September 2012


Indians (read, Hindus) need to reaffirm their faith in their tradition and scriptures. Indian history needs to be freed from the grasp of the flag bearers of westerm interest and its blind followers.

Vindicating traditional historiography: Ramayana accurate portrayal of ancient India

Come Carpentier de Gourdon

10 Sep 2012

A fundamental feature, but also an enduring flaw of the modern scientific method is that it strives to ignore ancient data in order to set up a cultural “tabula rasa” on which it may carry out research and build its own edifice. Traditional annals are regarded a priori as inaccurate, due to the positivistic prejudice that people in the remote past were far less knowledgeable than us, and had access only to primitive intellectual and material tools to investigate and record data.

In the case of India, the florid, allusive, metaphorical and dithyrambic emphasis of the style used by ancient bards convinced their western readers that there was little factually accurate information (at least as far as geography and chronology were concerned) to be gleaned in the old epics and poems. The cosmic resonance given to the heroes’ actions further demonstrated in their view that the haze of legend impenetrably wrapped what little factual core there might have been to the tales told. The fact that Valmiki’s Ramayana is a Kavya stood as proof in skeptical eyes that it was not in fact Itihasa – a record of real happenings.

In recent decades however, the progress in various scientific disciplines has led to a reevaluation of that supposedly “rationalistic” appraisal, and the Ramayana for one is being rediscovered as an “odyssey” that is a periplum of ancient India which is not only topographically informative but chronologically accurate to a degree which modern techniques to resuscitate the past on the basis of some archeological and epigraphic fragments could never reach.

It is strange indeed that the academic community tends to reject a lot of information contained in ancient texts which it does not understand, or does not wish to seriously consider, while it takes pride in reinventing a lost world on the basis of inevitably hazardous detective work on a few tiny indices, “recreating a skeleton out of one retrieved tooth” so to say, in the manner of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle was a novelist, but one often wonders if many paleontologists, paleo-anthropologists, archeologists and ancient historians do not create fiction – or at least “faction” i.e. more or less informed guesswork or speculation – which they wish all to regard as proven fact and are very reluctant to revise even when newly discovered evidence should force them to.

Coming after many other convergent theses, the book by Saroj Bala and Kulbhushan Mishra “Historicity of Vedic and Ramayan Eras” (Scientific Evidences from the Depth of the Oceans to the Heights of the Skies, I-SERVE, 2012) enshrines a valuable array of scientific testimonies backed by hard proof, gathered by some of the best specialists in their respective fields, many holding senior posts at various national agencies of the Government of India. It argues and persuasively demonstrates that the chronological records of ancient India were reliable, at least in some cases, and that the claims of traditional scholars about the antiquity of their scriptures are correct.

Thus, the Indian royal annals quoted by Megasthenes and subsequently by other Greek writers, find support in recent findings and must be far closer to truth than the rather arbitrary attempts at reconstruction made by Western archeologists and linguists on the basis of superficial bookish information in the last hundred and fifty years. The 19th century western approach to the origins of Indian civilization was initially informed by the underlying biblical belief that the world had been created about 4000 BC and then it got influenced by the theory of evolution which saw most of mankind as slowly emerging from savagery in the last four millennia, to find its way to rational knowledge and progress in Greece around 600 BC. Such a conditioned, narrow and deterministic worldview could not harbour the data gathered from little known disciplines in which ancient Indians excelled, such as astronomy, agriculture and botany.

What are the main data provided in Bala’s and Mishra’s book, first presented at a seminar in July 2011(inaugurated by former President APJ Abdul Kalam), that are supported by many other results gathered over the last decades:

1] The Ramayana tells a story which took place in the sixth millennium BC, between 5114 BCE (Sri Rama’s birth, according to the astrological theme given by Valmiki, on Chaitra Shuddha Navami of Punarvasu Nakshatra, date when Rama Navami is celebrated to this day) and 5075 BC (the year he ascended the throne as 64th king of his “Solar” dynasty), in an area encompassing much of its modern territory, from the Ganga basin (Ayodhya and Prayag) to Sri Lanka. Many of the places and sites mentioned in the Epic (more than 250) have kept the same names and vivid traditions connected to the passage of the royal and divine trinity. They retain most of the physical and climatic features noted by Valmiki. The least that can be said is that the author or authors of the kavya were well acquainted with all those locations, personally or through the reports of other travelers.

The dates recorded for the various events narrated in the story (astronomical coordinates that can be recreated with the help of planetarium software as well as, in some cases, eclipses are listed which have been found to be factual for those dates and regions) are also internally and sequentially consistent with the unfolding of the plot. Either the expedition of Rama was chronicled by a contemporary witness who was also a skilled astronomer, or a historian (perhaps Valmiki himself) not too long later was able to reconstitute the zodiacal map out of the dates he was given or personally remembered. That seems like a remarkable achievement, but it would be in keeping with the astronomical proficiency evinced by several ancient civilizations in Asia, Africa and Meso-America, among others.

