Book Review: Why Koenraad Elst is important for Hindutva – Aravindan Neelakandan

Koenraad Elst

Aravindan NeelakandanStill No Trace of an Aryan Invasion: A Collection on Indo-European Origins by Dr Koenraad Elst. Aryan Books International. 465 pages. Rs 750.

Belgian Indologist Dr Koenraad Elst is a dangerous scholar. With a cruel pleasure the establishment media and mediocre scholars bracket him with crackpots like P.N. Oak and zealots like N.S. Rajaram. Interestingly, both the establishment Hindutva side (as far as that exists) as well as the newly emerging “Internet” Hindutva types are not exactly comfortable with him. Nevertheless, when the dust settles, his books will stand as invaluable testimony and source to express the Hindutva side of things in the most honest manner possible. Blunt but honest.

His latest book Still No Trace of an Aryan Invasion ( Aryan Books International, 2018) is a significant addition to the Aryan invasion/migration (AIT/AMT) and out-of-India theory (OIT) debates. There are 30 essays in this collection. These include in-depth analyses of issues related to caste, ethnicity and race, and book reviews, and rejoinders.

Manu as a weapon against egalitarianism

The first essay, “Manu as a weapon against egalitarianism” (50 pages), should be made an essential read for all Hindutvavadis who want to defend Dharma and more importantly understand it in the present context. Manu Smriti, Elst points out is not a caste manifesto as our Leftists tend to think. Its scope is vast and it is also self-contradictory. An important aspect that Elst highlights is the fact that Manu tried to explain the castes engaged in “defiled” trades as a consequence of the mixing of varnas.

A Chandala was to Manu the result of a servant father and a Brahmin mother. Elst points out that here Manu gives in to a typically intellectual “tendency of subjugating reality to neat little models, in this case also with a moralistic dimension” because Elst states that the children of mixed caste marriages even then did not form new castes but were accepted into one of the two parental castes. Here, Manu was simply expressing his own contempt against mixing of the varnas.

Nietzsche did not borrow his racism or antisemitism from Manu, points out Elst. On the other hand he simply reinforced his own prejudices that had their roots in contemporary Europe through his faulty reading of Manu. The term Chandala becomes important for Nietzsche. But,

In a far-fetched departure from Manu’s use of the term, he relates the concept of Chandala to the psycho-sociological origin of the Jewish national character and thence to the psychology of resentment allegedly underlying Christianity. – Still No Trace Of An Aryan Invasion (pp. 49)

At the same time “Manu’s strict opposition to caste-mixing tallied with Nietzsche’s aristocratism” which in turn “was also susceptible to co-optation into the then-emerging racialist reading of human reality as well as of Nietzsche’s own work”.

How the book got its title: Cameron Petrie’s lecture in 2011

In 2011, Elst attends a lecture by Cambridge archaeologist Cameron Petrie on Harappan archaeology. The archaeologist begins with a slide showing the map of Ghaggar river (considered as Vedic Saraswati), the same one that Michael Danino had shown in his book on Saraswati. But there is a disturbing difference. While the map used by Danino showed quite a concentration of Harappan sites, “Petrie’s map shows a paucity of sites in the same region”.

Elst gets troubled seeing the slide. Fortunately “the very next item in his talk reversed this impression” showing “hundreds of as yet unexcavated Harappan sites” in the very Ghaggar river area. Elst concludes this essay with what could be the most straightforward question to Cameron Petrie: “as a field archaeologist fresh from the recent most excavation” if he had “ever come across actual pieces of evidence for an Aryan invasion.” His response and Elst’s subsequent surmise provide the title for this book.

