Friday, March 22, 2013

No rebirth in the Rg-Veda


            In my article about Sati, I had written that Sati dates back to the time when the Hindu people did not yet believe in reincarnation, and that it was also known among other people who didn’t have the doctrine of reincarnation, such as the ancient Egyptians and Chinese. Predictably, some Hindus reacted furiously, stating that Hindus had always believed in reincarnation and quoting chapter and verse from the Vedas to prove it. Here is my answer: the Rg-Veda, at least, does not contain the doctrine of reincarnation at all, and it is a post-Rg-Vedic text that explicitly introduces it. So, this is not a foreigner’s answer, it is the answer of one of India’s own great seers.

The concept of reincarnation is first explained in the Chandogya Upanishad. The Brahmin young man Shvetaketu returns home from his studies, where he supposedly has learned all Vedic knowledge including the core doctrine of the Upanishads (the Self, Atmavada), and meets his childhood friend from the Kshatriya caste, who quizzes him about the knowledge he has gained. Has he learned what happens to us after death? No, admits Shvetaketu, that wasn’t part of my curriculum. So we can already conclude that the core doctrine of the Upanishads is not dependent on a theory of the afterlife, such as the theory of reincarnation.

In Buddhism and Jainism, reincarnation is absolutely central, and it is fair to laugh at Western converts who insist on declaring themselves Buddhists but refuse to accept reincarnation. In Hinduism, by contrast, it is merely the factual situation that most people believe in reincarnation, but the core doctrine in its original form is not dependent on it. The goal of Buddhist meditation may be conceived as stopping the wheel of reincarnations, but the goal of Hindu meditation is not so defined. Check Patanjali, who mentions knowledge of past lives in passing, but doesn’t define the goal of yoga in terms of the reincarnation cycle. It is simply, technically, the isolation (Kaivalya) of consciousness from its field of objects in which it is mostly entangled, egardless of what happens to the conscuious subject before birth or after death. Buddhism in its Zen form has rediscovered this view, where the here and now is all-important and beliefs about past lives or the afterlife don’t matter. Hindus, by contrast, have become crypto-Buddhists and have come to believe that liberation means stopping the wheel of reincarnation. Not so Shvetaketu.

Now, when even Shvetaketu’s father Uddalaka doesn’t know the answer to this question, they go and ask the king. He turns out to know, and to have known all along. So he teaches them the doctrine of reincarnation for the very first time in Vedic literature and in all the writings of mankind. He also says that this doctrine is commonly believed in among Kshatriyas. No wonder the doctrine is so central in the traditions of Mahavira Jina and the Buddha, both Kshatriyas. He finally reveals that this belief is the secret of the Kshatriyas’ power. Indeed, those who consider their bodies as merely clothes they can take off and replace with new ones, are not afraid to kill or to die, they are fearless and win the battles, and hence they enjoy the power.

The Upanishadic account is confirmed by the reincarnation doctrine’s absence in the Rg-Veda. Yet, my reader claims: “Contrary to mischievous propaganda taking prominence in last few months, Vedas have their foundations in theory of rebirth.” Note first of all the immature debater’s assumption that a statement with which he disagrees must necessarily be born from “mischievous” motives. In reality, a statement may be right or may be wrong regardless of the speaker’s motives; but let that pass.

The reader claims: “Almost all mantras of Vedas implicitly assume that rebirth happens across various species and situations as per Karma or actions of the soul.” This is definitely untrue. He may project his own beliefs onto the  Vedic mantras, but most of these can be read without evoking in the reader’s mind the notion of reincarnation or any other doctrine of a life after death. For instance, the two most famous mantras, Vishvamitra’s Gayatri Mantra and Vasishtha’s Mrtyunjaya Mantra, are unrelated to reincarnation or to the afterlife. The first one is a hymn to the rising sun and asks it to enlighten the worshipper’s mind. The second one is a hymn to Shiva and asks him to deliver the worshipper from mortality. Come to think of it, this presupposes exactly that death is considered the problem, unlike in the doctrine of reincarnation, where rebirth (i.e. non-death) is an automatic given, and completely unlike the Buddhist and generalized Hindu belief that continuous rebirth is the problem and that liberation consists in getting rid of these repeated rebirths.

            The reader them claims to “provide some mantras from [the] Vedas that specifically talk of rebirth”, and starts with RV 10.59.6-7: “O Blissful Ishwar, Please provide us again healthy eyes and other sense organs in next birth. Please provide us powerful vitality, mind, intellect, valor again and again in next births. We achieve bliss in this life and future lives. May we keep looking up to your glory always. Keep us in peace with your blessings. O Ishwar, you provide us space, earth and other elements again and again so that our sense organs function. You provide us the ability to have good health and enjoy life in every birth. You make us strong again and again in various births.” But in fact, the Sankrit original doesn’t mention rebirth (punarjanma), it merely asks the god to give this vitality etc. “again”, i.e. after having lost it. The hymn is about “quickened vigour” and “health-giving medicine”, i.e. about health and longevity, about non-death. It requires very special pleading to read multiple lives into this.

The source quoted is 19th-century reformer Dayananda Saraswati’s notoriously fanciful translation, in which e.g. the names of the different gods are rendered as “God”, making the Vedic seers into quasi-Christians. Like many modern Hindus, he projected his own Christian-influenced beliefs onto the Vedic text. Most Hindus read the Vedas, to the extent that they read them at all, through Puranic lenses, applying the post-Vedic Hinduism which Dayanand Saraswati claimed to despise but which still determined his interpretation to a large extent. What he added and what set him apart from mainstream Hinduism in his day, was that he also tried to bring in quasi-Protestant monotheism and anti-idolatry which he had interiorized from his colonial masters. But in this case, it is not a Christian but a post-Vedic Hindu notion of reincarnation that he projects onto the Rg-Vedic verses.

The reader then quotes Rg-Veda 1.24.1-2: “Question: Whom do we consider the most pure? Who is the most enlightened one in entire world. Who provides us mother and father again in the world after gifting us ultimate bliss or Mukti? Answer: The self-enlightening, eternal, ever-free Ishwar alone is most pure. He alone provides us mother and father again in the world after gifting us ultimate bliss or Mukti.”

