Monday, July 27, 2020

The shoulders he stood on: the Buddha’s teachers and their legacy within Buddhism


 Conference on Buddhism & World Peace

Utkal University & KIIPS, Bhubaneshwar, 8 February 2020








The Buddha was not the inventor of a new method in the service of a new philosophical goal. He trod into existing footsteps: seeking the goal of Liberation through the method of Meditation. This ideal was already available before he was born and that was what beckoned him into a spiritual career. Even more specifically, he learned meditation techniques from established pre-Buddhist masters and integrated these prominently in the Buddhist meditation curriculum.




1.     Navel-gazing


Less contemplative religions denounce Buddhists as “navel-gazers”. Indeed Chan/Zen Buddhists even literally focus on the energy centre just below the navel, a point borrowing its special meaning from Daoism, which calls it Dantian, ‘the field of cinnabar’. But the good thing about this focus on the navel is its unintended symbolism: a navel presupposes birth from parents. It proves you are part of a lineage, you have been born as an heir, and with a debt to your ancestry.

So indeed, Buddhist tradition pays a lot of attention to the role of Śākyamuni’s ancestry in his unique life path, particularly his father, also his foster-mother, his wife and concubines and his son. We know more about his family situation than of that of most sannyasins, who tend to keep their pre-initiation lives secret.




2.     Anti-ancestry bias: the Buddha as rebel


Every great thinker has numerous studies dedicated to the influences that formed him. For Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha, however, this question is now systematically ignored or downplayed. Instead, the claim is propped up that he was a radically different mind from what surrounded or preceded him.

Either he is deemed a rebel against the ambient (partly or predominantly Vedic) culture. This view came about among 19th-century Protestant Orientalists as a conscious projection of Luther rebelling against Popery or of Jesus challenging the Pharisees. Thought up in Germany, today it is taught worldwide to almost everyone through school manuals and introductory books, both abroad and in India; the only exception is Buddhist countries to the extent that they maintain their own centuries-old tradition (e.g. the Buddha biography by Hsinng Yun 2013 used by the Fo Guang, “sunbeams of the Buddha”, school), but not to the extent that they too have absorbed the Western “consensus”. You can find it strongly in Bhimrao Ambedkar’s The Buddha and His Dhamma, less strongly in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India (because he contradictorily adds that the Buddha’s contribution is typical for Indian culture).

The most subtle recent variation on this approach is by Richard Gombrich, who admits the Buddha borrowed from both Jainism (whose historical tīrthaṁkara Pārśvanāth lived some 250 years earlier) and the Upaniṣads: the Buddha “was alluding primarily to teachings in the early Upaniṣads, especially the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, (ĀUP) teachings which are usually known as Vedānta, a term which literally means ‘Conclusions of the Veda’. With some of these teachings the Buddha agreed; others he criticized, though usually he did so obliquely.” (Gombrich 2009:60) However, he only agreed with the words, not the meanings: he used the old words but gave them a new meaning entirely his own. Thus, for the Jainas karma refers to a form of matter, but for the Buddha, this existing term becomes a matter of intention. (Gombrich 2009:75)

So: “On the one hand, the Upaniṣads had a gnostic soteriology: our basic problem is a lack of understanding. (…) On the other hand, Jainism and related sects saw our basic problem as involvement with the world through desire: the answer lies in acquiring total self-control. (…) Though the Upaniṣads also deprecated desire and Jainism also advocated understanding, it was the Buddha who found the perfect combination of the two approaches.” (Gombrich 2009:74)  For Gombrich, the Buddha formally walked in the trodden paths of the ambient society, but only to revolutionize it in a very subtle way.

But if true, this reinterpretation does not put Buddhism outside Hinduism, on the contrary. Reinterpretation is already part of the evolving Vedic thought. Thus, Karma as understood in Vedic Karmakāṇḍa (ritual work) differs from what it becomes in the Bhagavad Gītā (in the source text and even more as nowadays interpreted: “the yoga of work”) and in reincarnationist context. The common measure is “action at a distance”: in Vedic ritualism, a fire sacrifice is performed with a chosen goal in mind, say victory on the battlefield, and hopefully causes through action at a distance the desired result, crossing the space and time between the ritual and the battlefield result; in reincarnationist parlance, karma from past actions signifies the causation at a distance of a destiny in the future. The shift is from a ritual causation to a moral causation, but the same term remains in use.



3.     The Buddha as fountainhead


An even more daring alternative within the ancestry-denying consensus is the one we might summarize as: “All roads lead to the Buddha.” Since rebellion against something is still a form of relation, a newer school claims that he was not a follower of nor even a rebel against earlier models, but an incredibly creative founder from whom his surroundings borrowed. Here he is the fountainhead of all that not just Buddhist but even Hindu culture has to offer: either it is Buddhist and obviously his, or it is non-Buddhist, and in that case it has been borrowed (or in neo-Ambedkarspeak: “stolen”) from the Buddha. “Hinduism bad, Buddhism good”, seems to be the operative guideline, so anything bad that can be found in Buddhism is a contamination from Hinduism (or “Brahminism”), anything good in Hinduism must be an import from Buddhism.

One core of truth in this view is that we may be mistaken in deducing all spiritual developments in India from the Vedas, too often seen as the source of everything worthwhile. Vedic culture with its hymn recitation and its fire sacrifice, and with an array of sciences growing around it (astronomy, mathematics, grammar) was only one of the tributaries of Hindu culture, viz. the tradition of the Paurava tribe centred on the Sarasvatī basin in present-day Haryāṇā. It was not the mother but the sister of other tributaries, like the devotional culture with its idols and idol-houses (temples), originating in peninsular India; the culture of mother-goddess worship with blood sacrifices, rooted in every village but centred mostly in Bengal and Assam; and the culture of Greater Magadha, roughly Bihar, where asceticism and the belief in reincarnation originate. It is when the Vedic culture expands to the east, where Yājñavalkya wins a debate at king Janaka in Videha (northwestern Bihar) that these elements become central in the youngest layer of the Veda, the major Upaniṣads. So, less than a reaction to the Vedas, the Śramana (renunciate) culture may be a sister tradition developing on its own, with the Buddha as one of its children.

As Shrikant Talageri always emphasizes: “In this Hindu culture, the original religious elements of the Pūru tribes (the Vedic hymns and different types of Vedic yajñas) became just one nominal part of the whole religion, subordinated in actual importance to the elements from the other tribes: the philosophical concepts (Upaniṣads, Buddhism, Jainism, Charvaka’s philosophy etc.) from the Ikṣvāku tribes, Tantrism from tribes further east, idol-worship and temple culture from the tribes in South India, etc.” (Talageri 2019:169)

An academic support of this view is to be found in a Buddhacentric chronology. Johannes Bronkhorst (2000:112-123) has argued that the Upaniṣads actually postdate the Buddha, making the yogic ideas in them a calque on Buddhism. He brings in rather convoluted philological arguments, which have failed to find much approval among specialists in a position to judge this hypothesis. Thus Gombrich cites several Upaniṣadic verses as known to the Buddha (BĀU 1:4:5-6, Gombrich 2009:76; Gombrich 1987). However, the implied conclusion of Upanishadic non-originality has become popular in politically motivated circles in Western and Indian academe and in the Ambedkarite movement.  

