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.

Hindu Integration: Brahmanas and Gramadevatas

Annual Waari – Kalyani Bhogle

The pluralism in Hindu thought is often pegged back to the philosophically sophisticated एकं सत् विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति  from Rgveda – first mandala. While that message underlies a lot of Hindu thought as we know it, it’s often overstated as it sounds sophisticated to the scholars/amateurs studying it. On the other hand, some hymns from the family books, particularly the Rgvedic Hymns 7-82 to 7-89 give a fascinating peek into the mind of the Bharata purohit Vasishta after the Dasarajna Yuddha. The hymns which are very repetitive mostly praise Indra and Varuna for the help given to Sudas(Bharatas) and the Trstus in the Dasarajna where the enemies also worshiped Indra. The important point to glean here is the different functional roles for which these deities are evoked. Indra for war, Varuna for prosperity, Aditi for light, etc. Varuna who is often paired with Mitra or Aryaman, gets paired with Indra here – which scholars (RN Dandekar, Michael Witzel, etc) see as conciliatory.

According to Dandekar, it was out of this experience of bhakti that Vasistha became essential in the conciliation of the Indra- and Varuna-cults and especially in “averting a schism in the Vedic community” by demonstrating “that Varuna and Indra were not antagonistic to each other but… essentially
complementary. ‘Indra conquers and Varuna rules.”

It is fair to speculate that such a conciliatory approach would go on to shape interactions the mainstream Vedic thought would have with non-Vedic deities as these hymns are the victor’s recollection. This conciliation and integration (A) appear much more pragmatic and economic than abstract ideals (B) espoused by एकं सत् विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति or other sophisticated thought from Upanishads or Gita. For B to emerge and sustain, A appears essential. With A established, B in some form or other would follow as evidenced by other Eastern faith systems which also tend to be inclusive. It is fair to say a combination of A and B lays the foundation for the emergence of quintessential pluralism of Hinduism.

Let us segway into a short story: 

  • In a village in Vengurla (South Konkan), there was a local Saint/Warrior (non-Brahmin) who was extremely popular with the masses. 
  • He passed away and his devotees wanted to make a shrine/temple for him. A Kaashyap Brahmin who was a respected man in the village objected. His objection stemmed from the deification of a man (probably Shudra) and placing him on the same pedestal as the Devas. 
  • The Brahmin (who had quite a bit of clout in the village) opposed this Adharma with all his might but was almost overpowered by the “uncouth masses” in the story.
  • The landed or Kshatriya(ish) castes sided with the masses instead of the Brahmin and as a result, the Brahmin couldn’t prevent the deification.
  • Additionally, the humiliated Brahmin was expected to condone the practice and give the shrine his blessings.    
  • He couldn’t be part of this Adharma and hence left his lands, wealth, position, and went northeast and settled in Ichalkaranji near Kolhapur preferring his descendants living in abject poverty over condoning Adharma.
  • The replacement Gaargya Brahmin was happy to support the deification of the Saint. His descendants flourish economically in the village with large lands and respect but suffer spiritually.    
  • The shrine/temple remains popular to this day and most villagers have forgotten about this tale around the origin of that particular deity. 
  • The spiritual suffering of the current Brahmin was removed by the forgiveness of the descendent of the Kaashyap Brahmin some years ago.
Ravalnath

This is the fanciful tale of my great-great ancestor as told to me by my Chachera uncle (first cousin once removed). The Gotras are not important to this piece but the emphasis and obsession on Gotra is a salient feature of Brahmanism which deserves some attention. This tale is not very atypical. There have been other documented cases of such squabbles between village Hinduism and Brahmanism. This tale echoes many other tales from South Konkan – those of Ravalnath, Betal, etc. I am unsure if the deity in the tale of my ancestor is Ravalnath or Betal or something else entirely. But the contours of the tale are very similar. In both the cases of Ravalnath and Betal, there was initial resistance to these deities from local Brahmins in the medieval times – especially due to local traditions that involved blood sacrifices and other things frowned upon by Brahmins, but over time these deities got wider acceptance – even among local Brahmins. BetalWhile Ravalnath is a Kuladevata for most Goans (all castes), Betal is a Gramadevata of some local communities. Vithoba, the popular God of Pandharpur( the annual Waari) is a very important figure of the Bhakti movement. Religious scholar and Sahitya Akademi winner RC Dhere who extensively studied Vithoba also hypotheses pre Vedic origins of Vithoba. Khandoba is another deity whose origins are similarly muddy with a range of theories explaining him as the fusion of earlier deities including Kaal Bhairav. Interestingly in the Puranic tale of Kaal Bhairav “his struggle for the atonement of Brahmanhatya” is central. Khandhoba of Jejuri remains a deity for not only the Sudra castes, but Brahmins, Jains, Lingayats, and even some Muslims including the patronage of comparatively tolerant Bijapur Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah. While it would be tempting to dismiss this as some tenuous Donigerish take, the sheer numbers of such stories spread across the country strengthen the hypothesis.

