Q: What is the real origin of Hinduism? What can you say about the Aryan invasion- migration theory?
A: The simplest way to look at the origin of Hinduism is simply to say “Hinduism is the belief of the people who live in the Indus valley region.” This is the easiest thing, and the truest way to look at it. There really is no formal name “Hinduism” farther back than several centuries. It is more a name that was given to the world view of those living in India by outsiders who needed to assign an “-ism” to this world view. As you know also, Hinduism is really difficult to formalize in a rigid system of belief, as there are so many different sects and variations. Perhaps the best way to summarize Hinduism is the collection of world views that share in common the belief in karma, reincarnation, caste, and the veneration and worship of various deities and spirits.
The Aryan migration is something that did happen. The details and extent of it are sketchy and uncertain. If you think of this as hordes of Europeans mowing down indigenous Indians and supplanting their culture, you are going to be disappointed. The problem comes when the basic truth of this is taken and used to forward further and undocumented ideas. What we know is that a group of people moved from northern Europe southward. This likely included a move of some people into Northern India. Many have taken this to promote further and uncertain ideas. Clearly the Indo-European language group of North India (Hindi, Bengali) are separated from the southern languages of India. A recent genetic research project conducted by Vijendra Kashyap finds no evidence for a wholesale replacement of a non-Indian or European gene pool from outside of India. (National Geographic, January 2010). So while the evidence for indo-Europeans moving into northern India is there, the evidence for complete displacement of the population is not there.
“Arya” is the name that the Sanskrit literature includes as the self-designated term for the people that wrote these documents and books. However, “arya” in Sanskrit is also used as an adjective meaning ‘pure’ or ‘noble.’ This makes the connection of the word to an entire people group somewhat tentative. It is clearly a title similar to “sahib” or “sir”. The nearby Persians used “Ariana” to designate themselves as a people group. But did the Vedic peoples see themselves as “The Aryans” who had taken over much of the world?
The idea of an Aryan race that came to dominate and influence the entire Asian-European area has been a very attractive and strong idea in the past century or so. It has been advocated by many (Max Mueller for example, though even he warned against over-indulgence in this idea attached to a race). The key ingredient of this idea is actually linguistic. The similarity of the languages of Indo-European area includes a broad-sweeping area of north India and up into parts of Europe. Because of this linkage in language, the quest for the original Aryan location was sought out. Many have put this in southern European Russia and the Ukraine. The concept of the Aryan immigration is that as pastoralists, they needed space, and so they took their language and culture and began to move south into Iran, Eastern Europe and northern India. The Aryans would have also brought their religious world view with them. The early Vedas do have warlike and aggressive gods (Agni and Indra) and there are parts of the Vedas that clearly refer to battle. This idea was then extended to include the degraded Vedic people, the “dasa” or “dasyu”—the aboriginal people considered inferior by the aryas (note: “Aryan” with a capital “A” is used of the theory of a conquering migrating people group, and “arya” is used of the people of the Vedas).
The idea of the Aryan invasion hit some significant issues with the discoveries of the Harappan civilization. The evidence suggests that the Harappans pre-date the possible immigration of and possible incursion of an Aryan people group.
The question now became how to mesh the evidence and idea of an Aryan invasion with the evidence of the Harappan civilization? Sir Mortimer Wheeler suggested that the Harappans were destroyed by the Aryans. He cited some evidence of massacres of the people at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro in the skeletal remains of those buried there. However, in the 1950s George Dales looked carefully at the skeletons and found only two that had any possible death from being massacred. The killing of two people does not account for a “massacre”. The idea of the Aryans killing off the Harappan civilization was, shall we say, killed.
There are some clues to the nature of the aryas in the Vedas themselves. There are some words that are non-sanskrit in origin that can help us map the nature of the people who penned these Vedic texts. The idea here is that borrowed words would reflect a difference of society and geography and help show new ideas and words necessary for a migrating people to include in their language. Cleary the aryas did not like non-arya people and used the non-Sanskrit term mleccha to refer to anyone non-arya. It meant much the same as dasa or dasyu. Linguists insist that the term mleccha cannot possibly be of sankrit origin. There are agricultural terms that seem to be non-Sanskrit as well (furrow, threshing floor, peacock, and even elephant). The word for mortar was also a borrowed word. No arya building has yet been found. It seems that the aryas did not bring with them writing. There is no word among the aryas of the Vedas for “writing”, “record”, “scribe” or “letter” (cf. John Keay History of India, p. 25). While the Harappans used oxen and carts, the horse is absent. The arya were clearly horsemen, however.
The writers of the Vedas seem to have settled originally in the Punjab on the border of Pakistan and India. There are many references in the Rig Veda to the “seven rivers” (e.g. Rig Veda Book 8, 24.27, Book 4, 28.1). Each of these rivers were tributaries of the great Indus River. The date of this migration and settlement seems to be after the Harappan civilization (1700 BC) and yet ancient, perhaps about 1500-1200 BC.
Some have suggested that the Aryans originated in India. This has been repeated many times in Hindu publications and would certainly serve the idea of the greatness of the Hindu religion. However, there are serious problems with this idea. The aryas’ familiarity with horses, their unfamiliarity with the elephant, the contrast of a pastoral and agricultural base, all these suggest a migration to India rather than from India. It is interesting that there is no reference in the Vedas to any migration. However, there could easily be a memory gap of a few centuries, as well as an unwillingness to mention that they were essentially newcomers to the Indus Valley.
The aryas of the Vedas were a people whose authoritative language was Sanskrit, who had a strong caste and social structure, who had a strong priesthood, and who had transitioned through migration from pastoral to agricultural society.
What remains uncertain is the theory of the “Aryan invasion,” where a people group came and displaced the existing people group (Dravidians?). Were these people the lighter skinned and therefore upper caste Brahmins and warriors? The evidence is certainly unclear. It seems best to me to state what is clear and allow the uncertain to remain tentative.