He smiled and agreed that he too had no such sensational discovery to announce. So: as of 2011, after many decades of being the official and much-funded hypothesis, the Aryan Invasion Theory has still not been confirmed by even a single piece of archaeological evidence. – Still No Trace Of An Aryan Invasion (pp. 62)

The Buddha and Caste

The essay, “The Buddha and Caste” explodes many myths propagated about Buddha and Buddhism. Buddhism was not an egalitarian people’s movement against the “oppressive” Vedic system as it is portrayed today mainly by Ambedkarites and almost uncritically accepted by many. On the other hand, Elst points out the following:

More than 80% of the hundreds of men he recruited, were from the upper castes. More than 40% were Brahmins. … The successor-Buddha prophesied for the future, the Maitreya, is to be born in a Brahman family, according to the Buddha himself. – Still No Trace Of An Aryan Invasion (pp. 74-5)

When Hindus point out that they venerate Buddha as one of the Avatars of Vishnu, the anti-Hindu argument is that it was the typical “Brahminical” strategy of assimilation. But Elst points out that this identification was actually started by Buddha himself or came originally from the Buddhist sources.

Buddhist scripture makes much of the Buddha’s noble birth in the Solar lineage, as a relative of Rama. The Buddha himself claimed to be a reincarnation of Rama, in the Buddhist retelling of the Ramayana in the Jatakas. He also likened himself to the mightily-striding Vishnu. Later Hindus see both Rama and the Buddha as incarnations of Vishnu, but the Buddha started it all by claiming to be Rama’s reincarnation. – Still No Trace Of An Aryan Invasion (p. 76)

Elst—playing devil’s advocate in a quasi-humorous way—thinks that even the “progressive” depiction of Buddha which started in the colonial period might have its roots in racism:

Some pre-WW 2 racists waxed enthusiastic about descriptions by contemporaries of the Buddha as “tall and light-skinned”, which would have made Buddha a proper ethnic “Aryan” in the sense of “Nordic”. – Still No Trace Of Aryan Invasion (p. 76)

But what is even more amusing though not surprising is a continuity—an abiding interest (or shall we call it an obsession?) that still exists—with Indologists like Michael Witzel, who, on account of the “taller stature and lighter skin”, attribute to the Sakya tribe of Buddha an Iranian origin.

Horseplay at Harappa revisited

Speaking of Michael Witzel, Koenraad Elst has a critical admiration for the Harvard Sanskritist. He rejects some of the attacks made on Witzel by Hindu activist-scholars, particularly N.S. Rajaram. Witzel had intentionally exaggerated a clumsy mistake done by Rajaram into a hoax laden with Hindutva conspiracy.

Elst goes through this sordid episode in the essay on ”Horseplay at Harappa Revisited” (pp. 210-4).

Here Elst is clearly in opposition to the deciphering of Harappan symbols done by Rajaram and Jha. For example, he was “unpleasantly surprised” the way N.S. Rajaram insisted that the famous seal with two unicorn-like animals with plant motif was “a shorthand for the rendering of the Aum sign in the Devanagari script, which is some 2000 years younger than the Harappan seals and grew out of the Brahmi script which didn’t have that particular Aum sign.” Also, Rajaram’s reply to the hatchet job done by the Frontline article, “making yet another low-credibility claim for a horse depiction, only added to the atmosphere of ridicule.”

But Elst points out how the presence of the horse is now well established in the Harappan archaeological complex. Elst also defended Rajaram against lynch-mob journalism. He states he even admired the way Rajaram faced it.

But overall, the attack on Rajaram and Jha made by Witzel in collusion with Frontline had a significant impact on the credibility of the Hindutva movement in the international academic and media circles with crucial consequences in the future. This is the observation that Elst makes. Though Rajaram clearly repudiates the crackpot “ancient Hindu world” notion of ex-INA freedom fighter P.N. Oak, he gets bundled with P.N. Oak and Elst gets bundled with both—a cute and easy way to dismiss him by guilt of association.

Elst defends the book on global mythology by Witzel against the charges of racism leveled by Rajaram (Rajaram, Witzel and Racism, Pp. 215-24). Elst finds no evidence for racism in the book and takes N.S. Rajaram to task for alleging so.

