Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Aurangzeb debate

(reader's letter replying to a review of Audrey Truschke's book Aurangzeb: Man or Myth, in National Interest, 22 April 2017)

Unfortunately, I have no time for a full review of Audrey Truschke’s book, checking primary sources and all that, though if it somehow proves necessary, I will do it anyway. I am presently concentrating on more complex and more important issues in the history of Hindu thought, while the history of Islam has lost my interest because it is so simple and our conclusions about it are not at all threatened with a need for revision. As a doctrine, it is a mistake, and as a historical movement, it has a very negative record vis-à-vis Unbelievers, especially the Hindus. The secularists and their foreign dupes may cry themselves hoarse in their denial of these straightforward and amply proven facts, they don’t stand a chance, though not for want of trying.

Nonetheless, let me offer some general observations. If Hindus are wrong anywhere in their evaluation of Aurangzeb, it is not in misstating his record, which was highly reprehensible even by the standards of his own day. But because of the crimes he undeniably committed against the mass of non-Muslims and against a few unorthodox Muslims, Hindus tend to launch this shrill rhetoric against the person Aurangzeb, as if he were an evil man. He was not.

Unlike Audrey Truschke, I will not have to do a counterfactual whitewash in order to relativize Aurangzeb’s guilt. He did destroy the Kashi Vishvanath, the Krishna Janmabhumi and thousands of other temples, and their ruins or the mosques built in their stead remain as mute witnesses to his practice of iconoclasm. Yet, he was also verifiably a pious and ascetic man. While we cannot look inside his skull to know what he really thought, all contemporaneous documents confirm that he set himself high standards of conduct. For example, he earned his own livelihood and did hold it against his father that he squandered taxpayers’ money on luxuries like building the Taj Mahal.

Among Hindus too, we know of numerous pious and ascetic people, but none of them earned a reputation as an iconoclastic monster. Then what happened in the case of Aurangzeb? The answer is in the contents of the doctrine he came to take ever more seriously: Islam. When people at some point in their lives “get religion”, their freshly upgraded or newfound faith colours the nature of the behavioural changes that ensue. In the case of Islam, the religious enthusiast may take inspiration from the Prophet’s life & works, more than the average Muslims brought up with the same ideals but less inclined to put them into practice. He was a better Muslim than most. Thus, he enacted laws harmful to the interests of the  ruling class but more in keeping with Islamic jurisprudence. But the same devotion and religious earnestness that made him an ascetic, also made him an iconoclast.

Whenever Islamic rulers or warlords feel compelled to provide a justification for their iconoclasm, they point to earlier Islamic leaders’ precedents, but most of all to Mohammed’s own model behaviour, especially the epochal moment after the city of Mecca’s surrender when the Prophet and his son-in-law Ali destroyed the Pagan Kaaba’s 360 idols with their own hands. The job completed, they declared that with this, light had triumphed over darkness; truly a defining moment in Islam’s genesis. Not one Islamic theologian will contradict us when we say that an exemplary Muslim is one who emulates the Prophet.

At the end of his life, Aurangzeb privately repented his policy of iconoclasm, eventhough not deeply enough to reverse it. If no one else can refute gullible apologists like Audrey, let Aurangzeb himself do it. He certainly realized that his policy was too much for his contemporaries to stomach. And again this change of heart had nothing to do with his personality but with his deeply-held faith.  He regretted having destroyed temples not because he was suddenly struck with compassion for the accursed Infidels, but because he had provoked them into rebellions and thus endangered Islam’s position in India. For almost two centuries, Islam had thrived and enjoyed power thanks to a compromise with the Hindu majority: these had a subordinate position, but not emphatically so. Not enough to make them rise in revolt. Now, after Shivaji’s successful rebellion, it was becoming clear that Indian Islam had entered a period of decline. The romantic ideal of emulating the Prophet in every detail had come in the way of Islam’s larger and deeper goal, viz. consolidating and extending its power, ultimately expected (as ordered by the Quran itself) to culminate in world conquest.