The word Mukti (freedom, liberation) and the concept of ultimate bliss are completely imaginary here, the special pleading that pervades later Hindu reading of the Vedic compositions. The original speaks of “seeing” father and mother, whom we shall indeed see in the hereafter. That is what the Rg-Vedic seers  believed in: the same story which we tell our children, viz. that our dead relatives are waiting for us in the hereafter. Sometimes we tell our children also that that particular star over there is where grandfather has gone to; and a Brahmanic funeral ritual (which, a Tamil Brahmin told me, is still performed) does indeed specify which part of the starry sky welcomes the deceased souls. This hereafter is incompatible with the notion of reincarnation. The verse contains the word “punah” (again), and this seems to be reason enough for our reader to believe that reincarnation is meant.  

That’s it for the Rg-Veda. The other quotes which the reader gives, are taken from the younger Yajur- and Atharva-Veda. They were partly contemporaneous with the older Upanishads, and it is not unreasonable if we come across reincarnation beliefs there. Yet, even here we find similar mistranslations. According to him, i.e. to Dayanada Saraswati of the Arya Samaj, this is what Yajurveda 4.15 says: “Whenever we take birth, may our deeds be such that we get a pure mind, long life, good health, vitality, intellect, strong sense organs and a powerful body. In next life also, keep us away from bad deeds and indulge us in noble actions.” But other translations, and indeed the Sanskrit original, don’t speak of reincarnation. They say that breath and life and consciousness have come “again”, but doesn’t imply that we first must have died. At least one translator even specifies that the hymn was said upon awakening.

            As for Atharvaveda 7.67.1, the reader or his source again indulges in misdirection. If that book contained the doctrine of reincarnation, it would still prove nothing about the Rg-Veda; but the verse quoted doesn’t even contain this doctrine: “May we get healthy sense and work organs in next life as well. May I [be] full of vitality. May I have spiritual wealth and knowledge of Ishwar and Vedic concepts again and again. May we be selfless for welfare of world in next lives again and again. May our deeds be noble so that we get human life and always get purity of mind and actions so that we can worship you and achieve salvation.” This translation is really very far from the original, which is another prayer for health and longevity, this time obtained from a specific medicinal herb. Many hymns of the Atharva-Veda are about health-restoration and medicine, i.e. about saving and prolonging life rather than counting on a next life.

            About Atharvaveda 5.1.2, he translates very freely: “One who conducts noble actions obtains noble lives in next births with strong body and sharp intellect. Those who conduct bad deeds get birth in lower species. To experience the fruits of past actions is natural trait of soul. After death, the soul resides in Vayu, Jala, Aushadhi etc. and again enters the womb to take next birth.” We don’t see these “next births” there, but maybe we should sit together and perform a word-by-word translation. This hymn is significantly called the Immortality Hymn, a name which we have already shown to be at odds with the reincarnation doctrine and certainly with the later quasi-Buddhist doctrine that we are tired of these endless rebirths in this Vale of Tears.

            In Yajurveda 19.47, however, the reincarnation doctrine may indeed be implied:

“There are two paths for the soul. One path Pitryana provides birth again and again through union of father and mother, good and bad deeds, happiness and sorrow. The other path of Devayana frees the soul from cycle of birth and death and provides bliss of salvation. The whole world reverberates with both these paths. And after both, the soul again takes birth as progeny of father and mother.” This is the same concept enunciated repeatedly in the older Upanishads: that either we can go to heaven (way of the gods) or we can come back here (way of the ancestors). This doctrine has the same origin as the doctrine of the old Upanishads, where indeed it is introduced as an innovation.

Our reader ends his letter with some lengthy quotations from “Maharishi Swami Dayanand Saraswati`s masterpiece `Light of Truth’”, which only prove that he, like most 19th-century Hindus, believed in reincarnation and could not imagine life without it. The Swami’s organization, the Arya Samaj, claims to this day that he abhorred the decadence into which Puranic literature had thrown the Hindus and that he merely wanted to restore the Vedas to the pristine purity they once enjoyed. In fact, he too was a “Puranic Hindu” who read the Veda through Puranic eyes. He believed that the Veda was of supernatural origin, hence his attempt to translate all reference to mundane people and places out of it.

But in fact, we know the family relations of the Vedic seers, the places where they lived or travelled, the reasons why they waged war and the tribes against whom they did battle, even their fondness for the psychedelic Soma brew. Short, they and their books were human, all too human. Of course they changed their mind once in a while, and they learned from their surroundings or from their own discoveries. This way, they first believed in a hereafter where we would meet again, but later came to the notion that we returned from the hereafter to be born again. Since this belief is attested among many different tribes the world over, and since India knew many tribes of whom the Vedic (Paurava and esp. Bharata) tribe was only one, we opine that it existed among some Indian tribes too at the time when the Rg-Veda was composed. But it was new to the Vedic seers, who had cherished a different belief for long. Only when a successful class advertised the new and hitherto secret doctrine of reincarnation as its key to success, did the doctrine catch on. This way, Hindu history is also the history of progress.  


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Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Rg-Vedic reference to Sati



                The Rg-Veda contains a famous passage mentioning Sati – and preventing it. To a widow who is with her husband on his funeral pyre, the text says: rise up, abandon this dead man and re-join the living (10:18:8). The Vedic testimony proves two things: (1) Sati already existed, and (2) it was disapproved of by the mainstream of the Hindu tradition.

Of course it already existed, going back at least to Proto-Indo-European days. It is also recorded among the Germanic and Celtic branches of Indo-European (in the Siegfried saga, his beloved Brunhilde follows the hero into death). As a general rule, it was more frequent in societies where women had honour to uphold, whereas societies where women were treated as household commodities (like the Greek) did not know the practice at all. Variations on Sati, with harem wives and servants following their kings into death, are recorded in ancient Egypt, ancient China, Mongolia (where the introduction of Tibetan Buddhism put an end to it) and other societies. So India was not that exceptional.

