Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Ramakrishna debate, continued

The debate on the Ramakrishna Mission’s claim that Ramakrishna, the 19th-century Kali priest, also practiced Christianity and Islam, and that he distanced himself from Hinduism to found a new universal religion called Ramakrishnaism, has taken the form of some hostile reactions from sympathizers of the Mission. They may be members or have some other status, I don’t know, so we may just focus on what they have to say.


RKM is Hindu

One person scolded me for even thinking that the Ramakrishna Mission is non-Hindu. He cites the Hindu atmosphere and the many Hindu rituals and practices at the Mission centres. I might add the fact that the Mission only recruits among Hindus. No Christian or Muslim would join this Pagan outfit. That fact alone refutes the Mission’s own claim that it has somehow embraced all religions. The Mission is a typically Hindu group, and even its pompous claim of validating all world religions is a claim made by many Hindus. When Mahatma Gandhi said: “I am a Hindu, I am a Muslim, I am a Sikh, II am a Christian”, Mohammed Ali Jinnah dryly commented: “That is a typically Hindu thing to say.”

But I am surprised to hear that the Ramakrishna Mission has not disclaimed Hinduism. Not only has the organization shouted from the rooftops and on all kinds of public forums that “universal Ramakrishnaism” is superior to “narrow Hinduism”, it has even gone to court to be officially recognized as a non-Hindu minority.



Then there were some who, expectedly, took the opposite position, viz. that the RKM follows its saint Ramakrishna in embracing non-Hindu religions and their founders. One of these deserves a closer and more detailed reply. Not that he had said much beyond several lengthy e-mails full of personal abuse (a poor advertisement for the effects of being a Ramakrishnaite). He belonged to a type I have become sadly familiar with on the internet: born Hindus who muster endless argumentation, often cleverly twisting issues and deploying a sophisticated discourse, all in order to defend a case that is downright silly; and that is, moreover, harmful to Hinduism.

For instance, I've had to face endless argumentations in favour of the belief that Jesus lived and died in India. This belief stems from a book by the Russian aristocrat Nicolas Notovich (1887, 1894), who claimed to have found notes about Jesus' stay in India in a monastery in the Himalaya. This manuscript was never found and the monastery's abbot denied ever have had or seen such a text. The contents of the text which Notovich claimed to have seen was also very suspect by its contents: the themes of Jesus' alleged controversies with Brahmins are typical for the late-colonial age, not at all for the 1st century. Although the polemic about it involved such worthies as Max Muller and yielded no proof at all, and although Notovich finally admitted to having made it all up, in 1899 Mirza Ghulam Ahmed (founder of the heretic Ahmadiya sect of Islam) used the story to bolster his claim that prophets could just as well be native to India rather than to the Middle East, so that he could be a legitimate prophet too. And even now, the story has numerous defenders among Hindus. Passionate believers, sometimes even clever and argumentative believers, in a story that is patently false.

In the present case too, we have a learned display of rhetoric in the service of an illusion. Of course, he doesn’t try to prove his claim. Either this claim has not been proven, as we maintain, or it has been proven. In that case, it would be well worth the extra trouble to spell out this proof clearly, once and for all. But alas, this proof was not forthcoming. To be sure, this proof is not that according to a second person, RK had "had a vision", then according to a third person years later, this vision was "perhaps of Mohammed", and according to a fourth person, later again, it is dead certain that he saw Mohammed. For the founding moment of a religion, "Ramakrishnaism", one is entitled to expect proof of higher quality than testimony (?) at several removes.

Even if this very flaky and very suspect sequence were to convey the truth, such a "vision" would in no way be what the  RKM now claims, viz. the "practice" of Islam/Christianity. As a Muslim commented, you cannot take a holiday and be a Muslim for a while, then revert to goddess-worshipping. Neither Christianity nor Islam consist in having a "vision" of the founder.

 Nonetheless, this RKM sympathizer’s reformulation of the challenge to non-Ramakrishaites is interesting:

“The scope of my discussion is quite limited and is focused on only one thing: Ramakrishna believed in the divinity of Jesus Christ and he did practice some discipline of Christianity on the results of which his such belief was based. The same can be said of his feeling for some discipline of Islam – that he practiced it and derived divine/spiritual satisfaction from it. I think it is for Koenraad Elst to spell out his clear position on this observation once and for all.”

As a matter of walking the extra mile, I will spell out my position. However, let it be understood that I am under no obligation to explain anything or give proof for anything, as I am not putting forward any claim. I am merely skeptical of a claim made by the RKM and this fellow. Because it is he who has put forward a claim, it is up to him to prove his point. Even if nobody comes forward to offer any kind of counter-proof or refutation, the mere fact that the claim is put forward, does not annul its need for proof. As long as the claim is not proven, it was right for sterling Hindus like Ram Swarup and Shiva Prasad Ray to express skepticism of it. The burden of proof is for 100% on the maker of this challenge.


Belief in Jesus

Now, my position. If Ramakrishna had found that his own Hinduism was insufficient, if he had founded a new religion which the RKM calls Ramakrishnaism, if RK had found Christianity and Islam to be "part" of this new religion, and if he had personally "verified the truth" of these religions by means of "visions", then this would be such a momentous revolution that he would have spent the rest of his days discussing and elaborating it. Instead, absolute silence, and Kali. So, this already pleads against the RKM’s claim.

Now that we are discussing this, it strikes me that in the 24 years that I have followed this debate, I have not seen the RKM people come up with an actual quote from the master in which he claims Jesus' divinity. Surely, such belief would have been big news to his Hindu and non-Christian followers. Our critic too has eloquently beaten around the bush in several replies, but he has spurned the occasion to present to us the only thing that would finish this debate, viz. proof (as opposed to mere claims) that RK worshipped Jesus as a divine being. The best proof would be a statement to this effect by RK himself, but this time too it is not forthcoming.

