A “carvaka” perspective historicity of myth and religion

A comment thread below discussed the issues relating to the historicity of Jesus, Muhammad, and Hindu figures such as Ram and Krishna. The assertion is that while Jesus and Muhammad are historical figures, Ram and Krishna are mythological.

To some extent, this is a religiously fraught topic. People from Abrahamic backgrounds are wont to dismiss Dharmic tradition as pagan, heathen, and yes, mythological. In many Abrahamic traditions pagan gods, a class into which Hindu deities are often bracketed, are emanations of true supernatural powers, but demonic ones. In the West, this tendency within Christianity has been pushed to the background. But it still exists in more conservative denominations and traditions.

Therefore, those who adhere to false and marginal religions have “myths.” Those who adhere to true and cultural dominant religions have “stories” or “narratives.” That is the cultural context which we must admit. Even in places where non-Abrahamic religions or traditions are dominant, the past few centuries of European cultural and imperial hegemony have imposed certain interpretive frameworks which are Abrahamic.

And yet that being said, as someone who believes all religious supernatural claims come from the realm of our minds, as opposed to reality, there is a qualitative difference between Jesus, Muhammad, and Ram and Krishna. If Ram and Krishna did exist, they are individuals who lived in “prehistory.” That is, from a period not accessible to us even at some remove through non-religious text. In this way, they are like Abraham or Zoroaster. In contrast, the Buddha, Confucius, Mahavira, and various figures in Hebrew legend and myth such as David, Solomon, and Jeremiah are liminal figures. The world in which they lived was stepping out of prehistory and archaeology, and into the written word, but it was not a fully-fleshed world.

Finally, you have the prophets and religious leaders who are “of history.” Jesus, along with Muhammed and Mani are generally agreed to be figures of history. But we don’t have contemporaneous records of their lives outside of religious traditions, and even in that case only from texts dated to later periods from when they flourished. This means that the context and the details of who these figures were may not align with what current religious tradition suggests and argues for their significance (though since Manichaeanism is dead as a living religion that is a separate case).

A common revisionist case for the nature of the “historical Jesus,” is that he was a Jewish reformer in the tradition of Rabbi Hillel. The emergence of a religion of universal salvation, as opposed to a different form of Judaism, was a process which then developed in the generations after the death of the historical Jesus, the Rabbi Yeshua ben Yosef. Roman Christianity as a sect cannot be understood without appreciating its birth in an Empire where syncretistic “mystery cults” were revolutionizing popular religious life (e.g., Mithraism). The elite Roman Christianity of the 3th to 6th centuries cannot be understood without the cultural priors brought to the religion by converts from aristocratic or educated backgrounds steeped in Greek philosophy (e.g., Origen, Athanasius, and in the West Augustine).

In short, a person around whom the legend and myth of Jesus grew almost certainly existed. But the Jesus of myth is to a great extent the creation of a Christianity which developed long after he died.*

Much the same can be said of Islam. A certain legend exists of Muhammad the warlord within Islamic traditions. But outside of these records, in the contemporaneous ones of the Byzantines, he is not noted (little remains of the records of the Persians and Ethiopians). This would not be surprising, because outside of modern Yemen, and the liminal zones of the Levant and the fringe of the desert on the western shore of the Euphrates, Arabia was of little consequence. So long as the spice flowed (e.g., frankincense), the goings on of the Arabs were not of note unless they impinged upon the civilized world.

And yet that did happen indeed, with the defeat of the Byzantines at Yarmouk and the Persians at al-Qādisiyyah. But as highlighted by revisionist scholars, the Byzantines took many decades to perceive in the Arab armies as anything but heretics and schismatics. This is also echoed in some ways in particular Islamic traditions which emphasize the relative impiety of the Umayyad Caliphate, denigrated in some sources as the “Arab Kingdom” due to its ethnocentric nature.

Compared to the later Abbasid period we don’t know much about the Umayyads. Part of the reason is that the winners write the histories, and the Abbasids won. In Hugh Kennedy’s The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In, he argues that Muawiyah was clearly a far more influential and important figure in Islamic history than one might think from the attention he receives from classical scholars and thinkers. But that’s because the Shia detest him, while the Abbasids and the Sunni Islam which evolved under their aegis minimized him.

But there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence that compared to the Abbasids the Umayyads were very much a skeletal barracks-state where Arabs imposed an ethnic dominion, rather than a religious one. Even in the Islamic histories, there are attestations of Christian Arab tribes who were exempt from the jizya tax, while mawlā individuals of Persian origin were subject to the same indignities of non-Muslim Persians.

