Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Andronovo cradle of Indo-Iranian?

(India Facts, 31 May 2016)

In 2006, the late Russian archaeologist Elena Kuzmina wrote a hefty book on the Origin of the Indo-Iranians (Brill, Leiden). It gives a very detailed history of the Andronovo culture and its surroundings in time and space. The Andronovo culture spanned most of Central Asia in the 2nd millennium BCE, from the Urals to Bactria. At  the same time, the book contains a lot of speculation about links with the information given in the Veda and the Avesta, generally convincing. While it has become a very authoritative work on Andronovo, there remains a big question-mark over its presumptuous title: was this culture indeed the cradle of the Indo-Iranians?

No one who is serious about deciding the Indo-European Homeland question can afford to leave this book unread. It promises to give the prehistory of the Aryan invasion, the preceding movements of the tribes concerned, perhaps even the events that triggered their migration into India. No one serious about arguing the case for an Indian Homeland can afford to leave it unanswered. I have had it on my shelves for a few years, hoping to find time to thoroughly review it. Realistically I still haven’t found that time, and I have not yet co-operated with an archaeologist on this. But a review simply cannot wait anymore.

The book ends with a discussion of the procedure for establishing the chronology of Andronovo, and starts with a detailed explanation about the archaeological method and the rules for ethnographic reconstruction. Then follows an analysis of the typical Andronovo features that allow her to define the spatial and temporal boundaries of the culture she studies. Culturally important and archaeologically easily accessible are funeral practices: “Cremation dominates in the Urals; in central and northern Kazakhstan the cemeteries are bi-ritual; in eastern Kazakhstan and south Siberia, inhumation prevails.”

And at once we notice something that will characterize many passages: though convinced of the Aryan invasion, she furnishes data that are compatible with, or even point to, an opposite Bactria-to-Urals migration. In this case, the Indo-Europeans, historically known to practise both types of disposal of the dead, but mainly cremation (though inhumation will be magnified in the eyes of the archaeologists as it leaves so many more traces), brought cremation with them along the Amu Darya to the Aral Lake area and on to the Urals. The native practice was predominantly inhumation, and it was preserved far from this trajectory, in areas where the Indo-Europeans didn’t come.

An Indo-Iranian culture

While the observation has no evidential value in itself, it deserves noting that the cultural identity of the Andronovo culture has now virtually become a matter of consensus: the Andronovo culture was Indo-Iranian. This book itself has greatly contributed to that consensus, for before its publication, there was still some hesitation.

Thus, many sacrificial and burial practices (and sati, the self-immolation of widows) “characterize the burial practice of the majority of Indo-European peoples: Hittites, Greeks, Germans, Balts, Slavs etc. It leads to the undisputable statement that the Andronovans were Indo-Europeans. However, the common Indo-European character of the whole burial complex does not, strictly speaking, permit one to declare the Andronovans as Indo-Aryans.” (p.195) However, she finds that «the variety of Andronovo funeral rites finds a complete and thorough correlation in early indic texts ». (p.195)

What decides the question for her, is the wealth of correspondences beween her material findings and references in Indian or Iranian texts. Thus, she describes the typical fireplace and then the corresponding reference in Vedic literature. These “hearths comprise a shallow round or oval pit… often covered with flat stone slabs on the bottom…. This hearth is described in ancient Indian texts as the domestic fire gārhapatya-, ‘fire of the master of the house’… Such hearths were used for ritual purposes: a bride would go around it, a widow would perform a ritual dance, people jumped over it during a feast.” (p.45)

Another type of hearth “has a rectangular form… and was made of closely adjusted rectangular stone slabs inserted into the ground on their narrow ends. Such hearths were found in the centre of a house, kept clean, and it is likely that they had a ritual function… This type of hearth corresponded to the early Indian special cult hearth āhavanīya…” (p.45) As she notes, round and rectangular hearths had different functions among the Indo-Europeans. Thus, in Rome, round hearths were sacred to the goddess Vesta, rectangular (including square) ones to male deities.

This could be coincidence, for there are only that many ways of making a fireplace, and it may have been by coincidence that Indo-Iranians and Andronovans hit upon the same design. But let us assume a genealogical relationship: either the Andronovan hearth became the Vedic one, as Kuzmina assumes, or vice-versa. Then everything depends on the chronology. South-Asians may have left their homes and taken the fireplace design with them to Central Asia, where from 2000 BCE they participated in the Andronovo culture. This, of course, presupposes that an “Aryan emigration from India” took place at the very least 500 years before the AIT posits its own Aryan invasion of India.  Indeed, this would fit what Shrikant Talageri says in his The Rigveda and the Avesta, a Final Analysis: the proto-Mitanni/Kassite Indo-Aryans left India ca. 2000 BCE (for West Asia, but some of them may have branched off to Central Asia), the Iranians even earlier.

Indians and Iranians

Though Indo-Aryan and Iranian, together with Dardic, are usually reckoned as branches of a single linguistic group, there is evidence for a conflicht between an Indo-Aryan and an Iranian population connected with the Vedic c.q. Avestan tradition: “H. Oldenberg showed that in spite of the genetic closeness of religious beliefs, the Vedas and Avesta differ considerably, and that in the Avesta many of the heroes play opposite roles to their counterparts in the Veda.” (p.183)

This starts at the level of the gods, where Indra is glorified in the Vedas and demonized in the Avesta. Rjashva, the Vedic king in the Varshagira battle, is glorified in the Rg-Veda but demonized in the Avesta. And yet, except for Shrikant Talageri, no one has drawn the logical conclusion: that Indians and Iranians waged a war against one another, in which one side’s heroes were the other side’s villains.

