Book Review: Rig Veda

How many fires are there, how many suns?

How many dawns? How many waters?

I ask this, O fathers, not to challenge. I ask it to know

(Rig Veda Book 10, hymn 88)

Full Disclosure: I have not actually read the entire Rig Veda; all I did was read multiple hymns in each of the 10 books of the Rig Veda. 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: Rig Veda”

0

The Civilizational Unity of India

This article (excepts at end of this post) is a good summary of the (relatively reasonable Hindutvadi) arguments for regarding India as one civilizational and cultural whole (at least in historical time). i.e. you don’t have to share the author’s Hindutvadi beliefs to accept a lot of his arguments for the civilizational and cultural unity of India.
Of course, nation states may come and go and even civilizational boundaries can and do change; Tunisia and Libya used to be pretty Roman and now they are pretty Arab. Shit happens. One would not be likely to lose much money betting on Xinjiang being very Chinese for centuries to come. Han migration alone will take care of that. But still, there is a civilizational and cultural unity of India and that is not such a bad basis for a nation-state… It is certainly better than many other UN member nations have these days (hint hint..)

By the way, you will notice that even “soft Hindutvadis” with relatively rational arguments continue to have serious difficulty with the Indo-European invasion/migration into India. Come on dude, man up, own your frigging warlike ancestors 😉

.
By the way, he could have said more about Indian contributions to Arab, Persian and Central Asian civilizations (while acknowledging vice versa).
Excerpts:
….
These ideas of our unity have permeated all our diverse darshanas. We have talked aboutBhakti and Vedanta and the epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. But this idea of unity was not limited to particular schools. They were equally present in the tantric schools that exerted a tremendous influence on popular worship. Thus we have the legend of Shakti, whose body was carried by Shiva and cut up by Vishnu, landing in 51 places throughout the landmass of India that are now the site of the Shakti Peetham temples. The body of Shakti, or so the story goes, fell all the way from Neelayadakshi Kovil in Tamil Nadu to Vaishno Devi in Jammu, from Pavagadh in Gujarat to the Kamakshi temple in Assam and 47 other places.
 
Why would the story conceive of these pieces of Shakti sanctifying and falling precisely all over the landmass of India, rather than all of them falling in Tamil Nadu or Assam or Himachal (or alternately, Yunan (Greece) or China, or some supposed `Aryan homeland’ in Central Asia) unless someone had a conception of the unity of the land and civilization of Bharatavarsha? Whether these stories are actual or symbolic, represent real events or myths, it is clear from them that the idea of India existed in the minds of those that told these stories and those that listened. Together, all these stories wove and bound us together, along with migration, marriages and exchange of ideas into a culture unique in the story of mankind. A nation that was uniquely bound together in myriads of ways, yet not cast into a mono-conceptual homogeneity of language, worship, belief or practice by the diktat of a centralized church, intolerant of diversity.
 
And this unity as nation has been with us far before the idea of America existed. Far before the Franks had moved into northern France and the Visigoths into Spain, before the Christian Church was established and Islam was born. They have been there before Great Britain existed, before the Saxons had moved into Britannia. They have been there while empires have fallen, from when Rome was a tiny village to when it ruled an empire that rose and collapsed.
 
Thus the Arabs and Persians already had a conception of Hind far before the Mughal Empire was established. If we suggest that their conception of Hind was derived only from their contact with Sindh in western India, why would the British, when they landed in Bengal, form the EastIndia Company, unless the conception of the land of India (a term derived from the original Hind) was shared by the natives and the British? They used this name much before they had managed to politically hold sway over much of India, and before they educated us that no India existed before their arrival. Why would the Portuguese celebrate the discovery of a sea-route to India when Vasco de Gama had landed in Calicut in the south, if India was a creation of the British Empire?
 
The answer is obvious. Because the conception of India, a civilization based in the Indian sub-continent, predates the rise and fall of these empires. True, that large parts of India were under unified political rule only during certain periods of time (though these several hundreds of years are still enormous by the scale of existence of most other countries throughout the globe) such as under the Mauryas or the Mughals. But those facts serve to hide rather than reveal the truth till we understand the history of the rest of the world and realize the historic social, political and religious unity of this land. We are not merely a country; we are a civilizational country, among very few other countries on the planet.



…o there we have it. India is one of the few nations of the world with a continuity of civilization and an ancient conception of nationhood. In its religious, civilizational, cultural and linguistic continuity, it truly stands alone. This continuity was fostered by its unique geography and its resilient religious traditions. Unlike any other country on the planet, it retained these traditions despite both Islamic and Christian conquest, when most countries lost theirs and were completely converted when losing to even one of these crusading systems. The Persians fell, the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Babylon were lost, the Celtic religion largely vanished, and the mighty Aztecs were vanquished, destroyed and completely Christianized. Yet Bharata stands. It stands in our stories, our languages, our pluralism and our unity. And as long as we remember these stories, keep our languages and worship the sacred land of our ancestors, Bharata will stand. It is only if we forget these truths that Bharata will cease to be. That is precisely why the British tried to hard to make us forget them.