In fact, archaeological evidence shows that Umayyads in Syria patronized the creation of mosaics which continued the Late Antique Hellenic visual tradition, depicting both humans and animals. And, Greek was the administrative language of the Umayyads for the first few generations. The last of the Church Fathers, John of Damascus, was a Greek-speaker of Syrian background who served as a civil official under the Umayyads in the years around 700 A.D.  In contrast, the elite Barmakid family which was so prominent under the early Abbasids were of Buddhist background, but had to convert to Islam to become part of administrative apparatus which was becoming distinctively Muslim by this period.

All this is to set up the contention that Islam as we understand it, just like Christianity as we understand it, may actually not be the product of the first few decades of its flourishing as commonly understood, but of a later period when certain orthodoxies were understood and internalized, and grand narratives were later retroactively imposed. This aligns with the arguments in Lost Enlightenment and Warriors of the Cloisters that Islam, as we understand it today, was fundamentally shaped by the shift to the east initiated by the early Abbasids.

Which brings me to Mormonism, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Unlike Jesus or Muhammad, there is no great debate about the details about the life of the Joseph Smith, the prophet of the religion that became Mormonism. Smith was born in Greater New England, and the Mormon church emerged as a sect in the Restorationist Protestant tradition. Its cultural context was among the Yankees of the American North. Smith’s family had been involved in radical Christianity, in particular, the Universalist Church.

Over the decades of Smith’s life as leader of the church, and later after his death, his sect became a new religion, fundamentally different from the Protestant milieu in which it emerged. Mormon religion early on took a jaundiced view of Nicene Christianity, holding to the Restorationist perspective that all other Christian churches were fallen and corrupt. But Mormonism deviated by innovating and transforming its theology, away from the dominant orthodoxy as articulated by early thinkers such as Bishop Irenaeus.

Due to secret revelations late in Joseph Smith’s life, Mormon leaders developed a Christology which was fundamentally different from that of other Christian traditions. Rejecting Trinitarianism and much of Greek metaphysics, Mormons believe that Jesus Christ was God the Heavenly Father’s bodily son, with Lucifer being his rebellious brother. Additionally, God the Heavenly Father has a Heavenly Mother, who is his wife. Father and Mother live on a planet in this universe in physical bodies.

There is much more which is exotic and strange to non-Mormons, whether Christian or not, in their theology. But, because Mormonism has existed in the light of history non-Mormons can look upon its claims with a much more critical eye. It is obvious, to many, that early Mormonism was just another Restorationist Christian church. Why did Mormonism deviate so far from mainstream American Christianity in its beliefs and practices?

It is important to remember that Mormonism is simply the westernmost and most successful offshoot of Joseph Smith’s religion. The Community of Christ, previously known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, remained located in Missouri when most of the community migrated west. Under the leadership of the descendants of Joseph Smith, the midwestern Mormons eventually merged back into the mainstream of liberal Protestant Christianity. Why?

I suspect one of the reasons that this occurred is simply the fact that the western Mormons became a very distinct ethno-cultural community, geographically separated from other Americans. In contrast, the Midwestern Mormons remained just another church among churches, albeit with a peculiar origin. And, like many “independent churches” in Africa founded in the 20th century, as it matured and stabilized, it slowly moves back into the mainstream of the dominant tendency of American Protestantism (with a few doctrinal quirks).

Since I began talking about Hinduism and the Abrahamic religions, to Hinduism we come back. A lot of the discussion online (and on this weblog) is difficult to follow because there is Hinduism, and then there is Hinduism. Hinduism as the religion of the people of India is an old concept, and a generic one. But elite philosophical schools of Hinduism, such as Advaita Vedanta, crystallized much later, even down into the period when Muslims began to first make incursions into India.

I have alluded to here to the book The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies. The focus on Greeks and Indians is due to the fact that aside from the Chinese these were the two ancient cultures which developed a fully elaborated philosophy that we in the modern world would understand, from metaphysics to ethics (Jewish and Persian philosophy in a distinctive sense tended toward religion).

Though they exhibited different biases and emphases, but it is clear that the Greeks saw in Indian “gymnosophists” kindred souls. The great Neoplatonist, Plotinus, reputedly inquired into the nature of Indian philosophy through meetings with scholars in Persia according to his classical biographers. The correspondence between Advaita Vedanta and Neoplatonism is rather clear, and probably due to a common set of monistic ideas which were in currency across the trading network between Alexandria and southern India, as well as through Persia, which spanned the edge of Roman Syria and into modern Pakistan, as well as ruling substantial Buddhist domains in Turan.

One of the generalizations often made about the development of Hinduism in the subcontinent over the past 1,000 years is that it is as if Islam did not even exist. That is, the indigenous religious traditions persisted and maintained themselves at such a remove that their evolutionary development was unperturbed by the exogenous cultural intrusion.

