The invention of Hinduism 1,000 years ago by a Muslim

On of the most annoying tropes in modern intellectual discourse, in particular of the postcolonial variety, is its Eurocentrism. That is, the focus on the Western colonial experience is so strong and unwavering that operationally the rest of history becomes prehistory, a formless period which we are ignorant of, when humans were different in fundamental ways.

Empirically this is of course false. Earlier I have mentioned that the Central Asian Iranian polymath, Al-Biruni, had much to say about India. His was one of the earliest extensive anthropologies we have about the subcontinent from the prespective of an outsider. Though Al-Biruni was from a region which had once had a flourishing Buddhist presence, by the 10th century this had faded from historically memory. Whereas earlier Islamic scholars from previous centuries allude to the persistence of Buddhists in what is today Central Asia and Afghanistan, by Al-Biruni’s lifetime non-Muslims were in sharp retreat (though in the fastness of area like Chitral paganism persisted for a thousand years).

In any case, here are some extracts of Al-Biruni on Indian religion:

The belief of educated and uneducated people differs in every nation; for the former strive to conceive abstract ideas and to define general principles, while the latter do not pass beyond the apprehension of the senses and are content with derived rules, without caring for details, especially in questions of religion and law, regarding which opinions and interests are divided.

With regard to God, the Hindus believe that he is one, eternal, without beginning and end, acting by free will, almighty, all-wise, living, giving life, ruling, and preserving; one who is unique in his sovereignty, beyond all likeness and unlikeness, and neither resembling anything nor having anything resemble him. In order to illustrate this, we shall produce some extracts from the Hindu literature….

This is what educated people believe about God. They consider the unity of God as absolute, but that everything beside God which may appear as a unity is really a plurality of things. The existence of God they consider as a real existence, because everything that exists, exists through him. It is not impossible to think

If we now pass from the ideas of the educated people among the Hindus to those of the common people, we must first state that they present a great variety. Some of them are simply abominable, but similar errors occur also in other religions. Nay, even in Islam we must decidedly disapprove of the anthropomorphic doctrines, the teachings of the Jabriyya sect, the prohibition of the discussion of religious topics, and such like. Every religious sentence destined for the people at large must be carefully worded, as the following example shows. Some Hindu scholar calls God “a point,” meaning to say thereby that the qualities of bodies do not apply to him. Now some uneducated man reads this and imagines that God is as small as a point, and he does not find out what the word “point” in this sentence was really intended to express. He will not even stop with this offensive comparison, but will describe God as much larger, and will say, “He is twelve fingers long and ten fingers broad.” Further, if an uneducated man hears what we have mentioned, that God comprehends the universe so that nothing is concealed from him, he will at once imagine that this comprehending is effected by means of eyesight; that eyesight is only possible by means of an eye, and that two eyes are better than only one; and in consequence he will describe God as having a thousand eyes, meaning to describe his omniscience.

Similar hideous fictions are sometimes met with among the Hindus, especially among those castes who are not allowed to occupy themselves with science, of whom we shall speak hereafter.

As the word of confession, “There is no god but God, Mohammed is his prophet,” is the shibboleth of Islam, the Trinity that of Christianity, and the institution of the Sabbath that of Judaism, so metempsychosis is the shibboleth of the Hindu religion. Therefore he who does not believe in it does not belong to them, and is not reckoned as one of them. For they hold that the soul, as long as it has not risen to the highest absolute intelligence, does not comprehend the totality of objects at once. Therefore it must explore all particular beings and examine all the possibilities.

The point of this post is not to show that Al-Biruni had a good idea of what “Hinduism” was, though I think if you read it on the whole he isn’t that far removed from how some moderns would characterize it. Rather, it is to show that the distinctiveness of Indian religious thought was noticed long before Europeans arrived to create a specific categorization system which we utilize today. The details of the system might deviate from Al-Biruni, or Adi Shankara, but in its broad outlines it’s describing the same thing.

(since some people are not subtle, the title is not to be taken literally)

Bangladeshi freethinker shot dead

Freethinking writer and politician shot dead in Bangladesh:

Shahzahan Bachchu was known locally and within the secular Bangladeshi movement as an outspoken, sometimes fiery activist for secularism. He printed poetry and books related to humanism and freethought via his publishing house Bishaka Prakashani (Star Publishers). He was also a political activist, serving as former general secretary of Munshiganj district unit of the Communist Party.

He was reportedly shot and killed this evening near his village home at Kakaldi in Munshiganj district near the capital Dhaka.

The fool hath said in his heart, There is a God.

Genetic variation in South Asia

I don’t have too much time right now. So a quick data post. The map above shows India’s scale in relation to Europe.

