Dialogue  January - March, 2008 , Volume 9  No. 3

Indology: India as the
West Wanted It tc "Indology\: India as the
West Wanted It "

N.S. Rajaram*

Indology and its offshoot of Indo-European studies is a colonial  product that is more a reflection of a Eurocentric self-image than  Indian reality.


Within the past year, the Sanskrit Department at Cambridge University and the Berlin Institute of Indology, two of the oldest and most prestigious Indology centers in the West have shut their doors. The reason cited is lack of interest. At Cambridge, not a single student had enrolled in the past year for its Sanskrit or Hindi course. Other univer-sities in Europe and America are facing similar problems. The Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, long a leader in Oriental Studies, is drastically cutting down its programs. Even the Harvard Sanskrit Department is embroiled in controversy and having difficulty attracting students.

Coming at a time when worldwide interest in India is the highest in memory, it points to structural problems in Indology and related fields like Indo-European Studies. Also, the scale of the problem suggests that the problems are fundamental and just not a transient phenomenon. What is striking is the contrast between this gloomy academic scene and the outside world. During my lecture tours in Europe, Australia and the United States, I found no lack of interest, especially among the youth. Only they are getting what they want from programs outside academic departments, in cultural centers like the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, temples and short courses and seminars conducted by visiting lecturers (like this writer).

This means the demand is there, but academic departments are being bypassed. Even for Sanskrit, there are now innovative programs like those offered by Samskrita Bharati that teach in ten intensive yet lively sessions more than what students learn in a semester of dry lectures. The same is true of other topics related to India— history, yoga, philosophy and others. And this interest is by no means limited to persons of Indian origin. What has gone wrong with academic Indology and its close relative of Indo-European Studies?

With the benefit of hindsight we can see that Indology has always had two weaknesses that have come to the fore in our time but were glossed over in earlier times, especially during the colonial era. First of these is an insecure foundation: there was no common body of knowledge, much less any agreement on methodology to analyze the source material. Second, its conclusions were driven more by colonial political interests than by search for truth. Since political conditions have changed, the twin problems of academic unsoundness and irrelevance have all but dealt a death blow to this essentially colonial discipline. This is what is examined in the present essay.

Colonial Origins

To understand the problem today it is necessary to visit the peculiar origins of Indology. The subject may be said to have begun with Sir William Jones a Calcutta judge in the service of the East India Company. One can almost date the birth of Indology to February 12, 1786, the day on which Jones observed:

The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of wonderful structure; more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of the verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three without believing them to have sprung from some common source…

With this superficial, yet influential observation, Jones launched two fields of study in Western academics— philology (comparative linguistics) and Indo-European Studies including Indology. The ‘common source,’ variously called Indo-European, Proto Indo-European, Indo-Germanische and so forth has been the Holy Grail of philologists. The search for the common source has occupied philologists for the greater part of two hundred years, but the goal has remained elusive, more of which later.

Jones was not the first to note these linguistic affinities between Sanskrit and European languages. Two hundred years before him (c. 1585) Filippo Sassetti, a Florentine merchant in Goa, and Thomas Stevens, an English Jesuit, had both noted the similarities. But Jones, as a high official in the growing East India Company, was more influential and deserves credit as the true founder.

Jones was a capable linguist but his job was to interpret Indian law and customs to his employer— the British East India Company in its task of administering its growing Indian territories. In fact, this was what led to his study of Sanskrit and its classics. This dual role of Indologists as scholars as well as official interpreters of India to the ruling authorities continued well into the twentieth century. Many Indologists, including such highly regarded figures as H.H. Wilson and F. Max Müller enjoyed the support and sponsorship of the ruling powers. In fact it was their means of livelihood and they took great pains to ensure that their masters were kept happy.

Indologists’ role as official interpreters of India ended with independence in 1947, but many Indologists, especially in the West failed to see it. They continued to get students from India, which seems to have lulled them into believing that it would be business as usual. But today, six decades later, Indian immigrants and persons of Indian origin occupy influential positions in business, industry, and now the government, in the United States and Britain. They are now part of the establishment in their adopted lands. No one in the West today looks to Indology departments for advice on matters relating to India when they can get it from their next door neighbor or an office colleague.

