I just finished Kautilya’s Arthashastra, which is perhaps the greatest book I know of that I can’t recommend to readers.


So, first, what is it?  It’s a book on state policy: how to run a country, how to run a spy network, how to regulate commerce, who to appoint as ministers, how to manage allies and enemies, how to conduct war. It was written somewhere from 2200 to 1700 years ago in India, attributed to one Kautilya or Vishnugupta.  It’s often claimed that Kautilya was Chanakra, the wily minister of Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the first Indian empire, but this is unlikely.

It’s often compared to Machiavelli. On the whole Kautilya counsels the king to be virtuous: he must avoid dissipation, reward loyalty, punish criminals, put down bandits, encourage (and not overtax) production. But when he’s cynical, he’s cynical.  He tells you how to recruit spies, how to double-cross your friends, how to poison people, even how a minister can declare himself king.

He’s also, truth to tell, extremely dry, and it’s not clear how much of his advice was followed, which is why I can’t urge anyone to run out and score a copy.  As Patrick Olivelle says about the similar Laws of Manu (which is coming up on the reading list, watch this space), the book dates from a time when northern India was often as not run by low-caste upstarts, by Buddhists (i.e. heretics), or by out-and-out mlecchas (barbarians)– Greeks, Kushans, Sakas. So Kautilya and Manu are both describing things as they think they ought to be.

But the thing is, more than most ancient books, Kautilya gives loads of details on everyday life: crop yields, names of measures, structure of the government, how a fort was laid out, how many yojanas the army could travel in a day, how to use elephants in warfare. (Pro tip: you can use a line of elephants as a makeshift bridge to cross a river!) That is, it’s a treasure trove of information useful in conworlding.

This will take a few posts to work through.  Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit: magical formulas!

(As a warning, this is Kautilya at his worst and most credulous. But it’s entertaining.)

  • A powder made from lizards or stinking insects, a black snake, and panic seed, will cause instantaneous death.
  • For a longer death, try root of vyaghata (Casia fistula), flower of bhallataka (Semecarpus nacardium), and essence of an insect.  (Mad props to the translator, R. Shamasastry, for working out the botanical names.) The dosage for killing a man must be doubled to kill a horse, and quadrupled to kill an elephant.
  • Smoke from the burning of krikalasa (a lizard) and grihagaulika (a house-lizard) causes leprosy.
  • You can turn an animal white using oil prepared from mustard seeds kept for seven nights in the urine of a white goat. Didn’t work? Did you keep it in a bitter gourd for a month and a half?
  • Another way to bring on leprosy: make paste from gunja seeds which have been kept for seven nights in the mouth of a white cobra. (Is the cobra dead?  Doesn’t say. If not, that’s some impressive snake training.  And if it is, I’m not sure I want to retrieve seeds from a snake left out in the Indian sun for a week.)
  • The powder of a firefly mixed with mustard oil emits night at light. One of the few believable recipes!
  • A serum applied by roasting a pregnant camel along with saptaparna (Lechites scholaris) will make a journey of a hundred yojanas fatigue-free. If you have no pregnant camel on hand, dead children roasted in cremation grounds will do. This may be hard to get past the ethics committee at your lab.
  • Fast for three nights, then take the skull of a man who has been killed with a weapon. Grow barley in it, irrigating with goat milk. Make a garland from the sprouts; it will make you invisible.
  • Make a sack from the clothes of a man who died of natural causes, and fill it with the ashes of a dead Brahmin. You can then put the sack on your back and walk about invisible. Or perhaps people will just be too polite to acknowledge your presence.
  • Fast seven nights, get hold of three white hairs from a porcupine, and make a fire with 108 pieces of the khadira tree (Mimosa catechu), along with honey and ghee. Chant a certain mantra while burying one of the hairs at the entrance to a village.  All the animals in the village will fall asleep.

Now, I don’t actually blame Kautilya for repeating this nonsense. It’s evident that he is basing his book on earlier books.  He doesn’t say he tried any of this; he’s obviously copying down similar lists from the library. This is the last chapter of the book, so he’s already given you the standard and much more plausible methods of statecraft. His attitude is obviously “This stuff might come in handy if all else fails, so here it is.”

What’s more intriguing is the mindset of whoever created these recipes. The thing that makes them implausible is the very thing that makes them hard to check: the plethora of arcane ingredients.  If someone claims to have alchemical knowledge, and someone pesters them hard enough for a recipe, this is exactly the sort of thing they’d come up with. Extra points if the ingredients are disgusting (thus the urine and ground-up lizards) or impious (Brahmins’ ashes). The questioner, without modern chemical knowledge, can hardly say “That can’t possibly work”; all he can do is write down the recipe and slink away.

