4. Miscellaneous aspects of the Aryan invasion debate
4.8. Invasionist Terms in the Vedas
Though not a pandit or philologist, Dalit leader Dr. Ambedkar took the trouble of verifying the meaning and context, in every single instance, of the Vedic terms which Western scholars often mentioned as proof of a conflict between white Aryan invaders and dark non-Aryan aboriginals.1 His line of argument has been elaborated further by V.S. Pathak and Shrikant Talageri.2
Among the Vedic terms figuring prominently in the AIT reading of the Vedas, the most important one is probably dAsa. DAsa, known to mean ‘slave, servant’ in classical Sanskrit, but in the Rg-Veda the name of an enemy tribe, along with the apparently related word dasyu, is interpreted in AIT parlance as ‘aboriginal’. More probably these words designate the Vedic people’s white-skinned n cousins, who at one point became their enemies, for both terms exist in Iranian, dahae being one of the Iranian tribes, and dahyu meaning ‘tribe, nation’. The original meaning of dAsa, long preserved in the Khotanese dialect of Iranian, is ‘man’; it is used in this sense in the Vedic names DivodAs, ‘divine man’ and SudAs, ‘good man’.3 In Iranian, it always preserved its neutral or positive meaning, it is only in late-Vedic that it acquired a hostile and ultimately a degrading connotation. Strangely a similar evolution has taken place in Greek, where doulos, ‘slave’, is an evolute of doselos, from dos-, the IE root of dAsa.
The post-Vedic evolution in meaning from an ethnic name to ‘servant’ does not necessarily point to enslavement of enemies; no military event of such nature and relating to the word, dAsa is mentioned in the Vedic literature. Instead of seeing the Vedic people as warriors, we may see them as a prosperous merchant population which at some stage, in a perfectly normal economic development, attracted the inflow of neighbouring populations as guestworkers willing to do the menial work, the way the Biblical twelve sons of Jacob went to Egypt of their own free will, where their children became a class of menial workers. But it is admittedly just as likely that the evolution was from ‘enemy’ through ‘captive’ to ‘slave’. Whatever the scenario of their social degradation may have been, nothing in the Vedic text shows that the Dasas were dark, nor that they were aboriginals as opposed to invaders.
Asura is the original Indo-Iranian and Vedic term for ‘Lord’, a form of address both for the gods and for people of rank. The late- and post-Vedic concept of DevAsurasaMgrAma, usually translated as ‘war between Devas/gods and Asuras/demons’, has led to the notion that this represents a war between two categories of gods, comparable to the Germanic Aesir and Wanir, or to the warring Gods and Titans of Greek mythology. However, there never existed a separate category of celestial beings called Asuras; the Devas themselves were originally addressed as Asura.
At this point, we have to give credit to the invasionists for identifying the DevAsurasaMgrAma as essentially a political struggle between two nations using their respective religious terminology as a banner. However, the Asura-worshippers, or Asuras for short, are not the non-Aryan aboriginals of whom we merely assume that they must have worshipped Asura; they are the nation known to worship Asura, or in their own dialect Ahura (epithet Mazda, so ‘wise Lord’), the usual Iranian term for the Vedic god Varuna, god of the cosmic order and the truth (Rta/arta).
The religious difference between Iranians and Vedic ‘fire-worshippers’ was a minor difference in emphasis, and had nothing to do with the causes of their conflict. It was only after a war over the control of prize territory in the Panjab erupted, that the term Asura got identified with the aggression of the Kashmir-based Anava/Iranian people against the Paurava/Vedic heartland in Sapta-Saindhavah, and acquired a negative, anti-Vedic or anti-Deva meaning. Conversely, it must have been on that same occasion that the Iranians turned Deva/Daeva into a term for ‘demon’.