They fought eventhough they were linguistically and religiously very close. That is one thing most Western or Western-trained scholars miss out on in their study of Vedic conflicts: the battles are not between the very different cultures of an invader group and the natives, they are between different groups of “Aryans”. Even in the Aryan Invasion paradigm, where Indo-Aryans and Iranians are like colonizers of adjoining territories after penetrating south of Bactria, this should have been thought of. Just compare with the colonial wars: the English against the Spanish on the high seas (pirates), the French against the English in Canada, the Dutch against the Portuguese in Sri Lanka, the English against the Dutch Boers in South Africa: after the initial conquest, subsequent conflicts were between different groups of conquerors. So it didn’t even take the Out-of-India Theory to see that the Vedic Aryans were not fighting the “black aboriginals” in the Battle of the Ten Kings, but their own proto-Avestan cousins.

In mapping the connections between Indo-Aryans and Iranians, her grasp of social and family relations and how these are different between the two groups, is a bit hazy and ultimately incorrect: “Kinsmen marry each other among modern Iranian peoples (…) This could be attributed to the caste system in India when marriage was within a caste without taking into account kinship affiliation.” (p.195) Good try, but this analysis from a distance obscures the thorough difference between the Iranian and Indian family structures.

She is definitely mistaken in linking cousin marriage with the caste system. Iranian cousin marriage probably predated the caste system. Even in the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT), the invasion predated and occasioned the genesis of the caste system, which took place in India, where the Iranians never set foot. Indian sources too indicate that caste endogamy (not even cousin marriage) was only gradually formed, and that initially caste was passed on only in the paternal line, regardless of the mother’s provenance. The Brahmin law books prohibited cousin marriage and enacted what the Catholic Church was to call “forbidden degrees of consanguinity”. This prohibition happens to make biological sense too, for a population with frequent cousin marriages produces more handicapped or malformed children (as can be seen by a comparison between native Britons and the worse-afflicted British-Pakistani community, where cousin marriages often form the majority). So, Iranian cousin-marriage can safely be disconnected from Indian caste engogamy.

That was just to illustrate how her knowledge of the Indo-Iranian cultures she is dealing with, is not as good as her undoubtedly first-class knowledge of Andronovo archaeology. That is not an argument in itself, but it is good to keep in mind before accepting her correlation between scripturally attested cultures and archaeology.

One difference is the Iranian predilection for sheep, partly replacing the central place of cattle among the Vedic people: “An ancient term for ‘cattle’ was recorded in the Avesta and was later attributed to ‘sheep’ in the Iranian languages; Yima’s sacrifice of cattle (Yasna 32:8) was replaced by a sheep sacrifice. These facts indicate that the rise of sheep-raising in Iranian society occurred after the collapse of Indo-Iranian unity.” (p.158)

These facts, including their chronological order, are not explained by any Central-Asian development, but fit Shrikant Talageri’s Out-of-India scenario precisely. First Indo-Aryans and Iranians were neighbours in Northwest India; they developed a conflict in which the Vedic people were victorious while the Iranian regrouped in a territory where some of them had already migrated: Afghanistan. In this mountainous territory, sheep flourished much better than cattle, and therefore became the centre of the Iranian economy.

Indo-Aryan Fedorovo culture

Within the Andronovo horizon, one culture stands out as especially related to the Vedic culture of the Indo-Aryans: the Fedorovo culture. While she finds plenty of Iranian toponyms, many probably stemming from the later Scythian period (1st mill. BCE, as far west as Ukraine), yet “part of the Andronovo toponyms can only be interpreted as Indo-Aryan”. Moreover, ”the Indo-Iranian toponyms of the pre-Scythian period have been found on the territory populated by the Fedorovo tribes”.

Let us assume, with the author, that the Fedorovo culture is Indo-Aryan; though mixed in its classical habitat on the eastern slopes of the Urals with Ugrian, the Uralic branch that was to spawn Hungarian. It flourished around 1700 BC, just in time to reach India for an invasion ca. 1500. That looks neat and surely AIT believers will seize upon it as supporting their invasion scenario.

But then, Kuzmina herself provides material reasons for inverting this northwest-to-southeast scenario: “The hypothesis of an origin of the Fedorovo type in the Urals has been disputed. The sources for Fedorovo ceramic technology and triangular ornametation are found in the Eneolithic of central and eastern Kazakhstan.” (p.201) Worse, even eastern Kazakhstand and beyond: “Federovo  monuments are discovered not only in the Urals but also in the south of Central Asia and Afghanistan, where Ugrians have never lived.” (p.201) Moreover, elsewhere she designates central Kazakhstan as the Fedorovo heartland: “The further one moves from central Kazakhstan, the frequency of the complex diminishes and substratum elements increase”. (p.24)

It won’t take any special pleading to have the Fedorovans migrate from Bactria to the Urals instead. At best we could agree that at present, the distribution of Fedorovo findings across Central Asia can be interpreted in more ways than just the Urals-to-Bactria scenario. Moreover, any movement understood as going to Bactria, is never traced as going beyond it, entering India. Here too, we notice a disappointment for those who expected an underpinning for AIT-compliant migrations from the Andronovo data.

