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Ideology and Race in India's Early History1

Padma Manian
San Jose City College

    Probably without realizing it, World History textbooks often take sides in an ideologically charged controversy over the role of race in India's early history. Their account of the so-called Aryan invasions may reflect nineteenth-century Eurocentric scholarship that privileged lighter skinned peoples over darker skinned ones. Alternatively, it may show a na¥ve endorsement of recent books by Indians and Westerners that owe as much to ideology as to evidence. Certainly the facts don't speak as clearly as most textbooks confidently represent them.
    I have taught World History at colleges in the United States for many years. When it came to the early history of India, I once taught that "Aryans" invaded India in 1500 B.C.E., conquered the "Dravidians" and then became predominant. This is what I had learned in elementary school, high school and college courses in India. This is still what is taught in most textbooks. About ten years ago, I became aware of challenges to the idea of the Aryan invasion and decided to look more critically at what World History textbooks were saying about this topic. My study was published in the History Teacher.2 More than half of the textbooks I examined stated that the ancient Harappan civilization was "burned, destroyed and left in rubble by invading Aryan-speaking tribes." These Aryans were "virile people, fond of war, drinking, chariot racing and gambling" and were also "tall, blue-eyed and fair-skinned." The defeated natives were "short, black, nose-less." The victorious Aryans had a "strong sense of racial superiority" and "strove to prevent mixture with their despised subjects". Accordingly they evolved the caste system with the lighter skinned Aryans at the top.
     In fact, archaeologists have been aware for several decades that Aryan invasions had nothing to do with the demise of the Harappan civilization.3 In contrast, most of the textbooks relied on out-dated sources and presented erroneous material.
    Although there is consensus among well-informed students of Indian history that Aryan invasions had nothing to do with the demise of the Harappan civilization, there is a contentious debate underway both in India as well as in the rest of the world regarding whether there was an invasion of Aryans into India around 1500 B.C.E (that is, after the end of the Harappan civilization). The Indians who favor the invasion theory are largely of a progressive or leftist political persuasion. They believe that the iniquities of the caste system are a result of the Aryan invasion. For such Indians, questioning the invasion theory would undermine the work of redressing the injustices of the caste system. It would be akin to Holocaust denial. On the other hand, many Indians who doubt the invasion theory view it as a matter of national pride that their civilization is rooted in the ancient past on Indian soil and is not a result of barbarian invaders a mere 3500 years ago. Each side believes that ideological commitment blinds the other side from seeing the true facts. Western supporters of the invasion theory are accused of intellectual inertia. They are also diagnosed as suffering from "the Liberal White Man's Burden" — the guilt that some Western scholars and journalists feel for the sins of their fathers in perpetrating racism and imperialism in modern times. This predisposes them to believe in the idea that their Aryan ancestors committed similar crimes 3500 years ago. It is argued that the desire of Western liberals to atone for these sins inclines them to support uncritically Indian leftist views on the Aryan invasion. As for Western scholars who question the Aryan invasion theory, they are accused of being sympathetic to the Indian right wing and, if they have no affiliation with academic institutions, of lacking the credentials to justify commenting on history. This debate can be followed on the Internet and is interesting in its own right. 4
    Recent advances in molecular genetics have opened a promising approach to settle these questions, although the evidence at this stage remains inconclusive. Bamshad et al. studied the DNA of people from the Andhra region of Southern India and compared them to Africans, Europeans and East Asians.4 The mitochondrial DNA (transmitted matrilineally) of all castes was more similar to that of East Asians than of Africans or Europeans. The DNA of the Y-chromosome (transmitted patrilineally) of all castes was however more similar to that of Europeans than of East Asians or Africans. Moreover the higher castes were more similar to Europeans than were the lower castes. The authors conclude that "Indians are of proto-Asian origin with West Eurasian admixture" due to the Aryan invasion. The majority of the Aryan invaders were men who transmitted their European Y-chromosome to their sons born from the native women and placed themselves at the top of the caste hierarchy. But the maternal lineage remains largely "proto-Asian." The analogy, not explicitly stated in the paper, corresponds to Latin American countries where the conquistadors mated with native women to produce a largely mestizo population, with those at the high end of the social scale having the highest proportion of European ancestry. However, there are inconsistencies in the data. In Table 3,5 the lower castes are closer to Asians than to Europeans and the higher castes are closer to the Europeans than to Asians but not very much so. But in Table 46 all castes are much closer to Europeans than to Asians. Then in Table 5,7 the lower castes are again closer to Asians. In Table 4, the