Race studies returning in garb of comparative mythology theories
by S Kalyanaraman on 05 Feb 2014 10 Comments

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.  It was assuming the racial superiority of redheads and imagining an entire community (Jew) as hate symbols that horrendous genocides and holocausts 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 civilise tribal ‘natives’, evangelical activities continue unabated and 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 categorising communities led to the establishment of colonial regimes until the last century. The root cause is the denial of the imperative to recognise all living phenomena as worthy of respect, to recognise that the environment we live in demands 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 a category called ‘comparative mythology’. This category lacks its own methodological tools and draws upon a variety of other disciplines. Its underlying danger is the perpetuation of ‘race’ studies.


Camouflaged ‘race’ studies


Previously, attempts were made citing Biblical sources regarding the Tower of Babel, to break up the world into distinct races descending from specific, named individuals. Similar attempts are now being tried using comparative studies of gene sequences. As a result, mythology studies quickly degenerate into race studies. Harvard professor EJ Michael Witzel’s The Origin of the World’s Mythologies (OUP, 2013) is an example of the assumption of racial superiority of groups such as redheads.


In studies that attempt to trace the ‘roots’ of communities, one can cite many failed attempts using questionable analytical frameworks. 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 sometimes uses 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 rests on 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.


And now, a fourth framework has assumed the dimensions of a sexy option. The discipline called ‘genetics’ is being used to study common genetic sequences among communities. Gene-based evidence is not really evidence, because it is based on one huge assumption – 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.


Genetic studies cause devastation because communities of people get categorised as ‘races’. Thus, Witzel tries to trace mythologies from the days of the continental drift which resulted in the identification of a mythical entity called ‘Laurasia’, also known 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 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. The 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 communities on earth. Straitjacketing 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 research which should be to promote the essential unity and inter-relatedness of 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 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 academia to foster divisive studies and perpetuate hatred among communities. Harvard University has instituted a study genre 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 of brain or bone structure. This trend should be reviewed and the institution would do well to scrap this project which is only wasting academic time with spurious publications. Instances of mischievous comparisons Witzel tries to make between Vedic heritage and the ‘myths’ of many communities can be gauged from the ‘Look inside’ snippets on amazon.com; this work is fit to be declared as rubbish and the publisher, Oxford University, should withdraw the book. Harvard should call the author to order for violating academic ethics. 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 that were intended to debunk the perceived identities by the communities themselves as descendants of, say, a Vedic or Hindu heritage. 


Just as the alleged incursions of a mythical race called ‘Aryan’ were sought to be proved with Biblical inputs of the Tower of Babel, now the same is being tried out with gene sequences, which are premised on an underlying racial superiority of redheads who need to understand Veda in German translation, little realizing that the translation of such a text will be an act of irresponsibility without being fully 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 mistranslation are huge. 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 is well known: he mischievously mistranslated Baudhayana Srautasutra 18.44 to justify his pet but false theory of Aryan invasion into the Indian subcontinent.


Serious academics would do well to leave communities to their own preferences instead of trying to superimpose strait-jackets called ‘categories’ on them, which more often than not tend to be divisive and false. The dangers of academic interventions resulting in social tensions are real and academia should deliberate further about pursuing hobby-horses like the now sexy mythology or genetic studies to prove the identities of peoples’ communities.


A plea to revamp the curricula and institute an academic oath


This exposé on the dangers of mythology as race studies is not to deny the validity of History or Social Sciences studying roots, ancestors, identity and the system of values of different peoples. But the study of History or Psychology or Civilizations or Cultures must be done with compassion and empathy.


An academic ethic of search for satyam, moderated by social responsibility and the inviolate global ethic of dharma-dhamma would be in order. The academic should have the humility to accept the limitations of his/her knowledge of the emotions of people being studied. A private language exists which is impossible to subject to any linguistic study 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 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? Every academic project should be tested on the anvil of abhyudayam and abandoned if it falls short. Meanwhile, Harvard should revisit the Mythologies Project and inquire into the racist narratives perpetrated under it, which present a clear danger to students exposed to the narrative. There should be ethical standards for freedom of expression or academic liberties so as not to trample on the sensitivities of millions of people.


Perhaps 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 and communities, on the lines of the Hippocratic oath (horkos) for medical practitioners. The central component of the oath must be a vow not to hurt the sentiments of groups of people, and a resolve, a responsibility to promote respect for human dignity.


Let a million historical narratives bloom


Let people of Bosnia-Herzegovina or Kyrgyzstan or Xinjiang write their own historical narratives and world-views. Let Hindus, Sufi Muslims, Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Christians of various denominations, Bohras, Ahmadiyas, Zoroastrians, Gypsies write their own narratives. There is no need to compare the narratives which are integral presentations from the dars’ana of the adherents. Why should an academic try to straitjacket these narratives? This is no different from the myths created by so-called Dravidian studies premised on shaky foundations and with the evil intent to divine communities.


The author is Director, Sarasvati Research Center, Chennai

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