Of course, it’s also possible some of these recipes ‘worked’, in the sense that some of the plants and animal products involved had some effect.  E.g. Casia fistula is used in Ayurvedic medicine as a “purgative”.  Maybe if you used enough of it, you could make someone sick, who knows.  Few of the recipes have convincing details, though, like precise dosages.

Anyway, if this whets your appetite, you can read the whole thing here.  The recipes are found in Chapter XIV.

Paul Ryan worked out his health care bill in a GOP-only clubhouse and rushed it through committees before the CBO had estimated the impact, but unfortunately for him legislation has to be published eventually, so now we can take a look at Trumpcare. It isn’t pretty.


Here’s a good overview from Vox. Bottom line: Trumpcare will throw 14 million people off insurance immediately, and 24 million more in the next ten years, in order to give a $600 billion tax cut to billionaires who don’t need it.

The CBO estimates that a 64-year-old earning $26,500 a year, who currently pays $1700 a year for health care (i.e., after the Obamacare subsidy), would pay a whopping $14,600 under Trumpcare. Republican assholes think this person can just give up their iPhone, but of course the reality is that this person can’t afford that kind of “access to healthcare”.  They will go without insurance.  If they need the coverage, they will die.

And they probably voted for Trump.  Trumpcare is hardest on older people and rural areas, precisely the people who supported Trump and believed his lies about “terrific” health insurance that would cover “everybody”.

We’re used to Trump lying by now, but today’s point is that the GOP plan is the end result of years and years of Republican lies. The chief architect of this fiasco is Paul Ryan, a man who has a wholly undeserved reputation as an honest policy wonk, among pundits who desperately want to find such an animal in his party. In fact he’s a Randite whose only actual policy concern is to give the 1% more money and tear up the social safety net. It’s right there in his bill, but his public statements are full of polished lies about “choice” and “access” and the supposed evils of Obamacare.

Now, Republicans could, if they chose, be absolutely honest about their preferences. They could say they don’t believe in the government providing health care; that they are only governing to benefit billionaires; that they want to phase out Medicaid; that insurers should be able to deny coverage to whoever they want and make insurance unaffordable for the old and sick.  Probably two thirds of their voters would completely accept this— so long as they didn’t touch Medicare and Social Security. And as I’ve said before, repealing Obamacare is basically a return to the status quo of 2013.

But obviously this would be a political disaster with the muddy center of American politics, the 20% of the electorate which bounces left and right like a bobblehead and determines who actually wins elections.  Obamacare has insured millions of people who didn’t have coverage before; those folks like their new coverage, and are pissed that Republicans want to take it away. This is particularly important in the 20 Republican-led states which accepted Obamacare’s Medicaid expansions.

Klein and Schiff in the linked article make an excellent point about affordability. When health care wonks talk about health care affordability, they mean the nation spending less on health care. The liberal ones mean restraining the absurdly high prices of American health care (no other nation pays so much for so little). The conservatives mean reducing demand for health care. (Conservatives are convinced that everyone but themselves are hypochondriacs who only go to the doctor because their job or the government pays for it.)

When ordinary people talk about health care affordability, they mean what they themselves pay. People on expanded Medicaid are pretty happy: there are no deductibles and they can go to the doctor.  People on the marketplaces (like myself) are more likely to be unhappy, because deductibles have gone way up, and restrictions on who you can see have become way more cumbersome. But it’s still better than the pre-Obamacare options.

The thing is, Republicans have unwisely echoed those complaints— which means they are expected to do something about them.  You can’t say “the problem with Obamacare is high deductibles” and then create a Trumpcare that costs people 7 times as much.  That’s the problem with lying; it eventually catches up with you.

As Matt Yglesias has said, why don’t they just leave health care alone and just pass a tax cut? Mostly because Ryan and his co-conspirators thought that healthcare was low-hanging fruit. After all, they’d “repealed” Obamacare more than 30 times! The base would love them! They didn’t expect their town halls to be filled with angry constituents and the popularity of Obamacare to go up. And it’s apparently very hard for legislators to give up on a tactic and go try something else.

Ryan also seemed to expect that Republicans would just fall in line. The biggest wildcard, Trump himself, was no problem; his promises on health care turned out to be garbage. But a bunch of more-moderate Republicans in the Senate are terrified of being blamed for the catastrophe of Trumpcare, and a bunch of ultra-conservatives in the House are furious because some poor people will still get government assistance. There’s no way to make both groups happy at the same time, and it’s hard to picture how to threaten both wings to make them back down.

