If you’ve been following this blog, you may be thinking that I haven’t read much about India lately. On the contrary! I’ve been reading plenty, but a lot of it is pretty dry.

The exception is Tales of the Ten Princes (Daśa Kumāra Carita), by Daṇḍin, which I just finished. Your first question will undoubtedly be, why isn’t it Daśa Kumārāḥ, in the plural? Or even Daśānām Kumārāṇām, in the plural genitive? I’m pretty sure it’s because the title is a compound, i.e. Daśakumāracarita (दशकुमारचरित), and only the last root in a compound is declined.

Daṇḍin lived in Kāñcī, in the Tamil region, sometime around 700.  He’s also known for a work on literary stylistics, Kāvyādarśa. In that work he describes two ways of writing Sanskrit, the simpler style of the south, and the ornate style of the east. Ten princes is written mostly in the simpler style; perhaps to show his mastery of the ornate style, Daṇḍin also wrote a work (unfortunately lost) which, making use of the amazing number of synonyms in classical Sanskrit, is a simultaneous recounting of both the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata.

So, on to the Princes. It’s basically a set of short stories linked by a framing device. In the frame, the king Rājahaṃsa loses his kingdom and escapes to a forest. However, his wife is pregnant, and there is a prophecy that the child will restore the kingdom. The boy grows up to be Rājavāhana, hero of the story. He grows up in the forest, and in a quick sequence, is joined by nine companions— sons of ministers as well as kings’ sons conveniently mislaid in the forest.

They grow up into strapping young lads, and finally go out seeking conquests.  Almost immediately Rājavāhana is invited into a quest in the netherworld. His companions separate and wander all over India seeking him. In each of the stories a prince comes to a city, falls in love, and by various manners becomes a king. Finally they all find each other and each narrates his story.  Then, of course, Rājavāhana regains his kingdom with their help, in effect becoming emperor, with his friends as kings under him.

The stories are short, unlikely, and a lot of fun.  They’re picaresque— indeed, many are cheerfully amoral. Though Rājavāhana himself is heroic, not a few of the princes resort to fraud, murder, or theft. It’s a good corrective if, like me, you’ve been reading rather a lot about Indian religions. There’s a whole lot of kāma (love) and plenty of artha (ambition), only a minimum of dharma (righteousness).

For example, the predicament of the prince Mantragupta is that his beloved, the princess Kanakalekhā, has been taken in a raid by the king of a neighboring land, Jayasiṃha. The princess pretends to be possessed by a yakṣa (a type of demon), but this will only put off the king temporarily.

Mantragupta finds a way, however. He goes to the king’s city and pretends to be a powerful ascetic, one who knows all the Vedas, can cure all illnesses, and has supernatural powers. Jayasiṃha is taken in; he comes to see the sage and asks for help with the yakṣaridden maiden. Mantragupta agrees to help: the king must merely bathe in a certain pool, and he will be transformed into a body which the girl will find irresistible. He must have his army secure the pool first, of course. The king agrees.  (However unlikely the strategies proposed in this book, the other characters invariably go along.)

But Mantragupta has previously made a secret recess in the pool which has an underwater exit. When the king comes and waits in the water, Mantragupta comes out, strangles him, and hides the body in the recess. He comes out, pretending to be the king in his new body.  He rescues his princess and enjoys his new kingdom.

In another chapter, there’s an amusing passage where a king’s friend give him advice that is exactly contrary to Kauṭilya or Manu. E.g., one of the traditional sins of kings was gambling. The friend gives this advice:

Gambling too has merits. The renunciation of quantities of wealth, as if it is no more than straw, gives an incomparable liberality of the temperament. The uncertainty of gain or loss makes the heart impervious to joy or sorrow. The capacity increases for wrath, the prime fount of valor. The observation of exceedingly subtle legerdemain with dice and sleights of hand provides an infinite sharpness to the intellect. Concentration on one subject assures an exceptional single-mindedness.  Delight increases in daring, the companion of enterprise. Competition with the strong-minded makes for self-confidence, indomitability and magnanimity.

Of course the king is being led to his doom, but the extended argument makes for a nice parody of moralistic authors.

Similarly playful: one chapter is told without any labial consonants, as the narrating prince has a sore lip, from too much lovemaking.  Take that, Georges Perec!  (The translator doesn’t even attempt this in English, though Wikipedia suggests that another recent translation does.)

Most of the princes fall in love at first sight with a woman, and this is always reciprocated. One, indeed, gets the woman to fall in love by sending her a portrait of himself. This gives Daṇḍin the chance to grow effusive over the women. As one prince says:

All the limbs of this maiden are pure in complexion and without any blemish. They are neither too gross nor too meagre, not too long or too short. The inner sides of her fingers are pink, and the palms of her hands bear many auspicious signs like the barley grain, the fish, the lotus, and the jar. Her ankles are even. Her feet are plump and unmarked by veins. Her well-rounded calves so merge into ample thighs that the knees are hardly noticeable. The bottom is smooth, perfectly divided, beautifully dimpled and round as a wheel. The navel is small, a little low and deep. A triple line adorns the abdomen. A large bosom with upturned nipples covers the breast. The shoulders slope smoothly into supple arms. The fingernails have the fine gloss of gems. The fingers are tapering, soft, and copper-hued. 

