…Continued from Part I
The Brahmin Protagonists? Or is it Antagonists?
While many Indologists expounded at length about the flexibility of the Hindu belief system, and that Hinduism doesn’t have firm dogmas, they perceived the so called caste system as highly rigid. The doctrinal basis of this caste system was thought to be the Manava Dharma Sastra. Czech scholars have given a central role to the story of the four varnas emerging from Brahma, with the Brahmins emerging from the mouth of Brahma and the Sudras emerging from the feet. The Brahmins become the central protagonist, or antagonist of the story depending on how one looks at it. The Brahmins are thought to be the priestly caste who have used the above story found in the Purusha Sukta and Manava Dharma Sastra, to create the caste system and ideologically justify their place at the top of this system. Consequently, they used their position as ritual specialists to usurp spiritual power and enjoy privileges not enjoyed by the other castes. This is the standard story about the caste system found in most books about India and Hinduism.
Martin Farek points to a number of problems with this story. Firstly, the usage of the term ‘caste’ itself is ambiguous. It is used to refer to both varna and jati. Indologists usually think jatis as sub-castes or sub-divisions of varna. However, only in certain cases does a particular jati connect itself to a varna. Secondly, how could the Brahmins have established and maintained the caste system? Some sort of centralized pan-Indian organization, akin to the Church in Europe, would have been necessary to impose the caste system throughout India. No Brahmin group in India had such a system. In fact, the Czech Indologist Zbavitel contradicts himself when he writes about the Brahmins and the caste system. On the one hand, he claims that Brahmins had the power to survey the entire Indian society and make sure they didn’t stray from the caste laws. On the other hand, he also claims that “the decision-making power in caste disputes does not lie with the Brahmins, as might be deduced from all that has been said about the unshakeable authority of Brahmins in Indian society from Antiquity up to the modern period”. The third problem with the story about the caste system is the idea that Brahmins are the priesthood of Indian society. There is abundant evidence that Brahmins had no monopoly on the performance of rituals. Many or most jatis have purohits from their own jati performing their rituals. Many temples have non-Brahmin purohits in charge of their rituals. In addition, Brahmins engaged and continue to engage in multiple occupations. Thus, Prof. Farek shows in the second chapter of his book, that there is no central authority governing the caste system; there is no unified Hindu doctrine; and the supposed creators of the caste system (the Brahmins) are powerless to enforce their precepts!!
Despite the lack of and counter-evidence facing this story about Hinduism and the caste system, this story has persisted up to this day as a self-evident truth in the minds of most people when they think of India. This story includes the conceptualization of the shramana traditions as splinter sects that rebelled against the Brahmins and the caste system
Was Buddhism a Protest Against the Caste System?
After discussing Hinduism, Prof. Farek spends the middle portion of the second chapter discussing the Western construction of Buddhism as a religion, and its conceptualization as a protest movement against the caste system. The author by discussing the debate within Czech Indology over whether or not Buddhism was a religion focuses on whether or not Buddhism recognized the existence of God and the soul. Farek uses the example of two prominent Czech scholars of Buddhism, Vincenc Lesny and Vladimir Miltner,to demonstrate how both sides of the debate shared a set of assumptions about Buddhism. Even though both scholars disagreed on whether or not Buddhism accepted the doctrine of God and soul, they both considered the question of God and soul important to Buddhist thought. They also claimed that the law of karma was the central tenet of Buddhism, derived from the Upanishads.
Just as he did with the Orientalist conception of Hinduism, Martin Farek points to a number of problems with describing Buddhism as a religion. Firstly, how can the Upanishads be the central doctrine of Buddhism, when the teachings of the Upanishads about atman and brahman would be incompatible with early Buddhism? Even more fundamentally, what makes the Upanishads into a doctrine? How do we know that the Buddhist traditions even had a concept of God and soul, much less reject them? Prof. Farek also presents counter evidence to the Orientalist account of Buddhism being a revolt against the caste system.
