Book Review: India, Bharat and Pakistan – a Not so Gentle Reminder

Lawyer and author J Sai Deepak is back with the book of his India that is Bharat Quadrology. I had reviewed his first book India that is Bharat almost a year back – you can find my review here.

The Summary: 

J Sai Deepak’s second book dissects the time from the fall of the Mughal empire to the Khilafat movement relying heavily on the tools developed in the first book and a vast number of primary sources. The author also investigates the trail of the Islamic doctrine consolidated during the Fatwa-e-Alamgiri (compiled on orders of Aurangzeb) back to the 13th century Islamic scholar Taymiyyah and Syed Ahmad Sirhindi (a contemporary of Mughal Emperor Akbar).

The two figures covered in detail among the post Mughal Ulema are Shah Wahiullah Dehlawi and Syed Ahmad Baraelvi – the two giants who have shaped the Islamic revivalism in the 18th century. The establishment of Wahhabi power center in Northwest of Punjab, establishment of the various schools of Islam in North India – Deobandi, Barelvi, Ahl-i-Hadith, Ali-garh and the British crackdown of Wahhabism are all discussed in sufficient detail before jumping off to Syed Ahmad Khan and the modern genesis of the two-nation theory. The author then covers all the important events from the Partition of Bengal to the Khilafat movement – relying heavily on primary sources. The book ends with a summary of the Khilafat riots – especially the Mopla massacre.

My 2 Annas:

It took me 3 weeks to complete the first section of the book. I completed the rest of the book in 2 days. I think this statement itself is a review in a nutshell. If I had to give a one phrase review for book 1 it would be “Overstated yet immensely Consequential“, if I have to do the same for book 2 it would be “About time or Oh My Gods“. This is not to say I don’t have disagreements with the book – especially some of author’s conclusions, but the overwhelming thrust of the book is something I strongly agree with.

Firstly, the book busts all the popular notions of two-nation theory and it being solely a creation of the British. The author effectively traces the modern origins of the two-nation theory to Syed Ahmad Khan and the Aligarh movement at the very least. The book also covers some of the lesser-known events from the 19th century – the Wahhabi movement and the conflict in the Northwestern frontier province. The book makes it abundantly clear that Islamic revivalism was less a reaction to Colonialism and more a reaction to Hindu and Sikh resurgence. The fact that both the British and Muslims saw each other as closer religiously and hence more acceptable/worthy instead of the “Hindu” is driven through via a vast number of primary sources. 

The common trope among the secular (even Hindutva discourse) about the Syncretic nature of Sufis is addressed (though I felt the author didn’t fully go into this question).

Location 528

Pan-Islamism and its proponents – especially Al-Afghani are also covered in the book.

Secondly, the book also goes into origins and progress of “Moderate Nationalism” under Indian National Congress right up to the ascendency of the “Mahatma”. I had expected the author to be slightly unfair to the Indian National congress and especially the role of Gandhiji but to my surprise he hasn’t. Though some conclusions may seem a tad unfair at times but because the author relies heavily on primary references the “judgement” is moderated. Most importantly the support of Khilafat which is put firmly on the shoulders of Gandhiji in Hindutva circles, is clearly shown to be a mainstream view of Indian National Congress years before ascendency of Gandhiji, absolving Gandhiji of some of the blame.

The inability of the “Indian nationalism led by Hindus” in dealing the Islamic exceptionalism both before and during the period of “Hindu-Muslim” harmony is on display in the book. The author compares “Coloniality” of the Hindus to the “Rootedness” and “Intransigence” of Muslims for these defeats. Whereas there can be no doubt that Muslim “Intransigence” was important, I find the blame laid on “Coloniality” not watertight.

Take example of Jawaharlal Nehru and Kemal Pasha “Attaturk”. Both were modernizers who tried to jettison the past of their respective countries. What separated them both wasn’t any rootedness or lack of deracination – but a personal attribute, namely political ruthlessness, incidentally something Mohammad Ali Jinnah shared. Kemal Pasha not only broke the tradition of the Khalifa but also forced the Roman alphabet overnight on the Turks. Similarly, in India the two heads who had the most clear-eyed vision of the thread of Islamic exceptionalism were Dr Ambedkar and Veer Savarkar (both “Modernists”). I would instead put the blame on Hindu naivete which is an unfortunate byproduct of Hindu Pluralism – we simply never understood the other. Most of our ReConquistadors (with notable exceptions) did not pursue Reconversions.

Another thing I found mildly irritating in the book (continued from book one) – is the use of the term Middle eastern coloniality/consciousness. Ironically the term “Middle Eastern” itself reeks of its Western Colonial origins. I would have used the term Islamic or Arabic instead, but this is sematic disagreement which doesn’t matter much.

a Not so Gentle Reminder:

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results“.