Review of Origins of World Myth, a book by Michael Witzel

There is also an essay on the review of Witzel’s book, Origins of World Myth (2013). In the essay, Dr Elst informs the reader that when he posted the review in the “Indo-European Research List”, it was “promptly banned” by Steve Farmer, a sidekick of Witzel, because it was “too political” and “too anti-Witzel”. Yet, the review, “Globalization of Mythology” (pp. 148-58) is neither political nor anti-Witzel. The review is also available on Swarajya. Elst actually considers the explanation provided by Witzel as “a far more detailed explanation of the really existing myths” than given by even Carl Jung.

Elst moves almost affirmatively into Witzel’s binary of the older body of Pan-Gaean Gondwana mythologies and the latter body of Laurasian mythologies. According to Witzel, the “concept of Shamanic heat” and the careful management of this “power” ‘is a very old “Pan-Gaean” trait and “is retained in medieval Indian Kundalini Yoga”. Similarly, the slaying of the dragon or demon by the hero belongs to the Laurasian mythology complex.

It was 40,000 years Before Present (BP) that “certain aspects” of Pan-Gaean Gondwana mythology existed, which, despite the name “Gondwana”, was actually an “Out of Africa mythology complex”. Whereas the Laurasian mythology complex “must have been present by 20,000 years BP at the latest but probably much earlier” and this Witzel speculates to be ‘in Greater Southwest Asia—around 40,000 BP …” (Witzel, 2013, p. 291). Problems might emerge when speculative mapping of current socio-cultural perceptions are mapped onto these binary branches of the global mythological tree.

Shockingly, Dr Elst himself makes one such disturbing speculation based on Witzel’s view that the older Pan-Gaean Gondwana shamanism only had dancing and not “the typical Siberian feature of shamanistic drumming, and they do not have much of a shamanistic dress.” Based on this Elst states:

I might remark that the Paraias of South India (yes, those whence the English language has borrowed the word pariah) form a borderline case: they certainly are known for ecstatic drumming and dancing to achieve controlled spirit possession. Their distinctive tradition stands out against Vedic Hinduism as much closer to Shamanism. Till recently, they were kept at a distance by Brahmin priests as ‘untouchables’ not because they were despised (though they may have been that too) but because they were feared, viz. for carrying with them the world of the spirits and the dead. – Still No Trace Of An Aryan Invasion (p. 154)

The Paraiayar community in Tamil Nadu, though a Scheduled Community (SC) today, was not “‘till recently kept … as untouchables” by Brahmins because of the fear of ghosts. Nor are they the only community who use “ecstatic drumming” for inducing altered states of consciousness. In fact, what distinguishes the Paraiyar community and their traditional priests, the Valluvars, is the reputation they had for their astrological knowledge. Thiruvalluvar, one of the greatest Tamizh seer-poets, belonged to the Valluvar community.

Professor Gustav Oppert, a professor of Sanskrit and comparative philology at Madras Presidency College, in his work on the “original inhabitants” of India provides a picture of Valluvars as the hereditary priests among the Paraiyars (though he wrongly calls them as Pallas). He states:

The present position of the Valluvar is highly interesting. He is famous for his superior attainments in Astrology, and is much consulted when horoscopes are to be cast. Though socially an outcaste, he is respectfully treated by Brahmans and especially by Brahman ladies, who often have recourse to his advice. He wears the holy brahmanical thread or yajnopavita, in Tamil pununul or punul. At the weddings of Pariahs and Pallar he utters Sanskrit passages in the marriage ceremonial, the meaning of which he probably does not know. Considering how jealous the Brahman priests are of keeping secret their sacred verses, it is very strange indeed that the Valluvar knows and uses some of them. – On The Original Inhabitants Of Bharatavarsa Or India (1893) (pp. 67-8)

However Oppert tries to explain this “paradox” within the framework of Aryan-Dravidian divide—as the Valluvars having learnt the mantras “at a time when friendly relations still existed between the Brahman settlers and the original population”.