If Buddhism was indeed a revolt against the caste system, one would expect to find severe criticism of Brahmins, dismissal of Brahmins’ role in society, and a wholesale rejection of varnas and jatis as social units. However, Farek shows that this is not the case. He quotes verses from the Dhammapada and the Agannasutta which not only show that the term Brahmin is synonymous with a wise and liberated individual, but that the four varnas ”arose in a proper manner, in accordance with dhamma”. Therefore, ”Buddha presupposes the existence of the social system of four varnas, considering it established in accordance with dharma”.
Thus, Prof. Farek presents evidence that shows how untenable, inconsistent and vague, are the claims of Czech and other European Indologists about Hinduism and Buddhism being unified religions with their own doctrines, sacred texts, and priestly class (in the case of Hinduism). Czech and international scholars keep repeating that Hinduism and Buddhism lack certain characteristics (dogmas, a common founder, a unified theology, a Church) and yet classify them as religions. Zbavitel explicitly states that Hinduism lacks firm dogmas and doctrines. And yet, these Czech Indologists keep searching for and writing about the so called Hindu doctrines. Why? Why are these Indologists compelled to see these traditions as religions and look for their doctrines despite evidence to the contrary? According to Prof. Farek, it is the theoretical framework they are operating under, whether consciously or unconsciously, namely, Christian theology. The author uses the domains of language and historiography to analyse the nature of this framework, and the manner in which it structures the European experience of India. Firstly, he demonstrates the extent to which European languages (in this case, English) are saturated with theological vocabulary. Secondly, he examines the role played by Christian theology in shaping European historiography. In both the second and third chapters of his book (especially the third) Prof. Farek traces in detail, the concepts and ideas that went into forming the Biblical view of human history, which in turn played an instrumental role in shaping the Western view of Indian history and religion.
The Theological Vocabulary of the English Language
Most Indians, even those who are fluent in English, aren’t aware of the extent to which the English language is soaked with theological vocabulary; that many of the everyday terms we use (such as faith, God, worship) are derived from and deeply tied to Christian theology. Farek points out that scholars of Hinduism take for granted that categories such as God, scripture, and worship are universally valid. Thus, the linguistic barriers that Europeans had to overcome, was not merely searching for equivalent terms in natural language that are signifiers of everyday objects, such as water and milk. Words such as dharma, atman, and buddhi are technical terms within a theoretical metastructure, just as words such as God, soul, and salvation are technical terms within a Christian theological metastructure. One cannot translate terms within one theoretical metastructure using terms belonging to another, completely unrelated theoretical metastructure.
When Europeans arrived in India, they assumed they would find religion there because the Christian theological framework postulates that religion is a cultural universal. They assumed Vedic rituals were religious rituals. This leads to the ”uncritical absorption of non theological concepts into a theological framework” which distorts these concepts and makes them into something they are not. As a result, the Indian traditions are transformed into inferior variants of Christianity. The European scholars do not even consider that Indian culture neither has these theological concepts nor the objects that these concepts refer to. That is because they presuppose the existence of religion in India. This leads to the question, why did Europeans presuppose that Indian traditions were religions?
The Search for Primitive Monotheism
Martin Farek explains that the presupposition of religion comes from a Biblical scheme of universal history in which all nations received the true monotheistic religion from God through Noah and his sons. However, because of the sinful nature of human beings, this originally pure religion became corrupted into idolatry and polytheism. Biblical exegesis becomes the basis for Christian thought. According to the Bible, there are two sources of revelation: one is the Bible and the other is the created world, which includes human history. The will of God becomes the motor of human history, and God reveals himself through historical events. The advent of Jesus Christ was seen as a fundamental turning point in human history, in which God took upon himself the sins of humankind, and offered salvation and redemption for all of humankind.
Because of this theological framework, Europeans took it for granted that they would find paganism and idolatry in many parts of the world. The Europeans travelling to India expected two possibilities. Either one would find the original pure monotheism of Noah and his sons preserved there, or one would find a degenerate idolatrous form of the pure monotheism. The questions and descriptions of European missionaries and Orientalists were bounded and delimited within these two possibilities.