Below is an NJ tree that shows pairwise Fst values (genetic distance):

Please notice the small genetic difference between Britain/Spain/Poland. Compare to Gujrati vs. Sindhi, let alone Gujrati vs. Telegu.

Now, PCA:

Genetically Sindhis occupy a place between South Indians and Iranians. Some Gujaratis are nearly where Sindhis are, but many are far more shifted toward South Indians. The Fst display masks this since it aggregates populations.

Treemix shows the relationships and their scale. South Asians have a lot of drift between them.

Some of you are probably bored by this post and wonder about it’s practical implication. If so, keep on paging down (or up).

On the rectification of names and religion

A major influence on my thinking about human social phenomenon is Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. Atran, along with other scholars such as Dan Sperber and younger researchers such as Harvey Whitehouse, work within a “naturalistic” paradigm, as opposed to the more interpretative framework currently ascendant within American anthropology.

The interpretive framework emphasizes “thick description,” and avoids generalities (unless they are convenient ones!), as well as exhibiting a suspicion of synthesis with the natural sciences. Ways of thinking such as post-colonialism are part of the umbrella of paradigms which are consonant with interpretive anthropology’s premises.

Both naturalistic and interpretive frameworks are useful. But I believe in modern discourse the latter is given almost monopolistic power to adjudicate on factual matters, even though in other contexts those who engage in interpretation are wont to say that facts are fictions!

Let’s start with the idea that the idea of religion qua religion is Protestant, Christian, or Abrahamic. I’ve seen all three flavors of the argument using a narrow definition of religion. It’s hard to deny that Christianity, and often in particular Protestantism, have resulted in a reorganization and reimagining of non-Christian religions. For example, the “confessionalization” of South Korea after World War II, and the transformation of Won Buddhism into an institution which resembles Protestantism would be a case in point. Or the emergence of Arya Samaj in the 19th century, and its relationship to the stimulative effect of evangelical Protestantism.

It is hard to deny confessional Protestantism is a very particular form of religion, and a clear and distinct one. The emphasis on individual volition in this view of religion makes it such that identity is clear and distinct through adherence to a precise formula and community. Practitioners are self-conscious in their identity. They come to it, it is not given to them.

But is it fair to say that religion by necessity must follow the outlines of confessional Protestantism? Or that it has to be a congregational faith with exclusive boundaries, as the Abrahamic faiths tend to be?

Not necessarily. A Ju/’hoansi tribesman in the Kalahari does not follow any of the organized world religions. He or she surely does not have the word for religion in their language, unless he or she is in extensive contact with missionaries. But the Ju/’hoansi have a rich supernatural world in which they believe, and which is seamlessly woven into their lives.

Do the Ju/’hoansi  have a religion or not? If you asked them they might not know what you are talking about. The Ju/’hoansi lack many of the institutions which modern societies have, so they don’t need all the labels of modern societies. Do the Ju/’hoansi have “daycare”? Again, they would look at you in a very confused manner. But the do have  Ju/’hoansi some alloparenting. It’s just something implicit, tacit, and taken for granted. It might not be labelled daycare, but that’s what it is. Functionally they have daycare, even it’s not institutionalized.

To bring it back to the central focus of this weblog, there has been some assertion that Hinduism as such was invented/defined by the British. That Hinduism as a coherent ideology is a very distinct and novel thing from the welter of beliefs and practiced of Indians more generally.

It is clear there is some truth in this. The Hinduism of a Brahmin expositor of Sanatana Dharma is distinct from the local spirituality of a adivasi group, and both differ from something like Gaudiya Vaishnavism.

But the reality is that Hinduism is not particularly unique. American Presbyterians exhibit self-conscious identity and adherence to elite-mediated belief and practice. This sort of individualistic confessional Christianity is arguably the apotheosis of a modernist conception of religion. But this is a relatively new development in the West among Christians.

The vast majority of the European peasantry did not exhibit this sort of Christian self-consciousness before the later medieval centuries, and much of it did not become self-conscious until after the Reformation period. This is one reason that some Reformed Protestants argue that Europe was not Christianized until after the Reformation. Peasants may have had a sense that they were Christians, and others were heathens, but the full liturgy and deep catechism were not necessarily a part of their lives (in contrast to the elite).

And yet it seems ridiculous to assert in the context of the Crusades, the rise of Gothic cathedrals, and the conversion of Northern and Eastern Europe by missionaries, that Europe was not Christian before the late medieval period. Individual Europeans may not have been self-conscious confessional Christians, but everyone around them was at least nominally a Christian. Additionally, the Christian Church, whether West or East, saw itself as bringing salvation to everyone within the society, high or low, poor or rich, and devout or ignorant. Many Europeans were not Christian in the individual way modern evangelical Protestants would understand, but European civilization was Christian.

