In my high school back in India, we were taught that India was invaded and conquered by Aryans from West about 3000 years ago (dates vary from 1500 BC to further back). And that Aryan society was hierarchical, institutionalized in the caste system, pushing native Dravidians into lower castes. Fast forward to today; there seem to be three main versions of this thought:
The original Aryan conqueror theory which says that much of current Indian culture has been brought in by the Aryans from outside. Thus, language, literature, religious practices are all external to India. The conquered Dravidians have accepted their lower status in the society, albeit grudgingly. This theory gained support in the 18th century through research by British colonial scholars and Indologists such as Max Mueller, William Rhys David and others. Here is Rhys David’s description of Buddhist Indian society:
The basis of the social distinctions was relationship; or, as the Aryans, proud of their lighter colour, put it colour. Their books constantly repeat a phrase as being common amongst the people,—and it was certainly common at least among the Aryan sections of the people,—which divided all the world, as they knew it, into four social grades, called Colours (Vaṇṇā). At the head were the Kshatriyas, the nobles, who claimed descent from the leaders of the Aryan tribes in their invasion of the continent. They were most particular as to the purity of their descent through seven generations, both on the father’s and the mother’s side; and are described as “fair in colour, fine in presence, stately to behold. Then came the brahmins, claiming descent from the sacrificing priests, and though the majority of them followed then other pursuits, they were equally with the nobles distinguished by high birth and clear complexion. Below these were the peasantry, the people, the Vaisyas or Vessas. And last of all came the Śūdras, which included the bulk of the people of non-Aryan descent, who worked for hire, were engaged in handicraft or service, and were darker in colour.
The origin of this thought coincides with onset of British colonization in India, as several indigenous civil resistance movements came up. This is currently the most accepted version among educated in India.
A second theory, from late 19th and early 20th centuries, accepts most of the first version, but says the conquered natives in India have always been at war with the rulers. This version holds that traditional Indian religion was a means to subjugate conquered society in India. Here is D Raja on Indian caste system:
The caste system contains not only economic exploitative mechanisms but operates on the basis of the dogma of predestination, formulated and safeguarded by the Hindu religion. The caste system is able to mobilise cheap labour or free labour under capitalism. Ambedkar goes on to state that the burdens of economic crises are laid upon the oppressed castes by maintaining the caste system in current times.
This is currently the dominant thought in Indian political scene. Many parties, particularly Dalit, Marxist and Dravidian, base their manifestos on this version as do Indian affirmative action policies. This version has also been picked up by Islamists from late 19th century onwards to show that conversion to Islam among Indians was voluntary to escape an oppressive social structure.
A third idea that gained prominence over the last few decades, asserts that ancient India was an ideal civilization, scientifically and technologically advanced (with aircrafts and nuclear weapons, if you will), that was destroyed by invading Muslims from the West. Advancements in ancient India were made possible through the existence of a stratified society where certain segments wielded more power than others. Restoring this structure is essential to making Indian great again. This idea has been present in the minds of the middle and upper class Hindus for a while and has been institutionalized by BJP, VHP and their allies when in power. A similar argument for Islam also exists among small sections of Muslims, but that number is insignificant even as a percentage of their population.
In a simplified form, the first version sought to justify colonization with the idea that Indians were never a free society and owed all their development to their colonizers. The second version implies that Indians can never be trusted to look after each other; each section tries to exploit the other and can never work together for a common good and a strong external ruler is needed to obtain justice. The third version is sought to promote a small class of people as safe-guardians against another section that was proclaimed to be external and inimical to India. In today’s India, all three versions coexist uneasily. Conflicts often occur between different sections, based not just on present economic and social disparities, but also on perceived historical treatment.
But accounts of travelers to India in ancient and medieval times paint a very different story. These and compilations of historical records by people like Dharampal are at odds with the versions presented above. Consider these fragments from Megasthanes’ description of Indian society circa 300 BC:
It is said that India, being of enormous size when taken as a whole, is peopled by races both numerous and diverse, of which not even one was originally of foreign descent, but all were evidently indigenous; and moreover that India neither received a colony from abroad, nor sent out a colony to any other nation.
Of several remarkable customs existing among the Indians, there is one prescribed by their ancient philosophers which one may regard as truly admirable: for the law ordains that no one among them shall, under any circumstances, be a slave, but that, enjoying freedom, they shall respect the equal right to it which all possess: for those, they thought, who have learned neither to domineer over nor to cringe to others will attain the life best adapted for all vicissitudes of lot: for it is but fair and reasonable to institute laws which bind all equally, but allow property to be unevenly distributed.
Al Biruni,the great Muslim scientist from medieval period and a visitor to India around 1000 AD says:
Much, however, as these classes (the Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra) differ from each other, they live together in the same towns and villages, mixed together in the same houses and lodgings.
Surveys discovered by Dharampal show that, even as late as in the 19th century, fundamental rights, such as education, land ownership and public representation, were made available to all castes.
A more detailed survey of it [indigenous education] was carried out [by the British] in 1822–25 in the Madras Presidency (i.e. the present Tamilnadu, the major part of the present Andhra Pradesh, and some districts of the present Karnataka, Kerala and Orissa). […] Much more important and, in view of our current assumptions, unexpected information which this survey provided is with regard to the broader caste composition of the students in the schools. According to it those belonging to the Sudras and castes below them formed 70%–80% of the total students in the Tamil speaking areas, 62% in the Oriya areas, 54% in the Malayalam speaking areas, and 35%–50% in the Telugu speaking areas.
… in Thanjavur in 1805, the number of mirasdars (i.e. those having permanent rights in land) was put at 62,042, of which over 42,000 belonged to the sudras and castes below them.
Somewhat similar patterns were also seen in Bengal and Punjab. In addition, there were many admirable qualities found in societies across India –sense of ethics and morality, reverence for life, desire for truth, fairness & justice, strong sense of community & pride in their identity within, tolerance for multiple viewpoints, concern for the environment and many others. These spanned castes and regions. All these point to a complex society that goes beyond a set of conquerors guided by a priestly class.
It is thus, surprising that many sociologists and historians ignore this rich body of facts while discussing India. By using European social models for interpretation, they present a distorted version of Indian history and draw erroneous conclusions. A fundamental difficulty seems to be that interpreting our history accurately requires an understanding of Indian philosophical and religious movements. Much of India’s social changes – whether it be Buddhist or Bhakti movements or even the freedom struggle – were spiritual movements based on different philosophies and vice-versa. Those that study spirituality and philosophy in India have little interest in history, except when it concerns their own sect. They are at odds even with philosophies other than their own. Historians have little interest in religion and often look down on its scholars as uneducated and superstitious. Bridging this gap is necessary to obtain a correct understanding of Indian society and history, and thus to a better understanding of our problems.
All modern social models assume it is human nature to exploit and enslave each other; that modern civilization alleviates this through the use several mechanisms – popular democracy through a centralized governing structure, market economics and technology; that, while these mechanisms introduce some inequality or conflict, they are still significantly better than what we were before. This argument would be weakened if alternate models of development exist or existed in the course of our history, or if the current models themselves prove to be cause of the problems.