. ( Ibid )

These 'special conditions' were the rise of Nazism in Germany and British imperial interests in India. While both Germany and Britain took to the idea of the Aryan race, its fate in the two countries was somewhat different. Its perversion in Germany leading eventually to Nazism and its horrors is too well known to be repeated here. The British, however, put it to more creative use for imperial purposes, especially as a tool in making their rule acceptable to Indians. A recent BBC report admitted (October 6, 2005):

It [the Aryan invasion theory] gave a historical precedent to justify the role and status of the British Raj, who could argue that they were transforming India for the better in the same way that the Aryans had done thousands of years earlier.   (3)

That is to say, the British presented themselves as a 'new and improved brand of Aryans' who were only completing the work left undone by their ancestors in the hoary past. This is how the British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin put it in the House of Commons in 1929:

Now, after ages, ...the two branches of the great Aryan ancestry have again been brought together by Providence... By establishing British rule in India, God said to the British, "I have brought you and the Indians together after a long separation, is your duty to raise them to their own level as quickly as possible ...brothers as you are..."

This leaves little to the imagination. Today it is sustained by other 'special conditions', like political chauvinism in India, and vested interests in the survival of Indo-European studies in Western academia. It is only a matter of time before this vestige of colonial politics disappears from the scene making way for a more rational approach to the study of ancient India. This is already happening. What follows is a brief summary of the different aspects of this aberration of scholarship.

Language and literature: tail wags the dog

In the whole of the Rigveda, consisting of ten books containing more than a thousand hymns, the word 'Arya' appears fewer than 40 times. It may occur as many times in a single page of a modern European work, like for example, in Hitler's Mein Kampf. As a result, any modern book or even discussion on the 'Aryan problem' is likely to be a commentary on the voluminous 19 th and 20th century European literature on the Aryans that may have little or no relevance to ancient India. This is simply a matter of the sources: not only the Rigveda, but also the whole body of ancient literature that followed it have precious little to say about Aryans and Aryanism. It was simply an honorific, which the ancient Sanskrit lexicon known as the Amarakosha identifies as one of the synonyms for honorable or decent conduct. There is no reference to any 'Aryan' type.

A remarkable aspect of this vast "Aryanology" is that after two hundred years and at least as many books on the subject scholars are still not clear about the Aryan identity. At first they were supposed to be a race distinguished by some physical traits, but ancient texts know nothing of it. Scientists too have no use for the 'Aryan race.' As we already noted, as far back as 1939, Julian Huxley, one of the great biologists of the 20th century, dismissed it as part of "political and propagandist" literature.

Recently, there have been attempts to revive racial arguments in the name of genome research, but eminent geneticists like L. Cavalli-Sforza and Stephen Oppenheimer have rejected it. The M17 genetic marker, which is supposed to distinguish the 'Caucasian' type (politically correct for Aryan), occurs with the highest frequency and diversity in India, showing that among its carriers, the Indian population is the oldest. (More of this later.)

It is a similar situation with the Aryans as a linguistic group, which is what some scholars, sensitive to the disrepute that race theories have fallen into are proposing. The vast body of Indian literature on linguistics, the richest in the world going back at least to Yaska and Panini, knows nothing of any Aryan language.

The German-born Friedrich Max Müller made his celebrated switch from Aryan race to Aryan language only to save his career in England following German unification, when the British began to see Germany as a major threat. The 'Aryan nation' was the battle cry of German nationalists. It was German nationalists, not ancient Indians who were obsessed with their Aryan ancestry.

All this means that the 'Aryan problem' is a non-problem-- little more than an aberration of historiography. It has been kept alive by a school of historians with careers and reputations at stake. According to its advocates, the Vedic language and literature are of non-Indian origin, brought into India by invading (or migrating) Aryans. In other words, Aryans are needed because without them there can be no Aryan invasion (or migration). Invasion is the tail that wags the Aryan dog.

Linguistic theory fails scientific tests

The human species is unique in its ability to transmit what it has acquired in one generation to succeeding generations non-biologically. Other animal species depend on biological processes like natural selection and mutation--the main creative forces in evolution--to pass on their traits to their offspring and beyond. For example, a dog or a horse that has been taught to do tricks in a circus does not produce offspring that are born with the same skill; not does have the means or the tools to train them. Humans on the other hand have evolved the tools to pass on what they have learnt to succeeding generations. The important tool is language and its offshoots like mathematics.

