Review of Charles Allen’s Aryans: Myth and reality

Charles Allen’s profile of the Aryans is a cautionary tale that warns against the use of history for divisive political ends 

December 15, 2023 09:03 am | Updated 09:03 am IST

The Scythians were horse-riding nomadic pastoralists.

The Scythians were horse-riding nomadic pastoralists. | Photo Credit: Getty images

There is so much to enjoy in Aryans, Charles Allen’s last book. For one, the drama it brings to prehistory — those otherwise long millennia that seem only to lead, at glacial pace, to the ‘real’ history of people and places we recognise. In Allen’s evocative telling, these are centuries filled with action and adventure: from the tectonic effects of a mutation, 4,000 years ago, that allowed some humans to digest milk — and thus unlock a potent new source of energy — to the shifting of great rivers, the flooding of vast plains, the catastrophes we dread today as our climate changes, that exist already at a great distance.

It is one such flooded plain, in fact, that is the heart of Allen’s “search for a people, a place and a myth”. We are upon the Pontic-Caspian steppe 13,000 years ago as an ice age ends. It is a great mass of land — from the Black Sea in Ukraine to Kazakhstan, from the Ural mountains in Russia to the Caucasian range. The ice melts, water seeps into the earth, new soil settles and the landscape transforms into “a sea of grasses”, perfectly suited for “the only species of herbivore hardy enough to survive the extreme winters... — horses.” Humans follow. Then, four thousand years ago, the climate changes again, “the same drastic shift in precipitation patterns” that ended the Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Indus Valley civilisations — and the people of the steppe begin to drift, first west into Europe then south to India and Iran.

Horses in the steppe of Kyrgyzstan in summer.

Horses in the steppe of Kyrgyzstan in summer. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Diverse cultures

In sum, and very simply, these were the Aryans, the horse-riding, milk-drinking, Proto-Indo-European-speaking nomads whose cultures, migrations and possible ‘homeland’ generations of scholars and enthusiasts — linguists, historians, archaeologists and, most recently, geneticists — have been trying to piece together. Their discoveries, as Allen recounts them, are full of thrills and surprise. Take the word ‘Aryan’ itself — we know it is first used in the Rig Veda, then the Zoroastrian Avesta. It gives Iran its name but also, it turns out, our author: ‘Allen’ may be a corruption of Aryan.

An Indo-Aryan settlement in ancient India.

An Indo-Aryan settlement in ancient India. | Photo Credit: Getty images

Language holds many clues to history in this tale. Did “key religious words... acquire opposite meanings” among Vedic Aryans and Zoroastrian Ariyas because Aryans and Ariyas descend from a larger group that suffered an acrimonious split? (Thus Proto-Indo-European deva (‘celestial being’) retains this meaning for Aryans but comes to mean ‘demon’ (daeva) to Ariyas). Meanwhile, an analysis of animal and plant names in Indo-European languages suggests that its speakers came from lands rich in salmon — and also the gow (cow), seu (swine) and ghans (duck or goose), but not monkeys, snakes or tigers, “nouns that were missing from the Indo-European vocabulary”.

Rock art of the ancient Aryans in the caves of Siberia.

Rock art of the ancient Aryans in the caves of Siberia. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Obsessed with horses

The horse, on the other hand — to ride, to eat, to sacrifice — is critical to the archaeological discoveries around the Aryans and their descendants, most spectacular being the Scythian kurgans (burial mounds). The Scythians lived on the steppe c. 800 BCE, had no written language but left behind beautiful art in elaborate graves in which they were often buried with their horses. Sakas to the Persians, they were happier on horseback than on foot, not even using saddles, which may explain “why they were among the first people in history known to wear trousers.”

A fragment of a felt carpet symbolising the tombs of Scythians into which they were buried with their horses.

A fragment of a felt carpet symbolising the tombs of Scythians into which they were buried with their horses. | Photo Credit: Getty images

Equally adept horse-riders were the Celts, another sub-family of the Aryans and, like the Scythians, averse to writing. According to Julius Caesar, their druids thought it “unlawful” to write down their sacred verses. These druids were one of the three tiers of Celtic society — priests, warriors and workers — a tripartite division with, Allen notes, “striking” parallels to India’s “brahmanical caste structure”, and thought to be characteristic of Indo-European cultures. 