Let us note finally that on this issue, Audrey’s book is representative of a wider concern to whitewash Aurangzeb. In their all-out war on Hinduism and specific Hindu ideas, the South Asia scholars tend to practise Groupthink; there is rarely anything original, they only outdo each other in how daring they can make their own articulation of ever the same position. In 2014, I participated in an all-day session on Aurangzeb at the bi-annual conference of the European Association of South-Asian Studies in Zürich. One paper after another highlighted some quotes from contemporaneous writers in praise of Aurangzeb. These are easy to find, as he had the last say over their success or marginalization, even over life and death. On Stalin too, you can easily find many contemporary sources praising him, and then silly academics concluding therefrom that he can’t have been so bad.

Thus, one of the sources was Guru Govind Singh’s Zafar Namah or “victory letter”. If you quote it selectively, you might think he was an admirer and ideological comrade of Aurangzeb’s. But the Guru was strategically with his back against the wall and had to curry favour with the man holding all the cards. So he wrote a diplomatically-worded letter and held his personal opinions to himself (and here is one case where personal relations must have trumped ideology).  It is entirely certain, and academics cover themselves with shame if they cleverly try to deny it, that Govind hated Aurangzeb from the bottom of his heart. Aurangzeb was responsible for the murder of Govind’s father and all four sons. Any proletarian can understand that in private, Govind must have said the worst things about Aurangzeb. You have to be as silly or as partisan as a South Asia scholar to believe that the Guru meant to praise Aurangzeb.

To sum up, the presently-discussed thesis by Audrey Truschke comes to add to the numbers of what formally look like studies in history, but effectively are meant as strikes in the ongoing battle against self-respecting Hinduism.

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Saturday, April 15, 2017

The NCERT’s denial of Islamic iconoclasm’s uniqueness


(Pragyata, March 2017) 

During the Rama Janmabhumi commotion ca. 1990, it was the done thing for secularists to deny that Muslims had ever committed destruction of Hindu sacred buildings and statues. This even became the official position worldwide, for practically all Indologists and India-watchers interiorized it and zealously condemned any acknowledgment of Islamic iconoclasm as stemming from “Hindu fanaticism”. However, this position is hard to sustain, because it is so obviously untrue. Therefore, they have recently refined their propaganda strategy, in two ways.

First, they now minimize Islamic iconoclasm, but admit some of it. Not that they would concede the Islamic motivation for this Mandir-and-Murti destruction, but alright, some Muslims had done it. That, after all, is what human beings do, Hindus included, see? As long as Islam remains out of the picture, they are willing to admit a little bit of destruction for the sake of salvaging their own credibility.

Second, they now try to make Hinduism guilty of the crimes of Islam, viz. by providing the inspiration through its own example. Muslims destroyed Hindu temples because Hindus had destroyed Hindu temples. Provincials like our secularists and their foreign imitators try to lead you by the nose towards whatever happened within India’s borders, and never ask, nor want you to ask, what the record of Islam outside India is, including in the period before it entered India. They don’t want you to realize that Islam’s behaviour in India was only a continuation of its behavior in West Asia and around the Mediterranean, starting with Mohammed’s own model behaviour in Arabia.

The secularist narrative is now being propagated everywhere and inserted into the textbooks of history, including in the projected new textbooks mulled over by the National Centre for Educational Research and Training (NCERT). As per the official procedure, there is a provision for feedback from the public. A friend of mine sent in an objection to the NCERT’s scenario. What follows is the NCERT’s response, interspersed with my comments.


“The objection to the cited passage – that temples demonstrated the power and resources of the kings who built them and that is the reason why medieval rulers targeted the temples of rival rulers -- can be substantiated by innumerable references.”

