The Era of the Kushans

I have written a new post on my personal blog about the dating of the Kushan empire. I have shown through a range of facts and arguments that the Kanishka Era should start around 233 CE and not 127 CE as is currently believed.

The Era of the Kushans

Most of you folks are unlikely to go through the entire article. My intention behind it is to get some attention from the scholars and the academia. Hence I have tried to gather as much evidence as I could to strengthen my case.

Let me state here in brief what this article is all about.

It is generally believed now that the era established by Kanishka in his 1st yeat began in 127 CE. A minority of scholars still believe that it begins in 78 CE. At the same time there is a minority view that also believes that the Kanishka Era began in the 3rd century CE – most of them being numismatists.

The main reason why 127 CE and earlier 125 CE is so popular among the scholars as the likely Year 1 of Kanishka is the belief that Chinese historical texts of the Later Han and Wei dynasties, which are chief textual sources on the Kushans, give information about Kushans and India from a report that was given to the Chinese Court in 125 CE. As per the account Kushans had recently conquered North India and were ruling over it but Kanishka is not mentioned leading scholars to infer that he must have come to the throne around or after 125 CE.

Already a few years ago, I had come across an old article by the doyen of Indian historians, R C Majumdar, where he pointed out quite clearly that there was no basis to believe that this information about the Kushan state and India was only from this report of 125 CE since the Chinese texts mention lots of information which is clearly several decades later than 125 CE. And the texts maintain that their record of history closes at the end of Han period i.e. 220 CE and 239 CE respectively. So by default one has to assume that the current state of affairs these texts relate about India and the Kushans, according to which Kushans were in control of North India, dates to around 220 and 239 CE respectively.

Most strikingly I found out, the early Kushan Emperors, before the time of Kanishka were dating their inscriptions using two Eras which were separated from each other by 129-144 years. There are only two historical eras, which incidentally happen to begin around this period, which can fit in as per this criteria and these are the Vikram Era of 57 BC and Saka Era of 78 CE which are separated in time by 135 years. Dating the early Kushan inscriptions using these two Eras pushes the Kushans in the 3rd century CE which we already noted is what the Chinese texts seem to support.

Even more remarkable was the fact that in the homeland of the Kushans in Balkh or Bactria, there was an Era, referred to commonly as the Bactrian Era, which began in the 3rd century CE and was in use atleast until the 9th century CE. It is difficult to argue that this Era is not the same as that of Kanishka the Kushan since the Kushans were native to Bactria and we know of no one else who possibly inaugurated an Era during this period. So the Kanishka Era aka the Bactrian Era began in 233 CE as it fits in well with the dates given in Vikram and Saka Era of the early Kushans.

Modern Kushan scholarship is dominated by numismatic studies. The credit for this goes to Robert Gobl, an Austrian numismatist, who revolutionised the numismatic research on Kushan coins by his indepth study and research on the subject, unlike anything that came earlier. What is worth noting is that Robert Gobl, based on his indepth study of Kushan coinage and that of Sasanian and Roman coinage as well came to the conclusion that the Great Kushans ruled in the 3rd century CE.

So, I realised that there was strong inscriptional, textual and numismatic data that supports the date of Kushans in the 3rd century CE yet no one has tried to bring all of this data together in one place and make a strong case for the Kanishka Era beginning in 3rd century. This lockdown gave me the time and opportunity to do that and I bit the bullet, as it were.

One quite interesting fact about the history of the Kushans is that they appear to have had a long standing rivalry with the Sasanians on their west. As I have argued in my article, the Kushans seem to have lost their homeland Bactria to the Sasanians during the reign of Kanishka I’s son Huvishka who nevertheless appears to have regained it within a handful of years. However, during Kanishka II’s reign in the 330s CE, as per our dating, Bactria was again lost to the Sasanians under Shapur II, and this time for several decades. The Sasanians even managed to conquer Gandhara south of the Hindu Kush.

By the end of Shapur II’s life in the 370s, a new force rises and they are conventionally referred to as the Kidarites by the scholarship. These Kidarites however claimed that they were descendents of the Kushans and the Chinese texts also endorse this. But ofcourse, there is very little evidence to confirm or deny this claim. Nevertheless, these Kidarites get hold of all existing Kushan territory and also reclaim Gandhara and Bactria from the Sasanians. Later on, the Kidarites also manage to conquer the kingdom of Sogdia (Sughd) north of Bactria. What is also quite revealing is the evidence that the Sasanians were apparently forced by these Kidarites to pay tribute to them.

