Thursday, December 30, 2010

Queen Beatrix on Islam

In an obvious allusion to social problems with Islam, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands stated in her 2010 Christmas speech: "The danger is that what unites us gets obscured and differences are magnified. Then walls of supposed oppositions are raised and positions hardened."

Within the outlines of such a platitudinous court speech, Her Majesty seems to be saying that the rise of Geert Wilders' Freedom Party, and "Islamophobia" in general, promotes polarization. Whereas all human beings essentially share roughly the same needs and aspirations, the warners against Islam ("Islam bashers") will create artificial separation walls. It is in this sense that most observers viewed the royal speech, Geert Wilders included. In a first reaction, he twittered that the twelve recently arrested Somali terror suspects "in the Netherlands certainly were not looking at what unites us."

But there is another possible reading. The whole structure of Islam itself, rather than "Islamophobia", is set up precisely to erect "walls of supposed oppositions" between people. The wall between “Henk and Ingrid” (typical Dutch names) and “Ahmed and Aisha” is not the handiwork of the critics of Islam but of Islam itself. Apart from some superficial features of language and geographical origin, there is essentially little difference between both couples. It is only Islam that condemns the former to disenfranchised subordination (dhimmitude) in this life and afterwards an eternity in hell, while the latter are to inherit the heavens later and the earth now.

This difference is not real, it exists only in the imagination of Islam believers, it's an "supposed opposition”. But Islamic law does lay down that this imaginary opposition gets a very tangible impact, namely all kinds of inequalities between Muslims and non-Muslims. The believers arrogate to themselves rights that they deny to the unbelievers. This self-righteousness, which is the self-proclaimed essence of Islam, erects "walls of supposed oppositions". Would the Queen, speaking on behalf of the Dutch people, have had that analysis in mind?

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ayodhya verdict a Congress Party achievement

The Allahabad High Court’s recent verdict on the contending Ayodhya claims by Hindus and Muslims is, on the whole, to be welcomed. It proposes an allotment of the disputed territory that is imperfect but reasonable-looking and welcomed in English-speaking circles as likely to put an end to the dispute. While unambiguously allotting the exact site where the Babri mosque used to stand to a Hindu claimant on behalf of the deity Ram Lala (baby Rama), it also awards one-third of the Government-held plot to the Muslim claimants.

Both parties disagree with this division, so the Supreme Court will have to go over the merits of the case too. Those future deliberations are not for a historian to comment upon, but I imagine that they can be expedited if the Muslim litigants present to the Supreme Court the plan proposed in enlightened Muslim circles, viz. to build an Islamic-style peace monument on their part of the land, rather than a mosque that would serve as a perpetual provocation. Even simpler is if the Court follows logic and leaves the entire site to the Hindus; but in a formula without explicit Muslim consent, they probably fear for Muslim "direct action" against the site and against the Indian polity.

For now, let us consider some highlights of the Allahabad High Court’s lengthy verdict. Its chief merit is that it re-establishes respect for genuine history. This, I propose, is the ultimate result of a wise policy pursued by Congress Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao. They discreetly promoted the long-term project of rebuilding a Hindu temple at the contentious site by linking the decision about the site’s future to the historical question about its past. The consensus in all pertinent testimonies by Muslims, Hindus and Europeans, still upheld as dry fact in the 1989 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, was that a Rama temple had been forcibly replaced with the mosque attributed to Babar.

In a typical exercise of Congress culture, Gandhi intended to preserve peace by leaving the site to the Hindus (who were already using it as a temple since 1949), all while compensating the Muslim leadership for its acquiescence with some appropriate favours, starting with the Shah Bano amendment and the ban on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Not very principled, but pragmatic and likely to avoid bloodshed. This plan was upset by two developments.

One obstruction was the BJP’s erratic intervention. First the party capitalized on the issue in a mass campaign, but then effectively dropped it after reaping the dividend in the 1991 elections. This “betrayal” provoked some Hindu activists into bypassing their leaders and taking the surprise initiative of demolishing the mosque structure in 1992.

The more serious obstacle was the shrill and intimidating campaign of history denial by a section of partisan academics and journalists (with the whole guild of Western India-watchers in their pocket). Screaming “secularism in danger!” and raising the stakes beyond all proportion, they continued to dominate public discourse until September 2010. They managed to turn the old consensus into a mere ”belief” of “Hindu extremists”. But insiders knew they had been checkmated in 1991. Rajiv Gandhi had forced minority government leader Chandra Shekhar to organize a scholars’ debate, where newly presented evidence only confirmed the old consensus view. The anti-temple academics got no farther than proposing some feeble insinuations against a selected few of the documents and archaeological findings. They did not come up with a single piece of evidence in support of an alternative scenario.

But the new Congress PM Narasimha Rao (in my opinion the best PM the Republic of India has had) stayed the course. All while exploiting the BJP’s discomfiture and making the right noises to humour the anti-temple circles, he arranged a presidential reference to the Supreme Court on the question of the pre-existence of a temple at the site. This way, once more a Congress PM directed the focus of the controversy to the historical evidence, knowing fully well that this could only bolster the Hindu claim. The Supreme Court in effect had the question sent on to the High Court, which ordered a radar scan and the most thorough excavations ever of the disputed site. By 2003, the results were in: of course there had been a temple.

On that basis, the High Court has now given a verdict acknowledging the historical and archaeological evidence and reprimanding the anti-temple academics for their grossly flawed methods of research and argumentation. Moreover, the judges ordered the site henceforth to be treated as indeed the Rama Janmabhumi, the birthplace of Rama. Everybody remains free to believe otherwise, but the belief of millions of Hindus concerning Rama’s birth there is to be respected as much as, say, the Islamic belief that the Kaaba was built by Adam. No Muslim is ever told that he can only go on Hajj pilgrimage after proving this belief about the Kaaba; and neither should Hindus be required to prove Rama’s birth location.

By that standard, incidentally, the whole history debate, forced upon us by the campaign of history denial, was an unnecessary distraction. Establishing historical truth is interesting and important for its own sake, but it should not be a precondition for respecting fellow human beings in their religious practices. For settling this dispute, the consideration that the site is sacred not to Muslims but very much to Hindus, and not in the Middle Ages but today, really ought to have been sufficient.

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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Latest on Reincarnation Research

On 26 November 2010, Icelandic psychologist Prof. Erlendur Haraldsson was the keynote speaker at a symposium on reincarnation research in Leiden University. He presented some recent cases he studied and discussed the theory choices suggested by his findings.

Testimonies suggestive of reincarnation are mainly of two types: children below 7 spontaneously claiming past life memories, and adults taken back to earlier stages of their lives (and pre-lives) in a semi-hypnotic state. Haraldsson's research focused on the children's testimonies. Sometimes these are startlingly accurate in describing someone's life and, once the deceased person is identified and the child taken to his life setting, in recognizing places and people.

There are five possible explanations. Two of these are non-paranormal: coincidence and fraud. Three are paranormal: possession by the ghost of the deceased, telepathic retrocognition, and reincarnation.

Since there exist cases where a child recollects the life of someone who died after the child was born, and some where multiple children recollected a single person's life, I am inclined to vote against the reincarnation hypothesis. A transmission of memories either through telepathy or through ghost possession, though to a lesser degree still paranormal, seem more plausible and fit the data better. More likely, those testimonies are similar to what Jim Morrison described in An American Prayer in a recollection of a childhood event where he witnessed a truckload of Amerindian workers dying in a traffic accident: "The souls or the ghosts of these Indians had entered my head... and stayed there." Or in the musical version, Peace Frog: "Ghosts crowd the young child's fragile eggshell mind."

As the child grows up, its mind develops better defences and chases the ghost along with the recollections out. That should explain why by age 10, those children have generally forgotten their "past-life" memories. But we can safely conclude on the worn-out yet highly apt remark: in this promising field, more research is urgently called for.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Guha vs. Elst

The past decades have seen a high tide of history distortion by the dominant Leftist school of historians in India. Future scholarship will study their self-assured posturing with amusement. Here's one instance.

In his column “Foreign Certificates”, published on 4 January 2009 in The Hindu Magazine, the well-known subalternist sociologist Ramachandra Guha makes the following assertion:

“At the height of the Ayodhya movement, the Sangh Parivar circulated, at vast expense, the writings of an obscure Belgian ex-priest which claimed that Hindus had been victimised for thousands of years by Muslims and Christians, and that destroying a mosque, building a temple in its place, and sacrificing thousands of (mostly innocent) lives along the way was the only way that this cumulative historical injustice could be avenged. This ex-priest had little training as a historian, and even less credibility. But unlike the other similarly untrained ideologues of the Hindu Right, his citizenship was not Indian, but Belgian. The hope was that the colour of his skin would trump the shallowness of his arguments.”

To be sure, I am not an ex-priest. As a child I considered becoming a priest, but like most fellow-countrymen of my generation, I outgrew the Roman Catholic religion. I am fully trained in historical method, one of my diplomas is in “Oriental Philology and History”, and I have quite a bit of hands-on experience with innovative historical research. As for my lack of credibility, it is a fact that people of Guha’s class were in no mind to lend me any credence, but none of them has ever demonstrated in writing any “shallowness” in my arguments. Neither does Guha in this column. While I have analysed the arguments of his school in considerable detail in my books on the Ayodhya question and on Hindu-Muslim relations in general, no refutation of my position has ever been produced.

As for the colour of my skin, it is his own school that has been using its white connections for decades as an implicit argument of authority. It seems that white people on average are quite silly, for most of them have lapped up the version of Indian history propagated by India’s “eminent historians” whose eminence results from their toeing the hegemonic party-line rather than from a respect for the data in the primary sources. Anyone with normal intelligence regardless of skin colour can sort out their distortions by using proper historical method.

In the meantime, my position has been endorsed by the Allahabad High Court, the one reasonably impartisan institution that has held both argumentations against the light. After availing itself of the best archaeological expertise, it has ruled in favour of the old consensus, upheld until 1989 by all sources but denied since then by Guha’s circles, viz. that Ayodhya is indeed a case of Hindu victimization by Muslims through the imposition of a mosque on a Hindu sacred site in forcible replacement of a temple. In its verdict, the Court has also given a most unfavourable judgment of the historical “method” of the anti-temple academics.

The right thing to do now for Ramachandra Guha is to offer his apologies to me for his exercise in defamation. Likewise, his entire circle of “eminent historians” ought to come forward with heartfelt apologies to Prof. B.B. Lal and the ASI archaeologists whom they have lambasted as “running-dogs of the Hindutva agenda” for their conscientious research that happened to confirm the old consensus. If the eminent historians want to save their honour for posterity, they should hurry to concede their mistake and do the honourable thing towards those whom they have slandered for being true to the method and facts of history.