The importance of language, by which we mean spoken language, to the evolution of culture and civilization can hardly be exaggerated. This fact has been recognized from the earliest time. All civilizations, the Vedas perhaps more so than other sources, accord the highest importance to speech.

At the same time it is important to distinguish between language and writing. Since written records go back only some 5,000 years, trying to reconstruct ancient long disappeared languages on the basis of inscriptions and other records is bound to lead to errors. But this is what linguists have set out to do in constructing what are called proto-languages like proto-Indo European, proto-Dravidian and the like. They have compounded the confusion by assigning dates to their largely imaginary events like the branching of splitting of a real language (like Sanskrit) from a hypothetical language like Indo-Iranian of which there is no record.

This has had a two-fold and largely negative effect in the study of ancient texts. First they have shifted the field of study of ancient Indian records from India to Europe and Eurasia, while largely ignoring Southeast Asia. Next, by adopting a time scale based on written records that go back only about 5,000 years, they imposed a chronology on languages that go back at least ten times that long. As a specific example, scholars assigned a date of 1500 B.C. to the Rigveda, while archaeological and astronomical evidence shows that much of the Rigveda had been completed at least 2000 years earlier.

(It is not widely known that this was driven partly by Biblical beliefs, in particular the superstition that the world was created on 23 October 4004 B.C.E.!)

Chronology is not the only problem with linguistics as a tool in history. They fail scientific tests also. When Kruksal, Dyen and Black applied statistical tests to the languages that make up the Indo-European family, they found extraordinary results that completely contradicted the most basic assumption of linguists-- that they form a language family. The most important member is of course Sanskrit, but their analysis threw up a major contradiction: Indian and Iranian languages failed the grouping test! This is a bombshell, for according to Indo European linguistics, Indo-Iranian is the lynchpin of the whole discipline, but the one quantitative test that was applied to the hypothesis discredited it. (4)

Struck by this, Cavalli-Sforza highlighted that the Kruksal, Dyen and Black study "...found no similarity at all between Italic and Celtic languages, nor between Indian and Iranian ones... The non-identification of an Indo-Iranian group by Dyen, et al. is the major departure from the conclusions accepted by the majority of traditional linguists." (5)  

The result is so devastating to linguistics that linguists rarely mention it. In addition to its scientific unsoundness, linguistic theories and their conclusions cannot be crosschecked with other sources and empirical data. It is usually a question of accepting one theory or other, neither of which may be scientifically valid. Since Indian and Iranian are obviously related, this can only mean that the methodology developed by comparative linguists must be wrong.

When we turn to science the picture we obtain is dramatically different. The emergence of molecular biology and the growth of population genetics in the second half of the twentieth century have delivered the coup de grace to this pseudo-discipline. The story which science has to tell us is very different from what had been believed for well over a century. What follows is a summing up of the current state of knowledge of human populations and their movements, beginning with an elementary discussion of population genetics.

Inherited and acquired traits

The Aryan invasion (or migration) theory is only one of several theories created during the European colonial period. Most of them start with the belief that civilizations in different parts of the world began with a massive migration from a central homeland. This belief is usually presented in terms of arguments based on the physical appearance of different population groups. Skin, hair and eye color get extraordinary attention and importance in this 'science'. The emergence of genetics, which is the study of inheritance, has discredited the whole approach.

Two key concepts play a fundamental role in the scientific study of populations, including human populations: genotype and phenotype. Genotype is what we inherit and phenotype is what is observable. The most common error is to confuse the phenotype, or an observable feature like skin color for an inherited trait (genotype) without taking note of the environment in which it evolved.

Here is the key issue: any phenotype (observable feature) is the result of the interaction between the genotype (inherited factors) and the environment. The same genotype can produce different phenotypes in different environments, or even if the environment changes over time as almost all environments do. This is why people in different parts of the world look different even though all of us are descended from Africans. By 'environment' we mean external factors that include food habits and diseases that result in adaptation as well as the elimination of those unfit to survive. (This is called natural selection, but can also be called natural elimination.)

Most changes brought on by the interaction between inherited features (genotype) and the environment take thousands to tens of thousands of years, if not more. A phenotype (like skin color) that we observe in an individual or a group today is the result of this long evolutionary history. To disentangle a specific original trait from features observed today is next to impossible since the environment has also changed with the phenotype. For example, Europeans today, whose ancestors came from South Asia perhaps 40,000 years ago, look quite different from what their ancestors did when they first arrived in Europe.

To compound the difficulty, differences between individuals within a group are always greater than the differences between different groups. That is to say, human beings now inhabiting the world are extraordinarily close, genetically speaking, though they exhibit great variability in observable traits (phenotypes) like physical appearance. They are a complex mix of inheritance and environment.

