Contested Past

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  • Contested Past

    Historiographia Linguistica xxxi:1 (2004), 59104.issn 03025160 / e-issn 15699781John Benjamins Publishing Company

    Anti-Brahmanical and Hindu nationalistreconstructions of Indian prehistory*

    Michael BergunderUniversitt Heidelberg

    1. OrientalismWhen Sir William Jones proposed, in his famous third presidential address

    before the Asiatick Society in 1786, the thesis that the Sanskrit language wasrelated to the classical European languages, Greek and Latin, and indeed toGothic, Celtic and Persian, this was later received not only as a milestone in thehistory of linguistics. This newly found linguistic relationship represented at thesame time the most important theoretical foundation on which EuropeanOrientalists reconstructed a pre-history of South Asia, the main elements ofwhich achieved general recognition in the second half of the 19th century.According to this reconstruction, around the middle of the second milleniumBCE, Indo-European tribes who called themselves arya (Aryans) migrated fromthe north into India where they progressively usurped the indigenous popula-tion and became the new ruling class.

    In colonial India this so-called Aryan migration theory met with anastonishing and diverse reception within the identity-forming discourses ofdifferent people groups. The reconstruction of an epoch lying almost three tofour thousand years in the past metamorphosed, in the words of Jan Assman,into an internalized past, that is, through an act of semioticization the Aryanmigration was transformed into a hot memory in Levi-Strausss sense, andthereby into a founding history, i.e. a myth (Assman 1992:7577). This was

    *An earlier version of this article, in German, was published in Arier und Draviden:Konstruktionen der Vergangenheit als Grundlage fr Selbst- und FremdwahrnehmungenSdasiens ed. by Michael Bergunder & Rahul Peter Das (Halle: Verlag der FranckeschenStiftung zu Halle, 2002), 135180. Id like to thank Will Sweetman for the English transla-tion, and Susanne Prankel for further assistance.

  • 60 Michael Bergunder

    possible above all because vlkische (nationalistic) thought patterns, which werewidely in vogue at the close of the 19th century, had exercised a lasting influ-ence on the Aryan migration theory (Leopold 1970, 1974; Maw 1990; Traut-

    mann 1997). One aspect particularly suitable to identity presentation (Lbbe

    1977:168) was the assumption that the hierarchical caste system (var nasrama-dharma), as it is represented from a brahmanical point of view, was founded atthat time, the migrating Aryans forming the upper three castes (var nas) of theso-called twice-born (dvija) while those they had overthrown became Sudrasand outcastes.1 It was above all through this construction that the Aryanmigration theory became part of the colonial dominant discourse, which wasreproduced as much by the Indian elites as by the British.

    From this the British were able to derive an historical legitimation for theirpresence in India, to which the young Friedrich Max Mller (18231900) had

    already referred when, in 1847, in a very early essay, he remarked:

    it is remarkable to see, how the descendents of the same race to which thefirst conquerors and lords of India belonged, return in order to completethe glorious work of civilisation which their Aryan brothers left unfinished.(Mller 1847:349)2

    The influences of this way of thinking on the ideological foundation of colonialstructures of domination in the second half of the 19th century has been repeatedlydocumented in subsequent research (Leopold 1974; Maw 1990:1974).

    The representatives of the indigenous elites were either Brahmans or camefrom groups (jatis) which, almost without exception, could lay claim to a Dvijastatus. They thereby regarded themselves as direct descendents of the Aryanconquerors and the newfound blood kinship with the British rulers becamean important element in their self-understanding. Under the conditions ofcolonial dependency the assumption of the common origin of Indians andEuropeans in one race was received extremely positively by these elites. ThusTapan Raychaudhuri reports the situation in Bengal:

    The belief that the white masters were not very distant cousins of their brownAryan subjects provided a much needed salve to the wounded ego of thedependent [Indian] elite. A spate of Aryanism was unleashed. The Word

    1.On the particular formation of the caste system during the British colonial period, and onthe difference between var na and jati, see Bayly (1995, 1999:126138) and Dirks (2001).

    2.On the significance of nationalistic thought in the works of the early Mller, see Leopold(1987) and also Trautmann (1997:173176).

