The end of the universal Western civilization

During a conversation with Carl Zha (already posted for BrownCast patrons) I inquired about Chinese views of the rest of the world and China’s relationship to other nation-states. I reflected offhand in some ways we don’t know how to deal with this “multi-polar” world, where Asian powers are again relevant after many centuries of being in the shadow of Europe and its offspring. Some of this is also reflected in India, where a rising reactionary conservative nationalism is the odds on favorite to retain power when the tallies are counted for the 2019 election.*

If I live my expected lifespan, I will see the end of the long centuries of the hegemony of Greater Europe. Today the European Union and the USA make up about 30% of the world’s GDP. India and China together are 25%. In 2050 the EU and USA will be 20%. India and China will be 35%. Many projections put Asia as a whole at (excluding the Middle East) at 50% of the world economy in 2050.

If Asian societies maintain current economic momentum, they will have returned to the same proportion of the world economy as they were in ~1800. This date intuitively makes sense. Though the British, under the East India company, were already advancing their way through the subcontinent, in 1800 Manchu ruled Imperial China still retained certain self-confidence, born of a century of economic and demographic expansion.

The 1793 Macartney Embassy saw the Chinese treat the British as they always had. But by this point the dynamic force of history had moved past the Chinese, they just didn’t know it.

The oldest person I have known personally with any great familiarity was my maternal grandfather. He was born in 1896 and died in 1996. It is unlikely that he knew anyone personally who remembered a time before the hegemony of Europeans across the globe. But, it is entirely possible his own grandfather, my own great-great-grandfather, knew people for whom the British as an eternal and dominant force of history was something of a novelty in their youth. My own children will live on after me, likely into the 22nd century. Most of their lives will play out in a very different epoch when it comes to the balance of civilizations.

Of course, one can argue, with some reason, that all civilization from here on out is Western civilization. But I think we need to think back to the late 1990s, and what we believed at the time a post-Western universal civilization would look like. There was an optimism that the end of history would force nations like China to open up politically, while India would match its democratic humanism with robust economic growth. Boris Yeltsin’s Russia was the sometimes helpmate, and sometimes supplicant, of the USA. Though people in India might speak Hindi and eat off thali, while those in China would speak Mandarin and eat with chopsticks, by the end of the 21st century many expected that universal values would lead to a natural federative political state on planet earth. There was no need for top-down world government when capitalism and democratic liberalism spread to all the nation-states on the planet.

Though we should be cautious of swinging in the opposite direction, it does look like the 21st-century will exhibit its own characteristics, not just reflect the dreams of the late 20th.

* I say reactionary because I don’t think Hindu nationalism, like Islamism, is comprehensible without the shock of European modernity. Though these movements present themselves as primal and authentic, they’re really syntheses that came out of the dialectic between the native (Indian) and the colonial (European).

The rise of the steppe (on PBS)

David Anthony’s The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World is a bit dated, but it’s still a useful read. Papers such as Population genomics of Bronze Age Eurasia and Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe come out of the tradition that Anthony comes out of. Arguably these thinkers even underestimated the demographic impact of the people from the steppe.

If you are interested in this topic, I think you might find First Horse Warriors: The advent of horse riding changed the course of human history and the genetic makeup of humankind, worth a watch. I think the second half, in particular, will be interesting. Researchers whose names you see only in papers are interviewed. So if you want to put a face to the name, this is your chance.

I would say though that again watching this episode reinforces my point that visual medium is very low density in the information. They had to focus on a few major results and scaffold their visuals around that.

The main issue in the documentary is that researchers still debate the nature of the usage of the horse on the steppe. Anthony and Dorcas Brown have been arguing for an early date of widespread horse domestication, at least as early as 3500 BC. But others suggested a date closer to 2000 BC, around when the light war chariot was invented.

Why the Uyghurs as we didn’t know them didn’t exist until after 1000 AD

The period between 300 AD about 750 AD is sometimes termed the “Buddhist Age.” The reason for this is is that this was the period when Buddhism was established in China, and, was still a force in mainland South Asia. It is also when Buddhism was arguably the dominant religion in much of Central Asia. In fact, Buddhism probably arrived in China mostly through this route, via the city-states of the Tarim basin.

