Book Review: The RigVeda

How many fires are there, how many suns?

How many dawns? How many waters?

I ask this, O fathers, not to challenge.

O Sages, I ask it to know

(RigVeda Book 10, hymn 88)

Full Disclosure: I have not actually read the entire RigVeda; all I did was read multiple hymns in each of the 10 books of the RigVeda. The hymns are (as expected) very repetitive, but they do give you a picture of the culture of the Indo-Europeans who came to India around 1800 BC (or so we believe these days, this may be adjusted as ancient DNA from Indian sites yields its secrets). It is a window (and probably the most complete and most ancient window we have) into the Indo-European world that played such a huge role in the creation of the present cultures of much of Eurasia, from Western Europe to India (and beyond). The book is thus a window into our own “heroic age”, so to speak and should be of interest to all, above and beyond their obvious status as shruti (heard, i.e. revealed, as opposed to composed by latter day humans) holy books in Hinduism.

The translation I read is by Indologist Ralph Griffith, who lived most of his life in India (he was the pincipal of Benares college in the Hindu holy city of Benares) and is buried in South India (i.e. one of those Englishmen who came to India and fell in love, or like JBS Haldane, fell in love and came to India). A more recent and scholarly translation is now available but is very expensive. This one is free and available in its entirety at this site:  (http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/index.htm)

In the original Sanskrit, the hymns are arranged in stanzas and follow particular rules of rhyme and meter (hear a sample at the end of this review). They are meant to be memorized (with extreme fidelity to the text and its correct pronunciation) and then sung/recited (as they still are), in religious ceremonies and sacrifices to the Gods.  In this sense, my use of them as a “window into the heroic age” has little to do with their use and status in Hinduism. But then, I am not a Hindu (unless we are following Savarkar’s definition, in which case I guess I am a little bit Hindu too). Anyhow, on with the review. Continue reading “Book Review: The RigVeda”

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To be brown is to be a civilization


Though I often disagree with him, I do enjoy Zach’s perspective on things because they are different from mine, though we exhibit similarities (e.g., both of us generally align with the center-Right in Anglophone societies). Zach may be one of the first cosmopolitan desis in his pedigree; he, himself of part-Persian heritage, marrying a South Indian Sindhi, probably to raise a family in England. In contrast, I may be the last brown person in my pedigree for a while, fading into legend and myth (or infamy!).

But one of the things I think is important to emphasize is South Asia is a civilizational entity straight-jacketed for historical reasons into a few nation-states. Though India and China are often compared together, they are totally incomparable insofar as the Han majority of China exhibit a racial and linguistic unity which South Asians do not (even though southeast Chinese dialects are unintelligible with Mandarin, the written language is the same).

By and large, I am predisposed to agree that someone like Zach is more prototypically South Asian than I am. Despite his religious heterodoxy his cultural rootedness in the Northwest quadrant of the subcontinent does put him at the “center of the action,” so to speak. In contrast, my own family’s recent origins are on the far eastern fringe of recognizably desi territory…. That is, my family is from the eastern portion of eastern Bengal (my grandmother was almost killed by the crazy elephant of the maharani of Tripura!). It’s interesting that 3,000 years after the emergence of Iron Age South Asian cultures the fulcrum of South Asian identity is where it began all those millennia ago (there was a period between the Mauryas and the Guptas when Bihar was the center).

Talking about what is more prototypically desi is like talking about what is more prototypically “European.” Being French or German is more prototypically European than being Albanian or Russian. We could argue why, but in your heart you know it’s true. There are definitions of Europeans which exclude Albanians and Russians (even though I’d disagree with those personally), but no plausible ones which exclude French and Germans.

Finally, I do think it indicates the limits and flexibility around race and brown identity. As Zach has said repeatedly he is very light-skinned (and part Iranian to boot). Myself, I don’t think anyone would describe me as either light-skinned or dark-skinned; I’m pretty much the average South Asian in complexion. Brown. Not light brown. Or dark brown. Literally just brown. But that doesn’t really weight much in terms of who is “more desi” or not. I have never watched a Bollywood film all the way through. That matters more.

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Aryan Migration and its Discontents

The debate about the origins of the “Aryans” and their arrival in India has flared up again, this time triggered by new genetic findings that appear to confirm with a great deal of certainty that large numbers of Indo-Europeans herders migrated into the Indian subcontinent about 4000 or so years ago.  Razib Khan (one of the best informed and unbiased bloggers on this topic) has written in detail about this topic in several posts, the most recent of which is here. I am not going to go into the genetics or the details, I just wanted to recap the story in very simple layperson outline and focus mostly on some of the politics around this topic. My basic argument is that the Hindutvavadi reaction to the political uses of “Aryan Invasion Theory” is relatively justified, but opting to take a stand against population genetics and common sense in the form of a relatively recently concocted (and very unlikely) “Out of India” (OIT) theory is an unfortunate and self-defeating mistake.

The Indo-Europeans who migrated into India were one of several migratory stream that, between 4000-2000 BCE, spread in all directions out of the Pontic Steppe (what is now Eastern Ukraine and Southern Russia, North and North-East of the Black Sea). They were cattle herding, horse breeding steppe dwellers who, like practically all other human populations, were themselves a product of the layers of human settlement and migration that have woven the intricate net of human racial groups since the first emergence of modern humans in Africa. They were also a very successful, capable and warlike people who had developed light, fast, spoke-wheeled chariots (and possibly, the composite bow) that were the wonder weapons of their time.

Continue reading “Aryan Migration and its Discontents”

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Indian genetics, part n of many

I put up close to definitive piece for me in relation to South Asian historical population genetics. At least until new research is published. I did leave out some stuff about my own vague thoughts…but I think the takeover of Hattian and Hurrian cultures by the Nesha (Hittites) and Haryannu (Mitanni) have something to teach us….

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