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Charles Allen's ‘Aryans’: Disentangling the propaganda around Aryans

Posthumously published, Charles Allen’s last book sorts through the myths, politics and controversies of the peopling of India

'Woman Riding Two Brahman Bulls’, at the Met, New York.
'Woman Riding Two Brahman Bulls’, at the Met, New York. (Courtesy Met Museum)

The last of Charles Allen’s 25 works, Aryans: The Search For A People, A Place And A Myth is his “megaproject”, as he described it at his last lit fest appearance before his death from cancer in 2020. The book opens with a warm note by long-time friend and collaborator David Loyn, who edited the manuscript and had it published late last year.

At its heart, Aryans tackles the fraught question of the “reality” of history and the use of history to fashion a particular narrative, drawing from disciplines as varied as archaeology, linguistics, music and genetic mapping. Given the rise of the extreme right, this book is timely not only for India but for the world. Allen’s route is mapping the history of the Aryans, the nomadic group whose history archaeologists, geneticists, linguists and other researchers are still piecing together.

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Allen begins with how the swastika was adopted as the symbol of Aryanism at the end of World War I and its distortion by Nazism. The first section tells readers how half-baked ideas by dimwits shaped early theories of a superior race. A significant force behind this was French diplomat Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau, who used archaeological evidence to suggest that a superior Germanic civilisation flowed from the grandeur of Greece and Rome, imagining a corridor of superior cultures that created the Indo-European culture. His books and lectures were a runaway success and his theory was adopted by Turkey, the US, Italy and Germany, wherever far-right nationalism was on the rise. De Gobineau’s arguments helped build national narratives for the “superiority” and “purity” of races and anti-Semitism. This was a post-Darwin and pre-Hitler world, and the pseudoscience of eugenics was mushrooming. Politicians, writers, suffragists, philosophers, and even Nobel laureates were among its votaries. Allen paints a story of the rise of Nazism and alongside, the dangers of distorting history for political means.

He examines the work of linguist Gustaf Kossinna, who laid the groundwork for an ethnocentric German prehistory, using shards of pottery, brass toys, iron spearheads and horse skeletons to establish his theories. This concept of using race and material culture lent theoretical support to the expansionist policies of Nazi Germany: wherever a single archaeological find of a type designated as Germanic was discovered, the land was declared ancient German territory. Nazi party ideologists used this to create a xenophobic narrative about racial superiority. During the interwar period, ancient runes were used to design symbols for Nazi Germany and to reclaim the lands of the Aryans.

While discussing the rise of Nazism, Allen dwells on interesting side stories, including the cult of German composer Richard Wagner, who believed in theories of miscegenation, and his British familial connections. He tells the reader about British, German and French scholars who gravitated toward studying Sanskrit texts and formed theories, making Paris, Oxford, Cambridge and Berlin centres of Sanskrit studies, yet never visited India. The “discovery” of Sanskrit by European scholars at the end of the 18th century was momentous for the development of historical linguistics, comparative philology and the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European, the ancestor of most European and all Indo-Iranian languages. The broad (and somewhat mistaken) consensus these scholars arrived at was that all ‘great civilisations’ “sprang from one stock and that their colonies were all one people either directly or indirectly of Indian origin”, Allen writes quoting the German philosopher Friedrich Schlegel.

'Aryans: The Search For A People, A Place And A Myth': By Charles Allen, Hachette India,  400 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>799.
'Aryans: The Search For A People, A Place And A Myth': By Charles Allen, Hachette India, 400 pages, 799.

In the third section of the book, Allen disentangles the misconceptions, plain lies and propaganda around Aryans. He examines the opinions of Indian intellectuals and freedom fighters that “Hindu Aryans” are a superior race. Two schools of thought prevailed: The Hindu elite advocated that Aryans left India and colonised Eastern Europe (out of India), while others believed Aryans came on horseback and caused the decline of the Indus Valley Civilisation (Aryan invasion theory). Allen’s take on how champions of Hinduism and Hindutva, including Vivekananda, M.S. Golwalkar, V.D. Savarkar and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, arrived at their ideas on Aryanism is revealing.

With the politics and myth set aside, Allen points us to where the answers will come from. He turns to graves, genes, and gold, setting the reader off on a journey across the steppes and along river valleys, across frozen fields of Scandinavia, and over the Swiss Alps. He introduces the earliest nomads, the first agriculturists, Scythians, Persians, Celts and Zoroastrians, and eventually brings the reader to the subcontinent, all the while simplifying genetics of livestock domestication, lactose intolerance, Botai horses and modern humans. Allen adeptly intertwines disparate discoveries, presenting readers with a nuanced resolution to the Aryan debate and current controversies .

Aryans: The Search For A People, A Place And A Myth is a book of immense sweep, stretching the canvas even wider than Allen’s previous books. It warns us that unless we set aside our political and religious biases, our attempts to separate fact from myth and myth from history will remain unresolved. Only calling out these agendas can help us in our search for better answers. On a more trivial note, I wonder if we should listen to Wagner’s nationalistic music with caution? Should we rename Francis Galton’s equations? How far should we trust early 20th-century Hindu philosophy, which has impinged on doctrines of Hindutva? Should India reclaim its oldest bronze statuette, the Kaushambi woman with two zebus, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York? All these relate to important junctures in the history of the Aryans. We have only begun to understand what may be true, half-true and plain lies. As in his earlier works, Allen shines a light on future directions for research.

Pranay Lal is a biochemist, a public health specialist, a natural history writer, and the author of Indica: A Deep Natural History Of The Indian Subcontinent And Invisible Empire. He is passionate about ecological restoration and reversing climate change.

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