In the latter half of the 5th century CE, the Sasanians refuse to pay tribute and this leads to a conflict which perhaps brought the downfall of the Kidarites around 460-470 CE. Bactria again went to the Sasanians. But by 484 CE, another obscure group, who are known as Hephthalites in modern convention defeated the Sasanians and even killed their emperor Peroz I. The Sasanians were again forced to pay tribute, this time by this new group and Bactria was lost by the Sasanians once again.

Another interesting thing during this period is that Hinduism’s influence in Central Asia kept on spreading during the Kidarite and Hephthalite rule. During the Kidarite era, it even spread to Sogdia. The Indian cultural influence across Bactria, Sogdia and all across the kingdoms of Tarim Basin lasted for several centuries until they were Islamised.


People of Indian ancestry need to learn things outside of India or they will sound stupid

At my other blog, The Decline Of Genocide And The Rise Of Rents. One of the comments is from someone with an Indian name:

The problem with the whitewashing of the islamic invasions of India is that first, nobody does that with the christian invasions of sub saharan Africa and even more so, central and South America and secondly, the genocides did not stop in the past.

I wonder how much of what the author wrote applied to the European conquests of central and south america where the aim was clearly to slaughter and convert.

Since the commenter is parochial, they don’t know about the Spanish Black Legend, which was an Anglo-Protestant propaganda effort to argue that the Catholic Spaniards were particularly cruel and evil. The reality is that the aim was to convert, but, it was also to turn the indigenous peasantry into sources of rents for the Spaniards, who were keen on living like aristocrats in the New World. The demographic collapse of the indigenous population prevented some of that and necessitated the importation of African slaves.

Why was there a demographic collapse? It wasn’t really the Spaniards killing the native people in large numbers (in fact, the conquest of America occurred with the large-scale cooperation of indigenous allies). Rather, it was disease, as outlined in Charles C. Mann’s 1491.  If you look at the comment about, you will notice a peculiar contradiction in the idea that one would want to “slaughter and convert.” Winning souls usually entails keeping them alive!

Henry Kamen’s Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763, the author outlines the contrasting case of what has become the Phillippines. Here Spaniards and mestizos were a tiny minority, and the indigenous peoples were the overwhelming majority, with a large number of Chinese engaging in trade. Why the difference? Because the Spaniards did not bring disease that were particularly impactful on the people of the Phillippines, and on the contrary, tropical climates in Asia were not healthful for Europeans. The mortality rate for the Dutch East India Company in Batavia was incredibly high, as Southeast Asia served as a great mortality maw for young men from the Netherlands and Germany for generations.

The contrast with Africa is the most extreme. Fatal disease meant that the European presence in Sub-Saharan Africa was constrained to isolated fortifications and trading center on the coast for centuries. The reason Africa was “dark” was that even after all this time much of it was unexplored into the 19th century. If you look at biographies of the “Arab slave traders” from this period you will observe that many were of predominant black African ancestry. The primary, but not exclusive, reason for this difficulty of conquest and domination was malaria. The introduction of quinine opened up the continent to Europeans and resulted in the scramble for Africa.

Though some European missionaries did come to continent with colonialism, in most places mass Christianization occurred after the end of European rule. It was driven by native Christians and often spread fastest among groups that were located adjacent to Muslims. Christianity was seen as a bulwark of the native culture against Islam,* which Vodun and other indigenous beliefs exhibited little resistance (it is a peculiar fact that “public paganism” persists in West Africa, but not in East Africa, where tribal religions are much more rural and marginal phenomenon).

What can this tell us about India? As I have posted at length, it testifies to the power and strength of native Indian religious ideas and systems. Though Hindus say they are “pagan”, they are not pagan like African pagans. Or pagans like the people of highland Southeast Asia, or the New World. Or Classical Antiquity. Muslim rulers dominated the region around Delhi from 1200 to 1770, but 80-90% of the people in the region remained non-Muslim at the end of this period!

And yet 30% of subcontinental people are now Muslim. They are concentrated on the margins, in the far west and far east. What does this tell us?

A standard model presented is that slaughter and mass-killings resulted in the shift of religion at the point of the sword. Were Muslims particularly brutal in the west and the east? More brutal in eastern Bengal than western Bengal? More brutal in southeast East Bengal than northern East Bengal?