A point of interest for many in the public is that some of these Tarim basin Buddhists looked very “Western.” That is, they had European features and coloring. The reason for this is that their ancestors were the eastern edge of the Indo-European migrations on the steppe. Many of them famously spoke Tocharian languages, an extinct branch of the Indo-European languages. But others spoke Iranian languages. Iranian not in that they came from Iran, but that they were descended from proto-Iranians of the steppe.

A few years ago there was a discussion on this weblog and elsewhere about very recent admixture dates for the western and eastern admixture components in the Uyghurs. That is, after 1000 AD. This struck many as too recent. I think perhaps I have an answer for what happened.

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Rumbles in religion and cultural evolution

A few months ago I posted Society Creates God, God Does Not Create Society, which was a write-up of a paper in Nature, Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history. The study was of interest to me because it seemed to test the hypothesis and argument presented in Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Their conclusion using the Seshat historical database was in the negative in relation to the hypothesis. That is, big societies gave rise to big gods, big gods did not seem to give rise to big societies.

Now a different group of researchers, some of them associated with the model of big gods leading to big societies, have shot back with an intense critique of the paper in preprint form, Corrected analyses show that moralizing gods precede complex societies but serious data concerns remain.

There seem to two critical issues that these authors want to highlight: problems in analysis, and problems in the underlying data. In terms of the analysis, the authors suggest that because the Seshat database relies on written evidence it is going to be biased toward more recent dates because writing tends to be found later in social development and complexity. They reanalyzed the data by pushing the emergence of big gods back by a century and found the direction of the effect reverse. In other words, they are saying that the result was not robust. A second issue that impacted the analysis is that the authors of the preprint assert that since so many missing values from preliterate societies were recoded as an absence of big gods what the results are showing is a negative correlation of missing entries with complex societies.

A second broader issue seems to be a suggestion that Seshat itself is riddled with too many errors to be reliable.

As someone deeply interested in the scientific question I don’t have a strong opinion as to what’s going on here (though I am probably a bit skeptical of the idea that Seshat is without much value considering the time and effort I know Peter Turchin and his collaborators have put into it). Feelings seem to be getting heated online, but I’m hoping that open-science will win in the end.

Peter Turchin and Patrick Savage have put up preliminary responses. No doubt there will be more back and forth. But one major improvement over many historical discussions is that this is playing out transparently through data analyses, then the standard “historian here, let me assert my expertise here to shut you down….” (a lot of historians on Twitter behave in a mendacious manner in my opinion, because I often know enough about many historical topics to see exactly how they are laundering their credentials to support sophistry in a manner that is opaque to their trusting audience).

An Islamic view of the Crusades

I should say a thing or two about The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades. It turns out that the Islamic perspective on the Crusades and Muslim-Christian conflict is pretty much exactly what you might infer from the Christian perspective. That is, the narrative in The Race for Paradise is surprisingly unsurprising. In fact, there was too much narrative, as many of the chapters were a sequence of names and battles.

I’m not someone to say that social, cultural, and economic history are the only histories that matter. But, they are often the sorts of information that you can’t easily find online in Wikipedia summaries. In contrast, diplomatic and military history can be found in other sources. So I felt The Race for Paradise a bit thin on matters social, cultural and economic, though the author did make an attempt here and there. If you read this book I would recommend you skip over a lot of the standard narrative and just find those chapters.

Additionally, for such a short book, I will warn you that you’ll not get just the conflict in the Near East. Substantial portions are taken up by the Crusades in Iberia and the conquest of Sicily, and there is an end section on the reaction to the Ottomans. Curiously, there was only perfunctory mention of the Baltic Crusades, but then, this is an Islamic view, so that actually makes sense

If you are really interested in the topic, I really recommend God’s War and The Northern Crusades.

Ultimately, I will conclude from reading The Race for Paradise that despite the strong distinctions that the Dar-ul-Islam and Christendom made between each other after the fall of Rome and before the rise of modernity, the two are hard to understand individually without considering the other. The familiarity of the narrative in The Race for Paradise is that Islamic civilization, unlike that of India or China, is not comprehensible on some level without the referents of the Christians, who were there before Islam, and amongst whom many Muslim societies emerged from.

