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.








I thought I should read at least one book by India’s first Nobelist, Rudyard Kipling, so I read what is sometimes called his best novel, Kim, published in 1901 but set in the 1880s, the years Kipling spent in India.  (Kipling was born in 1865 in Bombay, was sent to England for schooling, and returned to India in 1882-89 as a journalist. Curiously for someone so closely associated with India, he lived there as an adult for only those seven years.)

I was going to illustrate this review with a picture from the book, but these prove to… raise questions, far more than the book itself.  More on that later. So here’s old Rudyard.


I doubt that Kim is much read these days on this side of the Atlantic, so let’s go over the basics.  Kim is a European, but raised as a wild child on the streets of Lahore. (He is an orphan, and a native woman takes care of him; she is forgotten halfway through the first chapter.) One day he meets a lama from Tibet, an ancient holy man who is seeking a river blessed by the Buddha. Kim has a bottomless curiosity and he has never met someone like the lama, so he decides to help the unworldly old lama get to Benares.

Kim also has a quest– his father told him that he would see a sign, a red bull on a green field, and have a great destiny.  So in form the book is a double quest with unlikely companions– like Huckleberry Finn and Jim, or Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

But Kim also has a friend named Mahbub Ali, who takes the opportunity to send Kim with an important letter.  This introduces what will become the main thread of the plot: a spy story.  Kim, with his ability to effortlessly pass for Hindu, Muslim, or European, would make a perfect spy, and he thrills to the idea. He would love to join the Great Game, the rivalry between Russia and Britain.

Does this sound like a weird collection of themes?  Because it definitely is. There’s a spy novel here, mixed up with a travelogue across northwestern India, mixed up with the friendship of Kim and the lama.  That it works at all is a testimony to Kipling’s skill as a portraitist.  Kim is fun, chiefly because he’s having so much fun– he is enchanted by almost everything he sees, except for the British-run school he’s forced to attend for a few years. Kipling’s (and Kim’s) deep interest in everything Indian is infectious, and he has the remarkable ability to make characters who are admirable, clever, and at the same time lightly comic.

By cinematic or video game standards the spy story is small stuff. Nothing really threatens the British Raj here; if these spies fail their jobs will be taken up by someone else. Which is itself a lesson for storytellers: things can be momentous without being earth-shattering or even particularly violent. The villains, such as they are, are not introduced until page 222; they both survive the book, though not without a loss of dignity.

The lama’s story is occasionally pushed off to the side, and it may seem like a strange digression. But it serves to deepen the story quite a bit. Though he is often depicted as naïve or even mad, the lama is also an invaluable friend to Kim. Neither his religion nor his quest are belittled. As such his invocations of the Wheel of Life and the life of merit serve as a constant rebuke to Kim’s much more worldly ambitions. It seems clear that Kim will follow those ambitions anyway (he isn’t going to become a Buddhist monk), but it’s a nice counterpoint to have someone who thinks the Great Game is complete foolishness.

You may be wondering, isn’t Kipling an awful racist? Not really. Some of the few people Kipling criticizes are those who look down on the Indians. Whether he looks on Indians accurately I can’t say, but he had a journalist’s eye for details and personalities, and if there are comic notes to some of the Indians, that’s true, or even more true, of the Europeans. And the most heroic Europeans are those who are most appreciative of Indians and Indian culture– such as the museum curator in the first chapter, based on his own father. Even in playing the Great Game itself, most of Kim’s mentors and fellow spies are themselves Indians.

What he was, of course, was an imperialist. George Orwell’s essay on him is well worth reading; Orwell has a knack for clearly explaining a writer’s political problems while also freely admiring his good points. In Kim the imperialism is chiefly there through omission. The gulf between the Brits and the Indians is clearly depicted, but it’s treated as a fact of nature. One of the Indian spies, known as Hurree Babu, even complains to the foreign spies about having an European education without an European salary… a perfectly valid complaint, and yet it’s simply a trick to deceive the foreigners. Kipling simply doesn’t present a situation where Indians and British interests conflict, does not present anyone who questions British rule. There is a reference to the 1857 rebellion, but told from the point of view of a loyalist soldier… not a viewpoint a modern Indian would appreciate, but it’s certainly a historical fact that the British put down the revolt with Indian troops.

This isn’t to be dismissed as simply what people thought in 1901; Kipling was a Tory and even then the left-wing intelligentsia despised him.  Imperialism is indefensible, but it’s also dead and buried, and it doesn’t do us any great credit to despise it when no one is there to defend it. (Yes, we have interventionism, but that’s a different thing and it isn’t very helpful to confuse it with what Europeans were doing a couple centuries ago. The thing to worry about today is not reactionaries’ desire to be colonial teachers and bureaucrats in Simla; it’s reactionaries’ intense fear of the outside world, a fear that can cause them to lash out at home and abroad in dangerous ways.)

