Thursday, 17 June 2010

Rajasthan - Hinduism and the Aryan Race

Unlike Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the origins of Hinduism are buried deep in the obscurity of time.  Known as the world's oldest continuous religion, people have been practising Hinduism in India for at least 7,000 years.  Hindu devotees refer to their belief system as Sanatana Dharma which means 'the eternal tradition'. 

More than any other religion, there is a real mystery surrounding the most sacred Hindu body of scriptures, the Vedas, hinting at their possible divine nature.  The Vedas are genuinely believed to be shruti or 'that which is revealed' (by the Brahman, or God-source), rather than texts that were created by man.  These scriptures have been passed down orally from generation to generation and are so highly revered that access to the Vedas is restricted to men and only those of one of the higher 'twice-born' castes. 

Hindu extremists believe that Hinduism is the sole property of an enlightened (read superior) Aryan race. Arya is the Sanskrit word for 'noble'.  They revere Sanskrit as the language of the sacred texts and believe that other 'Indian' religions, such as Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, are merely aspects of Hinduism, not religions in their own right. 

The connections with an Aryan race are interesting and, I believe, quite telling, given a lack of historical documentation of migration to the Indian sub-continent.  What seems to be clear is that a lot of the lower castes, tribal peoples and dalits (traditionally referred to by the horrible moniker 'untouchables') made up the original inhabitants of India.  It's reflected today in the racial make-up, different language families and local traditions of the southern part of India.  It would seem that the Aryan people came from the north and brought with them, the Indo-European languages, aspects of their religion and symbolism. 

Desperate to justify their control of India in the 19th century, British orientalists came up with the Aryan theory, linking the Brahmins and upper castes of India with their new Aryan masters from Europe.  In many ways, our modern associations with the Aryan race stem from this period and 21st century Hindu extremists are, often unwittingly, propogating a 19th century myth.  The organisation Arya samaj dates from this time.  Nazi Germany, quite famously, capitalised on the concept of a superior Aryan race and adopting the Hindu Swastika as their own symbol.  India's relationship with Nazi Germany was a complicated one and I was really surprised to find out that some Indians still admire Adolf Hitler. 

The use of the swastika is also quite controversial and this symbol, more specifically the Nazi Hakenkreuz, has been banned in many countries around the world, quite rightly so in places like Germany where it can only ever cause great offence.  Before it's adoption by the Nazis however, the swastika was a symbol of good luck, traditionally worn on the lapels of early aviators, it was also widely used in the Buddhist world, in Nordic Europe (a version of this symbol is still used on the flag of the Finnish airforce) and even by Native American tribes.  China of the 1920's and 30's had a flourishing 'Red Swastika' society, a counterpart to our modern day Red Cross and Red Crescent societies. 

Moderate Hindus obviously don't hold supremacist ideas on the origins of the Aryan race, but see Hinduism as an amalgamation of different traditions.  Even talking about Hinduism as a religion is a very Western way of looking at things.  I guess 'a system of beliefs' would be more appropriate, as it would seem that Hindu beliefs have adapted to local circumstances and are more a collection of religious beliefs originating from a common source, with reference to a specific set of scriptures (although this too has many variations and many religious texts are written in languages other than Sanskrit). 

To most Westerners, Hinduism is a confusing array of gods and goddesses, wildly polytheistic and frightening in some of its practices.  Early European travellers were horrified by the traditions they witnessed, such as satu or ritual burning of widows on their husbands' pyre.  Despite all of this, I think there are aspects of Hinduism that a 19th century British coloniser would have found incredibly familiar.  The concepts of varna (position in society, or class) and dharma (duty) are things that were important to contemporary British society, so I can understand how comfortable the British felt with Hinduism (on the whole). 

As for an Aryan race, well - if there ever was such a thing, then it belongs in the history books and has little relevance to a Viking-Roman-Celtic-Slavic Europe or a Persian-Mughal-Dravidian India. 

Image credits:

The image of the Indian swastika is by flickruser Ujwala Prabhu who is an artist, orginally from Kolkata, she now lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka.  Thanks Ujwala for sharing your artwork on

The image of Lord Shiva was taken in Bangalore by flickruser Deepak Gupta, an industrial engineer who is originally from Delhi but now lives in West Lafayette in the US (I must admit, I don't know where that is!)  You find out more about Deepak at his userpage on Wikimedia Commons
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