What follows is a comment on the article “Recycled racism in a new bottle” by Navaratna S. Rajaram, published on 10 February 2014 by Vijayvaani.
The Kozhikode workshop
But first a correction to a recent post by the Professor who is attacked in the article. Harvard Sanskrit professor Michael Witzel has published a report on the Vedic workshop in Kozhikode, January 2014: http://vedagya.blogspot.be/2014/03/report-on-6-th-international-vedic.html. In it, he mentions me as “a ‘reformed’ Hindutva writer”, and says that I questioned two speakers “insistently and even a bit aggressively” about the Aryan debate. While this is not an important issue, the contentious Aryan question implies that even small mistakes can develop into dramatic rumours, so I’d better set them straight.
The two questions I asked in sessions where he was present (and which I didn’t intend to be “aggressive”), in fact pertained to the famous Rg-Vedic hymn 1.164, where a lowing cow and her calf are repeatedly mentioned, as well as “the syllable”, hinting at but not really affirming a connection between the two. I cited Witzel’s own jocular comment on his own Indo-Eurasian Research list that this meant the syllable Aum really was an alternative vocalization of “Mooh” (which I consider quite likely), and asked the scholars what the conclusion of their own research was. Both remained non-committal, calling it possible but not really bringing any progress to the debate. In the parallel sessions however, which Witzel laments as necessitated by the too large numbers of papers, I did ask two speakers, who based their conclusions partly on the Aryan Invasion Theory, whether they had any evidence for this theory. Both refrained from offering any hard evidence, one said that it is established well enough and not seriously questioned, the other cited a few authorities to this effect, most of all Witzel himself.
I was at the workshop genuinely to listen, to assemble information on the current thinking among a large number of scholars specialized in ancient Indian culture. I had no intention or expectation of convincing anyone, though I was pleased to find that a number of younger scholars sought me out to know more about the Out-of-India Theory. Publicly, the Aryan question was not discussed at all. For Witzel, the reason was that “it is a purely political and not a scholarly topic”. And this is also exactly the opinion of Witzel’s fiercest opponent, Dr. Navaratna S. Rajaram.
Both of them, probably very surprised to find each other in the same bed, assert that the Aryan debate is over and has been definitively decided. Both think that this debate only shows signs of life once in a while because of its political interest and in spite of its scholarly resolution. Only, Witzel thinks that the AIT has won the debate and its denial only survives because it is politically useful to the Hindutva forces, while Rajaram thinks the AIT has been refuted and only survives because it is politically useful to anti-Hindu forces as well as to various other political movements, including racism. It is this motive that he also discovers in Witzel, as he explains in the VijayVaani article.
We summarize Rajaram’s central contention: “Following the Nazi horrors and the American Civil Rights Movement race is now a dirty word.” Yet: “Some writers, even academics at supposedly prestigious institutions, continue to produce works advancing racist positions behind thinly veiled sophistic arguments while avoiding overtly racist terms.” Namely, Harvard Sanskritist Prof. Michael Witzel’s latest book: “The Origins of World Mythologies is the latest addition to this dubious genre by a singular scholar.”
He presents Witzel as “more activist than scholar”, and lists as proofs his interventions to thwart Hindu proposals to eliminate the Aryan invasion theory from the chapter on Hindu history in California schoolbooks, and to ban Dr. Subramanian Swamy, after the latter’s anti-Muslim utterances, from teaching economics at Harvard.
Not that physicist Rajaram has to teach lessons about Sanskrit studies. He writes for instance that Witzel “claims to have found dialectic changes in the Rigveda around 1200 BC soon after the non-existent Aryan invasion”, but this observation was already worked out in the 19th century to explain the archaic and non-standard language of the Vedas. Rajaram repeatedly and unknowingly displays his unfamiliarity with the field. Moreover, in his publications including this very article, he passes as a “scientist and historian”. He has a diploma and a career as scientist to his credit, but as if that were not good enough, he also claims to be a historian. This, he is not.
We do not believe in diploma fetishism, so we accept that someone without a history diploma can still be a historian, namely if he does the work of a historian, applying the historical method. This, however, Rajaram haughtily refuses to do. Case in point is his dogged rejection of the very basis of the whole Indo-European theory, even preceding the question of the Homeland, viz. the linguistic finding of a kinship between most Indian and European languages. For him comparative and historical linguistics is a “pseudo-science”.
For this reason, he rejects any quest for a homeland, even if it is India, and therefore also rejects the so-called Out-of-India Theory as detailed by Shrikant Talageri. For years already, he has been saying that the Aryan debate is over and has been won by the AIT skeptics. It is this reputedly authoritative assertion that was believed by the unsuspecting California Hindus and led to their defeat in the textbook affair.
His scholarly contributions confine themselves to refuting the Aryan Invasion Theory, without proposing an alternative explanation for a linguistic kinship that he rejects. In this respect, his discovery of the relevance of the Seidenberg findings about the anteriority of Baudhayana’s mathematics to Babylonian mathematics (which dates Baudhayana’s late-Vedic writings dramatically earlier than hitherto assumed) remains pivotal in the Aryan debate. But for a presentation of the whole Aryan problem, he simply and willfully lacks the knowledge.
