They came, they conquered, & they were swallowed

A reader sent me a post they wrote, The Aryans were Invasive to India:

The Aryan Migration into India was invasive; characterized by violent conquest, rape, racism, and religious supremacy. This was not a unique phenomenon in the premodern era, but a relatively standard episode that would ensue when two different tribes had to struggle over the same resources.

The Sanskrit-Vedic culture spread over India by Aryan conquest was likely not significantly influenced by native Indian traditions. That being said, Indian traditions certainly did work their way into later expressions of Hinduism, particularly after the rise of Buddhism, and the resulting reformations the latter faith affected in the former.

They asked for my opinion. I agree with many of the aspects of the piece. There is something of an attempt, in my opinion, to downplay the coercion and violence that were part of the expansion of many Y chromosomal lineages, groups of males, ~4,000 years ago. In fact, the author of the above piece probably overestimates the fraction of Aryan mtDNA in India; most West Eurasian lineages in South Asia are probably from West Asian, not the Sintashta.

The violent conquest and rape are probably correct. There are details though that need to be clarified. I suspect the violent conquest was of the shadows and ruins of the Indus Valley societies. The Aryans were barbarians who arrived in a barbarized world. As far as rape goes, modern Americans would define the act of killing a woman’s brothers and fathers and taking her as a bride rape, but it was quite normal in the ancient world. The dramatic arc of Achille’s sulking in the Iliad is triggered by the fact that Agamemnon took his sex slave.

But I think racism and religious supremacy are terms I would avoid. The reason is that there is generic racism, which is pretty typical, and historically contingent, embedded and systematized racism developed in the 19th century in the West. This is what casts a shadow over us today. But racism in the premodern world was different. It is well known that in early Anglo-Saxon England the local British population were second class citizens. We know this because the fine for killing a Briton was less than a fine for killing a Saxon of the same class. But, we also know genetically and culturally that many Britons assimilated into Anglo-Saxon culture and become English. The lineage of Alfred the Great, who “saved” Anglo-Saxon England from the Danes, seems to have been one of Brythonic warlords who were Anglicized. Many of the early members of the House of Wessex had Celtic names.

The second issue is religious supremacy. There is a particular type of religious exclusion, supremacy, and ideology, that is common in the modern world, and dates to the last few thousand years. Let me quote from a 2005 article in The New York Times:

Next door to four houses flattened by the tsunami, three rooms of Poorima Jayaratne’s home still stood intact. She had a ready explanation for that anomaly, and her entire family’s survival: she was a Buddhist, and her neighbors were not.

“Most of the people who lost relatives were Muslim,” said Ms. Jayaratne, 30, adding for good measure that two Christians were also missing. As proof, she pointed to the poster of Lord Buddha that still clung to the standing portion of her house.

This is a way of thinking that makes sense in light of universal meta-ethnic religions which have flourished over the past few thousand years. During the Bronze Age, such religions did not exist. Rather, religion was to a great extent an extension of tribal custom and practice. The destruction of the idols of one’s enemies was part and parcel of violence against the enemy, not a particularly religious act. It is a cliche in anthropology that many primitive tribes refer to their own people as “human”, and other peoples as non-human. But this reflects a reality that premodern humans were quite ethnocentric. But they were not racist or religious supremacists in the fully-fleshed way we would understand that today, so I would be cautious about using these terms.

The final point about Sanskrit-Vedic culture being mostly exogenous, I disagree with this. The essay doesn’t really provide much evidence but makes a general argument. I have read some of the Vedas, and much of it does seem to resemble generic Indo-European barbarism. But there are clear differences and distinctions which indicate non-Indo-European uptake. It is quite like that southern Indo-Iranians learned soma/homa from the Bactria-Margiana culture. Those who know tell me that Vedic Sanskrit already shows strange influences that are probably broadly Indic. The most famous one being the retroflex consanant:

Retroflex consonants are concentrated in the Indian subcontinent, particularly in the Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages, but are found in other languages of the region as well, such as the Munda languages and Burushaski. The Nuristani languages of eastern Afghanistan also have retroflex consonants. Among Eastern Iranian languages, they are common in Pashto, Wakhi, Sanglechi-Ishkashimi, and Munji-Yidgha. They also occur in some other Asian languages such as Mandarin Chinese, Javanese and Vietnamese.

Narasimhan et al. show that the BMAC people didn’t have a genetic impact on the Indo-Aryans who arrived in India, but they were culturally influential. Similarly, it seems quite likely that the various eastern Iranian/northwest Indian populations were also influential and integrated into the Indo-Aryans. As I have pointed out before, the figure of 30% “steppe” refers to Sintashta ancestry. It is quite plausible that the Indo-Aryans who arrived in India had already mixed with various eastern Iranian peoples in Khorasan and modern Afghanistan, before arriving in India.

