Recycled racism in a new bottle
by N S Rajaram on 10 Feb 2014 4 Comments

Racism, the notion that some races, notably the White, are inherently superior to darker skinned and Jewish people was acceptable in academic discourse until the end of World War II. Following the Nazi horrors and the American Civil Rights Movement race is now a dirty word. This does not mean that racial prejudices have been eradicated like, say, polio. Some writers, even academics at supposedly prestigious institutions, continue to produce works advancing racist positions behind thinly veiled sophistic arguments while avoiding overtly racist terms. The Origins of World Mythologies is the latest addition to this dubious genre by a singular scholar.


The German-American linguist Michael Witzel is not unknown to Indians, mostly for the wrong reasons. He is better known as a crusader in support of his pet Aryan invasion (or migration) myth than any contribution to Sanskrit or Vedic literature in which he has been shown to be seriously deficient. (He claims to have found dialectic changes in the Rigveda around 1200 BC soon after the non-existent Aryan invasion.) More activist than scholar, he took the lead in a political campaign to have the Aryan myth taught as history in California schools; more recently he was involved in the campaign to stop Dr. Subramanian Swamy from teaching economics at Harvard.


Witzel’s latest book looks at world mythologies, going back 100,000 years when the first anatomically modern humans were identified in the African Rift Valley. From there he claims to trace two tracks of mythological development - the Gondwanian and the Laurasian. But this is just camouflage, for his agenda is ultimately racist. As Tok Thompson of the University of Southern California exposes (as do others), Witzel claims that these represent two races in the world, distinguished by both myth and biology.


As seen by Witzel, “…the dark-skinned Gondwana are characterized by ‘lacks’ and ‘deficiencies’ …and are labeled ‘primitive’ at a ‘lower stage of development’ while the noble Laurasian myths are …the only ‘true’ creation stories, and the first ‘complex story’, which the Gondwana never achieved.” On the face of it, the common African origin of modern humans is acknowledged, but the sting is in the tail: the dark-skinned Gondwana never progressed beyond their primitive stage to catch up with the ‘noble Laurasians’ - their superiors in biology as well as intellect and character.


If supported, the notion of the superior white and inferior dark races will be scientifically validated. This is the real agenda of the book, but its ‘science’ is rubbish; it does not even rise to the level of pseudo-science. Mythology is just a camouflage to push this prejudice that is simply not worth spending time over. What interests us are the history and motives lurking behind the book.

(Those interested in more detailed analysis may read Tok Thompson’s review


Except for the terminology, its arguments are indistinguishable from those of Houston Chamberlain (Inequality of Races), Arthur de Gobineau and other race theorists who provided justification to the Nazi idea of the superior Aryan race. It is important to note that their source was not Indian but European, more specifically Teutonic German. They worshipped Teutonic deities like Thor and Odin, not Vedic ones like Indra and Varuna. Their Swastika was also the German Hakenkreuz (‘hooked cross’) not the Indian svasti symbol. It was seen in Germany for the first time when General Walther von Luttwitz’s notorious Erhardt Brigade marched into Berlin from Lithuania in support of the abortive Kapp Putsch of 1920.


It is unfortunate that Indian historians have not made a critical study of this brand of European myth making as history that has distorted Indian perceptions also. Worse, some have jumped on the bandwagon in their zeal to insist Vedas and Sanskrit are foreign impositions (like Islam and Christianity). So we have to turn to European authors who have been much more forthright like Nancy Stepan, Leon Poliakov and Stefan Arvidsson.


Recently, the Swedish scholar Stefan Arvidsson raised the question which in effect asked: “Did the end of the Nazi regime put an end to race based theories in academia?” An examination of several humanities departments in the West suggests otherwise. Ideas once central to the Aryan myth resurfaced in various guises under labels like Indology and Indo-European Studies - and now as mythology. Witzel’s book is only the latest exercise in this attempt to prove the superiority of one race over others; supposedly a study on world mythologies, it has a hidden race-based agenda.


But why this attachment to the idea of a superior race long after science has demolished the whole notion of race? Arvidsson’s answer is: the goal of these scholars is to “show that there existed a rich ‘German’ mythology that could successfully compete with classical Judeo-Christian traditions.” It is hardly surprising that anti-Semitism came to be tied up with it. Now anti-Hinduism has taken its place. It is rare to find an ‘Indologist’ in Western academia who is not also anti-Hindu, sometimes obsessively so, like Witzel. (This may have something to do with the fact that Hindu scholars like this reviewer have been at the forefront in debunking their theories.)


It is also part of their identity. As Arvidsson also observed: “There is something in the nature of research [by these scholars] that makes it especially prone to ideological abuse - perhaps something related to the fact that for the past two centuries, the majority of scholars who have done research have considered themselves descendants of this mythical race.” And this race was not only mythical, but superior to others - a fondly held belief that has been shattered by science and history. This is what Witzel is really trying to revive and make the officially sanctioned academic view. His excursion into world mythologies is just camouflage. The real goal is to assert racial superiority.


It is extraordinary how bad ideas have a way of resurfacing especially when self-interest is at stake. The racial myth (like other myths) may have been exposed, but it would be a serious error to assume that these voices have been permanently silenced. Writing about the persistence of superstitions like belief in witches and witchcraft in Europe, Charles Mackay, in his celebrated book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and Madness of Crowds observed (1841):

So deeply rooted are some errors that ages cannot remove them. The poisonous tree that once overshadowed the land might be cut down by the sturdy efforts of sages and philosophers; the sun may shine clearly upon spots where venomous things once nestled in security and shade; but still the entangled roots are stretched beneath the surface, and may be found by those who dig. Another King like James I [a self-professed expert on demonology] might make them vegetate again; and more mischievous still, another Pope like Innocent VIII [who initiated the Inquisition against witches] might raise the decaying roots to strength and verdure.


One may add that scholars and academics are no more immune to the lure of obscurantism than medieval popes and kings, especially when self-interest is at stake. With their base crumbling everywhere, these purveyors of falsehood will be looking for fresh soil to plant their poison-bearing trees. This is what one must guard against.


N.S. Rajaram is a scientist and historian. These topics are discussed in greater detail in the just released book Vedic Aryans and the Origins of Civilization (with David Frawley), Fourth edition

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