Monday, February 3, 2014

Shun Racist instincts and intentions in research - an appeal from Dr S. Kalyanaraman.



Dangers posed by comparative mythology theories which are camouflaged 'race' studies

Imagining categories of people

The world has been witness to devastations caused by racism, as a theory, resulting in the massacres of millions of innocent people.  For example, assuming racial superiority of redheads, and imagining an entire community of people called a Jew as hate symbols, horrendous genocides and holocaust have been perpetrated in engineered mass hysteria. The problem arises from creating false categories of people.

Imagining the white-man's burden to save or redeem sinful souls or to civilize tribal 'natives', evangelical activities continue unabated to indulge in the violence of 'religious' conversions rendering a united family relationship into smithereens.

Premised on the superiority of a race, books like Catherine Mayo's account of India have also appeared which Mahatma Gandhi labeled as a Drain-inspector's report.

Such misdirected, motivated approaches in searching for the roots of or categorizing communities have led to establishment of colonial regimes until the last century. The root cause is the denial of the imperative of recognizing all living phenomena as demanding of respect for common human dignity and the environment we live in as demanding of diligent care to be sustained to protect present and future generations.

The new kid on the block for pursuing racist agendas in academic studies is the category called 'comparative mythology'. This category lacks its own methodological tools and draws upon a variety of other disciplines. The underlying danger of this category is the perpetuation of 'race' studies.

Camouflaged 'race' studies

First, attempts were made citing Biblical inputs of the Tower of Babel, breaking up the world into distinct races descending from some specific, named individuals. Similar attempts are now being tried out using comparative studies of gene sequences.

Mythology studies quickly degenerate into race studies. Witzel's book is a good example because the underlying assumption providing a framework for the book is an assumption of racial superiority of groups such as redheads.

In studies attempting to trace the 'roots' of communities, many failed attempts using questionable analytical frameworks can be cited. As we delve into the mists of time into distant pasts, we have limited evidences to access.

One framework is from a discipline called 'archaeology' which results in comparison of artifacts unearthed from digs and in some cases, using decoded epigraphs from archaeological sites.

A second framework is from a discipline called 'anthropology' which has resulted in a plethora of 'ethnic' studies.

A third framework is from a discipline called 'linguistics' premised on the assumption that language features and their travels across space and time can be traced. This assumption has the fallacy that there is no falsifiable method to prove the direction of 'borrowings' of words. A more serious problem created by the fallacies of language studies is that a lot of guesswork is involved in assuming the 'meaning or meanings' assigned to words by ancient people who may or may not be the ancestors of the present-day language communities.

Now, a fourth framework has assumed the dimensions of a sexy option. The discipline is called 'genetics' used to study common genetic sequences among communities. Gene-based evidence is not really evidence because it is based on one huge assumption. It assumes that the original home of whichever race is being studied is wherever the concentration of the genes specific to the race is the highest. It then sorts the appearance of the gene in the population in descending order of density in various geographical areas and concludes that the path of dispersion was from the region of higher concentration to the region of lower concentration.

 More devastation of such genetic studies is caused by the fact that communities of people get categorized as 'races'. A good example is the recent work of Witzel, a Harvard academic who tries to trace mythologies from the days of the continental drift which resulted in the identification of a mythical entity called 'Laurasia'. This is called by a variety of names such as 'Gondwana' or 'Atlantis' or 'Lost Continent' or 'Kumari-k-kandam'. There is, of course, the famous narrative of the super-eruption of Krakatoa. In the Dravidian political parlance, a dravidian race is imagined as traceable to this lost continent as the Indian subcontinent started drifting away from the African continent. Continental drift is explained in geological eras running into time-depths of millions of years. Same is the case with genetic mutations with time-depths of tens of thousands of years. This is the clear danger posed by using tools of various disciplines to explain cultural phenomena which provide the core basis for perceived identities of communites in the globe. Straitjacketing the communities into sub-categories as 'ethnic' groups or 'language-speaking' groups or 'local natives' tends to create more divisions among people, thus negating the principal purpose of researches which should be to promote the essential unity and inter-relatedness of the living phenomena, human groups, in particular.

Peoples' identity problem

The identity problem is central to any social community. This problem is exemplified by the as yet unresolved definition of a 'nation'. Though nation-states have been formed and polities established, a consistent framework to define a 'nation' has not been achieved so far. Witness the recent break-up of the Soviet Union and the earlier break-up of Yugoslavia and creation of multiple states still in search of 'identity' of the citizens of the states. Though the roots of another world war III have not yet firmed up, there are continuing tensions dividing the communities of people and setting one group in opposition to another. An added category in firming up the divisions is the 'identity' politics based on another construct called 'religion'. 'Religious' wars are ongoing with one group vehement on evangelizing and claiming the 'right' to save souls by forcing adherence to one perceived 'truth' declaring the rest as 'blind heathen'.