                The Mahabharata confirms the practice’s existence among the aristocracy, esp. with the self-immolation of Pandu’s beloved wife Madri (while his other wife Kunti does not consider it). She may have felt guilty, having seduced Pandu to have intercourse with her in spite of knowing that he was cursed to die from it; but she may also not have valued life without her husband. Greek sources of the last centuries BCE testify that the wives of Indian warriors killed in battle committed self-immolation. One episode  even describes how a dead soldier’s two widows quarrel over who will be the Sati. Mind you, they quarreled for the right to self-immolate, not to make the other one self-immolate, for it was voluntary and indeed required some will-power to overcome the family’s resistance. The Hindu warrior caste, at least in some areas, upheld the practice until the collective Sati of several of Shivaji Bhonsle’s and of Ranjit Singh’s wives. The last great self-immolation by a Hindu ruler was indeed committed upon the death of the Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh in 1839. (If Sati is Hindu, the latter incident only offers extra proof that, much to the displeasure of the Khalistanis, Sikhism is Hindu.)

It is not true that, as some internet Hindus claim, Sati dates to the Muslim or even to the British period. It may be true that in some cases, families forced widows to commit Sati under pressure from altered British inheritance laws, but under these new circumstances it was still Hindus themselves who misused a hoary Hindu practice. They even cited a skewed reading of the Rg-Vedic verse in support of Sati, a classic case of the pliability of “tradition”. As for the Muslim period, typical for some battles was that Hindu warriors fought to the death and their wives who had remained in the towns committed collective self-immolation  or Jauhar, not to fall into the hands of the Muslims. This was a specific practice building on the long-existing Hindu practice of Sati, but not to be confused with it.

It was confined to the real or would-be warrior castes, though, in keeping with their ethos of pride and passion. For Brahmins it was forbidden, a negative judgment going back to this Rg-Vedic verse. Taking such a momentous decision within at most 24 hours between the husband’s death and his cremation, under the impact of heavy emotions, was deemed to be in conflict with the Brahmin ethos of self-control. It is only logical that some rulers in the Brahmin-dominated Maratha confederacy forbid the practice even before the British East India Company Governor Lord William Bentinck (under prodding from Hindu reformer Ram Mohan Roy) abolished it by law in 1829. Brahmin and other high-caste widows were expected to remain loyal to their deceased husbands and refrain from remarrying, no matter how young they were. They became white-clad widows, often kept at a distance because of the stench of death figuratively hanging over them: primitive belief held them responsible for the death of their husbands (the converse implication of the belief that the wife’s force protected the husband). Though lower castes widely emulated this practice by the time European travelers recorded Hindu customs, the rule and often still the practice among low-castes had been that no womb should go unused and so widows remarried.

What is so puzzling about Sati for moderns in general and multiculturalists (in India: secularists) in particular, is that as per numerous testimonies, most self-immolating widows went into the pyre voluntarily, often overcoming pressure from their relatives or from the authorities not to do it. The shrill feminists who were protesting the Sati of Roop Kanwar in 1987 (calling it “murder”, a view which the Court refused to uphold) don’t want to understand this, but the testimonies are clear. The problem is that willing Satis confront the multiculturalists with a really different view of death, of freedom and of a woman’s place. Multiculturalism may be fun as long as it’s about exotic cuisine or Buddha statues in the garden, but here it gets really serious: actual difference between our and their conception of the rights of woman. Here was a class of women who, even as brides, knew very well that their husband’s death would leave them with the option of self-immolation, and accepted the custom.

Then again, we’ve been here before. In some Western countries, progressives have stood up for the right of women (effectively, of their parents) to commit female circumcision. All over the Western world, it is considered progressive to stand up for the right of Muslim women to cover their faces, even on passport photographs. Under their creed of cultural relativism, progressives ought to defend Sati as well, instead of being judgmental and applying narrow-minded Western prejudice to it. Alternatively, they might hold on to the modern “prejudice”, condemn Sati, and admit that multiculturalism has its limits.

Only a tiny minority of the Hindus, and even of the caste most famous for it, the Rajputs, ever committed Sati, but the practice had and largely still has a much wider constituency of supporters. Temples are erected for the women who committed it, where their heroism and loyalty is venerated: the Satisthal-s (now rebaptized as Shaktisthal-s, since Roop Kanwar’s Sati triggered a prohibition on the glorification of Sati). In South India, these women are commemorated with standing stones or Satikal-s, while men who have died while defending their villages get their Virakal-s, “hero stones”. So, whereas few women ever committed Sati, those who saw and venerated the heroism of it, were many.

But is it a “Hindu practice”? Firstly, the practice goes back to the time when the current belief in reincarnation didn’t exist yet. Husband and wife were supposed to go to heaven together, for “going to heaven” prevailed over reincarnation. The later version that they would “reincarnate together” is an unconvincing compromise. If there is anything to reincarnation, it means that if we are somehow entangled, we meet again even if we don’t die together.

Secondly, Hindu scripture largely frowns on it but accepts it for the warrior caste. A good but also difficult point in Hindu ethics is its relativity: depending on caste, age group and circumstances, the rules may differ. Caste autonomy is also recognized, and the decision of the caste Panchayat (council) effectively overruled anything written in the so-called law books. For instance, Brahmins wrote law books sternly condemning abortion, yet pre- and postnatal abortion was rife in some castes. The current problem of female feticide is based on this “Hindu” tradition, yet is clearly forbidden by the equally Hindu law books. So, Sati also had a place in the Hindu commonwealth even if it was forbidden for most people.

The well-known Somali-born ex-Muslim writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, while campaigning for atheism as an alternative to Islam, accepts that Muslim women in large majority will go on believing in Allah and venerating Mohammed for a while, and therefore encourages a progressive interpretation of Islamic law, esp. regarding the treatment of women. But one problem she runs into, is the decentralization of Islam: no matter that a lone liberal Mufti (jurisconsult) issues an opinion giving a progressive reading of Islamic law, this innovation is not binding on other Muftis or on the masses. It is not like in the Catholic Church, where the Pope or the Council can take decisions which are binding on every Catholic. Reform may be slow, but at least it has teeth. By contrast, in decentralized religions, paradoxically it is very difficult to impose change. In particular, no matter how many Hindu authorities or commoners say that they don’t want Sati, if one caste upholds it, it will continue at least in that community.

