Sunday, September 9, 2018

Is the term Dharma untranslatable?

(in Saradindu Mukherji, ed.: Prabodhan 2, Delhi 2018) 


Does the central Sanskrit term dharma have an exact equivalent in English or other languages? Rajiv Malhotra recommends to use the word dharma in English untranslated. At first sight, we must admit that no English word does justice to the range of meanings of dharma. But the dharma translators should not go down without a fight: we are at least going to give it a try.

The question presupposes another one: what does dharma mean? Once we agree on an answer, we are free to spot equivalents in other languages, if we can find them. Whether we will be able to do so, we can only say at the end.

The Vedic concept ṛta

Before focusing on the Hindu concept of dharma, it is common to study the Ṛg-Vedic concept of ṛta, “the going”, “pattern of motion”, “sequence”, “cosmic order”, “natural law”. It is represented by the night sky and thus the sequence and orderly motion of the stars; as well as by the orderly sequence of the seasons (ṛtu). Its natural visual glyph is the svastika, embodiment of the archetypal cycle with distinct phases. Its antonym is anṛta, “disorder”. 

The parts together form a whole, the seasons form the year or the “seasons’ cycle” (ṛtucakra); but each of them is different. A cycle of different phases connected with the seasonal cycle and the nightly cycles, that is what we know as a zodiac. We are not specifying here which division our zodiac uses, into how many phases per revolution: 2 (northern & southern half, dark & light, elsewhere yin & yang), 4, 6, 12 (later called rāśicakra), 24, 27 or 28 (Vedic nakṣatracakra), 360. Nor by which name or symbol, if any, these parts of the whole are characterized; we merely mean any cycle within which distinct phases are discernible.

In some contexts, ṛta is treated as more or less synonymous with satya, with both translated as “truth”. Its antonym anṛta is therefore also translated as “untruth”. Classic example is the maxim from the Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad, now India’s national motto: Satyam eva jayate na anṛta, “Truth truly prevails, not untruth.” While “order” and “truth” may be related concepts, they are nonetheless distinct. In what context are they brought so closely together that they can be summed up in a single word, ṛta?

Imagine that an adolescent son is announcing to his father that he plans to do one of the foolish things that young lads happen to do. His father warns him that this will lead to sorry consequences. The son, headstrong, proceeds anyway, and feels very brave and independent. But all too soon, unfortunate things happen as a consequence, and he comes to regret his initiative. He returns home to his father, who (perhaps, like in the Gospel, forgives the Prodigal Son, but nonetheless first) says: “I told you so!” Being a father myself, and having been a headstrong son myself, I know from experience that fathers do say this. This does not come from some shady oracular knowledge of the future but from life experience, i.e. from having lived through (or having seen) sequences of events in reality where one type of action typically leads to a corresponding type of reaction.

Some actions invariably lead to the same consequences. When you see clouds gathering, you can predict that it is going to rain. Then, once it does start raining, you can say: “I told you so.” Prediction is based on the knowledge of sequences, at some point further explained as “cause and effect”, which later becomes a central theme in Indian philosophy. “Orderly sequence”, “sequence following an established law”, is thus intimately connected with “true prediction”, and hence with “speaking truth”.

There is also a more direct link between “cosmic cycle” or “cosmos”, and “truth”. Anyone with a bit of experience of reality knows that certain statements which cannot be shown to be mistaken, nevertheless make no sense when put in context; or that a conduct that is defensible in itself, becomes less advisable when seen against the background of the whole. One has to consider the further ramifications before taking a decision on a course of action, or to check with the larger framework before making a truth claim. As GWF Hegel, the German philosopher best known in India for his hostile commentary on the Bhagavad Gītā, said: Das Wahre ist das Ganze, “the true is the whole”.

A similar Chinese concept

Among the Chinese, a narrowly corresponding term for ṛta is dao, “path”, “way”, and more precisely 天道 tiandao, “way of heaven”. Its visible embodiment was the daily (seeming) course of the stars around the earth, the orderly movement of constellations, the day cycle and year cycle.

This character does not, however, have the meaning “truth”. No translatable of  ṛta there. For this second meaning, we need a different character: zhen, “true”. Well, at least, that is its modern meaning. But the word has a history that illustrates well how “sequence” may have shaded over into “truth”.

The character is used in the oracular Book of Changes (易經 Yijing, -11th century), especially in the frequent expression 利真 li zhen. li means “auspicious”, and the expression is often translated as “fixity/constancy is auspicious”. But that is the modern meaning, “modern” here meaning younger than Confucius, who lived around -500. From then on, the old text is given moralistic meanings, but the ancient meaning was another one, purely divinatory: “auspicious oracle”. Indeed, nowadays means “true”, and has also carried extended meanings like “reliable”, “constant”, but few modern people would think of the meaning “prediction, oracle”. Yet, that was the meaning in the Book of Changes, the most influential text in Chinese civilization.

