Archive for June, 2016

Ancient History: Certainty or Plausibilities?

19 June 2016
Ancient history of Indian subcontinent has become a highly contested arena for the last few decades. Partly, the mischief arose during the English rule from early exponents of Aryan Migration “Theory” [AMT], who, when faced with the surprising discovery in 1920s of buried well planned urban settlements left behind by what came to be called Indus Valley Civilisation [IVC], blamed it’s fall on invading Aryans [AIT] without clear evidence. Today, precipitous decline in yearly rainfall in the region is reckoned to be the chief reason for IVC’s decimation rather than marauding Aryans. The damage done by this “mischief” was further compounded when few were even willing to consider the proposition that the people of the Vedas and of the IVC could be one and the same by at least conceding to review as to when the earliest Hymns of Rig Veda were composed, a period which is generally taken to be after 1500 BCE. The British rulers, particularly since 19th century, took dim view of “natives”, particularly Hindus, and would see no redeeming features in Indian culture, especially what came to be regarded as Hindu Traditions. Sections among politically active Hindus, particularly the three upper castes took umbrage at this negative stereotyping to found their nationalism on the “Glorious Hindu Civilisation of antiquity”. Consequently, a systematic effort began to reimagine the past and to develop counter narratives, which would support such view. This chauvinistic pursuit of pre-independence period got further fillip when Hindu diaspora in North America, who were economically doing very well but felt or were made to feel culturally inferior, became restless. These economic-emigres, who enjoyed their new found affluence but pined for the milieu and traditions they left behind, faced a gut wrenching cultural onslaught when their progeny born in the adopted homeland was exposed in schools to dim views of their “Hindu” identity and to boot developed affinity to the American milieu in preference to the Hindu culture dear to their emigre parents. Today, the two trends from the past and present have made a heady cocktail, which injects the poison of uncompromising chauvinism into any discussion on India’s history, particularly ancient history.  So much so that even many academics get drawn into it unabashedly. There are forums and websites that extoll the virtues of Hindu Dharma and views are advanced with total certainty and complete disregard to available evidence. Any honest enquiry or an honest opinion, if not favourable to greatness of ancient Hindus, is vehemently attacked in the most abusive manner.  During one such exchange, an adversarial “Ad Hominem Scholar” spoke of his indebtedness to Nicholas Kazanas. I decided to follow the link and read him. The first post, which I saw, was: “Shamans, Religion, Soma and the Ṛgveda”.  The analysis of this post follows below.
In this article, Kazanas joins issue with scholars who hold that  at the core of all nascent Religions are Shamanic Practices, which involve use of psychotropic substances to seek “experiences” brought on by altered state of consciousness. His particular interest is  in the context of Rig Veda, when they say,
Writer G. Hancock follows R. G. Wasson’s researches into the use of a hallucinogenic or, as the newer term is, entheogenic drug from the mushroom amanita muscaria (= fly agaric) and indologists S. Kamrisch and W. Doniger O’ Flaherty (1986): they all think that this mushroom was the soma potion, so amply celebrated in the RV (=Ṛgveda). He then concludes that “an ancient hallucinogenic cult exploiting the well-know[n] shamanic virtues of the fly agaric mushroom provided the visionary spark out of which the Vedas first emerged fully formed in remote prehistory” (Hancock 2005: 529). 
Kazanas agrees with the identification of mushroom “amanita muscaria” as the Rig Vedic Soma: <<That the Soma drink of the RV was extracted from the amanita muscaria or fly agaric, as the mushroom is called, seems to me fairly certain>>. He then while not discounting altogether Rig Vedas emergence out of “Soma experience”holds that <<no indologist who has even an elementary knowledge of the RV would entertain it>>. He cites Ingall’s observation, which resonates with the argument he later develops.
…in the RV, there are “two sorts of religious expression and religious feeling, one … calm, reflective, almost rationalthe other built about the Soma experience … exciting, immediate, transcending the logic of space and time” 
His argument is based on three premises.
  • In these (and other) cases …., Soma is not involved in the least. The higher state of consciousness or self-realization comes through contemplation, meditation, reflection and, of course, the subjugation of mind and its thoughts. In other words, it comes not through some entheogen or other artificial, external aid but through mental action and other purely psychological processes accompanied by serious ethical practices, as is suggested in many hymns.
