Mawtana Rabba and the Role of Climate Change and Plague in the Rise of Islam

Part Two:


Modern tree-ring dating techniques inform us that during the 6th century CE most of the world was enveloped in a 125-year-long mini Ice Age . It was caused by 1) eruption of an immensely powerful series of volcanoes in Ice Land during the years 536, 540 and 547, and 2) in the south west corner of Central Americas (modern el-Salvador), during the year 540, eruption of a volcano of such great power that it is counted among the top 10 most destructive volcanoes of the last 7000 years, and due to which the Maya civilization suffered a catastrophic collapse with more than 100,000 deaths.

The colossal volume of smoke released from these two volcanoes kept most of the world in a foggy darkness for many years, sun’s warmth remained distant, and average global temperature even during the summer months remained between two and twelve degrees celsius. Sixth century Roman historian Procopius wrote that “sunlight was as faint and empty of warmth as that of the moon.”

Due to this paucity of sunlight and its warmth during the sixth and early seventh centuries, most of the Middle East, Mediterranean, and Central Asia suffered a devastating series of famines, thousands emigrated from Central Asia to Middle East, Persia, Europe and India, but Arabia’s otherwise barren deserts enjoyed a historic period of high-yielding fertility.

Then in 541, a bubonic plague emerged in Egypt and spread with such swiftness that in a short while pathways from Egypt to China and the island of England began filling with dead bodies. The original culprit was a bacteria named Yersinia pestis which transmits to humans via flea carrying rats. An infected person starts to notice black or purplish buboes popping up on the skin, along with high fever, and if not treated, the person would most probably die within ten days.

During the next 200 years, between 536 and 745, Justinian plague kept recurring every ten to fifteen years. It seems from the writings of sixth century historians that the plague began in Kush (Ethiopia) and spread its trail of destruction via Egypt and Yemen to Palestine (Levant), Constantinople, and eventually, China and England. But modern genetic research reveals that Yersinia pestis first emerged in the Central asian mountain ranges of Tian Shan (heavenly/celestial mountains), also called Tengri Tagh (God/spirit mountains) in Turkic, evolved there, and possibly transmitted via trading vessels from India and Indian ocean to Africa and Egypt.

The principal sources available for studying this plague are written in four languages: primarily Syriac (the liturgical language of eastern Christianity), and then Greek, Latin, and some Arabic. Contemporary Syriac accounts named the plague “mawtana rabba.” The generic term for pestilence or epidemic disease in Syriac is mawtana, “mortality,” which corresponds to “waba” in Arabic, or sometimes simply mawta, “death.” A “great plague” is called a “mawtana rabba.” Later historians named it the Justinian Plague.

The lengthiest account on “mawtana rabba” is found in the Syriac Ecclesiastical History of the Bishop John of Ephesus. John (Youhanan in Syriac) of Ephesus was a native of Amida (modern Diyarbakr) in northern Mesopotamia (southern Turkey), and had the misfortune of traveling from Egypt to Constantinople in 541 AD. In Palestine, John wrote that he saw entire town populations wiped out. “During the tumult and intensity of the pestilence,” he wrote, “we journeyed from Syria to the capital. Day after day we, too, used to knock at the door of the grave along with everyone else. We used to think that if there would be evening, death would come upon us suddenly in the night. Although the next morning would come, we used to face the grave during the whole day as we looked at the devastated and moaning villages in these regions, and at corpses lying on the ground with no one to gather them.”

According to John, some people carried corpses all day, while others spent the day digging graves. Houses and farms were abandoned; animals forgot their domestication. “Crops of wheat in fertile fields located in all the regions through which we passed from Syria up through Thrace were white and standing but there was no one to reap them and store the wheat. Vineyards, whose picking season came and went, shed their leaves, since winter was severe, but kept their fruits hanging on their vines, and there was no one to pick them or press them.” In his Lives of the Eastern Saints, John reported on one monastery that buried eighty-four of its members who had died of the plague. He writes that in Constantinople, more than 10,000 were dying each day, and when the number exceeded 230,000 the administrators stopped counting.

