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In IndiaFacts: Review – Zealot by Reza Aslan

(The original version was published at IndiaFacts)

In 66 C.E., fed up with the Roman occupation of their land, the Jews declared war on the Roman Empire. Soldiers patrolled even in the temple of this supposedly inconsequential part of the empire. Imagine the anger Malayalis would have felt if Communists administered their temples and the state looted its wealth. Wait. Wrong example. Though Rome was a powerful empire, the Jews were confident that their God would take them to victory. Motivated by what looked like a possible victory, the rebels attacked Jews who colluded with the Romans. Many messiahs also appeared on the scene, prophesying the end of Jerusalem. Finally, the miracle happened; they liberated Jerusalem.

If any Carthaginians were around, they would have told the Jews that this was a bad idea. In 70 C.E., the empire struck back. They razed the city to the ground, slaughtered the Jews and exiled the survivors. They also renamed the city and erased all mention of it from the record. Unlike Hindus, the Jews did not have temples all over the country. There was one temple — The Temple at Jerusalem — the center of their worship and that was gone. It was not just the Jews who were affected; the followers of a man named Yeshua were affected dramatically. It was after these events that the first Gospels were written.

Due to these sequence of events, Aslan argues that the Jesus of the Gospels is not the same as the historical man named Yeshua. For Aslan, the Gospels were written by believers for a specific purpose and are not historical documents. He ignores them and presents a picture of Yeshua by looking at the social, political and theological context of that period. Aslan himself is a former evangelical, who gave up that life as he became a religious scholar. Besides painting a portrait of Yeshua, he also reveals how the modern Jesus was invented.

If Jesus was not the person whom the Gospels claim to be — the good shepherd, the peacenik, the one who turned the other cheek — then who was he? According to Aslan, two things we can be sure are

  1. He was a Jew who led a popular movement like many others
  2. He was crucified by the Romans like many others.

To those who believe Yeshua was a child prodigy, who at a young age, stunned the priests of the Temple and to those Indians who are fascinated by the tale of Jesus learning in India, Aslan, who has been a Biblical scholar for two decades, sets the record straight. Yeshua was a woodworker or craftsman who never ventured far away. All Jewish peasants of the time were illiterate; Yeshua could not have been any different. (On a side note, the theory that he died in Tibet has been debunked as well)

Once baptized by his guru, John the Baptist, Yeshua took on a career of preaching. He wandered around as a professional exorcist, curing the ill of their sickness. Another common profession during that period, it paid more than being a woodworker. He was not the only miracle worker of that period, “it was quite common to see diviners, dream interpreters, magicians and medicine men wandering around the region”. But Aslan says Jesus did something different from the rest: he never charged for his work. We know that because the pagan and Jewish critics of Christianity agree on this as well.

Yeshua was not stoned to death for blasphemy, but crucified, which was the Roman punishment for treason. Anyone who proclaimed he was a messiah was crucified for striving to overthrow the Roman empire. Disrupting the activities of the temple, Yeshua proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was coming soon and this occurred during the time of when rebels were working to overthrow the Romans and bring the land under Jewish control. The main thesis of Aslan’s book is that Jesus was not someone who was talking about abstract ideas during this time, but was a zealot, actively involved in this movement like others of that period. Yeshua proclaimed that the present order would be replaced by a new political, religious and economic system and for advocating such a revolutionary idea, he was executed by crucifixion.

Another point Aslan makes is that the crucifixion of Jesus was not one of those stop the world events that happened in Jerusalem. Pilate, the Roman governor, who sent Jesus to the cross had utter disregard for Jewish customs and had crucified many others. He would not even have met Jesus. Terrorized by Pilate’s hobby, the people of Jerusalem complained to the Roman emperor. Even then he did not lose his job. Nothing happened to the temple priest as well. It was much later, after Pilate sent soldiers to butcher the followers of another messiah, that both he and the temple priest lost their jobs.

Following the crucifixion of Yeshua, three major strands of events occurred. The followers of Yeshua — the ones who walked with him — were shocked. The messiah who promised to rebuild David’s Kingdom had not only failed but was crucified like a state criminal. What did that mean? What could they do now? For the Jews, it was curtains down. He was yet another failed messiah. But for members of the Jesus movement, they had to invent a new explanation. They also had to prove to others that he indeed was the messiah. One of the earliest beliefs they came up was the radically new resurrection narrative — that he arose on the third day. They stayed in Jerusalem, continuing his teaching.

