The history as taught to us in schools starts from few generations before Buddha. The first written inscriptions are associated with King Ashoka. Then there are written accounts of foreign travellers that take us back to the period of Nandas who ruled Magadha. But Indian civilization goes back millennia before Buddha. So how do we know what happened in ancient India? There are no stone inscriptions like in Egypt and other civilizations.
However we have the Vedas and associated literature and Puranas, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Western scholars studied Vedas extensively looking for answers to understand commonality among Indo-European civilizations. The commonality was not just limited to language but spanned myths, traditions, Gods/Goddesses and beliefs. One possible explanation they were looking at was a common homeland that they shared with Indians. Though initially they believed it was India, later on they considered other locations such as Russia and Anatolia. Their primary premise was that Aryans entered India through Northwest and spread all over. They also presumed that Indo-Aryans spent centuries in shared habitat with Iranians prior to entering India. This article questions this premise using two well-known studies, one by F.E. Pargiter, who studied Puranas extensively in 1920s and other by Srikant Talageri who has written multiple books on this subject over last few decades.
Even though Vedas were primarily about prayers and incidentally contained historical allusions, they were considered more reliable as they were sustained through intact oral transmission for centuries. In contrast Puranas were actually historical accounts. Puranas evolved continuously and became voluminous. Over time they incorporated seemingly hyperbolic accounts along with plausible accounts. As such they were dismissed as mythology and were hardly studied by scholars.
What are Puranas?
There are 18 Puranas written over long period of time. Vayu Purana and Brahmanda Purana were the oldest. Even Harivamsha, later part of Mahabharata can be considered a Purana. Ramayana and Mahabharata are considered Ithihasa. Together they give accounts of Indian dynasties and genealogies These Puranas were preserved by Sutas, employed by Kings. The Padma Purana says Suta’s duty was to preserve the genealogy of Gods, Rishis and glorious Kings and the traditions of great men.
Puranas have highly valuable information that too which corroborates with Vedas. But they need to be studied in a nuanced manner that sifts out history from any exaggeration. This will require handling inconsistencies and contradictions and looking for synchronisms across sources and then corroborate the accounts with Vedas. Puranas give clear pointers to geographical trail over time as they maintain list of Kings and their Kingdoms. That is exactly the approach used by Pargiter in his study.
What do Puranas tell us?
They talk about lunar lineage and solar lineage both originated from Manu. Ikshvaku dynasty (Solar lineage) continued for nearly 100 generations till Mahabharata war. King Rama belongs to Ikshvaku dynasty based in Ayodhya. Other prominent descendents of Manu were Ailas. King Bharata in whose name India is named was part of this dynasty. One of the early Kings of Aila dynasties was Yayati. Yayati had five sons – Yadu, Puru, Turvasu, Anu and Druhyu. From Yadu, arose line of Yadavas. From Puru arose line of Pauravas, a branch of which were later known as Bhaarathas. Anus over time spread to East Bihar and West Punjab. Druhyus went to Afghanistan and beyond. Purus, in particular Bhaaratas, over time moved from east westwards Sarasvati River. The Rigveda was composed on the banks of Sarasvati River. Yadavas moved to West and South. Turvasus moved southwards and farther.
All the early kingdoms were in the east such as Ayodhya, Videha, Vaishali and Kanyakubja. The main point is that Aryan and Vedic civilization spread from east to west, not from northwest to east as proclaimed by many historians. The civilization extended from Ganges all the way to Afghanistan and Iranians are a branch of this civilization. The 10 Kings war talks about moving westward of King Sudas of Puru lineage. In addition Puranas also talk about Druhyus a branch moving further westward into faraway lands, alluding to movement to Europe from India. Most of the sacred places mentioned are primarily in what is today’s India and fewer and fewer in West Punjab and beyond.
Though Pargiter provides a sound ground-work to disprove Aryan Invasion theory, at the end of his study he calls Ailas or Lunar Race alone as Aryas and calls even Ikshvakus as non-Aryans. That does not seem to add up. It is very unlikely that Rama was non-Aryan and Krishna was Aryan. Though he has tried to make space for possible very earlier Aryan invasion through Himalayan region he firmly disputes the current narrative of late Aryan Invasion from Northwest around 1500 BC. He also accepts that there is no recorded account of invasion/migration from any direction into India.
How do they corroborate with Vedas?
Bhaaratas were primarily responsible for Vedas and prominently connected with Mahabharata. Srikant Talageri (2) has made a chronological study of Vedic Mandalas (there are ten of them in Rigveda) and has come up with a hypothesis that Vedic Civilization spread westwards. Vedic Sanskrit was pitched and accented and has evolved over time. Based on the kind of language used, preliminary ordering of different Mandalas can be done. The other criteria are based on the Composers and their antiquity. In addition, Talageri has used references to geographical entities such as rivers, places and animals in different Mandalas and derived the geographical region they were composed or familiar with. As per him, Avestan accounts of Iran correspond to later parts of Veda. The commonality between European tradition and Indian tradition is direct and not through Iran. In most cases Indian tradition is super-set of other traditions.
What can we conclude?
All the accounts in Vedas and Puranas are native to India. There is nothing in any of our scriptures that records even past memory of movement into India from outside. However there are references to westward movement from Ganges plains to river Sarasvati and westwards. The reference to Druhyus who moved out far away may indicate movement of people/transmission of culture to Europe. The debate however is still open. Is out of India theory adequate to explain commonality of civilizations spread across such a large region and number of ethnicities? Are we talking only about cultural transmission or common ancestry? If not, how did Aryan culture enter into India without leaving any archaeological footprint or literary records? What are the missing links?
- Ancient Indian Historical Tradition: F.E.Pargiter, First Edition London,1922, Reprint 1997, Motilal Banrasidas Publishers Private Ltd
- The Rigveda, Historical Analysis, 2000, Aditya Prakshan New Delhi