Gombrich identifies the earliest reference to yogic practice as: “Therefore, knowing this, having become calm, subdued, quiet, patiently enduring, concentrated, one sees the soul [ātman, more usually ‘self’] in oneself.” (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 4:4:23) Even later is the first formal, self-conscious definition of the term Yoga (‘a yoke, the yoking’ > discipline): “The earliest known definition of yoga comes in the c. third-century BCE Kaṭha Upaniṣad” (Mallinson & Singleton 2017:xv), viz.: “When the 5 senses are silenced, along with the mind, and the intellect stops its activity: that is called the highest state. Strongly restraining the sense is what is called Yoga." (Kaṭha Up. 2.3.10–11)

 Having done a lot of research in Indian chronology, but without presupposing the late Aryan Invasion sequence (Ṛg-Veda in -1200 etc.), we always wonder where people get those dates from, posited with such confidence. The texts themselves don’t give these, and we know these dates are partly determined by the cramped and unhistorical hypothesis of an Aryan invasion ca. 1500 BCE. We find no reason to insist that the Kaṭha Upaniṣad postdates the Buddha. And let this still be a legitimate topic of debate, the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad’s higher antiquity is just too well-established. That it is earlier than the Buddha, follows from the fact that, as per Gombrich, he quotes from it.several times. It is also taken to contain some ideas known through Buddhism but in less systematized form, not because the Brahmin editors were too simple to properly digest ideas borrowed from a prior-existing Buddhism, but because they came earlier and expressed the same ideas in a more spontaneous form.

Unlikely and criticized as it is, the hypothesis of a post-Buddha date for the Upaniṣads deserves to be taken seriously, if only as a thought experiment. Supposing it is true, then the Buddha’s lonely and therefore titanic achievements are impressive, but then this begs the question where the Buddha had it all from: if he did not build on the older tradition, Vedic or Magadhan, did he get is from revelation, or from pure genius?



4.     Proto-Buddhism

         In Siddhārtha Gautama’s life story, the presence of spiritualism and asceticism in his pre-ascetic years is striking. At birth, he is predicted to either become a great ruler (as had been planned by his father) or a great renunciate,-- a category clearly already known.  In the classical story of his four meetings at age 29, it is the sight of a renunciant that sets him on his distinctive course. He wants to realize an ideal that others have already pursued and, given the inspiring effect this renunciant had, probably realized.

No mention is made anywhere of his contemporaries being surprised that someone would go and become a forest ascetic. Among the Romans or the Aztecs or most peoples, this would have been considered strange: a healthy young man who spurns a family life with wife and child and, for a prince, even concubines, in order to go to the forest to pursue a bizarre state of mind which he fancies to be Enlightenment. This was, after all, Hindu civilization, already familiar with the lifestyle that the Buddha would make world-famous. It was a long-existing footstep in which Siddhārtha followed. And in a next phase, once in the forest, he does not just go his own way. Famously, for a while, he joins a group of extreme ascetics, perhaps Jainas or a similar sect already in existence: as sons of the same culture, they were on a search for the same thing as he. It is only after sharing with them a part of his spiritual path that finally he leaves them, continuing his search into its more distinctively Buddhist phase.

More than forty years later, in the final years of his life, after having amply developed his own Dharma, he lays down his view of the good society in “the Seven Injunctions of Non-Decline”. (Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūkta 1.1-5, “Chapter of the supreme exctinction”, Sanskrit; and Satta-Aparihāniya-Dhammā: “Seven non-decrease duties”, in Aṅguttara-Nikāya 7:21, Pali, treated by Elst 2018). These relate the sapta śīla, the “seven precepts” of non-decline. Just as in spiritual life, the Buddha’s apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree, so in his social vision: it reproduces the institutions and traditions he has grown up with.

The first principle is unity in decision-making, deliberation till a consensus is reached, as the key to social cohesion and national invincibility. This was the political institution he had grown up with in the Śākya republic, and as a member of the Kṣatriya elite, he had been a full member of the Republic’s Senate, where deliberation and forging a consensus was his way of life. For the rest, a good cohesive spirit in society is furthered by respecting the laws, respecting women, respecting holy men, and preserving the existing religious traditions (sacred places, pilgrimages, festivals). Far from being a rebel, we learn that the Buddha was a conservative. Like his Chinese contemporary Confucius, he did not advocate draconic laws nor “more blue on the street”, but the force of traditional mores and the awe for the sacred to streamline society.



5.     The Buddha’s teachers

We know some specifics of his culturally approved search in the footsteps of earlier philosophers and renunciants. According to the Ariyapariyesana Sutta (“syllabus on the noble search”), before reaching his Great Awakening, he had two meditation teachers. The first one was linked with the philosophical school Sāṁkhya, “enumeration”, then having a more general meaning compared to later centuries when it had to compete with an array of other schools, roughly “philosophy”. These were Ālāra Kālāma, a famous expert in breath control and Dhyāna mārga, “the way of meditation”; and Uddaka Rāmaputta, closer to Jainism. They taught him two advanced meditation techniques: “staying in nothingness” (ākiñcaññāyatana), c.q. “entering the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception” (nevasaññānasaññāyatana), also qualified as “the peak of existence”.

The scenario in both cases was the same. He mastered the techniques in months, became equal to his teachers; but then he grew dissatisfied with them because these mental states did not, after the return to ordinary consciousness, eliminate suffering. In the Buddha’s own words: “But the thought occurred to me, 'This Dhamma leads not to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to Awakening, nor to Unbinding, but only to reappearance in the dimension of nothingness.' So, dissatisfied with that Dhamma, I left.”

Since the beginning, he had had this idiosyncratic concern, not shared with all other aspirants. Indeed, in the critiques of Buddhist meditation (as by Dayānanda 1875), the seeming self-evidence of suffering (duḥkha) as motivating starting-point of the spiritual search is rejected. Human searches for lofty goals including the quest for Awakening can have more positive origins than the attempt to quell suffering. The Upaniṣads strive for Mukti or Mokṣa (liberation), viz. from Avidyā, (ignorance), a very similar goal to Buddhist Nirvāṇa, “extinction”, but don’t start out with declaring that this is a matter of escaping from this Vale of Tears. Only in the Buddhist-influenced Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali do we find a less emphatic but real enough acknowledgment that “to the discerning, everything is painful”, 2:15; Yardi 1996:166).

Sometime in mid-quest, people redefine their goals, and the Buddha’s mature understanding of his spiritual goal could have changed from his juvenile impulse. But no, he remained entirely serious about his original goal, so after learning meditation, he moved on to develop his own variation. In modern introductions, to Buddhism, this is often portrayed as a revolt, even done in disgust. Thus, Bronkhorst breezily dismisses this evidence for the Hindu roots of Buddhism: “…the Bodhisattva’s training under Ālāra Kālāma and Uddaka the son of Rāma, which he then discarded as useless.” (Bronkhorst 1993, emphasis added) This conflicts with the source text, and with Buddhist practice, which has integrated these meditation techniques in its training programme. They received the place of honour in the Buddhist curriculum: as the last two stages before Liberation, the final two of the four Jhānas (“meditations”, Sanskrit Dhyānas). It is not a rejection but rather a case of Friedrich Nietzsche’s remark that “you don’t honour your teacher by remaining his pupil”.

         The Buddha went beyond what he had learned, but the information given by the Sutta about the mutual relationship between him and his teachers during and after his apprenticeship is all positive. They remained friends, he called them “my companion in the holy life”. After his discovery of Nirvāṇa, the Buddha sent for them to share it, only to find that they had already died.




