Indian Mythology

Kurukshetra

In a country like India, where every fact is infinitely malleable and where every interpretation is politicized, the need to distinguish between history and mythology is more important than ever.

Myths were created by human beings to explain previously inexplicable phenomena such as how the universe was created and where thunder and lightning came from. Unlike history, myths are not meant to be verified.

Myths are thus associated with the religious and cultural beliefs of a people. They do not inquire into the past the way history inquires.

They are valuable nonetheless for helping to create a sense of a common origin among people and in explaining the basis of their religious and cultural values and institutions.

Mythology is the means by which most Indians (Hindus) have sought to understand the past. The mythology of the Vedas, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Puranas, are thus as, if not more, important to the Indian than the legend of King Arthur is to the English or the Kojiki is to the Japanese.

Here are some key myths from Hindu mythology in context:

  • The origins of humanity: the first man is Manu from which the Sanskrit word for man (‘manava’) is derived. Manu saves the world’s animals from the Great Flood (Adam and Noah in one!) and is the father of the first kings and queens in Indian mythology.
  • Dynasties, Kings and Sages: ancient Indian dynasties typically claim descent through lines traced back to one of Manu’s two children (Ishvaku and Ila). The hero of the Ramayana, Rama, traces his ancestry to the line associated with Ishvaku, [1] while the Pandvas and the Kauravas of the Mahabharata trace their descent from the line associated with Ila.[2]

The Puranas contain genealogical lists of kings and sages (e.g. Kashyapa, Atri, Vishvamitra, et al) in a manner reminiscent of the list of patriarchs, prophets and progenitors in the Old Testament (e.g. from Abraham to Ham, Shem, Canaan and Rachab).

  • Bharata: The word for “India” in Sanskrit, “Bharata,” derives from the eponymous mythical emperor. Bharata is believed to have united much of what we now call India stretching from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin.

The “Bharata” were also an ancient clan mentioned in the Vedas which emerged victorious in battle over other Indo-Aryan tribes and clans.[3]

  • The Class (Caste) System: in the Vedas, the cosmic man (Puruṣa), is said to have been divided into four parts. From his head came the Brahmin class (priests and teachers), from his arms and torso came the Ksatriya (warrior), from his legs came the Vaisya (farmers and merchants) and from his feet came the Sudra (servants).

These are just some of the myths which Indians and Hindus look to in understanding themselves and the origins of India.

 

Notes

[1] The Sūryavaṁśa (solar dynasty).

[2] The Candravaṃśa (lunar dynasty).

[3] The Mahabharata also takes its title from this clan.

 

 

The Aryans of India

 

aryan migration

During my mid-twenties, one of my aunts told me that we (ethnic Punjabis) were descended from the Aryans of ancient India.

I first learned about these Aryans while studying Indian history during my undergraduate degree. I learned that that the Aryans had originally migrated into India from the north-west and that they first settled in the Punjab around 1500 BCE. I also learned that their religious beliefs and lifestyle were recorded around 1200 BCE in a literature known as the Vedas.

Like me, most peoples of the subcontinent (particularly northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) claim to be descended from the (Indo) Aryans. The term Indo-Aryan refers not only to an ethnic group (which is religiously, culturally and regionally diverse), but also to a family of languages spoken by this group, including Punjabi, Hindi/Urdu, Bengali and Gujarati.

Of course, not everyone believes that the Aryans migrated to the subcontinent from the outside. Few are more outspoken in their opposition than the Hindu Nationalist who believes that the Aryans were indigenous to India.

This is, of course, really just a political claim. To claim that the ancestral religion of Hinduism (in the Vedas) is native to India is to claim that it “belongs” to India in opposition to those Indians belonging to “foreign” religions (i.e. Muslims and Christians).

Fantasizing about purity of race and origin, however, turn deadly. We can think of Hitler’s ideas about the Aryan Race as German, the Ku Klux Klan theory of the Teutonic Race or the Japanese idea of the Yamato Race during World War II.

