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May 26, 2020

The origin of Hindus and Hinduism

Origin of the term ‘Hindus’

The ancient Persians, who occupied the lands west to the Indus River called the whole country lying across the Indus River Sindh and its inhabitants Sindhus, a designation that was later taken over by the Greeks who succeeded them and resulted in the now commonly used designations of India and Indians. The Muslims, who began invading India from the eighth century onward, used the term Hindu as a generic designation for non-Muslim Indians, identical with “idol worshipers.”

The religion of Hindus

In the 1830s Englishmen, writing about the religions of India, added -ism to Hindu and coined the term Hinduism, making an abstract and generic entity out of the many diverse and specific traditions of the Hindus. While Hindus have appropriated the designation Hindu and use it today to identify themselves over against Muslims or Christians, they have expressed reservations with regard to the designation of Hinduism as the “religion of the Hindus.

The vastness of Hindu dharma

Hindus emphasize that the Hindu dharma is more comprehensive than the Western term religion: it designates an entire cultural tradition rather than only a set of beliefs and rituals.

Foundational scriptures of Hinduism

The Vedas, the oldest literary monument and a collection of hymns composed in an archaic Sanskrit, are universally considered the foundational scriptures of Hinduism. The authors of these hymns called themselves Aryans, “Noble People.” The date of the composition of these hymns and the original habitat of the Aryans has become one of the most contested issues in Indian studies. The polemical literature has reached such dimensions and the emotions have been raised to such heights that only a sketch of the controversy and some hints about its ideological background is known.

The theory of Aryan invasion

Around 1860 a group of European Sanskritists suggested that the best explanation for the many common features of what later were called the Indo-European languages was the assumption of an invasion of a band of Aryan warriors, who till then had been living somewhere between Central Asia and Western Europe, into India.

The theory of Aryan invasion

The igveda, the oldest Sanskrit source, describe the battles, which the Aryas, under their leader Indra, fought against the Dasyus, whose land they occupied. Making the self-designation arya (noble) a racial attribute of the putative invaders, every textbook on Indian history began with the “Aryan invasion” of northwestern India, the struggle between the “fair-skinned, blonde, blue-eyed, sharp-nosed Aryans on horse chariots” against the “black-skinned, snub-nosed indigenous Indians.” 

This putative “Aryan invasion” was dated ca. 1500 bce, and the composition of the hymns of the igveda was fixed between 1400 and 1200 bce. The Aryan invasion theory was conceived on pure speculation on the basis of comparative philology, without any archaeological or literary evidence to support it. It was resisted as unfounded by some scholars from the very beginning.

In the light of recent archaeological finds, it has become less and less tenable. Nevertheless, the Aryan invasion theory, recently downgraded to an Aryan migration theory, is still widely defended and forms part of many standard histories of Hinduism. In the following slides, the pro and con of the arguments will be presented, and it will be left to the reader to judge the merits of the case….

Theories about the origin of Hindus

Eighteenth and nineteenth-century European attempts to explain the presence of Hindus in India with the commonly held biblical belief that humankind originated from one pair of humans – Adam and Eve. With regard to India this problem was addressed by the famous Abbe Dubois (1770–1848), whose long sojourn in India (1792-1823) enabled him to collect a large amount of interesting materials concerning the customs and traditions of the Hindus.

Addressing the origins of the Indian people, Abbe Dubois, loath “to oppose [his] conjectures to [the Indians’] absurd fables,” categorically stated: “It is practically admitted that India was inhabited very soon after the Deluge, which made a desert of the whole world. The fact that it was so close to the plains of Sennaar, where Noah’s descendants remained stationary so long, as well as its good climate and the fertility of the country, soon led to its settlement.”

Rejecting other scholars’ opinions that linked the Indians to Egyptian or Arabic origins, he ventured to suggest them “to be descendants not of Shem, as many argue, but of Japhet.” He explains: “According to my theory they reached India from the north, and I should place the first abode of their ancestors in the neighbourhood of the Caucasus.” The reasons he provides to prove his theory are utterly unconvincing—but he goes on to build the rest of his “migration theory” (not yet an Aryan invasion theory) on this shaky foundation.

Joining the dots

When the affinity between many European languages and Sanskrit became a commonly accepted notion, scholars almost automatically concluded that the Sanskrit-speaking ancestors of the present-day Indians had to be found somewhere halfway between India and the western borders of Europe from where they invaded the Punjab. When the ruins of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa were discovered in the early twentieth century, it was assumed that these were the cities the Aryan invaders destroyed.

In the absence of reliable evidence, they postulated a time frame for Indian history on the basis of conjectures. Considering the traditional dates for the life of Gautama, the Buddha, as fairly well established in the sixth century bce, supposedly pre-Buddhist Indian records were placed in a sequence that seemed plausible to philologists.

