On the internet discussion list of the Religion in South Asia (RISA) chapter of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), September 2011 saw a debate on racial concepts in Vedic India. The thread’s header was: “Why is Krishna blue?” My participation in it was probably a factor in my subsequent sudden and unexplained expulsion from the list. This expulsion frees me from the commitment to secrecy about what is being said and done on the list. So now, we can give a little overview of that debate.
Early on, Prof. George Thompson put his cards on the table: “I've been telling students for 25 years that Krishna is blue because he is a non-Vedic tribal god.” (8 Sep.)
A UK-based Indian Professor was not so sure: “Well, the non-Vedic nature of the god might not ensure the colour! Indeed Krsna (but perhaps Visnu too) is identified with Mayon - the dark one - in Cankam Tamil, and it is not clear which way the influence went. But on the other hand, another colour-coded non-Vedic Tamil god is Seyyon - the red one - who came to be called Subrahmanya...”
Thompson replies: “Well, the color is ensured by the etymology of the word 'krsna'. As for Visnu, he is of course an early Vedic god, though not yet a prominent one in the RV, and there is no mention of Visnu's color in early Vedic, as far as I know.” (8 Sep.)
To a Chicago-based Professor who is not convinced that the dark colour of Krishna’s idols refers to historical skin colour, Thompson replies: “It is clear that Krsna is a black god. There is no shame in that. And there is no shame in the view that he was a tribal god. Or an aboriginal one. Where is there lack of respect in the suggestion that Krsna was originally a non-Vedic tribal god? I think that Krsna is more interesting than his white Vedic colleagues.” (9 Sep)
The professor from Chicago did not take this veiled imputation of anti-aboriginal racism lying down: “You seem to entirely misconstrue my meaning. As I took some minor pains to suggest, my issue was with evidence, not conclusion. I have no trouble with black. Black is beautiful, as they used to say. Nor, were it remotely possible to establish that Krishna was ‘originally’ a ‘tribal god’ or ‘aboriginal god’, would there be any shame for him or his devotees.
“My concern is not with theological shame, but with what might be called methodological shame (or its lack). Empirically speaking, of course, (that is, de facto) you are entirely correct that ‘there is no shame in the view that he was a tribal god’. On the other hand, de jure, I think there ought to be rather more shame in the community of scholars who study Indian religions (and this goes for the vast majority of references in historical works to Indian ‘tribes’ or ‘aborigines’).
“Whether or not one is a ‘tribal god’ (whatever that might be -- and I think this is not at all clear, however people might bandy the concept about) is (ideally) normatively neutral. However, making claims about tribal this and tribal that based on fragments of ambiguous evidence, half-formed ideas about what the native communities of India might have been in the historical periods under discussion, and a healthy dose of lazy historical fantasy (in respectable circles, this is called ‘historical retrodiction’ or ‘synthesis’), should be a matter of some shame indeed.”
“There is some little evidence for communities one might call ‘aboriginal’ or ‘tribal’ in India in the ancient period. However, most of it either requires serious interpretative caution (being, after all, literary representations of marginal communities that bear marked connotations in mainstream discourses) or contradicts the typical Indological fantasy of what characterizes ‘aboriginal, tribal’ societies and religions.”
So, this Professor imputes to Prof. Thompson an eagerness to bandy “racism” about, as well as the methodologically sloppy readiness to assume “tribal” origins. I am not the only one to suspect that George Thompson is a race hustler. A Professor from Buffalo NY dedramatizes the race issue in the Hindu context:
“I recall, many years ago, H. Daniel Smith, the Sanskrit scholar who had by then turned his focus to Hindu poster art, telling a class that the reason that Kali was represented in poster art as blue rather than black was because they couldn't use that much black in early chromolithography -- I don't recall exactly why; perhaps it seeped into neighboring colors? And the technical limitations of the poster art changed the way many people visualized Kali (as blue as well as black). Perhaps something similar is the case with Krishna?” (9 Sep.)