But to really evaluate Ramakrishna’s beliefs about Jesus, it would be useful (from a scholarly viewpoint, even necessary) to get the facts straight about Jesus himself. I have not brought Jesus into this discussion, it is the RKM that insists Ramakrishna had a vision of Jesus and believed in Jesus’ divinity. So, let’s discuss Jesus. But let me warn you: Hindus by their upbringing may know everything about Puja or other Hindu things, but their knowledge of Jesus tends to be very hazy. I, having gone through the whole Catholic education system and moreover having made a purposeful study of the character Jesus, know more about this subject than the RKM sympathizer will ever know in his lifetime. I have studied Jesus, he has not. That is not some colonial utterance, in fact two Hindus skeptical of the RKM claims set me on this path, but it is simply a fact that someone who has assimilated the scholarly findings on Jesus knows the subject better than religious types who have only interiorized some missionary sermons calculated to fool a gullible audience. Conversely, Hindus who have not made a specific study of comparative religion and esp. of Christianity are ill-equipped to pontificate about Jesus.

So, what I know about Jesus, is that he was no more divine than you or me. He was a wandering healer, with his ears open for the wisdom going around, which he relayed in his own logia, sermons with parables, a few of them good,-- but still revered by the people mostly because of his reputation as a healer. To be sure, his friends and relatives who knew him, saw through his act, which is why he performed no "miracles" in his hometown. Elsewhere, he could often pull it off, but still he was less powerful than proper medicine. Thus, he healed someone from epilepsy ("ghost-possession"), making him rise after his epileptic seizure -- but such fits always subside and end in a return to normalcy. And in one case, the Gospel says in so many words that the disease later reappeared. Nothing scandalous, but nothing divine either, about false beliefs in healing powers.

Jesus had a rather big idea about himself, just like Mohammed and some other religious leaders. Thus, he believed that he was the Messiah. He repeatedly made the prediction that he himself would return within the lifetime of some in his audience. Today we are two thousand years and dozens of generations down the line, yet Jesus has not come back. Now, wrong predictions are human, in fact they are ten a penny. Jehovah's Witnesses put their foot between your front door to predict the end of the world, but it didn't come in 1914, nor in 1975. What makes Jesus' wrong prediction an even worse failure is that, while the Witnesses make a prediction about someone else, Jesus did so about himself. Unlike other diviners, Jesus merely had to look in his own agenda to see when he was scheduled to return, and still he failed! So, nothing divine about wrong predictions.

But at least Jesus overcame death by his resurrection? This is the core of the Christian belief system. Now, the difference between the living and the dead is that you can run into the living, not the dead. But, like the dead, Jesus is beyond meeting. People have reported "seeing" Jesus in visions, but no one has met him in person. So his condition is the same as that of other mortals. The wages of Original sin are mortality and child-bearing in pain, and it would be somewhat divine if Jesus had overcome mortality to live endlessly and still be among us. But no, he's gone. The New Testament writers have spirited him away through the trick of the "Ascension": though somewhat spectacular, he did the same thing as the rest of us, mortals: he went to heaven. So, nothing particularly divine about mortality.

I will of course not go through the numerous findings of Bible scholarship, about which so many books are available. But for now, I have said enough to underpin the conclusion: Jesus was not divine. If Ramakrishna was a Muslim, as the RKM claims, then he was already convinced of Jesus' non-divine status, which is a basic belief of Islam (and in that respect, Islam is more rational than the person-cult which is Christianity). If, however, as our RKM sympathizer claims, RK believed in the divinity of Christ, then he was badly informed, not to say that he was mistaken.

In fact, this sympathizer wants you to venerate a silly Ramakrishna who believed the sop stories of the missionaries, to the point of self-hypnotizing and seeing a vision of Jesus. By contrast, I (or rather Ram Swarup and Shiva Prasad Ray) give you a Ramakrishna who was discerning enough to keep the missionaries at a distance. He was not a Christian nor a Ramakrishnaist, but simply a Hindu, worshipping Krishna and Hanuman and most of all Kali. You too can live a happy-healthy-holy life while staying a Hindu and ignoring Jesus.


Being a Christian

The second claim is that Ramakrishna “practised a Christian discipline”, and that as a result, he found that Christianity is equally true and yields the same results that he had already reached through his Hindu sadhana. Now, "being a Christian" or "being a Muslim" has a precise definition, which RK did not fulfil. He was not recognized as one of theirs by any known mullah or padre. The missionaries sent bulletins home in which they reported the conversions they wrought; surely they would not have neglected reporting the Christianization of a leading Hindu saint? And the RKM has had more than a century to get and show the document that proved their case, viz. that Ramakrishna turned his back on “narrow Hinduism”.  

Even in the different sects of Hinduism, you only become a member by going through a formal ceremony, you are given a yajnopavit (sacred thread) or you get diksha (initiation) or shaktipat (transmission of energy). Ramakrishna never went through the formal ceremonies making him a Christian or a Muslim. He was not circumcised and never uttered the Islamic creed. He was not baptized and never uttered the Christian creed. No matter what vision he had, it did not make him either Christian or Muslim.

Further, there is no such thing as "practising" Christianity or Islam. Either you are in or you are out. Imitating the behavior of a Muslim/Christian all while remaining a Pagan does not make you a Muslim/Christian. In fact, we would like to know which these practices were. Our RKM sympathizer has repeatedly spurned the occasion to spell this out. Did he observe Ramadan, or did he prefer Lent? Did this vegetarian offer sheep sacrifice, as is prescribed for Muslims? Did he eat fish on Friday, as Christians do? Did he condemn caste, which is an intrinsic attitude of Christianity, at least according to contemporary missionaries? And again, was he baptized? Which Christian worthy accepted him as a Christian? We would like some straight answers to these questions.

Not that they would make any tangible difference. Ramakrishna may have been pure gold, but even his acceptance of the quintessential Christian belief in Jesus’ divinity would not make Jesus divine; at least not more than you and me. If, after all these years, the RKM were at  last to prove that Ramakrishna did worship Jesus, we would have to conclude that he was mistaken,-- surely not the conclusion which the RKM would like us to draw. Fortunately, there is no indication that he did.


Some further problems with the RKM’s claim

Another problem: a Christian cannot be a Muslim, and a Muslim cannot be a Christian. Leaving aside Hinduism and "Ramakrishnaism", please focus only on Christianity and Islam. How could Ramakrishna be a Christian while also being a Muslim? No Christian or Muslim authority would accept his being the one while also being the other. Christians believe Jesus was the Son of God, both God and man, while Muslims consider him just a man. Christians believe he was resurrected while Muslims disbelieve that he even died on the cross. How did RK combine these mutually exclusive beliefs?