The world of Islam and the world of Westen Christianity view each other as exotic cousins. Not as aliens.

The shadow of the Hun

Short of stature, with a broad chest and a large head; his eyes were small, his beard thin and sprinkled with grey; and he had a flat nose and tanned skin, showing evidence of his origin.

– Jordanes, describing Atilla the Hun

When I was younger (think age 10) I had a period when I read a lot of medieval and “Dark Age” history. Reading about the Huns was pretty scary…they were like the Mongols, but even more, cloaked in legend. I always remember the debates about the physical descriptions of the Huns. On the one hand, it could be plausibly asserted that their descriptions indicated an Asiatic people. But another argument was that the ancient writers were utilizing common tropes to describe barbaric peoples.

Today with DNA we can answer some of these questions with finality. Y-chromosome haplogroups from Hun, Avar and conquering Hungarian period nomadic people of the Carpathian Basin:

Hun, Avar and conquering Hungarian nomadic groups arrived into the Carpathian Basin from the Eurasian Steppes and significantly influenced its political and ethnical landscape. In order to shed light on the genetic affinity of above groups we have determined Y chromosomal haplogroups and autosomal loci, from 49 individuals, supposed to represent military leaders. Haplogroups from the Hun-age are consistent with Xiongnu ancestry of European Huns. Most of the Avar-age individuals carry east Eurasian Y haplogroups typical for modern north-eastern Siberian and Buryat populations and their autosomal loci indicate mostly unmixed Asian characteristics. In contrast the conquering Hungarians seem to be a recently assembled population incorporating pure European, Asian and admixed components.

I was curious about the Hun samples, and the autosomal results. There were only three Huns, but one of them carried haplogroup Q1a2. This is found at highest frequencies in Turkic and Siberian groups. The other individuals were R1b and R1a. R1a is common in Eastern Europe…but the particular variant this Hunnic male carried was of the Z93 branch comon in Central and South Asia, and in particular in places like the Altai.

As far as the autosomal results:

Samples from different archaological cultures and cemeteries showed a remarkable pattern of phenotypic distribution. All Hun and Avar age samples had inherently dark eye/hair colors, DK/701being the only exception (Table 2). Moreover 6/14 Avar age samples were characterized with >0,7 black hair; >0,99 brown eye….

Again, some historians have argued that the tropes that emerged to describe the Sarmatians and Scythians were recycled for the Huns. But we know what these groups looked like because we have ancient DNA from them: they were clearly West Eurasian people, with western populations heavily Europeanized. It is clear from these results that the Huns and Avars were physically reflective of their East Asian origin. The ancient authors describing them in exotic terms were describing reality, not a metaphor.

I look forward to discovering whether other “metaphors” of the descriptions of ancient peoples turn out to be literal and serious as well.

The blood on brown hands is a legacy of all of history

Yesterday I put up a tweet which went a bit viral (I won’t embed since it has a vulgarity). It was the result of my frustration with a very liberal Indian American who was using unfortunate tensions in the Indian subcontinent to attack “white supremacy.” My frustration was due to the reality that a major conflict between India and Pakistan would not just impact India and Pakistan, though that is dire enough. In a globalized world, a war involving the world’s fifth largest economy, situated athwart the southern flank of Asia, would impact many people outside of the subcontinent. In the midst of this, the fact that someone was using this to promote their own ideological hobbyhorse was offensive to me.

But the construct of “white supremacy” was presented specifically in the context of a particular history with the British. That is, British policies in the 19th and early 20th centuries laid the seedbeds of conflict between Hindus and Muslims, along with the tortured borders of the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. This is a complicated issue. It is simply manifestly true that the British administered most of the Indian subcontinent from the beginning of the 19th century down to 1947, to various degrees. And, the British were at the center of defining and delineating the borders and divisions which frame the current tensions within the Indian subcontinent.

