The message of The Arctic Home of the Vedas was tailor-made to appeal to the chauvinism of the orthodox community. While its pseudoscientific thesis in no way revolutionized the way historians view the Vedic period, Tilak's theory did have significant implications: The Vedic texts need not be deciphered. They described what actually existed in the pre-diasporic Aryan world. The Aryans were neither primitive nor illogical. In fact, they were almost superhuman to have survived in the form that they did. If the Aryans were, indeed, the first to attain a level of civilization higher than that reached by any other group in the age of metals, how could they now justifiably remain dependent on the West? It was this vision of the Aryan's intrinsic ascendancy over others (both foreign and domestic) that came to fuel nationalist rhetoric. This racialist script was exported to the West by Swami Vivekananda.
In fact, Vivekananda held that there exists only one really civilized race in the world, the Aryan. Until endowed with Aryan blood, no race can be deemed civilized. Civilization cannot be taught: It necessitates the Aryan giving his blood to a race for it to become truly civilized (Vivekananda 3:535). The Aryans were lovers of peace and cultivators of the soil. Vivekananda contrasted these Aryans with India's first inhabitants, races of wild people and cannibals who were neither Aryan nor Hindu. Exposure to the sun had turned their skin black.
Accordng to Vivekananda however the Aryans did not swoop down and steal land from these aborigines. Nor did they settle India by exterminating the native population (The complete Works of Vivekananda, 5.534), as Christians were wont to do (Vivekananda 2.282). Rather they absorbed them, making modern India a totally Aryan nation (Vivekananda 3:292). The only vestige of this successful miscegenation was the alteration of the "transparent glow of the white complexion of the Himalaya dwellers" into the bronzed hue of the present-day Hindu (Vivekananda 3:506). Once again, apparent inclusivity masked social, racial, and political exclusionism.
When not constrained by nationalist rhetoric, as in a 1900 lecture in Oakland, California, Vivekananda elaborated upon the racial subtext that there is no kinship between the northern and the southern Indian.
The North, Vivekananda maintained, belongs to the great Aryan race to which all Europeans (except the Basques and the Finns!) belong. The South stemmed from the same race as did the ancient Egyptians and Semites (Vivekananda 8:241-42), racially and culturally distinct from the Aryan center. While the great Aryan race comprises the top three castes, the non-Aryan race consists of shadras, aborigines (who aspired to become civilized), and the Dravidians.
This racialist argument foregrounds the larger political concern of validating caste distinctions. Rather than evolving toward a civilized mode of existence, non-Aryans are presented as "schemers" trying to live as did the Aryans, coopting their lifestyle by entering schools and colleges, wearing the sacred thread, performing ceremonies, and enjoying equal rights in religion and politics (Vivekananda 3:520). Too many different uncivilized and uncultured races tried to flock to the Aryan fold with their superstitions and hideous forms of worship. While appearing civilized, they clearly were not. These barbarians wreaked havoc by introducing "mysterious rites and ceremonies" to the old faith. They destroyed Aryan vigor and chaste habits. They defiled India with their superstitions (Vivekananda 3:263). Their rank imitation of the Aryan lifestyle initiated a process of decay. The central Aryan core, forced to succumb to the allurements of sensual forms of worship prevalent among these various low races, lost its integrity. In the past, when contact with "outcastes" had threatened to "destroy Aryan civilization," the Aryans had struck out in a natural reaction of self-preservation, as when they destroyed Buddhism (Vivekananda 6:164). But, the successful seduction of the Aryans by sensualists resulted in blind allegiance to usages "repugnant to the spirit of the 8astras" and ultimately destroyed the Aryan race (Vivekananda 6:182). Aryavarta became a deep and vast whirlpool of the most vicious, most horrible, and most abominable customs. It lost all internal strength and became the weakest of the weak (Vivekananda 4:445).
