Of literality and metaphor in the war between Arya and Dasa

Over at Brown Pundits Zach Latif brings up the point that the Indian bias for light skin may date back to the Aryans. And it does seem that such a bias manifests in the earliest texts. But as someone not able to read the original languages I can ascertain the arguments as the import of these passages only at a remove, second and third hand. Some scholars have suggested that the racialized interpretations of the treatments of the interactions between the Aryans and the natives of India are just a look at the past through the lens of the present. They are argue that color terms in the Vedas are metaphors. In contrast, there are others who seem to be arguing for a more straightforward and "literal" reading of the source text. As a non-philologist there's little I can add. But I didn't dismiss those who argued for a metaphorical reading because I know from the literature in the area of Biblical scholarship that straightforward and "literal" readings are quite often deceptive and require their own interpretation (it is difficult to transfer idioms and metaphors properly across languages, and the translators are tempted to render them in the most congenial manner to their own broader theses).

To be frank the information being uncovered by Zack and others makes me think that there was a racial aspect to these conflicts; that the literal reading has some truth. The tribal folk of India are genetically distinct from the caste populations, especially the higher castes. Though all South Asians are a mix to varying degrees of an exogenous West Eurasian element and a South Eurasian indigenous component, the non-Austro-Asiatic tribal populations seem to be a relatively simple combination. The genetic complexity of the structure of other groups suggests to me that there were several later West Eurasian intrusions after the arrival of the "Ancestral North Indians" (ANI), and their hybridization event with the "Ancestral South Indians" (ASI). Racialized language in the older Hindu scriptures may then be conceived of as a conflict between the latest arrivals and the older long established groups which were a stabilized ANI-ASI compound.

One can imagine that this process recapitulated itself in the late medieval and early modern period with the arrival of the Muslims. The ruling Islamic elites who were of Persian and Turk stock viewed the native Hindus through a racialized lens, and were at pains (and to some extent still are!) to distinguish between Muslims of foreign provenance who were "white" and converts from the native populations who were "black." The physical differences are evident when you compare the Emperor Akbar with his grandson Shah Jahan, whose other three grandparents were Rajputs.


  1. Dwight E. Howell

    While not discounting a racial/tribal aspect people also discriminated against those burned dark by the sun and those who were able to avoid the dark tan of those who worked as laborers. Dark=laborer=lower class and those who were light or dark were treated accordingly.

  2. This is a trivial point, but it's not clear from the linked images of Akbar and Shah Jahan (assuming they are true representations) whether one is white and the other is black. Akbar looks more of Mongoloid origin (as he is to a significant extent, being a Mughal) whereas Shah Jahan looks more Caucasoid.

    More pertinent to this post, an interesting book that dwells considerably on the colour issue in the Vedas, if anyone is interested, is Edwin Bryant's 'The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture'. He cites examples of the white-black disparity and the instance of the word 'anasa' (literally, 'noseless'), interpreted to indicate snub-nosed aboriginals.

  3. Akbar looks more of Mongoloid origin (as he is to a significant extent, being a Mughal) whereas Shah Jahan looks more Caucasoid.

    akbar was of substantial mongol ancestry (his grandfather, babur, had a mongol mother who wasn't even turkicized). but he was also reputed to be very light skinned. i didn't meant to imply that shah jahan would be dark skinned per se, but being 3/4 rajput he clearly looked south asian and was swarthy in a conventional south asian manner. this sort of variation in the mughal dynasty is pretty stark. aurangzeb is less 'south asian looking', probably because he resembled his ethnic persian mother.

  4. Hmmm ... How would you explain major Hindu deities being explicitly dark skinned. Ram and krishna. The word Krishna itself means black. Btw paired with explicitly fair skinned women. That applies to Shiva and Gauri too I think.

    • Nowhere in any Hindu texts is Lord Shiva described as dark skinned per se. Lord Shiva's appearance is along the lines of an ascetic, thus the matted locks and animal skin. It is his neck that is blue/dark. Lord Shiva's neck became blue in color as he was the only person in the Universe who could swallow the Hala-hala poison that was borne out of the churning of the Ocean by the Devas and the Asuras, with Lord Vishnu giving support to Mandara mountain as Kurma avatara. However, as he was swallowing the poison, his wife Goddess Parvati/Gauri caught his neck while swallowing it, thus permanently making his neck blue - thus, he came to be known as Nilakantha (blue-necked), which was in contrast to his otherwise fair skin, hence his name Shwetambar and him being referred to as Shvetang or fair complexioned. Even in paintings depicting the Trimurti you will notice that while Lord Vishnu is portrayed as dark as a rain cloud, Lord Shiva is usually portrayed as very fair. As for Lord Brahma, the Samaveda mentions that devotees should worship Lord Brahma keeping in mind the image of a gaura man with four heads. Our Gods seem to be a diverse lot, too :).

      • I stand corrected on Shiva (thanks), but question still stands on the other two.

        • All the dark skinned avataras have been incarnations of Lord Vishnu, who is himself supposed to be as dark as a rain-cloud. The snake he rests on, Sri AdiÅšeá¹£a is said to be milky/ivory colored. Lord Vishnu and Shesha, in both the major epics (Ramayana and Mahabharata) are born on earth as brothers i.e Sri Rama and Lakshmana and Sri Krishna and Balarama respectively. While Sri Rama and Sri Krishna are described as dark skinned (and physically appealing) whereas Sri Lakshmana and Sri Balarama are described as very fair skinned. All in all I don't think the colors of these Gods should be taken all that seriously, other than perhaps the fact that Lord Vishnu's dark skinned avataras aim to serve as examples to rid the common folk of color prejudices, etc.

