Linguistics and Out-of-India model

Edwin Bryant ebryant at FAS.HARVARD.EDU
Fri Feb 20 21:53:16 UTC 1998

On Fri, 20 Feb 1998, wieson wrote:
> I for one would be very interested in seeing hard evidence for an
> 'out-of-India' model. I find the idea interesting, but I reserve the right
> to be hesitant, which by the way has nothing to do with skin color. I
> believe there are *linguistic* problems assuming an Indian homeland,
> although there is always room for an alternative explanation.

Dear John,

There is no (or almost no) hard evidence for an out-of-India
model. So, a priori, the terms of any kind of debate must be cast in
negative terms, vis: what are the defects of the 'hard' evidence for the
*into-India* model. Those questioning this standard model can only proceed
by deconstructing this evidence, not by offering anything positive.

The Indo-Aryan lacuna in the archaeological record is what has triggered
off this whole debate which has been gaining momentum over the last decade
(though it has been contested on philological and linguistic grounds
by Indian intellectuals for over a century). However, the migration
hypothesis was predicated on linguistic evidence and it is this that has
to be addressed by those wishing to contest the theory.  The linguistic
evidence is primarily threefold: 1) linguistic palaeontology, 2) Dravidian
or other non-Indo-European linguistic substratum in Sanskrit texts, 3)
loan words from Indo-Aryan into other language families remote from the
subcontinent such as Finno-Ugric.

All this evidence, when trimmed of various excesses and unwarranted
assumptions, still produces a very compelling case in support of an
external origin for the Indo-Aryans into the subcontinent.  Let us be
clear: this theory has by no means been disproved, nor is it at all
likely to be in the absence of additional data. The question is: does
this evidence disallow any other possible interpretation?  The Aryan
invasion/migration theory is very widely rejected in India (and I suspect
from the tenor of one or two recent comments that some members of this
list have no idea how widespread this rejection is in mainstream
academic, and not just in right-wing or neo-Hindu, circles).

In view of this rising dissent from India, I felt that  it was incumbent
on critical scholars who have taken it upon themselves to write about the
ancient history of the subcontinent to reexamine all the data and the
assumptions upon which they are predicated to determine whether there is
any legitimacy to alternative points of view.

In my analysis of the linguistic evidence (and I dedicate a chapter to
each of the three linguistic areas listed above), all the data can
actually be reconfigured in ways which do not necessarily have to support
the idea of an Indo-Aryan linguistic mouvement into the NW of
the subcontinent (although the languages clearly spread from the NW to the
East and South). This is not to say that it supports a mouvement out
either.  It definitely does not. Nor, as I mentioned, does such
possible reconfiguration *disprove* the standard model: it is all negative
evidence. but the fact that any kind of reconfiguration can be done at
all, in my opinion, indicates how malleable the so-called evidence
actually is. At this point, the scholar has to resort to Occam's razor,
vis, what is the simplest and less convoluted way of accounting for the

At the risk of venturing into futurology, I predict that there will be an
increasingly widening divide between primarily (but by no means
exclusively) scholars in India, and primarily (but not exclusively)
Western scholars on the application of Occam's razor in this matter.
Inevitably, at this point one runs into the issue of agendas. Why does one
scholar *choose* (or even insist on) a certain interpretation of the data,
and another scholar select a diametrically opposing model? Here again, we
run into the stereotypification that immediately springs from  such
considerations, the standard: "Indologists are all neo-colonialists"
mottos from one side and the becoming-just-as-standard: "Revisionists all
have covert Hindutva or neo-Hindu agendas" mantras on the other.  That's
why I am not prepared to discuss this issue any further at this point (and
I would appreciate it if my name kindly *NOT* be brandished in support of
any position as it was in the posting this morning).

My dissertation will hopefully be available soon.  Madhav has notified you
of the forthcoming Aryan and Non-Aryan volume, which, as I understand
(but have not yet read since it was not presented at the conference),
contains an article by Hock on the linguistic evidence *in support* of the
Aryan migration hypothesis. I am also co-editing a volume with
Laurie Patton specifically on this debate (hopefully for classroom
use) which Curzon is picking up. So there will soon be plenty of
extensive material on these issues by critical scholars upon which you can
all draw your own conclusions.  The important thing is to extract this
debate from the exclusive monopoly of people who have overt agendas
but a much less overt level of critical scholarly ability (or interest).
In other words, there will soon be alternative sources to Rajaram and
Frawley, etc.

My work includes 3 chapters on the socio-religio-political environment
of this debate (on the 19th Cent European context, on the 19th Cent Indian
response, and  on the modern Indian context of the debate-Hindutva,
etc)--four chapters on linguistics (the 3 above plus one on the
"dethronement of Sanskrit"), two on archaeology and one on the dating of
the Veda (which includes an analysis of the so-called astro-chronological
approach).  It all needs considerable revision. I do not support a
particular position but have attempted to present all the relevant data
and all rational ways of interpreting it (although this alone makes me
fearful that the work be appropriated and taken out of context).  The
edited volume will contain a variety of views and standpoints to make the
flavour of this 'debate' available to the educated (but not necessarily
specialized) public, and the Michigan volume will likewise contain a
number of (perhaps slightly more specialized) articles relevant to this
theme. So we will soon have plenty of 'scholarly' sources upon which to
have a serious discussion.

In the meantime, I suggest we drop this thread. Hope this information is
of use.     Regards,     Edwin Bryant

Edwin Bryant
Committee for the Study of Religion
Harvard University
12 Quincy Street,
Cambridge, MA  02138

(617) 496 1010

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