….
You are excluding Islamic contributions and Indian Muslims from your definition


This essay is about finding the historic roots of the Indian civilization and defining who we are as people and as a nation. We have had many migrants and invaders. While Islam has contributed to the Indian civilization, our roots are much older than when Prophet Mohammad first appeared in Arabia in the 6th century AD, so our civilization cannot be defined by Islam. Alexander the Greek came to our shores, so did the Kushans and Mongols and Persians and Turks. All of them added their contributions to our civilization as we did to theirs. The Mughal Empire helped in our political re-unification. But none of them define who we are.


We had the great Chinese civilization towards the north and the Persian civilization towards our west. Each of them influenced us as we influenced them. But because the Chinese came under Buddhist influence from India does not mean that they cease to be the Chinese civilization, an entity with a distinct cultural flavor and history from India.


Similarly, the Persians and the Turks came in many waves and contributed to Indian culture, even as we did to theirs. This does not mean that our civilization suddenly became Persian or Turkish. Some of these people settled in India, some of them brought a new religion called Islam and converted some of the existing people. All those who ultimately accept India as their homeland are accepted as Indians, for we have been a welcoming land. It would be a strange case indeed if conversion to Islam led people to deny the roots of their civilization. Do the Persians cease to be Persians, now that they are Muslims?


Islam does not define nationhood. If it did, the entire region from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan would be one country. Iran and Iraq would be one large Islamic country, rather than separate entities based on Persian and Babylonian civilizational roots. Indonesia and Malaysia would be one country.


Thus the civilizational roots of India belong to all Indians, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Indonesian Muslims don’t trace their civilizational roots from Arabia, but from the Indonesian culture developed over the centuries. As Saeed Naqvi writes, the Ramayana ballet is performed in Indonesia by “150 namaz-saying Muslims under the shadow of Yog Jakarta’s magnificent temples for the past 27 years without a break” — Indonesians can apparently celebrate their civilizational roots without conflict of their being Muslims. There is no reason that Muslim Indians feel any differently unless led by the creation of fear or sustained demagoguery to believe otherwise.

0

Aqlima. Daughter of Adam

A translation (by Ruchira Paul) of Pakistani Feminist poet Fahmida Riaz’s poem Aqlima (daughter of Adam and Eve)

Audio in the poet’s own voice. (mislabeled as another poem).


Aklima
jo Habil aur Kabil ki maa jaani hai
maa jaani,
magar muqtalif
muqtalif beech raano ke
aur pistanon ki ubhaar mein
aur apne pait ke andar
aur kokh mein
is sab ki kismet kyun hai
ek farba bher ke bachche ki qurbani
woh apne badan ki qaidi
taptee hui dhoop mein jalte
teele par khadi hui hai
patthar par naksh banee hai
us naksh ko ghaur se dekho
lambee raano se upar
ubharte pistanon se upar
paicheeda kokh se upar
Aklima ka sar bhi hai
Allah kabhi Aklima se qalam karain
aur kuchh puchhain.

(Translation)
Aqlima..
Born of the same mother as Abel and Cain
Born of the same mother but different
Different between her thighs
Different in the swell of her breasts
Different inside her stomach
And her womb too
Why is the fate of her body
Like that of a well fed sacrificial lamb
She, a prisoner of that body
See her standing in the scorching sun on a smoldering hill
Casting a shadow that burns itself into the stones
Look at that shadow closely
Above the long thighs
Above the swelling breasts
Above the coils in her womb
Aklima also has a head
Let Allah have a conversation with Aklima
And ask her a few questions.
(Aklima was the lesser known offspring of Adam and Eve, the sister or Cain and Abel)

0

Killing Atheists. A Wedge Issue in Bangladesh

Yet another Bangladeshi blogger has been hacked to death. This is the third time in just the last two months that someone has been hacked to death in BD for being an “atheist blogger”.

The victims:
1. Ananta Bijoy Das

2. Avijit Roy

3. Washiqur Rahman

Two born Hindu, one Muslim, all three known to be associated with Bangladeshi rationalism and “freethought” and in particular with the freethought blog “Mukto-Mona”. 

Someone with more local knowledge can comment about them and add their tributes. I wanted to focus on a more general issue: Why kill these bloggers? As Bond noted, the first time is happenstance, the second time coincidence, but the third time, it’s enemy action. This is not just some random Muslim fanatic getting riled up and going to earn his virgins. This is a systematic campaign…and it makes a lot of sense. These killings are a near-perfect “wedge issue” for Bangladeshi Islamists. How does that work?