Crossing the Threshold: Understanding Religious Identities in South Asia, presents the argument that both Muslims and Hindus exhibited much more religious fluidity until the past few centuries. This is often argued in the context of peasant folk religion, where this is obviously true. But the author makes the case that groups like Hussaini Brahmins were much more numerous in earlier periods, especially before the emergence of a later Mughal orthodoxy under the aegis of Naqshbandi Sufis. Not only did this mean the forced conversion of many Ismailis to Sunni Islam, but also the shift of some liminal groups away from Islam and toward adherence to a Sanskritized Hindu identity. The reason for this is obvious: heretical or ghulat sects of Islam are viewed far more negatively by Sunni enforces of orthodoxy than Hindus, who were outside of the pale of Islamic writ in any case. This is analogous to the early decades of the Christian Roman Empire, when persecutions were directed primarily to heretical sects, rather than the pagan majority, which was neglected.

As must be clear by this point: Christians, Muslims, and though I have not addressed it, Jews, seem to have “cleaned” up their history.** In fact, one might even say they “retconned” their history so that present beliefs naturally lead from ancient beliefs, even though that is hard to see logically and empirically quite often where the ancient leads to the modern (e.g., reading the Synoptic Gospels, and then the Athanasian Creed, is confusing without any historical context).  I believe that many modernist Hindus, living in a world of explicit and demarcated confessions, and formal beliefs and portable and digestible holy texts, have attempted to do something similar.

First, Hinduism becomes a religion of deep antiquity, despite its historical development over the past 2,000 years. Just as modern Muslims, Jews, and Christians look to the legendary Abraham, who lived 4,000 years ago, outside of the gaze of history, so modern Hindus look to the mythos of Ram, Krishna, and the Vedas, and built their house upon those rocks. This, despite the detachment of multitudinous folk Hinduisms from this ancient foundation, as well as the relatively tenuous connections of highly intellectualized philosophical Hinduism to the concrete and corporeal character of the early Vedas (Vedas venerated by vegetarian “Hindu fundamentalists” which clearly depict vigorous beef-eating warriors!).

Second, the localized diversity of Hinduism becomes flattened in an atomized world characterized by anomie. Just as ‘traditional’ Javanese Hinduism tends to flourish in the village, but not in the urban centers, so ‘traditional’ Hinduism of locality is not portable or plausible in the great fleshpots of modern India. Urban Hindus need something that gives them religious succor and is also in keeping with their understanding of their traditional origins. Something that is not a rupture from the past, but an extension and evolution. A “perfection” as Christians would say of Judaism and Salafi Muslims of traditional Islam.

Just as urban Indonesian Muslims who shift from abangan Islam to a more “orthodox” world-normative santri Islam view themselves as reclaiming a more pure and primal Islam, so it strikes me that modern Indians who adhere to a “Vedic religion,” stripped of locality and universalized and extended, create a mythos and narrative of reclamation, not innovation.

Over the 21st century, India will urbanize, and the villages will fade away in memory and with time. It is plausible that as this occurs modern urban Hinduism will produce a relatively standardized, and yes, deracinated, a spirituality which is more amenable to a people who move from one end of the country to another, as their professions take them on peregrinations over their lifetime.

To some extent the Abrahamic religions, and Buddhism, have already been through this. Torn away from a specific soil that nurtures them in a distinct local culture, these religious traditions have developed portable variants, which eventually become normative, uniting disparate peoples with distinct folkways. As India becomes its own world, and different cultures within it synthesize and merge, a need will develop for a more portable and flexible Hinduism. Both secular Hinduism and Hindu fundamentalism are faces of this transition, and both are likely the seeds of sectarian traditions which will wax and elaborate over the coming decades.

* Reading the Gospels, this is most clear in the writings of “John.” A grand and conceited figure, in contrast with the modest Jewish prophet of Mark.

** Orthodox Judaism as we understand really congealed in the 6th century with the Babylonian Talmud. Therefore, I argue it is a sister religion to Christianity, with both deriving from sects of Classical Judaism. Some scholars have in fact argued that Christianity is an extreme derivative of a form of Hellenistic Judaism!

Afghanistan’s History

Afghanistan’s History

There are several perspectives on Afghanistan’s name. Afghanistan’s name might come from “Upa-Gana-stan”:

  • “Upa” with a choti “a” at the end or “उप” means near
  • “Gana” or “गण” I believe might be a reference to Shiva’s Ganas (gouls, ghosts, unusual looking beings . . . possibly a reference to non homo sapiens of some kind, some say aliens)
  • “Stan”, I don’t know. Is this “Sthaana” or “स्थान”? If so this might mean position or venue or station or field or throne

An extremely wise fellow contributor from Brown Pundit reminded me of two other ancient names used for Afghanistan:

  • Panini’s Aṣṭādhyāyī refers to Afghanistan as ash-va-kaa-na (अश्वकान​).
    • Please note that the Aṣṭādhyāyī  is much older than Patanjali who is considered millennia older than Krishna. Traditional scholarship of Aṣṭādhyāyī  places it more than 7 thousand BC, which is not to say that the Aṣṭādhyāyī  has not in any way been modified since then.
  • Pakrit name “a-va-gaa-nna” (अवगान्ना).