The semantic span from “prediction” to “truth” in the Chinese word zhen echoes the span from “heavenly cycle” to “truth” in the Sanskrit word ṛta. The basis of prediction is in either case the knowledge of patterns and sequences.


The personification of ṛta among the Vedic gods is Varuṇa, lord (Asura) of heavenly hosts, the star-studded night sky, the oceanic expanse above us. His counterpart Mitra represents the day sky, monopolized by the sun. In the Iranian tradition and its derived Mithraic cult among the Romans, Mithra c.q. Mithras is simply the sun.

In another dimension, his counterpart is Indra. Foremost among the Gods are Indra and Varuṇa: “One kills Vṛtra etc. in battle, the other protects religious observances.” (RV 7:83:9) Whereas Indra is the God of strong vs. weak, of vigour and power, Varuṇa is the God of good vs. evil, of law-compliant vs. law-defiant, of norms and morality. In the war between Iranians and Vedic Indians, the former will veer towards Varuṇa, the latter towards Indra, but originally both gods were worshipped by both peoples.  

Varuṇa is the first one of the twelve Ādityas, “suns”, also named the “charioteers of ṛta”. He is iconographically depicted as sitting on a makara, a sea monster that in different contexts may be a dolphin or a crocodile. Makara happens to signify Capricorn in the Hellenistic zodiac (rāśicakra), meaning the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, when the sun’s northward course (uttarāyaṇa) sets in, the Hindu equivalent of the Yuletide. Prehistorical woodhenges and stone circles with astronomical alignments teach us that it was the principal feast of the year worldwide.

He disciplines sinners, but also confers mercy: “Have mercy, spare me, Varuṇa.” (RV 7:89:1) Or: “Free us from sins committed by our fathers… Not our own will betrayed us, but seduction, thoughtlessness, oh Varuṇa, wine, dice, or anger.” (7:86:5-6) He makes his devotee medhira, “wise” (RV 7:87:4), meaning that he has and confers medhā, “wisdom”, the Sanskrit equivalent of Iranian mazdā.

Ṛta international

Varuṇa is even more present in the Iranian tradition, though known by his form of address Ahura Mazdā (corresponding to Sanskrit Asura Medhā), “Lord Wisdom”. There too, he is the personification of cosmic order and truth, aša or arta, best known as a prefix in proper names, such as of the several Achaemenid emperors called Artaxerxes.

(It is even thought that British king Arthur, folk-etymologically derived from Welsh artus, “bear”, actually refers to a Roman officer of Iranian provenance, because after the withdrawal of the Roman army in the 5th century, the Roman veterans settled in Britain were the only ones capable of organizing a defence against the Saxon invaders; namely to one Artorius, who had been recruited at the empire’s Hungarian border, where Iranian Sarmatians had settled.)

That Ahura Mazdā is the equivalent of Varuṇa helps explain why the polarity good/evil becomes so central in Mazdeism. Friedrich Nietzsche considered this god’s prophet Zarathustra as the pioneer of moralism, of an exaggerated sense of good and evil, which is why his book on his vision of a post-moralistic world order (in which the prophet is cured from his moralistic “folly”), was called Also sprach Zarathustra, “thus spake Zarathustra”.

It is possible, though not obvious from the Vedic text, that Varuṇa’s identity with the Iranian enemies’ god Ahura Mazdā had something to do with his decline and gradual disappearance from the later Ṛg-Vedic horizon. Book X has no hymn for him anymore, and later Hinduism forgot him. He declines both in power and in moral stature, so that the Yajur-Veda treats him with wariness. Likewise, the Varuṇa-related concept of ṛta, “righteousness”, “world order”, “normative succession of phases in a cycle”, “truth”, dwindles and vanishes. It is more or less replaced by Dharma.


The term dharma , which for now we will leave untranslated, comes from the root *dhṛ, “bear, support, sustain, keep”. It is related to Latin firmus, “firm, closely-knit”, and Old English darian, “lie motionless, lurk”; its reconstructed Indo-European root connotes fixity, keeping motionless. Within Sanskrit, it is distantly related to dhruva, “pole star”, “earth axis”, and more closely to the suffix -dhara/-dhāra, “carrying” (as in vasun-dharā, “goods-bearer, earth”); and dhṛti, “steadiness”. In the body, it may be likened to the hard part, the skeleton with the backbone, which gives structure to the whole. Dharma is symbolized by a bull standing firm.