The idea of an exceptionally violent and brutal occupation is promoted and encouraged by many factors. First, many Muslims in the past and even actually like the idea that the Turks and Mughals were particularly vicious and zealous. The Turks themselves had an interest in portraying themselves as such ghazis converting pagans at the point of the sword. For Hindus, the conversion of marginal, liminal, and low caste communities to Islam of their own free will is not something one would want to address, because it points to “push” factors within Hindu society. Defection says something about the group from which you defect.

Finally, there is the reality that the Muslims did engage in forms of cultural genocide. The destruction of temples, the selective targeting of the religious, the imposition of an alien Persian high culture, are all true things that occurred in a Hindu India.

Note: I may just delete a lot of comments on this post if they don’t meet my standard. Just warning.

* The attraction of highland Southeast Asians to Christianity has the same tendency: they see it as a bulwark against absorption into lowland Buddhist culture.


A Mongol India, a pagan India?

On Twitter there was a thread which posited what “might have been” if the Mongols had forthrightly smashed the Delhi Sultanate and added India, at least its north, to their vareigated domains. After the death of Genghis Khan, the Mongol Empire split into four broad political-geographical zones.

– to the north and west, was the Golden Horde. These Mongols and their Turkic subjects battered Europe held suzerainty over the principalities which succeeded Kievan Rus and bickered and battled with the Il-Khanate to their south.

– The IlKhanate centered around modern-day Iran, and for much of its early period controlled the Levant, much of Anatolia, and Mesopotamia.

– The Chagatai Khanate, which occupied Central Asia, to the west and east of the Altai and Tien Shan (roughly, Transoxiana and modern Xinjiang)

– The Yuan, which encompassed China and Mongolia

Genghis Khan’s conquests occurred in the early 1200s. By the 1300s all of the three “western” domains took up Islam as the primary religion of the Mongol elite. The Yuan in the east remained non-Muslim, mixing patronage of Tibetan Buddhism with the Mongols’ customary shamanist Tengrism. When they were expelled from China they retreated to Mongolia and the descendants of the Yuan ruled Mongolia until their integration into the Manchu Empire in the 17th-century.

One thing that is illuminated in Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road is that the eastern Mongols flirted with adopting Islam before they finally shifted to Tibetan Buddhism in the 16th-century. Some of their leaders took Muslim names and seem to have adopted the trappings of Islam, before falling away.

Though the transition of the western Mongols toward Islam differed across the three Khanates. The IlKhanate ruled over mostly Muslims. The fact that for several generations Muslims were ruled by Tengrists, Buddhists, and Christians (Persian Christianity had a foothold in Mongol in the 12th-century) was always a tension. Ultimately, the IlKhan conversion to Islam was not of major consequence because the IlKhanate collapsed earlier than the other domains.

The Golden Horde adopted Islam in large part because that was the religion of the Turks who comprised the majority of the nomads in the confederation. But, in the early period, the Golden Horde was hegemonic over many Christian regions, and the majority of its subjects may have been nominally Christian. And yet the Mongol elite was naturally assimilated into the Turkic elite, not the Christian princes (though they did intermarry with the Christian nobility, and some Lithuanian and Russian noble lineages have Mongol ancestry from the Golden Horde).

The Chagatai Khanate’s adoption of Islam in the 14th-century was ironic, because Chagatai, one of the sons of Genghis Khan, was a fierce Mongol traditionalist who personally detested Islam. As with the Golden Horde, the Islamicization of the Chagatai lineage seems to have been a function of the reality that the non-Muslim Mongols swam in a sea of Turkic Muslim subjects.

Which brings us to India. Most readers of this post will know that the Mongols had various military encounters with the nascent Delhi Sultanate, but ultimately India never truly became a part of their empire. But what if it had?

The person who initially posted this counterfactual fantasized about the destruction of Islam in India because the Mongols were against Islam. This is objectively not so. In the 13th-century, the Mongols were religiously peripatetic and latitudinarian. The only “higher religion” that they were initially familiar with was the Persian Christianity of their Kerait and Naiman neighbors. Most of Genghis Khan’s sons married Christian women from these tribes.

Though Genghis Khan himself took to developing a special relationship with a Daoist adept, repeatedly the early Mongols seemed to exhibit a strong affinity toward Tibetan Buddhism, prefiguring the Mongol mass conversion of the 16th-century. Buddhist lamas were presences in both the Golden Horde and the IlKhanate, and Persia in the 13th-century saw a renaissance of Buddhist temple building.

