Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /nfs/c03/h02/mnt/56080/domains/varnam.nationalinterest.in/html/wp-content/themes/canvas/functions/admin-hooks.php on line 160
Archive | DesiPundit RSS feed for this section

In Pragati: Better than Hoogly Slush

In the winter of 1846 – 47, Henry David Thoreau looked out of his small self-built house in Walden and saw a hundred Irishmen with their American bosses cutting ice slabs from the pond. On a good day, he noted, a thousand tonnes were carted away. These ice slabs went not just to New Orleans and Charleston, but also to Madras, Bombay and Calcutta. Thoreau was amused: here he was sitting in America reading the Bhagavad Gita and the water from his well was being taken to the land of the Ganges.[The Forgotten American Ice Trade]

The June 2010 issue of Pragati carries an expanded version of this post.

Comments { 1 }

Searching for the Historical Jesus (2)

For the faithful, the Bible is the word of God; for the historian it is not since there are major discrepancies among gospels. For example, the genealogy of Jesus differs among the gospels of Mathew and Luke. Also in Mark, the followers don’t recognize him as the Messiah until much later while in John, it is right from the beginning. There is no agreement even on which day he actually died. Mark says one thing and John says something else.  

Can we know for sure if the gospels contain the sayings of Jesus? We can’t be sure since the gospels disagree there too. In John for example, Jesus asserts his divinity, which he never does in the synoptic gospels. But then isn’t it possible that the anonymous authors of the gospels re-contextualized the messages and edited them to suit their needs? Isn’t it sufficient that Jesus’s theology of the Kingdom of God, was something prevalent in that period? 

If the Gospel writers changed words — the historian would argue —  would they differ radically in important events like the trial of Jesus by Pilate or the words he uttered during crucifixion or the post-death events? In Mark he asks the Father why he was forsaken while in Luke he asks his killers be forgiven.

The believer would then say that even though there are some differences, they all agree on where Jesus lived, preached and how he died. The historian would posit that there is no eyewitness account of Jesus outside the gospels. The first Jewish reference appears in Josephus, six decades later; the first Roman reference almost nine decades later in Pliny.

How do you resolve this dispute? You can get some answers by organizing a debate between a non-believer and a believer. And that’s what happened at the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in April of this year where  Dr. Craig Evans and Dr. Bart Ehrman debated on questions like ” are the gospels historically reliable?” and “Do the gospels contain eyewitness tradition?”. You can see the entire debate here and read few accounts here and here.

OT: Recently Glenn Beck displayed his unfathomable knowledge of the Dead Sea Scrolls. While many experts pointed out that he was an idiot, one blogger came to Beck’s defense.

Comments { 3 }

Searching for the Historical Jesus

To find if there was a historical Jesus, scholars who study the gospels apply a number of techniques to sift through theology and miracles to find if there is a kernel of truth. Thomas Sheehan’s Historical Jesus is an excellent introduction to the methodology.

Since searching for this Historical Jesus a popular topic, a large number of books are still published each month. Adam Gopnik at New Yorker has a wonderful article which summarizes the current state of affairs in this field.

Malcolm X was the very model of a modern apocalyptic prophet-politician, unambiguously preaching violence and a doctrine of millennial revenge, all fuelled by a set of cult beliefs—a hovering U.F.O., a strange racial myth. But Malcolm was also a community builder, a moral reformer (genuinely distraught over the sexual sins of his leader), who refused to carry weapons, and who ended, within the constraints of his faith, as some kind of universalist. When he was martyred, he was called a prophet of hate; within three decades of his death—about the time that separates the Gospels from Jesus—he could be the cover subject of a liberal humanist magazine like this one. One can even see how martyrdom and “beatification” draws out more personal detail, almost perfectly on schedule: Alex Haley, Malcolm’s Paul, is long on doctrine and short on details; thirty years on, Spike Lee, his Mark, has a full role for a wife and children, and a universalist message that manages to blend Malcolm into Mandela. [WHAT DID JESUS DO?]

One of the points Gopnik makes is that the four canonical gospels were written after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. If you go to the church in Niranam, a small village in Southern Kerala, there is a board which tells you that the church was found by St. Thomas in 52 C.E. If Thomas came to Kerala at that time, he would not have known about the four canonical gospels. Even if he had known about Mark or the source Q, he would have known a different Yeshua. For example, in Mark there is no virgin birth or resurrection; those came in later gospels.