Hindus, however, much in contrast with Muslims, can effect reform starting below, through a change in mentality. Even the law books, deemed a hotbed of unchanging orthodoxy, explicitly lay down that reform is permissible, esp. if effected by those familiar with the spirit of the law books, who judge that in new circumstances it is better served by a new concretization. Hindus have spontaneously adapted much better to modernity. With some prodding from the secular state, but mainly be an evolution in mentalities, Sati is becoming a quaint memory. The conviction that for a widow, there is life after the death of her husband, is becoming generalized even among the castes where self-immolation was customary.   

(Hindu Human Rights,)

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Monday, March 11, 2013

Globalization of mythology


German-born Sanskritist Michael Witzel is Wales professor in Harvard. He is not my best friend, though I have regularly defended him as a capable and original scholar against those Hindus who disparage his traditional philological arguments for the East-European homeland theory of the Indo-European language family. But any possible misgivings about his approach sink into oblivion next to our appreciation of his latest book: Origins of the World’s Myths (Oxford University Press 2013). It will be an important reference work in mythological studies for decades to come, being easily the most ambitious work in that field. Witzel makes an attempt, with apparent success, to reconstruct the history of myth, not for one culture in the past several thousand years but for mankind as a whole since its dispersal from Africa more than fifty-thousand years ago. Its scope completely dwarfs questions like the origins of Europe’s and India’s civilization.

The project is unabashedly inspired by an earlier attempt at reconstruction, viz. that of the Indo-European language family. The Marxist school represented by Bruce Lincoln, otherwise a meritorious Indo-Europeanist himself, rejects this kind of search for origins. It sees this as looking for a pure and pristine state where a language is perfect and unchanging. This position is frequently quoted by spokesmen of the “Hindu Right” in their stance of criminalizing Witzel’s part in the search for the homeland of Indo-European, calling him a “Nazi”, no less. But as Witzel himself remarks, this is a Romantic, anachronistic view of what reconstructionists do. Nowadays, reconstructionists assume the existence of dialectal differences in Proto-Indo-European and treat the language as an evolute of still earlier languages like the hypothetical Proto-Nostratic. Moreover, less ideologically tainted language families have received the same treatment, like Afro-Asiatic (including Semitic and Hamitic) and Sino-Tibetan, and with Uralic even preceding Indo-European. Reconstruction “brings up, time and again, earlier and earlier forms of myth that are not pristine either – just like reconstructed languages – and actually never reach unity, harmony and perfection”. (p.27) There is nothing ideologically wrong with reconstructing the past, whether of the Indo-European language family or the world’s mythologies.

Note that this work has only become possible now. We have collected the mythologies of nearly all tribes, very often recording them just as they were dying, either because tribes got converted to Christianity and were forgetting their own traditions, or because communities disintegrated into modern societies. We have captured variations in myths as recounted by neighbouring tribes, or by men and women, and these variations often allow us to see elements overlooked or eliminated in the “official” version of the myth. And we have done so globally, glimpsing not just parts of mankind’s mythologies, with occasional similarities here and there (as earlier mythographers like James Fraser perforce had to), but the total picture. For the first time, we can give an account of the whole world’s myths, and therefore we must be glad that finally someone has taken on this task.


Gondwana and Laurasia

In the earth’s geological history, Alfred Wegener’s widely-accepted theory of continental drift posits Pangaea as the Ur-continent, which split into the two primeval continents, Gondwanaland in the South and Laurasia in the North. As the coastlines of the present continents still indicate, Eurasia and North America were once part of Laurasia, while Africa, South America, India, Australia and Antarctica formed Gondwanaland. Witzel takes these names and uses them for two distinct sets of cultures which at one stage largely coincided with these geographical entities.

Gondwana represents mankind as it was during its first expansion more than fifty-thousand years ago. Due to an Ice Age, the sea level was much lower so that primitive man could simply walk across what is now the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the sea lanes between the Southeast-Asian islands and even between New Guinea and Australia. Following the coastline, Homo Sapiens Sapiens spread from his African homeland to the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and Australia. Thus, the Black Africans, South- and Southeast-Asian tribals and Australian Aboriginals form the cultural mega-complex called Gondwana. From these areas around the Indian Ocean, man spread inland and northward.

In Europe and Asia, this first layer was largely overlaid with a second layer: the Laurasian cultures, probably originating in the Middle East (or, I would add, the Indus valley). The landmass of Eurasia witnessed the emergence of a new mythological megacomplex, characterized by mythical themes that did not exist in the earlier layer. Thus, in Gondwana myths, the cosmos is assumed to be self-existent and eternal, and gods only make changes in a preexisting world: “In Gondwana myth, both heaven and earth as well as the ocean are clearly preexistent.” (p.361) Only Laurasian mythologies introduce the search for the creative principle behind the world’s existence, as well as the notion of successive ages culminating in an end time; we will discuss more examples below. Witzel calls the coherent Laurasian account of the cosmos, with a beginning and an end, mankind’s first novel.

This happened before the migration of the Amerindians across the Behring strait during the last Ice Age, some twenty-thousand years ago, for they took the Laurasian mythology with them. Benefiting of the lowered sea level, mankind could spread to the British Isles, to Japan and to the Americas. South America, then, is geologically a part of Gondwanaland but culturally the farthest extension of the Laurasian migration from Siberia.

The term “Pangaean” is used for elements transcending the opposition between the two and shared by peoples the world over. Pangaean mythemes are elements clearly articulated in Gondwana mythology and persisting through the Laurasian innovation. Thus, the Germanic myth of the origin of mankind through the couple Ask and Embla, named after trees (ash and creeper, source material of arrow c.q. bow, i.e. man and woman) is part of a Laurasian mythology but is a local specification of a Gondwana theme, viz. that the first humans originated from trees.


