Review: Aryans by Charles Allen - Hindustan Times

Review: Aryans by Charles Allen

Mar 23, 2024 05:44 AM IST

In this posthumously published book, Charles Allen, author of works on Ashoka and Rudyard Kipling, among others, investigates who the Aryans were by drawing on linguistic theories, archaeology, and studies of human migration and genetics

When I received Charles Allen’s posthumously published book, Aryans; The Search for a People, a Place and a Myth. I realized that I have been reading his books since 1975. So, it seems relevant to first review “where he’s coming from”. I met Allen in 2015 when I was asked to conduct a public talk with him at a Chennai literature festival about his book Ashoka; The Search for India’s Lost Emperor (2013). I felt it would be rude to point out in public the mistakes I encountered in it, starting with his translation of Jambudvipe as the land of the jamun, not the rose-apple. However, his tracking of British efforts to uncover the lost history of Ashoka was interesting, even if the tone was self-congratulatory as a Britisher.

A performance of the Ramayana ballet at the Prambanan temple in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. (Aleksandar Todorovic/Shutterstock)
A performance of the Ramayana ballet at the Prambanan temple in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. (Aleksandar Todorovic/Shutterstock)

In his nostalgia-driven Plain Tales from the Raj (1975), his heart was very much in the 19th century. It seemed written for koi hai British readers in withdrawal for Empire, with its reminiscences about devoted ayahs and white-only clubs. But that was understandable as he belonged to the sixth generation of his family in colonized India and was himself born in Kanpur in 1940. It was funny, though, to read of “the great civilizing effect of the Indian Army” and his evident view that British rule was overall good for Indians. That was only to be expected from a scion of the Raj. It suggested that he had deeply imbibed Rudyard Kipling’s view that “native races” were “the White Man’s burden”.

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So it was no surprise that his book Kipling Sahib in 2008 was a paean to imperialism’s greatest champion. I grew up reading Kipling and believe we would not have understood a view of 19th century India in English writing but for books like Kim and The Jungle Books. But Allen, though a self-styled historian, did not speak of the gritty realities of being Indian under the Raj and the suffering of the Indian people. He ignored that or whitewashed it.

400pp, Rs799; Hachette
400pp, Rs799; Hachette

He “came out” more openly in his book on south India, Coromandel, A Personal History of South India, in 2017, with the astounding observation that “The ocean effectively marks the limits of Hinduism, which may explain why India was never a seafaring nation or, indeed, why India was never – apart from one brief but significant foray into South East Asia by the Imperial Cholas in the eleventh century – colonizers”. This stated at best a shocking lack of homework or at worst, willful negation. The rich maritime history of ancient seafarers from the Eastern Seaboard, be it from Odisha or Tamil Nadu, is well-documented, while the Western Seaboard traded with regions of the old universe of discourse like Mesopotamia. The Cholas were considered a thalassocracy or maritime empire without being colonizers, which may have puzzled a Western colonizer. The influence of Hindu seafarers – as opposed to the impact of Western colonizers – can be seen all over Southeast Asia. I saw it for myself when I lived and travelled around the region for some years. A number of Asian scholars can vouch for the deep influence of not only Buddhism, as commonly supposed, but also of Hinduism.

Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Prambanan temple, Hindu Bali, the Gajapati kings of Indonesia, Ayutthaya (Ayodhya) in Thailand, the Thai king’s title of “Rama”, the International Ramayana Festivals held each year, involving eight to 10 Southeast Asian countries – the list is long. Indian culture sailed across our eastern sea like a bird perched on the shoulder of commerce. To read that “the ocean marks the limits of Hinduism” was absolutely shocking, when the Bay of Bengal was to Asia what the Mediterranean was to Europe, carrying culture back and forth. In passing, the Indian name for the Bay of Bengal is Mahodadhi, the Great Milk Ocean. The Arabian Sea is called Ratnakara. We’re talking real Indian history here, regrettably untaught to many. There were other mistakes, too, in names and locations, which were troubling, especially since Allen wrote well and is easy to read, which can be beguiling.