Aryan invasion

When it comes to the AIT, we note that Elena Kuzmina totally relies on an outdated and certainly wrong racial account: “In the Rigveda light skin alongside language is the main feature of the Aryans, differentiating them from the aboriginal Dāsa-Dasyu population who were a dark-skinned, small people speaking another language and who did not believe in the Vedic gods.” (p.172) This is strictly separate from her archaeological findings, but it strongly colours her interpretation of those findings in favour of a northwest-to-southeast migration. It is mostly based on the usual reading of the Vedic references to the Battle of the Ten Kings, which is in fact not against any dark aboriginals but against the Iranians.

In her view, three stages are discernible in the movement from Andronovo into India.

Stage 1 takes place in the 20th-17th century BCE. Material culture including “a cult of the horse” moves from the eastern slopes of the Urals to Central Asia, but: “There is no evidence that they reached India.” (p.452) She naturally rejects whatever might still remain of a belief in the invaders’ violent destruction of the Harappan cities.

More to the northwest, on the Amu Darya near the Aral Lake, “the newcomers were not numerous but they employed horses and chariots and established elite dominance and adopted the culture of the BMAC.” (p.452, Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex) So what she has actually found, is BMAC cultural elements near the Aral Lake. This means the BMAC was expanding northward, precisely what you would expect if you assume the Iranians first settled in Bactria and then expanded into Kazakhstan and onwards to the Urals. We will meet a later movement from Bactria to the west, but this movement took place several times, including in ca. 2000 BCE.

Then she jumps to India without positing any causal link with any Andronovo development, and quotes G. Possehl to the effect that “the way of life essentially changed in India in this period” (453): urban culture became village culture, luxuries and international trade disappeared, but means of transport, types of pottery and procedures of house-building continued. “So the opinion of the Indian scholars who emphasize the conservation of the Harappan traditions in the culture of the subsequent periods is quite correct.” (p.453)

Stage 2 is situated in the 16th-14th century BCE. All kinds of movements take place north of (or at most, in the north of) present-day Afghanistan, such as the Timber Grave culture mixing with the Andronovo culture around Samarkand, far way from India. No sign, apparently, of an invasion of Andronovans into India, confirming the non-discovery of Andronovan elements by Indian archaeologists. Yet this is precisely the age of the supposed Aryan invasion, that AIT believers go around declaring to have been confirmed by Kuzmina’s research.

This is when the “Fedorovan tribes reached the Amu Darya… And actively interacted with the bearers of the farming Bactria-Margiana culture.” (453) We note “the penetration of the Andronovo population in the BMAC and the probable subjugation of the indigenous population” (454), the “synthesis of the Andronovo Fedorovo culture and BMAC” (454). Fine, but none of that amounts to an invasion of India.

Stage 3 really comes too late for the Aryan invasion of India: 13th-9th century BC. It was “caused by the cultural transformation of the Eurasian steppes as a result of internal development and ecological crises”. (p.454) That is richly vague, but it has no effect anymore on a putative invasion of India around 1500 BCE.

A migration that is identified, however, is east-to-west: “a part of of the Timber-grave tribes moved [from Uzbekistan or even the Amu Darya basin] to the North Caucasus because of the crisis; they had already begun appearing and settling in the Caucasus at an earlier time”. (p.454) This must be the Scythian migration, which only added to the already existing Iranian presence near and beyond the Urals. Intermittently, groups of Iranians must have moved from Bactria to the Urals and even to Ukraine for more than a thousand years. (One of the later migrating tribes were apparently the Hrvat, now known as the Croats. Before migrating west and adopting the Slavic language of the Serbs, they belonged to the Harahvaita tribe in Afghanistan mentioned as tribute-payers to the Persian empire in an Achaemenid document.)

It is important that here we can recognize a historically known migration, viz. from Bactria westwards. This means that archaeology, though uncertain and vague, is nonetheless relevant for history. That makes the archaeological silence on another supposed historical development, viz. the Aryan invasion of India, all the more significant.


We have nothing to add to the wealth of archaeological data on the Andronovo culture that Elena Kuzmina provides. Her interpretative framework, however, is flawed and limited by the rather dated presuppositions about the Homeland and the invasion of India. Moreover, a culture beginning in 2000 BCE comes a bit late to stage an Aryan invasion, especially given the many indications that the concomitant chronology of ancient Indian literature is late.

Things would be more challenging if we had been shown a rootedness of the Andronovo culture in preceding cultures, thousands of years older. In that case, it would be difficult to deduce those earlier cultures from an emigration from India, and the case for an intrusion from a non-Indian Homeland would be that much stronger. Perhaps this was not the object of her book, and another archaeologist might be able to trace Andronovo to earlier cultures, to the exclusion of Indian influences. There are many might-have-beens in the Homeland debate, but this deeper non-Indian genealogy of cultures has at any rate not been offered in this book. Nor, to our knowledge, anywhere else. If it had been, it would be mustered by interested parties all the time.

While this is undoubtedly an important book, and as far as I can judge a classic of Andronovo archaeology, it fails in its primary mission: to show that this culture was the staging-ground for an Aryan invasion of Iran and India. It only assumes that much but doesn’t demonstrate it.


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The Battle for Sanskrit, a review

(Hinduism Today, Hawaii, May-July 2016) 

Rajiv Malhotra, now headquartered in Princeton NJ, was originally a computer scientist working as a senior executive in the telecom industries. In spite of a very successful business career he took early retirement at 44 and started the Infinity Foundation to organize studies concerning the power equations underlying the way Western scholars construe India. Though by now very well-informed and very productive in developing and documenting relevant concepts, he has remained an outsider to academe. That is why he is lambasted as not having the adhikāra (prerogative) to criticize developments in the academic world – both by academics and by his Hindu nationalist detractors, who have an uppity status-consciousness in common. They still live in the feudal age, when status trumped the humble consideration whether you spoke the truth or not.