Some of the most sophisticated mystical philosophical writings in Tamil are attributed to the writings of Valluvars. Oppert even quotes Gnana Vettian (a 16th century text, authored by Valluvar, not to be confused with Thiruvalluvar, in which a Vettian—a hereditary undertaker of Pariah caste—speaks of wisdom) , where the Vettian calls upon the people to “wear the sacred thread” and “carry all the insignia, especially the white umbrellas and white chowries, as well as the golden fans used by the gods and sages, beautiful marks and clothes” and “praise by worshipping the beginning and ending of Om, in which lustre of wisdom and divine essence are manifest”.

There are evidences from inscriptions which show that the Valluvars were indeed Brahminical priests employed in temples whose status seemed to be on par with the image we have of Brahmins today. Though during Chozha period their status did suffer, they still retained their ritual high positions in many of the important temples. While English made the word “Pariah” to mean an outcaste, traditional Hinduism gave him the title of “the great Pariah who mounts the elephant”.

Clearly the discrimination and suffering that the Paraiah community underwent have their roots more in the political and social power struggle that happened in South India starting late 9th century onward than in the Shamanic traditions of Pan-Gaean Gondwana and Laurasian branches of the global mythological tree.

Nevertheless, on the whole, the book review by Elst is positive, academic and contains nothing “political” nor does it contain the fallacy of ad hominem (which one seldom sees in the writings of Elst, despite vicious attacks on him from a section of establishment academia as well as from a section of Hindutvaites).

Essays on Sheldon Pollock

In this collection, there are two essays critiquing, in detail, work done by Sheldon Pollock, who has been nurturing a thesis that the Hindu Darshanas—particularly Mimamsa—through Indology, influenced or even shaped the Nazi ideology and policies, including genocide: “A Nazi Out-of-India Theory” (pp. 97-105) and “Sheldon Pollock’s idea of a National-Socialist Indology” (pp. 397-420).

Both are important in the sense that they alert Hindutvavadis to a new academic ammunition that is being assembled against them, in “in high places” as Elst calls it. So “when Hindus are writing for the umpteenth time that the AIT stems from colonialism and racism”, Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock and his “acolytes” have been, at least from 1993, elaborating and disseminating the thesis, “that Germany invested much in Indology and used it in its project of self-definition as ‘Aryans’ contrasting with the ‘Semites'”.

According to Elst, with Hindutvavadis opposing Pollack’s appointment to a prestigious Sanskrit literary conservation project funded by a Hindu industrialist, Pollock “sharpened his long-standing hatred of the Hindu nationalist movement into a paper alleging that Indology in general and the OIT in particular was much beloved of the Nazi establishment(pp. 99-100).

In “A Nazi Out of India Theory” (2012), Elst highlights Vishwa Adluri’s 2011 paper “Pride and Prejudice: Orientalism and German Indology” in the International Journal of Hindu Studies and its rebuttal by Reinhold Grunendahl in his 2012 paper in the same journal, titled: “History in the Making: On Sheldon Pollock’s ‘NS Indology’ and Vishwa Adluri’s ‘Pride and prejudice’’’. After studying both sides Elst writes:

I vaguely knew that Pollock was wrong in associating the OIT with National-Socialism, but not that he was so spectacularly wrong. His thesis is first of all that India was a central concern for the Nazis. This is put forward most emphatically (but only with bluff) by Pollock and, on his authority, generally taken for granted. … But Grunendahl shows from old and neutral sources that the Indology departments received no special attention, that they were small compared to Ancient Near-Eastern Studies, Sinology etc., and that the Nazi period showed no special interest in Orientalism in general or Indology in particular. If anything, they suffered in their orientation on India from the reigning emphasis on ‘Indo-Germanic studies’. – Still No Trace Of An Aryan Invasion (pp. 101-2)

