A debate has been raging between proponents of the view that the Aryans migrated into India, and those who hold the opposite view. In this blog, I do not attempt to resolve that debate; indeed, I make no claims about the historical reality of an ethnic group, whether called “Aryan,” “Indian” or “Indo-German.” Rather, I seek to bring historical perspective to this debate by illustrating the political and rhetorical uses to which the search for origins has been put, especially the origins of a semi-divine “culture people” (Kulturvolk) held to be responsible for bringing civilization and progress to the rest of humanity.
Aryan invasion / migration theory and German anti-Semitism are two sides of the same coin, linked not only in the sense that both ideas emerged concurrently in German Indology or that both ideas are referred to each other. Rather, the two ideas conjointly articulate a complex notion of theological favor, which is the real source of their dynamism and validity. History is being driven by the theological question of primacy and succession, or, stated otherwise, by a sibling rivalry between Christianity and Judaism.
The theological debate about whether the Jews were the “chosen people” could not be settled in theological terms because the books of the Old Testament did not permit an unambiguous determination about the status of Jesus as the Messiah. As communities of the Hebrew Bible continued to exist alongside the Christians, this theological debate was ultimately transferred to history. The terms Aryan and Semitic are successor “historical” terms for the theological terms Christian and Jewish, representing the transposition into history of what was originally a theological debate. This transfer into history can be traced back to the very origins of the modern concept of History, which go back to the Reformer Martin Luther and his historicist-philologist successors such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The question of “Aryans” is thus indissolubly linked with the question of the “Semites,” as will become evident toward the end of the nineteenth century. But even in its earliest use in Germany, “Aryan” is framed as the counter-concept to Jewish identity. Consider, for example, the work of Friedrich Wilhelm Schlegel (1772–1829) titled “Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier (1808),” in which he first promulgated the idea of a semi-divine race of Sanskrit-speaking humans responsible for civilizing the rest of the world.
Friedrich W. Schlegel’s use of the term [Aryan] suggests that the Christian narrative of expulsion from paradise was superimposed onto historical accounts of the migration into Germanic Europe of an expansionist Aryan people from an idealized, primordial Asian homeland. In 1819, Friedrich W. Schlegel had introduced the word “Aryan” into the vocabulary of German philologists while trying to reconcile Old Testament notions of divine revelation with that secular history of human origins which J. G. Rhode had constructed from passages in the Zend-Avesta. Schlegel suggested that the word of God had been imparted in an “Aryan language” that was closely related to Avestan (Zend) and to Sanskrit; this “primordial, mother tongue” was “multi-syllabic and organic.” The ancient people (Stammvolk) chosen to receive it were likewise called “Aryans,” and they lived in the mountainous heights between Persia and India. Schlegel believed the ancient Germanic tribes to be the direct descendants of this people. “Our German ancestors,” Schlegel wrote, had been known by the “name of Aryans” while still in Asia and they had been a “warlike, heroic people.” He interpreted the Sanskrit root “Ari” as meaning “splendid and excellent, famous” and related it to the German word for honor, “Ehre.” The frequency with which it appeared in archaic German names for heroes pointed, in his mind, to the close historical ties between modern German-speakers and the chosen people of revelation.
(quoted from Benes, “From Indo-Germans to Aryans,” 175–76)
August Wilhelm Schlegel’s essay “De l’origine des Hindous” (1834) is the earliest source for the biracial theory of Indian history—that is, the view that the Indian population comprises two heterogeneous races: one advanced and civilizing, the other primitive and subjugated. In this essay, A. Schlegel (1767–1845) speculated on the location of the Aryan homeland:
And this central country, where are we to look for it, if not in the interior of the great continent, in the vicinity and to the east of the Caspian Sea? … The most ancient testimonies indicate to us Bactriana as the seat of a high civilization. My hypothesis is that the ancestors of the Persians and of the Hindus have thus emigrated from there toward the south-west and the south-east; those of the European peoples toward the west and the north.
(A. W. Schlegel, “De l’origine des Hindous,” 444–45).