In the modern age, things work differently. Albert Einstein was a mere clerk with no adhikāra when he launched the revolutionary Relativity Theory. Closer to home, Shrikant Talageri was belittled as a mere bank clerk when he showed the academics that the very readings and Vedic analyses by which they swore, when logically thought through, were evidence for an Indian Homeland of Indo-European. Status tells you very little about whether you are right or wrong. Malhotra may not have an academic status, but with the thesis of the present book, he is essentially right – and frontally challenging the academic India-watchers.

The battlefield

The Battle for Sanskrit. Is Sanskrit Political or Sacred? Oppressive or Liberating? Dead or Alive? (HarperCollins, Delhi 2016, 468 pp.) is not a piece of Sanskrit scholarship. It is not about grammar or literature, but about the politics of Sanskrit scholarship. It reveals and studies knowledge production and intellectual control mechanisms in the globalized postmodern world. In particular, it documents the American attempt to wrest control over the Sanskrit tradition from the indigenous Pandits, disempowering the backbone of Hindu tradition.

Most Hindus are not aware that a war is raging for the destruction of their civilization. They don’t come out of their comfort zone, out of their career and family concerns, and hence have never developed a sense of the enormous hostility that is targeting them in the ugly wide world. Foreign experts in Arabic or Chinese tend to sympathize with the civilization or polity they study, and to defend it against prejudices and hostile stereotypes; but in “South Asian” Studies (the terms “Indian” and “Hindu” are taboo in those circles), the opposite is the case. Thus, like every immigrant group, US-based Hindus wish to correct the school books to make them less hostile and more accurate regarding Hindu history, and then the South Asia scholars move in not to support but to thwart them.

Yet, in the face of this aggression by “experts”, Hindus think that Sanatana Dharma has survived several onslaughts and has nothing to fear from the present one. Here then is a meritorious role that Malhotra has increasingly played since he started his series of books: getting Hindus up from their cosy unconcern and into reality. In particular, he has taught them to scan the forces in the field and take an objective look at the hostile agents approaching Hindu society with flattering smiles and on idealistic-sounding pretexts.

For the past, this job was done by the likes of the late historian Sita Ram Goel. But very few people are equipped to map out the situation in the present, particularly the interaction between the academic world in the US and the intellectual sphere in India. Americans are now definitely giving the lead, though their agenda is not simply the promotion of the American self-interest. Rather, it is mutually nurtured with the agenda of the Indian secularists, for whom the American universities have become a staging-ground for their anti-Hindu assault.

Under British rule, the foreigners’ view of India had only limited consequences (though in the end, they managed at least to bequeath to India a Nehruvian elite). Today, the “deconstruction” of Hinduism by “experts” influences policies and socio-cultural evolutions inside India and gets broadcast into every Indian village. Indeed, even Hindu leaders (Malhotra calls them “moron Swamis”) have come to intone destructive messages, such as: “All religions say the same thing” (so don’t worry if your daughter converts), or: “Yoga is not Hindu.” The Sringeri Math was on the point of entrusting its traditions to the care of American Sanskritists, but Malhotra warned them, hopefully in time.      

So, on one side of the battlefield is a sleep-walking Hindu society that doesn’t realize what is happening, clueless to the wiles of the enemy. On the other is an ever-growing army of foreign scholars and India-watchers, allied with every divisive force inside India.


The occasion for this book is wealthy Infosys industrialist Narayan Murthy’s gift of millions of dollars to Sheldon Pollock of Columbia University for overseeing the translation of 500 classics by US-based Sanskritists. As Makarand Paranjpe has observed in the ensuing debate: this reverses the secret of Infosys’s business success, for building computers turned out to be much cheaper in India than in the US, so wouldn’t sponsoring Pandits to do this job be far more cost-effective?

Apart from financial nonsense, the spending of Hindu funds on non-Hindu interventions is unworthy and dangerous. Pollock’s approach to Sanskrit studies is what he calls “political philology”. He has consistently undervalued the spiritual dimension that Hindus associate with Sanskrit, and portrayed it as a language of oppression. This is not out of malice, he deserves the benefit of the doubt regarding his motives (he has for instance deplored the decline of classical studies in India, leaving a void which he now steps in to fill). All the same, he reproduces the widespread negative valuation of Hinduism which Western India-watchers are spoonfed. Do we want that aversion for Hinduism to have control over the Sanskrit heritage? 

Malhotra observes that it “would hand over the authority of Sanskrit studies to westernized scholars using [Pollock’s] political philology and not Sanskrit’s own literary theories or Indian socio-political resources. Persons who are outsiders to the Indian traditions would call the shots, and even become the proxies to represent the downtrodden.” (p.178)

Ever-more born Hindus are patronized by the likes of Pollock or Wendy Doniger to become sepoys, native mercenaries serving in the attack on Hinduism. This comprises both people from secularist backgrounds who get selected to acquire the scholarly equipment for making their hatred more effective and sophisticated; and well-meaning American-born Hindus who honestly want to study their ancestral traditions but get shunted towards anti-Hindu views: “The effect of Pollock’s project on some Hindus is alienation from their roots and the development of an inferiority complex (…) This alienation spreads quickly. Bright young Indians (…) rush to enter the university factories of this nexus and end up spreading the indoctrination to the public.” (p.327)

Many Hindus, including the Murthy family, are under the impression that scholarship including translation is an ideologically neutral job. For them, extra payment for Pollock rather than the Pandits only means buying American prestige rather than Indian shabbiness. In reality, translation comes with a interpretative framework that insinuates a number of anti-Hindu assumptions. Pollock’s earlier work, even more than his record of signing anti-Hindu petitions, gives a clue.


