Are all ancient memories true?

Photo by Jack B on Unsplash

Recently, a stone circle created during the Neolithic period was discovered near Wales in England. It has a diameter of 110 meters just like the more famous stone circle. The Welshian stone circle is also aligned on the midsummer solstice sunrise, just like Stonehenge. This similarity between the two circles proved a century-old theory that the original circle was created in Wales, dismantled, and dragged over to Wiltshire, where it stands now.

This incident was mentioned in an Anglo-Saxon myth recorded about 900 years back. The myth spoke of the wizard Merlin leading men to Ireland to capture a magical stone circle called the Giants’ Dance and rebuilding it in England as a memorial to the dead. Since it’s not kosher to trust “myths”, it was not taken seriously. This discovery shows that the “myth” had a kernel of truth.

Myths endure because there is some truth to them. They boil down some human experience to its core, making it easy to repeat and transmit. There is the tendency to think of ancient texts as either history or fiction with nothing in between. Usually, these texts blend stories, history, magic, supernatural elements, theology, etc. If historians and archaeologists had an open mind to peel through the layers of exaggeration and investigate, they might make discoveries that otherwise would have taken a lot of time.

Another example would be the discovery of the river Sarasvati. Displaying great familiarity with the Indian North-West, the nadistuti sukta lists nineteen rivers from the Ganga to the Kurram sequentially from East to West. According to the Vedic tradition, Sarasvati flowed between the Yamuna and Sutlej, a location mentioned in other texts.

When British explorers visited the region between Yamuna and Sutlej, instead of “mother of waters”, they found seasonal streams like Ghaggar, Sarsuti, Markanda, and Chautang. Synthesizing tradition, the Vedic texts, and the accounts of surveyors, geologists, administrators, and army officers, scholars identified the Ghaggar, Sarsuti, Markanda, and other small tributaries as part of the Rig Vedic Sarasvati. Historians like M. L. Bhargava, B.C.Law, H.C. Raychaudhuri, A.D. Pusalker, and D.C. Sirkar, along with many Western scholars, concurred.

Then, all ancient memories are not the same. Some are manufactured to rationalize a power grab or establish an earlier date of arrival, or rationalize conquest. They exist to create a truth.

A famous one is the Western mythology of Francisco Pizarro as a larger-than-life hero. According to this narrative, he was responsible for single-handedly conquering Peru with a small army. Conveniently left out was the fact that Pizarro was helped by a large army of native American allies and the battle was not between the Spaniards and Incas but between two Inca groups.

Another one is the Pocahontas-James Smith mythology, immortalized by the Disney movie. According to the popular narrative, Smith was about to be executed. As they were about to strike, Pocahantas threw herself on James Smith, and he is spared. According to a discussion in BBC’s In Our Time, this incident never happened. Pocahontas, who lived nearby, visited the colony often. Her age was around 10, making it unlikely that she threw herself to save a 30-year-old Smith. In a narrative written by James Smith in 1608, this incident is never mentioned. In another version written in 1624, seven years after Pocahontas died, this incident appears. Not just that, in his voyages, there seems to be a pattern; James Smith is saved by maidens three other times as well.

A popular one in Kerala is about the conversion of King Cheraman Perumal. Once a king — a Perumal, no less — was walking on the balcony of his palace when he spotted the moon splitting into two and joining back again. From a few Arab visitors, the king learned that Prophet Muhammad was behind this miracle. The king abdicated the throne, divvied up the kingdom, and set sail to Mecca to meet this man. He met the Prophet, converted to Islam, and lived in Arabia for a while. To spread the religion in his homeland, the converted Perumal returned to Kerala but died somewhere along the way. What does not smell right is that the mosque he established dates before the first mosques in Iraq (639 CE),  Syria (715 CE),  Egypt (642 CE), and Tunisia (670 CE), thus making it the oldest mosque after the first mosques in Saudi Arabia. Imagine this – a newly forming religion setups a mosque where it’s born, and the next one is in Kerala. There is a lot of evidence to show that this narrative is false.

Another one is the myth of St. Thomas. The myth says that a disciple of Christ left Jerusalem and came all way to Kerala to establish churches. According to Pope Benedict, St. Thomas went only as far as Western India. According to Romila Thapar, there is no historical evidence to the claim that he was martyred in Mylapore. According to her, the first coming of Christians is associated with the migration of Persian Christians led by Thomas Cana around 345 CE.

How do you know which ones to trust? If you pay attention to who benefits, you can get a clue. Brutal conquests required a mythological origin to erase the reality of a violent origin. The Pocahontas myth — the affair between a Native American and a White settler — gave imperialism a human face. This military and economic success required a foundational narrative, powered by literary conceit to justify land grabbing and the subsequent loot.

Sometimes, the absence of facts causes myths to be created. It could be to insert themselves into ancient antiquity like Cheraman Perumal’s myth. Considering the trade relations between Kerala and the Western world, it’s quite possible that someone went to Arabia and got converted. Elevating it to an elite gives respectability.

Fortunately, each of these can be verified. The ancients were not writing objective history for 21st-century historians. If the texts present a consistent tale, which agrees with archaeology, geology, and local tradition, it cannot be brushed away. The truth of ancient history is indifferent to our wishes, our politics, our religion.