The conceptualization of the Indian traditions as religion was first formed by the works of British Orientalists such as John Z Holwell and William Jones. It was the British Orientalists who were the first to initiate the project of identifying the religious texts of Hinduism, They thought that the Vedas and the Sastras were the religious scriptures and laws of the Hindu religion. Within these scriptures, they hoped to find traces of the original primitive monotheism, which they believed had degenerated into the idolatry they called Hinduism. Thus, the project of identifying the religious texts of Hinduism was part of the larger project of discovering the original monotheism. The questions the original British Orientalists were grappling with were clearly theological questions:
”What did the original pure religion handed down by Noah’s progeny look like? What are the Indian doctrines? Is it the primeval monotheism or a degraded polytheism? If the latter, how did it degenerate? Do Indian “scriptures” confirm the stories of Genesis?”
The Orientalist J.Z. Holwell interprets the Indian traditions and its texts in Biblical terms. Holwell saw the Vedas as a divine revelation to Brahma, an angelic being. This revelation is then corrupted by the so called Brahmin priesthood, who invent and insert their own doctrines and rituals within the Vedas to usurp power and create a despotic regime. William Jones basically reproduced the same story. The goal of Jones’ research was to discover the original pure monotheism of humanity. Understanding Indian texts was a means to understanding the degeneration of the original religion of humanity. Martin Farek’s unique contribution in his study of the Orientalists’ search for the primeval monotheism, is that he shows how the attempt to trace the degeneration of the original monotheism in India lead to the invention of the conceptual entities of Vedism, Brahmanism, and Hinduism.
The Orientalist Horace Hayman Wilson came up with the idea of three forms of Indian religion, corresponding to the three stages of the degeneration of primeval monotheism. The first was the Vedic religion, which, according to Wilson, was the closest to monotheism. The second stage of religious development or degeneration was the worship of mythological heroes such as Rama and Krishna. The third stage was the rise of pantheism, represented by the Puranas. These three stages were later revised into the chronology of the three Indian religions: Vedism, followed by Brahmanism, followed by Hinduism. The Brahmin priesthood were blamed for corrupting the pure monotheism of the Vedas. This story of the corrupt Brahmin priesthood corresponds rather well to the Protestant polemics against the Catholic clergy. The Protestant reformers accused the clergy of inventing idolatrous practices and laws in order to bolster their power and privilege. Since the British Orientalists by and large came from a Protestant background, the anticlericalism of the Reformation certainly shaped their view of the so called Brahmin priesthood. Taken together, the story about the degeneration of primitive monotheism, and the role played by the Brahmin priests in the degeneration was fitted into the scheme of universal Biblical history, the post-diluvian dispersal of nations. This brings us to chapter three of the book, and the role of European historiography in understanding the Indian past.
In my opinion, chapter three, ”Religion, Histriography, and the Indian Past”, is the meat of Martin Farek’s book. As a historian by training, this chapter is his unique contribution to the Comparative Science of Cultures research program. In this chapter, he delves deeper into Christian historiography and how it determined the European understanding of Indian history and culture. The chapter covers two important topics. First, Prof. Farek gives an outline of how European historiography was primarily formed by theological thinking. Second, he demonstrates the influence of Christian theological thinking on the reconstruction of Indian history. In the process, the author shows how European historiography and its religious assumptions prevents one from accessing the Indian ways of connecting to the past.