6.     All this and world peace

That Buddhism is but one of the evolutes of a much older tradition, is a modestly useful insight for world peace. It takes the doctrinal dimension out of the modern anti-Hindu animus in Buddhist countrie, which has led to the expulsion of Hindu populations from Myanmar, Sri Lanka or Bhutan. Inside India, it takes away a similar anti-Hindu animus among the followers of Jawaharlal Nehru, who turned Buddhism into India’s unofficial state religion, (reviving Aśoka’s state symbols). They and the Ambedkarites have started to wield Buddhism as a weapon against Hinduism. The Buddha himself would be surprised to see what has become of his legacy. He himself never had a quarrel with the ambient Brahmin-dominated culture, and the only attempts on his life were by one of his own jealous disciples.

But even without these political benefits, it remains worthwhile for its own sake to raise awareness of Buddhism’s profound rootedness in a much older Hindu culture. Compared to the Western and neo-Buddhist conflict models of the Buddha’s relation with Hindu tradition, it is simply more truthful.




Gautama the Buddha was part of an ancient tradition. Just as it is false to dub Mahatma Gandhi the "father of the nation" (because he considered himself the son of an ancient nation), it would be false to call the Buddha the father of anything. He was the founder of a monastic order, the Saṁgha, but not of a new religion. His Dharma was a variation on the teachings that already existed, perhaps with a few unique touches, just like most other Sampradāyas. Indeed, the differences between them are mirrored by the differences that soon developed between sub-schools of Buddhism. Nobody calls Mahāyāna a break-away from Buddhism, just as nobody calls Advaita a breakaway from Vedānta. Similarly, we should not call Buddhism a breakaway from Hinduism.




Ambedkar, Bhimrao, 1957 (Akash Singh Rathore ed. 2011): The Buddha and His Dhamma, OUP, Delhi.

Bronkhorst, Johannes, 2000 (1993): The Two Traditions of Meditation in Ancient India, Motilal Bannarsidass, Delhi.

Dayānanda Sarasvatī, Svāmī, 1875 (2014): Satyārtha Prakāśa (Light of Truth, Sanskrit text with English trannslation), Vijay Kumar Hasananda, Delhi.

Elst, Koenraad, 2018: “The Buddha as political advisor”, unpublished paper read on 23 January at Jindal University, Sonepat.

Gombrich, Richard, 1987: “Old bodies like carts”, mentioned in Gombrich 2009:63, 213n.

--, 2009: What the Buddha Thought, Equinox, London.

Hsing Yun, 2013 (Chinese original 1998): The Biography of Sakyamuni Buddha, Foguang Publ., Taiwan.

Nehru, Jawaharlal, 1994 (1946): Discovery of India, OUP Delhi.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, ed., 1992 (1953): The Principal Upaniṣads, Humanity Books, New York.

Talageri, Shrikant, 2019: Genetics and the Aryan Debate, Aditya Prakashan, Delhi.

Yardi, MR, 1996 (1979): The Yoga of Patañjali, BORI, Pune

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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Ram Swarup & Sita Ram Goel Centenary Conferences

Ram Swarup & Sita Ram Goel Centenary Conferences

(22 July 2020)

On 12 October 2020 is the centenary of Ram Swarup, which the Ram Swarup & Sita Ram Goel Memorial Fund intends to celebrate by means of some kind of a conference. Unless circumstances clear up miraculously, this will have to be in teleconference format. This is admittedly make-do, but at least we won't let this solemn occasion pass by unsung. One advantage of this emergency format is at least that it won't cost much, chiefly the cost of the technological team that will ensure our digital connectedness.

On 16 October 2021 is the centenary of Sita Ram Goel. By then, fingers crossed, it should be possible to organize a real conference. There, we should be able to present the Congress Proceedings of the Ram Swarup conference, or at least a collection of papers on Ram Swarup; and a Sita Ram Goel reader, with which I have started to occupy myself. For this, in accordance with the family's wishes, I will seek the patronage of a particular prestigious institute, but this first requires a successful call for papers.

Call for Papers

For the Ram Swarup teleconference, we welcome papers on any aspects of his life and works: the Changers' Club, his role in the Quit India movement, Gandhian activism and critique of Gandhi, critique of Communism, view of language, critique of Christianity and Islam, view of Hindu Dharma, and his influence on Hindu society. Since you don't honour a great man by reverentially keeping him on a sterile pedestal, we emphasize that this may include reasoned criticism. We set a soft deadline on 15 August, but don't feel inhibited if inspiration strikes you later than that.

For the Sita Ram Goel conference, we already declare the call for papers open, so we welcome abstracts of papers the sooner the better, though the actual (hard) deadline will be 15 August 2021. We need twelve of these abstracts soon in order to comply with institutional patronage conditions. They may pertain to any part of Goel's intellectual production, but also to his organisational work in the Society for the Defence of Freedom in Asia, his candidacy for the Lok Sabha in 1957, the business side of his career, his troubled relation with organised political Hinduism, and of course the inspiring role of Ram Swarup in the development of his thought, which he always acknowledged.

We emphasise our appreciation for any testimonial work that may be offered. Their books will remain extant and be commented on by future generations, but the people who can add to their biographies from personal experience are getting on in years and will soon disappear forever. So we would like them to speak out now. Also, anyone unable or unwilling to participate in a conference but having new data or insights to offer, are welcome to entrust these to paper and send it in. Finally, if you know anyone whom we have overlooked but needs to be heard in this context, please pass on their names or pass this message on. 

We hope to hear from many of you very soon, and will keep you posted.

Dr. Koenraad ELST 

Chairman of the Ram Swarup & Sita Ram Goel Memorial Fund
All correspondence to:

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Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Tapan Ghosh: cometh the hour, cometh the man

(Contribution to an obituary volume for Tapan Ghosh edited by Prokash Das, July 2020)

"When catastrophe is at its highest, salvation is near", at least according to a Flemish proverb. It was born more from wishful thinking than from experience, for often catastrophe rises to a peak only to invite even newer sources of trouble. This is especially the case when you have squandered earlier opportunities and are in a hurry to save the day after all. Such was the situation in West Bengal, where several generations of Hindus allowed anti-Hindu rule and massive Bangladeshi infiltration to push them ever farther into a corner, without fighting back. 

Perhaps all these Pujas for Durga have more effect than sceptics would give them credit for. Suddenly, without having done anything to deserve it, the Bengali Hindus found a saviour among them. In 2007, an RSS pracharak was so dissatisfied with the RSS-BJP's ostensible lack of fighting spirit, even when it came to saving their own activists, that he broke away. Tapan Ghosh never became disloyal to their original programme of service to Hindu society, which is why in his last words, he paid homage to the historical RSS leaders Doctorji and Guruji. But disappointment in their ever-softer positions (to the point of  denying the once-central conceptual distinction between Hindu and non-Hindu) convinced him of the need to make a choice 'between the organisation and its programme'. He started his own platform, the Hindu Samhati.

The challenges before it were clear enough, and rising. The need of the hour was to transmute the idea of Hindu survival into action. Hindu Samhati would meet the threats head on.

