Our history is serious and not a game

Some of you are probably not amused by the jokes I try to make about AIT and Lord Indra. I hope it’s pretty clear I’m not serious about all of this…it’s just that people take these issues so seriously.

I’ve changed my mind on the “peopling of India” question several times since I began to take a genetic interest in the topic around the year 2000. That’s because the genetic and archaeogenetic technology and data has gotten better and better with every passing year. We can answer questions with power and precision that we couldn’t even imagine asking a few years ago.

Some of you are asking questions that are already answered in the supplements of the Narasimhan paper. From page 260:

With respect to South Asia, our key finding is that people with ancestry like the Kushan individuals can be excluded as important sources of the Steppe pastoralist-related ancestry that is widespread in South Asia today. In particular, the East Asian-related admixture (via Steppe_LBA ancestors) that characterized the Kushan individuals is nearly absent in South Asia. We formally confirmed this inference through qpAdm modeling that excludes the Kushan individuals, as well as nearly all the other Iron Age and historical period individuals from other cultural contexts that were published in two recent studies (29, 30) as plausible sources for the Steppe pastoralist-related ancestry in South Asia (Fig S 50).

Though culturally and historically significant, like the Muslims, the earlier steppe people that are prominent in Indian history don’t seem to have made a major genetic impact.

The question has been answered. And that’s good.

In the comments below some readers are asking about whether arguments have been won. Knowledge and science proceed through argument. But let me be clear here: I am not invested in a particular outcome, I am haunted by the possibility that we can know the truth of things. As a child, I was fascinated by history, but I always knew that I was going to go into science, because science progresses, while history circles in argumentation. What ancient DNA has done has been to illuminate the darkness of the demographic past. This is not the totality of human history, but it serves to provide a critical and precise scaffold on the questions we ask and the answers we come to.

The American Academy is so ideologically blinkered and biased that I am not going to throw stones any longer when I see people in other nations engaging in this sort of behavior. This is the world we live in. Knowledge is not furthered through institutions in anything more than a proximal manner. The results, the data, are out there. We need to grasp them and interpret them for ourselves. The truth is ours. If we choose to take it.

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This is your independence day!


Twitter tells me that this is India’s independence day. Since I didn’t know that this was the case until this morning, I obviously have nothing deep to say. Except let me enjoin the people of India and its leadership class to one thing: do not be haunted by the past, look to the future.

The 2004 film Troy emerged in the wake of the sword & sandals boomlet triggered by Gladiator. It won’t be remembered for much longer, but there is a speech that Brad Pitt’s Achilles make to his soldiers. He tells them that immortality is there for the taking, but they need to grasp it.

Though there are clearly broad forces of history at work in which individuals, and even nations, swim, there is still agency. The world is what we make of it within the boundaries of reason. We must all grasp our agency, and shake off the dead weight of the past at some point…

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They’ll protest more the more they are wrong


A friend seny me the above clip. Some comments:

* The affect, style, and mannerism is very familiar to me. It reminds me of Muslim and Christian Creationist public speakers, who exhibit an air and manner of incredible confidence to audiences who want what they have on offer. Validation. Confirmation.

* The citations of the scholarly literature indicate that the theories of are based on some provisional work…but notice the shift from provisionality to refutation and vindication in the presentation. Just because it is in peer-reviewed journals does not mean it is true.

* Civilization comes from India is the conclusion. The above speaker is sophisticated and intelligent, but the ultimate rub is the same as Indocentric fabulists of the past.

In the past few years, genetic evidence on human differences has become more obvious. The reaction, in the West, is to declare even more strongly that no differences exist, or even could exist. Westerners and Indians are probably very similar, at least the activist sorts that consider these sorts of issues. In the near future, a substantial amount of ancient DNA will be published in India which will resolve current questions to all those approaching it with an open mind. But the ideologues will become even more strident and marshal greater and greater numbers of irrelevant citations.

They believe because it is absurd.

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India After Gandhi: $1.99 Kindle Deal

I know many people are critical of Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy (e.g., my friend Reihan Salam is not a big fan), but Amazon is running a Kindle Deal on it (at least in the USA). So it’s $1.99 currently.

The original book was published in the 2000s, but this is a “revised and updated” version. So I assume it has a bit more on the last 20 years. Whatever you think about it, it is probably worth reading at some point.

