In The Armchair

The Aryan Invasion Debate

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on August 31, 2010

Hot potato political topics in India are extremely hard to understand. There just doesn’t seem to be a culture of balanced or careful presentation in the Indian press. Seemingly impartial reports in top newspapers only tell half the story, and non-opinion articles have unseemly opinionation mixed in. Certain sections of the press and society seem incapable of any contribution but hammering away at popularizing their favourite viewpoint. But one of the hottest potatoes, the Aryan Invasion Theory and debates related to it, is especially hard to understand. This is because academics throughout India and the West seem to have clear political agendas when writing about this topic.

Indology, as the study of Indian religion, language and culture was known in the 18th century, started with the “discovery” of Indian culture by Europe. Initially, there was a great deal of excitement and positive press. By the mid 19th century, in tandem with the development of race theories, the denigration of Indian culture was institutionalized especially in Britain but more generally throughout Europe. This was, of course, an economic and political necessity: India was, to a great extent, the source of Western prosperity; and it had to be retained convincingly. Almost all Indologic academic endeavour in the late 19th century throughout Europe had as its eventual goal the denigration of India. There were some dissenting voices, including a few from India, but these were generally scoffed at and not taken seriously.

The theories of Aryan invasion and migration were originally created in that atmosphere, and the field of Indology developed into the corresponding field today. The tools that are used today include two old ones: archaeology and linguistics, dating back to the original Indologists, and one new tool: genetics. Those who are opposed to the idea that Aryans (or the original creators of the Vedic religion) invaded India usually claim that the Vedic culture originated in India. A basic assumption of many of this group is that the entirety or majority of the body of academic work based on linguistics is not trustworthy, because it is based on the politically and racially tainted work of 19th century European scholars, and because 20th century and current work is essentially a continuation of that work. Many of these academics claim that genetic tools show a lack of evidence for an “Aryan invasion”.

The pro-AIT Indologists generally believe that the other group have failed to answer certain archaeological and linguistic puzzles that surfaced during the 18th and 19th centuries. The anti-AIT group, they say, are not experts in archaeology or linguistics, which require careful and sustained study. They are merely dilettantes, and are thus unqualified and unable to comment on the more detailed issues. They also claim that the counter-theories advanced lack appropriate levels of academic rigour, and the anti-AIT group also tends to advance some its ideas through the press or the web as opposed to academic journals, leading to an erosion of their credibility within academic circles. And without satisfactory answers to the conundrums in the archaeological or linguistic record, one can’t simply rely on the genetic evidence to arrive at conclusions.

I’ve been reading a bunch of random online pages on this debate, and it appears that both sides have much going for their arguments. It’s pretty clear that both are very wedded to their viewpoints. The academically-heavy pro-AIT groups seems to lose its neutrality when it comes to this topic. On the other side, with the anti-AIT lobby, you have to cull out large numbers of laymen who believe their opinion has the same levels of validity as that of the academics. (This may actually be true, but if so we need an academic process to ascertain it.) Both groups acknowledge that there is some truth in the other group’s accusations, but nevertheless believe they know best.

For the interested layman (like me), it’s hard to be sure that even one argument is valid on either side. For example, the neutrally-named Archaeology Online seems to be a vehicle for the anti-AIT lobby. This is not to say the arguments there are not valid, but there is a little bit of pro-AIT bashing on the website. It also appears that some papers that seem to support the AIT are not reported on that website. On the other hand, it is hard to believe the pro-AIT lobby is neutral. There seems to be some of the usual “greatness of the West” stance in their general attitude, and since they exert total control over the academic old boy networks, it is hard to see how an anti-AIT thinker could break into their domains. They also tend to issue blanket dismissals of the anti-AIT lobby from time to time.

