Saturday, November 18, 2017

Conference season


This September 2017 was conference season.


The archaeology conference

On 2 September I spoke at the congress of the European Archeological Association in the outskirts of Maastricht. Several sessions concerned the Urheimat of the Indo-European language family. I could participate in an interdisciplinary session with archaeologists, geneticists and linguists, where I took the opportunity to present the India-as-Homeland theory. A few linguists there knew me and had an idea of my narrative, but otherwise the audience was completely surprised by it. Due to time constraints there were no questions, and it was afterwards that I talked to a few people privately. I cannot report any useful feedback there, except for a professor belonging to the Leiden school of linguistics who had read some papers of mine.

He was friendly as usual but not yet convinced. This is not abnormal, a far cry from the insistent stonewalling practised against the Out-of-India Theory by the likes of Steve Farmer. It is normal for a reigning paradigm to have a certain robustness and take some time before giving in to inconvenient new data. Often it turns out that with a little fine-tuning and sophisticating, we can domesticate the new data into the existing paradigm. So, focusing on an isogloss uniting Sanskrit with Greek, the augment (initial vowel added to the imperfective forms of the verb), hard to explain if they left a Pontic Homeland in opposite directions, he remarked that the augment in the Sanskrit-to-Greek sequence of languages tends to behave differently in each of these languages.

Well, of course their behaviour is less than identical. Greek and Sanskrit have grown so far apart as to become different languages, not mutually understandable anymore, with Greek e.g. losing the dual number and three of the eight cases. It is therefore only to be expected that the augment developed some idiosyncrasies in either of the languages as well. But the fact that they have the augment while the Western branches of Indo-European do not, remains hard to digest for a Pontic Homeland scenario and is eminently favourable to an Indian Homeland.

Participating in these conferences is important for the personal communication with colleagues you would otherwise only know from their publications. In this case, concerning the Aryan origins debate, you get the chance to explain to the ignorant what it's all about. Most have kept knowledge about it out. The search for the Homeland is itself not popular anymore, partly for its suspected political motives, partly because a really convincing answer remains elusive and leads to the impression that "we will never know anyway". The specific Indian homeland scenario has gotten associated with Hindu Nationalism, itself the object of routine vilification. But it should not be hard to explain among colleagues that these circumstances fail to invalidate the evidence for an Indian homeland.

A wholly different session, mostly manned by Scandinavians, focused on the use of the past by the "extreme right". Anti-immigration or anti-Islamic parties have come to the fore in many European countries, though the speakers here failed to give even one example of their proposals and policies that would reasonably qualify as "extreme right". But it remains obvious that these nativists care a lot about the national heritage. By the definition used here, the Hindu Nationalists would certainly qualify. In the early years after the founding of the Jan Sangh (°1951, reconstituted in 1980 as the Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP, presently in government), national heritage was indeed one of the main concerns of party presidents like SP Mookerjee, Raghu Vira or Balraj Madhok. Today, however, and unbeknownst to most, the party has become an ordinary pro-capitalist party swearing by "development" and callously indifferent to issues of heritage.  

The eye-catcher of the conference was the keen interest in the Palaeolithic Continuity Theory launched by Mario Alinei, topic of an entire session with a handful of supportive speakers. This theory claims that the Indo-European languages ​​have more or less lived in their historical habitats for more than ten thousand years, e.g. the Celts on the Atlantic coasts. In that case, Stonehenge and other megalithic structures have still been built by the Druids after all. Interesting, but nevertheless, most linguists do not believe it at all.

H
istorical disciplines attract quite a bit of bizarre people with bizarre views, and I can testify that fora of historical linguists such as the Journal of Indo-European Studies have conveyed a lot of bizarre theories from the rarities' cabinet over the years. Time will tell us whether I myself belong to this category of odd men out.


The religion conference

In the medicine campus Gasthuisberg of my own Alma Mater (the Catholic University of Leuven), the European Association for the Study of Religion held its conference on 18-22 September. Secularism as a theme made a side appearance in many sessions but was the main theme in the session I participated in, with the paper "Secularism: from Europe to India and back".