Methodology and hypotheses

The division Witzel develops falsifies the Marxist-inspired theory that myths express the reigning mode of production. Pure Gondwana cultures include hunter-gatherer societies, cowherds and agriculturers (Bantu Africans, some New Guinea natives). Laurasian societies include all these too, plus city dwellers, yet they have different myths. Whether hunter-gatherers have Laurasian or Gondwana myths simply depends on the historical question whether their ancestors underwent the Laurasian revolution. Not the peoples’ material circumstances but their place on mankind’s genealogical tree determines whether they have Gondwana or Laurasian myths. When Amerindians in the Amazonian forest lived a life similar to that of their distant cousins in the Central-African rain forest, they could not undo the Laurasian innovation which their ancestors had acquired while living in Eurasia.

                Similarly, the commonly-heard objection that prefers to explain similarities through diffusion (whether by Hindu opponents of a Non-Indian Homeland Theory in their ill-inspired refusal of a linguistic reconstruction of the Indo-European family or by diffusionist anthropologists in their preference for explaining similar myths in different tribes through synchronic borrowing processes over diachronic transmission from a common ancestry) will not do. There is no way that Gondwana myths could have travelled from Africa to Australia all while bypassing Madagascar with its Austronesian language and Laurasian myths. This geographical distribution of myths can only be explained by the primal expansion of Gondwana mankind from Africa to Australia and by the journey of Austronesians from South China with its Laurasian mythology to Madagascar much later. Of course local processes of borrowing have taken place, making the borderline between Gondwana and Laurasian mythologies a bit fuzzy, but the main structure of the world’s distribution of myths can only be explained genealogically, by a Stammbaum.

                Finally, Carl Gustav Jung’s popular explanation of myth through common subconscious themes or “archetypes” for which we are hard-wired, does account for similarities, particularly the really universal ones, but fails to account for the differences. This book’s story-line, with a global division in two layers and then local divisions within these layers (plus occasional influencing across this border to complicate matters) gives a far more detailed explanation of the really existing myths that anthropologists and other reporters have gathered so painstakingly.


Gondwana myth

                Typical of Gondwana myths is the belief in a High God, mostly a deus otiosus not interfering in the world. Missionaries (as well as some scholars) have tried to interpret this as an Ur-monotheism, a useful entry point to familiarize the heathen natives with the God of the Bible. But generally the belief in this High God does not preclude the belief in a whole pantheon of lower gods. He is at any rate not a creator-god.

                In fact, even in Laurasian myths, which focus on the “emergence” (rather than “creation”) of the world, the appearance of a creator god remains exceptional: “it is important to observe that neither the Gondwana High God, nor the Eurasian (Father) Heaven, nor the Amerindian Great Spirit is a creator god: they do not create the universe or the world, and they leave its establishment to later demiurge deities.” (p.360) Prophetic monotheism gradually developed this idea: “the emergence of the biblical single god and creator took shape only during the second part of the first millennium BCE, clearly under Zoroastrian Persian influence”. (p.360) With this innovation and its later elaboration by theologians came the idea of the “creation ex nihilo” by an extra-cosmic God, an idea too heady for most Laurasian let alone Gondwana cultures.

                Shamanism, with its initiations in caves and its often secretive transmission of divine knowledge, was the religious form typical of Paleolithic hunter cultures. Shamans dressed in animal skins are believed to be able to communicate with the spirits of animal species, as also with other spirits. They go on vision quests and climb the sacred world tree, experience dismemberment and rebirth, and develop the skill of controlled spirit possession. Known from Siberia and the Siberian-descended Amerindians, this tradition originated in essential features in the Gondwana cultures, but has later acquired additional Laurasian features. Thus: “The earlier, Pan-Gaean and Gondwana versions of shamanism have dancing, but they do not yet have the typical Siberian feature of shamanistic drumming, and they do not have much of a shamanistic dress.” (p.382)

I might remark that the Paraias of South India (yes, those whence the English language has borrowed the word pariah) form a borderline case: they certainly are known for ecstatic drumming and dancing to achieve controlled spirit possession. Their distinctive tradition stands out against Vedic Hinduism as much closer to Shamanism. Till recently, they were kept at a distance by Brahmin priests as “untouchables” not because they were despised (though they may have been that too) but because they were feared, viz. for carrying with them the world of the spirits and the dead.

                And what will Hindus think about this? Vedic and yogic culture originates in Shamanism, and its roots are widely visible: “(…) the San [Bushmen], Andamanese and Australians (…) all mention the difficulty in mastering the force inherent in the calling, which often manifests itself as heat that rises up the spine. Obviously this is a very old Pan-Gaean trait: the concept of shamanic heat, and the careful management of this ’power’, which (snakelike) moves up the spine, is a fact still known to Yogic practitioners.” (p.367) “(…) the idea of internal ‘heat’, rising up from the bottom of one’s spine, where it is coiled up as ‘serpent power’, is retained in medieval Indian Kundalini yoga. There is further a striking similarity with the African (San) concept of how to manage this heat, which can be achieved only with difficulty and after a long period of training by other shamans.” (p.387)

So, the Tapas (“heat”, fierce discipline) of the Yogi and even the Kundalini power are an ancient belief going back at least sixty thousand years to the Gondwana cultures? In the Homeland debate, many Hindus can’t stand it when the established historians say that Sankrit is but a daughter language of Proto-Indo-European, which itself has developed as a daughter language of Nostratic or so. Similarly, this old and probably foreign Shamanic ancestry may displease Hindus, though they also like it when the sheer ancientness of Yoga is recognized and magnified. At any rate, this global perspective dwarfs any considerations of the origins of just one culture.


Laurasian myths

                As far as New Zealand, where the Maori population is part of a recent sea-borne expansion of the Austronesians (not to be confused with the far older land-borne expansion of the Australians and Melanesians), Laurasian mankind has myths of an origin of the world. Heaven and Earth first just emerge, while in later versions, they often emerge with the help of a creator-god. Mostly it is not really a creation ex nihilo, but Father Heaven and Mother Earth “are separated”, they emerge as distinct from a primal state of undifferentiated chaos. This is part of a cosmological scheme, with a beginning which isn’t really a beginning, then four world ages ruled by successive generations of gods, and terminating in an end of the world which isn’t really the end. After the twilight of the gods, the whole show starts up again. Once more it is only Biblical thinking which has made the end really final.