Finally, RK is known to have died while worshipping Kali. By Christian and Islamic definition, he was a goddess-worshipper, hence an out-and-out Pagan. If he ever was a Muslim or a Christian, his dying as a Pagan meant that he was an apostate. If being an ignorant Pagan is bad enough, being a wilful apostate, who has known but rejected the truth and reverted to the false belief of Paganism, is really demonic and a sure ticket to the fires of hell. So, according to the RKM, RK has spent the last century braving the fires of hell. For that is what Islam and Christianity (which the RKM holds to be "true") promise to a Pagan like Ramakrishna.

The RKM professes a syncretism, combining elements from different religions. Ramakrishnaism is the syncretism par excellence, affirming “all” religions to be true. As the Church Fathers wrote, syncretism is typical of Paganism. The Roman-Hellenistic milieu in which the first Christians had to function, was full of syncreticism, with Roman matrons worshipping Isis with the babe Horus (an inspiration for the image of Mary holding the babe Jesus), legion soldiers worshipping Persian-originated Mithras, and imperial politicians worshipping the Syrian-originated Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Son). Against this syncretism, they preached religious purity: extra ecclesiam nulla salus, outside the Church no salvation. They had no problem admitting that Paganism was naturally pluralistic, but what is the use of choosing between or combining different kinds of falsehood? They as Christians had something better than pluralism, viz. the truth. And once you have the truth, you are no longer interested in any other religion. So, from the Christian viewpoint, the RKM’s dissatisfaction with “mere” Hinduism is an admission that Hinduism doesn’t have the truth.


Swami Vivekananda’s claim

The best argument in favour of the RKM’s claim is a statement apparently made by Swami Vivekananda:

“The next desire that seized upon the soul of this man [RK] was to know the truth about the various religions. Up to that time he had not known any religion but his own. He wanted to understand what other religions were like. So he sought teachers of other religions. […] He found a Mohammedan saint and placed himself under him; he underwent the disciplines prescribed by him, and to his astonishment found that when faithfully carried out, these devotional methods led him to the same goal he had already attained. He gathered similar experience from following the true religion of Jesus the Christ.”

Our RKM sympathizer wants to “point [out] to KE that the burden of proof is on him to disprove the observations of RK’s chief disciple (and official spokesman?) , as otherwise, by default, they should be assumed to be true. (…) Would KE care to share his compelling reasons to believe that SV lied?”

Once again, he has got things backwards. It is he who makes a claim, and the burden of proof is thus for 100% on him. Swami Vivekananda was not an eye-witness and made this statement, which I will for now assume to be genuine (Ram Swarup was a great reader of Swami Vivekananda’s Complete Works and doesn’t mention it), many years after the fact. Nothing of the above loses any of its force by this early version of a claim later made into the official line of the RKM, but for which any proof is missing.

It is no surprise that somebody ignorant of the rules of logic should use an "argument of authority" as his trump card. He plays upon the expected indignation of the Indian-born majority of the readership if I dare to say that Swami Vivekananda "lied". But in fact, I don't need to put it down as a "lie". In the world of religion and the occult, I have rarely seen anyone who deliberately said something that he knew to be untrue. But I have met or witnessed or read thousands of people who spread falsehoods which they believed to be true.

Even Swami Vivekananda was just a fallible human being,-- a statement which may scandalize his followers but which he himself would wholeheartedly accept. The processes which have led the RKM to believe and propagate the falsehood about Ramakrishna's visions, may have taken him in, too. Or he may simply have meant that Ramakrishna had that commendable Hindu attitude of curiosity and respect for whatever other religions draw his attention. At any rate, while we don't know which processes were at work in Vivekananda’s case, we have his naked statement and this, at least, we can evaluate. And we find it, if taken literally, to be simply false.

"Liberation", the goal of the Upanishadic seers and of most Hindu schools since, is not the (or even a) goal of Christianity. No Christian ever claimed to have achieved it, nor was he claimed by other Christians to have done so. The case applies even more bluntly to Islam: the goal of the five pillars of Islam is simply to obey God's commandments as given in the Quran, not any "Liberation". The goal of a Hindu sadhana will not be achieved by a Muslim or a Christian "sadhana", and vice versa. If someone said that a Christian discipline “led him to the same goal he had already attained”, he was most certainly wrong. However, it is possible that the state of consciousness which Ramakrishna had already attained in his Hindu sadhana remained with him when he practised whatever this Sheikh gave him to do. But would that state still be so easily achieved if he had practised only these Islamic c.q. Christian exercises?



Sita Ram Goel once said that “Hindus think they know everything about everything”. Thus, while it is hard enough to study a handful of religions, numerous Hindus routinely make claims about the equal truth of "all" religions, as if they had studied them all. In this respect, at least, the RKM monks are certainly Hindus.

The RKM’s ambition to outgrow Hinduism and be “universal” is a form of hubris. In Greek religion, hubris, or man’s will to be equal to the gods, is the cardinal sin. In Christianity too, Adam and Eve committed hereditary sin, not by lust (as many superficial people think) but by hubris: initially innocent creatures, they wanted to be equal to God, who knows good and evil. In this respect, at least, many (it would be hubris to assert “all”) religions agree, and they happen to be right. So, let us stop this bad habit of making claims about “all” religions, including those that we know only hazily or not at all. One thing that initially attracted me to the Hindu cause was the humbleness and simplicity of the ordinary Hindus I met. It would be nice if all megalomaniacs climbed down from their high horses and rediscovered this simplicity.

Secondly, I find it sad and not spelling anything good, that Hindus who are so laid back about the enemies of and challenges before Hinduism, get so worked up when their own little sect is challenged. Arya Samaj spokesmen don't have 1% of their forebears' concern with the Christian and Islamic threats, but they really get into the act when defending against other Hindus their pet beliefs about Vedic monotheism and non-idolatry. The ISKCON people never confront Christianity or Islam, but they get really nasty against fellow Hindus who are not as Krishna-centred (such as the pre-Krishna Vedic Rishis) as they themselves are. And here too, the RKM is alarmed when some Hindus disbelieve its pet doctrine of Ramakrishna's visions of Jesus and Mohammed. It would be good if they shed this obsession with their sectarian “unique selling proposition” and return to a broader consciousness, one that would be recognizable to all Hindus.