After I heard of Guha’s column, I sent the following letter to The Hindu Magazine. I have not heard of its ever being published, but perhaps someone out there has better information. Here goes:

‘In his column “Foreign Certificates” (The Hindu Magazine, 4-1-2008), Ramachandra Guha makes allegations against a Belgian participant in the Ayodhya debate. Though he mentions no name, apparently to avoid libel charges, the description can only mean myself. One approximately true assertion of his is that I have confirmed the received wisdom that “Hindus had been victimised for thousands of years by Muslims and Christians”. Indeed, I don’t pretend to know it all better than top-ranking historians like Will Durant, who wrote that “the Islamic conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history”; or Fernand Braudel, who wrote that “the Muslims could not rule the country except by sys¬tematic terror. Hindu temples were destroyed to make way for mosques.” Not a favoured view in Guha’s circles, but well-documented.

‘Then, Guha imputes to me the claim that “destroying a mosque, building a temple in its place, and sacrificing thousands of (mostly innocent) lives along the way was the only way that this cumulative historical injustice could be avenged”. That is a lie. My research findings on Ayodhya are extant in cold print, chiefly in my book “Ayodhya, the Case against the Temple”, 2002, available on-line, so anyone can verify that they do not contain anything like the injunction to mass murder that Guha imputes to me. Since I have better things to do than suing Mr. Guha for libel, I’ll be satisfied with an unqualified apology from him.

‘For the record, I have frequently emphasised the distinction between the historical record and contemporary policy, e.g. I have repeatedly written in support of the Serbs’ case against the injustices suffered at the hands of the Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims in the Ottoman and Nazi periods, yet condemning their mindless violence against contemporary Muslims. Guha’s own school could have made that same distinction, e.g. by saying that “it is a pity that Muslims destroyed Hindu temples, but that is no reason for us now to destroy mosques”, or so. Instead, at a time when their power in academe and the media was absolute and unchallenged by any capable Hindu opposition (as demonstrated in M.M. Joshi’s textbook reforms, a horror show of incompetence), it went to their heads and they thought they could get away with denying history. They did indeed get away with their bluff, and may well continue to do so for some more time. However, the prevalent power equation will not last forever, and one day the “secularist” exercise in history denial will be seen for what it was.’

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

The meaning of Hindu Kush

Hindu Kush is the name of a mountain range in Afghanistan, one that you have to cross or somehow bypass when going from Central Asia to India. It is commonly said that the name means “Hindu-slaughter”, since the straightforward dictionary meaning of kush is “killing, slaughter”. That is what I learned in my first year in Indology from the famous professor Pierre Eggermont. Now, an Indian self-described secularist challenges this received wisdom, so let us find out the truth at the source.

A certain Rajesh Sinha has addressed Hindu forums with the following claims: “Right-wing Hindus invented baseless stories and fabricated history in order to sow seeds of hatred and enmity between the Hindus and the Muslims. One of their latest fabrication is the ‘Hindu-Killers – Hindu Kush’ myth. They hijacked the word and attributed a different meaning to feed their extreme nationalist ideology and incite the ignorant Hindus. Shrinandan Vyas published a dubious articled based on fabricated references arguing that the Muslims committed genocide against the Hindu population. Obviously this is far from the truth and Insha’Allah (God-Willing), I will dispel this myth since it is a great hindrance to many Hindus to discover the true history of Islam. (…) Shrinandan Vyas deliberately supplied fabricated references to credible sources to strengthen his argument that the ‘Hindu-Kush’ really stands for ‘Hindu-Killers’ (…): ‘All standard reference books agree that the name Hindu Kush of the mountain range in Eastern Afghanistan means 'Hindu Slaughter' or 'Hindu Killer'.’”

Since an Indology professor unconcerned with the Hindu-Muslim conflict told me the same in tempore non suspecto, it is plausible enough that standard reference books would do likewise: “Most of his references (fabricated) are from Encyclopaedia Britannica. He writes that the Encyclopaedia Britannica states: 'The name Hindu Kush first appears in 1333 AD in the writings of Ibn Battutah, the medieval Berber traveller, who said the name meant 'Hindu Killer', a meaning still given by Afghan mountain dwellers who are traditional enemies of Indian plainsmen (i.e. Hindus).’ This statement is nowhere to be found in the Encyclopaedia Britannica nor in Ibn Battutah's writings.”

Note that the statement obscures the specifically Islamic angle and attributes the expression to the “traditional” enmity of the “Afghan mountain dwellers” for the “Indian plainsmen”. This sparing of Islam would be typical of contemporary reference works. If a Hindutva hothead had invented the quotation, he would not have missed the opportunity to make it accuse Islam somehow, quod non. Not having a copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica handy, we will nonetheless be able to show that the quotations is very probably authentic, simply because it is truthful and its reference to Ibn Battuta is easy to find and to verify. If a quality reference work like the EB speaks out on the topic Hindu Kush, we may expect it to cite the proper sources, and that is what it does in Shrinandan Vyas’s citation.

At any rate, we are in a position to cut out the middle-men, both the EB and Mr. Vyas, and go straight to the original.

According to Rajesh Sinha, “Ibn Battutah (full name, Abu 'abd Allah Muhammad Ibn 'abd Allah Al-lawati At-tanji Ibn Battutah ) was a medieval Arab traveller and the author of one of the most famous travel books. He never alleged that the name Hindu Kush means ‘Hindu Killer’ or ‘Slaughter’ but rather, he affirmed that it means ‘Mountains of India’.”

In fact, “Mountain of India” translates a similar-sounding expression, Hindu Koh. Hindu is the Persian equivalent of Sindhu, and originally meant “India”, or “Indian”. Koh is the Persian word for “mountain”, as in the name of the famous diamond Koh-i-Nûr, “mountain of light”. It is entirely likely that the name Hindu Kush came about as a sarcastic twist on the older name Hindu Koh, viz. on the occasion of an actual mass-killing.

According to Sinha, the EB states: “The name Hindu Kush derives from the Arabic for ‘Mountains of India’.” That is unlikely. Would the learned EB make such mistakes? Kush does not mean “mountain”, and the word that does, Koh, is not Arabic but Persian, as is the word Hindu. Perhaps Sinha’s allegations of “fabrication” are a projection of his very own conduct?

Here is his nod to the true story behind the term: “I will still have to clarify the meaning of ‘Hindu Kush’ for the sake of argumentation. Britannica Encyclopaedia states: In the Pashto language of Afghanistan, it is called ‘Hindu Koh’ which means ‘Mount India’.” Pashto is an Iranian language close to Persian, and in both, Hindu Koh does indeed mean “Indian Mountain”; but not Hindu Kush.

Sinha continues: “Furthermore, the name Hindu Kush did not first appear in 1333 AD in the writings of Ibn Battutah but appeared on a map published circa AD 1000. Britannica Encyclopaedia states: Its earliest known usage occurs on a map published about AD 1000.” But does this refer to the original name Hindu Koh, or to Hindu Kush? Sinha is not good at discerning between the two. At any rate, nobody claims that the term was invented by Ibn Battuta, only that he used it. There were already mass slave transports in 1000 AD, when Mahmud Ghaznavi raided India. And note that the population from which slaves were taken, was not defined as “Indian plainsmen” but as Indian non-Muslims.

So let us finally bypass all the querulous claims by our zealous secularist and see for ourselves what Ibn Battuta himself says. In the bilingual Arabic-French edition Voyages d’Ibn Battûta, texte arabe accompagné d’une introduction, by C. Defremenery and Dr. B.R. Sanguinetti (1854, reprint by Editions Anthropos, Paris), on p.84, we find the Moroccan traveller’s account: “Another motive for our journey was fear of the snow, for in the middle of this route there is a mountain called Hindû Kûsh, meaning ‘Hindu-killer’, because many of the male and female slaves transported from India die in these mountains because of the violent cold and the quantity of snow.”

So there you have it. Yes, Ibn Battuta testifies that Hindu Kush means “Hindu-killer”, and he records it as an already existing name. He also testifies that the name was occasioned by a Muslim mistreatment of Hindus, viz. their massive abduction as slaves to Central Asia. In his account, the name does not refer to one particular incident of slaughter, but to the frequent phenomenon of caravans of Hindu slaves crossing the mountains range and losing part of their cargo to the frost. So, Rajesh Sinha, well on his way to becoming an “eminent historian”, is wrong. I don’t know whether he is deluded or deliberately lying, both are ailments common among his tribe.

While we are at it, we may lay to rest another misconception concerning the name Hindu Kush. It is sometimes claimed that the term refers to the occasion when the Uzbek invader Timur transported a mass of Hindu slaves and a hundred thousand of them died in one unexpectedly cold night on this mountain. This is a case of confusion with another incident, where indeed a hundred thousand Hindus died (were killed) in one night by Timur’s hand. That was in 1399, when Timur, fearing an uprising of his Hindu prisoners to coincide with the battle he was planning for the next days, ordered his men to kill all their Hindu slaves immediately, totaling a hundred thousand killed that very night.

Ibn Battuta lived a few generations earlier, and he mentions “Hindu Kush” as an already well-established usage. In his understanding, the reference was not to one spectacular occasion of slaughter, nor of mass death by frost, but of a recurring phenomenon of slaves on transport dying there. The number of casualties would not amount to a hundred thousand in a single night, but over centuries of Hindu slave transports by Muslim conquerors, the death toll must have totaled a far greater number.

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Monday, October 4, 2010

Eminent historians displeased with the Ayodhya verdict

Romila Thapar, most eminent among India's eminent historians, protests against the Court verdict acknowledging the historical evidence that the Babar mosque in Ayodhya had been built in forcible replacement of a Rama temple. After two decades of living on top of the world, the eminent historians are brought down to earth.

In 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared to young Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, France. Before long, Lourdes became the most important pilgrimage site for Roman Catholics and other Mary worshippers. France prided itself on being a secular state, in some phases (esp. 1905-40) even aggressively secular, yet it acknowledged and protected Lourdes as a place of pilgrimage. Not many French officials actually believe in the apparition, but that is not the point. The believers are human beings, fellow citizens, and out of respect for them does the state respect and protect their pilgrimage.

For essentially the same reason, the mere fact that the Rama Janmabhumi (Rama’s birthplace) site in Ayodhya is well-established as a sacred site for Hindu pilgrimage, is reason enough to protect its functioning as a Hindu sacred site, complete with proper Hindu temple architecture. Ayodhya doesn’t have this status in any other religion, though ancient Buddhism accepted Rama as an earlier incarnation of the Buddha. The site most certainly doesn’t have such a status in Islam, which imposed a mosque on it, the Babri Masjid (ostensibly built in 1528, closed by court order after riots in 1935, surreptitiously turned into a Hindu temple accessible only to a priest in 1949, opened for unrestricted Hindu use in 1986, and demolished by Hindu militants in 1992). So, the sensible and secular thing to do, even for those sceptical of every religious belief involved, is to leave the site to the Hindus. The well-attested fact that Hindus kept going there even when a mosque was standing, even under Muslim rule, is helpful to know in order to gauge its religious importance; but is not strictly of any importance in the present. For respecting its Hindu character, it is sufficient that the site has this sacred status today.

Secular PM Rajiv Gandhi had understood this, and from the court-ordered opening of the locks on the mosque-used-as-temple in 1986, he was manoeuvring towards an arrangement leaving the contentious site to the Hindus in exchange for some other goodies (starting with the Shah Bano amendment and the Satanic Verses ban) for the Muslim leadership. Call it Congress culture or horse-trading, but it would have been practical and saved everyone a lot of trouble.

