Sunday, April 29, 2012

George Thompson as a case study in racist Invasionism

On the internet discussion list of the Religion in South Asia (RISA) chapter of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), September 2011 saw a debate on racial concepts in Vedic India. The thread’s header was: “Why is Krishna blue?” My participation in it was probably a factor in my subsequent sudden and unexplained expulsion from the list. This expulsion frees me from the commitment to secrecy about what is being said and done on the list. So now, we can give a little overview of that debate.

Early on, Prof. George Thompson put his cards on the table: “I've been telling students for 25 years that Krishna is blue because he is a non-Vedic tribal god.” (8 Sep.)

A UK-based Indian Professor was not so sure: “Well, the non-Vedic nature of the god might not ensure the colour! Indeed Krsna (but perhaps Visnu too) is identified with Mayon - the dark one - in Cankam Tamil, and it is not clear which way the influence went. But on the other hand, another colour-coded non-Vedic Tamil god is Seyyon - the red one - who came to be called Subrahmanya...”

Thompson replies: “Well, the color is ensured by the etymology of the word 'krsna'. As for Visnu, he is of course an early Vedic god, though not yet a prominent one in the RV, and there is no mention of Visnu's color in early Vedic, as far as I know.” (8 Sep.)

To a Chicago-based Professor who is not convinced that the dark colour of Krishna’s idols refers to historical skin colour, Thompson replies: “It is clear that Krsna is a black god. There is no shame in that. And there is no shame in the view that he was a tribal god. Or an aboriginal one. Where is there lack of respect in the suggestion that Krsna was originally a non-Vedic tribal god? I think that Krsna is more interesting than his white Vedic colleagues.” (9 Sep)

The professor from Chicago did not take this veiled imputation of anti-aboriginal racism lying down: “You seem to entirely misconstrue my meaning. As I took some minor pains to suggest, my issue was with evidence, not conclusion. I have no trouble with black. Black is beautiful, as they used to say. Nor, were it remotely possible to establish that Krishna was ‘originally’ a ‘tribal god’ or ‘aboriginal god’, would there be any shame for him or his devotees.

“My concern is not with theological shame, but with what might be called methodological shame (or its lack). Empirically speaking, of course, (that is, de facto) you are entirely correct that ‘there is no shame in the view that he was a tribal god’. On the other hand, de jure, I think there ought to be rather more shame in the community of scholars who study Indian religions (and this goes for the vast majority of references in historical works to Indian ‘tribes’ or ‘aborigines’).

“Whether or not one is a ‘tribal god’ (whatever that might be -- and I think this is not at all clear, however people might bandy the concept about) is (ideally) normatively neutral. However, making claims about tribal this and tribal that based on fragments of ambiguous evidence, half-formed ideas about what the native communities of India might have been in the historical periods under discussion, and a healthy dose of lazy historical fantasy (in respectable circles, this is called ‘historical retrodiction’ or ‘synthesis’), should be a matter of some shame indeed.”

“There is some little evidence for communities one might call ‘aboriginal’ or ‘tribal’ in India in the ancient period. However, most of it either requires serious interpretative caution (being, after all, literary representations of marginal communities that bear marked connotations in mainstream discourses) or contradicts the typical Indological fantasy of what characterizes ‘aboriginal, tribal’ societies and religions.”

So, this Professor imputes to Prof. Thompson an eagerness to bandy “racism” about, as well as the methodologically sloppy readiness to assume “tribal” origins. I am not the only one to suspect that George Thompson is a race hustler. A Professor from Buffalo NY dedramatizes the race issue in the Hindu context:

“I recall, many years ago, H. Daniel Smith, the Sanskrit scholar who had by then turned his focus to Hindu poster art, telling a class that the reason that Kali was represented in poster art as blue rather than black was because they couldn't use that much black in early chromolithography -- I don't recall exactly why; perhaps it seeped into neighboring colors? And the technical limitations of the poster art changed the way many people visualized Kali (as blue as well as black). Perhaps something similar is the case with Krishna?” (9 Sep.)