The oldest part of the Rig Veda samhita refers to:

Afghanistan is also central to the ancient Sharada civilization:

The Sharada civilization [Afghanistan, Northern Pakistan, Kashmir] represents many things. One is the convergence of the six major Shaivite schools (not just Trika) within Uttara Mīmāmsā (Vedanta) and the four major Tibetan schools via the shared 84 Siddhas. Later large streams within Sufism joined this convergence [which might be the topic of a future researched article].

Legend of Rama: Antiquity of the Janmabhumi Debate argues that many places of great significance to the Ramayana and Puranic stories are in Afghanistan:

In the opinion of Wilson the renowned Vedic translator Kandahar is similar to the Rig Vedic word Gandhara. Wilson further observes,:

Ibn Haukil mentions that in his time there were remains of a considerable city more to the west, by the people of which, Zaranj was built. He calls this places Ramshhristan, a curious compound of Indian and Persian appellations.

There were ruins ‘at astonishing number’ in Herat, at Farrah, and Peshawarun–all sites near the province of Dranjiana connected with the Vedic dynasty of the Srinjayas [who were prominent during the 18 day Mahabharata war]. It therefore becomes all the more curious to hear the name of the place called Ramshehristan.

Panini, the eminent grammarian of Sanskrit, lived here in about 350 BC. [for the record I think Panini lived far earlier and before Patanjali] In his composition of the a sutra (4.3.93) on the Sindh and Takshasila class (gana-patha), he includes Sindhu, Varnu, Madhumat, Kamboja, Salwa, Kashmir, Gandhara, Kishkindhya, Urasa, Darada and Gandika. These are geographical names and lie in the trans-Indus regions. The place mentioned by Panini as Kishkindhya is today known as Kalat in Baluchistan. A great linguistic puzzle is that the local people call Brahuis speak in a Dravidian dialect.

Afghanistan was not the name of a country before 1747 AD. The lands lying to the est of the River Indus were called by different times as Kamboja, Bahlika, Madra, Aratta etc. in the north; as Sarayu (Horayu) in the north-west; as Sarasvati (Harahvati) in the south-east; as Gandhara in the center; as Zranjiana in the south-west and as Kishkindhya in the south.

. . .

They were of five streams or Pancajanas. Their leader was Visvamitra, who lived in Satudri-Vipasa valley (RV III.22.1). They fought against the Srinjayas under Vasistha in the famous battle of the ten kings.

Several waves of the new people, the Aryan races–Druhyus, Turvasus and Anus went westwards from these places. These groups are variously known in traditional literature as the Persians (Parsu), Medians (Madras), Parthians (Prithus), Hyksos (Yaksus), Mittanians and Helenes (Alinas) etc. They originally settled at a places known as Shortugai in Badakhshan in North Afghanistan. Old Sumerian texts as also the descriptions in the Baudhayana say that Aratta was Badakhshan, Balkh, or Bactria in Central Asia. From here, they exported lapis lazuli to the Sumer. The Sumerian epic, Enmerker and the Lord of Aratta describes this in detail. The epic, found in the clay tablets of Boghaz Keui is dated c. 1700 BC. In the Mahabharata, Karna derides the Madras and Arattans as being lowly people! [in conversation with Salya during the 17th day of the Kurukshetra war]

. . .

The name Srinjaya is similar to Zaranj and Sarangaei of the Iranians, old Persians and the Greeks. These were the names of the Iranian tribes who lived according to Herodotus in Zranjiana or Dranjiana, an area on the River Sarasvati or Horahvaiti in the Arochosia-Helmand region. Divodasa, greatest among the Rig Vedic kings, was a Srinjaya. He was born here.  . . .

Horahvaiti region i.e. the Helmand-Arachosia region of what is today western Afghanistan . . .

Heldebrandt, one of the earliest scholars on the Ramayana in the West, was of the view that Sarasvati was the river Arghandab (Horahvaiti of the Zend Avestaiver, ) in Arachosia of modern Afghanistan (then Iran). Brunhofer, another scholar of the epic, adopted the Iranian link. Zimmer was in favour of placing the Rig Vedic Sarasvati in this area. Recently, Burrow has held that the early Rig Vedic Sarasvati  was the River Horaxvaiti of Iran, and the River Sarayu was the Afghan, Horayu. Among the Indian scholars, Jaichandra Vidyalankar, after a detailed rumination, identifies Sarasvati as the Iranian Haraqvati . . .

