What is indigenous about Indian civilization?

The curry to the right contains potatoes, tomatoes, and chili pepper. All of these are features of Indian cuisine from the last 500 years, as they are New World crops. Unsurprisingly, they were often brought by the Portuguese and spread out from Goa. But, at this point, it’s hard to deny these have been thoroughly indigenized. So this brings me to some questions I have for readers (non-troll answers only, I may start banning people who answer unseriously, since I’m very busy this week and don’t want to waste time with drivel):

Continue reading “What is indigenous about Indian civilization?”

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The myth of Brahmin supremacy!

It seems in this globalized world many intellectual movements deploy the same abstractions. For example, the terms “Brahmin privilege” and “Brahmin supremacy” are clearly constructed as perfect analogs to “white privilege” and “white supremacy.” Brahmins cannot have their own independent history, but operationalize a general model of power relations predicated on the white-black dynamic in the United States that developed in the 19th-century (nevermind that Brahmins were in existence long before this).

This piece, Anti-Blackness Goes Back To Ancient Times, has this passage which I know to be promoting ideas which are false:

Other scholars, such as Harvard’s Suraj Yengde, whose research focuses on the solidarity between Dalits and blacks, say that it wasn’t just outsiders — India gave birth to the original color-based social class system that dates back to the ancient Rig Veda texts, to around 1200 B.C. “The Varna system literally means ‘color’ system, so it’s not surprising that Indians in America have maintained these racist dogmas,” he said. Dalits and the black American experience have strong ties because they are the most disenfranchised people in their communities. “This whole situation is having a global ripple effect. I don’t know if it will bring about much change, but people are definitely talking about it.”

Yengde adds that the caste system and skin color are very much linked. “Oftentimes, we’ll see Brahmins push ideas of colorism, racism, casteism on British and Muslim invaders,” he said. That’s why Yengde doesn’t see the inherent bias of some South Asians going away anytime soon.

Within the piece itself, the author notes that there are early Hadith that express racism against dark-skinned people, presumed to be descended from African slaves. Racial attitudes were an issue in the early Islamic period, with a Turkic scholar making the case for the value of his own people, and Arab commentaries on Indians refers somewhat negatively upon their “black” complexion. This persists down to the period of Turkic rule when prestigious “white” Muslims (often born in Central Asia) were distinguished from local “black” Muslims (often descended from converts). Modern colloquial color categories in the Gangetic plain date to this period.

As far as the British, their ideas of race, color, and caste, were shaped by the Atlantic trade and slavery, as well as contacts with Native Americans, long before the rise of the Raj. There was a history of the British Empire long before intense engagement with Indian Brahmins.

I do knot know Yengde’s work, but he seems of a type of modern scholar, taking a meta-narrative, and fitting all of history into that meta-narrative, no matter how absurd. Ultimately this is not a scholarship, but a form of polemic and propaganda.

I stand against this. I will always will.

Addendum: I should note, though there are poor Brahmins, all across India Brahmins tend to be placed nearer the top of the social scale. In a literal sense “Brahmin privilege” is real. But this phenomenon should be explored in the context of Indian history, not a meta-narrative derived from the American context.

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Maratha Mindset: How to Control Your History and Emotions to Grasp the Future on Your Terms


The film Panipat is on Netflix, and I watched a bit of mostly for anthropological reasons. It seems a typical melodramatic Bollywood gloss on this period, and I found the depiction of Ahmad Shah Durrani rather amusing.

But it brought to mind a broader issue that I’ve been reflecting on over the past few years: the re-pivoting of Indian historical imagination around the Maratha moment. Most recently my thoughts have been sharpened by the goings-on in the United States, as we reevaluate our own historical figures and events. History is what it is, but the interpretation is multi-layered, and the process of analysis is subject to an infinite chain of point and counterpoint.

For example, Ulysses S. Grant has been rehabilitated because broadly on the questions of racial justice he was on the “right side of history,” though ultimately his efforts failed. This, after a period in the 20th-century when Southern historians slandered his character and competence in a clever trick of defeating him long after his death through control of historical memory.

