The discussion on the myth of the Aryan Invasion keeps coming up in one way or the other. The latest frontier is genealogical research. In their book Breaking India, Rajiv Malhotra and Aravindan Neelakandan see the creation of the myth from a European perspective. They have researched the European scholars from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to help us understand why the myth was created in the first place and what their need was to appropriate a distant culture for themselves. They then systematically study how the myth impacted the questionable race science and how it distorted the Indian caste system so badly that its effects are still visible today. Here is the story, summarised here from their book

The Aryan Myth

Upon announcing his ‘discovery’ of Sanskrit, William Jones (1746-1794) wrote:

“The Sanskrit language…is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin; and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity…than could possibly have been produced by accident.’

This statement is typical of the romantic view of India, prevalent in Europe in the eighteenth century. Indian influence on Western thinking began in the late 1700s when Zend Avestha, Bhagwat Gita and Kalidasa’s Shakuntala arrived in Europe to give a totally different perspective than the Greco-Roman origins of European thought

Judeo-Christianity already in trouble with its rigid monotheism was looking for an escape route. This resulted in a fierce search for spirituality to fit its history. The discovery of India came in handy to appropriate as its own golden origin. With Sanskrit studies, European scholars could now look beyond the Mediterranean to trace their cultural heritage. It also led them beyond the Cartesian absolutism to explore consciousness and philosophy. To claim European superiority, they framed the Indian character within a Christian context to show them as romantically primitive and otherworldly. This allowed them to claim Western superiority in worldly affairs

The German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), viewed India through the romantic prism. He saw its thought as an innocent childhood and treated it as a source for literary and cultural regeneration of the rigid monotheist European culture. But he claimed that Sanskrit had a European past and that the discovery of India was in fact a rediscovery of Europe’s forgotten foundation

It was a time when Europe was looking for an identity. Britain, Spain and Portugal had built a glorified identity as civilising colonisers. France with its renaissance had claimed succession to the Greek and Roman civilisations. Germany was left high and dry. The German Indologist Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel (1771-1829) decided to appropriate India. His first myth was that German ancestors were the first wave to have migrated from India for material motive. The second wave of migration founded the Greek and Roman civilizations. This gave Germany the much-needed antiquity in the European identity pageant

The French expert Joseph Ernest Renan (1828-1892) stepped in with his own myth. He said that Aryans were polytheists who later became monotheists when they encountered Christianity. Christianity, in turn, imbibed the diverse Aryan spirit and thus transcended Semitic limitations. He thus separated the Jews from Christians with devastating consequences later. He was supported by the Swiss Linguist Adolphe Pictet (1799-1875) who theorised that Aryans were normative monotheists who got corrupted into polytheism due to contact with dark-skinned natives. This provided the justification for European Aryans to colonise Indian Aryans who had lapsed from monotheism
In the development of race theory, the most dangerous thought came from the French aristocrat Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau (1816-82). He rejected the linguistic classification of races and insisted that all civilisation emerged from the White race and non-European civilisations declined due to intermarriage with inferior natives. In his theory the White Aryans invaded India. Alarmed by the intermarriage they created the hierarchical caste system for self-preservation. This theory led others to develop the idea of White supremacy 

The British philosopher Houston Stewart Chamberlin (1855-1927) was the one who gravely distorted Indian texts to fit the myth of White supremacy. He saw India as a place where Aryan strength had decayed. He projected this decay in the spiritual realm as well and labelled Brahmanism and Buddhism as spent forces ready to be redeemed by Christianity. This was exploited with zealotry by the missionaries

In all this let us not forget the German-born Orientalist Friedrich Max Mueller (1823-1900) who famously said that Indian religion was doomed and if Christianity does not step in to take its place then it would be the fault of the latter. He was all for uprooting all that has sprung from the Vedas to strike at the root of Hindu religion

Nazis spoil the party

The European misappropriation and myths masquerading as scholarship were designed to justify ruling over others for their own survival. The myths gave them legitimacy. Not much has changed since then. The WMD myth to blow up Iraq is a continuation of the same tendency

It was a matter of time that such thinking would lead to a train wreck in Europe itself (what they did in Africa and Asia was of no moral consequence). These ideas led Hitler to persecute the Jews, already separated from Christianity as we saw earlier. The fascists in Italy were even more racists. The holocaust spelt doom for the race theory.

Now the time had come to find who to blame. One would think that Herder, Schlegel, Renan, Mueller, Gobineau would be the candidates. But guess what! The blame was laid on the doorsteps of India. Sheldon Pollock claimed that the Mimamsa school contributed to the ideological formations of precolonial India and Nazis tried to implement it in Germany. He argues that it was this that “lead to the legitimation of genocide”. Wilhelm Halbfass, takes Pollock’s thesis to fabricate far reaching speculation that Nazism is a mirror image of Mimamsa and that nothing prevents calling Sage Kumarilla a Nazi and Hitler a Mimamsik

Impact on race theory

We have already seen that the German quest for a heritage led them to appropriate ancient Aryan ancestry. They claimed, without evidence, that the Aryans were Europeans and the first wave of Aryans who migrated to Europe became Germans. The second wave established the Greek and Roman civilisations. However, the next puzzle for these respected scholars was to fit the Aryans into a Christian construct. Hence a theory took root that Aryans were normative monotheists who fell into polytheism due to corruption. However, one problem still remained and that was of the inconvenient Jews. To overcome this Christ was Aryanised. Polytheist Aryans became monotheists when they encountered Christianity. Christianity in turn benefitted by imbibing the creativity and diverse spirit of the Aryans. Thus, Christianity was deemed to have taken a new path compared to Judaism. This pseudo-separation started a trend that ultimately culminated in the Holocaust

The Aryans were represented as the highest potential of the white race and other ‘inferior races’ were a result of intermixing with the white race. Race science became a legitimate social science and used anthropometry to identify and organise races in a hierarchy. 

