On the rectification of names and religion

A major influence on my thinking about human social phenomenon is Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. Atran, along with other scholars such as Dan Sperber and younger researchers such as Harvey Whitehouse, work within a “naturalistic” paradigm, as opposed to the more interpretative framework currently ascendant within American anthropology.

The interpretive framework emphasizes “thick description,” and avoids generalities (unless they are convenient ones!), as well as exhibiting a suspicion of synthesis with the natural sciences. Ways of thinking such as post-colonialism are part of the umbrella of paradigms which are consonant with interpretive anthropology’s premises.

Both naturalistic and interpretive frameworks are useful. But I believe in modern discourse the latter is given almost monopolistic power to adjudicate on factual matters, even though in other contexts those who engage in interpretation are wont to say that facts are fictions!

Let’s start with the idea that the idea of religion qua religion is Protestant, Christian, or Abrahamic. I’ve seen all three flavors of the argument using a narrow definition of religion. It’s hard to deny that Christianity, and often in particular Protestantism, have resulted in a reorganization and reimagining of non-Christian religions. For example, the “confessionalization” of South Korea after World War II, and the transformation of Won Buddhism into an institution which resembles Protestantism would be a case in point. Or the emergence of Arya Samaj in the 19th century, and its relationship to the stimulative effect of evangelical Protestantism.

It is hard to deny confessional Protestantism is a very particular form of religion, and a clear and distinct one. The emphasis on individual volition in this view of religion makes it such that identity is clear and distinct through adherence to a precise formula and community. Practitioners are self-conscious in their identity. They come to it, it is not given to them.

But is it fair to say that religion by necessity must follow the outlines of confessional Protestantism? Or that it has to be a congregational faith with exclusive boundaries, as the Abrahamic faiths tend to be?

Not necessarily. A Ju/’hoansi tribesman in the Kalahari does not follow any of the organized world religions. He or she surely does not have the word for religion in their language, unless he or she is in extensive contact with missionaries. But the Ju/’hoansi have a rich supernatural world in which they believe, and which is seamlessly woven into their lives.

Do the Ju/’hoansi  have a religion or not? If you asked them they might not know what you are talking about. The Ju/’hoansi lack many of the institutions which modern societies have, so they don’t need all the labels of modern societies. Do the Ju/’hoansi have “daycare”? Again, they would look at you in a very confused manner. But the do have  Ju/’hoansi some alloparenting. It’s just something implicit, tacit, and taken for granted. It might not be labelled daycare, but that’s what it is. Functionally they have daycare, even it’s not institutionalized.

To bring it back to the central focus of this weblog, there has been some assertion that Hinduism as such was invented/defined by the British. That Hinduism as a coherent ideology is a very distinct and novel thing from the welter of beliefs and practiced of Indians more generally.

It is clear there is some truth in this. The Hinduism of a Brahmin expositor of Sanatana Dharma is distinct from the local spirituality of a adivasi group, and both differ from something like Gaudiya Vaishnavism.

But the reality is that Hinduism is not particularly unique. American Presbyterians exhibit self-conscious identity and adherence to elite-mediated belief and practice. This sort of individualistic confessional Christianity is arguably the apotheosis of a modernist conception of religion. But this is a relatively new development in the West among Christians.

The vast majority of the European peasantry did not exhibit this sort of Christian self-consciousness before the later medieval centuries, and much of it did not become self-conscious until after the Reformation period. This is one reason that some Reformed Protestants argue that Europe was not Christianized until after the Reformation. Peasants may have had a sense that they were Christians, and others were heathens, but the full liturgy and deep catechism were not necessarily a part of their lives (in contrast to the elite).

And yet it seems ridiculous to assert in the context of the Crusades, the rise of Gothic cathedrals, and the conversion of Northern and Eastern Europe by missionaries, that Europe was not Christian before the late medieval period. Individual Europeans may not have been self-conscious confessional Christians, but everyone around them was at least nominally a Christian. Additionally, the Christian Church, whether West or East, saw itself as bringing salvation to everyone within the society, high or low, poor or rich, and devout or ignorant. Many Europeans were not Christian in the individual way modern evangelical Protestants would understand, but European civilization was Christian.