Over the past nearly thirty years, Hindu Nationalism has stirred up pogroms, vandalism and attacks on India’s minority groups (especially Muslims, Christians and Dalits or lower-castes). Its pogroms, including the Gujarat “riots” of 2002 against Muslims has left thousands dead and their homes and places of worship vandalized or destroyed.

Hindu Nationalism basically seeks to rationalize and politicize an emotional need: the need to belong and to know oneself. Mythology is a human institution that fulfils that need by giving us a sense of where we come from. Mythologies like those in the Vedas are Puranas, like those in the Bible or King Arthur are valuable in giving us a sense of who our ancestors might have been without needing to be factually verifiable.

To that extent, I have read the Puranas and the Mahabharata.  I am fascinated, as someone of Indian origin, about where I come from and how my ancestors thought of themselves as a people and about my origins. But my fascination is much the same as someone who reads old genealogies of the Bible or of a Han Chinese taking pride in his descent from the Yellow Emperor.

So, I will call myself Indo-Aryan, Punjabi, Sikh, British, Canadian and Buddhist. I can have a sense of where I come from in terms of mythology without proclaiming it as history for political purposes or otherwise. Living on the land of the Coast Salish People in British Columbia, I realize that they too were like the ancient Aryans in migrating across territories rather than being bound by them.

The Hindu Pakistan

Modi with petals

India finally has the dictator it always wanted.

Narendra Modi has won a majority of seats in India’s election and is set to be re-elected as the country’s Prime Minister.[1]

Since coming to power in 2014, Modi’s administration has effectively co-opted the Indian media, judiciary and co-opted under the banner of Hindu Supremacism. Together, they have created a New India of book burnings, student arrests and the slaughter of Muslims, Christians and low-caste Hindus.

As James Crabtree points out in The Billionaire Raj, India’s economy has grown under Modi to become one of the most unequal on earth. Much of the benefits of this growth, Crabtree argues, has accrued to India’s billionaires class and their family run conglomerates (the Ambanis, the Godrej’s and the Birlas) rather than middle-class.

Under Modi, India has become the Hindu Pakistan, an India where Brahmanism (the religious ideology sanctifying caste) and capitalism march hand in hand. The constituents of a fascist society as explained by Jason Stanley in How Fascism Works (i.e. a strong charismatic leader, a romanticized vision of the past, an imagined ‘other’ etc.) were already well underway during the Prime Minister’s first term.

Now, they will be given an opportunity to come to fruition.

[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-48389130?intlink_from_url=https://www.bbc.com/news/topics/cg41ylwvgmyt/narendra-modi&link_location=live-reporting-story

A Tale of Two Indias

Indus Valley

In a recent paper, scientists from the United States, Russia and India, have concluded that the Indus Valley Civilization was the result of a mixing of South Asians and Iranian peoples.

The study also concludes that the group previously known as “Aryan” were in fact pastoral communities from Central Asia which moved south from the steppe into the Indus Valley.

The study examined the DNA of 612 ancient individuals from across Central Asia, Iran and South Asia. This data was then compared with the DNA of 246 distinct groups in South Asia.

The study identified the Ancestral North Indian and the Ancestral South Indian as the result of the mixing and combination of three potential groups of peoples:

  1. The South Asian hunter-gatherers, the indigenous inhabitants of the subcontinent;
  2. The Iranian agriculturalists who migrated into the subcontinent, and;
  3. The Steppe pastoralists who were also migrants into the subcontinent.

The study provided the following outline based on this genetic data:

  1. The Indus Valley Civilization arises through the mixing of South Asians and Iranians;
  2. The “Aryan” civilization arises through the migration of Steppe pastoralists into the Indus Valley around the 2nd millennium BCE;
  3. Some of the Indus Valley moves further south where they mix with more South Asians, creating the Ancestral South Indian population;
  4. In the North, the Steppe pastoralists mix with the remaining Indus Valley population, creating the Ancestral North Indian population.
  5. Subsequent South Asians are a result of mixing between Ancestral North Indians and Ancestral South Indians.