Thompson to the Chicago professor, 9 Sep.:

“I suppose that I have misunderstood your original post, because in fact I do agree that there is little evidence -- either positive or negative – for any claim about Krsna's origins. When we are dealing with texts that are at least 2000 years old (and in my case at least 3000), we are all, in my view, in the dark ages. I probably am more aware of this than most list members because I spend most of my time on the Rgveda. One of my little projects is to translate the cycle of hymns attributed to the rsi Diirghatamas, so I know a lot about darkness, intentional, riddling darkness.

“Color symbolism is an interesting matter but it does not lead us to the light of history. By the way, my reference to white Vedic gods was facetious (I was vaguely alluding to our White Aryan Brotherhood friends). I don't think that any of us is ‘white’. ‘Whiteness’ is a racist concept, in my view. I will close by pointing out that the Vedic clans were not only not white; they were tribal, intensely macho, and virulently xenophobic. I've been reading Jarrod Whitaker's new book Strong Arms and Drinking Strength: Masculinity, Violence and the Body in Ancient India (I've been asked to review it). He points out that nowhere in the RV is nrmna, 'manliness,' ever ascribed to any indigenous peoples (p. 53).”

Nobody in his right mind was referring to “our White Aryan Brotherhood friends”, except for George Thompson. It is only he who links the Indo-Aryans with the unrelated White Aryan Brotherhood. He wrote back on 10 September:

“[The Chicago professor] and I have gotten clearance from Deepak to continue this discussion for a bit longer. Several misunderstandings have been cleared up.

“In the introduction to my Gita translation, I claimed, on the basis of my reading of the text alone, that the doctrine that Krsna as an avatar of Visnu was not yet a settled doctrine in the Gita. Somewhat later after making this assertion, I was asked to review Angelika Malinar's book The Bhagavadgiitaa: Doctrines and Contexts published in 2007 (which is the year in which I had finished my Gita book), and she made the case for this claim at much greater length than I did, and she persuasively argued that her very learned view, and my not very learned but intuitive view, represented the current consensus.

“So, I think that it is fair to say that there was initially significant resistance to the idea that Krsna was an avater of Visnu. In most of the text of the MBh, Krsna is usually considered a mere mortal King of the Vrsnis. While the term vrsni is a good old Vedic word, it isn't used to refer to a particular tribe. The clan of the Vrsnis do not appear on the scene until epic [MBh] Sanskrit. Since I am a Vedicist most of all, I claim no expertise on the ethnography of this Vrsni clan. It might be worthwhile to pursue this, though. It may help us to learn something historically significant about Krsna's origins. But I'll leave this for those who would know more than I do.

“Through this sort of ethnographical research we may be able to get some historical insights into the origins of Krsna. In any case, I think that this kind of approach may prove to be more fruitful than color symbolism.”

A very Christian Professor intervened on 9 September under the header: The Indo-European Immigrants' Self Consciousness:

“Sisters and brothers, A recent mention of Jarrod Whitaker's new book reminded me of something that I have been meaning to ask the list. I know from Ed Bryant's The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture, that the evidence that the Indo-Europeans characterized the indigenes in South Asia as ‘snub nosed’ is exceedingly thin. This prompts a more basic question: Assuming that the Indo-Europeans migrated into South Asia, but assuming that it was not a catastrophic invasion, that it was a movement over several centuries, etc., is there solid evidence in early Vedic literature that the migrating Indo-Europeans thought of themselves as a separate people? That they spoke a different language. Or had a different religion and mythology. Or that they were somehow ethnically distinct (if not with longer noses, than with lighter skin, or is even that too much a product of modern racism). That the immigrants labeled themselves ‘Aryans’ and the indigenes were labeled ‘Dasyus’ or ‘Dasas’, of something of the sort. Is the evidence good for this?”

Another Professor added on 11 september under the same header: The Indo-European Immigrants' Self Consciousness:

“In all of our excitement to discuss why Krishna is blue (from the serious to the silly), I fear this excellent question posed by [the Christian Professor] may have gotten lost in the barrage of emails. I am very interested in this topic as well, and would also appreciate some insight from our Vedic scholars.”

That’s when, 11 september, I intervened under this same header: The Indo-European Immigrants' Self Consciousness:

“Dear listfolk,

“The debate over whether there ever was an Aryan invasion has raged (and I mean raged) for two decades, and if there had been such evidence for the Vedic people seeing themselves as invaders and others as natives, it would have been plastered all over the affected discussion forums including this one. So no, there is no such evidence.