And yet, if you talk to a Native American their view of Grant is far less positive. This is due to the fact that Grant participated in and executed the American government’s wars against Indian tribes.

The final verdict on Grant and his legacy depends on where you stand. The elements of history which lead up to this judgment though are far more solid. The terminus of the analysis is conditional on the analyst, but the facts themselves are invariant.

So how should we view the Marathas and the Mughals? When I wrote Haunted by History I alluded to general issues I’ve noticed in Indians in relation to their past. I have read enough history to be aware of the Marathas as a factual matter. But my conscious understanding of what they meant to Indians, and what they could have been, was stimulated by the arguments of a Hindu nationalist friend of mine.

In the 19th and 20th century various nationalist movements rose up which recaptured the political system from cosmopolitan and/or alien elites. The Chinese took back their state from the Manchus. Across Europe, ethnic groups such as the Lithuanians and Hungarians, submerged, sublimated, or subordinated, rose up and asserted their national identity. Lithuanians and Hungarians, to give two examples, had great histories as nations in the past, but by the early modern period, their elites had become subordinated and assimilated. The Lithuanian nobility became totally Polonized after the Union of Lubin. The rise of Habsburgs, and the fall of the Hungarians to the Ottomans, resulted in a Magyar nation which was under German and Turkish domination for centuries. The Dual Monarchy period after 1868 allowed the Hungarian nobility more freedom and status, though ironically they continued to oppress and subordinate the ethnic minorities under their hegemony in the eastern part of Austria-Hungary.

The emergence of these new identities entailed a reinterpretation of the valence of historical events.

Before we get to that, let’s consider the Marathas, of all castes and persuasions. The debates I have seen often end up at two antipodes. On the one hand, the Marathas are depicted as proto-Hindu nationalists, defending themselves against Muslim oppressors, and giving their swords in the service of the broader pan-ethnic Hindu Rashtra. The contrasting position is that the Marathas were motivated by more prosaic concerns, and their Hinduism was a secondary or ancillary element to their identity. In fact, one might problematize what “Hindu” even meant in the 17th and 18th centuries. That is, they didn’t have a “Hindu identity,” but had a Maratha identity, and Maratha religious practices and beliefs.

Both of these views are I think wrong-headed in understanding this period and these people. Humans are complex, and not cartoons. Someone like Shijavi may have reimagined who he was, what he could become, over his lifetime. In the beginning, he fought to survive. By the end, he fought to conquer.

Certainly, it seems probable, to give a different example, that Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor, reconceptualized his relationship to his new faith over the decades and also reimagined what it might mean for Rome. This is a different reading than that of those who assert that Constantine was never really a Christian because in the early years of his acceptance of the new faith he seems to still have nodded to aspects of the Solar cult which he was once a devotee, or of those who assert that he was a zealous Christian as they would understand it after he issued the Edict of Milan.

Where does this leave us? I have spoken earlier of the fact that to be frank, many people from Uttar Pradesh who are Hindu seem somewhat “broken.” Perhaps I should use a different word, as what I’m trying to get at is ineffable. But I believe that hundreds of years of continuous Turco-Muslim domination, and the historical predations upon their sacred geography, has left an imprint. Their land was the heart of the Mughal Empire, the shining exemplar of Turco-Muslim civilization. Though the Indian religion and self-identity maintained itself in a resilient fashion, it was subaltern. Though never sublimated as the Lithuanians were, it was subordinated.

Mount Rushmore means a very different thing to Native Americans than it does to white Americans. To many Hindus from the Gangetic plain, the apogee of the Mughals means something different than it does to Urdu-speaking Muslims. One man’s glory is another man’s shame. One man’s seduction is another man’s cuckoldry.