Thus, a nice case of Pollock’s warped politicized interpretation, which he terms “political philology”, concerns Valmiki’s Ramayana. Anything good in it is of course the product of “borrowing from Buddhism” (in accord with the reigning assumption: “Hinduism bad, Buddhism good”), so that he juggles the chronology to make the Buddha predate Valmiki: “Pollock’s overarching motive is to make a chronology according to which all Hindu innovations came only after the Buddha, the idea being that prior to Buddhism the Hindus were incapable of innovation as a result of their oral tradition (…) Rationality entered India only after the Buddha came, according to him, and only then did it become possible to compose complex rational texts.” (p.390)

But at heart, Pollock argues the epic to be evil: it is a trick by Brahmins and monarchs to justify royal power, priestly authority and caste apartheid. Moreover, in justifying the war against Ravana, the Ramayana essentially declares war on all outsiders, particularly the Muslims, though these invaders only were to arrive a thousand years later. So Pollock, like Hernán Cortés subduing the Aztecs with the help of the Mexican subalterns, champions the Muslims along with the low-castes and Dravidians against Rama’s wicked aggression, thus to dislodge whatever remains of the oppressive Sanskrit tradition’s power and prestige. 

In this now-dominant construct, Ravana is presented as a resister against Aryan aggression who is shown his place by the Aryan hegemon Rama. Even the boon of invulnerability which Ravana receives, cannot save him from Aryan revenge against his ethnic pride. In reality, however, the Rama narrative does not extol ethnic oppression at all, as Malhotra observes: “Hindus are taught that (1) bad conduct after getting the boon is what makes Ravana an enemy, and nothing else, and (2) being a brahmin (…) does not exempt him from being considered wicked. Pollock ignores this significance, perhaps because it would undermine his depiction that brahmins were always considered good.” (p.189)   


Malhotra discovers where so many India-watchers have gotten their rabid hatred for Hinduism from: “Pollock takes the blame game against Sanskrit to new heights when he argues that German Indologists (…) borrowed ideas of racial purity and ethnic violence from their study of Sanskrit” which then “prompted the Nazi holocaust”. (p.169) Yet Pollock fails to pinpoint these ideas of “racial” purity in the Sanskrit tradition.

Fact is that Adolf Hitler repeatedly expressed his contempt for Hindus. He supported British colonialism and told Subhas Chandra Bose to his face that India was better off under the rule of superior white men – just like Murthy thinks Sanskrit literature is safer in the hands of white Americans rather then of brown natives. Hitler had become a religious skeptic, like the Indian secularists, yet he thought highly of the Catholic priesthood because, being a celibate class, it was perforce recruited from the common people – unlike the elitist hereditary priesthood of the Brahmins. At Pollock’s rate of Nazi associations, Pollock himself shares his anti-Brahminism (India’s equivalent of anti-Semitism) with Hitler.

Pollock actually tries to make us believe that there is something Nazi about asserting an Out-of-India Theory for the Indo-European languages. In fact, the Nazis had a militant belief in Pollock’s cherished Aryan Invasion Theory. It was a cornerstone of their worldview: dynamic Aryans moving in to rule the indolent natives; white Aryans banning intermarriage to preserve their racial purity, thus creating caste; yet submitting to at least some admixture and thereby becoming inferior to their purer white cousins, thus needing their rule. Hitler, Pollock: same struggle!

At any rate, in the West, “Nazi!” counts as the single worst allegation. Would you entrust the care of your heritage to someone who slanders Sanskrit like that?



With this book, Rajiv Malhotra has taken a powerful stand for the self-respect of Dharmic tradition, warding off a clear and present danger. Every Hindu who can contribute is called upon to join him in the struggle.

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Cultural astronomy and star worship in Bath

 (28 June 2016)

On the historic day of 24 June 2016, when it became known that the British people had voted for  Britain's exit from the European Union, I took the ferryboat from the French-occupied Flemish town of Kales (Calais) to Dover. In years past I had always taken the Eurostar superfast train, which emerges from underground near Folkestone, but this time I could see the white cliffs of Dover, ever since Julius Caesar the emblematic first sign of Britain. As most of you know, they are the reason why Britain is also known as Albion, from Latin albus, “white”.

I was going to the Conference on Cultural Astronomy in Bath on 25-26 June 2016, organized by the Sophia Centre belonging to the University of Wales in Lampeter. It is pleasant to think that the choice of this town was, in cosmic terms, not a coincidence. It is here that William Herschel lived when he made the first-ever discovery of a new planet, Uranus.
This year the topic was “Worship of the Stars”, a subject that overlaps with the subject of the European-level Conference on Cultural Astronomy hosted by its British section in this same town in September. At that conference, I will present a paper myself (on the Semitic concept of Shirk, “associating (a dying hero with a star)”, which Islam later transformed into meaning “idolatry”). Here I only attended other people’s lectures. But this gave me ample time to listen and think, so I shall briefly report on the lectures before giving my own thoughts.