Although all of us share a common origin, the contribution of the environments in which we have evolved is what accounts for the extraordinary diversity in appearance of humans that we see today.

This fact makes it virtually impossible to trace the origin of any population based purely on physical appearance since the environment in which it evolved cannot be recreated. This means we have to find some inherited traits that have been preserved over very long periods and are independent across environments. This is never easy. (6)  

Harvard geneticist Lewontin puts it this way: "Reconstructing the evolutionary past of the human species is almost as difficult as predicting the future, although both are common exercises that biologists engage in, especially when they address a nonscientific public." (7)

In using genetic data to study ancient populations and their migrations, all we can do at this time is to look at some traits that are not affected by the environment and study their distribution among different human groups. It is important to note that this cannot be a phenotype or a superficially observable feature like skin color, which is the result of interaction between what is inherited and the environment. (8)

A particular trait that we choose as characterizing a population group is called a genetic marker. One such marker that has proven useful is the M17 genetic marker. It is common in India and in adjacent regions but becomes increasingly rare as we move westward into Europe. This, combined with the fact that Indian carriers of M17 are genetically more diverse than European carriers shows that the Indian population is older than the European. 9

Space, time and genes

Population geneticists have identified two objects that carry genetic information that is passed on from generation to generation. They are the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and the Y-chromosome. mtDNA is inherited through the female line (or from mother to daughter) while the Y-chromosome is transmitted through the male line. There are individual quirks in these cells that are specific to regions like Africa, India, Southeast Asia and so forth. These are the genetic markers we look for. Mapping them allows us to study the possible origins of different population groups now inhabiting the globe. For example, we know that all humans living in the world today are descended from a relatively small African population because Africa contains almost all the genetic markers found in other parts of the world, but the reverse is not true. (10)

Following more than a century of research in genetics, especially molecular genetics, it is becoming possible to trace the origins of different population groups in the world. It is important however to approach it with care and avoid pitfalls. In particular, since all humans living in the world today have 99.98 percent of their genes in common, almost any two groups can be found to be genetically similar. Failing to recognize this has led to absurd conclusions like the claim that upper caste Indians are of European origin, who "imposed the oppressive caste system" on the indigenous population. (There is no oppressor gene.)

The error here was in assigning biological causes to a man-made classification like caste. Nature, however, does not recognize man-made boundaries. Similar claims can be made for religion-- like finding a genetic basis for Christianity. Taking this a step further, one may identify Catholic genes, Protestant genes, and presumably even Mormon genes in Salt Lake City, Utah, the home of the Mormon Church, where the claim about genes and caste was first made. (11)

Similar demonstrably false claims have been made about language, social habits and the like that can have no biological basis. The error lies in confusing the phenotype for a genotype. In addition, some workers have tried to use genetics to justify their own beliefs and pet theories like the Aryan invasion. This has led to absurdities like one group claiming that only males migrated (more of which later) while another claimed only females did! Obviously both cannot be true, but both can be false.

After some initial hiccups, the definitive statement about the genetic composition of the Indian population was summarized as follows by researchers led by Luigi Cavalli-Sforza: (12)

Taken together, these results show that Indian tribal and caste populations derive largely from the same genetic heritage of Pleistocene southern and western Asians and have received limited gene flow from external regions since the Holocene. The phylogeography [neighboring branches] of the primal mtDNA and Y-chromosome founders suggests that these southern Asian Pleistocene coastal settlers from Africa would have provided the inocula for the subsequent differentiation of the distinctive eastern and western Eurasian gene pools." (Italics added.)

Noting that mtDNA is carried by the female line, while Y-chromosome is passed on through the male line, what this means is that the Indian population is largely indigenous in origin and has received negligible external input (gene flow) since the end of the last Ice Age (Holocene). This means that various migration theories like the Aryan invasion in 1500 B.C.E. simply cannot be true.

The Oxford geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer is more specific and also more emphatic, focusing on the M17 or the so-called 'Caucasoid' (politically correct for 'Aryan') genetic marker: (13)

...South Asia is logically the ultimate origin of M17 and his [ Sic ] ancestors; and sure enough we find highest rates and greatest diversity of the M17 line in Pakistan, India and eastern Iran, and low rates in the Caucasus. M17 is not only more diverse in South Asia than in Central Asia, but diversity characterizes its presence in isolated tribal groups in the south, thus undermining any theory of M17 as a marker of a 'male Aryan invasion' of India. [Italics added.]