Book Review: The Devil and the Dark Water

The book, The Devil and the Dark Water, set in 1634, starts when a fleet of spice-laden ships sets sail from Batavia to Amsterdam. Long before the British started looting the world, the United East India Company was the world’s wealthiest trading company. Among their outposts, Batavia was the most profitable. Navigational techniques were iffy, and the 8-month voyage was at the mercy of pirates, storms, and disease.

The lead ship, Saardam, has a set of interesting characters. First, there is the Governor-General along with his wife, daughter, and mistress. Another passenger is Samuel Pipps— an investigator who has solved many cases— jailed in the ship for execution at Amsterdam.

Then there is Old Tom, a supernatural demon, who previously wreaked havoc in various provinces. It possessed various wealthy nobles causing them to commit large-scale violence. It announced itself, in the provinces and on the ship, with a mark that resembled an eye with a tail.

Soon after the ship sets sail, stranger things begin; people get murdered. The narrative is that Old Tom is back — evident from his symbol, which mysteriously appears in random places — taking revenge. Old Tom whispered to others to murder, and one of his accomplices, a leper, stalked the cargo hold freely.

Since Samuel Pipps is a prisoner, it falls on his bodyguard Arent Hayes to find the truth. Hayes is not as talented as Pipps in figuring out a story after it has happened from bits of paper left behind. As Hayes starts investigating, uncomfortable truths about the past of various people surface. This is a ship filled with sailors for whom profit comes before principle, pride, and people. It seems they are all connected and have incentives for murder.

Such books, which are historical murder mysteries, are hard to come by. The last ones I read were the Snake Stone and its sequels. In a world where historical fiction means writing yet another book about the Tudor world, this book is like smelling air freshener in a fish market. Another positive is that the book is about the Dutch East India trade, which I do not know much about. Finally, the book’s locale, a floating vessel of wood and nails, make it unique.

The book is well written, bringing out the ship’s ambiance enriched by bilgewater with dead rats. There is mutiny, storm, and shady sailors who can murder anyone for a coin.

“Everybody thinks sailing is about the wind and waves. It ain’t. Sailing’s about the crew, which means it’s about superstition and hate. The men you’re depending on to get you home are murderers, cutpurses, and malcontents, unfit for anything else. They’re only on this ship because they’d be hanged anywhere else. They’ve got short tempers and violent passions, and we’ve locked them all together in a space we’d feel bad keeping cattle in. Captain Crauwels sails this ship, and I keep the crew from mutiny. If either of us makes a mistake, we’re all dead.”

Hayes follows the dictum of Pipps.

“Whether this is a devil dressed as a man or a man dressed as a devil, our course of action remains the same. We must investigate each incident, then follow the clues back to the truth.”

The book is a tad too long. It gets slow towards the middle, and you have to force yourself to read through to find out how a mysterious light could show up in the sea or how a “demon” could roam around a ship.

Revisiting Out of Africa, Hominins in Philippines

Map of sites with ages and postulated early and later pathways associated with modern humans dispersing across Asia during the Late Pleistocene. (Science Mag, Fair Use)
Map of sites with ages and postulated early and later pathways associated with modern humans dispersing across Asia during the Late Pleistocene. (Science Mag, Fair Use)

Around 200,000 years back, Sapiens evolved in Africa. Then around 60,000 years back they left East Africa towards the Arabian Peninsula and from there to India following, maybe a coastal route. This is what the Out of Africa theory says. When these sapiens reached Europe, they met other species such as Neanderthals and Denisovans and interbred with them. The other species died out and now we are the only homo species that remain. At least, that’s what we believed so far.
There not even a slender certainty that it is true. Sapien remains have been found at multiple sites in China that have been dated to between 70,000 and 120,000 years ago. Additional finds indicate that modern humans reached Southeast Asia and Australia prior to 60,000 years ago. This predates the time span normally attributed to the Out of Africa theory, implying that there were previous migrations from 120,000 years back. Here is the interesting data point: all of us — all non-Africans — are descendants of a single ancestral population dating back to 60, 000 years. This implies that the migrations prior to 60, 000 years, was probably a tiny population. Even though they were not that large, they left markers around the world for us to discover. Later a major migration occurred, leading to all of us.
It’s fancy to believe in a simple West to East migration in a linear time frame. Unfortunately, nature behaves differently. Human migration requires complicated models.
The second interesting data point comes from a discovery from a butchered rhino at Kalinga in the Philippines. The bone bed where this rhino met its grim death had 57 stone tools and was dated to between 777 – 631 thousand years before present. This pushes the date of appearance of hominins in the Philippines by hundreds of thousands of years. It is a big discovery. Of course, these were not sapiens, but Homo erectus. It seems there were no land bridges to the Philippines during that time and the only way these hominins could have reached there would have been by deliberately constructing rafts. Think about it, around 700, 000 years, our ancestors built rafts and crossed channels that were 10 KM wide.