Dharma may imply firmness, but in Hindu belief it is not always evenly firm. In the Golden Age (Kṛta Yuga) the dharma-bull is standing on all fours, in the Silver Age (Tretā Yuga) on three feet, in the Bronze Age (Dvāpara Yuga) on two, and in the Iron Age (Kali Yuga) on just one foot. This differentiation in time is the basis of a division between eternal sanātana dharma, which is always valid, and yuga dharma, the norms specific for a particular age. It is a typically Vaiṣṇava belief that whenever dharma risks getting defeated, it is restored by divine intervention, especially by Viṣṇu’s incarnations such as Rāma and Kṛṣṇa. Though very widespread, however, such beliefs postdate the first use of the term dharma and are not part of its definition, so here we need not consider them further.

In the Ṛg-Veda, the term dharma already appears dozens of times, often connected with ṛta. It takes centre-stage in the Mahābhārata, a story illustrating the decline of dharma and the effort to uphold it through a dharmayuddha (usually translated as a “war of righteousness” or “just war”; definitely not “war of religion”), with the formal though bitter victory being scored by the dharmarāja or “king of righteousness”, Yudhiṣṭira, whose biological father is called Dharma.

But it also continues the meaning “truth” from the older term ṛta. As the Bṛhadāraṇya Upaniṣad (1:4:14) says: “Nothing is higher than dharma. Thenceforth even a weak man rules a stronger with the help of dharma, as with the help of a king. Truly that dharma is the truth (satya); therefore, when a man speaks the truth, they say, ‘He speaks the dharma’; and if he speaks dharma, they say, ‘He speaks the truth.’ For both are the same.”

The concrete details of the application of Dharma are elaborated in the Dharmaśāstras, usually rendered as “Law Codes”. The most famous is the Mānavadharmaśāstra, attributed to the patriarch Manu. Some forty times, the Ṛg-Veda mentions him: as an ancestor, as the Father of Mankind, and implicitly as a law-giver. The extant text of his Mānavadharmaśāstra hardly predates the Christian age, but the idea of a normative system established anciently by Manu, though its details must have evolved, was already present in the Veda.

Dharma itself is the word used by Hindus for what we translate as “Hinduism”. An expression attested only in the last centuries, and that modern Hindus will use when asked for the self-designation of Hinduism, is Sanātana Dharma, “eternal dharma”. Though probably recent, this usage is based on the ancient assertion, both in the Mahābhārata and by the Buddha, that “this Dharma is Sanātana”, eternal. Normally the term dharma by itself is enough to designate Hinduism in the large sense, i.e. including Jainism, Buddhism, Veerashaivism, Sikhism, the Ramakrishna Mission and other sects whose belonging to the Hindu fold has been rendered controversial.

Dimensions of dharma

From the actual usage of the word by Hindus, we gather that there are two dimensions to dharma. One is vertical and concerns the relation with the divine, including the required rites, observances, pilgrimages and celebrations (yes, it can be a duty to celebrate). Here it approaches the English word religion in meaning. The Constitutional term secularism, in the sense of “religious neutrality”, is therefore often translated in Sanskritized Hindi as dharma-nirpekṣatā.

However, serious Hindus reject this choice of translation because to their minds, dharma is an entirely positive concept, so you don’t need to keep it at arms’ length the way Western secularism was meant to keep the Churches away from state power. For them, Nehruvian secularists only express their ignorance by treating dharma as a synonym for “religious denomination”. Rather, it approaches “religiosity”, not the series of denominations such as Shiism, Sunnism or the Christian Churches. They prefer pantha-nirpekṣatā., “sect neutrality”, in the more precise sense of impartiality vis-à-vis all religious denominations. 

The second meaning is horizontal and concerns the relation with your fellow creatures, human and other. Here, it comes to mean “righteousness”, “ethics”, “deontology”, “law”, “justice”, “responsibility”, “rules of conduct: duties and prohibitions”. As they say in Hindi: Yeh merā dharm hai, “this is my duty”.

To sum up: dharma has two dimensions. One is the correct relation of the part to the whole, of the lower-order entity to the higher-order entity: religion. The other is the correct relation of the part to the other parts: ethics, duty.

This combination promises to militate heavily against the translatableness of the term dharma. It is not equal to “righteousness”: at least its religious meanings fall outside of this domain. Conversely, dharma is not equal to “religion”: the latter term would exclude the purely ethical dimension, even when “religion” has its most uncontroversial sense of “awe for the sacred”. Moreover, there is also a specific contrast with the typically Christian overlay of the originally more general term “religion”.


English has been taught to Indians mostly through mission schools, and has even more outspoken Christian connotations than it would already have acquired by a thousand years of Christian dominance in England. The result is that Indians entirely conceive of “religion” as a Christian term: a box-type system, to which you either belong or not, and of which you have to unquestioningly accept the items of belief, regardless of what science would say about them. It is a system to which you can convert, viz. by “burning what you used to pray to, and praying to what you used to burn” (as Clovis was told by his baptizer, 496). That is about as far away from dharma, in any attested sense, as you can get.