Her neck is slender and graceful like a conchshell. Her face is like a lotus flower, with lips red and rounded, nose like a flower bud, handsome chin and shapely temples. Her forehead shines like the crescent moon and her wavy hair like a line of sapphires. Her dark eyebrows are arched and well-separated, and her eye are bright and wide with a glance both merry and languorous. Her ears are ornamented only with loops of pale lotus sets. Her abundant hair is dark and fragrant and simply dressed.

It’s interesting to compare this description with temple statues, which depict the same kind of very curvy body.

One prince finds that his lover is already married, producing an ethical dilemma:

My purpose is almost accomplished, but sleeping with another’s wife will hurt dharma. However, the compilers of the scriptures permit this if both artha and kāma are attained at the same time. I am committing this transgression to free my parents from jail. That should neutralize any sin, and may also reward me with some fraction of dharma.

Fortunately for him, Ganeśa himself appears in a  dream and tells him to proceed.

About the only negative to these stories is that they’re almost weightless.  The characters are vivid and range from princes to ascetics to thieves to courtesans to Jain monks to Greek sailors to jungle warriors, the plots are amusing, but it’s hard to remember them an hour later.  And the cities, though they’re scattered all over India, the cities all melt together.  But these are tales built to entertain, and they still do, 1300 years later.

If you do pick this up, try to get the modern translation by Aditya N. D. Haksar.



The Fan’s Guide to Neo-Sindarin, by Fiona Jallings, is now out. Here’s where you can buy it. It’s about Neo-Sindarin.


This is partly a Yonagu Books production: I edited the book and did the book design. But I enjoyed the book a lot and I think most conlangers would.

Tolkien is the greatest of conlangers, and one of the most frustrating. He has an effortless good taste that few of us can match.

I goth ’wîn drega o gwen sui ’wath drega o glawar!
the enemy our flees from us like shadow flees from sunlight
Our enemy flees from us like a shadow flees from sunlight!

You get the feeling that every word has been carefully hand-crafted and polished for decades, probably because it has. He was a linguist, knew his Indo-European and sound changes inside out, and knew how to make a language seem familiar yet with few outright borrowings. The feel of his languages is so natural that it’s become a cliché. (If you’re planning an orcish language, I advise you not to imitate the Black Speech.)

What he couldn’t do for the life of him was finish a language, or write a grammar. He kept messing with things, and he never properly explained even some of the basics. Quenya is in pretty good shape, but Sindarin is woefully underspecified.

That’s where Neo-Sindarin comes in. It’s an attempt by multiple people to finish the language, at least to the point of usability.  There are glaring holes— entire tenses or lines of paradigms, the copula, the pronominal system, just aren’t complete. It would be a little grotesque to make up words to fill things out, and the Neo-Sindarinists don’t do that. They scour the published texts and the slowly accumulating extra material; they extrapolate carefully from Proto-Elvish or from early drafts of Noldorin.

Because so much material has been published only in the last few years, Fiona’s book is pretty much state of the art. It’s a textbook (with exercises), organized in such a way that it can serve as a reference grammar.  You can learn Neo-Sindarin or just learn how it works. It’s also an annotated introduction to the reconstruction process; you can see exactly what was reconstructed, and by whom, and what that’s based on. And it’s lively, or at least as lively as a language textbook can be.

There are also sections on (e.g.) naming and cosmology that remind us that Tolkien was not only a linguist, but a medievalist. The elves are more different from modern humans than many an sf alien.

For me, the most interesting bit was peeking behind the curtain into Tolkien’s study as he conlangs. As I’ve been studying Sanskrit, it’s fascinating to see glimpses of Indo-European poke out in Elvish, such as umlaut and multiple verb stems.

In Sindarin, Tolkien made extensive— really extensive— use of mutations, as in Celtic (and these are not dissimilar to Sanskrit’s sandhi).  There are half a dozen types of mutation, and they make for patterns like this:

drambor – a fist
i dhrambor – the fist
in dremboer – the fists

The article i, you see, triggers vocalic mutation, while the plural in triggers nasal mutation. Often mutation takes on a syntactic role: e.g. only the presence of mutation distinguishes the structure i ’wend bain “the maiden is beautiful” from i ’wend vain “the beautiful maiden”. (Bain is the un-mutated form.)

Sindarin has particularly complex pluralization rules, yet they go back to a very simple rule: add –i to the end. Only the i triggers two separate sound changes, one affecting potentially every vowel in the word, the other moving the –i into the last syllable (and causing some changes there).  And for some words you need to know the ancient form.