“Françoise Bader in her textbook of Indo-European linguistics tries to derive ‘Arya’ (the self-reference term of both Iranians and Vedic Indo-Aryans) from ‘alia’, related to Latin/English ‘alien’, in the sense of ‘the foreigners, the invaders’. But even among the Aryan Invasion believers, she never found many takers for this rather oxymoronic explanation of a self-referential term as meaning ‘the others’.

“In the Rg-Veda, the terms ‘Dasa’ and ‘Dasyu’, which are also known in ethnic meanings in Iranian languages, refer without any doubt to Iranians, i.e. fellow Indo-Europeans, whiter than or at least as white as the Vedic people. Not to Mundas or Dravidians. The Rg-Vedic Battle of the Ten Kings and Varshagira Battle (the first on the Ravi banks in West Panjab, the second beyond the Bolan Pass in southern Afghanistan, after the westward expansion rendered possible by Vedic kind Sudas's victory in the first battle), were very definitely between Iranians and Vedic Indo-Aryans. The second of these battles is also alluded to in the younger Avesta, where the same battle leaders are mentioned: Rjashva/Arjasp and Somaka/Humayaka on the Indian side, Vishtaspa/Ishtashva on the Iranian side. RV 1:122:13 mentions Ishtâshva, the Sanskrit form of Iranian 'Vishtâspa', well-known as Zarathustra's royal patron: 'What can Ishtâshva, Ishtarashmi or any other princes do against those who enjoy the protection (of Mitra and Varuna)?' Thus the interpretation of Sayana and SK Hodiwala, as reported by Shrikant Talageri, The Rigveda, a Historical Analysis, p.215-221, and also followed, at least in the names given, by HH Wilson and KF Geldner in their RV translations. It is a rare treat in studies of ancient literature when a single event is reported in two independent sources, which moreover represent the two opposing parties in the event.

“[Dear Chistian Professor], your question for evidence is an eminently good one. When people say, for example, that Krishna, though described as belonging to one of the Vedic ‘five nations’, is called ‘black because he was a non-Aryan indigenous tribal leader’, it is indeed right and necessary to ask them for their evidence.

“Kind regards,

“Dr. Koenraad Elst, non-affiliated Orientalist”

This argumentation of mine contains one non-essential mistake, viz. the Vârshâgira Battle took place on the eastern, Indian side of the Bolan pass, not on the Western, Afghan side. But it was a battle between Vedic Indians and Avestan Iranians. Terms like Dâsa, Dasyu and Asura are well-attested in Iranian but nowhere attested  in “tribal” languages.

Nonetheless, George Thompson replied on 12 september, now under the header: The Indo-European Immigrants' Self Consciousness. He clearly was very angry for my accusing him of building a far-reaching thesis on no evidence at all:

“Dear List,

“We have had this argument with Mr Elst many, many times already, and I am not going to waste much time on running in circles with him again. He is a virulent Hindutvavadin. Frankly, I don't think that he has earned a place on this list.

“Bader's etymology for the term ‘arya’ is in fact widely accepted by competent linguists. Actually, it isn't her etymology. It is much older than she is. It has been common knowledge for several generations. Elst is not a competent linguist.

“Let me point out also another mistake that Elst makes, along with [yet another Professor]. No Indo-Europeans ever invaded India. Indo-Europeans, by the third millennium, had already fragmented into a dozen or more distinct linguistic families. Indo-Europeans weren't a race! They were a group of linguistic families, speakers of various related languages! This is linguistics 101, my friends! I can't believe that I have to give this lecture yet again on a scholarly list!

“The clans that migrated into India some 3000 plus years ago were Vedic clans, who had very close ties to the Iranian clans that migrated westward into Iran at about the same time that the Vedic clans were approaching the Indian subcontinent. They fought constantly with their Iranian cousins, just as they fought constantly with the indigenous clans of India when they finally reached the Panjab.

“Look, we have significant evidence, linguistic evidence, that clearly demonstrates that the Vedic tribes did in fact migrate into India over the course of many centuries. We have good linguistic evidence that Indra fought against tribes who had no eth[n]ic ties whatsoever with Indo-Iranian tribes (see Kuiper's list of terms that have no cognates either in IE or in Indo-Iranian). These would have to have been tribes indigenous to India.