That is when a group of "eminent historians" started raising the stakes and turning this local communal deal into a clash of civilizations, a life-and-death matter on which the survival of the greatest treasure in the universe depended, viz. secularism. Secure in (or drunk with) their hegemonic position, they didn't limit themselves to denying to the Hindus the right of rebuilding their demolished temple, say: "A medieval demolition doesn't justify a counter-demolition today." Instead, they went so far as to deny the well-established fact that the mosque had been built in forcible replacement of a Rama temple.

Note, incidentally, that the temple demolition, a very ordinary event in Islamic history, was not even the worst of it: as a stab to the heart of Hindu sensibilities, the Babri mosque stood imposed on a particularly sacred site. Just as for Hindus, the site itself was far more important than the building on it, for Islamic iconoclasts the imposition of a mosque on such an exceptional site was a greater victory over infidelism than yet another forcible replacement of a heathen temple with a mosque. Though the historians’ and archaeologists’ ensuing research into the Ayodhya temple demolition has been most interesting, it was strictly speaking superfluous, for the sacred status venerated by most Hindus and purposely violated by some Muslims accrues to the site itself rather than to the architecture on it. The implication for the present situation is that even if Muslims refuse to believe that the mosque had been built in forcible replacement of a temple, they nonetheless know of the site’s unique status for Hindus even without a temple. So, they should be able to understand that any Muslim claim to the site, even by non-violent means such as litigation, amounts to an act of anti-Hindu aggression. Muslims often complain of being stereotyped as fanatical and aggressive, but here they have an excellent opportunity to earn everyone’s goodwill by abandoning their inappropriate claim to a site that is sacred to others but not to themselves.

After the eminent historian’s media offensive against the historical evidence, the political class, though intimidated, didn't give in altogether but subtly pursued its own idea of a reasonable solution. In late 1990, Chandra Shekhar's minority government, supported and largely teleguided by opposition leader Rajiv Gandhi, invited the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Babri Masjid Action Committee (BMAC) to mandate some selected scholars for a discussion of the historical evidence. The politicians had clearly expected that the debate would bring out the evidence and silence the deniers for good. And that is what happened, or at least the first half. Decisive evidence was indeed presented, but it failed to discourage the deniers.

The VHP-employed team presented the already known documentary and archaeological evidence and dug up quite a few new documents confirming the temple demolition (including four that Muslim institutions had tried to conceal or tamper with). The BMAC-employed team quit the discussions but brought out a booklet later, trumpeted as the final deathblow of the temple demolition “myth”. In fact, it turned out to be limited to an attempt at whittling down the evidential impact of a selected few of the pro-temple documents and holding forth on generalities of politicized history without proving how any of that could neutralize this particular evidence. It contained not a single (even attempted) reference to a piece of actual evidence proving an alternative scenario or positively refuting the established scenario. I have given a full account earlier in my book Ayodhya, the Case against the Temple (2002).

Unfortunately, no amount of evidence could make the deniers mend their ways. Though defeated on contents, the "eminent historians" became only more insistent in denying the evidence. They especially excelled in blackening and slandering those few scholars who publicly stood by the evidence, not even sparing the towering archaeologist BB Lal. Overnight, what had been the consensus in Muslim, Hindu and European sources, was turned into a "claim" by "Hindu extremists". Thus, the eminent historians managed to intimate a Dutch scholar who had earlier contributed even more elements to the already large pile of evidence for the temple demolition into backtracking. Most spectacularly, they managed to get the entire international media and the vast majority of India-related academics who ever voiced an opinion on the matter, into toeing their line. These dimly-informed India-watchers too started intoning the no-temple mantra and slandering the dissidents, to their faces or behind their backs, as "liars", "BJP prostitutes", and what not. In Western academe, dozens chose to toe this party-line of disregarding the evidence and denying the obvious, viz. that the Babri Masjid (along with the Kaaba in Mecca, the Mezquita in Cordoba, the Ummayad mosque in Damascus, the Aya Sophia in Istambul, the Quwwatu'l-Islam in Delhi, etc.) was one of the numerous ancient mosques built on, or with materials from, purposely desecrated or demolished non-Muslim places of worship.

Until the Babri Masjid demolition by Hindu activists on 6 December 1992, Congress PM Narasimha Rao was clearly pursuing the same plan of a bloodless hand-over of the site to the Hindus in exchange for some concessions to the Muslims. The Hindu activists who performed the demolition were angry with the leaders of their own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for seemingly abandoning the Ayodhya campaign after winning the 1991 elections with it, but perhaps the leaders had genuinely been clever in adjusting their Ayodhya strategy to their insiders’ perception of a deal planned by the PM. After the demolition, Rao milked it for its anti-BJP nuisance value and gave out some pro-mosque signals; but a closer look at his actual policies shows that he stayed on course. His Government requested the Supreme Court to offer an opinion on the historical background of the Ayodhya dispute, knowing fully well from the outcome of the scholars’ debate that an informed opinion could only favour the old consensus (now known as the “Hindu claim”). In normal circumstances, it is not a court's business to pronounce on matters of history, but then whom else could you trust to give a fair opinion when the professional historians were being so brazenly partisan?

The Supreme Court sent the matter on, or back, to the Allahabad High Court, which, after sitting on the Ayodhya case since 1950, at long last got serious about finding out the true story. It ordered a ground-penetrating radar search and the most thorough excavations. In this effort, carried out in 2003, the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) employed a large number of Muslims in order to preempt the predictable allegation of acting as a Hindu nationalist front. The findings confirmed those of the excavations in the 1950s, 1970s and 1992: a very large Hindu religious building stood at the site before the Babri Masjid. The Allahabad High Court has now accepted these findings by India's apex archaeological body. But not everyone is willing to abide by the verdict.

In particular, the eminent historians are up in arms. In a guest column in The Hindu (2 Oct. 2010: “The verdict on Ayodhya, a historian’s opinion”), , Prof. Romila Thapar claims that the ASI findings had been "disputed". Oh well, it is true that some of her school had thought up the most hilariously contrived objections, which I held against the light in my booklet Ayodhya, the Finale: Science vs. Secularism in the Excavations Debate. . Thus, it was said that the presence of pillar-bases doesn’t imply that pillars were built on it; you see, some people plant pillar bases here and there once in a while, without any ulterior motive of putting them to some good use. And it was alleged that the finding of some animal bones in one layer precludes the existence of a temple (and somehow annuls the tangible testimony of the vast foundation complex and the numerous religious artefacts); and more such hare-brained reasoning. The picture emerging from all this clutching at straws was clear enough: there is no such thing as a refutation of the overwhelming ASI evidence, just as there was no refutation of the archaeological and documentary evidence presented earlier.

Today, I feel sorry for the eminent historians. They have identified very publicly with the denial of the Ayodhya evidence. While politically expedient, and while going unchallenged in the academically most consequential forums for twenty years, that position has now been officially declared false. It suddenly dawns on them that they have tied their names to an entreprise unlikely to earn them glory in the long run. We may now expect frantic attempts to intimidate the Supreme Court into annulling the Allahabad verdict, starting with the ongoing signature campaign against the learned Judges’ finding; and possibly it will succeed. But it is unlikely that future generations, unburdened with the presently prevailing power equation that made this history denial profitable, will play along and keep on disregarding the massive body of historical evidence. With the Ayodhya verdict, the eminent historians are catching a glimpse of what they will look like when they stand before Allah’s throne on Judgment Day.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

The origins of Hatha Yoga

To whom does the discipline and doctrine, or "science", of yoga belong? Now that American entrepreneurial yoga experimenters try to patent their own versions of some yoga techniques, Indian private and public agencies try to counter this trend and retain yoga as a common heritage that, in spite of ancient traditions of private and confidential teaching, is now in the public domain. The debate about these trends and counter-initiatives raises the fundamental question: who invented yoga? Or at least: when and where did it originate?

According to V.K. Gupta, head of the digital library for yoga data set up by the Indian ministries of Health and Science, "Yoga is collective knowledge and is available for use by everybody no matter what the interpretation. It would be very inappropriate if some companies try to prevent others from any yoga practice, even if they call it some other name. So we wanted to ensure that, in the future, nobody will be able to claim that he has created a yoga posture which was actually already created in 2500 B.C. in India."

In a scholarly forum where this was debated the last couple of days, pat came the counter-question: "What I'm wondering is, was yoga actually created in 2500 BCE? Patanjali is dated ca. last century BCE or within first two of CE. Did the texts he compiled go back that far?"

In fact, we know little about the yoga author Patanjali. We know of Patanjali the grammarian and have good reason to date him to the 2nd century BC. Apart from the name, we have no solid reason for assuming that he was the author of the famous Yoga Sûtra as well. Possibly an anonymous author tried to give his own book a wider readership by attributing it to an ancient authority, just as was done with e.g. the Manu Smrti, completed in the early Christian age but attributed to the pre-Vedic patriarch Manu. So, never mind the person Patanjali, let us discuss the chronology of "his" Yoga Sutra instead. Opinions vary, but the final editing of the book may be as late as 500 CE, all while containing much older materials.

A more technical discussion of the book's chronology could lead us pretty far from the original question, and for the present purposes we are fortunate to be justified in foregoing the effort. The reason is that it contains none of the techniques currently claimed by fashionable gurus and yogic entrepreneurs. After all, the yoga being marketed and "developed" in the West nowadays is 99% hatha yoga, which is practically absent from the Yoga Sutra.

What "Patanjali" teaches is a method for stilling the mind, along with the concomitant doctrine of why this practice is desirable and beneficial. His topic is meditation, and accessorily the lifestyle conducive to a fruitful meditation practice. It contains a very general outline of pranayama, breath control, a practice already mentioned prominently but only sketchily in Vedic literature, principally the Upanishads. Pranayama is definitely a very ancient practice and doctrine, though many of the specific breathing techniques now taught in yoga studios seem not have been described in the old scriptures, to the extent that we understand their sometimes cryptic language. The description of these specific techniques is found in the Hatha Yoga classics which do not predate the 13th century: the Gheranda Samhita, the Shiva Samhita and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

There too, a number of asana-s or postures is described, though important ones now popular in the Western (and westernized-Indian) yoga circuit, particularly standing ones, are still not in evidence even in these more recent texts. In the Yoga Sutra, they are totally absent. Patanjali merely defines Asana, "seat", as "comfortable but stable". In ancient times, a "yogi" might be someone who, as per Patanjali, practised stillness of mind; or he might be someone developing paranormal powers through concentration exercises, hence a magician. But the term "yoga" did not connote physical contortions.

Yet, the claim that yoga dates back to "2500 BC" pertains precisely to the visual depiction of a well-known yogic posture. It very obviously refers to the Harappan "Pashupati seal" showing someone (claimed to be Shiva Pashupati, "Lord of Beasts", as he is surrounded by animals) sitting in siddhâsana, which simply means sitting on the floor with the legs crossed and knees touching the floor. This leg position takes some training for people in a colder climate, and Westerners only encounter it in yoga classes; but it comes naturally to people in a hot climate. In India you constantly come across tailors sitting in that posture for their work. So, though this posture is found to be conducive to keeping the spine straight and freeing the body from stresses hindering meditation, there is nothing exclusively yogic about it.