Beginning conlangers often want to make simpler languages, Esperanto-style; but later on we usually get a taste for complexity. But merely being weird or randomly irregular is not interesting. Sindarin is a master class in getting complexity out of some fairly simple ideas.

And also, you know, in finishing your grammar. Tolkien had the reworking bug; he was one of those people who can’t stop fiddling with his creation. But really, people, take a sheet of paper and write out all your pronouns.

The other area where most conlangers could learn from Tolkien is in the lexicon. Creating words, he was in his element. This is the opposite of machine-generating a word list and assigning each an English meaning. His words have a history going back to Proto-Elvish and interesting derivations, and they all sound good.

Anyway, I hope you have a wide collection of natlang grammar and a few conlangs; Fiona’s book is a great addition to that part of the shelf.

As promised, here’s a review of that hot mess, the Mānava dharmaśāstra, commonly called the Laws of Manu. I don’t have a picture of Manu, who was mythical anyway, so here is a picture of a brahmin teaching.


The tame lion is a nice touch


Two thousand years ago, the Indians wrote manuals (śāstra) for everything: metallurgy, theater, grammar, and so on. Some of the most important were those dedicated to the three drives of human life: dharma (righteousness, merit, law), artha (worldly success, ambition, politics), and kāma (love, desire). Thus the Dharmaśāstra (treatise on virtue), Arthaśāstra (treatise on success / statecraft), and Kāmasūtra (book on love).

There are several Dharmaśāstras, the best known are attributed to the sage Yājñavalkya and to the first man / first king, Manu. For convenience I’ll call the author Manu (especially as we have no other name to give him). The book is also known as the Manusmriti, but that’s a newer term.  Manu was one of the first Sanskrit books known in the West— it was translated in 1794 by William Jones (most famous for his Indo-European quote).

The British rather unfortunately took it as an actual law code and attempted to base Hindu law on it. This is a bit like taking Plato’s Republic as your constitution. As Patrick Olivelle (the translator of the modern version I read) points out, Manu (and Kauṭilya) were writing in a time when northern India was frequently ruled by śūdras (the lower class), by Buddhists, or by out and out mlecchas (barbarians).  Their description of a dominant brahmin class which even the kṣatriya kings deferred to, and where “heretics” could be forced to live outside the town walls, was an archaizing fantasy.

The book itself

Of the three books— the Dharmaśāstra, Arthaśāstra, and Kāmasūtra— the latter is by far the most appealing to modern tastes. There’s an awful lot of sex in it, of course, but its portrait of the idle rich man-about-town (nagaraka) is something we can recognize today, and it’s surprisingly fair to women.

And Manu is by far the least appealing. The book is not a law code at all; it’s a manual of morality for brahmins. It starts with a hefty cosmological introduction, then proceeds to the meat: six chapters of detailed rules for the life of a brahmin, from birth to death. There’s one chapter on kings (assumed to be kṣatriyas), and two on law proper.  Finally there’s a chapter on complications of class, and one on penances.

Oh, by the way, it’s all in verse— which is one of the reasons the book was cited and read for centuries. In Indian culture, poetry was more authoritative and more memorable. I’m happy however that the translation is in prose.


From a distance of thousands of yojanas and two millennia, it’s hard to say how realistic a text is, but just based on the level of detail, it’s evident that Manu knows his brahmin procedures, but little about statecraft. His section on kings is far inferior to Kauṭilya’s; it’s mostly a collection of vague, unworldly encouragements:

When kings fight each other in battle with all their strength, seeking to kill each other and refusing to turn back, they go to heaven. When he is engaged in battle, he must never slay his enemies with weapons that are treacherous, barbed, laced with poison, or whose tips are ablaze with fire.

In contrast Kauṭilya will very frankly tell you when to fight, when to negotiate, when to undermine with spies, and when to surrender; and give you recipes for poisons and how to find spies to apply them.

Strikingly, though there is an awful lot about brahmins and kṣatriyas, but the section addressed to vaiśyas (merchants and farmers) is half a page, and that for śūdras (servants) is one paragraph, and it just tells them to obey happily. (The first three classes are all dvijas or twice-born; the second birth is a ceremony where they receive a sacred thread. Dvija men are entitled to study the Vedas and are generally on top in society.)

In earlier times there was some fluidity in class, but by Manu’s time it was strictly hereditary. You could lose class but never rise.

Now, Kauṭilya accepts the basic system, but never puts great emphasis on it, and almost never gives supernatural sanction to his laws. Manu is a believer and a defender, and everything has a religious reason for it. There is a panicky edge to Manu’s treatment of śūdras; as Olivelle says, for him they’re the Enemy. The Nanda and Maurya dynasties— the first empires in India— were said to be śūdras, which seemed to the Manus of the times as a horrible inversion of how things should be. (It’s not hard to see a parallel in racist horror at having a black president.)