The disagreements with the author’s conclusions notwithstanding, the book is a not so Gentle Reminder for the India that is Bharat. In retrospect, the compromises Bharatiya nationalism offered, from accepting disproportionate Muslim representation to supporting the fanatical Khilafat movement, may have worked against the Indian civilization itself. While it may be unfair to excessively blame the Bharatiya leaders from the past, it’s imperative to call out those who are flirting with the same approach in the 21st century (incidentally my position a few years ago). Essentially the Hindu leadership made a Faustian bargain and sold their brains. Though Swatyantraveer Savarkar is almost absent from the book, he cast a long shadow in my mind while I read the book.

Another popular trope I felt the author could have busted was the trope that Islamic intransigence in India is largely the legacy of “it having been spread by the sword”. The Mopla carnage was undertaken by descendants of Arab traders who came without any major conflict. Maybe violent intransigence and exclusivity is a feature not a bug.

The book becomes unputdownable after the Lucknow Pact, as the Hindu-Muslim unity discussed here which didn’t even last a decade remains as relevant today as ever. The riots covered in the end of the book – especially the Mopla carnage is almost unbearable to read reminding the reader of Kashmir. The letter by Annie Beasant to Gandhiji stands out. The book also brings into focus some of the lesser-known riots like Kohat. Incidentally the trigger for the Kohat ethnic cleansing was blasphemy, a topic which continues to remain as relevant as ever.

As I write this review a century after Mopla Riots, raids are conducted on Popular Front of India members while the PFI supporters can call for Hartals with partial success in Malabar coast. If the first book was a red pill in a blue jacket (Akshay Alladi (@akshayalladi) / Twitter), this is a केसरी (Saffron) pill in a green jacket.

I have skipped over many topics from the book in this review for brevity, but I would urge the reader of this post to buy and read this book in its entirety and engage with the uncomfortable facts it lays down infront of us.

The book ends with the following quote

Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

The above line becomes even more relevant especially give the way history is taught in India. I would end this review with a quote (in one of its many forms) most people reading this review would recognize.

अश्वत्थामा हतः इति, नरो वा कुंजरोवा !

Browncast: Indic explorer on Hinduism, Dharma, etc

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Another Browncast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify, and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!

In conversation with Indic explorer, Mukunda and Omar discuss a lot of things related to all things “Indic” . Items include how to define Hinduism, why it does not get the respect it deserves and why its most ardent fans may need to “up their game”.. .

Indic (who prefers to remain anonymous for now) can be found on Twitter at @theindicexplor1

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.

 

Musings of a Shinto Rishi

I came across this wonderful interview with Florian Wiltschko, an Austrian Shinto negi (priest) based in Japan courtesy Akshay Alladi. I was struck by some of the similarities in Wiltschoko’s worldview and my own sanskaras- the approach to life I was taught by my elders, particularly my mother.

“[Japan] is rich and the seasons colour the natural landscape in beautiful ways. Maybe that’s why a monotheistic belief system did not evolve here,” he says. “The bounties of nature, on the other hand, were seen as being the workings of divine forces that needed to be respected and cared for.” This struck a chord. It’s a very Dharmic sensibility and worldview.

There’s also the challenge of adaptation and change, without losing the essence. Incorporating good ideas, discarding the bad ones, but all the while maintaining the core spirit. Wiltschko’s observations are based on the interactions between Shinto and Buddhism, but the same would seem to apply to modern Hinduism, which has over the centuries blended Vedantic and Shramanic metaphysics with folk tales and traditions. It’s a complex mélange and trying to describe it precisely to non-Indians reminds me of the parable of the blind men and an elephant.

What is noteworthy about Wiltschko is that he is a priest by profession. In my compartmentalised mind, there are gurus/yogis and then there are pujaris/purohits/archakas. The former are philosophers and the latter are pedants. There is some experiential basis for this, but perhaps some of it is also a function of my own biases. I “lost” religion in my teenage years through my twenties and identified as an agnostic classical liberal, only to “rediscover” it in my thirties. The religion that interests me is still quite rationalistic: a Vendantic Monism based principally on the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, with an interest in Buddhism, Kashmiri Shaivism and Yoga. It is certainly not ritualistic. Temple visits are only to admire the architecture. The privileging, as it were, of jnana marga (the path of knowledge) over bhakti marga (the path of devotion).

But perhaps there is wisdom in customs and rituals too. There need not be a neat bifurcation between the high philosophy and the riti-riwaj. Jnana marga and bhakti marga are not mutually exclusive.

“It’s very important to maintain a positive inner spirit,” Wiltschko signs off. “You might say that it’s my mission or my calling to contribute to maintaining this spirit.” The words of a modern Rishi.