Philology and politics

This means the Indologists’ position as interpreters of India to the West, and sometimes even to Indians, is gone for good. Their social irrelevance is compounded by the exposure of the unscientific nature of their discipline. New scientific discoveries are impacting Indology in ways that could not be imagined even twenty years ago. This is nothing new. For more than a century and half, the foundation of Indology had been linguistics, based on Sanskrit and Indo-European languages. The search for the postulated ‘common source’ of Sanskrit and European languages, dubbed Proto Indo-European, led philologists to postulate a theory of Aryan Invasion Theory of India (AIT).

In this exercise, they soon passed from language to race and built a vast politico-academic edifice in the name of Indology and Indo-European Studies. In creating it, they postulated that an otherwise unidentifiable race of people originally called Aryans—now bearing the politically correct label of Indo-Europeans—invaded India in the second millennium B.C. bringing with them the Sanskrit language (or its ancestor) from Eurasia or even Europe. This rests on no evidence. As the Swedish scholar Stefan Arvidsson observes in his book Aryan Idols: Indo-European Mythology as Ideology and Science:

No objects can definitely be tied to them, nor do we know any ‘Indo-European’ by name.  In spite of that, scholars have stubbornly tried to reach back to the ancient ‘Indo-Europeans,’ with the help of bold historical, linguistic, and archaeological reconstructions, in the hopes of finding the foundation of their own culture and religion there.

But philologists were not deterred by such lack of evidence. The following statement by the late Murray Emeneau may be taken as the official position of philologists with regard to their perception of India and the foundation of Indo-European Studies (and Indology) as an academic discipline:

At some time in the second millennium B.C., probably comparatively early in the millennium, a band or bands of speakers of an Indo-European language, later to be called Sanskrit, entered India over the northwest passes. This is our linguistic doctrine which has been held now for more than a century and a half. There seems to be no reason to distrust the arguments for it, in spite of the traditional Hindu ignorance of any such invasion. (Emphasis added.)

This is typical of the field, with arguments closer to theology than science. Aryans are needed because there can be no Aryan invasion without the Aryans and also no Indo-European Studies. It is a case of the tail wagging the dog.

Scientists had long ago dismissed the idea of the Aryan race. As far back as 1939, Sir Julian Huxley, one of the great biologists of the twentieth century wrote:

In England and America the phrase ‘Aryan race’ has quite ceased to be used by writers with scientific knowledge, though it appears occasionally in political and propagandist literature…. In Germany, the idea of the ‘Aryan race’ received no more scientific support than in England. Nevertheless, it found able and very persistent literary advocates who made it appear very flattering to local vanity. It therefore steadily spread, fostered by special conditions. (Emphasis added.)

These ‘special conditions’ were the rise of Nazism in Germany and British imperial interests in India. Its perversion in Germany leading eventually to the Nazi horrors is well known. The fact that the British turned it into a political tool to make their rule acceptable to Indians is not generally known. A recent BBC report acknowledged as much (October 6, 2005):

It [Aryan invasion theory] gave a historical precedent to justify the role and status of the British Raj, who could argue that they were transforming India for the better in the same way that the Aryans had done thousands of years earlier.

That is to say, the British presented themselves as ‘new and improved Aryans’ that were in India only to complete the work left undone by their ancestors in the hoary past. This is how the British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin put it in the House of Commons in 1929:

Now, after ages, …the two branches of the great Aryan ancestry have again been brought together by Providence… By establishing British rule in India, God said to the British, “I have brought you and the Indians together after a long separation, …it is your duty to raise them to their own level as quickly as possible …brothers as you are…”

In the face of this it borders on the preposterous for academics (and politicians) to hold on to the Aryan theories. Theories based on the Aryan myth are modern European creations that have little to do with ancient India. Its acceptance, even in India is due to ignorance of the primary sources— in particular, due to the mistaken belief that ancient Indians attached great importance to Aryanism. This is far from true; it is simply a case of projecting back into ancient India nineteenth- and twentieth century European prejudices.           

The word Arya appears for the first time in the Rig Veda, India’s oldest text. Its meaning is obscure but seems to refer to members of a settled agricultural community. It later became an honorific and a form of address, something like ‘Gentleman’ in English or ‘Monsieur’ in French. Also, it was nowhere as important in ancient India as it came to be in Europe. In the whole the Rig Veda, in all of its ten books, the word Arya appears only about forty times. In contrast, Hitler’s Mein Kampf uses the term Arya and Aryan many times more. Hitler did not invent it. The idea of Aryans as a superior race was already in the air— in Europe, not India.