2] Although it is impossible to establish the date when the Ramayana was composed, since the oldest extant manuscript, preserved in Nepal, is “only” a thousand years old, it stands to reason that knowledge of the topography, vegetation, population and astronomical configuration at the time, of the diverse locations described, implies that the initial account dates back to the period when the narrated events took place

Indeed, absent a computer and sophisticated software, it would have been exceedingly difficult for any poet flourishing many centuries later to “turn the zodiacal clock” back to the time when he wished to situate the story, not to mention that he had no need to do so if he was writing a work of fancy or an imaginative reconstruction. There is no escaping the conclusion that initial records at least were kept during the course of Rama’s journey (as was the use for the lives and deeds of kings) and inserted in the later epic at whatever time it was composed, but there is plenty of literary and artistic evidence that Valmiki’s classic was well known for centuries before the advent of the Common Era. 

Intriguingly, as Pandit Narayan Aiyangar pointed out, there are mentions of Rama and Sita in certain Richas (hymns) of the Vedas (1) whose astronomical references has allowed Bala, Mishra and their team to date it between the ninth and fifth millennium BC.

3] On the other hand, archeological, paleo-botanical, oceanographic and remote sensing findings all coincide in the recognition that settled, refined agricultural civilisation with elaborate art and craft techniques – in wood, textiles, stone and metal – existed in large parts of India from about 8,000 BCE and possibly earlier, at the beginning of the Holocene period which, following the end of the last glaciation, ushered in an era propitious to the development of agriculture, and hence to demographic growth and cultural progress.

Evidence for it is concentrated in the Indus-Saraswati-Ganga-Yamuna river system between present-day Afghanistan and Iran and the modern state of West Bengal (Mehrgarh, Kot Diji, Naushero, Dholavira, Lahuradeva, Jhusi, Takwa, Hettapati et al). Some regions covered by that civilization were in contact with and active at sea, as the Rg Veda repeatedly indicates, from at least the fourth millennium BCE (i.e. the port of Lothal and others, some of which have been located submerged under the sea). There is also archaeo-agricultural evidence that rice, wheat, barley, grapes and many other food crops (up to 29 kinds of grains, pulses, fruits and vegetables) were cultivated by the seventh or sixth millennium BC.

4] While the permanence of poetically embellished historical memories is significant to any cultural anthropologist or historian immersed in the local Indian cultures, the estrangement of western “armchair” scholars of centuries past from the facts on the ground, both geographical and chronological, explains why they generally ignored traditional references, preferring to speculate about unprovable linguistic derivations and suspected origins of the “Indo-European” Rama whom they did not wish to place earlier than 1200 BC (assuming he had ever existed) in order to make him fit in with the supposed date of the Aryan invasion, set by them three hundred years earlier, in an era comfortably less ancient than the Biblically hallowed Chaldean and Egyptian archaic dynasties.

Yet it turns out that if we follow the zodiacal data provided in the Ramayana and check out with the help of modern scientific capabilities, we find Rama’s life is much more accurately recorded – in some cases down to the day and time, such as the hero’s birth, his departure for exile, the death of the “monkey-king” Bali in Kishkinda, the slaying of Ravana in battle and Rama’s victorious return to Ayodhya for his coronation – than those of many axial figures of “western” civilization, beginning with those in the Bible and Greek Epics which, however, appear relatively recent by comparison. Needless to say, the planetary and astral relative positions noted in the Ramayana do not recur for many thousands of years, so that there is little uncertainty about the period in which they took place.

5] It is also archeologically borne out that the wooded and forested areas of Central India where Sri Rama, his consort, and his brother dwelt and traveled during their 14-year exile, were haunted by tribes and dotted with ashrams or spiritual/educational colonies headed by rishis, proficient in various branches of knowledge.

For example, the Ramayana refers to Rishi Agastya, who is traditionally held to have lived at the very tip of South India near Cape Comorin where several places are named after him, and to have had his ashram near modern-day Nasik where he gave Rama, on his way to Lanka, some spiritual and material weapons to fight Ravana. Agastya (whose name etymologically is said to mean “calmer of the ocean” or “mountain thrower” but which may in fact come from a Tamil euphemism for the soul: “he who belongs inside”) gave his name to the star Canopus because he was the first to observe it and Canopus became visible over the horizon in the Northern Deccan and the Vindhyas only from about 5100 BCE, thereby providing one more internally coherent zodiacal reference.

Legend has it that Agastya was born in a pitcher and that he was the head of the Vellalar clan of South India. Coincidentally or not, Canopus (Kah Nub in Egyptian, which means “golden earth” and applied to both the star and the town) was the name given to a port city in the Nile Delta, famous for its clay vases with a human head that represented a local icon of Osiris (Oser-Isvar), seen as god within a pitcher. The Indian Agastya, like the Egyptian Canopic god, was associated with the sea and ships and in “western” astronomy Canopus, also known as the Southern Pole Star, is part of the Argo Navis constellation. For the Chinese and Japanese, Canopus is the Old Man’s Star, a clear reference to the Vedic spiritual master.