I think this is the best way to understand what Hinduism was, and what it became. Indian civilization was long seen to be distinct by the ancients. It was not a random and disparate collection of peoples, but a civilization with various centers, and jostling competition between aspirant elites.

It is well known in the pre-modern period “Hindu” seems to have bracketed people who lived in India. From the Muslim perspective all non-Muslims who lived in the subcontinent. It was a geographical designation more than a religious one as such. But it is clear that already by the time of the arrival of Muslims in the Sindh in the 8th century, and definitely by the era when Al-Biruni wrote his well known ethnography of South Asia around 1000 AD, that Indian religion had taken on some distinctive forms and outlines, even if it was not self-consciously termed Hinduism. It is clear because outsiders describe normative Indian religious practices and beliefs that we would recognize today (e.g., reincarnation).

There are two other elements to this broader issue. First, it curious that the British had to define Hinduism, when it seems Muslims had been doing so for the whole period after the initial incursions. Al-Biruni made the most thorough early attempt, and his writings on India would make an Orientalist proud. And I say that not as a dismissal, but a description. Al-Biruni seemed rather clear-eyed that Indian hostility to Muslim was due to the predatory character of the warlords who also patronized his scholarship. The focus on the British reflects the recency-bias in post-colonial studies, where the only colonialism and conquest of interest is tht which is executed by Europeans.

Additionally, I am  convinced by the arguments in Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, and Warriors of the Cloisters: The Central Asian Origins of Science in the Medieval World, that Turanian Buddhism was essential and instrumental in shaping Islam as we understand it from the Abbassid period onward (in particular, the emergence of madrassa and the hadith traditions). Though Turanian Buddhism is clearly not Hindu, connections to India to the south and China to the east were part of a broader “Buddhist international” which flourished in the 4th to 7th century.

This is not to deny the distinctiveness of the Islam Al-Biruni used as a contrast to Indian religious thought. But, by his life Central Asian Buddhism was extirpated, and he would not have been able to see the influence of that Indian-influenced tradition on Islam because it had become thoroughly integrated.

Second, Indian religious civilization was successfully exported to the east so it was not constitutively associated with being Indian. The Balinese of Indonesia and the Cham of Vietnam are recognizably Hindu. It would be curious to tell them that the British defined Hinduism in the early modern period…when they were practicing Hinduism 1,000 years ago. The Ankgor temple complex was built in the 12th century, when Hinduism was Cambodia’s dominant elite religion.

Finally, an addendum to my post on caste and genetics. I read Castes of Mind many years ago. I think many of the arguments in that book aren’t necessarily invalidated by the genetic data. But, we need to think hard about whether we really expected the genetic data given the thesis that British colonialism was highly determinative in shaping the hierarchy and structure of South Asian society.

In fact, the genetic data makes it clear that most South Asian communities have been distinct and endogamous for several thousand years. That the genetic differences between castes groupings and jati within regions are closer to what you could expect of from differences between antipodes of a continent. And, within a given region ancestry which is closer to West/Central Eurasian tends to be enriched in groups “higher” up the modern caste ladder, across the subcontinent (at least if there is a correlation).

Additionally, this is not well known, but the genetic structure seems to exist even if you remove Indo-Aryans from the picture. Groups such as the Reddys and Nadars in South India who do not have any northern/western affinity at all are still genetically quite distinct from adivasis and scheduled castes in the local region. They also tend to have more West/Central Eurasian ancestry than adivasis and scheduled castes in the local region.

Genetical observations on caste

One of the more interesting and definite aspects of David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here is on caste. In short, it looks like most Indian jatis have been genetically endogamous for ~2,000 years, and, varna groups exhibit some consistent genetic differences.

This is relevant because it makes the social constructionist view rather untenable. The genetic distinctiveness of jati groups is very hard to deny, it jumps out of the data. The assertions about varna are fuzzier. But, on the whole Brahmins across South Asia have the most ancestry from ancient “steppe” groups, while Dalits across South Asia have the least. Kshatriya is closer to Brahmins. Vaisya has lower fractions of “steppe”. And so on. These varna generalizations aren’t as clear and distinct as jati endogamy. Sudras from Punjab may have as much or more “steppe” than South Indian Brahmins. But the coarse patterns are striking.

As a geneticist, and as an irreligious atheist, a lot of the conversations about “caste” are irrelevant to me. They’re semantical.

You can tell me that true Hinduism doesn’t have caste, that it was “invented” by Westerners. They may not have had caste, but the genetical data is clear that South Asians were endogamous for 2,000 years to an extreme degree. Additionally, the classical caste hierarchy seems to correlate with particular ancestry fractions.