Hinduism existed before Jesus and Mohammed. It was good enough for the Vedic seers and non-Vedic sadhus, and it didn't need those two. I think Hinduism will only survive if it forgets about this false incarnation and this false prophet. The RKM ultimately has no choice but to admit that for the past so many decades, it has been spreading an erroneous and harmful belief. It should announce out loud that all struggles over its exact identity are over, because it owns up to its natural Hindu identity. Indeed, it should rediscover and second its founder, Swami Vivekanada, who declared: “Say with pride, we are Hindus!”

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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Did Ramakrishna practice other religions?



The central argument of the RK Mission for its non-Hindu character was that, unlike Hinduism, it upheld the ‘equal truth of all religions’ and the ‘equal respect for all religions’.  The latter slogan was popularized by Mahatma Gandhi as sarva-dharma-samabhâva, a formula officially approved and upheld in the BJP’s constitution.n 1983, RK Mission spokesman Swami Lokeshwarananda said: ‘Is Ramakrishna only a Hindu?  Why did he then worship in the Christian and Islamic fashions?  He is, in fact, an avatar of all religions, a synthesis of all faiths.

The basis of the Swami’s claim is a story that Swami Vivekananda’s guru Paramahansa Ramakrishna (1836-86) once, in 1866, dressed up as a Muslim and then continued his spiritual exercises until he had a vision; and likewise as a Christian in 1874.  If at all true, these little experiments shouldn’t be given too much weight, considering Ramakrishna’s general habit of dressing up a little for devotional purposes, e.g. as a woman, to experience Krishna the lover through the eyes of His beloved Radha (not uncommon among Krishna devotees in Vrindavan); or hanging in trees to impersonate Hanuman, Rama’s monkey helper.

But is the story true? Author Ram Swarup finds that it is absent in the earliest recordings of Ramakrishna’s own talks.  It first appears in a biography written 25 years after Ramakrishna’s death by Swami Saradananda (Sri Ramakrishna, the Great Master), who had known the Master only in the last two years of his life.  Even then, mention (on just one page in a 1050-page volume) is only made of a vision of a luminous figure.  The next biographer, Swami Nikhilananda, ventures to guess that the figure was ‘perhaps Mohammed’. In subsequent versions, this guess became a dead certainty, and that ‘vision of Mohammed’ became the basis of the doctrine that he spent some time as a Muslim, and likewise as a Christian, and that he ‘proved the truth’ of those religions by attaining the highest yogic state on those occasions.7

It is hard not to sympathize with Ram Swarup’s skepticism.  In today’s cult scene there are enough wild claims abroad, and it is only right to hold their propagators guilty (of gullibility if not of deception) until proven innocent.  In particular, a group claiming ‘experimental verification of a religious truth claim as the unique achievement of its founder should not be let off without producing that verification here and now; shady claims about an insufficiently attested event more than a century ago will not do.  It is entirely typical of the psychology behind this myth-making that a researcher can testify: Neither Swami Vivekananda, nor any other monk known to the author, ever carried out his own experiments.  They all accepted the truth of all religions on the basis of their master’s work. This is the familiar pattern of the followers of a master who are too mediocre to try for themselves that which they consider as the basis of the master’s greatness, but who do not hesitate to make claims of superiority for their sect on that same (untested, hearsay) basis.
For some more polemical comment, let us look into one typical pamphlet by a Hindu upholding the Hindu character of the Ramakrishna Mission: The Lullaby of ‘Sarva-Dharma-Samabhâva’ (‘equal respect for all religions’) by Siva Prasad Ray. The doctrine of ‘equal respect for all religions’ (in fact, even a more radical version, ‘equal truth of all religions’, is one of the items claimed by the RK Mission as setting it apart from Hinduism.

This doctrine is propagated by many English-speaking gurus, and one of its practical effects is that Hindu girls in westernized circles (including those in overseas Hindu communities) who fall in love with Muslims, feel justified in disobeying their unpleasantly surprised parents, and often taunt them: ‘What is the matter if I marry a Muslim and your grandchildren become Muslims?   Don’t these Babas to whom you give your devotion and money always say that all religions teach the same thing, that Islam is as good as Hinduism, that Allah and Shiva are one and the same?

When such marriages last (many end in early divorce), a Hindu or Western environment often leads to the ineffectiveness of the formal conversion of the Hindu partner to Islam, so that the children are not raised as Muslims.  Yet, Islamic law imposes on the Muslim partner the duty to see to this, and in a Muslim environment there is no escape from this islamizing pressure.  Thus, after the Meenakshipuram mass conversion to Islam in 1981, non-converted villagers reported: ‘Of course, there have been marriages between Hindu harijans and the converts.  Whether it is the bride or the groom, the Hindu is expected to convert to Islam.

Even when the conversion is an ineffective formality, such marriages or elopements which trumpet the message that Hindu identity is unimportant and dispensible, do have an unnerving effect on vulnerable Hindu communities in non-Hindu environments.  They also remain an irritant to Hindus in India, as here to writer Siva Prasad Ray.  More generally, the doctrine that all religions are the same leaves Hindus intellectually defenceless before the challenge of communities with more determination to uphold and propagate their religions.

To counter the facile conclusion that Ramakrishna had practised Christianity and Islam and proven their truth, Siva Prasad Ray points out that Ramakrishna was neither baptized nor circumcised, that he is not known to have affirmed the Christian or Islamic creed, etc.  Likewise, he failed to observe Ramzan or Lent, he never took Christian or Islamic marriage vows with his wife, he never frequented churches or mosques.  This objection is entirely valid: thinking about Christ or reading some Islamic book is not enough to be a Christian or a Muslim.

Equally to the point, he argues: ‘Avatar’ or incarnation may be acceptable to Hinduism but such is not the case with Islam or Christianity. In Christianity, one might say that the notion of divine incarnation does exist, but it applies exclusively to Jesus Christ; applying it to Ramakrishna is plain heresy.  Sitting down for mental concentration to obtain a ‘vision’ of Christ or Mohammed is definitely not a part of the required practices of Christianity or Islam.  Neither religion has a notion of ‘salvation’ as something to be achieved by practising certain states of consciousness.  In other words: before you claim to have an agreement with other people, check with them whether they really agree.