6] The Ramayana also describes several caves, some inhabited, and indeed in the Central mountainous belt stretching from the Western Ghats to the Bay of Bengal innumerable rock dwellings and sanctuaries display many types of art, from Paleolithic parietal paintings to monumental Hindu, Jain and later Buddhist sculptures and cave architecture. Central India appears to have been, as the Ramayana and the Vedic texts describe it, a wilderness where scholars, hermits, students and ascetics took refuge and built hermitages away from the densely populated and urbanized northern plains.

7] The picture that is emerging out of geological, paleo-climatic and oceanographic findings is that between 12,000 years BCE (when many ancient annals record the great floods that marked the end of the glacial period) and 5000 BCE, the melting of glaciers gradually raised the level of the oceans by a stupendous 80 meters in the Indian Ocean/Arabian Sea region (according to a report by Dr. Rajiv Nigam, head of the paleo-climate project at the National Institute of Oceanography quoted in the book), submerging huge tracts of land and releasing mighty rivers that flowed down from the Himalayan massif towards the sea.

The Puranas indicate that two of Rama’s royal ancestors, more than twenty generations earlier, undertook large scale projects to channel the water from the Shivalinga glaciers eastwards towards the Bay of Bengal in order to control the floods in the Punjab-Rajasthan area. The chroniclers attributed the rise of the ocean around that period to the release of large amounts of fresh water thereby engineered. The same scriptures also refer to a number of tribes or nations that migrated from the subcontinent in the same era (around 6000-5500 BC) towards West and North Asia.

We can also conclude from that that Rama lived considerably earlier than the era when the “Indus Valley” civilization port of Lothal was built, as archeological evidence shows, since the Arabian Sea level was higher than it is now between 6000 and 4000 years ago. From that latter date the port had to be abandoned as the coastline had changed following a new drop in sea level which probably enabled Sri Krishna to build his capital at Dwarka on reclaimed land, according to the Mahabharata. 

Coincidentally, it has been convincingly established that a similar rise in the level of the North Atlantic submerged the so-called Doggerland, the “British Atlantis” which encompassed what is today the United Kingdom as well as Scandinavia. That vast and densely populated Greater Europe gradually sank under the water between 18 and 5500 BCE. An exhibition entitled “Drowned Landscapes” on the discoveries made in this area by a collective of Scottish, English and Welsh Universities is currently taking place at the Royal Society, since July 2012.

At the time Rama and his army reached the southern tip of India at the place since known as Rameswaram, the sea level was still about 3 meters below the present one, and indeed, the bridge reportedly built by the architect Nala for the king of Kosala and his troops is still visible less than 3 meters below the surface.

According to the Geological Survey of India’s research, that bridge or causeway is an artificial construction. Specifically its report says: “Ramasethu is a natural formation, the top portion of which appears to be man-made” as it consists in part of stones and rounded coral pebbles that were obviously transported and put there. This observation tallies with the Ramayana’s description of the way the causeway was built by connecting many islets and shoals strung along the Palk Strait, filling in the gaps and building a road on top. Considering that this structure is over 30 kilometers long, its construction ranks as one of the most stupendous achievements of archaic mankind.

The Indian Ministry of Earth Sciences further noted: “There are some raised Teri formations that supported a vast assemblage of Mesolithic, microlithic tools indicating the presence of strong human habitation and activity as early as 8000 to 9000 years before present and as late as 4000 years ago”.

8] The Ramayana describes Sri Lanka, which has kept its original name since, as a part of the “Aryan” civilisational area. Its King Ravana, from the Rakshasa tribe, a descendent of Visravas, was a brother of Kubera, the lord of wealth also euphemistically called the “king of the world”, monarch of the northern quarter (Uttarakurus), beyond the Himalayas, who ruled the yakshas (from where the god Thraco-greek Iacchus-Bacchus and the Tibetan Yaks seem to have taken their name) and gandharvas (Gandhara – Gedrosia for the Greeks – is modern day Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan). The name of Kubera is etymologically related to Siberia, if we keep in mind the sata/centum dichotomy – which is not split by a clear East/West divide, contrary to the original theory – among Indo-European languages. The Shubras or Shubrians for instance were a Middle Eastern, probably Iranian people, settled in Eastern Asia Minor who were conquered and assimilated by the Assyrians from the 8th century BC onwards.

Ravana, Kubera’s brother and Rama’s foe is also said to be descended, like all Rakshasas, from Rishi Pulastya and to be a great devotee of Shiva (3) so that his cultural kinship with both the “Aryan” Rama and the “Dravidian” Agastya is attested, over and above the conflict. A common origin for the peoples of the subcontinent from North to South was hence recognized and anthropology vindicates that belief as both the Sinhalese and Tamil inhabitants of Sri Lanka belong to the greater Indian genetic family.