And yet, the reality is that I believe all these were contingent. That is, imagine an alternative history where the Sepoy Mutiny succeeded in winning independence for several states within the subcontinent, even if the British also retained some of their territories. Presumably, when the British receded, more independent states would emerge. Would the subcontinent be one of amity and low tension, with the much milder historical footprint of the British? In such a timeline the Amritsar Massacre may never have happened (I presume the British would be more likely to retrench to the coastal areas to the east, south, and southwest).

I don’t believe that that is so. Since I am not Pakistani I did not know what the “Two-Nation Theory” (TNT) was before I ran the Brown Pundits weblog. Basically, this is the idea that the Indian subcontinent has within it two religious nations, the Hindu and Muslim. This is not a theological assertion as much as an ethno-sectarian one. The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was not a devout Muslim. His personal mores were more that of an upper-class Brit (he enjoyed his whiskey). But, his ethnocultural identity was clearly that of an upper-class Muslim. As a lawyer, he defended a man who killed a Hindu who the man believed had blasphemed against Islam. Jinnah’s defense was motivated by his communal loyalty. Even if he himself was not pious, the offense was against the Muslim nation, and he stood with the Muslim nation.

This highlights the fact that the 1947 partition was not driven by the all-powerful British, but also native Indian groups. Though the British, as imperial rulers, implemented the specifics, the underlying demand was from the Muslim League, with the tacit acceptance of many Hindus who were happy to remove a substantial proportion of the subcontinent’s non-Hindu population into another state (some extremely religious fundamentalist Muslims actually opposed partition, since their goal was to convert the whole subcontinent, for which a united India would have been more efficient!).

If you had asked me at a younger age my unconsidered opinion would have been that India should have stayed united to avert the bloodiness of the partition, whose death toll is estimated from the hundreds of thousands to millions. But upon further reflection and thought, I think the TNT captures the essential fact that the Muslim upper-class of Northern India would never be able to reconcile itself well with secondary status within the state, and, with ~25% of the population being Muslim, would always have a huge vote bank so that they could not be ignored. Perhaps a confessional state with a divided balance of power such as Lebanon could have been attempted, but I doubt the Lebanese solution would scale to a polity which covered the whole Indian subcontinent. A more feasible scenario might be a confederation.

The separation of East Pakistan, what became Bangladesh, within a generation of the partition, actually proves to me the point about the Muslim upper-class of Northern India and its general attitude toward power-sharing. Though the Muslim League was quite successful in East Bengal before the partition due to the salience of religious divisions in the region, with the emergence of a Pakistani state the party became the instrument of an elite whose cultural focus was on the northwest of the subcontinent. These were people who saw themselves, quite often genealogically in a valid sense, to be heirs to the Mughal tradition. They dreamed of the time when they had been part of the dominant ruling class (albeit, often subordinate to Turks and Persians).

This was quite separate from the Muslim Bengali identity, which existed more at an equipoise between an Islamic self-consciousness and a Bengali one, which connected them culturally in a deep sense to the Hindu Bengalis who resided across the border in India. The Muslim elite of West Pakistan saw the Bengalis of East Pakistan, even when Muslim as the majority were, to be a culturally and racially inferior group. Culturally inferior because of their embrace of a Bengali high culture which was originally pioneered by Hindus such as Rabindranath Tagore, and racially inferior because they were a smaller and darker-skinned people, who could clearly not make the pretensions toward non-Indian West Asian ancestry common among the post-Mughal Muslim elite.

Now, imagine this same elite having to deal with the Hindu elites of a united India!

What this shows is that the cleavages that exploded into violence in 1947 with the partition were long pregnant within India, before the British ever arrived. The reason I have no patience for the constant indictments of the British is that South Asian elites had their own agency, and their own history, long before the British became the major power in the subcontinent, and retained that agency after. First, one has to remember that the British domination of the subcontinent in a sense we’d recognize it probably dates to the defeat of the Marathas in the Second Anglo-Maratha War of the early 19th century. This puts British rule across much of the subcontinent at 150 years, and even then many of the Princely States administered themselves.

Obviously, India has a history before the British period and that history as preserved and maintained amongst its ruling elements continued down into the British Raj and reemerged after the independence of India and Pakistan. From the period after the emergence of the Delhi Sultanate in ~1200 to the decay of Mughal power in the early 18th century, Turkic conquest elites espousing the faith of Islam were the dominant ruling class of South Asia.