Mischievous academic interventions

It is a disturbing trend in the academia to foster divisive studies and perpetuate a climate of fostering hatred among communities. The Harvard University, for example, has instituted a study group called Mythology studies earmarking huge funds. Many are using the platform to peddle their pet agendas of race studies, the way early anthropology studies tried to categorise races by the size characteristics of brains or bone structures of human beings. This trend should be reviewed and institutions like Harvard University will do well to scrap its mythology studies project, which have only ended up in self-serving exercises of wasting academic time with spurious publications of the Witzel type. I do not have to list the examples of mischievous comparisons Witzel tries to make between the Vedic heritage and the 'myths' of many communities. They ca be seen from the 'Look inside' snippets which can be seen on of the blurbs and reviews of the tome by Witzel which should be declared as rubbish and Oxford University, the published asked to withdraw the book from the bookstores. Harvard Corp. should also institute an inquiry into the author of the book and call him to order for violating academic ethic. There is no falsifiable basis for such comparisons since the time and space assumptions are as absurd as the earlier polemics related to Aryan invasion or migration or trickle-in theories intended to debunk the perceived identities by the communities themselves as descendants of, say, a Vedic or Hindu heritage. 

First, incursions of a mythical race called 'Aryan' were sought to be proved with Biblical inputs of the Tower of Babel; the same sage is now being tried out with gene sequences in Witzel's book premised on an underlying racial superiority assumption of redheads who need to understand Veda in a German translation, little realizing that the translation of such an document will be an act of irresponsibility without fully getting immersed in the tradition which holds the Veda as a sacred text sustained for generations and transmitted with high-fidelity of oral transmission with very strict regulations of education and error-corrections in pronunciations. The dangers of mistranslating are huge and such translations should be abandoned so as not to cause further tensions among communities which do not believe in a divinity and those whose faith is based on the sacred text as the pramaana (rough translation of the Sanskrit word: a measuring standard) for all subsequent explanatory texts. A good example of mistranslation by Witzel has already been cited when he mischievously mistranslated Baudhayana Srautasutra 18.44 to justify his pet, false theory of Aryan invasion into Indian Subcontinent.

This is a plea to the academic world-over to leave the peoples' communities to their own preferences instead of trying to superimpose strait-jacketed 'categories' which more often than not tend to be divisive and false.

The dangers of academic interventions resulting in social tensions are present and real and academia should deliberate further on the pursuit of such hobby-horses as the now sexy mythology or genetic studies to prove the identities of peoples' communities.

A plea to revamp the curricula and institute an academic or inquirer's oath

This expose on the dangers of mythology as race studies is not to deny the need for study of history or social sciences to satisfy the innate urge of every human being to trace his or her roots and to pay tribute to the ancestors who have given him or her an identity and a system of values to regulate his or her life activities.

Sure, study history or psychology or study civilizations or cultures, but let such studies of people be done with compassion, empathy.

Let there be a renewed academic ethic of search for satyam, moderated by social responsibility and the inviolate, global ethic of dharma-dhamma.

Such studies should also be governed by the fact that the academic should have humility, accepting the limitations of his or her knowledge of the emotions of people they are studying. A private language exists but it is impossible to subject it to any linguistic study of any kind because it is entirely 'personal'.

Such a private language is integral to the human being's own life-experiences and consciousness. This is called chitta in the Indian tradition, exemplified by the compound: sat-cit-ananda, roughly translated as: truth, consciousness, bliss or nihs'reyas (which is the obverse of dharma-dhamma coin; the reverse is abhyudayam, social welfare).

Why can't academic institutions reframe their curricula to study means of social welfare, abhyudayam? Test every academic project on this anvil of abhyudayam and abandon those exercises which do not satisfy the test of resulting in abhyudayam.

In conclusion, I end this plea with a direct plea to the Harvard Corp. to institute an inquiry into the Mythologies Project, to inquire into the racist narratives perpetrated by Witzel which present a clear danger to the students who get exposed to the academic. This is also a plea to Oxford University Press to review its editorial standards and withdraw Witzel's mythology book from the bookstores. Surely, the entire narrative of the nation-state is an unfinished struggle to set the limits to freedom of expression which should not be allowed to degenerate into provocations for conflicts among communities of people. There should be an ethical standard set for unbridled freedom of expression or academic liberties without allowing such liberties as a free-for-all anything goes orgies indulged in without regard to sensitivities of millions of people and without regard to what may be termed, respect for human dignity.

Maybe, it is time to deliberate on an academic oath for every inquirer (functioning in an academic environment or a corporation or unincorporated grouping) governed by respect for human beings as living entities with an inalienable responsibility to live in a community with harmony. This oath can be a variant of the Hippocratic oat(horkos) which many medical practitioners live by to vow honesty in their profession and should certainly apply to inquirers working in the discipline of genetics.

