Monkey and the Indo-Europeans

𝐌𝐨𝐧𝐤𝐞𝐲𝐬 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐈𝐧𝐝𝐨-𝐄𝐮𝐫𝐨𝐩𝐞𝐚𝐧𝐬

𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐥𝐢𝐧𝐠𝐮𝐢𝐬𝐭𝐢𝐜 𝐚𝐫𝐠𝐮𝐦𝐞𝐧𝐭

Gamkrelidze and Ivanov, two major linguists hailing from the former Soviet Union, came out with a major book in the 1980s in Russian, where they proposed the Armenian homeland theory for the origins of Indo-Europeans. They made several arguments to support their theory. Many of these arguments incidentally better support an Indian homeland for Proto-Indo-European. One such argument was their proposal that the Proto-Indo-Europeans were aware of the monkey before they dispersed i.e. they knew of the monkey in their homeland.

To put it in their own words –

𝑾𝒊𝒅𝒆𝒍𝒚 𝒅𝒊𝒔𝒕𝒓𝒊𝒃𝒖𝒕𝒆𝒅 𝒄𝒐𝒈𝒏𝒂𝒕𝒆 𝒘𝒐𝒓𝒅𝒔 𝒇𝒐𝒓 ‘𝒎𝒐𝒏𝒌𝒆𝒚, 𝒂𝒑𝒆’ 𝒊𝒏 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒂𝒏𝒄𝒊𝒆𝒏𝒕 𝑰𝒏𝒅𝒐-𝑬𝒖𝒓𝒐𝒑𝒆𝒂𝒏 𝒅𝒊𝒂𝒍𝒆𝒄𝒕𝒔 𝒎𝒂𝒌𝒆 𝒊𝒕 𝒑𝒐𝒔𝒔𝒊𝒃𝒍𝒆 𝒕𝒐 𝒑𝒐𝒔𝒊𝒕 𝒂 𝒘𝒆𝒍𝒍-𝒅𝒆𝒇𝒊𝒏𝒆𝒅 𝒑𝒓𝒐𝒕𝒐𝒇𝒐𝒓𝒎 𝒂𝒕 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝑷𝒓𝒐𝒕𝒐-𝑰𝒏𝒅𝒐-𝑬𝒖𝒓𝒐𝒑𝒆𝒂𝒏 𝒕𝒊𝒎𝒆 𝒅𝒆𝒑𝒕𝒉. 𝑻𝒉𝒆 𝒄𝒐𝒈𝒏𝒂𝒕𝒆𝒔 𝒇𝒂𝒍𝒍 𝒊𝒏𝒕𝒐 𝒕𝒘𝒐 𝒇𝒐𝒓𝒎𝒂𝒍 𝒔𝒆𝒕𝒔, 𝒐𝒏𝒆 𝒘𝒊𝒕𝒉 𝒊𝒏𝒊𝒕𝒊𝒂𝒍 𝒌- 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝒐𝒏𝒆 𝒘𝒊𝒕𝒉𝒐𝒖𝒕 𝒊𝒕. 𝑺𝒌𝒕. 𝒌𝒂𝒑𝒊- ‘𝒎𝒐𝒏𝒌𝒆𝒚’ … 𝑮𝒌. 𝒌𝒆𝒑𝒐𝒔 – 𝒌𝒆𝒃𝒐𝒔 ‘𝒍𝒐𝒏𝒈-𝒕𝒂𝒊𝒍𝒆𝒅 𝒎𝒐𝒏𝒌𝒆𝒚’… 𝑶𝑰𝒄𝒆𝒍. 𝒂𝒑𝒊, 𝑶𝑬 𝒂𝒑𝒂 (𝑬𝒏𝒈𝒍. 𝒂𝒑𝒆), 𝑶𝑯𝑮 𝒂𝒇𝒇𝒐 (𝑮𝒆𝒓. 𝑨𝒇𝒇𝒆), 𝑪𝒆𝒍𝒕𝒊𝒄 𝒂𝒃𝒓𝒂𝒏𝒐𝒔… 𝑶𝑹𝒖𝒔𝒔. 𝒐𝒑𝒊𝒄𝒂 (𝒐𝒑𝒊𝒊𝒄𝒂), 𝒐𝒑𝒚𝒏𝒊 ‘𝒎𝒐𝒏𝒌𝒆𝒚, 𝒂𝒑𝒆’… 𝑶𝑷𝒐𝒍. 𝒐𝒑𝒊𝒄𝒂 (𝒍5𝒕𝒉 𝒄𝒆𝒏𝒕𝒖𝒓𝒚), 𝑪𝒛. 𝒐𝒑𝒊𝒄𝒆, 𝑼𝑺𝒐𝒓𝒃. 𝒘𝒐𝒑𝒊𝒄𝒂, 𝑷𝒐𝒍𝒂𝒃. 𝒐𝒑𝒐, 𝑺𝒆𝒓𝒃𝒐-𝑪𝒓. 𝒐𝒑𝒊𝒄𝒂. 𝑺𝒍𝒐𝒗𝒆𝒏𝒆 𝒐𝒑𝒊𝒄𝒂.