                An important Laurasian myth is that of twin brothers of whom one sacrifices the other to create the world. The Biblical story of Cain and Abel, closely related to the first couple Adam and Eve, is a local variation of the story, but other variations are found as far as Mexico. Since similar myths are found among the San, the Aborigines and other Gondwana peoples, this theme must be reckoned among the Pan-Gaean myths.

In the Indo-European world, it takes the form of man (*meno, Manu) sacrificing his twin brother (*yemo, “twin”, Yama) and transforming his body into the parts of the world. This happens in the Germanic version to the giant Ymir and in the Rg-Veda to the giant person (purusha), just as it happens outside the Indo-Germanic world to the Chinese giant Pangu. The Romans, who always had a tendency to transmute myths into history, adapt this story to the founding of their city: while building it, Romulus kills his brother Remus (assimilated to Romulus from *Yemus).

                This sacrifice transforms the giant’s skull into the heavenly vault, his eyes into the sun and the moon, his flowing blood into the rivers, etc., and the flees on his skin into mankind! (This must be the first version of the modern “deep ecologist” view that man is just vermin of the skin of Mother Earth.) But it also furnishes the paradigm for “social corporatism”, the view that human society was organically created from the giant’s body. This provides the famous passage in the Rg-Vedic Purusha hymn where the four classes (varna) are defined, a foundational component of the so-called caste system: “This example provides another extremely long-lasting case of path dependency: it goes back some 3,000 years to the oldest Indian text and beyond that to the late Paleolithic, to the Laurasian concept of the primordial giant.” (p.406)

A typical Laurasian innovation is the myth of the dragon-slayer: “Most prominent in these fights [among different categories of gods] is the slaying of the primordial dragon by the Great Hero, a descendant of Father Heaven. In India, it is Indra who kills the three-headed reptile, just like his Iranian ‘cousin’ Thraetona kills a three-headed dragon and their distant counterpart in Japan, Wo, kills the eight-headed monster (…) in England it is Beowulf, in the Edda it is Sigurd, and in the medieval Nibelungen epic it is Siegfried (…) In Egyptian myth ‘the dragon of the deep’ (Apophis) is slain by the victorious sun when it passes underground”. (p.79) With variations, we also find the motif back among the Greeks, Chinese, Navajo and Maya.

For more examples, the reader is referred to the book itself. This builds its reconstruction with the help of the archaeological and genetic evidence. Specialists of those disciplines will certainly complain that more of it could have been given, but then this book is a pioneering innovation and other scholars are invited to expand on this new paradigm.



This book doesn’t deal with the question that made Witzel such a unique hate name in India: the homeland of the Indo-European language family. Yet, I suspect he had this debate in mind when writing down sentences such as: “Chicken and still later exports from India are absent in common Laurasian ritual.” (p.395) Of course, the Laurasian innovation took place at least twenty-thousand years earlier than the expansion of Indo-European, dated to maybe six-thousand years ago; so the two phenomena are unrelated. However, the quoted sentence is perfectly factual and thus allowed, and on the internet, Witzel must have read many times the gloating remarks of Hindus wrongly taking the new genetic evidence of a movement out of India tens of thousands of years ago as evidence that India is the homeland of Indo-European; so this may be his reaction.

The theme of Indo-European origins is not taken up in this book, yet it has implications even for this question. Firstly, it makes us more aware of the more distant roots of Hindu and Indo-European culture. Thus, the roots of Hindu non-violence are found in Shamanic attitudes attested in far earlier stages of human development: “To compare a typical modern hunter society: in San hunting, the animal is wounded by a poisoned arrow and followed for hours; it is then asked for permission to be killed, just as was done in rituals in ancient Greece and Vedic India and as is still being done in modern Hindu sacrifice.” (p.398) Secondly, this effort at reconstructing a distant past spanning at least fifty-thousand years and the whole world encourages us to complete the far less ambitious endeavour to reconstruct the early history of Indo-European. Some day in the near future, the now-frequent statements despairing of us mortals ever finding its homeland will seem unnecessarily defeatist.

Postscript 22 March 2013: Censored

When I posted this review to the Indo-European Research List, this review was promply banned. Listmaster Steve Farmer found it too political (though not just its list members are effectively allowed to take sides, but so is the list itself) and too anti-Witzel. The reader is invited to judge these allegations for himself. This is my thind message to this list (out of six or so) that has been censored. I have seen myself evolving over the years, and am always surprised when finding that others are frozen in their old attitudes.

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Saturday, March 2, 2013

Whose yoga is it anyway?

In the Rajiv Malhotra Discussion yahoo group, someone quoted Prof. Ann Gleig of Religious Studies (Central Florida) as saying that two groups have continually asserted that yoga is inherently religious, viz. evangelical Christians and some Hindus who want to preserve the practice's religious influences. "So both of these groups, which have very different agendas, ironically support each other in an historically flawed construction of yoga as an essential unchanging religious practice that is the 'property' of Hinduism". The poster juxtaposed this remark with his own opinion: “In Hindu spiritual traditions, yoga is one of many techniques by which the truth of man's ultimate unity with the Supreme can be verified, empirically, at a personal level.”

Patanjala Yoga Sutra, known till Shankara as a branch of Sankhya or simply as Patanjala Darshana, defines yoga in an non-theistic and non-religious way. "Yoga is the stopping of the motions of the mind" is a purely technical definition. The next verse, "Then the seer rests in his own form", explicitates the book’s definition of the goal of yoga as "isolation" (kaivalya), i.e. of consciousness (purusha) from its objects (sensory perceptions, desires, memories, intellection, all belonging to the less or more rarefied reaches of nature/prakrti). In both phrases, there is no God in the picture, He has nothing at all to do with the goal of yoga.