This is sheer bluff. The two examples given do of course not amount to the "innumerable" cases which they mendaciously claim to have. Nor have such numbers of cases been mentioned elsewhere. Yet, given the strong motive the NCERT secularists have to overrule the straightforward narrative of Islamic iconoclasm, they would by now certainly have published a book full of such evidence, and made sure it was quoted in every relevant paper and editorial – if it existed.

Sheer bluff, we said, but in the real world, there is nothing “sheer” about bluff. On the contrary, bluff is a mighty weapon that can produce impressive results. Take the Rama Janmabhumi controversy. The secularists suddenly claimed that all the Muslims and Hindus and Europeans who had unitedly assumed that a Rama temple had stood at the disputed site on which the Babri Masjid had been imposed, had all been wrong. They offered no evidence whatsoever for their proposed scenario (say, a sales contract in which a landlord sold Babar a piece of empty real estate to build a mosque on), and denied the evidence on the opposite side which had existed all along and which accumulated further once the challenge to bring more evidence had been raised.

Though their behaviour was that of conspiracy-mongers, their shrill bluff carried authoritative public opinion with it. They managed to make the Government abandon its plans for a negotiated settlement, they managed to have national and state governments toppled, they managed to trigger a number of bloodbaths, all through “sheer bluff”. Even when they collapsed one after another when questioned in Court, even when their bluff had been exposed (though the media did all they could to hide this development from you), they have never apologized, never publicly admitted how wrong they had been. Bluff can get you very far in life, so the NCERT tries more of it. 

Even the evidential value of their “evidence” is bluff. No matter how many cases of Hindu idol abduction they manage to find, it will never amount to proof for the hypothesis they really want to push: that Muslim conquerors and rulers did what they did because Hindus had inspired them to do it. These conquerors mostly didn’t even know the record of Hindu kings, and at any rate they didn’t care. They would never have wanted to be seen imitating the idolaters and instead invoked the solid justification for iconoclasm within their own tradition. Mohammed himself had set the example, and in his wake came the conquerors of West Asia and the Mediterranean, unaffected by Hindu examples.

Power of discrimination

“Consider the gold statue of Vishnu which was once in the Lakshmana temple of Khajuraho. The statue actually belonged to the rulers of Kangra, it was taken by the Pratiharas and finally by the Candella ruler Yasovarman just before 950 CE (and a near contemporary of Mahmud Ghazni). The inscription in the foundation stone of the Khajuraho Laksmana temple commemorated these events and stated – “With his troops of elephants and horses, Herambapala (Pratihara, ruler of Kanauj) seized it form [the king of Kangra]. Obtaining it from his son, the (Pratihara) prince Devapala, the illustrious (Candella) king Yasovarman – an ornament among kings and a crusher of enemies – performed the ritual establishment of [Vishnu] Vaikuntha [in the Laksmana temple at Khajuraho]”. See, F. Kielhorn. “Inscriptions from Khajuraho”, Epigraphica Indica, vol. 1 (1892), p. 192.”

This example is a beautiful illustration precisely of how Hindu idol-kidnapping differs radically from Islamic idol-breaking. According to the NCERT itself, the Vishnu statue from Khajuraho was abducted not once but twice, and ended up (not walled into a lavatory or underfoot, nor smashed to pieces, but) consecrated as a prominent Murti in a Vaishnava temple, exactly where it belonged. What was abducted, was merely an object of art, duly consecrated. There was no destruction of the religion behind the Murti. It was used for Vaishnava worship in its original site, after it was abducted, and again after Yasovarman abducted it. Further, the worship at the temples robbed of their Murtis, was perfectly allowed to continue, though they would have to install a new Murti.   

By contrast, in Islamic iconoclasm, the goal was to destroy the “idolatrous” religion of which the Murtis were an expression. The destruction of Murtis and the demolition of Mandirs had the purpose of destroying Hinduism or whichever the Pagan religion behind some given Murtis was. When Mahmud Ghaznavi was done destroying the Somnath temple, he did not mean to let Shiva worship resume at the site, not as long as he was militarily in a position to prevent it. While Yasovarman installed the abducted Vishnu Murti for worship, Mahmud Ghaznavi would have the captured Murtis destroyed, or worked them into lavatory walls or into floors in order the humiliate them -- not so much the Murtis themselves but the religion they represented. In destroying the Somnath Shivalingam, he meant to destroy Shiva worship.