It became legitimate for the higher race to enslave, colonise and exterminate the lower races. To lend it legitimacy the Bible was invoked. Evangelism shaped ethnology

European scholars explained Asian and African societies through the biblical myths of Noah’s deluge, the curse on Ham and the Tower of Babel. This resulted in what Trautmann called Mosaic Ethnology which then went on to become the standard interpretation of the history of the conquered people

In the Hamitic myth Noah’s son, Ham’s descendants were cursed to remain in perpetual slavery for all time to come. This was used to justify the slavery of Africans. William Jones used the Tower of Babel myth to identify the Indian race. According to him, the Indians were descendants of Ham who after the flood went to India. This became the basis of racist interpretation of Indian society and justification for the civilising mission of the British and its evangelical army

How race theory distorted the caste system in India

In India, we know that the Varna system was neither hierarchical nor inherited. It was based on individual qualities and worth. The later Jatti system was occupational, horizontal and not rigid. Many functions like those of teachers, government officials, governors, priests, poets and kings were outside the pale of Jatti. There was no dearth of social mobility nor was there a curb on individual aspirations. As many as 30% were estimated to follow callings outside their birth Jatti. There wasn’t a great deal of proliferation too. The much-maligned Manu lists 43 Jattis

The British totally distorted the caste system as a tool to divide and rule. Its aftershocks have left India reeling till date. The west created a sinister race science and stratified races vertically justifying the greatest evils the world has seen in the form of genocide, slavery and colonisation. The same people fitted the intricate social structures in India into this imaginary race matrix creating a huge social upheaval. It is ironical or rather diabolical that having done so they would distance themselves from their creation and attribute it to the corrupted Indian mindset. This meant linking Hindu society to the evils of caste in popular imagination rather than its sublime ideals

Successive Indologists force fitted Indian social structures into a Biblical framework. William Jones mapped Indians as descendants of Ham. Through extrapolation, coincidental syllabic similarities and accidental homophones, Sanskrit material were interpreted to fit this forced biblical construct. He also linked Greco-Roman deities with Indian ones and concluded that all these sons of Ham descended into idolatry. Jones’ work was co-opted by many that followed, and the basic premise was that Indians were inferior

To lend credence to this theory the first imperative was to reconcile how the ‘pure’ European Aryans got corrupted in India. Colonialists developed a discourse that the Aryan invasion brought an infusion of civilisation but later degenerated. Colonialism was a good thing since it was a continuation of the previous infusion of civilised European culture into a corrupted Asian chaos 

The advent of race science in the west gave them a tool to employ imaginary classifications on many distinctive regional and linguistic communities in India. Coupled with Mueller’s interpretation of Vedic literature as a clash of races, this was a potent tool to divide and rule. 

Sir Herbert Hope Risley, Indian Civil Service (1851-1911) took race science and Mueller’s theory into practice and over laid race and hierarchy into the caste system. India still reels in the aftershock of what Risley did in 1901. His project involved separating Aryans from Non-Aryans. Non-Aryans were further separated from mainstream Hindu society

Prior to colonisation, the Jatti system had nothing to do with race, ethnicity or genetics. In fact, the idea of race did not exist in India. It was a horizontally organised occupational social structure. It was dynamic allowing social mobility and occupational diversity

The idea of a racial hierarchy with imagined Biblical sanctity was superimposed on this intricate social system. Max Mueller claimed that the first three Varnas were Aryan while the Shudras were Non-Aryan. Risley used anthropometric measures to classify Indians into many categories. Jattis were classified and a category of tribes was created to describe those that did not fit the Jattis. This is how tribes got institutionalised and remain so till date. He superimposed race on the linguistic classification of Max Mueller. His anthropometry led to the creation of seven races located on a linear scale with Aryans and Dravidians on opposite poles. He created 2378 main castes and tribes and listed them in a social hierarchy. This created a huge confusion when implemented as a census tool. Risley, of course, disassociated himself from the racial implications he had set in motion and blamed it on the peculiarities of the Indian mind. Although his ‘caste is race’ theory was opposed by a few scholars, they were effectively silenced since this was an effective tool to divide and rule. The Indian criticism of Risley’s work was simply ignored.


The discovery of Sanskrit exposed the west to the creativity and diversity inherent in Indian thought. This was in stark contrast to the rigid monotheism prevalent in Europe. A short period of romance with Sanskrit soon gave way to a diabolical project of appropriation. The next step was to frame the Whites as a superior race to justify colonisation. The subtexts were the European identity pageant and superiority of monotheism. Purely speculative theories to support a religious-political construct aimed at world domination passed off as scholarship. The truth is the entire western model is a myth perpetrated to control its own people, other people, resources and nature

Published with permission from Infinity Foundation (