  • Since the people of the RV had means other than inebriating elixirs to attain higher levels of consciousness and unite even briefly if not permanently with “divine” forces, there is every reason to suppose that normal humans (i.e. anatomically modern humans, homo sapiens sapiens) could and did achieve similar states in earlier periods without the use of drugs. It is like sleeping – to use an analogy. People who sleep naturally, going into deep sleep and getting rest and energy-replenishment, do not need and would not take sleeping pills. Only when this natural ability is lost or impaired, say in pathological conditions, would people resort to the artificial means of sleep-inducing substances. Similarly, one could argue people turned to entheogens after they lost the capacity to rise naturally to higher levels of being and consciousness.
  • Nonetheless, we find no descriptions in the RV corresponding to those that modern shamans from various parts of the world have given to researchers since mid-nineteenth century…. Above all, we don’t find descriptions of therianthropic transformations and of infliction of pain with arrows, spears and the like. I repeat, there are no such descriptions at all in the RV…. and, as was said, neither the ingestion of Soma nor any other spiritual practice in the RV entails shamanistic suffering like piercing with spear or arrow, being beaten or torn and so onThe rise into a higher state of consciousness is always a joyfull experience.
To sum up his thesis, in Rig Veda, (1) Divinization or Self-Realisation is achieved often enough through Contemplation/ Reflection/ Meditation alone, though Soma was used on many occasions, (2) Altered experiences are always joyous in Rig Veda unlike in Shamanic experiences, and (3) Only when route to meditative spiritual experience [analogy of normal sleep] was impaired did entheogenic aids [akin to sleeping pills] became “fashionable. (3a) He makes one more allied point to the last one: Monotheism or Monism occurred to homo sapiens “naturally” first; and polytheism/ animism and other variations were later devolutions [or degenerations]. Kazanas succeeds in the limited aim of “Refuting the thesis of Shamanism as the basis of Rig Veda” based on the inherent contradictions between Shamanistic and Rig Vedic experiences. He, just like any honest researcher and expert, proposes the alternative hypothesis as more likely possibility unlike the certainties imagined by chauvinists. Based on his paper though, I see following shortcomings in his argument.    
  1. He accepts that “amanita muscaria” [Soma] was used by both Rig Vedic culture as well as several others around the world. Why do the experiences of other cultures after imbibing amanita muscaria differ so much from those described in Rig Veda? He overlooks this question. I see two possibilities: (a) Soma is not amanita muscaria or (2) The shamanic experiences were gathered from the 19th century onwards and either amanita muscaria or humans or both under went such changes in the interim 2800 years [since Rig Veda] as to produce dramatically different results.
  2. He supposes that earliest anatomically modern humans had the ability to naturally reach super consciousness without entheogenic substances. He still needs to answer why was this ability impaired later on.
  3. The most fatal flaw of course is, if Rig Vedic seers had this “natural ability” as witnessed by many <<calm, reflective, almost rational>> hymns, then why did they resort to copious imbibing of Soma as evidenced by so many other hymns? Why would a person accustomed to natural, normal sleep even think of taking a sleeping pill?
  4. Moreover, I suppose in the natural course Rig Vedic people would have stumbled upon “Entheogenic Foods” first [during foraging in hunter-gatherer stage], much earlier than when they felt the urge for  contemplation/ reflection/ meditation.  Thus, the possibility of encountering altered consciousness first through the accidental consumption of entheogenic substance while foraging would be so high as to be near certainty.   The experiments to attain the same states through “calm, reflective, almost rational means” would have followed later.
  5. His supposition to prioritise monotheism or monism to a period earlier than animism or henotheism or polytheism too comes unstuck as it was riding piggyback on his other supposition [Soma induced altered consciousness is a later devolution or degeneration of the earlier method of naturally reaching the same state], which is unlikely to be true as pointed out in points 3 & 4 above. Again, it is highly unlikely that anatomically modern humans would have seen the “power” controlling Rains to be the same as “power” controlling Fire , especially when rains are seen to put off fires and fires are seen to vaporise water. Therefore, ascribing these natural phenomenas to separate powers would be the initial impulse that would converge much later through quiet contemplation into reckoning the myriad diversity as manifestations of same underlying singular power. 
Kazanas has put forward interesting propositions, but as we have seen there are insurmountable obstacles in embracing his position as correct or even likely.
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