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Genetic change, cultural coherency, and social structure

A stupid commenter (SC) below keeps opining that the high frequency of R1a across South Asia is due to non-paternity events (NPE). I’m not quite sure SC knows what NPE is. It is, “when someone who is presumed to be an individual’s father is not in fact the biological father.” The hypothesis presented seems to be that outside of the Northwest of the subcontinent, the high frequency of R1a among non-Brahmin populations is a function of cuckoldry.

I think this is a stupid hypothesis for several reasons.

  1. Star phylogenies tend to extend outside of their core sociocultural group (e.g., R1b in Basques)
  2. NPE events outside of ethnicity seem rare given how endogamous South Asian jatis are.
  3. NPE in Eurasian societies seem to be 1-3%.
  4. There isn’t autosomal variation in ancestry within South Asia jatis usually. E.g., autosomally Tamil Brahmins or Chamars don’t vary much. This is in contrast with Mexican Americans or African Americans, who show a great deal of biogeographic variation in ancestry because they are a recently admixed population.

But, in the interests of making lemonade out of SC’s lemon, it’s interesting to observe other cases of disjunction between genome-wide ancestry and Y chromosomes. For example, let’s look at the Hui, Chinese-speaking Muslims.

The most likely origin of these Muslims is during the Yuan dynasty. So about 750 years ago. They were probably originally Central Asian, and so a mix of West and East Eurasian. Around 40% West Eurasian Y chromosomes from the beginning is not totally unreasonable if Islamicized Turks were a substantial proportion of the Muslims. If 5% of their total genome is West Eurasian, it’s probably reasonable to assume that 10% of their total genome derives from Muslims, if the original Muslims about half West Eurasian and half East Eurasian in ancestry.

750 years is 30 generations. My back of the envelope calculations suggests that 7.75% exogamy with Han Chinese per generation would result in a 50% West Eurasian population become a 5% West Eurasian population.  Another way to frame this is about ~90% of the ancestry of the original founding group has been replaced. But what about the Y chromosomes? Even assuming 100% West Eurasian Y chromosomes, the decrease has not been of similar magnitude.

The answer is simple: the dilution could have been mostly female-mediated. China is a patrilineal society, and Central Asian Muslims are also patrilineal. Though there are exceptions (there is a Hui branch of the Kong family due to one of the descendants marrying a Muslim woman and converting to Islam), it seems reasonable to infer most of the gene-flow into the Muslim community was through women. And, women do not have Y chromosomes, and so do not replace that lineage, though they do contribute to the total genome.

This is not an isolated case. There are populations around Lake Chad which carry ~1% Eurasian autosomal ancestry, but with Y chromosomal fractions of R1b, which is Eurasian, on the order of ~20%.

The opposite case can also occur. Because of male-biased European gene-flow to Latin America, populations such as in Argentina can have a very high fraction of indigenous mtDNA, passed from mothers to their offspring, despite the total genome being mostly European.

Which brings us back to South Asia. Though R1a is associated with “upper caste” populations, the reality is that it is widely distributed in South Asia. Including tribal groups such as the Chenchus and Bhils.

The Chenchus are an interesting case. The only groups nearby with high frequencies of R1a would be South Indian Brahmins, who are genetically very distinct. In fact, Brahmins from the four southernmost states of the peninsula are very similar in their proportions of distinct biogeographic components. And, there is not much inter-individual variation. The Chenchus, in contrast, seem to be typical ASI-shifted tribal people from South India.

In an NPE model the ~25% R1a ancestry is due the fathering of sons by Brahmin males, who were raised by their Chenchu mothers as Chenchu (and presumably raised by Chenche males as their own sons). The problem is that then ~12.5% of the ancestry of Chenchu should be Brahmin. This introduces a noticeable steppe shift, and though 12.5% is a small fraction, one should be able to detect it. Additionally, if the R1a entered the population through introgression every generation, there should be variation in ancestry among the Chenchus as a function of biogeography.

I simply don’t see this in the data for the Chenchu. What could explain their high fraction of R1a?

There are two things to consider. First, these marginalized groups often have low effective population sizes due to extreme endogamy. This means the power of drift at a single locus, such as the Y, is strong in these groups. It is not unreasonable to posit some groups, such as the Chenchu, would drift to a higher frequency.