The Ishvaku, the family Ram belonged to, and the Vasistha family were linked to a very early time of the Rig Veda, originally from the north and north-west region called Harirud of modern Afghanistan, on the bank of the River Horayu, mentioned in the Avesta. Only in the Rig Veda there is the name Sarayu. In the same way, still earlier, the family of Atris hailed from the banks of the River Rasa in the region of South Russia and North Afghanistan today. In a very early hymn in the Rig Veda (53.9), Sage Syavasva Atreya extols in glory a fleeting dolumn of the Maruts moving southward–the horse-borne storm troopers. In the course of their journey, they cross the rivers Rasa (Ranha or Oxus, in modern South Russia), Krumu (Kurran), Sindhu (Indus-between Pakistan and India today) and Sarayu (Horayu or Harirud)

My own interpretation is that the Vedas, Purana Itihasas, Ramayana and Mahabharata  refer to some places north of Afghanistan in Turan (perhaps Sudakshina‘s army in the Mahabharata came from Turan) and west of Afghanistan in Iran (some believe that Pahlava refers to Arjuna‘s, Abhimanyu‘s, Parakshit‘s and Janamajeya‘s and Ashwamedatta’s ancestral line). Some even claim that the temple of Baalbek in Lebanon

and temple of Delphi in Greece are very closely connected to Arya culture and temples in the east:

Hopefully future articles will be written about Turan, Iran and further west. Again, please read the top hyperlink in full.

Article updated.

Midnight’s Descendants: A History of South Asia since Partition

I recently read John Keay’s Midnight’s Descendants: A History of South Asia since Partition. Like his earlier books on the history of India and China, this is a work written by a journalist, not an area specialist (though Keay seems to take a particular interest in South Asia judging by his oeuvre).

To be frank I’m not sure if I learned that much…and I don’t know much about South Asian history after 1945. But, it reaffirmed my intuitions that some of the ideologues who bandy extremely high casualty rates are doing a disservice to the real tragedies that have marred the subcontinent over the past century.

In any case, I do recommend this book to the 50% of the readers of this weblog who are not South Asian.

Note: I don’t have the time or interest to read Guha’s India After Gandhi. Also, my friend Reihan Salam has indicated to me it’s a more tendentious work than most are willing to admit.

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)

American Caste

Our featured post modernist scholar Daria Roithmayr appears to believes that America has four castes: caucasions, latinos, blacks, asians; and emphasizes the importance of caste (which she calls “race”) over class in understanding how the world works and changing societal socio-economic outcomes. And our featured hero, leader of the intellectual dark web, global respected elder, and leading global intellectual Glenn Loury believes in emphasizing class over caste. I am 200% with my hero Glenn Loury on emphasizing class over caste.

Discussions at Brown Pundits seem to be overrun with discussions on caste that I don’t fully understand. The parallels of caste in the muslim world (various different sects of Islam), Arya societies (Iran, Hindu Jain Buddhist influenced societies) and America are uncannily similar. Perhaps a discussion of American caste might help lower extreme passions and facilitate a more productive discussion of caste in muslim societies and Arya influenced societies.

Start watching 35 minutes in if interested.

Daria Roithmayr believes that due to a series of historical events humans are not born with the same social capital. This inequality in social capital is inherited across generations and she believes drives differences in average socio-economic outcomes between America’s four castes. The way she believes social capital in inherited across generations is:

  1. Inter-generational wealth transfer from parents to children [I think this is easily overcome]
  2. Rich kids go to better public schools funded by high property tax revenues [I don’t think school funding matters as much as she does. Expensive versus cheaper public schools matter far less than the power of “good company”, or the effect of kids being surrounded by other amazing kids.]
  3. Social networks [this or the power of “good company” is even more important and valuable than she thinks]
  4. Leadership of or influence on social networks [I don’t think I understand this point]

Daria Roithmayr is right that social capital advantage is inherited across generations. My belief is the way social capital transfers across generations is through affecting four types of privilege:

  1. Physical health [Sharira Siddhi in Sanskrit]
  2. Mental health [Chitta Shuddhi in Sanskrit]
  3. Intelligence [Buddhi in Sanskrit] {Intelligence is affected by physical and mental health as well as by meditation in eastern philosophy}
  4. Good company [This is the least important of the four and primarily works via the influence good company has on physical and mental health and intelligence. There is an eastern saying: “tell me your company and I will tell you who you are”. Social networks or what Glenn Loury calls “relations over transactions” is part of “good company”.]

The other issues Daria is discussing has a far smaller effect on inter-generational social capital transfer than these four.

Books on Indian history without recency bias

One of the problems with Indian history is that a lot of the books are strongly biased toward the Muslim and colonial periods. There are numerous reasons for this. People are interested in the Muslim and colonial periods for nationalist and anti-nationalist reasons, if that makes any sense.