But religion has a pre-Christian meaning which would bring it already much closer to dharma. In Latin, religio originally had a meaning still enunciated by Cicero. It came from a verb religere, “to reread”, “to verify”, “to do something with utmost care” (just like in Hindi dhyān se), “to pay full attention”; exactly the way the word regio, “administrative zone”, “province”, is derived from the verb regere, “to administer”. So, religio meant “scrupulousness”, “full attention”, and in fact it sometimes still has that sense in modern English: to do something “religiously” means doing it very carefully, with utmost attention.

But with Christianization, religion became “belief system”, or “set of truth claims about the divine”. The Church father Lactantius wrongly analysed religio as a derivative from religare, “to bind anew”, “to reunite”. This perfectly fit Christian theology, which saw man as severed from his original closeness to God in the Garden of Eden through original sin, suffering from his separation from Him in this vale of tears, but now brought back closer to God by Jesus. (In India, there is a parallel dispute about the word yoga: pious types say it means “union” with the divine, sceptics that it merely refers to “yoking” the thoughts and “disciplining” the mind into focusing and becoming still.) At any rate, it is only after this Christian reading of religion has been pin-pricked that an approximation with dharma can even be considered.


In Chinese, the Buddhist term dharma in the sense of “the Buddhist system” (a combination of liberation-orientedness and a daily morality of compassion and virtue) is translated as fa , “law”. It carries through the Indian meaning of “the Buddhist way”, but has not been chosen at random. It was selected for its already ancient meaning of “law”, “method”. And indeed, when you look at Buddhism from the outside, what you get to see is not so much the Buddhist doctrine but mostly the observance of the Buddhists injunctions. A very large part of the Buddhist canon is made up of prescribing a set of rules, a way of life deemed conducive to meditation and ultimately to liberation.

The translation of Dharma Śāstra as “law book” is only approximative. It has excursions into cosmology and the religious sphere, and when dealing with human conduct, it is partly descriptive before being prescriptive. In turn, its prescriptions are partly a matter of general moral norms and only partly specific enforceable laws. These are moreover limited in reach, because the final word of pañcāyat (village or caste council) decisions is also admitted, as well as the right of competent specialists in council to introduce changes in the letter of the prescribed law all while maintaining its spirit. But the translation does have a basis in reality.

The Mānava Dharma Śāstra distinguishes between different levels of dharma. Sāmānya or sādhāraṇa dharma consists of “universal” do’s and don’ts, paralleled in the religious sphere by some festivals and forms of worship in which everyone participates. The following ten prescriptions given by Manu have universal application: dhṛti, “steadiness”; kṣamā, “forgiveness”; damā, “discipline”; asteya, “non-stealing”; śauca, “cleanliness”; indriya-nigraḥ, “sense control”; dhī, “mindfulness” ; vidyā, “knowledge”; satya, “truthfulness”; akrodha, “non-anger”.

People with a Christian frame of reference, such as India’s Nehruvian secularists, often make the comparison with the Ten Commandments, but this is superficial. The Ten Commandments are given on two stone tables. The second one contains practical injunctions: “Thou shalt not kill”, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife”, etc. These do correspond to similar injunctions in the Dharma Śāstras and have a similar intention, viz. guaranteeing a harmonious life in society. Moralists in both the Biblical and the Dharmic traditions might add that they also make for harmony with yourself since, in Baruch de Spinoza’s words, “virtue is its own reward”. They stem from the experience of the earlier generations: a society is successful (and an individual is more contented) if it abides by these rules, but falls apart if it does not. By contrast, the first stone table contains something unrelated: a brand-new theology, featuring monotheism, rejection of icons, and a taboo on uttering the Yahweh’s name. Apparently Moses tried to give more credibility and authority to his new-fangled theology by linking it with an old and widely respected morality, as if the latter logically followed from the former.

Other “lawgivers” propose variations on Manu’s list, with synonymous or different virtues, but we get the idea. In fact, one of the possible translation of dharma is a generalization of these separate virtues as “virtue”. The several virtues are synthesized in the Golden Rule, e.g. in the Mahābhārata (Śānti-Parva 167:9), adviser Vidura recommends to king Yudhiṣṭhira: “Study of the scriptures, austerity, sacrifice, generosity, social welfare, forgiveness, purity of intent, compassion, truth and self-control — these are the ten treasures of character. (…) Therefore, one should live with self-restraint and by making dharma the main focus, one should treat others as one treats oneself.” This Golden Rule is found back also in the Tirukkural (316), the Padma Purāṇa (19:358), and elsewhere.

Next to these general ethical rules, Manu acknowledges a viśeṣa dharma, “special dharma”, or svadharma, “own dharma”: specific duties and taboos for every age group and class, paralleled in religion by specific festivals and forms of worship for every community.