Yoga here does not mean “union (viz. with God)”, as most modern Hindus will tell you. There is nothing to unite with, only something to separate from, viz. nature (prakrti) in the largest sense. Consciousness in the ordinary state is constantly entangled in thoughts and perceptions, and yoga means withdrawing it from all these entanglements.  

                Patanjali makes a practical concession to the believers among his readers by saying that "devotion to God" is one of the preparatory stages of yoga. He defines God/Ishvara exactly like radically atheist Jains define their liberated souls, namely as a desireless purusha; so it remains highly uncertain that "God" as currently understood is meant. At any rate, he refuses to make this special purusha somehow the goal of his yoga. Yoga does not revolve around an external being called God, but is purely a matter of relating to yourself, viz. totally sinking into yourself and forgetting about the world and the "tentacles" of consciousness into it.

                When modern Hindus speak about yoga (and they speak about it a lot but practise it very little), they have a distorted view of it, inflected by what has been the dominant stream in Hinduism for centuries, viz. theistic bhakti (devotion). "Unity with God", whatever that may mean, is a concept from bhakti/sufism and also adopted by some writers on Christian mysticism.  But it is completely absent in historical yoga as defined by Patanjali.

                Even if we leave Patanjali out of the discussion, at least the atheist yoga of Jains and Buddhists proves that yoga does not require any belief in God, much less God himself. To that extent, the quoted American researchers are right: only religious diehards on both sides maintain that yoga is connected with Hindu religion in the dominant devotional-religious sense. Indeed, in debates between the Nath yogis and the bhakti poet Guru Nanak (founder of the Nanak Panth, better known as Sikhism), the latter identifies their yoga as self-directed, earlier a standard Hindu allegation against the atheist Buddhists.  

However, even if yoga is considered godless, it remains very much part of Hindu civilization. As modern Hindus are wont to say, even an atheist can be a Hindu. I am afraid that this is past glory, that nowadays Hinduism defines itself as theistic; but historically they are correct. Yoga is Hindu, though it is not the property of contemporary God-centered Hindus.

                I am currently finishing a booklet for the greater public on the external enemies of Hinduism. It will make me very popular among Hindus. But next, I want to write a similar booklet about the internal enemies of Hinduism, or is other words: what is wrong with the Hindus so that e.g. they cannot settle the Kashmir dispute or the constitutional/legal discrimination of the Hindus in spite of being a democratic majority? This should make me a few friends among the secularists, but I think the enmity on that side in already too entrenched; but it will certainly make me many enemies among Hindus. They don't like a Westerner criticizing them, though I have most of these criticisms from Hindus themselves. At any rate, if Hindus don't make a systematic diagnosis of the problem, someone else has to do it. And the current (sentimenal and confused) Hindu bhakti notion of "God" is certainly a big part of the problem.

                The same list member also quotes one Professor Andrea Jain, assistant professor of religious studies (Indiana), that the forms of yoga commonly practiced in the US are the result of the mix of colonial India and euro-American physical culture: “In fact, postural yoga has been shown to be a successor of fitness methods that were already common in parts of Europe and the United States before postural yoga was introduced. So we could think of postural yoga as a 20th century product, the aims of which include all sorts of modern conceptions of physical fitness, stress reduction, beauty and well-being, these things were not present in pre-colonial traditions of yoga at all."

This supposed expert Andrea Jain is simply parrotting a very recent theory. She is plainly wrong, for yoga in the sense of meditation is very ancient, and was given a synthesis (of pre-existing views) by Patanjali. It existed in many varieties including the Jain and Buddhist ones, which built on a tradition that was already ancient by the time of the first writings around 300 BC. As for postural yoga, it dates back at least to the Nath yogis, who started in maybe 1100 AD, before Muslim rule in the Ganga plain, when the British were nowhere in the picture and America as a state didn't even exist yet.

Unlike Patanjala Yoga (meditation) the more recent postural Hatha Yoga is indeed directed to relaxation and fitness. Hatha Yoga classics promise you a lustrous body and concomitant success with the opposite sex -- not quite the goal of Patanjala Yoga, but very much the goal of Madonna and millions of other American yoga practitioners. Hatha yoga is a different tradition from Patanjali’s yoga, and partly directed to a different goal. But whatever may be the worth of that, Indians invented it themselves, long before British conceptions of fitness could (marginally) influence it.

(published in Centre Right India, 23 February 2013)

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My time in the Senate

Last Thursday was my last working day in the Belgian Senate. I enjoyed the so-called Happart statute, i.e. collaborator of a former bureau member of a parliamentary commission. The well-known Walloon nationalist José Happart sat in a commission but his party had promised this post to someone else. However, he didn’t want to leave because one of the perks of the job was that he had a collaborator. So, the Belgian solution was to create a post of temporary collaborator of former commission bureau members. They all henceforth enjoyed this privilege, which normally means the continuation of the serving collaborator for a year plus the number of months equal to the number of years which the member had been on the commission. When Senator Jurgen Ceder quit his party and stayed on as Independent Senator, it sent someone else to the commission (Foreign Affairs and Defence), while he himself could hire someone with the Happart statute. In the event, he cut the job in two and hired two collaborators half-time. Since Health Insurance prohibited me from working more than half-time because of my medical history, this job was as if tailor-made for me.

I also felt sympathy for the particular situation of the Senator who was looking for assistance. He had left the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), a party I always disliked. In 1992, I had spoken at a party gathering about Islam, on the assumption that “la vérité est bonne” (“truth is a good thing”, and saying it to people will always be beneficial). Apparently I was bolstering a change in policy advocated by some party leaders concerned about Islam, but that became the party-line only years later. Anyway, at the reception afterwards, when I first met ordinary party members, I was appalled by the ease of some members with tough policies and violence in general, and with the nostalgia for the war years that some evinced. For the enemy it would prove easy to shoot down the good cause of opposition to Islamization by associating it with these elements in the party. At that time it became very clear to me that resistance to Islam would have to come from the mainstream parties (as it has to some extent in the neighbouring countries). Anyway, I was satisfied to see that more of the party’s politicians started to understand this and defected.