Thompson to the Chicago professor, 9 Sep.:
“I suppose that I have misunderstood your original post, because in fact I do agree that there is little evidence -- either positive or negative – for any claim about Krsna's origins. When we are dealing with texts that are at least 2000 years old (and in my case at least 3000), we are all, in my view, in the dark ages. I probably am more aware of this than most list members because I spend most of my time on the Rgveda. One of my little projects is to translate the cycle of hymns attributed to the rsi Diirghatamas, so I know a lot about darkness, intentional, riddling darkness.
“Color symbolism is an interesting matter but it does not lead us to the light of history. By the way, my reference to white Vedic gods was facetious (I was vaguely alluding to our White Aryan Brotherhood friends). I don't think that any of us is ‘white’. ‘Whiteness’ is a racist concept, in my view. I will close by pointing out that the Vedic clans were not only not white; they were tribal, intensely macho, and virulently xenophobic. I've been reading Jarrod Whitaker's new book Strong Arms and Drinking Strength: Masculinity, Violence and the Body in Ancient India (I've been asked to review it). He points out that nowhere in the RV is nrmna, 'manliness,' ever ascribed to any indigenous peoples (p. 53).”
Nobody in his right mind was referring to “our White Aryan Brotherhood friends”, except for George Thompson. It is only he who links the Indo-Aryans with the unrelated White Aryan Brotherhood. He wrote back on 10 September:
“[The Chicago professor] and I have gotten clearance from Deepak to continue this discussion for a bit longer. Several misunderstandings have been cleared up.
“In the introduction to my Gita translation, I claimed, on the basis of my reading of the text alone, that the doctrine that Krsna as an avatar of Visnu was not yet a settled doctrine in the Gita. Somewhat later after making this assertion, I was asked to review Angelika Malinar's book The Bhagavadgiitaa: Doctrines and Contexts published in 2007 (which is the year in which I had finished my Gita book), and she made the case for this claim at much greater length than I did, and she persuasively argued that her very learned view, and my not very learned but intuitive view, represented the current consensus.
“So, I think that it is fair to say that there was initially significant resistance to the idea that Krsna was an avater of Visnu. In most of the text of the MBh, Krsna is usually considered a mere mortal King of the Vrsnis. While the term vrsni is a good old Vedic word, it isn't used to refer to a particular tribe. The clan of the Vrsnis do not appear on the scene until epic [MBh] Sanskrit. Since I am a Vedicist most of all, I claim no expertise on the ethnography of this Vrsni clan. It might be worthwhile to pursue this, though. It may help us to learn something historically significant about Krsna's origins. But I'll leave this for those who would know more than I do.
“Through this sort of ethnographical research we may be able to get some historical insights into the origins of Krsna. In any case, I think that this kind of approach may prove to be more fruitful than color symbolism.”
A very Christian Professor intervened on 9 September under the header: The Indo-European Immigrants' Self Consciousness:
“Sisters and brothers, A recent mention of Jarrod Whitaker's new book reminded me of something that I have been meaning to ask the list. I know from Ed Bryant's The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture, that the evidence that the Indo-Europeans characterized the indigenes in South Asia as ‘snub nosed’ is exceedingly thin. This prompts a more basic question: Assuming that the Indo-Europeans migrated into South Asia, but assuming that it was not a catastrophic invasion, that it was a movement over several centuries, etc., is there solid evidence in early Vedic literature that the migrating Indo-Europeans thought of themselves as a separate people? That they spoke a different language. Or had a different religion and mythology. Or that they were somehow ethnically distinct (if not with longer noses, than with lighter skin, or is even that too much a product of modern racism). That the immigrants labeled themselves ‘Aryans’ and the indigenes were labeled ‘Dasyus’ or ‘Dasas’, of something of the sort. Is the evidence good for this?”
Another Professor added on 11 september under the same header: The Indo-European Immigrants' Self Consciousness:
“In all of our excitement to discuss why Krishna is blue (from the serious to the silly), I fear this excellent question posed by [the Christian Professor] may have gotten lost in the barrage of emails. I am very interested in this topic as well, and would also appreciate some insight from our Vedic scholars.”