Most societies have class systems, but few have theologized them so completely. All evils can be blamed on past lives. Unattractively, Manu calls the mentally retarded, the blind, the deaf, and the deformed “despised by good people”— they have these handicaps because of their sins in previous lives.

Just as bad is Manu’s horrible misogyny.  For him, women have an unquenchable lust: “Whether he is handsome or ugly, they make love to him with the single thought, ‘He is a man!’”  Women are never supposed to be independent; even if they are married to a villain they should “worship him as a god”.  They are not allowed to hear the Vedas. Their very nature is “lust, hatred, behavior unworthy of an Ārya, malice, and bad conduct.”

On the plus side, Manu is a window into a different worldview. Perhaps the most attractive feature of his ethics is the rejection of power and comfort as the supreme goals. Though in his ideal world the brahmins had special legal protections and should be supported by the state, he does not really give them secular power. They are supposed to study, teach the other twice-born, offer sacrifices, and generally be holy.  Ideally they should not even serve in government. They are supposed to be calm and not arrogant, generous, and deferent to their own teachers. When they retire— when their sons have sons— they are supposed to give up all their possessions and live as an ascetic in the forest. (At the same time, the ideal is not entirely ascetic: a man is supposed to be a “householder” for most of his life, happily married and earning a living.)

Every society has a “default class”, whose interests are assumed to be identical to that of the nation. For medieval Europe it’s the aristocrat; for America it’s the businessman; for imperial China it was the scholar-official. And for ancient India it was the brahmin. (Of course, the default class is never actually typical or ideal. But it says something about the society to look at its norms. You can also try to read between the lines and picture the counter-norms: these defaults are always erected in contrast to a less-trusted Other.)

If all you want is a review, you can stop here. I’m going to go through my marginal notes and point out things I found interesting.


If you are interested in ritual and everyday practice, Manu is the book for you. For instance:

The feet of his brother’s wife of the same class, he should clasp every day; but the feet of the wives of his paternal and maternal relatives, only after returning from a journey.

This is in the epics, too: touching the feet as a gesture of respect. In the Rāmāyaṇa, when Sītā is kidnaped, Rāma and his brother Lakṣmaṇa find her shoes. Lakṣmaṇa makes a point of mentioning that he knows what Sītā’s feet (and footwear) look like, but not her face— a nice point of idealized etiquette.

“It is the very nature of women to corrupt men.” Just what a moralist would say; but the context is how to treat the young wife of one’s guru. Seems like an indirect stab at the guru!

Manu is quite finicky about wives for brahmins:

He must not marry a girl who has red hair or an extra limb; who is sickly; who is without or with too much bodily hair; who is a blabbermouth or jaundiced-looking; who is named after a constellation, a tree, a river, a very low caste…

There is a somewhat strange classification (also found in Kauṭilya) of types of marriage:

  1. Brāhma: a man gives a girl to a “man of learning and virtue”
  2. Divine: a man gives his daughter to a priest as a reward for officiating a sacrifice
  3. Seer: a man gives his daughter in return for the gift of a steer and cow
  4. Prājāpatya: a man gives a girl merely with an exhortation
  5. Asura (antigod): a man acquires a bride by paying her and her family
  6. Gāndharva (celestial being): a man and woman have sex and then get married (out of love)
  7. Rakṣasa (demon): a man abducts a woman
  8. Paisāca (ghoul): a man rapes a sleeping or drugged woman

Manu rules out 5 and 8. Brahmins are supposed to rely on 1-4; 6 and 7 are lawful for  kṣatriyas. For what it’s worth, Kauṭilya describes 7 as more of an abduction which is all right if everything is smoothed out with the woman and her parents; Manu describes it in blood-curdling terms (a man “abducts a girl from her house as she is shrieking and weeping, by causing death, mayhem and destruction”).  Kauṭilya also has no problem with bride-price, which Manu finds immoral. (The cattle in 3 are OK.)  Manu but not Kauṭilya forbids remarriage, and Manu doesn’t even mention the possibility of a women divorcing her husband.

Manu lists “entering a king’s service” as a source of disrepute and ruin, along with neglecting the Vedas, engaging in trade, and having sons only with śūdra wives. However, when he comes to advising kings on picking counselors, he wants him to choose a “sagacious and distinguished Brahmin”!

After an offering, you signal to your guests that it’s time to leave by saying “Please, stay around.”  A nice example of paradoxical politeness!

Many of the rules are hard to fathom. A good brahmin is not supposed to look at your reflection in water, or run in the rain. He should never dance or play an instrument. If he sees a rainbow, he should not point it out to other people. He should not urinate on ashes. He cannot give a śūdra leftovers or teach him the law; more bafflingly, he is not to give him advice. No twice-born should eat onions, leeks, garlic, or mushrooms, or sell meat, lac, or salt, on pain of losing his class.