So we have the cognate word for monkey in Sanskrit, Greek, Germanic, Celtic and Slavic languages of Indo-European.

Gamkrelidze & Ivanov, though arguing that the word for monkey was already known to the Indo-Europeans in their homeland, insist that this word has come into Indo-European languages through their contact with Southwest Asian or Near Eastern languages. They cite Akkadian ukupu, Hebrew kop, Aramaic kopa and Egyptian gjf – monkey, ape as the early examples.

Yet the problem with this theory, as we shall come to it again, is that monkeys are not native to any place in the Near East. The standard theory so far has been that it is through contact with the Egyptians that the Near Eastern civilizations of Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Levant and the Aegean came to know of the monkeys. Therefore, it is from the Egyptian word that the word for monkey in Indo-European and other Near Eastern languages should derive. Yet as can be seen, the Egyptian word is ouite different and looks unlikely to have been the source word for the other languages. Moreover, it now appears that even in Egypt, the monkey may have gone long extinct and was likely imported via the Horn of Africa, southeast of Egypt.

This leaves us with only the Harappan or Sarasvati Sindhu Civilization which is the only Bronze Age civilization whose geography indeed overlapped with the natural habitat of monkeys. So provisionally, it maybe argued that the word for monkey could have come into the Indo-European and the Near Eastern languages from the Harappan language or languages, whatever they may have been.

Digging into the linguistic aspect of this, we find that as per the Practical Sanskrit English Dictionary, the word kapi, usually referring to ‘monkey’ can also mean an ‘elephant’, the ‘sun’, ‘impure benzoin’, ‘incense’, a ‘species of the karanja tree’ etc. kapiloham means ‘brass’, kapishak means ‘cabbage’, kapila/kapisa means ‘tawny, brownish or reddish’ colour, kapana is a ‘worm’ or ‘caterpilar’, kapota is a ‘pigeon’ and so on. As per the Sanskrit Etymological Dictionary, the word kapi is said to derive from the root word *kamp which means ‘to tremble’ or ‘shake’. A derivative word kampra means ‘trembling’ or ‘shaken’ but also ‘movable’, ‘agile’ & ‘ouick’. A likely derivative of *kamp is kap which means ‘to move’. Therefore kapi, in the context of a monkey, may plausibly mean ‘one who moves ouickly’, an apt description.

Looking for the Proto-Indo-European root, we come across a root *kap or *kehp, meaning to ‘seize or grasp or hold’. Possible derivatives of this root include Greek kapane – ‘wagon’, kope – ‘grip,handle’, kapos – ‘garden,orchard’, latin captus – ‘captured, seized, taken’.

It is also said to be the root for the English words ‘hawk’ and ‘captive’ among many others. While the Proto-Indo-European root and its meaning fail to adeouately explain all the myriad different ways in which the derived words are used in various IE languages, for our purpose it is ouite adeouate. kapi may thus be derived from PIE root *kap – ‘to seize, hold’ to mean as one who grasps or can grasp. Monkeys, ouite uniouely among animals, have the ability to grasp things or objects with their forelimbs and this would not have gone unnoticed to the ancient people. This may also explain the name of kapi for elephant since it can also grasp with its trunk, as also the hawk in English since the hawk has a habit to grasp its prey in its sharp talons.

It may therefore be argued that the Proto-Indo-European word for monkey, as argued by Gamkrelidze and Ivanov, is not a loan word but derives from a sound PIE root. We already noted earlier that the word for monkey in the Near East may have been a loanword from the Sarasvati Sindhu Civilization and now we can see that this word is of likely Indo-European origin.