The authors of the book under review have visited various sites in Sri Lanka and identified various sites described by Valmiki rather precisely, including the caves opening on four sides of a hill that led to Ravana’s rock-hewn fortress, in the region of Nuwara Eliya, the island’s central massif. The tradition of building palaces on top of steep rocky hills, surrounded with terraced gardens and harbouring deep caves used for habitation, defence and worship, remained alive until medieval days in Sri Lanka as can be seen in the renowned sites of Sigiriya and Dambulla.

8] Over and above the fact that hominid bone remains and tools found in the Indian subcontinent date back to more than two and a half million years (4), DNA research yields the definitive conclusion that the Indian population is overwhelmingly homogenous since some 55,000 to 60,000 years when it is believed to have moved in from Africa. Strangely (but is it?), some traditional Puranic chronologies situate the beginnings of civilization with the arrival of the first Manu of this cycle some 56,000 years ago. In Southern Siberia, recent genetic tests have shown that an earlier human population, known as Denisovian, sharing many traits with Melanesians and Australian aborigines, mingled with homo sapiens newcomers before vanishing as a separate genus, probably migrating from the South, about 50,000 years ago.

The Greek historians after Megasthenes quoted the Indian royal annals as beginning with the first sovereign of the Solar Race whom the Greeks called Bacchus or Iacchus (Ikshvaku in Samskrit), in 6776 BC (5). That fits chronologically with the nomenclature of 63 kings who ruled Kosala before Sri Rama as listed in Valmiki’s opus (whereby Ikshvaku would have lived some sixteen to eighteen centuries before Sri Rama), and indeed, since about 7000 BC at least all scientific data confirm that an autochthonous civilization experienced consistent development, displaying increasing sophistication and expanding far and wide even beyond the subcontinent. Royal annals further assert that Rama’s two sons and the sons of his brothers and half-brothers, eight in all, ruled as many kingdoms, spread from the Eastern Gangetic plain to the confines of Afghanistan (Taxila and modern-day Peshawar).

9] From a climatic point of view, it is logical to assume that the first settlements of homo sapiens in the subcontinent were located in the South, closer to the Equator and less affected by glacial ages. Indeed, there are traces of prehistoric villages in Tamil Nadu which predate the Toba’s explosion in Indonesia, as shown by the volcanic ashes that covered them around 60,000 years ago. The first Indian civilization should thus have taken root in the South before moving northwards and settling in the riverine plains in the shadows of the great Himalayan chain, well after 12,000 BCE. If that is so, Ravana and his Sri Lanka kingdom would have belonged to an elder branch of the Indic ethnic family.

10] Contemporary developments in linguistic archeology, however disputable those may be, reveal at least according to P. Foster and A. Toth (2003) (6) that Indo-European languages are probably derived from a common ancestor that was already spoken more than 10,000 years ago. From about 5000 to 3500 BCE there are traces of the expansion of that linguistic family throughout Eurasia, from Urals and the Volga to Central Asia. J Greenberg (7) has gone further back in time and tried to show the existence of a common Eurasian macro-family that includes non Indo-European ones, such as the Uralic, Altaic (Turkic) and Afro-Asiatic languages, formerly known as Semito-Hamitic as well as Elamo-Dravidian. His thesis connects with the Nostratic theory in its various interpretations, which generally propose the existence of a common proto-Nostratic source in the Epipaleolithic Age, towards the end of the last glaciation.

There is much common ground as well with the hypothesis of Paleolithic Continuity or PCC (8) which India’s pre-history and history, corroborated by human genetics, illustrate with great clarity as this report shows. Bomhard estimates that 5000 BC (Rama’s age) was when the Proto-Eurasiatic linguistic family divided into Indo-European, Proto-Uralic and Proto-Altaic branches.

The academic school which seeks to prove since Colin Renfrew, that there is an Anatolian origin (in modern day Turkey) for all those “Paleolithic” languages, has not made its case beyond doubt so far, and there might well have been a common linguistic motherland spread over a wide area comprised between North-Western India and Eastern Asia Minor.

Atkinson’s phylogeographic attempt (sciencemag, August 23, 2012 by Nicholas Wade) to establish the common forebear of all Indo-European languages by using a computer to mimic in reverse the evolution of 103 languages of that family, yields Anatolia as the urheimat some 8 to 9500 ago; but its conclusion is disputed by other experts who continue to believe that the westward Indo-European expansion began only in the fifth millennium BCE, either from Asia Minor or from the Black Sea steppe region. However, it is not even clear whether the Kurgan culture, the supposed ancestor, beyond the fact that it was Eurasiatic, was Indo-European or Uralic; so a lot of controversy remains. Further, the now confirmed existence of an epipaleolithic civilization in submerged “Doggerland” even before the dawn of the Holocene throws in disarray all the other theories about human migrations.

The motherland of Eurasiatic or Nostratic languages more than 12000 years ago remains undetermined and could as well as been located in South Asia as in Anatolia.

