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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Riding borrowed steeds

I normally hesitate to write about Pakistan on this blog. There’s a certain history behind that decision. Also primarily because most Indians like me, who grew up during the late 80s and 90s liberalisation period, have a skewed view of Pakistan. And I try to over-correct that Indic bias (of arbitrary validity) by not commenting too much.

Why am I going on about this topic now? Well, the proximate reason is that I have a little bit of time between changing nappies on a day off work. The more philosophical answer is that Omar bhai’s post on the Pakistani al- phenomenon got me thinking about language use culture in Pakistan.

Continue reading “Riding borrowed steeds”

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Browncast Episode 32: Indian Linguistics Podcast

You can listen on LibsyniTunes, Spotify,  and Stitcher. Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe at one of the links above.

You can also support the podcast as a patron (the primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else…).

We had a conversation about Indian linguistics. It was Razib, myself, Avtansa, Indian Linguist and TianChengWen.

I’m quite proud of this podcast since I was able to get some of the linguistic luminaries together. The topic was a broad overview of language in South Asia.

We were able to keep a very strong regional balance since TCW’s specialty is Dravidian. We touched on the role of Sanskrit and its prominence as a literary lingua franca until the late medieval period (until it was supplanted).

Incidentally, we didn’t talk all that much about Indian English instead we delved into the “dialects.” There seems to be a turning point in that the Subcontinent is consolidating linguistically among regional, national and religious lines with English emerging as the great neutral and prestige language.

We touched a fair bit on the specific languages of the Hindi belt but I guess for next time we will have to tackle those that are tangential to the Hindi language sphere like Punjabi, Bengali, and Marathi.

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Urdu was Hindi in content, Urdu will be Hindi in name

The post is a resurrection of my old blog post to disambiguate some of the terms used in the discussion around the old Urdu-Hindi controversy. The reason for the resurrection is the current debate on the topic – as digressive and as ill-informed on BP of 2019 as on BP of 2017. I’ll try to enumerate my thoughts point-wise, to give some structure to the debate and let people comment on specific points raised.

Please note that while the title may look click-baity, it is truer than you think. For the why/how, please read on.

Continue reading “Urdu was Hindi in content, Urdu will be Hindi in name”

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Beware of Hinditvas

I love it when my point is so spectacularly proven. But I find it funny how intense these discussions take considering I prefaced the post with my own thoughts on NawRuz and Persian cultural imperialism.

Yes Islam is vulgar but so is Hindi. Just as obviously Muslim symbols wouldn’t find room in polite society neither would Hindi (hence why English is busy eviscerating it in the Desh).

I find it interesting that none of the Hinditvas condemn my constant insulting of Islam but become hysterical at my criticising of what is an ugly and artificial tongue. Just as I find Liberalstanis to be hypocritical in their silence over Islam’s deeply problematic nature; they have on the flip side these Hinditvas. QeA is probably the prototypical Liberalstani and Nehru the Hinditva; hence why the Subcontinent ended up as the disaster as it was. Both these tribes have been thoroughly colonised and participated willing in the destruction of the British Raj, a wholesale inheritance would have meant a South Asia able to be the light rather than laughter of regions.

The whole idea of the Hindi language was simply to cleanse Urdu of any Muslim association. The language policy has been a complete disaster (language played no part in 1971; I just did a debate on the topic).

It’s neither here or there; it doesn’t matter to me since my own life and choices have been able to traverse the deepening divide fairly easily (the upshot of being half-caste). However the sad bit is that India has lost it’s ur-homeland (Indthings is technically not wrong in claiming that the Vedas weren’t composed in modern day India) and AfPak is becoming a firm reality.

It’s the slow generations but these Hinditvas have driven Pakistan away into the arms of an unwilling Ummah. In that same Ummah Pakistanis will always be second or third class citizens because they’re a bit of a joke. They don’t carry much status in the Muslim world since they aren’t really proud of who they are.

