Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Decoding Hinduism (book review)

Most Hindus have no clear idea where their own religion fits in the global religious landscape. Even the most illiterate Christian or Muslim ‘knows’ that his religion was brought into the world in order to supersede all other religions, which are false. The Hindus’ grasp of their relation to other religions, even (and perhaps especially) among the English-speaking literates, is characterised by crass ignorance and sweet delusions.

In Universal Hinduism (Voice of India, Delhi 2010), American scholar and Hindu convert David Frawley sets out to clear up this confusion. He takes the reader through the basic data that set Hinduism apart from the others, and specific Hindu schools from one another and from Buddhism. He also discusses what it has in common with the world’s eliminated and surviving Pagan religions, and sometimes with forms of Islam and Christianity too. In his typical kindly style, he gives every practice and every belief its due, but keeps his focus on the potential of Sanatana Dharma to heal modern society as well as to lead man to enlightenment.

One of the most useful parts for Hindus will be Frawley’s discussion of the motivation and strategy behind the missionary penetration of Hindu society. On this, most Hindu nationalist discourse is shrill and ill-informed. It usually amounts to an anachronistic identification of Christianity with “White racism” (which was a passing phase in the Church’s long history). Among other mistakes, this ignores the difference between Catholics and Protestants, with the latter marketing Christianity in India most aggressively. Such sloppiness contrasts sharply with the diligence and thoroughness of the Christian effort in mapping out the Hindu world, theologically as well as sociologically.

If Hindus want to develop a more realistic assessment of the missionary enterprise, Frawley’s chapter on it is a good place to start. He explains Christianity as a belief system and reveals its Pagan roots along with its anti-Pagan stance in terms that Hindus will understand. Thus, Catholic and Orthodox icon worship is a thinly veiled continuation of Pagan murti-puja, with the Virgin Mary as the acceptable face of the Goddess. Protestants had already pointed out that much of what endears the Virgin, the Saints and their idols and pilgrimages to the common worshippers is plain Paganism. The co-optation of Pagan elements into folk Christianity, that is, of the Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin (whose temple in Mexico was forcibly replaced with a chapel) as the Virgen de Guadalupe, is being replayed in India today by the mainstream Churches under the label “acculturation”. By contrast, Evangelical Protestants pursue a more confrontational strategy, labelling Hindu gods as devils and making no compromise with “idol worship”. They are very straightforward about the essential exclusivism that contrasts Christianity and Islam with pluralistic Hinduism.

On the contention between Hindu nationalism and Hindu universalism, Frawley charts a middle course. Of course, Hinduism is tied to India, yet at the same time it is ever more present on all continents and has even welcomed some unsolicited native converts there, besides sharing some values and practices with other religions worldwide. There is little point in trying to Indianise these others, but the common ground should be explored further, as is being done at the annual Gathering of the Elders of Ancient Traditions and Cultures, where Native American, Yoruba and Maori medicine-men make common cause with Hindu gurus like Swami Dayananda Saraswati. “All such true spiritual traditions face many common enemies in this materialistic age”, so “they should form a common front”.

At the same time, non-Indians who adopt Asian spiritual practices should realise that this system for liberation is embedded in a culture with many other dimensions. Some of these more worldly elements (arts, dress, lifestyle) could usefully be adopted as well. Frawley ought to know, as a practising Ayurvedic doctor who habitually wears Indian clothes. Thus, vegetarianism is not merely a different cuisine, it is objectively superior to meat-eating, and this is now being acknowledged by non-Hindus concerned about health and ecology. While differences must be tolerated, it doesn’t mean that all beliefs and practices are of equal value.

Knowledge is preferable to faith. At inter-faith conferences, Hindus usually cut a sorry figure, ill-prepared as they are; but at “inter-knowledge” meetings, they would have more to offer. The Hindu-Buddhist network of teaching traditions aims for “liberation through knowledge” rather than “salvation through faith”. Defensively, they should uphold religious diversity (on a par with the concern for biodiversity) against the levelling campaigns of missionary creeds and consumerism. But in a forward perspective, they should also communicate their own tradition of respect for all that is sacred and integrate it with the modern world.

(book review published in The Sunday Pioneer, Delhi, 13 March 2011)

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

The ethnic meaning of "Arya"

In debates on the politically controversial term Arya, we keep hearing from Hindus and Buddhists that it only means "noble", as in the Buddha's "four noble (Arya) truths". This bespeaks a deficient sense of historicity, i.c. the realization that terminology is susceptible to change.

