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Anthony Galli ([email protected]) has a degree in psychology, with experience in mental health and education. He currently works for a non-profit corporation. His personal website can be accessed at:

Incredible India

A Review of 'Aryan Patriarchy and Dravidian Matriarchy'

Anthony Galli

I keep thinking of that line from the Godfather III – “Every time I think I’m out, they keep pulling me back in!” Honestly, I’m not big on polemics. I feel it’s better to soberly assess issues without being flippant or petty. I prefer to err on the side of formalism in order to preserve fairness and civility. Alas, we all slip from time to time. Personally, I think Harris is a sharp guy and I agree with him more often than not. In fact, I would recommend many of his writings to beginners in the topics that he covers. My own research, limited as it is, has confirmed his findings, which is one reason I take his writings so seriously. I even find him witty at times. What I take issue with, more than anything else, is a style full of exaggeration and invective. He even seems to get conspiratorial at times. I get the feeling that his essay on Hinduism "Aryan Patriarchy and Dravidian Matriarchy" was yet another attempt to stir up a little controversy in order to provoke a debate.

My own tendency is to speak up for those insulted by a discourse based on simplistic generalizations. To quote Spinoza – “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail nor to scorn human actions, but to understand them.” I’m well aware that this can be hazardous to the necessary tasks of accountability and justice. If it’s not obvious already, I should mention that, politically, I have a hands-off approach to religion; it is so intertwined with culture that I do not think that it can stamped out entirely without disrupting the fabric of society in a regressive manner. When it comes to specific human rights issues (and as my previous essay shows, I include the environment as one of them) I think they can be tackled independently without completely dismantling religion as a whole. Reform is not the same as rejection. If history is any guide, religion is, for better or worse, here to stay. Anthropology shows that religious artifacts are nearly as old as utilitarian tools. Religion morphs and adapts with its followers; it is not some foreign invasion on the human species.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from scholars of Indic civilization, it is how difficult it is to unravel fact from legend. In the past few hundred years, the academic study of India in the West has been afflicted by idealization and condescension. Perhaps this was inevitable. Though I have several problems with Said’s “orientalism” critique, it is not without merit. Unequal power relationships between different countries, nations, and civilizations do distort perspectives.

Harris relies a lot upon lesbian writers in order to facilitate a more progressive assessment of Indian history. I don’t why a writer’s sexuality is relevant in this discussion. Perhaps I’ll taken more seriously in this regard if I point out that one of my previous pieces on Christianity ended with a quote by a homosexual Christian mystic. Maybe if I cite Arundhati Roy or Chakravorty Spivak, I’ll earn more street cred among Neo-Marxists.

Of course, it’s not like Harris is a slave to the Neo-Marxist perspective. Indeed, he chides progressives for having a double-standard when it comes to India’s attitude towards Muslims. This is a straw-man argument. To claim that India had a right to break free from the British Empire does not contradict the claim that there have sometimes been abuses toward minorities after she won independence. I am not morally equivocating the Indian government, a modern democracy, flawed as she is, with more vicious regimes in her neighborhood, such as Iran, Pakistan, or China.

The plea that the Hindu Right is just trying to fight imperialism plays right into the hands of politicians who exploit genuine fears about radicals for their own gain. Indian Muslims, many of whom are poor, illiterate, and have little social power, are useful a voting block for Islamists who are imperialistic; hard-liners with more allegiance to Riyadh than New Delhi. But the mere presence of Muslim citizens in India is not blight on its formerly pristine culture. There are over 100 million Muslims in India, and many of them are proud of their home country. If they were all imperialists, the amount of tension we see now would pale in comparison. India’s strength lies in the fact that she has shared her land with so many different peoples for millennia, and there is nothing pristine about xenophobia. Remember, Muslims are not the only targets of the Hindu Right.

