Friday, September 2, 2011

India Asia Collision And The Evolution Of Hindu Thought

Wendy Doniger in her book The Hindus: An Alternative History draws the following parallel between the collision of a piece of Africa (the Indian plate) with the Asian plate and the evolution of Hindu thought:

In part because of the intertextuality and interpracticality of Hinduism, one text or ritual building on another through the centuries, right back to the Vedas, scholars looking at the history of transmission have assumed that the Veda was the base onto which other things were added in the course of Indian history, just as Central Asia was the base that absorbed the impact of that interloping piece of Africa so long ago. And in the textual tradition, at least, this is true enough of the form in which ideas were preserved, the chain of memorized texts. But from the standpoint of the ideas themselves, it was quite the opposite. The Vedas was the newcomer that, like the African island fusing onto a preexisting continental base, combined with a preexisting cultural world consisting perhaps of the Indus Valley, perhaps of any of several other, more widely dispersed non -Vedic cultures. 

One can get carried away to the point of silliness comparing geological evolution of India with the coming together of cultural and religious thinking during the evolution of Hinduism. So don't take this too seriously but I couldn't resist extending the comparison a little.

One aspect that comes to my mind is the retention of the original state. All along the geological landscape of the Indian subcontinent it is easy to make out which  is the original fragment of Africa (Gondwana)  and which the original Asian plate. Over much of the Indian subcontinent the original Gondwana characters of India remained unchanged after the two continents collided as is the case with the Asian continent. They are in proximity only along a narrow zone called the Indus-Tsangpo Suture in the Ladakh -Tibetan Himalayan region. Over there the crustal blocks of the two plates, their provenance recognizable, lie next to each other along  faulted contacts, slivers of ancient Gondwana pasted onto fragments of Central Asia. The boundaries between the two are sharp. It is like as Doniger puts it components of a salad. It may appear mixed but you can recognize the greens from the nuts easily. 

The coming together of the Vedic and non-Vedic worlds has resulted in a more diffuse landscape of ideas and people. Unlike geology there is no spatial boundary within the Indian subcontinent where the Vedic world collides with the non-Vedic. You might be tempted to put this at the junction where Indo-Aryan languages give way in the south to Dravidian languages..but that boundary between the two peoples has shifted geographically and evolved over time to be more a language boundary than a boundary of ideas. Gods and cultural and social practices have flown to and fro between Indo-Aryan and Dravidian speaking people across geography and social strata. So have genes, and the result is more a milkshake than a mixed salad. 

Beyond the Dravidian speaking pariah, farmers, merchants, kings and priest, a social hierarchy likely imported from the Indo-Aryan world, there were many groups speaking Austro-Asiatic and other now extinct languages who progressively became marginalized with the encroachment of Indo-Aryan and Dravidian farming communities and city states. These were the adivasis or tribal populations who at first sight might seem to be a world apart from Vedic and mainstream Hindu thought. They would seem to resemble the discrete pieces of Gondwana and Central Asia, living in close proximity but separated from mainstream Hindus by sharp social, cultural and genetic fault lines. There is some truth to the salad bowl analogy here. But over millenia these fault lines must have been breached and boundaries blurred. Once thought to be unchanged descendants of the first migrants from Africa many tribal populations have to a degree assimilated with the Indo-Aryan and Dravidian speaking populace. Recent studies have shown substantial amounts of Eurasian and south east Asian genetic components within different Indian tribal populations.

There must have been linguistic and cultural exchanges as well.. for example many marginalized groups adopted Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages. Going the other way it is likely that both the
elite Sanskrit literature and popular vernacular mythology borrowed from animist tribal traditions and folklore.

Within the Ladakh and Tibetan region and the Karakorum and Hindu Kush ranges though there are indicators of geological processes that resulted in the two plates not just residing side by side but forming a more complete mix. As the Indian plate subducted underneath the Asian plate, deep inside the crust, very high pressures and temperatures caused the rocks at the contact between the two plates to melt.  In that magma, elements scavenged from two different plates recombined into new minerals. The two plates created one entity.  These mixed rocks called anatexic granites form chains of plutons north of  the Indus -Tsangpo suture, the zone of collision of the two continents. 

So although the fault bounded terrain of the Indus-Tsango suture works as an analogy particularly for some marginalized groups, it is in these granites that geology comes to being the closest analogy to the evolution of mainstream Hindu thought in which ideas from the Vedic and non-Vedic worlds have come together, some traceable to their sources, others having synthesized into inseparable traditions, multiplicities within an individual.


  1. Quite interesting, learnt a lot today. Nicely written and thanks for sharing.

  2. was jambudweep the original drifting india around 6.5 my?