Who Were the Aryans? Hitler's Persistent Mythology

Did the "Aryans" Destroy the Indus Civilizations?

Harappa, Pakistan of the Indus Valley civilization
Harappa, Pakistan of the Indus Valley civilizations: View of brick and rammed earth homes and streets. Atif Gulzar

One of the most interesting puzzles in archaeology—and one that hasn't been completely solved yet—concerns the story of the supposed Aryan invasion of the Indian subcontinent. The tale goes like this: The Aryans were one of the tribes of Indo-European-speaking, horse-riding nomads living in the arid steppes of Eurasia.

Aryan Myth: Key Takeaways

  • The Aryan myth says that India's Vedic Manuscripts, and the Hindu civilization that wrote them, were constructed by Indo-European-speaking, horse-riding nomads who invaded and conquered the Indus Valley civilizations.
  • Although some nomads may have made it onto the Indian subcontinent, there is no evidence of a "conquering," and plenty of evidence that the Vedic manuscripts were home-grown developments in India.
  • Adolf Hitler co-opted and subverted the idea, arguing that the people who invaded India were Nordic and supposedly the ancestors of the Nazis. 
  • If an invasion took place at all, it was by Asian—not Nordic—people. 

Sometime around 1700 BCE, the Aryans invaded the ancient urban civilizations of the Indus Valley and destroyed their culture. These Indus Valley civilizations (also known as Harappa or Sarasvati) were far more civilized than any other horse-back nomad, with a written language, farming capabilities, and a truly urban existence. Some 1,200 years after the supposed invasion, the descendants of the Aryans, so they say, wrote the classic Indian literature called the Vedas, the oldest scriptures in Hinduism.

Adolf Hitler and the Aryan/Dravidian Myth

Adolf Hitler twisted the theories of archaeologist Gustaf Kossinna (1858–1931) to put forward the Aryans as a "master race" of Indo-Europeans, who were supposed to be Nordic in appearance and directly ancestral to the Germans. These Nordic invaders were defined as directly opposite to native South Asian peoples, called Dravidians, who were supposed to have been darker-skinned.

The problem is, most, if not all, of this story isn't true. "Aryans" as a cultural group, invasion from the arid steppes, Nordic appearance, the Indus Civilization being destroyed, and, certainly not least, the Germans being descended from them—it's all fiction.

The Aryan Myth and Historical Archaeology

In a 2014 article in Modern Intellectual History, American historian David Allen Harvey provides a summary of the growth and development of the Aryan myth. Harvey's research suggests that the ideas of the invasion grew out of the work of the 18th-century French polymath Jean-Sylvain Bailly (1736–1793). Bailly was one of the scientists of the European Enlightenment who struggled to deal with the growing mound of evidence at odds with the biblical creation myth, and Harvey sees the Aryan myth as an outgrowth of that struggle.

During the 19th century, many European missionaries and imperialists traveled the world seeking conquests and converts. One country which saw a great deal of this kind of exploration was India (including what is now Pakistan). Some of the missionaries were also antiquarians by avocation, and one such fellow was the French missionary Abbé Dubois (1770–1848). His manuscript on Indian culture makes for some unusual reading today; he tried to fit in what he understood of Noah and the Great Flood with what he was reading in the great literature of India. It was not a good fit, but he did describe Indian civilization at the time and provided some pretty bad translations of the literature. In her 2018 book "Claiming India," historian Jyoti Mohan also argues that it was the French who first claimed to be Aryan before the Germans co-opted that concept.

Dubois' work was translated into English by the British East India Company in 1897 and featured a laudatory preface by German archaeologist Friedrich Max Müller. It was this text that formed the basis of the Aryan invasion story—not the Vedic manuscripts themselves. Scholars had long noted the similarities between Sanskrit—the ancient language in which the classical Vedic texts are written—and other Latin-based languages such as French and Italian. And when the first excavations at the large Indus Valley site of Mohenjo Daro were completed in the early 20th century, it was recognized as a truly advanced civilization—a civilization not mentioned in the Vedic manuscripts. Some circles considered this ample evidence that an invasion of people related to the peoples of Europe had occurred, destroying the earlier civilization and creating the second great civilization of India.

Flawed Arguments and Recent Investigations

There are serious problems with this argument. First, there are no references to an invasion in the Vedic manuscripts, and the Sanskrit word aryas means "noble," not "a superior cultural group." Second, recent archaeological findings suggest that the Indus civilization was shut down by droughts combined with a devastating flood, and there is no evidence of massive violent confrontations. Findings also show that many of the so-called "Indus River" valley peoples lived in the Sarasvati River, which is mentioned in the Vedic manuscripts as a homeland. Thus, there is no biological or archaeological evidence of a massive invasion of people of a different race.

The most recent studies concerning the Aryan/Dravidian myth include language studies, which have attempted to decipher and discover the origins of the Indus script and Vedic manuscripts to determine the origins of the Sanskrit in which it was written.

Racism in Science, Shown Through the Aryan Myth

Born from a colonial mentality and corrupted by a Nazi propaganda machine, the Aryan invasion theory is finally undergoing radical reassessment by South Asian archaeologists and their colleagues. The Indus Valley's cultural history is an ancient and complex one. Only time and research will teach us if an Indo-European invasion really did take place; prehistoric contact from the so-called Steppe Society groups in central Asia is not out of the question, but it seems clear that a collapse of the Indus civilization did not occur as a result.

It is all too common for the efforts of modern archaeology and history to be used to support specific partisan ideologies and agendas, and it doesn't usually matter what the archaeologist themselves say. Whenever archaeological studies are funded by state agencies, there is a risk that the work itself may be designed to meet political ends. Even when excavations are not paid for by the state, archaeological evidence can be used to justify all kinds of racist behavior. The Aryan myth is a truly hideous example of that, but not the only one by a long shot.

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