Christian Lassen (1800–1876), a seminal figure in the Aryan debate, lent material reality to the concept of an Aryan race by claiming he had found evidence for the primordial conflict through which the Aryans had secured mastery over India. Born in Bergen, Norway in 1800, Lassen had moved to Germany with his mother after the death of his father in 1818. He remained there for the rest of his life. After studying with August W. Schlegel in Bonn (1821–1824), he went to Paris and London for further studies, finally receiving his venia legendi from Bonn in 1827 for a dissertation on the geography and history of ancient Panjab reconstructed mainly based on travelers’ tales and the Mahābhārata. Lassen is most noted for his magnum opus, the four-volume Indischer Alterthumskunde published between 1847 and 1862, which was to have a defining influence on all future Indian historiography. In this work, Lassen forged an opposition between the Indogermanic and Semitic “races.” Here is Lassen on the Semitic people.
History is evidence that the Semites lacked the harmonious balance of all psychic powers through which the Indo-Germans became preeminent. […] The Semite cannot separate the relationship of the world to man in general from the relationship of the world to his own ‘I.’ He cannot represent ideas in the mind in pure objectivity. His way of looking at things is subjective and egotistical. His poetry is lyrical [and] hence subjective. His spirit expresses its joy and its pain, its love and its hatred, its admiration and its scorn. […] Even if he expands his horizon it is only to represent his tribe as an individual over against other tribes. […] He is unsuccessful at [creating] epic because here the ‘I’ of the poet recedes before the object [and] even less at dramatic works, which demand that the poet shed his personality even more completely. [In contrast,] the Indo-Germans possess, alongside the lyrical, also the other genres of poetry. They alone produced a national drama. They alone produced the great heroic poems [Heldengedichte] that reflect the great deeds of antiquity handed down in the legend in glorified form, that present the entire worldview of the spirit of a people [Volksgeistes] to us and are present as the result of the poetic effort of an entire people. The Semite is lacking in the material of the epic, but not the saga, which he poetically ornaments and develops but does not combine into larger cycles and, instead, preserves in his memory as primordial history.
(Lassen, Indische Alterthumskunde, 1: 414–15)
As Benes notes, “In Lassen’s analysis, it was impossible that India had been the original German homeland: an Aryan people would never have let itself be conquered by a tribe of darker skin color. Ancient Aryans, he wrote, always proved to be ‘the dominant, victorious race (Geschlecht),’ successfully driving away (verdrängen) the ‘weaker, yielding’ natives who lacked equivalent ‘power.’ According to Lassen, the original ‘black natives’ of India were ‘defeated races’ just like ‘the Australian Negroes… and the red men of America.’ The Aryans distinguished themselves as ‘white people’ and represented, to Lassen, ‘the more perfectly organized, entrepreneurial and creative nation.’ In India this unequal relationship had, he believed, been consolidated politically in the caste system. The Sanskrit word for caste, Lassen noted, originally meant ‘color,’ (referencing Varna) and while the three dominant Aryan castes, including the Brahmins, had ‘the whitest color,’ the indigenous underclass had ‘the darkest.’” Lassen had a significant influence on historians of India. Basham, for instance, claimed, “The Indische Altertumskunde is a milestone in the progress of the science of Indology. In it Lassen distills the quintessence of all the contemporary knowledge of the subject, adding much of his own. No other single hand has since produced so monumental a survey of the history of early India.” Regrettably, Lassen’s approach led to the thoroughgoing racialization of Indian history, indeed, to the reformulation of the science of history as a racial anthropology or epidemiology. But back to the impact of Lassen’s work on the Semitic people:
It was Christian Lassen, Schlegel’s student and successor at the University of Bonn, who, like his more famous contemporary Ernst Renan in France, had in his massive study of language contrasted the superior Aryans to the inferior Semites. In contrast to the creative Aryans, imbued with a sense of balance and harmony and an appreciation of the beauty of the natural world, Lassen protrayed the Semites (including Arabs and Jews) as a people devoid of self-control and possessed by unbridled egoism. Lassen’s writings drew considerable attention in racist circles and heavily influenced a generation of German racist scholars, propagandists, and writers.