Does this mean, that Indo-European languages were spoken in the Sarasvati Sindhu Civilization ?

𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐚𝐫𝐜𝐡𝐚𝐞𝐨𝐥𝐨𝐠𝐢𝐜𝐚𝐥 𝐞𝐯𝐢𝐝𝐞𝐧𝐜𝐞

Turning to the archaeological evidence, monkeys were depicted on frescoes and seals and objects, accessories were often fashioned in the shape of monkeys. The inspiration for this in Near Eastern art is usually considered to have come from ancient Egypt.

But, it has now become increasingly clear, as this recent study shows, that monkeys or baboons were not native to Egypt either and the ancient Egyptians themselves imported their monkeys from much further south and east, mostly from the fabled land of punt, which is the eastern African coast, and from where incidentally, objects of Harappan origin also reached Egypt.

Viktor Sarianidi, was an archaeologist credited with the discovery of the Bronze Age civilization of BMAC, also known today as the Oxus civilization. He was an ardent supporter of Gamkrelidze and Ivanov’s theory and argued for an archaeological evidence of Syro-Anatolian influence on the Oxus civilization. He believed the Oxus civilization to be Indo-Iranian speaking and therefore interpreted the perceived Syro-Anatolian influence on Oxus in terms of Indo-Iranian migrations from that region, which during that period had various Indo-European groups such as the Mitanni, Hittites and Mycenaeans dominating the landscape.

He also interpreted the depiction of monkeys on Oxus seals as yet another evidence of Near Eastern Indo-Europeans.As per Sarianidi,

𝑫𝒆𝒑𝒊𝒄𝒕𝒊𝒐𝒏𝒔 𝒐𝒇 𝒎𝒐𝒏𝒌𝒆𝒚𝒔 𝒂𝒓𝒆 𝒇𝒐𝒖𝒏𝒅 𝒐𝒏 𝒔𝒆𝒂𝒍𝒔 𝒇𝒓𝒐𝒎 𝑩𝒂𝒄𝒕𝒓𝒊𝒂, 𝒘𝒉𝒆𝒓𝒆 𝒕𝒉𝒆𝒚 𝒂𝒑𝒑𝒂𝒓𝒆𝒏𝒕𝒍𝒚 𝒉𝒂𝒅 𝒂 𝒔𝒂𝒄𝒓𝒆𝒅 𝒔𝒊𝒈𝒏𝒊𝒇𝒊𝒄𝒂𝒏𝒄𝒆…𝒊𝒕 𝒊𝒔 𝒄𝒍𝒆𝒂𝒓 𝒕𝒉𝒂𝒕 𝒊𝒏 𝒃𝒐𝒕𝒉 𝑨𝒏𝒂𝒕𝒐𝒍𝒊𝒂 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝑩𝒂𝒄𝒕𝒓𝒊𝒂 𝒎𝒐𝒏𝒌𝒆𝒚𝒔 𝒑𝒍𝒂𝒚𝒆𝒅 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒓𝒐𝒍𝒆 𝒐𝒇 𝒎𝒂𝒈𝒊𝒄𝒂𝒍 𝒂𝒕𝒕𝒆𝒏𝒅𝒂𝒏𝒕𝒔 𝒊𝒏 𝒓𝒆𝒍𝒊𝒈𝒊𝒐𝒖𝒔 𝒄𝒆𝒓𝒆𝒎𝒐𝒏𝒊𝒆𝒔 𝒊𝒏𝒗𝒐𝒍𝒗𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝒍𝒊𝒃𝒂𝒕𝒊𝒐𝒏𝒔. 𝑴𝒐𝒏𝒌𝒆𝒚𝒔 𝒘𝒊𝒕𝒉 𝒗𝒆𝒔𝒔𝒆𝒍𝒔 𝒊𝒏 𝒕𝒉𝒆𝒊𝒓 𝒉𝒂𝒏𝒅𝒔 𝒂𝒓𝒆 𝒇𝒂𝒎𝒊𝒍𝒊𝒂𝒓 𝒊𝒏 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒂𝒓𝒕𝒔 𝒐𝒇 𝑨𝒏𝒂𝒕𝒐𝒍𝒊𝒂, 𝑺𝒚𝒓𝒊𝒂, 𝑴𝒆𝒔𝒐𝒑𝒐𝒕𝒂𝒎𝒊𝒂 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝑬𝒈𝒚𝒑𝒕 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝒅𝒆𝒇𝒊𝒏𝒆 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒄𝒖𝒍𝒕𝒖𝒓𝒂𝒍 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝒉𝒊𝒔𝒕𝒐𝒓𝒊𝒄𝒂𝒍 𝒎𝒊𝒍𝒊𝒆𝒖 𝒊𝒏 𝒘𝒉𝒊𝒄𝒉 𝒕𝒉𝒊𝒔 𝒊𝒎𝒂𝒈𝒆 𝒐𝒇 𝒎𝒐𝒏𝒌𝒆𝒚𝒔 𝒂𝒔 𝒓𝒆𝒍𝒊𝒈𝒊𝒐𝒖𝒔 𝒂𝒕𝒕𝒆𝒏𝒅𝒂𝒏𝒕𝒔 𝒐𝒓𝒊𝒈𝒊𝒏𝒂𝒕𝒆𝒅 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝒘𝒉𝒆𝒏𝒄𝒆 𝒊𝒕 𝒍𝒂𝒕𝒆𝒓 𝒔𝒑𝒓𝒆𝒂𝒅 𝒍𝒂𝒕𝒆𝒓 𝒔𝒑𝒓𝒆𝒂𝒅 𝒂𝒔 𝒇𝒂𝒓 𝒆𝒂𝒔𝒕 𝒂𝒔 𝑩𝒂𝒄𝒕𝒓𝒊𝒂 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝒑𝒆𝒓𝒉𝒂𝒑𝒔 𝑴𝒂𝒓𝒈𝒊𝒂𝒏𝒂.