Which brings me to the “Maratha mindset.” What do I mean by this? I mean a self-assured, self-confident attitude. The sense that the arc of history bends toward the Dharma. The Maratha project failed in the end, but its ultimate failure was due to the reality of European hegemony and the rise of white supremacy across the globe. It seems possible in an alternative history where European domination occurred later, or in an incomplete fashion, the Maratha polities would have served as the ultimate basis for what became the Indian nation-state. This does not mean that Maratha would be the language of the Indian nation-state, or that the culture of the northwest Deccan would be hegemonic. An analogy here might be the role that elites from the Chūgoku region of western Japan played in driving modernization in the Meiji period, before eventually ceding ground to the resurgent Kanto region around Tokyo. Chūgoku was the nucleus, but only the beginning, the “starter.” The final product is always richer and more multi-faceted.

The moral of this post is that the Hindus of the Gangetic plain resisted Islamicization through a process of fracturing into localities, with a broader civilizational identity. But the resistance and centuries of Mughal domination crushed cross-regional asabiya, which is necessary for nation-building. Obviously the nation is built, and Uttar Pradesh in particular is politically central. But the psychology of the Hindus of this region has to move from negation, reaction, to positive action. They need to shake off their history and move forward into the future. They need to adopt the Maratha mindset.

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Lord Indra the brutal!

In the post below a question comes up: what about the Indo-Aryans?.

First, before we move on, I want to stipulate that I am going to assume that the Indo-Aryans were intrusive around ~1500 BC. I believe this is true, though I understand not everyone does. Stipulating that this is true, was the intrusion brutal? Looking into the admixture coefficients it seems plausible that the Indo-Aryan ancestry genome-wide in the Upper and Middle Gangetic plains, the heart of Aryavarta, is in the range of 10-20%. For various reasons, I lean toward a higher estimate. This is lower than the proportion of “steppe” ancestry in Northern Europe, and in the range in parts of Southern Europe (though still lower than much of Southern Europe).

The contrast with Turco-Muslims could not be more striking. The distinct part of Turco-Muslim ancestry is East Asian. Some of this can be found in groups like Pashtuns, and in a few rare cases in Indo-Muslims, but it is entirely absent in the non-Muslim population. The exceptions are totally comprehensible; Indians from the Himalayan and Northeastern fringes. If the Muslims did rape Hindu women they killed them all. This is not implausible on the face of it, but in the context of human civilization, it seems unlikely. Rather, the situation more like the rape of the Sabine women is the norm (I believe most of the sexual exploitation of Hindu Indian women eventually resulted in Indian Muslims).

To be frank: I believe that the Indo-Aryan intrusion into what became Aryavarta resulted in more death proportionally than the Turco-Muslim intrusion. There are several reasons why this might be.

Like the migration of the Rohirrim into part of the fallen kingdom of Arnor, I suspect that the Indo-Aryans arrived in a landscape where the machinery of the Indus Valley Civilization  (IVC) had already fallen apart due to the early Bronze Age climatic shock (which impacted West Asia as well). What the Indo-Aryans encountered probably resembled the petty kings of Dark Age Greece after the fall of the citadel culture.

In short, one reason that the Indo-Aryan impact was so strong is that Indian agricultural society was much thinner and less dense in the second millennium BC than in the second millennium AD. The threads which bound societies together were much more robust after thousands of years of institutional development, and economic advancement and technological innovation.

Another reason is that elite ideologies and outlooks had changed. It is entirely plausible that the Indo-Aryans and the native elites faced each other in a game of animal competition and elimination. The strategy of later barbarians, whether it be Huns or Khitai, was to extract tribute from agricultural societies which produced much more aggregate wealth and specialized luxury goods. This may not be a situation that occurred in much of Eurasia in the second millennium BC, as conquest elites perceived themselves to be primary producers rather than extractors of tax. As such, no accommodation may have been possible in many more cases than would be true later.

Peter Turchin has argued that violence probably peaks in the “pre-state polity” phase. The emergence of complex institutions and world religions in the first millennium BC was part of a process of smoothing over the autocratic brutality of the new regimes. The reality is that despite the ideological differences, the Turco-Muslims who arrived in India were primarily motivated by material considerations of extraction.