The second dynamic is the one alluded to above: the Chenchu descend from a compound of groups, and a core paternal lineage of R1a bearers was assimilated into a larger population. I see the expansion of R1a across South Asia as greatly synchronous with the development of the ethnolinguistic landscape we see around us. Tribal groups such as the Chenchu are not primal, but part of an ethnolinguistic tapestry which crystallized in the period after the fall of the IVC and the reemergence of India into history in the 6th century BCE.

Note: Will delete dumb comments

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What The All-Father Means


Readers of this weblog may sometimes notice that I break out in pompous and self-important declarations of being a “scion of the All-Father.” This is basically a joke. But, it’s a joke that draws from a legitimate basis of science and mythology. The “All-Father” is another name for Odin. I’m really talking about Indra, who is probably more like Thor. And obviously, Norse paganism is only distantly related to the mythology of the Indo-Aryans. As someone more familiar with the lineaments of Northern European mythology than Indian, of course, it’s easier for me to draw on the motifs of the former to relate to the latter.

R1a distribution

The scientific component has to do with R1a. Specifically, R1a1a, defined by the M17 mutation (discovered by my boss at my day-job 20 years ago). There are two very closely related “clades,” that is, families of pedigrees, of this Y chromosomal lineage, passed from father to son. One of them defines mostly European R1a1a, Eastern Europeans, and to a lesser extent Western Europeans. Another branch is found mostly in Central and South Asia.

When I first saw this distribution around the year 2000 it left me scratching my head. Of course, I knew about the Indo-European languages. But I had always assumed that the demographic impact of the original Indo-Europeans was relatively marginal. And yet this Y chromosome was found at frequencies in the 10-50% range across vast swaths of Eurasia.

Much of the 2000s was spent on arguments as to whether R1a was indigenous to South Asia or to Central Eurasia. Ultimately these arguments were not resolvable due to limitations of the data. To calibrate dates and diversity researchers relied on microsatellites, which are useful due to their high mutation rates, but also erratic for the same reason (not only were confidence intervals wide, some of the assumptions of the model parameters were guesses).

In the early 2010s, whole-genome sequences of Y chromosomes came online. It became very clear that the most common R1a1a lineages exhibited the “star phylogeny.” Demographically, what this means is that men carrying this lineage underwent very rapid population expansion for a short period of time. So rapid that a “father” lineage would give rise to numerous “son” lineages one mutational step away

You can see in the figure that node “A” has given rise to a “star phylogeny.” A large number of individuals are one mutational step away from that genotype. A more normal phylogeny would produce a complex structured tree which accrues mutations across the various branches gradually.

In the South Asian context, a paper from 2004, Independent origins of Indian caste and tribal paternal lineages, introduced a result which prefigured what we now know:

Analyses of molecular variance also suggest that caste groups are more homogeneous for Y chromosome variation than tribal groups, since the variance among caste groups (sampled from all over India) is 3-fold less than that observed among tribal groups and 2-fold less than that observed among all Indian populations grouped together (Table 3). Moreover, if only north caste groups are considered, the variance among populations is not significantly different from zero (Table 3), indicating that spread over the Indian subcontinent although they are located up to ∼1500 km away from each other, these populations have highly homogeneous Y chromosome compositions.

The implications of the lack of structure of R1a on the Indo-Gangetic plain is always something that struck me. It suggested that the paternal lineages only recently expanded since they didn’ have time to build up distinct regional mutations. In contrast, the adivasi populations had a wider distribution of Y chromosomal haplogroups, and they exhibit a lot deeper diverged lineages.

Which brings me to the personal angle. In the spring of 2010, I did my first personal genomic test. I got my Y and mtDNA results back first. It turned out my Y was R1a1a, and my mtDNA was U2b. I was surprised by both. Eastern Bengali has the highest fraction of mtDNA macrohaplogroup M in the world. R1a1a was less surprising. But, it was very strange to have a concrete, personal, connection to this lineage which had been on my mind for a decade or so.