I don't think any other asana postures except those for simply sitting up straight have been recorded before the late-medieval Gheranda Samhita, Hatha Yoga Pradipika and such. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna calls on Arjuna to "become a yogi", but he gives no instructions in postures or breathing exercises. Libertines practising the whole range of Kama Sutra postures got more exercise in physical strength and agility than the yogis of their age, who merely sat up straight and forgot about their bodies.

Geoffrey Samuel (History of Yoga and Tantra, 2008) argues convincingly that kundalini yoga and the whole system of chakra lore, definitely not older than the 5th century CE, is a highly indianized adaptation of Chinese "inner alchemy" including the "small celestial orbit" and some of its sexual techniques. Its core practice is the controlled circulation of energy, and the hatha yoga postures seem to have evolved out of the effort to facilitate this energy circulation through contribed postures. Much of "Tantra" is a Chinese import that has been so thoroughly indianized, e.g. by personifying various energy centres as "gods", that Indians and Westerners haven't even noticed its newness vis-à-vis Vedic or otherwise anciently Indian tradition.

To Samuel's argument, some more data from a comparison of practices may be added, e.g. "negative breathing" (in which the belly is not extended but drawn in during in-breathing, with the breath being drawn up so as to create an upward energy dynamic), and the whole Daoist-originated idea that yoga invigorates and lengthens life. The actual hatha-yogic postures are very different from Daoist exercises in some technical respects, such as Indian muscle-stretching straightness vs. Chinese avoidance of all full stretching, again seemingly traceable to the difference in climate. According to Chinese tradition, daoyin exercises, attested BCE, were devised to make the joints supple in an arthritis-prone cold/wet environment. (These exercises also were an influence on modern Swedish gymnastics.) Maintaining a fixed posture for a length of time, typical of hatha yoga, may seem to contrast with the continuous movement in taijiquan (13th or arguably even 19th cent.), but is in fact also found in qigong postures called an. That Chinese postures are mostly standing, Indian postures mostly on the floor, is again explainable by the difference in climate.

For devotees of antiquity and tradition it may be disappointing that their tradition is so recent. But conversely, one may applaud hatha yoga (and taijiquan etc.) as fruits of a long history of discovery and gradual progress. There is enough evidence by now for the health-enhacing effects of hatha yoga regardless of how old the discipline is. If it is only recent, it means that we now dispose of a system of health unavailable to the ancients. That is called progress, the opposite of "tradition", meaning the preservation of an ancient treasure that can never be bettered.

Likewise, the Chinese "gentle" types of martial arts, also often lauded as very ancient, must logically be younger developments from the natural, primitive "hard" martial arts. This is necessarily so, for they are far more sophisticated, taking a cumulative effort in their development and requiring a greater mastery through training before they become effective in combat. So, the Oriental disciplines that speak to the contemporary Western imagination the most, are necessarily less ancient than cruder practices that don't have the fascinating Oriental aura. By Asian standards of chronology, they are pretty recent.

As late as the 19th century, novelties were added to the array of hatha yoga techniques, partly under the influences of British military drill. Particularly the standing techniques are mostly late additions. Consider hatha yoga a modern innovation.

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Saturday, July 17, 2010

The monkey under Patañjali’s yoke

While numerous Asian philosophical texts remain untranslated, a few suffer from a surplus of translations: the Bhagavad-Gītā, the Yijing, the Daodejing, and also Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra (YS). Why did Christopher Key Chapple, the Doshi professor of Indic and Comparative Theology at Loyola Marymount University and an experienced practitioner of yoga, consider it necessary to add one more presentation of the Pātañjala Yoga system?

Yoga and the Luminous: Patañjali’s Spiritual Path to Freedom, by Christopher Key Chapple, State University of New York Press, Albany 2008, 301 pp.

The most important new service the author renders to yoga practitioners and students of India’s intellectual history is a thorough cross-referencing of Patañjali’s concepts with the Rg-Veda (embryonic), the contemporaneous systems of Sānkhya, Buddhism, Jainism, the younger systems of the Nāth Yogis and Sikhs, and the westernized yoga teachings propagated by travelling Gurus. Patañjali really gets his specific place in the Indian network of ideas here. His was “a masterful contribution, communicated through non-judgmentally presenting diverse practices” and “a methodology rooted in ahimsā” (p.113). He and his commentators pioneered the “thoughtful, probing study of the religion of one’s neighbours” and showed that “syncretism can be an effective tool for societal peace” (p.15). Most centrally, he “compiled a host of techniques to facilitate” the attainment of “the power of pure witnessing”, rooted in the self which “sees change but does not itself change” (p.62). Yet note that Chapple also warns us “not to take the self as a static state”, not to “reify” it: the self is “an experience”, “a state of silent absorption” (p.3).

Another obvious merit of his book Yoga and the Luminous is the core part, the detailed translation with grammatical analysis of the text (reproduced in Devanagari and transcription), indologically impeccable but pleasantly readable for the educated layman. It is always a reviewer’s pleasure if he can sincerely and wholeheartedly recommend the book he just read, and that is the case here. There is one point, though, where I want to take issue with Chapple’s understanding of the YS, and it is at the conceptual centre, though in the text it is at the very beginning.

In Laozi’s Daodejing, the most controversial line among competent translators is the very first, Dao ke dao fei chang dao, popularly rendered as “The way that can be said, is not the eternal way”. This is grammatically untenable but appeals greatly to the anti-intellectual slant which Western readers tend to read into Daoism. The misreading had a history in China ever since the word dao acquired the extra meaning of “addressing thus, saying”. A similar slant bedevils the usual interpretation of the Yoga Sūtra’s key term yoga. In this case too, the misreading appeals to intellectual fashions in the West, but started in the country of origin, where it won the day, so that most modern Hindus accept it.

The proper and intended meaning of yoga in Patañjali’s system is the one suggested by its English cognate “yoke”, viz. “subjection, disciplining, control, restraint”. His definition of yoga as citta-vrtti-nirodhah, “the restraint of the fluctuations of the mind” (YS 1:2, tra. p.143) concerns the subjection of the mind’s tendency to monkey around and get attached to its objects. Silencing the mind is presented as a psycho-technical discipline, without direct metaphysical claims.

Unfortunately, in his word-for-word explanation, Chapple forgets his own translation of this definition and explains yoga as “union, connection, joining” (p.143), without problematizing this common interpretation. With this, I must find fault, even if it is the majority view by far. What “union” is this, between what and what? Modern Hindus will say: “between ātman and paramātman”, or more colloquially, “between the soul and God”. That would approximately be the right answer in the case of Bhakti or Sufi mysticism, but is Patañjali’s yoga system a similar theistic mysticism? I think not. Nor does Chapple say it is, but he could have addressed the question more explicitly, and his mere use of the word “union” will confirm Hindus in their theistic understanding.

Patañjali wrote when theism was at a low ebb. In modern self-presentations of Hinduism, you would not know that it was ever anything else than devotional-theistic. At some point, a theistic coup d’état has eclipsed the godless schools of thought and written them out of the record. The Gītā is a blatant instance, with Krishna imposing his presence as object of devotion on chapters named after (and giving an otherwise fair summary of) godless philosophies like Sānkhya. Some have argued that the YS started with a godless core and had theistic elements added later on, to the point that Hindus came to call it Seśvara Sānkhya, i.e. “Sānkhya-with-God”. This is plausible, but the reconstruction of a text’s editorial history is notoriously susceptible to speculative excess, so let us cautiously focus on another and unmistakably operative method of theistic incorporation, viz. leaving the text intact but reinterpreting key terms.

Thus, “Īśvara” is defined merely as “a distinct purusa untouched by afflictions, actions, fruitions or their residue” in YS 1:24, but has been assigned the exclusive meaning of “God/Shiva”, nowadays assumed in the expression “Īśvarapranidhāna” (YS 1:23, 2:1, 2:32, 2:45). It is on the basis of little else than this expression’s repeated appearance that the YS is classified among the theistic systems. Even if it means “devotion to God”, that still does not make Yoga theistic, for God still plays no role in the definition and structure of the system, only the devotion itself is credited with playing a helpful role in the yogi’s progress. Nowhere does Patañjali say that “union” is sought with God nor with anything else. On the contrary, the stated goal of his system is kaivalya, “isolation, separation”, the very opposite of “union”, and equivalent with the notion kevala of the atheistic Jaina system. Patañjali accommodates the devotee yet avoids burdening the unbeliever with a requirement to believe.

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Friday, July 2, 2010

Guru Nanak was a Hindu

In contemporary devotional pictures and posters of Guru Nanak (1469-1539), as seen in taxis and shops, the Guru is invariably shown as wearing a pagari or turban, like his pupils (Sikh-s) today. But this is a recently-imposed convention, not followed in his own day and in subsequent centuries.

In traditional paintings, the Gurus never wore turbans, a custom that even according to Sikh teaching itself was only instituted by the tenth and last Guru, Govind Singh, in 1699. All the Gurus are typically shown as wearing a topi (Hindu-style cap) and patka (sash). We discuss one instance.

K.C. Aryan (born 11 August 1919, died 2002), a Partition refugee from West Panjab, was an accomplished painter. He founded the Museum for Tribal and Folk Art in Gurgaon, still functioning today. He saved plenty of old paintings, sculptures and other arts & crafts objects for posterity by collecting them in his museum or donating them to more established institutions.

In 1970, he presented to the publishing unit of Punjabi University Patiala a manuscript with illustrations for a book, 100 Years Survey of Panjab Painting (1841-1941). It was eventually published by the PUP in 1975, but only in mutilated form. The Senate Board of the University objected to the inclusion of one particular painting, and threatened that if it were published, the grant for the whole publishing unit would be stopped.

The contentious painting, executed by a Pahari painter in the mid-19th century (whose name, as often in folk art, remains unknown), shows a topi-wearing Guru Nanak praying to Lord Vishnu. The Board took the Sikh-separatist line that that Sikhism has nothing to do with Hinduism, and that the Gurus are above the “Brahminical” gods. It is the same line that keeps the Sikh establishment from calling their central shrine, the Hari Mandir (“Vishnu temple”), by its proper name, hiding it behind the superficial designation “Golden Temple” or the Moghul term “Darbar Sahib”. It is also why in 1922 they threw out from the Hari Mandir the murti-s that had been worshipped there ever since Arjan Dev inaugurated it in 1604. Sikh identity as a separate religion, rather than as one of the many panth-s in the Hindu commonwealth, is based on a denial of history, and this requires a constant censoring of unwilling historical data: names changed, scriptures doctored, murti-s thrown away, the publication of a painting suppressed.

K.C. Aryan donated the painting in ca. 1982 to the Himachal State Museum in Shimla. There, it is significantly not on display but kept in storage. That is, if it has not been lost or illegally sold by some babu unconcerned with art and heritage; or somehow eliminated by one with Khalistani.leanings eager to destroy the evidence for an inconvenient fact: that Guru Nanak was every inch a Hindu.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The incurable Hindu fondness for PN Oak

Countless Hindus nowadays swear by the historical and linguistic theses of journalist and self-styled historian PN Oak. Twenty years ago, I expected his star to wane and get eclipsed by more sensible voices of Hindu historical revisionism, but the opposite has happened. In NRI/PIO circles, at least, he seems to enjoy a lasting popularity. What a pity.