To give an example the Muslim Sindhi people in trying to create a language pride day randomly chose a day in December as Sindhi Cultural Day. With a little thought the Sindhis could have instead started ressurecting the Cheti Chand tradition and actually reach out to Sindhi Hindus (especially their rich diaspora) as a way to strength Sindhi identity.

It’s a sad reality both India and Pakistan have lost out because they have squabbled like silly children, one side insisting on an absurd language and the other on an absurd religion.

I find it heart-warming that no-one agrees with me; it means that I’m actually on to something. The more I live the more I realise just how unique my own perspectives actually and being a child of the divide(s) means I’m never going to think like everybody else or make the same life choices..

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Browncast – Episode 9: Conversation on Indo-Aryan linguistics

The latest BP Podcast is up. You can listen on Libsyn, iTunes and Stitcher. Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe at one of the links above.

The conversation was between Brown Pundits’ contributors Razib, Zach and Slapstik on the evolution of Sanskrit and Indo-Aryan more generally within the Indian subcontinent. The conversation started off from thoughts on the origin of Sanskrit from Proto-Indo-Aryan, the language of the feudal elite of the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (or BMAC).

We spoke of the broad swathe of time from (roughly) 1500-500 BCE wherein this elite planted themselves across the breadth of the Indo-Gangetic plains south of the Himalayas (cf. hima-vanta > himavata). The peculiarities of the obstinately oral culture led to phenomenal developments in grammar (vyAkaraNa) to preserve the fidelity of speech. We also briefly covered some peculiarities of development of prkRta-s which show influence of Dravidian speech, the Indo-Aryan nature of Dardic languages and some comments on Iranic languages.

One of the important questions raised by Zach was on the parallel development of Mitanni-Aryan. Specifically why doesn’t its existence prove an outward diffusion of Indo-Aryan dialects? While I did not want to de-rail the conversation in the podcast with a technical argument (based on the RUKI rule), I think this point does deserve some supplementary explanation here. The basic argument can be set out as follows:

  • Retroflexes in earliest Vedic were almost always phonemic (pUrNa), and it is well established within IA linguistics that retroflexion existed before the loss of voiced sibilants /z/, /ź/ and /Z/ in proto-Vedic. So, we have PIE *misdhom (salary, reward) > *mizdhom (IIr, voiced sibilant) > *miźdhom  (IIr, via satem RUKI sound law) > *miZDham (Proto-Vedic, using sibilant-dental consonant saMdhi)
  • We also know that Proto-Dravidian lacked sibilants and replaced the phonemic voiced-sibilants by their approximants /y/ or /w/, which later merged with the preceding vowel. So, the effect of Dravidian substratum on proto-Vedic *miZDham is given by: *miZDham > *mi(y)Dham > mIDham, and mIDham is attested in Rg Veda as meaning reward or prize of a contest.
  • The same word (meaning payment) is also attested in Mitanni-Aryan as miśta, which seems to be easily derivable from IIr *miźdhom via simple de-voicing of /ź/ and de-aspiration of /dh/. There’s no known rule or precedent of deriving miśta from IA mIDham. Even using the latter-day example of Romany languages, the aspirated retroflex /Dh/ should be approximated by /r/, which is clearly not the case here.

Therefore, the simplest explanation of miśta in Mitanni-Aryan and its cognate mIDha in Vedic is that both terms are derivable using known sound laws from the older Indo-Iranian version of the word, as opposed to one from the other. The same argument also shows how retroflexion existed in oldest Vedic and that the simplest explanation of lack of voiced sibilants in Vedic is the substrate effect of Proto-Dravidian.

For readers more interested in this topic, I would suggest The Horse, The Wheel and Language by David Anthony on the archaeological evidence of steppe Indo-European culture. The book is very strong on archaeology, but it gets some of the linguistics’ arguments wrong. On linguistics itself, Cardona and Jain’s Indo-Aryan Linguistics remains the go-to text. Note that this book is more technical, but very rewarding.

