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Hinduism Archives - Page 3 of 5 - varnamvarnam | Page 3
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Tag Archives | Hinduism

The man who coined 'Hindooism'

In 1767, a 21 year old Charles Grant, like many other twenty year olds traveled to India to join the East India Company’s military service. Arriving in Bengal, he was offended by the corrupt activities of the company and the officers. Soon a personal incident changed him forever and his life went in a new direction. He became an evangelical and argued vehemently for the introduction of Christianity — which was against company policy — to enhance the morality of Indians. In the process he coined the word “Hinduism” and redefined the way how the world viewed the traditions of India.

When Grant arrived in Calcutta, a decade after the Battle of Plassey,  the company was in charge of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Robert Clive had left and the company officers we indulging as best as they could. Corruption was rampant and the famine had reduced the Bengal population by a third. Though he argued that the company had done quite a lot, he was troubled by the suffering. But interestingly, in his letters written during this period, there is no mention of religion or God.

After the famine he got a severe fever and had to return to England to recover.  He returned in 1773 with his new bride – the 18 year old Jane Fraser. The young Mrs. Grant did not take to Indian climate very well and this worried Charles, but those worries went away with the birth of his daughter Elizabeth. He got promoted as the Secretary of the Board of Trade, but that did not prevent him from criticizing the Warren Hastings’ administration.

By then he had a secure life: good friends, great family, terrific salary. If you have watched any non-Adoor Gopalakrishnan Indian movie, you will know that usually there is a song here and then it all goes downhill. What is true now, was true in the year of American Independence too; Elizabeth and her younger sister Margaret died of small pox, just nine days apart.

A devastated Grant took refuge in Christ and became a sincere believer; he became an evangelical and few missionaries in the area helped him overcome his pain. He became a new man, renounced vices like gambling, and letters written during this period contain references to God and salvation.

After taking a position as the Commercial Resident of Malda, Grant took an interest in the moral nature of Indians. He rejected the argument that Hindus were people in whom mild and gentle qualities dominated; he thought that they were morally depraved. He wanted to bring in social and economic reform and the way for that, not surprisingly, was to make people acquainted with the truth of Revelation and free them from the ‘false religion’.

In his words

With the argument for the introduction of Christianity and Western education in India, Grant was years ahead of Thomas Macaulay and Alexander Duff. The charter of the East India Company did not officially permit missionary activity, but Grant was convinced that it had to change. This social revolution, Grant argued, would promote the well being of the population and in turn protect the company’s interests.

In 1787 Grant wrote a letter to one Mr. Wilberforce which contained the following paragraph.

This is important for one reason: it is the first time the word Hindooism is ever used; it replaced descriptions like  “Hindoo religion” and “Hindoo creed”. By coining this new term and advocating it, Grant’s label made it convenient to refer to the various religious traditions of India.

This was a time when there were apparently four religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Paganism. Now the Paganism of India had a name and a comparison to Christianity could be done. For example what was the religious structure and accepted scriptures of Hinduism? How similar or how different was it from the Protestant religion?

He had answers for this: Hinduism was Brahmanism and Brahminism was Hinduism. These crafty priests had enslaved the population — people who did not have a mind of their own — through rituals and the caste system. These slaves, enslaved through fear and ignorance practiced barbaric rituals like sati, hook swinging and the devadasi system. Also unlike in his religion, only those crafty priests could read the sacred texts.

Though he despised the Brahmins, he thought they were the descendants of Noah and  were blessed in the Garden of Eden. These Brahmins who once held belief in a rational Supreme Being, had now fallen from grace into the ignorant ways of polytheism and idolatry.This belief, that Brahmins were descendants of Noah,was nothing new and was prevalent in India at that time. While Grant was in Bengal, the French-Catholic missionary Jean-Antoine Dubois who was working in South India, too connected Brahmins to Noah

After the flood, the whole world was repopulated again. For this, Noah and his  sons dispersed around the world. One group went West, while the others under the guidance of Magog, Noah’s grandson, went to the Caucasian range. From there they came via the North into India and populated it. He even has a date  for this migration – nine centuries before Christian era. Thus the Brahmins, according to Dubois, were descendants of Magog’s father Japheth.[The Biblical Migration Theory]

Grant wrote all these ex cathedra pronouncements in Observations on the State of Society among Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain, but initially showed it only to a few evangelical friends. Grant later became a member of the Board of Directors of the EIC, but still then the pamphlet was not released publicly. Even other missionaries had not seen it. So why should these comments by a delusional missionary matter?