My initial thought about the counterfactual is that the Mongols would surely have become Muslim, as they did in the Golden Horde, because of the large number of Turkic Muslims present in India. The analogy here is with the Golden Horde. In the Golden Horde Mongols and Turks shared the same mode of production, as pure pastoralists and rent-seekers. Mongols who lived a sedentary lifestyle may have eventually simply been absorbed into the Russians.

But then I began thinking: what about the Yuan dynasty example? Here Mongols used Muslims as an intermediary caste with the local population, and never became Muslims themselves. Additionally, while the Han Chinese did not have a military caste (the military profession had a low status in China at the time), obviously India’s Rajputs were a local group of non-Muslims with whom the Mongols might identify. Many of the Mongols were already nominally Buddhist, and so concepts such as Dharma might be familiar to them.

So let’s imagine a fork where Mongols arrive as non-Muslims, and somehow establish a synthesis with Hindus and eventually assimilate as a Hindu caste. This is not totally crazy. In 1228 the Tai Ahom arrived in Assam. They were already partially Buddhist, though eventually, they became Hindus.

Of course, many Hindus want to know: would this be the end of Islam in the subcontinent? I don’t think so for two reasons.

First, the Mongols were generally religiously tolerant. This often held even after their initial conversion to Islam, which was often quite nominal and practical. It seems unlikely they’d wage a religious vendetta against Islam as such. The Turks and Afghans who arrived in the earlier decades would probably simply go into service with the Mongol Khanate. Eventually, they’d be the core of a religious minority in a post-Mongol but Hindu dispensation. This is what happened in China, where many of the Chinese Muslims clearly descend from Central Asians and Turks who arrived with the Yuan.

Second, there may simply be structural reasons why Muslim Turks would move into India no matter what at some point. India was rich. The Turks and Afghans were not. Additionally, as pastoralists and nomads with ready access to horses, the Central Asians had structural advantages against local polities, who could not mobilize the whole of local economies. I suspect, to be honest that the Mongols would only arrest and delay a process that was inevitable.


The Indian Neolithic

To understand the genetic patterning of South Asia more understanding of the archaeology of the Neolithic is necessary. Unfortunately, I don’t have that. The site of Chirand in Bihar has extensive Neolithic features which date to at 4,500 years at the latest (the region seems to have undergone stepwise development for thousands of years earlier). Who were these people? What happened to them?


Years of Rice and Lentils

Going back twenty years I have been fascinated by “alternative history” science fiction. This is often termed “Uchronia.” If you want to explore this genre, I suggest the Uchronia website.

Probably the biggest breakout into “mainstream” science fiction of this sort of work is Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt. Here the “Point of Departure,” where history forks from our timeline, is the Black Death. White Christian Europeans go extinct, with small groups getting absorbed by expanding West Asian and North African Muslims. Eventually, Europe becomes one of the outposts of the Near Eastern Islamic civilization.  The world becomes defined by a “Cold War” between a Chinese-led bloc, and an Islamic-led bloc, with the Indian subcontinent, split between the two (though leaning toward the Chinese-led bloc).

The reason I’m bringing this up is that it presents a thought experiment: what if the Hindu Rajputs had managed to prevent the expansion of Turco-Muslim polities into the Indian subcontinent beyond the Sindh and parts of Punjab? If this had happened, the shock of the Mongol sweep south would probably be even more devastating for the Turco-Muslim polities of Persia and Central Asia (India being less of a fallback). One can imagine a scenario playing out where Islam and Muslims in the Indian subcontinent remain a small distinct minority, with higher concentrations in coastal areas impacted by trade. Islam would perhaps play the same role in India as it does in mainland Southeast Asia: a minority religion that serves mostly as an interface with the Indian Ocean trading network, rather than a religion of a dominant ruling class.

A more interesting question is what are the cultural ramifications of this historical fork? A comment was made on this weblog stated that to a great extent it is hard to imagine North Indian culture without Muslim (so Turkic and Persian) influence. One may disagree with this comment, but it is not a crazy assertion.

