Thursday, May 01, 2014

The Hindus: Book Review, Part IV

My experience with the book was a bit conflicted. On the one hand, I thought that I learned a lot, and certainly finished with more respect for and, I like to think, understanding of Hindu thought. Despite the heavy presence of scholarly apparatus (thousands of citations and hundreds of endnotes), there are some curious inexactitudes (India lies mostly in the Northern Hemisphere - so far as I can tell India and its islands lie entirely in the Northern Hemisphere). The author is addicted to a chatty, discursive, and frequently frivolous tone which I sometimes found annoying.

It's important to note that the author hasn't written a history of India, but a history of its main religion. There are bits of the history of the country included, but mainly just as background. Because it's a history, the focus is on evolution and change. Moreover, as the author declares at the outset, her focus is not on the central figures of the religion, it's priestly and other high castes, but on societies outsiders - women and those now called Dalits formerly AKA untouchables. Despite this declaration of focus, the fact remains that the sacred texts were in the keeping of the priestly caste, the Brahmins, first as a purely oral tradition, and later written out by just that same priestly class.

Most religions like to emphasize their eternal and unchanging character. In Christianity and Islam, this pretense has been reinforced by ruthless suppression of dissent. Hinduism, to it's lasting glory, has almost entirely avoided this intellectual crime. Consequently, it incorporates an immense variety of variations on belief systems and practices. I expect this is part of the basis of the claim by some that Hinduism is not a religion.

One of the central puzzles of Hindu history is the relation of the enigmatic Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) to the people who composed the Vedas, the oldest Sanskrit sacred poems. The IVC thrived from perhaps 3500 BC to 1500 BC, and during that time built remarkably sophisticated and geometric cities, and traded with the cities of the ancient Middle East. They left no writing, except perhaps a few undeciphered symbols, in groupings too small to be decoded. The Vedas are thought by most scholars to have been composed near the end of this period though only written out more than 1000 years later.

It should be mentioned that there is a school of history, or perhaps political science, which maintains that the Vedas predate the IVC. This is part of a scheme of thought which places India at the center of world and is closely associated with the Hindu nationalists. Many of its ideas are not taken seriously by most independent scholars.

The conventional notion, supported mainly by linguistic evidence, is that the Vedic people were part of the vast Indo-European diaspora that probably originated in Central Asia and swept over virtually all of Europe and big chunks of Asia. Alternative origins are possible, but the out of India theory favored by Hindu nationalists is generally discounted because the centerpiece of Indo-European culture is the horse, and the horse is not native to India and does not thrive there (according to Doniger). The IVC does not seem to have had horses, and did not portray them in its art, though many other animals including lions, elephants and rhinoceroses are plentiful. Genetic evidence, at least at this point, is more ambiguous - and could well be compatible with either the Central Asia or the out of India hypothesis.

In any case, except for having mastered the horse, and possibly turning it into the decisive weapon of war, the Vedic peoples seem to have been pastoralists who says Doniger, lived out of their saddle bags and built nothing more elaborate than mud altars for their sacrifices. Perhaps a Hebrews vs. the promised land analogy is appropriate: nomadic pastoralists, were well organized for war, and conquered the sedentary cities of the Cannanites/IVC. To push the analogy one step further, one can imagine a sort of variant Out-of-India theory in which people from the IVC went to Central Asia, adopted the horse and most of the lifestyle, but retained enough city technology of war to come back and conquer the IVC. We don't know and probably never will.

However it happened, some notions in IVC art seem to be incorporated into Hinduism so there is evidence of connection, though some of the connections became manifest only a millenium later when the Vedic peoples built their own cities.