One day, a man needed some paper to light a campfire, but he had none. His friend suggested: I have some paper, wait. And he took his wallet to produce a wad of dollar bills. The friend turned out not to see any significance in the dollar bills, only their material dimension. Whether a little rectangle of paper was a currency note worth an exchange value, or a newspaper clipping containing specific information, or merely a blank slip of paper, they were all the same to him: enough paper to light a campfire with. Now that is Nehruvian secularism for you: a deliberate suspension of the power of discrimination. This wilful superficiality claims not to see any difference between abducting an object without any further consequence and destroying this object as part of the attempted destruction of the religion it stands for.


“From a different cultural zone note also the example of the conflict between the soldiers of the Gauda (Bengal) ruler and the ruler of Kashmir, Lalitaditya. The episode concerns the moment when the Bengali rulers chose to attack the idol of Vishnu Parihasakesava who was providentially saved because the soldiers mistook this image of the royal God for another. The Rajatarangini notes – “Though the king was abroad, the priests observed that the soldiers wanted to enter, and they closed the gates of the Parihasakesava shrine. Aroused with boldness, the soldiers got hold of the silver Ramasvamin image, which they mistook for Parihasakesava. They carried it out and ground it into dust. And even as Lalitaditya’s troops who had come out from the city were killing them at each step, the Gaudas continued to break it into particles and scatter them in every direction.” See Ranjit Sitaram Pandit, trans., Rajatarangini, The saga of the Kings of Kashmir, Allahabad: The Indian Press, 1935, pp. 326-28.”

Note firstly that this Lalitaditya episode is also related, complete with the spin dear to the NCERT, in Robert M. Hayden, Aykan Erdemir,Tuğba Tanyeri-Erdemir, Timothy D. Walker, Devika Rangachari, Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Enrique López-Hurtado, and Milica Bakić-Hayden: Antagonistic Tolerance: Competitive Sharing of Religious Sites and Spaces, 2013, p.136-137. As you can see, the Nehruvian secularist bluff is being spread far and wide and is acquiring the status of academic orthodoxy.

We are here dealing with a typical case of Western imitators, if not careerists who want to serve the current orthodoxy of battling “Islamophobia”. Concerning India, they have completely swallowed the Nehruvian bias. Thus, about Islamic iconoclasm deniers Romila Thapar and Richard Eaton, they say: “As scholars of India in the late 20th century, their aim in doing so is to counter the accusations by Hindu nationalists that the Muslims uniquely violated the sensibilities and rights of Hindus by destroying temples, by showing that Hindu rulers had done much the same thing before Muslims reached India.” (RM Hayden et al.: Antagonistic Tolerance, p.136)

It is in itself commendable that they point out the political intentions of these academics. These have a purpose other than dispassionately seeking the truth, which to Marxists would only be “bourgeois objectivity”. While not in itself disqualifying their research, it should at least set some alarm bells ringing. But this political bias only enjoys the unquestioning approval of the new generation of dupes.

So much have they already interiorized the belief in Hindu iconoclasm that they take it one step further: “From the perspective of the AT [= Antagonistic Tolerance] project, of course it would be surprising if Hindu rulers had not done so.” (RM Hayden et al.: Antagonistic Tolerance, p.136)

Naturally they should think so, for it fits in with the reigning paradigm that “all religions are essentially the same”.

At the end, when practical conclusions are drawn, fashionable academics tend to differentiate again and favour Islam over Hinduism, e.g. by clamouring about “Islamophobia” but ignoring “Hinduphobia” (including their own); but at some point within their narrative, it is useful to put forward the equality and sameness of all religions, viz. in order to preclude or drown out all specific Hindu complaints about distinctly Islamic behaviour.  