4.8.3. Speech defects
MRdhravAk, ‘of harsh speech’, could refer to hecklers mocking the Vedic rituals, more or less ‘blasphemers’. Usually it is interpreted as ‘speaking a foreign language’, though that is not its literal meaning; and even if correct, this could still refer to another IE language or dialect. Scornful references to other people’s languages are more often about closely related ones, cfr. the many English expressions pejoratively using the word ‘Dutch’, the language of England’s enemies in the 17th century, but nonetheless also the language which is (except for Frisian) the most closely akin to English.
AnAsa is interpreted as a-nAsa, ‘noseless’, stretched to mean ‘snub-nosed’; but classical commentators analysed it, just as credibly, as an-Asa, ‘speechless’ (Asa being the regular cognate of Latin os, ‘mouth’). This type of anthropomorphic imagery. is often used in the Vedas for characterizing natural elements, e.g. fire as ‘footless’. If referring to people, it is to be remarked that few Indians even among the tribals are snub-nosed. If taken to mean ‘speechless’, hence perhaps ‘unintellegible’, the same remark is valid as in the case of mRdhravAk: unintellegibility is most striking when hearing someone speaking a dialect of your own language, i.e. when he was expected to be intellegible in the first place.
Nevertheless, it stands to reason that the Vedic people have encountered enemies on some occasions, that some of these enemies did speak a completely different language, that Vedic hymns were composed in preparation or commemoration of the battle, and that the enemies were mentioned in the hymns along with their strange language as their most distinctive trait. So, let us assume that the above terms do refer to people speaking a non-IE language. That would not at all be proof of an Aryan invasion, because both parties may be native, or the non-IE-speaking party may be the invading one. When the Germans invaded France in 1870, 1914 and 1940, the French duly noted that the German language was full of ‘harsh’ sounds; even so, it was the mRdhravAk Germans who were the invaders.
KRsNayoni (‘from a black womb’), kRshNatvac (‘black-skinned’), tvacamasiknIm (id.), asiknivishah (‘black tribe’) and other composites involving ‘black’, read in their contexts, usually refer to darkness, to nightly stratagems in war, or metaphorically to evil. Most languages have expressions like ‘black deeds’, ‘dark portends’, ‘the dark age’, associating darkness with evil, ignorance or danger. Vedic Sanskrit is extremely rich in metaphors, in techno-scientific contexts (for lack of a separate technical jargon) as well as in cultural and religious contexts, e.g. the word go, ‘cow’ can refer to Mother Earth, the sunshine, material wealth, language, the Aum sound, etc. It is not far-fetched to perceive a metaphorical intention behind the use of words like ‘black’, similar to that in other languages.
It also has to be inspected case by case whether the reference is at all to human beings (whether skin-colour or figurative characterization), because many Vedic expressions are about gods and heavenly phenomena. When it is said that Agni, the fire, ‘puts the dark demons to flight’, one should keep in mind that the darkness was thought to be filled with ghosts or ghouls, so that making light frees the atmosphere of their presence. And when Usha, the dawn, is said to chase the ‘dark skin’ or ‘the black monster’ away, it obviously refers to the cover of nightly darkness over the surface of the earth.4
The term varNa is understood in classical Sanskrit as ‘colour’. This is then explained as referring to the symbolic colours attributed to the three cosmological ‘qualities’ (guNa): white corresponds to sattva (clarity), red to rajas (energy) and black to tamas (darkness), following the pattern of daylight, twilight and nightly darkness. Likewise, the different functions in the social spectrum are allotted a member of the colour spectrum: the menial (tAmasika) Shudras are symbolically ‘black’, the heroic (rAjasika) Kshatriyas are ‘red’, and the truth-loving (sAttvika) Brahmins are ‘white’; in addition, the entrepreneurial Vaishyas are considered to have a mixture of qualities, and are allotted the colour yellow. This sense of ‘colour’ has nothing to do with skin colour, as should also be evident from the ancient use of the same colour code among the all-white Germanic peoples.