The idea that Jainism and Buddhism were indigenous reactions to Aryan Brahmanical religion is common and widely asserted. The Shramanic sects are often assumed to be non-Aryan cultural revolts. I no longer believe this. Rather, I think a more philosophical and transnational religion naturally emerges out of complex societies. My argument is closer to a Marxist one than an ethnic one. The Vedic religion was not fundamentally viable in anything more than fossil form once India’s Iron Age polities arose. It maintained some archaisms from the steppe period, and, it was suited for a semi-mobile agro-pastoralist society.

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Sikh Society: forged in the frontier

Before Samuel Huntington banalised the study of international relations with his Clash of Civilisations thesis, there was Halford Mackinder who attempted (unwittingly of course) to do the same with history – with his Geographical Pivot of History thesis. (I am perhaps being unfair to Mackinder with the comparison – more on this later.)

However, just like Huntington’s thesis despite being a flattening of history (similar to another forgotten intellectual’s attempts at flattening globalisation in its simplification of diversity of experiences – cultural for one, economic for the other) – in Mackinder’s Geographic Pivot there were glimmers of theoretical reasoning. The thesis was imperialist and reductionist but it has value if only in a literary sense. (This would appal Mackinder, since her built his ‘theory’ as a counter to literary historians of ideas.)

Mackinder’s foundational logic was – that geography provides a stage to men, or Man (as he would prefer) which determines the scope of their movements, entries and exits, in the various Acts (eras) in the long drama of History – was the core thesis that civilisations were either broken (and destroyed) by invasion or they were rejuvenated through resistance.

The European civilisational core, Mackinder said, a backwater in the western edge of the Eurasian peninsula after the fall of Rome, was rejuvenated by successive waves of resistance to Saracens (Arabs) and Turks, as raiders from the land, and Vikings, as raiders of the sea. The raiders of the land were especially important for this reading of history, as they came from the Heartland – the grand central steppe lands of Eurasia, riding grounds of the horselords of the World Island – who in successive waves of the turning of the wheel of time fell upon the marginal, or peninsular lands, of the Eurasian megacontinent.

The civilisations of Greece and Rome were shattered by them. China was forever changed, and only the turning of Kublai Khan to a symbiosis of Tengri-ism, Dharma and Sinicisation might have preserved a semblance of the past into posterity. India, too, was shattered by wave after wave of invasions out from the Heartland. India, too, survived. But to what extent? I will not even attempt to answer this!

I will restrict myself to a reading of history I proposed in a previous essay (Sangat and Society: the Sikh Remaking of the North Indian Public Sphere). I discussed how Guru Nanak’s founding of Kartarpur as a model Sikh-Sangatarian society was a response from below to the anarchy from above unleashed by Babur’s invasion of India. Guru Nanak had been eyewitness to the destruction caused by the internecine warfare of Turco-Mongolic Princes in Khurasan, or the wider edges of the Heartland where it transitioned into the Marginal lands (because on the peninsular margins of Eurasia.

Sangatarianism was a civilisational response of North Indian society to waves of invasions from the Heartland. This is, of course, the plainest reading of the Sikh idea of the Sangat. The Sikh Sangat was both a support structure for the unprotected and gradually a bulwark against invasion from ‘outside’ and rejuvenation from within.

These days Sikhs are gaining (well deserved) respect for the community’s response (especially through langar seva) as a civil society support structure in this time of crisis. This should not be surprising for those who know Sikh society was forged in crisis, and one could argue, as a response to it.

Sikhs know how to organise and respond in times such as these. Much of this is due to a spirit of ascendant existentialism (chad-di kala) rather than giving way to nihilism. Sikhs have been through many eras of persecution, but the spirit of ascendant existentialism has prevented the community from falling into chagrin. There is a proverb I will translate loosely, speaking of the persecutions of a Mughal provincial governor who had sanctioned Sikhs and proclaimed a reward of coins on Sikh heads. The persecuted Sikhs of the era, far from being cowed down made a song of this –

Manu is our scythe, we are his crop of wild weed,

The more he chops our heads, the more we grow indeed.

Ascendant Existentialism implies the acceptance of death, cultivating an attitude of readiness for death, but not allowing this to suppress the vital joy of life. This is crucial to the ethos of a frontier society.

Today, in a sense, the entire global community has become a frontier society – living precariously. For some people such as doctors and healthcare workers, even day to day. Maybe cultivating a spirit of ascendant existentialism can do us all some good.

Finally, to end this with my promise to ‘be fair’ to Mackinder. His view that external threat can sometimes revitalise civilisations is a solid proposition. To survive times of crisis, we need to draw on the best of ourselves. And if we do come out on the other side, it is, then, the best of us that survives. Now of course I’m not making some foolish survival of the fittest argument. The fittest is not necessarily the best, and vice versa. What, then, is our, as humanity, ‘best’ – at this stage in our civilisational history? We will find out on the other side, perhaps. Perhaps we already have.