While the term had no racial ("Nordic") or linguistic ("Indo-European") meaning, it did originally have an ethnic meaning. On this, invasionist linguist JP Mallory and anti-invasionist historian Shrikant Talageri agree. At least, it has a relative ethnic meaning, not designating a particular nation, but being used by several Indo-European nations (viz. Anatolians, Iranians and Paurava Indians) in the sense of "compatriot", "one of us". This term, in India, then evolved to "one who shares the civilizational norms of the Vedic Paurava tribes", "Veda-abiding", "civilized". And thence "noble".

The use of Arya cognates in Hittite and Lycian (Anatolian) in the sense of “compatriot, fellow citizen” is given in standard textbooks of Indo-European linguistics, such as JP Mallory’s, and in the On-line Etymological Dictionary

The same in Iranian is beyond dispute. Iran itself is from Airyanam Khshathra. In 2006, Tajikistan hosted the UNESCO-sponsored World Aryan Fair, where “Aryan” in effect meant “Iranian”, including Baluch, Kurd, Osset (Scythian), Pathan and Tajik. Non-Iranians including Indians were Anairya to them, regardless of whether they called themselves Arya.

The evidence for Arya used in the Rg-Veda in the sense of “compatriot” is given at length in Talageri’s latest two books, The Rg-Veda, a Historical Analysis and The Rg-Veda and the Avesta, the Final Evidence. He arrived at his conclusions without any knowledge of the linguists’ findings. What he shows is that the Paurava tribe, in which (particularly, in whose Bharata clan) the Veda hymns were composed, referred to its own members as Arya. All others, including Iranians (“Dasa”, “Dasyu”, “Pani”) and non-Paurava Indians (Yadava, Aikshvaku et al.), were counted as Anarya.

Contrary to Arya Samaji and other modern-moralistic interpretations, Arya does not mean “good” nor Anarya “bad”: even a hostile reference to a traitorous fellow-Paurava calls him Arya, even non-Paurava friends whose virtues are praised remain Anarya. It is only when Paurava Vedic tradition become normative for the neighbouring tribes that Arya gradually loses its Paurava exclusiveness and acquires the non-ethnic meaning of “Vedic”, “partaking of Vedic tradition”, “civilized”, “noble”; and “Anarya” becomes “barbarian”.

One resultant semantic development is "upper-caste", meaning those people who received the Vedic initiation. Since Kshatriyas and Brahmins had their own more specific titulature, the general honorific Arya often designated the Vaishya. It is also used as a form of address to any honoured person, which is probably the origin of the present-day honorific suffix -ji, evolved through the Prakrit forms ayya, ajja, 'jje. In South India, the term Arya designated the Northern immigarnts who described themselves as such: Buddhist and Jaina preachers and Brahmin settlers. They latter's caste names Aiyar and Aiyangar are evolutes of Arya.

It is in the sense of "noble" that the Buddha spoke of the Arya 4 truths and 8-fold path. However, we must take into account the possibility that he used it in the implied sense of “Vedic”, broadly conceived. That after Vedic tradition got carried away into what he deemed non-essentials, he intended to restore what he conceived as the original Vedic spirit. After all, the anti-Vedicism and anti-Brahmanism now routinely attributed to him, are largely in the eye of the modern beholder. Though later Brahmin-born Buddhist thinkers polemicized against Brahmin institutions and the idolizing of the Veda, the Buddha himself didn’t mind attributing to the gods Indra and Brahma his recognition as the Buddha and his mission to teach; and when predicting the future Buddha Maitreya, had him born in a Brahmin family; and had over 40% Brahmins among his ordained disciples.

I haven’t looked into original sources about this yet, but surmise that pre-war racists waxed enthusiastic about descriptions by contemporaries of the Buddha as tall and light-skinned. That would be “Aryan” in the then-common sense of “Nordic”. Nowadays, some scholars including Michael Witzel suggest that the Buddha’s Shakya tribe may have been of Iranian origin (from Shaka, “Scythian”), which would explain their fierce endogamy. They practised cousin marriage, e.g. th Buddha himself had only four great-grandparents because his paternal grandfather was the brother of his maternal grandmother while his maternal grandfather was the brother of his paternal grandmother. The Brahminical lawbooks prohibited this close endogamy (gotras are exogamous) and like the Catholic Church, imposed respect for "prohibited degrees of consanguinity"; but it was common among Iranians. (It was also common among Dravidians, a lead not yet fully exploited by neo-Buuddhists claiming the Buddha as “pre-Aryan”.) The Shakya-s justified it through pride in their direct pure descent from Arya patriarch Manu Vaivasvata, but this could be an explanation adapted to the Indian milieu hiding their Iranian origin (which they themselves too could have forgotten), still visible in their physical profile. Thus far the “Iranian Buddha” theory.