11] The evidence of a steep but gradual sea level rise in the first five millennia of the Holocene force us to consider the possibility that many settled and populated areas were swallowed by the ocean, and that only those populations which moved to higher grounds were able to survive. That accounts for the traditions preserved in South India about the vanished continent of Kumari Kandam that some have identified with legendary Lemuria, and also for the discovery of extensive urban ruins, more than 8000 years old, under the water of the Gulf of Khambat and Arabian Sea off the coasts of Gujarat and Saurashtra. Tamil civilization traces its origins back to the once emerged lands which now lie beneath the Indian Ocean to the west of Sri Lanka, and the earliest known Dravidian royal dynasty, the House of Pandya, claimed to have ruled over Kumari Kandam and that could only have been before the sea level rise, i.e., prior to the seventh millennium BCE.

Coincidentally Plato recorded that Atlantis, which he located beyond the pillars of Hercules, sank into the Atlantic Ocean sometime after 9600 years BCE, probably as a result of the post-glacial sea level rise around the time when “Doggerland” also became submerged in various stages.

12] There are many “supernatural” elements in the Ramayana (as in all ancient epics, such as the Iliad, Odyssey, Mabinogion, Beowulf et al) which have made scientifically minded scholars wary of lending any credence to the story as a whole. However, the insertion of prodigious characters and miraculous events seems to have been a required feature for heroic tales and records of the ancient world on all continents. The interpretation of those epics need not be literal. In the Ramayana, the vanaras, monkeys who formed Rama’s army along with other wild animals may be regarded as forest dwelling tribesmen which had the langhur or macaque as their totemic animal and emblem, just as the crest of Kosala was the two fishes that have remained in the arms of the successive dynasties of Awadh (Ayodhya) (9) until the present.

 It is a universal tradition in fables and legends to lend animals many of the moral and physical features of human beings and involve them in the story as equal protagonists. The vanaras may well be Central India’s pygmies cited by Ctesias, who reported that they were experts in archery and provided soldiers to various kings. They also may be at the source of Greek reports about India’s kalystroi or cynocephali, a dog-headed, monkey-tailed population of mountain-dwelling hunters and herdsmen with a reputation for honesty and justice. Jatayu, the giant eagle that tried to rescue Sita from her abductor in the Ramayana appears to be a mythified vulture identified in ancient travellers’s accounts with the fabulous griffins, semi-human birds of prey which kept watch over gold mines.

13] There remains however an enigma which is harder to unravel. One is the repeated and detailed mention of sophisticated weaponry, quite out of character with the technology of that pastoral age, and of flying vehicles, including the golden puspaka vimana (shaped like a flower or lotus and also alluded to as a cloud in the sky) which Rama took from the slain Ravana in order to fly back to his capital city in a few hours, after taking many months to complete the onward journey on foot. Analysing this aspect of the story is another subject, which “Historicity of Vedic and Ramayana Eras” does not address. But we can only wonder whether Ravana and his Rakshasas, as the oldest branch of the post-glacial population in the subcontinent, closer to the submerged land of Kanya Kumari, had kept or gained access to an advanced scientific knowledge that their northern cousins long settled in the Sapthasindhu region had lost. That would account for the semi-divine or supernatural status they were given in the cosmography of the day.

The inevitable conclusion of this review of available facts, old and new, is that civilization in India – as in other parts of the world – is much more ancient than archeologists generally think, and that most sites excavated so far in Sumer, Iran, Anatolia, Egypt and the Indus Valley, are more recent, by several thousand years, than the cities and settlements described by Valmiki.

 India’s civilisation can only be compared in terms of antiquity with the contemporary societies of Egypt, the Levant, Asia Minor, Iran and Central Asia whose early, often monumental remains, found at Gobekli, Catalhoyuk, Jericho, Zarzian, Hissar and Keltiminar date back to the age of the Vedas. As Valmiki’s masterwork indicates, Rama and his India were the heirs of a very ancient indigenous culture rooted in the pre-holocene glaciation period.

Notes 

1] Aiyangar notes that the Rig Veda mentions Rama Margaveya who first pressed the soma sacred brew, whereas the Yajur Veda dedicates four stanzas to Sita, daughter of Prajapati. The author, who also notes that Rama Jamadagni or Parasurama is an older avatara of the Sri Rama archetype, gives an astronomic interpretation of most Indian myths and epics and equates Rama with the god Indra and with the Sun, while Sita is the star Betelgeuse, and Ravana the moon. This however, does not contradict the original human history as it is common for legends and their characters to assume a cosmological dimension. For instance, the fact that George Washington owed his given name to an Indo-European dragon-slaying Spring God (Georges) similar to Indra does not make the father of American independence less historically real.

2] In Northern Pakistan, Kashmir and Uttarakhand, skeletal fragments and lithic tools date back to 2,5 -2 million years before present. Proto-Hominid remains in the Kalagarh basin of Uttarakhand (Ramapithecus) are about 10 million years old.