We met him several times in his modest headquarters in Kolkata. Two of his priorities were curbing Love Jihad and promoting Ghar Wapasi ("homecoming", reconversion to Hinduism). In 2016, we encountered three young women there who had found refuge under his care and testified how two had been saved from pressure into an Islamic wedding, one was a convert from Islam. Over the years, such cases were numerous, and contemplating the alternative, that they had all been Islamized and enlisted into Islam's demographic war effort, you wonder just how fast Hinduism is losing ground. 

A third concern was the ever-increasing effort needed to merely keep Hindu communal life going, since the enemy forces show ever more effrontery in e.g. forcing closure on Hindu festivals. Hindu Samhati rendered a necessary service, so outsiders despair of how this work can continue now. But that is not where the problem lies. As a responsible leader, Ghosh made sure to surround himself with equally capable activists, who are ready to take it further. The only problem, as the fighters in the field know best, is that the challenge is becoming ever more formidable, a magnitude that ultimately calls for the involvement of Government power.

Tapan Ghosh, who bravely rushed in where higher powers feared to tread, will be vindicated. But in this imperfect world, he won't live to see the day.

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Friday, June 5, 2020

Nick Allen, more seer than is realized


Nick Allen, more seer than is realized


(Swarajya, 25 May 2020)


Prof. Nick Allen (1939-2020) was a scholar of Anthropology and Indo-European (IE) Studies who taught from 1976 until his retirement in 2001 (and informally, till his death) at Wolfson College, Oxford. He had done the fieldwork for his doctorate in Nepal, and did research about the near-extinct Kafir religion of Nuristan. On the IE heritage, he belonged to the school of Georges Dumézil, perfecting and correcting the latter’s doctrine of Trifunctionality (an application of the Triguna scheme), and elaborating his emphasis on the common descent of the various IE mythologies from a common Proto-Indo-European (PIE) template. I met him a number of times at conferences in Oxford and in Louvain-la-Neuve. He died on 21 March 2020, fittingly on Spring Equinox.



Comparative mythology


In Nick Allen’s work, what first drew my attention was his 1998 paper “The Indo-European prehistory of yoga” (International Journal of Hindu Studies, vol. 2, p. 1-20). It discusses one of the many similarities between Sanskrit and Greek mythology, apparently inherited from a common PIE source. Allen zooms in on one of them, analyses it deeper than anyone had hitherto done, but that far, he only elaborates an instance of a generally accepted paradigm, viz. that, like the IE languages, the IE mythologies descend from a common PIE source. But then he adds a momentously new insight, as we shall see.


For an example of this general paradigm, we find many versions of the story of a hero obtaining immunity from wounds except in one spot, and later getting killed through that spot. Thus, Achilles is dipped into a magic potion at birth, but his mother holds him by the heel, so that is where he is later shot; Duryodhana appears naked before his mother, whose eyes have acquired magic power by always being blindfolded, but he wears a loincloth, and there (prudishly: “in his thigh”) he gets mortally wounded; in Germanic mythology, similarly, the sun-god Balder acquires immunity from all plants except the mistletoe, and is shot by an arrow made of mistletoe; and the hero Siegfried bathes in the blood of the dragon he has slain, but a leaf falls on his shoulder, and there he later gets shot.


Or to take this example of dragon-slaying: it is widely done by the thunder-god or his son: Indra, Zeus, Siegfried, Beowulf, and others. Even outside the IE world (which is only part of an even older and larger family), the Babylonian god Marduk slays the dragon Tiamat.


Another property of thunder-gods, or gods in general, across the Indo-European world is the power to take any shape. On this established understanding of the gods, the poets have the thunder-god, a paragon of masculinity, take on other shapes useful in seducing a desired women. Thus, Indra seduces Ahilya by masking as her lawful husband Gautama; Siegfried (son of the thunder-god Donar/Thor) seduces Brunhild by taking the shape of her husband Günther; Zeus often takes shapes to seduce his many paramours, e.g. he becomes a bull to seduce princess Europa. These are perhaps jocular variations invented by the poets to illustrate this fundamental divine power, but the deeper essence reveals itself later in the philosophical doctrine of Maya, which sees the world as a fictional shape taken by the Supreme Being.  


A final example from the Indo-European mythologies is the motif of four world ages of descending quality. The Hindu notion of Kṛtā, Treṭā, Dvāpara and Kali Yuga is not substantially different from the Greek notion of a Golden, Silver, Bronze and Iron age, or the Germanic notion of a Spear, Sword, Wind and Wolf Age. Even in non-IE cultures as far as Mexico, variations on this motif appear. So, Hindu civilization is challenged to come out of its cocoon and realize its specific place within the larger genealogical tree of mankind’s ideas and myths. That will then emphasize the differences too, where Hinduism has built on a common heritage but taken it further. Thus, several mythologies attribute to gods the power to take shape, but only Hindu civilization has developed it into the Vedantic doctrine of Maya.   


In the case of Homer’s Odyssey, which we are going to discuss, a few examples of similarities with the Sanskrit hymns are these. While Odysseus is away from home for 20 years, his wife Penelope is getting increasingly besieged by suitors; ultimately they number 108, which in Hinduism is the sacred number par excellence. They are put to a test: drawing Odysseus’ bow. But only Odysseus (who has just returned to his home island, in disguise) can draw it, just as only Arjuna can draw the bow during the contest for Draupadi’s hand (and just like Rama when competing for Sita’s hand). Or for something very different, when camping on sun god Helios’ island, Odysseus and his men are sworn to abstain from eating his cows; but his men defy his orders, kill and eat the cows, and get divinely punished for their cow-slaughter by drowning to death.


It is my observation that, while some mindless Hindus only get elated by this because “it proves that ancient Hindus conquered the world”, many orthodox Hindus don’t like these international similarities, neither in mythology nor in language. For them, it detracts from the unicity of Sanskritic tradition. They fear that positing any relation at all between things Indian and things non-Indian, whether through an invasion from a foreign Homeland or even through an emigration from an Indian Homeland, is a ruse by “the foreign hand” to belittle Hinduism and deprive it of its greatness and originality. Yet, hold your horses, because acknowledging these similarities turns out to do great honour to the Hindu version.     



The hard journey to bliss


So, as part of this project of discovering ancient common motifs that manifest in both Sanskritic and Greek traditions, Allen discusses the commonalities between Odysseus’ journey from the nymph Calypso’s island Ogygia to the blissful island of Scheria belonging to the god-like Phaeacan tribe, and Arjuna’s journey from the Dvaita Forest to the Himalaya and ultimately to Indra’s heaven. They are no less than 23 in number:

1. Larger journey. For both heroes, as we know, the transit in question is part of a much longer round trip. The Pândavas set off from their royal capital before their exile and will return there. Odysseus sets off from Ithaca before the Trojan War and will likewise return.

“2. Stasis. Before the transit both heroes are, as it were, becalmed. The Pândavas have spent thirteen months in Dvaita Forest and show no signs of moving. Odysseus has spent seven years in Ogygia, and Calypso hopes to keep him there indefinitely.

“3. Depression. The Pândavas are deeply depressed and lament their situation at length. Odysseus spends his days weeping on the shore of Ogygia.

“4. Visitor with instructions. Vyâsa arrives unexpectedly with instructions for the whole party to move on and for Arjuna himself to go to heaven (3.37.20). Hermes arrives unexpectedly with Zeus' instructions for Odysseus to depart (5.77).

“5. Intermediary. Neither visitor speaks directly to the hero. Vyâsa deals only with Yudhisthira (Arjuna's eldest brother), Hermes with Calypso.

