Friday, June 5, 2020

Nick Allen, more of of a seer than he realized



Nick Allen, more seer than 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)

.



Diffusion



One explanation, explored by the Spanish philologist Fernando Wulff Alonso (The Mahābhārata and Greek Mythology, 2008, in English 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 Zociac 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 Yāvana, “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



One of the pairs of gods of related provenance, though now less obvious to recognize as similar, are Śiva and Poseidōn. The historical differentiation of Greeks and Hindus have also had its effect on these two, e.g. 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.





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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.)


 


 


Inspired


 


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.”

 





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.




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Sunday, May 3, 2020

An archaeologist of consequence: Prof. B.B. Lal







(in BR Mani: A Legendary Archaeologist: Prof. BB Lal Felicitation Volume, Delhi 2018)




Aryans

The first time I heard the name B.B. Lal was ca. 1980 in my hometown Leuven, when the leading Orientalist Prof. Pierre Eggermont mentioned him in a lecture on the putative Aryan invasion. At that time I had no idea yet that his widely shared hypothesis was less than fully supported by the evidence, or that it was going to be the stake of a hot controversy. What little of evidence that Eggermont could build on, was precisely a finding by B.B. Lal.

When still a beginning archaeologist, Lal made his name internationally by digging up the missing link between the Aryans and India: the Painted Grey Ware (PGW, 1200-800) culture. As we ought to have realized since the controversies among anthropologists about hyped “missing links” between ape and man that turned out to be overrated or faked, a missing link tends to be tricky business. Eggermont told us Lal had identified the PGW as a marker of the Aryan invaders making their way deeper into India, and Lal’s first publications on the subject could be cited to that effect. Indeed, they still are: till today, some believers in the Aryan invasion quote Lal’s early hypothesis on the PGW as material evidence for their hypothesis. (Update: even at the annual conference of the European Archaeological Association, Maastricht 2017, I heard this said urbi et orbi, without anyone protesting; which incidentally confirmed that in the fifty years since, no other such “proof” has materialized.)

But the fact is that Lal has abandoned this hypothesis long ago. Nothing in the PGW data positively proved that it was “Aryan”, or more “Aryan” than its surroundings. This was only assumed because it would fit neatly in the Aryan invasion hypothesis, which was taken to be a fact. Actually, the PGW had to fill the yawning gap in the evidential support basis of the Aryan invasion hypothesis. As Lal delved deeper into the subject, he realized that the invasion hypothesis was not a proven factual framework within which one could interpret new data. Instead, it was itself a mere hypothesis, one among several unproven ways to look at the available facts. So he has grown away from it.

But alright, back then an inertial reliance on Lal’s juvenile convictions could be excused. Today, this is no longer acceptable. The PGW is but one of many dashed hopes of Aryan invasion believers looking for a material sign of their hypothesis. None of Lal’s colleagues has discovered the long-awaited trace of an invasion.



Saraswati

Later, Prof. Lal has presented in his books a much larger corpus of archaeological data that militate against the Aryan invasion scenario. I have had the privilege of being asked by the magazine Hinduism Today to review Lal’s book The Rigvedic People: Invaders/Immigrants or Indigenous (Aryan Books, Delhi 2015). There he explains how recent excavations in Kunal and Bhirrana have pointedly confirmed a civilizational continuity since the 6th millennium BC, rather than an interruption by invading Aryans. He documents how, contrary to Western opinion, the horse, supposedly the Vedic glamour animal, is attested in a number of Harappan cities, and the spoked wheel likewise through terracotta models. The excavated fire altars, of the kind used for Vedic fire ceremonies, have been ridiculed in the West as just kitchen hearths, but Lal finds more confirmation for the ritual purpose of these fire-pits as well as indications that real kitchen-hearths, equally attested, were of a different type.

The continuity of the Harappan civilization is expressed in many ways. Lingam-yoni motifs are associated with a male figure seated in meditation posture, the same figure is the addressee of a bull sacrifice, and two attributes of Shiva are found together: a bull with a trident engraved on his hip. Ascetics are found depicted, as also a depiction of a well-known Hindu fable: The Thirsty Crow. Statuettes show the Namaste salute with folded hands. Married women are shown wearing red powder in the parting of their hair and spiraled bangles on their wrists. Concludes the dean of Indian archaeology: “So, it is abundantly clear that all the objections against a Harappan-Vedic equation are baseless.” Indeed, “the Harappan civilization and the Vedas are but two faces of the same coin.”



Draupadi

Over the years, I met Prof. Lal several times, once even in Los Angeles. The last time till now was at the Draupadi Trust’s Delhi conference on the Sindhu-Saraswati Civilization, March 2015. During one session I was sitting just next to B.B. Lal. On archaeology, I am a layman, I am not too interested in the material details of excavations, though as a historian I set great store by the end results. So I was listening only with half an ear to a rather technical paper, meanwhile leafing through the new e-mails on my laptop.  

I had received a message from one of the world’s top scholars in  historical and comparative linguistics, a German teaching in the US, as part of an ongoing debate on the Indo-European homeland. He argued, as almost any Western specialist of Indo-European languages would, that the Homeland is a settled matter, at least to the extent that it was not in India: “Everyone knows it.” But here I was sitting in a hall with India’s top archaeologists, where every speaker pleaded that in his own excavations, he had found total continuity and no trace of an Aryan invasion. It happens only rarely that on one topic, Indian scholars and Western scholars hold such diametrically opposing views.



Ayodhya

The name B.B. Lal was again on the frontpages during the scholarly controversies about the Ayodhya  temple/mosque issue ca. 1990, a debate in which I also figured. He stood by the findings he himself had done during on-site excavations in the 1970s. These showed that pillar-bases of the demolished Hindu temple stood underneath the Babri mosque. More thorough Court-ordered excavations in 2003 have amply confirmed the existence of these pillar-bases, along with many other Hindu temple remnants.

This made Lal the target of much slander and mud-throwing. He was ridiculed and denounced as “Hindu fundamentalist”. He was lambasted as “that once-meritorious archaeologist who uses his reputation to propagate the non-existent temple”. Pedantic opponents demanded to see Lal’s field notes, locked away under Archaeological Survey of India rules – as if these writings by Lal himself would contradict Lal’s own conclusion. In any case, he was completely vindicated by later excavations as well as by the written evidence. 

Meanwhile, a publicly available proof of his objectivity and bona fides was eagerly cited by the secularists themselves, because they reckoned it could embarrass the Acharyas leading the Ayodhya agitation. These Hindu leaders had thought that Lal’s support to the temple thesis implied a support to all their beliefs about Rama, including a very high chronology. But Lal’s excavations only found human habitation at the Rama Janmabhumi till the second millennium BCE, not earlier. This greatly disappointed them, and they protested loudly. So Prof. Lal answered: “I don’t say so, but my spade tells me so.”

Though he himself never allowed his successes to go to his head, it must, in hindsight, be an archaeologist’s dream come true to play a prominent role in major controversies and be proven right in the end. At any rate, such are the highlights of Prof. B.B. Lal’s career.



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