“Elst continues to think that early Iranian and early Vedic clans thought in terms of their ‘whiteness’ Well, what evidence is there for that? Elst, in my view, clearly operates from a racist ideology. Look again at him.

“If you all want to explore the scholarly dark ages: this is where to look.
He is not competent to talk about Avestan. I am.”

Well, well. In a context where the difference between a and â, between arya and ârya, gets confused by the occasional non-use of the â, it seems that George Thompson hasn’t understood the import of Françoise Bader’s use of arya. Unlike Paul Thieme and other “competent linguists” who are “older than she is”, and who interpreted ârya as a derivative of arya, “other” , viz. as “inclined towards the other, hospitable, altruistic”, Bader interprets ârya as a synonym of arya, viz. as “the other, the stranger” through the semantic conduit “coming from another country = ârya”. (Langues Indo-Européennes, p.66) There is no evidence for this at all, except that it falls in line with the Aryan Invasion Theory; but even all the other AIT champions never thought of it, until George Thompson gave his support to it.

Then we have the champion of the racial interpretation of ancient Vedic terms slamming the open non-racial door: “Indo-Europeans weren't a race! They were a group of linguistic families, speakers of various related languages! This is linguistics 101, my friends! I can't believe that I have to give this lecture yet again on a scholarly list!” Most members even of the RISA list were perfectly aware of the non-racial import of the Rg-Veda, it is only George Thompson who opened the debate by saying in so many words that for 25 years he has been teaching that Krishna’s imputed racial traits are significant for his ethnic background.

What is simply unacceptable is that the avowed racist George Thompson, once he feels the anti-racist mood on the RISA-list, accuses me of all people of racism. Ever since my first writing on the Aryan Invasion Theory, the book Indigenous Indians in 1993, I have consistently lambasted the 19th-century racial interpretation of Vedic terms. George Thompson, by contrast, has espoused that interpretation all along.

It remains a fact that Iranian refers a hundred times in  a self-referential or at least partially Iranian sense to the terms which the Vedas use to name their enemies. None of the tribal languages, not even the Dravidian languages, do so. They also do not have the so-called deshi (vernacular but not attested in Sanskrit) words for Hindi plant names, which are non-existent in the non-Indian Indo-European languages only because it is no use retaining a word for a (in Europe) non-existent plant. All the Kuipers of this world cannot change that.

As a parting shot, Thompson gives this along: “If you all want to explore the scholarly dark ages: this is where to look.” Just the opposite: in the Middle Ages, scholarship reputedly went by authority, which is George Thompson’s method, and the Aryan Invasion method. After the Enlightenment, the scholarly method required evidence, which is my method.

Meanwhile, the list master implored me at once to let it all pass. On 12 September, he sent me a message under the all too clear header: “pls do not respond to that RISA msg”:

“Dear Koenraad:

            "Out of the best interest of the RISA-L listserve, please do not respond to that msg, acrimonious as it was. You are, of course, more than welcome respond off list.

"yours, Deepak, RISA-L admin”

I complied, but must say I have not been rewarded. Though I didn’t react at all, I was shown the door somewhat later. By contrast, I have no information that the offending list member, George Thompson, was reprimanded in any meaningful way. He didn’t apologize on- or off-list. So now, at least, I am at liberty to divulge what happened.


Mayur Punekar said...

Dear Dr. Elst, thanks for sharing details of intellectual dishonesty shown by so called "eminent historians". I had vague idea about them from your writings but it is much more clear now about how they operate.

What I dont understand is, why are you involved with this guys at all? I mean why to give these guys legitimacy by involving your self with such bunch of lairs? I think it would be much better if you your self (or some one like minded) can start an organization or at least an online list that would bring real historian together on AIT/OIT and many other related topics, but at the same by including only those who at least doubt the AIT and would be willing to debate on hard evidence and without calling names.

I do understand that it is absolutely necessary to allow freedom of expression in open forums but currently groups like AAR and lists like RISA are not allowing honest people like you to debate at all by calling you names and banning your entries (and now kicking you out of their organization altogether!) and may be there are others who do doubt AIT but do not dare to express themselves out of fear. Such a platform will allow honest historians to debate without fearing expulsion or outcasting by so called "eminent historians".