I’ve come across what I think is a rather balanced and important book on the archaeological and linguistic aspects of this topic: “The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture” by Edwin Bryant. Bryant’s thesis is that there should be a balance, and that viewpoints from both sides should be presented, as long as they meet some basic standards of academic discourse. I haven’t got too far into the book: about 60 of 300 pages. I think it’s a hugely important book because of its balance. The overall conclusion seems to be that, in truth, we don’t know whether there was an Aryan invasion, and barring some major new finds in primary evidence, we will never know.

So, perhaps all of the theories propounded today express the fond wishes of the theorist rather than the truth.

The Virga Series by Karl Schroeder

Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on August 30, 2010

It’s certainly not deliberate, but I tend to read similar science fiction novels at around the same time.  Perhaps it’s because of the kinds of searches I do to try to find interesting books.  My latest excursions have been the Virga series by Karl Schroeder, and the Ragamuffin-Crystal Rain series by Tobias Bucknell.  This post is about the former series.

You can classify sci-fi writing in various ways.  The subject matter can be described using overlapping subgenres like steampunk, cyberpunk, space opera, post-apocalyptic, humour and alien encounters.   Hard and soft science fiction refer to the scientific plausibility.   One of the less-popular genres is that of world-building.  There are several good books in this genre.  Clarke’s Rama, Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia, Niven’s Ringworld are among those I’ve read.  Right up there with the best of hard world-building sci fi is Karl Schroeder’s Virga series, which has a bit of many of the genres described above mixed in.

I’ve read the first four of the Virga books.  I’ll completely avoid describing the world that Schroeder built.  Here’s why.  When I read the first novel, Sun of Suns, I had no background on the Virga universe. This led to a great deal of confusion initially, since the laws and functioning of the world were unusual and unknown.  Clarity came slowly, with an understanding of the physics and laws of Virga. Concepts that seemed odd, unlikely or silly began to make perfect sense.  This is quite common in many science fiction books, and it adds a lot to the experience.  I’d recommend that anyone else planning to read the books in this series approach it the same way: don’t read too many reviews, just go by the rating on Amazon etc. if you need to be convinced that it’s a good sci-fi series, and plunge in. It’ll be an interesting ride.

One of the things I’ve been lamenting in recent sci-fi is the sacrifice of storytelling on the altar of ideation. A lot of recent authors have brilliant ideas, but their novels feel simply like vehicles for outpourings of their ideas. Storytelling seems cursory and irrelevant. Stories are wrapped up without a real ending, seemingly either because an editor somewhere decides they are getting too long, or the author finished conveying his ideas and was too bored to bother with any more work. The Virga novels don’t suffer from this. They’re well-plotted.  The story in these books hurtles forward in a series of action-filled, high-energy encounters that take place in amazingly innovative scenarios.  The science supports the story.  The little details add to the atmosphere, and don’t distract from it.  Overall, these stories have pretty good pacing.  There are occasional stutters: pacing can be a tad inconsistent, and they have a few dead spots where the story drags. But this only happens occasionally.

The true reward in reading these books is the world that Schroeder has created. Starting from the basic premise of a devolved society in a world without gravity (why such a world would exist is explained in the course of the series), Schroeder uses nothing more than the laws of physics and his imagination to come up with plausible ideas for human artifacts and societies that are quaint and whimsical yet solidly grounded in science; swashbuckling and rollicking yet paying great attention to detail.  Elements of steampunk and high seas pirate adventures are mixed in very holistically; all of the various aspects quite obviously flow from Schroeder’s fundamental premises. At no point did I feel that a notion or an idea that was in spirit different from the rest was tacked on.

The four books don’t tell a single story, although they should be read in order.  They have a common feel, but are slightly different in the type of story they tell.  The first one is a bit of an introduction: it describes the emotional and cultural gestalt of the world and culminates in an event that sets the stage for events in the rest of the books. The second book, Queen of Candesce, is the fastest paced (and to me, the most enjoyable) of the lot, with a little bit of political intrigue. The third book was slightly uneven, although it had some soaringly creative highlights. The fourth is the most daring book, providing Final Explanations of various things that go on in Virga, and even — for the first time — leaving Virga entirely.