One part of the horkos reads, in translation from Greek: In every house where I come I will enter only for the good of my patients, keeping myself far from all intentional ill-doing and all seduction and especially from the pleasures of love with women or men, be they free or slaves. Shouldn't a similar oath apply to inquirers spreading cock-and-bull stories in the name of comparative mythologies?

The central components of the oath have to be a vow not to hurt the sentiments of groups of people, and a resolve, a responsibility to promote respect for human dignity.

The renewed oath has to underline fundamental responsibilities or duties pushing 'rights' as mere complements derived from the discharge of responsibility. A good example is provided by the Vietnam Constitution which gives primacy to Fundamental Duties and makes them justiciable.

Let me prove my bit of compassion. I offer this as a tribute to the Jew whose travails in life and in history have been recently remembered in one word, 'JEW' which is repeated 6 million times in a published book. To cite an ancient Hindu prayer, let me say: jeevema s'aradah s'atam, may you live a hundred autumns. Every jew is my brother and my sister. Everyone is a Sarasvat. I will live and die for protecting their human dignity.

Let a million historical narratives bloom

Just as there are a myriad flowers of various hues and shades, as the law of nature, there could also be myriad perceptions of value systems governing lives of groups of people. Let a myriad of narratives of local histories or community histories bloom. Let a unifying framework be seen in such narratives such as the unifying dharma-dhamma imperative in many regions and among many peoples' communities of the globe. Let people of Bosnia-Hersegovina or Kyrgystan or Xinxiang write their own historical narratives and their world-views. Let the Hindus, Sufi Muslims, Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Christians of various denominations, Bohras, Ahmedias, Zoarastrians, Gypsies write their own narratives. There ain't no need to compare the narratives which are integral presentations from the dars'ana of the adherants. In the Hindu tradition, for example, there is space even for a Carvaka dars'ana with its own ground-rules of inquiry. Why should academe indulge in straight-jacketing such narratives? Such indulgence is no different from the myths created by so-called Dravidian studies premised on shaky foundations and with the evil intent to divine communities.

Sotto voce, this is my Veda, my search for truth. I must start with a confession: I have no adhikaara to talk about the Veda. I just do not know. It will be a travesty of responsibility to claim to know what the chandas – the language of the Veda -- seeks to communicate. Even Panini did not dare to write a grammar for that language. I will try to abide by what my gurus tell me, because they have lived it.

An example of an inquirer's oath from an ancient text
Satyam vada, dharmam caraस्वाध्यायान्‌ मा प्रमदः 'svādhyāyān mā pramadaha' were the starting phrases of the oath administered by the teacher. The exhortations meant: speak the truth, live a righteous life, never get intoxicated with learning. I take the last ethic to mean 'humility' in scholarship and conveying such scholarship to others.

The guidance goes on to provide methodologies and guiding principles appropriate to living a life by dharma. Some scholars refer to it as a graduation speech. I see it as containing the oath of an inquirer: ya evam veda, this is the Veda, to know.

The key ingredients of the inquirer's oath can be gleaned from the ancient text given below in English translation. This should be deemed to be an ever-lasting documentation for all climes and seasons. There could be errors in the translation of the text and the present writer seeks pardon for any errors and would willingly accept corrections to the rendered text which should be translated into all languages of the globe for oral or written transmission.

Taittiriya Upanishad is a testament of complete education.

'ऋतं  स्वाध्यायप्रवचने च। सत्यं  स्वाध्यायप्रवचने च। तपश्र्च स्वाध्यायप्रवचने च। दमश्र्च स्वाध्यायप्रवचने च।' 'tam ca svādhyāyapravacane ca; satyam ca svādhyāyapravacane ca; tapaśca svādhyāyapravacane ca; damaśca svādhyāyapravacane ca' (Taittireeya Upanishad: 1/17). Svādhyāya 'act of learning'; pravacana 'teaching'. Let the oath be elaborated if necessary defining the words: tam, satyam 'cosmic order' 'truth'.

'यान्यस्माकं सुचरितानि तानि त्वयोपास्यानि। नो इतराणि। ये के चास्मत्व्छ्रेयांसो ब्राह्मणाः। तेषां त्वयाऽऽसनेन प्रश्वसितव्यम्‌।' 'yānyasmākam sucaritāni tāni tvayopāsyāni, no itarāi, ye ke cāsmacchreyānso brāhmaāh, teshām tvayāsanena praśvasitavyam' 'Only adopt good conduct, nothing else.  After leaving here, if you find a teacher better than us, then respect him, pay homage to him by offering him a seat'.

'मातृदेवो भव। पितृदेवो भव। आचार्यदेवो भव। अतिथिदेवो भव।'  'mātvedo bhava, pitdevo bhava, atithidevo bhava' – 'Know your mother to be like a divinity, know your father to be like a divinity, know your teacher to be like a divinity, know a guest to be like a divinity.' 

Will the leaders of the academic community come forward and adopt an inquirer's oath?

S. Kalyanaraman, Sarasvati Research Center, February 3, 2014

S. Kalyanaraman

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