Svadharma is rarely conceived as individualistic, the way Westerners would understand the term. It reminds them of Friedrich Nietzsche’s maxim: “There is only one way in the world that no one can go except you. Don’t ask where it leads. Follow it!” When Kṛṣṇa advises Arjuna to take up his svadharma, he doesn’t mean some hyper-individual duty but the duty of his entire warrior caste, viz. to accept the challenge of battle.

Yet, Hinduism does have some very individual path stipulated for you. You and your siblings come from the same gene pool, had the same types of food, the same education etc., and yet your destinies can be very different. Ever since the Chāndogya Upaniṣad introduced the notion of reincarnation, on which the doctrine of karma (roughly, ethical causality between incarnations) was superimposed, most Hindus will say that these individual destinies are the result of each brother’s very individual itinerary through successive incarnations. So the weight of all your past incarnations with their unfinished agendas, their action-at-a-distance (karma) into the present, imposes a unique life-duty on you.

This may well be true, but is not what we mean by dharma, a notion that predates the doctrine of karma in its reincarnationist sense. Whether one believes or not in reincarnation, in an afterlife, or in God: the notion of dharma always applies. Indeed, dharma is secular par excellence: it is a common ground, a meeting-place between people of all persuasions.

A Greek equivalent?

In the case of Greek, Indians themselves have chosen a term translating dharma. Translation of Hindu terminology is not some colonial ploy, as many Indian chauvinists think. In one of Aśoka’s rock edicts (-258 BC) in Afghanistan, the Prakrit text comes with a translation in Aramaic and Greek. There, dharma is translated as eusebeia.

Eusebeia is derived from eu, “good”, “in harmony with”, “tending towards”; and sebomai, “to revere”. Thus it means “awe for the sacred”, “piety”, a reverential attitude: the defining core of religion, even more fundamental than venerating gods. By extension, it also means “conduct pleasing to the gods”, or to others above you, as in “filial piety”; and “spiritual maturity”. Its opposite is dyssebeia, “mindlessness”, “irreverence”.

In certain contexts, however, is can also mean “right conduct towards others”, both relatives and strangers; “public-spiritedness”. It is then personified as wife of nomos, “law” in the strict juridical sense. So, it is both religion and ethics, like dharma.

A Semitic equivalent?

One of the best semantic approximations of dharma is the Semitic root D-I-N. In Arabic, دين dīn means “debt”, “obligation” (Sankrit ṛṇa), “duty”, “system of duties”, “law”; but also “religion”.  Thus, Arabian Paganism is called the dīn al-abā’ikā, “the ancestors’ dharma. When Moghul emperor Akbar launched a newly minted religion, he called it dīn-i-Ilāhī, “divine religion”, symbolized by his newly built city Ilāhābād, “divine city” (called Allahabad by the British), on the confluence of the Gaṅgā and the Yamunā, symbolizing the synthesis of Hinduism and Islam.

The related Hebrew, however, has developed the term more exclusively towards the sphere of “right relation to others”, “law”. Thus, dīn, “to judge”; dīnah, “judgment”; dayān, “judge”.

Like with Christianity appropriating the term religio, Islam has appropriated the term dīn, as witnessed in names like Saifu’l-dīn (Saifuddin), “sword of islam”. But as is well-known, Islam is both a doctrine-cum-worship and a political-juridical system. Thereby, and in spite of the ideological reorientation that Islam brought, it continues the combination of both dimensions that inhered already in the pre-Islamic term dīn.

A Germanic equivalent?

The same shading-over between devotion and a way of life is found in Scandinavian trú (Dutch trouw), as in Asatrú, “loyalty to the Aesir/gods”, Vanatrú, “loyalty to the Vanir” (another class of gods, like in the early Ṛg-Veda the Asuras next to the Devas), Vortrú, “loyalty to the early (customs)”. These are names modern neo-Heathens give their own religion. It contains a certain worship of the ancient Germanic gods but also a code of conduct, largely of modern coinage, such as the list of “the nine virtues”, another variation on the list of virtues given by Manu.  

In Britain, similar movements exist, also harking back to the ancestors’ pre-Christian religion to the extent it can be reconstructed. They speak of truth, one of the meanings of ṛta and dharma, or rather its more romantic-sounding variation, troth (as in the Rolling Stones song: “I pledge my troth to / Lady Jane”). “The Troth” is how many neo-Pagans refer to their own religion. It mainly means “to be true”, e.g. to one’s give word, “loyalty”, “being faithful”, “solidity”.

This word trú/true/trouw is related to trust, but ultimately derives from the same root as tree: Indo-European *deru, whence Sanskrit daru. As an icon of robustness and solidity, the tree has come to be used figuratively. Semantically, this corresponds neatly with the term dharma’s connotation of “sustaining”, “conferring a backbone”. Nevertheless, its range of meanings does not entirely match that of dharma.