My funny attachment to my haplogroup is probably a function of my upbringing. Growing up as brown in the United States, I wasn’t exposed to Indian culture, nor was I well versed in the details of South Asian communalism. My family is pretty conventional in being upper-middle-class Bengali Muslims, so there is not a jati identity or anything like that I could identify with (and though my parents are Muslim, they are not extremely so, therefore religious identity was a background and not foreground variable). When I looked at my overall genome in 2010 it was clear I didn’t have the “runs of homozygosity” that characterize many people from South Asian backgrounds who come from endogamous communities. I know some of my ancestors were Kayasthas, and my father has some Brahmin ancestry, but the most distinctive thing about me in hindsight is I’m a typical east Bengali with more than a usual dollop of East Asian ancestry (my family is from Comilla).

My Y chromosomal haplogroup, in contrast, is something clear, distinct, and precise. It is an anchor, something which I use to channel my preoccupations and concerns. I don’t have Omar’s Gujar tribal ancestry, or Zach’s Muhajir/Persian origins. I’m just a brown American whose parents did not instill him a patriotism about the “motherland” (Bangladesh), because they themselves didn’t even live a decade in that nation. Though there is a spectrum, it is clear that many South Asian Americans are less “coconut” than I am, and are attuned to fine differences of status, origin, and background. Growing up around only white people my identity was racialized, not ethnicized.

I have never felt superior or inferior to any community or ethnicity of South Asian because I never belonged to any community, have weak ethnic identity, and don’t believe in any religion. The religious prejudices I do have are probably Anglo-Protestant ones against Catholicism, because of the implicit assumptions and background facts of America’s Whig culture.

What R1a1a symbolizes to me is that I have a concrete connection to a semi-historical phenomenon between the end of prehistory and before the written word, which we have not grasped or understood very well. Though it is true R1a1a is found at higher concentrations in “upper castes,” as well as in the north and west of the subcontinent, and among Indo-Aryan speakers, the reality is it is found in almost every community in South Asia (the main exception being among Tibeto-Burmans and Munda). There are many communities, such as Chenchus, which have very little steppe ancestry but retain a substantial proportion of R1a1a.

For obvious reasons this haplogroup is associated with Indo-Aryans (the earliest find of R1a1a-Z93 is from the Bronze Age Volga Srubna culture), but its reach is far beyond current areas of Indo-Aryan speech. Its ubiquity is a testament to a broader South Asia cultural matrix that emerged in the centuries after 1500 BC, from north to south.

This is of course not a moral judgment. The expansion of this paternal lineage at the expense of others likely occurred through a process of aggression and social exclusion. This is nothing to be proud of…or ashamed of. It’s just a description.

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Between Marx and the mullah

There is a lot of talk on this weblog about deaths in premodern conflicts. I want to clarify a few points, at least from my perspective.

Both ancient DNA and conventional history and archaeology indicate that massive population turnovers occurred in the past. If you read a book like Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy, you note that there is plenty of record of massacres and killings in targeted fashion during the Mongol expansion. The chaos and demographic collapse induced by the Mongols have been implicated in reforestation across vast swaths of Central Eurasia (which may then have produced climate change!).

We can also look to the deep past, and the more recent past. Latin America is characterized by incredible admixture between people of disparate ancestries. This is due in large part to 1) demographic collapse on the part of native peoples 2) migration of settlers from Iberia 3) transportation of slaves from Africa.

The evidence from Europe and South Asia is also strongly suggestive of massive population replacements. Depending on your model parameters about 50-75% of the ancestors of modern Northern Europeans who were alive 5,000 years ago had descendants who were intrusive to Northern Europe. Another way to say this is that 50-75% of the ancestors of modern Danes did not live in Denmark or nearby regions 5,000 years ago. A similar number for South Asia seems to be in the 10-30% range (again, depends on your model parameters).

This elicits the question: was there genocide?

The evidence from Latin America is clear. Though there was targeted genocide on the part of the Iberian conquerors, on the whole, the deaths were mostly due to the introduction of Eurasian diseases that resulted in a cascade of consequences which resulted in famine (the Black Legend is propaganda which has influenced our modern perceptions). When a human population lives on the Malthusian margin, small perturbations can result in death due to starvation. In the case of Latin America, it is known that incapacitation of a large enough proportion of prime-age adults due to illness resulted in famine, as crops were not planted or harvested in quantities necessary to sustain villages.

In other words, population collapse was a function of reduction in labor inputs into agriculture.