(The bill has to pass the House first, so the obvious “solution” is to make Trumpcare worse now, to appease the loonies, and then let the Senate deal with it somehow.)

(Maybe another lie will save the bill: promise that the real Trumpcare will be done later, and fix all the problems. Thing is, Ryan’s bill is somewhat limited by his insistence on passing it as a reconciliation bill, with zero Democratic support, but also no Democratic filibuster, because that’s the magic of reconciliation bills. The later bill would have to have Democratic votes. But if they had, or wanted, Democratic votes, they’d be pursuing them right now. The later better bill is a myth.)

Health care is hard, but all these problems are essentially of the GOP’s own making. The real problems people have with Obamacare could be easily solved with a magic ingredient: money.  But this solution isn’t available to Ryan, because he’s lost the old Reagan-Bush magic of approving of government spending when Republicans do it.  He’s created a mess for himself and the country, just to get that tax cut.

I’m at the point in my book where I need some sample sentences in Hindi. If you (or a friend or relative) know Hindi and can translate them for me, please contact me. There’s a couple dozen or so.

(I have versions of them already, but they’re either copied from textbooks or they’re my attempt at modifications. I’d rather have a native speaker produce original ones.)

Also, it’d be helpful to have a short (one-paragraph) text in Hindi I can use as a sample text. It should be in the public domain.

I’ll admit right off that my interest in Conan Exiles was piqued by my friend Chris’s article about its dong physics. You can adjust dong size, you see; as Chris says, there should be a slide whistle sound effect for that. For women it’s breast size.

The idea is, you start out naked in the desert, and move up from there.  I would not like to be put naked in the desert in real life, but it sounded like fun in a game, so I picked it up.


Primal life: watching a dude fight a giant turtle

This is a different approach from (say) Empyrion, where you arrive on an alien planet in an escape pod that includes a buttload of metal ingots, seedlings, weapons, a fabricator, a chainsaw, and motorcycle parts. Exiles is made by a Norwegian company, presumably strung out on death metal, so you begin with zilch.

Back in the Hyborian Age everybody was built. My character is supposed to be an exiled criminal, but I guess the prison had an excellent food service and exercise program.

I have no interest in PvP, so I’m only doing single-player.  This is also Early Access, so who knows what mechanics will be added in the next year. Still, the basic gameplay is there.

In any survival game, the question is how long is it till the mining and crafting loop becomes too tedious? I put in over 300 hours in Empyrion, which is about as good as it gets. I played Astroneer for about 6 hours: it’s charming but I didn’t feel like anything new was coming up.  I’ve already played Exiles for 30 hours– it’s mostly fun, a little grindy, sometimes infuriating.

One big thing: it’s really beautiful.  You get some lovely sandy vistas, with arcane ruins in the backgrounds, and lots of animals and NPCs to go hunt down.


North of the river, it’s advisable to put clothes on

The idea here is that back in the Hyborian Age, miscreants would be hung up on the cross on the edge of the desert. A helpful note details my character’s crimes: singing bawdy songs, piracy, and blackmail. Conan comes by and cuts you down.  That’s about it for story and for any actual connection to the Conan franchise.  Well, you do pick your race and gods from the Conan canon. Other than that the main thing is, you know, being primal. So there are elements like making slaves of NPCs and exploring sorcerous ruins. If you follow Mitra, as I do, when you kill an NPC you collect their soul, which you do by hitting them with an ankh.

In practice, you gather resources, craft things, and progress in a tech tree. My first hours were a bit precarious– there’s no tutorial, and on-line material is scanty. So, some news you can use if you want to try it out:

  • Most interactable things don’t get any on-screen prompt or glow or anything. Eventually I realized that most plants, rocks, and sticks can be picked up by looking at them and hitting E.
  • Water is not a problem when you find the river, and food is not a problem once you have a campfire.
  • Hides seemed scarce at first, till I realized that you can’t loot a dead animal: you actually have to whack it with your pickaxe till it gives up the goods. You need hides to make a bow, which is key to attacking the meaner animals.
  • You will die a lot at first. You can set your respawn point by making a leaf bed– you have to remake it each time. Respawning will go much easier if you create a wooden box and put some basic supplies in it (like a spare bow and stone sword).
  • Eventually you will want a tannery, which is fueled by bark. You get bark from trees only if you use the pickaxe on them.
  • While I’m giving advice: I found the game laggy till I turned down some inessential graphics things, like shadows.

