‘Sacred history’ and other dubious memes: English considered harmful
June 11, 2014
a somewhat edited version (alas, they took out some of the good bits!) of the following was published by firstpost at http://www.firstpost.com/india/modi-right-to-ditch-english-but-he-should-speak-sanskrit-at-un-1563899.html
‘Sacred history’, ‘Christian nation’ and other dubious memes: English considered harmful
Rajeev Srinivasan worries that Indians are absorbing a worldview along with a language
The fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided to speak Hindi with his foreign visitors is a clear statement of principle: there is no need to apologize for Indian-ness, nor is there the need to consider English the be-all and end-all. I liked R Jagannathan’s view in Firstpost http://www.firstpost.com/politics/speaking-hindi-how-modi-is-putting-indianness-back-into-india-1557541.html that this helps put the Indian back in Indian-ness. The fact that a number of MPs took their oaths in Sanskrit is further evidence that the age of the unquestioned kowtowing to foreign tongues is coming to an end. Vive la difference, as the French might say.
I have long felt that languages are subversive, and that sometimes they are masks of conquest. Over time I have begun to feel that, in particular, English is enormously harmful in subtle ways. Now this is a hard thing for me to admit since English is the language that I prefer to write in, and so in a way I am sawing away at the branch that I sit on, quite Kalidasa-like. Nevertheless, the memes that we absorb with the language essentially deracinate us, because they are so alien.
For instance, it was intriguing to hear recently from the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, that “the UK is a Christian country” and that he was intent on propagating his religion (“David Cameron: I am evangelical about my faith”, The Guardian, 17 April 2014). This is about as bluntly un-secular as one can be: he was declaring that his country not only had an official religion, but that he would go to some length inflict said religion on others.
In contrast, would any politician in India dare comment that looting Hindu temples and transferring their wealth to the State was inappropriate? The government has in fact launched an attack on the Sree Padmanabhaswami Temple in Trivandrum, with the clear intent of grabbing the billions in gold and antiques and gems in its vaults. But no such thought ever enters the European Christian mind – to say that the Vatican has immense wealth that should properly belong to the masses would be considered blasphemy.
The notion that Britain is a Christian country is not new. Years ago, I read the brilliant Raj Syndrome: A Study in Imperial Perceptions by Suhash Chakravarty ,which, with voluminous research, showed that there was, in practice, little difference between the church and the imperial regime (as I described in my column The Predatory State http://www.rediff.com/news/2002/aug/16rajeev.htm )
I felt a sense of déjà vu when the famously secular The Economist magazine tweeted “ the Arab Muslim world is reacting negatively to a forthcoming movie about Noah, sacred history’s first boat-builder” (emphasis added, and in case you doubt me, below is a screenshot of this tweet timestamped 5:42pm, 13 Mar 2014). This is a plug for its religious blog, Erasmus, which generally talks – very positively of course – about Abrahamic religions, particularly Christianity. I shall focus on The Economist because I read it regularly, and it probably is the standard-bearer among wide-circulation English-language publications.
It amused me because ‘sacred history’ is a deliciously creative euphemism for ‘Christian mythology’: so concrete and real-sounding! The word ‘mythology’, I have noticed over time, is reserved by Anglophones for any non-Semitic stories, eg. Greek, Norse, Hindu, Buddhist, Roman etc. Whereas when it comes time to describe their own mythology, Anglophones use ‘scripture’, and never ‘mythology’. But I think ‘sacred history’ is even better, implying there is ‘real’ history and then ‘sacred’ history. Which is true: there is history, and then there is myth.
The problem is that the Anglophone West, and their friends in India, have a tendency to conflate – often with malice aforethought – their myth with history. For instance, let’s take the founding myth of Christian dogma. There is absolutely no evidence – and I mean absolutely, positively, none whatsoever – that Jesus Christ actually existed. No relics, no artifacts, no contemporary historical records, nothing. Nada. Zip. (Well, to be precise, there is the historian Josephus Flavius, but if you believe him, then you must also believe his history of the Essenes which tell you that the alleged teachings of Jesus were all in the Essene Gospels of a couple of hundred years earlier).
Similarly there is the beloved myth of St. Thomas who, ‘sacred history’ says, arrived in Kerala around 70CE, converted Nambudiri Brahmins, and was murdered in Chennai by Brahmins with a spear, and his skeleton is in Chennai. There are only three problems with this: Thomas never actually went to India, there were no Nambudiris in Kerala at the time, and the Vatican itself certifies that Thomas’ skeleton is in Ortona, Italy. But this has not stopped the myth from becoming “truth by repeated assertion”. There is also a nice little embellishment I heard from Shashi Tharoor, that a Jewish girl with a flute greeted the man on a Kerala beach. Those little details… sheer genius! There were Jews in Kerala around the time: so the plausibility quotient goes up.
For a history-centric set of religions – as in the Semitic/Abrahamic religions Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, along with the quasi-religion of Communism – it is important that major historic events that are supposed to have taken place are treated as true history, things that actually happened. Hence the desperate attempt to confuse ‘real history’ and ‘sacred history’: in other words, an assertion that myth is real. Or, in other words, a ‘sacred lie’.
Correspondingly, there is also the denigration of Hindu history as myth. The Aryan Invasion Mythology is one such attempt – Hindu ithihasa (ithi-hasa: thus it happened) does not jell with the 4004 BCE creation mythology of the Abrahamics (Bishop Ussher’s 4004 BCE genesis date is the basis of Max Mueller’s assertions). Therefore the Hindu ithihasa must be myth. QED. In fact the exact opposite is likely to be the truth: ithihasa as history, Aryan invasion as myth.