I told the august audience that most publications on India's religious landscape and legislation are in agreement that "India is a secular state" (though they call this secularism, already since the 1960s without let-up, "increasingly threatened by Hindu Nationalism"), and that all these experts are wrong. A survey of the relevant Constitution articles with their discriminations against Hinduism shows unambiguously: India is not a secular state at all. The most poignant example is the discrimination in education by art. 30, which has led to the attempt by Hindu sects and organization to have themselves declared non-Hindu. There are no Christian or Muslim sects declaring themselves non-Christian c.q. non-Muslim (on the contrary: the Mormons call themselves Christian and the Ahmadiyas Muslim, though their parent religions have doubts about acknowledging them), but a big handful of Hindu sects do clamour for the exit: there you have an objective criterion for the claim that being a non-Hindu brings tangible privileges that would not exist in a secular state. This Article 30 is the basis for the Right To Education Act (2008), which imposes a heavy burden on Hindu schools alone, forcing hundreds of them to date to close down.

The Hindu Nationalists, for their part, prove to be no threat at all, neither to the reigning non-secularism falsely called secularism, nor to a theoretical real secularism. This is fully borne out by their 9+ years in government (1998-2004 and 2014-), which saw a total standstill on the religio-Constitutional front: neither initiatives to change the status-quo within the limits of the present-day law nor, a fortiori, any legal changes achieved.  

The audience, mostly religious scholars not particularly involved with India, was surprised but mostly sympathetic. Some defenders of Indian "secularism", anti-Hindu discriminations and all, tried arguing that the minorities need protection against the majority. Historically, this would have been true in Christian countries, and today it is very much true in Islamic countries (but have those pro-"secular"-ists ever pleaded for discriminations protecting the persecuted Pakistani Christians?), but pray, what injustice have the Hindus ever committed against the non-Hindus? To be sure, within the Hindu fold there has been gross discrimination against the low castes, but this only emphasizes the non-discrimination against the religious minorities by contrast.


The Orientalist conference

The same week in the German city of Jena there was, 4 years after the conference in Münster, the Conference of the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft ("German Oriental Society"), called the Deutsche Orientalistentage ("assembly of German Orientalists"). True to its name, it perpetuates the venerable old tradition of Orientalism, heedless of the calumny against this academic discipline propagated by Edward Said. The latter's error-riddled book Orientalism (1978), a grand and apparently intoxicating conspiracy theory turning all Orientalist scholars into agents of the colonial project, remains wildly popular in the Asian Studies departments of the Anglosphere and a cornerstone of most Indian intellectuals' worldview. I felt far more at home at this conference with numerous serious scholars than at, say, the European Conference for South-Asian Studies (ECSAS), among tenured agitators who have completely done away with classical and other textual studies to replace them with postmodernist sociology and political "science".

It so happened that the Sinological session started with a tribute to my former fellow-student Carine Defoort, now a very energetic Sinology professor at our Alma Mater, Leuven University. My own paper was also in the Sinology session, though by subject it could have been in the Indology session as well: it was about Neidan (Chinese "inner alchemy") as the proposed source of Indian Kundalini Yoga with its well-known Cakra system.

But then, among the organizers of the Indology session, I am a controversial name because of my known skepticism towards the pious lies of my peers, their so-called secularism paradigm flavoured with anti-Brahmanism. That far at least the anti-Hindu "South-Asian Studies" school has penetrated in the Orientalist institutions, unlike in the other sections, where scholars aren't expected to militate against their chosen object of study. In spite of Said's fantasies, most Orientalists had or have a tendency to "go native", to sympathize or identify with the culture they study; most Sinologists can argue the case for China with conviction, or at least tone down and relativize any criticism that is unavoidable. By contrast, only in the case of India is a scholar accepted in his peer group if he gives proof of a bias against the country and religion he has chosen to study.

So, using a transparent excuse, they rejected my paper, eventhough in this case my positions happened to be disliked by the Hindu Nationalists as well, viz. for tracing one of the best-known aspects of Hinduism to a foreign source. I saved my chances by shifting to the Sinology session.

