The Aryan Migration Theory (AMT) is virtually unassailable at this point, due in large part to a number of DNA studies released in the last few years. While many Hindu Nationalists continue adhering to the Out of India Theory (OIT) which argues for an Indian origin of the Indo-Aryans, this crowd is increasingly (and correctly) being lumped with the likes of climate-change and evolution deniers.
I’m not interested in OIT or its proponents. What I am interested in is a more sophisticated theory being propounded by a (somewhat) more sophisticated group of Hindus, which I’ll be calling the Aryan Assimilation Theory (AAT).
AAT holds that while the Aryans may have originated outside of India, once they arrived they did not conquer the Indians and impose their Sanskrit-Vedic culture, but instead engaged in a cultural exchange. Indians were already practicing an early form of Hinduism, so the Aryans simply added a few of their own traditions to the pantheon, which resulted in the Vedic religion (early Hinduism). A similar process produced Sanskrit, and after these two populations mixed with each other, they went on to spread this culture across India.
To someone unfamiliar with the literature AAT can sound reasonable. It does not contradict the studies on ancient Indian DNA, so avoids attention from the scientific community. It grants the European origin of the Aryans, so skirts most Western criticism. Most crucially, it frames the history of the Aryans and genesis of Hinduism in India as both a local and benign affair, ensuring support from those Hindus disillusioned with OIT.
In reality however, AAT is just as wrong as OIT. I will discuss why in the remainder of this piece, which will be quite lengthy, so prepare yourself.
Migration vs. Invasion Semantics
The first point that needs to be addressed about AAT is that its supporters don’t call it that. They actually disguise their theory by co-opting the name of the more respected theory they are subverting, referring to AAT as the Aryan Migration Theory. Their reasoning is that the Aryan arrival in India used to be referred to as the, “Aryan Invasion Theory” (AIT), and now that the term Aryan Migration has replaced Aryan Invasion in common parlance, this is proof that the scholarly community has acknowledged the benign role of the Aryan in India, and discarded the conquest model. This is wrong.
The term Aryan Invasion was popularized in the early 20th century, when scholars theorized that the ancient Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) was destroyed by the Aryans. In this context, Invasion would be the proper term to use, as it denotes one entity (Aryans) forcibly entering and destroying a second entity (IVC), in an act that has political overtones. In the modern period however, its now understood that the IVC had collapsed before the arrival of the Aryans, likely due to climate change. In this case its more appropriate to describe the Aryan arrival in India as a Migration, denoting one group (Aryans) moving en mass to another region in search of resources. While violent conquest would often occur when the migrant group encountered a native group and thus had to fight for access to said resources, such conflict was not the inevitable goal of the migration, but a byproduct of it.
For comparison, the term migration is also used to describe the mass movement of the Aryans into Western Europe, as well as that of Turks into Central/West Asia. Both migrations entailed massive conquests of the native peoples these migrants encountered, along with resulting cultural shifts. This is uncontroversial, and nobody would argue these population movements were benign because the term migration is used instead of invasion.
Conquest and Supremacy
The belief that the Aryan-Indian relationship was based on coexistence and mutual exchange is impossible to square with what the sources say of this period. Below I cite from the Rigveda, the oldest Hindu text surviving today, which narrates the earliest Aryan experience in India (1000–1500 BC). Note that the term Dasa/Dasyu refers to the native Indians, while Indra is a principal Vedic-Aryan deity.
“He (Indra), much invoked, hath slain Dasyus and Simyus, after his want, and laid them low with arrows. The mighty Thunderer with his fair-complexioned friends won the land, the sunlight, and the waters. May Indra evermore be our protector, and unimperilled may we win the booty” (C, 18–19).
“(Indra) Armed with his bolt and trusting in his prowess he wandered shattering the forts of Dasas. Cast thy dart, knowing, Thunderer, at the Dasyu; increase the Arya’s might and glory” (CIII, 3).
“With Indra scattering the Dasyu through these drops, freed from their hate may we obtain abundant food.” (LIII, 4)
“Thou hast disclosed the light to light the Arya: on thy left hand, O Indra, sank the Dasyu. May we gain wealth, subduing with thy succour and with the Arya, all our foes, the Dasyus.” (XI, 18)
“Day after day far from their seat he (Indra) drove them, alike, from place to place, those darksome creatures. The Hero slew the meanly-huckstering Dasas, Varcin and Sambara, where the waters gather.” (XLVII, 21)
As is evident from the Rigveda, the Aryans saw themselves as fair-skinned heroes crushing the barbaric dark-skinned Indians, and rejoiced as they appropriated the resources of India for themselves.