Coming back to the descendants of the uncompromising Brahmin from Vengurla. Today my extended family proudly worships all the Gramadevatas from Ichalkaranji whose origins may be very similar to the one whose foundation my ancestor had objected to. Ironically most of my paternal family follow a plethora of local Saints (in addition to the popular Bhakti Saints), whose tales of the origin have occurred within living memory and hence are far easier to negate. I would not go into rants about these Saints (esp Gajanan Maharaj) whose followers number in millions. While some traditional elite Hindus (especially Urban) are known to have disparaging views of Saints & local deities, mostly these distinctions have weathered away. It is not unlikely to find Hindus who fast on Mondays for Shiva also fast on Thursdays for some local Saint (who mostly claim intellectual or avatarish descent from Dattatraya).  Despite some initial friction, the Brahmanical thought has made its peace with such traditions. Most scholarship refers to this as – the local traditions (non-Vedic) being co-opted by Brahmanism. IMO this is an incomplete way of looking at it as it conflates organic integration which typically occurs over generations with the realization of some highly foresighted plan. Typically humans are not foresighted enough to pull off multi-generational machinations. From a multi-generation evolutionary paradigm, these would make sense but not if you take a snapshot at any particular moment in history.

With this background, we go into realms of pure speculation and come to the Post Vedic deities in Hinduism. The origin of some of these deities is highly contested – especially that of Shiva. While the Rgvedic Rudra is often said to be the precursor of Shiva, the meaning of Shiva is certainly in contrast with Rudra. Whether the Pashupati seal from IVC or other Proto-Lingas are Proto-Shiva or not will likely not be resolved till we decipher the IVC script, but these speculations seem very plausible. Even Parpola doesn’t dismiss them in his Roots of Hinduism. In addition, Parpola makes a good argument in the IVC origins of Durga with seals of Tiger riding goddesses from Kalibangan. Similarly, we can say the Dravidian Murukan and the Vedic Skanda gave rise to the Karthikeya we know today. We still don’t have any intelligent speculation about the origins of Ganesha (other than some references to Gajapati), buts it fair to assume the elephant-headed god is a pretty late addition to the Hindu pantheon. The aim here is not to discuss and speculate the origins of these deities but to guess the mechanisms of integration of these deities and customs into Brahmanism. Brahmins had a huge ritualistic/moral capital, but given the tenuous or conflicting relations they had with the Kshatriyas and other dominant castes (as seen through numerous puranic stories especially those of Parshuram) it is fair to assume Brahmins would not often get their way with subtracting traditions they found Adharmic or uncouth, yet they could continue to shape these traditions from inside with participation. Pressure both from the masses and Brahmins would’ve actively shaped the integration of these traditions for centuries to the point where it’s often hazy where Brahmanism ends and where “Non-Brahmanical” traditions begin. (This probably happened with Sramana or Proto-Sramana traditions competing with Brahmanism but that is a different discussion)

IVC goddess riding Tiger

While it is generally said Brahmanical thought absorbed the local traditions, it is equally or more appropriate to say that the village Hinduism made space for Brahmanism & tamed it – into the diverse and plural fold and this process was not complete for the entire subcontinent when Mahmud of Ghazni attacked Somnath. Scholars like to emphasize Adi-Shankara’s Advaita and Mutts, Upanishads, Rgvedic “एकं सत् विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति” as it appears sophisticated and intellectual. However, the tendency of humans to pragmatically negotiate the boundaries of their traditions (in absence of exclusionary universalist ideas) when they already have multiple modes of worship tends to be underemphasized as it appears uncouth or folk. Roman religion easily absorbed Isis and Cybele into the Roman fold but couldn’t absorb the God of Abraham. In contrast, when Christianity conquered Europe it absorbed the old gods into the Christian fold as Saints but kept them subordinate to the one true god. However, Shiva and Ganesh did not bow done to Indra, and by the time of the Puranas, the mighty Vedic Indra was reduced to an insecure and somewhat petty King of Gods.

Maybe the Brahmin elites & Sanskrit managed to maintain a cohesive identity-based on sacred geography only because they themselves were tamed in similar mechanisms by the natives of the geography. If yes, then Hindu Pluralism and Syncretism is as much a legacy of numerous lost stories as it is of the philosophical moorings of the Vedas, Itihasas, and Upanishads. 

Postscript:

I had been thinking along these lines since my discussion with Mukunda and Omar on the Brown-cast about the roots of Indian pluralism. While commenting please stick to the topic and be civil & constructive. I will delete off comments for this piece.

Their Muslim Problem—And Ours


Every now and then there is a controversy on Indian-Twitter which bleeds over into my timeline that I have to notice.

Some quick observations:

– There are those who lambast the critics of this ad. Many of the critics are low-IQ vulgarians. So the criticism is not without foundation. But, most of the responses dodge the gendered nature of the objection. The fact is that in Islam it is understood that Muslim men can marry non-Muslim women. It is also tolerated for Christians and Jews to retain their religion after marriage. The children are considered Muslim. This practice in a patriarchal society was seen as a boon to the Islamic nation.

The advertisement plays into this Islamic trope. The converse of this is that most interpretations of sharia ban the marriage of Muslim women to non-Muslim men. Again, the rationale for this is straightforward: the children inherit the religion of the father, and therefore the children are lost to Islam. If the supporters of the beauty of the advertisement of interfaith marriage believe in this custom, then they should support more speech. In particular, they should support an advertisement where a Hindu man marries a Muslim woman in a Hindu ceremony to show that there is nothing wrong with this act so long as the people consent freely.

Continue reading Their Muslim Problem—And Ours