Vivekananda thus directed a public relations coup against foreign critics of caste and Indian social reform. In this scenario, Aryan civilization is a fabric; its cotton consists of its highly civilized, semicivilized, and barbarian tribes; the warp is the varnishramadharma, and the woof is represented by the conquest over strife. Europe has been able to produce nothing of this magnitude. All the West can do is exterminate the weak like wild beasts (Vivekananda 5:537), acts of which India is incapable. Unlike Europe's extermination policies, Aryans have established a system of inclusion. Through the implementation of varna, Aryans raise everyone up to their own level or even higher than themselves. While Europe metes out death to the weak, Aryan civilization devised social rules for their protection.
Vivekananda conceived of caste as a liberating force. While individuals have every chance of rising from a low caste, "only in this birth-land of Altruism" are they compelled to "take" their whole caste with them (Vivekananda 4:297). Vivekananda viewed caste as one of the greatest social institutions that the Lord gave men (Vivekananda 4:299). Although it evinces some unavoidable defects (which Vivekananda blames on foreign persecutions and undeserving brahmins), it has worked wonders in India and "is destined to lead Indian humanity to its goal." Exactly what Vivekananda envisioned to be India's goal was clear.
Effective reform or actual amelioration of the disenfranchised was never an issue at home. Vivekananda held to the status quo, camouflaging his orthodox politics in a mystification of caste. Without caste reform, any romanticization of the downtrodden is foreclosed. What remains is a glorification of an India in which the brahmin descendants of Aryans are the only real beneficiaries.
Vivekananda's plan for India's future consisted of a recreation of the past glory. In order to achieve his end of moral regeneration, he first established an Indian utopia in the Aryan past. He read into the Veda, or rather, invoked the Veda to portray an India that seeks the common good through caste and liberation through austere religious vows, fasting, and retreat. The language of the Veda becomes the means by which renunciation is attained. Vivekananda juxtaposed this ideal fiction of the Aryan past with an equally fictive West fraught with rank materialism, power, sense-pursuits, and strange luxuries in the form of fashion, food, drink, magnificent palaces, manners, and transportation.
Vivekananda presented the Aryan ideal as an alternative to the decadent West. India will lead the world in the regeneration of man the brute into man the god (Vivekananda 4:315). For the colonized, this message was, indeed, uplifting. However, behind the rhetoric of the holy man lies a disingenuous will to power: the determination to maintain traditional structures of power and domination.
What is particularly striking about
these stagings of the past is their literary aspect, specifically their
modernism. In reading Tilak, and Vivekananda, one is reminded of certain short
stories by Borges, where history is presented as inevitably limited and
parochial in focus. Facts are only interpreted according to the ideology of the
time, just as memory is activated by conventional scholarly wisdom.
Joyiba Govind Phule called for the victims of Aryan perfidy to use reason, recognize what had been inflicted on them, and revolt against brahmin treachery by discarding the scriptural instrument of this fraud and enslavement (Phule 1991a: 2.32). Once the spurious Vedas are rejected, the true Vedas can be unearthed. Phule did not reject the concept of textual authority or legitimacy. He rejected rather the false readings of the Veda that held his people in thrall. Read correctly, the Vedas reveal a different message-that the Dasyus were the original inhabitants of the land; they were brave, pure at heart, and upright in their conduct. Phule exhorted their descendants to acknowledge this alternate rendering, recognize the degradation to which they have been reduced by the Aryans (Phule, Collected Works, 1991a: 2.83), and reject it.
By introducing this new category of reason into the discussion, Phule effected a dissociation of "thing" from "name," or objects from what they were called. Reference did not determine the signify, but rather the application of a sign (Aryanhood) to an object (the Ddsa) categorized and interpreted that object. By challenging the myth of a utopian past, Phule launched a radical attack on Vedic revivalism. He realized full well that the brahmin and upper-caste intellectual (that is, the new middle class) would represent the Aryan in any return to origins. He also understood how any glorification of supposedly Aryan values further consolidated brahmin ascendancy. Finally, he suspected that opposition to the West, another key component of revivalism, often masqueraded as patriotism when, in reality, it masked hegemonic desire on the part of high-caste reformers.
