As the debate on who is an Indian resurfaces again, Mohan Guruswamy takes us through the debates and even to some of its roots.
The question “who are we?” has intrigued historians, linguists and geneticists as much as it does the common Indian. In the recent years it has become fashionable to debunk scientifically derived theories about the origin of the Indian nation, because there is a new ultra-nationalism about. It’s true we are an ancient people and our nationhood was forged on the mighty anvil of our geography, but our civilization was fused from many cultures and our nationality from diverse races. What we are now is a result of many great migrations. While there seem to have been many migratory waves from the east also, it is the western migrations that mostly shaped our present civilization. These migratory waves continued till well into the modern age and each one seems to have left an indelible mark upon us.
It would be wrong to see these migrations just in terms Islamic conquests as we increasing tend to do. The advent of Islam into India is only a visible marker, for peoples who migrated earlier and even just before the Islamic conquests were also of similar stock. For instance that great Rajput clan, the Sisodia’s are of Scythian origin and historians derive their name from Sassanian. Just as Jat derives from Gatae, Ahir from Avar, Gujar from Khazar, Thakur from Tukharian. The Scythian or Saka tribes were the last pre-Islamic migrants into India. Some entered the plains through the Bolan Pass, and settled in Rajasthan which is why some Rajput, Gujar and Jat clans such as Pawar, Chauhan, Rathi, Sial etc. now claim descent from there, whereas others like Mann, Gill, Bajwa, Bhullar, Sandhu etc. who came via the Khyber Pass claim descent from Afghanistan. Some of the clans acquired kingships and were readily granted genealogies by the Brahmin priesthood, who were ever willing to be imaginative as long as their status was assured and for suitable monetary rewards. The agnikula ritual cleansed them of the past and gave them a high place under the Hindu scheme.
Some of the genealogies given are quite extravagant. Thus the Suryavanshis can claim to have descended from the Sun god, while the Chandravanshis can claim descent from the lunar god, and some claim even more specifically to be Raghuvanshis, the clan of Lord Rama. Not that to be a Scythian is something to be ashamed of. Herodotus reveals that even way back in the 5th century BC, the Scythians had political control over much of Central Asia and even as far as the Gangetic plain. Alexander the Great took a Bactran princess, Roxanne (Rukhshana), as his bride as he had to buy peace with and gain Scythian allies.
Political maps of India of early periods clearly suggest an Indian polity heavily weighted in the northwestern part of South Asia. Even Emperor Ashoka’s kingdom while centered in Pataliputra (Patna) extended mostly westward, as far as Bamian and Herat now in Afghanistan and hardly into the Deccan and below. This seems to have been so even way back between 2800-2600 BC, when the Indus valley civilization existed. This civilization is estimated to have included over 1500 settlements over an area the size of Western Europe in present day Pakistan and western India. Excavations, not just in Mohenjo Daro, Harappa, Kot Dijian and Dholavira, very clearly suggest that these were Dravidian settlements and were so till about 1600 BC. Archeologists have concluded that during this period Harappa, despite the seeming lack of an army, was one of the largest and most powerful economic and political centers in the region (see Scientific American, July 2003). Archeologists also believe that the decline of this civilization coincided with the shifting of the course of the Ghaggar-Hakra River (Saraswathi), then a major river of the Indus Valley. The collapse of the agricultural economy largely due to this, led to the overcrowding of cities like Mohenjo Daro and Harappa leading to civic disorder. Thus when the Aryans made their appearance around 1500 BC these cities were ready to fall. By 1000 BC a new and distinctive ideology and language began to emerge in this region. The Vedic period had arrived.
Quiet clearly, both, the Aryans and Dravidians were migrant races that traveled eastwards in search of pastures for their cattle and fertile land for agriculture. This is where we run into ideological problems with the ultra-nationalist and conservative Hindu gerontocracy that, like Gagabhatt did for Shivaji, are foisting a new genealogy upon our nation. The word out now is that we, Indians of today, are an indigenous people. Nothing can be further from the truth. The only indigenous people in India are the Adivasis, who Nihar Ranjan Ray described as “the original autochthonous people of India.” The rest, be they Dravidian or Aryan, Hindu or Muslim, Rajput or Jat, are migrants with as much or as little claim as the European settlers in the new world have to be known as Americans. It is true that the colonizing people in the Americas have managed to forge a distinct new identity, just as the European Jew has managed to become the modern Israeli, and the world acknowledges them as that, but to believe them to be an indigenous people would be akin to the patently bogus Afrikaner claim to be an indigenous African people.