I think this is the best way to understand what Hinduism was, and what it became. Indian civilization was long seen to be distinct by the ancients. It was not a random and disparate collection of peoples, but a civilization with various centers, and jostling competition between aspirant elites.

It is well known in the pre-modern period “Hindu” seems to have bracketed people who lived in India. From the Muslim perspective all non-Muslims who lived in the subcontinent. It was a geographical designation more than a religious one as such. But it is clear that already by the time of the arrival of Muslims in the Sindh in the 8th century, and definitely by the era when Al-Biruni wrote his well known ethnography of South Asia around 1000 AD, that Indian religion had taken on some distinctive forms and outlines, even if it was not self-consciously termed Hinduism. It is clear because outsiders describe normative Indian religious practices and beliefs that we would recognize today (e.g., reincarnation).

There are two other elements to this broader issue. First, it curious that the British had to define Hinduism, when it seems Muslims had been doing so for the whole period after the initial incursions. Al-Biruni made the most thorough early attempt, and his writings on India would make an Orientalist proud. And I say that not as a dismissal, but a description. Al-Biruni seemed rather clear-eyed that Indian hostility to Muslim was due to the predatory character of the warlords who also patronized his scholarship. The focus on the British reflects the recency-bias in post-colonial studies, where the only colonialism and conquest of interest is tht which is executed by Europeans.

Additionally, I am  convinced by the arguments in Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, and Warriors of the Cloisters: The Central Asian Origins of Science in the Medieval World, that Turanian Buddhism was essential and instrumental in shaping Islam as we understand it from the Abbassid period onward (in particular, the emergence of madrassa and the hadith traditions). Though Turanian Buddhism is clearly not Hindu, connections to India to the south and China to the east were part of a broader “Buddhist international” which flourished in the 4th to 7th century.

This is not to deny the distinctiveness of the Islam Al-Biruni used as a contrast to Indian religious thought. But, by his life Central Asian Buddhism was extirpated, and he would not have been able to see the influence of that Indian-influenced tradition on Islam because it had become thoroughly integrated.

Second, Indian religious civilization was successfully exported to the east so it was not constitutively associated with being Indian. The Balinese of Indonesia and the Cham of Vietnam are recognizably Hindu. It would be curious to tell them that the British defined Hinduism in the early modern period…when they were practicing Hinduism 1,000 years ago. The Ankgor temple complex was built in the 12th century, when Hinduism was Cambodia’s dominant elite religion.

Finally, an addendum to my post on caste and genetics. I read Castes of Mind many years ago. I think many of the arguments in that book aren’t necessarily invalidated by the genetic data. But, we need to think hard about whether we really expected the genetic data given the thesis that British colonialism was highly determinative in shaping the hierarchy and structure of South Asian society.

In fact, the genetic data makes it clear that most South Asian communities have been distinct and endogamous for several thousand years. That the genetic differences between castes groupings and jati within regions are closer to what you could expect of from differences between antipodes of a continent. And, within a given region ancestry which is closer to West/Central Eurasian tends to be enriched in groups “higher” up the modern caste ladder, across the subcontinent (at least if there is a correlation).

Additionally, this is not well known, but the genetic structure seems to exist even if you remove Indo-Aryans from the picture. Groups such as the Reddys and Nadars in South India who do not have any northern/western affinity at all are still genetically quite distinct from adivasis and scheduled castes in the local region. They also tend to have more West/Central Eurasian ancestry than adivasis and scheduled castes in the local region.

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Genetical observations on caste

One of the more interesting and definite aspects of David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here is on caste. In short, it looks like most Indian jatis have been genetically endogamous for ~2,000 years, and, varna groups exhibit some consistent genetic differences.