The readers are also referred by this reviewer to “Surprising Aryan Mediations between German Indology and Nazism: Research and the Adluri/Grunendahl Debate” by Karla Poewe and Irving Hexham (University of Calgary) in the same journal (2015). Here the authors differentiate between two distinct worldviews and phases of German Indology and its use of the term “Aryan”. They observe:

German Indologists were not preoccupied with looking for a narrow Romantic nationalism that would somehow establish German scholarly superiority over the Orient and assert it against British, American, and Indian scholars as Adluri (2011) claims. Rather they constructed a worldview: initially a universal Romantic worldview that, importantly, included the Orient or at least India’s Hindu traditions, its myths and sagas, its play with time, as a congenial ally although even then pitched against different facets of the Judeo-Christian tradition. … Once housed in Nazi institutions like the SS Ancestral Heritage Foundation, however, the word “Aryan” became an instrument to mobilize people, indeed peoples, against Jews and to camouflage their murder by the Gestapo and SS. – Karla Poewe & Irving Hexham (2015)

Their paper provides a glimpse for Hindus as to in which direction this line of research is set to proceed. For instance, Poewe and Hexhale in their conclusion claim to have “mentioned only a few individuals that sought contact with European totalitarianisms, and sometimes they gave more than they received including direct criticism”.

In 2011, the book Breaking India (Malhotra and Neelakandan) did warn about this particular front being opened against Hinduism. We had quoted from Indologist Wilhelm Halbfass, who had made a strong criticism of this approach of Pollock as early as 1997.

Halbfass’s criticism is worth revisiting again. While agreeing that “the overt and brutal commitment to power and hegemony in National Socialism may alert us to the inherent, though less visible dangers in other structurally similar ideologies and discourses”, Halbfass alerts the scholars to Pollock’s project: “All ‘discourse of power’ and their applications are manifestations of one and the same underlying structure of thought and discourse which is called ‘deep Orientalism'”. Then Halbfass points out the kind of extrapolation that can be made:

Would it not be equally permissible to identify this underlying structure as ‘deep Nazism’ or ‘deep Mimamsa’? And what will prevent us from calling Kumarila and William Jones ‘deep Nazis’ and Adolf Hitler a ‘deep Mimamsaka ’? Indeed, Pollock draws a direct line from ‘Justice Sir William’ (Jones) to ‘SS Obersturmfuhrer Wust’ and postulates an inherent affinity between the hegemonic role of Sanskrit in traditional India (as propagated by the Mimamsakas and others) and the attitudes of its latter-day students among British colonialists or German National Socialists. In accordance with such premises, he sees the ‘legitimization of genocide’ as the ‘ultimate orientalist project’. Will all this bring us closer to the goal of a ‘critical,’ ‘postmodern’ and ‘postcolonial’ Indology?… What would such a new Indology be like? Pollock admits that his own ideas are still very tentative. For the time being, they do not offer a potential alternative to the quiet and patient pursuit of understanding (‘dialogic understanding’) which is never uncritical, but cannot be iconoclastic either.’ – Wilhelm Halbfass, Research And Reflection: Responses To My Respondents (1997) in Beyond Orientalism: The Work Of Wilhelm Halbfass And Its Impact On Indian Cross-Cultural Studies (Eds. Eli Franco, Karin Preisendanz & Wilhelm Halbfass) (2007) (pp. 17-8)

Now what were called “still very tentative” views in 1997, after two decades, have grown into a powerful academic stereotype while the critical observation of Halbfass that “they do not offer a potential alternative to the quiet and patient pursuit of understanding” still stands.

Elst has alerted us to how this gross distortion and negative stereotyping of Hindu Darshanas are evolving into a mighty poisonous tree in the academic substratum that is fertile in Hinduphobia.

