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Part 2: The Dravidian Movement

The History of the Aryan/Dravidian Hypothesis: A Critical Examination


In the introduction to this series, Maraimalai Adigal was introduced as one of the intellectual progenitors of what would later become the Dravidian movement. Unlike the fiery iconoclast Periyar, who denounced all religion and even publicly destroyed and disrespected murthis of various devatas, Maraimalai Adigal was a traditionalist and a staunch follower of the Saiva Siddhanta tradition. Adigal’s thought linked nation, religion, and language in a way which calls for analysis of the very specific situation which led this Indian thinker to represent the Tamil people as a nation. Apparently, he picked up the idea of Tamil speakers being a separate Dravidian nation (as opposed to the Aryan nation) from the British/Europeans, but much more should be explained about this reaction. Adigal was one of the prominent members of a number of late nineteenth to early twentieth century intellectuals from the Saiva Vellala jati, who were claiming that Saivite traditions, and Saiva Siddhanta in particular was a quintessentially Dravidian religion, while simultaneously rejecting any tradition they perceived as Sanskrit-based or Brahmanical as an Aryan addition to Tamil culture. In order to understand Adigal’s so called nationalism, we need to first understand the development of the hypothesis of the Aryan and Dravidian nation, which has shaped much of the scholarship on Tamil Nadu culture and history, and has dominated the political discourse and debates about Tamil Nadu.

This article traces the historical development of the hypothesis of the Aryan and Dravidian nation in Western thought. The development of this hypothesis occurred in the context of European contact with India between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. As is shown in the article, the European experience of Indian society as the amalgam of an invading race and aboriginals, was structured within a cluster of Christian theological assumptions about human history and human nature, that are interconnected and form a conceptual structure. This article then points out the anomalies and problems that an Aryan invasion hypothesis confronts. Finally, the article concludes with a short note on the idea that the hypothesis of an Aryan invasion was created as a ploy to divide Indians and convert them to Christianity.

Mosaic Ethnology

Although the discovery of the Dravidian language family is commonly attributed to the English missionary Robert Caldwell (1814-1891), it was actually the Madras Presidency British civil servant Francis Whyte Ellis (1777-1819) who was the first to write about the common root words and grammar that the South Indian languages shared with each other and did not share with Sanskrit. Robert Caldwell popularized this discovery, as well as the notion that South Indian language speakers were a separate nation from the brahmins and their North Indian counterparts, in his work The Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages (1856). The people of Tamil Nadu and Ceylon were thought to be the amalgam of the Aryan/Indo-European nation and the Dravidian nation.

But it is here that we need to question the rationale behind South Indian or Tamil language speakers being a separate nation from those who speak one of the Indo-European languages. Why do separate language families entail separate nations? As is shown below, the Sanskrit language and Sanskrit based rituals were seen as unique to Brahmins by European observers. This caused them to perceive brahmins as a nation unto themselves. Why was this the case? That is to say, why did these European observers connect language and religion to nationhood?

The year 1786 marked the advent of two milestone events: The birth of comparative philology as well as a shot in the arm for Indology. For it was that year, that William Jones delivered his third anniversary discourse in front of the Royal Asiatic Society, in which he postulated that Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and Persian were all genetically related, and had a common ancestor language. This would become known as the Indo-European language family. William Jones was not the first to discover the relationship between these languages, but he was the first to widely disseminate the news of this discovery to both the European intellectual community and the general public. This discovery led to an explosion of interest in Indian texts and religion. Sanskrit and Indology departments opened all over Europe. India became the focal point of interest for European Orientalists and philologists. But William Jones and the other Indologists like Friedrich Max Mueller and Friedrich Schlegel were not studying languages for their own sake; Jones himself admits that studying the genealogy of languages was merely an instrument to trace the genealogy of nations. The cultural anthropologist, Thomas Trautmann rightly refers to this as a ”Mosaic ethnology”, since the underlying assumption behind this ethnological project was Biblical history: all the peoples of the world formed a tree of nations (each nation being linked to a language) that can be traced back to one of the sons of Noah. Trautmann calls this ethnology as Mosaic because it is rooted in the account of the descent of the sons of Noah in the book of Genesis, attributed to Moses.

