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Updated: Feb 8, 2022


When William Jones, a British Orientalist, discovered striking commonalities between Sanskrit and European languages, it pointed to common or shared ancestry between Indians and Europeans. This led to immediate conclusions that India was the “cradle of civilisation” and Sanskrit, the “mother of Indo-European languages.”

However, with the rise of European imperialism and emergence of racial superiority ideas in the nineteenth century, the narrative changed. Europeans began to see themselves as undertaking a mission of civilising the “inferior” peoples of Asia and Africa, or assuming “the white man’s burden”. Hence, India could no longer be the ‘cradle of civilisation’. In this context, an alternative explanation was offered for the shared linguistic ancestry. The theory proposed was of an ancient invasion of India by an advanced people from the West, who called themselves “Aryas” (as they do in Mahabharata), and brought with them a great language and a sophisticated philosophy, which went on to become Sanskrit and Vedas respectively. This made the British invasion of India look like just another “Aryan wave”, bringing with it culture and learning.

The narrative was problematic from the very beginning, as there was little to no evidence to support it. In the twentieth century the theory of “invasion” was conclusively discredited, but this still left the question of shared linguistic ancestry unanswered. The most commonly offered explanation today is that while there was no invasion, there was most likely a gradual “movement” or “migration” of these Aryan people into India.

This still implies foreign roots for Sanskrit and Vedas, making the theory anathema to Indian nationalists, who see Sanskrit and Vedas as the foundational pillars of Indian civilisation and culture. While many respected scholars have submitted credible challenges and offered alternative explanations to the migration theory, that legitimate academic debate has been overshadowed by the political controversy now surrounding it. In the absence of sufficient archeological evidence, several genetic and linguistic studies have been undertaken in recent years, but the findings are often obfuscated by exaggerations, distortions and outright misinformation.

The aim of this session is to demystify this fascinating part of Indian history - deconstructing the research findings and separating fact from fiction.



  1. Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story Of India Through Its languages

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