It is also worth noting that Hitler and the Nazis appropriated their ideas and symbols from European mythology, not India. Hitler’s Aryans worshipped Apollo and Odin, not Vedic deities like Indra and Varuna. His Swastika was also the European ‘Hakenkreuz’ or hooked cross, not Indian. It was seen in Germany for the first time when General von Luttwitz’s notorious Erhardt Brigade marched into Berlin from Lithuania in support of the abortive Kapp Putsch of 1920. The Erhardt Brigade was one of several freebooting private armies during the years following Germany’s defeat in World War I.

Science and politics

 As just noted, scientists had long ago dismissed the notion of Aryans as a race or a distinct people. Even their linguistic theories, which some modern philologists hold on to avoid the taint of racism has long been in dispute. The political nature of their theories was also widely recognized. The Anglo-German scholar F. Max Müller, the most articulate if not the greatest of nineteenth century Indologist typified both the discipline and its politics. A great favorite with the British establishment, he switched from Aryans as a race to a linguistic group when his own position as a former German Nationalist holding a comfortable post at Oxford University was threatened by the formation of the German Empire following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. Though idolized by many uncritical Indians, his contemporaries and immediate successors were more skeptical. The following description in the classic eleventh edition (1911) of Encyclopedia Britannica is a fair evaluation of Max Müller and the discipline he represented.

Though undoubtedly a great scholar, Max Müller did not so much represent scholarship pure and simple as her hybrid types— the scholar-author and the scholar-courtier. In the former capacity, though manifesting little of the originality of genius, he rendered vast service by popularizing high truths among high minds [and among the highly placed]. …There were drawbacks in both respects: the author was too prone to build on insecure foundations, and the man of the world incurred censure for failings which may perhaps be best indicated by the remark that he seemed too much of a diplomatist.

His contemporaries were less charitable. They charged that Max Müller had an eye “only for crowned heads.” His acquaintances included a large number of princes and potentates—with little claim to scholarship—with a maharaja or two thrown in. It was these rather than fellow scholars that he cultivated. It proved valuable for his career, if not scholarship, for he had little difficulty in getting sponsors for his ambitious projects.

Even today, six decades after the disappearance of colonial rule, Max Müller’s tribe is by no means extinct. In fact, Western Indologists and their Indian followers are engaged in a largely political struggle to save their ideas and even their discipline from extinction. The recent scandal involving the Harvard linguist Michael Witzel in a political and propaganda campaign against revising history texts in California schools is the latest manifestation of the struggle to save the Aryan myth from being discarded. Witzel is among the last holdouts for these scientifically discredited theories.

As previously noted, scientists long ago discarded the notion of Aryans as a distinct race. Modern microbiology tells us that not only is the whole notion of race scientifically unfounded, but also the Indian population is very ancient with no major invasions or migrations—Aryan or otherwise—contributing significantly to the genetic pool. Recent studies led by the distinguished human geneticist Cavalli-Sforza and his colleagues, have taken steps to correct this error. An important article based on a study of Indian tribal and caste populations by Cavalli-Sforza and his colleagues observes:

Taken together, these results show 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. The phylogeography [neighboring branches] of the primal mtDNA and Y-chromosome founders suggests that these 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. (Italics added.)

Put in non-technical language, it means that the Indian population—upper castes, tribes (supposedly indigenous peoples), Dravidians and so forth—are mainly of indigenous origin, and the contribution of immigrants (gene flow) is negligible. And this covers a span of 40,000 years or more. This should settle the issue of India being populated by recent migrants.

Indo-Europeans as self-definition

From all this it is clear that Indology and its modern incarnation of Indo-European Studies are founded on politics and not science. It should also clear that we cannot make headway in understanding history unless we lay bear the political roots of these supposedly intellectual exercises. In some academic circles as well as with some political parties, especially in South India, Aryan theories, especially the notion of Aryans as a foreign race is an article of faith.

In order to understand the European misuse of the word Arya as a race, and the creation of the Aryan invasion idea, we need to go back to eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe, especially to Germany. The idea has its roots in European anti-Semitism. Recent research by scholars like Poliakov, Shaffer and others has shown that the idea of the invading Aryan race can be traced to efforts by eighteenth and nineteenth century Europeans to give themselves an identity that was free from the taint of Judaism. The Bible consists of two books: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament gives the traditional history of mankind. It is of course a Jewish creation. The New Testament is also of Jewish origin, but was later turned against the Judaism of its founding fathers. (Anti-Semitism first makes its appearance in the New Testament, including in the Gospels, getting increasingly virulent in the Acts.) Nonetheless, without Judaism there would be no Christianity.