Hypocrisy and Indian History: A Public Statement

(I did not write this post. Here is the original source. Please sign the petition, if you have not)
On 26 October, 53 Indian historians voiced alarm at what they perceived to be the country’s “highly vitiated atmosphere” and protested against attempts to impose “legislated history, a manufactured image of the past, glorifying certain aspects of it and denigrating others….” This was soon followed by an “Open letter from overseas historians and social scientists”, 176 of them, warning against, “a dangerously pervasive atmosphere of narrowness, intolerance and bigotry” and “a monolithic and flattened view of India’s history.”
Such closely-linked statements appearing with clockwork regularity in India and abroad—there have been several more from various “intellectual” circles—are a well-orchestrated campaign to create a bogeyman and cry wolf. They are neither intellectual nor academic in substance, but ideological and, much more so, political.
As historians, archaeologists and academics specializing in diverse aspects of Indian civilization, we wish to respond to these hypocritical attempts to claim the moral high ground. Many of the signatories of the above two statements by Indian and “overseas” historians have been part of a politico-ideological apparatus which, from the 1970s onward, has come to dominate most historical bodies in the country, including the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), and imposed its blinkered view of Indian historiography on the whole academic discipline.
Anchored mainly in Marxist historiography and leftist ideology, with a few borrowings from postmodernism, the Annales School, Subaltern and other studies, this new School, which may be called “Leftist” for want of a better term, has become synonymous with a number of abusive and unscholarly practises; among them:

  1. A reductionist approach viewing the evolution of Indian society almost entirely through the prism of the caste system, emphasizing its mechanisms of “exclusion” while neglecting those of integration without which Indian society would have disintegrated long ago.
  2. A near-complete erasure of India’s knowledge systems in every field philosophical, linguistic, literary, scientific, medical, technological or artistic—and a general under-emphasis of India’s important contributionsto other cultures and civilizations. In this, the Leftist School has been a faithful inheritor of colonial historiography, except that it no longer has the excuse of ignorance. Yet it claims to provide an accurate and “scientific” portrayal of India!
  3. A denial of the continuity and originality of India’s Hindu-Buddhist-Jain-Sikh culture, ignoring the work of generations of Indian and Western Indologists. Hindu identity, especially, has been a pet aversion of this School, which has variously portrayed it as being disconnected from Vedic antecedents, irrational, superstitious, regressive, barbaric — ultimately “imagined” and, by implication, illegitimate.
  4. A refusal to acknowledge the well-documented darker chapters of Indian history, in particular the brutality of many Muslim rulers and their numerous Buddhist, Jain, Hindu and occasionally Christian and Muslim victims (ironically, some of these tyrants are glorified today); the brutal intolerance of the Church in Goa,Kerala and Puducherry; and the state-engineered economic and cultural impoverishment of India under the British rule. While history worldwide has wisely called for millions of nameless victims to be remembered, Indian victims have had to suffer a second death, that of oblivion, and often even derision.
  5. A neglect of tribal histories: For all its claims to give a voice to “marginalized” or “oppressed” sections of Indian society, the Leftist School has hardly allowed aspace to India’s tribal communities and the rich contributions of their tribal belief systems and heritage. When it has condescended to take notice, it has generally been to project Hindu culture and faith traditions as inimical to tribal cultures and beliefs, whereas in reality the latter have much more in common with the former than with the religions imposed on them through militant conversions.
  6. A biased and defective use of sources: Texts as well as archaeological or epigraphic evidence have been misread or selectively used to fit preconceived theories. Advances of Indological researches in the last few decades have been ignored, as have been Indian or Westernhistorians, archaeologists, anthropologists who have differed from the Leftist School. Archaeologists who developed alternative perspectivesafter considerable research have beensidelined or negatively branded.Scientific inputs from many disciplines, from palaeo-environmental to genetic studies have been neglected.
  7. A disquieting absence of professional ethics: The Leftist School has not academically critiqued dissenting Indian historians, preferring to dismiss them as “Nationalist” or “communal”. Many academics have suffered discrimination, virtual ostracism and loss of professional opportunities because they would not toe the line, enforced through political support since the days of Nurul Hasan. The Indian History Congress and the ICHR, among other institutions,became arenas of power play and political as well as financial manipulation. In effect, the Leftist School succeeded in projecting itself as the one and only, crushing debate and dissent and polarizing the academic community.

While we reject attempts to portray India’s past as a glorious and perfect golden age, we condemn the far more pernicious imposition by the Leftist School of a “legislated history”, which has presented an alienating and debilitating self-image to generations of Indian students, and promoted contempt for their civilizational heritage. The “values and traditions of plurality that India had always cherished in the past” are precisely those this School has never practised.We call for an unbiased and rigorous new historiography of India.