B.R. Ambedkar (1892-1956) belonged to the Untouchable Mahar caste of Maharashtra. Ambedkar received a M.A. and Ph.D. at Columbia University in New York, and passed the bar from Grey's Inn, London. He was able to achieve what none of his caste had ever done because his father had joined the British Army and his family had found the means to secure him an education. Ambedkar dedicated his life to working for the advancement of his people. Initially, he worked as a social advocate in the field of journalism, later as a representative for his people testifying at government commissions, and finally as their guru and leader.
By 1956, Ambedkar was disgusted with the continued impossibility of his people's condition. He was tired and ill. With the claim that he was born a Hindu but had no intention of dying a Hindu, since the religion offered him no human dignity, he converted to Buddhism, as did his followers. His commitment to the plight of his people spearheaded the mobilization of low-caste Hindus that took shape with the Dalit revolt in the seventies and continues to this day in the social and political struggle of the scheduled castes.
Ambedkar had begun his mission where Phule left off," by pointing out the fallacy of Indian social reform: Brahmin-based reform was a contradiction in terms. To expect a brahmin to revolt against social inequity was like expecting the British Parliament to pass an act requiring an blue-eyed babies to be murdered (Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, 1979: 1.71) was Ambedkar's harsh analogy. Ambedkar particularly poked fun at the Arya Samaj's pretense of determining caste by worth. Ambedkar deemed all such efforts futile. He believed that if reformers really wanted to destroy caste, then they would have to destroy the authority of the Veda, since the Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda Eave the caturvarna its eternal and sacrosanct status as a system. By invoking the sanction of law, it presented caste as natural, ideal, sacred, and divine. The Rig Veda thus codified caste and ensured its continued application. Given the damage produced by the Purusha Sukta, Ambedkar felt that to preach the Veda as the basis of everything, as did the Arya Samaj, was pure mischief.
Throughout his writings, Ambedkar sought to destroy the Veda as the basis of society and debunk its eternality, status as revelation, infallibility, and stationary view of society (7.14). He challenged the Veda's moral and spiritual value in the past as well as its authority (4.37, 39) and philosophical worth (4.44) in the present.
Ambedkar began by questionning the Veda's canonicity. Since Rammohan Roy, Hindu reformers had learned a valuable lesson from Christian missionaries. Book religions had definite advantages over bookless religions. They possessed a written constitution or voucher for truth that gave authority and induced obedience. The Veda had the double advantage of being both a book and a revealed religion.
Caste, if preached by the Vedas, became both sacred and uncontested it automatically received the authority of the book and the sanctity of divine word. It had to be accepted as sacred, divine, and eternal truth; it could not be attacked, test one risk the guilt of sacrilege (Ambeakar 1989: 5.183). By giving caste a place in the Vedas, brahmins ensured their sacredness and invulnerability (Ambedkar 1989: 5.181).
According to Ambedkar, the establishment of Vedic authority and infallibility involved a wide-reaching brahmin conspiracy (4.27) to legitimate the caturvarna system (4.36) and provide it with an impregnable line of defense. In any other society, the existence of hard and fast classes would have caused embarrassment and self-recrimination. Hindu society, however, evinced no such concerns. Thanks to the Purusha Sukta and the authority vested in the greatness of ancient Aryan civilization, brahmins could steadfastly maintain an iniquitous class stratification and justify their behavior (Ambedkar 1990: 7.239). Since they held a monopoly over scholarship, they could safely benefit from a system that need never undergo scrutiny. No Voltaire had arisen from their ranks to decry intolerance (Ambedkar 1990: 7.240). Before Ambedkar, no one had judged the Purusha Sakta immoral, criminal in intent, and antisocial in its results. By condemning the hymn, Ambedkar also condemned the Veda and the world of the Aryans. The ultimate goal of his polemic was to dismantle the caste system they legitimized (Ambedkar 1990: 7.32). Since the Ddsas were believed to have been conquered by the Aryans, their presumed descendants, the shzidras, were seen to inherit their position of subservience legitimately." It was to reject this script of subjugation and to rehabilitate his own people, the Mahars-the principle and largest Untouchable community in Mahdrdshtra-that Ambedkar sought to rewrite the Aryan myth. Ambedkar read the Rig Veda and constructed an elaborate portrait of the Aryan people toward this end.
Ambedkar also challenged the racial portrayal of the Aryan that presented them as a fair race with sharp noses as compared to the Dasa/Dasyu who were believed to be dark-complected and flat-nosed. In modern times, the Dasa has been identified with the shz7dra and aboriginal tribes. Ambedkar claimed that the philological evidence keeping the racial myth alive was as spurious as the Western equation of varna with color." Rather than Mueller's reading of andsa as a-nisa, without a nose (that is, flat-nosed), Ambedkar sides with Sayapa's reading of an-isa, signifying devoid of good speech (Ambedkar 1990: 7.76).
He maintained that the Veda had been consistently misread by brahmin scholars in a racial sense in order to foster a two-nation theory that benefited their interests. With the brahmins as the representatives of the Aryans and the low castes seen as non-Aryans, brahmins could foster both their hegemonic power over their brethren as wen as kinship with Europeans. Ambedkar found no evidence that the term drya was used in the Rig Veda in a racial sense. The Dasas were as civilized and powerful as the Aryans (Ambedkar 1990: 7.105). He did not read any racial distinction between the Aryan and the Ddsa, since there are numerous instances in the Rig Veda where Dasas become Aryans. Similarly, there is no evidence that the Aryans were a different color than the Dasas.
Ambedkar read the Veda to suggest that the Aryans were not a single homogeneous people, rather two groups with distinct cultures. One group, the Aryans of the Rig Veda, believed in sacrifice, traced their descent through man, and produced the Brahmanas, Sutras, and Aratiyakas. The other group, the Aryans of Atharva Veda, believed in magic, traced their descent through Prajapati, and produced the Upanishads (Ambedkar 1990: 7.291).10 These two separate ideologies were fundamentally different and irreconcilable: the former believed in the caturvarna and the latter did not (Arnbedkar 1990: 7.97). The two groups were eventually consolidated with the Rig Vedic ideology prevailing.
Ambedkar's rewriting of the Aryan myth was no less fanciful than brahmin-authored versions. It differed, however, in one important respect. It was potent enough to enable him to lead millions of Indians out of the slavery into which they had been born.
Joyiba Govind Phule and, to a greater degree, Ambedkar were not subalterns in search of a critic to speak on their behalf. They both had rather clear voices. The very fact that significant Indian discourse on the Aryan centered on nativist concerns raises interesting questions concerning the serviceability of postcolonial criticism to a broad spectrum of literary production under colonialism. One might well question whether professional spokespersons for the subaltern are deaf to their voices because they attacked an enemy who was not the colonial power, but an opponent from whose ranks the critics themselves spring and within whose hegemonic structure of knowledge and discourse they continue to operate. In this context, the tendency to demonize all colonial relations as a kind of "original sin" (Rothstein 2001: A17) seems particularly unsupportable. The "original sin" concept has had the effect of whitewashing the checkered past of many colonized and postcolonial elites. Many abuses of power and human rights violations perpetuated by these elites are swept away by the concept of colonialism as the hegemonic evil. Are we to read critics' deafness as an oversight (or, as they might say, over-site) or rather as a mask for their own needs to maintain traditional lines of power while restructuring the contemporary image of power?
The oppressor/victim binary of colonial discourse analysis does not fully explain the Indian need to idealize the antiquity of Aryan India and establish culture as diffused from India to the rest of the world. It does not account for the fact that patterns of admiration and positions adopted vary within various groups and from individual to individual in the receiving culture and are rooted in the specific cultural traits of Hindu caste society and its literary tradition. Phule and Ambedkar offered a radical attack on revivalism and challenged the elite myth of the past. They realized that brahmins and upper-caste intellectuals (that is, the new middle class) would always represent the idealized ancient Indian society, since their values could be seen to stem from that past. They also realized that opposition to the colonizing Other could be taken for nationalism, when it merely masked the preservation of traditional lines of power.