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!

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43 Replies to “A “carvaka” perspective historicity of myth and religion”

  1. Good discussion of religions – past, present and may be future.

    Advaita is thought to have developed in the aftermath of Mahayana Buddhism whose main thinker was Nagarjuna and in conversation with it. It is quite easy to see the closeness of shunyavada and advaita. So much so, Sankara was called ‘praccanna bauddha’ i.e. crypto Buddhist by his Hindu critics.

    I agree the three west Asian religions have ‘cleaned up’ their history so as to provide a coherent historical narrative of development, even though loopholes in the narrative are easy to spot out for the specialists. I don’t think Hinduism will develop along those lines as it has not depended upon history for justification.

    Non-hindus can say Rama is not historical again and again and Hindus shrug it off – so what ? Historical religions are in danger of collapsing if the history i.e. major founder events are disproved

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    1. i had gone overlong, but i think it is safe to say that hinduism cannot be understood except as a evolutionary cultural response to the emergence of movements such as buddhism. similarly, in china neoconfucianism and some religious forms of daoism clearly were prodded by buddhism into becoming what they are/were (bon religion, if it is pre-buddhist, is the same).

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    2. “Historical religions are in danger of collapsing if the history i.e. major founder events are disproved”

      Religions vanish/flourish due to the deeds of the “people” who follow them, not necessarily due to theological reasons.

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  2. Nation of Islam is a curious religion. It has elements of science fiction and has been influenced by Ahmedis . It’s best days were in the 1930s, 40s and 50s after which it’s members are switching to mainstream Sunni Islam

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    1. mormonism is like NoI re: science fiction. it’s whole hebrews-in-the-new-world schtick is very early 19th century america re: ‘lost tribes of israel.’ it seems really weird today, but would not have been out of place as a progressive and relevant viewpoint in 1820.

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  3. 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.

    Agreed. As a child (pre teens) we were not allowed to attend Buddhist (forget about Hindu) ceremonies as they were considered the work of the Devil. As always there are these exceptions. My mother (now 92) and grandmother (135 now) were taught by Buddhist priests and attending Christian schools. This was a family that was Protestant Christian since early 1700’s.

    My maternal family
    grandmother, the half Irish is second from right.
    Grandfather far left.
    The two Europeans, missionaries. The Graves.
    No, the missionaries did not support my maternal family.
    Grandmother was the one who spent.
    One has to recall Europe was poor.
    https://photos.app.goo.gl/b1i4fohYHG3NgRFJ6

    Back to the Hindu deities are often bracketed, are emanations of true supernatural powers, but demonic ones.

    if one reads the Mahavamsa there is all this references to the Yaksha. Clearly referenced as the people of Sri lanka, when Vijaya invaded the country. As the narrative grows, the Yaksha become “devils” though at times sharing Kingship with the Vijaya/Kalinga.

    So even around 500BC, indigenous people were starting to be referenced by invaders as powerful supernatural beings.

    I am trying to get thru Ananda Coomaraswamy’s The Yaksha. Too many references to Indian texts to which I have no clue.
    https://repository.si.edu/bitstream/handle/10088/24036/SMC_80_Coomaraswamy_1928_6_1-43.pdf

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    1. “So even around 500BC, indigenous people were starting to be referenced by invaders as powerful supernatural beings.”

      Is this to make their opponents looks superior so that their own achievements look great. Because there is a dalit retelling in parts of India of a indigenous dalit king called Mahisasura who was defeated by the invaders (aryans/upper castes). His mythical retelling made him a unbeatable demon who defeated all gods(aryans) and it took Durga to defeat her. Its fascinating how we have a similar characterization of all thing natives/invader all across the world. The native has to be civilized since he is devil/pagan/uncouth. If the native wins his part of history triumphs and he is portrayed as the son of the soil who defends his homeland.

      Do we have a mahavamsa equivalent of pre Buddhist Sri Lanka?

      “This was a family that was Protestant Christian since early 1700’s.”

      Protestantism has always fascinated me. It has the zealousness of shia-ism but it can be zealous either way. More Christian-dom than Catholic, also the founding bedrock of certain US values.

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      1. Do we have a mahavamsa equivalent of pre Buddhist Sri Lanka?

        No pre buddhist equivalent, i.e. pre 500bc.

        Mhavamsa, history starts with the passing of the Buddha (500 Bc) and also the date the mythical Vijaya landed in Lanka. The Mahavamsa in sense is the history of the land chosen by the Buddha to preserve Buddhism, so the narrative goes. Buddhism proper arrived in Sri Lanka in 300bc, with missionaries sent by Asoka.