So what’s going on with the different views of the Turco-Muslims vs. the Indo-Aryans? Clearly time matters. The Turco-Muslim hegemony lasted into the early modern period. It is raw. In contrast, the Indo-Aryan fusion with the Indian substrate occurred before history. The keyword here is fusion. Despite what I believe are the violent antecedents of the pairing of fair Arjuna and dark Draupadi, out of the union was born the culture and people of North India. In contrast, the Turco-Muslims introduced a religion and culture which was incompletely digested and synthesized.

If the Turoc-Muslims and their Indo-Islamic descendants severed connection with West Asia and broader institutions such as the Naqshbandi tariqa, then a synthesis might have emerged. As it is, the synthesis was frozen and incomplete. The Muslim people of the Indian subcontinent are ancestrally no different than the non-Muslim people, and speak similar languages and eat similar food, but their identity is deeply different and distinct. In some ways, they exist as an inversion or negation of the native religious traditions, with their tacit polytheism and explicit idolatry (of course there are exceptions). Though some interaction has long occurred between Islam and Indian darshanas, it is not reciprocal and explicit. The metaphysical presuppositions diverge.

So there you go. At the end of the day problem is rather straightforward and plain. Like oil and water Indian Islam and non-Islam remain separate and wary, each unable to absorb or marginalize the other. If Muslims were a few percents of the population some level of synthesis would naturally occur. Conversely, if Muslims were more than 90 percent of the population, likely more liberal and progressive Muslims be curious about mining and rediscovering their Indian religious traditions and history. But as it is, we’re in an unstable equilibrium in between.

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Haunted by history

Aurangzeb, a good Muslim

Today Genghis Khan is a hero in Mongolia. This, despite the fact that the rise of his Mongol Empire was associated with mass death. This mass death resulted in reforestation, which changed atmospheric CO2 levels.

There are many histories of the rise of the Mongo Empire, but Frank McLynn’s Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy, is probably the most balanced treatment.

During Genghis Khan’s lifetime, the most impactful and catastrophic conquests were of Central Asia and the obliteration of the Khwarezmian Empire. After the death of Genghis Khan, his heirs further obliterated the world of Islam, including killing the last significant Caliphs of the Abbassids. To a great extent, Genghis Khan ended with finality the world of the Iranian people of Turan, leaving the Tajiks as the Persianate rump. Economic historians have suggested that the destruction of Iranian agriculture (e.g., the qanat system) that occurred during the Mongol conquest was so great that the region did not recover until the modern era.

Muslim historians, some under the service of Mongol successor dynasties, have taken a mixed view of Genghis Khan and those who descend from him. On the one hand, their destructive impact is impossible to deny. The Mongols were one of the last of the steppe nomads to explode out of the Eurasian interior, but they were one of the largest military-political shocks, destroying multiple polities. But descent from Genghis Khan became prestigious in the Turkic world.

This is somewhat discomfiting and paradoxical because Genghis Khan was proudly pagan. And, it was not in dispute that the Mongol invasions had been brutally destructive. The prestige and glamor was clearly a nod to the fact that Genghis Khan’s conquests were evidence of glory sanctioned by God.

Despite Genghis Khan’s pagan beliefs, and the negative impact that the Mongol conquests had on Islam, somehow elements of Mongolic ruling culture became normative among the Muslims of Central Asia. This is how the name “Khan” became associated primarily with Muslims in the Indian subcontinent. Though there are non-Muslim Khan’s in South Asia, on the whole, the surname is associated with those of Muslim background, which is ironic given that it is a purely pagan title.

The details and subtleties of this history are on my mind because of the conversation I had yesterday with Neha Srivastava. It strikes me that in some ways she is haunted by history. In particular, the history of Turco-Islamic domination and brutality in the Indian subcontinent. She mentions offhand a Bollywood star giving her son the name Timur, which is reminiscent of a brutal Turco-Muslim conqueror, Timur the Lame.

This is where details became important. Neha no doubt remembers the brutal sack of Delhi. Though most of the dead were not Muslim, it is important to remember that Timur’s target was a polity ruled by Turco-Muslims, like himself. Importantly, and ironically, despite being a Muslim, Timur the Lame wrought his destruction exclusively in Muslim lands, or lands ruled by Muslims (India).

