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India’s ‘Aryan’ Debate: How Ambedkar & Periyar’s Views Affected Caste Politics

Even as the British then & now West endorses caste divide, Aryan race conjecture isn't a Brahmins vs Dalits issue.

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India’s ‘Aryan’ Debate: How Ambedkar & Periyar’s Views Affected Caste Politics
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Recently, the Tamil Nadu Governor skipped a reference to the “Dravidian model” in the speech prepared for him by the ruling DMK or, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam which means the Dravidian Progressive Federation.

Last month, the chair of the 81st Indian History Congress stated that those (Brahmins) who composed the Vedas were Aryans from outside India. That makes the Aryan vs Dravidian issue also a Brahmin versus Dalit issue. Hence, the TN government included references to two Dalit icons, Ambedkar and Periyar in the governor’s speech. But is the Aryan Race theory a Brahmin vs Dalit issue?


Who Were The Aryans?

Not really. The claim about “Aryans”—that the similarities between Sanskrit, Persian, Greek, and Latin were due to a common origin—was a colonial claim initiated by William Jones in 1786 during his 2nd anniversary discourse to the Royal Asiatic Society which he founded. Later, the claim of a common origin of the languages morphed into the belief in a common group of people called Aryans.

The British political motive was to divide India by caste (Brahmin vs non-Brahmin), and region (Northern Aryans vs Southern Dravidian) apart from religion. They needed these divisions to weaken and be able to rule India.

Recall that this was at the beginning of the British rule when they were both militarily insecure and technologically backward, and sought ways to trick and dominate Indians psychologically with the church strategy of evoking fantasies for political gains. This church-state nexus of colonialism has been little discussed.

Indeed, a racist “intellectual” Count Gobineau, explicitly connected the Aryans to White supremacy. This connection of Aryans to race was vigorously propagated as a “scientific” defence of slavery in the US at this time in the 1850s just before the American Civil War.

Gobineau’s American editor opined that this “scientific” defence of slavery was achieved “without...departing in any way from the pure spirit of Christianity,” meaning the Christian supremacist dogmas used to initiate and perpetuate slavery of Black Africans.

As Martin Bernal pointed out, Aryans were identified as Caucasians based on the Biblical myth that they were God’s chosen people because Noah’s Ark landed in Mount Ararat in the southern Caucasus. Note, also, how slavery was justified on the pure fantasy of Christian/White superiority, but had the concrete result of massive economic gains for the West, by “morally” justifying an evil source of free (in the sense of almost zero-cost) but forced labour.


Aryans & the Genesis of the Caste System

In the Indian context, Gobineau also conflated the Aryan race with caste while speaking of “the white conquerors of India (now, forming the caste of the Brahmins)...”

The well-known African race-theorist Cheikh Anta Diop needed only two sentences to dismiss this “Aryan conquest” belief: “It has often been maintained without production of any conclusive historical documents, that it was the Aryans who created the caste system after having subjugated the black aboriginal Dravidian populace. Had this been the case, the criterion of color should have been at its foundation; there should have been at most three castes” [White, Black, mixed].

Two Sanskrit words “Arya” and “Dasa” in the Vedas were mistranslated by/for Europeans, and conflated with the prevailing racist prejudices (prior to colonialism, British wealth was based on the slave trade).

The (White) Arya-s, the supposed authors of the Vedas, were depicted as the conquering heroes, and their enemies the (Black) Dasa-s were depicted as the conquered. Ambedkar refuted this quite conclusively by an exhaustive analysis of the occurrence of the two words “Arya” and “Dasa” in the Veda-s.

Ambedkar vs Periyar on the Aryan Theory

Ambedkar points out “How leaky is the Aryan theory expounded by the Western scholars” by noting six cases in the Rigveda where BOTH Arya-s and Dasa-s are depicted as the enemies of whosoever composed the Veda-s! For example, Rigveda vi.3.33.3 praises Indra as a hero for destroying both “our enemies” the Dasa-s and the Arya-s. The whole silly myth of invading “Aryans” who composed the Veda-s and conquered the Dasa-s falls flat.

Thus, some Brahmins like Tilak accepted the Aryan theory (though Tilak’s assertion of an Arctic origin of Aryans interfered with the belief in a theologically correct Caucasian origin), and some Dalits opposed it.

But there is no binary here because some 'liberal' historians like Romila Thapar support the Aryan race theory even today. But what goes completely against any such binary is Periyar’s support.

It is true that Periyar only supported the Dravidian cause, but the term 'Dravidian' has little meaning without accepting the Aryan race conjecture. If one rejects the term “Aryan”, one should better speak only of Tamilian, not Dravidian.

As a proponent of the Dravidians, and the supposed historic injustice meted out to them by the supposed “Aryans” or Brahmins, Periyar became the strongest effective supporter of the Aryan race conjecture. Dravidian politics is an undeniable political reality today; this is the concrete political form in which that old fantasy about Aryans still exists.

In short, the Aryan race conjecture is simply not an issue of Brahmins vs Dalits (or North vs South), though that is exactly the way the British wanted it then, and the West wants it now (to Balkanise India).

(The original sources for all the above quotes can be found in one place in Refutation of the Aryan Race Conjecture: the Arithmetic Evidence and Conquest-of-Greeks Theory, Kant Academic Publishers, Delhi 2022.)

(CK Raju, PhD (ISI), TGA Laureate, is an Honorary Professor, the Indian Institute of Education; Emeritus Professor, SGT University; Tagore Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Study. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  BR Ambedkar   Periyar   Caste Debate 

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