Brahmins at this time could eat food as part of a sacrifice. If you get the urge to eat meat and no sacrifice is at hand, Manu advises making a fake animal out of butter or flour.

The ideal retirement:

He should roll on the ground or stand on tiptoes all day; spend the day standing and the night seated… surround himself with the five fires int he summer; live in the open air during the rainy season; and wear wet clothes int he sinter— gradually intensifying his ascetic toil.

When you’re done with life, you could walk northeast, subsisting on nothing but water and air, till you dropped dead. To help motivate your detachment, he provides a meditation on the body:

Constructed with beams of bones, fasted with tendons, plastered with flesh and blood, covered with skin, foul-smelling, filled with urine and excrement, infested with old age and sorrow, the abode of sickness, full of pain, covered with dust, and impermanent— he must abandon this dwelling place of ghosts.

A king, however, should “meet his death in battle.”

Where Kauṭilya says that a treasure trove is shared with the king, Manu says this is only true for non-brahmins— because the world belongs to them.

A rare improvement on Kauṭilya: a son is not obliged to pay his father’s debts if they were due to gambling or drinking.

If a śūdra “hurls grossly abusive words” at a dvija, his tongue should be cut off.  And if he hears the Vedas being recited, hot metal is to be poured in his ears.  It’s permitted to simply “seize property” from a śūdra.  Yeesh.

There was a custom of levirate marriage: if a man dies without sons, his wife could sleep with his brother, and any son born would be attributed to her husband. Manu accepts this custom but he doesn’t like it; he says the brother-in-law should have sex with her only once a month, and only till she bears a son. An alternate method for a sonless man was to designate a daughter as a “female-son”, so that her son becomes his heir.

A king should exile all heretics, gamblers, entertainers, and liquor sellers. (The unreality for this rule is shown by the fact that Kauṭilya offers rules for regulating all of these… not to mention employing some of them as spies.)

For some reason, the ancient writers really really dislike goldsmiths. Manu says that a dishonest goldsmith should be cut to pieces with knives. A man who steals precious gems will be reborn as a goldsmith.

Though agriculture was lawful for vaiśyas, and for brahmins if they had no other work, it was ethically dubious: “the plough with an iron tip lacerates the ground as well as creatures living in it.” Of course, you needed these people to have something to eat, but at least you could keep them at arm’s length.

A brahmin or kṣatriya should not lend money at interest. However, it’s permitted to do so if the recipients are “evil men”. Due diligence on this must have been interesting.

At one point Manu describes homosexuality as causing a man to lose class— but at another he prescribes a relatively simple penance for it: subsisting for one day only on cow’s products— ghee, milk, urine, and dung. (It’s not clear if you have to consume them all, or you get a choice, but heck, it’s only one day.)

There is a section which mentions castes per se— jāti. They are described as the result of various inter-class marriages— which is entirely absurd as history, but can be taken as an attempt as classification or hierarchy.  Even so, he only describes a handful of castes, not the several thousand that exist today.

The penance section is weird. He often gives excruciating penances— then adds a much easier alternative.  E.g. if a twice-born man drinks liquor, he can drink boiling-hot liquor. Or drink boiling cow urine until he dies. Harsh. Or he can simply eat broken grain or oil-cake at night for a year.  If he has sex with an elder’s wife, he can kill himself by lying on a hot metal bed or by castrating himself.  Or live on gruel and sacrifice-food for three months. In both cases a further alternative is simply to recite certain Vedic hymns. I guess the technique is similar to the Christian doctrine of presenting the wages of sin as death and torment in hell— then remarking that you avoid all that by Christ’s sacrifice. Ritual is there for taming a frightening world.

There’s a rather amusing list of what animals you’ll be reborn as for various thefts. If you steal linen, you will be a frog. If you steal household utensils, you will be a wasp.  Stealing salt leads to life as a cricket.



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 .

I just read the Baburnama, which is Babur’s autobiography.  No, not the elephant, you big wag, the Moghul emperor.


Babur (R) with his son Humayun

Doing the Mughals


A little refresher, for those who are shaky on their Mughals. This is the big late-medieval Indian empire; Babur founded it in 1526; his last descendant was knocked off the throne in 1858 by the British. The height of the empire was under the tolerant, inquisitive Akbar, Babur’s grandson, and it’s generally considered to have gone to hell under and after the unpleasant and zealous Aurangzeb. The Taj Mahal is the tomb of a Mughal empress (Mumtaz, wife of Akbar’s grandson Shah Jehan).

The Brits arrived when the empire was just a shell, the emperor in control of little more than Delhi. The East India Company used a strange little dodge to conquer India: it supported a claimant to the throne of Bengal, who granted it the government of the province in the name of the Mughal emperor.  It used the treasury and troops of Bengal to conquer the rest of India, under the legal fiction that it was operating under Mughal authority. I’m not sure if this really fooled anyone.