It is possible and indeed likely that other Indian tribes contemporaneous with the Vedic Paurava-s also called themselves Arya (and the Paurava-s Anarya), but they have left us no texts to prove it. Such usage may have facilitated the adoption of the term Arya in the (to them) new meaning of “Vedic”.

The 19th-century claims of the use of an “Arya” cognate as ethnic self-designation in Celtic (“Eire”) and Germanic have been abandoned, as well as the relation with German Ehre, “honour” (which is from *aiz-, cognate with Latin aes-timare, whence English esteem). There is no firm indication that it ever was a pan-Indo-European or Proto-Indo-European self-designation and thus a valid synonym for “Indo-European”.

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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Still no trace of an Aryan invasion

Last night, 1 March 2011, I attended a lecture by Cambridge (UK) archaeologist Cameron Petrie on the state of the art in Harappan excavations and the emerging picture of the "Indus" civilization. Interesting, but no real news.

Just a few highlights in this modest blog report. Petrie showed a map of excavation sites used by Michel Danino in "a popular book" on the Indus-Saraswati civilization, next to his own map. Danino's map shows a high concentration of sites along the Ghaggar river, i.e. the remains of the once-mighty Saraswati; but Petrie's map shows a paucity of sites in the same region. That looks serious. But the very next item in his talk reversed this impression. He reported on a survey of Haryana by a Ph.D. candidate from Rohtak who during 2008-10 identified hundreds of as yet unexcavated Harappan sites. His map showed a concentration of "new" sites precisely in the "empty" Ghaggar region... So, this seems to confirm that the Saraswati was an important centre of Harappan civilization after all.

Incidentally, for the most common chronology proposed by the non-invasionist school, a non-urbanized Saraswati basin would not be such a problem. People like K.D. Sethna and Nicholas Kazanas date the Rg-Vedic age to the early Harappan and even pre-Harappan age, in conformity with the lack of an urban setting in the Rg-Veda. But the latter information could also be matched to a Harappan date but in a non-urbanised border region of the Harappan area, as Shrikant Talageri opines. The latter also points out that the Asuras, a term apparently referring in that context to the Iranians, the Vedic Indians' westerly neighbours, are often described as more advanced in material culture. So, locating the Vedic tribes outside the metropolitan area could make sense. And the impression of a west-to-east gradient in Harappan development, confirmed once more by Petrie, would therefore not be a problem for Talageri's position. But many scenarios remain possible.

Petrie purposely avoided the topic of the alleged Aryan invasion. His survey of Harappan history at no point necessitated such a hypothesis, for the story could apparently be told with reference only to purely internal developments. He only agreed to discuss it when asked by the chairman in question time, but remained non-committal. He said the question was so complicated that it would perhaps never be decided.

At that point I proposed to narrow the question down to a degree of simplicity where a field archaeologist would definitely be able to answer. He agreed that Prof. B.B. Lal had made his name in the 1950s and 60s by detailing our knowledge of the Painted Grey Ware and identifying it as characteristic of the invading Aryans moving eastwards, deeper into India; and that Lal had later repudiated any claims of an Aryan invasion and is now a leading light of the non-invasionist school. Lal now says that no archaeological trace of an Aryan invasion has ever been found or identified. Petrie also conceded that Harvard Sanskritist Prof. Michael Witzel had likewise admitted that "as yet" no such arcaheological evidence of an Aryan invasion has been discovered. So, a very simple question would be: did Cameron Petrie, as a field archaeologist fresh from the recentmost excavation, ever come across actual pieces of evidence for an Aryan invasion. He smiled and agreed that he too had no such sensational discovery to announce. So: as of 2011, after many decades of being the official and much-funded hypothesis, the Aryan Invasion Theory has still not been confirmed by even a single piece of archaeological evidence.

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