Sarianidi admits that none of these parallels in the Near East could be dated to earlier than the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC. Sarianidi believed in a lower chronology of the Oxus civilization and therefore found nothing out of place in this. Nevertheless, we now know that the Oxus civilization began as early as 2400 BCE i.e. hundreds of years before the Indo-Europeans begin showing up in the Near East.

Yet if we were to hold onto the parallels Sarianidi draws between the culture of the Oxus and the 2nd millenium BC IE groups in Syria, Anatolia and the Aegean, we have to wonder – is this evidence of Oxus influence on the IE groups of the Near East ? And if so, was Oxus an Indo-European civilization ?

In this context, the monkey iconography also assumes significance. The Near Eastern monkey iconography is unlikely to have influenced the parallel iconography in Oxus since the Oxus dates from an earlier period but also because, the Oxus was culturally close to the Sarasvati Sindhu Civilization where monkeys were found in their natural habitat.

Rather, it is more likely that the monkey iconography of the Oxus influenced the Indo-European groups of the 2nd millennium BCE Near East. Also important to note in this respect is that the monkeys were depicted in religious and sacred imagery both in the Oxus and in the Indo-European Near East which demonstrates the importance that monkeys held for them.

More recently, archaeologists of the Aegean Bronze Age, managed to conduct a multi-disciplinary study of the Minoan frescoes and were pleasantly surprised to find that the uptailed blue colored monkeys were Hanuman langurs of Indian origin. Not only that, these Indian monkeys were found playing an important role in an iconic Minoan frescoes fundamental in the understanding of Minoan religious beliefs and practices. In that fresco, a female attendant in shown giving a flower to the Hanuman langur who in turn in shown giving to a seated goddess.

Pareja et al also show that Indian monkeys are also depicted in some other objects found among the Minoans such as a seal made from carnelian, a stone of Harappan origin and also an ivory stamp seal with a typical Harappan cross and chevron motif. The depiction of monkeys on Minoan frescoes is so realistic that Pareja et al argue that the Minoan artist must have seen a real Hanuman langur.

Here we may note that monkeys have been found buried at the site of Shahr-i-Sokhta in Iran, far away from its Indian homeland. Shahr-i-Sokhta is the site from which the majority of Harappan ‘migrant’ samples were published by Narasimhan et al. Thus, Harappan monkeys could well be travelling long distances with their human masters.

We can see that monkeys from Sarasvati Sindhu Civilization went on to become important players in sacred and religious iconography of the Oxus civilization and likely in Eastern Iran and subseouently in the Syrian, Anatolian and Aegean world of the 2nd millennium BCE, in a period when that region was dominated by several Indo-European groups.