Other Syriac writings contain details of later outbreaks in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, including the Chronicle of Zuqnın, whose monastic author, in recounting the epidemic of 743–745 under Umayyads, specified that the victims had swellings in the groin, the armpit, or the neck. The Zuqnın Chronicle records a pestilence (mawtana) that broke out in Mesopotamia in during 546 and 547 CE, and a great pestilence (mawtana rabba) that broke out at Amida in during 557–558 CE, where 35,000 people died within three months.

The principal Greek source is the work of the historian Procopius of Caesarea, who was present at the court of Justinian in Constantinople in the early 540s. In his Persian War, Procopius wrote, “there was a pestilence by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated. . . . It started among the Egyptians. Then it moved to Palestine and from there spread over the whole world. . . . In the second year it reached Byzantium in the middle of the spring.” He says that for the majority of those struck, fever was the first sign, then developed after a few days a bubonic swelling, either in the groin, in the armpit, or beside the ears. He reports that the mortality rose alarmingly, eventually reaching more than ten thousand each day. Procopius also mentions that the emperor himself was taken ill. Justinian, however, recovered and reigned for two more decades.

The lawyer Agathias undertook to continue the history of Procopius. He wrote that after 544 when plague ceased in Constantinople, it had never really stopped but simply moved on from place to place, until it returned to the city almost as though it had been cheated on the first occasion into a needlessly hasty departure. This was the spring of 558, when “a second outbreak of plague swept the capital, destroying a vast number of people.” The form the epidemic took was not unlike that of the earlier outbreak. A swelling in the glands in the groin was accompanied by a high fever that raged night and day with unabated intensity and never left its victim until the moment of death.

In churches, temples, roads, and caravanserais people would often drop dead. Many died while hoisting the dead bodies of their loved ones. One Nestorian priest from Basra wrote that a seemingly healthy man strolling in front of him suddenly opened his mouth wide, winced as if a knife had ripped him, and then dropped dead. John of Ephesus painted such haunting images in his account as if narrating a zombie movie: healthy people in streets swirling down as if dazed and died, their bellies stretched beyond human limits, mouths wide open, lifeless eyes staring at howling winds, hands reaching out as if clasping their souls back, and then their bellies would rip, spilling pus mixed with blood which would run down the streets as if water. Women quarters filled with bodies, their mouths open, and bellies stretched wide. An unbearable stench tyrannizing entire cities.

From the North African city of Carthage, we have testimony of the Latin poet Corippus. In 549 he recited at Carthage his epic poem, the Johannis, on the recently concluded war between the Byzantine army and Berber tribes. In the midst of the war a terrible pestilence arrived by sea. Death was so widespread, he reports, that people became desensitized to it, no longer shedding tears even for their loved ones or observing those rites traditionally due the deceased. Social breakdown was further evident in the scramble among survivors to take possession of the properties and belongings of the victims. Wealthy widows were more sought after than young maidens. References to a later plague epidemic in North Africa, in 599 and 600, are found in the correspondence of Pope Gregory the Great.

Modern historians advise caution in accepting these accounts and numbers prima facie, and it’s true that often medieval authors gave high numbers only to signify the intensity of an event. But what’s undeniable is that almost all of these chronicles share same tale of horrors, of symptoms and signs, of periodic waves, that had devastated their home towns. The contemporary narrative sources available to the historian, be they from East or West, written in Latin, Greek, Syriac, or Arabic, speak with one voice in describing the plague as having had a major demographic impact on communities, urban and rural alike. 

Not unlike most modern maladies, “mawtana rabba” too first descended upon the impoverished neighborhoods of a city, and then advanced to the palatial elites. And somewhat like the modern world, all sorts of rumors on its possible causes started to spread before the plague’s actual descent. The rumor among Palestinians was that dark headless men holding long copper rods were visiting the cities from the ocean every night in glistening copper boats. In Constantinople, people started acting on the odd rumor that if plates and pots made with clay were to be thrown on the ground from the top most windows of the house, the plague will flee. First the men and women of one neighborhood began throwing down their dishes, then second, and third, and for three days nobody was to be seen at the city streets because all were busy slinging their dishes down. And when that didn’t work, people started acting on another rumor that the angel of plague approaches them in the form of a priest or monk, and they started yelling at priests and monks to leave them alone, that they still have time left in this world. When leaving their homes, people would hang tags with their names and addresses on their necks.