Oh, fun fact: Mughal is a form of Mongol, because of the Genghis connection. The Mughals didn’t actually call themselves that; they used Gurkani, after the title Gurkan ‘son-in-law’ Timur acquired by marrying into Genghis’s line.

Babur’s life

Babur was a descendant of Timur, known to the west as Tamerlane, a particularly brutal conqueror of Central Asia and Persia.  He lived in Chaghadai’s section of the Mongol Empire, which by his time spoke Turkish and accepted Islam.  He could not claim descent from Genghis Khan himself, but he married into the family, so his sons could.  He died in 1405 while planning the conquest of China.

During and after his reign the administrative and literary language of Central Asia was Persian. There was a rough division of nomadic Turks (the bulk of the army) and sedentary Persians (the administrators). Babur made the unusual choice of writing his autobiography in his native language, Chaghadai Turkish, though he was also fluent in Persian.  The Mughals in India continued to use Persian till the end, though they did forget Turkish.  (Fortunately, the Baburnama was translated into Persian for them.)

Babur was born in 1483, and Timur’s empire had collapsed into a scrim of usually warring emirates.  His father died when he was 10, and he was plunged immediately into a lifestyle of war and migration that would last till the end of his life.  His early conflicts were with the rising power of the Uzbeks, who were slowly taking out the remaining Timurids.

Babur’s early years remind me of the story of Liu Bei in Three Kingdoms. He has a way of getting a kingdom, making a move on another, and losing everything, but you just could not put that boy down; he counted his few remaining followers and was back on the board in a few months.  He gained and lost Samarkand (Timur’s capital) three times.

Finally he’s forced out of Central Asia entirely, but he regroups in Kabul.  He takes the city without a fight in 1504, and he’s a little vague on how this happened; Wikipedia fills in the key detail that he took over from a usurper who had displaced an infant ruler. He was still only 21.

He spends most of his life in Afghanistan, and it’s obviously his favorite place, the one he thinks of as his.  (He is buried there.)  For a time things looked up: he found new allies in another Turkish dynasty, the Safavids, who had just taken over Persia; they defeat the Uzbeks and he briefly holds Samarkand.  The Uzbeks then regroup the next year and decisively defeat both the Safavids and Babur.

With progress in that direction halted, Babur simply turned the other direction.  He had already raided Hindustan; now he turned to conquest.  He had an excuse at hand– Muslims had already conquered northern India a couple centuries before, and there were quarrels to take advantage of.  He defeated Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat in 1526 and took over in Delhi and Agra; the next year he defeated a Rajput (Hindu) army.

By his own account his army was no more than 12,000 or so, and Lodi’s was over 100,000. But in general Indian armies (no matter who was leading them) were never a good match for nomad-based armies from the northwest; by this time Babur was also skillfully using cannons and matchlocks.

He spent some time consolidating his conquest, and died in 1530.  He was succeeded by his son Humayun, who promptly lost everything.  But he got it back, with Safavid help, some years later.

The book

Should you run out and get it? Well, if you like history, sure. Not many emperors have written down what they thought they were doing. I’ll warn you, though: he tends to concentrate on what is least interesting to us: genealogies, long lists of who supported who, detailed accounts of long journeys, where the army camped each night, how they got across the rivers, when and where they stopped to drink or get stoned.  A lot of what we’d consider the good stuff is asides in the story he wants to tell.

(I should also warn you that he piles on the names. Honestly I skimmed over most of them.)

For instance, he makes side comments about mistakes he made, errors in strategy, who was a good or poor warrior.  Not surprisingly, he values loyal and brave supporters, but by his own account it was awfully difficult for a beg (lord) to resist the temptation to go off on their own, or to support a rival.  In these circumstances, the only sure way to keep your forces loyal and happy was to keep them with you, and to keep coming up with loot. (The first time he conquered Samarkand, the city was so impoverished that he couldn’t reward his allies: big mistake.)

From digressions and side comments, we also learn what he was interested in besides war. He’s very fond of poetry; when he gives a portrait of someone, he sometimes rather charmingly quotes a line of their poetry. He tells you where the best fruit and wine comes from all over Central Asia.  He really likes gardens, and he’s always constructing or reconstructing one, or introducing the custom of building them into India.  (The Persians always loved a walled garden– in fact, pairidaēza  ‘enclosed park’ in Avestan is where we got the word ‘paradise’.)  In the Afghan years he is constantly having drinking parties, or for a change he and his pals eat ma’jun, a mild chewable narcotic.  (Later on he abstains from alcohol… but sees no need to give up ma’jun.)

There’s not much about sex, though the most intimate detail is rather surprising: as a young man, he had a deep crush on a younger boy. He describes himself as so shy that he didn’t really do anything about it, but it’s interesting that he has no compunctions about putting this in the royal memoirs.  (Which doesn’t prevent him from condemning “pederasty” in others. Still, I gather that it’s like drinking: he only really disapproves of it when it goes beyond some ill-defined level from excusability into excess.)  He does enter into a love match with one of his wives, but he never says much about this.