We have seen that the Indo-Europeans knew of the monkey in their homeland and had a word for it directly derived from a proto-Indo-European root and not borrowed from another language group. This would mean that the Proto-Indo-European homeland had direct contacts with the monkeys and not secondary via a non-Indo-European group. This would imply the presence of monkeys in Proto-Indo-European homeland. The only Bronze Age civilization whose geography overlaps with the natural habitat of monkeys was the Sarasvati Sindhu Civilization.

Similarly, we can also see that it is the monkeys from the Sarasvati Sindhu Civilization that likely inspired and played an important role in the religious and cultic beliefs of the Oxus civilization and the Near Eastern civilizations, several of which were Indo-Europeans such as the Mitanni, Hittites and the Mycenaeans.

Therefore, there is strong evidence that it is from the Sarasvati Sindhu Civilization that the monkeys and the word of it became known in the Bronze Age Near East. The sacred role of monkeys is also worthy of note and may have also derived from the Harappans since in Hinduism, a religion majorly derived from the Bronze age civilization of Harappans, monkeys continue to hold a sacred significance.

Since this word for monkey is clearly of Indo-European origin, how does one explain it if the Sarasvati Sindhu Civilization was not an Indo-European civilization ?


Review: Magic in Islam by Michael Mohammed Knight

This is an old capsule review I wrote a few years ago. I have been busier than usual and not writing at all, so I decided to post some old reviews..


A hot mess of a book, but still worth reading. Michael Knight is now a postmodern conventionally educated scholar, and that is beginning to show. He has obviously read VERY widely and the book contains countless extremely interesting tidbits about magic and magical ideas in Islamicate tradition. But all of this wonderful research is embedded within a curious postmodern framework that can be off-putting and irrelevant to the story. The story he COULD have told is the story of magic and related ideas in the history of Islam and Islamicate culture. THAT story would have been a fascinating and interesting tour through a history that is not well known, especially to outsiders and Western-educated Muslims (like us). And he provides some of that and that is why the book is worth reading. But he is also eager to “correct” our supposed misconceptions about religion and history and too much pleading takes up too much space in this book. Then again, many people seem to want that kind of “mandatory re-education/rectification of names”, so maybe you will like that part too. But personally, I would have preferred more historical details, fewer lectures about orientalism and “the clash of civilizations”.
Best new bit of information for me: that Ibn ul Arabi claimed he had sex with the Arabic letters in paradise. I wish i knew more about the context of that particular quote. But like many fascinating little details in the book, Michael mentions it and moves on. He has clearly read a lot, I wish he had spent more time presenting the information he has collected and less time lecturing us about how “opening space for new fields of knowledge potentially decenters traditions of jurisprudence, even forcing increased opening of an Islam outside normative Muslim legal traditions” and suchlike. Sure, that would be nice. But let us hear the story first, then we can figure out what it means for magic to be (as he describes it) “deconstructive”.
Not that I disagree with his project of “engagement and deep intersection”, just that I wanted more of the facts, less of the postmodern interpretation.


Browncast: Chris Iwanek, India-analyst from Poland

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 the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!

Krzysztof IwanekIn this episode Mukuna and Omar talk to Krzysztof Iwanek (aka Chris), who heads the Asia Research Center in the War Studies University in Warsaw, Poland. Chris also writes regularly for “The Diplomat” and is writing a book about the Ram Rajya Parishad Party (a small traditional Hindu party in India). We talk about Indian politics, his research and whatever else comes up..


Book Review- Sanghi Who Never Went to a Shakha: Anatomy of Polarization

Rahul Roushan’s book traces his journey from his indifference towards his Hindu religious identity, to his wholesale acceptance of it and his subsequent paranoia of how his religious identity and his way of life are being threatened by forces he believes are inimical to both.

The book, a memoir, recounts his life starting from growing up in small town Bihar, graduating from Patna University, years he spent studying in Delhi and Ahmedabad, working first in the main stream media and then as an entrepreneur.

He employs this re-telling as a vehicle to mark milestones that led to the evolution of his present ideological mooring.

The reader gets a head start on the book from its title.
It uses the words associated with the Rashrtiya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the umbrella organization that’s nurtured the party currently running the central government in India- Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), Shakha- the smallest unit/meeting of RSS volunteers and Sanghi- a term mostly used as a pejorative in online discourse, to describe people considered radical supporters of the RSS and the BJP.