Though many facts of history are beyond dispute (e.g., Timur’s sacking of Delhi), the valence with which we recollect them varies. The Mongols view Genghis Khan as a great leader and a cultural figure of worth and note. Muslims take a more mixed view. Meanwhile, for European Christians and the Chinese, the Mongols are a purely destructive force. Whether the Mongols and Genghis Khan are worthy and of admiration is clearly filtered through a cultural lens.

Because I’m a bit of a Mongol history nerd, the name Timur to me actually is not closely associated with Timur the Lame! It as in fact closely associated with Khans of the Yuan Dynasty of China and Mongolia, who never converted to Islam. But then, I’m not an Indian Hindu.

Nevertheless, the issue of the name Timur is an illustration of the general phenomenon: a lack of the acknowledgment of the cultural brutality and domination which Turco-Muslims wrought upon the Indian subcontinent and its native peoples in the period between 1200 and 1800. Six hundred years of domination to varying degrees.

I will interject here an objection to what I see as some hyperbole. Oftentimes Hindus make the case for almost Nazi-like domination of Islamic power in medieval and early modern India. There are two major objections to this extreme characterization.

First, premodern societies did not have totalitarian state capacity. Both the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic polities were fixated on a universal state religion. But their coercive power had limitations. There were pagans who lived in southwest Peloponnese until about the year 1000 A.D., when they were finally converted. State Christianity did not have the power to coerce these isolated people, because the state was thin and weak. Similarly, the pagans of eastern Afghanistan, the Nuristanis, were forcibly converted to Islam in the last decade of the 19th century.

Second, the vast majority of the people in the upper Gangetic plain, the core of Turco-Islamic rule in the Indian subcontinent, remain Hindus. That is, practitioners of native Indian religious traditions. This is simply incompatible with the idea of centuries of totalitarian rule. Again, going back to the first point, premodern states had limited capacity for domination and coercion. The power of the Roman state or the Caliphate was an ideological one, as local officials were bound together by their allegiance to a figurehead. But if a local ruler or administrator wanted to operate at sharp variance from the ultimate ruler, it was entirely feasible. Central state capacity was weak.

The Islamicization of much of the Punjab and Bengal were not a function of the greater state capacity of the Turco-Muslim rulers of northern India. Rather, they were a function of the peculiar characteristics of unstable borderlands, which tend to be much more attracted to dynamic novel ideologies promoted by ruling elites, which in the late medieval and early modern period meant Islam. This is the same reason why Zoroastrianism (and Buddhism) was replaced by Islam much more quickly amongst the populace in Central Asian Turan than in Iran proper. Turan was frontier land. Iran was not.

With that preamble out of the way, it is not disputable to me that the Turco-Muslim conquest elites in the Indian subcontinent engaged in plunder, extraction, and subjugation, in a relatively brutal manner.  The emergence of ISIS in the middle of the teens illustrates the nature of Islamic dominionism. The sexual exploitation of Yazidi women is in keeping with a tradition in Islam of sexual slavery of the women of conquered infidel peoples. This is not unique to Islam of course, but neither is not something one can deny as being part of Islamic history.

Now let us imagine an alternative history where the Turks who invaded the subcontinent were not Muslim. It is quite likely that like the Tai Ahom they would have become Hindu. It is quite likely that initially, they would have been just as brutal and exploitative as the Turco-Muslims. And, if they retained self-awareness as a distinct people for long enough that nature of a ruling class would persist despite the slow accretion of Indian cultural features. But, eventually, they would have become fully Indian, and gone into the mists of a legend like the Huna of yore.

The premodern world was brutal. The brutality of the Turco-Muslims was not unique. Julius Caesar may have been responsible for the deaths of 1 million Gauls. It must be noted here that the death was often not by direct killing, but through the starvation that occurred when populations were dislocated and dispersed. The brutality of the premodern world has an instrumental, material, rationale. Conquest was a way for elites to extract wealth out of the population. Death was not optimal, because extraction required bodies, but capture may have entailed some death.