And, the reality is that the Iberian conquerors, who were often younger sons of aristocratic lineages, were not inclined to engage in mass-slaughter due to the reality of their aspiration of becoming rentiers. The importation of African slaves was to a great extent a direct consequence of shortages of exploitable labor (along with the humanitarian concerns of enslaving natives). Contrast this to the situation in the Phillippines or India, where Asian peoples provided resources to support leisure-seeking European elites.

A second fact is that premodern states were not capable of the sort of coordinated genocide that has been seen in the 20th-century. They lacked the weaponry, information technology, and organizational capacity to be particularly efficient. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the coordinated genocides against Christian groups in the Ottoman and post-Ottoman realm occurred in the modern period (Armenians and Assyrians). The older Ottoman state was neither efficient enough nor did it have the means, to engage in total exterminationism (I also believe that 19th-century European-style nationalism probably made exterminationist feelings more ‘justified’ as well).

Probably the best premodern instance of ethnic cleansing we have on record is the Spanish expulsion of the Moriscos, which occurred on the basis of presumed blood lineage, not belief (e.g., many sincere Christian Moriscos were expelled as well!). But, that effort was incomplete and patchy, effective in some areas, totally ineffective in others, and haphazard in the criteria utilized (e.g., many people with Morisco ancestry were not expelled, while families which had been sincere Christians for generations were expelled).

Which brings me back to the earlier cases. What happened in Europe and India to induce population change?

There are several things going on in my opinion. First, not all late Neolithic/early Bronze Age societies had developed an ideology of elite exploitation to the level that we’d take for granted in the modern world. By this, I mean that the leaders of these agro-pastoralist societies may not have viewed farmers of different ethnicities as potential subjects, and so wealth. In conflicts between hunter-gatherer populations often warfare results in very high mortality rates, with young children and young women of the losers assimilated into the winners. There was no ideology of group assimilation for young men into an alien population, and in societies without specialized professions and economic systems, these men might not be seen as valuable in any sense except as consumption slaves (servants for powerful people, not economic producers).

In other words, conflicts between primitive societies can be thought of as “animal conflicts,” where two groups fight over resources and don’t view the losers of the other group as resources. In contrast, societies over the past few thousand years have tended to see the defeat of the enemy as a potential for elites to accrue new subjects from which they can extract rents. This was one of the arguments made to Genghis Khan by one of his Khitai advisors as to why he should not clear the land of northern China of people so as to create pastures for horses and sheep. People were more valuable than horses and sheep. He would be richer with more people.

Of course, these are people with spears (and later swords). I don’t think that most of the demographic collapse was due to direct killing. Rather, people living on the Malthusian margin, especially the sort of late Neolithic farming that was likely marginal in Northern Europe, were likely subject to the same famine dynamics as occurred in the New World. The IVC zone in South Asia was clearly more advanced, but it too many have been relatively fragile in comparison to the agricultural regimes of later South Asian societies.

The final issue is looping back to Muslims. Did they commit genocide? Did they exterminate the local populations? Probably. But, 95-99% of the ancestry of South Asian Muslims is the same as that of South Asian Hindus of the same region. Unlike the incursion of Indo-Aryans, the arrival of Muslims, mostly Turks, Afghans, and Persians did not have a major demographic perturbation in a direct sense (indirectly, technology and organizational skills introduced by Muslim elites may have resulted in disparate demographic growth of different regions in South Asia; e.g., Eaton’s argument for the expansion into eastern Bengal).

Additionally, Islam as a dominant ideology developed during the high-tide of rent-seeking elites. Though Muhammad’s status as a merchant meant that the religion was never constitutively anti-mercantile, conquest elites invariably aimed to extract wealth out of conquered populations. Arguably, the development of Islam is a direct consequence of how lightly Christianized Arab conquest elites developing an ideology which justified their extraction of rents (“protection taxes”) from conquered populations,  as well as maintaining their separateness and distinctness.

In the Indian context, many will point out that Islamic chroniclers note the despoilation and slaughter upon the local population. I would suggest that one be cautious about the propagandistic nature of ancient conflict and war (this begins with the Battle of Kadesh). Ancient chroniclers seem to have exaggerated numbers and effectiveness routinely. At least in the early modern period, most casualties due to battlefield injuries were the consequence of infection, not immediate trauma. Similarly, I suspect that the depopulation of an invaded region was more likely a consequence of the disruption of local social fabrics more than direct killing with arrows, swords, and spears (killing people expends a lot of energy and is risky).