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Some thoughts on Ain-i Akbari

I have been going through the Ain-i Akbari recently, the name traditionally given to the third volume of the Akbarnama, commissioned by the Emperor Akbar of the Moghal dynasty and written by his Grand Vizier, Abu’l Fadl Allami by around ~1600 CE. The third volume is by far the most personal account of India, its geography, culture and people by Abu’l Fadl – himself born and brought up in Agra in an immigrant family of Yemeni Arab origin.

There are two extracts from the Ain that I wanted to write about. One related to linguistics, esp. the interesting reaction of an erudite aristocrat of Yemeni Arab extraction when he first encounters saMskRta. And the second description of the movement of the cArvAka-s[*], the free-thinking atheistic strand of Indic culture that was ridiculed and suppressed even as similar movements arose in the West (esp Britain) just under a century later.

Abu’l Fadl pwnage is quite obvious from the above extract, and in fact it is the mark of a truly great man to acknowledge it for posterity. Fadl clearly admits the effort to grasp the complexity of Sanskrit phonetics, morphology, syntax and grammar. However, what’s interesting is that while his account of his intellectual labours is in first-person, he switches to the third when concluding that his prior view of Arabic grammar being peerless is now under question. It is almost as if he stopped short of personally admitting to the pwnage – a little bit of hurt pride maybe – and yet couldn’t stop himself from remarking on the sheer formalism of what he’d just been introduced to. Of course, anyone who knows anything about linguistics would readily admit that pANini‘s Classical Sanskrit grammar, which Fadl describes a mere sliver of above, remained the tour de force in Linguistics from around ~500 BCE to the late 19th century until Saussure.

This brings me to the second extract from the Ain in question, namely the description of the cArvAka-s or nAstika school. To me this passage more than anything else contains the germ of the eventual Moghal ruin. It is amazing and ironic how a fairly erudite gentleman, maybe one of the best educated of his times, could dismiss some of the core ideals of what became known as the European Enlightenment as “unenlightened”. Of course, as it turned out, Isaac Newton, born a mere 50 years after this was written, published the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in the same decade as the English Bill of Rights was passed by the Parliament. A process directly leading to three centuries of unprecedented economic and political growth of Western Europe and to the utter humiliation of the descendants of these same Moghal aristocrats at their hands.

Edit: Since sarpamaugdheya (as “snake charmer” will be known by me henceforth) below questioned whether the original Farsi by Abu’l Fadl speaks of his update of priors in third person, I looked into the original text. And here it is in all its majesty, where the underscored portion states:

پیشتر از آنکه بدین زبان لخت آشنا شود چنان می دانست که ضابطه لغت عرب بیهمتا باشد

Note the third-person verb in “midânest keh zabt-e lughat-e arabi bihamta bâshid”, i.e. he knew/considered the system of grammar of arabic as peerless.

[*] The word literally means sweet (cAri) talker (vAka, cf. Latin vocem).

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Muslims and Urdu in India

The plot above shows the % Urdu speakers vs. % Muslim in states where Muslims are 4% or more of the population. The data is from Census 2011 (thanks for Vikram of the language data). There are some interesting trends. Assuming that the vast majority of Urdu speakers are Muslim, it seems that in India the core Urdu-identified region is in the Deccan and to the east of its traditional heartland, in Bihar. In South India, 30% of Muslims in Tamil Nadu may be Urdu-speaking. But in Kerala the fraction is almost zero, while in Gujarat and West Bengal less than 10% of the Muslims are Urdu-speaking.

Below the fold is the table.

Continue reading “Muslims and Urdu in India”

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Sushma Swaraj’s hard hitting speech

https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/we-made-iits-pakistan-made-lashkar-says-sushma-swaraj-at-un-10-points-1754294

Why one earth is the Pakistani delegate wearing a translation piece? Even I, with my much weaker grasp of Hindustani (decent enough to understand Pakistani dramas), could understand most of this clip with the exception of a few Sanskriti/Shuddh Hindi words here & there.

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