Since those authors are only second-hand spokesmen of the Nehruvian view, they sometimes let on facts that, when properly analysed, don’t really fit their narrative, e.g.: “Tantalizingly, Eaton (2000a:293) mentions that temples not identified with royal patrons were generally left unharmed.” (RM Hayden et al.: Antagonistic Tolerance, p.136)

Tantalizing? Only if you pursue the Nehruvian paradigm. In fact it follows logically from the difference between Hinduism and Islam. If at all there were Hindu kings who “harmed” temples because through them they wanted to harm hostile kings, they clearly opted for a policy that constituted another distinction with Muslim iconoclasm: they left politically irrelevant temples untouched. By contrast, when Muslim armies went on an iconoclastic spree, they did not care about these petty considerations, precisely because their motive had nothing to do with “royal patrons” but only with non-Islamic religion.

Thus, when the Ghurid army ca. 1193 destroyed a “thousand” temples in Varanasi (as admitted by Eaton), obviously not all of them had enjoyed royal patronage. But all of them contained Pagan idols, and what was enough to get the Muslim conquerors in a destructive mood. This off-hand refutes the whole point of this new-fangled soft-Marxist hypothesis: that iconoclasm had nothing to do with religion.

Now, as to Lalitaditya, he defeated the Gauda king, invited him with the  Parihasakeshava (Vaishnava) idol as guarantee for the Gauda king’s safety, yet had him murdered. To take revenge, the Gauda servants contrived to visit the relevant shrine in order to destroy this idol. Though they mistook another idol for Parihasakeshava (and apparently the story is gleefully told in order to convey this idol’s supposed cleverness in arranging for its own safety at the expense of another), they did indeed destroy the idol that they could lay their hands on. The fragmentation of the idol is duly described.

So, this indeed is one rare case where Hindus destroyed a Hindu idol. To be sure, they did nothing to Vaishnavism in Kashmir, nor in Bengal, nor anywhere else. They only wanted to get at that particular idol, a radical difference with the numerous campaigns of idol-breaking by Muslims, who were not so fussy. While Hindus did it, Hinduism was not involved. On the contrary, the text itself stipulates that their motive was quite mundane, viz. vengeance for their murdered king. The perpetrators did not quote any Hindu scripture prescribing: “Thou shalt destroy a Parihasakeshava idol whenever thou seest one!” They did not invoke any idol-breaking model behaviour of a Vedic Rishi.

Islamic iconoclasm

We have spent some time writing out several pages in analyzing the NCERT response to an objection. To be sure, a fool can famously ask more questions in a few lines than a normal man can answer in a number of pages. Nevertheless, the fact deserves mention that, through misdirection, the NCERT has succeeded in keeping us busy all while the true answer was so simple. We have been forced to deal with two of the handful of cases of idol-abduction and iconoclasm by Hindus as the supposed reason for Islamic iconoclasm, when in reality, Islamic iconoclasm had nothing to do anything good or bad done by a Hindu. And no secret is made of this in Muslim chronicles, clear enough about the real motive.

Neither the NCERT, nor the Nehruvian historians, nor their foreign followers, has ever succeeded in finding a Muslim chronicle saying that “the Sultan was inspired by Hindu example to destroy idols and demolish temples”. The point, after all, was not finding fault with what Hindus may have done (though finding fault with Hindus is certainly also on the secularists’ agenda), but to explain through Hindu behaviour the known Islamic conduct of iconoclasm. This relation between Islamic iconoclasm and Hindu example has never ever been established. On the contrary, whenever Muslim iconoclasts feel the need to motivate their destructive behaviour, they cite Islamic examples, first of all the destruction of the idols in the Ka’ba by Mohammed himself.