But the question of the nature of the alternative history is interesting. Because it is a way one can get at an answer as to what a reconstructed Hindu identity which genuinely strips away Islamicate accretions would look like. Something some people do aspire to…


An early modern Pax Islamica

The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughal has been in my “stack” for a while. It’s a short and academically-oriented work. What’s great about this book is that it is cross-cultural and comparative. I don’t know about you, but these sorts of narrative frames make recall and retention far easier for me. The integration of facts with other facts means that the sum of the parts is greater than the parts evaluated alone. In this, it has similarities with Strange Parallels: Integration on the Mainland: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800–1830.

The title itself is informative. These were Islamic polities in a self-conscious manner. The Ottoman Sultan emerged out of a parvenue lineage on the western Anatolian frontier whose claim to rule was based on their status as ghazis. Warriors of the faith. Their Mandate was confirmed through victory. The Safavids had religious charisma before they were temporally powerful. They were hereditary leaders of a Sufi order (their adoption of Shia Islam was a relatively late event). Finally, the Mughals were arguably the least religiously inflected of the three early modern dynasties, despite their appeal to the ghazi ethos.

Rather, the Mughals were notable because of their lineage, which was the most prestigious of the three. The Timurids descended from Timur, obviously, but more importantly, they descended on their maternal side from Genghis Khan. Though Genghis Khan was a pagan, whose scions destroyed much of the Islamic civilization of the Near East (and killed the last Abbassid Caliphs), the raw power and impact of the conqueror was such that he cast a shadow over the whole Turco-Persian world.

The key issue here is that these were dynasties of the Turco-Persian world, more or less. These were not states of the Islamic Arab world, though the Ottomans eventually absorbed much of that world in their later expansionary phase. Nor were they states of the Far East, or even Inner Asia. Despite all their other antecedents,* these dynasties were of Turkic provenance, and yet their entry into Islam was associated with their entry into Persianate culture.

The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughal takes a chronological tack in that it explores the origins of the three polities as far back as 1000 A.D., and also addresses thematic elements (e.g., architecture, poetry, and economics). Because of the thematic component it is not a work that needs to be read in sequence chapter by chapter, though perhaps doing so would allow for full appreciation.

One thing that jumps out is that in many ways the Safavid Iranian regime is an outlier in many ways. This is obviously true in regards to religion. The Safavids began as a vaguely Sunni but very Sufi religious order in eastern Anatolia. But by 1500 they were promoting arguably ghulat forms of Shia Islam, before settling down on mainstream Ithna Ashari beliefs. It is to this period that connections between Iran, a term that they resurrected, and the Shia cities of Iraq and the Shia regions of Lebanon, were established. It is during this period that Iran was forcibly converted from a mostly Sunni cultural region with Shia pockets to a Shia domain.

The Safavid domains corresponded roughly to what we now know as the Iranian nation-state (Mesopotamia was part of the Safavid domains for a few decades here and there). Despite early attempts at expansion into their Anatolian homelands, rebuffed by the muscular Ottoman military machine, the Safavids were preoccupied with internal concerns. The religious transformation of a whole region through coercion expended a great deal of capital. The early Ottoman state before 1500, and the Mughal domains for its entirety, was different from the Safavids insofar as the ruling military elite were of a different religious identity from the majority whom they ruled (Christians and Hindus respectively).

In contrast, the Ottomans did not attempt to forcibly reshape the culture of their vast domains. The millet system established subordinate roles for non-Muslims, while Ottoman hegemony over their 16th-century conquests in Arab lands did not disrupt native elites (the Mameluke Sultanate was conquered, but the Mamelukes remained Egypt’s ruling caste for centuries under the Ottomans). Within Anatolia and parts of Rumelia a process of assimilation of Greeks, Macedonians, and Armenians, to a “Turkish” identity occurred organically through conversion to Islam. Over the centuries the cosmopolitan tastes of the early Sultans, who spoke Persian at court and styled themselves, successors of the Roman Emperors, gave way to a classical Ottoman identity as leaders of the Muslim world who nevertheless had their own linguistic identity.

The Mughals, though just to the east of Safavid Iran, were a polity characterized by extremely different concerns and resources. Mughal controlled India was the second most populous polity in the world after Ming China. It dwarfed Safavid Persia, even the Ottoman Empire. The Timurids conquered a civilization, or perhaps more accurately a coalition of civilizations. Unlike the Ottomans and to a lesser extent Safavids the Mughals did not create “slave” armies and “slave” bureaucracies. The native resources of India’s people were such that this was not necessary (the argument in regards to labor also is often used to explain why slavery was never popular in China). Hindu Rajputs served in the Mughals in military roles, while groups such as Kayasthas served them in civilian roles.