His work, along with the work of others, influenced the British perception of India. This was the beginning of the establishment of a dominant paradigm — defining Hinduism for Indians and rest of the world. Since the colonial power was in the control, their representation of the traditions became the accepted norm, which we continue to use even today.

Also in 1813,the Charter of the company came up for renewal and by then the Evangelicals had gained strength. People like Zachary Macaulay, father of Thomas Macaulay, had become influential and wanted the ban on missionaries to be removed.  On the eve of that debate, Grant’s work was printed as a parliamentary paper.

The evangelicals won in 1813.

References:

  1. Dr G A Oddie, Imagined Hinduism: British Protestant Missionary Constructions of Hinduism, 1793-1900 (Sage Publications, 2006). 
  2. Henry Morris, The life of Charles Grant (J. Murray, 1904).
  3. Image from Wikipedia
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Challenging the Secular Censorship

While the current tendency is to portray anyone who questions the Western/Marxist portrayal of Hinduism as a bigot, the picture is much complex, writes Jakob De Roover

A climate of implicit censorship has long dominated this field. Not quite as spectacular as the rise of ‘Hindu’ censorship, this is not the stuff of juicy journalism. But this kind of censoring is as harmful: it also moulds people’s minds in particular ways; it constrains their speech; it compels them to show compliance to certain dogmas in their writings; and, for the unlucky few, it may even end their careers. The difficulty is to identify the modus operandi of this form of censorship. Much like racism, it is only in certain blatant cases that one can say with certainty that it has occurred. Nonetheless, we have to try and circumscribe this obstacle standing in the way of a much-needed rejuvenation of the study of India. [How Free Are We?]

Arun Shourie’s Eminent Historians documents such activities of censorship which was quite common and some of them were quite explicit. A prime example is a state circular from the Communist ruled state of West Bengal which censors the atrocities committed by Muslim invaders.

Jakob then documents the role played by Hindu-Americans in tackling this biased scholarship.

There is a cold war going on between the ‘Hindu-Americans’ (and a few academic sympathisers) and the mainstream scholars of Hinduism. Academics no longer fear being called ‘commies’, ‘reds’ or even ‘heathens’, but now ‘Hindutva’ has taken the place of such labels in the study of India. If one makes positive noises about the contributions of Indian culture to humanity, one runs the risk of being associated with ‘Hindu nationalism’ or with the NRI professionals who aggressively challenge the doyens of Hinduism studies. [How Free Are We?]

In fact in one of his recent lectures at UCLA on British India, the instructor (1,2,3,4) briefly mentions about the folks in Silicon Valley who hold some crazy ideas; as always the lunatic fringe is chosen to make generalizations. So more power to those  who challenge shoddy scholarship.

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The Queen and Vedic Sacrifice

In one of the Naneghat caves — located in the Western ghats — there are some life size sculptures of few people whose major features have been destroyed. But from the inscriptions we know these members of the Satavahana dynasty (200 B.C.E – 220 C.E): the king Simuta Satavahana, queen Nayanika/Naganika, prince Bhayala, maharathi Tranakayira, prince Haku-Sri, and prince Satavahana[1]

In the same cave there is another inscription which is in three parts: invocation to Brahmin deities, biographical details of an a queen, list of Vedic sacrifices and the donations given. The queen is mentioned as a daughter, as a wife, and as a mother; she was well acquainted with initiation ceremonies, vows and sacrifices. She also performed or was responsible for twenty sacrifices including the Rajasuya and Asvamedha[2].

Women performing Vedic sacrifices? But didn’t we just learn from UCLA 9A course that according to the Manusmriti women were not allowed to listen to the Vedas? If you go by the UCLA chronology, the Manusmriti was compiled during the Satavahana period. So what is the explanation?