        It has the zealousness of shia-ism but it can be zealous either way. More Christian-dom than Catholic,
        Yes, frugality and work as well. The idle mind and hands are the devils playground is very Protestant. Seems to have found fertile ground among this group.

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  4. Thanks for the interesting article. It is true that the distinction between “mythology” and “religion” is sometimes arbitrary. But as you say in your central point, there is a qualitative difference between Jesus and Muhammad (pbuh) and Ram and Krishna. Simply that we can prove that the first two men actually existed. The Prophet actually had children and there are people who can prove descent from Hazrat Ali and Hazrat Fatima (if I understand your genetics correctly). I have also read that Jesus essentially was a Jewish reformer and the whole “son of God” thing happened after his death. The Gospels were clearly codified long after the death of Christ. The Holy Quran too came into final form after the death of the Prophet.

    Anyway, I suppose it doesn’t really matter to believers whether their religions have any basis in fact or not. Most of us are simply socialized into the faith of our parents. I just find it strange when myths are used to argue for modern political ends. The destruction of the Babri Masjid was the focus of the earlier thread but another example is the creation of Israel in the land that supposedly was promised to the Jews by God. It is said that God is not a real estate agent and whatever the Torah says doesn’t really matter to non-Jews. But it is impossible to convince hardcore Zionists that modern countries are not based on religious scripture but on international law.

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  5. Great read!

    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

    That is precisely the thought which came to me when I was reading the other comment thread on “afghan history” 😉

    The figure of kRSNa (and lesser extent rAma) is a mix of the Semitic law-giver Abraham and god-made-flesh Jesus. In fact, it is precisely in the bhagavad gItA (lit. song by/of the Lord) that Hinduism takes the form of a prescriptive and *revelatory* canon – the supreme lord revealing himself and holding forth on moral law and duty (Rta and dharma) on the eve of a cataclysmic war of succession – dramatic revelation of the type most latter-day monotheists would approve. The foundational text itself was probably composed during the Mauryan Empire or immediately afterwards, so slightly pre-Christian.

    No wonder the text cherry-picks from the Vedas in many ways (forming the link to the honour code, maryAdA, of those “beef-eating warriors”), dovetails with the concept of avatAra (lit. one that descends – analogue of Christian god-made-flesh) and fleshes out concepts of social/caste mandated actions-duties (karma-dharma) etc

    Latter-day cults like Krishna Consciousness (in turn an offshoot of Bengali Vaishnavism) used the starkly revelatory nature of the bhagavad gItA for their proselytization in the West.

    Nonetheless, hundreds of millions of Hindus see the bhagavad gItA as the foundational text of Hinduism – something of a Vedas/Upanishads for dummies. And they see kRSNa as the descended earthly form of god/spirit – so more akin to Jesus than Mohamed.

    Of course there’s a lot of Puranic patina on the gItA itself, but the core text (and broad references therein) have always been recognizably “Hindu”.

    [Apologies for the long comment.]

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    1. “The foundational text itself was probably composed during the Mauryan Empire or immediately afterwards, so slightly pre-Christian.”

      The foundation was pre Mauryan. Indika talks about Krishna being worshiped at Mathura already during Mauryan times.

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      1. Are you sure about Indika (or Anabasis Alexandri – its Roman re-telling) referring to an Indian deity by name? Can you quote that reference please.

        Are you sure you are not conflating it with scriptural evidence for temple grants by Indo-Greek (or later Kushan) kings?

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        1. Megasthenes, a Greek ethnographer and an ambassador of Seleucus I to the court of Chandragupta Maurya towards the end of 4th century BCE, made reference to Herakles in his famous work Indica. This text is now lost to history, but was quoted in secondary literature by later Greeks such as Arrian, Diodorus, and Strabo. According to these texts, Megasthenes mentioned that the Sourasenoi tribe of India, who worshipped Herakles, had two major cities named Methora and Kleisobora, and a navigable river named the Jobares. According to Edwin Bryant, a professor of Indian religions known for his publications on Krishna, “there is little doubt that the Sourasenoi refers to the Shurasenas, a branch of the Yadu dynasty to which Krishna belonged”. The word Herakles, states Bryant, is likely a Greek phonetic equivalent of Hari-Krishna, as is Methora of Mathura, Kleisobora of Krishnapura, and the Jobares of Jamuna. Later, when Alexander the Great launched his campaign in the northwest Indian subcontinent, his associates recalled that the soldiers of Porus were carrying an image of Herakles.