But some of it is simply source availability of. When I am curious about the period between the Han dynasty and the Sui-Tang I’ll pick up a book like China between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties. In contrast The Gupta Empire is an out of print monograph.

Because at some point the Rakhigarhi DNA results will be coming out I want to do some more reading on ancient and medieval (using those epochs loosely in the South Asian context) history, but so much of it is archaeological because of the thin historiographical tradition in South Asia.

Do readers have suggestions?

(Please calibrate to my level of knowledge. I’ve already read Early India)

Intellectual Dark Web

I would define the “intellectual dark web” as the confluence and convergence of leaders from classical European enlightenment, hard sciences, technology (including neuroscience, bio-engineering, genetics, artificial intelligence), and east philosophy streams. Among the intellectual dark web’s many members are Dr. Richard Haier, Jordan Peterson, Jonathan Haidt, Ben Shapiro, Weinstein brothers, Sam Harris, Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Yuval Noah Harari, Thomas Friedman, Maajid Nawaz, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku , Dr. VS Ramachandran, Steven Pinker, Armin Navabi, Ali Rizvi, Farhan Qureshi, Peter Beinart, Gad Saad, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Dave Rubin, Joe Rogan, Russell Brand.  If Steve Jobs were still alive, I would include him among them. They defy easy labels and are high on openness. I hesitate to label others without their permission, but our very own Razib Khan strikes me as a potential leader of the “intellectual dark web”; although I will withdraw this nomination if he wishes. 😉

Some see the intellectual dark web as the primary global resistance to post modernism. I don’t agree. Rather I see them as ideation and intuition leaders thinking different:

Continue reading “Intellectual Dark Web”

Beyond cultural parochialism

A major personal peeve of mine is that the past few centuries of Western colonialism have overshadowed so much that moderns are often unequipped to understand the vast tapestry of human historical and geographical diversity. If you are a modern Indian or Chinese or African person you know your own culture and its history…and its relationship to the modern West. This is a shadow of a bygone age which is down in its terminal stage.

Presuming that the audience of this weblog is mostly South Asian, here are some very broad surveys which I think the audience might find interesting:

The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian

China: A History

Africa: A Biography of the Continent

The Russian Moment in World History

Strange Parallels…Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830

History of Japan

A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000-323 BC

When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty

The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean

A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind

Aboriginal Australians: A History Since 1788

If anyone can recommend a good survey of Latin American history, I’m game.

The Conundrum that is Husain Haqqani

I was recently asked by AnAn to write a detailed post about Mr. Hussain Haqqani (henceforth HH) and his three books that I’ve read. I find it difficult to write about someone who is still active in his field of work and someone who arouses so much anger and partisanship among the commentariat in Pakistan. I decided to write about things that I know definitively, publicly available information about him and testimonies from two reliable witnesses about HH and then briefly discuss the three books (Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, Magnificient Delusions and India vs Pakistan: Why Can’t we just be friends) that I’ve read (I just started reading his fourth one, ‘Reimagining Pakistan’). It is hard to label HH as a turncoat or opportunist because most major politicians in Pakistan changed course in their political life starting with Zulfiqar Bhutto, followed by Mian Nawaz Sharif, Benazir Bhutto(BB) and Imran Khan. People and their ideas evolve or else, they are ossified and become part of history while they are alive (Exhibit A: Most of the left-wing politicians of Pakistan).

HH comes from a Muhajir family based in Karachi and went to Karachi University where he was an active member of Islami-Jamiat-Tulaba (IJT), the student-wing of right-wing, religio-political party, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). He claimed in Magnificient Delusions that he stopped students from burning down the American Consulate in Karachi in 1979 when Grand Mosque in Mecca was seized by ultra-Wahabi rebels and the conspiracy theorists put the blame on the US initially (the Embassy in Islamabad was burnt down by a mob of students). His claim has been debunked by several members of IJT at the time. He worked as a journalist for a few years after graduation. In the late 1980s, he was a media-consultant for Nawaz Sharif, the center-right politician from Punjab who rose to prominence as Punjab’s finance minister under General Jilani’s governorship (1980-85) and later served as the Chief Minister of Punjab (1985-90). Nawaz Sharif was part of an Islamist alliance, Islami Jamhoori Ittihad (IJI) which opposed Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in the 1988 elections. It is beyond doubt that the character of Benazir Bhutto and Nusrat Bhutto was mercilessly attacked during the election campaign. Helicopters were used to throw fliers over major cities in Punjab with explicit photos of the Bhutto ladies to malign their reputations. According to witness number 1, he saw HH in New York during that campaign where HH was offering nudes of Benazir Bhutto to anyone who was interested to see them. IJI still couldn’t win the federal election and ended up winning in Punjab, where Nawaz Sharif assumed the Chief Minister-ship.