Purushottam Nagesh Oak (1917-2007) was a soldier in Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army. That much should endear him to Hindus, fair enough. But he is better known and revered for his theories on history and etymology. And these are best put aside and forgotten, instead of being parroted by Hindus on ever larger forums.

In the main, three lines of argument have been pioneered or promoted by P.N. Oak. One is that the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort and a few other well-known Indo-Muslim buildings were really Hindu temples, not built but only usurped by the Muslims. The second is that Vikramaditya (1st cent. BCE) ruled Arabia, a claim that is then linked with the more widespread belief that the Kaaba was originally a Hindu temple featuring a Shiva Lingam. The third is that names of places and people around the globe are of Sanskrit origin and thus testify to the omnipresence and omnipotence of the ancient Hindus. All three are fanciful and totally unfounded. We will consider them in reverse order.

Donkey etymology

Etymology is the science of the original, or at least oldest traceable, forms of words. It is a tricky field and requires knowledge of older stages of a language and of related languages. You may find that seemingly similar words are unrelated while totally dissimilar words may prove to be related.

Consider e.g. the French word feu and the German word Feuer, quite similar in appearance. Moreover, they are identical in meaning, viz. “fire”. So are they cognate words? No, Germanic f- is evolved from Indo-European p-, and Feuer is related to Greek pur, meaning “fire”, whence English pyromaniac and (funeral) pyre, ultimately from IE *péhur. By contrast, French f- generally preserves an Latin f-, which in most cases evolved from IE th/dh- (compare Latin fumus, “smoke”, to Greek thumos, “spirit”, and Sanskrit dhumah, “smoke”). In this case, feu is from focus, “hearth”, and fovere, “burn” (related to Sanskrit dahati), ultimately from IE *dhegh, “burn”. (The forms marked with asterisk* are not attested in writing but reconstructed from younger attested forms.)

Or consider e.g. the English words let. Yes, word-s, for there are two identical-looking words let. Here we don’t need to move up as far as the dim Indo-European past to find their seeming identity deceptive. One is the verb meaning “to allow”, “not to prevent”. The other is less common but known in the expression “without let or hindrance”, where let is a synonym of “hindrance”, meaning “prevent”, “block”, or the very opposite of the other let in the sense of “allow”. How can that be? It becomes clear when we look back only a thousand years, to Old English, or even closer, to its nearest cognate, Dutch. In Dutch till today we have on the one hand the verb lat-en, “let, allow” and on the other the verb be-let-ten, “prevent” and the noun be-let, “hindrance, objection”. In English the distinction between the sounds of the two stems has eroded and they have ended up coinciding. The identical form conceals different origins.

This caveat against trusting appearances is systematically violated by P.N. Oak. To him, similarity proves a common origin. And that common origin is always a one-way street: any word resembling a Sanskrit word must have been borrowed from Sanskrit, never the other way around. Some fifteen years ago, I received a letter from him in which he proposed to collaborate. That proposal made no sense to me as we were working along very different lines and from radically conflicting premises, I suppose he hadn’t even noticed that. There is only one version of history approved by the Nehruvians, with which both of us disagree, but there are many alternatives, some sound and others nonsensical. In passing, he claimed that my native tongue, Dutch, is “the language of the Daityas”. A dubious compliment, for the Daitya-s are demons, kind of opposite to the Aditya-s or gods.

Similar etymological claims have been made by Oak and his acolytes in large numbers. Thus, England, named in reality after the Germanic tribe of the Angles (whence East-Anglia, Anglo-Saxon), is explained as originating from Angulisthan, which happens to mean “finger-land”. Arabia is derived from Arvasthan, “horse-land”. In fact, the name has a Semitic root attested since the Akkadian empire in the 3rd millennium BCE. Horses have nothing to do with Arabia but originate in the Eurasian plain, stretching northwest from Bactria, thousands of miles from Arabia, where they were imported only in the 2nd millennium BC. Rome is said to be derived from Rama, and Vatican (actually from vates, “inspired poet”, cognate to the Germanic theonym Woden/Odin, hence "poets' hill") from Veda-vatika, “Veda park”, incidentally “proving” that Christianity is an offshoot of Vedic dharma. In cases where a foreign name coincides completely with a Sanskrit word, such as the Amerindian ethnonym Maya and Shankara’s philosophical concept maya, there is simply no stopping the euphoric eureka-s in the Oakist camp.

I will not take the easy route of amusing the readers with a long list of Oakisms. Let us only note that this line of thought has caught on in broad Hindu circles. A textbook introducing Hinduism to UK schoolchildren, Hindu Dharma (at least the first edition, perhaps it has been corrected since) claims that the Tibetan title Lama, “ordained monk”, is derived from Rama, the hero’s name. Firstly, this is not true: Lama is pure Tibetan, belonging to the Sino-Tibetan language family, unrelated to Indo-Aryan. The word was originally pronounced, and still written in Tibetan as, bla-ma, of which the first syllable means “upper”, as in bla-dakh, “high mountain-pass”, better known as Ladakh. Secondly, how would it make sense? Why should a community of celibate renunciates name itself after a romantic warrior-prince? Likewise, what is gained by deriving foreign names from Sanskrit? Proving that the ancient Hindus were big losers who once dominated the world and were then chased from all those lands except for India? It seems that a lot of Hindus, when glimpsing a mirage that flatters their collective ego, suspend their critical sense and go ecstatic.

King Vikram and the Arab ghost

On quite a few Hindu websites, you find the claim that king Vikramaditya, presumably the one whose name is linked to the Vikram Samvat calendar (starting 58 BCE, so that 2010 CE roughly coincides with 2067 VS), ruled over Arabia. One can understand where the idea originates: in confusion over genuine data, viz. his proverbial defeat of the Yavana (“Ionian”, i.e. stemming from the lands to India’s northwest) or Shaka (“Scythian”) invaders. “Defeat” can be read as “conquest”, hence conquest of their homelands, hence conquest of all the lands who armies have been labelled by the Indian defenders as Yavanas or Shakas, i.e. Central and West Asia. This could be reckoned as including even Ionia (the formerly Greek west coast of Anatolia) and definitely Arabia, land of origin of invaders like Mohammed bin Qasim, and of the religion of India’s numerous Turkic and Afghan invaders.

So, the shift from Vikram as defeater of northwestern invaders to Vikram as conqueror of the lands to the northwest is understandable. But it is unfounded all the same. There was plenty of literature in West Asia in Vikramaditya’s time, in Greek, Latin, Egyptian and various Semitic dialects, yet none ever mentions Vikramaditya. Conversely, in what little reliable historical testimony of Vikramaditya that we have, we find no recognizable description of Arabia nor a narrative of its conquest.

But, according to those Hindu websites, there is an Arabic record of Vikramaditya’s glorious presence in Arabia, the Sayar-ul-Okul, “memorable words”, said to be available in the Maktab-al-Sultania (Royal library) in Istanbul. But none of them has ever cared to go and see the book. And all of these references can be traced to P.N. Oak, apparently the only person in the world who has ever seen this spectacularly revisionist source of history. This reminds us of the manuscript purportedly left by Jesus in a Ladakhi monastery, where a late-19th-century Russian adventurer claimed to have seen it, without ever being confirmed in this finding by a second eyewitness, yet successful in setting millions of Hindus and New-Agers jubilating that “Jesus lived in India”, thereby only strengthening the missionary claim on India and on Hindu souls. For neither claim is there the slightest serious evidence. Believers who take Oak’s bait do so at their own peril: they take the risk of being outed as fools.

As for the Kaaba being a Shiva temple, this is untrue but it has a serious kernel of truth. Typologically it was of course Pagan “idol” temple. Muslims recognized Hinduism as essentially the same kind of idol-worship as the native Arab religion. The Kaaba’s presiding deity was the moon-god Hubal, similar to Shiva in that the latter is depicted as carrying the moon on his head. His three goddesses Al-Lat, Uzza and Manat, were believed by the Muslims to have taken refuge in the Somnath (Shiva) temple on the Gujarat coast. This is the reason why more than any other, that particular Hindu temple was singled out for destruction upon destruction.

Paganism has thrown up similar deities in widely separated parts of the globe. The Arabs could easily think up a moon god and a triple goddess without ever having heard of Shiva and his Parvati, Durga and Kali. And if at all there was a Hindu influence at work here, it can easily be explained through the well-attested trade contacts rather than through a fairy-tale of King Vikram.

The Taj Mahal a Shiva temple?

In autumn 2009, one Dr. Radheshyam Brahmachari posted an article series, “Distortion of Indian History For Muslim Appeasement” to various Hindutva lists and to the vanguard Islam-critical website, e.g.
(where it seems to have been pulled sometime since, probably under the impact of the kind of criticism that I will now formulate). The message he develops is entirely based on PN Oak’s influential thesis that the Taj Mahal is a Shiva temple usurped by the Moghuls. Other mighty instances of Indo-Muslim architecture including the Red Fort are likewise claimed to be originally Hindu structures.

In fact, Hindu tradition has handbooks on temple-building, and none contain the groundplan and features of the Taj Mahal. Nor is there any Hindu temple past or present that looks like the Taj Mahal even remotely. The building may well stand on the site of a Rajput pavilion expropriated by or gifted to the Moghul, but it never ever was a Shiva temple.

In defence of his thesis, Brahmachari challenges the sceptics to explain one particular inscription dedicating an unspecified marble temple in the area to Vishnu. It is not clear from the inscription as given by him that one of the temples stood at the very site of the Taj Mahal. According to his own data, at any rate, the inscription is from ca. 1150 AD. That is well before the destruction of just about every temple in North India by Ghori and Aibak in 1192-94 and by their successors in the Delhi Sultanate. Especially in Agra, lying on the main route of Muslim advance and a sometime Muslim capital, no sizable temple could have been left standing in that orgy of iconoclasm. So there is some 500 years between the destruction of the said marble temples and the appearance of the Taj Mahal.

At any rate, even if standing on a Hindu site, the Taj Mahal is absolutely no Hindu building. It entirely follows the conventions of Indo-Saracenic architecture, with domes and arches borrowed by the first Muslims in West-Asia from the Byzantines, with no Hindu connection in sight anywhere. As a grave, too, it is wildly contrary to Hindu sensibilities. Only accomplished (jivanmukta) sages are buried, other human bodies are cremated or, in related (Parsi, Tibetan) traditions, left to disintegrate under the impact of animals and the elements. The idea of keeping decomposing human bodies close to human centres of habitation in graveyards is repulsive to the Hindu mind. It is a sign of Hindus’ estrangements from their roots that they insist on claiming this un-Hindu site, probably because (Brahmachari writes as much) it is applauded world-wide. Well, proud Hindus don’t care for the poor taste of Western tourists and may point out that the Taj Mahal is bland and vulgar when compared with Ajanta and Ellora, the Meenakshi temple or the Elephanta caves.