That’s when, 11 september, I intervened under this same header: The Indo-European Immigrants' Self Consciousness:
“The debate over whether there ever was an Aryan invasion has raged (and I mean raged) for two decades, and if there had been such evidence for the Vedic people seeing themselves as invaders and others as natives, it would have been plastered all over the affected discussion forums including this one. So no, there is no such evidence.
“Françoise Bader in her textbook of Indo-European linguistics tries to derive ‘Arya’ (the self-reference term of both Iranians and Vedic Indo-Aryans) from ‘alia’, related to Latin/English ‘alien’, in the sense of ‘the foreigners, the invaders’. But even among the Aryan Invasion believers, she never found many takers for this rather oxymoronic explanation of a self-referential term as meaning ‘the others’.
“In the Rg-Veda, the terms ‘Dasa’ and ‘Dasyu’, which are also known in ethnic meanings in Iranian languages, refer without any doubt to Iranians, i.e. fellow Indo-Europeans, whiter than or at least as white as the Vedic people. Not to Mundas or Dravidians. The Rg-Vedic Battle of the Ten Kings and Varshagira Battle (the first on the Ravi banks in West Panjab, the second beyond the Bolan Pass in southern Afghanistan, after the westward expansion rendered possible by Vedic kind Sudas's victory in the first battle), were very definitely between Iranians and Vedic Indo-Aryans. The second of these battles is also alluded to in the younger Avesta, where the same battle leaders are mentioned: Rjashva/Arjasp and Somaka/Humayaka on the Indian side, Vishtaspa/Ishtashva on the Iranian side. RV 1:122:13 mentions Ishtâshva, the Sanskrit form of Iranian 'Vishtâspa', well-known as Zarathustra's royal patron: 'What can Ishtâshva, Ishtarashmi or any other princes do against those who enjoy the protection (of Mitra and Varuna)?' Thus the interpretation of Sayana and SK Hodiwala, as reported by Shrikant Talageri, The Rigveda, a Historical Analysis, p.215-221, and also followed, at least in the names given, by HH Wilson and KF Geldner in their RV translations. It is a rare treat in studies of ancient literature when a single event is reported in two independent sources, which moreover represent the two opposing parties in the event.
“[Dear Chistian Professor], your question for evidence is an eminently good one. When people say, for example, that Krishna, though described as belonging to one of the Vedic ‘five nations’, is called ‘black because he was a non-Aryan indigenous tribal leader’, it is indeed right and necessary to ask them for their evidence.
“Dr. Koenraad Elst, non-affiliated Orientalist”
This argumentation of mine contains one non-essential mistake, viz. the Vârshâgira Battle took place on the eastern, Indian side of the Bolan pass, not on the Western, Afghan side. But it was a battle between Vedic Indians and Avestan Iranians. Terms like Dâsa, Dasyu and Asura are well-attested in Iranian but nowhere attested in “tribal” languages.
Nonetheless, George Thompson replied on 12 september, now under the header: The Indo-European Immigrants' Self Consciousness. He clearly was very angry for my accusing him of building a far-reaching thesis on no evidence at all:
“We have had this argument with Mr Elst many, many times already, and I am not going to waste much time on running in circles with him again. He is a virulent Hindutvavadin. Frankly, I don't think that he has earned a place on this list.
“Bader's etymology for the term ‘arya’ is in fact widely accepted by competent linguists. Actually, it isn't her etymology. It is much older than she is. It has been common knowledge for several generations. Elst is not a competent linguist.
“Let me point out also another mistake that Elst makes, along with [yet another Professor]. No Indo-Europeans ever invaded India. Indo-Europeans, by the third millennium, had already fragmented into a dozen or more distinct linguistic families. Indo-Europeans weren't a race! They were a group of linguistic families, speakers of various related languages! This is linguistics 101, my friends! I can't believe that I have to give this lecture yet again on a scholarly list!
