Early Hinduism – the epic stratification

This essay is highly speculative in nature and I have many doubts about many of the things stated below, but I have tried to coherently bring together distinct threads of early Indian history into an explanation for the great stratification of Jati-Varna


Ancient history is in general a tricky subject to delve into, but when it comes to ancient Indian history, the tricky becomes almost entirely speculative. The entire narrative is based on a series of texts, from the Vedic canon to Pali texts – none of them are dated precisely in absolute terms. The paucity of inscriptions from ancient India makes dating much more difficult as oral texts are much harder to accurately date.

Ms Sarah Welch, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Ashoka’s major rock edict – the earliest inscription from Ancient India.

One of the early inscriptions from Ancient India, Ashoka’s 13th major rock edict from Kandahar reads

Except among the Greeks, there is no land where the religious orders of Brahmanas and Sramanas are not to be found, and there is no land anywhere where men do not support one sect or another.

Here Brahmanas are mentioned but not as a Varna per se but as analogous to various Sramanas (priests / philosophers). Some academics have come to regard the Sramana traditions as somewhat antagonistic to the orthodox Brahmanical traditions. However, the earliest written reference to these traditions, Ashoka’s Rock Edicts mention them always together. Patanjali and others too mostly mention them together and never as quite as antagonistic as later Sramana canon or modern scholarship would have us believe.

However, it is undeniable that one cannot be understood without the challenges presented by the other. Ahimsa and Vegetarianism are generally acknowledged (and contested) to be Sramana influences on Classical Hinduism. A lot of digital and literal ink has been spilled to answer the question of how these two currents have interacted and shaped each other – mostly through the lens of Ahimsa, Dha(r/m)ma, Moksha and only rarely Karma.

Vedic deities Indra and Surya at the entrance of Buddhist cave in Bhaja (200 BCE – 100 CE)

Johannes Bronkhorst’s Greater Magadha thesis offers a tenuous but interesting take on these interactions. The basic premise of the thesis is that the region of Greater Magadha was home to the Proto-Sramana traditions while the Kuru-Panchala region to the Vedic Brahmanas and that many ideas central to classical Hinduism like Karma, Rebirth, and Ayurveda came into it from the Sramana traditions of the Greater Magadha via the esoteric Upanishads (especially the ones which were composed in the horizon of Greater Magadha). The whole thesis rests on the revised chronology which only makes sense if the thesis is true – so I doubt the book is going to convince anyone. But it has catalyzed a rudimentary and dormant theory that came to my mind years ago while reading Ambedkar’s writings.

The composition of the Manava Dharma Shastra (100 BCE to 200 AD) is generally considered to be an indication (or instrument) of Varna ossification. The Varna system in some form ought to have existed (especially in the Gangetic heartland) since the late Vedic period (Purusha Sukta), yet both textual and genetic evidence points to this period as being one of great mixing. Hence it is fair to assume that whatever rudimentary Varna system existed, it was not very rigidly followed in these times. Also its important to note that traditional Varna system may have never been a reality south of the Vindhyas.

It is difficult to pin the Varna ossification to any particular political period. The only pan India ancient empire – the Mauryas are unlikely to have imposed any Varna hierarchy on their subjects as the pedagogic Ashoka doesn’t once mention Varna in his Rock Edicts. The Shungas are seen as the Brahmanical pushback against excesses of the Mauryan state but their power was both too limited in time and too restricted in region to have made any major impact. The same is true for most other political powers in the country for the next 500 years.

Brahmins had begun moving out of the Gangetic heartland as early as the late Vedic period itself. So why did the Varna system, suddenly begin to ossify  centuries later? Surely some metaphysical, philosophical, and/or political explanation is required to make sense of this phenomenon. Also, Jati endogamy which is the true hallmark of the Indian Caste system cannot be explained by the Brahmanical Varna system – even the rigid one prescribed in the Manusmriti. The answers may lie in a core philosophy of the Indic faith systems.

So what is the common characteristic that defines Indian religious thought? The answer is easy – the concept of Karma, Rebirth and Dharma. Even if we reject the thesis of Greater Magadha, we have to accept that the concepts of Rebirth and Karma are explored in far more detail in the Sramana schools – namely Buddhists, Jainas, and Ajivikas. The whole philosophical aim of the Sramana schools is to avoid Bad Karma to primarily get Good Karma and finally Moksha. This is in clear contrast with mainstream Vedic thought. Though the early Upanishads (Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka) touch the Karma doctrine it’s in no way as critically dissected as by the Sramanas. The lengths to which the Jainas and Ajivikas go to avoid all Karma; the detailed linking of the intention of the “Actor” to the Karma done by Buddha illustrate that the Sramanas, in general, were way more focused on Karma than their Brahmana counterparts. More importantly, the concept of Karmic retribution in Rebirth is much more detailed in early Sramana traditions than the Upanishads (Yajnavalkya doesn’t link Karma directly to Rebirth but discusses both separately). So it remains fair to assume that even if doctrines of Rebirth and Karma didn’t come into Classical Hinduism as an import from Sramana traditions, it can surely be thought that the Sramana innovations in the Karma and Rebirth doctrines challenged the more “this-worldly outlook” of the Vedic Brahmanas.

