Thursday, October 9, 2014

Notes of selected parts of 1995 Romila Thapar lecture: The Theory of Aryan Race and India: History and Politics

Last updated on October 10th 2014

I recently read "The Theory of Aryan Race and India: History and Politics", a paper based on a lecture given by leading Indian historian Romila Thapar,, in a conference on eastern studies in Tokyo in 1995, It does provide an interesting overview of the Aryan race theory as related to India, from what I presume is a mainstream academic history perspective.

However, please be warned that Romila Thapar's talk/paper goes by evidence (archaeological, linguistic & textual) without treating scripture or any spiritual seer/master/mystic's words as holy truth. As an example she goes by 1500 BC as the date for the Rigveda and treats the 4500 BC date for Rigveda as an extreme and unwarranted by evidence date. Whereas people like me who believe in spiritual seers' words consider Rama to have been a real figure around 20,000 years ago i.e. 18000 BC! And Vedic sacrifices are mentioned in Valmiki Ramayana, which we believe to be largely, if not wholly, factual. So people like me believe that the Veda including Rigveda would be older than 18000 BC!

But then mainstream academic historians will go by evidence and I think it will be helpful for people like me to be able to understand/know their view even if I do not agree with their conclusions. My initial impression is that ancient India/Hindu history dating work is not an authoritative one. It is more like a theory based on evidence gathered/available so far. If new evidence becomes available then the ancient India/Hindu history dates may change dramatically. The lack of solid irrefutable evidence like archaeological evidence for Rama's life and reign perhaps is key to academia (or mainstream academia) not being willing to accept Rama as a real historical person, let alone date his life to around 20,000 years back.

The talk/paper is quite dense for a non-historian like me. I have made short notes of selected parts which cover ancient history and some other parts (like politics) of her talk and which is not so dense. Some of the notes below may put some readers off - but that's how mainstream academia views ancient Indian history, like it or not! A few short sentences from Thapar's paper are also given, in quotes.

* Notion of biological race was seriously considered in the latter part of the nineteenth century. An Aryan identity, used both for language and race, was considered.

* The Aryan identity was applied to Indian origins. Max Mueller's work on Rigveda and other Sanskrit literature played a role in this. Max Mueller held the view that there was a common central Asian homeland for all Aryans, from which a group migrated to Europe and another to Iran and India. [BTW Max Mueller never visited India! So his views were based on his study of Hindu Sanskrit scripture and literature, and perhaps second-hand information about India from others who had visited India.]

* Many variations of this Aryan theory were proposed later by historians as well as others.

* The Aryan Race theory "received a jolt with the archeological discovery of the Indus civilisation" in the 1920s. The Indus civilisation was urban while the Vedas described a pastoral-agrarian society.

* From, "The Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) was a Bronze Age civilization (3300–1300 BCE; mature period 2600–1900 BCE) extending from what today is northeast Afghanistan to Pakistan and northwest India (see map). Along with Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia it was one of three early civilizations of the Old World, and of the three the most widespread, covering an area of 1.25 million km. It flourished in the basins of the Indus River, one of the major rivers of Asia, and the Ghaggar-Hakra River, which once coursed through northwest India and eastern Pakistan." ... "The Indus Valley Civilization is also known as the Harappan Civilization, after Harappa, the first of its sites to be excavated in the 1920s, in what was then the Punjab province of British India, and is now in Pakistan. The discovery of Harappa, and soon afterwards, Mohenjo-Daro, was the culmination of work beginning in 1861 with the founding of the Archaeological Survey of India in the British Raj. Excavation of Harappan sites has been ongoing since 1920, with important breakthroughs occurring as recently as 1999."

* Rigveda has been dated approximately as 1500 BC (by mainstream historians like Thapar). Indus cities had declined before 1500 BC. In which case, Indus civilisation was prior to Vedic culture.

* Others date Rigveda as 4500 BC (which Thapar thinks is unlikely based on linguistic evidence). In which case, the Vedic civilisation would precede Indus Valley Civilisation/Harappan Civilisation.

* Notion of Aryan invasion destroying Indus Valley cities has been questioned due to lack of archaeological evidence.

* The (gradual) decline of Indus civilisation & cities happened in early second millennium BC. Environmental changes, Persian gulf trade closure and political authority collapse are considered now as the reasons for the decline.

* Vedic texts mention the horse and horse sacrifice. So, Thapar argues, if Indus valley cities were Vedic then significant amount of horse bones should have been found in the Indus valley city archaeological sites, which is not the case. So, she argues, that Indus Valley civilisation was not Vedic.

* "The notion of an Aryan race identified on the basis of an Aryan language has now been discarded. Language and race are distinctly different categories. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to discard the term 'Aryan' as well, using only Indo-Aryan to identify the language, or else staying strictly within the definition of arya from Sanskrit texts where it is a linguistic and social qualifier, without the overlay of nineteenth century theories."

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