  1. Dilip K. Chakrabarti, Emeritus Professor, Cambridge University, UK; Dean, Centre of Historical and Civilizational Studies, Vivekananda International Foundation, Chanakyapuri, Delhi; member, ICHR
  2. Saradindu Mukherji, historian, retired from Delhi University; member, ICHR
  3. Nanditha Krishna, Director, CPR Institute of Indological Research, Chennai; member, ICHR
  4. M.D. Srinivas, former professor of theoretical physics; former vice-chairman, Indian Institute of Advanced Study; chairman, Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai; member, ICHR
  5. Meenakshi Jain, associate professor of history, Delhi University; member, ICHR
  6. Michel Danino, guest professor, IIT Gandhinagar; member, ICHR
  7. B.B. Lal, former Director General, Archaeological Survey of India
  8. R.S. Bisht, former Joint Director General, Archaeological Survey of India
  9. R. Nagaswamy, former Director of Archaeology, Govt. of Tamil Nadu; Vice Chancellor, Sri ChandrasekharendraSaraswathiViswaMahavidyalaya, Kanchipuram
  10. B.M. Pande, Former Director, Archaeological Survey of India
  11. DayanathTripathi, former Chairman, ICHR; former Head, Dept. of Ancient History, Archaeology and Culture, D.D.U. Gorakhpur University, Gorakhpur; former Visiting Professor at Cambridge, British Academy
  12. R.C. Agrawal, President, Rock Art Society of India; former Member Secretary of ICHR
  13. K.V. Raman, former professor of Ancient Indian History & Archaeology, University of Madras
  14. Padma Subrahmanyam, Dancer and Research Scholar
  15. Kapil Kapoor, former Rector, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; Chancellor, Mahatma Gandhi Antararashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya, Wardha (Maharashtra)
  16. Madhu Kishwar, Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi
  17. ChandrakalaPadia, Vice Chancellor, Maharaja Ganga Singh University (Rajasthan); Chairperson, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla
  18. SachchidanandSahai, Ph.D. (Paris), National Professor in Epigraphy, Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Advisor to PreahVihear National Authority under the Royal Government of Cambodia; member, ICHR
  19. J.K. Bajaj, Director Centre for Policy Studies, Former Member ICSSR
  20. MakarandParanjape, Professor of English, JNU; Visiting Global South Fellow, University of Tuebingen
  21. NikhilesGuha, former professor of history, University of Kalyani, West Bengal; member, ICHR
  22. Issac C.I., member, ICHR
  23. (Dr.) Purabi Roy, member, ICHR
  24. Jagbir Singh, Former Professor and Head, Dept. of Punjabi, University of Delhi; Life Fellow, Punjabi University, Patiala.
  25. G.J. Sudhakar, former Associate Professor, Dept. of History, Loyola College, Chennai
  26. Bharat Gupt, Former Associate Professor, Delhi University
  27. O.P. Kejariwal, Central Information Commissioner & Nehru Fellow
  28. S.C. Bhattacharya, former Professor and HOD, Ancient History, Culture and Archaeology, Allahabad University; former National Fellow, IIAS, Shimla
  29. S.K. Chakraborty, former professor, Management Centre for Human Values, Indian Institute of Management Calcutta
  30. AmarjivaLochan, Associate Professor in History, Delhi University; President, South and Southeast Asian Association for the Study of Culture & Religion (SSEASR) under IAHR, affiliated to the UNESCO
  31. R.N. Iyengar, Distinguished Professor, Jain University, Bangalore
  32. Professor (Dr) Nath, former Professor of History, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur
  33. KiritMankodi, archaeologist, consultant to Project for Indian Cultural Studies, Mumbai
  34. K. Ramasubramanian, Cell for Indian Science and Technology in Sanskrit, IIT Bombay; Council Member International Union for History and Philosophy of Science; member, RashtriyaSanksritParishad
  35. M.S. Sriram, Retired Professor and Head, Department of Theoretical Physics, University of Madras; Member Editorial Board, Indian Journal of History of Science; Former Member, Research Council for History of Science, INSA
  36. Amartya Kumar Dutta, Professor of Mathematics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata
  37. Godabarisha Mishra, Professor and Head, Dept. of Philosophy, University of Madras
  38. R. Ganesh, Shathavadhani, Sanskrit scholar
  39. Sri Banwari, Academic and Journalist; former Resident Editor, Jansatta
  40. S. Krishnan, Associate Professor, Dept of Mathematics, IIT Bombay
  41. Rajnish Kumar Mishra, Associate Professor, Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
  42. VikramSampath, Director, Symbiosis School of Media and Communication; former Director of Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) – SRC; historian and author
  43. K. Gopinath, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore
  44. M.A. Venkatakrishnan, former Professor and Head, Dept. of Vaishnavism, Madras University
  45. Sumathi Krishnan, Musician and Musicologist
  46. PremaNandakumar, Author and translator
  47. Santosh Kumar Shukla, Associate Professor, Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

The above list was released on 17 November; on 18 November, three scholars had been contacted but could not send their answer in time owing to the flood situation in Chennai. We include them here for the record:

  1. Siniruddha Dash, former Professor & Head, Dept. of Sanskrit, University of Madras
  2. Mamata Mishra, Managing Trustee, Prof. K.V. Sarma Research Foundation
  3. ChithraMadhavan, historian and epigraphist

(via IndiaFacts)

In IndiaFacts: Review – Zealot by Reza Aslan

(The original version was published at IndiaFacts)