 3] Shiva, one of the many names or euphemisms given to Rudra “The howler” or the “Red One”, seems related to the Thracian Evoe, (Iahweh?) used both as an invocation and a surname of Bacchus or Iacchus. In Indian languages certain names lost their initial s consonant, as in siddhi (samskrt) to iddhi (pali).

4] The Greek interpretation of the first Indian king’s name as Iacchus translated as Dionysos suggests that it was derived from the Vedic Ikshvaku who came second after Manu in the traditional chronology. The Greeks generally equated Iacchus-Bacchus with Shiva as both were said to dwell in the mountains (Kailash, the Caucasus or Zagros respectively) surrounded by wild animals and to induce a sacred intoxication in their followers. The wedding of Bacchus and Ariadne, a foster daughter of the Cretan bull, also has connections with Nandi-riding Shiva’s betrothal with Parvati. Vishnu on the other hand was identified by them with Herakles-Hercules who also carried the mace, wore a lion skin (Narasimha?) and was celebrated for twelve heroic feats reminiscent of the Indian God’s ten world-saving avatars.

5] P. Foster and A. Toth “Towards a Phylogenic Chronology of Ancient Gaulish, Celtic and Indo-European” PNAS, 100 (15), 9079-9084 (2003). They conclude that Indo-European languages took shape in 8100 BCE (between 9600 and 6600 BCE) and that Celts reached Britain about 3200 BCE.

7] “Indo-European and Its Closest Relatives: The Eurasiatic Language Family” (2 vols, 2000-2002)

8] The Paleolithic Continuity Theory or Paradigm expounded by Mario Alinei in his book Origini delle Lingue d’Europa (1996) holds that Indo-European languages in Europe are indigenous and developed during the Paleolithic period, but it is disputed also on genetic grounds as recent mitochondrial DNA research (B. Bramanti, sciencemag.org) has shown in 2009 that a large influx of farming people in Europe at the beginning of the Neolithic provided the ancestry of most modern Europeans by supplanting the earlier Paleolithic hunter-gatherers (see Arrredi, Poloni, Tyler Smith’s The Peopling of Europe in Michael Crawford’s Anthropological Genetics (pp. 380-408)).

9] Note that according to his astronomic birth chart, Dasaratha was born with the Sun in Pisces (Meena). His son and heir Rama was born under the sign of Aries (Mesha the Ram), which follows Pisces in the zodiacal cycle. There are parallel cosmological, symbolic and historical dimensions in the epic.

The author is Convener, Editorial Board, World Affairs Journal. In 1999, he co-founded the Telesis Academy in Switzerland, dedicated to the study of the ancient wisdom of East and West in the contemporary scientific context. He has been associated with the Nuclear Disarmament Forum and the Foundation of Global Dialog in Switzerland.

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The Caste System: the Hindu’s Imaginary Achilles’ Heel 

George Augustine

02 Sep 2012

The BBC commemorated the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible last year in a special edition of the TV programme “The Big Questions” debating just one topic: “Is the Bible Still Relevant?” The chief participants were, inter alia, the former Anglican bishop Michael James Nazir-Ali and biblical scholar Francesca Stavrakopoulos. The debate can be watched here.  Though the debate was about Christians and the bible, replying to an assertion by bishop Nazir-Ali that people would be savages without the ten commandments, Ms. Stavrakopoulus mentioned that people of other religions also live a moral life, and that they don’t need a book for that.

No sooner had she spoken these words did Nazir-Ali, a Christian fundamentalist from Karachi who had to run away to England to escape the wrath of fellow Islamic fundamentalists back home, retorted: “Are you talking about Hindus and the caste system? … Have you ever lived as an untouchable in a Hindu society”. It was enough to shut up Ms. Stavrakopoulus, and the bishop looked triumphant, as if scoring a point against the Hindu was enough to salvage the gobbledygook that has become of his faith!

The mention of ‘caste system’ is enough to shut up even the most eloquent advocate of Hinduism. In a way, this response is reminiscent of the German guilt that becomes active the moment somebody utters the word, “Jew”. I’ve never understood why present-day German humanists should feel guilty of a crime committed by their forefathers motivated by Christian prejudice, of which they have had no part. And it is a wonder why the word “gypsy” never causes such an uncomfortable German response, though the Gypsies too have had a thick slice of the holocaust share.

The ‘caste system’ in India at its worst was caused by a social prejudice rather than a religious prejudice and I’ve yet to hear of the Brahmans sending anybody to the gas chamber, or even imprisoning them in a concentration camp. Still, the Hindu hangs his head in shame if you mention the ‘caste system’.

The ‘caste system’ is a naturally evolved social system that existed and still exists in all parts of the world in one form or another, though it was and is most evident in the Indian subcontinent. Caste is defined as “any group of people that combine some or all elements of endogamy, hereditary transmission of occupation, and status in a hierarchy” [1]. According to social scientists, it develops “when the worth difference within a society sharpens to such a point that the social superior shuns fellowship and intermarriage with the inferior, thus creating a society made up of closed hereditary classes” [2].

