How not to sell the Vedas

‘Pride is the fuel,’ says Amish Tripathi, ‘that will help us build our nation’ (Vedic learning is no one’s preserve, everyone’s pride, Times of India, 21 Sept 2014). And what does any right-thinking status-quo-ist do when such is the assumption and a nation is given? He looks for an object of pride and hard-sells it. Tripathi sells the Vedas, asserting that all Indians must take pride in them. Why exactly should we do that? He cannot possibly say ‘because we have to build our nation’ – the object of pride must have independent validity – so he goes on to argue that it’s because ‘all groups in the subcontinent today have descended from the ancient Vedic people.’

What exactly do the geneticists say? In a 2013 study titled Genetic Evidence for Recent Population Mixture in India, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, Priya Moorjani et. al. argue that most Indian groups descend from a mixture of so-called Ancestral North Indians and Ancestral South Indians (ANI and ASI, which Tripathi mentions). Notably, the authors describe these groups as ‘genetically divergent populations’. The first group is ‘related to Central Asians, Middle Easterners, Caucasians and Europeans’ and the second is ‘not closely related to groups outside the subcontinent.’ In other words, there is no walking away from the possibility of the Ancestral South Indians having played hosts to the Ancestral North Indians before intermingling began (from 1,900 to 4,200 years ago according to the same paper).

Tripathi must not have seen much nation-building fuel in mentioning this genetic divergence. He goes on only to say that ‘these groups have inhabited the subcontinent for at least 6,000 years, if not more, heavily intermingling in the ancient past’ (I don’t even want to get into the usual blaming of Germans and Britishers for divide-and-rule). Well, inhabit they could have, but as one group? No. Groups that intermingle ‘heavily’ or otherwise must have been isolated from one another before the intermingling began: it’s commonsense. Moorjani suspects – yes, that word – that ‘the two groups lived side-by-side for centuries without intermarrying’ prior to 4,200 years ago. Tripathi doesn’t want us to read all this in history – glossing over any sort of plurality is the way to go.

Also, Tripathi should be more worried about the shift away from any sort of mingling in the last 1,900 years. According to Moorjani, mixture ‘even between closely related groups became rare because of a shift to endogamy’ – i.e., the caste-system arose – which the Vedic heritage we all must take pride in didn’t do much to discourage. This finds no mention in his article quite possibly because it isn’t good enough fuel, the pontification in the beginning paragraph of his essay notwithstanding.

Even less nation-building fuel there is in seeking the reasons for India’s linguistic diversity. While the novelist can cast his characters such that his prejudice ‘holds true across religions, languages, castes and even national boundaries’, the fact remains that Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages are quite distinct from each other. The Europeans didn’t invent them; they discovered them. This crucial fact, too, finds no mention in Tripathi’s article.

I haven’t seen a study directly linking this North-South linguistic difference with the genetic difference between ANI and ASI, but commonsense suggests that a link must exist. What sort of commonsense? Just this: that the ancestors of people who speak unrelated languages today must not have intermingled – at least not significantly. No such commonsense is visible in Tripathi’s article. In fact, linguistics, where differences are crystal clear, is very bad nation-building fuel for BJP/RSS types in general. It fuels a completely different kind of nation – one which they hate to imagine. So let’s ensure that objective guides research and findings.

Even if, for argument’s sake, one could successfully trace every Indian to some sort of Rashtriya Adam and Eve – one just needs sufficient pride – it doesn’t follow that we must consider everything the couple did with pride. Some of the greatest sons of India have rebelled against the Vedas. The Buddha in the North and Basavanna in the South are but two examples. No number of opinion pieces convinced them to take pride in the Vedas, let alone those that could have stemmed from political agendas. In fact, this whole idea that we ought to respect that which has been handed down to us from history is irrational and an affront to India’s overall spiritual heritage, though certainly part of Vedic heritage. There, you begin and end with pride – at least of late.

All said and done, there is no doubt in my mind that the Upanishads – which are considered part of the Vedas – are the greatest treasure trove of spiritual wisdom in the world, surpassing that of all other religions. Those who wish to sell them need only to place them before the reader in his or her own language; they cannot but attract the spiritually inclined. One doesn’t need to prove, hopelessly, that the Jilebi was a delicacy eaten by ancient Indians everywhere eons ago in order to attract people who might eat it today. Bring a hot, fresh and tasty one if you have what it takes to prepare it, and mouths will water. What a hopeless exercise it is to bring one’s political biases to the argument that we should study the Vedas! The more the Vedas and Upanishads are considered nation-building fuel, the more shall they become the objects of hate, for the very nature of nation-building is to impose one worldview and cut off other shades of opinion.

First Published: IBNLIVE, 23-09-2014