“The clans that migrated into India some 3000 plus years ago were Vedic clans, who had very close ties to the Iranian clans that migrated westward into Iran at about the same time that the Vedic clans were approaching the Indian subcontinent. They fought constantly with their Iranian cousins, just as they fought constantly with the indigenous clans of India when they finally reached the Panjab.
“Look, we have significant evidence, linguistic evidence, that clearly demonstrates that the Vedic tribes did in fact migrate into India over the course of many centuries. We have good linguistic evidence that Indra fought against tribes who had no eth[n]ic ties whatsoever with Indo-Iranian tribes (see Kuiper's list of terms that have no cognates either in IE or in Indo-Iranian). These would have to have been tribes indigenous to India.
“Elst continues to think that early Iranian and early Vedic clans thought in terms of their ‘whiteness’ Well, what evidence is there for that? Elst, in my view, clearly operates from a racist ideology. Look again at him.
“If you all want to explore the scholarly dark ages: this is where to look.
He is not competent to talk about Avestan. I am.”
Well, well. In a context where the difference between a and â, between arya and ârya, gets confused by the occasional non-use of the â, it seems that George Thompson hasn’t understood the import of Françoise Bader’s use of arya. Unlike Paul Thieme and other “competent linguists” who are “older than she is”, and who interpreted ârya as a derivative of arya, “other” , viz. as “inclined towards the other, hospitable, altruistic”, Bader interprets ârya as a synonym of arya, viz. as “the other, the stranger” through the semantic conduit “coming from another country = ârya”. (Langues Indo-Européennes, p.66) There is no evidence for this at all, except that it falls in line with the Aryan Invasion Theory; but even all the other AIT champions never thought of it, until George Thompson gave his support to it.
Then we have the champion of the racial interpretation of ancient Vedic terms slamming the open non-racial door: “Indo-Europeans weren't a race! They were a group of linguistic families, speakers of various related languages! This is linguistics 101, my friends! I can't believe that I have to give this lecture yet again on a scholarly list!” Most members even of the RISA list were perfectly aware of the non-racial import of the Rg-Veda, it is only George Thompson who opened the debate by saying in so many words that for 25 years he has been teaching that Krishna’s imputed racial traits are significant for his ethnic background.
What is simply unacceptable is that the avowed racist George Thompson, once he feels the anti-racist mood on the RISA-list, accuses me of all people of racism. Ever since my first writing on the Aryan Invasion Theory, the book Indigenous Indians in 1993, I have consistently lambasted the 19th-century racial interpretation of Vedic terms. George Thompson, by contrast, has espoused that interpretation all along.
It remains a fact that Iranian refers a hundred times in a self-referential or at least partially Iranian sense to the terms which the Vedas use to name their enemies. None of the tribal languages, not even the Dravidian languages, do so. They also do not have the so-called deshi (vernacular but not attested in Sanskrit) words for Hindi plant names, which are non-existent in the non-Indian Indo-European languages only because it is no use retaining a word for a (in Europe) non-existent plant. All the Kuipers of this world cannot change that.
As a parting shot, Thompson gives this along: “If you all want to explore the scholarly dark ages: this is where to look.” Just the opposite: in the Middle Ages, scholarship reputedly went by authority, which is George Thompson’s method, and the Aryan Invasion method. After the Enlightenment, the scholarly method required evidence, which is my method.
Meanwhile, the list master implored me at once to let it all pass. On 12 September, he sent me a message under the all too clear header: “pls do not respond to that RISA msg”:
"Out of the best interest of the RISA-L listserve, please do not respond to that msg, acrimonious as it was. You are, of course, more than welcome respond off list.
"yours, Deepak, RISA-L admin”
I complied, but must say I have not been rewarded. Though I didn’t react at all, I was shown the door somewhat later. By contrast, I have no information that the offending list member, George Thompson, was reprimanded in any meaningful way. He didn’t apologize on- or off-list. So now, at least, I am at liberty to divulge what happened.