Contrary to my experience in Delhi (WAVES, December 2016, where someone present unfriended me, also in real life, because of my supposed "anti-Indian stance") and Ghent (university's Indology Day, March 2017), where I had presented earlier stages of this research, in Jena this paper did not provoke much reaction. Apart from a few young Ph.D. candidates and a few Chinese participants, nobody in the audience evinced any surprise or enthusiasm. For them it was but one of the many tedious talks you hear at scholarly conferences, nothing controversial. In so far as they had adopted some Chinese chauvinism, they approved of my story, which after all gave credit to Chinese culture for a well-known aspect of Indian culture. But that Chinese culture was inventive, creative and simply great, was no novelty to them. They took it as a matter of course.

Among the people I met was Dr. Reinhold Grünendahl, working as an Indologist in the famous university of Göttingen. I had last met him at the  Münster conference of 2013. I had written about his paper confronting Sheldon Pollock's and Vishva Adluri's theses on the history of German Indology (http://koenraadelst.blogspot.be/2012/12/a-nazi-out-of-india-theory.html). He briefed me of recent developments that had only confirmed his position in the debate, and informed me that he had left the topic behind it now because nothing fruitful remained to be said anymore.

In the Indo-European session, the highlight was Paul Heggarty's paper. This trail-blazing expert roundly acknowledged the existence of an Indian-homeland paradigm next to the prevailing steppe-origin paradigm. This is in itself already a breakthrough regardless of his actual position. Most scholars in the field don't take the India thesis seriously either because they simply don't know of it, or because they have been warned off by agitators (like the non-expert Steve Farmer) who describe its proponents either as ludicrous amateurs of the PN Oak type or as fanatical chauvinists compromised with the Gujarat 2002 "genocide" and other allegedly Hindu Nationalist riots. It is with  clean conscience that they take an in itself unscientific attitude of stonewalling vis-à-vis a rival theory, i.c. against any overture from the Out-of India side.

Heggarty still worked largely with a assumption of a more Westerly homeland, partly because of the genetic evidence. This indeed shows a (limited) population influx into India, but then we know of such influxes in the historical period, and we can verify that none of them has changed the Indian language landscape, save for some loanwords. Scythians, Huns, Greeks, Tocharians (Kushanas), Turks, Afghans: all have linguistically assimilated, eventhough in the latter two cases, they were ideologically conditioned to remain as separate as possible. There is no reason why any West-Asians coming in earlier should have been better equipped to culturally confront the advanced and huge Indian native population any better.

But he did acknowledge other genetic evidence that would ultimately fortify the Out-of-India scenario. Thus, the early Greeks show a distinct genetic contribution from Iran. And of course, Central Europe saw a dramatic genetic as well as archaeological change in the early 3rd millennium, which even mainstream scholars take to attest the influx of the Indo-Europeans coming from Yamna on the steppes. Me too, I see nothing wrong with positing the Yamna culture as homeland of at least the Celtic, Germanic, Slavic and Baltic branches,-- but not of the Indo-European family a a whole. This position was readily confirmed by Heggarty when he pointed out that the Yamna culture was simply too late to be the ultimate Homeland. Though he did not articulate this implication, it happens to accord with the Out-of-India scenario, with Yamna as a secondary centre after the emigration from India.




The use of conferences

Whatever may be wrong with Wendy Doniger, she had one observation right: she likened scholarly conferences to the morning hour at kindergarten, when all the toddlers are asked to talk about their recent experiences. They all tell their own story unconnected with all the other children's stories, and no interaction develops. Nowadays at conferences, there has at least been this improvement that papers are grouped into thematic sessions, but even there, many novices and even some more seasoned speakers remain exclusively focused on their own work.

The main benefit of conferences in this day of internet forums and teleconferencing remains the face-to-face interaction with colleagues. This is an opportunity for getting around policies of stonewalling, especially important on two fronts: the Indo-European origins debate and the Indian secularism debate. In both, the anti-India and anti-Hindu bias is only weakly grounded. Most scholars only take this position because it is the reigning opinion, and usually they don't know any better. They are the captives of gate-keepers excluding alternative views from the institutions and the prestigious journals. Personal contacts may help to open their eyes. 

1 comment:

Raman Sehgal said...

"for tracing one of the best-known aspects of Hinduism to a foreign source." - what is that aspect which came from foreign source? Kindly elaborate.

Regards.