[The writer tweets @paragsayta]

Political correctness is “just politeness” (for your friends)

Audrey Truschke is mixing it up again with the vilest dregs of “Hindu Twitter”. In response, I tweeted “For my friends everything, for my enemies the law.” What did I mean here? Rutger’s unequivocal defense of academic freedom, even unto trolling, shows their hand in terms of whose feelings they value.

You can go to the FIRE website, but if you know modern American academia you know that the administration does not care about academic freedom when push comes to shove. The regnant ideology in modern left cultural discourse is that “the feelings of marginalized people/communities” trump “objectivity” and “truth.” Rutgers’ general statement is one I agree with, but I’m a 20th century “liberal.” Rutgers is not a place for 20th century liberals, nor is academia in general.

What this illustrates is that the American left does not think it needs to be “polite” to Hindus. Their feelings don’t matter. Perhaps the Central Committee of the Inner Party has a list of marginalized communities, and Hindus were left off. I don’t know.

Suffice it to say this is total hypocrisy. If Truschke’s career involved wrestling with Muslim trolls online they’d find something more ambivalent to say. Even with tenure universities can fire professors on pretexts as well. They choose not to. They choose the law. Because Hindus are not their friends.

Addendum: The fact that many “internet Hindus” behave like vile cretins with subnormal IQs does not help. But I don’t think this is the main cause. First, many people who are “against” “internet Hindus” who are Indian are quite vile and exhibit subnormal IQ online (my experience with Jat Sikh anti-Hindutva racists is the exact same as with Hindutva trolls; Indians online tend toward troll behavior more than other groups). Also, Truschke offends many more conventional and humane Hindus, but their feelings do not warrant obsequious submission.

Browncast: Koenrad Elst, Indologist and Hindu Nationalist

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsyniTunesSpotify,  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.

Would appreciate more positive reviews!

In this episode Srikant Kṛṣṇamācārya and I talk to Koenrad Elst, an Indologist who is also a supporter of what can be fairly described as “Right wing Hindutva politics”. We ask him about his understanding of Hinduism, Hindu identity and other topics (including the “Aryan Migration Theory”, which he vigorously opposes, though we did not have the time or inclination to discuss this much further; you can read more of his writings at this link and here to get a clearer idea of where he is coming from and you can read this and this to see the pro-AMT point of view)..

Browncast: Keerthik Sasidharan, author of The Dharma Forest

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsyniTunesSpotify,  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.

Would appreciate more positive reviews!

In this episode I talk to Keerthik Sasidharan, an author and columnist whose debut book “The Dharma Forest” just came out in India in December 2020. Release in the US is awaited. We talk about his book, the Mahabharata, Indian tradition and whatever comes to mind.. Image result for keerthik sasidharan

The Dharma Forest

Hinduism is not false consciousness , it is “Planet X”

The Caravan has a piece up intended to inflame, The Hindu Hoax – How upper castes invented a Hindu majority. If you are a sudra or an avanra who believes in the Hindu religion the piece seems geared to denying you all agency or independence. You are a dupe, the victim of “false consciousness.” The Brahmins control you!

That is fine as far as it goes. I am not a Hindu or from a Hindu background. Instead of being offended, mostly I just roll my eyes. And yet I have to admit that twenty years ago I would have been interested in, perhaps even attracted to, the idea that “Hindu identity” or “Hindu religion” was “invented” in the past few centuries. It’s one of those counterintuitive “Freakonomics-style” facts that you can deploy for fun and rhetorical profit. “Actually, did you know….”

But after reading and thinking about this for a few decades, I think this is wrong. I don’t think this is wrong because of what I know about Hinduism, as such. I think this is wrong because of what I know about the spread of religion over history.

For many decades astronomers have been arguing about the existence of “planet X”, which is an undiscovered planet-sized object in the outer solar system which may need to exist to explain the orbits of the planets we can see. That is, we don’t have any evidence of this planet itself, but, we have evidence of its impacts on the other planets. Whether “planet X” exists is irrelevant. Every time I check the consensus seems to change. The point is your model of something can allow you to infer facts through deduction.

As many of you know, one of the mysteries and miracles of human history is how India maintained its religious uniqueness despite 500 years of predominant Islamic rule. In Iran, the best data suggests Muslims were a majority after 300 years. Egypt, it probably took a little longer, but 400 years seems right. I’ve written extensively on hypotheses why India was different. This post isn’t about that. Rather, the very persistence of a non-Muslim majority is indirect evidence of the religious character and identity of the people under Muslim rule.