Comments { 3 }

The Gandharans in Thermopylae and Plataea

In August or September of 480 BCE, the 38 year old Xerxes, the Zoroastrian king of the Achaemenid Empire, set off to wage a war against the Greeks.There were two famous battles, The Battle of Thermopylae — immortalized by movies like 300 and novels like Gates of Fire — and The Battle of Plataea where the Greeks took revenge. Less known is the fact that people from the Indian subcontinent participated in both the battles.

Cyrus (576 – 530 BCE) expanded the Achaemenid Empire from Egypt to the Indus. The region called Paropamisadae (Hindu-Kush, Kabul, Bagram) was under Achaemenid control since the time of Darius I (522 – 486 BCE). The Persians called this region India. Darius built a palace in Susa in Elam and according to a text he got sisoo-timber and ivory from Gandhara. Also the ivory came from India. 

The 20th satrapy was India and it paid the largest tribute — 360 talents of gold dust — even more than Babylon. The primary source regarding Indians of this era is Herodotus; according to Herodotus, the Indians spoke many languages and some of them were nomads. Also some Indians were cannibals, had black semen and had gold-digging ants. So the “first” historian’s statements have to be taken with a pinch of sodium chloride. This 20th satrapy was located at the junction of a road network connecting Central Asia, West Asia and Kashmir. While invaders, art, and languages came into India via this route, Indian soldiers also went West as mercenaries.

In 490 BCE, Darius I tried to subdue Greece in the Battle of Marathon, but was routed. Following Darius’ death in 486 BCE, his son Xerxes decided to take revenge. The line of defence was the pass of Thermopylae. Sparta sent only a token elite force under the leadership of one of its two kings – Leonidas. Their allies too stayed back, citing various reasons. It was like the scene in India when Alexander arrived around 200 years later.

According to Herodotus, 1,700,000 Persian troops and 1200 warships arrived for the war against the Greek Coalition of the Willing. The Indians wore clothes made of cotton and carried reed bows and arrows of reed with iron heads. They were under the command of Pharnazathres who was the son of Artabates. There were Indian cavalrymen as well as those who rode horses and chariots pulled by horses and asses. 

Following the famous Spartan defeat at Thermopylae, there were naval battles at Artemisium and Salamis which was followed by the decisive Battle of Plataea. In this battle, the Spartans were not alone: Athens, Corinth, and Megara joined the alliance of states. Herodotus mentions that around 110,000 Persian troops from various countries were deployed near the Asopus River. There is a brief mention of where the Indians stood relative to the other troops and nothing more.

In this battle fought near Thebes, the Persian infantry was defeated and expelled from the Greece. The leading Persian commander Mardonius was killed. We mostly read the Western interpretation of these wars. For these historians, the Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans were killed, represents patriotism while the Battle of Plataea shows how a defeated force can come together and rout a superpower. Unfortunately we don’t have any Indian accounts of these battles.


  1. Paul Cartledge, Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World (Vintage, 2007). 
  2. Robert B. Strassler,The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories Reprint. (Anchor, 2009). 
Comments { 0 }

Stone inscription with Indus signs

(Indus Signs from a earlier find in Dholavira)

An inscription on stone, with three big Indus signs and possibly a fourth, has been found on the Harappan site of Dholavira in Gujarat.

The discovery is significant because this is the first time that the Indus script has been found engraved on a natural stone in the Indus Valley. The Indus script has so far been found on seals made of steatite, terracotta tablets, ceramics and so on. Dholavira also enjoys the distinction of yielding a spectacularly large Indus script with 10 big signs on wood. This inscription was three-metre long. [Stone inscription with Indus signs found in Gujarat]

Dholavira, located on the island of Khadir in the Rann of Kutch, is among the top five Harappan cities in terms of size. Previously an inscription with ten large size signs of Indus script was found here. This sign board was hung on a wooden plank in front of a large stadium.

It is usually mentioned that if the Indus script indeed did represent something, it must have been for the elite. The sign board at Dholavira refuted that claim. It has also been mentioned quite often that the Harappans never wrote anything on stone. This discovery refutes that claim too.

This new find — the stone with three or four inscriptions — is not really a new find. It was discovered in 1999 and was even mentioned in the 2007 ASI report. Finally in 2010, someone decided to take a look which makes you wonder how many such Indus script pieces must be lying in the basement of various Government institutions.

Comments { 2 }