          Source: https://books.google.com/books?id=HVDqCkW1WpUC

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  6. For urban Hindus, there are loads of corporate gurus like Art of Living, Nithyananda , Jaggi Vasudev, Mahesh Yogi, etc. These English speaking swamis give a kitsch of vedanta, meditation, prayer and anything goes rituals . Actually they are quite far removed from old style brahminical thinkers since Sanskrit is not their main language of discourse.

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  7. The basic appeal of Islam in it’s early conquests is plunder, loot and rape with “good conscience” . That is why it energized Arab tribes to follow early Muslim commanders . Once they conquered , to keep the coffers going they had to make sure too many people don’t convert to Islam since the Jizya tax will evaporate. That is the origin of ‘tolerance’ of early Muslim rulers like Ummayads. I think I have read this explanation in Arnold Toynbee also..

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    1. While fully realizing that discussing history with internet Hindu warriors is a an exercise in futility, the role of empires, rulers, and commanders in collating and formalizing religion, evangelizing people, and development of a state religion is a common development in history, from the time of Shinto, Constantine, Uthman/Umar and Muawiyah, Henry the VIII and beyond, and even, the Gupta empire. Often the kings and the empires are responsible for creating a formal religion, to an extent much more than what the original itinerant preachers such as Jesus and Muhammad intended. This is attributed to the large amount of human resources available to empires. The establishment of an unified Koran and the presesent form of Islam is largely attributed to Umar, and then, Muawiyah. Shiism is largely attributed to the efforts of Abbas and his family. If literary sources were available, once can trace the various avatars of Hinduism to empires and kings, but unfortunately, India is not a country that has preserved ancient history,

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      1. Vijay

        “the role of empires, rulers, and commanders in collating and formalizing religion, evangelizing people, and development of a state religion is a common development in history”

        Even though to a certain extent i agree with this, i dont think Islam should be bracketed with Constatine-Christianity or Gupta-Hinduism, since lot of groundwork of Islam and Koran was done during the lives of the prophet and his immediate followers since they were already in position of power unlike Christianity or Hinduism.

        Also codification of a religion of the primary tenets of religion is different than evangelizing and development of a religion, Constantine with all his power could not become Christ himself. The Funans , Chams or the Indonesian could not change Hinduism, the could add parts of it or modify it (like Shiism could to Islam). No empire could change that “formal religion” away to something different.

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        1. No empire could change that “formal religion” away to something different.

          what do you mean by this? the safavids forced iran to become shia from sunni. do you mean transform the ideology of a religion?

          i mean, compare primitive to state christianity. pre-chin to state confucianism. the skeletons are the same, but much of the flesh differs.

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          1. Yes codification of a religion would mean the acceptance of the formal tenets of the religion as to how its/ should be practiced. The “development” of post Constatine ,Christianity is just modification of the flesh whose extent has differed from religion to religion. Buddhism and Jainism are good examples. Buddhism kept on adding and become a totally south asian religion outgrowing all its Indian past, while Jainism is still rooted in India even though it has additions as well.

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      2. // India is not a country that has preserved ancient history //

        Did you ever stop to think for a moment that for people moving from oral tradition to writing tradition how difficult it must have been ? Indians did write the history but by mixing legends, myths etc. to the region, place, beliefs & people of those times.

        For e.g. –
        Ashoka: the Search for India’s Lost Emperor {Although written with Orientalist interpretations like Brahmanism Vs Shramanas it shows the role of Hindu texts & their role in finding the great Indian king Ashoka}

        https://www.academia.edu/2399492/Doxography_and_Boundary-Formation_in_Late_Medieval_India

        http://www.brownpundits.com/2018/06/12/the-invention-of-hinduism-1000-years-ago-by-a-muslim/ – Check the comments i made at the end of the thread using the same academia paper i shared here.

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          1. Yes Sri Lanka played a big role in providing detailed info regarding Ashoka but his name was first spotted when Hindu texts like Puranas & other smriti texts were looked into to trace the historical events of Indian subcontinent.

            For e.g. Satavahana Dynasty rulers & many other kingdoms which are mentioned among Smriti texts.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satavahana_dynasty#List_of_rulers

            Secondly lots of info about India is confirmed from third sources like Tibetan texts, Chinese texts, Sri Lankan texts etc. since a lot of stuff in India has gone missing due to 1000 yrs. of constant conflicts.