You can make rather handsome sandstone structures, and then you start to accumulate workbenches and other advanced crafting tools. In general the map gets harder as you go north.  I can’t tell you what’s up there yet, except that I’ve found where the iron and coal rocks live.  (And regenerate!  Rocks, plants, and monsters regrow after awhile.)

So far as I’m concerned, if I want a workout I’ll go to the gym.  The game is extremely stingy in XP advancement; it takes forever to build all those workbenches, and then you have to wait for more levels to get to the good stuff, like iron weapons. But in single-player you can set your own rules, so I bumped up the XP allocation considerably.  There’s only so much splitting rocks with a stone axe that I can take.

Combat… well, combat needs work.  You can use a shield and sword, only the shield will break pretty much immediately.  There’s not much variation otherwise. I spend a lot of time retreating to rocks; the monsters and NPCs can’t climb most rocks, so you can then shoot them with arrows. There’s some animals I haven’t figured out yet, like the spiders.  The bows are too wimpy to hit them from far away, and they shoot poison at you.

Most infuriating thing yet: I explored an underground temple and found that I was accumulating “corruption”– expressed as a permanent reduction of my health and stamina. There is a cure for this: you have to get yourself a thrall who’s a dancer. This was so dumb that I restarted, avoiding nasty caves this time.

The map is terrible.  There is no way to mark points.  You can’t see where you’ve been; there are no landmarks.  Your base is not marked, nor is your corpse (which you want to loot to get back the inventory you had when you died).

A minor quibble: you can’t loot enemy gear, which seems silly.

The basic draw of these games is to see what you can do next, as you learn new skills, or are able to take on enemies you couldn’t before.  From that point of view, Exiles is still working for me, because I want to see what comes next.  Also, I want to see what this pile of bones and lotus flowers I’ve been accumulating will eventually be good for.



Well, it’s day 8, and we’re already in constitutional crisis. The Republicans are already trying to ban Muslim immigration, and deporting legal American residents from their home, which is illegal and unconstitutional. There are already reports that they are defying court orders.

But right now I’d like to talk about what model we use for confronting the GOP. Is it Hitler? Is it Nixon?  Is it Thatcher?  Is it Putin?  Is it George W. Bush?


This question probably doesn’t affect what you do, which I hope is: resist. The heartening thing about the last month has been that the left has been putting aside its habitual post-election sulk to do things: call Congresscreatures, join organizations, march, donate to the ACLU, punch Nazis, start organizing for the next elections. And people are doing these things who ordinarily do almost nothing about politics. This hasn’t happened on this scale since the sixties, probably.

The model does affect what we expect to happen next, and how successful we can expect to be.

The Nazi model is compelling in many ways. The Republicans have the nihilism, the boiling rage, the contempt for democracy, the urge to stamp out dissent, the bigotry. Actual Nazis are thrilled to pieces, and a white supremacist is senior counselor to the president. And there is a chilling regalvanization of anti-Semitism.

One problem is… what stopped Hitler? Marches, elections, counter-revolution?  Nothing domestic did; once he was in power, Germans had no power to stop him.  He was only stopped by a world war led by foreign powers. If you really think that’s what’s going on, who’s your Roosevelt?

I get the impression that some people would kind of like a return to Thatcherite Britain. You had left and right skinheads fighting in the streets, which is fun for some; you had some really good music and comics. But what ended Thatcher?  Rather disappointingly, it was being thrown out by her own party. Which maintained power for another 7 years.

Let’s look at it the other way.  Take current Republican initiatives, and see what they look back to.

