The resulting construct was known as the Mosaic Ethnology (4), wherein Europeans claimed themselves to be Japhet’s descendants while assigning Shem’s inheritance to the people of the Middle East, namely the Jews, and Arabs, the Semitic people. By default, the Africans, the Asians, and Native Americans were assigned the inheritance of Ham. The Curse of Canaan, which is an integral part of all Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, provided the legitimacy and justification for the conquest of the Africans, Asians, and Native Americans by the Europeans.
William Jones and the Sanskrit Language
Fast forward to the eighteenth century, the British East India Company, operating under a British royalty charter, successfully became the ruler of Bengal in India after the battle of Plassey in 1757. With subsequent victories over Marathas and other rulers, the Company became the unchallenged ruler of the Indian subcontinent. To effectively govern the newly conquered people, the Company’s administrators needed an answer to three defining questions: Who were the Indians? What was their place in the nations of the world and their ethnological relation to the British?
These issues were first studied in the 1780s by Calcutta-based Company employees like Charles Grant, Charles Wilkins, William Jones, and others. They, in the process, became scholars and students of Sanskrit. They undertook the study of Hindu scriptures and other literary works and translated many of them into English. Naturally, the Biblical framework of history, as well as the Mosaic Ethnology, predominated their thinking. Of course, Christians were not the only ones to view Indian history through the Abrahamic lens; many Islamic scholars have also written in a similar vein. For instance, Abu Faz’l, the biographer of the Moghul king, Akbar, asserted in Akbarnama that Indians were the descendants of Ham and linked Akbar’s lineage to Japhet (5).
As the Christian scholars looked for similarities between Indian writings and the Biblical narrative, they concluded that the Hindu Puranas were nothing but a corrupted version of the Bible. William Jones, who was also the Chief Justice of the Calcutta Supreme Court, studied the Itihasas and Puranas and erroneously interpreted the Biblical flood as the Matsyavatara of Vishnu in the Puranas (6) as well as many other events in a similar manner. In the process, Jones noticed a remarkable similarity between Sanskrit, Latin, and other European languages. Jones authoritatively published his findings in 1786 and declared a common origin of these languages. Jones’ publication came as a challenge to the European scholars, who had believed in the Hamitic origin of Indian people. The common origin of Sanskrit and European languages meant that Indians were the dispersed people from Babel’s tower and thus were descendants of Japhet. That would make the Indians the distant cousins of the Europeans. The British found it difficult to reconcile the sharing of Japhet’s inheritance with the Indians since that would question their effort to mark the Indians as inferior and their legitimacy to govern them.
Max Mueller Invents the Aryan Invasion Theory
His [Max Muller’s] speculations led to the advent of the Aryan Invasion Theory, which postulated that the Aryans, Japhet’s descendants from Europe, invaded India sometime in the long-forgotten past, brought the Sanskrit language with them, conquered the region, subjugated the indigenous “Dravidian people”…
Jones’ discovery inspired many nineteenth and twentieth-century European scholars to study the Sanskrit language and ancient Hindu texts. From their studies, a new theory of languages emerged among scholars in the 19th century – the theory of Indo-European languages. However, the real issue was deeper than language – it was the ethnology. The newly emerging science of philology suggested a grouping of people different from what the Europeans had understood earlier, giving rise to a new theory of race. The people who were the first speakers of Indo-European languages came to be labeled as “Arya” or “Aryan,” a term meaning a noble person in the Sanskrit language. The term “Aryan race” was introduced in the middle of the nineteenth century by Max Mueller, who took the Sanskrit word Arya and applied it to the people who spoke the language and speculated their origin to be Central Asia (7). Max Muller did not have any historical or archaeological evidence to make his claim; it was entirely based on the combination of linguistics and race science that became popular at the time. It should be noted that William Jones, in 1786, referred to the speakers of Sanskrit as Indian Hindus.