Phillip said...

"the avowed racist George Thompson"

Not that this should be the last word on the matter, but it is worth mentioning that George Thompson is himself half-Asian, his mother being Japanese (I don't know him myself, but we have a mutual friend).

I think indologists should cool it a bit with these mutual accusations of racism. The word has ceased to be very meaningful at this point, as incidents like this suggest.

Mayur Punekar said...

@Ashwamitra, just because some one is half Asian doesn't mean he cant not indulging in racism. and by the way, Japanese are not better then "White" westerners when it comes to racist behavior in the past and even today they are not ready to accept genocides committed by their armies during WW2.

Even if Thompson would have been 100% "Asian" it wont matter to me at least, as I think it is sufficient to call some one racist regardless of his own race if that person has shown racist tendencies by his acts or writings !

Ray Lightning said...

Calling Prof. Thompson a racist is a stretch, and that makes all this email exchange look extremely silly.

But the point of Krishna being a tribal god, and thus black in colour is equally silly. Can it equally be deduced that Ganesh is a god of elephant-looking people ? Or that ancient Indian tribes had multiple hands and legs, which they somehow lost over time ?

Indian god figures are symbolic representations of abstract ideas - philosophical, spiritual and sometimes simply cultural. It is funny to see these distinguished-looking academic people indulging themselves in such silly banter, and reading too much between the lines.

Here is Devdutt Patnaik, when he explains why Visnhu is dark and why Shiva is white, and a myriad other tid-bits about Indian gods.

By the way, somebody was mentioning earlier something about being a mixed-race vs. racism. I think very few people today are racist (believing in supremacy of one race over the other). But it is easy to think about a race angle over any problem (this is usually the least informative angle). Being a mixed-race person actually forces somebody to think more about these issues, because such a person cannot help thinking about these issues while growing up. This sometimes might cloud their judgement on other unrelated issues.

Naras said...

@Ray Lightning,

Your point about the abstractness of ideas of Gods is true. It is also true that the whole premise is silly beyond words.

However, colour has been used in Indian history writing to equate Gods with tribals, Dravidians and Aryans. Even today we find "scholars" asserting that Shiva is a Dravidian God, perhaps Vishnu is too, while Indra, Mithra, Varuna are definitely Aryan! Indra, the destroyer of forts (purandar) indicates the Aryan destruction of forts in the Harappan civilization etc.

The mystical meaning of purandar is quite different. In Kundalini Yoga, the aspirant comes across many obstacles and "buffers" which he/she destroys with help from Indra, one his/her way up the spinal cord to the Sahasraara Chakra!

Another example is Shiva, the Digambar (Sky-clad). The surface meaning is that of a naked man. However, mystically it means he is beyond the 3 bodies (Physical, Astral and Causal).

I find it impossible to know what is metaphor and what is literal, that is the deliberate mystery of ancient Indian scriptures. It is meant to separate the truth-seekers from the spiritually ignorant.

Phillip said...

(By the way, somebody was mentioning earlier something about being a mixed-race vs. racism. I think very few people today are racist (believing in supremacy of one race over the other). But it is easy to think about a race angle over any problem (this is usually the least informative angle)...)

I was returning to say something about this, but you have put it so perfectly and sanely that I don't have much more to say on this particular. But I will add this: the frequency of accusations of racism made against indologists unmistakably shows that many of their detractors have never even met an indologist, and have no idea of how they live their lives. Indologists are generally very cosmopolitan people, and modern indology is a very cosmopolitan field. Non-Indian indologists all have close and constant contact with Indian colleagues and friends. Many of them, like myself, are married to Indians, and others have innumerable close friendships with Indians they have known and worked with over decades of coming frequently to India and staying here for long periods (I have been living here constantly for six years, for example). This is not the behavious of racists. Racists are people who believe that other races are by their essential nature inferior to their own. The most significant characteristic of racists is that they do not know, and do not want to know, the people they hate. They stick to their own communities. To say that people who devote their lives to the study of cultures and languages that are very different from their own, and very difficult for outsiders to understand, do so because they want to destroy and belittle them -- people who make such an accusation unmistakably betray a paranoid narrowmindedness that cannot fathom what could motivate anyone to take an interest in a culture other than his own, and can only imagine that those motivations must be hostile. There are many, many reasons to criticize indology, and indology has benefited enormously from such critiques in recent years. But racism is a very, veery serious charge, and those who bring it against indologists rarely know what they are talking about, or when they do, they are indulging in the kind of dishonest character assassination that Elst frequently identifies as a favourite tactic of communists.

