I have realized that there is something to be said about listening to interesting podcasts while driving. My wife (and kids) are at my in-laws for a few weeks, which means that I drive every weekend to meet and spend time with them. And I had this bright idea of listening to browncasts along the way. So, I’ve actually been properly listening to the recent ones – well enough to form quasi-intelligent thoughts on them that I thought I’d share with the wider world.
So, second in the series of brown-reviews of browncast is hereby pesh-e khidmat for you brown chaps (or folks, for those across the pond):
1) The first thing I noticed about Dr Long was how well-versed he is, in a proper scholarly manner, about the subject he was holding forth on. Caveating what needed caveats, speaking eloquently – with illustrations from the kAvya-s or other canon – when required and holding his judgement where he knew he did not know enough. A true scholar!
2) I also liked the fact that he was fairly well-versed about overloading of terminologies in other dhArmika-vAda-s (of the jaina-s and bauddha-s primarily). This is a major minefield because the same term is often used/meant with a slightly different emphasis in different (but related) traditions. And Hindus – often in their modernist zeal to project a united “Dharmic” front – can ride roughshod over important distinctions. So, I was educated in the use of Astika in Jainism and Buddhism, a usage I was hitherto clueless about.
3) I also liked the question (by Zach?) about the centrality or indispensability of the brAhmaNa-s in Hinduism. It is a very valid question, especially since much of Hinduism these days is practised on a franchise basis. Mega-deras and tech savvy babaji boot-camps leading the faithful to mokSa. Quite akin to the mushrooming of churches and tele-evangelism of all sorts in the US. And I found the answer by Dr Long even more agreeable. Essentially the brAhmaNa orthodoxy consciously started to, from very early on (roughly kAvya/epic period of mahAbhArata etc from 1000-500 BCE onwards), sow the seeds of popular narrative of Hinduism into the Indic heartland. Quite possibly many aspects of these stories were crafted to express the philosophical concepts of post-Vedic age to the laity. They were so popular that various versions of these stories got lives of their own and spread quite organically (intially with the help of some brahmin priests) to far-flung SE Asia and E Asia, and spawned independent religious movements and glorious architecture. In short, the efficacy of the Brahmins’ stories obviates the Brahmins! Amazing what a good story well-told can make humans do!
4) The same explanation, of the narrative strength of Hinduism, also explains the ebb of Buddhism according to Dr Long. So, while many temples of Hindu gods and Buddhist vihAras were destroyed by the Hunnic invasions, followed by Muslim Turks etc, and many brAhmaNa-s and shramaNa-s put to the sword, what could not be extinguished were the stories in the minds of people. And the stories were primarily Hindu. Though some Buddhist jAtaka tales do survive, nothing in Buddhism even comes close to the narrative complexity and grandeur of the Hindu Epics. Heck, even Buddhist tales lean on the Epics to make points about their philosophy – perhaps a result of many Buddhist and Jaina gurus being of brAhmaNa stock and training as Long also remarked. Hard to shake off good stories one grew up with I imagine.
5) I think a corollary of Dr Long’s thesis says something fundamental about Indic culture. Namely that story-making is a central feature of our culture and our best stories have ensured our civilizational continuity more than anything else. I think this is a non-trivial observation and even looking at modern India we see how important stories (say, in the form of movies) are to Indians. The output of the Indian movie industry – Bollywood and regional – is prodigious and especially in Bollywood we have even added Persiante features to our already impressive repertoire of story-telling to create an unstoppable juggernaut! (There’s non-zero contribution of Greek drama in Sanskrit playwriting, which in turn fed into early Bollywood too – but that’s a topic for another day)
6) I found the details on Tulsi Gabbard interesting too. I, for one, don’t know much about American local politics at all. But what I do admit to is dismissal of converts to Hinduism (esp White/Western ones) whom I tend to see simply as patronizing hipsters, dabbling in an exotic-sounding culture. The sort who flocked to India on the hippie trail in the 60s and 70s. This is particularly coloured by my own acrimonious debates with holier-than-thou White ISKCON Hindus/cultists (depending on one’s POV) during my student days. I had mentally slotted Gabbard in the same bucket, until I heard Dr Long speak about her. That has made me update my priors about Gabbard a teeny-weeny bit, though I am still generally wary.
7) Finally, I have to say I also disagreed with Dr Long on the comment about regional adherence to rituals in Brahmin communities. I think Dr Long needs to meet some kAshmIra brAhmaNa families to realize the near-pathological focus on ritual in that sub-culture – to which I can personally testify. However, there has been a general Punjabization going on in North India – heck, who doesn’t want to be Punjabi? – and this insistence on ritual may not last very long. For the sake of my forefathers’ anal-retentiveness on ritual, I had to make this point. We may not be as bright as the draviDa-s but we’ll give them a run for their bloody money on ritual any day!