And by the way, I earned many a smirk by introducing myself as being “from Brussels” (actually at a small distance from it, not worthy of mention on an international scale), that hell-hole and focal point of EU tyranny. So, that much for the Sitz im Leben behind this reflection.

The worldwide religion

The worldwide array of instances of star worship presented here shows that star worship is really the universal religion. In this regard it competes with ancestor worship, also near-universal. Or rather, the two are often intertwined, for deceased ancestors are deemed to be in heaven, often actually associated with a specific star. The identification of stars with gods is not only implicit in a common etymology of words for “god” (Deva = “the radiant one”), it is even affirmed by serious philosophers like Socrates (Apology 226d) and Plato (Laws, 821c or 886d). This view often had to deal with a skeptical counterpoint, exemplified by the position of philosopher Anaxagoras and of playwright Aristophanes (“The Clouds” and “The Birds”) that the sun and the stars are only pieces of burning stone. From a religious viewpoint, this expulsion of the sacred was disrepect to the gods, or what the Greeks called Hubris, “foolish pride”, “conceit”, as explained by Stavroula Konstantopoloulou.

Several speakers went deeper into the alreay well-established role of the Mesopotamian traditions in this regard. A lesser-known instance, here discussed by Hannelore Goos, is the role of the stars in Germanic religion. We heard details about the roles of sun and moon in the Edda, sometimes in disguise. The Germanic pantheon is often reputed to be sombre and full of ice, but here we saw that it, too, often symbolically refers to more luminous lore about the bright ones in the heavens.

In Germany today, we notice a revival of Solstice gatherings at ancient woodhenge sites (several have only recently been discovered) or rock formations. Reinhard Mussik reported that these were less an expression of neo-Paganism than of a heightened interest in archaeo-astronomy. In particular, he found a widespread belief in a transnational solar cult that must anciently have been spread across Europe.   

I apologize to those speakers whose name or research I don’t mention in this limited space, and move on to Marcello De Martino’s important thesis on Hestia/Vesta, goddess of the hearth, i.e. the focal (from focus, “hearth”) or central fire. The Pythagorean philosopher Philolaus of Croton conceived of a model of the universe wherein the earth is central vis-à-vis the planets and then the fixed stars, much like in the usual geocentric model, except that the earth itself revolves around something even more central, the focal fire. This pyrocentric model is but the high-brow formulation of a tradition that goes back to at least Proto-Indo-European times (some 4000 BCE). In this system, the gods are personifications of celestial bodies and phenomena, conceived as peripheral to the real centre of the universe, Hestia as the hearth fire.

I add that in this respect, some Paganisms were ready from the beginning for the concept of “discarding the gods”, which Christianity or Islam would later impose by force (though only to replace them with their own god). But before that, we already see how Stoicism, which takes some distance from state-approved theism, becomes the accepted worldview among educated Greeks and Romans. Or how the Vedic cult of the gods gets replaced with a pursuit of knowledge, of the Absolute (Brahman), in the Upanishads. These developments only explicitated a relativisation of the gods that had been there all along, because the heavenly beings had always been conceived as peripheral and subordinate to the central fire.  

I may also add that in Christian cosmology, this central fire reappears as the centrality of hell within the planet standing in the centre of the geocentric universe. Theologians had a conscience problem here, for situating hell-fire underground amounted to putting Satan in the centre of the universe. You have to pay Satan his due, but this was just too much honour.

The Biblical religions

The Tenach (Old Testament) recognizes the importance of star worship, even when prohibiting it for the Israelites: “Pay attention lest ye lift your eyes up to the sky for seeing sun, moon and stars, that you be led astray and adore and serve them, those whom the Lord your God hath assigned to all the nations under heaven." (Deut. 4:19) As an application of this instruction among the Jews themselves, we learned here from speaker Meira Epstein that the Talmud describes rituals for the first appearance of t, with Helios in his chariot at the centre,he New Moon, but that after verifying the moon’s visibility, the officiant is then directed to look at his prayer text and never at the moon itself during the ritual, so as it make clear that this is not moon worship. Nonetheless, as excavated synagogue floors from the early Christian centuries show (documented by Rachel Schmid), the Zodiac became an integral part of the really existing Jewish worldview.

As Christianity brought the Biblical worldview to the Pagans, it busied itself with eradicating star worship, partly simply eliminating it and consigning it to oblivion, partly adopting it in disguise. Thus, the eulogy to Mary as “Queen of Heaven” is directly taken from the Pagan lore about Venus. Church buildings were oriented to the rising sun. The Pentecost as the feast of the Holy Spirit and of communication across language barriers was put in Gemini, All Saints’ Day as feast of the dead in Scorpio, etc. Stellar divination even gained an explicit place in the Jesus narrative with the visit of the Magi. Jesus was often likened to the sun with its well-attested myths of death and resurrection. As Konstatinos Gravanis showed, theologians also likened Jesus to a conjunction of sun and moon: the sun being his divine nature, radiant and unchanging, and the moon his human nature, imperfect and transient.

Astrology was very influential in the Middle East and in the Roman Empire, so the Church ended up incorporating some of it. The Church Fathers condemned its supposed determinism, but later doctores such as Thomas Aquinas created a space for it within the Christian worldview. Christian astrologers merely had to explicitate that the heavenly bodies were not gods (in fact, they were deemed to be set and kept in motion by angels), and on that condition their own form of horoscopy could flourish.