“6. Female's farewell. Draupadi and Calypso both make touching good-bye speeches.

“7. Uneventful start. Arjuna goes north to the Himalayas, traveling alone and fast until he is well into the mountains. Odysseus sails alone before a favorable wind for seventeen days until he comes in sight of Scheria.

“8. Unwearied. Arjuna travels night and day without fatigue. Odysseus does not sleep for the seventeen days.

“9. A complex ordeal (we shall come back to its detailed structure later). Arjuna undertakes four months of tapas. Following a change of scene while the sages visit Siva, the story returns to earth for the fight, after which god and hero are reconciled. As for Odysseus, his raft is progressively destroyed by the storm. Then comes a lull. The hero's sufferings resume as he faces the problems of landing, until his final success at the river mouth.

“10. Emaciation. Though most manuscripts ignore it, some refer, reasonably enough, to Arjuna's emaciation following the tapas. The sages worry, but the god reassures them, and they rejoice. During the lull Odysseus rejoices, and his joy is compared to that of a group of sons worried about their father. The father has suffered a long emaciating illness, and when, at last, the gods relent and the father mends, the sons rejoice. This rapprochement, like some others (e.g., 13), is between the Sanskrit main story and a Homeric simile.

“11. Divine enemy and supporter. When Siva comes to earth, he initially treats Arjuna as if he were an enemy. When Poseidon becomes aware of Odysseus, he treats him as his enemy. However, in both cases, the divine enemy is balanced by a divine friend, for during his ordeal Arjuna receives support from Indra disguised as a Brahmana and when Poseidon has departed Odysseus receives help from Athene.

“12. Painful bodily contact. Arjuna's battle with Siva starts with an exchange of arrows and progresses to wrestling. Odysseus is thrown by a wave against a rough rock and clasps hold of it as the wave rushes past. [Note that this motif of wrestling with a god also appears in the Bible, where Jacob wrestles with Elohim, thus becoming Israel, “wrestles with God” (Genesis 32:28).-- KE]

“13. Lump of flesh with injured extremities. Siva reduces Arjuna to what looks like a lump of organic matter, a pinda, with damaged limbs. The wave which throws Odysseus against the rock rebounds from the cliffs and plucks him off again, stripping the skin from his hands. He is like an octopus dragged from its hole with pebbles adhering to its tentacles.

“14. Unconscious. Arjuna falls to the ground unconscious in front of Siva. Odysseus falls to the ground unconscious on landing.

“15. Prayer. Arjuna revives and prays to Siva, begging for forgiveness. Just before he lands, Odysseus prays to the river god, begging for his kindness.

“16. Offering. Arjuna makes a clay image of Siva and offers to it a garland, which the god takes and puts on. Odysseus gives to the river god the veil of the goddess Ino, which he has been using as buoyancy aid. The god returns it to Ino, who duly takes it in her hands.

“17. Restoration. Arjuna is physically restored by the touch of Siva. Odysseus is physically restored by Athene's hypnotherapy.

“18. Cardinal points. After his encounter with Siva, Arjuna meets the four Lokapâlas. During the storm, Odysseus is buffeted by the four wind gods, Euros, Notos, Zephyr, and Boreus, who are linked with east, south, west, and north, respectively.

“19. Three-plus-one structure (a point we shall come back to). The four Lokapâlas include Indra, but the king of the gods stands apart from the other three in various particulars. Among the four winds, Boreus, who is 'king of the winds' (Pindar 4.181), stands apart, for when Athene calms the other three winds she lets Boreus continue blowing until the lull.

“20. City with park. Indra's heaven contains a divine city Amarâvati, inhabited by gods, with blossoming trees and a park. The Scherian city (unnamed) belongs to the Phaeacians, who are near kin to the gods (agkhitheoi gegaasi; 5.35), and it contains Alcinous' park and his ever-fruitful trees.

“21. Wheeled vehicle. Arjuna goes to the city in a chariot belonging to Indra, its king. Odysseus walks to the city behind the mule-cart that Nausicaa borrowed from her royal father.

“22. Throne. Arjuna shares his divine father's throne in his palace. Odysseus is seated next to the king on a throne which has just been vacated by Alcinous' favorite son.

“23. Disappointed nymph. In heaven the Apsaras Urvasi is misled by Indra into thinking that she will enjoy sex with Arjuna, which indeed she wants to do. Nausicaa is misled by Athene into thinking that she will very soon be getting married; and when she meets Odysseus, she hopes it will be to him.(Allen 1998: 5-7)


This list gives an idea of what kinds of similarities are possible here. But more importantly, in the aggregate they get evidential value: “In parts of their careers, Arjuna and Odysseus show similarities so numerous and detailed that they must be cognate figures, sharing an origin in the proto-hero of an oral proto-narrative. For present purposes many questions about this proto narrative can be left unanswered. Was it told in prose or in verse or in a mixture of the two? Was it told in the Urheimat or original homeland (whatever the location and date of that logically necessary zone of space-time), or did it diffuse somewhat after the dispersal began? It does not matter. The similarities cannot be explained either by chance, or by Jungian archetypes, or by diffusion of the Homeric epics from Greece to India; and if they are as striking as I think then, one way or another, they must be due to common origin in a proto-narrative.” (Allen 1998:2)





One explanation, explored by the Spanish philologist Fernando Wulff Alonso (The Mahābhārata and Greek Mythology, 2008 in Spanish, translated 2014), is that the similarities are due to recent borrowing, via the post-Alexandrine Indo-Greeks. Many things Indian have been attributed to Greek transmission, e.g. Nyāya logic from Aristotelian logic, the Buddha statue copying the Apollo statue, astrology (or at least horoscopy) borrowed from Babylon and immediately passed on to the Hindus, the art of theatre and even the sari have been claimed as presents from the Greeks. In some cases, this proposed transmission might even correspond to historical facts, but in the case of the epics and background of ancient mythology, this is extremely unlikely.


Such an extensive literary borrowing can hardly have taken place without leaving a trace, such as the borrowing of words and names. Even Wulff Alonso cannot pinpoint any unmistakable borrowing. The first Hindu treatises on astrology have the names of the Zodiac in transcribed Greek, they were translated only later, and some technical terms passed from Greek into the normal Sanskrit lexicon, e.g. kentron/kendra; but no such loans can be found in the epic, except for Yavana, “Ionian, Greek” itself, common in general usage. The wars around which both the Mahābhārata and the Homeric epics were woven, took place a thousand years before the Indo-Greeks. Their causes in the respective epics are very different, as is the cast of protagonists. Whereas a number of literary motifs are parallel, the historical core is very different, no imitation there. Finally, even Alexander, by definition earlier than the Indo-Greeks, had already heard that the Hindus too have “an Iliad”, i.e. a war epic.   


Far more likely is an explanation ultimately developed by Georges Dumézil and elaborated by Nick Allen: the two have a common source. The narrative got reapplied to historical events in the -2nd millennium, but was in outline older, as were the myths at the background. They belong to a common PIE heritage. So, instead of a diffusion from historical Greece to historical India, we have a diffusion from the PIE homeland to all the IE branches, including India and Greece.



Śiva and Poseidōn

What we have come to know in Caesar’s account of the Gaulish War as the Interpretatio Romana, meaning the understanding of Celtic gods as corresponding to Roman gods, is in fact quite common in polytheistic cultures, attested since the Sumerians, and still visible in the corresponding names of the week days (Dies Jovis = Thursday = Guruvār). Since Sumerian times, people routinely assumed different pantheons (which, after all, represent the same universe) to correspond. In the same vein, the Greeks interpreted Śiva as Dionysos and Indra or Kṛṣṇa as Hēraklēs.