To be sure, not all of them were Turkic. Many were Iranian, Afghan, or Arab, and some were slaves from the Caucasus and Africa. But all of them were swept up in the invasion of the Indian subcontinent driven by Central Asian Turks. This is not exceptional to India, Turkic military elites were often the ruling class of Iran (e.g., the Safavids and Qajars) and many parts of the Arab Near East after 1000 AD. Once in India, the Turks transplanted their Central Asian civilization as best as they could on the very different soil of the subcontinent. A migration of Persians, and even some Arabs such as Ibn Battuta, occurred so as to allow the development of a fully-functioning Islamic civilization co-located within a landscape dominated by diverse Indian traditions that we would today call Hindu (which was at that time was just the generic term for Indian).

Ibn Battuta, in particular, illustrates the fact that within India a whole Muslim world had been transplanted which nevertheless remained not of India, as his own reflections are that of a Muslim moving through Muslim lands, not an Arab in a non-Muslim territory.

The imperialist nature of the conquest dynasties should not be underemphasized. Because of its size and population density, India was attractive to rent-seekers and fortune-hunters. Like the Mongol rule in China, the dominance of a Muslim military elite within India culturally and ideologically distant from the local Brahmin elite opened up an opportunity for West Asians to find favor at court. Ayatollah Khomeini’s paternal grandfather was born in the Indian city of Lucknow. His own ancestors had been invited by the rulers of the region, who were migrants from Nishapur in Iran. Khomeini’s grandfather’s Persian ancestors had left Nishapur and settled in India to receive the patronage and provide service to the rulers who were Shia Muslims of Persian origin such as themselves.

These enclaves of Muslims with recent foreign ancestry have given rise to the ashraf quasi-caste. In White Mughals the author asserts that just as a poor European noble might marry the daughter of a wealthy merchant, so ashraf of pure blood could elevate the lineage of prosperous native stock Indian Muslims.

This digression is to emphasize how the Islamic civilization of South Asia was to some extent a West and Central Asian society intercalated with indigenous elements. The court language of the Mughals, who were in their paternal lineage Timurid arrivistes from Central Asia, was Persian. The camp language was Turki. There were centuries of migration of West and Central Asians into Islamic courts and camps in South Asia that connected India with the Muslim regions to the west and northwest. The non-Indian pretentions of upper-class Muslims from the northwest of the subcontinent are not totally off base. To be sure, the reality is that the vast majority of the ancestry of modern-day South Asian Muslims, even those from the northwest, is indigenous.

Though South Asia remained an overwhelmingly non-Muslim domain, rather early on Islam took on something of the patina of an imperial religion due to the dominance of Muslim military elites. To give an example, in the early 1400s a certain Raja Ganesha, a Hindu, usurped rule in Bengal (which had been under a Turkic dynasty). One concession that mollified Muslim elites toward this usurpation was that he agreed that his son would become a Muslim. And so he did so that Raja Ganesha’s son and grandson ruled Bengal as Muslims. To me, this is reminiscent of the selection of Eugenius as a puppet of the pagan general Arbogast in the West Roman Empire in the late 4th century. Though Eugenius was tolerant toward pagans, he was a Christian. The norm of a Christian ruler of the Roman Empire had already been established by the 390s, even though Christians were only a minority of the population at this time. The Emperor was a Christian ruler of a pagan Empire.

The existence of Islam as an imperial religion resulted in the emergence of an “Islamicate” civilization. Though Rajputs and Pandits remained devout Hindus, they emulated aspects of the elite culture of the Muslims whom they served as vassals or courtiers. Eventually, Muslims of a more native Indian background also came to the fore. Though the powerful ruler of 18th century Mysore, Tipu Sultan, claimed distant West Asian ancestry, the realistic depictions of his features indicate he is clearly an Indian and the descendant of converts to Islam. The Mughal Emperor Akbar exhibits his Turco-Mongol and Persian heritage in his features, while his grandson Shah Jahan looks like the Rajput Indian that three of his four grandparents were. And yet Shah Jahan was a Muslim Mughal prince in culture, and a proud Timurid who wed the daughter of Persian migrants, even if three of his four grandparents were Hindu.