Accepting on linguistic grounds the traditional claims that the igveda was the oldest Indian literary document, Max Müller, a greatly respected authority in Veda studies, allowing a time span of two hundred years each for the formation of every class of Vedic literature and assuming that the Vedic period had come to an end by the time of the Buddha, established the following sequence that was widely accepted: gveda, ca. 1200 bce – Yajurveda, Samaveda, Atharvaveda, ca. 1000 bce – Brahmaas, ca. 800 bce -Ārayakas, Upaniads, ca. 600 bce

On the other side, there were references to constellations in Vedic works whose time frame could be reestablished by commonly accepted astronomical calculations. The dates arrived at, however, 4500 bce for one observation in the igveda, 3200 bce for a date in the Śatapatha Brāhmaa, seemed far too remote to be acceptable, especially if one assumed, as many nineteenth-century scholars did, that the world was only about six thousand years old and that the flood had taken place only 4500 years ago.

Arguments for an Indian indigenous origin of the Veda

One would expect the proponents of an event to provide proof for its happening rather than demanding proofs for a non-event. The controversy about the Aryan invasion of India has become so bizarre that its proponents simply assume it to have taken place and demand that its opponents offer arguments that it had not taken place. In the following a number of reasons will be adduced to attest to the fact that the Aryan invasion of India assumed by the invasionists to have taken place around 1500 bce – did not take place.

The supposed large-scale migrations of Aryan people in the second millennium bce first into western Asia and then into northern India (by 1500 bce) cannot be maintained in view of the established fact that the Hittites were in Anatolia already by 2200 bce and the Kassites and Mitanni had kings and dynasties by 1600 bce. There is no hint of an invasion or of large-scale migration in the records of ancient India: neither in the Vedas, in Buddhist or Jain writings, nor in Tamil literature.

There is a striking cultural continuity between the archaeological artifacts of the Indus-Sarasvati civilization and later phases of Indian culture: a continuity of religious ideas, arts, crafts, architecture, and system of weights and measures. The archaeological finds of Mehrgarh dated ca. 7500 bce (copper, cattle, barley) reveal a culture similar to that of the Vedic Indians. Contrary to former interpretations, the igveda reflects not a nomadic but an urban culture.

The racial diversity found in skeletons in the cities of the Indus civilization is the same as in today’s India; there is no evidence of the coming of a new race. The Rigveda describes a river system in North India that is pre-1900 bce in the case of the Sarasvatī River and pre-2600 bce in the case of the Dṛṣadvati River. Vedic literature shows a population shift from the Sarasvati (igveda) to the Ganges (Brahmaas and Puraas) for which there is also evidence in archaeological finds.

There is continuity in the morphology of scripts: Harappan – Brahmi – Devanagari. The Purāic dynastic lists, with over 120 kings in one Vedic dynasty alone, date back to the third millennium bce. Greek accounts tell of Indian royal lists going back to the seventh millennium bce. The igveda shows an advanced and sophisticated culture, the product of a long development, “a civilization that could not have been delivered to India on horseback. The astronomical references in the igveda are based on a Pleiades-Kttika calendar of ca. 2500 bce. Vedic astronomy and mathematics were well-developed sciences: these are not features of the culture of a nomadic people.

Indus culture or Sarasvati civilization?

The Sarasvati is frequently praised as the mightiest of all rivers, as giving nourishment to the people and, unique among them, flowing pure from the mountains to the ocean. It is the most often mentioned river in the igveda – and it no longer exists. Its absence led to the suggestion that it might have been a symbolic rather than a real river, an idea supported by the later identification of Sarasvati with the Goddess of Wisdom and Learning.

More recent geological investigations have helped to reconstruct the ancient riverbed of the Sarasvatī and also established that it had dried out completely by 1900 bce due to tectonic shifts. Of the 2,600 archaeological sites so far discovered that were connected with the Indus civilization, over 1,500 were found located on the Sarasvati River basin, including settlements larger than Indus sites of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa. It is hardly meaningful to assume that the invading Vedic Aryans established thousands of settlements on its banks four centuries after the Sarasvati had dried out.

When the first remnants of the ruins of Indus civilization came to light in the 1920s, the proponents of the Aryan invasion theory believed to have found the missing archaeological evidence – here were the “great cities” that Indra of the igveda conquered and destroyed. But no evidence of wars came to light. Archaeo-geographers established that a drought lasting two to three hundred years devastated a wide belt of land from Anatolia through Mesopotamia to northern India around 2300 bce to 2000 bce.

Sarasvati-Sindhu civilization

Based on this type of evidence and extrapolating from the Vedic texts, a new theory of the origins of Hinduism is emerging. This new theory considers the Indus valley civilization as a late Vedic phenomenon and pushes the (inner Indian) beginnings of the Vedic age back by several thousands of years. Instead of speaking of an Indus Valley civilization the term Sarasvati-Sindhu civilization has been introduced, to designate the far larger extent of that ancient culture.

Indus civilization was Vedic?