Though not comprehending the scholarly basis of the Aryan debate, Rajaram must be gifted with telepathic powers, for he can read other people’s motives, even where they haven’t expressed them. He can see through any “camouflage” and identify people’s true reasons. Thus:
“Witzel’s latest book looks at world mythologies, going back 100,000 years when the first anatomically modern humans were identified in the African Rift Valley. From there he claims to trace two tracks of mythological development - the Gondwanian and the Laurasian. But this is just camouflage, for his agenda is ultimately racist.”
Oh yes, Witzel must be a racist: as a German, he has it in his blood. But Rajaram’s telepathy loses some of its shine when he claims mere hearsay as his source of authority: “As Tok Thompson of the University of Southern California exposes (as do others), Witzel claims that these represent two races in the world, distinguished by both myth and biology.”
How would he know? I am a witness to the genesis of this claim. On an improvised e-group of some thirty people, functioning in December 2013 to February 2014, only two had read this book, an Indo-American computer scientist and myself. Both had read the book from cover to cover and both asserted at this point that they had not come across any racism. Rajaram and his allies, who are now spreading this article of his, had not even seen the book. He does not know what Witzel said in that book and merely relies on two book reviews: mine (http://koenraadelst.blogspot.be/2013/03/globalization-of-mythology.html), which doesn’t have this accusatory slant, and the said Tok Thompson’s (http://bharatkalyan97.blogspot.in/2014/01/a-racist-book-by-witzel-harvard.html).
Rajaram makes his readers believe that he is quoting Witzel, when in fact he is quoting Thompson’s review: “As seen by Witzel, ‘…the dark-skinned Gondwana are characterized by ‘lacks’ and ‘deficiencies’ … and are labeled ‘primitive’ at a ‘lower stage of development’, while the noble Laurasian myths are… the only ‘true’ creation stories, and the first ‘complex story’, which the Gondwana never achieved. On the face of it, the common African origin of modern humans is acknowledged, but the sting is in the tail: the dark-skinned Gondwana never progressed beyond their primitive stage to catch up with the ‘noble Laurasians’ -- their superiors in biology as well as intellect and character.”
The “superiority in biology” is purely Thompson’s addition, and the offending references to race are not in evidence in Witzel’s book, a fact which gives the lie to Thompson’s claim that Witzel’s text is “explicitly racist”. He still has to prove his effective allegation that it is implicitly racist, but it certainly is not “explicitly” racist – otherwise he would certainly have quoted the racist statements in it. The racism allegation is now a cheap way of capturing the moral high ground in the West, where anti-racist egalitarianism has become the state religion (a development that has escaped the notice of many Hindu nationalists, who tend to wallow in anachronism), and I have seen it used numerous times to destroy people, on a very slender factual basis or even against the pertinent facts.
Witzel never calls the Laurasian myths “noble” and never speaks about skin colour, which is not what defines his Gondwana-Laurasia dichotomy: the Tamils are as dark as Nelson Mandela, yet they are Laurasians. The Chinese or the Mayas are not white either, but they are Laurasians. He observes that Gondwana mythology “lacks” some Laurasian themes, such as the dragon-slayer or the end-time; but that does not mean it is objectively “deficient”. Girls “lack” what boys have, but it is to be hoped that Tok Thompson doesn’t deduce therefrom that they are “deficient”: their sexual apparatus, including their distinctive capacity to bear children, is less obvious, but is as valuable and necessary as that of the boys.
Finally, Rajaram has also pointed out common themes and universals that transcend his bifurcation. Thus, the Kundalini doctrine, which exists in the “Laurasian” culture of India (and, I may add, in recognizable form also China), also appears among the Gondwana shamanisms of the Australian Aboriginals and the San (Bushmen). On the improvised e-mail list, several Hindus got angry with me for citing the kinship of a venerable Hindu doctrine with these “Bushmen”.
Thompson then goes on to challenge the truth of Witzel’s division of the world’s myths into two types, citing some Laurasian peoples of North America (which he himself has studied) as not having the typically Laurasian myths of the dragon-slayer, the end-time etc. This may be true: bifurcating mankind culturally after millennia of interaction and ever new waves of emerging or changed stories is an ambitious claim, and Witzel may have reached too high. Or he may not have, that remains a matter for debate among specialists. At the end of his book, Witzel himself admits his own limitations in studying the whole world’s myths and solicits mythographers to volunteer corrections.
What I find very valuable in Witzel’s thesis is his charting a world tree of myths. Of course a first attempt is bound to be seriously imperfect, and the very nature of the reconstruction of ancient myths and their development necessarily has parts which history has made invisible and irretrievable. But unlike Rajaram and Thompson (as very partially known to me through his review), he dares to project verifiable trends deep into the past. Thus, in linguistics, Witzel espouses (and Thompson lambasts) the notion of “Nostratic”, the putative ancestor of many Eurasian and North-African languages. It is simply obvious that the historically attested fragmentation of languages also took place for dozens of millennia before the invention of writing, and that conversely, the reconstruction of ancient languages from a comparison of their modern daughters can in principle be projected into prehistory. Similarly, the principle of a global family tree of myths is impeccable even though its actual reconstruction is only at its beginning. Moreover, this universalism emphasizes the unity of mankind, a position which I had learned to consider anti-racist.