Due to Palace intrigues and constant bickering between Punjab and the Federal Government and unrest in Sindh, BB’s government was dismissed by Ghulam Ishaq Khan, the President, after twenty months. In the ensuing elections, IJI succeeded in winning the election (there was massive rigging taken place on orders of the Presidency and funds were distributed to various IJI politicians, details of which can be found by googling ‘Mehran Bank Scandal’). HH served as Sharif’s spokesman till 1992 until he was sent to Sri Lanka as Pakistan’s ambassador. In 1993, the Sharif Government was dismissed by President Khan (with prodding and backroom deals by BB and Co). HH flew back from Sri Lanka and became a spokesman for the BB government that followed (1993-1996).

In 1996, the second BB government was dismissed by President Laghari and Nawaz Sharif’s party started ruling again. It was toppled during October 1999 and General Musharraf became the ‘Chief Executive’ of Pakistan. According to witness number 2, he saw HH begging Musharraf (or one of his generals) for the Information Ministry. The request was denied and HH spent a few years running a consultancy. In 2002, he arrived in Washington DC, as a guest of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In 2004, he joined Boston University as an Associate Professor of International Relations. He also headed a project by Hudson Institute on Islam and Democracy. Post-9/11 was a time in which the issue of Islam and Democracy was selling quite well in the ‘West’.

In January 2005, ‘Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military’ was published. It is a very good book detailing the history of Pakistan and the Mullah-Military Nexus that rules Pakistan today. The book was written with the help of Carnegie Endowment and the audience in mind was definitely American (with emphasis on post 9/11 understanding of Pakistan). It touches on all the relevant bases (quoting Ayesha Jalal, Khalid bin Sayeed, Margret Bourke-White, Stephen Cohen, Lawrence Ziring), the way Islam was used by Muslim League (and in certain instances, Jinnah himself) during the ‘Pakistan Movement’, the paranoia induced by newspapers and politicians about threats to Pakistan’s existence, the trifecta of Pakistan Ideology (Islam, Urdu, hostility towards India), suppression of dissent by ethnic groups using the tools of the Ideology (branding anti-state elements as anti-Islam is favored strategy even today), the way history was shaped from an anti-British perspective to an anti-Hindu perspective (since we got Independence from the British, not the Hindus), the first Kashmir War, the first Martial Law, attempts at a revisionist historiography, the disaster that was the 1965 war with India and so on. The book reveals very little new information (if you have read the liberal-secular version of Pakistan’s history) but is a very good collection of various liberal-secular  and diplomatic sources and serves as a good primer on Pakistan’s political history. I’ve always maintained that HH’s writing is often much better than his politics or his past.

It is often said that Pakistan’s political landscape is dominated by 3 A’s (Allah, Army, and America). The discussion on US-Pakistan relations in the first book forms the basis of his second book, Magnificent Delusions. Four years ago, I wrote a couple of articles, titled ‘Good Ally, Bad Enemy?’ reviewing US-Pakistan relations with excerpts from HH’s second book alongside the works of Carlotta Gall, Gary Bass and Daniel Markey (1. here 2. here). I’ll mention some quotes from HH’s book that I used in those articles.

“Anti-western propaganda was often unleashed precisely so Pakistani officials could argue that the United States had to support Pakistan against India, so as to preserve its alliance with them. Few Pakistanis knew how much their country and its armed forces had become dependent on US assistance.”

‘James L. Langley, American Ambassador to Pakistan (1957-59) wrote, “Pakistan’s forces are unnecessarily large for dealing with any Afghan threat over Pashtunistan. Pakistan would be of little use to us should perchance worse come to worst and India go communist… One of the most disturbing attitudes I have encountered in the highest political places here is that the United States must keep up and increase its aid to Pakistan, and conversely, that Pakistan is doing the United States a favor in accepting aid, in addition to the Pakistani pro-Western posture in the Baghdad Pact and SEATO and the United Nations, when actually these postures are in part dictated by Pakistani hatred for India.”

“India’s Prime Minister at the time, Indira Gandhi, ‘tried to persuade [Henry] Kissinger to recognize the need for more robust US involvement. She said that Pakistan has felt all these years that it will get support from the United States no matter what it does, and this has encouraged an “adventurous policy.” India is not remotely desirous of territory, and to have the Pakistanis base the whole survival of their country on hostility to India was irritating.”

“When Zia was approached by an American diplomat who conveyed the anxiety on America’s part regarding Pakistan’s nuclear weapons development, Zia said: ‘I am an honorable man. We are an honorable people. I ask you to tell your President that I give him my word of honor as President of Pakistan and as a soldier, that I am not and will not develop a nuclear device or weapon.'”

In his third book, HH focussed on certain aspects of the thorny India-Pakistan relationship: History, Kashmir, Nuclear Bombs, and Terrorism. The book is peppered with anecdotes and is a useful read as a primer on the relationship and the difficulties therin. One gets the impression after reading the book that if it were left to the civilians, the two countries would have patched out most conflicts, however, Pakistan’s military and India’s diplomatic bureacracy took maximalist positions to thwart that ambition time and time again.

