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Part 3: The Dravidian Movement

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

The Corrupt Brahmanical Priesthood

It was mentioned in the previous article that in the early centuries of Christendom, Brahmins were used as examples of proto Christian ascetics by some Christian thinkers. Over the course of time, the image of Brahmins in the Western intellectual discourse began to change for the worse, and these changes corresponded to certain developments in European Christendom.

In the eighteenth century, a common criticism echoed in missionary writings is that the Brahmins were a corrupt priesthood that had exclusive access to the Indian religious scriptures, and had corrupted the traces of the worship of the one true God found within them. The Portuguese historian, Diogo do Couto (1542-1616) was of the view that the Vedas (which he viewed as a monotheistic scripture) was hidden by the Brahmins from the people, to whom they preached polytheism. Roberto De Nobili wrote of the Brahmins making idolatrous additions to the once pure monotheistic Vedas, which they had exclusive access to. Similarly, the French philosophers, Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) and MaturinusVeyssière La Croze (1661-1739) presented the Brahmins as jealously guarding the Vedas from the common public. Sanskrit was viewed as the sacred language used by Brahmins to ensure that they had sole access to the Vedas and other Indian texts. The English theologian, Thomas Burnet (1635-1715) and the French philosopher, Voltaire (1694-1778) also expressed that the Brahmins possessed an ancient monotheistic doctrine which they hid in their Sanskrit language.

From the nineteenth century onwards, there is a trend of increasing animus towards both Brahmins and the caste system, fuelled by British Protestant missionaries. One of the damning criticisms leveled at the Brahmins was that they deceitfully obtained a privileged position of authority for themselves by fabricating doctrines and laws that justified their position, and then claiming a divine origin for these doctrines and laws.

Peter Percival (1803-1882, Wesleyan Mission, Ceylon) writes that ”the sacred writings of the Hindus are denominated Shastras, or ordinances, as the word imports. The word Shas from which the term is derived, signifies to govern, and its application in this case implies divine origin and authority’ ‘(1854: 63) and that ”caste was gradually formed, and the Brahmans in course of time established the supremacy of their own order, and assumed its prerogatives as those of a primaeval distinction ordained by God himself” (1854: 36).

The famous Tamil Nadu based missionary, Robert Caldwell (1814-1891) from the London Missionary Society attacks the Brahmins along the same lines, as ”the most deceptive out of all the castes, systematic and polished in deception, especially in the domain of religion” (1849: 42).

This brings us to the second major idea that is an integral component of the missionary descriptions of Hinduism, namely the idea of the caste system. There was a virtual consensus in the nineteenth century among the missionaries of India and Ceylon about two characteristics of the caste system. The first was that Indian society was governed by a hierarchical socio-religious system (later known as the caste system). The Purushasukta of the Rigveda was thought to describe the structure of this system, while texts such as Manusmriti and the Dharmasastras were supposed to be the institutes of law.

The second major point of consensus among the missionaries when it came to the caste system was its immorality. The Calcutta based Scottish missionary and educationalist, Alexander Duff (1806-1878), who was a mentor of Percival, also thought of caste as a sacred rather than a civil institution, and its overthrow would be simultaneous with the destruction of idolatry: ”Idolatry and superstition are like the stones and brick of a huge fabric, and caste is the cement which pervades and closely binds the whole. Let us, then, undermine the common foundation, and both tremble at once, and form a common ruin” (1840: 616).

John Edmund Sharkey (1864-1936), a CMS missionary who had joined the Masulipatam mission in 1847, wrote a long statement on caste as something created from Satan’s forge that controls conscience and gives rise to manners and habits that are abhorrent to humanity. Sharkey considered the caste system as more immoral than idol worship and the missionary’s greatest obstacle. Similarly, Reverend C. Hubbard of Canandagudy condemned caste as a system of tyranny and bondage that he is trying to free his converted congregants from. At the base of it all was the Brahmin priesthood, which has used this debasing and degrading system of idolatry (the Hindu religion and the caste system) to enslave generations. Both the notion of an immoral caste system and a corrupt priesthood were thought to be the foundation of Hindu idolatry.