At least two movies of Kim have been made, with traditional Hollywood yellowface: in one, the Tibetan monk is played by Peter O’Toole. The pictures are horrendous: O’Toole looks like Bill in Kill Bill with an obvious skullcap, and is about the least Tibetan thing in the world. I can’t resist pointing out this book cover, too. First, what the heck is Kim wearing? That is like the worst depiction of Indian clothing ever… plus how did the background somehow become the Arabian Nights? Fortunately these issues don’t arise if you just read.

Should you read it? I don’t know; it’s not the sort of adventure story that people like today, and there are some weird authorial decisions. (E.g. the story takes place over three years, but most of that is covered extremely sketchily. Plus Kipling uses a rather odd semi-archaic diction to represent when the characters are speaking Hindi… from the editor’s notes this is frequently based on a real knowledge of the language, and also frequently just made up.)

But you know, it all works on its own level. Kim’s identity could be turned into a dissertation, but in narrative terms he’s that most useful construct, a young man who has no real restrictions, like Tintin. If he wants to join a lama on a sacred quest, or deliver secret messages for spies, he just does, dammit.  And it’s hard not to feel after reading it that you now know how best to do some begging or horse trading or school-escaping in 1880s India.










This paragraph is amazing:

Once upon a time there was a monk who was inclined to imagine things rather a lot. One day, he happened to imagine a man named Jivata, who drank too much and fell into a heavy sleep.  As Jivata dreamt, he saw a Brahmin who read all day long. One day, that Brahmin fell asleep, and as his daily activities were still alive within him, like a tree inside a seed, he dreamt that he was a prince. One day that prince fell asleep after a heavy meal, and dreamt that he was a great king. One day that king fell asleep, having gorged himself on his every desire, and in his dream he saw himself as a celestial woman. The woman fell into a deep sleep in the languor that followed making love, and she saw herself as a doe with darting eyes. That doe one day fell asleep and dreamed that she was a clinging vine, because she had been accustomed to eating vines; for animals dream too, and they always remember what they have seen and heard.

This is from the Yogavasishtha, written sometime between the 10th and 12th centuries; the translation is by Wendy Doniger in On Hinduism.

Where do you go after a paragraph like that?  Anywhere you like.  But here’s how it goes.

The vine saw herself as a bee that used to buzz among the vines; the bee fell in love with a lotus and was so intoxicated by the lotus sap he drank that his wits became numb; just then an elephant came to that pond and trampled the lotus, and the bee, still attached to the lotus, was crushed with it on the elephant’s tusk. As the bee looked at the elephant, he saw himself as an elephant in rut. That elephant in rut fell into a deep pit and became the favorite elephant of a king. One day the elephant was cut to pieces by a sword in battle, and as he went to his final resting place he saw a swarm of bees hovering over the sweet ichor that oozed from his temples, and so the elephant became a bee again. The bee returned to the lotus pond and was trampled under the feet of another elephant, and just then he noticed a goose beside him in the pond, and so he became a goose. That goose moved through other births, other wombs, for a long time; until one day, when he was a goose in a flock of other geese, he realized that, being a goose, he was the same as the swan of the Creator. Just as he had this thought, he was shot by a hunter and he died, and then he was born as the swan of the Creator.

One day the swan saw Rudra and thought, with sudden certainty, “I am Rudra.” Immediately that idea was reflected like an image in a mirror, and he took on the form of Rudra. Then he could see all of his former experiences, and he understood them: “Because Jivata admired Brahmins, he saw himself as a Brahmin; and since the Brahmin had thought about princes all the time, he became a prince. And that fickle woman was so jealous of the beautiful eyes of a doe that she became a doe… These creatures are my own rebirths.” And, after awhile, the monk and Jivata and all the others will wear out their bodies and will unite in the world of Rudra.

(Rudra is better known as  Shiva; in this tradition, he is the supreme god.)

So the interlocking dreams turn into a transference of souls just by imagination, and then into the cycle of rebirth.  And it ends up as a playful, vivid demonstration of the idea of pantheism– we’re all forms of Shiva, but just don’t realize it.

Still, it’s the little details that create the intense dreaminess of the passage: Jivata’s drunken stupor, the celestial woman making love, the bee’s infatuation with lotus sap. (As Doniger points out, the common element running through the dream is desire.)