Though any objective analysis shows that the Muslims of South Asia are overwhelming of indigenous ancestry, the cultural and historical imprint of West Asia is indelible upon them, in particular among certain elements of the elite of the northern cities. Their appearance, food, and language, tie them to South Asia. But their religious commitments and romantic attachment to a greater Islamic civilization pull them west.

But of course, there were other people in South Asia. Today we call them Hindus, but that used to be the term for an inhabitant of the Indian subcontinent more generally. Hinduism encompasses a wide range of traditions, from local folk religion to the elite philosophical schools. Perhaps the two things that define Indians, and Hindus, to outsiders are karma and caste. As in Iran the conquest of India did result in some synthesis between the intrusive element, and the native substrate. In the Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier the author argues that the rule of the region by Turkic and Afghan Muslims without investment in Sanskrit allowed for the emergence of a native Bengali linguistic tradition. Meanwhile, in Crossing the Threshold: Understanding Religious Identities in South Asia, the author argues that before the assertion of orthodoxy during the Mughal period, many ethno-religious groups in South Asia were liminal to both Islam and Hinduism. The Meo community may be a relic which reflects some of the sub-elite and peasant practices which have vanished.

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Why Indian forms dominated Chinese forms in mainland Southeast Asia


On Twitter Peter Turchin had a question in response to me tweeting a new preprint on bioRxiv:


This was my impression too until a few years ago, but the genetic evidence does point to gene-flow. Here are two recent posts from me, Likely Male-Mediated Indianization In Southeast Asia and Indic Civilization Came To Southeast Asia Because Indian People Came To Southeast Asia. Lots Of Them.

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How the English abolished their British (Celtic) ancestors

Reading both Bryan Ward-Perkins’ 2000 paper Why did the Anglo-Saxons not become more British? and The fine scale genetic structure of the British population, published in 2015, is interesting. To date, this second paper is probably the “best of breed” when it comes to estimating Anglo-Saxon admixture into the British population in the 5th to 7th centuries (confirmed with a smaller sample ancient DNA publication). The authors conclude that:

Two separate analyses (ancestry profiles and GLOBETROTTER) show clear evidence in modern England of the Saxon migration, but each limits the proportion of Saxon ancestry, clearly excluding the possibility of long-term Saxon replacement. We estimate the proportion of Saxon ancestry in C./S England as very likely to be under 50%, and most likely in the range 10%-40%.

The ancient DNA paper gives an estimate of ~38% Anglo-Saxon (German) for the “East English.” So the two seem roughly in line. The C./S. England cluster refers to the genealogical network of the lowlands of central and eastern England.

There are several ways we can look at this. First, the majority of the ancestors of the modern English were British. That is, Brythonic people of various levels of Romanization. They became Anglo-Saxon. Even on the “Saxon Shore” in the far east of England it is likely that the majority of the ancestors of the natives derive from post-Roman Britons (if barely).

A second way to look at it this that this validates Peter Heather’s model in Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe. The model being that the post-Roman barbarian migrations were coherent “folk wanderings,” and large numbers of Germans moved into the collapsing Roman Empire. In post-Roman Britain, a large number of Germans clearly arrived and demographically marginalized many Britons. To be sure, it is unlikely that in the year 550 AD the census size of Germans to Britons in East Anglia was ever 38 to 62 in ratio. Rather, I suspect that in the centuries after the rise of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms German elites had higher reproductive rates than the Britons due to their superior access to resources. Over time this resulted in their contribution being more prominent in the genealogies of people alive today.

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Hinduism before India

Azar Gat is one of my favorite scholars. He does not seem to be one who bows before fashion. If you haven’t, I recommend War in Human Civilization a great deal.

With that being said, perhaps an overlooked work is his more recent Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism. It is a reasonable antidote to Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Anderson’s book is apparently one of the most assigned works to undergraduates in the United States, and I saw it cited so often that I went ahead and read it to see if there was any “there there.” Alas, that was not to be. I have come to conclude that those who find profundity in Imagined Communities are superficial thinkers, and want “information for free.” That is, a theory that can explain history without having to learn many facts.