I’ve already addressed this in another essay, but it’s worth reiterating that Islam was in India before Muslim conquests. Indians who converted to Islam did so for a variety of reasons: some Brahmins and Rajputs, as Harris points out, were opportunists and married into ruling families, some were attracted to Sufism, which meshed with some of the Bakti and yogic traditions, some of them liked Islam’s teachings, particularly Vishnavas, and some converted to relieve burdens caused by the Muslim rulers who imposed a jizya tax on dhimmis (it should be pointed out that most of them adopted India’s attitude towards religious pluralism, but not all). The claim that Hindus “always” resisted Islam is overblown. I surmise that the rise of Hindutva has less to do with Hinduism the religion, which Harris admits is a problematic term when defined in the singular, but is a form of modern nationalism. India is trying to work out its identity after centuries of domination.

I won’t challenge Harris’ account of the extent of Muslim human rights abuses in Kashmir. I feel no sympathy for the sick jihadi thugs who are destroying this beautiful land. But he’s downplayed the role that Indian/Hindu human rights abuses have played. For example, there have been incidents where Indian soldiers have opened fire on peaceful demonstrations, according to some, killing up to a thousand civilians. This goes beyond defensive crowd control methods. Another example would be the divisive antics of parties like the Shiv Sena, VHP, and BJP. I understand the appeal of RSS parties, especially in the face of mass poverty, Christian evangelism, and radical Islamists, but it’s apparent that whatever good intentions they may have started with, they’ve essentially no different from other hate groups (the KKK also started as a charitable organization to look after the interests of widows, war veterans, and the working class poor). In order for avoid being vulnerable to proselytes, India needs to do a better job empowering Dhalits, as its constitution supports, and move away from caste-ism. Marxists have also been problematic and can be equally exploitative in this regard.

Back to Kashmir, any comprehensive analysis should take note of the fact that most Kashmiris at the time of the partition were Muslims. Harris seems to find this unsettling. If only India has successfully gotten rid of the last remnants of their historical conquerors right after the partition, Kashmir could now be experiencing a renaissance by embracing its pre-Islamic past, much like how the European renaissance embraced its pre-Christian Greco-Roman heritage. That’s possible. Actually, the most violent conquests of Kashmir were made by pre-Islamic conquerors. Mahmud of Ghazni plundered northern India and destroyed much in his path, but as far as I know he did not raid Kashmir proper. True, Muslim rulers in Kashmir have a mixed record. It’s worth pointing out that after the Durrani Empire, it the Sikhs who were in charge, not Muslims, and it was the British who altered the demographics thereafter. Prior to this, Kashmir was known as a land of tolerance.

The fact is that after independence and partition, the majority of Kashmiris expressed the wish to either join Pakistan or exercise their right for a plebiscite. The UN has supported the latter contention. Pakistan claims that the annexation of Jammu and Kashmir, where approximately 4/5 of the population was Muslim, violated the 1947 Independence Act. This happened after the controversial transfer of Gurdaspur to India. India claims the acquisition of this territory was legal and has a document to prove it. Obviously, Kashmir is a very intricate case, but it clearly started as a border dispute between two nations over a strategically important region. Religious identity is certainly a major factor, but not the only one.

Indeed, Harris overemphasizes the role that religion plays in these conflicts. The dispute over the Sianchen glacier is about the control of resources. The unrest in Assam, Nepal, Sri Lanka, or Nagaland is more about ethnic tension more than anything else. How about Bangladesh, where over a million died in1971 as East Pakistan fought for independence? Surely, two Sunni-majority Muslim states didn’t have religion as their motivation to go to war, as it can be more properly attributed to Yahya Khan’s power grab and the grievances of Bengalis towards the Punjabi elite in Islamabad.

Perhaps he feels that if it weren’t for Islam, Hinduism could have evolved in a healthier direction and would’ve eventually overcome the negative influences of the Aryans. Unlike ancient Hellas, he doesn’t view Hinduism itself as a paragon of civilizations, but basically an intermingling of populations that resulted in a culture of “religious schizophrenia.” His argument hinges on his study of Tantra, which he holds to be the pure spiritual current running through India. His view is also influenced by his atheism, in the classical sense of the word, as in a theological refutation of a single god who creates or controls the universe, rather than its modern connotation of a materialist worldview. Hinduism has many flavors – animism, polytheism, monolatry, monism, etc. That’s why it’s so interesting, for here is a place where different religious perspectives evolved side by side. Taking God out of nature is, well… natural. Once natural forces are personified, it’s only logical that eventually people will posit different gods in control them, which already puts divinity a step away from nature. After that, it’s just another logical step towards monotheism, exclusive or not. Monotheism certainly has a dark side, but it is not an unnatural aberration.