Growing up in a family with no strongly held religious or political beliefs, Roushan’s religious views were shaped by religiosity displayed by his parents, he describes this as limited to celebrating Hindu festivals, and his understanding of polity and management of religious fault lines via subscription to stories of religious harmony.

Growing up in the Bihar of 1990s, he writes that the prevailing political narrative was of caste and he remained ambivalent of his religious identity. This indifference was never disturbed, although he went to schools run and owned by Hindus.
This was the India of 90s and a middle-class boy was focused on building a career and attaining financial independence.

His views on what each political party stood for shaped by what he read and saw in the mainstream media.

There was no inkling or the mental bandwidth to question the prevalent wisdom of secular and communal credentials of political parties. BJP is communal because the newspaper I read says so.

Roushan writes he was a- Congressi Hindu.
He defines Congressi Hindu as one who notionally religious and accommodative/indifferent to government largess and special rights for religious minorities.

In 2001, Roushan moves to Delhi to study communication at India’s premier Mass Communication institute, Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC).

Here he is exposed to a cross-section of people.

Some of whom are unlike him.

They are deeply invested in their religious identity and hold strong views that are left leaning.

He is also exposed to behind the screen working of main stream media, its ideological biases and how the media uses its power to shape a particular narrative.

He finds a culture, that he claims underplays the role played by Muslim Fundamentalism in fomenting fault lines while exaggerating the role that Hindu fundamentalism plays.

He finds the same pattern playing out once he starts working with a main stream news channel.

This is a decade that sees 9/11, 2002 Godhara carnage and the subsequent riots in Gujarat, UPA coming to power at the Centre and 26/11.

Roushan’s experience of working with a news channel in this decade, studying in Gujrat, Roushan is a MBA from IIM Ahemdabad-closest India has to offering an equivalent of a Harvard MBA, and his stint as a media entrepreneur, Roushan founded the satirical news website Faking News which he sold to one of India’s leading media houses and worked for the media house for a while; shaped his firmly held view that the main stream media, specially the English language, in India for ideological and commercial reasons is deeply biased and staunchly anti-Hindu.

His reading of the manner in which this cohort of media has always covered India and continues to cover it post 2014 election of Narendra Modi, leaves him with no choice but consider them an extension of an establishment.

An establishment Roushan claims that is the inheritor of the British Raj, filled with a set of people who believe in civilizing the native Hindus, is indulgent to Muslim fundamentalists and continues to appease religious minorities at the cost of Hindu and national unity.

The incumbents of this establishment occupy prime positions in and use the institutions of judiciary and media to subvert the elected government and unlike the elected government are permanently entrenched.

By the turn of this decade, like most Indians he discovers social media.

It is here that he finds people who like him have started to question the received wisdom.

He discovers that there are more like him who increasingly challenge the veracity of news reports, what is printed and what is left out of them.

He has a ringside view as leading editors and anchors are found embroiled in cash for votes scam and ‘Radia Gate’ controversies.

The timing of main stream media starting to lose credibility coincides with advent and astronomical growth of social media.

Roushan finds that although grandees that of the old establishment continue to dominate conversation, it is no more a one-way street.

Their bias, incompetence and double standards are called out and their condescending attitude, hypocrisies pointed out.

It is also a place that’s increasingly full of rancor, name calling and deeply polarized on ideological lines.

It is this crowd, of mostly unknown to him participants, he finds fellow travelers, who come together to propel his journey to the corner of Sanghis although he has never been to an RSS Shakha in his life.

The writing is lucid and the book reads like Roushan is in a conversation describing his journey.

For those who follow him on twitter and have read his blog posts and commentary, his ability to explain the underpinnings of ideological stand in simple and easy to understand language should not come as a surprise.

Where the book misses out his lack of any mention of opposite currents.

Surely Roushan met someone in his journey who made a compelling case for why the ‘establishment’ exists and why some one like him should be a part of it.

After all, Roushan went to an institute and worked in a profession that he claims is a happy hunting ground for the establishment.

Then there is the larger point of his book, his commentary on Twitter and through the website he runs.

He blames the establishment for being fundamentalist and a closed shop driven by its hatred for all things Hindu.

How does contributing to an eco-system that is as fundamentalist and as much a closed shop help.

Surely, he does not believe demography can be wished away.

To his credit he has taken the next steps via his work on a Hindu Charter and his writing on a possible way forward.