(William I. Brustein, Roots of Hate, 130)
Among the manifold outgrowths that Lassen’s ideas were to have, it bears mentioning that in one way or another, all maps of Aryan migration or invasion such as German Scholar and Nazi Party member, Hans Friedrich Karl Günther’s (1891–1968) map of “the conquest campaigns of Satem-Indo-Germanic-hood” (Eroberungszüge des Satem-Indogermanentums) in his 1934 publication Die nordische Rasse bei den Indogermanen Asiens are directly or indirectly indebted to Lassen’s theory of a racial conflict in Indian prehistory. The subtitle of Günther’s work—Zugleich ein Beitrag zur Frage nach der Urheimat und Rassenherkunft der Indogermanen (simultaneously a contribution to the question of the original homeland and racial origin of the Indo-Germans)—illustrates how the question of Aryan migration had now become inextricably linked with the establishment of German racial superiority. Adolf Hitler himself owned six books of Günther’s in his private collection and was strongly influenced by his race research. The logic of othering that German scholars introduced had real consequences for vast tracts of humanity—the Holocaust being the most prominent example of the savage violence the specifically German conception of “history” unleashed.
Once the Aryan race theory was transposed into the Indian setting, it required one final element to become a permanent and real feature of Indian “history,” namely, it had to be anchored in a “historical” source. Here is a quote from Lassen from his work on the Mahābhārata:
Since the Pāñcāla definitely belonged to the Aryan peoples, we may not interpret the relationship between them and the Pāṇḍavas in such a way that the former, through the black color ascribed to Kṛṣṇā [i.e., Draupadī] should be understood as being described as belonging to the black natives of India, the latter as the white Aryans. Nonetheless, the distinction in terms of color must have a meaning, and this can only be that the Pāñcāla, as well as the Yādava who are represented by Kṛṣṇa [Vāsudeva], both belonged to the Aryan peoples who had immigrated [into India] earlier, [that they] had become darker through the influence of the climate than the more recent immigrants from the north and, in contrast to these, were called the black ones.
(Lassen, Indische Alterthumskunde, 1: 643)
Henceforth, all Hindu texts could be read as “evidence” of the slow darkening of the white races that came into India. German Indologists such as Garbe and Oldenberg explicitly undertook a reading of Indian culture in terms of race. Naturally, the positive elements (that is, those these scholars viewed positively) of Indian texts, religion, and society were attributed to hypothetical “Aryans,” whereas elements these scholars disliked were considered “aboriginal,” “Hindu,” or “black” in origin.
There is no bridge from the radiant forms of the Veda to the forms of the modern gods [of Hinduism], whose monstrous representations with their tastelessly multiplied animal limbs and so on, should be familiar to all, at least as a type. In spite of their Aryan names, I consider the modern Hindu gods—Shiva, Vishnu, Durga, Hanuman, and whatever else they may be called—not for Aryan conceptions, but for conceptions of the aborigines.
(Garbe, Indische Reiseskizzen, 85)
What has triumphed is the power we call “Hinduism.” Its gods are the misshapen, wild, cruel, [and] lascivious Hindu gods, at their head Shiva and Vishnu. Its books are the gigantic epic, the Mahābhārata, and an unsurveyable host of literature . . . A transformation that affects the innermost core of the people, of the soul of the people. Mixing with the dark-skinned aborigines transforms the invaders, causes the Aryan to turn into the Hindu.
(Oldenberg, “Indologie,” 640)
In the sultry, moist, tropical lands of the Ganges, highly endowed by nature with rich gifts, the people who were in the prime of youthful vigour when they penetrated hither from the north, soon ceased to be young and strong. Men and peoples come rapidly to maturity in that land, like the plants of the tropical world, only just as rapidly to fall asleep both bodily and spiritually. [. . .] The Indian has above all, at an early stage, turned aside from that which chiefly preserves a people young and healthy, from the battle and struggle for home, country, and law.
(Oldenberg, Buddha: His Life, His Doctrine, His Order, 11–12)
German Indologists’ historical accounts about ancient India were neither objective nor secular. The Indologists lacked historical training. What they peddled as “history” was, in fact, racial prejudices disguised in teleological terms (for example, that it was natural for the “stronger” race to defeat the “weaker”). We must learn to recognize that the “history” we have been told is fundamentally a racial history. Even indigenous accounts of history (see, for example, the work of D. D. Kosambi) attest to this racial bias. In many ways, the “official” history of India has functioned as an apology for colonization and a legitimation for cultural and ethnic genocides.