One of the likely historical reasons for this shift in attitude towards the Brahmins was the Protestant Reformations. In a nutshell, the Protestant reformers attacked the Catholic Church and the clergy of imposing man made idolatrous doctrines on the laity, and in the process conferring benefits and privileges for themselves. In addition, it was solely the Church that had access to the Bible (since it was written in Latin, a language that was not taught to the laity) and the authority to interpret the Bible. Thus, the Protestant missionaries saw Brahmins as the Indian equivalent of the Catholic clergy: priests and lawgivers of the Indian religion, who were responsible for creating and foisting doctrines and laws that benefited themselves, while enslaving the rest of the Indian populace.

Brahmins: A Foreign Nation?

In addition to the idea of Brahmins being a corrupt priesthood, another important idea that shaped the Western understanding of Brahmins, was that of Brahmins as a separate nation from the rest of the Indian populace. The fact that Sanskrit was primarily found in the so called Indian religious scriptures and rituals, and not used as a vernacular by the local populace, was seen as a salient fact and led to speculation among seventeenth century European intellectuals that Brahmins were originally a foreign nation. The French Orientalist, Guillaume Postel (1510–81) speculated that the Brahmins are direct descendants of Abraham, where the true religion survived. In the same vein, both the French Jesuit scholars, Francois Catrou (1659-1737) and Pere Coeurdoux (1691-1779) concluded that the Brahmins were a foreign tribe. Coeurdoux thought that the Sanskrit language used by the Brahmins is the language of a people that came from the Caucus country, while Catrou postulated that the Brahmins were originally an ancient Egyptian colony, because of the similarities in customs between the ancient Egyptians and the Brahmins.

However, it wasn’t the unique status of the Sanskrit language alone that led the European missionaries and Orientalists to speculate about the foreign origin of the Brahmins. In the course of the seventeenth century, European travellers and missionaries began describing India as a heathen nation divided into four tribes or castes that were arranged hierarchically, according to nobility and purity. The writings of seventeenth century Europeans indicate that they were implicitly using the Jewish nation (consisting of tribes, united by worship of God) as a model to understand the Indian people using Old Testament concepts like tribes and clans. Some missionaries explicitly compared Brahmins to Jews, noticing resemblances between Jewish institutions and practices and those of the Brahmins. The Dutch missionary, Abraham Roger (1609-1649), for example, thought that the Brahmin rituals resembled the ceremonies of the Levites, a priestly tribe of the Jews. Like the Jews, the Hindus were thought to have an ancient lawgiver. From the readings of texts like the Vedas and the Dharmasastras, which were viewed as the law books and doctrines of the Indian people, the Europeans thought that it was the Hindu lawgiver, either Manu or Brahma, who originally legislated the caste system, and the Brahmin priests who interpreted and enforced the caste laws. Practices the Europeans observed in Indian society, such as excommunication and untouchability were understood by mapping the Jewish model of religion onto them. Thus, the eighteenth century French author, De la Crequinière thought that Indians, like the Jews, were organized hierarchically. It was also noticed that the Brahmins, like the Levites, were concerned with purity, and had certain restrictions related to that, as well as having rituals to remedy impurity. The European travellers also understood the Pariahs through the Jewish model of religion. The Pariahs were thought to be outcastes, excommunicated from the religious community of Hindus for violating caste laws, similar to the way in which Jews were excommunicated for violating Mosaic law. In addition to the covenant law, the Hebrew language was seen as the other factor that united the Jews as a nation – not merely because all Jews spoke it, but because it is the language through which God revealed the Old Testament. In the same way, Sanskrit was seen as the sacred national language of the Brahmins. Not only did the theological understanding of the Jews as a nation connect the concept of nation with language and religion, it seems to have been instrumental in the formation of the Aryan invasion theory.

Interestingly, many of the nineteenth century thinkers who adhered to the Aryan invasion theory weren’t relying on linguistic or archeological evidence. Both the British major, Colonel Mark Wilks (1759-1831), and the French Orientalist, Mathieu Louis Langles (1763-1824) thought it highly likely that the first three varnas of the caste system were an invading race that had conquered and subjugated the Pariahs, whom these Orientalists regarded as the aboriginal populace. Renowned Orientalist Eugene Burnouf (1801-1852) also subscribed to the idea of Hindus being foreign invaders, and the evidence he brings up for this claim is the caste system. To Burnouf, it was self-evident that the lowest castes or varnas such as the Sudras and Pariahs were the aboriginal population of India were conquered and subjugated by the higher castes, who were a foreign race. The fact that the first three varnas were twice born or dvijas (because they had undergone the upanayana (sacred thread) ceremony) was seen as salient by these thinkers. The first three varnas were seen as the Vedic or Brahmanical nation, and the upanayana ceremony was seen as an initiation into that nation, similar to circumcision for the Jews. The fourth varna, the Sudras, were thought to be the aboriginal populace who were conquered and absorbed into the caste hierarchy as the lowest caste.