He does not cover those in this book. Perhaps there is a sequel to this book in works, where Roushan lays out his ideas on role and place of Non-Hindus in India.

In his seminal book Creating A New Medina, Venkat Dhulipala credits the role played by Urdu news media as one of the factors that solidified the idea of two nation theory and helped build the groundswell of support amongst the Muslim population that finally led to partition of the Indian sub-continent on religious lines.

As I read the book, I could not help but wonder if a century later, social media and online journalism is playing a similar role in amplifying and consolidating religious identities, both amongst Hindus and Muslims.

Rahul’s book is a must read for anyone interested in getting a sense of how one side of the ideological divide sees and reads India. With over three hundred thousand followers on Twitter and as a CEO of popular new portal opindia, Rahul’s is significant voice.

It is also a brave voice, for having taken a side this openly and running a news platform he is taking on the political opposition and burning all bridges within the media fraternity. I for one do not rule out the possibility of an Arnab redux happening to him if the present government is voted out.

Through the book Rahul also brings out the story of how India is changing.
Not too far ago, a boy from small town India would have found it virtually impossible to make a career in media without being employed by one of the bigger media houses, let alone being a meaningful influencer, MBA from IIM Ahmedabad notwithstanding.

They may still not easily get to write for columns for foreign newspapers, work for think tanks, participate in track 2 diplomacy or teach at liberal campuses, but they are shaping the discourse and our politics far more easily and more effectively.




Musings of a Shinto Rishi

I came across this wonderful interview with Florian Wiltschko, an Austrian Shinto negi (priest) based in Japan courtesy Akshay Alladi. I was struck by some of the similarities in Wiltschoko’s worldview and my own sanskaras- the approach to life I was taught by my elders, particularly my mother.

“[Japan] is rich and the seasons colour the natural landscape in beautiful ways. Maybe that’s why a monotheistic belief system did not evolve here,” he says. “The bounties of nature, on the other hand, were seen as being the workings of divine forces that needed to be respected and cared for.” This struck a chord. It’s a very Dharmic sensibility and worldview.

There’s also the challenge of adaptation and change, without losing the essence. Incorporating good ideas, discarding the bad ones, but all the while maintaining the core spirit. Wiltschko’s observations are based on the interactions between Shinto and Buddhism, but the same would seem to apply to modern Hinduism, which has over the centuries blended Vedantic and Shramanic metaphysics with folk tales and traditions. It’s a complex mélange and trying to describe it precisely to non-Indians reminds me of the parable of the blind men and an elephant.

What is noteworthy about Wiltschko is that he is a priest by profession. In my compartmentalised mind, there are gurus/yogis and then there are pujaris/purohits/archakas. The former are philosophers and the latter are pedants. There is some experiential basis for this, but perhaps some of it is also a function of my own biases. I “lost” religion in my teenage years through my twenties and identified as an agnostic classical liberal, only to “rediscover” it in my thirties. The religion that interests me is still quite rationalistic: a Vendantic Monism based principally on the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, with an interest in Buddhism, Kashmiri Shaivism and Yoga. It is certainly not ritualistic. Temple visits are only to admire the architecture. The privileging, as it were, of jnana marga (the path of knowledge) over bhakti marga (the path of devotion).

But perhaps there is wisdom in customs and rituals too. There need not be a neat bifurcation between the high philosophy and the riti-riwaj. Jnana marga and bhakti marga are not mutually exclusive.

“It’s very important to maintain a positive inner spirit,” Wiltschko signs off. “You might say that it’s my mission or my calling to contribute to maintaining this spirit.” The words of a modern Rishi.

[The writer tweets @paragsayta]


Caste in America!?!?! Don’t believe the hype

Everyone is talking about this piece from Bloomberg, How Big Tech Is Importing India’s Caste Legacy to Silicon Valley Graduates from the Indian Institutes of Technology are highly sought after by employers. They can also bring problems from home. If you are not a Bloomberg subscriber using “incognito mode” in your browser should allow you to read it. Two comments:

– The piece is mostly about India. Not the USA or Silicon Valley. To me, this indicates there wasn’t much real material in Silicon Valley to report on

– It seems that the American press is recycling the same incidents and quoting the same experts. There’s no deep scholarly analysis, just anecdotes and assertions

Overall, I think there really isn’t much of an issue around “caste” in the USA. Part of it is the fact that Americans of Indian origin are not representative of the demographics of India. 25% are Brahmin, but for the other groups, there is no variation in income education and income (or not much). I’ve seen the data that consulting firms use that is not widely shared. The selective sieve is strong. There are very few self-identified Dalits. About 1%. It could be these Dalits are on the receiving end of prejudice, but there aren’t that many of them for this to be pervasive.