1. Bangladesh is a relatively liberal Islamic country. There is a significant Hindu minority (though it shrank somewhat at partition and then again, drastically, during the anti-Hindu genocide of 1971) and thanks to strong traditions of secular Bengali nationalism and old-fashioned (i.e. not Post-Marxist Western elite and University imported) Left wing activism, there is a significant Muslim Bengali secular tradition. Another factor is the fact that when the Awami League led the Bangladesh liberation movement against West Pakistan, the West Pakistani army was supported by the main Islamist party and its cadres provided the volunteers who were their eyes and ears (and in many cases, their eager executioners).
After independence, as a “right-wing” Bangladeshi political grouping developed with military (and Pakistani, Saudi and possibly CIA) assistance, it was provided crucial support by the Islamists and in return their successive regimes provided assistance to the Islamists and protected them against prosecution for war crimes. At the height of the honeymoon between Islamists, the Pakistani intelligence agencies, Saudi Arabia and the CIA, this right-of-center alternative (first as military rule, then as the BNP) established itself firmly as one half (and for much of that time, the dominant half) of Bangladeshi politics. Since then, things have changed. Saudi Arabia is now somewhat conflicted about the Islamists and at a minimum, distinguishes between “good Islamists” (who behave themselves and support the royal family) and “bad Islamists” (who prefer to go the whole hog and aim to replace the royal family with a more authentic Islamist alternative). Pakistan and the CIA are no longer BFFs (though wary cooperation and buying and selling continues). And Western powers are not entirely happy with Islamism. As a result, the playing field in BD seems to have tilted towards the Awami League and towards relatively secular Bangladeshi nationalism. In the nature of things, the BNP or some such will still be needed to provide the other half of a stable two-party electoral system, but their Islamist allies are under some pressure. There is even the possibility that the BNP will have to carry on without hardcore Islamist cadres being sheltered under its umbrella and will have to (perhaps as an “India-skeptic” critic), go along to some extent with a new “India-friendly” regional order.
2. But there is another alternative. Is there some way the Islamists can recover and even win new heights they did not possess even under BNP regimes in the past?
3. Some of them, and perhaps some of their backers in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (in Saudia, more in the private sector than in the government? who knows) seem to think so. And they are using these killings as a wedge issue.
4. By going after atheist bloggers (many or most of them Hindus), they have found a near perfect wedge issue. The Hasina government is not happy with these blasphemers being killed, and unlike in Pakistan, the regime seems to have made some arrests. But if they take a very public stand against these killings and aggressively protect the rights of these free-thinkers, then they stand with atheists and blasphemers and risk losing the support of “moderate Muslims” who don’t go in for machete-wielding execution, but whose core beliefs include the belief that atheism and apostasy cannot be tolerated….But if the Hasina government lets this go on, then they permit the Islamists to grab the initiative and drive away atheists, secularists and Hindus…all of whom are more or less her voters and supporters (and whose friends and supporters are also the “intellectuals” of the Awami League regime). At a minimum, it is an uncomfortable position for the regime.
5. Moderate Muslims may condemn free-lance executions, but such executions also bring to light the existence of atheists, Hindus and blasphemers in what is, after all, a Muslim majority country. For the moderate Muslim the best thing would be for this conversation to just go away. The longer it goes on, the more they have to commit to options they don’t like: should they come down in favor of Hindus, atheists and blasphemers (not necessarily in that order, but all these items are uncomfortably connected in mukto-mona)? Or, when push comes to machete-shove, do they stay silent and “understand” that the blasphemers have sorely provoked their Muslim executioners? whatever they decide, the discomfort is a net plus for the Islamists. They are betting on the fact that by making this an “Islam versus atheism/Hinduism” issue they make it hard for moderate Muslims to chose atheism and Hinduism over Islam.
6. With the penetration of bullshit-postmarxism into the Bengali elite increasing as their access to expensive Western education increases, the “high-end secularists” can be split too. “Black and White” division of the world between Islamists and anti-Islamists is anathema to postmodern-postmarxism. They too would prefer to opt out of this “complex and nuanced” issue. Their discomfort is an added bonus to the Islamist cause (of relatively little practical importance, but these people have some visibility in high-end intellectual circles, so their discomfort doesn’t hurt either).

Can Bangladeshi secularism (meaning in practice, the Awami League regime, there being no other secular alternative on the horizon) defeat this rather well-chosen point of attack? Maybe they can (in which case the Islamists will have gambled and lost and the secular cause will emerge stronger than before). But it is a big if…If they lose, Bangladesh is in play again as a possible Islamist base in Eastern India. The Islamists know what they are up to…

0