This is relevant because it makes the social constructionist view rather untenable. The genetic distinctiveness of jati groups is very hard to deny, it jumps out of the data. The assertions about varna are fuzzier. But, on the whole Brahmins across South Asia have the most ancestry from ancient “steppe” groups, while Dalits across South Asia have the least. Kshatriya is closer to Brahmins. Vaisya has lower fractions of “steppe”. And so on. These varna generalizations aren’t as clear and distinct as jati endogamy. Sudras from Punjab may have as much or more “steppe” than South Indian Brahmins. But the coarse patterns are striking.

As a geneticist, and as an irreligious atheist, a lot of the conversations about “caste” are irrelevant to me. They’re semantical.

You can tell me that true Hinduism doesn’t have caste, that it was “invented” by Westerners. They may not have had caste, but the genetical data is clear that South Asians were endogamous for 2,000 years to an extreme degree. Additionally, the classical caste hierarchy seems to correlate with particular ancestry fractions.

Second, you can say Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism don’t have caste. That they picked it up from Hinduism. Or Indian culture. That’s true. But I think Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism are all made up, just like Hinduism. I don’t care if made up ideologies don’t have caste in their made up religious system. I am curious about the revealed patterns genetically.

I have a pretty big data set of South Asians. Some of them are from the 1000 Genomes. Here is where the 1000 Genomes South Asians were collected:

Gujarati Indians from Houston, Texas
Punjabi from Lahore, Pakistan
Bengali from Dhaka, Bangladesh
Sri Lankan Tamil from the UK
Indian Telugu from the UK

Some of the groups showed a lot of genetic variation, so I split them based on how much “Ancestral North Indian” (ANI) they had. So Gujurati_ANI_1 has more ANI than Gujurati_ANI_2 and so forth.

Continue reading “Genetical observations on caste”

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The once and future “Brown Pundits”

Country Users Rank % Rank
 China 746,662,194 1 53.20% 109
 India 391,292,631 2 29.55% 143
 United States 245,436,423 3 76.18% 54
 Brazil 123,927,230 4 59.68% 90
 Japan 117,528,631 5 92.00% 15
 Russia 110,003,284 6 76.41% 53

The “Brown Pundits” blog was formed on a lark about 7 years ago. The Sepia Munity weblog was clearly winding down, and people like Zach and I didn’t feel too well represented. What I mean is that weblog in its latter years reflected a certain activist Left-wing South Asian American perspective which naturally didn’t include all Diaspora South Asians. In some ways this was a shift away from its original years, when it was more politically eclectic, with some center-Right and libertarian voices, to go along with conventional center-Left viewpoints.

Two of the co-founders I knew personally before the blog was founded, and we had a small e-list where we discussed cultural and social issues. To a great extent, I think the Sepia Mutiny blog reflected a decade in transition for South Asian brown Americans. Most of the contributors were of an age where they would be routinely asked where “they were really from,” and all of us understood that we were seen to be a novel and exotic contribution to the American landscape.

Things have changed a lot since then. Most particularly in 2008, Barack Hussein Obama was elected president of the United States. Where black Americans rejoined in the election of a black man, I suspect many Americans of Asian background noted his exotic background and name. If a man with such a foreign name could become head of state of the United States could we be such aliens after all?

I do understand that some people feel that the election of Donald J. Trump has rendered us aliens in our own land again. Overall, I disagree. In a Spenglerian sense, I see the election of Trump as a crying in the wilderness of an old America which is feeling less at the center of our culture, as well as the more general atavisms triggered by globalization.

South Asian Americans, which mostly means Indian Americans, have a place and a role in American culture that can’t be denied. Most Indian Americans have followed a “Jewish model”, aligning with the political and social Left, especially a small activist class.

