“Can we now prove the historical existence of Bhagwan Ram?” rang out a question at a press conference in Delhi on Friday to explain the findings of two much-awaited studies on the genetic origin of modern South Asia.
On the podium to explain the two new papers of which they are among the co-authors were Vasant Shinde, an archaeologist and vice-chancellor of Deccan College, and Niraj Rai, head of the Ancient DNA lab at the Birbal Sahni Institute for Palaeosciences.
Taken together, the studies – one in Cell, the other in Science – painted a fascinating genetic picture of how groups as diverse as local hunter gatherers, Iranian farmers and pastoralists from the Pontic steppe grasslands in Eastern Europe mixed to form most of the modern South Asian population.
However, as the question at the press conference on the historical existence of gods demonstrated, this detailed science published on September 5 was also accompanied by the inevitable politics that hangs over any exploration of human origins. The sharp ascendance of Hindu nationalism in India has resulted in a nativist movement that places great emphasis on the claim that most of India’s peoples have indigenous roots – a narrative that sits uncomfortably with the very eclectic origins of the country’s modern populations.
As a consequence, though the genetic studies themselves were rather clear, many in the media misrepresented the results to suit this political narrative. In fact, even the co-authors of the papers themselves seemed to disagree on the conclusions that can be drawn from the research.
The Economic Times reported that the research raises doubts over the “long-held theory of Aryan invasion or migration into South Asia”. Amar Ujala, one of India’s largest Hindi newspapers, was more emphatic: “The Aryan invasion theory proved completely false; India is the guru of South Asia.”
The theory of the Aryan invasion (or migration) was first put forward by Western scholars during the colonial age. It maintained that a race of European or Central Asian “Aryans” swept into the subcontinent displacing the indigenous Indus Valley Civilisation. These Aryans were said to have introduced key elements of Indian culture such as the Sanskrit language – which gave rise to the Indo-Aryan branch of languages spoken all across north, west and east India today – as well as the Vedas, the foundational texts of Hinduism.
This went against Hindutva’s own imagination of India, in which all significant cultural development was held to be indigenous…[ ]