When European scholars began to study Sanskrit they were surprised to discover linguistic similarities between Sanskrit and Greek and Latin. Old Persian was found to be even closer to Sanskrit. Scholars thus began to speak of related groups of Indo-European languages stemming from an earlier language they called Proto-Indo-European.
Tracing the earliest incursions of Indo-European speakers into Europe from the north along the Danube River, Marija Gimbutas hypothesized that the Indo-European homeland was in the steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas. DNA research has confirmed Gimbutas’ view: Indo-European-speaking men from the Yamnaya cultural group who carried the YDNA gene R1b–which now is the largest YDNA group in Europe–arrived in large numbers about 2500 BCE from a homeland north of the Black and Caspian Seas.
Until now DNA evidence confirming the Indo-European incursion into India has been lacking. Hindu nationalist groups and some scholars have rejected the Indo-European hypothesis because it suggested that Hinduism and by extension “Indian culture” had a “foreign” origin.
Recent DNA research forwarded to me by Goddess scholar, iconographer, and bibliographer Max Dashu confirms that Indo-European-speaking Yamnaya men carrying the R1a gene entered Persia (Iran) and India in the second millennium (2000-1000 BCE). Moreover, this new DNA study finds the R1a gene in India to be located primarily in the Brahmin or priestly caste associated with the introduction and preservation of the Vedic religion and the Sanskrit texts.
The Indo-European genes R1a and R1b are carried on the male YDNA. The persistence of earlier female MDNA (or MtDNA) groups among the women of India and Europe shows that the Indo-European migrants were primarily males who came without women or families. These men most probably seized and raped local women who were viewed as the “spoils of war,” and who became wives or concubines of the invading males.
This new DNA research also shows that Neolithic agriculturalists from the near east moved eastward into Iran in the seventh millennium (7000-6000) BCE at about the same time they began to move northward into Europe, where they established the culture Gimbutas called Neolithic “Old Europe.” The researchers also found that Neolithic peoples had moved westward from Iran into India by the fourth millennium (4000-3000) BCE and possibly as early as the seventh millennium (7000-6000) BCE.
This new DNA research provides one answer to the often-asked question: how is it that Hindus worship Goddesses in a patriarchal society where women are subordinated? The same question can be asked of classical Greek and other patriarchal Goddess-worshipping societies. My answer to this question in relation to the Goddess Athene, who, according to Aeschylus, stated that she sides with the male in all things, is that an earlier Goddess associated with olive trees and weaving was co-opted into a patriarchal system.
In her study of early Indo-European symbol systems in Europe, Miriam Robbins Dexter found that the original Goddesses of the Indo-Europeans were associated with the dawn, the sun, and other natural phenomena. Many of the more familiar Goddesses (for example, Athene) were later additions to the Indo-European pantheon. Similarly, Tracy Pintchman found that many Hindu Goddess traditions were not found in the earliest Sanskrit texts. A reasonable inference is that pre-Indo-European Goddess traditions were incorporated into Indo-European cultures in both Europe and India because the people of the conquered lands were unwilling to give them up.
In my (admittedly non-specialist) study of Hindu Goddess traditions, I found a confusing admixture of life-affirming and life-denying elements. On the one hand, Goddesses like Lakshmi were identified with sexuality, fertility, and abundance; on the other, Goddesses like Kali danced in graveyards and carried human skulls on their belts. The Goddesses who affirmed life accepted their positions as wives and mothers in a patriarchal society, while the Goddesses who danced in graveyards transgressed every boundary in the name of a life-denying transcendence of the body and the world.
Although both Western and Indian feminists have been attracted to Kali’s fierceness, it seems to me that she had been shaped to serve patriarchal ends. Yes, there was a death Goddess in Old Europe, and I would imagine in “Old South Asia” as well. However, in the case of Kali, the death aspect of the Goddess is severed from the circle of birth, death, and regeneration. Rather than asking us to affirm death as part of a cycle that includes birth and regeneration, Kali calls us to transcend the body and the world. I believe she was drafted into service in the new religion of warriors who disparage this life in the name of so-called higher values including transcendence and self-sacrifice on literal and metaphorical battlefields.
Some feminists have wondered if the Neolithic cultures of South Asia were analogous to the cultures of Old Europe described by Gimbutas as peaceful, settled, agricultural, egalitarian, matrilineal and probably matrilocal, and worshipping the Goddess as the powers of birth, death, and regeneration in all of life. The large geographical distance separating South Asia and Europe has been cited in argument against such comparisons. Yet the new DNA research shows that the Neolithic cultures of both Europe and South Asia have a common origin in the Neolithic cultures of the near east, rendering comparisons between the two cultures more plausible.
It is entirely possible that new studies will reveal an “Old South Asia” similar to “Old Europe.” Such studies would go a long way towards illuminating the “conflict of cultures” found within the Goddess traditions of India. My friend and colleague Miriam Robbins Dexter tells me that she and Laura Amazzone and Vicki Noble, all three of whom are deeply influenced by the work of Marija Gimbutas, are currently working on a book-length study of the pre-patriarchal and pre-Indo-European cultures of South Asia. I await it with bated breath. Such a book could revolutionize the way we think about the Goddesses of the Indian subcontinent.
Thanks to Miriam Robbins Dexter for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer, activist, and educator living in Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.
Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parilament of World’s Religions.