Re: Racism and ancient history

Joe Bernstein (
Sun, 29 Dec 1996 22:27:30 -0600

Followups set.

In article <5a6c1l$>, Doug) wrote:

>In <5a1bn1$> (Gerold Firl)


>>One example which has been mentioned in passing should probably be
>>highlighted further: the aryan conquest of india. The vedas
>>specifically note the contrast between the light-skinned gods and
>>dark-skinned demons in the mythological struggle for control of the
>>subcontinent, and allusions to the formation of the caste system, with
>>a light-to-dark color gradient from brahmin to untouchable, shows the
>>racial origin of the worlds oldest apartheid system.

To put it *very* mildly, those lines in the Vedas are controversial. As
in, "do they really mean what it looks like they mean?" Vedic Sanskrit is
not readily read, because there isn't enough of it surviving; one has to
fill in gaps by reference to later works (in Sanskrit or in Persian) and
this means that if words change their meanings this fact is hidden.

I believe Vidyanath Rao has posted to sci.archaeology (as I know he has
posted to the Indology mailing list) a demonstration of, in particular, the
problems with old translations which called the dasas (the ones you're
calling demons, I presume, which is silly - the dasas were human opponents)
"flat-nosed". There's a fair amount more where that comes from.

I'm not trying to argue that color is unimportant in India. But a bunch of
the other stuff here is, putting it mildly, bothersome to me.

"the aryan conquest of india"

Please come over to sci.archaeology the next time we get into a raging
debate over this topic. The last couple were in January or so, and in
November. "Conquest" is rather stronger than *most* students of the topic
now appear willing to grant. A quite conservative viewpoint (i.e., closer
to "conquest" than is typical) can be found in F. R. Allchin's <The
Archaeology of Early Historic South Asia>.

"the mythological struggle for control of the subcontinent"

Um, you found this in the *Vedas*? Please do distinguish those very old
documents from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, epics which are often
considered much later, or from the greater Vedic corpus including things
like Upanisads. I don't know of the Vedas even recognising the concept of
the subcontinent. (For that matter, the identification of Lanka in the
Ramayana with the modern Sri Lanka is *also* controversial, which upsets
the case for a subcontinent-wide reading of that work too.)

"allusions to the formation of the caste system"

The Vedas record a society divided four ways (ignoring all those pesky
dasas). This would become the Hindu concept of "varna". It's pretty
unclear how, particularly in early days, this related to the actual
practical matters of caste, which is in Sanskrit "jati". In particular,
there are multiple sources which argue that in ancient India, things that
sound like jatis actually married *out* by custom, rather than in, as is
now the case. I find this implausible, but... Regardless, the ancient
history of caste is at once murky and demonstrably complex. I would
recommend, in particular, the works of Ram Sharan Sharma as a starting
point in looking into this; D. D. Kosambi is also valuable. Anyway, if the
Vedas allude to the origins of jati, I missed it.

>It appears I was mistaken when I linked racism and capitalism. Thanks
>to Gerold and Pistos, I see clearly that the caste system in India was
>clearly along racial lines, and had a lot to do with the light-skinned
>Aryan invaders fighting the darker-skinned native populations. However
>it all wound up in an economic system - the apartheid system know as
>the caste system. Certain colors do certain economic tasks.

There are thousands of castes in India. While skin colour is an issue,
it's hardly the only one. This is *way* oversimplified.

Joe Bernstein

Joe Bernstein, writer, banker, bookseller
speaking for myself alone for soc.history.ancient, now back under
discussion in news.groups!