Thursday, May 26, 2022

Ayodhya, Mecca: same struggle! (What if Rama and Mohammed were born elsewhere?.)

(First offered to First Post on 19 May 2022, but deemed too controversial in view of the erupting Nupur Sharma affair; then published by Pragyata magazine, Delhi, on 7 July 2022) This week we’re not going to write about the Kashi Vishvanath, except for remarking that its claim to historicity is weaker than that of its counterparts in Ayodhya and Mathura. It is obvious that historical characters including Rama and Krishna, later deified but originally just human beings born from a womb like everyone else, had a birthplace. We can still argue about its location, but that some actual birthplace lurks somewhere is unavoidable. That Shiva sent down a Jyotirlinga to Kashi, however, will be dismissed by rationalists as just a story, a mere manner of speaking without any factual historical dimension. Just as they make fun of the belief that Yahweh sent down the Biblical Ten Commandments or that Allah sent down the Quran. For secular legislation regarding sacred sites, this possible absence of a solid foundation to these beliefs is totally immaterial. Places of pilgrimage are protected regardless of whether the reason for their sacredness can be proven. The Israeli government facilitates pilgrimages to the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus supposedly lay buried, and to the Al-Aqsa mosque. Yet it is not impressed with the revelation of the Sepulchre’s location to Constantine’s mother Helena in a dream. Nor with the Islamic tradition that the Prophet flew to Al-Aqsa on a winged horse. The French governments, often militantly secularist, have had a good laugh at Catholic beliefs about the Virgin Mary’s apparitions in Lourdes, yet they facilitate a pilgrimage there. So, the fact that worshippers of Shiva, Rama and Krishna venerate specific sites in Kashi, Ayodhya and Mathura is enough for officially recognizing and protecting them. When? Nevertheless, historians still have the liberty to be curious about the factual basis of these beliefs. Regarding Kashi, they tend to consider the Jyotirlinga belief as outside history. Regarding Mathura, they see no reason to doubt the belief about Krishna’s birth. But regarding Ayodhya… In her recent book about the Ramayana, Sanskritist Neena Rai compares the measurements of the relevant sites and distances in Valmiki’s Ayodhya with those actually found in today’s Ayodhya. She opines that this may not be the same town. In my judgment, too hastily, for even Valmiki may have been mistaken. Apart from the trivial demythologizing option that he may have been wrong, or that as a forest-dweller he could only describe the city from hearsay, he may not have foreseen geographical changes. Indeed, a river-bed can gradually or dramatically shift location, so even if he was truthful and accurate in locating a building "by the riverside", it may be far from that riverside today. The present town is already more than three thousand years old according to archaeologists, and houses a Hindu religious site deemed Rama’s birthplace. But was this the palace of the Solar Dynasty to which Rama's father Dasharatha belonged? According to Valmiki, Rama was born in the very palace built by his distant pre-Vedic ancestor Manu. Here, a possible problem with Rama’s own chronology becomes really acute. Whether Rama’s epic adventure was historical or not, he himself was at any rate a historical figure, appearing in the Puranic king lists. (For those faux skeptics who think these are just myth: there would be no history of Mesopotamia or Egypt extant but for their king lists.) But when did he live? This much we know for certain, that it was earlier than the Bharata dynasty’s war of succession, which refers to Rama's story as a fact from the past. The report about this war, much embellished, became Vyasa’s Mahabharata epic (just like Homer’s Iliad from ca. -700 was dimly based on a historical war from ca. -1200). Bypassing the traditionalists who insist that this war took place ca. -3139, which is a chronology invented only ca. +500, we stick by the modern sciences and their convergence on a much less spectacular date, roughly -1500. It so happens that -1500 is about the farthest we can stretch the known archaeology of the Rama Janmabhumi site. During the Ayodhya agitation ca. 1991, India’s legendary archaeologist BB Lal, still active today at age 101, gave a lecture to an audience of Sadhus. He explained that his team had found temple pillars on the contentious site, and the Hindu claim on it was thereby assured. This much, they liked; but they were disappointed when he continued. Digging deeper, Lal's team had found human leftovers as early as the -2nd millennium. To the Sadhus, even Krishna lived in the -32nd century, and Rama still earlier; so archaeology had not confirmed this? When they protested, Lal famously replied: “I