In the essay on Pollock and so-called “NS Indology”, Elst makes a very detailed critique of Pollock and exposes the groundless nature of his thesis. Here is an important observation:

Note that in all Pollock’s quotations from NS Indologists, only one Hindu is mentioned by name, repeatedly: the Buddha. He tries to make the Mimamsa thinkers with their chiseling of Sastra law into an inspiration to the Nazis (as if they needed Mimamsa to conceive of inequality), but never manages to find a Nazi quote about them. None, for example, about the 12th-century Sastra commentator Bhatta Laksmidhara, whom he himself drags in frequently as justifying societal hierarchy. On the other hand he presents the Buddha as an antidote to Vedic inequality, yet that same Buddha turns out to be very popular among the Nazis. – Still No Trace Of An Aryan Invasion (p. 409)

It is not just Sheldon Pollock the individual Hinduphobic academic. Pollock has simply been “mainly surfing on an already-existing zeitgeist” to which he himself adds “his authoritative voice”. This zeitgeist actually is an abiding tendency to criminalise Hinduism through things perceived negatively—in the case of Sheldon Pollock, it is without evidence—”the worst allegation one can possibly make, viz. the accusation of responsibility for the Holocaust” (p. 418).

Tony Joseph’s DNA Evidence for Aryan Invasion/Migration Scenario

The last essay of this 465-page book is on the article of Tony Joseph marshalling the “DNA evidence” in support of “Aryan invasion/migration” scenario.

While Elst correctly identifies the bias in the article of Tony Joseph, he also cautions those in the opposite camp of AIT/AMT that there is a problem here we need to deal with.

Nonetheless, their belief in an all-male incursion into India that has left traces in the Y-genes may well have substantial ramifications for Indian history, even by implying an Aryan invasion. And while none of them has been quoted as actually having proven, through his research, an Indo-European invasion, it is still possible that some of them do think so. … It will take argumentative acumen and a serious research effort to convince them otherwise. – Still No Trace Of An Aryan Invasion (pp. 456-7)

This book is essentially a collection of various articles, blog-entries, papers etc. presented by Dr Elst between 2008 and 2017 on the Aryan question. Dr Elst attends various international conferences and interacts with global academia. He has razor sharp academic rigour and an objectivity rarely seen today among the academics dealing with this particular issue.

He is one person from the Hindu side who knows the webs getting woven, ammunition being forged and stereotypes being constructed within the academia that will have serious ramifications for the Hindutva movement. Naturally he is a man in a hurry and hence at times he makes harsh criticisms against the self-congratulatory complacency Hindus indulge in.

Consider the following words of caution and advice to the Hindus in the book:

If you want the Aryan debate to go anywhere, OIT writers have to observe a complete moratorium, without ifs and buts, on references to the last two hundred years. No more Max Muller or Michael Witzel! … Having spent time in the real world, interacting with real scholars, I know the real situation, which is that the AIT is still taught from all the important platforms. People who tell you differently, live in a fantasy world and … they ultimately only hear their own opinions. Fortunately, we can ignore recent history including these Hindu will-o-the-wisps, and start work on the really available testimonies to ancient history. – Still No Trace Of An Aryan Invasion  (p. 209)

Not exactly the best way to endear one to people who think they have won the Aryan debate. But then this is a caution that can save us from the final defeat.

Except his Decolonizing the Hindu Mind (Rupa, 2005) most of his books have the dull textbook-like covers which are the trademark of Voice of India. This book is a welcome exception. The cover is attractive. One wishes the Hindu intellectuals and think-tanks project this book and organise panel discussions and author-interaction on it.

By promoting this book among Hindus, discussing and debating it, we will be doing a great service to ourselves. We will equip ourselves to fight our battles better. If this book does not get the enthusiastic reception it deserves among us, then it is a sad commentary, not on the non-existing marketing skills of Elst, which he does not need, but on us—our inability to respect Saraswati. – Swarajya, 7 May 2019

You can buy the book here.

» Aravindan Neelakandan is an author and contributing editor at Swarajya.

Koenraad Elst


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