A framework to understand the trajectory of young 2nd and later generation South Asian Americans that I outlined over 10 years ago I think is a useful model. Roughly, there are three broad classes of South Asian Americans (with overlap):

  • Assimilators. Unlike some groups, South Asian Americans are physically distinct enough that assimilation doesn’t involve “passing” into another identity. Rather, assimilation involves intermarriage and socialization with a broad set of Americans and a very loose attachment to distinctively South Asian cultural markers ad community institutions. Most of the children of assimilators will be mixed, and so will not have a singular South Asian identity in an authentic way.
  • South Asian Americans. This group is perhaps equivalent to Indian identities in the West Indies, which have become distinct from Old World self-conceptions while retaining a sense of South Asianness. In some ways, I think this was a core group for the Sepia Mutiny blog. These are the sort of people who might marry other Indian Americans, but these marriages are often cross-regional, cross-caste, and even cross-religion. To give a concrete example, I know that two of the original Sepia Mutiny bloggers married and had children with someone whose family was from a different ethnoreligious tradition from their own. The sort of marriage which would raise eyebrows in South Asia, but wouldn’t be viewed that strange in the American context.
  • Finally, traditionalists. There are American-born and raised Patels who marry other Patels. There are Dawoodi Bohra Muslims who marry other Dawoodi Bohra Muslims. This group would be most recognizable to people from South Asia.

But to me, that’s the past. I think it’s done. I don’t see Brown Pundits contributing to that discussion or cultural space, for various reasons (the primary one being most that none of the contributors are of the second class). Rather, I’ve started to get interested in Brown Pundits in large part because it seems that Asia, including South Asia, is getting to be a bigger and bigger part of the discussion. There are now more Indians browsing the internet than Americans!

Yes, it’s mostly on mobile phones, but most Americans were on dial-up until the mid-2000s.

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Books on Indian history without recency bias

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

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

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

Do readers have suggestions?

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

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When writing about India is actually just writing about America

The web magazine Slate posted a piece, Friends From India which I had initially thought was a parody. Its subtitle is: “I grew up watching the show in Mumbai. I worry about the damage its gender stereotypes still do there.”

It’s really bizarre. The author is Indian, and supposedly is making a comment about India. But the piece isn’t about India at all, but the worries and concerns of a liberal person in the West. Friends isn’t that important in driving social views in India, and gender relations and attitudes toward homosexuality in India have little to do with Friends. But, today Friends seems retrograde to many American liberals, because of its attitude toward gender relations and gayness, which were mainstream in the 1990s.

So it seems here that to get another piece on Friends and social justice into Slate, they just commissioned a piece that was officially about India, but quite obviously wasn’t.

This gets to a major dynamic in American society today which worries me somewhat: foreign affairs being filtered through purely American concerns and perceptions. Americans care so little about the rest of the world that they turn the rest of the world into the United States in substance, if not exterior styles.

The problem is that we are living through a great transition in the world. America is no longer as much the center, and economic, social, and political, power will rebalance toward Asia. In such a multipolar world pandering to purely American preoccupations will lead to gross misunderstandings and likely catastrophe.

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India as the hydra against Islam

In some versions of the legend of the Hydra, every time you cut off one of the heads of the monster two more grow in its place.

I have been thinking about why and how India remained predominantly non-Muslim despite most of the subcontinent being under Muslim ruling for 500 years (dating from 1250 to 1750 approximately). The contrast here would be most stark with Iran and Turan. While the zone of the Islamic Empire between Mesopotamia and the Maghreb was dominated by a Christian populace which spoke an Afro-Asiatic language, Iran and Turan retained their language and their cultural distinctiveness, as evidenced in the nationalism clear in the Shahnameh.

There was a comment on this weblog that implied India was unique because of violent resistance to Islamicization. This is patently false. To give a concrete example, the region of Tabaristan in northern Iran was dominated by warlords and dynasties which adhered to the Zoroastrian region until the 9th century, 200 years after the Arab defeat of the Sassanians. Despite the inroads of Islam in the 9th century, after more thorough integration into the Abbassid Caliphate, Tabaristan was still throwing up Zoroastrian anti-Muslim warlords into the 10th century.

But most attempts to infer the religious demographics of Iran, which are to a great extent guesswork, suggest that it was in the 10th century the region became majority Muslim. One indication of this that this is so is that this period correlates with a more muscular and resurgent Iranian high culture and reemergence of political non-Arab political power. As Zoroastrianism was no longer seen as a threat to Islam, Persian cultural identity could reassert itself without a non-Islamic connotation (there is in the 10th century a shift away from ostentatiously Arab names by Persian Muslim elites).