Moreover, ‘Colour’ might even not be the original, Vedic meaning of varNa. Reformist Hindus eager to disentangle the institution of varNa from any doctrines of genetic determinism, derive it from the root var-, ‘choose’ (as in svayamvara, ‘[a girl’s] own choice [of a husband]’), with the implication that one’s varNa is not a matter of birth but of personal choice. This seems to tally with Stanley Insler’s rendering, in his classic translation of The Gathas of Zarathustra, of the corresponding Avestan term varanA as ‘preference’ (which other translators sometimes stretch to mean ‘conviction’, ‘religious affiliation’). But we believe that the root meaning is even simpler.
In the Rg-Veda, the word varNa usually (17 out of 22 times) refers to the ‘lustre’ (i.e. ‘one’s own typical light’, a meaning obviously related to ‘colour’) of specified gods: Usha, Agni, Soma, etc.5 As for the remaining cases, in 3:34:5 and 9:71:2 it indicates the lustrous colour of the sky at dawn. In 1:104:2 and 2:12:4, reference is only to quelling the varNa of the DAsas, - meaning ‘the Dasas’ luster’ (in the first case, Ralph Griffith translates it as ‘the fury of the DAsa’). Finally, in the erotic Rg-Vedic hymn 4:179, verse 6, where Agastya, in doing the needful with his wife Lopamudra to obtain progeny, is said to satisfy ‘both varNas’, this is understood by some as referring quite plainly to the two families of husband and wife, who rejoice in the arrival of a grandchild. Since the hymn mentions the conflict between sexuality and asceticism, others interpret it as meaning ‘both paths (of worldliness and world-renunciation)’. At any rate, there is simply no question of reading a racist meaning into it.
Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, let us assume that some of the above references to ‘colour’ or ‘blackness’ are really about dark-skinned neighbouring tribes. That would still not prove that the lighter-skinned people were invaders. At the same latitude and in essentially the same climate, the people of Mesopotamia are predominantly white; the presence of whitish people in northwestern India can be explained by the same factors as their presence in Mesopotamia, and does not require an invasion. Nor would it prove that the Vedic Aryans were racists: there is not the slightest hint anywhere in the vast Vedic literature that ‘dark-skinned’ tribes were treated as enemies because of their skin colour, that there existed a doctrine of inequality by skin colour. It is only said that these ‘demons’ disrupted the worship of the gods, so that the Aryans had to defend their culture against them.
When read in their specific Vedic contexts, the terms which we have just discussed do not fit the ‘white Aryans attack black Dasas’ scenario at all. Most conflicts hinted at in the Vedas and described in the Puranas are between different Aryan tribes and kings. A closer reading of the ancientmost Indian writings reveals a total absence of any immigration stories. In fact, even if there had been mention of a struggle between ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’, this would still not be proof of an immigration. From Pashtunistan and Kashmir southeastwards, skin colour changes fast from nearly white to nearly black; to a race-conscious observer, a war between two tribes could therefore easily look like a war between ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’, even when neither tribe had invaded the Indian subcontinent from outside.
Dr. B.R. Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol.1, p.16-22 (from his Caste in India), p.49 (from his Annihilation of Caste); p.74-85 (from his Who Were the Shudras?), p.301-303 (from his The Untouchables). I have discussed these passages in K. Elst: Dr. Ambedkar, a True Aryan, Voice of India, Delhi 1994, p.15-23. ↩
V.S. Pathak: ‘Semantics of Arya: Its Historical Implications’, in S.B. Deo and Suryanath Kamath: The Aryan Problem, p.86-99; S. Talageri: Aryan Invasion Theory, p.226-254. ↩
See V.S. Pathak: ‘Semantics of Arya’, in Deo & Kamath, The Aryan Problem, p.91-95. ↩
This is admitted in so many words by Sir Monier-Williams in his A Sanskrit-English Dictionary, entry tvac. Reference is to Rg Veda 1:92:5 and 4:51:9. ↩
As pointed out by Dr. Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol.7, p.82. It should be kept in mind that gods were primarily identified with stars and their ‘lustre’. ↩