A few words about Max Muller are in order here. He was born in Germany in 1823 and learned Sanskrit under Frederic Schelling in Berlin, which helped him to translate some Upanishads. He continued further study of Sanskrit under Eugene Brunoff in Paris, who encouraged him to translate the Rig Veda. Max Muller moved to England in 1846 to access the manuscripts at the East India Company. His association with the Company helped him join Oxford University, and was associated with the university till his death in 1900. He translated many Sanskrit works into English during his career.
Max Muller carried a hatred towards Hinduism and the desire to erase and replace it with Christianity, which was typical of contemporary European scholars. Following is an excerpt from one of his letters.
On 25 August 1866, Muller wrote to Chevalier Bunsen:
India is much riper for Christianity than Rome or Greece was at the time of St. Paul. The rotten tree has for some time had artificial supports, because its fall would have been inconvenient for the government. But if the Englishman comes to see that the tree must fall, sooner or later, then the thing is done… I should like to lay down my life, or at least to lend my hand to bring about this struggle… I do not at all like to go to India as a missionary, that makes one dependent on the parsons… I should like to live for ten years quite quietly and learn the language, try to make friends, and see whether I was fit to take part in work, by means of which the old mischief of Indian priestcraft could be overthrown, and the way opened for the entrance of simple Christian teaching…
— The Life and Letters Of The Right Honourable Friedrich Max Muller Vol.i, Chapter X
Max Muller was a linguist and not a historian but a linguist and scholar of Sanskrit. The combination of linguistics and ethnology as practiced in nineteenth-century Europe lent credibility to his claim of Aryan Invasion Theory without any historical or archaeological evidence.
His speculations led to the advent of the Aryan Invasion Theory, which postulated that the Aryans, Japhet’s descendants from Europe, invaded India sometime in the long-forgotten past, brought the Sanskrit language with them, conquered the region, subjugated the indigenous “Dravidian people,” Ham’s descendants, and intermarried with them. This mixing of the two groups led to the degradation of the Aryan race, which explained the chaotic condition that the British found in Indians. Further, a narrative was invented that Aryans brought Sanskrit, Hinduism, and the Varna hierarchy.
By the end of the nineteenth century, a deep and durable consensus was reached among scholars, colonial administrators, and the general public regarding India. The consensus was a racial theory of the Indian civilization. The Indian civilization was the product of the clash and subsequent mixture of light-skinned civilizing invaders, the Aryans, and dark-skinned barbarians, the Dravidians. Over time, this racial theory became deeply entrenched in the Indian historical narrative and highly resistant to any new information. In independent India, this narrative has been adopted by Marxists, Missionaries, Dravidian politicians, and academics to develop divisive politics with deeply harmful consequences for the Indian society…
- Trautmann, Thomas (1997), Aryans and British India, University of California Press, Chapter-2.
- The Glider Lehrman Institute of American History: History Resources, The Doctrine of Discovery, 1493, https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-resources/spotlight-primary-source/doctrine-discovery-1493, accessed on 2/16/2022
- Digital Encyclopedias of European History, The Treaty of Tordesillas, June 7, 1494, https://ehne.fr/en/encyclopedia/themes/treaty-tordesillas-june-7-1494, accessed on 2/16/2022
- Trautmann, Thomas (2006), Languages and Nations, University of California Press, Chapter 1.
- Trautmann, Thomas (1997), Aryans and British India, pp 31.
- Trautmann, Thomas (1997), Aryans and British India, pp 58
- Trautmann, Thomas (1997)., Aryans and British India, pp 172.
- Bannister, R.C(1989), Social Darwinism and Myth of Anglo-American Thought, Temple University Press
- Dirks, Nicholas B (2001), Castes of Mind: Colonialism and Making of Modern India, Princeton University Press
- Trautmann, Thomas., Aryans and British India, Chapter 6
- Dirks, Nicholas B (2001), Castes of Mind: Colonialism and Making of Modern India, Princeton University Press, Chapter 9.