Monday, May 31, 2010

Ancient beliefs, link to modernity

Sulabh Jain makes an interesting attempt to deal with the religions of Ancient India and Egypt and point to similarities between the two, writes RAJESH SINGH

(Published in The Pioneer dated May 30, 2010)

The Evolution of Religion:The History and Religions of Egypt and Harappan India
Author:Sulabh Jain
Publisher: Leadstart Publishing
Price: Rs 495

There has been of late a surge in the number of “non-specialist” authors tackling specialised subjects and exposing themselves to criticism, if not derision, by established experts. While there may be some merit in the criticism, the bright side is that such writings emerge as fresh and free from ideological baggage. The approach is novel and the writer willing to handle the material in a creative and imaginative, though not reckless, manner. The reader is the beneficiary in the process since he gets a new perspective with the broadened canvas.

Sulabh Jain, a computer professional with a passion for ancient history and mythology, must thus be congratulated for his brave attempt. He ventures into a territory that is not just specialised but super-specialised: He deals not only with religions of ancient India and Egypt but also seeks to establish a link between the two. Academics will no doubt dismiss the mere idea as preposterous; to be fair to the author, he too does not seek to place a seal of authority on his supposition. Yet, the material that he presents is tantalising enough for us to at least consider his theory that the religious beliefs and practices of the two ancient worlds had much in common and that there may have been some sort of religio-cultural “sharing” between their two peoples.

There are two other more internalised strands of thought that run through the book: The dating of the Rig Veda and the so-called Aryan invasion theory. One would have thought that, considering the fresh research, at least the latter should have become a dead subject. But there are still dominant voices that continue to endorse the invasion story, and they are influential enough to find their way in the world of academics — right from school textbooks to international seminars and research papers published worldwide.

While for Jain the two issues are apparently coincidental to the central theme of the book, they are of enormous interest to the expert and the lay reader alike, since they continue to be hotly debated with no settlement in sight. We shall concentrate on that for the moment here. Early in the book Jain tackles the contentious issue of dating the Vedas. Referring to the “traditional date” of 1500 BC, he says that “modern research has changed the widely held dates for the composition of the Veda’s (sic)...many scholars today believe that they have (sic) of a far more ancient origin.” The author goes on to use the river Saraswati example — incidentally the dating of the river’s drying up is turning out to be an important landmark in unravelling the mystery of not just the Vedic composition but also in revisiting long-held notions of the Harappan culture — to logically revise the first of the Veda, the Rig Veda composition. He says, apparently of the Rig Veda, “The river Saraswati is referred to (in the Rig Veda) as being the most powerful river in the region, but recent study shows that this river had dried out by approximately 1900 BC, before the end of the Harappan age. The Vedas could not possibly bear historical witness to a river that had dried out several centuries before the suggested date of their composition.”

The author cannot be faulted for concluding, “This and other evidence has pushed the date of the Vedas to a conservative 2000 BC, while some academics are brave enough to propose a far more ancient date in the range of 3000 BC-4000 BC. In either case early Hinduism must have had a considerable Harappan influence.” Jain is dismissive of the Aryan invasion theory even though he admits that the disappearance of the Harappan civilisation remains a “mystery.” He notes that the “growing consensus amongst historians today is that the Indo-Europeans of the Veda did not destroy the Harappan civilisation.”

He further observes, “There is almost nothing in the Vedas that supports the claim that the Aryans were foreign invaders of north India.” This is a valid point considering that the Rig Veda at least was a contemporary of the Harappan age. The ancient text, which is otherwise extremely detailed in its notings of virtually all (then) contemporary matters, does not talk of subjugating people, invasion or coercion.

Jain has his own theory for the “disappearance” of nearly “five million people” though by no means is it a novel one; quite a few historians have considered it. It is believed that they could have dispersed in various directions in the country in search of more hospitable conditions. However, as he further explores in the book, although the Harappan people may have disappeared from their original abode, their religious beliefs that were left behind in the ruins of what we should rightfully refer to as the Indus-Saraswati Civilisation, spread across the rest of the country with them.

For instance, he mentions, based on excavated material, “ seems clear that the Harappan people worshipped Shiva in a form that is very similar to today.” He is obviously referring to the “proto Shiva” figures discovered in the ruins. The proto Shiva has a yogic sitting posture with the phallus exposed. Also, there are two “drum like objects” supporting his seat. Today’s Shiva too has a similar posture, with the drum now in his hand. The phallus remains, like then, a symbol of energy and creation.

Jain makes an interesting observation about cow worship. He remarks, “The obsession with cow worship which is such a fundamental feature of modern Hinduism is not obvious in Harappan also seems to be absent in the Veda themselves.” The writer is obviously referring to the Rig Veda, since cow slaughter gets officially banned in another later Veda, the Atharva Veda. Anyway, Jain through this instance provides another proof that the Harappan people and the Vedic people co-existed, if they were not one and the same.

Of course, the principal aim of the book is to demonstrate a similarity between Harappan and ancient Egypt’s religious cultures. In Part Two of the book, Jain deals with what he considers “religious similarities”. Here, for a moment, we need to consider that for a large part Harappan and Hindu religions are synonymous. Both being polytheistic in nature, they have a pantheon of deities, male and female. If the Egyptians have Atum — the ultimate power of the universe — the Hindus consider Brahma as the creator. “The creator gods Brahma and Atum were both created by a combination of flowers, birds and eggs as symbols of their adaptability towards the universal elements,” notes the author.

He then talks of the phonetic similarity between the Indian Surya and the Egyptian Ra and the fact that both engaged in an epic battle with serpent agitators. “The battles of Ra with Apophis, and Surya with Rahu/Ketu are so similar that it could only result from a common source,” he contends. Jain goes on to observe, “There are many details from Hindu and Egyptian sources that suggest that Ra and Surya are one and the same god.” Of course, Apophis too compares with Rahu and Ketu.

Jain then zeroes in on the two foremost goddesses: Durga for the Hindus and Sekhmet for Egyptians. If the latter is lion-headed, Durga sits atop a lion. Both are symbols of power and authority, and they are called upon to deliver justice with a heavy hand when milder forms have failed. The author says, “…it appears that Sekhmet is a descendent of the Harappan Durga as there is a space of a few centuries between the first recordings of a Harappan Durga and the first mention of the Egyptian Sekhmet. There can be little doubt that these two goddesses…are actually the same deity represented by two different cultures.”

Interesting as these and other similarities are, from the lay Indian reader’s point of view, perhaps the author’s take on the Harappan civilisation vis-a-vis the Vedas and the river Saraswati is more engaging.

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