Gat’s Nations is not a simplistic argument that the specific nations we see around us today have deep roots in antiquity. The chasms between Arminius, Luther, and Bismarck, are great indeed. But for Gat the conceptual framework of nationhood is derived from primal constituents and extends itself naturally from a common human set of cognitive reflexes and the selective sieve of cultural evolution. A late Roman Republican politician could understand broadly the process of the formation of the creation of modern Italy from various constituent polities which shared a cultural affinity, just as the Roman Republic itself was a fusion of tribes.

This is on my mind because of a post over at Brown Pundits, India Never Existed. In the post, there is a quote from a scholar of South Asia who is seemingly at the center of constant controversy with “Hindu Twitter”:

In the old days, India was not united. And there was no cohesive Hindu identity. Literally, “Hindus” did not call themselves Hindus in premodernity.

So far as today, Hindutva is an ideology of hate, based on early 20th-century European fascism, that derides religious minorities.

Overall I think this is an unhelpful and polemical way to present the facts. I am not a Hindu nationalist. But neither am I secular Indian. In the Indian context “secular” means a very precise thing which is not covered simply by being an irreligious atheist (which I am). As an American who has an intellectual, but frankly no deep emotional, interest in South Asian affairs it is up to Indians to sort out their cultural and political conflicts. But, just as the “Out of India” Hindu nationalists strike me as in the wrong, it seems clear that some secular Indian intellectuals engage in polemics unfounded in fact, or shading the truth in a manner that serves their ideology rather than the facts on the ground.

A certain school of scholars, who seem to be engaging in a culture war against Hindu nationalists, present the genesis of Indian identity as a pure reaction to the engagement with Europe. That is, Indianness develops as a mimic of Englishness. Before 1800 there were  jatis, Muslims of various ethnicities, and curious minorities like Parsis, all coresident across South Asia, but there was no Hindu identity except as a disjoint set of characteristics and cultures which were not included amongst Muslims, Christians, Parsis, etc.

This view is extremely misleading. The genetic evidence seems clear that the ethnogenesis of modern South Asians dates to the period between two and four thousand years ago, between the last massive phase of admixtures between different continental elements, and the emergence of an endogamous caste system. The antiquity of caste is genetically attested and spans much of North and South India. As far back as the time of the Greeks and Persians, the people of the Indian subcontinent were known to those outside as a distinctive and coherent element, and the Hindu religious traditions certainly predate 1800. Adi Shankara, an 8th-century thinker who arguably outlined the core tenents tone of “elite Hinduism” as we know them today, was a Brahmin from the far South of the subcontinent.

It is true that the indigenous traditions of the Indian subcontinent were a diverse mix, and many communities (now termed “tribes”) were outside of the caste system and Hindu society. But by the time that Islam arrived in the subcontinent the influence of Brahmins had certainly spread a particular elite culture patronized by most rulers, with those who were skeptical often being devotees of religious groups more distinct from Hinduism (whether it be Buddhists or Jains). It is correct to point out that most people in the Indian subcontinent did not subscribe to Brahmin religious thought, but most of the population of Europe in 1000 AD practiced a very inchoate Christianity, and yet we do not hesitate to term this a Christian civilization, seeing as how much of the continent was bound together by a priestly elite which obtained sponsorship from kings and nobles.

To be frank, some of the anti-Hindutva scholars seem to be engaging in semantic games to win arguments with their ideological enemies. It is clear that Indian national identity in a political sense is recent, and is not analogous to that of China, which is ancient. But should one then say that a “European” identity did not exist in 1000 AD because most European polities were bound together by personal rule and the Christian religion, rather than geography and nationality as we understand it? It is clear that the outlines of what became Europe emerged in the wake of the Roman collapse, and the rise of Islam. Just because courtiers in the court of Charlemagne did not term themselves “Europeans” does not mean that the general outlines of Europeanness did not predate the ideological formulation in the early modern period, as Christians became Europeans.