In 66 C.E., fed up with the Roman occupation of their land, the Jews declared war on the Roman Empire. Soldiers patrolled even in the temple of this supposedly inconsequential part of the empire. Imagine the anger Malayalis would have felt if Communists administered their temples and the state looted its wealth. Wait. Wrong example. Though Rome was a powerful empire, the Jews were confident that their God would take them to victory. Motivated by what looked like a possible victory, the rebels attacked Jews who colluded with the Romans. Many messiahs also appeared on the scene, prophesying the end of Jerusalem. Finally, the miracle happened; they liberated Jerusalem.
If any Carthaginians were around, they would have told the Jews that this was a bad idea. In 70 C.E., the empire struck back. They razed the city to the ground, slaughtered the Jews and exiled the survivors. They also renamed the city and erased all mention of it from the record. Unlike Hindus, the Jews did not have temples all over the country. There was one temple — The Temple at Jerusalem — the center of their worship and that was gone. It was not just the Jews who were affected; the followers of a man named Yeshua were affected dramatically. It was after these events that the first Gospels were written.
Due to these sequence of events, Aslan argues that the Jesus of the Gospels is not the same as the historical man named Yeshua. For Aslan, the Gospels were written by believers for a specific purpose and are not historical documents. He ignores them and presents a picture of Yeshua by looking at the social, political and theological context of that period. Aslan himself is a former evangelical, who gave up that life as he became a religious scholar. Besides painting a portrait of Yeshua, he also reveals how the modern Jesus was invented.
If Jesus was not the person whom the Gospels claim to be — the good shepherd, the peacenik, the one who turned the other cheek — then who was he? According to Aslan, two things we can be sure are

  1. He was a Jew who led a popular movement like many others
  2. He was crucified by the Romans like many others.

To those who believe Yeshua was a child prodigy, who at a young age, stunned the priests of the Temple and to those Indians who are fascinated by the tale of Jesus learning in India, Aslan, who has been a Biblical scholar for two decades, sets the record straight. Yeshua was a woodworker or craftsman who never ventured far away. All Jewish peasants of the time were illiterate; Yeshua could not have been any different. (On a side note, the theory that he died in Tibet has been debunked as well)
Once baptized by his guru, John the Baptist, Yeshua took on a career of preaching. He wandered around as a professional exorcist, curing the ill of their sickness. Another common profession during that period, it paid more than being a woodworker. He was not the only miracle worker of that period, “it was quite common to see diviners, dream interpreters, magicians and medicine men wandering around the region”. But Aslan says Jesus did something different from the rest: he never charged for his work. We know that because the pagan and Jewish critics of Christianity agree on this as well.
Yeshua was not stoned to death for blasphemy, but crucified, which was the Roman punishment for treason. Anyone who proclaimed he was a messiah was crucified for striving to overthrow the Roman empire. Disrupting the activities of the temple, Yeshua proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was coming soon and this occurred during the time of when rebels were working to overthrow the Romans and bring the land under Jewish control. The main thesis of Aslan’s book is that Jesus was not someone who was talking about abstract ideas during this time, but was a zealot, actively involved in this movement like others of that period. Yeshua proclaimed that the present order would be replaced by a new political, religious and economic system and for advocating such a revolutionary idea, he was executed by crucifixion.
Another point Aslan makes is that the crucifixion of Jesus was not one of those stop the world events that happened in Jerusalem. Pilate, the Roman governor, who sent Jesus to the cross had utter disregard for Jewish customs and had crucified many others. He would not even have met Jesus. Terrorized by Pilate’s hobby, the people of Jerusalem complained to the Roman emperor. Even then he did not lose his job. Nothing happened to the temple priest as well. It was much later, after Pilate sent soldiers to butcher the followers of another messiah, that both he and the temple priest lost their jobs.
Following the crucifixion of Yeshua, three major strands of events occurred. The followers of Yeshua — the ones who walked with him — were shocked. The messiah who promised to rebuild David’s Kingdom had not only failed but was crucified like a state criminal. What did that mean? What could they do now? For the Jews, it was curtains down. He was yet another failed messiah. But for members of the Jesus movement, they had to invent a new explanation. They also had to prove to others that he indeed was the messiah. One of the earliest beliefs they came up was the radically new resurrection narrative — that he arose on the third day. They stayed in Jerusalem, continuing his teaching.
The second chain of events was set off by Paul who was inspired by Jesus though he had never met him. Other writers claimed Paul had a vision; Paul himself never said so. For Paul, Jesus was divine. Paul’s target market was the urbanized elite who did not care for messianic concepts or Jewish rituals. For the original illiterate followers of Jesus, Paul’s teachings were all Greek (literally). It would be like Hindus reading the writings of Prof. Wendy Doniger. In fact, Paul’s teaching looked so radical that the head of the Hebrew followers, James, (the brother of Jesus), sent congregations to convert the followers of Paul back to the fold; James was quite successful.
As the Hebrews — the farmers and fishermen followers of Jesus — and the Hellenists — the urbanized Greek speaking Romans — were duking it out , 9/11 hit Jerusalem and the Romans wiped out the place from the map. This triggered the third sequence of events. The Gospels were written down in various cities in the empire — Rome, Damascus, Antioch, and Ephesus — by people who had never met Yeshua. By then four decades had passed since Yeshua’s crucifixion and the eyewitnesses to his life had perished. The teachings that were passed along were conveniently modified.
Also, after 70 C.E, it was clear to everyone, who had the power to chop off your head. The authors of the Gospels could either stick their neck out and write that Jesus was a man who wanted to overthrow the Roman empire or they could spin another tale. They chose the latter. A Jesus, who operated at a divine plane and had nothing to do with earthly matters became a convenient replacement.
The author of the first gospel, attributed to Mark, wanted to absolve the Romans of all the crime. Hence, the whole story of Pilate washing his hands of Jesus was invented. The Romans, who crucified Yeshua were sanitized and Jews who did not accept him as the messiah became the villains. That was the birth of anti-Semitism, the consequences of which can be seen even today. Another important point to note is that the gospels were not written in Hebrew or Aramaic, but in Greek. The evangelists’ goal was to convert the gentiles and so distancing themselves from Jewish “mumbo-jumbo” seemed right.
Aslan is not the first person to do this kind of analysis. He is one among many of a two centuries old line of scholarship trying to excavate the historical Jesus. Many years back, Prof. Thomas Sheehan of Stanford, taught a course called The Historical Jesus where he did similar analysis looking into the Gospels to find out what fits and what does not. Usually, historians go to primary sources to find the truth, but in this case, Sheehan says, the primary source are problematic. The Gospels which are now considered Canonical were ruled so by political forces. Whatever did not fit the template was considered heretic, a concept alien to dharmic traditions. Each blind scholar in this lineage found a different part of the elephant: using historical studies, literary analysis and sociology, they found Yeshua to be either a philosopher or an apocalyptic preacher or teacher or simply a magician.
With the destruction of Jerusalem, the original message was diluted and the urbanized, educated Greek-speaking diaspora Jews, immersed in Greek philosophy and Hellenistic culture Deepak Chopra-ed a new religion. This is like how American Buddhists are defining a new “scientific” religion by eradicating traces of Hinduism and mystical elements of Buddhism and retaining just mindfulness. The failed messiah, who did not set out to create Christianity, became the creator of heavens and earth and had nothing to do with the Roman occupation or the fight against it. This Neo-Jesus is the one to whom believers pray every weekend.