  • Anti-refugee sentiment: as many have pointed out, this is like a country in the 1930s: the United States, which refused Jewish refugees and sent them back to Germany to be killed.
  • Anti-Muslim sentiment: this has been stoked on the right since 9/11… that is, the administration of Dubya Bush. Remember Ann Coulter saying we should invade all the Arab countries, murder their leaders, and convert them to Jesus? Remember Huntington and his “clash of civilizations”? Opposition to mosques being built?
  • Anti-immigration sentiment: country-based quotas are what we had in the US until 1965. Republicans have been anti-immigration since at least Reagan; Ted Cruz during the primaries criticized Trump for being too soft on immigration.
  • White nationalists in power: you mean, like the entire US until the sixties?  If you think this is new, or wasn’t a problem in 2016, you haven’t been paying attention.
  • Really bad white nationalists supporting the GOP?  Like, say, David Duke or Strom Thurmond or the militia movement in the 1990s?
  • Removing millions of people’s health care? This issue concerns me personally and intensely, and yet what the GOP wants is a return to the status quo of… 2013.
  • Lowering taxes for the rich?  GOP policy under Reagan and Bush II.
  • Reducing services for the poor? Also eternal GOP policy.  And to be honest, Bill Clinton’s welfare reform in the 1990s.
  • Possible war with Iraq?  Torturing combatants?  Filling up Guantanamo?  A return to Dubya’s wars of the 2000s.
  • Gag orders for scientists? The closest parallel is Canada in the 2010s.
  • Demonization of the press? Also standard GOP procedure, and the stock in trade of Nixon and Agnew. Recall that Nixon was actually thrown out of office for crimes committed against journalists and the Democratic Party.
  • Lessening freedoms for LGBTQ folks?  I’m anticipating a bit here, because we don’t know what the GOP will actually do. Trump himself doesn’t seem to care. A fair guess is: remove protections added under Obama.  That is, the aim is to go back to 2008. (And again, top Democrats waffled on this issue well past that date.)  (Edit: it only took a day. Apparently a new executive order is being prepared to roll back LGBTQ rights. Nothing to stop gay marriage though.)
  • No action on climate change?  I’m not sure if the GOP can actually reverse the new practicality of renewable energy. Other than that, we already weren’t doing enough; so we merely continue on our merry way toward destroying the temperate zone.
  • Consorting with Russia?  The particular dictator is new, of course.  But Republicans were courting “authoritarians” well into the 1980s, and before that they were installing them, using them to fight proxy wars, and teaching them torture techniques.
  • An evil new Supreme Court justice?  Really, it’ll be tough to find someone worse than Scalia. So, back to 2015.
  • Leaving the TPP: It was dead already.
  • Possible voter suppression schemes: Already GOP practice. Elections are run locally, anyway; the likely effect is to make red states more red.
  • Voucher shenanigans at Education: again, this is just perpetual GOP policy.
  • Hating on NAFTA: if they simply get rid of it, we’re back to 1993.
  • Total support for Israel: pretty much Dubya’s policy.
  • Worries about nuclear war?  Dude, welcome to life since 1945. Believe me, this isn’t the first period when the prospect was terrifying.
  • Building a wall: We are now in the comedy portion of this post.  There is already a partial wall, of course. This amounts to throwing money at contractors and pissing off a bunch of people whose land will be appropriated.

I’m sure I’ve missed something, and if it’s your favorite issue, I’m sorry. But there’s a pretty clear pattern here: the GOP platform, including its nastiest bits, is most like earlier policies of… the United States.

This is not to say that any of this is OK!  It really is bad, it will do real damage to people.  People will die because of the Republican Party: people losing health insurance, minorities attacked by hate-mongers, refugees trying to flee terrorism, Iraqis who collaborated with the US, anyone unlucky enough to face the GOP’s next war.  Keep fighting!

But the fact that the bad things the GOP wants are things from our own past is, paradoxically, good news.  It means we’ve been there, and we can use and improve on the things that defeated those evils the first time.

Things were much worse in almost every way in Nixon’s time.  Everybody remembers the protests and the hippies and the civil rights movement, but forgets that most people disapproved of them. Nixon was able to win in a landslide (61%!) by opposing the whole youth movement. The Republicans lost the popular vote this time.

The best model, I still think, is George W. Bush.  2002 was a very depressing time to be a liberal. The GOP controlled all three branches of government, and at the time it seemed like they might keep winning indefinitely.  They were intent on increasing inequality, starting wars, increasing surveillance, oppressing gays, deregulating banks, and dismantling Social Security. And you know what happened?  They governed so badly, so catastrophically, that they lost the midterms in 2006 and everything else in 2008. Bush presided over two recessions, destroyed two major US industries, trashed our reputation abroad, completely bungled those two wars, and is one of the only presidents who left office with a net job loss record.

Now, it’s not heartening that it took six years. But Dubya started with far more approval: 57% in January 2001, compared with 45% today for Trump. And Dubya, bad as he was, governed with far more tact and respect for norms. He also didn’t subscribe to the current Republican nonsense about austerity: he inherited a budget surplus, and by God he spent it until it was a hole in the ground.  If only Paul Ryan could pivot like that.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t things that are unprecedented.  Here’s three.