Highly recommended!

America’s Independence Day Gift to India!

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on August 14, 2010

Just before India celebrated its 63rd Independence Day, America had a gift for India.

The gift is summed up in various articles, for example here.  America will hike visa fees for companies with a high proportion of Indian employees.  Only companies with Indian employees, not any other country, so it’s a gift intended solely for India.  Thanks, America!

For some peculiar reason, Indian companies are displeased with this gift. Don’t we know we shouldn’t look at a gift horse in the mouth?  We should be happy.  President Obama explained that he welcomed the passage of the bill.  In a separate statement, he praised India for being a beacon of hope to people all around the world!  That should make us doubly happy, for everyone knows that what Indians crave the most is a little bit of praise.

American Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano expressed logical reasons why Indians should be pleased with the gift. Basically, America, being such a poor country, has no money to defend its Southern border from the nefarious expansionist designs of Mexicans.  Hence America thought of forcing India, since it is so rich, to pay for protecting America.  To compare the horrendous poverty of America with the fabulous riches of India, look at this graphic from Wikipedia.  If you prefer visual media to get an idea of how much disposable income Indians have to spend on protecting American borders, watch Peepli Live, (which of course is a copy of at least 4 American films, all of which are perfectly original, and as the reviewer points out Peepli Live would only be enjoyed by unsophisticated Indian audiences).

Some Indians were found asking, foolishly, what the protection of America’s Southern border has to do with India, and why Indians should be paying to protect Americans from Mexicans.  But they are simply discontents and should be happy they have the opportunity to serve America’s interests!

Good Dictators

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on August 2, 2010

It is a peculiar feature of Indian democracy that the people expect the government to act, not like elected representatives, but like benevolent kings.  If you look at what people seem to admire, it isn’t a propensity to stay within the limits set out by the constitution, self-limiting their own power.  This has been a characteristic of many Indian politicians who believe in procedure and democracy (S. M. Krishna, Chandrababu Naidu, Atal Behari Vajpayee).  But such politicians haven’t lasted.  What the people seem to admire is the tendency to use an initial election to grab onto power and step outside the limits of the constitution (Laloo Prasad Yadav, Jyoti Basu, Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Mayawati).  Such politicians have lasted far longer than the “good” ones who self-limit power.

There are many reasons for choosing a politician, some of which have more to do with immediate concerns than any grand theme.  But if we grant that the pattern above is real, it’s interesting to speculate why.

First, the voting masses actually admire this kind of power-grabbing.  Those who eschew such power grabs are viewed as weak.  That is understandable from a base point of view: why would someone not grab power if they could?  Finer ideas like checks and balances and democratic propriety don’t make much sense in a dog-eat-dog world.  From this point of view, a king should act like a king, not like a sarkari naukar.

Second, the masses expect to be given benevolent handouts once the people they voted for establish themselves as all-powerful maharajas/maharanis. (Think Sonia Gandhi visiting Amethi, thronged by worshipful subjects, bestowing her munificence as fancy takes her.)  This kind of “reward for our electoral loyalty” is an expectation across the masses.  These rewards are usually (though not always) not in terms of generally applicable legislation.  They are out-of-turn gifts bestowed in return for loyalty.

Of course these are not the only reasons; the voter is very aware of other intermediate-term benefits: revenge against an inimical social class, free power/food/credit, reservations, material gain as in land reforms, etc. These are usually granted more gradually and less gratuitously often through legislation. I’m talking about the type of person the voter wants to vote for, modulo factors such as these. In other words, who would the voter prefer, assuming they promised the same legislation?

The power-grabbing legislator is what I’ll call a dictator.  S/he is a dictator because s/he doesn’t believe the laws really apply to her/him. If s/he is kind to the constituencies that gave her votes, then s/he is good from the voter’s point of view. So the Indian voter’s electoral aspirations can be summed up as the desire to elect a good dictator.