The obvious drawback was that less obvious differences were overlooked. While acceptable in everyday practice, such inaccuracies were not good enough in comparative-mythological research. Therefore: “Sir William Jones in his essay ‘On the Gods of Greece, Italy and India’ (1784) already resisted such identifications”, and he would be immune to the tendency of “insisting that such a God of India was the Jupiter of Greece; such, the Apollo; such, the Mercury.” (Stoneman 2019:81) Nonetheless, this purism is a minority position. We will have to make do for now with the correspondences that the ancients posited, explicitly or implicitly, and that has gained citizen’s rights.

We are not aware of any acknowledged correspondence between Śiva and Poseidōn; but if needed, we will posit one ourselves. Both are, among other things, gods of the underworld. The historical differentiation of Greeks and Hindus has had its effect on these two: Śiva is not particularly associated with the sea, as is Poseidōn. This is probably due to geography: Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh, where the Mahābhārata is set, is land-locked, whereas seafaring was a way of life for the Greeks. Yet, both are, among other things, gods of the underworld, and both are depicted with a trident (an object allotted by the Church to that more recent underworlder, Satan). Both put our heroes, Arjuṇa c.q. Odysseus, to the test during their journey.

But there is a difference, as Allen observes: “Arjuna's journey is in several senses a yogic undertaking: for a start, the hero is explicitly 'yoked to Indra's yoga'. In ancient Greece one finds hints of yoga-like religiosity, especially in Pythagoreanism, but there is nothing obviously yogic or Pythagorean about Odysseus' journey.” 

Thus, Odysseus is repeatedly thwarted by Poseidōn because he has provoked the god’s anger. Arjuṇa, by contrast, has to contend with Śiva in a yogic challenge, which he meets by ascetic exercises. These include the weeks-long practice of the oldest described Haṭha Yoga contortion, viz. the Vṛkṣāsana or Tree Pose. These are completely absent in the Odyssey. Śiva is the ideal yogi, and is depicted as a typical ascetic, sitting in meditation pose, and with the fruit of meditation: the enlightened Third Eye. Poseidōn is not, though Jungian psychologists still associate him with a second-best option: altered states of consciousness, depth psychology and the subconscious, which is compared to an ocean full of exotic life forms.

Poseidōn does without a Third Eye, but his son Polyphēmos has one: a single eye, for that is how people who have forgotten about yoga, distortively remember this esoteric concept. Once this non-comprehended remnant of a symbol starts leading its own life, story-tellers weave playful anecdotes around it, such as Odysseus poking his single eye out. And that is then the rather mundane reason why father Poseidōn is angry with our hero. So, in India we have a consistent and lofty symbol, Śiva as the ideal yogi, and in Greece only a remnant, a similar character with similar symbols (trident, relation to the Third Eye through his son’s single eye).

Allen comments that: “in parts of their careers, Arjuna and Odysseus show similarities so numerous and detailed that they must be cognate figures, sharing an origin in the proto-hero of an oral proto-narrative. (…) So, if both stories descend from a proto-narrative, there are two possibilities. Either the proto-journey was like the Greek and contained nothing relating to yoga, in which case the yogic aspect of the Sanskrit story was an innovation that developed in the Indian branch of the tradition. Or the proto journey was like the Sanskrit and was quasi-yogic or proto-yogic in character, in which case Greek epic tradition largely or wholly eliminated that aspect of the story. I shall argue for the second scenario, claiming both that the proto-narrative shared certain features with yoga and that the telling of such a story makes it likely that there already existed ritual practices ancestral to yoga as we know it. (…) I argue that some significant and fairly precisely identifiable features of yoga go back to the culture of those who told the proto-narrative, who (…) may well have been proto-Indo-European speakers.”


Implications for the Homeland debate


A suspicion arises that needs to be verified further, viz. that after comparison, the myths indicate the anteriority or greater authenticity of the Indian version. Nick Allen has repeatedly shown that in many parallel motifs in the Mahābhārata and in Homer’s epics, the Indian version contains a spiritual element lacking in the European version. So, yoga existed in the Indo-European Homeland, but the Greeks lost it.

The logical explanation, which stares him in the face but which he as an invasionist fails to draw, is that this dimension was lost in the rough and tumble of the trek to their historical habitat. The most precious elements are the ones that get lost most easily, such as in a corpse, where the brain starts disintegrating at once whereas the skeleton can last for centuries. Similarly, the twists in the story were more or less preserved but the subtle yoga teachings in it were gradually forgotten, with only a remnant like the Single Eye reminding of it.

In that case, India was their common Homeland, but only the stay-behind Indians had the comfort of a stable situation where they could preserve the most subtle layer of their stories.

The invasionist explanation would be that the Aryan barbarians did not have this profound layer to their narratives, but reinterpreted these once they interiorized the native Indian tradition of yoga. This is not impossible, but in that case they would not so much have added a new content to their old stories, but adopted the appropriate aboriginal stories that transmitted the yoga doctrines.

This promising first impression needs to be verified in closer research, informed by a knowledge of Indian spirituality. At any rate, we must thank Nick Allen for this extremely important paper.




Creatively applying Nick Allen’s method


By focusing on Comparative Mythology, Prof. Nick Allen from Oxford showed that yoga dates back to the Proto-Indo-European phase and to the language family’s Homeland. Unintentionally, as an inertial believer in the prevalent invasionist paradigm, he thereby added an argument for the case of India as the Homeland. Further, he showed in passing that the idea of yoga is Vedic and in fact even pre-Vedic.



The problem with Comparative Mythology


The main hurdles for warming Hindu students to Comparative Mythology are these two. Firstly, it receives very meagre attention in Indian university programmes, and unknown makes unloved. This is ostensibly because earlier generations of education policy-makers deemed it unimportant. And indeed, it is in itself not that important (though it can temporarily help in the current debate over the Indo-European Homeland), India has more urgent needs to take care of.


But it so happens that Western Orientalists, by contrast, are normally equipped with the basic references because before studying India with its wealth of mythological material, they had already acquainted themselves with Greco-Roman mythology in their secondary schooling, and being mostly people with this kind of interest, also with their own people’s (Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, Finnish etc.) mythical lore. So before even purposely studying Comparatism, they can’t help linking Achilles’ non-immune heel with Siegfried’s non-immune shoulder and then, upon discovery of the Indian stories, extending this motif to Duryodhana’s non-immune pudic zone. Due to historical circumstances, Hindu students don’t have this stepping-stone towards studying Comparative Mythology.   


The second, more ideological reason is that many Hindus perceive highlighting these links with foreign traditions as threatening to belittle Hindu tradition. They fear it is only a ruse by the Foreign Hand. The reason for this is that it shows how the Vedic and other Hindu traditions are only late versions of an older component of pan-IE or even pre-IE tradition, with sisters or cousins in other branches. As Michael Witzel has tried to show, all myths of the different ethnic sections of mankind can be placed on a genealogical tree, with roots many thousands of years into the past.