But how does this matter to the Jati Varna matrix? The initial conception of Varna sees it as a natural order of things (not unlike stratification seen in most ancient societies). Moreover, this conception is in no way rejected by the Sramana traditions even Buddhism – thought Buddha did not give Varna the emphasis it received from the Vedic Brahmanas.  Even today caste is practiced in the Jainas. So how did the conception of Karmic retribution affect this system? The answer seems obvious enough. It meant that the position of one in the Varna hierarchy could be justified as the fruit of Karma of previous births and not only as a Natural order. In other words, the ritual status was awarded to certain births for their good Karma and vice-versa. In many ways, Karmic retribution is a fundamental shift from the “this-worldly” ways of the composers of Rigveda.

This change is captured in the Bhagavat Gita, arguably the most important book of the Hindu canon. While there continue to be many interpretations of the doctrine of Karma espoused in the Gita, the one reading tells us to fulfill the Dharma (of your Varna/ Position/ Situation) with the implication that it would result in Good Karma and better Rebirths – the ultimate aim of Moksha notwithstanding. That indeed seems to be one of the simplistic messages of the Gita which would have begun spreading in the society with the final versions of Mahabharata. The prescriptive Manusmriti is one thing, but the bonafide revelation of Gita is another (though it is not my point that Karmic retribution is the core message of Gita but it is hard to argue against it being a vehicle of the spread of these memes). This doesn’t mean that Varna became birth-based at this moment in history – it is fair to assume it always was at least partially birth-based though more flexible. But we can state that at this stage, one’s Birth became Karma-based and Varna also became inextricably linked to Karma. 

This could have resulted in two primary effects:

  • It would mitigate the sense of injustice perceived by sections of the society who had it tough. The injustice of birth was not injustice but the karmic justice of previous births.
  • It associated “ritual Varna hierarchy and division of labor” with moral dimension (Karma of previous birth). Potentially this moral dimension would buttress the existing Varna hierarchy.

It’s easy to imagine how this would in turn result in decreasing porousness between Varnas. Incidentally, this is attested through the first/second-century inscription near Nasik by Brahmana Satavahana Queen Gotami, which praises how her son prevented the mixing of the Varnas. This is one of the most solidly dated references against the mixing of Varnas (as it is an inscription) issued by a political authority (not just religious abstractions).

However in a pre-modern subcontinent without a strong centralized state, these ideas would have spread very slowly through the network of Brahmins and various (particularly) Vaishnava sects through the vehicle of Gita. The Hindu Golden age of the Imperial Vaishnavite Guptas – who ruled the second-largest and arguably the richest empire of ancient India, in the fourth/fifth century AD nicely correlates with these timelines. Thus we could say that by the time of the Huna invasions of the 5th and 6th century the Varna ossification was prevalent, but even that doesn’t explain the complete story. Still, we have no philosophical or scriptural basis for Jati endogamy.

Irawati Karve – a pioneering Indian Anthropologist / Indologist

Anthropologist Irawati Karve in her book “Hindu society” was one of the earliest to claim that the Jati system was a pre-Aryan reality upon which the abstraction of the Aryan Varna system was imposed. Academically her work has been contested and not accepted in mainstream Indology, but her case is very compelling, given that it is based on her immense fieldwork in “Non-Aryan” tribes who have maintain very strict endogamy. But how does her thesis map onto what we know from genetics? Endogamy in India roughly seems to have ossified between 0 AD and 500 AD but who is to say that less rigid endogamy (not detectable) was not the norm earlier? Is it possible that the self-conception of Jatis is indeed is an ancient Pre-Aryan reality that was less rigid during the Vedic times? Clearly, there are no easy answers as all we can do is speculate and wait for Ancient DNA from India to show if there existed any pre-Aryan structure in the populations of the Indus valley.

Many tribal (hunter-gatherer) societies have endogamy baked into their cultures. But generally, as these tribal societies get integrated into the agricultural societies, this endogamy tends to break down – as evident for recent genetic findings (particularly Europe). But what if the tribal societies which integrated into the emerging Urban civilizations (first the Indus and then the Ganga) , never fully gave up their tribal/clan identities? The hundreds of excavated IVC villages point to sophisticated trade/occupational specialization. If both the sexes work in their ancestral trades per se, it would naturally result in tribal endogamy as it makes occupational sense. But that would not necessarily lead to rigid endogamy to the levels we see in the subcontinent- probably because this doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world. Though the identities of groups by kinship (precursor to Jati) may have existed even before the Varna system began to take form (let alone become rigid).