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  8. It seems great prophets (law givers) are best constructed after their death. During their lifetimes they are all too human, hard to elevate to divine status when your precious bodily fluids are just like everyone else. Prophet-makers on the other hand have wide latitude in constructing a biography of prophet after their death.

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  9. ” I believe that many modernist Hindus, living in a world of explicit and demarcated confessions, and formal beliefs and portable and digestible holy texts…
    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”

    You already know it, its called Hindutva. Its deracinated all right, but more codified, politicized , less spiritual more materialistic. One Faith-One book, and yes the johnny come lately secular hinduisms types like Tharoor et all have already lost. The folk hindu religion is dying a slow death much like folk islam in Pakistan.

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  10. Mormonism with respect to Christianity is a great example of what is continuously happening with Hinduism.

    There are always off-shoots (e.g. Chaitanya Prabhu, Ramanuja, Shridi Sai baba) that are continuously folded back into mainstream. Irrespective of the guru, temples are built, regular puja is carried out and they even get their own weekday.

    So, I don’t know if urban religion would be atomized or leave its village ways. It seems people are more interested in adopting more practices based on popularity and graft cultural heritage. ( YouTube is full of Half-saree ceremony and first tonsure videos)

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    1. I really enjoyed this post, building on its previous iterations over the past 15 years.

      Only quibble — why did you skip over Crone / Hagarism this time around? Would have been fun to see Kabir react to that!

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      1. I don’t know what this debate is and neither am I particularly interested. It’s quite amusing that you think you can predict my reactions to things.

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  11. Very interesting Razib. I value your perspectives. I agree with much of what you wrote. I would say, however, that folk local Hinduism is roped into global Hinduism in ways that are not apparent. This is why eastern scriptures are अनन्त or ananta or endless.

    One challenge is that the east to my knowledge didn’t bother keeping any non “religious” texts or artifacts. In the east secularism, science, technology, religion and spirituality are a continuum of a single thing. Religion is perceived as a constantly updating system of scientific inquiry.

    I would add something that Milan keeps mentioning about history. Almost all our historical records were destroyed by either the Church (not this is not a critique of Christianity) or later by Islamist extremists (note this is not a critique of “Islam”). In addition all historical dates were manipulated for political purposes by the Church and Islamists.

    This is why we need to recreate and rethink global history from the ground up. The extent of commonality and similarity between ancient civilizations and cultures continue to shock me. And I don’t just mean stuff like the shared Swastika signs. Even the layouts of temples, shared narrative stories. At the very least people have been traveling across Asia, South Europe, East Europe, Northern Africa, Eastern Africa for many thousands of years before Christ.

    Not to mention the extraordinary similarities between pyramids between Egypt, Europe, China and North America:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-271hlHzLw
    Many eastern masters have said that the pyramids are “yantra” or machines. “Yantra” + “Mantra” = “Tantra” in eastern thought.
    “Mantra” means sound.
    “Tantra” means technology.
    This leaves open the question of what technology was being attempted by so many around the world.

    Milan, do you believe that Serbs invented pyramid technology?

    Pyramid technology suggests to me that the world had many very advanced civilizations. One being Arya. Another being “Pyramid civilization”, which I associate with Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. A civilization about which I think modern historians know almost nothing.

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    1. “All historical dates were manipulated for political purposes by the church and Islamists”

      Oy vey! Again with the conspiracy theories! Generally when there is a scholarly consensus on something it’s for a good reason. Enough said.

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  12. One of my favorite museums is the San Jose California:
    https://egyptianmuseum.org/
    It has an amazing large free library, a living Egyptian religion temple with daily services, Egyptian religion adherents, many Egyptian artifacts, and beautiful gardens.

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  13. This is a long winding post with lots of related subjects being breached. But let me attempt to answer some of the salient points.

    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.

    This is correct. However, just because someone lived in pre-history it does not mean that they did not exist. Obviously many people lived in India thousands of years ago. These people probably turned to an urbanised way of living around 5500 years ago or earlier. These people also had long-distance contacts related to trade and maybe even politics with people in Eastern Iran, Central Asia, the Arab Peninsula and Mesopotamia. Ancient Sumerians had buffalos and they practiced rice farming – these things could only have reached them through the Indus civilization. The evidence of cotton and lapis lazuli and other items has even turned up at sites of the Maykop culture in the 4th millenium BC North Caucasus.

    But we do not have dated inscriptional evidence that can help us identify who these ancient people of the subcontinent were. These are a nameless & faceless people as it were. But all evidence indicates that they were quite an advanced and expansive population for their time.