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Brahmins were made in India, not the steppe


The above are Y chromosomes from ancient samples in the steppe, Iran/Turan, and South Asia. The time periods are obvious. EMBA = “Early Middle Bronze Age”, MLBA = “Middle Late Bronze Age” and LBA = “Late Bronze Age.” IA = “Iron Age.” H = “Historical.” And the other periods are Neolithic or Copper Age. This is from Narasimhan et al. (click the image above for the supplements).

The Forest/Steppe samples are most from what Sintashta archaeological sites. One thing that is evident in early Indo-European pastoral people is that they seem to be highly patrilocal and patrilineal. One particular genetic lineage group of males seems to dominate different early groups. The data from Narasimhan et al.  show us that:

R1a is overwhelming in the Sintashta.

R2 & L is found in pre-Indo-European Iran.

Q & N is in Sintashta too.

H1 is mostly found in South Asian populations.

You can see the distribution in modern populations on Wikipedia, but data from a paper is illustrative:

Continue reading “Brahmins were made in India, not the steppe”

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Review: Trevor Noah, Born a Crime

I listened to Daily Show host Trevor Noah’s memoir as an audiobook. I was expecting some sort of standard “third world middle class memoir with woke characteristics”, but it turned out to be something far more interesting; Trevor was born to a Black South African mother and a White father during apartheid, when such relationships were illegal. He grew up in poverty with a single mom who sounds like an amazingly strong and independent woman and the story of those early years is the best part of the book. You will learn more than you may expect about daily life in Black South Africa and the story is told with great verve and wit. There is the expected craziness and cruelty of apartheid, but he is also refreshingly blunt about the social evils prevalent in the ghetto and the various divisions (generally violent, sometimes outright vicious) within Black society. South Africa becomes a real (and far more colorful) place for the reader, well beyond the somewhat simple and superficial “black and white” story we all know from (distant) headline news reports. Trevor and his family attend 3 churches every Sunday, escape a possible rape/killing by jumping from a moving minibus, deal with poverty, crime and prejudice (mostly from other Blacks and “Colored” people, since interaction with White society is very limited in any case) and through it all, his mother manages to somehow hold things together and give him a reasonably good education. A violent stepfather (who eventually shot his mother, she survived) and a life of adolescent and early adult crime round out the picture. As a window into South Africa, it was much more colorful (and more interesting) than I expected.

Many of the quirks of Black life that he describes (always with empathy and sympathy) are not too unexpected or shocking to anyone with some knowledge of the world. When his teenage dance troupe goes to a Jewish school and they all start shouting “Go Hitler”  (the name of their lead dancer) it is very funny, and Trevor’s explanation of why they did not see this as some sort of faux pas is sensible and reasonable. But one other episode was personally harder to process for me and that is: cruelty to cats. 2 of the author’s cats were lynched, skinned and hung from their gate because Black South Africans have a thing about cats and witches. And while talking about this, Trevor casually throws in the fact that a Black security guard beat a cat to death on live TV when she ran out onto a sports event in a stadium and Trevor seems to think this is just a cultural quirk and we all have them. He lost me at that point I am afraid. Yes, Spaniards publicly torture bulls, some Chinese do horrible things to various animals and modern people all eat meat from cruel factory farms, but I find it very hard to see this kind of cruelty as somehow “normal”, and Trevor lost a few points in my estimation with his attempt at cultural sensitivity on this topic.

Trevor is, as expected, ready with modern liberal tropes for most of the historical and political references in the book. That is OK, but one does get the feeling that he thinks his experience as a rather unique mixed-race South African, and the lessons he draws from this life, can be smoothly transposed into the experiences, attitudes and priorities of any generic “third world” person.  In actual fact, South Africa is a rather extreme case, and his life is unique and unusual even within that case; the lessons he learned may not apply to every country as much as he thinks.

At the end he jumps from his life of petty crime (basically pirating and selling music and fencing stolen goods) to a successful career as a comedian, but this part lacks the detail we get of his early life. He does not in fact tell us anything about how he came to be a successful comedian. Maybe that will be in some future book. Or maybe he is just a smart guy and does not want to get too far into a phase of life whose characters he still deals with professionally.

Overall, a fascinating and very interesting book. More interesting and insightful than I expected it to be. Worth a read.

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Browncast Episode 97: Extraction!

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify,  and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up with the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!

Since we started the Brown Pundits Browncast we’ve seen significant listener growth. This is really a hobby and labor of love, so I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out. Though it’s by the Brown Pundits, the topic isn’t always “brown.” That being said, there is a significant number of listeners in India (especially with the topic is more Indocentric).

Due to the costs of both recording software and storage space, I would appreciate if you could also support the podcast as a patron. The primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else. It also compensates me for my admittedly mediocre editing (I’m a data scientist/geneticist). If we get more patrons I have reached out to have someone professional edit…but really we don’t have the funds now.

If you can’t give (in these times may cannot!), I would appreciate more positive reviews!

In this episode, I talk to my friend Sagar about the film Extraction, with Chris Hemsworth. It’s a short podcast, but fun and casual if you want to take a break from coronavirus (though I do ask Sagar about coronavirus in Finland).

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