But why does this Jati endogamy become sharper with the ossification of the Varna system? Some take the explanation as Jatis arising out of the mixing of Varnas seriously, but that thesis (ludicrous imo) can be jettisoned without a second thought as Jatis exists even in those who are outside the Varna hierarchies. A potential answer may again lie in the doctrine of Karmic retribution.

Unlike the original simplistic Varna hierarchy – the concept of Karmic retribution enables hierarchies within hierarchies. Every Jati can be ranked within the Varna hierarchy based on the perceived moral inheritance (Karma) of their profession. Additionally, better births and even salvation are promised to the ones following their Jati-Varna Dharma. Thus Jatis would have both religious as well as occupational/cultural reasons for enforcing stricter endogamy which is far more believable than assuming these norms were somehow imposed across the subcontinent in pre-modern times by machinations of Dvija Varnas.

None of the above points are sufficient but all are necessary to explain the great vivisection of Indian society. Chronologically first the kinship-based (not gotra) groups were integrated into the expanding Aryavarta both culturally and genetically while the late Vedic abstractions of Varna and ritual purity began to take root in the orthodox Vedic traditions. When the rudimentary conceptions (Vedic or non-Vedic) of Karma and Rebirth were taken up by the Sramanas, taking them to a complex, philosophical, and rigorous extreme, they began to affect the Vedic philosophies.

In essence, the religious innovations of Karma, Rebirth and Dharma when coupled with pre-existing concepts of Varna, ritual purity, and tribal occupational endogamy conjure up a perfect storm that continues to flow through the blood of around 1/4th of humanity, in form of thousands of distinct streams. 


Post Script: 

  • What is not discussed above is the impact on the subcontinent of the violent Huna invasions which along with internal strife resulted in the collapse of the Gupta empire. The rapid de-urbanization which is speculated to have occurred in the fifth and sixth centuries would have also played a crucial role in this ossification. The second millennium with the Turkic invasions would have also played some role in the maintenance of this now-steady state.
  • I continue to have a lot of doubts about the above speculations, but when I read books on Indology and Indian prehistory, I find even more tenuous speculations (made by professional academics) than the ones I have proceeded to make in this essay. At least these speculations seem to align with the history alluded by the genetic data of caste (Or I have made them align).
  • I had thought along these lines even before reading about the interactions of Brahmanas and Sramanas but while reading the Greater Magadha thesis and following a YouTube seminar I thought the thrust of my current argument was staring me in the eye. I expected someone to draw the conclusions I had drawn, but was extremely surprised than no one has gone there.
  • The references for this essay are numerous and diverse to be noted here. Anyone interested please reach out to me.

 

“The Buddhist Age”

Civilizational affinities in 700 AD

I made an offhand comment on Twitter that I thought might be worth amplifying and elaborating. You can argue that to a great extent the period between 250 AD and 750 AD can be thought of as the “Buddhist Age” in Asia. The year 750 AD is easy as a cut off point, as the battle of Talas in 751 symbolizes the recession of Tang Chinese influence in Turanian Central Asia, and the inexorable advance of the Muslim Arabs. The year 250 is more vague, but it post-dates the collapse of the Han dynasty, and starts to see the ascension of Buddhism as a Chinese religion par excellence, rather than a marginal Indian cult.

Let’s focus on the year 700. What’s going on? First, let’s acknowledge that Buddhism is in serious decline across the Indian subcontinent, though there are local pockets of strength, with a late Indian summer to come with the Pala Empire of Bengal in 750. Second, it was under threat across its East Iranian heartland. It is often forgotten that Buddhism and Zoroastrianism competed toe-to-toe as the religion of the elites across the East Iranian world, from modern-day Afghanistan to Khorasan and deep into Transoxiana. The book Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road documents this interplay. Lost Enlightenment as well as Christopher I Beckwith’s book argues from the strong role of Turanian Buddhism in shaping Abbassid era Islam (e.g., viharas as models for madrassas and Turanian Buddhist textual culture as the seedbed for hadith).

in Japan Buddhism was taking root, while in Korea and much of China it was the dominant religion in 700 AD. Buddhism also had a thin, but detectable, impact across Southeast Asia, along with Indic culture more generally. Tibet was not as clearly associated with Buddhism in 700, but the religion had already been introduced and was making a cultural impact.

What does this have to do with “Brown Pundits”? Buddhism is the dominant vehicle of clear and obvious Indian cultural influence in the world. It is, arguably, the earliest of the great missionary religions to exist today. Though Buddhism never took root in the West, it was clearly known and a presence in the eastern Mediterranean during the Roman period in cosmopolitan ports such as Alexandria. Though Indian numerals are extremely consequential, they are a more bit-sized cultural element, which has been detached from their Indian matrix. In contrast, Buddha’s Indian origin is well known, and the influence of Buddhism is probably responsible for legends that are hard to explain such as the Indian princess who married into the Korean royal line and gave rise to a modern day Korean clan.