Such was the allure of the Scythians and Celts that they both inspired modern nationalist sentiment, one in Russia the other in Western Europe. This too, it seems, is characteristic of the Aryans — “one of the most emotive, abused and divisive words in the English language” — to evoke unfounded chauvinism.

Ancient bronze objects of the Scythians excavated in Ukraine.

Ancient bronze objects of the Scythians excavated in Ukraine. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

It is this — not who the Aryans were but who some people have wanted them to be — that comprises a sizeable chunk of Allen’s book, and makes for far less happy reading than the rest of it. Already, Aryanism has led to one holocaust, and Allen presents a chilling account of the racists and cranks who laid the ground on which Hitler would rise. Joesph-Arthur Compte de Gobineau, whose four-volume ‘Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races’ argued that Aryans originated in northern Europe and the white race had the most Aryan blood; Georges Vacher de Lapouge, who wrote of the Jewish threat to the “Aryan white race” and foresaw slaughter “by the millions” as “superior races will substitute themselves by force”; Jorg Lanz, who described the Aryans as “Gottmenschen (god-men) sired by a race of divine space travellers, the Theozoa”.

Illustration of the house of the Aryans.

Illustration of the house of the Aryans. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Charles Allen died before this book was published; the manuscript was edited by David Loyn, who also wrote its introduction. In this, he notes Allen’s “sorrow at the way professional historical research has been hijacked in modern India by some in the politico-religious Hindutva movement” – partly to argue for the Aryans’ Indian origins. This ‘Out of India’ theory (as opposed to that of ‘Aryan invasion’) is, Allen demonstrates, inextricably linked to Hindutva, from the writings of Swami Dayanand Saraswati, founder of the Arya Samaj, onwards. Some Hindutva ideologues did allow that the Aryans came from outside India, but certainly not as a foreign, ‘invading’ force. The land was uninhabited, said Saraswati; the Aryans managed a “happy accommodation” with the locals thought Savarkar. 

A story of migration

While modern scholarship now refutes the idea of a planned Aryan ‘invasion’ (though the Rig Veda does describe battles with non-Aryans who are “regarded... with contempt”), it has increasing evidence of Aryan migration from the Pontic-Caspian steppe. Hindutva, meanwhile, has buckled down on its beliefs ever since Golwalkar wrote, “We — Hindus — have been in undisputed and undisturbed possession of this land for over 8 or even 10 thousand years before the land was invaded by any foreign race.”

‘Aryans entering India’.

‘Aryans entering India’. | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

That is the crux of it, of course: that foreign invasions into the subcontinent only began, in Golwalkar’s words, on the “evil day when Moslems first landed in Hindusthan”. To have an indigenous Indus Valley civilisation is not good enough, either; the Harappans and the Aryans must be one, even if that means flipping a settled culture with a script into a nomadic one without. As Allen puts it, “Aryanism is inextricably linked to their identity as Hindus and the Vedic roots of their religion, with connotations of supremacy and a sense of entitlement.”

In 1935, Heinrich Himmler set up a Deutsches Ahnenrbe (‘German ancestral heritage’) unit in the SS to “rebuild a distinctive Germanic culture, by finding evidence of the German people’s links with their Aryan past by any means possible”. This desperation for ancient glory to justify hate did not end well (not least for a scholar who, recruited to the task and failing to please his masters, fled the Gestapo and “froze to death on a mountainside”). As the question of the Aryan homeland becomes increasingly embroiled in Hindutva politics, the grand sweep of Allen’s narrative also holds a warning: using history for divisive political ends can have fatal consequences.

A trove of photos, notes and letters, believed to be written by Nazi SS leader Heinrich Himmler.

A trove of photos, notes and letters, believed to be written by Nazi SS leader Heinrich Himmler. | Photo Credit: AP

Aryans; Charles Allen, Hachette India, ₹799.

The writer is a historian.

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