Genes Don’t Lie
The Y-haplogroup (passed through males) of the Aryans who conquered India was overwhelmingly from the R1a group. Despite not being native to the region, R1a is the most common haplogroup among Indians, ranging from 30–70% in most populations. Conversely, the various mtDNA clades (passed through females) of the Aryans are only found in 10–20% of most Indians. Similarly, when considering the whole genome, most Indians register as only 5–30% Aryan.
What does this mean? It means the Aryan admixture into India was extremely male-biased. This pattern is typically seen in conquest scenarios, where one group kills, expels, or enslaves the males of a second group, and thereby gains unfettered access to this second group’s females (often via methods we would today consider rape). For an analogous case, see the European conquistadors in South America.
Indians Were Infidels
We’ve established the Aryan intrusion into India was characterized by violent conquest and supremacy over the native Indians. Is there not a possibility however, that a meaningful cultural exchange took place that produced the Vedic religion (early Hinduism)? Its possible but extremely unlikely. We’ll refer again to the Rigveda:
“Around us is the Dasyu, riteless, void of sense, inhuman, keeping alien laws.” (XXII, 8)
“Indra. Thou conqueredst, boundest many tribes for ever. Like castles thou hast crushed the godless races, and bowed the godless scorner’s deadly weapon” (CLXXIV, 8).
“Thou slewest with thy bolt the wealthy Dasyu, alone, yet going with thy helpers, Indra! Far from the floor of heaven in all directions, the ancient riteless ones fled to destruction. Fighting with pious worshipers, the riteless turned and fled, Indra! with averted faces. When thou, fierce Lord of the Bay Steeds, the Stayer, blewest from earth and heaven and sky the godless” (XXXIII, 5).
“Come, Maghavan, Friend of Man, to aid the singer imploring thee in battle for the sunlight. Speed him with help in his inspired invokings: down sink the sorcerer, the prayerless Dasyu” (XVI, 9).
“The foolish, faithless, rudely-speaking niggards, without belief or sacrifice or worship,- Far far sway hath Agni chased those Dasytis, and, in the cast, hath turned the godless westward” (VI, 3).
Its quite difficult to argue that the Vedic religion propounded by the Aryans was partly built from Indian traditions, when the Vedic texts themselves condemn Indians for following a godless, alien religion. Ironically, such rhetoric is quite similar to what Muslim conquerors would say about Hindus thousands of years later, as they traced a similar route through Central Asia into India.
Indus Valley Artifacts
A common refrain voiced by the AAT crowd states that some artifacts unearthed from IVC sites are similar to symbols found in post-Aryan Indian cultures, and therefore pre-Aryan Indians must have been practicing early Vedic/Hindu traditions that were incorporated by the Aryans. Apart from the Vedas directly contradicting this theory as seen above, there are two major issues with such reasoning.
Firstly, such symbols are not unique to India. Swastikas for example have been uncovered in places afar afield as China, dated to civilizations contemporary with the IVC. The same is true for excavations depicting cross-legged figures in Egypt. So unless one is going to argue that ancient Egypt and China have cultural continuity with post-Aryan India, I don’t see how one could argue the same for pre-Aryan India, simply on the basis of symbolic similarity.
Secondly, even if one can prove direct transmission of symbols from one civilization to the next, it does not follow that the transmission was meaningful. As an example, consider the Crescent-Star symbol in Islam, which originally signified sky-worship among pagan Turks. After the conversion of Turks to Islam, the symbol (but not its meaning) was carried over. After first being used as an emblem by certain Turkic-Muslim tribes, the supremacy of the Ottomans eventually led to the Crescent-Star being adopted by Muslims worldwide as a general symbol of Islam.
In theory one could argue that this symbol is proof of the interaction between Turkic paganism and Islam, but in practice we know there was little interaction involved here; all meaning the symbol originally had was discarded, and it was just something neat-looking that post-Islamic Turks (and eventually Muslims worldwide) decided to adopt and imbibe with new meaning. I would suspect a similar dynamic to be at play between much of the pre and post Aryan symbolism.
The Aryan Migration into India was invasive; characterized by violent conquest, rape, racism, and religious supremacy. This was not a unique phenomenon in the premodern era, but a relatively standard episode that would ensue when two different tribes had to struggle over the same resources.
The Sanskrit-Vedic culture spread over India by Aryan conquest was likely not significantly influenced by native Indian traditions. That being said, Indian traditions certainly did work their way into later expressions of Hinduism, particularly after the rise of Buddhism, and the resulting reformations the latter faith affected in the former.