And let alone the words in chronicles or elsewhere, it is actual deeds that prove the radical difference between Islamic iconoclasm and any possible Hindu attitude. The NCERT itself quotes a case where a Vishnu statue was abducted, and then installed for worship by the abductor himself. If such were the example followed by Muslim iconoclasts, we would expect to find mosques where Hindu statues from, say, the Somnath temple or the Rama Janmabhumi temple had been installed. Unlike the Nehruvians, we are not provincials and will not confine ourselves to India, so images of Apollo, Osiris, or any other deity will also do. Pray, NCERT, where is that mosque where an abducted idol has been installed for worship? We are not asking for two examples, just one.

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The Chinese self-designation Hua and the root-word Ᾱrya

(India Facts

It is but rare that I take the trouble to write a mere summary of a paper I have read with increasing enthusiasm. Here is one occasion. It pertains to “The earliest Chinese words for ‘the Chinese’: the phonology, meaning and origin of the epithet ḤaryaᾹrya in East Asia” by Christopher Beckwith, published in Journal Asiatique 304:2 (2016), p.231-248. Some comments and background data are mine, but for the factual frame, the entire credit goes to Beckwith.

I had never suspected that the Chinese word for “Chinese” has a foreign origin. But yes, it does. In fact, the same foreign word has been borrowed twice and yielded two different Chinese words, one of which is widely used as the ethnonym for “Chinese”.

The procedure for adopting a foreign word is to identify it with a similar-sounding Chinese word. The concomitant character has a certain ordinary meaning, and the adopted meaning may be totally different; but when at all possible, preference is given to a similar-sounding character that also has a similar meaning. Thus, “Coca Cola” yields kekoukele 可口可樂, “what a!, mouth, what a!, fun”, more or less the carefree image that this brand tries to propagate. Sometimes a new character is created around an existing character of which the sound is borrowed regardless of the meaning. “Buddha” yields Fo 佛, which came about by composing the root signifying “man” with the existing simple character fu弗, “not”. Though later apologists tried to make sematic sense of it by explaining “not” as an allusion to Buddhist concepts like “emptiness”, it really had to do with the similarity in sound, at least to Chinese ears of the period. Whereas English words in -ize or -ation keep on reminding us of their Greek or Roman origins, the Chinese loanword gives no hint anymore that it is etymologically foreign.

After the legendary ancestral emperors in the -3rd millennium (including the Yellow Emperor, r. -27th century), the first imperial dynasty in the Yellow River basin was called the Xia 夏 dynasty, r. -21st to -16th century. We have no contemporary sources about this Xia dynasty, which is why many scholars dismiss it as a legend or even a propagandistic construction from the time of the Zhou 周 dynasty (-11th to -3rd). The Zhou had come to power through a coup d’état against the earlier Shang 商 dynasty (-16th to -11th), and they invested a lot in justifying this transgression.

The most important instrument they created to this end was the doctrine of the Heavenly Mandate (tianming 天命). This held that the founder of the Zhou dynasty had received a sign from heaven, in the form of a solar eclipse above his capital, that a heavenly mandate to rule had fallen to him because the Shang emperor had squandered it by proving himself decadent, unjust and no longer worthy of it. To anchor this doctrine, the Zhou ideologues claimed that the Shang had no reason to complain, since this coup d’état was only a repeat performance of the way the Shang themselves had come to power at the expense of the preceding dynasty.

The Chinese are strongly conscious of their national history, and even a half-educated Chinese knows that this preceding dynasty was the Xia 夏. However, around the millennium, scholars active in the government-ordered Three Dynasties Project (i.e. Xia-Shang-Zhou) remarked that there were no known sources giving the early Zhou the name or any other data about this first dynasty, so they had to have invented it. Strictly speaking, there may have existed an aristocratic family drawing its name from the genuine Chinese word xia, 夏“summer”, and it may have served as an imperial dynasty, who knows? Then again, the name may have been arbitrarily assigned to an invented ancient dynasty as well.