Thus, all the pieces of the Aryan invasion hypothesis were already in place even discounting the discovery of the Indo-European and Dravidian language families. The discovery of these language families merely confirmed and embroidered a hypothesis that was already well entrenched in the European intellectual circles who knew and wrote about India.

Caldwell and the Dravidian Nation

Given the theological background behind the nation-language-religion connection, the heuristic used by Robert Caldwell to separate the aboriginal Dravidian religion from the Brahmanical religion makes sense:”many usages are found to prevail extensively in Southern India, and especially amongst the ruder and less Aryanised tribes, which are derived neither from the Vedas and Puranas” (Caldwell 1875: 580). Caldwell’s Tinnevelly Shanars (1849) was considered a landmark anthropological study at that time of the Shanar caste of Tinnevelly whom many thought were the remnants of the ”rude” aboriginal tribes of South India before the Aryans arrived. The Shanars are described as lower castes confined to doing hard labor, and Caldwell describes their religion as a form of demonolatry and devil worship. Caldwell uses three characteristics to distinguish the Shanar religion from the Brahmanical religion. The first is language. Caldwell states that ”Every word used in the Tamil country relative to the Brahmanical religions, the names of the gods , and the words applicable to their worship, belong to the Sanscrit, the Brahmanical tongue; whilst the names of the demons worshipped by the [aboriginals] are uniformly Tamil” (1849: 25). The second distinguishing characteristic is lack of a priesthood. 

One of the important distinguishing features to separate Dravidian and Indo-European religions, according to Caldwell, was the institution of the priesthood, whereas in the Dravidian (Shanar) form of demonolatry, it is the Shaman rather than the priest who is the officiator of the ceremonies.

Finally, the third characteristic used by Caldwell to distinguish Dravidian demonolatry from Hinduism are the rituals. The Shanar deities are described as malignant, jealous spirits whom the Shanars appease through violent bloody animal sacrifices. Caldwell notes that most of the deities and their methods of animal sacrifice are absent in the Vedas and Puranas and thus absent in the Brahmanical religion. The only exceptions are the deities Kali and Siva whom he thinks were originally Shanar demons who were gradually absorbed into the Brahmanical religion. Even before Caldwell’s work on the Tinnevelly Shanars was released, missionary scholar Robert Stevenson was speculating that Siva was a Dravidian deity since he is hardly mentioned in the Rig and Sama Vedas and that Siva worship was mainly concentrated in the south. Siva is described as a god that wears a necklace of skulls and dances on the battlefield with his attendant demons, quaffing blood from human skulls. Thus, the missionaries working in south India considered Saivism to have originated in Dravidian demonolatry and later absorbed into Hinduism. In addition, the Shanars themselves were considered to be descendants of a barbaric race whom the Brahmin nation civilized and absorbed into their caste system as the lowest, servile Sudra caste.

Anomalies in the Aryan Invasion Theory

An important anomaly that surfaces in the theory of Aryan invasion and the subsequent subjugation of the Dravidians under the caste system is the fact that there is no evidence, either in the form of archaeological or textual records, that there was a large-scale invasion into the Indian Subcontinent.

Many proponents of the Aryan invasion theory tried to resolve this anomaly through ad hoc modifications of the theory, claiming that the Aryans came not as conquerors but colonists –mostly Brahmins who gained ascendancy through their administrative skills and intelligence. As a result, the Dravidians eventually submitted to the few Aryan colonists who had entered Tamil Nadu, being absorbed into the Aryan religion and caste system. For example, the Orientalist Max Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900) claims that Aryans or Brahmanical people did not enter Tamil Nadu through force and war, but through peaceful colonization. However, this ad-hoc modification opens up a slew of other problems. How did a few Brahmin colonists manage to impose an intellectual and political hegemony over the whole of South India? There is no evidence of a Brahmanical institution akin to the Church, which had religious authority over the masses, and whose authority was backed by the state. Without such institutions, how could a small group of Brahmins impose their caste system on an entire nation and make them servile?