The Middle Path: Towards a Liberal Conservatism in India (Part 3)

In my previous two posts, I traced the roots of India as a civilization state and proposed a framework which would seek to retain modern India’s classical Anglo-liberal framework but embellish it with Dharmic values. In this third and final post, I will seek to demonstrate how these seemingly contradictory systems could be reconciled in a coherent Anglo-Dharmic liberal conservative framework. I will also analyse Indian domestic and foreign policy from a liberal conservative perspective. Before doing that, it is worth examining how liberal conservatism would deal with the third great tradition that has influenced Indian history: Islam.

The Muslim Question

The ledger of the Nehruvian state’s interactions with and treatment of Indian Muslims is decidedly a mixed bag. On the positive side, it is to the Nehruvian state’s credit that Indian Muslims were able to see themselves as full and equal participants and stakeholders in the Indian Republic. It is easy to underestimate today how difficult and challenging this would have been in the immediate aftermath of the partition and vivisection of India in 1947. It would have been easy to let hatred and vengeance take over in the aftermath of a bloody division. The Congress party under the stewardship of Pandit Nehru ensured that the better angels of our nature prevailed and the Muslims who remained in India were treated with tolerance and compassion. The basic framework of the Indian Constitution, in particular the golden triangle of equality, freedom and liberty, ensured full and equal citizenship and freedom of worship for Indian Muslims. The wisdom and sagacity of the founding fathers of the modern Indian Republic who were the architects of this framework must be applauded.

Continue reading The Middle Path: Towards a Liberal Conservatism in India (Part 3)

National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act(CAA)

Brown Pundits favorite Kushal Mehra explains the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

I don’t understand why the NRC and CAA are controversial among some. Can anyone explain this to me?

One or other, both or neither?

Reposted from Zenpundit — Modi or Trump, special or chosen? — with thanks to The Emissary — and closing in on the shining suchness of the Tathagata
.

Modi of India, Trump of USA?

**

Trump of USA proclaims himself the Chosen One, while Modi of India’s supporters claim Modi is the Special One.

Who knew?

**

Sources:

  • The Emissary, The Special One
  • Giphy, I am the Chosen One
  • .
    **

    Buddhist logic from the beginning differs from its Aristotelian cousin, featuring the chatushkoti or tetralemma:

    India in the fifth century BCE, the age of the historical Buddha, and a rather peculiar principle of reasoning appears to be in general use. This principle is called the catuskoti, meaning ‘four corners’. It insists that there are four possibilities regarding any statement: it might be true (and true only), false (and false only), both true and false, or neither true nor false.

    Hence my title, One or other, both or neither?

    Oh ah:

    speaking of the Buddha, Nagarjuna states that the Buddha’s teaching is “emptiness is suchness, not suchness, both suchness and not suchness, and neither suchness nor not suchness.”

    Furthermore:

    The suchness of the Tathagata is the suchness of all phenomena.

    Rumor therefore has it that there’s a fifth possibility, a refuge from all dualities: the shining suchness of the Tathagata.

    **

    No, really — please comment!

    Welcome back Mahathir Mohamad, Hero of Asia! (a)

    This is a follow up to:

    Welcome back Mahathir Mohamad, Hero of Asia!

    Rishabh Gulat–who I respect greatly has a different take on Datuk Mahathir Mohamad, Hero of Asia, than I do. Some argue that Datuk Mahathir has recently shifted his policy and allied with conservative Wahhabi (subset of Salafi, subset of Sunni) muslims, MBS, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan against India. Mr. Gulat implies that Datuk Mahathir is backing Brown Pundit favorite Dr. Zakir Naik against India:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfhVQoIvGIs

    Please watch Mr. Gulat and come to your own conclusions.

    The Indian Malays (7% of the population, 15% of the professional workforce, 40% of all Malaysian doctors, economic engine that moves Malaysia) are rallying the opposition to Datuk Mahatir. Mr. Gulat thinks the global Indian diaspora and global Eastern philosophy diaspora (presumably inclusive of Confucians, Toaists and Chinese) should back the Indian Malays in this.

    I need to do a lot more research before proposing an alternative course of action. But here is a question. Can the Indian Malays, global Indian diaspora, global Eastern Philosophy, global Muraqabah tilted Sunnis and Shia and global liberal muslims unite and offer Datuk Mahathir Mohammed an offer he can’t refuse?:

    There are many great and powerful Indian and Indonesian muslims–friends of PM Modi–who can make the offer.

    As an aside, many Brown Pundits readers know Dr. Zakir Naik fanboy and heart throb Veedu Vidz. Please ask him to come on the Brown Pundits Podcast!

    Mr. Rishabh Gulat is a great thought leader and expert on Indonesia, Malaysia and South East Asia more generally. He says that India and Indonesia should make a civilizational, cultural, economic and geopolitical alliance. Is there an interest in the Brown Pundits Podcast interviewing Mr. Rishabh Gulat?