The implication of this is that there was an “Aryan migration” into the subcontinent from the outside and not vice-versa. That suggestion will anger with the Hindu Rights with its inference that their ancestors and ancestral religion (including the Vedas) originated outside of the subcontinent.

This would undermines the Hindu Right’s claims that they are the original inhabitants of India vis-à-vis those following foreign religions. It also suggests that modern South Asians are a mix of what we previously called “Aryan” and “Dravidian,” with no such thing as a “pure race” or “nation” which is basic to Hindutva.

The Hindu Right is already rewriting history books in India. It is already censoring any views and ideas that would suggest India is the creation of anything but the primordial Hindu Nation. This paper will not affect the momentum of that project, but it does throw to the wind some of the theories on which Hindutva rests.

– Thanks to Satdeep, for inspiration across continents 

 

The 70th Anniversary of the Partition of India

Pakistan India

Seventy years on, there’s still hope.

On October 6, Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmad spoke on the 70th anniversary of the Partition.[1]

Ahmad’s argued that the truth about the Partition must be known before there can be any meaningful reconciliation between India and Pakistan. Only if Indians and Pakistanis confront and accept what happened in 1947, can there ever be light.

For instance, many Sikhs revere the Maharaja of Patiala, Yadavindra Singh (1914-1974) as the icon of a bygone age. Some have suggested that he even gave sanctuary to Muslims during the violence of the Partition.[2]

yada

Ahmad’s research in the The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed (which includes eye-witness accounts from Patiala including from members of the Sikh community), shows a Maharaja who planned to cleanse his kingdom of his Muslim subjects.[3]

This was a shock even for some of my better educated friends in Patiala to learn. Maybe it’s time to pierce the veil of lies and illusions both India and Pakistan have woven these past seven decades. The Partition has scarred the subcontinent. Now it’s time to heal. Seek the truth. Study extensively, inquire carefully, sift clearly, and practice earnestly.[4]

 

Notes

[1] The lecture was part of a conference presented by the South Asian Film Education Society and the South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy presented at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University between October 5th to the 8th.

Dr. Ahmad is a now retired professor who taught Political Science at the University of Stockholm in Sweden. He was also a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore and the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

[2] This last point is suggested by filmmaker Sara Singh in The Sky Below.

[3] Ahmad’s research has also been cited and excerpted in magazines and editorials like in the Hindustan Times, Frontline and Caravan.

[4] The words of the Chinese philosopher, Zhu Xi (1130-1200)

India at 70

the-indian-flag

Written by Randeep Purewall

This year marks the 70th year of India’s independence.

Since 1947, India has grown to become one of the world’s largest economies. It has become self-sufficient in food production, developed a space program and created a large skilled, middle-class. And, it has maintained its democratic political system.

In India Unbound (2002), Gurcharan Das envisioned an India bypassing the industrial revolution to become an IT superpower. Shashi Tharoor spoke of a soft-power superpower spreading Bollywood and its spirit of religious tolerance globally.

Both men are loath to admit, however, that, for all its achievements and potential, India remains a poor country. It is poor in terms of the absolute number of its poor and in terms of its per capita income. Its governments have failed to invest adequately in health and education and India ranks lower than Sri Lanka and Indonesia on the Human Development Index.

India has failed to become an IT superpower. While it has produced successful companies like Infosys and Wipro, its high-skilled labour force comprises no more than 2% of the country’s labour force. Industry employs less than 15% of Indian workers with most eking an existence off the land.

India’s secularism and its democratic political system are also being eroded. Under Narendra Modi and the Hindu-Nationalist BJP, the Indian Government has curtailed freedom of expression and dissent by authors, students, scholars and filmmakers. It has also stoked violence against India’s Muslims through its cow-protections laws.

Its worth reflecting on what India is today and where it is going. In Midnight to MilleniumTharoor remarked that the BJP and Hindu Nationalists could not destroy India unless they destroyed India’s political culture of secularism and its acceptance of pluralism. With that culture now being undermined, can India be far behind?