But the Mughal story is not simply one of “going native.” The Ottomans and Safavids relied on “slave” armies due to the fact that these were often more loyal to the regime than regional or tribal levies. The Mughals opened up India to vast numbers of Turkic warriors and Persian literati. These two groups were regime loyalists because like slaves they lacked local roots.

As Persia become more Shia, many of these foreigners who arrived in India were Shia, but there were also broader connections to the Hanafi Sunni world, as far afield as the Ottoman domains. For example, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb patronized the compilation of a series of religious codes, which apparently became quite well known and popular in Ottoman Anatolia.

It is often said that Indian Islam became rooted in the soil of the subcontinent and took upon syncretistic aspects. This is true as far as it goes, but it seems clear to me that the integration of the Mughal ruling class into Turco-Persian culture served as a major check upon this process. The Mughal Emperor Akbar clearly exhibited a tendency toward synthesis and innovation in his religious thought, but his views did not win the day. Rather, it is notable that The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughal reinforces the contention that each successive Mughal Emperor from Akbar, to Jahangir, to Shah Jahan, and finally Aurangzeb, adhered more closely to West Asian normative Islam.

A distinctive aspect of the Mughal polity is that it assimilated and promoted individuals who were ethnocultural distinct from the core ruling elite. In fact, arguably very disparate groups were all bound together as part of the core ruling elite. In particular, the Rajput generals who served the Mughals. This is in contrast with the Ottoman and Safavid cases, where conversion of the slave to Islam entailed eventual ethnic assimilation. The problem with Aurangzeb, despite his military victories, is that he began aggressively espousing a more West Asian style of ideological assimilating, coaxing and coercing Hindu military elites into Islam. The Mughal equipoise was broken, and while Safavid Iran gave way to polities which inherited all its major features (the Zand and Qajar regimes), and the Ottomans persisted in their long decline, Mughal India quickly shattered in the 18th-century, to leave behind a broad cultural influence.

More generally The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughal illustrates that a ruling elites with a similar ethos can span multiple polities. Despite the religious distinctiveness of the Safavids, which became more clear over time, the three early modern Muslim polities fostered trade and intellectual exchange. Large colonies of Indian merchants were resident in Isfahan (from which they eventually sojourned to Astrakhan and eventually Moscow).

As noted in The Idea of the Muslim World Indian Muslims after the fall of the Mughal Empire had a major influence on Islam in what became Turkey. In Bernard Lewis’ oeuvre there is discussion about the West’s rise and its supremacy over the world of Islam, and the psychological shock that that entailed. But what about the Maratha captivity of the Mughals and how they shaped the confusion of Indian Muslims?

The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughal illustrates that cross-cultural and cross-national civilizational affinities and ties are quite common. Today many view the West as sui generis. In some ways that are true, in magnitude, and scope. But around the year 1500, a group of Turkic tribesmen had conquered remnants of Byzantium, the Persian Empire, and India. In the ensuing centuries, they transformed these regions, and were themselves transformed. Today to be Persian and to be Shia are almost synonymous (Tajiks tend to be Sunni of course). But this was the consequence of Turkic tribesman. Today Anatolia is mostly Turkish speaking, but that is due to centuries of cultural assimilation. Finally, many elements of Indian culture are hard to imagine without the Mughal period.

* The Safavids had Greek and Kurdish origins as well, though in their early period the Turkic ethnic component was most important. Similarly, the Timurids had recent Mongol ancestry, but their primary identity was with the Turco-Persian world. Finally, the early period of the Ottomans is obscure, but it is hard to imagine that these Anatolian Turks did not absorb some of the “substrate” elements. Mehmet the Conqueror had a Christian, possibly European, mother.


Social Justice as white self-regard and self-obsession

A few years ago I made a passing reference to the “Kali Yuga” (I had been reading the Mahabharata), and an interlocutor expressed alarm. “Isn’t that an ‘alt-right’ idea?”

The truth is that the concept has become entrenched in parts of the Western Right through the influence of Theosophy and Julius Evola, but its origins and primary usage is non-Western. Obviously. Westerners repurposed the concept for their own usage (“appropriated” one might say).

I thought of this when our resident archetype of a particular type of “social justice” narrowly “liberally” educated commentator made an observation that some phrases had particular connotations among white nationalists. This was true on the face of it, but it struck me as illustrative of the pantheon of the powerful in the mind of this individual. The phrases in question, relating to anti-Semitism, are actually much more common among non-Western people today.