am not saying this, but my spade tells me so.” You might yet save the day by observing that Lal had excavated only a small part of Ayodhya; or by accepting the Aryan Immigration chronology (which BB Lal rejects). This holds that after entering in -1500, the Aryans in Haryana wrote the Rg-Veda, and among their nephews in Ayodhya, Rama was born in -1200 or so, and Krishna in Mathura still later. This would narrowly put Rama within the period identified by archaeology. Yet even then it would not be satisfactory. Human habitation at the site should spread thousands of years farther back, as it was no less than the palace of the already-ancient Solar dynasty. Maybe the Solar Dynasty was not that static? This is suggested by the detail that Rama’s father Dasharatha organized a population transfer within his domains. That the townfolk vacated the city after Rama’s passing also indicates a more mobile view of Ayodhya. And when centuries later, the city was rediscovered and revived, presumably by Vikramaditya, he may simply have been mistaken in his choice, or he may have had a reason for deliberately locating his favourite city elsewhere. So it is possible that the real capital of the Solar Dynasty is still waiting somewhere underground for excavation. On the other hand, Rama’s background may be less glorious, but his modest birth location may be exact. When the Ayodhya debate raged thirty years ago, I sometimes thought to myself: there is, in spite of the ongoing peak in research, much on Ayodhya that we don’t really know yet. Common people including the many Twitter polemicists are quick to pronounce their proposals “proven”, but historians should be more hesitant in passing judgment. This doubt regarding Ayodhya brings to mind another sacred city with a far more controversial location: Mecca. In the Ayodhya controversy, the lead in disputing Rama's birth location was given by the secularists, not the Muslims, but just to spite the Hindus, many Muslims followed suit. They wouldn't have done so if they had been more aware of the problems surrounding Mohammed's birthplace. The Saudi government has initiated big construction projects in Mecca with considerable demolitions. When this happens in old cities, say Kashi, the archaeologists come flocking, for the diggings by the construction company throw up many old artefacts that will interest them. Well, in Mecca they find nothing. On pre-Islamic maps, Mecca finds no mention. The Quran’s description of the city layout and the landscape, with a river and olive trees and a Kaaba surrounded by idol temples, do not correspond to the Mecca we know. It is unfit to be a crossroads of caravan routes. That's way exactly during the years of the Ayodhya conflict, Danish historian Patricia Crone concluded that in Mohammed's lifetime, Mecca did not exist. Even in the first century of Islamic history, the mosques were not directed towards Mecca. Islam itself admits that the original Qibla (direction of prayer) was more to the north, which it identifies as Jerusalem, but another city nearby could also do. Indeed, another city fits the bill, as mapped out in great detail by the Canadian historian Dan Gibson: Petra, in modern-day Jordan. This place also had a Kaaba housing a Black Stone, a meteoric rock fallen from heaven and therefore held sacred (essentially like Kashi's Jyotirlingam). A half century after the Prophet's death, one Abdullah ibn-al-Zubayr rebelled against the Ummayad Caliphate of which he had been an official. He spirited the Black Stone away from Petra and installed it in a backwater in the Arabian desert (where no existing townfolk could lay claim to it), where a new sacred site then sprang up. Then he made his own rebellion part of the power play of a Mesopotamian clan that would later become the Abbasid Caliphate. Summing up: in this emerging scenario, the Prophet was not born in Mecca at all, but was relocated there long after his death as part of the upcoming Abbasid clan's rewriting of history. To be sure, Muslims argue against these discoveries. They resist modern insights in the same way that the Ayodhya Sadhus resisted archaeology as an independent source of chronology. In the real world, this debate will go on, just like the search for the early Solar capital will resume. But in a secular state this won’t matter: the sacredness of all sites with a religious meaning is guaranteed. Also reassuring for the Hajjis (pilgrims to the Black Stone) is that the object of their pilgrimage is not something contingent like Mohammed's birthplace. Even if this is accepted to be near Petra, many miles away from Mecca, the actual object of the Hajj is still verifiably present in Mecca: the Black Stone. This way the beliefs underpinning the Muslim pilgrimage may be saved by Islam's only idol.
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Friday, May 13, 2022

Does India really need a Uniform Civil Code?