I finished reading the Ramayana. Or at least I think I did.  What I read was a modern retelling, The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic, by Ramesh Menon. The author explains that previous retellings were “too short” as well as too Shakespearian, while he finds scholarly translations lacking “poetry and mystery”, and even more archaic in language. Besides, who has really read Rāmāyaṇam except those who have plowed through its 24,000 verses in Sanskrit?

(By the way, you might like to know that the accept goes on the antepenult: ra-MA-ya-na. Same rule as Latin, actually: two final short vowels in CV syllables are unstressed.)

Ravana and Rama

The story, for an epic, is simple enough.  Ravana, the king of the rakshasas (the race of demons or perhaps daemons), makes a tapasya— a period of penance and self-mortification.  He has ten heads; after each thousand years of tapasya, he cuts off another head and throws it in the sacrificial fire.  At the end of ten thousand years, he prepares to cut off his last head. Shiva appears and grants him a boon. He asks for strength above all creatures.  (He also gets his nine heads back.)  Unsatisfied, he sits for another tapasya, this time to Brahma, the Creator.  When Brahma appears, he asks for the boon that no god may kill him, no rakshasa, no asura or daitya or gandharva or any other divine or demonic being. This granted, he goes off to conquer the three worlds– earth, heaven, and hell.

(If you’re a conworlder, pause to admire that opener.  Would you have created an origin story like that for your Big Bad? Where he takes a perfectly valid spiritual path to get his superpowers?)

He has made only one mistake: thinking them beneath him, he omitted to ask for protection from humans.  Or monkeys, for that matter.

Eventually Ravana’s crimes (what are they?  we’ll get back to this) become too much, and the gods petition Vishnu for relief.  He agrees to incarnate as a human being, one who will eventually slay Ravana.  His avatar will be Rama, son of king Dasaratha of Ayodhya.

The overall bones of the story are already in place, but some more complications are needed. Rama must go on a few missions to get out of the palace and level up. He meets Sita, daughter of the king of Mithila.  As Rama is the perfect man, she is the perfect woman, and an avatar of Lakshmi.  They are married right away.

The king has three wives, and one of them is tempted by her evil servant to ask for a boon.  This is to send Rama into exile for fourteen years and make her own son Bharata crown prince. She had saved Dasaratha’s life once, so he has to fulfill her wish; Rama, being perfect, acquiesces gracefully.  He takes Sita and his brother Lakshmana, goes into the jungle, and lives like a rishi, a holy man– wearing barkskin clothes and dreadlocks, hunting to support themselves.

Even this is too much bliss for a heroic character, and after Rama gets into an altercation with a colony of 14,000 rakshasas and kills them all, Ravana takes notice– and kidnaps Sita.  Oh, now it’s on, ten-head dude.

So how is it?

Initial reaction: those ancient Indians knew how to epic.  If you like big fantasy epics you’ll probably dig it. In fact it’ll probably satisfy your fantasy hunger better than (say) the Morte Darthur, or the Iliad. Bronze age or medieval warfare, after all, is just humans of similar powers and mentalities killing each other.  In the Ramayana you get different species, magical powers, and excursions into spirituality and romance.

If you’re used to fantasy, you probably crave unusual worlds, but may balk at unusual narrative conventions. A traditional epic was normally told to people who already knew the story, so there is no attempt to hide how it ends. It’s also a religious story, and there’s little of the modern interest in finding the sins of the good and the charms of the evil. For that matter Menon is quite happy to tell you, and often, that Rama is good and Ravana is evil.

I’d also say that Menon hits a sweet spot of modern but not slangy English. Epics shouldn’t sound dusty.

I did see one review that mused that Menon might have tried too hard to Westernize the source materials. Maybe it seems that way if you’ve chewed on the original, or on more scholarly translations, but for the rest of us, Menon’s version is plenty non-Western. The one criticism I’d have, in fact, is that he is a little too devoted to Sanskrit terms.  I understand the impulse– Sanskrit is beautiful, and mistranslation or poor translation can be heartbreaking.  But I don’t know that it adds that much to have Sanskrit terms that are simply glossed “weapon” or “lake” or “trident”.

(I do have to say that Book Six goes on for a long, long time. It’s the final battle, and it takes over a hundred pages.  Every single one of Ravana’s family and commanders has to go up against Rama and his army. If you like superhero comics or movies, it’s basically that. But I tire of superhero comics, too.)

Good and evil

In some ways Ravana is the prototype of an evil overlord. But in many ways he’s not.

You expect Sauron’s lair to be hard iron and rock, all midnight black and lava red. Ravana has a city, which is… preternaturally beautiful. It’s rich and lovely, and full of happy rakshasas.  Ravana knows his Vedic lore, and he has his own rakshasa brahmins.  He’s described as regal and magnificent, and he certainly has the unforced loyalty of his family, his commanders, and his army. We’re even told that many of the women in his harem submit to him quite happily, sighing only that his visits are so infrequent.