Phillip said...

(I find it impossible to know what is metaphor and what is literal, that is the deliberate mystery of ancient Indian scriptures. It is meant to separate the truth-seekers from the spiritually ignorant.)

Taking you at your word, you show a really admirable honesty in identifying yourself as a member of the second group. However, I believe that this is a false dichotomy: all truth-seekers are ignorant, and they know it, otherwise they would not be seeking. The quest for truth generally takes us very far from where we started, and from what we originally believe. It's a very difficult path, the path that leads away from where you began, and I think it's a very honourable path as well, even though those who travel on it usually find that questions only lead on to more questions, mystery to more mystery. But it is precisly that deepening and ever receding mystery, of course, that make this path worth walking, and not the self-satisfied conviction that one knows the truth -- a conviction that only shows that the person has ceased to think, if he ever thought in the first place. The true dichotomy is between people who think they know, and people who know that they don't know, as a certain ancient muni (whose name escapes me at the moment) once said. So hail fellow well met.

Naras said...

"To say that people who devote their lives to the study of cultures and languages that are very different from their own, and very difficult for outsiders to understand, do so because they want to destroy and belittle them --

As far as I understand, Renè Dubois, Max Muller, Sir Mortimer Wheeler and Sir John Marshall were the founders of the invasionist school. They spent considerable amount of time establishing this school, being in India, studying Sanskrit and so on.

I consider invasionism to be a largely colonialist history writing. Whether these eminences were racist or not, I cannot say. But the distortion of history that they did, is what people like Dr. Elst, Edwin Bryant and Michael Danino are trying to undo.

Claims of "no racism" has very little to do with attitude to history writing and its politics. A nature lover might spend enormous amount of time studying various types of snakes, and use them ultimately to extract venom, snake skin etc. These eminences were also involved in a similar endeavour.

Phillip said...

[A nature lover might spend enormous amount of time studying various types of snakes, and use them ultimately to extract venom, snake skin etc. These eminences were also involved in a similar endeavour.]

This is a clever little piece of wordplay, and it goes no deeper than words. For an indologist, the texts he reads speak of a world as real as his next-door colleague Pradip and his wife Arti. And he is not secretly planning to skin them and extract their venom. This is the paranoia of ignorance.

Naras said...


The lady doth protest too much.

All you can say is your critics are ignorant, spiritually or otherwise. Ad Hominem attacks are not worthy of a serious scholar, and do not deserve further response.

Phillip said...

Ah dear, here's another of these words that used to mean something specific but doesn't mean much anymore. Just as "genocide" has come to mean basically "the killing of more than one person beonging to a single social group however defined", and "racism" has come to mean no more than "anything even remotely linkable to the idea of ethnicity in the actions or words of someone I don't like and want to silence", so "ad hominem argument" now means "any spirited argument in which my own foolishness is demonstrated to me". This is not what the term meant, once upon a time, when it meant something. But what's the use.

Nirjhar007 said...

This blog also works on facts and truthfulness.
Have a good time.

Trailer of Dharma said...

Koenraad Elst ji,
Thanks for sharing this info. For Indians it is often astonishing how much interest some Westerners are taking in deconstructing Hinduism using all sorts of angles - race, sexuality, oppression, etc.

Daniel Mohanpersad said...

Ashvamitra, you are acting like someone stepped on your foot by using the word racist to describe a fellow indologist.

Arun said...

Being married to someone of a different race makes you automatically non-racist, is like saying that being married to a person of a different religion, you cannot be a fundamentalist - history and experience show that to be a total fallacy.

Arun said...

There is some comfort in Ashvamitra's logic - since men have been marrying women, like, forever! - men have never considered themselves superior to women, it is all just a modern Gloria Steinem-created myth.

Even in the "caste-ridden" ancient Hindu society, it was perfectly acceptable for a woman to "marry up". So these marriages, I presume, prove that caste inequality did not exist!!!

Unknown said...

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