This posits a very fundamental problem having to do with Hindu self-perception and self-definition. Very briefly, quite a few Hindus adhere to the non-Vedic doctrine that the Vedas are eternal, of supernatural origin, “revealed” to the Rishis (like the eternal Quran with Allah addressing Mohammed, or Jahweh addressing Moses and the Israelite nation in the Ten Commandments), and the source of everything Dharmic. The Vedic hymns themselves, by contrast, are always in the form of man addressing a god, and refer to earlier, pre-Vedic Rishis already from hymn 1.1 onwards. They locate themselves squarely in history, specifically in Bronze-Age North India. The supernatural origin of the Vedas is a post-Vedic invention, probably within the second generation of the Mimansa school of philosophy, and the devotional spirit of the masses easily picked it up. As the Vedic hymns receded into the past all while becoming socially ever more prestigious, they were extolled into the stratosphere and divinized. But this invented tradition about the non-historical nature of the Vedas has become the orthodox view, and many get angry if you dare to question it.


Comparative research militates against this rosy belief. It finds that Vedic Sanskrit has sisters in Proto-Slavic, Proto-Germanic etc. (and nieces in Russian, English etc.), meaning that they have a common mother, Proto-Indo-European, by definition older than its daughters, including Vedic Sanskrit. And this proto-language is itself a later evolute of Nostratic or some such ancestral language, which itself was a sister of the Proto-Australian, Proto-Amerind and Proto-Khoisan (Hottentot-Bushman) languages; so no, Sanskrit is not the oldest language nor the mother of all languages. Contrary to what invasionists think, a rejection of the Aryan Invasion Theory does not automatically entail the espousal of an Out-of-India Theory: the vast majority of AIT rejecters don’t know or care about an Out-of-India scenario. They feel freed from any link (“concocted by colonialists”) to outsiders by proving the invasion scenario wrong and don’t feel like reintroducing this link through an emigrationist scenario.


And what is true for languages, also counts for mythology: it is much against the liking of Hindu traditionalists that we find the Sanskritic myths to be  cognate with Greek, Germanic or other foreign myths. Yet, this kinship with foreign myths can have its uses in Hinduism’s struggle for survival.



The Puruṣa Sūkta in comparative perspective


For example, enemies of Hinduism such as the Christian missionaries and the neo-Ambedkarites routinely highlight the Puruṣa Sūkta, a famous hymn from the youngest part of the Rg-Veda. They allege it underpins the caste system and is uniquely Hindu, thus stamping Hinduism as uniquely anti-egalitarian and oppressive. Their case is strengthened by the at least 2000-year-old habit of Hindu traditionalists to claim the same Puruṣa Sūkta as a divine justification for caste, setting the superior layered civilization of the Hindus apart from the chaotic societies of the Mlecchas. But the anti- and pro-Hindu discourse both show a very narrow, Indocentric viewpoint, which would make way for a more relaxed interpretation if the horizon is widened.


In reality, while the hymn does teach the division of society in four functions, it completely lacks the two defining elements of caste: endogamy and hereditary profession. It could apply to any advanced society. And, to bring Comparative Mythology into the equation, it is not unique at all.


The central doctrine of the Puruṣa Sūkta is called corporatism, i.e. “body-like view”, “body metaphor”; both societal corporatism and cosmic corporatism. This means that it likens the little whole of the human body with the larger wholes of society and of the universe. In society, it likens the head, upper body, lower body and legs with the priestly, martial, business and productive functions. In the universe, it makes the heavenly vault metaphorically into a skull, sun and moon into the two eyes, the mountains into the bones, etc. This originates as part of a myth of primeval twin-brothers, Manu and Yemo (> Sanskrit Yama, Germanic Ymir, “the twin”): Manu sacrifices Yemo to create the world and assigns his victim’s body parts to become the parts of the larger whole.


We find variations on this myth in various branches of the Indo-European world and far beyond. The giant Ymir is a very literal application of this cosmic corporatism: his body parts become the elements of the universe. In China, the giant Pangu is similarly divided into the constituent parts of the universe, with the added detail that the flees on the giant’s skin become the human beings on the surface of the earth. In Rome, this creation of the world becomes the founding of the city, by Romulus and Remus (< Yemo, with the initial consonant assimilated to “Romulus”), during which Remus dies. In Central America among the Mayas, a jocular variation has two twins make a living as entertainers, with one splitting up the other and then reuniting the pieces and reviving the reconstituted body. The gods whom the twins hate for having murdered their parents, ignorantly ask them to do it to them (splitting up, then reassembling and reviving), so they happily cut the gods in pieces, then leave it at that. That is why ever since, “God is dead”.


The doctrine of corporatism outgrew its mythical origin in the explanation of societal inequality by the republican statesman Menenius Agrippa. In -494, to revolting lower-class people, he argued that the classes are like body parts: mutually interdependent. (As part of the reconciliation, he conceded to them the office of popular tribune.) The same simile was used by Socrates’ disciple Xenophon, by Cicero, and by Saint Paul in his Letter to the Corinthians. From the latter, the Catholic Church actualized it in 1892 in the Social Teachings of the Church, as laid down in the Papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum. This provided the harmony model of the relation between the classes, the Catholic answer to the upcoming Socialist model of Class Struggle, and became central to the Christian-Democratic movement.


In their turn, the Socialists criticized it as a hypocritical way of covering up the natural conflict of interest between the labour class and the capitalist class. This is the same critique formulated by the Indian Left against the Puruṣa Sūkta with its implied harmony model and the coexistence of the different societal classes. This is very useful to know if you need to defend Hinduism with its Puruṣa Sūkta against its enemies with their casteist rhetoric. See? It can serve Hindu interests to use the findings of comparative studies.



Indo-European yet non-Vedic elements in Hinduism


Another problematic insight is that many elements of Hindu thought and religion are identifiably of Indo-European origin yet are not found in the Vedas. Thus, many elements of the Mahabharata are in common with Greek etc. stories, yet are not to be found in the Vedic tradition. This is a large subject; for now we will only point to an example already given: Duryodhana who, like Achilles and Siegfried, narrowly misses his chance to become wholly  immune from injury, with fatal consequences.


This seriously reduces the importance of the Vedas even within Hinduism. As a whole, Hinduism unites in itself different traditions: goddess cults, most in evidence in the Northeast, but present in every village; worship of trees, animals and other features of nature, occasionally highlighted by e.g. the Govardhan episode extolling mountain worship; idol worship in temples, most articulate in the Peninsula; asceticism and renunciation, concentrated in the Himalayan foothills and Bihar; and the Vedic tradition of hymn recitation and fire sacrifice, from Haryana and surroundings. This Vedic tradition has exceptional merits, spawning or gathering around it disciplines like grammar, mathematics and astronomy, with India’s main claims to fame in the global history of science.


Yet, that does not make the Vedas into the source of all of Hinduism, of which they are only a part. And it does not even make them into the whole of the Indo-European part of Hinduism. Both in linguistics and in mythology, we find elements identifiable as Indo-European and linked with Roman, Slavic or other branches, yet not with the Vedas. This state of affairs has been well explained by Shrikant Talageri, suffice it to say here that his identification of the Vedas with the Paurava tribe leaves the non-Vedic northwestern tribes of the Druhyus and Anavas to emigrate and spawn all the foreign branches of Indo-European; and the southeastern Iksvakus, Yadavas and other Indo-Aryan yet non-Vedic branches to populate other parts of India.