    Now, Indian tradition clearly asserts that it knows who these people were. They give us a good amount of info on the various kingdoms, tribes, places & peoples who supposedly lived during that early era. Colonial historiography dismissed these traditions of great antiquity very early on in the late 18th & early 19th centuries, at the very beginning of Colonial Indology, since it clashed with the bogus Christian belief of that time that earth was only 6000 years old. Thus all of this Indian historical tradition which they have preserved for eons and which they have always claimed as being of very great antiquity was condemned as nonsense and myth.

    But the point is this –

    It is understandable that people can forget or lose their history. To give an example, Indians had lost almost all knowledge of kings and kingdoms that have existed from the time of the Guptas right upto the time of Prithviraj Chauhan.

    But how logical is it to assume that a people who forgot their history will concoct a history of great antiquity for themselves and invent stories replete with historical places and historically attested groups ?

    We ought to approach things in the most straight-forward manner. When you see a people and want to know their history what would you do ? You will simply ask them and if you find their accounts questionable you’ll take it with a pinch of salt but you would try to silt the grain from the chaff – the more sensible accounts from the fantastical ones. It would be very obtuse & prejudicial to start from the premise that these people have lost their history and have invented fables of no historical value.\

    Ancient Indian historical tradition as it survives today is split between the two epics – Ramayana & Mahabharata, which are termed as ItihAsa , and the historical accounts section of the Puranas which are many in nos but all of them seem to have taken the historical accounts from a single source.

    These accounts can be split into two periods – one before the Kaliyuga and the one after.

    -> The Period after Kaliyuga, which is traditionally believed to have started in 3102 BC (yes that far back), talks of various old kingdoms of Northern India which survived or came up in the aftermath of the Great War (the war of Mahabharata). While the kings of dynasties which ruled over Ayodhya or Kosala (Central UP), Videha (Eastern UP/Bihar/Southern Nepal), Kuru/Hastinapur (around modern Delhi & Haryana), PAnchala (somewhere east of Hastinapur), Kaushambi (South East UP) etc. are named right upto the time of the extermination of these old kingdoms by the Nanda king Mahapadma, it is the kingdom of Magadha which is most prominent as all of its kings are mentioned with reign lengths (albeit exaggerated) and the change of dynasties is also accurately recorded. The mention of these kingdoms continue right upto the time just before the Guptas were about to assume the Imperial Throne. The Puranas end by giving a fairly exhasutive list of various kingdoms ruling over India (mostly north of the Vindhyas) with the details of geographical regions under their rule.

    A lot of these accounts in the Puranas begin to get corroborated with the beginning of Buddhist literature. Therefore, the Puranic accounts that describe the period subsequent to the rise of Buddhism is considered historical. And without these Puranic accounts we would certainly know a lot less about the chronology of ancient India than what we know now.

    A look at these accounts clearly show that this is a matter of fact genealogical account of Kings and Kingdoms of ancient India. There are hardly any fantastical or supernatural events mentioned. And the beginning of these accounts go right upto the beginning of the Great War of Mahabharata.

    The Puranas date these post-Kaliyuga events using the era of kaliyuga (3102 BC) or the birth of Parikshit during the Great War (3138 BC) as the base year. In this manner, they describe kings and kingdoms spanning a period of roughly 2800 years – from the beginning of the kaliyuga or the Great War to the period just before the rise of the Guptas.

    -> Coming to the era before the Kaliyuga, the beginnings go to hoary antiquity but quite curiously enough, just like the Abrahamic faiths, the Indian historical tradition also says that all humanity descends from a single father (Manu in Indian tradition) who was saved in a boat by divine intervention while the rest of the earlier humanity perished in a great flood. It is from him that two great lineages descend- the Suryavamsha (the Solar Line) & the Somavamsha (the Lunar Line). Lord Ram (the hero of Ramayana) is considered to belong to the Solar lineage while the great heroes of the Mahabharata are considered to be of Lunar lineage.

    This period, talks of how various early lineages spread out across North India and established kingdoms there. This account is also used by interested parties to show how the Aryans spread into India. But obviously the extra-territorial origin of these people is nowhere suggested in the Puranas.