The second chain of events was set off by Paul who was inspired by Jesus though he had never met him. Other writers claimed Paul had a vision; Paul himself never said so. For Paul, Jesus was divine. Paul’s target market was the urbanized elite who did not care for messianic concepts or Jewish rituals. For the original illiterate followers of Jesus, Paul’s teachings were all Greek (literally). It would be like Hindus reading the writings of Prof. Wendy Doniger. In fact, Paul’s teaching looked so radical that the head of the Hebrew followers, James, (the brother of Jesus), sent congregations to convert the followers of Paul back to the fold; James was quite successful.

As the Hebrews — the farmers and fishermen followers of Jesus — and the Hellenists — the urbanized Greek speaking Romans — were duking it out , 9/11 hit Jerusalem and the Romans wiped out the place from the map. This triggered the third sequence of events. The Gospels were written down in various cities in the empire — Rome, Damascus, Antioch, and Ephesus — by people who had never met Yeshua. By then four decades had passed since Yeshua’s crucifixion and the eyewitnesses to his life had perished. The teachings that were passed along were conveniently modified.

Also, after 70 C.E, it was clear to everyone, who had the power to chop off your head. The authors of the Gospels could either stick their neck out and write that Jesus was a man who wanted to overthrow the Roman empire or they could spin another tale. They chose the latter. A Jesus, who operated at a divine plane and had nothing to do with earthly matters became a convenient replacement.

The author of the first gospel, attributed to Mark, wanted to absolve the Romans of all the crime. Hence, the whole story of Pilate washing his hands of Jesus was invented. The Romans, who crucified Yeshua were sanitized and Jews who did not accept him as the messiah became the villains. That was the birth of anti-Semitism, the consequences of which can be seen even today. Another important point to note is that the gospels were not written in Hebrew or Aramaic, but in Greek. The evangelists’ goal was to convert the gentiles and so distancing themselves from Jewish “mumbo-jumbo” seemed right.

Aslan is not the first person to do this kind of analysis. He is one among many of a two centuries old line of scholarship trying to excavate the historical Jesus. Many years back, Prof. Thomas Sheehan of Stanford, taught a course called The Historical Jesus where he did similar analysis looking into the Gospels to find out what fits and what does not. Usually, historians go to primary sources to find the truth, but in this case, Sheehan says, the primary source are problematic. The Gospels which are now considered Canonical were ruled so by political forces. Whatever did not fit the template was considered heretic, a concept alien to dharmic traditions. Each blind scholar in this lineage found a different part of the elephant: using historical studies, literary analysis and sociology, they found Yeshua to be either a philosopher or an apocalyptic preacher or teacher or simply a magician.

With the destruction of Jerusalem, the original message was diluted and the urbanized, educated Greek-speaking diaspora Jews, immersed in Greek philosophy and Hellenistic culture Deepak Chopra-ed a new religion. This is like how American Buddhists are defining a new “scientific” religion by eradicating traces of Hinduism and mystical elements of Buddhism and retaining just mindfulness. The failed messiah, who did not set out to create Christianity, became the creator of heavens and earth and had nothing to do with the Roman occupation or the fight against it. This Neo-Jesus is the one to whom believers pray every weekend.

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Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master by Sri M

Western scholars and Indian scholars obsessed with western interpretations have tried to explain the evolution of the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma using Western terminology. Apparently, initially it was naturalistic and anthropomorphic polytheism which then gradually yielded to monotheism and later to monism. Max Müller suggested that there was a transitory state called henotheism between polytheism and monotheism. But all this terminology is alien to dharmic thought and it is outright silly to refer to such terms. Even a person like Prof. Vinay Lal in his terrible course on Indian diaspora mentions that when Hindus don’t have concepts like these, it is ridiculous to talk about Hinduism using those concepts.

If you read such introductory books on Hinduism, they will mention that the Vedas were sruti, revealed to sages who followed their saadhana. Less mentioned is the fact that there were a large number of people who had unique experiences by following the many practices available as part of the tradition. Such people did not live only in the ancient past, there are many who live amongst us, who have attained higher states of spiritual existence. Some of them live in the holy places in the Himalayas, some live among the mango men. Some demonstrate their siddhis, others don’t.

Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda revealed the life of a seeker and the many spiritual souls he met along the way. Living With the Himalayan Masters by Swami Rama was another one. Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master (A Yogi’s Autobiography) is interesting because the yogi was born as a Deccani Muslim – Mumtaz Ali Khan – in Trivandrum in 1948. At the age of nine, when he was just walking in his house, he saw a stranger standing under the jackfruit tree in the compound. As the boy approached him, the stranger asked if he remembered anything and boy replied in the negative. The stranger then said that years later, he would remember everything and went away.

