Tuesday, May 28, 2024
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Who was first? Does it matter?

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By Bhogtoram Mawroh

For me, the genesis of this whole debate about the foreign origin of Hinduism came about when former Lok Sabha Speaker Kariya Munda stated that “those tribals who convert to Islam or Christianity must not get any benefits of reservation meant for the tribals.” Basically, his argument was that Islam and Christianity are foreign religions, while tribal religions and Hinduism are indigenous to the subcontinent. Therefore those who follow the former religions must be deprived of their rights. With a large proportion of Khasis being Christians, I took it as an attack on our community and therefore decided to demonstrate that Hinduism itself is foreign to the subcontinent. However, there was no malice against any religion, and I wanted the discussion to be based on facts. In the process, I gained some interesting insights, which I am going to share. Please note that I am not trying to defame any religion, but I am going to discuss it based on published research.
In my opinion, there are three fundamental features of Hinduism that characterize the religion. These are Sanskrit (an Indo-European language), the Vedas (the earliest sacred texts of the Hindus), and the Varna system (today known as the caste system). Let’s have a look at these three and find out if they have any antecedents outside the subcontinent. Not surprisingly, we find that all three had their origins in a proto-Indo-European culture practiced by a people whose homeland has been identified as a region north of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea in what is today Ukraine and southern Russia or the Pontic-Caspian Steppes. The case for this homeland was persuasively argued by David W. Anthony, an American anthropologist, in his 2007 book, ‘The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World’. This book won the Society for American Archaeology’s 2010 Book Award. In April 2024, David W. Anthony was one of the 94 authors who published the paper ‘The Genetic Origin of the Indo-Europeans’ in which he built on the arguments that he had laid in the book about the proto-Indo-European language and its descendents, or what he calls its daughters.
Based on linguistic reconstruction and archaeological evidence, the earliest Indo-European language was an Archaic Proto-Indo-European (partly preserved only in Anatolian in present-day Turkey), probably spoken before 4000 BCE. Then there was early Proto-Indo-European (partly preserved in Tocharian, an extinct language from northwestern China) that was spoken between 4000 and 3500 BCE. Then we have the languages that we can identify today. These are the late Proto-Indo-European (the source of Italic and Celtic), which was probably spoken about 3500–3000 BCE, followed by the Pre-Germanic splitting away from the western edge of late Proto-Indo-European dialects about 3300 BCE. Pre-Greek split away about 2500 BCE; Pre-Baltic split from Pre-Slavic and other northwestern dialects about 2500 BCE. Finally, the one most important for us Pre-Indo-Iranian (early Sanskrit) developed from a northeastern set of dialects between 2500 and 2200 BCE. This means that Sanskrit is the youngest of all the Indo-European languages and is around 4500 to 4200 years old. But even then, it had not reached South Asia. That happened only after 2000 BCE, when a branch of Indo-European-speaking people known as Indo-Aryan arrived on the subcontinent.
So, the history of Sanskrit on the subcontinent is a little over 3000 years old. But it was only after more than 1000 years that the language was put down in writing. For a long time, it was an oral language, and the Rig Veda (the first of the four Vedas), was composed orally in the Punjab, in northwestern India and Pakistan, probably between about 1500 and 1300 BCE. Noted scholars like Wendy Doniger, author of the book ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’, gave the date of around 1500 and 1000 BCE. But oddly enough, the language (i.e., Sanskrit) was found in inscriptions a lot earlier in a different part of the world, northern Syria.
This happened during the reign of the Mitanni dynasty, which ruled over what is today northern Syria between 1500 and 1350 BCE. Around 1380 BCE, the Mitanni king Kurtiwaza explicitly named four deities to witness his treaty with the monarch of the Hittites (an Anatolian Indo-European people), three of whom—Indra, Varuna, and the Nasatyas, or Divine Twins—were the three most important deities in the Rig Veda. Indra himself was the subject of 250 hymns, or a quarter of the Rig Veda. He was, however, not original but similar to Thor and Zeus, who were also important gods in their respective Norse and Greek mythologies. What this reveals is that though the Rig Veda was composed on the subcontinent, it took inspiration from an original religion that must have first emerged in its Eurasian Steppes homeland. The Indo-European speakers took it with them as they migrated west, east, and south and imposed it on their new destinations. But that was not the only practice that was imported into the subcontinent.