The same objection is valid against claims that Swami Vivekananda was ‘also’ a Muslim, as Kundrakudi Adigalar, the 45th head of the Kundrakudi Tiruvannamalai Adhinam in Tamil Nadu, has said: He had faith and confidence in Hinduism.  But he was not a follower of Hinduism alone.  He practised all religions.  He read all books.  His head bowed before all prophets. But ‘practising all religions’ is quite incompatible with being a faithful Christian or Muslim: as the Church Fathers taught, syncretism is typical of Pagan culture (today, it is called ‘New Age’).  Leaving aside polytheistic Hinduism, the mere attempt to practise both Islam and Christianity, if such a thing were possible, would have stamped Ramakrishna as definitely not a Christian nor a Muslim.

Moreover, it is simply untrue that Swami Vivekananda ever ‘practised’ Christianity or Islam: he was not baptized or circumcised, did not attend Church services or Friday prayers, never went to Mecca, never observed Ramzan or Lent.  But he did practise vegetarianism (at least in principle) and celibacy, which are both frowned upon in Islam.  Worst of all, he did worship Hindu Gods, which by definition puts him outside the Islamic fold, Islam being based on the rejection of all Gods except Allah.

Ramakrishna was quite satisfied worshipping Goddess Kali, but: ‘There is no respectful place for deities in female form in Islam.  Rama Krishna engaged in the worship of Kali was nothing but an idolater in the eyes of the Muslims.  Islam says that all idolaters will finally end up in Islam’s hell.  Now, I want to ask these egg-heads of sarva-dharma-samabhâva if they know where exactly is the place for Rama Krishna in Islam?  The fact is that Rama Krishna never truly worshipped in the Islamic fashion, neither did he receive Islamic salvation.

Ray challenges the RK Mission monks to try out their assertions on a Muslim or Christian audience: ‘All this is, thus, nothing but creations of confused and boisterous Hindu monks.  No Christian padre or Muslim maulvi accepts Rama Krishna’s salvation in their own religions.  They make snide remarks.  They laugh at the ignorance of the Hindu monks.Ray makes the snide insinuation explicit: ‘Only those Hindus who do not understand the implications of other religions engage themselves in the propagation of sarva-dharma-samabhâva; like stupid and mentally retarded creatures, such Hindus revel in the pleasures of auto-erotism in their wicked pursuit of the fad. This rude comparison means that they pretend to be interacting with others, but it is a mere fantasy, all inside their own heads, with the assumed partners not even knowing about it.

Finally, Ray wonders what happened to the monks, those of the RK Mission and others, who talked about ‘equal truth of all religions’ and chanted ‘Râm Rahîm ek hai’ (‘Rama and Rahim/Allah are one’) and ‘Ishwar Allâh tere nâm’ (‘both Ishwara and Allah are Your names’) in East Bengal before 1947.  As far as he knows, they all fled across the new border when they suddenly found themselves inside Pakistan, but then: ‘Many a guru from East Bengal [who] has been saved by the skin of his teeth, once in West Bengal, resumed his talk of sarva-dharma-samabâva. But the point still remains that if they really had faith in the message of sarva-dharma-samabhâva, they would not have left East Bengal. As so often in Indo-Pakistani and Hindu-Muslim comparisons, the argument is reminiscent of the inequality between the contenders in the Cold War: you could demonstrate for disarmament in the West, but to demonstrate for this in the East Bloc (except if it were for unilateral disarmament by the Western ‘war-mongers’ would have put you in trouble.

Siva Prasad Ray also mocks the RK Mission’s grandiose claim of having evaluated not just a few popular religions, but all religions: ‘Did Rama Krishna ever worship in accordance with Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Saurya or Ganapatya principles?  No, he did not.  Neither did he worship in accordance with the Jewish faith of Palestine, the Tao religion of China, the religion of Confucius, or the Shinto religion of Japan. Empirically verifying the truth of each and every religion is a valid project in principle, but a very time-consuming one as well.

According to Ray, the slogan of ‘equal truth of all religions’ is nothing but a watered-down sentiment that means nothing.  It is useful only in widening the route to our self-destruction.  It does not take a genius to realise that not all paths are good paths in this life of ours; this is true in all branches of human activity. Unlike the RK Mission monks, Ray has really found some common ground with other religions and with rationalism too: they all agree on the logical principle that contradictory truth claims cannot possibly all be right; at most one of them can be right.

To sum up, Ray alleges that the RK Mission stoops to a shameful level of self-deception and ridicule, that it distorts the message of Ramakrishna the Kali-worshipping Hindu, and that it distorts the heritage of Swami Vivekananda the Hindu revivalist.  Yet, none of this alleged injustice to Hinduism gives the Mission a place outside Hinduism.  After all, there is no definition of ‘Hindu’ which precludes Hindus from being mistaken, self-deluding or suicidal.  Regardless of its fanciful innovations, the RK Mission remains a Hindu organization, at least by any of the available objective definitions.  Alternatively, if the subjective definition, ‘Is Hindu, he and only he who calls himself ‘Hindu’, is accepted, then of course the RK Mission, unlike its founders, is no longer Hindu,-but then it is no longer Ramakrishna’s mission either.

The larger issue revealed by the incident with the RK Mission is a psychology of self-repudiation which is fairly widespread in the anglicized segment of Hindu society, stretching from actual repudiation of Hinduism to the distortive reformulation of Hinduism itself after the model of better-reputed religions.  In a typical symptom of the colonial psychology, many Hindus see themselves through the eyes of their once-dominant enemies, so that catechism-type books on Hinduism explain Hinduism in Christian terms, e.g. by presenting many a Hindu saint as ‘a Christ-like figure’ modern translations of Hindu scriptures are often distorted in order to satisfy non-Hindu requirements such as monotheism.  This can take quite gross forms in the Veda translations of the Arya Samaj, where entire sentences are inserted in order to twist the meaning in the required theological direction.  The eagerness to extol all rival religions and to be unsatisfied with just being Hindu is one more symptom of the contempt in which Hinduism has been held for centuries, and which numerous Hindus have interiorized.

‘various creeds you hear about nowadays have come into existence through the will of God and will disappear again through His will  ‘Hindu religion’ alone is Sanâtana dharma’ for it ‘has always existed and will always exist’ …Ramakrishna

(reprinted by Hindu Human Rights from Koenraad Elst: Who Is a Hindu?, Delhi 2002)

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Thursday, August 8, 2013

When did the Buddha break away from Hinduism?