A bigger framework is that we can see patterns across societies in time and space, and draw analogies and inferences. Human social and political institutions are commensurable. The development of Europe in the wake of the fall of Rome and the shock of the barbarian invasions is neatly analogous to the emergence of native Indian religious traditions in the wake of the shock of the arrival of Muslim Turks. There are differences, but Europe and Europe’s experience is not sui generis. One could state that France “did not exist” until the French Revolution, and the 19th century drives toward assimilation of local dialects and the emergence to prominence of “standard French.” But it is clear that something “French” clearly motivated the elites, Protestant and Catholic, who battled in the 16th and 17th centuries, at the intersection of religion and nationality. Even though most peasants had a rural and local identity, the stage was set for the national passions which inflamed the Revolutionary regime of the 1790s.

Similarly, the Indian republic has had its issues, but it is not a coincidence that it has managed to maintain continuity and integrity through all its ups and downs. Indian identity is clearly somewhat an artificiality because a unified Indian state was imposed relatively late in history, and only for a short period by a Mughal elite which was not in cultural solidarity with the diversity of its subjects. But across the cultural diversity, there is a level of affinity which has historical roots. An analogy here can be made to Indonesia, a diverse archipelago which was never a unitary state, but whose cultural cohesiveness is a product of history rather than politics. The regions of India and Indonesia, Kashmir and the northeast for India, and the eastern islands for Indonesia, are those regions with less cultural affinity and oftentimes no shared history with the central elite.

My understanding of these sorts of issues are informed by two things:

  • Specific attention to details of history, which is hard to obtain without just reading
  • A general understanding of human social development informed by evolutionary anthropology

Some systems of thought constrain comprehension in a semantic straightjacket. So, for example, there are those who would argue that “religion” in a Western context is qualitatively different from “religion” in an Eastern context. I think this is ridiculous. All religions exhibit cognitive features, which are the outcomes of our evolutionary history, which is shared. There is the idea that a nation-state has to be understood as a crisp definition which emerges in the period between the Peace of Westphalia and the French Revolution. That the nation-state was born in Western Europe, and all successor nation-states the world over are derived from Western European ideas.

There is some contingent truth to this. Modern nation-states are fundamentally Westphalian. The language and the framework of modern diplomacy are European. In particular, it comes out of the second half of the 17th century. But the European nation-state is not sui generis, and diplomacy was not invented by Europeans. The concept of a geographically delimited polity associated with a standing army and civilian bureaucracy is not just something particular to early modern Europe. The Romans, Chinese, and Muslims created such political systems. The Roman system collapsed in Western Europe, while the later European system overwhelmed the Chinese and Muslim political systems.

But even in their accession to the European forms, native societies retained their uniqueness. Their own deep roots. This is evident in both China and Japan, whose political systems outwardly are replicas of European ideologies and frameworks. The Islamic Republic of Iran is a peculiar hybrid of European and indigenous. When Western scholars deride Hindutva as based on “early 20th-century European fascism”, they remove from Indians any agency. As if Hindu nationalism is simply a curry-flavored form of European fascism. Like Baathism, Chinese Nationalism after the purge of the Communists, and the military regime of interwar Japan, there were clear influences from Europe, but all exhibited strong indigenous roots and bases as well.

There are things particular, and things general. It was almost inevitable that a traditionalist Hindu renaissance would develop long before the ferment of right-wing ideologies in early 20th century Europe. The small-scale decentralized Indian cultural complex which weathered the storm of Islamic rule was unlikely to ever maintain itself in the face of modernity (contra Gandhi). It was going to evolve in various directions, and one of them would be reactionary, even if that reaction was toward an imagined past which synthesized future hopes informed by the present with past solidities.

The past was very different. And other cultures are very different. But they are not incomprehensibly different. Outside of Europe the antecedent of the present is not simply the past of Europe. Other societies differ from Europe and reacted in various ways to the colonial experience, but the European shock is not the sum totality of what they are and what they will be. The terms and concepts we use to scaffold our comprehension of the world around us are important in their details, but they are not what we are comprehending. Just because we see the past darkly through the mirror does not entail that we should simply refashion the past in our easier imaginings.