    Please let us know in the comments.

    Is it time for Asian Americans and Latino Americans to ask to be considered “white”? (d)

    This is the next article in the series “Is it time for Asian Americans and Latino Americans to ask to be considered “white”, “Is it time for Asian Americans and Latino Americans to ask to be considered “white” (a)”,  Razib’s  “Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act on Affirmative Action“, “Is it time for Asian Americans and Latino Americans to ask to be considered “white” (b)” and “Is it time for Asian Americans and Latino Americans to ask to be considered “white” (c)”.

     

    A middle eastern student shares how deeply offensive a condescending pretentious patronizing xenophobic post modernist baizuo caucasian is towards them. The baizuo caucasian tells the middle eastern student that he is a genie for solving a math problem and then apologizes for it afterwards, since after all the word “genie” comes from the middle east. Two phenomenons might be at play. One is baizuo. The other is anti muslim islamaphobia.

     

    If this is coming from baizuo, this is a very old problem. It comes out of European imperialism in the 1700s and 1800s. The European intelligentsia tried to colonize the minds of their imperial colonial subjects with inferiority complex to damage their self confidence. Europeans also tried to deconstruct colonized peoples, causing them to be embarrassed by, hate and reject their ancient history, technology, science, product development, process innovation, civilization, culture, religion, spirituality, art, literature, institutions, ancestors and elders. Post modernism divided colonized peoples into many categories of oppressed and oppressors (mostly manufactured irrational concepts) to turn different groups of people against each other; implying that power oppression rather than meritocratic competence defined local hierarchies. This European colonization of the mind sharply lowered total factor productivity and material living standards in the developing world ceteris paribus. The Latinos, Africans and Asians got sick of it, and kicked the Europeans and their baizuo European intelligentsia out. You can read more about this in a Nuanced understanding of British Colonialism.

     

    Sadly the baizuo caucasian intellegentsia did not seem to learn from this. In the 1960s they tried to undermine America’s heroes Muhammed Ali and Malcolm X. Please watch Muhammed Ali’s and Malcolm X’s videos speaking about the baizuo in American Caste (a). And the baizuo seem to continue to get worse year after year. I don’t understand how this is happening. Perhaps could this be a xenophobic jealous backlash against the accelerating socio-economic rise of the rest–especially darkies?

     

    What can we darkies do about this? Should we ask to be considered white?

     

    To the middle eastern student who wrote Prof Saad, maybe the caucasian overlords should learn that the vast majority of Aryans are Asians. Asians (Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Xinjiang, Tibet, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, SAARC, South East Asia) are very proud to be Aryan or Arya, thank you very much. Arya or Aryan is a cultural rather than genetic marker. Arya means nobility. Maybe ignore the baizuo and become extremely successful in everything you do despite their efforts to sabotage you. Fewer and fewer foreigners are fooled by the hard bigotry of low expectations, by the lie that we cannot manifest our own miracles. Their time is almost up.

     

    I would like to thank Prof Saad for being a glowing light of wisdom and inspiration for our world. Love you Saad!

     

    In the comments, please mention if anyone would like to invite Prof Saad to be a guest for the Brown Caste podcast.

    Post Modernism (d)

    Five thousand years ago the greater Egyptian, Sumerian, Eastern (defined as pan Arya plus China) civilizations were very mathematically oriented.  Many caucasians appear to believe that these ancient civilizations were racist. Possibly because of this many caucasians believe that math is racist.

     

    Another possible reason many caucasians appear to believe that math is racist is because they fear it might unfairly advantages “brown” people (Asians, Arabs, Latinos) and “brown” cultures (eastern philosophy including Toaism and Confucianism, native american religion) at the expense of caucasians in the new global artificial intelligence, neuroscience, genetics economy.

     

    Could part of the anger against math come from fear that mathematics, science, technology, seeking the truth through thought, seeking the truth without thought might be haram or blasphemous? (Obviously most Abrahamics do not believe this and this is not a critique of Abrahamism.)

     

    I believe that mathematics is part of art; and that it derives from beyond normal gross thought. From what in Sanskrit is called Buddhi, Vijnayamaya Kosha, Ananda Maya Kosha, Sukshma Sharira, Kaarana Sharira, the subtle heavens.

     

    Perhaps the anger against mathematics is part of a deeper anger against the subtle heavens? If so, one possible way to look at this is that to transcend the subtle heavens (including mathematics) it might be helpful to love them and love our way through them. Or to love and respect the racist (subtle heavens–including mathematics) until we transcend the various subtleties of thought and feeling.

    What are everyone’s thoughts?

    +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    Post Modernism (c)

    Post Modernism (b)

    Post Modernism (a)

    Intellectual Dark Web (a)

    Intellectual Dark Web

    Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism, a book review:

    rise and fall, hubris and nemesis, a frequent pattern in human existence ..
    .

    Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of Sogyal Rinpoche
    by Mary Finnigan & Rob Hogendoorn
    Jorvik Press, 199 pp. (2019)

    The book benefits enormously from having twin authors — Rob Hogendoorn provides invaluable biographical and analytical material, credited to him as it occurs, while Mary Finnegan’s contributions relate, in her own voice, her experiences. Both authors are Buddhist practitioners, both have researched the sexual abuse claims around Sogyal for years — claims which have since been admitted by Rigpa, Sogyal’s teaching organization.

    **

    Mary Finnigan & Rob Hogendoorn’s book title hits two human keynotes. You’ll find them intertwined for crowd-pleasing reasonsd in Game of Thrones:

    It’s a question that’s been asked of Game of Thrones as long as the HBO series has been on the air: Why so much sex and violence?

    But Tibet? Perfect Tibet of our wishes? Tibet of the revered Dalai Lama? Tibet of the lamas who create intricate mandalas of colored sands — then brush them away in a gesture of impermanence and carry the dust to rivers which wash them out to sea? Shangri-La — in fact not fiction?

    There’s a lot that’s wonderful to Tibetan Buddhism, and the better it looks and actually can be, the easier it is for Westerners to fall for the trap of projection — to believe, in this case, in the impeccability of Sogyal Lakar, sometimes titled Rinpoche, or Precious-One.

    **

    It’s unwise in general to speak ill of the recent dead, and Sogyal died in August 2019. Yet his story must be told, because unhappy though it is, the telling can help us avoid the illusion of a supposedly great lama — second only to the Dalai Lama in popularity in the west — who was in fact assaulting his female students sexually on numerous occasions across decades.

    That’s the tale Mary Finnigan, herself a practitioner of Dzogchen — Sogyal’s own form of Tibetan Buddhism — details in collaboration with her co-author Rob Hogendoorn in this book.

    The accusations against Sogyal, of “sexual, physical and emotional abuse”, led to the Dalai Lama declaring Sogyal “disgraced”. The Charity Commission for England and Wales disqualified two of the Trustees of Sogyal’s  organisation, the Rigpa Fellowship, in the UK because they covered up “knowledge of instances and allegations of improper acts and sexual and physical abuse against students”..

    **

    But although sex, violence, and sexual violence are at the heart of the anguish Sogyal inflicted on unwary students, there’s another side to Sogyal’s story that Finnigan and Hogendoorn illuminate — the story of the son of a wealthy family, in contact with a senior Dzogchen lama and taken under his wing, who learned little that might have qualified him to be a teacher of that tradition, yet who managed to wangle his Tibetan nationality into the appearance of a gifted and highly educated lama on his arrival in England.

    It’s a fascinating and heart-rending story — heart-rending is the word used by the New York Times in its obit for Sogyal — throwing light on Tibetan Buddhism itself, an astonishing mesh-work of visualizations and compassionate insight; the vicious politics that have long existed within the cloak of lamaism, and which the Dalai Lama has partially uncloaked; an archaic gender differential as power differential; and in general, eastern wisdom meets western credulity.

    **

    Sogyal’s wealthy family connection gives him access to a high lama, Chokyi Lodro, and his presence at Lodro’s side gives him in turn the title of Tulku, which often but not always signifies the reincarnation of some previous high lama, and is always a term of respect.

    An authentically scholarly Tibetan meditation master, Dudjom Rinpoche, knows Sogyal has little to no education in the finer points of Tibetan philosophy or meditation, but considers him someone a western student might pick up some hints from — crossing the cultural divide as it were.

    Sogyal , moving to the west, is on his way.

    **

    The years pass, just being a Tibetan guru in the west is sexy in the broad sense in which Lamborghinis and orchids are sexy: scholars of religion call it charisma. And when young and impressionable women become devotees of supposed high lamas — and when there are rumors, not without foundation, of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism including tantra, or spiritual-sexual practices, feelings and expectations can get very confused.

    The main thrust of Mary and Rob’s book is to tell the rise and fall of Sogyal Lakar, his rise by that wider “sexy” quality we term charisma, his fall by discovery of the abuses of both spirituality and sex he’s inflicted on so many of his students across the years. I won’t go into the details, it’s their story to tell, and they tell it with the probing integrity of journalists as well as the sincerity of practitioners.

    **

    It has to be said that young Western women stood in line to sleep with Trungpa [“a formidably intelligent iconoclast” meditation master] and were usually eager to oblige with Sogyal. They became known as dharma groupies and sex with a Rinpoche became almost as much of a status symbol as plaster casting Mick Jagger.

    Oh, Mary can write!

    The problem was the abuse at Sogyal’s “feudal” court.