On 15 May 2014, Witzel comes to London to lecture on this debate, and I will reserve my definitive judgment on Thompson’s critique of his book until hearing his own defence.
As for Rajaram, he is back in telepathy mode: “If supported, the notion of the superior white and inferior dark races will be scientifically validated. This is the real agenda of the book, but its ‘science’ is rubbish; it does not even rise to the level of pseudo-science. Mythology is just a camouflage to push this prejudice that is simply not worth spending time over. What interests us are the history and motives lurking behind the book.”
Exactly: the book doesn’t interest him, he will pass judgment on it without even reading it. This is like those Western AIT-espousing philologists who denounce Shrikant Talageri’s work all while accidentally spilling the beans that they haven’t read it (for a recent example, see his fresh discovery of Hans Hock’s ill-informed denunciation). Incidentally, while Western academics have lambasted Talageri as well as myself, the most fiercely negative reviews of both his and my latest book on the Aryan question (The Rigveda and the Avesta c.q. Asterisk in Bharopiyasthan) were written by Rajaram. At the time I decided to ignore it, but hostile as well as anti-scholarly attittudes have accumulated so badly in circles I used to consider friendly, that at least I now have to acknowledge the fact.
Undaunted, Rajaram keeps denouncing Witzel’s unread book: “Except for the terminology, its arguments are indistinguishable from those of Houston Chamberlain (Inequality of Races), Arthur de Gobineau and other race theorists who provided justification to the Nazi idea of the superior Aryan race. It is important to note that their source was not Indian but European, more specifically Teutonic German. They worshipped Teutonic deities like Thor and Odin, not Vedic ones like Indra and Varuna. Their Swastika was also the German Hakenkreuz (‘hooked cross’) not the Indian svasti symbol.”
The swastika existed in Europe at least since Roman times, so the Nazis didn’t need India to make it their own. Neither Gobineau nor Chamberlain was German, though they did indeed represent the peak of racism as an ideology. Gobineau, like the Nehruvian secularists, adored Sufism, which he saw as an expression of the Iranian genius. Of Chamberlain, I assume he may have picked up some ideas from his adopted German environment, including the Heathen revival which predated his own work. Pagan revivalism has came up in Sweden in the 16th century with the Storgothic movement, in the 17th in England with the neo-Druid movement (of which Winston Churchill became an ordained officiant) and the 18th in Brittany and Germany. It was mainly a form of cultural archaeology, not really Pagan and anti-Christian, hence the preponderance of Christian priests and vicars among its researchers and propagators.
I have said and written many times that “nationalism is a misstatement of Hindu concerns”. Here we have another illustration of my thesis. Germanic religion was closely akin to Vedic religion. For Christians, the followers of both will go to hell. For scholars, Varuna corresponds roughly to Odin, and Indra quite precisely to Thor. For nationalists, however, they are very different: Odin and Thor, like Jesus, are non-Indian, while Varuna and Indra are Indian. Like many so-called Hindu nationalists, Rajaram doesn’t care two hoots for difficult theological issues like the exact difference in worldview between the different religions, and prefers the much easier division in national and foreign. His attack on Odin and Thor will be applauded by Christians, since they will recognize it as an attack on Varuna and Indra. We already saw Rajaram agreeing with his enemy Witzel, and now we see him do the work of the Christian missions.
More vintage Rajaram, the telepath who can divine the unseen agenda behind an unread book: “Ideas once central to the Aryan myth resurfaced in various guises under labels like Indology and Indo-European Studies -- and now as mythology. Witzel’s book is only the latest exercise in this attempt to prove the superiority of one race over others; supposedly a study on world mythologies, it has a hidden race-based agenda.”
Indology and Indo-European Studies existed before race thinking became dominant in the second half of the 19th century. Indo-European reconstruction followed into the footsteps of the reconstruction of the Uralic family in the 18th century, and ran parallel with the reconstruction of the Afro-Asiatic family tree. The basic finding of Indo-European Studies, viz. the kinship and ultimately equality between the then Indian underlings and European masters, was welcomed by many Indians as a ground for emancipation, just as it was used by the colonizers as a justification for their presence in India. So, the political uses of a theory could vary widely, but the correctness of the theory is not decided by the uses made of it. “E = mc²” is not invalidated by its use in the Hiroshima nuclear bomb. Any “scientist” should know that.
Thus, rocket science was quite literally developed by the Nazis. The American space organization NASA was led by the erstwhile Nazi Wernher von Braun. By Rajaram’s reasoning, rockets are Nazi. Rocket scientists such as himself, who has worked as a consultant for the NASA, must also be gravely tainted with the Nazi brush. If he calls Indo-European Studies or its practitioners racists, then by his very own criteria, he stands exposed as a Nazi. Of course, I am not saying that, but he himself is implying it.