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Aryan invasion theory

The Aryan Invasion theory was first put forward by British Indologist[?] Frederick Max Müller[?] and others in the mid 19th century. The theory holds that a caucasian race of nomadic warriors known as the Aryans originating in the Caucasus mountains and Central Asia invaded Northern India and Iran somewhere between 1500 and 1800 BC, displacing the indigenous Dravidian people and their Indus Valley Culture. The Aryans brought with them their own Vedic religion, which was codified in the Vedas around the 1000 BC. Upon arrival in India the Aryans abandoned their nomadic lifestyle and intermixed with the Dravidians in the north of India.

The theory was built off scant archaeological evidence, and many of the dates were based on calculations made from Müller's belief that the world was created in the 4th millennium BC. However, the theory was buttressed by the linguistic split between North and South Indian languages, with Sanskrit from the North belonging to the Indo-European languages.

At the moment most historians accept the theory, although the idea of a large-scale invasion that was alive around 1900 has made place for the idea of a much more modest invasion, where the Aryans either merged in with the existing population or formed its upper layer. However, a recent generation of archaeologists and historians, mostly from India, has challenged the hypothesis and is convinced that the Vedas point to a presence of the peoples who originally wrote them in India long before the presumed date of the Aryan invasion (ca. 1700 BC).

Arguments of Proponents

On the other hand, certain contradictions between what is known of the Vedic civilization and the Indus Valley civilization have to be taken into account, as does the distribution of Aryan (or Indo-European) languages. No serious attempt has been made to refute the philological argument for this theory. The similarity between numerous Sanskrit words with ancient Greek and Latin words (This remains even in derivative languages e.g. "Shakkar" is the Hindi word for sugar.) strongly suggests a migration if not an invasion. Another major argument against identifying the Indus Valley civilization with a continuous, indigenous Vedic civilization is that the society described in the Vedas is primarily a pastoral one, whereas the Indus Valley civilization was heavily urbanized. Few of the elements of such an urban civilization (e.g., temple structures, sewage systems) are described in the Vedas.

In addition there is little or no evidence of the use of horses in the Indus Valley civilization, while the Vedas make frequent mention of the horse. (The earliest domestication of the horse and the first use of horses in South Asia is a topic of great dispute.) Similar weight has been placed on differences in the types of metals used in either civilization; the worship of the bull in contrast to the Vedic cow-worship; the importance of the tiger in the Indus Valley civilization and its absence in the Vedic texts; and the heavy consumption of fish by the Indus Valley dwellers in contrast to the virtually absence of fish in the Vedas.

Proponents of the theory of Aryan invasion argue that the identification of the Saraswati with the Hakra would lead to inconsistencies, and that the Saraswati must be identified with some other river, perhaps in Afghanistan. There is a river in Afghanistan that is known to have had a very similar name. They also point to the linguistic and religious similarities between the Vedas and early Iranian sacred literature such as the Avesta. The languages and the names of gods are very similar, and both involve the ritual drinking of Soma.

The issue might be settled definitively by the deciphering of the many seals found at Indus Valley sites, which are written with an unknown script. If it were a Dravidian script this would confirm the theory that an indigenous culture was supplanted by an outside one. If it were Indo-Aryan it would support the alternative claims. However, the script remains undeciphered. Attempts to translate the script into some form of Sanskrit have been notable failures.

Dravidian languages are now confined to the south of India, except for Brahui, which is spoken in the Indus Valley area. This might indicate that Dravidian was formerly much more widespread and was supplanted by the incoming Indo-European languages such as Sanskrit.

Arguments of Opponents

Opponents of the theory state that evidence in the Vedas points to a considerably earlier dating of the text (for example, the positions of stars described occurred in 3500 to 4000 BC), and there is no account in the text of an invasion, of a great migration, or of an ancestral homeland in Central Asia. There is, however, considerable description of a river Saraswati. Recent geological evidence (taken from satellite photographs) has uncovered the existence of a dry riverbed -- the Hakra River -- going through the Punjab area in the Indian subcontinent. Some historians believe this river, which at some points may have been five miles wide, and may have been as vast as the Amazon River in its heyday, is the Saraswati described in the Vedas. Many of the archaeological Indus Valley sites lie along the remains of this riverbed, indeed far more than lie along the Indus (which would then identify with what is named the Sindhu river in the Vedas), suggesting that the Indus Valley civilization may have flourished between these two rivers. Around 1900 BC, however, the Hakra river appears to have dried up (due to earthquakes and the shifting of the path of the tributary Yamuna river, which turned from feeding the Hakra to feeding the Ganges), causing the decline of the Indus Valley civilization.

In addition to the above archaeological evidence, much of Vedic culture is inconsistent with a nomadic lifestyle, for example, the use of metallurgy. This suggests that, contrary to the Aryan invasion theory, the Indus Valley civilization was the Vedic civilization and both Aryan and Dravidian were indigenous to north and south India respectively, and that no conflict between Aryan and Dravidian or any Aryan invasion ever occurred.


Like much of history, this question is immensely politically charged. Followers of the Hindu nationalist Hindutva movement very much wish to dispense with the Aryan invasion theory in favor of a continuous, ancient, and sophisticated Vedic civilization. In contrast there are many South Indians who have adopted the 'Dravidian' identity as a matter of ethnic pride.

Hindu rejection may also be based on suggestions that the Indian caste system would originally have been a religious means for the Aryans to establish and maintain a superior position in Indian society. The dominance in post-independence India of Marxist accounts of history meant that this view prevailed for many years in Indian universities. Post-Cold War political reaction against Marxism in favour of Hindu nationalism and anti-colonialism are perhaps as much of an influence on changing attitudes as archeology.

On the other hand, the original formulation of the theory probably had a racist background, bringing the Indian civilization back to a Caucasian source, and allowing the British to claim common Aryan identity with the 'Aryan' upper caste Indians, and thus more effectively control the empire with influential Indian support.

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