Problems with the definition of ‘Aryan’ continue even though the term was first used a couple of centuries ago, writes eminent historian Romila Thapar in the foreword to Which Of Us Are Aryans: Rethinking the Concept of Our Origins. In the book, Professor Thapar and other scholars and experts critically examine the Aryan question by analysing history, genetics, early Vedic compositions, archaeology and linguistics, and challenge various myths and theories doing the rounds. Professor Thapar examines the definition of ‘Aryan’, its earliest use in Vedic and Iranian compositions, and the change it underwent. An excerpt:
In any discussion of the ‘Aryan’ a good place to begin with would be to set out the space and time of the subject. In terms of space we tend to think only of the geography of the Indian subcontinent and the boundaries of pre-Partition India as they existed for British India. The focus is then narrowed down to north-western India. But the geographical area of the archaeological and linguistic evidence is far more extensive. The links therefore are way beyond just the boundaries of north-west British India and involve some familiarity with more distant cultures.
In terms of archaeology, the more extensive earlier reach was that of the Harappa Culture or the Indus Civilisation. From Shortughai in the Pamirs, evidence of Harappan settlements extends all the way south to the Indus plain and further to the Arabian Sea, westwards into Baluchistan and Makran and touching the Indo-Iranian borderlands, and eastwards into Punjab and Haryana. More recently finds have been located in Oman in the Arabian peninsula, particularly in the vicinity of copper mines. The Harappans were known to have had trading relations with the Gulf and Mesopotamia. People of the ancient past did not confine themselves to one place. They travelled, migrated, traded and communicated across vast distances. This would probably have been too vast an area to host a single, unified culture. We have to consider the possibility of a multiplicity of cultures and societies, some fairly isolated and others in close contact but possibly functioning under a recognised and similar sociopolitical rubric.
Covering extensive areas
Varieties of Indo-Aryan and Indo-Iranian speakers can only be given an approximate geographical location which is not as firm as that of archaeological cultures. The geographical area of all these languages is extensive but not all are referred to in the same text and they vary with the text. The wider geography of Proto-Indo-European takes a different direction from that of the Harappa Culture. Northern Syria and Anatolia are the locations possibly linked to Proto-Indo-Aryan, north-eastern Iran is the location for Old Iranian linked to the Avesta, and the speakers of Indo-Aryan as known from the Rig Veda are restricted to the Indo-Iranian borderlands and Punjab up to the Doab, which is geographically a small area. The history of the Indo-Aryan language has been extended backwards in time to the ancestral language of Indo-European and this brings in adjoining parts of Central Asia. The presence of Indo-Aryan in the Ganga plain is attested to in the post-Rig Vedic period.
Thus although the focus is often only on the Punjab we should not forget that there was also a large area of West Asia and Central Asia that had a bearing on this history, even if the Indo-Aryan of the Rig Veda was not spoken in such a vast geographical area. The need for familiarity with the archaeology and linguistic history of other areas further complicates the problem. The geographical overlap between the Harappan sites and the place names associated with Indo-Aryan and Indo-Iranian is a limited area covering virtually only the Indo-Iranian borderlands and the Punjab. The thrust of the Harappan locations is southwards with maritime links westwards along the Persian Gulf, whereas the Indo-Aryan speakers show up overland and move south-eastwards to the Ganga plain.
The chronology of the two is also different. The time bracket covers many centuries. There are some dates well established among historians and archaeologists. The Harappan urban cultures, referred to as the Mature Harappan, date from about 2600 to about 1700 BCE, after urbanism slowly peters out. The Rig Veda is generally dated to the period after the decline of urbanism and would therefore date from about 1500 BCE or a couple of centuries later. The subsequent Vedas — the Samaveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda — relating also to the Ganga plain are dated to the early first millennium BCE.
Placing the Vedas
However there are those who differ and would like to date the Rig Veda to 3000 BCE or even earlier and identify its culture with the Harappan cities. They maintain that the Aryans are indigenous and there was therefore not even a migration of any kind, let alone any invasion as was thought in the nineteenth century. To maintain this position it is even said that the Rig Veda is prior to the Harappa Culture or that the authors of the Harappa Culture were Rigvedic Aryans. These views have become a matter of rather extensive controversy to say the least. This latter chronology, apart from not being able to muster firm evidence, creates huge problems for the historian. The discrepancy between Harappan urbanism and Rigvedic agro-pastoralism negates equivalence. Such an early chronology for the Rig Veda would, for example, create a gap of at least 1,500 years between the Rig Veda and the other Vedas and therefore break what is known to be the continuity between the four Vedas. Taking it back to the third millennium BCE creates major problems of parallels and correlations with archaeological evidence. It leads to a long chronological hiatus between the first and the later three Vedas — the Samaveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda — as the dating of these to the first millennium BC remains firm.
The insistence that the Aryans were a distinct people and that they were indigenous to the territory of British India is to impose present-day boundaries on the remote past, which makes the statement anachronistic. Concepts such as ‘indigenous’ and ‘alien’ have to be precisely defined, which they are not in this case, and the definition has to conform to the time context for when it is being used.
Excerpted with permission from Aleph