It is a common feature of human societies to venerate particular periods of their history. Almost all major cultures hark back to some Golden Age, when their ancestors lived as physical, mental, and moral exemplars of their society’s core values. For many devout Hindus in India today, that Golden Age was the Vedic era, which lasted for a millennium between around 1500 BCE to around 500 BCE, and saw the composition and codification of the major works of Hindu religious philosophy, starting with the Rig Veda.
However, devotion can start to come into conflict when it moves out of the area of religion and into nationalism or questioning the scientific method. Just as some Christian fundamentalists have tried to remove the study of Evolution from the school curriculum in the United States, so too some Hindu fundamentalists are currently fighting a war against the theory of Indo-European Migration, an established historical model about the origins of the Vedas.
The widely held theory, supported by evidence and accepted by an overwhelming majority of historians, archaeologists, anthropologists and linguists across the world, postulates that Sanskrit (the root of all North Indian languages spoken today and the tongue in which the Vedas were composed) originated outside the Indian subcontinent, and the creators of the early Vedas were tribes of migrants whose original home was in Central Asia. All these tribes spoke languages descended from the Proto-Indo-European mother tongue. One branch of this large and diverse linguistic tree (which includes English, German, Greek, and Latin), known as the Indo-Iranian branch, is the direct ancestor of Sanskrit and its sister language, Avestan.
The speakers of this Indo-Iranian language referred to themselves as Aryans, meaning ‘noble people’. Some entered modern-day Iran, across the Zagros Mountains, and their language evolved to become Avestan. Indeed, the name of the modern nation of Iran comes from the word Aryan. Others migrated across the Hindu Kush Mountains into the Swat Valley in modern-day Pakistan, before moving to the Indus, and eventually settling in the plains of the Ganga in northern India.
However, many Hindus today do not agree with this and instead claim that the Sanskrit-speaking Aryans were always indigenous to India. Opposition to the idea of an Indo-Iranian, or Aryan, Migration is perhaps partly a reaction to the racial and colonial overtones that originally laced the theory in the 19th and early 20th centuries. First formulated as the Aryan Invasion Theory, it was believed that tribes of people who spoke Sanskrit and similar Indo-Iranian languages invaded the Indian sub-continent and committed genocide against the native inhabitants of the land, including the citizens of the Indus Valley Civilization. However, the Aryan Invasion Theory has been rejected and discredited by historians and archaeologists for many, many decades now.
Nevertheless, most Indians are misinformed, either by outdated textbooks or from a lack of good educational resources, and believe that these ideas are the mainstream in western academic circles. Edwin Bryant in his seminal work on this debate, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate, postulates that these objections are a consequence of an outdated academic system that’s still stuck in the colonial era; stating: “Practically speaking, it is small Delhi publishers that are keeping the most crude versions of the Aryan invasion theory alive by their nineteenth-century reprints! These are some of the main sources available to most Indian readers.”
Where it becomes really interesting is when one examines the similarities between Old Avestan and Vedic Sanskrit. Whilst Sanskrit and Avestan evolved into unique languages over time, with their own cultures and religions (Hinduism and Zoroastrianism, respectively), their earliest hymns — saved for posterity by their shared practice of precise oral transmission — reveal their common source.
With the exception of a shift in the pronunciation of certain syllables, as one sees in dialects of a common tongue, the words are nearly identical. The holy books of the Aryans who moved to India were the Vedas, whereas those who moved to Iran called their holy text the Avesta. The opening verses of the oldest collection of hymns, the Rig Veda, call the god Agni a “hotar”, meaning the chief priest who conducts a yagna, the Vedic ritual prayer ceremony. The equivalent priest in the Zoroastrian religion of the Avestan-speaking tradition is called a “zaotar” and the ceremony is referred to as a yasna. Perhaps the most interesting correlation is that the Vedic Sanskrit word for God, deva, is almost indistinguishable from daeva, the Avestan word for demon. And the Avestan word for God, ahura, is with the exception of the s/h split between the two tongues, the same as the Vedic Sanskrit word for demon, asura.
We can see a story take shape here. Climatologists have discovered that around 4,200 years ago, a major change in the Earth’s climate led to widespread droughts. The grasslands of Central Asia slowly became deserts. And within the Indo-Iranian community, a civil war broke out. Did the Vedic army (sena) and the Avestan army (haena) do battle? We don’t know. We know that they split and moved to different parts of the world, where they wrote hymns about their gods and demons. The 124th hymn of the 10th mandala of the Rig Veda gives us a few tantalizing hints:
“I, looking to the guest of other lineage, have founded many a rule of Law and Order. I bid farewell to the Great God, the Father, and, for neglect, obtain my share of worship. I tarried many a year within this altar: I leave the Father, for my choice is Indra. (…) These Asuras have lost their powers of magic. But thou, O Varuna, if thou dost love me, O King, discerning truth and right from falsehood, come and be Lord and Ruler of my kingdom.” The Avesta, meanwhile, speaks of “rejecting the Daevas” and lists a few of them by name, including Indra and Sarva.
This old battle is forgotten today. There are a little over a hundred thousand Zoroastrians left in the world and they are slowly dying out, as a culture and a religion, after thousands of years. Many of the last Zoroastrians now live in the land of their erstwhile enemy, having migrated to the western coast of India around the 8th century CE to escape persecution at the hands of the new Muslim rulers of Iran. Meanwhile, the followers of Indra and worshippers of the Devas now number over a billion.
Perhaps the idea of India at its earliest stage is far different from how we have always imagined it.
When a modern Indian thinks of the Vedic Age, patriarchs and institutions that have endured for thousands of years come to mind. Yet it appears it was founded by young rebels fighting against an authority who eventually branded them demons. The idea of India in the Vedic Age is the idea of a spiritual foundation built on the constancy of change. As those ancient poets composed their hymns thousands of years ago, little did they know that their songs, and their society, would outlast those whom they had defied and would, with considerable ups and downs, endure through the ages.
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