  • Trump’s unbelievable corruption. We don’t even know the half of it, but it’s already clear that he will run the Presidency for personal gain, and compromise US security based on his business operations.
  • Trump’s open, amazing hostility to NATO.  If Putin chose, this could easily be the first huge global crisis: Putin takes the Baltics and Trump does nothing.
  • Trump’s astonishing ignorance.  There are partial precedents– Reagan was no genius, Dubya too. But those two at least hired competent people.

Again, these will lead to bad things… but they are also likely to lead to a failed presidency. The GOP is in a state of bliss right now because they get to do all the things they’ve wanted to do for eight years.  Their base will be thrilled.  The voters… not so much.  Because what the GOP wants to do is highly unpopular.  People don’t want shitty healthcare; they don’t want richer plutocrats; they don’t want to go back to the ’50s on race; they don’t want more wars.  If the GOP causes a recession, as is likely, they won’t like that. The lesson of Dubya is that incompetence is not rewarded, though it may take years to play out.

The Nazi model is motivating, but it’s also an invitation to give up the fight before we start. We still have a whole Party in Congress, we still have courts, we still have newspapers and universities and activist organizations, we still have the blue states, and we still have the majority of voters who rejected the GOP. It’s going to take energy and time and money, but we can win this fight.

Very purposely, I’ve talked almost entirely in this post about the Republican Party, not Trump.  It’s fine to attack Trump personally, but people shouldn’t be misled that he is the problem, or that getting rid of him solves anything.  The Republican Party voted for him, knowing exactly what he’d said and what kind of a person he was.  Some of it expressed reservations in 2016; this turned out to mean nothing on election day, and less than nothing today. The Republican Party supports him in Congress and most statehouses, and soon Republicans will support him in the Supreme Court.  Trump is not even the worst of 2016’s primary candidates: we would be facing almost the same problems, and probably some new ones, with a President Cruz. The GOP owns Trump and all his sins now. And I still haven’t heard a good story on anything that Trump is likely to do that will make the GOP actually act against him.

I decided it was time to read the Rig Veda, and now I have, sort of. I’ve read Wendy Doniger’s compilation of 108 hymns from the book– 1/10 of the total. If she had done the whole thing it would amount to over 3000 pages, so I’m not feeling too guilty.



Indra, chief of the Vedic gods


You may well be saying, the Rig what? The Rig Veda is the oldest text of Hinduism– also perhaps the oldest text still in religious use.  It dates back 3500 to 4000 years ago.  (The Old Testament is mostly under 3000 years old.)  In form, it’s a set of over a thousand hymns, which were chanted or sung at animal sacrifices. (A rig is a hymn or poem. Veda is ‘knowledge’, cognate to English wit and Latin vedere ‘see’.)

Curiously, it’s not the oldest written text; it was transmitted orally, Brahmin to Brahmin, for most of those millennia. The transmission was highly accurate– the Rig Veda was remembered the same way from Kashmir to Kerala.

Whether it was understood is another question.  It’s written in an archaic Sanskrit that can be baffling even if you understand classical Sanskrit.  Plus it describes practices that are no longer practiced and gods that are no longer worshiped.  The chief Vedic god was Indra, followed closely by Agni (fire), the Maruts (storm gods), the Ashvins (a pair of horse gods), Yama (death), and Soma (a drug, more on that below).  Over the centuries worship switched to Vishnu and Shiva, each conceived by its worshipers as the supreme and only god (the others being forms they assume).  Vishnu does get a few Vedic hymns; Shiva does not, though he’s associated with Rudra, who does. Shiva very likely originates as a Dravidian god, later adopted by the Indic peoples.

Curiously, there is evidence that Indra and crew replaced an even earlier set of gods. One of the minor Vedic gods is the sky god Dyaus. This is cognate to Zeus and Jupiter (= Dyaus father), as well as the Germanic god Tiw, the god of Tuesday. In the Vedas Dyaus is usually paired with Prithvi ‘Earth’, often addressed with her in the dual as Dyavaprithvi. And he changes sex!  Sky-and-earth are usually addressed as females.

So, what are these poems like?  Many are straightforward praise and asking of benefits, such as this hymn to Agni (1.1, the very first hymn in the Rig Veda):

I pray to Agni, the household priest who is the god of the sacrifice, the one who chants and invokes and brings most treasure.

Agni earned the prayers of the ancient sages, and of those of the present, too; he will bring the gods here.

Through Agni one may win wealth, and growth from day to day, glorious and most abounding in heroic sons.

…To you, Agni, who shine upon darkness, we come day after day, bringing our thoughts and homage to you, the king over sacrifices, the shining guardian of Order, growing in your own house.