Despite the author’s previous sins of omission and commission, I read Aryans with an open mind since people may change and each book deserves to be read on its own merits. Its professed intention is good, to debunk white supremacist trends of “Aryanism” and its false view of history by investigating who the Aryans were over 11 chapters, drawing on linguistic theories, archaeology, human migration studies and genetic studies. Allen’s research for Aryans covers a lot of ground, especially the interesting opening two chapters on the genesis of German Aryanism. The Nazi notion of a master race, however, is documented in other writings, and we do not learn anything particularly new or startling about their appropriation of “Aryan” as a marker of racial superiority. However, if one wishes to catch up with the subject of Nazi Aryanism in one place, this section is useful.

What Aryans does not tell us is that the term “Dravidian” was invented for south India by colonial Christian missionaries, which means that “divide and rule” was not only Hindu-Muslim but also North-South, a theme mistakenly bruited even today. Indians traditionally had a syncretic view of their land and people. Chanakya wrote that the Chakravartin’s writ should run from the Himalayas to the far ocean and Adi Shankara described Bharatvarsh as “Aa Setu Himalaya”, from the southernmost seas to the northernmost mountains while the Skanda Purana, a document that deserves deep attention, lacking so far, is a detailed geographical description of Bharatvarsh as a cultural entity from north to south.

Crucially, did the Aryans indeed come from Central Asia and split into Indian, Iranian and European branches? Allen pursues that colonial construct whereas modern scholarship refutes the idea of a planned “Aryan invasion”, a notion invented by German scholar Max Mueller in the 1850s. Also, modern genetic studies tell us that Indian DNA is a perplexing mixture, in varying proportions, of three, possibly four different ancestral strains. This perhaps points to migration but does not prove that there was an “Aryan invasion”. Nor can we take present genetic studies as the last word since further research may present new dimensions. The term “Arya” itself in Indian usage, unlike the Western racial value forced on it, merely means “noble”, as in the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, the Arya Satya.

Allen critiques the 19th C European love of Sanskrit as “infatuation” and disagrees with Indian thinkers like Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo, who contested the “Aryan invasion” theory. But an Indian reader will be struck by the fact that while modern Indians refute “Aryanism”, Allen forces it on them with “Aryanism is inextricably linked to their identity as Hindus and the Vedic roots of their religion, with connotations of supremacy and a sense of entitlement.” This completely ignores the Upanishadic view that all human beings are equal parts of a whole and the fact that central Hindu figures like Mahavishnu and his avatars, Rama and Krishna, and Draupadi, were all very dark, and their beauty is highly praised, far removed from the blond, white “master race” of Aryanism. Allen’s view also ignores the concept of vasudaiva kutumbakam, the life-changing legacy of Hindu social reform, the decades of affirmative action and, above all, the Constitution. His attitude seems to derive directly from that of the colonial missionaries who positioned themselves as the natural enemies of the home grown dharma religions of India and the East and invented the “Aryan-Dravidian” divide, which Aurobindo attacked as “the artificial and inimical distinction of Aryan and Dravidian”.

Charles Allen (Richard Davies/Courtesy Hachette)
Charles Allen (Richard Davies/Courtesy Hachette)

In sum, no really clear picture of the “Aryans” emerges from Allen’s book beyond the history of “Aryanism”, a recap of various arguable theories about it and that the “Aryans” may be said to have drunk milk and ridden horses. My chief interest was in the section on the Scythians, since little is taught to us about them. They are known to us as the Sakas, fierce horsemen defeated by King Chandragupta II. Again, there is no conclusive proof that they were “original Aryans” of the Asian steppe, while Allen’s contention that the Saraswati was a river in Afghanistan is merely startling and another unproven theory, another shot in the dark.

Therefore, while credit is due to Allen for extensively researching his topic and trying to put in as much as a book can hold, it is his interpretations regarding India that we need to be acutely wary of. They are problematically typical of the colonial mindset forcing its own theories on India without conclusive proof; quite 19th century, in fact.

Renuka Narayanan is a journalist and author. Her latest book is Learning from Loss.

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