Orientalists have started treating Buddhism as a separate religion because they discovered it outside India, without any conspicuous link with India, where Buddhism was not in evidence. At first, they didn’t even know that the Buddha had been an Indian. It had at any rate gone through centuries of development unrelated to anything happening in India at the same time. Therefore, it is understandable that Buddhism was already the object of a separate discipline even before any connection with Hinduism could be made.



Buddhism in modern India


In India, all kinds of invention, somewhat logically connected to this status of separate religion, were then added. Especially the Ambedkarite movement, springing from the conversion of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar in 1956, was very driven in retro-actively producing an anti-Hindu programme for the Buddha. Conversion itself, not just the embracing of a new tradition (which any Hindu is free to do, all while staying a Hindu) but the renouncing of one’s previous religion, as the Hindu-born politician Ambedkar did, is a typically Christian concept. The model event was the conversion of the Frankish king Clovis, possibly in 496, who “burned what he had worshipped and worshipped what he had burnt”. (Let it pass for now that the Christian chroniclers slandered their victims by positing a false symmetry: the Heathens hadn’t been in the business of destroying Christian symbols.) So, in his understanding of the history of Bauddha Dharma (Buddhism), Ambedkar was less than reliable, in spite of his sterling contributions regarding the history of Islam and some parts of the history of caste. But where he was a bit right and a bit mistaken, his later followers have gone all the way and made nothing but a gross caricature of history, and especially about the place of Buddhism in Hindu history.


The Ambedkarite worldview has ultimately only radicalized the moderately anti-Hindu version of the reigning Nehruvians. Under Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, Buddhism was turned into the unofficial state religion of India, adopting the “lion pillar” of the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka as state symbol and putting the 24-spoked Cakravarti wheel in the national flag. Essentially, Nehru’s knowledge of Indian history was limited to two spiritual figures, viz. the Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi, and three political leaders: Ashoka, Akbar and himself. The concept of Cakravarti (“wheel-turner”, universal ruler) was in fact much older than Ashoka, and the 24-spoked wheel can also be read in other senses, e.g. the Sankhya philosophy’s worldview, with the central Purusha/Subject and the 24 elements of Prakrti/Nature. The anglicized Nehru, “India’s last Viceroy”, prided himself on his illiteracy in Hindu culture, so he didn’t know any of this, but was satisfied that these symbols could glorify Ashoka and belittle Hinduism, deemed a separate religion from which Ashoka had broken away by accepting Buddhism. More broadly, he thought that everything of value in India was a gift of Buddhism (and Islam) to the undeserving Hindus. Thus, the fabled Hindu tolerance was according to him a value borrowed from Buddhism. In reality, the Buddha had been a beneficiary of an already established Hindu tradition of pluralism. In a Muslim country, he would never have preached his doctrine in peace and comfort for 45 years, but in Hindu society, this was a matter of course. There were some attempts on his life, but they emanated not from “Hindus” but from jealous disciples within his own monastic order.


So, both Nehru and Ambedkar, as well as their followers , believed by implication that at some point in his life, the Hindu-born renunciate Buddha had broken away from Hinduism and adopted a new religion, Buddhism. This notion is now omnipresent, and through school textbooks, most Indians have lapped this up and don’t know any better. However, numerous though they are, none of the believers in this story have ever told us at what moment in his life the Buddha broke way from Hinduism. When did he revolt against it? Very many Indians repeat the Nehruvian account, but so far, never has any of them been able to pinpoint an event in the Buddha's life which constituted a break with Hinduism.



The term “Hinduism”


Their first line of defence, when put on the spot, is sure to be: “Actually, Hinduism did not yet exist at the time.” So, their position really is: Hinduism did not exist yet, but somehow the Buddha broke away from it. Yeah, the secular position is that he was a miracle-worker.


Let us correct that: the word “Hinduism” did not exist yet. When Darius of the Achaemenid Persians, a near-contemporary of the Buddha, used the word “Hindu”, it was purely in a geographical sense: anyone from inside or beyond the Indus region. When the medieval Muslim invaders brought the term into India, they used it to mean: any Indian except for the Indian Muslims, Christians or Jews. It did not have a specific doctrinal content except “non-Abrahamic”, a negative definition. It meant every Indian Pagan, including the Brahmins, Buddhists (“clean-shaven Brahmins”), Jains, other ascetics, low-castes, intermediate castes, tribals, and by implication also the as yet unborn Lingayats, Sikhs, Hare Krishnas, Arya Samajis, Ramakrishnaites, secularists and others who nowadays reject the label “Hindu”. This definition was essentially also adopted by VD Savarkar in his book Hindutva (1923) and by the Hindu Marriage Act (1955). By this historical definition, which also has the advantages of primacy and of not being thought up by the wily Brahmins, the Buddha and all his Indian followers are unquestionably Hindus. In that sense, Savarkar was right when he called Ambedkar’s taking refuge in Buddhism “a sure jump into the Hindu fold”.


But the word “Hindu” is a favourite object of manipulation. Thus, secularists say that all kinds of groups (Dravidians, low-castes, Sikhs etc.) are “not Hindu”, yet when Hindus complain of the self-righteousness and aggression of the minorities, secularists laugh at this concern: “How can the Hindus feel threatened? They are more than 80%!” The missionaries call the tribals “not Hindus”, but when the tribals riot against the Christians who have murdered their Swami, we read about “Hindu rioters”. In the Buddha’s case, “Hindu” is often narrowed down to “Vedic” when convenient, then restored to its wider meaning when expedient.


One meaning which the word “Hindu” definitely does not have, and did not have when it was introduced, is “Vedic”. Shankara holds it against Patanjali and the Sankhya school (just like the Buddha) that they don’t bother to cite the Vedas, yet they have a place in every history of Hindu thought. Hinduism includes a lot of elements which have only a thin Vedic veneer, and numerous ones which are not Vedic at all. Scholars say that it consists of a “Great Tradition” and many “Little Traditions”, local cults allowed to subsist under the aegis of the prestigious Vedic line. However, if we want to classify the Buddha in these terms, he should rather be included in the Great Tradition.  


Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha was a Kshatriya, a scion of the Solar or Aikshvaku dynasty, a descendant of Manu, a self-described reincarnation of Rama, the son of the Raja (president-for-life) of the Shakya tribe, a member of its Senate, and belonging to the Gautama gotra (roughly “clan”). Though monks are often known by their monastic name, Buddhists prefer to name the Buddha after his descent group, viz. the Shakyamuni, “renunciate of the Shakya tribe”. This tribe was as Hindu as could be, consisting according to its own belief of the progeny of the eldest children of patriarch Manu, who were repudiated at the insistence of his later, younger wife. The Buddha is not known to have rejected this name, not even at the end of his life when the Shakyas had earned the wrath of king Vidudabha of Kosala and were massacred. The doctrine that he was one in a line of incarnations which also included Rama is not a deceitful Brahmin Puranic invention but was launched by the Buddha himself, who claimed Rama as an earlier incarnation of his. The numerous scholars who like to explain every Hindu idea or custom as “borrowed from Buddhism” could well counter Ambedkar’s rejection of this “Hindu” doctrine by pointing out very aptly that it was “borrowed from Buddhism”.





At 29, he renounced society, but not Hinduism. Indeed, it is a typical thing among Hindus to exit from society, laying off your caste marks including your civil name. The Rg-Veda already describes the Muni-s as having matted hair and going about sky-clad: such are what we now know as Naga Sadhus. Asceticism was a recognized practice in Vedic society long before the Buddha. Yajnavalkya, the Upanishadic originator of the notion of Self, renounced life in society after a successful career as court priest and an equally happy family life with two wives. By leaving his family and renouncing his future in politics, the Buddha followed an existing tradition within Hindu society. He didn’t practice Vedic rituals anymore, which is normal for a Vedic renunciate (though Zen Buddhists still recite the Heart Sutra in the Vedic fashion, ending with “sowaka”, i.e. svaha). He was a late follower of a movement very much in evidence in the Upanishads, viz. of spurning rituals (Karmakanda) in favour of knowledge (Jnanakanda). After he had done the Hindu thing by going to the forest, he tried several methods, including the techniques he learned from two masters and which did not fully satisfy him,-- but nonetheless enough to include them in his own and the Buddhist curriculum. Among other techniques, he practised Anapanasati, “attention to the breathing process”, the archetypal yoga practice popular in practically all yoga schools till today. For a while he also practised an extreme form of asceticism, still existing in the Hindu sect of Jainism. He exercised his Hindu freedom to join a sect devoted to certain techniques, and later the freedom to leave it, remaining a Hindu at every stage.


He then added a technique of his own, or at least that is what the Buddhist sources tell us, for in the paucity of reliable information, we don’t know for sure that he hadn’t learned the Vipassana (“mindfulness”) technique elsewhere. Unless evidence of the contrary comes to the surface, we assume that he invented this technique all by himself, as a Hindu is free to do. He then achieved Bodhi, the “Awakening”. By his own admission, he was by no means the first to do so. Instead, he had only walked the same path of other Awakened beings before him.


At the bidding of the Vedic gods Brahma and Indra, he left his self-contained state of Awakening and started teaching his way to others. When he “set in motion the wheel of the Law” (Dharma-cakra-pravartana, Chinese Falungong), he gave no indication whatsoever of breaking with an existing system. On the contrary, by his use of existing Vedic and Upanishadic terminology (Arya, “Vedically civilized”; Dharma), he confirmed his Vedic roots and implied that his system was a restoration of the Vedic ideal which had become degenerate. He taught his techniques and his analysis of the human condition to his disciples, promising them to achieve the same Awakening if they practiced these diligently. 





On caste, we find him is full cooperation with existing caste society. Being an elitist, he mainly recruited among the upper castes, with over 40% Brahmins. These would later furnish all the great philosophers who made Buddhism synonymous with conceptual sophistication. Conversely, the Buddhist universities trained well-known non-Buddhist scientists such as the astronomer Aryabhata. Lest the impression be created that universities are a gift of Buddhism to India, it may be pointed out that the Buddha’s friends Bandhula and Prasenadi (and, according to a speculation, maybe the young Siddhartha himself) had studied at the university of Takshashila, clearly established before there were any Buddhists around to do so. Instead, the Buddhists greatly developed an institution which they had inherited from Hindu society.


The kings and magnates of the eastern Ganga plain treated the Buddha as one of their own (because that is what he was) and gladly patronized his fast-growing monastic order, commanding their servants and subjects to build a network of monasteries for it. He predicted the coming of a future Awakened leader like himself, the Maitreya (“the one practising friendship/charity”), and specified that he would be born in a Brahmin family. When king Prasenadi discovered that his wife was not a Shakya princess but the daughter of the Shakya ruler by a maid-servant, he repudiated her and their son; but his friend the Buddha made him take them back.


Did he achieve this by saying that birth is unimportant, that “caste is bad” or that “caste doesn’t matter”, as the Ambedkarites claim? No, he reminded the king of the old view (then apparently in the process of being replaced with a stricter view) that caste was passed on exclusively in the paternal line. Among hybrids of horses and donkeys, the progeny of a horse stallion and a donkey mare whinnies, like its father, while the progeny of a donkey stallion and a horse mare brays, also like its father. So, in the oldest Upanishad, Satyakama Jabala is accepted by his Brahmins-only teacher because his father is deduced to be a Brahmin, regardless of his mother being a maid-servant. And similarly, king Prasenadi should accept his son as a Kshatriya, eventhough his mother was not a full-blooded Shakya Kshatriya.


When he died, the elites of eight cities made a successful bid for his ashes on the plea: "We are Kshatriyas, he was a Kshatriya, therefore we have a right to his ashes". After almost half a century, his disciples didn’t mind being seen in public as still observing caste in a context which was par excellence Buddhist. The reason is that the Buddha in his many teachings never had told them to give up caste, e.g. to give their daughters in marriage to men of other castes. This was perfectly logical: as a man with a spiritual message, the Buddha wanted to lose as little time as possible on social matters. If satisfying your own miserable desires is difficult enough, satisfying the desire for an egalitarian society provides an endless distraction from your spiritual practice.




The Seven Rules


There never was a separate non-Hindu Buddhist society. Most Hindus worship various gods and teachers, adding and sometimes removing one or more pictures or statues to their house altar. This way, there were some lay worshippers of the Buddha, but they were not a society separate from the worshippers of other gods or Awakened masters. This box-type division of society in different sects is another Christian prejudice infused into modern Hindu society by Nehruvian secularism. There were only Hindus, members of Hindu castes, some of whom had a veneration for the Buddha among others.  