The typical Oakist argument exemplifies some flaws in the Hindu nationalist mind. In his very first sentence of his Taj article, Brahmachari falsely claims that three Western authorities have confirmed that the Taj was built in the Hindu temple style. None of them, however, is quoted as explicitly saying so. I won’t accuse Brahmachari of lying; the far more common source of untrue claims is self-delusion. Misreading bonafide documents, like a child misunderstanding a text by and for grown-ups, is probably the most common source of Hindutva misconceptions. Every reader who checks with the original, or who even only knows the field in general, will see through these false claims, the main exception being some even sillier fellow Hindus egged on by their eagerness to find some soothing delusion to indulge. At any rate, if a Westerner or anyone else can believe that the Taj is in the Hindu temple style, he clearly has never seen a temple. And hence is not an "authority".

The appeal to authority is one particularly harmful Hindutva trait. Rather than thinking for themselves, Hindutva polemicists prefer to latch onto some all-knowing Guru and unwisely expect everybody else to be equally taken in by this mindless reliance on authority. It's like in the crisis in the BJP, where most arguments are not about: "What line should we, the BJP membership, take?", but rather: "Which big man can come and save us from this mess?"

Dr. Brahmachari’s and Mr. Oak’s own writings exemplify yet another eyesore trait of Hindutva polemic. When a Hindutva history-rewriter uses logical connectors like "this proves", "therefore", "this provides another evidence for...", you'd better watch out. Invariably, a non-sequitur or other logical fallacy is following.

In the Oakist case for the Red Fort as a Hindu building, we get the following instance, among others. The whole case is built on the presence of Hindu motifs in the Red Fort. Part of this claim is simply false. The so-called Aum sign next to the sun wheel in the gate is just a flourish, distinctly different from the real, Aum sign (e.g. vertically symmetrical, which the OM sign is not). But even to the extent that the claim is true, it doesn’t prove what Oak deduces from it. Firstly, the building was built by a Muslim ruler, in the sense that he ordered it built, but in actual stone it was built by Hindu masons, who slipped a few Hindu elements in. There are numerous instances of this in Moghul architecture. But they couldn't go too far, so you don't see any Hindu deities depicted, or emphatically Hindu symbols. The presence of elephants, cited as distinctly un-Islamic, is a borderline case in Muslim sensitivities, but not off-limits and in fact fairly common in Moghul Indo-Saracenic art (indeed, even humans are routinely depicted, at least in the Moghul school of painting).

Secondly, a certain amount of Hindu presence was a deliberate part of Muslim building policy. Theologically, it made good sense to Muslims to incorporate recognizably Hindu (but non-deity) elements in their architecture as a sign of the submission of Hindus to Islam, vide e.g. the parts of the Kashi Vishvanath temple visibly present in the mosque that forcibly replaced it. Orthodox theologians like the Wahhabis did indeed reject this syncretism, and took it as a sign of the Islamic laxism that in their view caused the downfall of the Moghuls,--- thereby implicitly testifying to the presence of non-Islamic elements in Moghul art. So, even if some Hindu elements could be discerned in the Red Fort, it still does not deny its belonging to the Indo-Muslim building style.


In my close involvement with the Ayodhya debate, I noticed how excellent Hindu historians and archaeologists were very successful at finding evidence, but rather poor in presenting a coherent picture of where exactly their findings fit into the argumentation (a job with which I busied myself). If that is true for real historians, it is all the more true for amateurs like Oak and Brahmachari. For even if their case that the Red Fort was built by a Hindu rather than a Muslim ruler were true, what would it prove? That even when in possession of such a mighty stronghold, the Hindus were too incompetent to retain Delhi in the face of aggression by the militarily far less sophisticated Muslims? That Muslims were incapable of building forts of their own, though the Muslim world inside and outside the subcontinent has quite a few? PN Oak and his followers are not only unable to prove their points, they are also totally confused about why perforce they should want to prove those specific points.

This self-defeating Quixotic exercise can only compromise the credibility of its authors, and of all those trusting enough to convey it. That is why it is grimly irresponsible to contaminate with this nonsense a spearhead website in the struggle for the hearts and minds, That website was created by ex-Muslims who try to help Muslims break free from the mental prison of Islam. Its only weapon is the truth, factual data presented in a scholarly manner, the light of reason that alone is able to defeat Islamic obscurantism. The enemy will love it if such a centre of truth gets tainted with the eager but silly delusions peddled by the Oakist crowd. If Dr. Brahmachari were perchance an enemy agent, he would do exactly what he has actually done in this case. Hare-brained Hindutva polemicists are ten a penny, but one who is in a position to drag down with himself a quality entreprise, that's exceptional.

The popularity of PN Oak’s theses is a sign of gross immaturity among contemporary Hindu activists. It indicates confusion regarding the facts of religious conflict in Indian history, along with a narcissistic greed, a morbid desire to lay ludicrous ownership claims to all manner of precious objects produced by outsiders (as if Hindu Dharma’s genuine achievements weren’t enough to be proud of). In that respect, it is of one piece with claims that Hindus in Rama’s age already used helicopters. But helicopters would at least be a more progressive and scientific achievement to show off than a mere grave, no matter how embellished. No, the best thing to do here is to take the advice of genuine Hindu historians like R.C. Majumdar and Sita Ram Goel, which is to ignore the P.N. Oak school of history. Let it pass gently into the night.

(The author welcomes reactions, here or at, and may consider a sequel if warranted by the feedback.)

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Friday, June 11, 2010

Extremism in South Asia (Review)

Extremism in South Asia includes armed class struggle, armed secular nationalism, and religious militancy ranging from street riots to organized terrorism and state repression against dissidents and minorities. The willingness to resort to violent means seems a natural enough criterion for separating extremist from moderate politics. The criterion is at any rate implicit in Deepa Ollapally’s book The Politics of Extremism in South Asia, which gives only passing attention to non-violent instances, such as school textbooks inculcating hatred for other communities or nations, or institutionalised discrimination against them. The book is less a study in underlying ideologies than in actual politics and armed conflict.

Dr. Ollapally is Associate Director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University, Washington DC. While doubtlessly interesting to students of South Asian religions, her book’s principal target audience seems to be the makers of international and security policies. The main armed conflicts of the past decade in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Kashmir, India’s Northeast, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are reviewed. The prehistory of these conflicts is sketched only very briefly, e.g. the Pakistani repression (of “particular ferocity”) in East Bengal that triggered the war of 1971 and the creation of Bangladesh is dealt with in a footnote (p.188 n.35); while the Sikh separatist movement for “Khalistan” that died down in the early 1990s is not discussed at all.

By contrast, the recent story of the extremist movements is recounted in detail. This survey of factual data approaches the norm of impartiality better than most. Sometimes the author takes issue with colleagues whom she deems less unbiased, e.g. against the attempt to portray India as an overbearing “hegemonic” power (common in the US since the Bangladesh war), she points out India’s restraint during its invited participation in the Sri Lankan conflict and argues: “Barbara Crossette calls India ‘the regional meddler’, a loaded term at best, but it reveals a certain amount of confusion on the part of outside observers.” (p.164)

For each country and instance of actual extremism, she enquires which one of the current explanation models applies best. Is extremism a reaction to poverty, or to state repression, or is it the result of religious doctrines, or of state initiative? Predictably, she downplays the religious factor. No clash of civilizations here, but the primacy of states as political agents. This happens to be the position of most academics and of most governments involved, including the latest American presidents with their insistence that terrorism, though committed in the name of religion, has nothing whatsoever to do with religion. In recent years, Western authorities have zealously adopted the mantra familiar in India, where every communal riot or bomb attack is followed by assurances from every pulpit that “terrorists have no religion”.

While conformistic, the de-emphasizing of pre-existing religious identities as factors of conflict can reasonably be justified on merit. The role of religion turns out to be secondary in some cases, and often asymmetrical between the parties to a conflict. Thus, in Sri Lanka the Buddhist clergy gradually involved itself in the nationalist Sinhalese movement and gave the conflict a religious character, on their part anti-Hindu (with occasional vandalization of Hindu temples) and often also anti-Christian. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam concentrated on strategic rather than symbolic targets and maintained a secular stance. Though the international media often created a muddle by speaking of a struggle between “Buddhist Sinhalese” and “Hindu Tamils”, the LTTE had a Christian component, while its roots lay in the emphatically secular Dravidianist movement.

A more novel focus of this book concerns the importance of a country’s “geopolitical identity”. Thus, while Pakistan draws its identity from the Partition, and has since enjoyed a certain prestige in the Muslim world as a frontline state of Islam, Bangladesh found a new and less predetermined identity in the 1971 war of liberation. Geopolitical identity largely determines the attitude of the outside world to the internal conflicts of South-Asian countries, e.g. in reporting on the condition of the minorities, secular and democratic India is measured with a different yardstick than Islamic Pakistan. International concern for the minorities, as for the Lankan Tamils in the final phase of the war, is not always innocent: the author notes that colonialism in its last phase justified itself no longer as an instrument to “civilize the savages” but to “protect the minorities” (p.40). The reader can take the hint that neocolonial interferences in South Asia, often through NGOs, use the same justification.

Review: The Politics of Extremism in South Asia. By DEEPA M. OLLAPALLY. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xi, 239 pp.

The Journal of Asian Studies (Cambridge), volume 69, issue 02, pp. 637-639.

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Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Far Right and the dissolution of Belgium

Foreign press correspondents in Brussels are telling their readers and viewers in the home country that the Flemish Far Right is clamouring for the divorce between Flanders and Wallonia. This is true in itself, but by obscuring the non-Right support for this demand and the non-Flemish Far-Right support for Belgian unity, it falsely suggests a natural and intrinsic connection between separatism and the Far Right.

Foreign press correspondents posted in Brussels to cover EU affairs, are once again showing how clueless they are about the internal politics of the federal Kingdom of Belgium. Faithfully copying the anti-Flemish hate daily Le Soir, they claim that the divorce between Flanders and Wallonia, once more on the horizon after the ignominious demise of the Prime Minister Yves Leterme's Federal Government, is a demand of the Flemish Far Right. In fact, the demand has far wider support, and conversely a part of the Belgian Far Right is the most militant supporter of Belgian unity.

The title in today's French News, "Far-right party calls for dissolution of Belgium", could easily be read as suggesting that there is something far-right about wanting the dissolution of Belgium. The party intended, the Vlaams Belang ("Flemish Interest"), has had Flemish independence as its the central plank in its platform since its foundation (as Vlaams Blok, "Flemish Bloc") in 1978. In that sense, the article's message is not exactly "news". But there is also a centrist party, the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA, New-Flemish Alliance), that advocates Flemish independence, for which its president Bart De Wever is the best-known and most effective pleader. Till recently there was also a leftist party, the Vlaams-Progressieven ("Flemish-Progressives", now split, with the defectors joining the Socialist Parrty and the rump uniting with the Green Party) that wanted more radical Flemish autonomy though not outright independence. There still is a sizable non-party leftist movement, centred around the monthly Meervoud, that pulls no punches in advocating full independence.