The stylized fact that I see bandied around is that non-Brahmins, at more modestly Hindus who were not twice-born, had their own non-Hindu religious traditions. These local and indigenous traditions were bracketed into and assimilated as Hindu only within the last few centuries. Before that, it’s best to think of them as not Hindu at all. A conspiratorial and unflattering model is that Brahmins and their allies engaged in a massive re-identification and implicit conversion campaign against the pagan masses, who were as distinct from Brahmanical Hinduism as Muslims were.

The fundamental problem with this is in other areas the pagan and marginal people invariably defect and convert to an alien and novel new religion first. This is the Iran and Kashmir, model. Most of the non-Muslims remaining are of the priestly caste (this is the origin of the Parsis). The core of the old religion. But people on the margins or who were always outside of the boundary of pre-Islamic elite identity quickly switched to becoming Muslim. Turan, north of Iran proper, Islamicized more rapidly than Iran, because it was multireligious, to begin with. In the Roman Empire, nobles from the frontier provinces converted to Christianity faster from the inner core zone. The Roman and Iranian example actually has resonances to the Indian subcontinent, as one argument for early and pervasive Islamicization in the northwest and northeast (Punjab and Bengal) is that its Hindu matrix was weak to nonexistent at the time of the Muslim conquest.

Where am I going with this? If I was a believing Hindu, perhaps I would contend that the persistence of Hinduism in the face of Muslim domination is a function of the power of God and the gods protecting their people. It is a literal miracle. But I’m not a believer in religion. Another hypothesis is that India is the exception to the rule universal elsewhere. A mass of pagan people without any religious connection to a priestly caste (Brahmins) somehow maintained their identity and practices in the face of a dominating “higher religion” (Islam). Then, the cunning Brahmins during the colonial people convinced these non-Hindu pagans that they were actually Hindu!

Both scenarios are implausible to me. First, because there is probably no God in the first case. Second, because I’ve met Brahmins, and they aren’t that incredibly persuasive and Machiavellian. Rather, like “planet X”, I default to the thesis that there’s an identity, a self-conception, a set of beliefs and practices, which suffused itself through the matrix of indigenous Indian groups. Though there was some defection, for various reasons, the cultural matrix was strong enough to maintain itself down the modern period, when information technology and modern identity formation created something much more coherent. That cultural matrix is the precursor to Hinduism today. It wasn’t a conspiracy. Just a natural evolution.

On caste and a new Hinduism

Some of my Hindu American friends online engage in a defense of attacks on Hinduism by denying the necessary connection between caste and Hinduism. Since religion is made by men, this is true on the face of it. There is nothing necessary in any religion.

But, Hinduism is a religion strongly associated with the Indian subcontinent. Far more than Islam is necessarily associated with Arabia! (the greatest doctors of Islam were not Arabs, but more often Persians!) And caste is strongly associated with the Indian subcontinent. This is not a transitive relation, but the affinity is clear. It has hard to think about Hinduism without caste and jati, though it is possible (e.g., Tulsi Gabbard is a devout Hindu, but not Indian, while some Muslim Indians have their own forms of endogamous caste, despite not being Hindu).

Untouchable

Is this just a historical coincidence? Like many, I have read Nicholas Dirks’ Castes of Mind. Though Dirks acknowledges the ancient origins of varna and jatis, he puts great emphasis on the rationalization of the system under the British. Additionally, he points out the rise and fall of jats. The Indian landscape is communally fluid in its hierarchy.

This is plausible. But I do not believe it is true on a deep and fundamental level. I have come to this conclusion because genetics is so striking.

  1. Though the correlation is not perfect, within regions there is a strong association between “steppe” ancestry and caste status (more steppe means higher status)
  2. Dalits in the South have almost no steppe. The non-Dalit but non-Brahmins have some. In the north, Dalits in Uttar Pradesh have the least steppe, and in some ways are genetically closer to Dalits in Tamil Nadu than non-Dalits in Uttar Pradesh.
  3. There are clear indications of 1,500 of endogamy in a village in Andhra Pradesh (elsewhere too).

When I first stumbled onto these facts they were shocking and bizarre. Totally unexpected. I assumed some caste stratification, but this was ridiculous.

These are the reasons that though I believe the new modern Hindus do sincerely abhor caste and jati, it is sometimes hard to take their protestations that the connection between caste and Hinduism is incidental. You are {{{Brahmin}}}, the product of several thousands of years of endogamy written all over your genes, the scion of the priestly caste of Hinduism, protest that caste and jati have nothing to do with the religion! Except that the priestly castes seem to be amongst the most punctilious adherents to endogamy of all!

So what’s the future? As an atheist of Muslim familial background I have some advice: make Hinduism less Indian, because that is the fundamental issue. Hinduism evolved organically within the Indian subcontinent with jati and varna, and like intertwined siblings growing up in the same house, there are some shared characteristics. Grow up. Leave the house. Be your own person.

Brown Pundits