The work of Bart Ehrmann, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, including his book Forged demonstrate that there is a great deal of forgery, extrapolation, errors etc. in the New Testament. That is, far from being ‘true’ or the alleged, immutable word of God, the New Testament (Christian Bible) is full of deliberate and unintended falsehoods. This is no ‘history’, although it is pretty good fiction.
The work of Thomas Thompson, a retired Professor of Theology at the University of Copenhagen and a leading archeologist, especially The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, is notable. It suggests that the Old Testament (Jewish Bible) version of history “is not supported by any archaeological evidence so far unearthed, indeed undermined by it, and that it therefore cannot be trusted as history”. This is ‘sacred history’? (By the way, Thompson was made unemployable in US academia by Catholic theologians, and so worked as a schoolteacher, janitor, and housepainter until Israelis, and later, Danes, invited him to tenure-track positions.)
So this ‘sacred history’ business is very dubious, but The Economist perseveres. Though years of reading it carefully I have noticed that they use the term ‘Holy Land’ very often (isn’t this rather non-secular, and highly ethnocentric? An etic outsider certainly wouldn’t consider the West Asian desert particularly holy. A more accurate description would be ‘violent, bloody desert’). And for a Hindu or a Buddhist, his ‘Holy Land’ is India. So whose point of view is it?
Similarly, ‘Holy See’: why not simply say, ‘Vatican’? Given the reality that it is the biggest, oldest, most ruthless Multi-National Company out there, and that it has a dual status as a country (with its own UN seat) and a religious entity, I am not sure why it should be called ‘holy’. In fact, the Anglophone use of ‘holy’ strikes me as much the same as a vacuous formal title, such as ‘Lord’ or something.
Here’s another recent Economist story, where it asserts something about “the birthplace of Jesus”, as though it were self-evidently true, not a pious belief (see the screenshot). In fact, the traditional account of how the birthplace of Jesus was ‘found’ is that it came in a dream to Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, with no corroborative evidence whatsoever, that Bethlehem was the spot. A Greek or Roman temple that stood on the spot was destroyed.
Similarly, the Economist magazine has its ‘Advent Calendar’, a special ‘Christmas Issue’, and it always talks about Christian texts (and only Christian texts) as ‘scripture’, for instance in “Religion in Northern Ireland: Staging the scriptures” (2010). Again, ethnocentric and religio-centric. I also noticed that, for 2014’s Good Friday, they pushed up their publication by one day, so that Christians could take the day off – note the equivalent of all these would be condemned if done in India for Hindus.
I wouldn’t have an issue if all this was confined to the Anglophones: it’s their language, their religion, their problem. But it is seriously polluting and undermining the Indian sense of self-hood. It pains me to point out that, along with the language, we speakers of English as a second language have acquired a number of unfortunate memes (and prejudices) that are grossly culture-specific.
One example is that of ‘crossing one’s fingers’. An article dated 14 Mar 2014 in Livemint.com (“How Isro got an indigenous cryogenic engine”) starts off with: “Mission director K Sivan kept his fingers firmly crossed in the mission control room at the ISRO….” This is comical because it is unlikely that anybody in India would cross their fingers: it is not natural for Indians. Besides, the engineers and scientists of ISRO are probably less religious, even if they happen to be Christians, than the average punter.
But that meme of ‘crossing one’s fingers’ has become part of the discourse. So has ‘christening’ for the simple act of ‘naming’ something. And ‘blue eyed-boy’. This in a country where non-brown eyes have traditionally been a sign of abnormality! Or ‘roses in December’: as Vikram Seth said acidly in Diwali, roses actually grow just fine in India in December!
“Into each life a little rain must fall”: yes, and we welcome it. In India, we welcome the cooling monsoon, the warm, soul-liberating rain, not the bleak, soul-deadeningly chilly drizzle of northern latitudes. As I write this, the monsoon has just hit landfall in Kerala, and all of us are awaiting its arrival with great anticipation, and we are a little tremulous about the El Nino’s effects of a deficient monsoon.
Similarly, we see many write about the “elephant-headed Hindu God, Ganesha” (including Indians writing in English). Fair enough: the deity is indeed elephant-headed. But how come we don’t see anywhere, in reverse, “the Christian corpse God, Jesus on the Cross”? That is also equally true: the deity is a dead body nailed to a cross. Yet, there is a mental block about saying that: it sounds… odd. That is what I mean by unconscious acceptance of metaphors and memes. There is in fact no reason for Indians to internalize these Western vanities.
There are many such metaphors and clichés that Indians use unwittingly that have no meaning in their context. This shows the extent to which they have been brainwashed into an Abrahamic way of thinking. I do not by means suggest that they should abandon English (it is fairly useful for trade and international exchanges); but let them be aware of the religious and cultural biases that pervade that language, that they have absorbed unwittingly.
This is why an uncompromising stand on language – for example, I believe Prime Minister Modi should read his prepared speeches at the UN etc. in Sanskrit and it will be interpreted for others – is a proper part of a cultural re-awakening and self-assertion. Indians don’t need to be colonized in the mind any more.
Some might accuse me of wanting to deny others the benefits I have received from English, I would suggest they get truly fluent in their mother tongue as well as English. In my defense, I am thoroughly familiar with one language, Malayalam, and it is my language of the heart. It is the works of Vijayan, Pottekkat, Mukundan and their Malayalam cohort that speak to me. With exceptions like Amitabh Ghosh’s ‘The Shadow Lines’, the entire corpus of Indo-Anglian literature leaves me a little cold: it is like making love through an interpreter.
1739 words, April 20, 2014
Update: 2076 words, June 7, 2014