Conversely, on the Walloon side, the Far Right is the most consistent in its opposition to the dissolution of Belgium. This is true of the main party, the Belgian Front National, as well as of its splinter parties and of non-party cores of far-rightist activism. There exists a separatist Walloon movement, with a highly fluctuating appeal among the general population, rarely aiming for independence and mostly for accession to France (rattachement, hence "rattachisme"), but this tendency is centrist or leftist. The Far Right strongly clings to the union with Flandres inside the Belgian Kingdom.

To put their position in perspective, it is necessary to understand the position of the Walloon or Belgian French-speaking mainstream. Belgium came about as an accident, a compromise imposed by Britain which opposed French expansion. The Belgian revolutionaries of 1830, some of whom were actually French, never wanted to create a separate new state, but wanted accession of all the wholly or partly or prospectively French-speaking parts of the Low Countries, since 1815 united in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, to France. On the Flemish side, only some Roman Catholic hard-liners wanted to break away from the Protestant-dominated Netherlands, the vast majority was satisfied enough with the status quo. So, nobody really wanted Belgium, it was only imposed by Britain (especially when Britain could arrange the choice of a king linked to the British monarchy) as the least harmful alternative to the break-away territory's accession to France, which the revolutionaries and their French allies were plotting.

A kind of Belgian identity was fostered by the second King, the notorious Leopold II, plunderer of the Congo. He not only gave the country a vast colony as a common project that could unite all entreprising Belgians, he also allowed some concessions to the oppressed Flemish because a Flemish component helped affirm the non-French identity of Belgium and hence its self-justification as a state separate from expansive France. The royal family had a genuine attachment to Belgium because it was their source of income, the Walloons were only won over by the enduring experience of being the dominant group in the new state, a position they wouldn't have held in France. Their love for Belgium was conditional on their privileges. That is why the calls for accession to France have become more outspoken as Wallonia became less dominant as a consequence of its economic decline.

At any rate, the mainstream Walloon parties take the option of accession to France into account even if it is not on their agenda right now. At present, they oppose the dissolution of Belgium because they want to extract all the profit they can get from the more successful Flemish economy through the Belgian state for as long as they can get away with it. At the same time, they are mentally fully prepared for Belgium's break-up and their own accession to their cultural motherland, France. Note that French TV stations are more popular among the Walloons than their own (let alone Flemish stations, which have nearly no Walloon viewer at all), and that French politics is followed and discussed with at least as much involvement as Belgian politics. Economically, the Walloon political class still prefer Belgium because it allows them to dole out goodies paid for with Flemish money, a lifestyle they would have to abandon under French rule. In the case of accession to France, the likely scenario is that France, eager enough to extend it territory and importance, would foot the bill for the Walloon share of the huge Belgian state debt, but only as a one-time bride-price, and that it would next enforce fiscal discipline, something unheard of among the present generation of Walloon politicians. So, they have monetary reasons to prefer Belgium, but otherwise wouldn't mind acceding to France.

The Walloon Far Right, by contrast, clings to the union with Flanders with a vengeance. One of the more intellectual reasons is that they care about history, and Wallonia has been united with the provinces to its north for centuries, under the Holy Roman and Habsburg empires, the Spanish and Dutch kingdoms, even under French revolutionary occupation, and of course in Belgium itself. Another historical factor is WW2, when Walloon collaborators with Nazi Germany joined the Waffen-SS with Belgian nationalist symbols including the Belgian flag and anthem, fighting side by side with Flemish volunteers who used Flemish nationalist symbols. The prime Belgian collaborator was of course the King, Leopold III, who was neither Flemish nor in favour of the country's break-up; even before German occupation, he had a very authoritarian view of politics and his own role in it. The number two was Léon Degrelle, leader of the Rex movement and of the Walloon unit in the Waffen-SS, again a non-Flemish pro-Belgian rightist.

So, rightist Belgian nationalism has a considerable historical pedigree. But the more pressing reason for Walloon opposition to the break-up of Belgium is immigration. Walloon rightists expect the Germanic nations to conduct a more realistic immigration policy. While the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark are not exactly very strict against immigration, at least they have gradually adopted a more serious policy of immigration control. In Belgium, most Flemish parties favour a more restrictive immigration policy, whereas the mainstream Walloon parties all favour what amounts to an open-borders policy. Part of the reason is typically Belgian (immigrants as a demographic weapon against the Flemish majority), but part of it seems to be a wider French phenomenon. Among Walloon rightists, the impression exists that France is irredeemably lost to religious (Muslim) and racial (African) population replacement. A Flemish-majority Belgium seems to be a slightly better safeguard for Wallonia against the demographic flood of immigration.

Therefore, the French-speaking Far Right in Belgium is passionately attached to the preservation of Belgium's unity. They see a Flemish-majority Belgium as their historical homeland and as a bulwark against the tide of immigration, highly imperfect but nonetheless far preferable to France. While there is only an accidental connection between rightism and Flemish separatism, a platform shared between rightist and non-rightist Flemings, there is in the present circumstances a sound logical reasons for Walloon rightists to cling to Belgian unity and oppose separatism.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Chinese philosophy of Change

Sometime soon, the annual Philosophy Day in the Netherlands is devoted to the theme "change". I responded to the call for papers with the following proposal. They turned it down, probably out of a persistent Eurocentric bias among our academic philosophers.

“Except for the fact that everything changes, everything changes.” It would be odd to discuss the phenomenon of Change among philosophers without mentioning the extant philosophy of Change, developed some 25 centuries ago in China. Given that country’s current breakthrough, time has come at last to take China’s central philosophy seriously. It has summed itself up in this nutshell: “One yin, one yang, that is called the Way.”

The world is subject to a polarity of yang (“bright”) and yin (“cloudy”), light and dark, heaven and earth, sun and moon, masculine and feminine, hard and soft, and change is the alternating predominance of either. The character yi, “change”, shows the sun piercing through the clouds. To soften the picture and make it more realistic in a not so black-and-white world of diversity, six intermediate power equations between them are also acknowledged. But still, any change can be analysed as an interplay between these two basic poles, as in the alternation of day and night, summer and winter.

It started with the Book of Changes (ca. 1100 BC), not yet a philosophy but a manual of divination, originated in a milieu of feudal patriarchal sun-worshippers who candidly considered the yang as superior, the yin as inferior. The horoscope as a representation of real-life situations needed its heroes and villains, its white knights and black monsters. This view is systematized in more moderate version by the Confucians in their great commentary, The Ten Wings (ca. 500-200 BC), and by the neo-Confucians (ca. 1100 CE). They re-employed the building blocks of the ancient divination system in a true philosophy of Change.

Meanwhile, Zou Yan (ca. 260 BC) and the Daoists (from 500 BC) revaluated the yin to appreciate its subtle qualities: how the soft can be stronger than the hard, how water quenches fire and erodes the rock. It is this version that has drawn attention in the modern world, esp. by its application in the martial arts. Popular mystifications attribute these sophisticated techniques that turn hard into soft, to “ancient sages”; but of course their very sophistication implies that they could only be developed gradually from a pre-existing simpler tradition of hard and straight fighting. Likewise, the proto-feminist philosophical twist upgrading the yin to a kind of equality with the yang was necessarily and demonstrably a later amendment to a pre-existing tradition that viewed the yang as positive, the yin as negative, unequal par excellence.

“Go with the flow”, “ride with the tide”, such is the practical application of the philosophy of Change. Don’t stand like a rock but adapt to circumstances. Chairman Mao’s dictum: “Withdraw when the enemy is strong, attack when he is weak”, is only a variation on the ancient (ca. 450 BC) strategist Sunzi’s application of the philosophy of Change.

Buddhism, upon entering China with a radical anti-worldly message, oddly found itself in agreement with the pragmatic this-worldly philosophy of Change at least in one key respect: the law of impermanence. “All things must pass”, there is no point in attaching oneself to an existing state of affairs. While abiding by this principle is the way to worldly success, it is also the way to spiritual freedom.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Nostradamus debunked

Are Nostradamus’ predictions true? Why, they aren’t predictions in the first place, and neither were they written by him. Here my discussion of Prof.. Cambier’s book debunking Nostradamus, originally posted to a Hindu web forum in 2005.

Many Hindus with their soft corner for astrology and other forms of divination believe that there is something to the "predictions" of Nostradamus (1503-66, hereafter ND), witness e.g. the book "Hindu Destiny in Nostradamus" by G.S. Hiranyappa, ideologically close to the Hindu Mahasabha. Stuff like: "Nostradamus predicts Hindu Rashtra."

Mind you, Hindus are no worse than Westerners in this regard. ND is the core of occultist fantasies piled on one another. Thus, I saw a TV documentary on him where the makers wondered whether ND was a crypto-Jew or a genuine Catholic (his grandparents on one side were Jewish converts, and it seems unlikely that ND had retained the Judaic faith after two generations, but since ex-Catholic moderns will prefer absolutely anything to their parental religion, the claim that he wasn't really a Catholic is quite popular). So, they interviewed a medium who "contacted" ND in the spirit world, where of course he answered her that he had been a crypto-Jew. And then the documentary continued, taking that point as settled.

After all the forecasts people have read in "his" enigmatic ca. 942 quatrains, "Les Centuries", I had heard a few years ago that Rudy Cambier, a retired Romance Philology professor of Liège University, Belgium, had given a purely historical explanation of the text. No esotericism, no alchemy, hardly any astrology, but only history and esp. Church history provides the background that explains all the enigmatic phrases. Last week I attended a lecture by Cambier's research assistant Mark Vanden Daele, giving the detail of this theory. It was quite convincing regarding the authorship question (less so on a second point, see at the end) and left no stone standing of ND's reputation. For the benefit of Hindu readers who are under the spell of ND, I'll summarize Cambier's findings here. Feel free to forward or to cross-post.

Michel Nostredame was a French physician and astrologer of whom some writings have been preserved. These include private letters, horoscope interpretations and his great speciality: jam recipes. And two books on medicine, one completely plagiarized and one containing remedies against the plague of which none works. In fact, he had been thrown out at the medical faculty and had no medical diploma, though he had some experience as a self-taught pharmacist. His writing style is totally different from that of the Centuries. He was a very bad astrologer whose predictions were invariably wrong, yet he managed to build himself a reputation. Thus, he gained fame with the "prediction" in the Centuries of the death of an unnamed king, then thought to refer to French king Henri II, who died in a duel with a young opponent by getting a spear through his helmet and into his eye, then dying a cruel death after a few days of agony (I.35: "Le Lyon jeune le vieux surmontera..."). In fact, not long before the event ND himself had predicted a long life to the king. He ingratiated himself with the queen-widow by predicting a long life for her young son, who nevertheless went on to die at age 24. He also revealed that her sister, married to the king of Spain, was pregnant; she sent presents to celebrate the good news, but her sister turned out not to be pregnant yet. And so on.

