The other day I mentioned the tendency of nationalists to glorify their own homeland as the centerpiece of civilization, and today I have another example of this drawn from the historical archives. This was a story I didn’t know, and it was interesting to learn about a close connection between fringe history and nationalism in India long before the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, promoted a nationalist revision of Indian history that involved Vedic airplanes, Ganesh’s plastic surgery, and other evidence-free assertions. Our story for today concerns Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the first Indian independence leader, and an opponent of Gandhi’s non-violent approach.
Tilak began agitating for Indian independence in the early 1890s, at which time he also produced a book called Orion (1893), in which he attempted to argue that Vedic scriptures were much more ancient than previously recognized, using astronomy to date the oldest layers to 4500 BCE. This would make Vedic literature thousands of years older than the Bible, the Pyramid Texts, or even the Epic of Gilgamesh, and by happy coincidence places India at the origin of literary history.
However, Tilak did not content himself with merely asserting the antiquity of the Vedas. Instead, in articles published in the newspaper he ran, he used Bhagavad Gita as justification for violent uprisings against the British colonial government, citing a passage that rendered blameless those who commit violence against tyranny. When in 1897 two of Tilak’s readers acted on his words and killed two colonial officials, Tilak was tried and convicted of inciting murder. He served twelve months of an eighteen month sentence, which transformed him into a nationalist hero.
But it was during his time in prison (his first stint, that is; he would be imprisoned again later in life) that Tilak began work on a massive work of fringe history that sought the origins of the Aryan race in the Arctic. In this endeavor, he received the assistance of the famous philologist and proponent of Solar Hero mythology F. Max Müller. On the strength of Tilak’s work on the Orion, Müller sent to the imprisoned Tilak his translation of the Rig-Veda (later revealed to be someone else’s translation for which he took credit), and he pushed the British government to release Tilak early. As a result of pressure from Müller, the colonial government gave Tilak a series of concessions: first, the use of the Rig-Veda, then a lamp by which to read it at night. During his imprisonment, Tilak used the time to copy out passages from the Rig-Veda that he felt pointed toward a startling new theory of world history.
Müller, on his end, and unaware of Tilak’s activities in prison, helped secure his release six months early, in conjunction with a campaign from the Indian press. “In the very first letter I wrote to Prof. Max Müller after my release,” Tilak recalled, “I thanked him sincerely for his disinterested kindness, and also gave him a brief summary of my new theory regarding the primitive Aryan home as disclosed by Vedic evidence.” Müller was apparently quite surprised at the use to which Tilak had put his Rig-Veda, and replied gently that Tilak’s ideas might have had merit if they did not contradict the facts of geology. Tilak responded that he would soon have a rebuttal to the geological objection, despite being “a mere layman” in the sciences, but Müller died on October 28, 1900, before Tilak could present it to him. Tilak had drafted his ideas as The Arctic Home in the Vedas in 1898, but he did not publish it until 1903.
Tilak’s view should be familiar to fans of fringe history, for it is shared by Ignatius Donnelly, Charles Hapgood, Andrew Collins, Graham Hancock, and countless others, namely, that the Aryan race once ran roughshod over the world in the period around the end of the last Ice Age when the flooding caused by the melting ice somehow undid their civilization. Tilak believed that the early Aryans had a material and technical culture equivalent to that of Dynastic Egypt before the flood that ended their world. But unlike our other authors, he makes the Aryan race into an originally polar race, inhabitants of a temperate Arctic, sort of like Rand Flem-Ath’s placement of Atlantis in Antarctica. He is perhaps closest, though, to Paradise Found (1885) and The True Key to Ancient Cosmology and Mythical Geography (1882) by the Rev. William F. Warren, which argued that both Atlantis and “the cradle of the human race, the Eden of primitive tradition, [were] situated at the North Pole, in a country submerged at the time of the Deluge.” According to the incomplete geology of the time, many thought that the Arctic had been warm and temperate around 10,000 BCE before glaciating sometime thereafter. (You’ll recognize this as analogous to the period between the Older and Younger Dryas, now called the Allerød oscillation, which Graham Hancock assigns to his lost civilization, though Tilak had no way of knowing he accidentally guessed a geological period that turned out to be close to correct.)
Their evidence is also quite similar, comprising an examination of what we would today call the Indo-European heritage of both Vedic India and various European cultures, but resting on the idea of Hyperborea and Ultima Thule as Aryan homelands. Tilak traces more connections to the Rig-Veda than does Warren, but both wrongly dismiss Central Asia as the origin of the Indo-European languages in favor of some distant land to the north. Tilak does so on the strength of the Avesta, which in the first fargard of the Vendidad (1.1-2) places the Aryan homeland (the Airyana Vaeja, also called the Iran-Vej) seemingly north of all other lands. There’s a good reason for the similarity: Tilak used Paradise Found as one of his own sources. However, just in case you care, the English translator of Müller’s edition of the Avesta, James Darmester, notes that “the Bundahish distinctly states that Iran-Vej is ‘bordering upon Adarbajan’ (XXIX, 12),” placing it in eastern Iran in the later Zoroastrian writings.
The difference is that Warren used his claims to forward the idea that the Greeks, Western exemplars par excellence, had special insight into prehistory and that the Bible could be shown to be literally true, whereas Tilak used his claims to prove that “the subject matter of the Vedic hymns is ancient and inter-glacial” such that “the Vedas are the oldest records of the Aryan race,” preserved in glorious continuity from before the Younger Dryas down to the present.
Warren’s view was supported by the British prime minister, William Gladstone (himself a believer in Atlantis), as a true insight into Classical and Biblical literature that just happened to glorify the West, while Tilak’s version earned him the enmity of the British government for promoting Indian nationalism. If that doesn’t lay bare the political aspects of fringe history, I don’t know what does.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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