This is not to deny that there aren’t issues with the Indian American community, which is mostly immigrant and dates to after the year 2000. But it’s not a simple and easy morality story that the media and social justice activists want. So they are manufacturing this, and that really angers me, because I dislike lying and propaganda.


Open Thread – 03/13/2021 – Brown Pundits

A long (paid) piece on Substack, They came, they saw, they left no trace…
except for all of Western Civilization
. This is about the genetics of Italy.

My usual 7 PM PDT Friday night chat on Clubhouse will be about the genetics of Italy (Saturday morning India time). this link should work (if you are on an iPhone click it).

What Can Biden’s Plan Do for Poverty? Look to Bangladesh. The usual Nicholas Kristof thing. That being said it is interesting that when there is talk about Bangladesh’s economic success (relative), a fair number of Indians point out major issues (reliance on the single sector for export). This is all fine…but honestly, it feels l ike sour grapes. In 2020, a horrible year, Bangladesh was #3 in growth in the world (and the fastest large nation).

Going to do an interview with a linguist who studies Proto-Indo-European for my podcast. Interesting how his papers suggest Indo-Iranian and Balto-Slavic are a clade. R1a FTW!

Update: Someone on the Subreddit found the archives of the original BP site from 2011/2012 (I have the archives in MySQL but haven’t loaded them; we suffered intense hacks from Hindutva in 2012/2013 so moved to blogspot for a while).

Also, BP got a Clubhouse Club! So we’ll do chats there soon.


Capsule Review: Mythos by Stephen Fry


I read this (or rather, heard this) as an audiobook and loved it. The audiobook is read by Stephen himself and as you may expect, is very nicely read. It is also very nicely written, covering a lot of the Greek myths (this is apparently volume 1, many of the myths and legends that have been left out of this one are likely to be in the second volume titled “Heroes”). Stephen does an especially nice job of outlining the successive layers of Chaos, Gaia, Titans and Gods and makes the exuberant (and confusing) mass of origin stories into a coherent overall narrative. His retelling of the myths is full of humor and shows off his vast erudition with a very light touch. Since polytheism is having a bit of a recovery moment thanks to the intellectual (but not demographic) decline of the big four monotheisms (Judeo-Christian-Islamic and Marxist), this retelling is also timely and likely to strike a chord with some people.

Stephen is clearly a fan and this is a great introduction to these stories. And while his style is humorous and light, he is faithful to the sources and this is not some sort of modern “re-telling” that changes stories and characters to make them more contemporary, though being gay himself, he is more than a little eager to point out that the Greeks and their stories include a lot of same sex stuff. But do note that these are only SOME of the Greek myths and many of the most famous stories are not in this book.  Fry tries to impose a semi-chronological order on the world of Greek mythology (from primal chaos to Gaia and Ouranos mating, to Titans, to Gods, to humans, with a minimal detour into the war of the Giants) so this volume mostly deals with the early universe and the first adventures of the Gods and the humans they created. Later stories (such as the ones in the Odyssey and Iliad) will presumably show up in volume 2.

He does make the mistake in the epilogue of claiming that we should read these myths because they are so unique (“no where else in the world“), which is not really true. The ancient Greeks were not uniquely gifted in this matter (Indians in particular will find it surprising to learn that this cultural package and its multifarious many-sidedness seems so unique to Stephen), but of course they ARE the myths that were best known and most influential in Western Europe, and via that, are the best known and most influential for many modern people.  And because, via Greek and Latin and the heritage of Rome, they are so central to the literary traditions of such dominant languages as English, French and Spanish, they will remain relevant for all people who use these languages, whatever their ethnic or geographical origin. So while I am woke enough to point out to Stephen that his beloved Greeks may not be as unique (in the matter of creating and using such stories to illustrate human nature and the nature of the world at large) as he thinks, I am not in the camp of those who think these should be “decentered” or even thrown away “because Whiteness”. For people from Europe and people who mainly read and write in European origin languages (so really, all of us), these remain must-read literature.
I look forward to volume 2.