The end of Rapa Nui


In 2003, BBC had a program on why the Rapa Nui (Western Name: Easter Island) civilization came to an end. Rapa Nui had created those magnificent giant stone statues or moai   from volcanic stones and set them on platforms along the coast. These people  had sufficient technology to build these moai, some of which were double the size of the stones at Stonehenge and move them around the island. Then suddenly sometime in the 17th century, the civilization which had such cultural sophistication collapsed and the reason was attributed to the stone gods.
The word scholars used was ‘ecoside’, short for ecological suicide. The Rapa Nui exploited the natural resources so much that it bought about an ecological disaster. Since the islanders were manufacturing lots of large stone statues, they would need trees to move them, some as far as 9 miles. Cutting down trees for this purposes essentially deforested the island.

NARRATOR: The effect was devastating. Without trees the rains would have washed away their precious soil. Crops would have failed. There was no wood for canoes, so no more fish. And no canoes also meant no escape. The Easter Islanders were trapped in a hell of their own making. So they turned on each other and the gods who’d failed them.[The Mystery of Easter Island – transcript]

Thus the island which once looked the island on the TV show LOST, became barren. The oral tradition tells us of cannibalism, starvation and war.
The end of Rapa Nui was blamed on the Rapa Nui themselves and the lessons were used as warning to the current generation. But the end did not come due to the cutting down of trees, but due to other factors. The 2003 BBC program mentions it and it has been expanded in a new program which was telecast this year.

One of the first Westerners to reach Rapa Nui was the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen in 1722. He was on his way to Australia when he reached the islands. At that time the deforestation had already happened, but it did not look like a society which had gone through a civil war. People were happy and well nourished with crops of yams, sweet potatoes and sugar cane.
But that short visit had far reaching consequences. Roggeveen left diseases that destroyed the society and it was similar to what happened in the Americas following the arrival of the imperial land grabbers and gold miners in the 15th century. Fifty years later Captain Cook stopped by at Rapa Nui and then the seeds of the demise of the civilization were evident. There were signs of disease and malnourishment. Some of the statues were toppled over. Between the period between Roggeveen and Captain Cook, there were Spanish ships, whalers and merchants that arrived there and the islanders who had not interacted with Westerners before, could not handle their diseases.

The sailing path of  Roggeveen
The sailing path of Roggeveen

Most of these Westerners did not have noble intentions. In 1805 an American ship Nancy appeared and kidnapped the Rapa Nui. Indentured laborers were gathered for South American mines and plantations and just in the year between 1862 and 1863, around 1500 Rapa Nui were kidnapped. Following the merchants, Christian missionaries (French Catholic) followed for destroying the culture.
In the 1700s, there used to be a tradition called ‘birdman’ which was a contest among the various chiefs. As part of the birdman festival, people would scramble down a rocky path to the beach,  paddle through shark infested water to an islet and wait for the birds to arrive. Once he got an egg, the contestant had to swim back to Rapa Nui and climb up the wall to finish. If he survived the ordeal, the chief of that group could claim the birdman title. Following the arrival of the missionaries, this was put to an end and what modern day visitors see is St. Peter standing on top of the birdman iconography. By 1877, only 111 people living there. Within 150 years of European arrival, the Rapa Nui had been wiped off. It was not ecocide, but genocide.
Many of the previous theories have also been falsified. The terrible violence that was attributed to overpopulation and deforestation was found to be very minimal and there was no evidence for a full blown civil war. There was no evidence for cannibalism; those came just from the European narratives. There was even a statue found with ribs protruding to show that there was famine, but carbon dating proved that the statue was created much earlier and the protruding ribs were just part of the iconography. It has also been shown that the Rapa Nui may not have used tree rollers to move the statues, instead they may have used ropes to walk the statues which had center of gravities designed for this purpose.
Closeup of the recto of rongorongo which is still undeciphered
Closeup of the Rapa Nui script which is still undeciphered