Why is HH so controversial in Pakistan now?

He was appointed Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US by the PPP-led government (2008-13). It was a turbulent time for Pakistan because barbarians were literally at the gates (Taliban in Swat and Al-Qaeda+TTP in Waziristan). HH has certain views about Pakistan that are not palatable for the military establishment/Deep State. Those views include his insistence on civilian supremacy in the country, deceptive attitudes towards the United States and over-reliance on religion in political discourse. In addition, HH was trying to be a conduit between Pakistan’s civilian government and the United States during his time as the Ambassador (as opposed to a majority of Pakistani Ambassadors to the US who are appointed only after a firm nod from the GHQ) and that irked the establishment even further. It was during his tenure that Osama bin Laden was found and killed in Abbotabad (May, 2011). HH, in an op-ed published last year in Washington Post (read here), took credit for helping the Obama administration in that endeavor (which, in light of Trump’s recent ascension to power, seemed an opportunistic move). Soon after the raid, a conspiracy theory was hatched by the Military Establishment in Pakistan implicating HH. It was alleged that HH had sent Admiral Mike Mullen a memo (on President Asif Zardari’s advice) through a shady in-between named Mansoor Ijaz asking for help from the US in case our generals tried to topple the government in the wake of the OBL raid. The case dragged on in the court and later, a judicial commission but the charge was not proven. HH had to resign as the Ambassador. He has since been at Hudson Institute. In recent years, he has started, with the help of another Pakistani-American, Dr. Mohammad Taqi, SAATH forum (South Asians Against Terrorism and Hatred) that gathers progressive voices in London every October to talk about the future of Pakistan. (Full disclosure: I have been invited to the last two versions of this forum but the first one i couldn’t attend because of visa refusal and the second because I was doing an internship in Houston at the time). I personally agree with most of his views regarding Pakistan but I think his name has been tarnished so much by the Deep State that it is hard to advocate for his name/ideas/books in Pakistan. I believe that he is worth-reading and worth-engaging. If only the military establishment could fight ideas with ideas instead of slander and mis-information.


Clarifying Two Misconceptions

First up, I want to admit that I been a harsh critic of Pakistan Army’s interference in political matters, their gross inefficiency during all the wars that they fought (and lost), their myopic worldview and land grabbing in the garb of ‘National Security’. However, I believe that two very common misconceptions about our army need to be addressed.

  1. While talking about General Zia, an Islamist dictator who ruled Pakistan for eleven years (1977-88), many people refer to his role in the ‘Black September’ events from 1970. If you try to look this up on the internet, there are conflicting stories about his involvement. What we know for sure is that he was stationed in Jordan as part of a military training mission (Read here) sent by Pakistan in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israel war. The Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) in Amman at the time was Mr. Tayyab Siddiqui. According to an article he wrote in 2010, (Read here)

“Following the June 1967 military debacle, the Arabs requested Pakistan for military training. Pakistan sent training contingents to Syria, Jordan and Iraq.”

In August-September 1970, the Palestinians, aided by the Syrians, revolted against the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. During the battle, the Commanding Officer (CO) of a Jordanian infantry unit deserted. King Hussain asked Brigadier Zia to take charge of that unit temporarily. Zia sought permission from the embassy where Mr. Siddiqui established contact with Secretary Defence, Mr. Ghiasuddin. Ghias’s comments are the most cringe-worthy issue in this whole affair. He cabled Amman that

“We had [performed] Istikhara, Hashmite Kingdom’s star is ascendant. Go ahead. Follow king’s commands.”

In Ambassador Siddiqui’s words:

“That the foreign and defence policy of Pakistan was formulated not on a dispassionate analysis of the situation but on the dubious religious invocation still amazes me”.

Zia took temporary charge of the unit but before any fighting could take place, the Syrians withdrew and the offensive ended. Later on, Zia developed contacts with Palestinian leadership and was not accused of being the ‘Butcher of Palestinians’ by any Palestinian fighter. In fact, Yasser Arafat visited Pakistan three times during Zia’s regime.

2. You might have seen a picture of a soldier inspecting a Bengali man’s Dhoti, from 1971. That is provided as a proof that Army folks there used to inspect Bengali men’s genitals to decide if they were Muslim or not (based on circumcision status). While the Pakistan Army indulged in some of the worst atrocities against the Bengalis, this picture is not a valid evidence.

This picture was taken by Indian photographer Kishor Parekh. In an interview, his son Swapan Parekh mentioned that it was a photograph of Indian army personnel checking the [Bengali] collaborators for weapons. The caption in Kishor Parekh’s book validates this backstory.