So there was no Aryan invasion-- of males or of females. This also means that the tribal or the so-called 'indigenous' populations of India are not any different from the people making up the bulk of the Indian population, which is what Cavalli-Sforza and his colleagues also found. As Oppenheimer observes, genetics is quite specific on this point.

One age estimate for the origin of this line in India is as much as 51,000 years. All this suggests that M17 could have found his [ Sic ] way initially from India or Pakistan, through Kashmir, then via Central Asia and Russia, before finally coming to Europe. ( Ibid )

It is worth noting that this is the exact reverse of the scenario postulated by various invasion/migration theories including the Aryan invasion theory. This is not by any means the last word on population genetics, but new findings are unlikely to salvage these 19 th centuries theories or their modern incarnations founded on beliefs and political needs.

This is not the whole story. As Oppenheimer and others have noted, while gene exchange between India and Europe in the Holocene (post Ice Age) and earlier is negligible to non-existent, the people of India -- both North and South -- and of Southeast Asia are genetically extremely close.

All this forces us to accept the following basic scientific fact: outside of Africa, South Asia contains the world's oldest populations, and modern Europeans are themselves among the peoples descended from migrants from India, going back more than 40,000 years. This should be the starting point for studying history in the Holocene or the post Ice Age period.

Notes and References

1. He later repudiated the racial aspect of the Aryan theory insisting that it was entirely linguistic. This though was due to political developments in Europe, notably German unification following the Franco-Prussian War and the emergence of Germany as Britain's greatest rival. Max Müller, originally a staunch German nationalist, had to renounce his Aryan race theory to save his position at Oxford. For details see Vedic Aryans and the Origins of Civilization by Rajaram and Frawley (2001), New Delhi: voice of India.

2. Oxford Pamphlet No. 5, OUP: p 9. See also Rajaram and Frawley Op. Cit. p 37.

3. Available on the Internet at .

4. The Vocabulary and Method of Reconstructing Language Trees: Innovations and Large Scale Applications by J.B. Kruksal, I. Dyen and P. Black, in Mathematics in the Archaeological and Historical Sciences (1971) edited by F.R. Hodson, D.G. Kendall, and P. Tatu, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

5. Great Human Diasporas, Addison-Wesley, 1995: page 190.

6.   There are further complicating factors like mutation and genetic drift that need not concern us here.

7. Human Diversity by Richard Lewontin (2000), New York: Scientific American Library, p 163.

8. Skin color tends to get darker as we move closer to the equator and lighter as we move towards the poles. This is the result of natural selection. Human pigmentation has evolved to be dark enough to prevent sunlight from destroying the nutrient called folate but light enough to foster the production of vitamin D. The fact that we see wide variation in skin color in India and Europe is evidence that they have lived there long enough for natural selection to work and therefore not recent migrants.

9. It is a basic law of population genetics that older a population group, more genetically diverse it is. Africa is genetically the most diverse continent because it contains the oldest humans. In contrast, Native Americans are the least diverse because they are more recent comers to the region. (This does not apply to countries like the United States and Australia that are composed for the most part of recent immigrants. They have not lived long enough for evolution to work.)

10. This means that the genotype responsible for fair skin and light eyes that is common in Europe is present in Africa but does not come into play because of the tropical environment.

11.   Genetic Evidence on the Origin of Indian Caste Populations by M. Bamshad, T. Kivisild, W.S. Watkins, M.E. Dixon, C.E. Ricker, B.B. Rao, J.M. Naidu, B.V.R. Prasad, P.G. Reddy, A. Rasanagam, et al. 2001, Genome Research 11, pp 994 - 1004. (This article has a checkered history. When Rajaram pointed out the fallacies in the article to the editor of Genome Research, he responded that he was not the one responsible for its publication!)

12. The Genetic Heritage of the Earliest Settlers Persist Both in Indian Tribal and Caste Populations: by T. Kisilvid, S. Rootsi, M. Metspahi, S. Mastana, K. Kaldma, J. Parik, E. Metspalu, M. Adojan, H.-V. Tolk, V. Stepanov, M. Gölge, E. Usanga, S.S. Papiha, C. Cinni?olu, R. King, L. Cavalli-Sforza, P.A. Unterhill and R. Villems. 2003. American Journal of Human Genetics, 72: pp 313 - 332.

13. Out of Eden: The peopling of the world by Stephen Oppenheimer (2003): London: Constable, page 152.

This Article Reprinted With Permission of Author