Thus the cutting of the trees did not drive them into starvation. The deforestation started much earlier, probably from the 13th century. But the innovative farmers of Rapa Nui had learned to farm in caves and they also had an ocean full of fish. Thus it is no surprise that the Dutch found them healthy and well nourished.
With this new evidence, the pattern of destruction of a culture is the same that we have seen  elsewhere in the world. The Spaniards, through Guns, Germs and Steel, destroyed the native civilizations. Americans used the concept of ‘Manifest Destiny’ to grab Native American land in the continental United States. In Hawaii, it was the missionaries who arrived first and soon they were followed by American businessmen who were involved in whaling and the cultivation of bananas, pineapples and sugarcane. Rapa Nui was annexed by Chile on 9 September 1888.

Why Christianity was embraced by Pagan cultures in Britain

Bernard Cromwell has a new book,  The Pagan Lord, which is set in 9th century Britain. The book is about the making of England and how Christianity spread in the region. The Historical Novel Society had an interview with Cromwell on this book and  in this answer he explains why Christianity was easily embraced by  the Pagan cultures.

TLL: There are strong themes of religious tug-o-war in your Saxon books. What are your personal thoughts on why Christianity was so easily embraced by Pagan cultures in Britain? Why did a people whose spirituality was so connected to the land and the elements give up that connection (and protection) for this ‘new’ God?

BC: I’m not sure the process was that easy, and pagan superstitions lingered on for centuries. In almost every case the conversion was top down; the missionaries converted the ruler and he forced it on his people. I suppose the crucial difference is that Christianity offered an afterlife. So, of course, did the religion of Odin and Thor, but that afterlife was really only for the warrior class while Christianity’s heaven was for everyone and that had a much greater appeal to women, and women are the real transmitters of culture (they raise the infants). The pagan religions tend to be very male oriented. Then there’s the exclusivity of Christianity; it doesn’t tolerate other religions.  Most pagan religions were tolerant; they accepted that there were many gods and goddesses and didn’t persecute people for believing in those other deities, but Christianity wouldn’t abide competition and was savage in its intolerance.  Religion, at heart, is simply an attempt to answer the unanswerable questions (why did the harvest fail, why did my child die, why why why?) and paganism tended to fatalism (it just happened, live with it), but Christianity offered the solace of recompense; your child might have died, but you’ll be reunited in the afterlife.[Bernard Cornwell on Pagan Lord, Uhtred’s latest blood-drenched outing]

Cannibalism at Jamestown

Recently there was an article in the Smithsonian about evidence of cannibalism in Jamestown.

Settlers at Virginia’s Jamestown Colony resorted to cannibalism to survive the harsh winter of 1609, dismembering and consuming a 14-year-old English girl, the U.S. Smithsonian Institution reported last week. This is the first direct evidence of cannibalism at Jamestown, the oldest permanent English colony in the Americas, according to the Washington-based museum and research complex. [Cannibalism at Jamestown]

This is not shocking since cannibalism was always suspected at Jamestown. A brief history of the place and the people will help us understand the reasons for this peculiar diet. During the 17th century, Spain was a superpower with the plundered wealth from South America and England wanted to get on with the same game. Hence Virginia company was setup to explore the land to the North of the Spanish colonies. In December 1606, much before the Mayflower voyage, three ships set sail to the East Coast of what would later be United States to establish a colony. It was a daring attempt because two previous colonies had disappeared. But driven by faith in their technology and superiority of their culture, they ventured to discover gold, which would bring wealth to them as well as their investors.
They landed near Chesapeake Bay in April 1607  and found a place near the James river to hide  from the sight of the Spanish ships prowling the waters. But things did not go as planned. First, they did not find any gold. Second, the summer came and the insects and humidity from the swamp started affecting the invaders who were not used to this. Third, the 13,000 native Americans who lived under the leadership of Chief Powhatan did not welcome the settlers with garlands, but with arrows. The settlers built walls, at twice the height of a man, to keep the natives away, but that did not save them from starvation.
They ran out of food and had to ration the barley. Among the 200 odd people who had set foot in the country, only fifty remained and those fifty were surrounded by hostile natives. Also to add to the misery, the area saw a drought unseen in seven centuries; salt water from the ocean crept into the river and the poisoning and dehydration that followed killed many more. That’s when their leader James Smith took a gamble and met Chief Powhatan. They could have been butchered, but fortunately for them the shiny stones they took with them got them food to survive. James Smith wrote an exaggerated account of his romance with the chief’s daughter Pocahontas, but she was a child when this happened.
The colony survived for three years and James Smith went back to England. The colony was repopulated with new arrivals from England and once again starvation set in. By this time the relation between the settlers and the native Americans had turned sour and they could not beg for food. The settlers started eating anything they could find: horses, cats, pet dogs and even poisonous snakes. According to one source, they even dug up corpses and ate them. The colony would have perished, but were eventually saved by the arrival of a supply ship with new recruits.
Reference

  1. National Geographic – The New World: Nightmare in Jamestown

Marxists, Missionaries and an Anthropologist

Marxist theory pervades all domains: There were some Malayali film critics who saw every movie using the class struggle lens; most of Indian history was written by Marxist historians. It seems American anthropology too is influenced by Marxist theories and when Napoleon A. Chagnon refuted it with empirical evidence, Catholic missionaries joined forces with the Marxists to discredit him.