Two years later, he experienced kevala kumbhaka and along with it tremendous happiness. As he grew up, he met various people who suggested books (on Vedanta, Upanishads, Gita, Yoga, Kudalini) and taught him yogic practices. Among the people whom he met in Kerala included a tea shop owner turned saint, a naked lady on the beach, and a Sufi saint. At the age of 19, he left for the Himalayas and while wandering around Badrinath, he went to a cave where he met the person whom he had seen at the age of nine in Trivandrum. He spent the next three years traveling with his guru in the Himalayas, after which he returned back to Kerala where he still lives.

In the introduction of the book, the author mentions that he had many unique experiences of which many would be unbelievable. This book includes topics  like meeting beings from another planet and walking through doors. Books by other spiritual gurus too contain such unbelievable anecdotes. What is fascinating about the book is the way it reveals what a spiritual country India still is. All way from Kerala to the Himalayas, there is a culture which transcends language and unites the nation. There are many gurus teaching in many traditions in the free flowing marketplace of ideas without the fear of blasphemy. Even before the British invented a nation called India, there existed an India where an 8th century Malayali named Shankara could travel, learn and teach. That India is very much alive in M’s book.

Postscript: I have never met the author nor listened to any of his teachings. Just chanced upon the book while browsing the spirituality section of a bookstore.

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Missionaries, Businessmen and the Annexation of Hawaii

Ship's landing force at the time of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, January 1893.

Ship’s landing force at the time of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, January 1893.

In the 19th century, the private sector consisting of missionaries and businessmen helped project American power to rest of the world. This pattern, where the NGOs intervened in the affairs of a nation, proved to be quite detrimental to the existence of Hawaii. Their culture was transformed, their economy was tied to United States and due to both, in a century their freedom was lost.

In her book, Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire,Andrea Stuart writes about the motivation for Puritans and non-Puritans to migrate to North America from Europe in the 17th century. While the Puritans settled in New England to escape persecution, for others the Bible served as the recruiter for colonization. Anglican priests like Robert Gray, John Donne and Puritan teachers like Thomas Hooker and John Cotton seeded the dream of building a City on the Hill as well as spreading the word. Captain John Smith,  an adventurer, planter and the hero of the Pocahontas story wrote at that time about the need to “seeke to convert those poore Savages to know Christ and humanity”. But this urgency to take Christianity to the savages, which was used by the Spanish conquistadors just a century earlier, was just a smokescreen for advancing their business ventures.

In Hawaii, the same pattern followed two centuries later when Baptists, Congregationalists and Methodists arrived by the boatloads to convert the heathens as well as to counter the Roman Catholics who had already set up shop there. These missionaries established good relations with King Kamehameha and opened up the islands to the Americans. Soon they were followed by American businessmen who were involved in whaling and the cultivation of bananas, pineapples and sugarcane.

As American capital and Christianity started flowing to the islands, the Government started taking notice. During that time, the Democrats were interested in expanding to the South, where slavery existed, while the Whigs were interested in expansion to the West. Secretary of State, William Webster, was interested in developing a special relation with the King because Hawaii would serve as a gateway to the riches of Japan and China. He was also interested in limiting the influence of France and Britain, who were interested in the islands. In 1851, the King and Webster agreed that if Hawaii was threatened by European powers, the King would transfer his power to the United States Government.

William Seward, the Secretary of State under Lincoln, and an expansionist wanted a reciprocal treaty to be passed which would give special preference to Hawaiian goods. With this treaty, Hawaiian fruits and sugar would not be subject to American tariffs and in return Hawaii would be open for American manufactured goods. But then the Southern sugar producers did not want to compete with Hawaii and the treaty was defeated in the Senate. During the time of Ulysses S. Grant in 1875, the treaty was passed. American money flowed into Hawaii resulting in a surge of sugar and pineapple farming. The Americans got Pearl Harbor which they developed as a naval base and coaling station.

 A photo of the young crown princess Liliuokalani.

A photo of the young crown princess Liliuokalani.(via Wikipedia)

Queen Lili’uokalani’ meanwhile was worried about the influence of American economics and politics on Hawaiian independence. As she started putting some limitations,  the US Department of State Minister to the Kingdom of Hawaii, John Stevens plotted a coup to overthrow the Queen. Following a coup, John Stevens recognized the new administration led by Sanford Dole and asked requested President Benjamin Harrison to annex the islands to the nation. But Harrison had only a month left as President and the Senate did not act. The next President, Grover Cleveland (the only President to have served  non consecutive terms), was not interested in expansion due to the cost and also because he believed that it would betray the ideals of the American revolution.

But that did not mean that Hawaii got its independence back. Hawaii  remained as a territory for almost six decades before they were given a choice to either join the Union or remain as a territory without an option for independence. Finally, a saga which started in the 18th century came to an end in 1959, when it became a state.