    **

    The Heart Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism teaches something often translated:

    form is emptiness, emptiness is form

    where emptiness is better understood as <em>void, and void as devoid of self-establishing nature — so that these lines might be rendered:

    Form is devoid of self-establishing nature,
    absence of self-establishing nature is form.

    **

    Sogyal — no great meditation master, it would seem — has another form of emptiness. Whatever he may have thought, he lacked that compassion which is the fruit of deep meditative practice. And so he was able to enact violence on his students.

    But we may witness that emptiness in another arena, that of scholarship.

    Early on in Sogyal’s time in the west, Dudjom Rinpoche is giving a talk to a hundred eager students, packed into a room intended for an average London family, and Sogyal is translating for him. Mary was there, sitting next to her then boyfriend John Driver, a linguist gifted in Tibetan, and noted that John was frowning. She writes:

    During the first lunch break, John steered me into a cafe down the road. He was quite angry.

    “Sogyal is not translating correctly,” he said. “Either he’s interpreting Rinpoche’s words into what he thinks is suitable for Westerners or he doesn’t understand what Dudjom is saying.”

    **

    It was a foreshadowing. Ever since Walter Evans-Wentz published an early English translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1927, the gold-embossed green cloth volume has been a choice text to set beside the Chinese I Ching in pride of place on one’s desk or shelf. Come 1992, and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying was published, updating the timeless Buddhist classic, personalizing it with some of Sogyal’s own tales, made “accurate” to some degree by the inclusion of questions and answers from distinguished Tibetan masters such as Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and the Dalai Lama together with western masters of hospice living and dying such as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross — but, but–

    As one student who was around at the time put it:

    Could anyone who knew Sogyal imagine him being able to quote the German mystical poet Rainer Maria Rilke? Or the Sufi sage, Jalaluddin Rumi?

    No, the “editor” who’d have provided those quotes, and much more of the content and form, indeed the very flowing language of the book, would have been Andrew Harvey, Oxford scholar extraordinaire and author of The Way of Passion: A Celebration of Rumi and other works.

    So much for a great book — and it was and is great, and Sogyal deserves some, though by no means all, credit for it.

    **

    To sum up:

    Sex and violence are paired in the book’s title. The problem with the sex is not that it was sex — Sogyal was no more a monk than Trungpa was, and it was often consensual. The problem was in the tirades, the humiliations, the violence, the abuse — delivered under cover of spiritual authority in violation of trust across a power and gender differential.

    The scholarship is, well, Andrew Harvey’s, and Padmasambhava’s, and Kubler Ross’.

    **

    I met Sogyal once. I asked him about the meaning of “skillful means”, and he responded “not entering or leaving a room through the wall, when there’s a door available.” He seemed pleasant enough. Trungpa Rinpoche I befriended at Oxford, and took to visit friends of mine at Prinknash Abbey near Gloucester: later he wrote that the visit had shown him the possibility of living the contemplative life in the west. He opened the first Tibetan monastery in the west shortly thereafter, Samye Ling in Scotland. And Mary is an old friend from hippie days.

    As I indicated above, Mary and Rob have a story to tell, and they can tell a story.

    Sogyal himself is no longer with us. He has entered, perhaps, the bardo, that liminal space between lives about which The Tibetan Book of the Dead — and to some extent its Sogyal reincarnation, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying — are written.

    Go, read.

    Climate change: impact on the Hajj


    The Hajj, Mecca

    **

    Since I posted my poem Mourning the lost Kaaba in late November 2017 — though not, I imagine, because of my poem — a report on the likely impact of climate change on the annual Hajj pilgrimage has come out from scientists at MIT and Loyola Marymount:

    Kang, Pal, & Eltahir, Future Heat Stress During Muslim Pilgrimage (Hajj) Projected to Exceed “Extreme Danger” Levels

    Here’s the abstract:

    The Muslim pilgrimage or Hajj, which is one of the five pillars of Muslim faith, takes place outdoors in and surrounding Mecca in the Saudi Arabian desert. The U.S. National Weather Service defines an extreme danger heat stress threshold which is approximately equivalent to a wet?bulb temperature of about 29.1 °C—a combined measure of temperature and humidity. Here, based on results of simulations using an ensemble of coupled atmosphere/ocean global climate models, we project that future climate change with and without mitigation will elevate heat stress to levels that exceed this extreme danger threshold through 2020 and during the periods of 2047 to 2052 and 2079 to 2086, with increasing frequency and intensity as the century progresses. If climate change proceeds on the current trajectory or even on a trajectory with considerable mitigation, aggressive adaptation measures will be required during years of high heat stress risk.

    **

    That’s the science — and while Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told the G20 in June that the Saudis are committed to “reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the negative effects of climate change,” beliefs concerning the Prophet’s institution of the Hajj in 632 CE following on earlier Abrahamic practice may well clash with scientific claims that the Hajj may become impossible for future devout Muslims to observe.