After examining a few foreign candidate-equivalents to the concept of dharma, we find that at least pre-Christian Greek and pre-Islamic Arabic approximate it very well, though still not perfectly, with Chinese and pre-Christian Germanic not far behind. Nevertheless, a perfect translation that could be introduced to simply replace the term dharma, remains elusive. For now, the best thing to do is simply to leave the word dharma untranslated.

We hope, nonetheless, that this failed attempt to find a perfect equivalent outside Sanskrit has had is uses. In particular, it should stimulate a rethinking of the distinction, but also the relatedness, between the religious and the ethical dimensions of human life. The one does not need the other, but man needs both.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Arya-Tibetan case for the OIT

(Pragyata, 10 July 2018)

The latest linguistic progress for the OIT

In 2017, there has been a lot of jubilation in the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) camp over new genetic developments prematurely touted as proving an Indo-European (IE) or “Aryan” invasion into India. Mainly they proved themselves incompetent by claiming that the linguistic AIT had been proven with genetic evidence. The problematic aspects of the genetic picture they painted, I leave to specialists to deal with. Meanwhile, however, a different development is undermining the AIT, and it is one I am more competent on.

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NW-Caucasian transforms Indo-Uralic into Indo-European

Three years ago I stayed in nearby Leiden taking summer courses in Avestan, Hittite, and statistical methods in comparative linguistics. There, mainly in private discussions with Leiden professors of linguistics, I learned about the big new theory within the AIT camp: that Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is a continuation of Uralic ("Indo-Uralic") after the latter had been adopted by an originally Northwest-Caucasian-speaking (NWC) population.

Lexical items in common between NWC (now mainly Circassian) and PIE are few, and controversial. But two other things are emphatically in common and stand out: like the earliest PIE, NW Caucasian is an ergative language (a structure that developed into a different structure, viz. the well-known case system), and like PIE, it has numerous heavy consonant clusters, as opposed to the Indo-Uralic ancestress which, like her sister Dravidian, mostly has a consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel sequence. 

The Homeland of Indo-Uralic is deemed to be Bactria-Sogdia, at least according to Alan Bomhard, the main living theoretician of Nostratic, a mega-kinship stretching into or beyond the Glacial Age and connecting Indo-European, Uralic, as well as Afro-Asiatic (Semitic), Kartvelian, Altaic, Dravidian and others (but not Bantu, Sino-Tibetan, NW- and NE-Caucasian etc.). During a westward trek, it "converted" a NW-Caucasian population, which may then already have been restricted to its present speech area, but which may just as well have filled up the East-European or Central-Asian steppes. The Caucasus forms the southern rim of the Yamna (“pit-grave”) area in SW Russia and East Ukraine, where the standard AIT locates the Homeland of Indo-European. In the process, it took over this population’s clustering and ergative speech habits, yielding the typical features of PIE.

This theory, pioneered by Frederik Kortlandt and presently supported by Alan Bomhard, John Colarusso and the influential Leiden school of Linguistics, has its skeptics and enemies. Thus, Johanna Nichols has shown that there is no noteworthy lexical exchange between NWC and PIE, though there is a later influx to NWC from Iranian and Russian, which have dominated in that area. Indeed, many scholars, less equipped with Nichols’ expert knowledge on the Caucasian languages, are also sceptical of PIE’s indebtedness to NWC.

Nonetheless, it has become the most coherent and battle-ready version of the AIT. It is what the OIT is up against. So, I sat down to consider alternatives that respect all the data on which this theory is based.

The Tibetan alternative

Then already, I remarked that both ergativity and consonant clustering were as much characteristics of ancient Tibetan. These traits have disappeared in the related modern Chinese (though consonant clusters are still prolific in ancient Chinese) and receded in modern Tibetan, e.g. what is now pronounced as Gelugpa, the Dalai Lama's sect, is written after its older pronunciation Dgelugspa. But in ancient Tibetan, preserved for us by the conservative spelling in the Tibetan script, they were vigorously alive.

So, the population that turned Indo-Uralic into PIE, some 6000 years ago, may as well have been Tibetan. Indeed, their putative homeland in Bactria-Sogdia borders on Tibet. Moreover, even a slightly more westerly Homeland might have been in touch with Tibetan through a westward Tibetan expansion. It has been established that NWC (and its probable offshoot Basque, another result of a long-distance migration, from the Caucasus to Sardinia, then France and Spain) is related to the Sino-Tibetan family.

Indeed, NWC may have come about as just such a westerly colony of emigrant Tibetan settlers. Given that the latter family is only spoken in East Asia (Tibet, China, Burma) and is a demographic heavyweight, it is unlikely that it moved from the Caucasus, an inhospitable place where we find only linguistic left-overs (e.g. Kartvelian or South-Caucasian, featuring Georgian, was once spoken in much of West Asia), to China. Rather, it is North-Caucasian that moved westwards starting from Tibet. At any rate, even lexical loans to or from SW Caucasian in PIE will often also be found in Tibetan.