Second, you can say Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism don’t have caste. That they picked it up from Hinduism. Or Indian culture. That’s true. But I think Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism are all made up, just like Hinduism. I don’t care if made up ideologies don’t have caste in their made up religious system. I am curious about the revealed patterns genetically.

I have a pretty big data set of South Asians. Some of them are from the 1000 Genomes. Here is where the 1000 Genomes South Asians were collected:

Gujarati Indians from Houston, Texas
Punjabi from Lahore, Pakistan
Bengali from Dhaka, Bangladesh
Sri Lankan Tamil from the UK
Indian Telugu from the UK

Some of the groups showed a lot of genetic variation, so I split them based on how much “Ancestral North Indian” (ANI) they had. So Gujurati_ANI_1 has more ANI than Gujurati_ANI_2 and so forth.

Continue reading “Genetical observations on caste”

The once and future “Brown Pundits”

Country Users Rank % Rank
 China 746,662,194 1 53.20% 109
 India 391,292,631 2 29.55% 143
 United States 245,436,423 3 76.18% 54
 Brazil 123,927,230 4 59.68% 90
 Japan 117,528,631 5 92.00% 15
 Russia 110,003,284 6 76.41% 53

The “Brown Pundits” blog was formed on a lark about 7 years ago. The Sepia Munity weblog was clearly winding down, and people like Zach and I didn’t feel too well represented. What I mean is that weblog in its latter years reflected a certain activist Left-wing South Asian American perspective which naturally didn’t include all Diaspora South Asians. In some ways this was a shift away from its original years, when it was more politically eclectic, with some center-Right and libertarian voices, to go along with conventional center-Left viewpoints.

Two of the co-founders I knew personally before the blog was founded, and we had a small e-list where we discussed cultural and social issues. To a great extent, I think the Sepia Mutiny blog reflected a decade in transition for South Asian brown Americans. Most of the contributors were of an age where they would be routinely asked where “they were really from,” and all of us understood that we were seen to be a novel and exotic contribution to the American landscape.

Things have changed a lot since then. Most particularly in 2008, Barack Hussein Obama was elected president of the United States. Where black Americans rejoined in the election of a black man, I suspect many Americans of Asian background noted his exotic background and name. If a man with such a foreign name could become head of state of the United States could we be such aliens after all?

I do understand that some people feel that the election of Donald J. Trump has rendered us aliens in our own land again. Overall, I disagree. In a Spenglerian sense, I see the election of Trump as a crying in the wilderness of an old America which is feeling less at the center of our culture, as well as the more general atavisms triggered by globalization.

South Asian Americans, which mostly means Indian Americans, have a place and a role in American culture that can’t be denied. Most Indian Americans have followed a “Jewish model”, aligning with the political and social Left, especially a small activist class.

A framework to understand the trajectory of young 2nd and later generation South Asian Americans that I outlined over 10 years ago I think is a useful model. Roughly, there are three broad classes of South Asian Americans (with overlap):

  • Assimilators. Unlike some groups, South Asian Americans are physically distinct enough that assimilation doesn’t involve “passing” into another identity. Rather, assimilation involves intermarriage and socialization with a broad set of Americans and a very loose attachment to distinctively South Asian cultural markers ad community institutions. Most of the children of assimilators will be mixed, and so will not have a singular South Asian identity in an authentic way.
  • South Asian Americans. This group is perhaps equivalent to Indian identities in the West Indies, which have become distinct from Old World self-conceptions while retaining a sense of South Asianness. In some ways, I think this was a core group for the Sepia Mutiny blog. These are the sort of people who might marry other Indian Americans, but these marriages are often cross-regional, cross-caste, and even cross-religion. To give a concrete example, I know that two of the original Sepia Mutiny bloggers married and had children with someone whose family was from a different ethnoreligious tradition from their own. The sort of marriage which would raise eyebrows in South Asia, but wouldn’t be viewed that strange in the American context.
  • Finally, traditionalists. There are American-born and raised Patels who marry other Patels. There are Dawoodi Bohra Muslims who marry other Dawoodi Bohra Muslims. This group would be most recognizable to people from South Asia.

But to me, that’s the past. I think it’s done. I don’t see Brown Pundits contributing to that discussion or cultural space, for various reasons (the primary one being most that none of the contributors are of the second class). Rather, I’ve started to get interested in Brown Pundits in large part because it seems that Asia, including South Asia, is getting to be a bigger and bigger part of the discussion. There are now more Indians browsing the internet than Americans!

Yes, it’s mostly on mobile phones, but most Americans were on dial-up until the mid-2000s.