When caste relations become extreme and infringe upon human dignity and the fundamental freedom of the individual, that is the point when the caste system becomes bad or termed evil, viewed through the lens of the modern moral sensibility. On the other hand, the social organisation based on occupation makes business sense even today, and more so in ancient times when the family craft was not imparted in a polytechnic but in the household, and the teachers were your own parents from whom you learnt your trade. Every member of the family, male or female, was a capital in the trade and it made sense to marry a trained member of a family engaged in the same trade. It is a natural phenomenon and occurs overarching religion and ethnicity.

Caste is no monopoly of the Hindus, but then why are they held hostage by this notion? The obvious reason is that it is generally believed, even by Hindus, that the “caste system” as defined above is mandated by their religion and was therefore institutionalised. Let us examine the verity of this belief.

Bhagavad-Gita

The line chaturvarnyam maya srushtam guna karma vibhagasha / tasya kartaram api mam viddhy akartaram avyavam  is spoken by Krishna (Gita 4-13) and means “I created the four varnas according to quality, activities and aptitude; although the creator of this, know me as the non-doer being immutable” [3]. The four varnas or divisions of human order are brahmana, kshatriya, vaisya and shudra and are not at all the ‘caste’ spoken of earlier, though out of ignorance many people misunderstand them merely as occupational or trade classes ordained by birth.

According to an authentic source [4], the Mahabharata of which Bhagavad-Gita is a part, was written by Maharishi Vyasa for the benefit of certain sections of society at a time when their circumstances did not allow them to pursue the study of the Vedas. Vyasa’s effort was to make available the essence of the Vedas to the less privileged, which would enable them to follow the path of dharma.

In the Gita, for this very reason, Vyasa’s Krishna assumes superhuman dimensions that reflect the vision of the supreme reality of the Vedas. In Vedanta philosophy, this phenomenal vision of brahman is generally known as saguna brahman, the brahman endowed with qualities. In Advaita Vedanta Isvara, or the creator of universes, of the Upanishads is a reflection of (nirguna) brahman (supreme reality without quality) in maya or the phenomenal world. Therefore, the dissociation of Krishna from the act of creation of the four varnas is consistent with Vedanta.

In the four Vedas, there is no account of an almighty “God” who created the universe and everything in it. The narrative of Mahabharata being designed for those who were ignorant of the Vedas, Krishna (characterising saguna brahman) means by his aforementioned utterance merely that the four varna system is a natural phenomenon. This is easy to understand when one considers gunas as the scientific basis of the four varnas as described in the Vishnupurana. [5]

The physiological and psychological traits of people are ruled by gunas or qualities like satva, rajas and tamas. People are disposed to the various combinations of these gunas for various reasons including genetic inheritance, diet and discipline and it is the dominance of a certain guna or a combination of gunas that predisposes a person to certain qualities that are suitable or unsuitable for a certain activity or a job. Thus a brahmana is predominantly ruled by satva guna, whereas a kshatriya has predominantly rajas. The vaisya has both rajas and tamas and the shudra is dominated by tamas. It is actually the guna that makes them what they are and not vice versa.

The balance or imbalance of these gunas can be influenced by diet and discipline [6] and as such indicates a biological fact. Therefore the maintenance of the guna balance can also be cultivated through breeding, for example, by inter-marrying from the same group which follow the same diet and discipline. And the ensuing progeny will be predisposed to possess the dominant guna of the parents and the community. This process can also lead to the formation of a ‘caste’ as defined earlier.

Thus, we see that there are biological, social and economical factors involved in the formation of ‘castes’ and were not created by Krishna or his author Vyasa. The Gita is only stating a natural phenomenon and not ‘caste’, which is a social development arising from many different factors.

Purusha Suktam

Another text that is often cited to stick the ‘caste’ on the Hindu’s forehead is stanza 13 of Purusha Suktam, which says the purusha’s mouth became the brahmana, his arms the kshatriya, his thigh the vysya and his legs shudra. For the blame game, that is to beat the Hindu with the ‘caste’ stick, one needs to pre-assign lower points in the social scale for purusha’s lower limbs to make up an unequal hierarchy. For example, if purusha was considered a tree, its leg (roots) cannot be judged inferior in any way to the top, fruit-bearing branches.

Written by Rishi Narayana, Purusha Suktam [7] is a lovely hymn and a beautiful poem that describes organic evolution leading to human consciousness in the metaphor of a Vedic yajna. The main subject of this poem is purusha, which term is almost always mistranslated into English as ‘God’, but the purusha is beyond all definitions of ‘God’ in the dictionary and have no resemblance whatever to the hero of the Christian bible. In a dispassionate analysis of the hymn, however, purusha comes through as the unifying basis of organic life.