Regardless of that still-disputed link between NWC and Sino-Tibetan, it suddenly struck me that I had failed to realize the importance of Tibetan all these years. If the Homeland of PIE was located where Hindu tradition puts the Aryan ancestor Manu, viz. in Northwest India just south of the Himalaya, Tibetan must have been its immediate neighbour. It should then be eminently possible to find at least lexical and possibly deeper linguistic exchanges between the two. I do not mean between Tibetan and any Indo-European language: there are of course plenty of those with Sanskrit/Hindi (e.g. padma, “lotus”, borrowed in Tibetan as padma/pema). I mean the “proto” stage of the Indo-European family as a whole.

The implication is that some Tibetan words have crept into the pan-IE vocabulary, showing up in evolved form in Latin or Germanic. Such words form part of every comparative dictionary of IE (there are already a big handful), whose makers never realized such words’ status of loan-words. Conversely, some PIE-origin words should show up in Tibetan. In effect, to prove the Tibetan-PIE thesis, a few of such words are no less than necessary. If there is only borrowing from Indo-Aryan, that would fit excellently in the AIT scenario.

The only way to avoid this necessity is if there was a steep status difference between PIE and Tibetan. Thus, there are hundreds of Iranians loan-words in the Uralic languages, but none in known Iranian languages (perhaps some in the lost Iranian-Scythian languages spoken in what is now the Slavic world), because Iranian had a far higher status, as the language of a conquering and urbanizing population, compared with the Uralic language of “mere” reindeer herds. It is likewise not inconceivable that the Tibetan mountaineers looked up to the proto-Harappan civilization incarnated by PIE. Even then, Tibetan may still have conferred some words transmitted by any native population to any conquerors or immigrants: names of local materials, animals and landscape elements. (That would certainly be the case in the AIT, but then only affecting Indo-Aryan, not PIE.) Anyway, the search is on.  

If there had been known Tibetan words in Sanskrit/Hindi, my attention would at least have been drawn to the role of Tibetan in the linguistic landscape in which IE came about. It seems that somehow I still had not freed myself from the AIT prejudice that discards Tibetan from consideration on the same grounds as Algonquian or Maori: simply too distant from any possible Homeland. AIT champions congratulate themselves that Sanskrit but not PIE has Munda connections (e.g. kumara, “young man”, deemed to be “para-Munda”), which can however be explained by the Vedic tribes’ eastern contiguity to the Munda speech area, not shared with the northwesternmost IE-speaking tribes, which spawned the IE emigrations. Those not in the know of the linguistic state of the art, such as Tamil chauvinists, still think that Sanskrit does, but PIE does not, show a strong Dravidian influence; in fact, there was no Dravidian influence in the Vedic heartland, it came about during the Vedic expansion to Gujarat, where originally Dravidian was spoken.  

More Tibetan, less ostracized

To check this hypothesis, I decided to learn Tibetan. I enrolled for last summer’s speed-course of Tibetan, two weeks full-time, organized by the Orientalist department of the French-language section of my own Alma Mater, the Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium (with parallel courses for other languages deemed to be “for freaks only”: Sumerian, Hittite etc.). However, not enough people volunteered for the course, so it wasn’t organized. Having many other things on my hands, I postponed the endeavour until some weeks ago, when good Tibetan handbooks fell into my possession by a lucky stroke: a local initiate in Lamaism got rid of her collection of Tibetan dictionaries and language textbooks.

At about the same time, however, I learned that someone beat me to it fair and square: Igor A. Tonoyan-Belyayev from St-Petersburg (which, incidentally, has a state-of-the-art Tibetan-Buddhist temple since 1911), who is fluent in Tibetan. He has in the last year written a few papers detailing lexical links between PIE and Tibetan. He is part of a multidisciplinary nexus of AIT skeptics. His friend Aleksander Semerenko’s collection of archaeological evidence for an emigration from India to Mesopotamia and Central Asia constitutes another major breakthrough, but falls outside the scope of this article.  

To be sure, I have never worried about the honour of discoveries, let alone about intellectual property rights. My name as an OIT defender has been made and I’ll share in the fun once the OIT gets accepted. I also know that in the field of Hindutva/secularism studies, ideas of mine have been borrowed without acknowledgment by even well-known professors, but I don't mind. With my name under it, they would only encounter lots of stonewalling and sabotage. So if someone else can make them accepted but under his name, that is gain. It has been said that "you can get nearly anything done, provided you are willing to leave the honour to others". So when I find that a project I am taking up has already been elaborated by someone else, I only say: so much the better.

