Aryans Appear in India

The Aryans initiated Vedic culture and introduced an Indo-European language into the Indian subcontinent.

Summary of Event

The theory concerning the appearance of Aryans in Indian history begins with the assumption that there existed a warlike nomadic tribe outside India, probably on the steppes of Central Asia north of the Caspian Sea, who invaded parts of India, the Greek peninsula, Europe, and Iran between 1500 and 1000 b.c.e. Their tribal name is unknown, but in their original scriptures, the Vedas, they called themselves Aryans (the noble ones) as opposed to Dasas (the subservient ones). Arya is a Sanskrit word whose root ar- refers to such martial virtues as valor, strength, and bravery, or to the plowing and cultivation of the land. Philologists have observed that the Aryans’ nature as fierce and warlike is reflected in the Vedic hymns devoted to warrior gods, verses that extol the glories of their weapons and the victories they won against their enemies.

Some scholars believe that the Aryans are not only the founders of India’s Vedic culture but also the ancestors of the Celtic and Germanic peoples in northern Europe, the Greeks and Latins of southern Europe, the Persians (Iranians) in the Middle East, and the Hittites and the Kassites in eastern Mediterranean. In India, they established a culture whose most sacred texts are the Vedas; the religion that resulted from this culture is Hinduism, with its rigid caste system that organizes people into the four hierarchical groups of Brahmans (priests and scholars), Kṣatriyas (warriors and rulers), Vaiśyas (farmers and merchants), and Śūdras (peasants and laborers).

The Aryan invasion theory holds that the incursions of the Indo-Aryans into northwestern India occurred in successive waves, eventually conquering and subjugating the native populations of the region. The region in which the Aryans initially settled was the fertile region along the Indus (originally Sindhu) River, which originates in the Hindu Kush mountains in the north and flows into the Arabian Sea near present-day Karachi, Pakistan, after being fed by the five major rivers of the Punjab. The Aryans eventually spread to the east and south.

Three strands of arguments are advanced to support the claim of an Aryan invasion of India. The first hinges on the fact that before the origin of the Vedic civilization, the Harappān civilization of the cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappā existed in northern India. This advanced urban civilization may have had its origin as early as 3000 b.c.e. Beginning in the middle of the twentieth century, archaeologists found that the Harappāns had built several well-planned, walled cities with spacious streets and multistory structures that contained indoor plumbing and drainage systems for sanitation. Recent excavations have discovered more such cities along the Indus River and its tributaries. Probably because of floods caused by changes in the course of these rivers, the Harrapāan civilization was already in decline at the time of the settlement of the Aryans in approximately 1500 b.c.e. As reflected in the language of the Vedas, the Aryans fought the natives with superior weapons, including bows and arrows and horse-driven, wheeled chariots. A passage from the Rigveda (also known as Ṛgveda, c. 1500-1000 b.c.e.; English translation, 1896-1897) indicates that the bow was a weapon that the Aryans loved to use:

With Bow let us win cattle; with Bow in battle let us win victories in our hot encounters.
The Bow brings grief and sorrow to our foes: armed with Bow let us conquer all regions.

The second strand of argument rests on the physical differences between the Aryans and the Harappāns. It has been observed that the Aryans and their descendants were generally tall, long-nosed, and light-skinned in contrast to the Harappāns and their progeny, who were and are shorter, flat-nosed, and darker. Anthropologists note that today the descendants of Aryans dominate northern India, whereas the descendants of the Harappāns, who were supposedly expelled by the Aryans from their original northern homeland, live in southern India. Added to this, the race theory of the caste system holds that the Aryans invented the system to preserve their racial identity separate from those they had conquered.

The third and perhaps the strongest support for the Aryan invasion theory rests on philological grounds. The language of the Aryans is Sanskrit, which is believed to have developed from a proto-Indo-Aryan root common to all Indo-European languages such as Greek, Latin, German, and English. This shared linguistic root is presented as evidence for a common racial origin of the Indo-European population in the distant past. Philologists note that most North Indian languages of today are derivatives of Sanskrit, in contrast to the South Indian languages, which belong to the Dravidian family.