Prof. Farek starts off the chapter by asking the question, ”What did Christian theology bequeath to European historiography?” Christian theology created a universal history, a global chronicle that arose from the Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. It transformed the history of the Jewish tribes as detailed in the Old Testament, into the history of the human race that was to expect the advent of their only saviour – Jesus Christ. The whole of human history was conceived of a struggle between good and evil, between the forces of God and the minions of the devil, between the true religion and idolatry (which included all non-Christian pagan cultures and their traditions). The expectation of Christ’s second coming and the end of the world within Christian eschatology became the basis for a linear concept of time. The Church fathers accomplished the extraordinary achievement of connecting the events of various regions into a universal chronology. However, identifying and dating events was not the goal. After all, it was the will of God or divine providence that connects these events together and gives them meaning. One had to be able to interpret the God’s intention/plan from these events. There are a number of key features that defined Christian historiography, and they all interrelate to one another:
1) The first is the concept of Prepaeratio Evangelica which was introduced in the second chapter. Divine providence imbues different nations and their religions with rays of wisdom that anticipate their full development in Christ’s revelation. All the nations and religions of the were merely laying the foundation or red carpet for the advent of Christ.
2) Christianity created a new periodization of history in which history is divided into eras of specific character. Within each of these eras, each empire and nation has a specific role assigned to it by divine providence, with one empire or nation being the chosen nation, ruling over the rest. The succession of empires was seen as the cycle of chosen nations, and became an integral part of Christian historiography. The transfer of power through a succession of empires is encapsulated by the Latin term translatio imperii.
3) A related concept that ties into both prepaeratio evangelica and translatio imperii is accommodation. Accommodation refers to the idea that God gave people of a specific period only what corresponded to their intellectual and moral development. He would reveal more of his plan and law in the course of time according to the development of mankind.
4) This brings us to the idea of historical progression in which the divine plan of salvation is linked with the evolution of humanity. Divine providence provides history with a telos or end goal in which all of humanity evolves to the point of universal salvation.
All four concepts form an interconnected framework that is employed to make sense of past events. To this day, European thought has been shaped by Christian theology, which in turn has shaped historical theory. Secularized historiography has retained the basic structures of Christian thinking, whereby history is seen as a meaningful and goal directed process that involves all of humanity. The secularized idea of historical progress continue to retain such a strong hold in Western thought that it continues to saturate history and political science books and continues to determine how Western nations see themselves. Many political scientists continue to describe the twentieth century as the American century, and describe the world as progressing towards some sort of American style liberalism and capitalism. A prominent example of such a work was Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, which saw liberal capitalism as the telos of human history. Similarly, during the early part of the twentieth century, many Western intellectuals saw Communism as the telos of human history.
Global history and its periodization is still effectively identified with the history of Europe and its expansion overseas. A cursory look at the contemporary textbooks of history shows this fact well: They divide global history into prehistory, antiquity, the middle ages, and modernity, corresponding to the progress of the human race. Within this global human history, India and China are merely degenerate pagan cultures that are playing their role in God’s plan of universal history whose end point is the salvation of the human race through Christ.
European Histriography, Indian History, and the lack of Indian Histriography
The next question raised by Martin Farek was what impact did Christian historiography have on the study of India’s past?
William Jones is one of the Indologists that Prof. Farek discusses at length, regarding his study of Indian history. The questions William Jones raises about Indian history are clearly theological in nature. For example, Jones’ writings show that one of the impetuses behind studying ancient Sanskrit texts was to see how these texts reflected the earliest history of humanity as recorded in the Bible.He was hoping to fill in the details missing in the biblical account with the accounts found in the Puranas as long as they don’t contradict the Biblical account. Jones saw the Puranas as allegorical remnants of true memories of events described in the Bible. Manu was Noah. Jones related the Rama avatar with the settlement of Noah’s sons, and the first three avatars to the flood. The local narratives of native peoples’ past, including the Indian conception of time, were merely used to show the truthfulness of the Biblical. Everything that did not fit the Biblical framework of history was dismissed as myths and fables.
Another idea shared in common by both the secular and religious historiographies of India is the idea that Indian society and religion are frozen in time in a primitive stage of development. This idea appears to be grounded in the theological notions of accommodation and progress discussed earlier in the chapter. The primitive religion and philosophy of the Indians was suited to their stunted intellectual growth. It was up to the British to civilize the Indians and help them progress towards true civilization and religion. The German philosopher Hegel, for example, developed his conception of human history as the progress of the human spirit towards freedom. Indian philosophy was identical with religion at a certain stage of development. Hegel postulated a direct relationship between the state of consciousness, the supposed Indian religion, and “Oriental despotism”. In contrasting human freedom with “Oriental despotism,” Hegel builds up on earlier discussions of a theological nature.