I recall in another essay that Harris interprets the Buddha’s famous gesture of touching the earth as a witness to his enlightenment as meaning that divinity is embedded within nature. He may be right, but I don’t know any Buddhist who agrees with him. Mahayana has a rich and varied cosmology involving different realms, and even Theravada, which generally eschews metaphysics, teaches that there are over 30 different planes of existence beside the embodied existence of humans and animals. As I understand it, the Buddha’s gesture was not a celebration of samsara, nor was it some type of nature reverence (this should not be read as a slight towards Neo-Paganism). One interpretation of this story is that by “earth,” he meant the ever-present Buddha-nature as a witness, rather than the demon Mara (or ego). He was also referring to the potential of all sentient beings to awaken. An exception to these views would be Chan or Zen, in which the division between samsara and nirvana is transcended. This is represented by the 10 Ox-herding diagrams, the last one showing that enlightenment is found in this very world of time, duality, and mundane existence. Even in this case, non-dualism only makes sense if it is initially felt that there are two separate realities. From what Zennists report, one can experience several satoris, super-mundane in nature, before kensho matures.

Where we both agree is that Aryans did significantly affect the culture of the subcontinent, even if it did not necessarily involve large-scale invasions. My estimation of it is this intermingling is that it was unitive as well as divisive. Consider the fourth book of the Samhitas, the Atharva Veda, which contains the famous Gayatri mantra. There is a clear tantric influence on this sacred text. Indeed, India has a well-deserved reputation for its genius for religious sophistication. To say that Aryans manipulated Indian religion, as opposed to just saying that those in power were corrupted, as power tends to do, strikes me as overly essentialist view of history, as though Aryans are not a legitimate part of India, and the pre-Aryan Dravidians were “always” there. They may have been there first, which from our modern sense of ethics gives them moral sovereignty over invaders, but they too came there at some point; they did not spring forth whole from the soil. If we were to accept that, we would have to accept a mythological-literalist perspective, and at any rate, Aryans themselves can, often do, claim that they were “always” there as well.

So why does India have so many problems? Does India even have more problems than your average developing country? Human social structures evolved from hunter-gatherer, to pastoral or horticultural, to agrarian societies, and there are negative by-products associated with each arrangement. There is no perfect model of social grouping. Feudalism, used in a broad sense (as opposed to the specific use of the term describing the conditions of medieval Europe) is found among agricultural empires. The same is true with slavery. It might not be inevitable, but there is a rather close correlation beyond agrarianism and inequality. How do we know that, in time, Dravidians would not have come up with their own forms of discrimination?

This begs some more questions. Was matriarchal India a utopia lacking in sexual hang-ups, social injustice, or intolerance? Is it really true that temple prostitutes originally had absolute freedom over what lover they could choose? Was there not social coercion into this occupation? (Before it became institutionalized). Is a return to mass Goddess worship the key to ending misogyny in Indian culture? I cannot provide a definite answer to these questions. There are scholars who think that in early Vedic, that is Aryan, culture women were the equals of men. (See: Nanditha Krishna, "The Equals of Man", Newindpress on Sunday)

It’s worth noting that the infamous Manusmriti does not have the same status as the Vedas in Hinduism. I’m the last person to defend the caste system, any more than I would shar‘ia, the Holy Roman Empire, or Old Testament law. Without question there have been victims and abusers in history, but singling out broad categories of human beings, particularly racial ones, to blame for all of this is not integral. Whatever the solution may be, it should come from Indians themselves.

I can overlook most of these issues because, for the most part, this is territory he’s already covered. What stood out in this particular essay is the suggestion that happiness for happiness sake is the primary reason we should take up meditation. This lacks context. There’s a reason meditative spiritual paths have a strong ethical component. The Buddha did not set out the rules of the vinaya all at once; they gradually accumulated as his sangha encountered different situations which necessitated a practical solution. The general consensus in Asia seems to be that in order for the benefits of meditation to stick, it requires a certain type of lifestyle. It’s no mistake that Patanjali made yamas (restrictions) and niyamas (observances) the beginning of his eightfold path. In an evolutionary sense, the ability to mentally focus on an object for long stretches of time may be related to an instinctive tracking ability used in predation, so the skill of enhanced concentration, per se, is not necessarily a “spiritual” skill. What matters is the right knowledge that meditation leads to, whether it’s vipassana as Buddhism defines it, or samadhi in the Hindu Yoga tradition (Purusha, Atman/Brahman).