An instance of very elementary astrology in Christian art was presented by my Serbian friend Dragana Ilič. On a Jesus painting in a Serbian monastery, we find a depiction of two seeming space ships, with one cosmonaut in each, in the heavenly background to scenes from Jesus’ life. Since Erich von Däniken, many New-Agers see this as proof that aliens have come, and that cosmonauts from up there even triggered the genesis of religion down here. Alas, she showed that these were ultimately just fanciful images of sun and moon. 


The Quran simply and strictly prohibits star worship. Again, this went hand in hand with a high tide of astrology, but on the condition that astrologers emphasized how the planets were not gods but mere cogwheels in a machinery set in motion by the Creator. Pre-Islamic religion was actually also largely star worship (next to ancestor worship and the worship of special stones like the Black Stone in Mecca’s Ka’ba). Thus, the three Meccan goddesses of Satanic Verses fame, al-Lat, al-Uzza and al-Manat, are roughly the Sun, Venus and the Moon. One of the most original papers dealt with one pre-Islamic Arabian form of practical star lore.

We learned from Arab researcher Mai Lootah that in pre-Islamic Arabia, the quasi-Babylonian lore about the heliacal rising (i.e. as the last to visibly rise before daybreak) of a number of stars and planets, or about their opposition (rising when the sun sets) had been encapsulated in a series of verses or rhymed prose texts, generally with a prediction attached. This art was called anwā’. Most commonly they generally predicted the weather, like astrological versions of our weather proverbs: “Red sky at night,/ shepherd’s delight;/ red sky in the morning,/ shepherd take warning.” You might compare them also to the little stories that go with a specific throw of the oracle stones in different oracle systems from China to Congo, where each outcome contains a prediction applicable to the questioners’ situation.

The art seems to have some status, for city dwellers from Saudi Arabia have mastered it, the way Westerners nowadays complete courses in fengshui or indeed in astrology. Traditionally, however, it was passed on from father to sun in Beduin communities, and she could interview a number of those hereditary specialists in Kuwait. The verses were preserved all across the Islamic period by these Beduin soothsayers (baru’), who of course had to assure their environments that the stars were not gods and that this lore implied nothing detrimental to monotheism. However, since urbanization struck in Arabia in the 1960s, the specialists are losing touch with nature and with direct observation of the starry sky, so that this lore is now getting hazy. Modernization is destroying what fourteen centuries of prohibitive monotheism could not.  

Rebels against the world order

An often neglected ideological impact upon evolving astrology is Mazdeism or Zoroastrianism, the Persian religion. The Persians ruled Babylon in the 6th-4th century BCE, where they adopted but also influenced local astrology. They were a major presence in Greek life, and in subsequent centuries, after Alexander, remained a major influence upon Hellenism. As is fairly well-known, they worshipped Ahura Mazda (“Lord Wisdom”), a form of address of the Vedic god Varuna, personification of the world order incarnated in the orderly configuration of the night sky.

The great rebel against Ahura Mazda was Angra Mainyu (“Furious Spirit”), signifying disorder.  From philological studies, we know that he can be equated with the Vedic god Indra, the thunder-god (Thor, Jupiter, Zeus, Marduk), whom the Iranians had demonized. In Vedic polytheism there are, apart from the ultimate poles of Heaven and Earth, three classes of gods: 12 heavenly ones, 11 atmospheric ones, and 8 earthly ones. The first category signifies celestial order, not coincidentally the number of the Zodiac signs, or that which in Iranian dualism comes to be symbolized by Ahura Mazda. The third one signifies the wordly riches undergoing the influences from above. The second category is the one that interests us here: it signifies dynamism and disorder, symbolized by the unwieldy number 11 and by the unpredictable wind. It is here that storm-god Indra belongs.

Above the earth with its intractable and hidden pathways, but below the seemingly orderly and unchanging array of the fixed stars, therefore also reckoned as part of the “atmosphere”, of the in-between sphere, there are also the disorderly phenomena of heaven. These include comets, eclipses, the occasional nova, and come to think of it, in a sense also the planets. These are more predictable than the earthly events, also more than the weather or the comets, but less than the fixed stars. It is, for instance, hardly necessary to calculate an ephemeris for the stars, for their positions remain unchanging for a long time; by contrast, it is necessary to map out the movements of the planets.

This way, the planets partly partake of the orderly and unchanging divine world, but also participate in the sphere of disorder. Speaker Paul Bembridge demonstrated a remarkable confluence, around the time of Christ, of beliefs that a war was raging in heaven between the stars and the planets: the “Gnostic crisis”. In that sense, it could be said that the planets partially signify the adversary of the world order. He probably went too far when he tied this in with the nickname of  Venus, the brightest of the planets, as Lucifer. He tried to associate Venus, and through her the planets in general, with the Devil (“the slanderer”), the Satan (“the adversary”), the opponent of the divine order par excellence. However, Lucifer means the “light-bringer”, apparently because as morning-star, Venus announces the dawn; and not too much should be looked for behind this.

On the other hand, while exaggerated, it does point to a reality. As is known, in Bible-based theology, Satan is meant to try and test us, to “lead us into temptation”. And that exactly is what the planets are: signifiers of the unruly passions, the wild sea we have to learn to navigate, and from which we ultimately have to emancipate ourselves.

Hindu astrology

The whole conference was exceptional, but I especially enjoyed the papers on Hindu astrology by Kenneth Miller and Freedom Cole. One of the Sanskrit terms for “astrologer”, at least since its mention in a 4th-century dictionary, is Daiva-jña, “knower of the gods”, or in practice, “knower of fate”. Another is Daiva-lekhaka, “gods-writer”, “fate-writer”, i.e. horoscope-maker. Obviously, the stars here were seen as gods regulating man’s destiny.