Nick Allen writes that later Hindu lore, like the Mahābhārata, “must have already been current in some form (…) as many have realized, the Vedic texts relate only a small part of the culture of the Vedic period. But it is much less recognized how much comparison can do to fill out the picture, and identify the material that bypassed the Vedas.” (Allen: “Why the Telemachy? Vyasa’s answer”, Nouvelle Mythologie Comparée, 2016)


Where these motifs turn up in the common IE heritage but not in the Vedas, we can indeed speak of a “bypassing” of the Vedas. This “bypassing” may be resented by Veda fundamentalists who fail to understand the historicity of the Vedas, i.e. their being inscribed in a larger history older than themselves. This ideological distrust of comparative studies transcending India’s boundaries is one of the reasons why anti-AIT scholars rarely bring up the comparative perspective in the Aryan debate, or even resent it when others do so. As the Quran says: to them their religion; to us, ours.



Woden the batman

We will give one more instance of a comparison between Indian and foreign motifs which confirms the central role of India as the homeland, and the antiquity of yoga and Śiva worship. In the Germanic branch of Indo-European, split off from the Indian branches more than 5000 years ago (and too far removed to explain any similarities through a late transmission by the Indo-Greeks), we know of a deity called Woden, possibly better known in the Norse form Odin.


Woden is one-eyed, just as Polyphemos in the Odyssey, already discussed. Polyphemos was the son of the trident-wielding sea god Poseidon, and shares in his Śivaite symbolism. Though in the Odyssey, his single eye only appears as a freaky detail, made fun of in the episode where Odysseus pokes this eye out, we think we can trace it to another well-known Śaiva symbol: the Third Eye. Polyphemos’ eye is located on the forehead between the eyebrows, the place of the Third Eye. Also, when Polyphemos asks for Odysseus’ identity, the latter famously answers: “My name is Nobody.” This may be irony, but now that we get to see the story through Śivaite lenses, it may be a jocularly reapplied yogic expression: I am Nirguṇa (without properties), I am Emptiness.


In the case of Woden, the rough and tumble of a long migration from India has eroded the symbolism of the Third Eye too, but still preserved more. Thus, the Third Eye becomes a single eye, but it remains associated with a higher consciousness: the poets’ story becomes that he has plucked one eye out as a sacrifice in order to obtain wisdom. This is a distortion, but one that still links the single eye to the yogic achievement of wisdom, which in yoga is imagined as the Third Eye.


In order to achieve this boon of wisdom, Woden hangs in a tree for 9 days and nights. This number 9 is a sacred number throughout much of Eurasia, in Hinduism associated mostly with Durgā; and the number of the magic square. It reappears in Woden’s symbol, the Valknut (“knot of the fallen”, but unlike the symbol itself, this name is only recent), which consists of 3 intertwined triangles. These three correspond to an Indo-European tripolar scheme, known in Sanskrit as Triguṇa, “the three qualities”: one above (like Sattva, the lightest of the 3 poles, transparency), one below (the dark, inertial Tamas pole), and one to the side (the red dynamic Rajas pole: handed/partisan, i.e. either left or right; creating a circular movement, counterclockwise c.q. clockwise). That way, the element 3 of Śiva’s trident is also present, though the trident is not. Just as the three eyes have become one eye, the three-pronged spear or trident has become a one-pointed spear.

But the really remarkable aspect about this tree-hanging is that this is a form of penance or self-disciplining, something gods rarely do outside the yogic context. This hanging upside down from a tree is one of the earliest Haṭha Yoga postures: the bat pose. (Another early one, practised for a month by Arjuna to please Śiva, happens to be the vṛkṣāsana or tree pose.)





Woden is etymologically cognate to Latin vates, “inspired poet” (wherefrom Collis Vaticanus, “poets’ hill”, which became the Vatican), and with the Dutch word woeden, “to rage”: for in the primitive shamanic stage he was associated with stormy excited states of consciousness. As Mircea Eliade and many others have opined, yoga or the achievement of silent “enstasy” is an evolute of the widespread shamanic forms of spirituality, achieving an uproarious “ecstasy”. This history may well be summarized in the evolution from the stormy unpredictable Rudra to the dignified yogi Śiva.

A left-over in Śiva’s imagery of this shamanic stage is the drum he carries: playing the drum induces a trance state and is there called “the shaman’s horse”. For the same reason, he is associated with psychedelia and sometimes depicted as a cilam-smoking renunciate. Later the Buddha would include abstention from all narcotics as one of his five basic rules, but in the distant past, there was a grey area between this yogic sobriety and the earlier shamanic reliance on mind-altering substances. 


The name Woden is also related to Sanskrit Vāṭa, “wind”, one of the Vedic atmospheric gods. (The number of Vedic gods is most often put at 33. Their names can vary, but their number is more important: Heaven and Earth are 2; the heavenly gods or Adityas are 12, the Zodiacal number; the atmospheric gods or Rudras are 11, a number impossible to construct as an equal division of the circle, unseizable like the wind; and the earthy gods are 8, the cubic number.) These are collectively called Rudras, and one of them individually is also called Rudra, “the screamer”, “the frenzied one”, incidentally a description of Woden’s companions, the Berserkrs (origin of the English expression “to go beserk”).


Woden is depicted as accompanied by a band of young warriors, the Wild Horde, who correspond to Rudra’s unruly martial companions, the Maruts; and in real Indian life, to the wrestler-monks. These Berserkrs got themselves into a trance by using the fly agaric, which made them feel big and perceive the battlefield enemy as inconsequential (a property to which a mushroom-eating scene in Alice in Wonderland alludes). This fly agaric is one of the candidates for the identity of the Vedic Soma brew, after whom Śiva is named Somanātha, “lord of the moon” but also “lord of the brew”.


Woden brings the atmospheric imagery along, for he is depicted on an 8-footed flying horse. In comic-strips, doubling or tripling someone’s legs means that he is running, and here too it may indicate fast movement, like the wind. This symbolism has made it through Christianization and the Christian age, in the form of a saint much venerated in the low countries, Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas, in America transformed into Santa Claus). It is a matter of consensus that he is Woden in disguise. He is dressed in red and rides a white horse through the sky, and his black companions (Zwarte Piet, Black Pete) dole out toys through the chimneys. They can also punish you with their rod and take you away in their bag, a symbolism that is often read as referring to the age when the Moors ruled Spain and hunted for slaves farther north, but that arguably goes back much farther, to the Berserkrs/Maruts.


Because Rudra is understood as terrifying, he is flattered with an apotropaeic nickname: Śiva, “the good one”. He is surrounded by 4 or more animals, and as such is called Śiva Paśupati, “lord of the animals”. In Woden’s case, limited by the greater animal monotony of Northern Europe, these are 2 wolves and 2 ravens.

He is the lord of the fallen. His symbol is the “knot of the fallen”, and on the battlefield, the souls of the fallen are collected and brought to the Valhalla, the “hall of the fallen”, by his daughters, the Valkyrie maidens or “choosers of the fallen”. Likewise, in the Hindu trinity, Śiva is (after creation/Brahmā and maintenance/Viṣṇu) the pole of dissolution and destruction. On the sunny side, destruction concerns the ties which cease to bind us, but that dimension has become less obvious in his younger incarnation as Woden.


So, Woden is not identical to Śiva, but arguably an evolved and roughened form of Śiva. What counts here is the same as what Nick Allen wrote about the kinship between Odysseus and Arjuna: “The similarities are best explained by postulating a common origin within the Indo-European-speaking world.”



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