The Aryan invasion theory remains hotly debated to this day across multiple domains from genetics to archaeology to linguistics. Despite this however, these domains have produced little evidence of an Aryan invasion of the Indus valley. In fact, recent archaeological findings speak against the theory of an invasion. The disappearance of the Indus occurred gradually through ecological and geological changes. Similarly, biological studies of the human remains excavated at the Indus Valley archeological sites in India and Pakistan show biological continuity with the South Asians of today. Moreover, if these South Indian peoples indeed had their own system of religion prior to the arrival of the Brahmins, then they should have left behind some evidence of this religion. For example, former Viceroy of India Lord Curzon (1859-1925) points out that we ought to have found a Tamil literature that contains some record of a religion, laws and institutions entirely different from Hinduism and independent of Sanskrit, but no such literature has been found, even to this day.

Next, I come to the idea of a Dravidian nation. One of the important claims that Caldwell makes is that the Indian grammarians had a notion of a Dravidian nation before the arrival of the Europeans. Caldwell provides examples of the term ‘Dravida’ being used by Indian grammarians and linguists, as well as in texts such as the Manusmriti and the Mahabharata as evidence that the notion of a Dravidian nation is native to India. Caldwell cites an excerpt from the Manusmriti that refers to a group called the Dravidas who are part of a group of Kshatriyas who have sunk into the state of Vrishalas (which Caldwell translates as outcastes), because they stopped performing the sacred rites and lost contact with the brahmanas. Caldwell mentions the Prakrit dialect, known as Dravidi, and cites a Sanskrit grammarian speaking of Dravidi as ”the language of the Dravidas”. Caldwell understands the term Dravidas as generic for the Dravidian race.

The problem with this theory is that none of the Indian texts or grammarians cited by Caldwell posit the idea of a Dravidian nation. It is important to remember that, for European intellectuals, a nation is a group of people constituted by religion and language. While Indian grammarians speak of a Dravidi or Dravida as one of the Prakrit dialects – as well as a term encompassing all the South Indian languages – there is no evidence of these grammarians classifying the Indian population as different nations based on language. The word Dravida is also used to denote the geographic region of South India. Moreover as Caldwell himself points out, the term Dravida seems to have been attached to certain ruling dynasties rather than a race of people.

Therefore, the etymology of the name Dravidi could have well been derived from and linked to the geographic region, rather than a South Indian nation. When it comes to the group called Dravidas that is mentioned in Manusmriti, there is no evidence supporting Caldwell’s claims, namely that the term Dravidas refers to all South Indian peoples. Caldwell assumes that, since they are the only South Indian group mentioned, Dravidas is a generic term for all South Indian peoples. The most damning argument against Caldwell is that the excerpt from the Manusmriti he cites contradicts his own claims. If the Dravidas were formerly Kshatriyas who abandoned their dharma, then it is implausible that it is a term referring to all South Indians, since the term refers to a specific varna (social class), and it is well known that since the earliest recorded history of Tamil Nadu, people of different social classes existed in Tamil Nadu – as recorded in Tamil texts such as the Tolkappiyam. More importantly, since the Dravidas were originally part of the varna system of the so-called Aryan people before they became Vrishalas, they couldn’t have been a separate people or tribe from the Aryans.

Unlike other nineteenth-century scholars who claimed that the Sudras were a separate race from the Aryans, Caldwell speculates that the Sudra class was originally part of the Aryan race that supposedly invaded India. His basis for this claim is the fact that the Purusha Sukta describes the Sudras as springing from the body of the deity named Purusha or Brahma, just like the other three twice-born varnas, whereas the Nishadas and other tribes are not described as having sprung from Brahma.

Caldwell regarded Nishadas and Dasyus as aboriginal northern Indian tribes which were gradually absorbed into the varna system of the Aryans as Sudras. However, Caldwell contradicts himself once more here, since on the very same page he cites a verse from the Manusmriti which says that all who become outcasts are called Dasyus, regardless of whether they speak the language of the Mlecchas or the Aryans. If anyone can be a Dasyu regardless of if they speak the language of the Mlecchas or the Aryas, then it follows that language is irrelevant to the authors of these texts when it comes to someone falling into or outside of the four varnas.