Because of the nature of this blog, of course, this post ends with the arrival of Muslims to India. The stupid and the disingenuous (or a mix of both) seem to fix on two extreme positions:

  1. Muslims arrived and ushered in an orgy of slaughter driven primarily by the motive of oppressing the kuffar
  2.  Turks arrived in India, and like earlier invaders aimed to extract resources and dominate the location population

These caricatures serve ideologies but don’t describe reality. Both materialist and non-materialist motives need to be considered. The chroniclers of the arrival of self-conscious Muslim military forces to South Asia clearly wished to present it as an ideological and religious act. These were ghazis, just as far to the west, the Ottomans began as ghazis. But it is also impossible not to notice the family resemblance of Muslim Turks moving into South Asia in the centuries after 1000 A.D. with the invasions and conquest of China by Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic peoples in the centuries after 1000 A.D.

Not surprisingly, the Khitai, Jurchen, and Mongols, all made some ideological claims for their acts of aggression of conquest, often post facto and tenuously. The Khitai and Jurchen integrated themselves into the Han Chinese worldview and presented themselves more worthy stewards of the Mandate of Heaven than the Song rulers of China. The Mongols also did this, though perhaps even more foregrounded was their own peculiar ideology than their sky god had given the whole world to them to subjugate (the Mongol Yuan dynasty also gave special consideration to Tibetan Buddhism, which alienated their Han subjects).

But of course, we would notice that the major consequence of the Mongol Yuan dynasty was the transfer of resources from Han Chinese elites to arriviste Mongol elites. The overthrow of the Yuan resulted in the expulsion of the killing of many of these hated Mongol landlords. Ideological rationales were given, but the memories of Han elite dispossession were fresh.

And yet despite the fig-leaf that ideology provides, differences may result from such distinctions. The Khitai and the Mongols were more punctilious is differentiating themselves from their Han subjects than the Jurchen. They maintained their separateness due to their reduced respect and veneration of Confucian norms. And, notably, the philo-Sinic Jurchen were assimilated into the Han to a far greater extent than the Khitai and the Mongols.

Similarly, in South Asia, the ideological distinctions between the rentier class of Turks and West Asian Muslims, and native Indians was sufficient for the absorptive process to halt. Synthesis occurred. But amalgamation did not proceed to completion. In David Cannadine’s Ornamentalism the author argues that the religious difference was also the key reason that the Indian elite, Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu, did not intermarry with the British gentry.

The various arcs of history cannot be easily defined by grade-school level Marxism, or internet Hindu level psychoanalysis. In all regions that self-conscious Muslim conquest elites established themselves, their sense of distinctness, superiority, and God-given right to rule are clear. But, all these groups, whether it be the slaving regimes of Arabs in East Africa, the Ottomans in the Balkans, and yes, Muslims in South Asia, exhibited a strong orientation toward pragmatic exploitation of the riches of the regions which they conquered.

Addendum: I’m going to delete stupid comments. This means if you leave a 2,000-word comment that’s stupid, it will be for naught.

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Contemplating the weave of the world

    [ exploring various versions of how the world of concepts can itself be conceptualized ]

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Have patience with me: Omar Ali has invited me to post here, an honor I greatly appreciate, and I am introducing myself.

I’m an outsider. I’m your guest, and I only just arrived.. To be precise, I’m a Brit, resident in the United States:

If I’m to write on BrownPundits, I need to you know how ignorant I am in many respects, before I shed some of what knowledge I do possess — and also to focus myself in the Brown direction, because this place is devoted to “a discussion of things brown” — and while I’ll no doubt wander far afield as I post, I want to acknowledge and honor the purpose of this blog as I introduce myself here.

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My interest, my fascination, my obsession even, is with the weave of the world. And indeed, if my friends Omar Ali, Ali Minai, and Hasan Asif can be any indication, the Punditry of Brown extends intellectually across all of history, geography and genius, to encompass the world of ideas and the world world to which the ideas refer in their combined entirety..

And thus the weave of the thing. That’s how the Kathasaritsagara, or Ocean of the Streams of Story, comes in to my story. Somadeva Bhatta’s concept of the oceanic streams of story caught Salman Rushdie’s eye, and Rushdie reference to it —

He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead, but alive.