    Gradually, it is the Lunar Lineage that eventually comes to dominate the scene and the 5 great tribes of Yadu, Turvasa, Druhyu, Anu & Puru. Lord Krsna was born into one of the subtribes of these Yadus known as Vrsni. The modern day Yadavs/Jadhavs claim descent from this Yadu lineage and consider themselves descendents of Lord Krsna. The warring clans of the Mahabharata are of the Puru lineage. The Druhyus are said to have gradually migrated from the Punjab region into Afghanistan/North Pakistan where they created the Gandhara kingdom. Eventually these Druhyus are said to have gone further North (into Central Asia) and established many kingdoms among the Mlecchas (‘unclean’ or barbarian people). OIT theorists argue that these Druhyus are indeed the Indo-Europeans migrating out of India. The Anu tribe on the other hand, has names which are clearly Iranian. For example, one Anu king mentioned in the Rigveda is Abhyavartin Cayamana.

    The Battle of Ten Kings is infact a battle between King Sudas of the Bharata tribe (a subtribe of the Purus), who are pushing westward into the territory of the Anus in the Punjab. The Bharatas emerge victorious and it is said (by none other than Witzel) that the present Vedic religion is very much a heritage of these Purus or Bharatas – Rigvedic Sanskrit being their language.

    In the long genealogical accounts interspersed with short & long accounts of deeds of some important kings, Lord Rama is 65th in line from Manu in the Solar lineage. While during the Mahabharata, the king ruling over Ayodhya was 95th in line from Manu. So clearly, the story of Ramayana is said to be older to that of the Mahabharata.

    Both the epics therefore are believed to be actuals accounts of historical people inhabiting historical places. There are some fantastical things such as shape-shifting demons, very powerful firearms, vimanas, human-like monkeys etc. but these can be discounted as misinterpretations & falsehoods added later on without dismissing the more sober details.

    ————

    After all, why would the ancient Indians take so much trouble to create and preserve the historical account, a glimpse of which I have given above, if it is all just a figment of imagination ?

    So, while the characters of Lord Rama & Krsna lived in deep antiquity and it is very difficult or nigh impossible to find corroborative evidence to support the claims of religious literature, it cannot be therefore said that they did not exist and that the beliefs of Hindus backed up by an elaborate Puranic historical account are therefore based on falsehoods. If someone claims that these are all falsehoods, the burden is upon him to prove so.

    It may also be noted in passing that there are 7 holy cities for the Hindus. One is Ayodhya, because it is the birthplace of Lord Rama. Two are Mathura & Dwarka, both associated with Lord Krsna. So Ayodhya is a holy place for Hindus since great antiquity. It is not a modern invention.

    ——————-
    Apologies for the long post. Perhaps I became too indulgent.

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    1. I liked the thoughts you bring up and they are interesting to reflect on.

      Long-winding is quite rude and dismisses the very important points Razib brings to bear.

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    2. You can believe your mythology. Using it to justify destroying a place of worship of the minority community is not on. Cheers.

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    3. Thanks for your post Jaydeepsinh Rathod. Since Zach feels it might be off topic for this article, feel free to post under my articles 🙂

      “In the long genealogical accounts interspersed with short & long accounts of deeds of some important kings, Lord Rama is 65th in line from Manu in the Solar lineage. While during the Mahabharata, the king ruling over Ayodhya was 95th in line from Manu. So clearly, the story of Ramayana is said to be older to that of the Mahabharata.”

      Yes. However there must have been far more than 35 generations between the Ramayana and Mahabharata. I noted this in the old text as a kid and these kinds of things didn’t make sense.

      It appears to me that Manu is not really a human but rather some supernatural being whose father is literally the Sun. This is why I think Illa lived far later than her “brother” Iskvaku. Illa founds the Chandra Vamsha (see associated article on Mount Soma and Mount Kailash).

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  14. In traditional South Asian history Krishna is considered a recent contemporary. However the epochs long before Krishna (such as Patanjali, Panini, Ramayana, Illa) are considered pre history. The dates and records are lost, which is why some during Krishna’s time regarded these stories as myths. I have heard rumors that Kusha founded cities in Afghanistan or elsewhere and for all I know that is true. I am skeptical that the current Ayodhya is really the Ayodhya of Rama . . . because Rama lived so long ago.

    This book connects Afghanistan, Pakistan to much of the ancient history of the Ramayana and argues that the Ramayana is a historical event:
    https://books.google.com/books?id=rfgkCrumMfYC&pg=PA70&lpg=PA70&dq=kandahar+named+after+kusha&source=bl&ots=sqeL1elc65&sig=9KxHnVHWnvVWF4siYOEYbmldKX4&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj5-MmQ7qjcAhXIiVQKHUx4AnUQ6AEIaDAI#v=onepage&q&f=false

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