    What happens, then, when this divine command intersects with increasing temperatures that eventually render Mecca uninhabitable? How do the climate change scientists fare when they sit across the table from the ulema, the scholar-clergy of Islam?

    From a Muslim point of view, we’d better climate-correct, and do so fast:

    Shahin Ashraf, We must stop climate change before it makes Hajj impossible

    **

    The issue I’ve raised above is tightly focused on one sanctuary, one religion, one pilgrimage. Below are some other major pilgrimage sites to consider in light of climate change:

    I would be interested in the cross-disciplinary exploration of the impact of climate change as understood by the scientific consensus, global migration patterns now and as expected in the coming years, and the devotional rituals and ceremonials of the various religions involved.

    Large pilgrimages and religious ceremonials

    This list draws text from Wikipedia and other online information sites.

    Kumbh Mela:

    Allahabad, India, 120 million devotees, every 12 years. The Prayag Kumbh Mela is a mela held every 12 years at Allahabad, India. The fair involves ritual bathing at Triveni Sangam, the meeting points of three rivers: the Ganga, the Yamuna and the mythical Sarasvati. The Kumbh Mela in 2013 became the largest religious gathering in the world with almost 120 million visitors.

    Arba’een:

    Karbala, Iraq, 30 million pilgrims annually. The Arba’een Pilgrimage is the world’s largest annual public gathering, held every year in Karbala, Iraq at the end of the 40-day mourning period following Ashura, the religious ritual for the commemoration of martyrdom of the grandson of Prophet Mohammad and the third Shia Imam, Husayn ibn Ali’s in 680. Anticipating Arba’een, or the fortieth day of the martyrdom, the pilgrims make their journey to Karbala on foot,where Husayn and his companions were martyred and beheaded by the army of Yazid I in the Battle of Karbala. The number of participants in the annual pilgrimage reached 30 million or more by 2016.

    Papal Mass

    Philippines, 7 million adherents, occasional. Pope Francis’ apostolic and state visit to the Philippines garnered a record breaking crowd of 7 million people. The mass conducted by the pope was the largest gathering in papal history.

    Makara Jyothi

    India, 5 million pilgrims annually. This pilgrim center and temple is located amidst a dense forest in the southern region of India. It was visited by over 5 million pilgrims in 2007 for a festival known as ‘Makara Jyothi,’ occurring annually on the 14 of January. Although the Sabarimala Temple, site of the Makara Jyothi celebration) draws a crowd of 50 million visitors annually, the specific day of the miraculous celestial lighting observation gathered 5 million pilgrims in 2007.

    Bishwa Ijtema:

    Near Dhaka, Bangladesh, 5 million pilgrims annually. The Bishwa Ijtema, meaning Global Congregation, is an annual gathering of Muslims in Tongi, by the banks of the River Turag, in the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh. It is one of the largest peaceful gatherings in the world. The Ijtema is a prayer meeting spread over three days, during which attending devotees perform daily prayers while listening to scholars reciting and explaining verses from the Quran. It culminates in the Akheri Munajat, or the Final Prayer, in which millions of devotees raise their hands in front of Allah (God) and pray for world peace.The Ijtema is non-political and therefore it draws people of all persuasion. It is attended by devotees from 150 countries. Bishwa Ijtema is now the second largest Islamic gatherings with 5 million adherents

    [ this is where the Hajj, with 2.3 million pilgrims annually, fits in ]

    Umrah:

    Mecca, size unknown, year round. The ?Umrah is an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Hijaz, Saudi Arabia, performed by Muslims that can be undertaken at any time of the year, in contrast to the ?ajj which has specific dates according to the Islamic lunar calendar. It is sometimes called the ‘minor pilgrimage’ or ‘lesser pilgrimage’, the Hajj being the ‘major’ pilgrimage which is compulsory for every Muslim who can afford it. The Umrah is not compulsory but highly recommended.

    Kalachakra,:

    Various locations, 500,000 participants, variously. The Kalachakra is a term used in Vajrayana Buddhism that means “wheel(s) of time”. “K?lacakra” is one of many tantric teachings and esoteric practices in Tibetan Buddhism. It is an active Vajrayana tradition, and has been offered to large public audiences. The tradition combines myth and history, whereby actual historical events become an allegory for the spiritual drama within a person, drawing symbolic or allegorical lessons for inner transformation towards realizing buddha-nature. The Dalai Lama’s 33rd Kalachakra ceremony was held in Leh, Jammu and Kashmir, India from July 3 to July 12, 2014. About 150,000 devotees and 350,000 tourists were expected to participate in the festival. The Kalachakra has also been performed, eg, by Grand Master Lu Sheng-yen of the True Buddhs School, a Chinese Vajrayana group.

    **

    The impacts of climate change will need to be studied as they apply not only to these sites of pilgrimage, but also to holy sites in general, notably including Jerusalem, Rome, Varanasi, and Kyoto.