Even those who managed to recover suffered intense fatigue for years, buboes emerging and popping, spilling pus down their bodies, not a single strand of hair left on their heads. It became hard to distinguish a monk from a commoner.

Usually plague-ridden dead bodies were buried in mass graves outside the city gates, or they’d be collected in large stacks and tossed via boats into oceans. As the numbers of dead escalated, cities further dipped into chaos, and people began abandoning the traditional religious rites offered for their dead. When no one was left to sink or bury the dead, the emperor Justinian ordered his ministers to invite the tribes inhabiting the mountains, and offer them as much gold as they might want but to do this godawful job. According to his minister Theodore, these tribals first stamped down on these bodies and then bundled them together, then they buried them inside giant pits dug outside the city.

The volume of trade and of production declined generally in the mid-sixth century. In some places, new housing ceased. The coastal cities (the greatest centers of wealth) were hit first and hardest, and perhaps their weaknesses rippled through the Mediterranean lands. Both Kulikowski (in Visigothic Spain) and Peter Sarris (in Byzantine lands) have detected attempts to tie increasingly scarce labor to land, attempts especially notable in a time of legal and economic turmoil.

In his edict, Justinian complains of how, in the wake of the plague, tradesmen, artisans, and agricultural workers had given themselves over to avarice and were demanding twice or even three times the prices and wages that had hitherto been the norm. The emperor decreed that those responsible for issuing wages and stipends to building workers, agricultural workers, or any other group of workers were not to credit them with anything more than their customary remuneration. Likewise, Banaji’s statistical analysis of Egyptian land-leases recorded among the papyri would appear to record a marked improvement in the security of tenure enjoyed by lessees from the middle of the sixth century onward. From the first half of the sixth century to the second, the proportion of leases of indefinite duration increased from 17.2% to 39.4%. The proportion of leases of only one year’s duration declined over the same period from 29.3% to 9.1%

That the plague visited Yemen appears to be corroborated by the inscription of Abraha on the dam at Ma’rib dated 543 CE, which refers to death and sickness striking the community at Ma’rib; the dam was repaired when the fatal epidemic had passed. This outbreak of bubonic plague lasted longer in the east. At the end of his account of the three years of plague, John of Ephesus remarks that “these same calamities still persist in the eastern territories and are not over.” The pre-Islamic Arab poet Hassan Ibn Thabit records the pestilence, described as “the stinging of the jinn,” devastating the rural population of the empire’s eastern fringes. It appears to have reached China by the early seventh century.

“Mawtana Rabba” kept returning in waves for more than 200 years. The Syrian Christian priest Evagrius wrote that during the last decade of 6th century “in a total of 210 years from 541 to 750, there were about eighteen outbreaks of the plague.” This amounts to an average of one outbreak about every 11.6 years. This seems to apply to the first six plague waves for which we can compute the inter-epidemic intervals for Constantinople. These range approximately from eleven to seventeen years, with an average of 14.2 years, a fact corroborated by Evagrius, who records that the plague seemingly broke out during the first or the second year of the indiction cycle, indicating a periodicity of roughly fifteen years. From the thirteenth to the eighteenth wave, Syria was reportedly hit on all six waves, with inter-epidemic periods ranging from five to nine years and an average of 6.6 years.

Not unlike our times, people in sixth century reached for all kinds of explanations. We know, via archeology, that there was a spike in construction of new churches and monasteries. On the other hand, according to John of Ephesus, some Egyptian and Palestinian towns returned to worshipping their idols. As the plague was ravaging Egypt and Alexandria in September 541, crowds in Constantinople gathered round a woman who had gone into ecstasy and was claiming that in three days time the sea would rise and swallow everything. Agathias narrates case that occurred in Constantinople in 557 when the city had been visited by a devastating earthquake. Some individuals claiming to be prophets or possessed by demons began announcing that even worse catastrophes were imminent. These are some of the many testimonies that bear witness to the eschatological climate that must have been dominant at the time. Historian Procopius wrote from Constantinople that, “a plague of such deadly nature has spread from Egypt and Palestine to the rest of the world that it seems the end times are imminent.” 