Basically, it seems that it took about 300 years for Iran to become majority Muslim. I’ve seen similar numbers for Egypt and the Maghreb, though in the latter region indigenous Christianity became extinct by the medieval period.

There are two related issues that I want to suggest for South Asia: scale and complexity. Though the Indian subcontinent is geographically smaller than the Arab Caliphates as their height on paper, the reality is much of the Near  East and North Africa are empty of people. Islamic rule really consisted of a string of cities and fortifications interlaced over broad swaths of the territory occupied by pastoralists, as well as a few regions of dense cultivation.

Iran, Turkey, and the Arab world consist of between 400 and 500 million people. The Indian subcontinent has 1.7 billion people. The population in the past may have been different, but I think it gives one a rough sense of the differences in magnitude over the long-term.

Second, the social complexity of South Asia is astounding. I say this as a geneticist: the differences between different castes in the same region are hard to believe. Though there is a great deal of ethno-religious diversity in the Middle East, they are not surprising. Arabs engage in a consanguinity. Ethno-religious minorities such as Copts or Assyrians have less cosmopolitan ancestry than their Muslim neighbors. This is all to be expected.

In contrast, any analysis of ethnic “Telugus” has to take into account local structure because it is so extreme. Dalits are different from middle castes are different from Brahmins. Some of this is due to genetic drift, but much of it is due to continental-scale differences in genetic admixture.

The genetic differences tell us something us deep about the nature of South Asian social relations. Defection to Islam occurred on the individual scale, but generally, quantity could only be had by mass conversions. Even when groups of people of the same community are of different religions it was probably through mass conversion of particular subsegments.

Which brings me to Bengalis. The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier was written many years ago, and I read it long before I ever knew much about the genetics of South Asians. In it the author explains that the dominance of Islam on the eastern march of Bengal was due to the fact that it was a frontier society that emerged during the period of Islamic rule. Meanwhile, western Bengal was a culture which was in a stationary state.

The ability of Islam to penetrate into the Bengali-speaking peasantry was due to its fluid and unordered character. In contrast in western Bengal, a more traditional South Asiab society with well-delineated caste boundaries had already crystallized by the time of the Muslim conquest.

So here’s the thing that genetics adds: the topology of genetic variation of Bangladeshis is totally different than what you see in other South Asians. There’s very little structure. Basically aside from a few half-Brahmins and a small community of Dalits, the 1000 Genomes sample from Bangladesh shows none of the genetic variation partitioned by the community you see in most Indian samples. Or, that you see in the Indian Telugus, Gujuratis and Pakistani Punjabis (the Tamils from Sri Lanka are somewhat less structured, but still have more than the Bangladeshis).

To me, this confirms the thesis of The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier. As a frontier society, eastern Bengal was mixed in a way where the structure socially and genetically that was the norm in most of South Asia by the time the Muslims arrived simply wasn’t present. Without the powerful collective substructure, Islam was able to swallow up the rural society in toto. Perhaps the best analogy might be to Indian communities in Trinidad, where caste has mostly disappeared, and Christianity has made extensive inroads.

So why didn’t India become Muslim? What is this “India” of which you speak?

Note: I moderate comments, please don’t stupid spam me.

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Diaspora culture are often more conservative

Zach made a comment below about conservatism and Diaspora cultures. There are two trends one has to highlight here. One the one hand Diaspora cultures often exhibit synthesis with host cultures and can be quite novel and innovative.

But there is another trend which is a cultural universal: Diaspora cultures often exhibit archaism and crystallize old-fashioned norms and practices. To give a concrete example foot-binding persisted the longest, down to the 1970s, in the Chinese communities of Borneo. The French of Quebec is peculiar in part because it preserves characteristics of older French dialects. The same is true of some Anglo-American English dialects.

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