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Some issues with autochthonous Aryan theory

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The dating of the entry of Indo-Aryan speakers into Indian subcontinent and their role in shaping the cultural milieu of the society can be termed as ‘the Aryan problem’. One may take a look here for a nice overview of the problem. Take a look here for an approach based on genetic evidences. This post is a miscellaneous collection of points which I think militate against an autochthonous Aryan theory.

Fear of snow

Take a look at gR^itsamada mantra (RV 2.33.2):

tvA dattebhI rudra shaMtamebhiH shataM himA ashIya bheShajebhiH |
vyasmaddveShO vitaraM vyaMho vyamIvAshchAtayasvA viShUchIH ||

(Griffith’s translation)

With the most saving medicines which thou givest, Rudra, may I attain a hundred winters |
Far from us banish enmity and hatred, and to all quarters maladies and trouble ||

The word shataM himA – hundred snows is translated as hundred winters which strongly indicates winter is accompanied with snowfall. Moreover, the word ‘hima’ has cognates in other IE languages all meaning winter/snow:

Lithuanian žiema winter
Latvian ziema winter
Greek χεῖμα (kheima) winter / frost / cold
Latin hiems winter
Polish zima winter
Persian زمستان (zemestan) land of snow
Old Armenian ձմեռն  (jmeṙn) snow storm / winter
Sanskrit हिम (himá) frost / snow

Avestan ‘hazaŋro zima’ is the exact cognate of Sanskrit sahasra hima, similar to shataM himA above, is literally thousand winters but implying thousand years. From all these, we can infer that the composer of RV 2.32 lived in a locality where the winter is not only harsh but accompanied with snowfall and prays to rudra and beseeches his life saving medicinal balms to overcome the winters. Some would say, the Aryans could have got the idea of snow from himAlayas. However we can see that the poet is not talking about some beautiful snow covered peaks of a far off mountain but a weather he has to live through. And himAlayas is not a candidate for Aryan homeland anyways. This militates against ‘snow in snow peaks of himalayas’ explanation.

Continuous fire

Maintaining a continuous fire seems to be a cultural feature shared by lot of IE branches – refer to Roman vestal virgins, Lithuanian fire priestesses and Zoroastrians’ fire temples. Even in modern times there are Zoroastrians who were maintaining a gas burner lit from the fire temple and continuously maintained at home. The orthodox brahmins similarly maintain a single fire aupAsana agni and even more orthodox ones maintain 3 fires – gArhapatya, AhavanIya and dakshiNa. The fire is preserved in a pot and used for morning, evening, fortnightly and seasonal sacrifices. My own family had maintained such continuous fire till my grandfather’s time. We grant that the numbers of such fire maintainers are rapidly dwindling. If we think about the circumstances for the origin of a ritual involving continuous maintenance of a fire, we can easily infer northern latitudes – a region with harsh cold winters where losing a fire would have meant life and death. It is very unlikely to have originated in the Indian subcontinent with its tropical climate where fire could be produced by striking two stones. Majority of brahmins in India have switched to on-demand ritual fire production historically. This is precisely because making fire here is quite easy. The later ritual texts indeed do provide alternatives for performances of fortnightly and seasonal sacrifices with extra steps for someone who is not maintaining continuous fire.

Centrality of horse in Aryan rituals

The necessity of horse in ashvamedha, horse sacrifice is too well known to be warrant a repetition. However we are not talking about this ritual which in all probability was rarely performed. An Aryan dvija (twice born man) sets up his 3 shrauta fires by first performing the initial ritual called ‘agnyAdheya’ and continuously maintains the fires from then on and performs his cycle of rituals. If for any reason the fires are extinguished, he performs punarAdheya ritual and starts using fire from that ceremony.

Now, one important part of the ritual is a step where fire from the established gArhapatya is taken to the place of AhavanIya. Fire sticks are lighted at lower ends on the gArhapatya fire, placed on a pan and carried eastwards such that the smoke is directed towards the sacrificer following it. In front of the fire a horse is led by Agnidhra directed by adhvaryu. At the starting of this procession, adhvaryu directs the brahma priest to chant the vAmadevya sAman. The adhvaryu sits down and makes the horse put its right fore-foot on the recently prepared hearth-mound on the AhavanIya fire place. The horse is led towards the east, made to turn round from left to right and made to stand facing west. The adhvaryu calls the brahma priest to chant the bR^ihat sAman. The fire is then laid down on the horse’s foot-print as per the followers of shuklayajurveda. Krishnayadurvedins do not allow the fire to be laid on the horse’s foot-print and horse is just made to step beside the altar. Refer to taittirIya brAhmaNa 1.1.5 and shatapatha brAhmaNa 2.1.4,

The whole point of recounting the minute ritual points of a specific step in agnyAdheya ceremony is to underscore the point that a horse is quintessential even for the most basic shrauta sacrifice whose sole purpose is to set up the solemn fires for his future performances of cycle of rituals. Horse is one animal that is poorly attested in Indian subcontient – a tooth here, a bone there. For a ritual like this to develop, we need a geography where horses are abundant, domesticated and available for ritual use. Unless we start seeing huge horse remains in the sub-continent, a steppes like central Asian location is the likely candidate for origin of Aryans.