Agni is the fire god, and thus is the fire of the animal sacrifice, which brings the sacrifice to the gods and brings blessings back. You obviously want to be on good terms with the messenger if you want your message to get through.

(The hymns tend to exaggerate the power of the god they’re dedicated to. So certain events and powers may be attributed to different gods at different times. The way you talked to gods was undoubtedly influenced by the way you talked to kings; treating them as more powerful than they were was good tactics.)

Sometimes the prayers are strange, almost opaque in their extended metaphors, as in this hymn about the sacrifice itself (1.164):

This beloved gray priest has a middle brother who is hungry and a third brother with butter on his back. In him I saw the Lord of All Tribes with his seven sons.

Seven yoke the one-wheeled chariot drawn by one horse with seven names. All these creatures rest on the ageless and unstoppable wheel with three naves.

Seven horses draw the seven who ride on this seven-wheeled chariot. Seven sisters call out to the place where the seven names of the cows are hidden.

Who saw the newborn one, the one with bones who was brought forth by the boneless one? Where was the breath and blood and soul of the earth? 

(This actually reminds me a lot of Neil Gaiman, when he wants to represent spells and such. I suspect he’s done a lot of reading on folklore and borrowed the style.)

Now, a lot of this can be interpreted. E.g. Doniger tells us that the “priests” are the sacrificial fires. The middle brother is “hungry” because it’s the southern fire, seldom fed. The Lord of All Tribes is Agni; his sons are the priests.  As with any jargon, one suspects that making the material difficult was part of the point.

A hymn to creation (10.129) starts out with some confident cosmology, but ends up buried in accumulated questions and doubts.

There was neither non-existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond… There was neither death nor immortality then…

Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that one arose through the power of heat.

…Their cord was extended across. Was there below? Was there above? There were seed-placers; there were powers….

Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced?  Whence is this creation?  The gods came afterwards, with the creation of the universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whence this creation has arisen– perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not– the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows– or perhaps he does not know.

Some of the most accessible material is not hymns to deities at all. There are conversations about sex between gods; a lament by a gambler whose life have been ruined by the dice; a benediction on arms and armor; a poem that is simultaneously about frogs and Brahmins.

Also intriguing is the nature of soma– from the text, a drink pressed from plants grown in the mountains. The effects seem to be exhilarating and hallucinatory (8.48):

I have tasted the sweet drink of life, knowing that it inspires good thoughts and joyous expansiveness to the extreme, that all the gods and mortals seek it together, calling it honey.

When you penetrate inside, you will know no limits, and you will avert the wrath of the gods. Enjoying Indra’s friendship, O drop of Soma, bring riches as a docile cow brings the yoke.

We have drunk the Soma; we have become immortal; we have gone to the light; we have found the gods. What can hatred and the malice of a mortal do to us now, O immortal one?

Soma is itself addressed as a god; indeed, by bulk, he gets more hymns than anyone but Indra and Agni.

The descriptions and the effects don’t really correspond to any known plant. Soma went out of use, perhaps because it was hard to get in northern India– this rules out marijuana, which has long been known.  The Persians used a planet called haoma, a cognate, but its effects are mild. It can’t be wine or any fermented drink, because it was pressed and drunk immediately.  An attractive hypothesis is that it’s Amanita muscaria, the mushroom used by Siberian shamans, and which happens to grow all across Eurasia but not in India.

Should you run out and read it?  Well, not as your first venture into India, or Hinduism.  I would still recommend the Ramayana for that.  For ancient religious thought that’s still relevant today, try the Bhagavad-Gita. But if you’re interested in what people were doing and how they worshiped four thousand years ago, go for it.

(Doniger’s translation provides plenty of help on the obscure bits, which are many. Her book The Hindus: An alternative history would be a good book to read first.)







I was looking at the Hitopadeśa for the Sanskrit (see here and here), but now I’ve read it, in G.L. Chadiramani’s translation. The book is medieval (it’s impossible to date exactly) and it turns out to recycle a lot of material from the earlier Pañcatantra. Both works used to be very familiar to Western audiences; versions were known in Europe as early as 1252 (via Arabic), and La Fontaine borrowed some of the stories.  The Indian originals were discovered in the 1700s, and for decades the Hitopadeśa was one of the first books you learned as a Sanskritist.

The framing device is simple. A king has a problem: his sons are, in a word, nityamunmārgagāmināmanadhigataśāstrāṇām. That is, they are constantly going astray and never read books. A sage offers to take them in hand, and his infallible method is to tell them animal fables.