In Indians, the Europeans found an ancient civilization that challenged Biblical history and ethnology. Hebrew was thought to be the mother of all languages, but now European scholars had come across a language Sanskrit, that was potentially older than Hebrew, thus, they had the challenge of fitting Indians into Biblical history and ethnology. If one could trace the Indians back to one of the sons of Noah, through linguistic evidence in the case of the nineteenth century Orientalists, then it would confirm the Biblical account of human history[1].

However, this wasn’t the only goal of this Mosaic ethnology. As the writings of Jones and other Orientalists such as Jacob Bryant and Max Müller make clear, tracing the genealogy of languages and nations was thought to give clues and lead to the discovery of an ancient primordial monotheism before it degenerated into idolatry/polytheism.  Just as the Indo-European languages had a common ancestor language, William Jones thought that the speakers of the Indo-European languages had a common ancestral pagan religion. But behind this idolatry, lay a still older religion, a primitive monotheism.

Similarly, Jacob Bryant thought that the Egyptian worship of Amon was in fact the worship of their half-forgotten ancestor Ham. Bryant included the Indians and Greeks as descendants of the Hamian lineage, whose religions were corrupted remembrances of the natural revelation of God.

Friedrich Max Müller observed that all the Indo-European languages have similar sounding names for the highest God in their respective religions (Dyaus in Sanskrit, Zeus in Greek).

This shows that the ancestors of the Indo-European races were worshipping the same unseen highest being using the most exalted name they could think of, namely, light and sky. However, according to Müller, Dyaus did not originally mean the sky. Based on his readings of Sanskrit and Greek texts, he claims that both Dyaus and Zeus originally meant ‘Heaven-father’ (akin to the Christian God). But once the ancestral language of both Indians and Greeks was torn asunder into many languages, this meaning was lost and Dyaus came to mean ‘sky god’. For Müller, the degeneration of the pure primitive monotheism into polytheism/idolatry was the result of the ancestral language of the Aryans being torn asunder into many languages. Thus, Comparative linguistics was the key tool used to search for this monotheistic ur-religion.

As will be shown in the next section, this notion of a primitive Indian monotheism that later degenerated into idolatry, would play an important role in the concept of an Indo-Aryan nation and the Aryan invasion theory.

The Indian Ur-religion

It is important for IndicA readers to understand the extent to which, even up to the mid nineteenth century, a Biblical view of history dominated European thinking, including our British colonizers. This Biblical view of history was shaped by centuries of Christian theology, starting from the early Church fathers.

The notion of a proto Christian religion dates back to the beginnings of Christianity. At the time of the Roman empire, the Jews saw themselves as the descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel, scattered amongst other nations as punishment for disobeying the Biblical God’s laws. But at the same time, God also promised to send a messiah to earth who would unite the Jews once again. The early Christians claimed that the Messiah prophesized in the Jewish scripture had come, and it was Jesus of Nazareth. However, they claimed Jesus Christ was not just the messiah of the Jews, but all of humankind. In the same vein, the Biblical God was not just the God of the Jews, but all of humankind. The Jews of course, did not accept Jesus as their Messiah. In addition to the Jews, the early Christians received opposition from the Roman intellectuals of that time. The Romans did not see Jesus as the Messiah either, nor did they see Christianity as the one true religion that the Christians declared it was. Instead they mocked and ridiculed Christianity as a strange new cult with strange beliefs.

In order to defend their religion against the Roman intellectuals, the early Christian apologetics argued that pagan religions and philosophies including the Greco-Roman one, had once been proto Christian traditions. For example, the philosophical writings of Aristotle and Plato supposedly contain the concept of, and confirms the existence of the Christian God. However, over time, these proto Christian traditions became corrupted into false religion (idolatry). If Christians were able to show the existence of a proto Christian religion, it would prove the truth of Christianity.

The Tower of Babel incident was one of the Biblical accounts that was interpreted as symbolizing the degeneration of proto Christian monotheism. According to the account of Babel, all human beings at one time lived as one and spoke in one language. In their arrogance, they attempted to build a tower that would reach the heavens. God punished human beings’ arrogance by confusing their speech and scattering them across the world. The Tower of Babel incident was believed by many Christian thinkers to be the origin of not only nations and languages, but also false religion/s.

