Gori गोरी Part II: Aryans, Lightness, and Darkness

Ruins of Harappa
When Blogger went down last week it erased my post about Aryans.  Thanks to the help of a mysterious savior named Mishka it has been resurrected.  In the meantime, Andrea, Katia, Shab, Mallika and I have been having some interesting discussions about whiteness... Mallika pointed out the preference for light skin is probably more prevalent in northern than southern India, and Andrea raised the point that even in Japan there is an obsession with light skin.  Perhaps we're witnessing the lingering effects of western imperialism and cultural domination?  But as this post demonstrates, the preference for lightness goes back centuries in India.  From last Thursday...

We'll pick up where we left off yesterday with our question:  is British colonialism responsible for the equating of गोरी (gori) with fair, beautiful, and light?  Or was it something else? 

The British had an intense love affair with Sanskrit, and overwhelmingly turned to Brahmin priests as the source for knowledge about Indian religion and culture.  (The British weren't all that interested in pursing different sources, or even objectively examining what Brahmin priests were presenting them.)  Brahmin texts have been interpreted as describing an Aryan invasion, where a light-skinned, "civilized" race swept into northern India and displaced a darker skinned "barbaric" race.  This invasion has often been conflated with the decline of the Indus River Valley Civilization, ruins of which can be found at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro.

I turn to my favorite historian, Romila Thapar (who faced down death threats from Hindu nationalists for her work on Indian history), for some clarification:  "Aryan is in fact a linguistic term indicating a speech-group of Indo-European origin, and is not an ethnic term"  (A History of India:  Volume I  p.27).   Here's a video of her talking about the myth of an Aryan invasion:  (please ignore the writing at the top... it's the only YouTube video I could find with her edited down to discuss Aryans)

In reality, the Aryans were cow herders who wandered into Northern India slowly over the course of centuries searching for pasture.  The Indus River Valley Civilization collapsed independently (most likely due to climate change that changed the course of important rivers away from major cities).  The Aryans did find people living in Northern India, and not all of them were keen to share their land with the Aryans.  The Dasas turned out to be a formidable enemy not interested in Aryan settlement.  Eventually the Aryans did manage to settle and subdue the Dasas over the course of centuries.  Being the "victors" the Aryans got to write their own history, and memorialized the achievement by describing the Dasas as a dark and alien culture with flat facial features.  Dasa now means slave, thanks to the Aryan interpretation.  And Aryans, who associated themselves with light skin and distinctive facial features, were able to enshrine a prejudice against darker skin in their texts.  

So what does this tell us?  We can trace a bias for lighter skin back to Aryan sources.  And British colonialism certainly didn't help matters any.  But these are two isolated historical phenomenon (with an incredible amount of history between them and a great deal of postcolonial history since the British).  I wish I was a linguist, because I would go back and trace the evolution of the word गोरी (gori), figuring out how and when it came into usage, and what its roots are.  Academic inquiry aside, however, there's clearly a cultural and linguistic  bias in Hindi toward equating light skin with beauty.  Is it right?  No.  Does a long history of bias make it right?  No.  Should millions of women in the world who don't meet the criteria of "fair" not be considered beautiful?  Of course not.