One of the reasons for considering the Indus civilization “Vedic” is the evidence of town planning and architectural design that required a fairly advanced algebraic geometry – of the type preserved in the Vedic Śulvasutras. While the igveda has always been held to be the oldest literary document of India and was considered to have preserved the oldest form of Sanskrit, Indians have not taken it to be the source for their early history. Itihasa-Puraa served that purpose.


The language of these works is more recent than that of the Vedas. However, they contain detailed information about ancient events and personalities that form part of Indian history. We cannot read Itihāsa-Purāa as a modern textbook of Indian history but rather as a storybook containing information, facts and fiction. Indians, however, always took genealogies seriously, and we can presume that the Puraic lists of dynasties, like the lists of guru-paramparās in the Upaniads, relate the names of real rulers in the correct sequence. On these assumptions we can tentatively reconstruct Indian history to a time around 4500 bce.

G. P. Singh defends the historical accuracy of the Purāic dynastic lists and calls the Purāas “one of the most important traditions of historiography in ancient India.” These lists he says “disprove the opinion that the ancient Indians (mainly the Hindus) had no sense of history and chronology.” A key element in the revision of ancient Indian history was the recent discovery of Mehrgarh, a settlement in the Hindukush area, that was inhabited for several thousand years from ca. 7000 bce onward. This discovery has extended Indian history for thousands of years before Indus civilization.

Civilizations, both ancient and contemporary, comprise more than literature. It cannot be assumed that the Vedic Aryans, who have left a large literature that has been preserved till now, did not have any material culture that would have left visible traces. The only basis on which Indologists in the nineteenth century established their views of Vedic culture and religion were the texts that they translated from Ancient Sanskrit.

The secrets are in our Vedic texts

The admission of some of the top scholars (like Geldner, who in his translation of the igveda – deemed the best so far – declares many passages “darker than the darkest oracle,”) of being unable to make sense of a great many Vedic texts—and the refusal of most to go beyond a grammatical and etymological analysis of these – indicates a deeper problem. The ancient Indians were not only poets and literateurs, but they also had their practical sciences and their technical skills, their secrets and their conventions that are not self-evident.

Some progress has been made in deciphering technical Indian medical and astronomical literature of a later age, in reading architectural and arts-related materials. However, much of the technical meaning of the oldest Vedic literature still eludes us. It would be enormously helpful in the question of the relation between the igveda and the Indus civilization if we could read the literary remnants of the latter. In spite of many claims made by many scholars who laboured for decades on the decipherment of the signs, nobody has so far been able to read or translate these signs.

The igveda – a code?

Computer scientist Subhash Kak believes to have rediscovered the “Vedic Code,” on the strength of which he extracts from the structure as well as the words and sentences of the igveda considerable astronomical information that its authors supposedly embedded in it. The assumption of such encoded scientific knowledge would make it understandable why there was such insistence on the preservation of every letter of the text in precisely the sequence the original author had set down.

One can take certain liberties with a story, or even a poem – transposing lines, adding explanatory matter – and still communicate the ideas of the author. However, one has to remember and reproduce a scientific formula in precisely the same way it has been set down by the scientist, or it would not make sense at all. While the scientific community can arbitrarily adopt certain letter equivalents for physical units or processes, once it has agreed on their use, one must obey the conventions for the sake of meaningful communication.

Even a nonspecialist reader of ancient Indian literature will notice the effort made to link macrocosm and microcosm, astronomical and physiological processes, to find correspondences between the various realms of beings and to order the universe by establishing broad classifications. Vedic sacrifices – the central act of Vedic culture – were to be offered on precisely built, geometrically constructed altars and to be performed at astronomically exactly established times.

It sounds plausible to expect a correlation between the numbers of bricks prescribed for a particular altar and the distances between stars observed whose movement determined the time of the offerings to be made. Subhash Kak has advanced a great deal of fascinating detail in that connection in his essays on the astronomy of the Vedic altar. He believes that while the Vedic Indians possessed extensive astronomical knowledge that they encoded in the text of the igveda, the code was lost in later times and the Vedic tradition was interrupted.

India – the cradle of civilization?

Based on the early dating of the igveda (ca. 4000 bce) and on the strength of the argument that Vedic astronomy and geometry predates that of the other known ancient civilizations, some scholars have made the daring suggestion that India was the “cradle of civilization.” They link the recently discovered early European civilization (which predates ancient Sumeria and ancient Egypt by over a millennium) to waves of populations moving out or driven out from northwest India.

Later migrations, caused either by climatic changes or by military events, would have brought the Hittites to western Asia, the Iranians to Afghanisthan and Iran, and many others to other parts of Eurasia. Such a scenario would require a complete rewriting of ancient world history—especially if we add the claims like Vedic Indians had established trade links with Central America and East Africa before 2500 bce.

No wonder that the “new chronology” arouses not only scholarly controversy but emotional excitement as well. Much more hard evidence will be required to fully establish it, and many claims may have to be withdrawn. But there is no doubt that the “old chronology” has been discredited and that much surprise is in store for students not only of ancient India, but of the ancient World as a whole.


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