The plague was perceived in both a religious and a rational way. According to the religious approach, plagues were an expression of divine retribution or punishment, and the result of human sins, either individual or collective, and that it announces the end times. This was a notion central to both popular Greek and Jewish thought. Although in the New Testament, Christ does not present disease as a necessary result of sin, the Christian interpretation of disease established and stressed exactly this relation. In Byzantine texts dealing with the plague, this was the dominant opinion. Collective sin of people bringing about the just divine wrath in the form of the plague. In two polemical instances, this transgression is not presented as collective, but as individual: Justinian, termed “lord of demons” in Procopius’ Anecdota, is made solely responsible for the plague, as is the iconoclastic Emperor Constantine V by iconophile authors.

Youhanan Bar Penkaye wrote that this collective onset of famines, earthquakes, and plagues is an irrefutable sign of end times. Procopius wrote that there could not be an earthly or natural explanation of this plague, it must have been sent directly from God almighty himself. John of Ephesus wrote that an angel whose duty is to dissociate humans from worldly desires and to guide them on a spiritual path towards God is responsible for this plague, that in his eyes this plague is a lash of mercy from God, and an opportunity to plead God for forgiveness. On the other hand, according to the Greek priest Zachariah, this plague was directly from Satan who was left on a leash by the God so that he could punish people for their sins.

Contrary to this divine aetiology, a rational interpretation of disease had been first established almost a thousand years ago by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates: “I do not believe that the ‘Sacred Disease’ is any more divine or sacred than any other disease, but on the contrary, has specific characteristics and a definite cause.” According to him, epidemic diseases were defined as follows: “When a large number of people all catch the same disease at the same time, the cause must be ascribed to something common to all and which they all use; in other words to what they all breathe.” This definition was later adopted by the other great medical personality of Antiquity, Galen, and retained its authority throughout the Middle Ages in both Islamic and Christian world. The malignant air responsible for these outbreaks was called miasma.

Even more remarkable in this respect is Anastasius of Sinai’s Questions and Answers, a work written at the very end of the seventh century. Question 114 addresses the topic whether it is possible to escape the plague by fleeing to another location. Anastasius answers with a piece on the origin of plagues. They either break out as a result of divine chastisement or because of corrupt air, vapors, pollution, and stench. In the first case, they cannot be escaped, but in the second, with God’s will, flight to a location with healthier air will often help avoid death. This is Anastasius’ effort to offer a compromise between “Hellenistic rationalism and Christian views on direct divine intervention,” between a “pre-Christian medical and physiological tradition” and the Judeo-Christian model of disease as “chastisement from heaven . . . designed to drive out the evils afflicting the body politic.”

To what extent was this series of plagues, famines, and the little Ice Age responsible for the destruction of the Roman and Persian empires and the emergence of Islam?

Historian Peter Sarris writes in his excellent book Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam that “a diminution in tax revenues caused by the demographic impact of bubonic plague and aristocratic tax evasion appears to have occasioned mounting difficulties in paying the army. It is in this context that we should understand the attempted reduction in military pay proposed by the Emperor Maurice in 588.” (In 588 the garrison at the important frontier city of Martyropolis simply handed it over to the Persians, declaring that they ‘would not be ruled over by a shopkeeper.’ That same year, much of the imperial field army, stationed at Monocarton near Edessa, rose up in rebellion against the Emperor Maurice’s proposed 25 per cent reduction in military pay.)

He notes, “Failure to pay the army adequately or on time, however, tended to lead to desertion, defection, or revolt, as most vividly revealed by the Eastern field army’s response to Maurice’s attempted cuts. Moreover, at some point in the late sixth century, it appears to have become common for the cash component of the stipend issued to garrison troops to be paid in copper rather than gold. Consequently, the collapse in the purchasing power of the copper follis from the reign of Justin II onwards is likely to have had ever more pronounced implications for the loyalty and morale of the military rank and file, as well as of the civilian population of the empire.”

Eventually, Rome under the astute leadership of Heraclius managed to defeat Persia, but, according to professor Sarris, “The Eastern Roman Empire was thus restored territorially, but it was a shadow of its former self. The imperial concentration on the East had necessarily led to a further weakening of its position in the Balkans … Many of the cities of Anatolia and Asia Minor had been ransacked by the armies of the shah or exhausted by the fiscal demands of Heraclius’ war effort. In Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, the reassertion of imperial control at this point must have been largely nominal.”