Further, I was starting to feel lonely in the trenches of the pro-OIT struggle, on which only a literal handful of people are working, so I welcome any new voices. Contrary to the received wisdom, it is not true at all that the Hindutva movement or the Narendra Modi government has invested anything in making the case for the OIT. At most, some in there try to piggy-back on other people’s efforts, on the results of which they have taken a royal advance by ludicrously claiming that the Homeland debate is a thing of the past, long lost by the “foreign” AIT camp. But even that is less than official, for in state documents and on government websites, even the ruling “Hindu fundamentalist” Bharatiya Janata Party (“Indian People’s Party”, BJP) keeps on taking the Aryan invasion for granted.

Given the systematic and multi-pronged political use made of the AIT by the “breaking India” forces against India’s civilization and unity, this unconcern from a supposedly nationalist party must be seen to be believed. But most Western India-watchers have never seen the facts of India’s religio-political nexus with their own eyes and naïvely believe whatever the Indian anti-nationalist forces spoon-feed them. Even Western pioneers of the OIT tend to believe in a Hindutva hand behind the OIT. Well, contrary to what they believe, the BJP and its intellectual acolytes have no merit in this debate at all. 

In supporting a more easterly Homeland, our Russian Orientalist makes it a point to distance himself from "Hindutva". Though I am an avowedly original critic of Hindutva myself, starting with my book BJP vs. Hindu Resurgence (1997), I don't credibly have that option in Western academe, as anything at all said against Hindu-bashing there counts as “Hindutva”. So, anything I write in favour of the OIT has to overcome the nausea which most non-Indian academics have developed towards Hindutva. This distrust is partly because of the hate campaign by the likes of Steve Farmer, and partly because of the obnoxious show of incompetence and arrogance by lay Hindu polemicists on internet forums. At any rate, it greatly diminishes my audience. Probably Tonoyan-Belyayev doesn’t have that disadvantage.

The actual findings

This theory of a linguistic or at least lexical exchange between PIE and Tibetan is still in its infancy. A weak point certainly is that Tibetan is only attested in writing since 600 CE, some 4000 years after PIE unity. We may take a little help from the evolution in the related Chinese though, which is attested since the mid-2nd millennium BCE. But any comparison with NWC suffers far more seriously from the same flaw, being this language group being attested since only a few centuries and not having help from any related older language.

We will give a few promising examples, taken from the articles on Igor Tonoyan-Belyayev’s online page.

Bya rgod (“bird” + “wild”, “vulture”) is a Tibetan word yielding Vedic garut, “wing”, and garuda (“hawk”, Vedic celestial bird); and rgod ma (“wild one”, “mare”) yields ghoṭa, a widespread Prakrit word for “horse”, replacing the Vedic and virtually pan-IE word aśva. But these roots only affect Indo-Aryan languages and could be accommodated in an AIT scenario, where the Aryan immigrants would borrow some words from a native Tibetan population, which all the more westerly tribes speaking IE would miss out on.

But there are other cases, affecting the IE family as a whole. Words for “earth” often have the basic meaning “dry”, marking a distinction with swamps and rivers, and the related meaning “thirst”, e.g. Latin terra, related to Sanskrit tṛṣṇa, English thirst. The IE root *dhghom/dhghem, “earth”, whence Sanskrit kṣam, Slavic zemla, Persian zamīn, Greek chthōn, Latin humus, can likewise be derived from Tibetan skam, “dry”, skom, “thirsty”.

Germanic fehu, Latin pecus, both “cattle”, and Sanskrit paśu, “animal”, can be derived from Tibetan phyugs, “cow”. Clearly this word was not derived from Indo-Aryan, where the second consonant is satemized/palatalized as ś, but from PIE, with the original guttural k/g (Tibetan, like Chinese, doesn’t emphasize the opposition voiced/unvoiced but rather the opposition aspirated/non-aspirated), *peku-, as preserved in Latin pecus.

Latin tegere, “cover”, “thatch”, English thatch (< thak, cfr. Dutch dekken, “cover”, dak, “roof”) would be derived from Tibetan thog, “roof”, “cover”. Similar-sounding but distinct is Latin texere, “weave”, whence in English both texture and text, from Tibetan thag, “weave”, thags, “texture”. For a final example, Russian teplo, “warmth”, and Sanskrit tap-, “heat up”, may come from Tibetan thab, “hearth”, “oven”.

In Tonoyan-Belyayev’s approach, there are other exciting perspectives to this Tibetan connection, such as the grounds for the suspected shift in PIE from the ergative::absolutive contrast to the nominative::accusative contrast; the passive and the causative construction; and the genesis of grammatical gender. Further, indications are given for a small adstratal influence on Uralic, which must have been a western neighbour of Tibetan, probably in Sogdia. Enough material for some serious research. It is only beginning.

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