Sadly, this framework is never really expanded upon. We never see the sons straying or even talking back to the old sage; we don’t even learn their names. They’re trotted out at the beginning of each chapter, apparently rapt at his stories. Well, they didn’t have video games back then.

There are four chapters: acquiring friends; separating friends; war; peace. Each has its own framing story, which is far more interesting. Plus the author frequently springboards off into other stories, and everyone is constantly reciting long sets of moralistic verses.

I’ll illustrate by retelling one of the stories.

The prince Tungabala was appointed governor of a city named Virapura. He fell in love with Lavanyavati, the wife of a merchant’s son. As is explained by a verse:

Arrows in the form of glances,
By beautiful ladies having black eyelashes,
Shot after being drawn
From the bow of their eyebrows,
Extending to the region of the ears,
Pierce through the guts of a man and reach his heart.

Which is to say, she had fabulous eyebrows. Fortunately for Tungabala, she was smitten by him as well. But she was unwilling to cheat on her husband. 

Tungabala had sent a female messenger to negotiate with her.  (He probably read the Kāmasūtra, which advises just this method.) The messenger came up with a plan for him. He appointed the woman’s husband Carudatta to high office and made him his confidant.

Then he bathed, anointed himself with sandalwood perfume, and announced that he was making a special vow. He told Carudatta to bring him a different woman every night. Each night, he greeted the woman, worshipped her without touching her, and sent her away loaded with rich presents.

Carudatta became greedy, thinking that he could easily acquire these presents by bringing his own wife.  Of course his wife obeyed his request.  The moment the prince saw her, he embraced her and they made love all night.  Carudatta was extremely depressed.

This story is actually told as a teaching tale, told by a mouse to his friends in the first chapter. The connection to their predicament is quite loose: the mouse is basically saying “If you persist in your plans, you will end up sad, like the merchant’s son in this story.”


Now, I’ve just told the bare story, but this is not enough for the author. First, everything is sprinkled with illustrative verse proverbs, and not just one but several. By bulk, the book is mostly these verses. Presumably the sage’s trick is really to impart all these moralistic verses, the stories only being used to motivate the princes’ curiosity.

But also, each set of verses tends to end with an allusion to another story, and of course whoever’s listening immediately has to hear it. In the case of the above story, the female messenger, proving that Tungabala needs a trick to get what he wants, tells the story of a jackal who brings down an elephant by a trick.

(Oh, you want to hear that story, do you?  You little scamps, all right. An elephant comes into a region inhabited by jackals, and one of them realizes that he would feed them for months. But of course he is too strong to attack directly. So he goes to the elephant and offers him the kingship of the forest, based on his obvious majesty. He throws in a set of verses on the necessity of kingship. The elephant, greedy for the kingdom, follows him into deep mud, where he gets stuck.  So the jackals eat him.)

The recursion  goes pretty deep… it wouldn’t be unusual for the book if the jackal made his point by telling yet another story.

Curiously, in the war and peace sections, the author seems to have gotten more interested in the framing story— the tale of a war between the sea birds (whose king is a swan) and the land birds (whose king is a peacock). It covers both chapters and is far more involved. You get to know the chief ministers of both kings, their spies, and the ruses they use in war.

Would you enjoy the book? I think the fables themselves are great fun, not only good stories in their own right, but a window onto premodern Indian attitudes and values. Where the verses are moralistic, the stories are often earthy— as in the above example, which doesn’t really bother to condemn the prince’s adultery, but laughs at the greedy merchant’s son.

The verses are a harder sell. There are an awful lot of them, and most are not to modern tastes.

A wicked wife, a deceitful friend,
An impertinent servant,
And staying in a house infested with serpents;
Will without doubt lead to death.

Unless you have Samuel Jackson on board, at least.

Anyway, you could skip all the verses, though that would hardly be reading the Hitopadeśa. If nothing else, they tell us something about the society. Like our own proverbs, they are often contradictory— e.g. there are verses about the treachery of strangers, and verses about the sacredness of hospitality; kings are advised to be kind, and also advised to be harsh.  But the verses in the war and peace section give a glimpse into Indian statecraft (e.g. advising against hasty moves to war, and warning about various kinds of poor advisors), and there are other interesting bits— e.g. the verses really hate misers: they praise giving away money the highest, but find enjoying it also praiseworthy.

Another advantage of the book: it doesn’t require any great knowledge of Indian history or culture, though there are allusions here and there for those who do know it. And it’s pretty short, so it’s not a major time investment, like the Mahābhārata .