According to Georges Dumezil, a French philologist, linguist, and religious studies scholar who specialized in comparative linguistics and mythology, the most famous basic divisions in Proto-Indo-European society was the tripartite scheme between the ritual specialist or priest, the warrior, and the ordinary herder or cultivator. These groups were assigned different colors based on their roles: white for the priest, red for the warrior, and black or blue for the herder or cultivator. As noted by Alf Hiltebeitel in his 2011 book ‘Dharma: Its Early History in Law, Religion, and Narrative’, Bhrigu, one of the great sages of Hinduism, when describing Varna (which in the Rig Veda has been defined as color, outward appearance, exterior form, figure, or shape) in the Mahabharata, explains that “the Brahmins’ varṇa was white, the Ksatriyas’ was red, the Vaiśyas’ varṇa was yellow, and the Śūdras’ black”. This clearly shows the varna system, which later became the caste system, was imported from a more older system found among the Proto-Indo-European society that first developed in the Steppes.
If one were to remove these three elements, viz., Sanskrit, Vedas, and Varna, from Hinduism, then we would come to what some people call folk Hinduism. That, of course, appears to have its origin in the subcontinent, from what we know today as tribal religions. With time, Vedic Hinduism must have incorporated the local religious practices, giving it a syncretic look, which is a distinctive feature of Hinduism. If one wants to understand more about this, one can watch the YouTube documentary by The Wire titled ‘Indians: A Brief History of a Civilization’. Still, it does not take away the fact that the origin of Hinduism (a combination of Vedic and folk elements) is from outside the subcontinent, in the original homeland of the Indo-Aryan, the Eurasian Steppes.
While this was all going on, in their 2018 paper, ‘Ancient Genomics Reveals Four Prehistoric Migration Waves into Southeast Asia’ Hugh McColl and colleagues found that Southeast Asian Neolithic farmers having a distinct East Asian genomic ancestry related to present-day Austroasiatic-speaking populations were moving into mainland Southeast Asia, replacing an earlier hunter-gatherer population related to the Onge hunter-gatherers from the Andaman Islands. The majority of people today in Southeast Asia are believed to be descendants of these rice and millet farmers who brought farming technology wherever they went. The Khasi and Munda people, today found in the North East and East India, belong to this group that kept moving east, finally reaching South Asia. Different scholars have given different dates for their arrival. According to Hugh McColl and colleagues, this happened around 4000 years ago, or 2000 BCE. Xiaoming Zhang and colleagues in their 2015 paper ‘Y-chromosome diversity suggests southern origin and Paleolithic backwave migration of AustroAsiatic speakers from eastern Asia to the Indian subcontinent’ calculated that this happened 10,000 years ago or 8000 BCE. Another paper ‘A late Neolithic expansion of Y chromosomal haplogroup O2a1-M95 from east to west’ published in the same year by Ganesh Prasad Arunkumar and colleagues, gave the date of arrival to be 5.2±0.6 thousand years ago for the North East (Khasi) and 4.3±0.2 thousand years ago for East India (Munda). I find this date to be more reasonable. What is also known is that for the Khasi, based on the 2013 paper ‘A Lexicostatistical Study of the Khasian Languages: Khasi, Pnar, Lyngngam, and War’ by K. S. Nagaraja, Paul Sidwell, and Simon Greenhill, when they first arrived, must have spoken a language that is similar to War Amwi, which is still being spoken today in Amlarem Civil Sub Division, West Jaintia Hills District, Meghalaya. It, in turn, must have diverged from a language very similar to Palaung, spoken today in Myanmar, around 4000 years ago.
So, let’s recap here. Around 2500 BCE, Sanskrit emerged from an earlier Indo-European language. Then, around 2000 to 1000 BCE, the speakers of early Sanskrit reached the subcontinent and composed the Rig Veda, which was written down only after the 1st century CE. In the meantime, in the east, Austroasiatic speakers today identified as Khasi had already reached the subcontinent around 5000 years ago, or 3000 BCE. At that time, they were speaking a language that resembled today’s War Amwi, from which Lyngngam, Pnar, and Khasi later emerged. They had brought their own religion, which is still being practiced by a significant portion of the Khasi population. This means, based on the dates given above, that War-Amwi is older than Sanskrit and the Khasi religion is older than Hinduism.
Except for the Onge, all of us came to the subcontinent from somewhere in the recent past. Some came early, while others came much later. But that does not mean that a particular religion, culture, or people are more authentic or superior to another, be it Khasi, Hinduism, Christianity, or Islam. Instead, it’s important to realize that no one has the right to impose their own culture or religion on other groups or deprive others of any rights that belong to them. Only those with ulterior motives will want to create animosity between people to produce disturbance in society. Instead, peaceful coexistence and respect for each other while allowing people to make their decisions without fear of harassment are paramount. That includes following any religion originating from anywhere in the world (Central Asia, Middle East, or East Asia) or rejecting all religions themselves. In the end, that is what I had always wanted to convey, and I hope I have not offended anyone in the process.
(The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not reflect in any way his affiliation to any organisation or institution)

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