Punjabi Poetry: Ustad Daman

Trans.daman

Written by Randeep Purewall

Ustad Daman (né Chiragh Din) was born in Lahore in 1911. As a boy, he worked at his father’s tailoring shop while also attending school. Daman learned classical Punjabi poetry at home and was educated in Urdu. He also learned Persian and English including Shakespeare, Keats and Hardy.

Having participated in school poetry recitals, Daman began attending musha’ara in the parks, fairs and bazaars of Lahore as a teenager during the 1920s. The movement for India’s independence had already begun. In 1929, the Indian National Congress made its Declaration of Independence from Lahore. The city was also home to Marxist groups like the Kirti Kisan and anti-colonial and revolutionary groups like the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association.

858340751-indian-national-congress-independence-movement-lahore-independence-concept

Daman recited his own revolutionary and anti-colonial poetry at the musha’ara. While attending one such gathering, Jawaharlal Nehru referred to Daman as the “Poet of Freedom.”

‘In China the Chinese are grand,
In Russia they do as they have planned.
In Japan its people rule over its strand.
The British rule the land of England,
The French hold the land of France,
In Tehran the Persians make their stand.
The Afghans hold on to their highland,
Turkmenistan’s freedom bears the Turkmen’s brand,
How very strange is indeed this fact,
That freedom in India is a contraband’
(Trans. F. Sharma)

Daman remained in Lahore upon the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The riots of the Partition had consumed his shop and library and he lost his wife and son to illness. His first act of political defiance came in 1958 when he made fun of Pakistan’s first military coup under Ayub Khan. Daman’s arrest however did little to temper his criticism of Pakistan’s military dictatorships and the corruption of its civilian governments in his poetry.

Daman wrote in Punjabi and the form, rhythm and metaphor of his poetry bears the influence of the classical and folk Punjabi tradition. If he could be sober and thoughtful in writing on the Partition, he could also adopt a more comic and satirical note in criticizing General Zia. He maintained a friendship with poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib, but lived unassumingly in an old apartment in the precinct of the Badshahi Mosque.

Daman died in 1984. His poetry was published after his death by his friends and followers. The room he lived in near the Badshahi Mosque has since become an academy in his name.

Selected Poems (Trans. F. Sharma)

We may not say it but know it well
You lost your way. We too.
Partition has destroyed us friends.
You too, and us.
The wakeful have quite plundered us.
You slept the while, and we.
Into the jaws of death alive
You were flung. We too.
Life still may stir in us again:
You are stunned yet, and we.
The redness of the eyes betrays
You too have wept, and we.

What a house, this Pakistan!
Above live saints, down thieves have their run
A new order has come into force
Up above twenty families, below the hundred million.
Other people conquered mountains,
We live under the divisions heavy ton.
Other people may have conquered the moon.
But in a yawning precipice a place we’ve won.
I ran and ran and was aching all over,
I looked back and saw the donkey resting under the banyan.


Two gods hold my country in their sway
Martial law and La Illaha have here their heyday.
That one rules there over in the heavens
Down here this one’s writ runs.
His name is Allah Esquire.
This one is called Zia, the light of truth in full array.
Hurrah, General Zia, hip hip hooray,
Whoever can make you go away.

Ecstacy does my land surround
All around the Army is to be found.
Hundreds of thousands were surrendered as POWs.
Half of the land was bartered away in the fray.
Hurrah, General Zia, hip hip hooray,
Whoever can make you go away.

On TV you give recitations from Quran
With fables and traditions you go on and on.
Here we are engulfed in a brouhaha
While up there you are still there, my Allah
A pretender has staked his claim today
Hurrah, General Zia, hip hip hooray,
Whoever can make you go away.

Thankful are some if they can chop wood
The others, on them, their orders bestow.
Why have the people lost their mind?
For every one the Almighty has a loving glow.
People are the real masters of this world
Orders do not from the handle of a sword flow.
The ones, Daman, who have forsaken God,
Those Nimruds are laid low at the very first blow.