The author concludes the chapter by contrasting historiography with the Indian way of accessing the past through stories. Both missionaries and Orientalists looked for and criticized Indian culture heavily for its lack of historiography and its penchant for inventing myths. To the Orientalists, the lack of historiography reflected India’s primitive stage of development. However, Martin Farek responds to this criticism by raising an important question: Why has the precise dating and chronology of events been so important to European culture and Christianity? In one sense, Christianity is history by its very nature. The Christian revelation comes in two forms, the Bible and the events happening in the world. It is fundamental for believing Christians that the events described in the Bible really occurred. As William Jones declared, either the events described in the first eleven chapters of Genesis are true, or the entire edifice of Christianity is false. While Christianity gives central importance to the factuality of Jesus Christ’s life, no such link has developed in Indian traditions. Whether Rama actually lived, and the Ramayana really happened is irrelevant to the truth value of the Ramayana and the adhyatmic knowledge contained within. Hence, it would be wrong to describe Puranas and Itihasas as either myth or history. They are neither. The fundamental problem in Indology and Social Sciences is that these disciplines operate under a framework in which history is seen as the only legitimate way of understanding the past. This prevents us from understanding and appreciating the Indian way of accessing the past.
Aryan Invasion Theory
In the fourth chapter of the book, Martin Farek examines the controversial Aryan migration/invasion theory, and how Christian historiography becomes the fundamental premise on which this theory is built. The by now classical Aryan invasion theory says that between 2000and 1500 BC nomadic tribes invaded or migrated into India. They are defined by a common language, Sanskrit, and a common religion, the Vedic religion. They are supposed to have created the caste system, and absorbed the indigenous Indian population into the caste system as Sudras and Pariahs. The linguistic relationship between Sanskrit and the European languages led to the hypothesis that Sanskrit, or the ancestral language of Sanskrit, emerged from outside India.
A common erroneous perception is that the discovery of the Indo-European language family by William Jones was the genesis of the Aryan invasion. However, Jones was not interested in linguistic research for its own sake, but was interested in discovering the primordial human nation, its religion and culture. Jones’ comparative research not only included language, but also religion, philosophy and architecture. Through such a comparative research, Jones hoped to discover the original pure religion of humankind. Such research was also aimed at tracing the movements of the descendants of Noah, whom Jones believed were the progenitors of all human nations.
The Belgian researcher Marianne Keppens made some important observations that furthered the analysis of the Aryan invasion theory. Firstly, the idea there was an invasion of the Indian subcontinent by a foreign Brahmanical tribe preceded the discovery of both the Indo-European language family as well as the Dravidian language family. The Brahmins thought of as a priestly tribe, similar to the Levites of the Jews. The dvijas, or twice-born varnas were thought of as the tribes of the Aryan nation, similar to the twelve tribes of Israel. The Sudras were thought of as the indigenous people of India who were absorbed into the caste system as the lowest caste.
In conclusion, the Aryan invasion theory is rooted in theological ideas that presuppose the universal truth of the Biblical accounts. These ideas were further supplemented with racial theories of physical anthropology. Prof. Farek ends the fourth chapter by emphasizing that the skeletal and archaeological evidence does not provided evidence of any large scale invasion or migration around the time period the Aryans are supposed to have started encroaching into India.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy
Martin Farek concludes his book with a chapter on Raja Ram Mohan Roy. At this point, readers might be puzzled as to why a book about how Europeans viewed India has a chapter on Raja Ram Mohan Roy. As we shall see, this chapter answers a question I posed at the beginning of the review: Why should Indians care how India appears in the eyes of Europeans?