Ephedra – Soma

Despite claims from certain white Indologists that soma (Avestan haoma) is some sort of hallucinogen and even mushroom, ephedra is the ‘satya-soma’ – true soma. The orthodox brAhmaNas use sarcostemma twigs in modern soma rituals as soma-pratinidhi (representative of soma) instead of real soma. kAtyAyana’s rule allow another substance that closely resembles the original ordained substance. Hence we can infer that the original soma was a plant that resembled sarcostemma. In fact, twigs of sarcostemma which Fritz Staal observed in nambudri rituals were initially mistaken for Ephedra stems by botanists he consulted [p69]. Combine this with the fact that Zoroastrians use Ephedra to date for their hom (haoma) ritual, one need not look further than ephedra for ‘satya-soma’.

In Rig Veda, we have Indra coming for his share when apAla Atreyi plucking some soma twigs and chewing – i.e. soma is easily accessible. By the time of brAhmaNa texts, the story changes – soma is hard to come by and the soma seller is suspected of selling fake plants instead of real soma. The brAhmaNa texts prescribe alternatives in place of the soma plant for this reason. Noting that ephedra doesn’t grow in India but is available abundantly in Central Asia and the similarity of Zoroastrian’s haoma ritual with agniShToma, we can conclude that Indian subcontinent is an unlikely place for soma and soma related rituals to originate.

Greek, Avestan and Vedic myths

Greek, Vedic and Iranian myths and culture share some very unique features to the exclusion of other IE branches. The linguistic aspects have been noted and documented well by the scholars. Some Vedic myths disappear in later Hinduism.

For e.g., Emil Benveniste when talking about Hera casting away her infant Hephaestus because he was born lame seems to unaware of the parallel myth of Aditi casting away malformed mArtANDa.

Take Greek Triton, Iranian thraetaona Athwya and Vedic trita Aptya. Trita with Indra kills trishira tvAShTra, the 3 headed monster. Thraetaona kills 3 headed serpent in Iranian and Triton with Herakles kills the serpent in Greek. Triton in Greek has the water connection explicit and is surrounded by nymphs. According to a shatapatha myth, trita along his brothers dvita and ekata were said to arise out of water when Agni spat in the waters while being forcefully dragged out by the devas.

Iranian and Vedic seem to have a duplication of this figure. Iranians have another ‘Thrita’ apart from ‘thraetaona’ whose position is ambiguous – in one place he is a medicine man (the section has a atharvan like medical spell) and in another place he is a bad guy. In RV, have a traitana the dAsa and uniformly bad.

Only these 3 branches have the ‘horse themed names’. Greek – Hipparchus, Hippocrates, Hippolytus; Iranian – Keresaspa, Lohraspa, Vishtaspa; Vedic – bR^ihadAshva, haryashva, kR^ishAshva.

Bottom line is that the Iranians, Vedic Aryasn and Greeks have features that are not inherited from a common ancestor. Hence they must have been interacting closely for a period of time where they mutually affected their religious mythologies and rituals. Indian subcontinent is an unlikely place for this interaction.

Indo-Iranian substratum

Lubotsky methodically analyzes Indo-Iranian lexicon in his paper ‘The Indo-Iranian Substratum’ in search of loan words that entered Proto-Indo-Iranian. One startling conclusion is from the phonological and morphological analysis of the loanwords in Indo-Iranian (IIr) and Indo-Aryan (IA) is that the loans have ‘Sanskrit’ forms. This indicates that the Indo-Aryan speakers first came into contact with the foreign tribes speaking the donor language and then passed on the words to their Iranian brethren. Secondly, the oldest layer of borrowings from Indo-Iranian (IIr) to Finno-Ugric (FU) often concerns words which are only attested in Sanskrit and not in Iranian. The Iranians came into contact with FU speakers slightly later and continuously contributed to the enrichment of FU vocabuilary.