  1. America & World/Revolution, Lecture 21 by Professor Michael Parrish at University of California, San Diego
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Yoga Gloves and Socks

If lack of Yoga gloves and socks were preventing you from doing the “downward dog”, help is here.

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Abraham Eraly’s Facile Spring

Abraham Eraly has a new book on the Gupta period which is considered a Golden Age in Indian history. There are two reviews of The First Spring.  The first review by Bibek Debroy has Eraly’s theory on why this period was considered as the Golden Age.

First, Buddhist (and Jain) ethics emphasised equity and access and human enterprise. “Fatalism” had not set in. Second, agriculture went through a transformation. There was monetisation, capital formation and trade, with increase in literacy. Third, guilds provided skills and their standardisation, and testing and certification of goods and services. They also regulated prices and working conditions of labourers. Fourth, kings had contractual obligations, not a divine right to rule. More importantly, s/he possessed executive duties of ensuring domestic and external security, with almost no legislative powers and limited dispute resolution powers. “One of the most laudable aspects of the political developments of the classical age was the robust growth of village self-government in many parts of India.” To use today’s jargon, we had better governance and decentralisation, with optimal provision of public goods and services. Fifth, there was urbanisation, not a retreat into a rural Arcadia. Sixth, cross-fertilisation led to innovation and experimentation. Seventh, rigidities of caste had not set in. Individually and in isolation, each of these propositions is plausible and known. Taken together, they represent a coherent story of why civilisations rise (and fall). The reversal into dark ages is explained by a reversal of each of these trends. Though not an Eraly estimate, there are rear-casts that between 500 BC and 500 AD, India had a per capita income of about $150. That made it one of the richest regions of the world.[Lessons From The Golden Age (H/T Yashwant)]

Eraly is a believer of the Aryan Invasion Theory and has romantic notions of Buddhism. His analysis of Vedas is based on translations by Wendy Doniger and so his observations have to be taken with quintals of salt. Nayanjot Lahiri’s review bursts Eraly’s balloon.

Eraly’s new book brings more than a millennium within the ambit of ‘Classical India’. This makes the scope of The First Spring highly ambitious, including in it India’s sprawling landscape, polity and society, economy and everyday life, philosophy and literature, even arts and religion, across 1,300 years and more.

Unfortunately, this is compromised by unsubstantiated generalisations, by an ignorance of archaeology and the kind of information it has yielded on many of the issues examined here, and by a complete disregard for some segments of the India it claims to describe.

Anyone with a working knowledge of ancient India would be appalled, for instance, by the book’s characterisation of classical Indian civilisation as essentially Buddhist. Is this a reaction to what Eraly supposes to be a “common misconception that it was a Hindu civilisation”? He should know that such labels are no longer used to characterise Indian history and, certainly, the millennium he examines was neither Buddhist nor Hindu but one marked by multiple religious traditions. Mathura is one example where there were Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu practices besides the worship of fertility deities. Nagarjunakonda is another instance of religious heterogeneity, with over 30 Buddhist establishments, 19 Hindu temples and some medieval Jain places of worship.

Eraly ignores the evidence of archaeology, goes for unproven generalisations, and doesn’t include the Northeast in his narrative.

Similarly, if Eraly had cared to look at the details of ordinary living that have emerged from excavations in the Gangetic plains, he’d find it difficult to believe that the Aryans “changed farming techniques” and introduced iron there. Rice began to be cultivated in the Gangetic alluvium in the 7th millennium BC and communities with broad-based farming patterns were flourishing there from the early 2nd millennium BC onwards. If the area did not have to wait for the putative Aryans for the consolidation of its agricultural base, neither did it require them for producing metallic iron, which was used there from the middle of the 2nd millennium BC itself.

Eraly’s description of cities also ignores archaeology, including the splendid ruins of urban Taxila, the most extensively excavated urban landscape of ancient India. Even when he describes Ujjain, he does not say anything about the town plan and building tradition that various seasons of digging has revealed.

These, though, are just the small things that Eraly so often forgets to mention. The most serious lacuna is that a big chunk of India, from Assam to Nagaland, is missing from the narrative. You wouldn’t know from the book that the epigraphs of the kings of Assam, for instance, have been extensively used to reconstruct the agricultural practices and the settlement pattern of the Brahmaputra valley or that there are Gupta type architectural remains near Tezpur. Nor would you learn about Tripura, not even about the presence of Buddhism there, otherwise so central to this book, as the relics of the Buddhist stupa at Shyam Sunder Tilla so dramatically reveal.

This is a book which aspires to have a reach. Alas, that aspirational reach exceeds its author’s intellectual grasp.[Facile Spring (H/T Yashwant)]

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