Aryans, Jews, Brahmins

Theorizing Authority through Myths of Identity

By Dorothy M. Figueira

Subjects: European Studies
Series: SUNY series, The Margins of Literature
Paperback : 9780791455326, 217 pages, September 2002
Hardcover : 9780791455319, 217 pages, September 2002

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Table of contents




Shared Myths
The Aryan Canon
Methodology and Plan


Part I. The Authority of an Absent Text

1. The Enlightenment and Orientalist Discourse on the Aryan


The Enlightenment Background
Voltaire and the Search for Authority
Locus of Poetic Inspiration or Site of Cultural Decay?


2. The Romantic Aryans


Romantic Myth Theory
Friedrich Schlegel and the Foundations of Romantic Linguistics
Romantic Mythographers and the Upnekhata
Romantic Indology: The Case of Max Müller


3. Nietzsche's Aryan Übermensch


Reading Nietzsche Reading India
Manu as a "Semitized" Aryan Sourcebook
The Aryan as Übermensch
Christianity, an Anti-Aryan Outcaste Religion
The Jew and the Aryan


4. Loose Can[n]ons


Racial Theory: An Overview
Gobineau and the Aryan Aristocrat
Houston Stewart Chamberlain: Aryan Publicist
Alfred Rosenberg and the Nordic Aryan


Part II. Who Speaks for the Subaltern?

5. Rammohan Roy


Reading Reform
The Complexity of the Colonial Subject
Scriptural Authority and the Hermeneutics of Sati
Misreading Monotheism: Idolatry and Brahmin Perfidy
Rammohan Roy's Syncretism and Its Challenge to Postcolonial Theory


6. Text-based Identity: Dayanand Saraswatı's Reconstruction of the Aryan Self


Dayanand's Canon and Hermeneutical Strategies for Reading the Aryan World
Aryan Masculinity and the Teleology of Decay


7. Aryan Identity and National Self-Esteem


Justice Ranade and Lokamanya Tilak
Swami Vivekananda


8. The Anti-Myth


The Aryan and Its Other
Mahatma Phule
Dr. Ambedkar






Explores the construction of the Aryan myth and its uses in both India and Europe.


In Aryans, Jews, Brahmins, Dorothy M. Figueira provides a fascinating account of the construction of the Aryan myth and its uses in both India and Europe from the Enlightenment to the twentieth century. The myth concerns a race that inhabits a utopian past and gives rise first to Brahmin Indian culture and then to European culture. In India, notions of the Aryan were used to develop a national identity under colonialism, one that allowed Indian elites to identify with their British rulers. It also allowed non-elites to set up a counter identity critical of their position in the caste system. In Europe, the Aryan myth provided certain thinkers with an origin story that could compete with the Biblical one and could be used to diminish the importance of the West's Jewish heritage. European racial hygienists made much of the myth of a pure Aryan race, and the Nazis later looked at India as a cautionary tale of what could happen if a nation did not remain "pure. "

As Figueira demonstrates, the history of the Aryan myth is also a history of reading, interpretation, and imaginative construction. Initially, the ideology of the Aryan was imposed upon absent or false texts. Over time, it involved strategies of constructing, evoking, or distorting the canon. Each construction of racial identity was concerned with key issues of reading: canonicity, textual accessibility, interpretive strategies of reading, and ideal readers. The book's cross-cultural investigation demonstrates how identities can be and are created from texts and illuminates an engrossing, often disturbing history that arose from these creations.

Dorothy M. Figueira is Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Georgia. She is the author of The Exotic: A Decadent Quest and Translating the Orient: The Reception of Sakuntala in Nineteenth-Century Europe, both published by SUNY Press.


"This is a marvelously learned and engaging book. It asks serious questions about the relations between language and race, and locates compelling answers in the texts that Indians and Europeans were reading simultaneously, often reinventing them for their respective purposes. The quality of the research and the vigor of the interpretations make this a valuable resource for cultural and intellectual historians, as well as for literary critics interested in emerging ideologies of 'right reading. '" — Gauri Viswanathan, author of Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity, and Belief