upper castes have a "genetic distance" of 0.265 from West Europeans and 0.073 from East Europeans. This would imply that East Europeans are closer to upper caste Indians than they are to West Europeans! The one set of data that does not use a calculation of "genetic distance" and which is therefore more reliable is Table 2.8 This table shows that the upper castes have 61% Asian maternal lineages, 23.7% West Eurasian lineages and 15.3% other. However, the 23.7% West Eurasian number includes 16.9% from the U2i lineage that the paper itself says is India-specific, and moreover is 50,000 years old.9 Therefore in calculating the fraction of West Eurasian lineages that Aryan women brought into India with the 1500 B.C.E. invasion, the U2i component should be subtracted. Only 6.8% of maternal lineages of the upper castes could have come with the invasion. The invasion looks very conquistador-like indeed! 5
    Another recent paper has looked at the genetics of the Indian population: Kivisild et al.10 The authors state that "Indian tribal and caste populations derive largely from the same genetic heritage of Pleistocene southern and western Asians and have received limited gene flow from external regions since the Holocene."11 They looked at some markers on the Y-chromosome that are widespread among Greeks and other Europeans and found that of the 325 Indian chromosomes of diverse caste and geographical background, none had these markers. From statistical considerations, this implied that the European contribution to male lineages in India is less than 3%. Kivisild et al. also suggest "early southern Asian Pleistocene coastal settlers from Africa would have provided the inocula for the subsequent differentiation of the distinctive eastern and western Eurasian gene pools." Other researchers, such as Macaulay et al., take this suggestion further.12 They claim to have found evidence that there was only a single dispersal of modern humans from Africa and that this dispersal was through India. According to this account, several generations of the ancestors of all non-African people would have lived in India. The ancestors of Western Eurasians (including Europeans) would have spent several thousand years in India until the climate improved to allow them to migrate North and West out of India about 45000 years ago.
    Let us go back now to how the commonly accepted date of 1500 B.C.E. for the Aryan Invasion of India was proposed. It is not based on any archaeological evidence, but instead was based on Friedrich Max Mueller's linguistic work in the nineteenth century explaining the similarity of the Indo-European languages. In his view, the speakers of the Indo-European languages are descended from Japheth, one of the sons of Noah, the speakers of Hebrew from Shem and Africans and Indian Dravidians from Ham, the least favored of Noah's sons (Ham and his line were accursed because of Ham's disrespect of Noah). Since the Flood can be dated from the genealogies of the Bible to be around 2500 B.C.E. and the Vedas were ancient scripture at the time of the Buddha (around 500 B.C.E.), the Aryans (said Max Mueller) likely invaded India and defeated the Dravidian descendants of Ham around 1500 B.C.E. Around the same time, the Israeli descendants of Shem were defeating another of Ham's descendants, the Canaanites. Max Mueller dated the composition of the earliest of the Vedas to around 1200 B.C.E., allowing the Aryans a few centuries to get settled in India.
    Those who challenge the Aryan invasion theory, however, believe the Vedas to be much older than 1200 B.C.E. A key piece of evidence is that the Sarasvati is the most important river in the Rig Veda but is at present a small stream that gets lost in the desert. Proponents for an ancient date for the composition of the Vedas argue that since the river dried up in about 1900 B.C.E., the Vedas must have been composed before then.
    I expect that the question of whether there was an Aryan invasion and whether it occurred around 1500 B.C. E. will be resolved soon by a combination of genetic studies and by geologists dating the ancient courses of dried-up rivers in the Indian desert. In the meantime, teachers of history and textbooks would do well to present both sides of the debate instead of ignoring the existence of the debate.  
Biographical Note: Padma Manian received her B.A. from Madras University, India and her Ph.D. in History from Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. She taught World History for five years at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. She now teaches U.S. History and Women's History at San Jose City College, California.  


1 The author would like to thank Professor David Fahey of Miami University, Ohio for his valuable suggestions in improving this manuscript.

2 Padma Manian, "Harappans and Aryans: Old and New Perspectives of Ancient Indian History," The History Teacher 32:1 (November 1998), 17-32.

3 See, for example, Mark Kenoyer's essay at: (1996).

4 Bamshad et al., "Genetic Evidence on the Origins of Indian Caste Populations," Genome Research 11 (2001), 994-1004. Also available at:

5 Bamshad, 998.

6 Bamshad, 999.

7 Bamshad, 1000.

8 Bamshad, 996.

9 Bamshad, 1000.

10 Kivisild et al., "The Genetic Heritage of the Earliest Settlers Persists Both in Indian Tribal and Caste Populations," Amerian Journal of Human Genetics 72 (2003), 313-332. Also available at

11 The Holocene refers to a period beginning approximately 11,000 years ago.

12 Macaulay et al., "Single Rapid Costal Settlement of Asia Revealed by Analysis of Complete Mitochondrial Genomes," Science 308 (2005), 1034-1036. Also available at:


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