Raja Ram Mohan Roy was a nineteenth century Bengali reformer who wanted to take Hinduism back to its so called monotheistic roots. He rejected the traditional Hindu practices and rituals, including the veneration of devas and devis, as the degeneration of the original Vedic monotheism. At the surface, Raja Ram Mohan Roy seems completely steeped in the European cultural framework, and the way it viewed Indian religion. He wrote about the ”theology of Hinduism”, ”Hindu theism” etc. Prof. Farek raises the important question, did Raja Ram Mohan Roy really understand the Western conceptual framework of religion? Prof. Farek shows that he does not. Nevertheless, Farek proposes that his misunderstanding of, and subsequent distortion of the Western cultural framework gives us insights into the traditional Indian framework that Roy was still deeply rooted in.
As mentioned, Roy accepted the Western explanation of the Hindu religion being originally monotheistic. He also accepts that the devas and devis were originally natural forces that were turned into gods by the people. At the same time, his writings show a lack of understanding of the Christian theological framework. His understanding of the concept of idolatry illustrates this lack of understanding. He considered idol worship acceptable for people with limited understanding of the divine, and those who didn’t have the intellectual capacity to grasp the divine. But those who are not qualified for monotheistic worship can gradually purify their minds through the worship of images according to Roy. This completely flies in the face of the Christian notion of idolatry as the most egregious sin and the source of immorality. Idolatry was the worship of false gods instead of the true God. It is the act of worshipping the creation instead of the creator and can only lead to the eternal damnation of the idolater.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s distortion of the concept of idolatry gives us insight into the traditional Indian framework he was operating under. By idolatry, he means traditional ritual practices like puja and abhisheka. Worship for Roy meant a variety of practices directed towards either a deity or the supreme brahman. His differentiation of the different kind of worshippers make sense within this framework. Different rituals and meditative practices are suitable for different kinds of people.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy serves as a great exemplar of the typical colonial and post-colonial Indian. The modern education system in India reproduces the colonizers’ description of our culture, as though they constitute facts or knowledge about our culture. All they end up reproducing is one culture’s experience of another culture. The modern Indian has accepted these descriptions as true, with little to no understanding of the cultural framework that produced these descriptions. As a result, the European description of Indian culture, as well as the framework that produced these descriptions, prevents Indians from accessing their native cultural experience.
With this book, Prof. Martin Farek has produced an extraordinary product of intellectual labour. He has done a systematic, cogent analysis of the European cultural framework, and how it structured the European experience of India. As a part of his analysis, Prof. Farek produces clear, well-reasoned arguments that show how Christian theology provides the foundation for the European cultural framework. The implication of this finding is that the European descriptions of Indian culture are not scientific, veridical descriptions, but rather one culture’s experience of another culture. Farek also produces strong counter evidence to the claims of the European Indologists and Orientalists that have been accepted as truisms by most of the academics as well as the general public. In the process, he also displays his erudition as a scholar as he relies on multiple texts and sources from a variety of different scholars working within a variety of disciplines.
This is an important book not just for scholars of Indology and South Asian studies, but also the general Indian public. The Orientalists’ descriptions of Indian culture become the planks on which the Indian state has devised its policies for the governance of Indian society since independence. In order to effectively challenge those policies, it is important for us to understand the framework that produced those descriptions in the first place. More importantly, the modern Indian has accepted the Western descriptions of his or her society as true, without understanding the framework behind these descriptions. The European descriptions of India become occluding structures, that prevent Indians from accessing their own cultural experience. Hence, it becomes important for Indians to understand the Western cultural framework, and how that framework produced descriptions of Indian culture and society that are accepted as facts today.
FÁREK, Martin. India in the Eyes of Europeans Conceptualization of Religion in Theology and Oriental Studies. Prague: Karolinum Press, 2022..
FÁREK, Martin. India in the Eyes of Europeans Conceptualization of Religion in Theology and Oriental Studies. Prague: Karolinum Press, 2022, p. 62.
Ibid., p. 73.
Ibid., p. 80.
Ibid., s. 91.
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