So what is his crime?  Well, he’s a warmonger, of course, going so far as to attack and defeat Indra in heaven, and Yama, Death himself, in hell. This is hardly a sin, however– conquering people is pretty much how an emperor is expected to behave.

Rakshasas do have a nasty habit of eating rishis. They like interfering with the rishis’ sacrifices and meditation, and even more than that they like eating animal and human flesh. That’s pretty bad, but you could also say it’s their role in the ecosphere.  Rather like Greek polytheism, Hindu cosmology comes across as ethically neutral.  Gods can sin; demons may be wise kings or scholars; the great trinity will grant boons to anyone who can muster a tapasya. And they’re all related anyway. (Ravana is the great-grandson of Brahma.)

Ravana’s big failing, it turns out, is women– of many species.  To be blunt, he’s a rapist.  Though by the time he meets Sita, this has already bitten him where it hurts: one of the husbands he’d wronged curses him, and this is a world where curses hurt: if he rapes another woman his heads, all ten of them, will explode.  So when he kidnaps Sita he doesn’t try to force himself on her; he merely tries every variation of threat and cajoling for months on end. His wiser councilors tell him, not to ease up on the rishi-munching, but to return Sita and apologize to Rama. But he’s fallen in love with her and is willing to fight to the end.

To clarify, as a religion of course Hinduism is very pro-virtue (dharma). Humans are supposed to be virtuous.  And gods are too… when they do sin, they have to do penance or suffer.

The problem of Sita

For a modern reader, the most disturbing aspect of the story are instances where, after Ravana has been defeated, Rama makes a big deal of Sita spending so many months with Ravana, and being tainted.  The text is quite clear that Sita is entirely innocent.  In both cases Rama claims that he never doubted her, but has to be severe in order to put other people’s doubts to rest. And I’m sorry, avatar of  Vishnu or not, that is a dick move.

One of the instances is in the 7th kanda or book of the poem, and supposedly there are doubts that it was original. (The story really ends with book 6; the 7th is largely a prequel, telling the story of how Ravana got to rule the three worlds, and includes a few stories of what happened during Rama’s 10,000-year kingship.)  The other instance may be an interpolation as well… or the fact that people say so seems to indicate that disquiet over the treatment of Sita isn’t new.

Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues is a response to Sita’s mistreatment, and a lot of fun in itself.


One of the more enchanting bits of the Ramayana is the nature of Rama’s army: besides his brother, it’s all monkeys.  (His brother Bharata is ruling back in Ayodhya, and it doesn’t seem to occur to anyone to send a human army.)  Rama makes the acquaintance of Hanuman, a vanara or intelligent magical monkey, and he leads him to the king of the monkeys. They turn out to be a pretty good set of allies, and as they remind Ravana, he forgot to ask Brahma to protect him against monkeys, too.

This raises the question of whether Sūn Wùkōng, the Monkey King of Journey to the West, is based on Hanuman or on any of the other vanaras. They both have transformation powers, they both help achieve a spiritual mission, they both have magical leaps, they both combine heroism with a little mischief, they both were more arrogant in their youth.  Buddhists don’t directly read the Ramayana, but versions of the story are popular in Buddhist areas, and the Monkey King probably owes a large debt to Rama’s helper.

More speculatively, I wonder if the avatar idea influenced Christianity. The Ramayana was written no later than about 300 BC, at a time when Hellenic kingdoms bridged the gap from the Mediterranean to the Indus. That gods could take a temporary human form was of course no great imaginative leap, but the Hindu idea was of a god living an entire human life, fully human and not always conscious of his divinity. It seems like a strange idea to have occurred to strict Jewish monotheists, of all peoples.

I also wonder if JRR Tolkien ever read some version of the Ramayana. The idea of multiple sentient races, some close to God, some near-demonic, was not commonplace in fantasy before him, and there it is in the Ramayana. The general atmosphere– an evil lord far to the south, kings in exile, valued and powerful gurus, numinous elder races, key actions by eagles, various ages of the world each declining from the last, all remind me of LOTR. I’m reminded that C.S. Lewis’s brother in his childhood was fascinated by India– it doesn’t seem like a huge stretch that a British writer in the time of the empire might have heard some of these stories.

Finally, if you’re an AD&D player of my generation, you will remember rakshasas from the very fine illustration of a tiger rakshasa in the Monster Manual. They are a little underpowered, and I don’t know where they got the tiger bit.









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