Since the original inscriptions are partially destroyed, it is hard to figure out the exact details, but they have not been damaged so bad that we cannot reconstruct what might have happened. According to one interpretation, the queen must have performed those sacrifices in the company of her husband. This agrees with what we see in the Athirathram ceremony even now. But then according to another epigrapher, she performed all the sacrifices as a wife, except the last three which she performed through a priest. In fact she herself gave the sacrificial free of cows. The explanation then was, even though women could not perform Vedic  sacrifices, it was not applicable to women who ruled as regents or ruled without their husband[2].

Now there is no mention of the name of the queen who performed these sacrifices. So how can we assume that it was Naganika and not some one from a local family? One clue is that these sacrifices were expensive affairs. There may not have been many families who could afford it. Among the sculptures on the wall, Naganika is the only woman; she is also the only Satavahana queen to be featured on coins. This indicates that she was unlike any other queen of that dynasty and the majority opinion is that the queen who performed the Vedic sacrifice is Naganika[2].

Now independent of the identity of the person who did the sacrifice, it is obvious that a woman performed the sacrifice and inscribed it for posterity. Was this an isolated incident? Maybe. But it is important that to know that the inscription was carefully written with details of the sacrifice and the donations paid. The queen also made sure that it was written not in Sanskrit, but in Prakrit, so that common people would know about it[2].

So what about the rules in Manusmriti? Here is a better explanation.

References:

  1. Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, 1st ed. (Prentice Hall, 2009). 
  2. Kirit K. Shah, The Problem of Identity: Women in Early Indian Inscriptions(Oxford University Press, USA, 2002).
  3. Thanks to Michel Danino for this comment.
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Who all had horses?

After reading Wendy Doniger’s new book,The Hindus : An Alternative History, Lekhni investigated if Aryans were cattle thieves. In her post she mentioned the symbolism behind the conversation between Sarama and the Panis who stole cattle. This story is important, not just for the issue of cattle stealing, but also for finding out if Aryans really did bring horses to India.

According to the Marxist historian D. D. Kosambi, “the hymn says nothing about stolen cattle, but is a direct, blunt demand for tribute in cattle, which the PaNis scornfully reject. They are then warned of dire consequences.” But it was not just cattle which the PaNis had; they had horses too. Guess who else had horses? The Dasyus whom the Aryans defeated when they invaded/migrated to India

For instance, Indra-Soma, by means of the truth (eva satyam), shatters the stable where Dasyus were holding “horses and cows” (ashvyam goh).65 In another hymn, Indra’s human helpers find the Pani’s “horses and cattle”: “The Angirasas gained the whole enjoyment of the Pani, its herds of the cows and the horses.”

The most striking passage is from the famous dialogue between the divine hound Sarama, Indra’s intransigent emissary, and the Panis, after she has discovered their faraway den, where they jealously hoard their “treasures.” Sarama boldly declares Indra’s intention to seize these treasures, but the Panis are unimpressed and threaten to fight back; they taunt her: “O Sarama, see the treasure deep in the mountain, it is full of cows and horses and treasures (gobhir ashvebhir vasubhir nyrsah). The Panis guard it watchfully. You have come in vain to a rich dwelling.”

Every verse makes it clear that all these treasures, horses included, belong to the Panis; at no point does Sarama complain that these are stolen goods: “I come in search of your great treasures,” she declares at first, and the Panis would not be insolent enough to taunt her with goods seized from the Aryans; yet Sarama considers that Indra is fully entitled to them. [The Horse and the Aryan Debate1]

Even though it is not mentioned that the Panis stole the cows and horses, Doniger’s translation makes that statement. Imagine the horse riding Aryans come thundering down the Khyber pass to see the natives treating cattle and horses as treasure. 

In fact one theory explains this from a migrationist point of view. According to the two wave theory  two Indo-Aryan groups — the Dasas and Panis — arrived around 2100 B.C.E from the steppes via Central Asia bringing horses with them.  These folks who came in 2100 B.C.E were not the composers of the Veda; they came in a second wave, a couple of centuries later[2][3]. Thus the battle between Aryans, Dasas and Panis were actually battles between earlier migrants and the new ones. There is only one problem though: a genetic study published last month from Stanford University found no evidence of migration from the steppes since 7000 years back.