Pleasure in itself is neither good nor bad (it certainly feels good, and has adaptive value in nature) but a philosophy that announces pleasure as the highest good strikes me as a trapdoor that promises but never delivers. As long as people continue to play the game, they should have the right to do so, given reasonable limits. Taoist romanticism is no exception. It was balanced by a well-established Confucianism in China, and later by Buddhism. That’s why it worked. I don’t buy this notion that sexual repression necessarily leads to evil. Repression can lead to neuroticism, which is psychologically unhealthy, but I know of no evidence that neurosis leads to mass murder. There have been plenty of sexual virile tyrants in the world. Sublimation, or conscious (re)direction, is what I consider a healthy use to raw desire.

Perhaps I just understand Tantra differently than Harris. To me, Tantra is not about sexual titillation. It is a powerful method of Self-realization. Alchemy would be a good metaphor. Tantra includes sexual rituals, and in isolation, these practices can help bring couples closer together, but traditionally there was a larger purpose. Tantra works with energy, transforming passion into compassion, anger into wisdom, sadness into empathy, etc. To use Vajrayana as an example, ritual visualizations and movements harness all forces latent within the Bodhisattva for the purpose of reaching Buddhahood as quickly as possible, for the sake of all beings. According to David Frawley, most tantric practitioners are actually celibate, though you wouldn’t know it going by what you see in the popular media. If you use a search engine and type in, say, “samaya tantra,” you’ll find very little information, but just type in “tantra” and you’ll be inundated with crap. And as far as the left-hand path is concerned, it should be pointed out that it not only involved transgressing strict caste taboos, but also included intoxication, necrophilia, coprophilia, cannibalism, and magic (not something like White Magick, but the type aimed at procuring powers). Maybe those prudish Aryans had reservations about this path for good reason. Now don’t press me for a hard and fast definition of enlightenment, but I’m pretty sure that if you go dining in a dumpster, you’re more likely to find garbage than enlightenment. Much of “crazy wisdom” appears to me to be just crazy. One thinks of the abuses of cult leaders who, like Icarus, may have at one point reached the sky, but then flew too close to the sun.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for more people being happy. Much of my work has depended on it. But I’ve come to believe that making happiness an end unto itself is to stand in one’s own way. There is a different between fleeting pleasurable experiences and long-term contentment. Fulfillment is not a thing to obtain, but a condition, a result of living well. In the yogic perspective, happiness is our natural state prior to any attempt to manipulate reality, even prior to thought. When it comes down to it, wisdom and compassion, or mindfulness and acceptance, are the heart of the story, everything else a footnote.


A note about meditation.

The brain is much more complicated than what Harris’ essay implies, though I’m sure he didn’t intend reductionism. Neuro-imaging and recording devices - (f)MRI’s, PET/CT scans, etc. - have been very useful instruments for cognitive scientists. While they are able to show researchers relevant organic loci of cognitive processing, they do have their limits. Researchers in this field warn about validity issues, internal and ecological. What was happening in the brains of participants before they took up meditation? What about other variables such as heredity or the environment? What were the controls? Were the participants tested on other activities which involve those same areas of the brain (i.e. listening to relaxing music)? We have a lot to learn.

What brain studies do suggest is that meditation does seem to have tangible psychological and physiological effects, such as stress reduction and immunity boosting. Few can doubt that meditation can be a very beneficial practice for people in a non-religious context. However, the same benefits can be achieved by other means, so it’s not apparent why meditation should be given the press it has, if meditation is nothing more a tool equivalent to what you can find at a gym, a pharmacy, or at a doctor’s office. It’s important to keep in mind that traditionally, meditation has been used for transcendental purposes, quite apart from its health benefits.

See two news articles:

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