He loves Kabul, but he has a poor opinion of India:

Hindustan is a place of little charm. There is no beauty in its people, no graceful social intercourse, no poetic talent or understanding, no etiquette, nobility, or manliness. The arts and crafts have no harmony or symmetry.  There are no good horses, meat, grapes, melons, or other fruit. There is no ice, cold water, good food or bread in the markets. There are no baths and no madrasas. There are no candles, torches, or candlesticks.

What he does like about India is pretty simple and direct: it’s fabulously rich.

He mentions the language barrier, but doesn’t seem to realize how deeply it affects his judgments.  He has a long section in praise of the cultural splendor of Herat (in Afghanistan), showing that he has a great appreciation for poetry, the Persian epics, calligraphy, painting, Sufiism, and Islamic law. His description of India talks only about the physical aspects of the place– especially its plants and animals. He doesn’t mention a thing about Indian literature, culture, or religion.

Babur is a pious Muslim– he always approves of someone saying their daily prayers, he gives alms, he undertakes fasts (sometimes while he was still drinking)– but doesn’t seem zealous, until he fights with the Rajputs.  Then he is suddenly conscious of fighting the Infidels.  As he’s spent his entire life fighting other Muslims, it is hard to take this temporary zeal very seriously.  He does destroy the idols in a particular location, but mostly because he wanted to make it into a garden.

His memoirs are often described as frank or honest; of course we don’t really know if they are or not.  I understand that other sources, such as they are, don’t contradict him. But I don’t think his self-presentation is entirely artless.  E.g., he describes taking action even when he’s ten or twelve, and even when he refers to his elders taking him in hand (e.g. to protect him from his rivals). His image of himself is always of a generous and loyal king, though occasionally mistaken or unlucky in strategy. And probably he was, most of the time. He has a detailed description of a campaign in India, where he is constantly reassigning fiefs, sending letters back to Kabul, playing a game of negotiation-or-war with the frenemy of the moment, the Bengalis.  By this time, in his forties, he had evident skill not only in war, but in the all-important people skills of keeping begs happy and rivals intimidated. His one great mistake was to die too early, leaving Humayun in charge at too early an age.

I should add, there’s a famous story about his death, which for obvious reasons isn’t in the autobiography: His son Humayun was sick, and the doctors despaired for his life. Babur prayed that the illness would take him instead. And indeed, his son recovered and Babur died.

If you do read it, I recommend Wheeler Thackston’s translation, which is not only lively and readable, but complemented by helpful maps and genealogical tables.

I’ve been reading about Pakistan and Islam recently, not least to spite the rather plentiful books on India which are either explicitly Islamophobic, or simply drop Pakistan after Partition.

A good short history of Islam, by the way, is Karen Armstong‘s A Short History of Islam. Despite the title, it feels meaty.  One of her theses is that Islam is focused on politics in the way Christianity is focused on theology. This is partly due to Muhammad ending up, unlike most religious founders, as a head of a burgeoning empire; also to the fact that the main religious schism within Islam was originally pure politics: whether Muhammad should be followed by his son-in-law Ali or by someone else. But in her telling, even from the beginning Muhammad was chiefly motivated by a desire for unity and equality among the Arabs of his time. So Muslims have always been worried about how to create an Islamic state, and always been bothered by injustice and inequality, the very things Islam was supposed to eliminate.

Tonight I finished V.S. Naipaul‘s Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1982).  I emphasize the date because books about Islam are often books about the decade they were written.  Naipaul was writing just after the Islamic revolution in Iran, a time when Muslims around the world were contemplating reform, revival, or revolution. He spends time in Pakistan, Iran, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Naipaul is a good interviewer and portraitist– you get to know and like all the Muslims he meets. At the same time he is very much out of sympathy with their projects.  He appreciates Islam as a religion, but doesn’t think it has much to say about politics or development. Basically he thinks the countries he visits would do better to concentrate on economics, law, and technology; his informants seem to think that no particular programs or institutions are required, only prayer and piety. At the same time, he’s very good at teasing out, from each informant, just what they find bothersome about the modern world (or their country), and how they decided that Islam was the solution. So he sees that in Iran, religious revival was caught up with the eagerness to topple a hated dictator; while in Malaysia, it’s tied to nostalgia for the simple peasant life of the tropical villages, uncorrupted by colonizers and the influx of dismayingly successful Chinese.

He likes to tease out absurd ideas people have about the West, such as that it’s full of atheists who have sex in public, or that Britain is 60% homosexual. One Malaysian sees his pajamas, which he condemns as un-Islamic; Naipaul amusedly informs him that pajamas are a Persian invention.