The Bhagavad-Gita 5:12 says that men desiring success in action worship Devas/gods, and that for them, success gets accomplished through ritual action. It is in this spirit that astrology is still practised in India today: the client will get advice on what ritual to practise, when and how and for which god, to ward off the negative influences of the stellar configurations indicated in his horoscope. This will remove the obstacles to his well-being and the fulfilment of his desires.

By contrast, Sadhana or what is nowadays called “the spiritual path” falls outside the ambit of astrology. In Sadhana, the point is to decrease your desires, to renounce, to abandon. A monk is usually expected to refrain from astrology. His aim is not to navigate the circumstances of life, the risks and opportunities signified by the stellar configurations, but to grow out of this world, to become indifferent to fate.

In the West, astrology appeals mostly to starry-eyed aficionaos of “spirituality”. Though cultivating a soft and mushy worldview, they tend to be stern in their disapproval when they hear that in the Orient (not just India, but also China and other places, where the bourgeoisie takes astrological advice very seriously) people are very “materialistic” in the questions they ask, as are the astrologers in their matter-of-fact answers. But in fact, it is only natural, ever since the beginning of sooth-saying, that oracle-readers, palmists and star-gazers are down-to-earth in the advice they give. Everyone is free to “indulge” in the spiritual path during his free time; but in the grim business of making a living, choosing where and how to build a house, or marrying off your daughter to a worthy candidate, clear and lucre-conscious counsel is called for. 

Hindu civilization probably borrowed its present system of horoscopy from the Greeks, who in turn had freshly adopted it from the Babylonians. It is, at any rate, not mentioned in India before Alexander, in fact only six or so centuries later. One of the speakers, like many Hindus, wasn’t so sure about this. Thus, the very first book on horoscopy in India is admittedly called Yavana Jataka, “Ionian Birth Astrology”, but that doesn’t strictly prove that non-Greek astrology wasn’t known. But this sounds like special pleading: the common-sense conclusion from the available data is that the existing tradition of Babylonian horoscopy was first adopted and transformed by the Greeks after Alexander’s conquest, and in subsequent centuries transmitted by the Indo-Greeks to the Indians.

However, the borrowed nature of Indian nativity-reading doesn’t prove the absence of astrology. All major civilizations cultivated some more or less systematized stellar lore, along with other forms of divination. And indeed, Vedic civilization knew at least two distinct forms of astrology. One was omen-reading, described in the Mahabharata, comparable to what existed in Mesopotamia in pre-horoscope days and amply attested there in clay tablets from the 2nd millennium BCE. This was by its very nature haphazard, based on any celestial revelation which the gods of their own volition chose to make concerning their own mood: eclipse, comet, or sudden darkening of (what we now know to be) double-stars of when its weaker partner came to occult the brighter partner.

The other was based on the 28 lunar houses, already mentioned in the Vedas, a system cognate to the 28 Xiu in China or the 28 Manāzil in Arabia. Each house was roughly the angular distance traversed by the moon in a day. It was succinctly but systematically described in the Jyotishi Vedanga, a work which Cole confirmed to be from the 14th century BCE, pace David Pingree’s estimate of ca. the 5th century BCE. This book dates itself in two independent passages through the precessional correlation of the constellations with both the Solstice axis and the Equinox axis to ca. 1350 BCE, and nowhere to any other date. It is not acceptable to overrule or ignore this direct testimony, as academics wedded to an artificially low chronology for Indian civilization usually do.

The Jyotishi Vedanga gives instructions under which stellar configurations to perform rituals. But why should this be important? At face value, this seems to be only astronomical, only technical, but the fact that ritualists should attach importance to stellar configurations indicates a sense of astrology, of attaching a significance to celestial positions. Only, this significance is not yet tied to individuals and their birth times, not yet nativity-astrological, not yet horoscopic. It only decides on generally auspicious times for starting an entreprise, for laying the first stone of a house, or for concluding a wedding. It is what we would call “electional astrology”.

The most common remnant of this form of astrology, persisting long after Hellenistic-originated horoscopy came centre-stage, is the existence of wedding-seasons. If in an Indian city you consider hiring a festival tent or a brass-band for your company’s garden party, it is best to choose the off season, for at certain times of the year, cities are just full of wedding parties. All new couples want to tune in to a good stellar configuration to solemnize their wedding. Only militant skeptics organize weddings under a configuration that is deemed inauspicious.  


This conference was great. Coincidentally or not, it took place when Jupiter conjoined Rahu (who, as Matthew Kosuta detailed, is the special object of worship in Thailand), and both were in opposition with the Moon conjoining Neptune. Rahu is the cosmic monster that devours the sun or moon during eclipses; or more rationally, the point where lunar and solar orbit intersect. Astrologers believe that with Jupiter, Rahu indicates glorious new beginnings, or meetings with great sequels. Moreover, on this occasion they oppose Neptune, the planet of illusions and confusion. The growth and expansion they promise, sets itself against flaky dead-ends and entanglements. Yet Neptune happens to be at his strongest in Pisces, bringing out positive sides like a rich imagination and inspired art.

I do not know enough of astrology to discern what should be the downside, but I suppose we’ll run into that at some point. That is what most of us, lesser mortals, do: undergo our destiny, because we tend to be underlings. Then again, this is a great time for starting an upward curve. Meanwhile, I am satisfied with having had a good time.

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