There are scientific ways to discover who we are? The recent advances in genetics have made it possible to draw linkages between peoples of different regions. Studies here in India have not only confirmed that Nihar Ranjan Ray was right when he said that the Adivasi of Central India was the only real native of this country. A study by Dr. Michael Bamshad MD, geneticist at the University of Utah published in the June 2001 of Genome Research explicitly states that the ancestors of modern upper caste Indian populations are genetically more similar to Europeans and lower caste populations are more similar to Asians. Another recent study conducted by Andhra University scientists (BB Rao, M Naidu, BVR Prasad and others) has found the southern Indian to be quite distinct to the northern Indian, in terms of genetic make up at least. That stands to reason considering that the varna composition in South India which is weighted overwhelmingly in favor of the lower castes is very different than that of North India which has a more even spread of caste density.
Despite the divergent trails of genetic markers, Aryans and Dravidians may not be that far removed from each other. Linguists have for long been agreed that “English, Dutch, German, and Russian are each branches of the vast Indo-European language family, which includes Germanic, Slavic, Celtic, Baltic, Indo-Iranian and other languages, — all descendants of more ancient languages like Greek, Latin and Sanskrit. Digging down another level, linguists have reconstructed an earlier language from which the latter were derived. They call it proto-Indo-European, or PIE for short.” Dr. Alexis Manaster Ramer of Wayne State University, USA digs even deeper and finds common roots between PIE and two other language groups: Uralic, which includes Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian; and Altaic that includes Turkish and Mongolian. All these three groups, Dr. Ramer argues, find their roots in an older language called Nostratic. If he is right then all Indian languages, Sanskritic or Dravidian are descended from Nostratic, spoken about 12000 years ago.
Dr. Vitaly Shevoroshkin at the Institute of Linguistics at Moscow, and another Russian scholar, Dr. Aaron Dogopolsky now at the University of Haifa, did pioneering work in establishing the Nostratic language in the 1960’s, and this today is the inspiration to younger linguists like Ramer. Incidentally the word “Nostratic” means “our language”. This study of language is really the study of the evolution of the human race after the advent of the anatomically modern human being, a relatively recent 120,000 years ago. Language, as linguists see it, is more just the heard word and the spoken for we can even communicate with gestures and signs. According to Dr. Derek Bickerton of the University of Hawaii, “the essence of language is words and syntax, each generated by a combinational system in the brain.”
Dr.Asko Parpola, a prominent Finnish scholar raises a fundamental question as to whether Sanskrit is a Dravidian language and advances enough evidence to suggest that is just what it is. Dr. Malathi J. Shendge, a well-regarded Indologist is of the same opinion and elaborated on her research leading to this conclusion recently in a series of lectures at the India International Centre. Another Indian scholar, Gopi Nathan ([email protected]), has recently published a paper on the similarities of words and syntax between the Dravidian languages, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Tulu, and the Finno-Ugrian languages such as Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian and Lapp languages. Gopi Nathan concedes that while the modern versions of these Dravidian languages are considerably influenced by Sanskrit words, the old writings “do not contain a single Sanskrit word.” On the other hand, he argues, a number of Dravidian “loanwords” appear in the Rig Veda.
Not only Sanskrit but languages like Latin and Greek too have a number of loanwords from Dravidian. For instance, the proto-Dravidian word for rice, arici is similar to oryza in Latin and Greek, and ginger is inciver in Tamil while it is ingwer in German, zinziberis in Greek. This lends much credence to the theory that the original Dravidians were of Mediterranean and Armenoid stock, who in 4th millennium BC and settled in the Indus Valley to create one of the four early Old World state-cultures along with Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China’s Yellow River civilization. The continued presence of a Dravidian language, Brahui, in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province still spoken by more than half a million people, further suggests that the Dravidians moved eastwards and southwards under Aryan pressure. The struggle between these two ancient races is captured vividly in the mythology of the ages which depicts a great struggle between the light skinned devas and the dark skinned asuras.
Whatever be its origins, it seems clear that the Sanskrit that emerged out of the Aryan Dravidian fusion was the language of a light skinned elite and was replaced by Persian, another Indo-European language of another light skinned elite. In northern India, these languages of the elites combined with regional dialects to produce a patois called Hindawi or Urdu. Santosh Kumar Khare on the origin of Hindi in “Truth about Language in India” (EPW, December 14, 2002) writes: “the notion of Hindi and Urdu as two distinct languages crystallized at Fort William College in the first half of the 19th century.” He adds: “their linguistic and literary repertoires were built up accordingly, Urdu borrowing from Persian/Arabic and Hindi from Sanskrit.” They came to represent the narrow competing interests of emergent middle class urban Hindu and Muslim/Kayastha groups. But the real sting is in the conclusion that “modern Hindi (or Khari boli) was an artificial construct of the East India Company which, while preserving the grammar and diction of Urdu, cleansed it of ‘foreign and rustic’ words and substituted them with Sanskrit synonyms.” That’s makes for some interesting irony for the RSS, the foremost protagonist of Hindi today, takes great pleasure in deriding English speakers in India as “Macaulay’s children.”
(Guruswamy is a leading thinker and public intellectual trained in Harvard and Stanford. He has written extensively on economics, trade, foreign relations and Indian politics and public policy.)