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In Part three, Mawtana Rabba in Persia, more on the 6th century war between Rome and Persia, and the five waves of plagues under Umayyads.

Part 1: https://www.brownpundits.com/2021/10/09/the-plagues-of-justinian-and-amwas-the-200-years-long-series-of-plagues-and-pestilence-and-the-conquest-of-muslims-over-rome-and-persia/

Bibliography:

History of al-Tabari: The Conquest of Iraq, SouthWestern Persia, and Egypt Vol XIII (Trans. Gautier H. A. Juynboll)

Arabic Plague Chronologies and Treatises Social and Historical Factors in the Formation of a Literary Genre, Lawrence I. Conrad

TA ‘UN AND W’ABA: Conceptions of Plague and Pestilence in Early Islam, Lawrence I. Conrad

The Comparative Communal Responses to the Black Death in Muslim and Christian Societies by Michael W. Dols

Epidemic disease in central Syria in the late sixth century: Some new insights from the verse of Hassān ibn Thābit, Lawrence I. Conrad

Abraha and Muḥammad: Some Observations Apropos of Chronology and Literary “topoi” in the Early Arabic Historical Tradition, Lawrence I. Conrad

Life and Afterlife of the First Plague Pandemic, Lester K. Little

Historians and Epidemics: Simple Questions, Complex Answers, Jo N. Hays

‘For Whom Does the Writer Write?’: The First Bubonic Plague Pandemic According to Syriac Sources, Michael G. Morony

Justinianic Plague in Syria and the Archaeological Evidence, Hugh N. Kennedy

Crime and Punishment: The Plague in the Byzantine Empire, 541–749, Dionysios Stathakopoulos

Bubonic Plague in Byzantium: The Evidence of Non-Literary Sources, Peter Sarris

Procopius and the Sixth Century, Averil Cameron

When Numbers Don’t Count: Changing Perspectives on the Justinianic Plague, Monica H. Green

Rejecting Catastrophe: The Case of the Justinianic Plague, Lee Mordechai, Merle Eisenberg

Ancient Yersinia pestis genomes from across Western Europe reveal early diversification during the First Pandemic (541–750), Marcel Keller and others

The Political and Social Role of Khurasan under Abbasid Rule 747-820, Elton L. Daniel

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 Sintashta horses!

The origins and spread of domestic horses from the Western Eurasian steppes:

Domestication of horses fundamentally transformed long-range mobility and warfare1. However, modern domesticated breeds do not descend from the earliest domestic horse lineage associated with archaeological evidence of bridling, milking and corralling…at Botai, Central Asia around 3500 BC3. Other longstanding candidate regions for horse domestication, such as Iberia5 and Anatolia6, have also recently been challenged. Thus, the genetic, geographic and temporal origins of modern domestic horses have remained unknown. Here we pinpoint the Western Eurasian steppes, especially the lower Volga-Don region, as the homeland of modern domestic horses. Furthermore, we map the population changes accompanying domestication from 273 ancient horse genomes. This reveals that modern domestic horses ultimately replaced almost all other local populations as they expanded rapidly across Eurasia from about 2000 BC, synchronously with equestrian material culture, including Sintashta spoke-wheeled chariots. We find that equestrianism involved strong selection for critical locomotor and behavioural adaptations at the GSDMC and ZFPM1 genes. Our results reject the commonly held association7 between horseback riding and the massive expansion of Yamnaya steppe pastoralists into Europe around 3000 BC driving the spread of Indo-European languages. This contrasts with the scenario in Asia where Indo-Iranian languages, chariots and horses spread together, following the early second millennium BC Sintashta culture.

The paper is open access. Basically the Sintashta seem to have triggered the equine revolution across Eurasia.

Onward on the steppe!


After a long delay, I’ve dropped part 4 of my continuing series on the Eurasian steppe and its history (I am currently planning on going down to the 13th century AD…so this should take me into 2022 since I’ve barely made it beyond 2000 BC as of now). The next installment is planned to be on the early Indo-Iranians and their connection to the Fatyanovo–Balanovo culture, and subsequent expansion in the Andronovo expansion (this will compliment my two pieces on India from last January).