A repeated theme in his book is the clash between his empirical findings and the ideology of his fellow anthropologists. The general bias in anthropological theory draws heavily from Marxism, Dr. Chagnon writes. His colleagues insisted that the Yanomamö were fighting over material possessions, whereas Dr. Chagnon believed the fights were about something much more basic — access to nubile young women.
In his view, evolution and sociobiology, not Marxist theory, held the best promise of understanding human societies. In this light, he writes, it made perfect sense that the struggle among the Yanomamö, and probably among all human societies at such a stage in their history, was for reproductive advantage.
During his years of working among the Yanomamö, Dr. Chagnon fell into cross purposes with the Salesians, the Catholic missionary group that was the major Western influence in the Yanomamö region. Instead of traveling by canoe and foot to the remote Yanomamö villages, the Salesians preferred to induce the Yanomami to settle near their mission sites, even though it exposed them to Western diseases to which they had little or no immunity, Dr. Chagnon writes. He also objected to the Salesians’ offering the Yanomamö guns, which tribe members used to kill one another as well as for hunting.
The Salesians and Dr. Chagnon’s academic enemies saw the chance to join forces against him when the writer Patrick Tierney published a book, “Darkness in El Dorado” (2000), accusing Dr. Chagnon and the well-known medical geneticist James V. Neel of having deliberately caused a measles epidemic among the Yanomamö in 1968.[An Anthropologist’s War Stories]

How the British invented “Whiteness” and “Blackness”

A 19th century lithograph by Theodore Bray showing a sugarcane plantation
A 19th century lithograph by Theodore Bray showing a sugarcane plantation

While Charles I was arrested and executed in 1649 CE in England, another revolution was happening in the far away English colony of Barbados. This was the ‘sugar revolution’ and the prosperity it brought would have far reaching consequence for both Britain in the way how different groups of people were viewed.
After the failure of crops like tobacco, cotton, indigo and ginger, the colonists were under pressure from their financiers to deliver. That’s when they decided to try sugar, a crop which had arrived on the island three decades earlier. The problem was that sugar farming was labor intensive, much more than tobacco. Also, it required expertise to prepare the right soil, protect the shoots from disease and to decide the right moment for cutting. All this did not deter the colonists; they experimented, eventually got the right recipe and that made them immensely rich
That’s when the demographics of the island started changing and that change had both to do with the new found prosperity as well as the politics back in England. The backdrop of Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpostwas happening with English Civil War and the beheading of Charles I. Since their fortunes did not look good, the Royalists escaped to the island to evade persecution and to keep their head attached to their body. There were some black slaves, but not quite a lot and so the workforce was predominantly white. But as the ‘white gold’ business boomed, more slaves were required.
From around  6000 slaves in 1643, the number rose to 20,000 by 1655. Also, as the black population was increasing, the white population was decreasing because many of them were leaving the island looking for better opportunities in other countries where the land was cheaper. The black slavery also increased due to economics: an indentured slave cost 10 pounds for about 5 -7 years of work while the blacks cost double the money, but remained as slaves for life. By this time, the slave trading network was well established and it was not expensive to ship them from Africa. In an era, where the goal was to make money by any means possible, slavery did not cause any moral qualms for those who touted their superior religion all the time.
Soon, the number of black slaves outnumbered the the indentured whites and the white settlers started getting paranoid due to the thinning of the Christian people. As the first slave society of the British Americas, they had figure out a way to manage these slaves as well as maintain their superiority. The British had to  invent a political structure on which they would be at the top. One of the first laws they passed was the 1661 Act titled “For the Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes.” This law declared blacks to be “heathenish, brutish and dangerous people” and since no law existed to govern slaves, new ones had to be invented for “public safety.”
Public safety of course meant the safety of the white settlers; the laws were written by slaveholders and it was upheld by a country which gained financially from the sugar business. The laws were then enforced by the local militia and soldiers. Similar laws were passed by the French and Spaniards and compared to them, the one created by the British was the most cruel. As time went on, more provisions were added which put restrictions on the movement of slaves and prevented them from learning a  trade like carpentry.
Following a revolt by black slaves and Irish servants, another law was passed in 1688 which required every slave owner to search slave cabins for drums or horns which could be used to assemble people. If a slave had to leave the plantation, he had to get written permission from the owner. An absconding slave, if found, was whipped and four years later, another law was added which prescribed the death penalty.

In the British legal system, slaves were property and could be bought, sold, or leased; they were never considered as people. Compared to that white indentured people served a limited term and their rights were restored after that. The white indentured people were given better food, clothing and legal protection with provision for trial by jury. A white indentured servant who killed a slave was asked to pay a fine just like other whites. Soon white felons, Irish and Scots were all treated as “white” people while the blacks became another group. Blacks who came from different parts of Africa and identified themselves based on their birthplace were all collapsed into one single bucket. Their individual identity was subsumed under a different label and the world became simply black and white. By this separation, the white settlers prevented a collaboration between the black slaves and the indentured servants and thus avoided a joint rebellion, but that in turn changed the way people viewed each other on the island.
Reference:

  1. Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire by Andrea Stuart