(First Post, 13 May 2022, under the title: UCC can wait! First fight anti-Hindu discriminations in education and temple management) For decades already, you occasionally hear voices clamouring for a Uniform Civil Code in India. It is mentioned in the Constitution’s wish list, the Directive Principles. In 1995, the Supreme Court asked the Government about the progress towards this goal; in vain. This January, they summoned the Government again on this; let’s see. Today, 75 years after Independence, all matters pertaining to marriage, family and inheritance are still governed by separate law codes for Hindus, Muslims, Christian and Parsis. Are there good reasons to abolish this arrangement? India's ruling politicians clearly think not, for they have never challenged it. They wouldn't mind meddling in the Christian law system: ever since starting as a nervous minority in the mighty Roman empire, Christians have conformed to secular laws not of their own making. In Britain, France or the US, Christians and non-Christians obey the same laws, and nowhere have Christians reacted with an indignant movement of legal separatism. It is not the Christians who keep the politicians from enacting a UCC. Come the modern Republic, the Christian community would have been absorbed into a UCC regime along with everybody else, were it not for the Muslim community. What the politicians fear in case they were to enact a UCC is the reaction of the Muslim community. Unlike Christianity, Islam has a defining law system, the Shari'a. It prevails in most Muslim-majority countries, and in many others there are demands for introducing it. Mohammed was not a preacher whose reign was not of this world, like the Buddha or Jesus, he was the founder of a state with a law system. Abolishing it might provoke a reaction from every mosque and madrassa in the country. The theological reason is moreover strengthened by a personal reason: every individual Muslim cleric stands to lose a lot of power within his community if his area of expertise is made irrelevant. The BJP has already developed cold feet about implementing its hard-won Citizenship Amendment Act, which only very tangentially impacts the Muslims, so it won't have the stomach for implementing a UCC. It is too Islamophobic for that: "afraid of Islam". Most countries have a UCC as a matter of course. But would they support India if it introduces the same thing? Compare with the normalization of Kashmir's status in 2019. Save for Pakistan, all countries accepted this without any ado. Not only was it an internal matter, but it abolished something that they themselves would never accept either: a separate status for one of their provinces, excluding their citizens from owning property there. Yet, the international media still portrayed it as an anti-Muslim act of oppression, adding to their usual narrative of poor hapless Muslims being constantly persecuted by the ugly vicious Hindus. The issue was not important enough for swaying Governments against India, but regarding UCC this may be different. It is likely that both Indian and foreign media will raise a storm if the separate Islamic law is threatened; and that the ruling party is not ready to take this heat. Apart from the real reason, better-sounding reasons are brought up. It is often assumed that Hindus only demand a UCC because they fear that under Shari'a Muslims take four wives and outbreed them. On social media you do indeed encounter that argument, and secularists always seek out the weakest formulation of a Hindu position, some Twitter troll's outburst, to save themselves the trouble of answering the real Hindu case. So they make fun of this clumsy Hindu argument, distracting from more serious ones. It is true that the Muslim birthrate is always higher than the Hindu one, but in that, the right to polygamy is only a minimal factor. Monogamous Muslim households are still more procreation-oriented: because Islamic culture provides more immunity against Governmental birth-control propaganda and Westernized lifestyles, because the Islamic status of women is more resistant against women opting for a career instead of family, because the Islamic divorce arrangement (with the children entrusted to the father) encourages repudiated women to start a new family, and because of the Prophet's own exhortation to be more numerous. In countries with a UCC, the Muslim birthrate is higher too. Those who see that as a problem, will need to find other solutions. More problematic with this inequality is inequality. And this in two senses: Hindu and Muslim laws differ contentswise, but also differ in their relation to the state. Hindu law does not result from a decision by a clerical Hindu body, but from state intervention: the Hindu Code Acts 1955-56. A UCC was part of the modernization process of most countries: ancient feudal privileges for nobles or clerics were abolished. All citizens became equal before the law. This is a defining trait of secular states: equality before the law regardless of one’s religion. It is claimed ad nauseam that “India is a secular state”, but it isn’t. A UCC is not a matter of Hindu Rashtra or so, it is a requirement of secularism. Next time you meet a secularist, ask him what he has done for instituting a UCC. It is his job, not that of the Hindus. No premodern Hindu state had a UCC, and Hindus were fine with that. But Hindus have adapted to the modern age: it is discriminatory to treat Muslims as unfit for this modernization. So, long live the UCC. Is this a call to the Government to take up Civil Code reform forthwith? Not really. There are issues far more urgent, far more consequential for the life chances of Hindu civilization, and far easier to achieve. These issues are the complete abolition of the existing anti-Hindu discriminations in education and temple management. Any sensible leader will take up these issues first, rather than banging his head against the wall by implementing a UCC and provoking the foreseeable reactions. They are desirable in their own right for all who value equality. Moreover, they may give Hindu society more self-confidence and thus prepare the ground for, one day, a UCC.
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