For example, the Church father, Saint Augustine in his work City of God, is clear that nations were divided according to their languages. Augustine saw Hebrew as the original language of humankind, and links the preservation of the Hebrew language with the worship of the true God: ”The family of Terah, to which Abraham belonged, was the only one in which the worship of the true God survived, and the only one, we may suppose, in which the Hebrew language was preserved”. Thus, Augustine saw the confusion of Babel as the corruption of God’s revelation. Along with the one universal language becoming many, the one true religion became corrupted into many religions, and a united single humanity became fractured into many nations.

This interpretation of the Tower of Babel incident continued into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The renowned German pietist and philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) explains that at one time, all of humanity was united and spoke one language. But then there is a confusion of the common language, and a multiplicity of languages result. Herder interprets this as a great rift in which humanity confused the unitary constituent of their origin, that is language. As humanity splits into different groups, language also diverges, and consequently, customs and religion. In Biblical history, since all present day human beings were descended from the sons of Noah, intellectuals who subscribed to that history attempted to trace the corruption of the true religion back to one of the descendants of Noah. Both Jacob Bryant and William Jones speculated that the corruption of the primeval monotheism took place under the descendants of Cush. They also thought that Indians (along with Greeks and Romans) were descendants of Cush.

Since the time of the second century, India was seen by Christian intellectuals as a nation that possessed the true religion, or at least aspects of it. In one of the non-biblical texts in Syriac—The Book of the Laws of Countries, dating to the late second century CE.—the Gnostic philosopher, Bardaisan portrayed brahmins as heathen ascetics who abided by Christian virtues; they didn’t drink wine, nor meat, and they didn’t worship idols. Bardaisan portrayed the brahmin ascetics as custodians of the true religion amidst an Indian population who were steeped in idolatry.  During the second and third centuries of the Common Era, an internal Christian dispute developed over who was eligible for salvation. Both the theologian Clement of Alexandria (150-215 CE) and his student Origen (185-253 CE) thought that a righteous God would provide salvation to all human beings, including those who lived before and after Christ. This view became very popular among Egyptian and Palestinian monks. One of them, Palladius, produced a Greek manuscript titled, Commonitorium Palladii (375 CE), in which he reproduced a famous passage from the travel accounts attached with the expeditions of Alexander the Great, consisting of a question and answer session between Alexander and Dindimus, leader of the brahmin ascetics. This conversation between Alexander and the brahmin ascetic was interpreted through a Christian theological point of view. The brahmin ascetic was presented as a proto Christian who rejected the worldliness and sensuality of the Greeks.

In Saint Ambrose’s (340-379 CE) Latin translation of Palladius’ work, Dindimus’ status as a proto Christian ascetic is emphasized further: He rejects consumption of alcohol, gluttony, as well as having knowledge of the Biblical God and his final judgement. Fast forward to the twelfth century, we see the French theologian, Pierre Abelard (1079-1142 CE) once again raising the question of salvation. Abelard takes up the question of why pagan thinkers would be denied salvation, just because they did not hear about Christ due to geographical and temporal circumstances. He evokes the brahmins as the archetypal proto Christians who not only lived a virtuous life and knew of the Biblical God, but also the finer aspects of Christian doctrine such as the trinity.

By the time of the sixteenth century, when Christian missions were making contact with Asia, India was once again touted as the cradle of civilization and primitive monotheism. The French Orientalist, Guillaume Postel (1510-1581) was the first to suggest that India might have ancient scriptures, which in turn might contain an ancient monotheism that could bring clarity to and confirm the truth of the Biblical account.

It was the Jesuit missionaries who were the first to claim that they had discovered texts in India that prove the existence of this ancient monotheism. Ironically, this occurred in the region of India, which is now present day Tamil Nadu. The French Jesuit missionary, Pierre De La Lane, writing in 1709, quoted the Panchangam and claimed that it contained knowledge of the true God. The Panchangam describes an entity that is the origin of everything, that is not subject to change, that does not have qualities. While we as Indians recognize the Paramatman or Brahman in this description, La Lane saw the Biblical God. He also claimed that the Vedas were the oldest texts that contained the purer doctrines of the Indian monotheism, written in an ancient language. The later texts he considered corrupted versions of the purer Vedic doctrines.