But does this ashva mean the physical horse — the Equus Caballus — or something else? The Rg Veda has quite a few references to the horse which means that if taken literally, we should see horse bones all over North-West India. But we don’t. That is because the horse was a rare animal then as it is now.

So how should one read the text? Sri Aurobindo said you need proper background:

in his time, he said that these [scholars] lacked the background necessary to properly read this largely spiritual literature [Vedas]. Aurobindo spoke on the authority of the native Indian tradition, which prescribes the prerequisites to understand and interpret these texts. In general, anybody who wants to write any commentary or similar work, especially on the Vedas should at the minimum know these Vedangas (literally, the limbs of the Vedas) apart from knowing the Vedas themselves:[Wendy Doniger is a Syndrome]

As far back as 1912, Sri Aurobindo had suggested that ashva would have meant strength or speed before it was named for the horse.

The cow and horse, go and ashva, are constantly associated. Usha, the Dawn, is described as gomati ashvavati; Dawn gives to the sacrificer horses and cows. As applied to the physical dawn gomati means accompanied by or bringing the rays of light and is an image of the dawn of illumination in the human mind. Therefore ashvavati also cannot refer merely to the physical steed; it must have a psychological significance as well. A study of the Vedic horse led me to the conclusion that go and ashva represent the two companion ideas of Light and Energy, Consciousness and Force….[The Horse and the Aryan Debate1]

Also

For the ritualist the word go means simply a physical cow and nothing else, just as its companion word, ashva, means simply a physical horse…. When the Rishi prays to the Dawn, gomad viravad dhehi ratnam uso ashvavat, the ritualistic commentator sees in the invocation only an entreaty for “pleasant wealth to which are attached cows, men (or sons) and horses”. If on the other hand these words are symbolic, the sense will run, “Confirm in us a state of bliss full of light, of conquering energy and of force of vitality.”[The Horse and the Aryan Debate1]

With this symbolism, if we go back to the text which mentions that Dasyus and Panis it can be interpreted  that demons had light and power which they kept for themselves, but it was the duty of rishis to recover it and establish cosmic order. And we are looking for imaginary horses.

References:

  1. Michel Danino, The Horse and the Aryan Debate, Journal of Indian History and Culture September 2006, no. 13: 33-59. 
  2. Asko Parpola, The Horse and the Language of the Indus Civilization,in The Aryan Debate edited by Thomas R. Trautmann (Oxford University Press, USA), 234-236.
  3. Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004).
Comments { 5 }

A 4000 year old Leper's Tale

Dead men usually tell no tales; but a 4000 year old skeleton from Balathal, Rajasthan (40 km north east of Udaipur) has revealed some fascinating tales.

This skeleton, of a man who probably was 35+/-10 years and 5’10”, was found in a settlement which flourished from 3700 – 1820 BCE; the people there had pottery and copper and cultivated barley as well as wheat. He was buried between 2500 – 2000 BCE — much before the decline of the Harappan civilization — and was a leper. In fact, this skeleton is the oldest example of leprosy in the world.

But he was not Harappan: he belonged to the Ahar-Banas culture. In the Mewar region of Rajasthan, hunter-gatherers developed farming communities in the middle of the fifth millennium BCE, independent of the Harappan culture. By around 2500 BCE, they became prosperous and had fortified settlements, roads, and lanes. Also, the earliest burned brick (4000 BCE) was found in Gilund at this site[2].

By 2500 BCE, Ahars had trade relations with the Harappans to the north. They also had trade relations with their contemporaries in South and Central India and the skeleton confirms it. This skeleton was buried with vitrified ash from cow dung. So far the Southern Neolithic ash mounds found in South Deccan and North Dharwar were believed to be cattle settlements or the result of  cow dung disposal. Now we can speculate that they were the result of funeral activities of a shared tradition.

Besides this domestic connection, these people had international contacts as well. There are two strains of leprosy: an Asian one and an East African one. It is possible that the African one was transmitted to Asia around 40,000 BCE or vice versa at a much later date. The second one seems to have happened since lerosy depends on human contact and it must been transmitted over the trading network involving the Ahars, Harappans,people of Magan, Mesopotamians and Egyptians.