Ceder’s analysis was that times had changed but the party had not. It had started out as a radical Flemish-Nationalist party but had broken through once it restyled itself as anti-immigrant. At that time, foreigners were still something to look at. Today they are present in every classroom, and our youth is perfectly used to them. As the Government’s commissioner for anti-discrimination affairs, Father Johan Leman, had said in the 1990s, the political field was polarized between the VB on the far Right and everyone else, either Leftist or forced to follow policies dictated by the Left, while numerous people really wanted to vote for a moderately Rightist party. That party materialized when the N-VA was created, and especially when the articulate conservative Bart De Wever became its leader. In 2010, it became the largest party by far, though the Belgian establishment kept it out of the Government. This move away from the mainstream parties’ failed policies as well as from the VB’s failed opposition seemed to be the kind of political project I wanted to be part of.

The hardest part of the job was to shut up. In the commission meetings, only Senators are allowed to speak, so when I heard something to which I badly wanted to react, I had to keep mum. Otherwise it was fun, meeting all those faces from TV in the hallway or the conference room. Most memorable for me were the interviews with Serbia’s Deputy Prime Minister, who pleaded Serbia’s case for admission to the European Union, and the General Director of the Israeli prison system.

Unfortunately, the Belgian Senate does little of tangible importance, though it meddles in many conflicts. The Syrian government, the Congolese militias or the Somali pirates must have a fit of panic when the Belgian Senate passes yet another resolution about them. It is presently getting worse, as the Belgian Government agreed on institutional reforms that will leave the Senate with fewer competences and fewer members from 2014 onwards. The important politicians found it harder and harder to even show up. Already it was difficult to reach the quorum and hold a valid meeting.  When I started working, the commission met two or three times a week; my last week, it was only once.

Chairman of the Commission was Karl Van Louwe (N-VA, i.e. Flemish Nationalist), with whom I had a good understanding. Also of his party was Piet De Bruyn, a very active committee member. My impression of Bert Anciaux (Socialist, ex-Flemish-Nationalist) improved a lot while on the commission. He was very active, often asking a third or so of the parliamentary questions to the Foreign Affairs or Defence Minister. Likewise his Walloon counterpart Marie Arena (Socialist), a very imposing presence. Not so often present was Christian-Democrat Rik Torfs, a mediagenic law professor, but when he spoke up, he made a difference. He turned out to be a real intellectual, nuanced and with the gift of seeing the larger picture. I also liked Jacky Morael, the avuncular Ecologist who was often the only member to vote against a proposal or even to abstain.

One issue of some real importance for the past year was whether to intervene in Syria or not. Our Foreign Minister, Didier Reynders, usually stays close to French foreign policy, as exemplified by the Belgian eagerness to send troops to Mali to help the French troops on their (so far) victorious march against the Islamist militias. Maybe the satisfaction of this successful intervention in Mali put an end to his enthusiasm for following France into active help to the Syrian opposition. At any rate, I strongly opposed this support, military or otherwise, to the Syrian rebels. They are increasingly dominated by Islamist forces, and they are given lots of money, weapons and mercenaries by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies. If at all they were worthy of support, it should not come from crisis-stricken Europe but from these Arab states, flush with money and unemployed young men spoiling for a good fight. But so far, there is every reason to think that their coming to power will not improve matters, and will unleash a persecution of the Alawites, Christians and other minorities by the majority Sunnis. As Bert Anciaux said: “The present regime is bad, but we have no idea whether the opposition will prove better.” This is not a cause worth risking the lives of our boys for.

All along, Didier Reynders proposed to support the opposition, but the prospect of tangible military losses (i.e. body bags) kept the French Government and him from implementing these ideas. And now he has come to muse how strange it would be “to support Islamism in Syria while we have gone to fight it in Mali”. I feel strengthened in my analysis that, while drones may be a powerful weapon, the Muslim world really needs a thaw. Peace and stability are far more conducive to relaxation and change than the present polarization.

To get a taste of foreign policy, I attended a lot of symposia and workshops of the numerous think tanks in Brussels, and meetings of the many political advocacy groups. India, its province Kashmir, Brazil, China, the Middle East, every topic that interested me regularly featured in our capital. It started with the big event of the Iranian opposition, the Mujahedin-i-Khalq, in autumn 2011. Many veterans of French, British and American foreign or security policy were on the panel, all united in their support for the Iranian opposition, and full of forgiveness for its former terrorist record. If I were the Iranian Government, I would have simply broadcast the speeches, for they constituted the best proof that these Iranian opponents and dissidents are but lackeys of Western imperialist policies.

The biggest surprise of my time as a senatorial assistant was the false accusation against my Senator. In his student days in 1984, Jurgen Ceder had been accused of breaking someone’s leg, leaving him seriously limping for the rest of his life. Someone else did it, and there was no way an honest witness could have confused the black-dressed Ceder with the actual “culprit”, who reacted when a Leftist demonstrator splashed white paint all over him. For the man who was presented as the “victim” was not so innocent. Anyway, Ceder stood trial and was fully acquitted twice. Yet in July, when he had announced his decision to join the N-VA, he was accused of the crime once again in the daily De Morgen and the weekly Knack. He did react once, but I think that after the commotion he should have pleaded the guilt of the journalists who had shown contempt of court and contempt of the truth. Apparently he wanted to avoid further upheaval as it could have hurt his new party, just before the crucial municipal elections of October 2013.

Of course, I know from experience that in the hands of the Leftist media, slander is a powerful weapon. But it is powerful only because they have the bourgeoisie in their pocket. Thus, fearful or opportunistic employers will never employ someone with a negative press, even if it is lies from A to Z, because of the bad name it would give their institution or company. The untruth of the media slander may be obvious but makes no difference. How many times have employers or organizers of conferences not told me: “I know you are right, Dr. Elst, and I know they are wrong, but you must understand that our institution cannot afford to bring in someone controversial like you.”

The whole incident looked very familiar to me. It reminded me that I was lucky to have been offered a job at all. I have never gotten a job by applying for it, all my time in job applications has been wasted, it was always an offer coming my way. After my heart disease and medical operations, I was given a second chance, a fresh start with this job at the Senate. Now, on to new breakthroughs.

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