Curiously, the one country he seems to really like and enjoy is Indonesia.  The local Muslims are (or were) more moderate, and less political (though at the time they were unable to do much politics, as the country was a dictatorship). He likes the fact that Indonesians had, at least till then, diverged from the stark rules and pieties of the Arabs, and incorporated their own cultural history.  One of the national pastimes was the puppet play, and the chief subjects were still the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata– though in the local version, the five Pandava sons represents the five pillars of Islam.

His basic method is clear from the book: rely on recommendations and chance meetings to find interviewees who, hopefully, represent the country’s mood. As a sampling technique, it’s likely to be biased– after all, his informants have to speak English, which eliminates most of the population, and they have to have time to spend a day or two with him, which would lean toward the more disaffected and underemployed of the Anglophones. Not that he doesn’t have a good eye… in Indonesia one of his contacts turns out to be a future president. Still, as a method, it’s only a few steps up from Tom Friedman interviewing his taxi drivers.

Especially in Pakistan, and despite growing up in Trinidad, he sounds like many an American visiting the Third World for the first time: why is there so much poverty and corruption, why aren’t they developing fast enough, why are they simultaneously angry at the West, fascinated by it, and dependent on it?  It’s not wrong to ask these obvious questions, but he doesn’t get too far in finding the obvious answers: it takes a lot of effort to go from subsistence agriculture to (post-)industrial, and these countries are doing it in fifty years rather than the three hundred the West took.

As a portrait of Pakistan, I preferred Anatol Lieven‘s Pakistan: A Hard Country (2011), which goes far deeper into the institutions, regions, and conflicts of the country.  Pakistan worries people (Naipaul was worried too, and yet another book I’m reading, by Mary Anne Weaver, is also worried).  But Lieven makes a case that it’s far more stable and resilient than people think.  Which is good, because it’s subject to far more stress than most countries. (For instance, it’s #3 in the world for suffering terrorist attacks.)

His main point is that Pakistan’s institutions of government, inherited from the British Raj, are far weaker than its ancient, powerful, violent clan system.  Civil politics, in fact, is largely an extension of the clans– e.g. the PPP party is controlled by the Bhutto clan, and all the parties are weak on ideology, strong on handing out jobs and skimming off state money.  Many practices that outsiders and even Pakistani call “Islamic” are really non-Islamic clan custom, such as the tradition of settling clan disputes by trading extra daughters. Clan justice is preferred to state justice because the latter is inconceivably slow, distorted by bribes, and doesn’t satisfy local values. (A clan member might well complain, “the law has hanged my brother’s killer, but now who is to support my dead brother’s family?”)

All this gets in the way of state institutions; on the other hand, it helps make Pakistan far less unequal than it would be otherwise. Clan leaders maintain their power by largesse. If they have no money or jobs to distribute, they have no power.  And almost everyone has someone they can court for favors.

Outsiders worry about Islamism; here Lieven’s reassurance is that there are too many Islams in Pakistan for any one of them to dominate.  Sunni and Shia, Pashtun and Balochi and Punjabi, moderate Barelwis and severe Deobandis, radical Taliban and mellow Sufis– no one group can impose its vision on the whole country.  (This is also the reason that, since Bangladesh left, the country has held together despite its centrifugal tendencies for 45 years.)

The one state institution that works, and stands apart from the clans, is the military. (Of course it’s also the one institution that’s fully funded.) Naipaul was appalled at Pakistan’s periods of military rule, but as Lieven points out, the distinction between military and civilian rule doesn’t really mean what we think it does here.  When the civilian parties are essentially coalitions of clans who take the opportunity to persecute the opposition, a period of rule by the one competent institution in the country can be a relief, at least until it becomes evident that the army can’t really rule the whole country as it does itself.

Outsiders also worry about Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban. A number of elements converge here:

  • The US and Saudi support for fundamentalist fedayin in Afghanistan starting in the 1980s to resist the Soviet occupation. One you release this jinn, he doesn’t easily go back in the bottle.
  • Pakistan’s longstanding grudge against India, and its perceived need for an allied state to its west.
  • The fact that the Taliban are Pashtun, the same people as the northwestern part of Pakistan.
  • The fact that, historically, neither the British nor the Pakistanis nor anyone else in the last centuries has ever really had control over the Pashtuns.

So, in brief, most Pakistanis like the Taliban because they were a known, friendly element in a strategically important neighbor; and they were not fond of non-Pashtun alliances or governments. They were much less fond of their imitators, the Pakistani Taleban.

Anyway, Lieven is perfectly aware of how dysfunctional the country often is, and yet the book comes off as more hopeful than most Western journalism.

The other important bit about Pakistan: it’s really very similar to India, and Sri Lanka for that matter. The clan system, the clan-linked political parties, the clashing ethnicities and religions that have lived together for centuries, the limited state institutions, all are South Asian rather than Pakistani realities.








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