Is Sanskrit relevant today

At the beginning of the "Indo-Europeans" there was linguistics: as early as 1808, the German philosopher Friedrich Schlegel had noticed striking similarities between the vocabulary and grammar of the ancient Indian language Sanskrit and Greek, Latin and German. For him, Sanskrit was the original language from which all other languages ​​are derived. A short time later, the philosopher and Indologist Sir William Jones stepped in. He, too, recognized a relationship between Sanskrit and the classical languages ​​of Europe. Unlike Schlegel, Jones assumed that the roots of these languages ​​lie in a common original language that no longer exists today. This made him an important pioneer of a new discipline: Indo-European studies. And by the way, both are at the beginning of a dispute that has still not been decided.

From its beginnings until today, the branch of research has been confronted with an obvious question: Who were the first speakers of an Indo-European original language - and where did they come from? In their search for the Proto-Indo-Europeans, ethnolinguists had the choice between two basic answers and a differentiated solution: The Proto-Indo-Europeans could either have come from "Germania", i.e. Europe, or from India. Or - and this is what many scientists assume today - the Proto-Indo-Europeans originated elsewhere, separated at one point in history and migrated in different directions. Hypotheses about where exactly the non-Indian and non-European homeland of the indigenous people might have been are today as diverse as the Indo-European language family itself.

Cradle of civilization?

Schlegel assumed 200 years ago that north-west India was the origin of all peoples. His enthusiasm for the exotic country was shared by others in the late 18th and early 19th centuries: the Indian subcontinent was considered by many scholars to be the cradle of civilization. During the British colonial rule in the 19th century, however, western Indologists and Christian missionaries increasingly refined a historiography according to which the Indians themselves were descendants of different, partly immigrant peoples. Their civilization therefore originated from the mixing of immigrant ethnic groups such as the Aryans with indigenous, non-Indo-Aryan natives.

In the second half of the 19th century at the latest it became fashionable to mothball the idea of ​​India as the country of origin of all peoples and languages. At the same time, more or less absurd trains of thought rose ever higher in the course, sometimes even with a racist touch. In 1853, the French diplomat Joseph Arthur de Gobineau was the first to come up with the idea of ​​an "Aryan race": The Aryans, he imagined, were industrious warriors who originally came from northern climates and migrated southwards finally reached India at some point.

The term "Aryans" then appeared a little later with the English author Houston Stewart Chamberlain: While Gobineau divided mankind into races, which he classified hierarchically in a value pyramid with a Nordic-Germanic primordial group at the top, Chamberlain also introduced anti-Semitic ideas this race theory. It was not far from Chamberlain and Gobineau to the Indo-European master race postulated in the Third Reich with its supposed mission to subdue all non-Aryan peoples. To this day, the propaganda of the National Socialists affects everyone who suspects the origin of the Aryans in northern Europe. However, this crude doctrine of descent has always lacked a scientific basis.

In fact, however, the self-designation as Aryan is only documented from Iran and India. Because the historically loaded term originally comes from Sanskrit (arya)and means "the noble one". In the Rig-Veda, the oldest part of the Vedic scriptures of India, the word is used in relation to a person's ritual purity. It has nothing to do with ancestry or even racial affiliation per se: "The content of the Aryan term is relatively diffuse within science and can still have different content - depending on whether it is related to linguistic, cultural, archaeological, historical or religious issues." , explains Maria Schetelich from the University of Leipzig.

Invasion versus emigration

Today, most Western scholars advocate the theory of the Aryan invasion of the Indian subcontinent. Accordingly, the area around the Caspian Sea is the original home of the Indo-Aryans. From there they moved out in several waves and over many centuries, not only to colonize the European continent, but also the Indian subcontinent. There the newcomers met the indigenous Dravidian peoples to whom they submitted. "But to this day the theory of immigration has not been proven," comments Edwin Bryant of Rutgers University in New Brunswick on this widespread theory of ancestry among the Indo-Europeans.

"There are hardly any discussions between the two firmly rooted camps"
(Edwin Bryant)

The theory of the Aryan invasion has at least as many opponents as there are supporters: Especially in India, both scientists and politicians speak out against the foreign origin of the Indo-Aryan-speaking population on the subcontinent. According to them, the origin of the Indo-European culture is said to be in India. Representatives of the "Indigenous Aryan Theory" criticize the theory of the Aryan conquest of South Asia as a product of colonial science. Above all, they question the motives of 19th century European researchers. In their view, the Aryan invasion theory is a constructed version of history and tradition that served colonial and missionary interests.

For some years now, geneticists have also been trying to solve the riddle of the origin of the Indo-Aryans. But their camp is also divided: while on the one hand scientists are trying to empirically prove the Aryan invasion of the Indian subcontinent, on the other hand at least as eager attempts are being made to prove the Indian origin of the Indo-European culture. Every now and then, specialist articles appear that prove that the ancestors of the Indo-Aryans did not come from India, but immigrated to the country.

In contrast, there are researchers such as Sanghamitra Sahoo from the National DNA Analysis Center in Calcutta, who and his team claim, based on large-scale comparisons of the male sex chromosome of different populations, that today's Hindu Indians developed from the original tribes of their homeland. He rules out large-scale immigration of peoples. Conversely, according to the researcher, there was a northward migration of Indians from the Punjab to Central Asia.

Emotional barriers

The debate on Aryan migration is strongly influenced by emotions and the research area is linked to ideology and politics. Almost every discussion about prehistory today almost automatically leads to a conflict over social and political power interests. "No other topic of Indo-European research sparked so much controversy as this because of its political and general ideological relevance," says Schetelich, summarizing the debate about the origin of the Indo-European indigenous people.

"Today there are still two deeply rooted camps between which there is hardly any discussion," regrets Bryant. Such communication would be urgently needed - not only to get a balanced picture of the early history of the Indian subcontinent, but also of the original home of Indo-European peoples.

This article is contained in Spectrum - Die Woche, KW 16, 2010