The raw data suggests that Iranian, Aryan and FU speakers were interacting closely and the Aryan speakers being the conduit to funnel loanwords back to the Iranians while simultaneously giving loanwords to FU, at least at the earlier stages. As an aside, Lubotsky unnecessarily complicates the matter by proposing that the same substrate language is simultaneously spoken in IVC as well as Central Asia. He also says IA and IIr in this scenario are not yet undifferentiated  but are dialects of a proto IIr (P-IIr) language continuum – conclusions not at all warranted by the data, as the data itself suggests P-IIr has actually differentiated into IA and IIr branches. Nevertheless, a three way interaction of IA, IIr and FU speakers strongly militate against Indian Subcontinent for the origin of IA speakers.

Rig Veda’s five tribes – pa~nchajanAH

Rig Veda has the five tribes – pUrus, yadus, Anus, druhyus and turvashas. Only two out of the five RV tribes were going to have good future in India – the pUrus and yadus. Post RV, the Anus, Druhyus and Turvashas quickly disappear from the scene, largely forgotton by the itihAsas and purANas. Even the brAhmaNa texts have forgotten them. We would like to have more information regarding the agni of the Anus and the fate of druhyus of which we only get tantalizing glimpses but who, sadly don’t matter in post Rig Vedic texts. The reason likely is that only the pUrus (or the bharata branch of the pUrus), the yadus and their allies were the Indo-Aryan speaking tribes who entered the subcontinent.

Conclusions

We do note that Rig Veda contains references to flora and fauna of Indian subcontinent which has to be explained. However that is a separate post. One clue can be noticed in the first sUkta of the vishvAmitra maNDala, where the composer practically admits that he is singing both the ‘old’ and ‘new’ hymns, suggesting a long tradition of reworking of ancestral compositions by later descendants. The aggregate of the evidences suggest that the core of Rig Veda is likely composed outside Indian subcontinent. A combined study of Avesta and Rig Veda suggest a location at the vicinity of the Kura and Arash rivers near Caspian sea, but that is a whole another topic.


4 Comments

  1. Q may be silly,but not sure i’ve come across any explanations. Hindus are famous for their physical purity. e.g, take bath before doing anything & so on.. But their European cousins aren’t. Both Japs & our a/cs unanimously say they don’t take bath for days together.. if they (Europeans & Aryans) both had same ancestors, & if IA were put outside India what explains this difference? Did Aryans acquire this physical purity after they reached Bharatam?

  2. kkrangan says:

    We should not be throwing blanket statements like that. Ritual ablutions and purity rituals were found in a lot of old pagan European cultures.

  3. Zed says:

    The thing I dont’ understand is: how come there is no description of the journey southwards towards india described in their lore?

    Leaving genetics and linguistics aside, how come we have description of ‘thousand winters’ and all, but absolutely no word about the actual travel and arrival at northwestern india? Looks like these aryans had a collective loss of memory when they traveled and/or dispersed from their original homeland but nobody, not one says a word about it.
    There is nothing in greek, persian or indian sources about being part of a common people in central asia and a common original language….

    Look at similar examples: The turks have a memory of their movement westwards and is amply reflected in their memory and literature.
    The anglos and spaniards have a memory of their movement across oceans and celebrate it as a ‘columbus day’ to commemorate that event pass that memory across generations.

    Then how come these aryans have no memory of where they came from? Where is their ‘columbus day’ commemoration of the event? How come a set of tribes that went to great lengths to preserve the memory of their vedas, puranas, rituals etc. made absolutely no marker for their event of entrance into india?
    How come a culture that celebrates the events in the cosmos…. talks about origin of the cosmos and yuga cycle leave out the fact that they packed their bags and moved southwards because??

    Please note that it matters the least to me where the ‘aryans’ came from, but I find it interesting that there is no satisfactory answer to the most obvious question in this regard.

  4. zimriel says:

    Zed: it’s an interesting question. I am ignorant of Hindu myth, and most of my Iranian myth knowledge comes from the Shahnameh – which is laughably late for our purposes here. But I can speak to the Greek tradition.

    The Greeks’ language is attested back to the Bronze Age, but they didn’t record any narratives in Linear B. When the Greeks do record their origins, they note their language is similar to Macedonian and Phrygian, and more distantly to Armenian. They also note the presence of “Pelasgians” amongst them in the southern islands and maybe other pockets of southern Greece. And then there are the legends of the “return of the Heraclids”, that is Dorians.

    Put all that together, and it seems the Greeks assumed that they (and the Armenians) had come from the southern Balkans. Beyond that / before that, they didn’t ask. They’d probably suggest you consult the Thracians. Unfortunately for us, there aren’t any Thracians left.

    This perhaps-overly-long comment goes to show how a people can remember coming from elsewhere, and even get their immediate origins right (compare with the parallel Latins, who thought they were Phrygians from Troy), but not remember anything from before that. In the Greeks’ defence, Hesiod and Herodotus were a long way from the Bronze Age.

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