Lakshmi


I’m spending a lot of time reading about the Corded Ware for my series on the steppe. The Corded Ware is a culture that appeared that abruptly in Northern Europe between 2900 and 2800 BC, covering a vast territory of Central and Eastern Europe in a century. The name derives from the unique marks left on their pottery.

For decades scholars have argued whether they were an indigenous development out of the farmers who occupied this region for thousands of years, or whether there was a mass migration out of the steppe. More realistically, there was a synthetic position between at some point. Perhaps the farmers were influenced by a few elite bands migrating out of the steppe?

Today due to ancient DNA we know more. The Corded Ware culture in its mature phase is about 70% Yamnaya and 30% farmer. The farmer’s ancestry almost certainly comes exclusively through women. The Y chromosomes of the farmers were G2. There is very little of that within a few generations. It is almost all R1a.

But that leaves us with the question: where did the new pots come from? The answer is straightforward: the men from the steppe took wives from the farmers. They killed their fathers and brothers and took them to their homesteads to bear them children. These women knew how to make pots because they did not come from nomadic backgrounds. They adapted their techniques to making pots that exhibited marks that made them resemble the baskets that their husbands brought in their wagons.

The miracle of the immediate emergence of a new pottery technique is due to the fact that the nomads didn’t learn to work in clay. Their wives already had the skill.

Why is this posted on this weblog? That’s a question that does have an answer…

Multiple hearths of agriculture in ancient South Asia

Patrick Wyman’s Tides of History podcast is tackling South Asia and prehistory. He wrote up a Substack for it too, Ancient South Asia – Farming and People in India and Pakistan. I agree with Patrick here, though my confidence is low:

…It seems unlikely that a group living 1400 miles to the east would have chosen precisely the same suite of domesticated plants and animals as their related brethren in the Fertile Crescent. It’s intriguing that a fourth distinct group, as yet unsampled by geneticists, might have been living in the Fertile Crescent alongside their relatives 10,000 years ago or more. But the most likely, in my opinion, is that the group ancestral to later South Asians was living somewhere between the Indus Valley and the Zagros, perhaps on the Iranian Plateau: close enough to adopt some pieces of the Fertile Crescent farming package, close enough to head a short distance east, through the Bolan Pass, and into South Asia.

My confidence in this part is higher:

Yet they were not alone in South Asia, nor were they the only ones engaged in farming. Further to the east, along the Ganges River, the indigenous foragers were also experimenting with plant cultivation. In fact, there were no fewer than five places in South Asia where we see evidence of independent plant domestication. Mung bean, urd bean, horsegram, several varieties of millet, and rice were all cultivated extensively. These crops had the benefit of being able to grow during the summer monsoon season. South Asia was actually home to multiple Neolithics of its own.

In Southeast Asia and Europe, the hunter-gatherer populations contributed 20% or less to the ancestry of modern groups, who descend mostly from farmers and pastoralists. In South Asia the “Ancient Ancestral South Indian” (AASI) ancestry is ~50%. What’s the difference? I think the likelihood is that AASI populations were moving toward agriculture is a likely reason why they were much more demographically robust and impactful.

How the BJP Became the Bahujan Janata Party

Much of the ire of Indian elites and those left of the Indian political center simply boils down to one thing – the poor and lower-castes aren’t voting the way they want them to. Over decades, an assorted motley crew of political parties has taken the votes of India’s subalterns for granted. Through sops and social engineering, a steady support was built over the years. If you are of X caste, you must vote for Y party. And don’t ask why.

Yet, a party that venerates the idols of old has now become an iconoclast breaking the idea of voting one’s caste rather than casting one’s vote. The BJP, for years known as a “Brahmin-Baniya” party reserved for the privileged and so-called upper-castes, has shattered traditional caste calculus and come up with a new formula making established Indian political equations void. Today’s BJP is one that has been given a brute mandate by India’s Bahujans (the so-called lower-castes of India) along with its old upper-caste base. A united Hindu vote is beginning to coalesce, something that is sending shivers along the spines of the BJP’s political opponents.

But to truly understand the magnitude of these ramifications, we must peer into the past and understand the tradition of caste to grasp the revolution we are witnessing today.

Continue reading How the BJP Became the Bahujan Janata Party