For livelihood, the Aryans raised cattle and carried out small-scale farming, slashing and burning the forests as they spread east and south. They organized themselves into tribal units called jana ruled over by a raja, or chief. Eventually, these tribal units spread far and wide; the janas claimed their separate territories, organizing themselves into tribal kingdoms called janapada.


The Aryan invasion theory is a hotly contested subject among contemporary Indologists, who point out that those European scholars who understood language, race, and culture within the framework of a colonial ideology are the ones who created the Aryan/non-Aryan dichotomy. They reject the validity of arguments that racially distinguish Aryans from Harrappāns and reject as unfounded the theory of the destruction of the Harappān culture by an invading group of nomads. In their view, the Harappāns and the Aryans coexisted at the same time at different locales. They point to evidence uncovered through recent excavations at the Harappān sites, indicating the use of horses and spoked wheels by Harappāns. These archaeological findings, in their view, prove the fact that the Aryans did not import these superior weapons from a foreign land. Apparently, the use of horses in warfare was part of the entire range of known Indian history. They question the description of Aryans as nomads, referring to Vedic passages in which the Aryans are said to have built and lived in cities of their own.

Opponents of the Aryan invasion theory visualize the pre-Aryans and Aryans as forming a continuum of native peoples, who adapted to changing natural conditions by developing new types of settlement and cultural norms. Thus, in their view, the Aryan culture was from the very beginning indigenous and, perhaps, contemporaneous with other ancient cultures such as the Mesopotamian. This would also mean that the Vedas are much older than supposed by scholars such as Max Müller (1823-1900), who assigned to them a date not earlier than 1200 b.c.e.

Referring to the observed physical differences among the Aryans and Dravidians, they explain that there were numerous tribal groups in ancient India, which diverged over the course of centuries in language and culture. However, in their view, these differences do not amount to racial differences but rather are differences that can be easily explained in terms of the influence of environmental factors.

According to indigenous scholars, the practice of linking language and race is the context within which the Aryan invasion theory was developed in the eighteenth century, and this historical context must be understood as part of the British political strategy to make Indians feel inferior by emphasizing the decline of India from the wonder it once was. (The link between language and race is also being contested in other areas of Indo-European studies, especially Celtic studies, where the political agenda of English scholarship is also distrusted.) Interestingly, it was only after the conquest of Bengal and the consolidation of colonial power over India that the British became at all intellectually curious about the Indian culture. When the British philologist Sir William Jones (1746-1794) suggested in 1786 that because of Sanskrit’s apparent commonality with other Indo-European languages, the original Indian culture was a high culture created by the Aryans who were also the ancestors of Europeans, he was actually legitimizing the prevalent view that the current Indian culture was in such a decline that the country needed the help of the British (European) rule to bring it back to its original glory. Indigenists also contend that the Aryan invasion hypothesis served to bind the British and the Hindu ruling elite closer together to serve colonial aims. The controversy over the Aryan invasion theory is very interesting from the viewpoint of historiography, and the controversy will not be resolved until more archaeological data are available.

Further Reading

  • Bryant, Edward. The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Bryant ably summarizes the controversy surrounding the Aryan invasion theory and relates this controversy to the modern nationalist discourse.
  • Erdosy, George, ed. The Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia: Language, Material Culture, and Ethnicity. New York: Walter De Gruyter, 1995. The contributors to this edited volume make a remarkable attempt to clarify many of the traditional misconceptions about the Indo-Aryans.
  • Herman, A. L. An Introduction to Indian Thought. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1976. A good source for information on the linguistic relationship between Sanskrit and other Indo-European languages, as well as the underlying similarities in many Indo-European philosophies.
  • Mallory, J. P. In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology, and Myth. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1989. Among the most accessible introductions to Indo-European linguistics and the theorized relationship between Indo-European language and culture.
  • Manian, Padma. “Harappāns and Aryans: Old and New Perspectives of Ancient Indian History.” The History Teacher 32 (November, 1998): 17-32. By examining the content of selected world history texts, Manian demonstrates that history courses generally promote a Eurocentric bias when dealing with the history of Indo-Aryans.
  • Trautmann, Thomas R. Aryans and British India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. The book discusses the complex and conflicting attitudes of the British toward the Indo-Aryans and their Vedic culture.