  • Contested Past 61

    Aryan began to feature in likely as well as unlikely places from titles ofperiodicals to the names of street corner shops.3

    Here it is particularly noteworthy, that the racial construction of Indianprehistory and its explanation of the caste system suited very well the claim tosocial and political leadership which the indigenous elites (as Dvijas) successful-ly stated internally within the colonial society, as the inferior status of themajority of the countrys population (Sudras and outcastes) was thereby tracedback to events in the dim and distant past and thus achieved an historicallegitimation.

    Although this pattern of argument appeared at first sight ideal for thelegitimation of British colonial rule and the self-understanding of the indige-nous elites who depended upon them, in the course of time the discoursedeveloped a dynamic which made it problematic for the rulers, while helpingsubaltern protest to be heard.

    For the British the implied relationship with the Indian upper class hadrather uncomfortable consequences, for it did not cohere with the racistprejudices of Victorian England, which were stoked particularly by the shockof the rebellion of 1857 (Maw 1990: 75129). Neither did it suit the project of

    the Anglicization and Westernization of Indian culture of the Utilitarian-minded Anglicists, who became ever more influential (Leopold 1974:409410;

    Trautmann 1997:117130). As a result, in the course of the second half of the 19thcentury, alongside formal recognition of the Aryan migration theory, theoriescame to the fore which emphasized the intellectual and cultural inferiority ofthe Indians supported equally by racist arguments (corruption of the formerAryan nation through mixing with non-Aryans) and environmental factors(weakening of the intellect by the hot climate etc.) (Leopold 1974:401408).

    When a national resistance movement against British colonial rule began toform within the Indian elite, here too the Aryan migration theory becameproblematic. The incentive for imagining a blood relationship with the Englishwas lost, and the idea of a national-racial difference between Dvijas and Sudras/outcastes rendered practically impossible a mobilization of the Indian massesfor independence struggle. In response a tendency to minimize the supposeddifferences between Aryans and non-Aryans (i.e., between Dvijas and Sudras/outcastes) became established. A typical example of this is Swami Vivekananda(18631902). Without denying an Aryan invasion, he put forward the view that

    3.Raychaudhuri (1988:8, see also pp.3334). See also Leopold (1970).

  • 62 Michael Bergunder

    the so-called Aryan Race was itself a mixture of two races, the Sanskrit-speaking and the Tamil-speaking, which he called the father and mother ofthe Aryan Race.4

    In the anti-colonial independence struggle, as it was led by Gandhi, ingeneral those discourses which focused on concepts of a brahmanical Hinduismlost their significance. Thus the interest of the Dvija elites in the Aryan migra-tion theory also mostly faded. Nevertheless this remained an important themein identity-forming discourses, receiving much attention, above all in subaltern,anti-brahmanical liberation movements. There it was first adopted by J. Phule(see below), subsequently being incorporated into Indian Neo-Buddhism,Tamil Neo-Saivism, the Dravidian movement and various Dalit religiousgroupings. However in extremist Hindu nationalist circles there was also greatinterest in early Indian religious history, which they sought to interpret tofurther their own interests. These developments will be dealt with in more detailin what follows.

    2. Anti-Brahmanism in Jotirao PhuleThe initial positive reception of the Aryan migration theory by Indian

    elites and its establishment as a dominant discourse meant at the same time amarginalization of the culture and traditions of all non-Dvijas in favour of thebrahmanical-sanskritic Aryanism. During the British Raj, however, econom-ically and culturally influential groups had nevertheless established themselves,who did not at all traditionally regard themselves as Dvijas (such as, forexample, the Vellalars and Chettis in the south), and from a brahmanical pointof view counted as Sudras (Bayly 1999: 32); also among representatives of the

    lowest layers of the population, who in the var na-classification counted asoutcastes (avar na) and untouchables, an economically relatively prosperous,if tiny, class had established itself, mainly through employment in army serviceor as servants of Europeans, such as, for example, among the Paraiyars in thesouth or the Mahars in west India (Cohen 1969; Bayly 1999: 229, also Aloysius

    1999 II. 45).From these circles came a decisive protest against the idea of an Aryan-

    oriented interpretation of Indian pre-history. Instead a mutation was sought, bymeans of which the claim to leadership of the Dvija elite was rejected and anemancipatory identity asserted.

    4.Vivekananda (1991/1992 IV: 296, 301 [from the article Aryans and Tamilians, 296307]).

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