The above excerpt, taken together with the excerpt from the Manusmriti that claims that Dravidas were Kshatriyas before they became Vrishalas, presents a significant challenge to the idea that those who fall outside of the varna system (Dasyus, Vrishalas), including the Dravidians, were a separate nation from those who were among the four varnas. 

Not only does the Manusmriti claim that Dravidas were once part of the four varnas (and thus not a separate people from the Aryans), it also claims language has nothing to do with whether one falls outside the four varnas; language being one of the axiomatic features in the European concept of what makes a group of people a nation, the other being religion.

The problem is that, even if we allow that the terms Nishadas and Mlecchas were used to refer to groups residing in the Indian Subcontinent, there is no evidence that the authors of these texts, the so-called Aryan nation, considered them as aboriginal tribes. That is Caldwell’s own addition. Further problems arise when examining European writings about Sudras. The European intellectuals regarded Sudras as a servile caste, remnants of the aboriginal population that are either slaves or servants of the twice-born Aryans. However, when examining the writings of certain scholars on this subject, several problems arise. Caldwell himself observes that the term was applied in Tamil Nadu to chieftains and higher classes of Tamil people, which they proudly wear as a badge of honour. He contrasts this to the primitive Sudras of the North, who were little more than slaves to the Aryans and did not own any property. There are two huge problems with this claim: Firstly, Caldwell shows no evidence that there were actually groups or tribes in northern India who were called Sudras and who were slaves of the Brahmins. Secondly, Caldwell himself observed that the non-Brahmin castes in Tamil Nadu did not resent this term which means that the term Sudra could not be referring to something servile or demeaning.

Finally, I want to point out that all the European Orientalists and missionaries from the nineteenth century saw religion as the primary element that distinguished the South Indian peoples from the Aryans. In the case of Caldwell, he saw one or another of the Saivite traditions as the Dravidian religion, which they then contrasted with the Aryan, Brahminical religion. While it is indeed true that certain practices and traditions are unique to certain jatis and regions in the Indian Subcontinent, there is no record of any of the precolonial Indian grammarians or intellectuals grouping these traditions together into a belief system and tying it to a specific people. Nevertheless, this would become the dominant framework adopted not only by European scholars, but reproduced by the natives as well – including the ideologues of the Dravidian movement.

Conclusion: The Aryan Invasion Hypothesis, a Divide and Convert Strategy?

This article does not deal with the question of whether there was a migration of people from Central Asia into India, and whether or not they spoke some variant of the Sanskrit language. There are heated debates in the field of genetics and linguistics about this subject, and I don’t wish to get into it. Instead, this article calls into question the account of a Vedic people, comprised of the dvija varnas, who invaded and conquered India, and imposed their Vedic religion and caste system on the subjugated indigenous population. This account preceded the discovery of the Indo-European language families and genetic and archaeological evidence. Why then did Europeans postulate an invasion hypothesis, if there was little to no evidence to back up this hypothesis?

Among the many conversations had with passionate Indics, both in person and online, a common claim is that the British as well as the Christian missionaries from different parts of Europe created the Aryan invasion hypothesis to divide Indians, making them easier to convert and rule. As shown in this article, the different ideas and assumptions that make up the Aryan invasion hypothesis developed over many centuries, with European intellectuals from multiple national, religious, and economic backgrounds contributing to its development. It wasn’t merely missionaries or British administrators who were promoting this hypothesis. This makes it implausible that all the intellectuals who postulated an invasion hypothesis were doing so out of malicious intent. However, this doesn’t mean that the Aryan invasion hypothesis is true either.  The lack of evidence and the various problems confronting this hypothesis have been pointed out.

Imputing and speculating about the motives of Western intellectuals does not give us knowledge about why and how the Aryan invasion hypothesis developed. Instead, it is more fruitful to analyze the hypothesis of the Aryan invasion as an account that emerged from the Western cultural experience of India. This experience was shaped and given coherence by a Christian theological conceptual structure. This conceptual framework itself was partially shaped and moulded through centuries of European contact with India. Within this framework, nationhood is inextricably linked to language and religion; the entities of ”Hinduism” and ”caste system.” This brings us to the question, how did Maraimalai Adigal and other Tamil intellectuals understand the concepts of Aryan and Dravidian nationhood, given that their culture lacks the above mentioned theological framework required to make sense of these ideas?

This will be the focus of much of the next article…


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