Buddhist buildings in India often follow the designs of Vedic habitat ecology or Vastu Shastra. Buddhist temple conventions follow an established Hindu pattern. Buddhist mantras, also outside India, follow the pattern of Vedic mantras. When Buddhism spread to China and Japan, Buddhist monks took the Vedic gods (e.g. the twelve Aditya’s) with them and built temples for them. In Japan, every town has a temple for the river-goddess Benzaiten, i.e. “Saraswati Devi”, the goddess Saraswati. She was not introduced there by wily Brahmins, but by Buddhists.


At the fag end of his long life, the Buddha described the seven principles by which a society does not perish (which Sita Ram Goel has given more body in his historical novel Sapta Shila, in Hindi), and among them are included: respecting and maintaining the existing festivals, pilgrimages and rituals; and revering the holy men. These festivals etc. were mainly “Vedic”, of course, like the pilgrimage to the Saraswati which Balaram made in the Mahabharata, or the pilgrimage to the Ganga which the elderly Pandava brothers made. Far from being a revolutionary, the Buddha emphatically outed himself as a conservative, both in social and in religious matters. He was not a rebel or a revolutionary, but wanted the existing customs to continue. The Buddha was every inch a Hindu.

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Friday, August 2, 2013

An Indo-European Conference


The Indogermanische Gesellschaft organizes a conference every year. It must be one of the few international conferences where German is still spoken, along with English. I don’t know why I had never gone there, but this time (29-31 July 2013) I did. It was held in Leiden in the main building of the university administration, on the second floor. The painting on the back wall showed the liberation of the city by the Sea Beggars, breaking a one-year siege by the Spanish troops in the 16th century. That is where the successful rebellion against the Spanish king Philip II took off, ending with the independence of the Dutch Republic.

 The topic was the Indo-European vowel system, a rather technical subject with which I will not bore my readers. Anyway, I didn’t go so much for the papers being read but to see the scholars face to face whom I knew from reading their works or discussing with them on-line. I came away with a very positive impression of people like Vaclav Blazek, Pjotr Gasiorowski and others.

What I really wanted to find out was the degree of penetration of the Out-of-India Theory (OIT), i.e. the idea that most European languages can be traced back to an origin in India. Most scholars had never even heard of it. They didn’t know better than that the homeland of the language family was somewhere in Russia and the Indo-Europeans from there invaded India: from an Indian viewpoint, the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT). So, rather than believing and parroting that “nobody believes in the Aryan Invasion Theory anymore”, a smug and lazy position, Indians had better start the difficult work of informing and convincing the specialists.  

Others knew it but had a negative opinion on it. Politically, they had vaguely heard of its association with “Hindutva” (Hindu nationalism), at least since its revival in the 1980s. Earlier Hindutva stalwarts, such as VD Savarkar who launched the political notion of Hindutva with his book of the same title in 1923, had been believers in the then-prevalent opinion, viz. the AIT. It is not necessary for a nationalist to believe that his ancestors were native: conquest can also form a good backdrop for the birth of a nation. I recognize the influence of Michael Witzel, indeed named as source by some of these scholars, in incorrectly identifying the OIT with Hindutva. Of course, nobody knew anything of the pernicious role which the AIT has been playing in India since the 1840s.

They also vaguely knew that “the Russian homeland (so, the AIT) has been proven”. One of them had heard of the work of Nicholas Kazanas, but had not studied it sufficiently to agree or disagree with its pro-OIT conclusions. As linguists, they thought that linguistics has proven it and refuted the OIT: just like the Hindutva dimwits who think that linguistics should be outlawed because it intrinsically supports the AIT. I can confirm that most people at the conference work within the Russian homeland framework, but that is different from having proven it.

They had also heard that genetics had provided the proof. As Michel Danino has shown, the extant genetic studies, while by no means final,  rather support an Indian homeland. I particularly like that paper on cow genetics showing that the Ukrainian cows have a fair percentage of Indian cows among their ancestry. Migrant Aryan cowherds will have taken along their livestock, so this findings supports the reverse movement from what the AIT teaches. Some of the earlier studies of human genetics readily assumed the AIT and then used it in interpreting their findings, but that was no real proof either.

Finally, they had heard that archeology had furnished the evidence. I told them that many Indian archeologists reject the AIT precisely because, after 150 years of being the well-funded official theory, it has failed to come up with any proof on anything Aryan actually moving into India. But they took heart when I admitted that these archeologists have failed to come up with the converse evidence, viz. something Aryan moving into Central Asia, as their horizon totally stops at the Khyber Pass (the frontier between historical India and Afghanistan). They  deny and claim to have refuted the AIT, but have not developed an OIT.

Anyway, these Indo-Europeanists swore by the work of Elena Kuzmina: The Origins of the Indo-Iranians (Brill, Leiden 2007), which assumes and works within an AIT framework, rather than proving it. But since it may contain elements of such much-prized proof, I availed of the 50% conference discount to buy a copy. I promise to offer a comment.

I also purchased Reconstructing Proto-Nostratic by Alan Bomhard, the elaboration of a macrofamily including Afro-Asiatic, Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic, Kartvelian, Elamo-Dravidian, Eskimo-Aleut, Sumerian and Etruscan. The inclusion of Afro-Asiatic is much debated, that is why I greatly appreciated Blazek’s presentation of a new isogloss between Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic. Bomhard locates its homeland in the Mesolithic (pre-agriculture, maybe 15000 BCE) fertile crescent, particularly Northern Mesopotamia. A subfamily containing Uralic, Altaic and Indo-European developed in what is now Northern Aghanistan and Tajikistan, whence Uralic and Indo-European went westward in a parallel movement, but in the latter case also southward to India. I would say that India and Afghanistan are close enough, and that Bomhard, like everyone else, is conditioning by assuming the AIT beforehand. Well, no matter, I hope to meaningfully contribute to this ambitious debate. The idea of a genealogical tree of language families, ultimately uniting Nostratic with Sino-Caucasian and Amerind, and finally with the African and Australian languages, certainly offers an exciting perspective. Nostratic would also mean that the Aryans, along with the Dravidians, did invade India, though possibly much earlier than in the AIT. Unless the fertile Indus Valley itself can be shown to be the Nostratic homeland: a demographic concentration of people in South Asia at a time when much of Eurasia was not or hardly inhabitable, makes sense, as well as their northwards expansion after the Ice Age. In that case, the whole discussion starts again, ten thousand years earlier.  

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