ND was a thief and a fraud. In his young days, he travelled for some years, not to Egypt and Persia as the myth would have it, but only in the Romance-speaking countries. In 1545, he stayed at a monastery in Cambron, in the Earldom of Hainault, now in Belgium, then part of the Holy Roman Empire, but on the frontier with the earldom of Flandres, then the richest vassal of the French kingdom. There, he got to see a manuscript written by abbot Yves de Lessines in 1323-28. We can imagine that because of his reputation as a mystery man, the monks showed him the enigmatic text hoping that he could make sense of it. At any rate, he stole the manuscript and later published it under his own name: Les Centuries. He first published a few quatrains, testing the waters for any reactions to his plagiarism. But the first printed books still spread only slowly, and in that age of religious wars the monks had other worries. So, when nothing happened, he published the whole text in three successive books. Since the publisher, who paid him by the quatrain, refused to pay him for the handful he had already published earlier, he made up a few of his own. These forged insertions are readily recognizable to the trained eye: they don't follow the verse form and use a 16th-century Parisian or Provençal (southeastern) French, whereas the original is in 14th-century Picardian, the northernmost dialect of French, then commonly used as a language of administration in Artois, Picardy and Hainault.

Indeed, the Centuries are in an older and local form of French, with rhyme-words that didn't rhyme in 16th-century standard French, words that had gone out of use, and words and expressions borrowed from the neighbouring Flemish. They also contain political references that no longer made sense in the 16th century, e.g. to "imperial Flandres", the small part of the Earldom of Flandres that did not belong to France but to the Holy Roman Empire. By the 16th century, the Low Countries had been unified under the Burgunds and then the Austrian Habsburgs and these medieval feudal distinctions had gone out of use. In a letter to his son César (who was an accomplice in his frauds), ND himself wrote that he had acquired the text and burned the original manuscript as "Satanic", but not before copying it. He also claimed to have copied the text faithfully but to have jumbled the order of the quatrains.

So, what is the contents of the Centuries? It is a guidebook for "l'attendu", "the expected one", expected to restart the Order of the Knights Templar after the political winds would have changed enough to make it feasible. The text says that he will understand its cryptic guidelines with the help of the Holy Ghost. In 1307, on Friday 13 October, the martial-monastic Order of the Knights Templar, founded in the context of the Crusades in 1128 but by then best known as a banking network spanning Europe, had been disbanded and destroyed by the French king Philippe IV "le Bel" (the Fair) with the support of Pope Clemens V. The arrested knights were tried under torture and died at the stake. Their Grand-Master Jacques de Molay confessed under torture to charges of idolatry, sodomy, blasphemy
etc., but later withdrew his confession, and for this recanting he was executed at the stake in 1314. Legend has it that he cursed the king and the pope, both of whom died within one year. Some knights managed to flee and in some countries, the Order continued under a different name, particularly in Portugal (which still carries a variation on the Templar Cross in its flag) where they were to play a role in the beginnings of naval exploration. But most knights within the reach of the French king were taken completely by surprise. Official history has it that the arrest had been prepared in complete secrecy. But a few anomalies in the data argue against this, and the text of the Centuries confirms the alternative version that emerges.

The secret preparations had become known in early 1307 through the earl of Flandres, the king's richest and strategic vassal, whose territory comprised important Templar strongholds, esp. the Chief Commandery in Ypres; and possibly also through the wayward wife of a cuckolded relative of the king. But the Order's acting high command didn't take the warning seriously, and the Grand-Master was away in Cyprus (to limit the losses of the crusader states against the Muslims), whence he was summoned back to France by the king and the pope later that year, in what proved to be a trap. Yet, when the warning was out, a procedure was put in motion that the Order had provided for 80 years earlier, after the sudden arrest of the Knights Templar in the kingdom of Sicily by the king of Sicily and later Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II. He had led a fairly successful crusade to Jerusalem, making sufficient impression on the Muslims to restore the status quo ante, the toleration arrangement that had prevailed before they had blocked Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem (the casus belli of the first crusade). But then he had had to flee and hide in the crusader fortress of Saint-Jean d'Acre, after a conflict with the Knights Templar, and though they made up with him and ended up transporting him safely to Sicily, he had not forgotten the humiliation, so he confiscated all their property within his domains. With an eye on a possible repeat of this type of crisis, they had established a rule that in that event, someone could take dictatorial powers and instruct all the Templar centres on what to do to limit the damage.

So, in 1307, the knight whom the earl had informed of the king's plans, and who is only known as "the Flemish Templar", after fruitlessly warning the formal leadership, seized this power and sent the instruction to all Templar centres to bring "the Templar treasure" to safety. This included the stock of silver and gold, or part of it, but far more importantly, the Templar archive: all their internal directives, contracts with kings etc. On the other hand, all the declarations of debt were to be left in place, so the king would seize them and use them to extort the debtors, thus pitting them against himself (the king himself was one of their biggest debtors). We know that this instruction was carried out, consistent with
the Knights Templar's reputation as a well-oiled and disciplined organization. Then the Flemish Templar went underground and reappeared seven years later (right after the death of the last Templar leaders including the 23rd Grand-Master Jacques de Molay) as a guest in Yves de Lessines' monastery, where he too awaited "the expected one". Remember that the monastery was in Hainault, just outside the reach of the French king.

Among the documents spirited away, one was the proof of "the Pope's treason", repeatedly alluded to in the Centuries. This is still a mystery to historians: why the Pope betrayed his agreement with the Knights Templar and okayed the French king's persecution of them. In 1302, pope Boniface VIII's Papal Bull Unam Sanctam had made a bid for theocracy, i.e. for subordinating the worldly authorities to the Pope's authority. This only provoked an attack on him and his imprisonment by a French general, followed by his release, collapse and premature death. Having learned its own military weakness, the Papacy then made a deal with the Knights Templar for protection. Yet, the French second-next Pope, Clemens V, who was to
move his Holy See to the French city of Avignon in 1309, agreed to the destruction of his own protectors. Had the king forced his hand, and if so, how or at what price? A document in the Templars' treasure may tell us.

The "expected one" never showed up. The aged "Flemish Templar" died a few years after his arrival at the monastery and Yves de Lessines died in 1328, after writing down his instructions in cryptic form. These gathered dust and their message was forgotten until, in a totally different political and religious context, the monks showed them to a visiting astrologer-conman, ND. One merit must be conceded to the charlatan, viz. that he copied the text, which he himself didn't understand, very faithfully for publication. The mistakes are few, mostly recognizable by their breaking the versification scheme or by yielding words unknown in Picardian.

Read from the perspective outlined so far, the text becomes an open book, at least for one who can read the language and knows the history of the Christian Middle Ages and is familiar with the geography of Hainault and Flandres. Thus, dear friends from India, the repeatedly-used expression "l'Inde", otherwise meaning "India", is not India at all, but the name of a little river in Hainault near the monastery. "Athenis" is not the Greek city Athens but "from Ath", a town in Hainault. Names like "ciel" (heaven) and "paradis" (paradise) are still-existing hills and ponds and forests and landscape features of that region, incomprehensible to people who have never visited it. Often the reader needs to decipher the deliberately enigmatic style, replacing names with circumlocutions or related names. The future tense systematically replaces the past tense, concealing as prediction what was actually history, thus fooling readers starting with ND himself.

It contains many references to the history of the Crusades and the Knights Templar against a background of further references to Greco-Roman and Christian history. Thus, the famous quatrain I.60 supposedly describing the birth and career of Napoleon splendidly, actually refers to Friedrich II. In accordance with the quatrain, he was indeed "born near Italy", a name then referring to the northern two-thirds of Italy, part Papal State and part HR Empire, while southern Italy was termed, along with the island Sicily, as "the kingdom of both Sicilies". Indeed, to disprove rumours propagated by Papal agents that his mother, a Sicilian princess and
daughter-in-law of HR Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa (which is why his birth worried the Papacy, afraid of being surrounded by HRE-controlled states), wasn't pregnant at all and that the child to be produced would be a mere stand-in with no royal heredity, she gave birth to Friedrich II in the marketplace of the "Sicilian"/"Italian" border town Jesi in front of hundreds of witnesses. To Friedrich II, the empire was "sold dearly", as the quatrain says: after some popes had fought him, the Papacy ended up supporting him as candidate for the imperial throne (an elective office rotated between the leading German nobles) and notoriously paid heavy bribes to the other electors not to oppose his candidature.

Likewise, the "Le Lyon jeune le vieux surmontera" quatrain refers to Byzantium, the second or younger Rome, the lion city (deemed to be astrologically ruled by the Zodiac sign Leo), and to a royal dispute between two brothers. In the fourth crusade, the Crusaders had captured Byzantium, forcing the East-Roman emperor to retreat to Nicea. The French king of Byzantium, Isaac Ange, was taken captive by his younger brother Alexis, his eyes plucked out (a common practice in Byzantinian palace revolutions), thrown into a pit and left there to die (as described in the
quatrain:) "a cruel death". Note the use of multi-level meanings artfully combined into the quatrains' dense metonyms, metaphors and anagrams.

Now, what happened to the Templar treasure? After debunking the ND myth, we have to deal with another myth here, that of the Templar treasure, which Philippe le Bel never found and of which Jacques de Molay never betrayed the location (possibly because he didn't know it). Well, Prof. Cambier has deciphered the detailed indications in the text, and claims to have found its location. It's underground on a farm leased by Yves de Lessines to a local town councillor (apparently to distract attention from his own link with the place), with a contract stipulating that the monastery could buy it back after 30 years. The official documents of the transaction are still extant. But it was never bought back and remained in the councillor's family til today. One of his descendants is professor Cambier himself.
That could make you skeptical of his theory, but fortunately the acid test for the theory's correctness is imminent.

The law in Belgium says that if you discover or deduce the presence of something of archaeological importance, you must stop digging at once and ask permission for a professional excavation. The Walloon regional authorities have rejected the request, or rather, they have allowed it on condition that the digging is done by the proper aracheo-authorities, who refuse to allot the necessary funds to the project but nonetheless insist on their monopoly and refuse to let the job be done by anyone else. Now the case is pending before the State Council, which is expected to pronounce in 2007 at the latest. That is exactly 700 years after the forced abolition of the Order of the Knights Templar. Enthusiasts of Templar romanticism have been saying for some time that the Order would be revived after 700 years, claiming another pre-stake prediction by Jacques de Molay. Ground radar scans have confirmed the presence of orderly stocks of metal (gold/silver bars?), but only the excavation will decide the matter. We shall see.

The debunking of ND is by no means dependent on the accuracy or otherwise of Prof. Cambier's decipherment of the instructions for localizing the Templar treasure. Whether the treasure is there remains to be seen, but Nostradamus has been buried for good.

A final remark: in following the explanation of Prof. Cambier's findings, I realized that very few people outside Belgium and northern France would be able to understand all the arguments and references right away. It requires a thorough knowledge of the local languages and history, of Latin and Christian theology, of the labyrinthine institutions of the Church, etc. For a Hindu, it would take years to acquire the necessary background knowledge. So conversely, I realized that for a non-Indian non-Hindu, it must be equally difficult to acquire sufficient knowledge for solving the
puzzles and riddles of Vedic history and religion. I'll try to keep that in mind before rushing headlong into inter-Hindu discussions.

Post scriptum, March 2010: The request to start digging is still pending before the Belgian State Council, in spite of a petition by archaeologists and history enthusiasts to expedite the process. As a citizen of Belgium, I feel like apologizing for the dysfunctional condition of the Belgian political and judiciary institutions.

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