— it’s a universal mapping of the sort that enchants the likes of Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Eco, librarians both, encompassing the realm of human thought in narrative terms. And it’s one subcontinewntal form of the universal map, or model, or metaphor — the Net of Indra in the Avataṃsaka Sutra would be another.

Outside the subcontinent — but well within the compass of Brown Punditry– there are other such metaphors for the whole of the whole. Teilhard de Chardin’s oosphere is another, as is Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s >World Wide Web, in which complex weave of thoughts we now find ourselves.

But for my own purposes, the most interesting figure of the whole, the universe as we are able to think and name it, conceptually speaking, is the Glass Bead Game as described by Hermann Hesse in his Nobel-winning novel of that name

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My own personal predilections run from cultural anthropology through comparative religion to depth psychology, and from violence to peace-making. But that’s a huge sprawl at best, and to bring all that into some kind of focus, to learn how to map that immense territory, and the vaster universe beyond it, I turn not just to strong>Hesse’s novel, but particularly to the Game which he describes in that book:

The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.

You’ll see how that description covers much the same ground as Rushdie’s description of the Kathasaritsagara, and Edward Tufte’s image of the Ocean of Story which I’ve placed at the top of this post could also be a depiction of Hesse’s great Game.

There are many voices in the Ocean, and many voices in the Game, and they are interwoven: they form which a musician would recognize as a polyphony — their concepts and narratives at times clashing as in musical counterpoint, at times resolving, at least temporarily, in a refreshing harmony.

And what better model of the world can we contemplate at this moment, that one in which a multitude of at times discordant voices wind their ways to concord?

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[ above: conventional score, bar-graph score and keyboard recordings of JS Bach, contrapunctus ix

Johann Sebastian Bach is the master of contrapuntal music, and, be it noted, a great composer for and improviser on the organ. And it is Bach whose music I listen to as I approach the business of modeling the world of ideas.

My mantram ca 1999/2000 was:<To hold the mind of Bach..

Where Bach devises and holds in mind melodies that collide and cohere, I want us to hold thoughts in mind — at times clashing thoughts — and learn to weave them into a coherent whole..

That’s my approach to making the Glass Bead Game which Hesse conceptualized, playable. And my playable variants on Hesse’s Game, the HipBone family of games, will be the topic of my next few posts — thanks to the kind inquiries of my BrownPundit friends, and Omar’s generous invitation to me to post here.

And perhaps, if you’re interested, we’ll play a few rounds of my games, or explore across the world of ideas and your and my interests, what I’ve come to think of as the HipBone style of thinking..

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Charles Cameron is a poet and game designer, managing editor of the Zenpundit blog, and now an invited guest at BrownPundits. You can hear a discussion of the overlap between the Glass Bead Game and Artificial Intelligence featuring Omar Ali, Ali Minai and myself on this BrownPundits podcast — with an appreciative bow to Razib Khan.

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Pleistocene rock art in Maharashtra

Ancient Rock Art in the Plains of India-Two amateur sleuths have uncovered a collection of mysterious rock carvings on the Indian coastal plain south of Mumbai:

In the evening breeze on a stony hilltop a day’s drive south of Mumbai, Sudhir Risbud tramped from one rock carving to another, pointing out the hull of a boat, birds, a shark, human figures and two life-size tigers.

“They’re male,” he said with a smile, noting that the carver had taken pains to make the genitalia too obvious to ignore. He was doing a brief tour of about two dozen figures, a sampling of 100 or so all etched into a hard, pitted rock called laterite that is common on the coastal plain that borders the Arabian Sea.

The carvings are only a sample of 1,200 figures that Mr. Risbud and Dhananjay Marathe, engineers and dedicated naturalists, have uncovered since they set out on a quest in 2012. The two men are part of a long tradition of amateur archaeologists, according to Tejas Garge, the head of the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums for the state of Maharashtra, and the petroglyphs they have uncovered amount to a trove of international significance.

There are no depictions of bulls, so it is pre-agricultural. Additionally, some of the animals depicted disappeared from the area in the later Pleistocene. That means the carvings could date to people who lived in the area between 40,000 and 20,000 years ago, right up to the Last Glacial Maximum.

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