Roberto De Nobili (1577–1656), the Italian Jesuit who worked in the Tamil and Telugu regions of India, was the first to obtain direct access to part of the Vedas from his teacher, a Telugu brahmin called Sivadharma. For De Nobili, ”Veda” meant the revelation of God’s law. It contained a pure primeval monotheism that over time had become corrupted into false doctrines thanks to the machinations of the brahmin priesthood. In 1731, the French Jesuit, Jean Calmette (1639-1740), claimed that he had discovered all four of the Vedas, and also learnt Sanskrit from a brahmin pundit that allowed him to read some passages from the Vedas. Calmette was one of the first Europeans to systematically study such a mass of ancient Indian texts. Calmette thought that the Vedas contained aspects of God’s revelation, including the characteristics of the true God, but that they are sprinkled like gold dust on piles of dirt, that is to say, the Vedas contain both fundamental truths as well as errors, with the errors far exceeding any truths that might be found. Calmette’s purpose in studying the Vedas was to combat idolatry and win converts by exposing the contradictions between the fundamental truth and the idolatrous errors. For example, Calmette wanted to show the Indians how the plurality of gods in the Vedas contradicted its supposed doctrine of one God, indivisible, without a second.

Early in the eighteenth century, the German Protestant missionary, Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg (1682-1739) arrived in South India and was probably the first missionary to do a detailed study of Indian texts independently. Like his missionary predecessors, he too thought that the Indian heathens once had faith in and worshipped the Biblical God, but then let themselves be seduced by Satan into worshipping false gods. Interestingly, it was not in Vedic literature but in certain Tamil texts and local informants, that Ziegenbalg found support for his idea of Indian monotheism. The book that he referenced most frequently was the Civavakkiyam, a fourteenth century Tamil Saivite collection of poems. He also discusses the Tamil text the Jnanavenpa, which he claims contains the teachings and testimonies of the one God. Just like the Jesuits before him, Ziegenbalg began mapping Christian theological terminology onto Sanskrit terms. For example, Paraaparavastu and Sarveshwara, he interprets as the Sanskrit terms for the Biblical God, of whom Indians once had knowledge of, but has now become corrupted. Especially pertinent for his missionary enterprise of proselytization was the manner in which he interpreted the terms jnana and ajnana. For Ziegenbalg, ajnana meant ignorance, but not ignorance in the way Indians mean it; ajnana is the ignorant worship of false gods, with the delusion that one is worshipping the true God. One of the outward manifestations of the worship of false gods is veneration and ritual directed towards images. Jnana by contrast is the worship of the true God, the God of the Bible, and obeying his laws.

Many of the siddhas or janigal who wrote the Civavakkiyam and other Tamil bhakti texts, rejected rituals as a path to enlightenment, and spoke about Siva or Sivam as an abstract concept, the state where the bhakta attains pure happiness, and does not distinguish between himself/herself as a bhakta and Siva. It is not surprising, that Ziegenbalg coming from a Christian background saw the Siddhas as proto Christian ascetics who were practicing an Indian monotheism, which had degenerated into false religion among the rest of the Indian populace. Quotes from the texts of these siddhas make up the bulk of Ziegenbalg’s evidence for Indian monotheism.

One of the important points about Ziegenbalg’s writings is that he was one of the first missionaries to describe Malabar heathendom in a systematic way that would resemble later Orientalist descriptions of Hinduism. Ziegenbalg’s writings would go on to achieve fame and notoriety in the intellectual circles of Europe and would set the foundation for nineteenth century Orientalism and Indology. Ziegenbalg distinguishes two main traditions of Malabar heathenism, centered around Vishnu and Siva. The four Vedas are described as the basic scriptures for both main branches of Malabar heathendom. Together with the six Sastras, which are referred to as the laws of the Malabar heathens, Ziegenbalg conceptualized these texts as the theological systems of Malabar Heathendom. Other features of Malabar heathendom in Ziegenbalg’s writings are the caste system, the brahmin clergy, and veneration of cows. Ziegenbalg blamed the brahmins for the degeneration of Malabar heathenism. This brings the discussion to two important ideas that played an important role in the hypotheses of an Indo-Aryan nation and Aryan invasion: the corrupt brahmin priesthood as well as the caste system. The background concepts that structured seventeenth century European descriptions of brahmins and the caste system, also provided the link between religion, nation, and language.

To be Continued…

[1]different scholars said different sons of Noah, doesn’t matter, the main point is they can be traced back to one of the sons of Noah, and the speakers of the Indo-European language family descended from a common ancestral nation which spoke a common ancestral language

The Dravidian Movement Series

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