The first stanza describes an entity that has multiplied and spread beyond the earth. This entity is organic, because it has eyes, head and feet, indicating perception, intelligence and movement. The second stanza confirms it by stating that this entity sustains its perpetuity and grows enormously by consuming food. Later, the purusha takes on a variety of forms (virat purusha). The devas (natural elements) then perform the yajna (sacrifice) sprinkling celestial waters on purusha after laying him on the darbha grass.

At the end of the yajna, various things emerge, among them animals of all sorts including domestic animals like horses, cows, goats and sheep as well as the four Vedas. After this, in the aforementioned 13th stanza, is described the evolution of human society, whereby the purusha’s body becomes a metaphor for the organic body of society, and the various parts of his body become each of the four varnas.

The 14th stanza describes perception through the senses. In the 20th stanza the level of cognition has evolved to such an extent that the Self (I) is identified with the purusha. In the 22nd stanza, the light that shines in all including the devas alike is identified with brahman, the supreme reality. Is there anything false or socially evil in the depiction of this aspect of reality?

Cultural Changes

There are various factors responsible for the distortion of concepts and meanings in the Hindu texts, among which I would name the dominance of the Judeo-Christian thought and sensibility among Hindus as the foremost. It has become a fashion among Hindus today to portray themselves as more irrational than they really are by competing to be like Judeo-Christians in their worship, which really is a superstitious myth. In their ignorance, many still think that they have to go beyond common sense and intelligence in order to be considered religious or moral. Nothing can be further from the truth.

There is a new trend in the Hindu ‘caste’ criticism, especially by Christian missionaries worldwide, by naming it a ‘racial discrimination’. The accusation is that the Aryan invaders of yore, who are called Brahmins, consider themselves a superior race and the Hindu ‘caste’ has been created on the basis of racial categories. This myth can be exploded by just one instance. The Brahmin ‘castes’ in India as a rule did not intermarry with another Brahmin ‘caste’ in another language area, just like they didn’t with any other ‘caste’ in their own language area. This wouldn’t have been the case if the Aryan race was a fact or indeed the cause of the ‘caste’. The Aryan invasion theory has been dismantled since long, but the idea is still utilised by Christian missionaries in South India and by Tamil politicians to good effect.

The real victims of modern ‘caste’ discrimination are termed “untouchables”. Most of these people were originally outside the ‘caste’ society because from time immemorial they inhabited remote geographical zones (such as forests), where they had complete autonomy over their land, culture and society. Though interactions between the different groups were minimal, they were regular and recognised and accepted by Hindu kings and all caste groups. However, the old system and traditions broke down after the establishment of colonial laws.

The numerous traditional festivals [8], which have almost become extinct today, involving these groups indicate points of interaction between these societies on equal terms. Most of the “untouchable” groups enjoyed their own geographical space, occupation, customs and rituals, which were not violated under all circumstances by tradition and were accepted by all communities and the local Raja.

The violation began when European colonialists started clearing forests and encroached upon the geographical areas of the so-called ‘untouchables’ to preach Christianity to the forest dwellers. The rabid increase in the Indian population in the last 50 years combined with the import of European morality also compelled these vulnerable groups to also lose their dignity, forcing them to forsake their own land and traditions and learn the new language and culture of the Europeanised plains to become a servile class.

The significant number of dignified personalities (Vyasa, Visvamitra, Parasurama, Dronacharya, etc.) in ancient Hindu history who changed their ‘caste’ occupation indicates that the alleged features of the modern-day Hindu ‘caste system’ marked by extreme rigidity and inequality evolved later on in history. Foreign invasion was a major factor that rigidified social strata. A new study [9] shows a direct link between colonial practices and policies to the development of social inequalities in India. No doubt lots remains to be done not only in India but all parts of the world to get rid of social discrimination based on ethnicity, occupation and religion. This discrimination is not a monopoly of the religious group known as Hindus.

Notes

[1] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caste

[2] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caste#Theories_on_caste_formation

[3] http://www.bhagavad-gita.org/Gita/verse-04-13.html

[4] Srimad Bhagavatam, Canto I, chapter 4, verse 25. See http://www.bhagavad-gita.org/Articles/vyasa.html

[5] See Pandharinath H. Prabhu, Hindu Social Organisation, A Study of the Socio-Psychological and Ideological Foundations, in the chapter “Four Varnas” (Mumbai: Popular Prakashan, 2010) pp. 319-320. See in Google Books.

[6] For more details, consult a learned ayurvedic physician or Hindu acharya.

[7] See the ‘Simple English’ translation by Sri Kotikanyadanam Sreekrishna Tatachar: http://srivaishnavam.com/stotras/ps_meaning.htm

[8] The Mannarkadu Pooram in Palakad District, Kerala, which took place for the last time in 1972, was the last of such festivals to have disappeared in India. It was a joint festival of the Attapady tribes and the people of the plains, which was a traditional venue for goods and cultural exchange.

[9] See Arvind Kumar, How British socialism created poverty and caste inequality: http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/column_how-british-socialism-created-poverty-and-caste-inequality_1727277

 The author is a professional translator

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