          • My question was how do you explain these major dark skinned deities if there was in fact this ancient color preference? I suspect the overall picture in the subcontinent has been very complex and tangled with people pulling every which way. The subcontinent is where generalizations come to die.

          • "The subcontinent is where generalizations come to die."


  5. The Vedic allusions to contact between Arya and Dasa/Dasyu likely recall an historic encounter that occurred not in the Panjab but in the Bactria-Margiana Archeological Complex zone, on the banks of the Oxus (Amu Darya). In this context, there likely wasn't much of a difference in appearance between the two groups. Even in the post-urban Harappan area, the inhabitants most likely resembled present day Panjabis, thereby making the fair vs. dark complexion issue much more problematic. The truly different appearing folk whom the bearers of Indo-Aryan culture first encountered would be in North-central and Eastern India, long after the composition of the Vedic corpus.

  6. Sorry, there's a little more I wanted to add. Dasa/Dasyu are likely ethnonyms that find an echo in the Greek chroniclers' allusions to Iranic people of southern Central Asia known as the Dahae/Dahyu. Even in the Vedas, the difference between the Aryans and the Dasa/Dasyu may be founded on a difference in religious practices, not ethnicity, and their conflict is clearly over cattle and pasture lands. As for the Sanskrit word 'varna', usually translated as color, there are several connotations including 'category' or 'class'. To the best of my knowledge, the more precise term, 'black skin' (Skt. 'krsna tvac'), is rare in the main Vedic corpus. Anyhow, the understanding of that term may have been relative and may have changed over the millenia. For example, to a Swede, an Italian is dark and to a light brown ('wheatish') upper-caste North Indian, a Dalit or tribal South Indian is dark. Therefore, given the synchronic and diachronic differences in the understanding of the fair skin-dark skin dichotomy, any interpretation of the use of skin tone-related terms in a Bronze Age collection of orally transmitted spiritual poetry from northwestern India must be taken with a huge grain of salt.

  7. The vedic caste systems sutra was ability not colour!
    BTW the indo-aryan migration to india have:
    1. Not a single archaeological record.
    2.Not a single textual evidence.
    3.Not a single archaeogenetical trace!
    Well i guess to b "academic" u need those qualifications.

  8. Mr Razib Khan
    LEARN TO READ: Its a show for learning the barbarian language of English. Sanskrit on the other hand must be learned with a more intellectual approach as it is a refined language. The reason "it seems to you" that the early Aryan texts indicate a bias towards lighter skin, is because you have not read the original text which shows no such bias. The Rig Veda is an entirely celebratory and intellectual work regarding the gods without any concern for the petty affairs of common people. The BMAC is an entirely Aryan civilization(Anau seal for writing) as proven by the fire altars, swastikas, horse burials, and eagle man seals found in other Aryan civilizations. The Caste system is entirely unAryan as it does not appear in a single family book(READ CAREFULLY I SAID FAMILY BOOK NO SOMA PAVAMANA OR BOOK 10). BOOK 2 is the oldest and krsnayonih means dwelling in darkness not black people. The grammatical cases need to be analyzed properly before such facile conclusions can be made

    • How would you read this part of the Ambattha Sutta - black in color or dwelling in darkness?

      Now Okkâka had a slave girl called Disâ. She gave birth to a black baby. And no sooner was it born than the little black thing said, "Wash me, mother. Bathe me, mother. Set me free, mother, of this dirt. So shall I be of use to you." 'Now just as now, Ambattha, people call devils "devils," so then they called devils "black fellows" (kanhe). And they said: "This fellow spoke as soon as he was born. 'Tis a black thing (kanha) that is born, a devil has been born!"

      • Dear Parasar, let me give you a rare and prominent textual evidence from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad which is the oldest of the Upanishads and surely quite older than the sutta and provides the Arya peoples view on skin color-
        ''14. And if a man wishes that a white son should be born to him, and that he should know one Veda, and live to his full age, then, after having prepared boiled rice with milk and butter, they should both eat, being fit to have offspring.

        15. And if a man wishes that a reddish son with tawny eyes should be born to him, and that he should know two Vedas, and live to his full age, then, after having prepared boiled rice with coagulated milk and butter, they should both eat, being fit to have offspring.

        16. And if a man wishes that a dark son should be born to him with red eyes, and that he should know three Vedas, and live to his full age, then, after having prepared boiled rice with water and butter, they should both eat, being fit to have offspring.

        17. And if a man wishes that a learned daughter should be born to him, and that she should live to her full age, then, after having prepared boiled rice with sesamum and butter, they should both eat, being fit to have offspring.

        18. And if a man wishes that a learned son should be born to him, famous, a public man, a popular speaker, that he should know all the Vedas, and that he should live to his full age, then, after having prepared boiled rice with meat and butter, they should both eat, being fit to have offspring. The meat should be of a young or of an old bull.''

        1. A single man of arya culture could have expected to have an offspring from different skin pigmentations as of fair,reddish and of course dark! so the so called racial judgement from skin color which makes white skin as supreme was evidently absent for the then Brahmins and of course society!
        2. The above verses gives an main data of the skin color of the people of the society of that time and other pigmentations such as eye color also but the thing to note is that mention of blue or green eyes or blonde hair is absent! as they did not exist.
        3. Educational approach towards women is also a significant feature.