Brutality was necessary, but not sufficient, to generate the trauma of modern Hindus. 

But again, I need to step back, and admit something: there is some evidence that brutality is accentuated across ‘meta-ethnic’ boundaries. This comes from research by the quantitative historian Peter Turchin. He shows that civil wars tend to be characterized by less atrocity, while the most brutal killings occur across civilizational boundaries. The sack of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, for example.

This implies that the Turco-Muslim treatment of local Indian populations would be more exploitative and inhuman with a lack of common identity. The Turco-Muslims considered themselves white, and the natives black, and retained a separate language for much of their tenure. And, of course, they had a distinct religion from the native people.

In the modern Middle East, all of the subcontinental people are objects of contempt from the native Arab Muslims. But non-Muslims in particular seem to be the targets of unmitigated contempt (and, due to legal inequality, targeted for sexual predation).

Though on the whole, I would argue that the religious difference between the conquest elites and the native people makes the former more brutal toward the latter, I think the biggest distinction is that the conquest elites are more culturally destructive.

Neha discussed at length the impact on the temples of native peoples. Cultural displacement in terms of public religion is a key sign of hostility between the ruled and the rulers. The end of paganism in the Roman world began with the shutting down of public temples.  Private paganism in household shrines continued for decades, but it slowly withered. I have written at length elsewhere about the robustness of Hinduism in the face of Islamic rule, so I will go no further on that issue. Rather, note that despite attacks on public Hinduism in North India the religion maintained and persisted due to its decentralized nature.

The crux of the issue is that modern Hindu Indians have to acknowledge that the core of Aryavarta was dominated politically by Muslims between 1200 and 1750. During this period Indian culture and society changed, some of it through interaction with the Muslim rulers, and some of it in situ. In either case, in some ways separating North Indian culture from the Islamicate period is insuperable. But Hindus know and understand that their role in this culture was as inferiors. Subordinates, if not slaves.

The flip side of this is that the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent are almost all descendants of converts from the local population, and their culture is clearly subcontinental. Though they may bear Arab, Persian, and even Turkic names, their faces are no different from their Hindu neighbors. It is hard to deny that fundamentally their past is one of subordination (as non-Muslims) and capitulation. They assimilated their own subcontinental identity, with brown faces, Indo-Aryan languages, and native cuisines, with the Islamic faith which had them face toward Mecca.

I may quibble and dispute some of the details of Neha’s assertion of inter-generational trauma due to the conquest (as I implied in the podcast, I believe women kidnapped and raped by Muslim elites today have Muslim descendants, so I would suggest that the trauma is elsewhere in the specifics), but the fact remains that Hindus with a profoundly different religious outlook and identity from Muslims are often uncomfortable praising a Mughal Golden Age where their own identity was of a conquered people. Dhimmis.

If Indian was 99% Muslim this might not be a great issue. Arabs can look dimly on their period of Ottoman hegemony in their nation-states, as very few Turks remain (there are Turkomans in Iraq!). But in a place like Uttar Pradesh, 20% of the population is Muslim. These people have a different identity in some deep ways from their Hindu neighbors, despite shared ancestry, language, and cuisine. I have never met a person from this background who was not proud and whistful about the period of Mughal rule in India. They identify this with this dynasty, and its predecessors, because of shared religious identity.

This is the fundamental tension in modern India. A substantial minority of the population is an adherent to the mythology of a conquest elite which the majority perceives to be traumatic, even genocidal. I do not have solutions for this issue, and I am not taking sides because it is really not my history anymore. But there it is.

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Browncast Episode 104: The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia

Another BP Podcast 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!

You can also support the podcast as a patron. The primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else. This website isn’t about shaking the cup, but I have noticed that the number of patrons plateaued a long time ago.

We discuss Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan Empire in this podcast.Browncast Episode 103: Abhijit Iyer-Mitra on Indian Defense, Economics, and History

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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