But this is not of any great consequence for many. Non-Western people do not exist except in relation to Western people, and non-Western people and their views are seen as purely derivative and reactionary to Western people.

In other words, Western people are the agents of history, the only observers of Schrodinger’s Cat.

This is an ahistorical and non-empirical view. Whether you agree with the scholarship in The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, the fact that this argument could be made in the first place stands testament to the rich textured complexity of the past.

Modern ideologies tend to flatten and diminish the complexity of history.


To know one must know

I was having a discussion with a young person of subcontinental origin who is completing a STEM Ph.D. An open-minded and curious person and they asked me to exposit to them why a post-colonial paradigm that reduces all non-Western/white peoples to being objects in a narrative driven by Western/white agents is built on false premises. My candid opinion is that this is not something that one can explain in a single conversation, or in a single article. The reason is simple: if you don’t know much you are ultimately relying on someone else’s credibility.

I think I’m a credible person, but obviously I would think that. Unfortunately, history is messy, complex, and filled with shades and textures that can only be appreciated through direct consumption, not description. You need to read the history yourself and reflect upon it deeply in a first-person sense.

The reality is that there are plainly mendacious actors out there who launder their credentials to promote lies. This behavior knows no ideology but is quite common and pervasive. Often these “public historians” do not lie or spread falsehood directly, but they obfuscate and redirect attention in such a manner so that their audience draws particular ‘natural’ conclusions which are at variance with reality as we understand it.

I particularly recommend history written about the time before 1800, because the foundations of the present often run quite deep, an assertion which directly undercuts the logic of post-colonialism, where the recent overwhelms the past.

Economic history, in particular, is often useful because it deals in concrete variables, where human judgment is less opaque. For example, Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium.

On occasion, readers will question why it is so important to know broadly and deeply to understand the particular. That is due to the reality that the particular is simply the terminal node in a tree of decisions which fans out into the past and across continents.


Capsule Review: The Birth of Classical Europe

This book is a great review of the rise and fall of classical Europe, from the earliest civilizations in Crete and Greece to the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity. The authors are professional historians and remarkably free of either Left or Right wing cant. They provide an excellent summary of the rise of Mediterranean civilization and the origins of the notion of Europe. They manage to pack a remarkable amount of facts into this book, including quantitative data where possible (“X percent of all crockery at this site changed from Greek to Etruscan between Y and Z years” kind of thing). Greco-Roman nerds will know many more details obviously, but even they will not be disappointed with how much information and perspective the authors can fit into a small space. Well worth reading.


Sangat and Society: the Sikh remaking of the North Indian Public Sphere

[Author’s note: With the celebrations of Guru Nanak’s 550th Anniversary and the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor being in the news, this is an opportunity for discussing the importance of the Sikh message, not just from a religious perspective – for Sikhs – but for Indian history. This article places the founding of Kartarpur, and Guru Nanak’s message, in a historical context – juxtaposing it with Babur’s founding of the Mughal Empire.]

I. Turning of the Wheel: Baba Nanak and Babur

In 1519, Babur invaded India – ‘ever since coming to Kabul we had been thinking of a Hindustan campaign, but for one reason or another it had not been possible,’ he writes in the Baburnama (translated by William Thackston, see pp 270-280). For some time his armies had been campaigning on the frontiers of the Hindu Kush, but these campaigns had yielded ‘nothing of consequence to the soldiers’. So, he turned to Hindustan. In the next few months, despite dogged resistance by the Afghans, Gujjars and Jats of the upper reaches of the Jhelum and Chenab, northern Punjab was subjugated, and plundered, by Babur’s armies. Babur himself spent most of his days inebriated, contemplating the legacy of Timur and setting poems to rhythmic metres. While his next great invasion of Punjab would come few years from then, in this interregnum, Punjab burned.

Among the towns and villages devastated was the settlement of Sayyidpur.

It was not long after Babur’s march of death through Punjab that Guru Nanak returned home from his western voyages – to Mecca, through Baghdad, Masshad, Khurasan, to Kabul, Peshawar, and, finally, to Sayyidpur. To the house of a humble carpenter, Bhai Lalo (Janam Sakhi Parampara by Kirpal Singh, pp 138-140). Continue reading “Sangat and Society: the Sikh remaking of the North Indian Public Sphere”