This skeleton fits well with  the Atharva Veda (Hymn 23, 24) making it the earliest historical reference to leprosy. The Ebers papyrus, dated to 1550 BCE has been interpreted to contain evidence of leprosy, but the earliest affected skeleton found in Egypt has been dated only to 400 – 250 BCE.

Another point is regarding the burial; after 2000 BCE, burial was uncommon except for some special cases like infants and spiritual people. Harappan skeletons were both cremated — there is evidence at Sanauli at least — and buried, but true burials are very few compared to expected numbers. Many archaeologists believe that cremation must have been widely practised by Harappans. Also, at Dholavira and other sites, dozens of graves turned out to be without any bones which implies symbolic burials.

It is believed that the burial at Balathal followed the Vedic tradition: lepers were buried alive in some parts of India. Also there is evidence that diseased bodies were sometimes not cremated.

Two other skeletons were also obtained from Balathal, but of a later date[3]. They were found in the padmasana or samadhi posture — a striking evidence of yoga practice and burial of people perhaps regards as spiritually advanced. Even now in India, spiritually advanced people are not cremated, but buried.

(One of the skeletons from Balathal in samadhi posture)

Also:

The excavations reveal a large number of bull figurines indicating the Ahar people worshipped the bull [6]. At Marmi, a site near Chittorgarh, these figures have been found in abundance indicating it could be a regional shrine of the bull cult of this rural population. Discovery of cow-like figurines in Ojiyana, the first site found on the slope of a hill, has baffled archaeologists. Cow-worship was not a known Ahar practice. “There are no humps and we can see small teats,” B.R.Meena, superintendent, ASI Jaipur circle, who undertook the excavation, says, “These are certainly cows.” Other archaeologists suspect them to be bull calves but insist if further studies prove these to be cows, one could infer that the cow was a revered animal and the Hindu practice of treating the cow as a holy animal can thus be of pre-Aryan antiquity. [Were they cow worshippers?]

Vedic burial, skeletons in samadhi posture, cow worship in a civilization contemporary with Harappa —- does this imply that the Ahar-Banas were Vedic people or Ahar culture was adopted by later Vedic culture or Ahars adopted it from an earlier Vedic culture?

The large number of bull figurines found at Ahar and Gilund could indicate a bull cult[6]. There is a debate over if the figurines represent bulls or cows, but these figurines were part of the second phase of the Ahar culture (2100 – 1800 BCE) or as late as 1600 BCE [7] and are the only clue to the religious beliefs of the Ahars[8].

Another clue is the time frame of these skeletons. While the leper was dated to 2000 BCE, the skeletons in samadhi were from700 BCE[9]. So while the leper burial was unusual, there is nothing unusual about burying a man in samadhi posture by the Early Historical Period.

While the bull figurines and the skeletons in samadhi were known earlier, this leper skeleton has added new information about this less known culture. Hopefully as more papers come out, we will get a clear picture on their religious beliefs, such as if this Vedic burial was an exception or a common practice.

Notes:

  1. This post is based on [4]. Many thanks to Michel Danino for information and images of the samadhi skeletons and Harappan burials. Also thanks to Gwen Robbins, the primary author of [2, 4], for patiently answering many questions.

Reference:

  1. The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective by Gregory L. Possehl
  2. A panel on the The Cultural Diversity of Northwestern South Asia at the time of the Indus Civilization convened by Prof. Gregory Possehl (University of Pennsylvania) and Prof. Vasant Shinde: Deccan College
  3. Gwen Robbins, Veena Mushrif, V.N. Misra, R.K. Mohanty and V.S. Shinde, Human Skeletal Remains from Balathal: a Full Report and Inventory, Man and Environment, XXXII(2) 2007, pp. 1-25.
  4. Ancient Skeletal Evidence for Leprosy in India (2000 B.C.), Gwen Robbins et al.
  5. Piecing the Ahar Puzzle by Rohit Parihar
  6. Encyclopedia of Prehistory: South and Southwest Asia By Peter Neal Peregrine
  7. Tribal roots of Hinduism By Shiv Kumar Tiwari
  8. The Rise of Civilization in India and Pakistan by Bridget Allchin
  9. The skeletons have also been dated all way back to 1800 BCE
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