To free themselves from this Jewish heritage, some intellectuals of Christian Europe looked east, to Asia. There they saw two ancient civilizations— India and China. To them the Indian Aryans were preferable as ancestors to the Chinese. Anthropologist Jim Shaffer observes:

Many scholars such as Kant and Herder began to draw analogies between the myths and philosophies of ancient India and the West. In their attempt to separate Western European culture from its Judaic heritage, many scholars were convinced that the origin of Western culture was to be found in India rather than in the ancient Near East.

So they became Aryans. However, it was not the whole human race that was given this Aryan ancestry, but only a white race that came down from the mountains of Asia, subsequently became Christian and colonized Europe. No less an intellectual than Voltaire claimed to be “convinced that everything has come down to us from the banks of the Ganges— astronomy, astrology, metempsychosis, etc.” (But Voltaire was emphatically not intolerant; he was in fact a strong critic of the Church of his day.)

This is truly amazing, for what we have in effect is an Aryan invasion theory of Europe that was later transplanted on India as ‘history’! An important point that Stefan Arvidsson (cited earlier) makes is that the goal of this discipline, now called Indo-European studies was not so much to understand Indian origins as to “show that there existed a rich ‘German’ mythology that could successfully compete with classical Judeo-Christian traditions.” It is hardly surprising that anti-Semitism was tied up with it.

A little known aspect of Aryan theories, at least in India, is the major contribution of German folklore. Wilhem and Jacob Grimm, who compiled German folk tales were also philologists. “For over two hundred years, a series of historians, linguists, folklorists, and archaeologists have tried to re-create a lost culture.  Using ancient texts, medieval records, philological observations, and archaeological remains they have described a world, a religion, and a people older than the Sumerians, with whom all history is said to have begun.”

This of course is the primeval world of the mythical Aryans, now known by the more politically correct (at least in Europe) term Indo-Europeans. So in what is surely one of the more bizarre exercises in historiography, many of the attributes and beliefs of Vedic Hindus found in Indian history books springs from the fertile imagination of Europeans trying to shake off their Judaic heritage.

But following the British colonization of India, Europeans were no longer willing to see Indians as real Aryans. As Arvidsson observes: “The theory about India as the original home of the Indo-Europeans, and the Indians as a kind of model Aryans, lost supporters during the nineteenth century, and other homelands and other model Aryans took their place instead.” The Aryans (or Indo-Europeans) and their homeland were gradually moved westward until they were made to settle in Eurasia and even Germany. In the hands of German scholars, Aryans became “Indo-Germanische.”

Further, former anti-Semitism has largely been replaced by anti-Hinduism. Just as they once wanted to free themselves from the Judaic heritage of Christianity, part of their agenda today is to erase India from Indo-European. Seen in its proper historical context, the transition from anti-Semitism to anti-Hinduism is entirely a natural development. This is made more urgent by the fact that Indian scholars have been at the forefront in deconstructing their discipline by exposing their scientific and historical fallacies.


This helps answer the question why some Western academics react viscerally whenever their theories are thrown in doubt by new findings in archaeology, natural history or genetics. They strike at the very root their cherished ideas about their identity. As Arvidsson notes:

There is something in the nature of research about Indo-Europeans that makes it especially prone to ideological abuse— perhaps something related to the fact that for the past two centuries, the majority of scholars who have done research on the Indo-Europeans have considered themselves descendants of this mythical race.

This ‘ideological abuse’ reached its culmination in the Nazi regime. More recently, it raised its head when California education authorities tried to change the syllabus in elementary schools, replacing theories like the Aryan invasion with more recent findings. To this must be added the collapse of their academic discipline, discredited by science and made irrelevant by progress, threatening their very survival.

In summary, “The main reason why scholarship about the Indo-Europeans has tended to produce myths is that so many who have written (and read) about it have interpreted it as concerning THEIR OWN ORIGIN.”

While this accounts for the European attachment to the Aryan myth, it fails to explain why many Indian scholars continue to cling to it. The answer will have to come from Indian scholars. Perhaps it is due to ‘local vanity’ as Huxley called it, a sense of pride of belonging to the same stock as their erstwhile European masters. One awaits a book by an Indian scholar that will explore the psyche and motives of Indian scholars’ attachment to Aryan theories in the same depth that Arvidsson and others have done for Europe. This may finally lay the Aryan myth to rest.



Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati