Chronological Framework for Bharatiya Culture – Part 1

In this series of articles, we are introducing the research ‘On the Chronological Framework for Indian Culture’ by Shri Subhash Kak, to readers old and new.


It has been more than a decade that Indologists started voicing the need for a radical reexamination of the ideological premises on which early Bharatiya historiography has been based. It was to satisfy this need that several departments of the Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas organized on September 19, 1998 a day-long debate to consider the question of the earliest Bharatiya chronology, especially as it pertains to the nineteenth century notion of Aryan invasions.[1]

At the end of the debate the moderator concluded that there was no evidence for any immigration/invasion into Bharat in the prehistoric period and the Bharatiya civilization must be viewed as an unbroken tradition that goes back to the earliest period of the Sindhu-Sarasvati (or Indus) tradition (7000 or 8000 BC).

The proceedings of the Dallas debate are just one expression of the general agreement among scholars that a new paradigm for the history of ancient Bharat is emerging. The new paradigm, which is informed by evidence from the fields of archaeology, history of science and art, and textual analysis takes the Bharatiya tradition to be indigenous and of great antiquity. It is this new paradigm that is compelling a reexamination of the dates of Bharatiya texts and the development of a chronology of Indic ideas.

Why have the assumptions on which, for more than a century, the academic world based the chronology of Bharatiya texts and culture unraveled? The old assumptions were partly linguistic and partly cultural. The linguistic assumptions are being recognized as methodologically flawed [2], and archaeologists have found no evidence for a break in the Bharatiya tradition going as far back as the beginnings of the Sindhu-Sarasvati tradition in Mehrgarh and other neolithic sites.

In fact, it is entirely possible that this tradition itself was just a late stage in the old rock art tradition that has been seen to extend back as early as 40000 BC.[3] The archaeologists see their findings mirrored in the Vedic texts, which are squarely centered in northern Bharat.

In the words of Shaffer and Lichtenstein, [4] “The South Asian archaeological record ..does not support.. any version of the migration/invasion hypothesis. Rather, the physical distribution of sites and artifacts, stratigraphic data, radiometric dates, and geological data can account for the Vedic oral tradition describing an internal cultural discontinuity of indigenous population movement.

This indigenous population movement appears to have occurred somewhat after 1900 BC due to ecological factors, principally the drying up of the Sarasvati river, once the largest river in Bharat.

The Myth of the Aryans

The concept of invading hordes of Aryans conquering northern Bharat around 1500 BC arose in the nineteenth century for a variety of reasons. Linguists had established that the north Bharatiya, Iranian, and most European languages are structurally related and belong to the same family, which was given the name Indo-European.

A homeland was postulated, and it was assumed that the residents of this homeland spoke a common language, called proto-Indo European (PIE), the hypothetical ancestor to the historically known ancient languages such as Sanskrit, Avestan, Greek, Latin, and so on. Based primarily on linguistic considerations, several theories were proposed according to which this homeland was likely to have been in southeastern Europe or Central Asia.

By assigning an arbitrary period of 200 years to each of the several layers of the pre-Buddhist Vedic literature, the period of around 1500 BC was arrived at for the entry of the Aryans into Bharat.

This alleged Aryan invasion was then tied up with the mention of the horse in the Vedic literature by asserting that the invading Aryans brought horses and chariots with them. This hypothesis was considered proven by claiming that the domestication of the horse took place not long before 1500 BC.

It was assumed that the horse provided military advantage to the Aryans, which made it possible for them to conquer the indigenous inhabitants of Bharat.

Early objections

Scholars soon pointed out many problems with this theory. First, the earliest Bharatiya literature has no memory of any such entry from outside, and its focus is squarely the region of the Seven Rivers, Sapta Sindhu, with its centre in the Sarasvati valleys and covering a great part of north and northwest Bharat ranging from Sindhu to Ganga to Sarayu.

Second, the traditional Bharatiya king lists go back into fourth millennium BC and earlier; also, the lists of teachers in the Vedic books cannot be fitted into the Aryan invasion chronology.

Third, it was contended that the beginnings of the vast Vedic literature needed a greater time horizon easily reaching back at least into the third millennium BC.

Thus, astronomical references in the Vedic literature refer to events as early as the fourth millennium BC. The Puranas remember some migrations out of Bharat; such migrations were invoked to explain the reference to Vedic gods in treaties between kings and to other Indic names in West Asian texts and inscriptions in the second millennium BC; but the supporters of the Aryan invasion theory interpreted these West Asian Indic references as traces of the migratory path of the Aryans into Bharat.

Fourth, the Vedic literature nowhere mentions riding in battle and the horse was rare in Vedic times; the word asva for horse was often used figuratively for speed.

Fifth, there was no plausible process explaining how incursions by nomads could have obliterated the original languages in one of the most densely populated regions of the ancient world.

Sixth, the Vedic literature portrayed the Aryans as living in a complex society with an important urban element; there is mention of cities, ocean-going ships, numerous professions, which is contradictory to the image of barbaric invaders from the north. Defenders of the invasion theory, however, either ignored such references or wrongly attributed these cultural achievements to the non-Aryans.

Although the assumptions at the basis of the Aryan invasion theory were arbitrary and there was little supporting evidence, the reason this theory became popular was because it fulfilled several unstated needs of the historians at the time. In particular, it reinforced the racial attitudes popular in the nineteenth century so that the highly regarded Vedas could be assigned to a time before the Aryans in Bharat mixed with the indigenous races.

The conquest of Bharat by the British was taken to be similar to the supposed earlier conquest by the Aryans, and so this theory played an important imperialistic function. Slowly, as the Aryan invasion date became the anchor that was used to fix other ancient events in the histories of the Bharatiya, Iranian, and European peoples, scholars became ever more reluctant to question the assumptions on which it was based.


(To be continued…)

(Featured image for representational purpose only. Source)


1. The participants included an archaeologist (Greg Possehl, Univ of Pennsylvania), three linguists (Madhav Deshpande, Univ of Michigan, Andree Sjoberg, Univ of Texas, and Michael Witzel, Harvard Univ), and a historian of science (Subhash Kak); Lonnie Kliever of SMU served as the moderator. The participants looked at both the idea of invasions and that of a more peaceful process of immigration.

2. E.g. Robb (1993). Basically, the proposition is that the ancient world was much more complex than supposed in the 19th century models. This complexity viewed within the Bharatiya context is examined in Kak (1994b). Even the idea of the neat centum/satem split geographically has been undermined by the discovery of Bangani, a centum language in Bharat.

3. Wakankar (1992).

4. Shaffer and Lichtenstein (1998).


ResearchOn the Chronological Framework for Indian Culture

Author: Subhash Kak

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