At any rate, the same word, or etymologically a homophonous loanword which came to be written with the same character, came to serve as the name of “us, Chinese”. According to Beckwith, in this meaning the term does not predate the Warring States period, the final part of the Zhou age (-5th to -3rd). At that time, knowledge was extant about distantly neighbouring countries, including Daxia 大夏, meaning “Greater Bactria” or “the Bactrian Empire”, i.e. Central Asia, then firmly held by the Iranian-speaking Scythians. These were a predominant influence from Croatia to Mongolia, where they imparted their lucrative knowledge of metallurgy and horse-training (Scythian legends pertaining to these skills were interiorized even by the Japanese). Their ancestral heartland was Bactria, i.e. present-day northern Afghanistan and southeastern Uzbekistan around the Amu Darya river (Greek: Oxus), an oasis friendly to agriculture and habitation amidst a harsh and inhospitable region.

The later Chinese tended to identify themselves with their ruling class. The Qin 秦dynasty (-3rd) yielded the international name China, Sanskrit Cīnā; the Han 漢 dynasty (-3rd to +3rd) lent its name to the usual self-designation of the ethnic Chinese as distinct from the minorities within China as “the Han”. It might be that a Chinese elite for some reason had identified itself with the expanding Scythians.

We do find such a reason in the alternative sinification of the same foreign word. Then pronounced very similarly to the character Xia 夏, it is now pronounced Hua and written 華. This character is a self-designation of the Chinese both internally and abroad, e.g. the Chinese minority in Vietnam is known as the Hoa. Its basic meaning is “civilized, elite” (apart from “flower”, with the same character), the opposite meaning of “barbarian”. The Chinese do indeed consider themselves as the civilized ones, as distinct from the barbarians.

The oldest attestation of Hua 華 as a self-designation is among the ruling class of the feudal state of Zhao 趙. Originally, it seems to have distinguished that elite from all others, not just foreigners but also the Chinese commoners in their state of Zhao. This state lay on the northern border, partly in what is now Mongolia, where the Scythians had come to form an elite. Apparently the ruling class there had Scythian origins, had fully assimilated into China but had preserved a collective self-designation referring to their distinctive ethnic origins and its ancestral homeland of Bactria. A millennium earlier, the Zhou had had a similar history as half-barbarians living near the border, getting enlisted as border defence against the all-out barbarians (like the Roman Empire hiring and thus “domesticating” Germans to defend its border against “wild” Germans), becoming fully Chinese in the process, and finally even capturing the Chinese throne. Further, in the classical account, there is even a hint that the Yellow Emperor, kind of the Father of the Nation, had been an immigrant nomad.

As during the Warring States period Zhao was one of the most powerful states (the last to hold out against the Qin 秦 bid to unify the empire under their own rule), this usage percolated among the elites and then also the masses of the neighbouring Chinese states. Except perhaps to aged and highly cultured members of the Zhao elite, no one was aware anymore that Hua 華 had entered Chinese as a loanword, moreover one that designated a foreign nation. Thus, it finally came to mean “we, the Chinese”. It still has that meaning today, along with Zhong, “middle”, from Zhongguo, “the Middle Kingdom, China”. We still see the two together in Zhonghua Minguo 中華民國, “Republic of China”, and Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo, 中華人民共和國, “People’s Republic of China”.

The origin of the words Xia 夏 and Hua 華 is the collective self-designation of the inhabitants of Bactria, a country of which the Greeks rendered the Iranian name as Ariana. This is still the name of Afghanistan’s air company. The Iranians called themselves Aiirya, corresponding to the form Ᾱrya in Sanskrit, Arus in Anatolian (Hittite). In each of these languages, it originally meant “us”, “one of us” (as against “them”), “fellow countryman”. Surrounding or subject nations, and finally the Iranians themselves, used the word as an ethnonym for the Iranians. Indeed, Iran comes from Aiiryānām Khšathra, “kingdom of the Iranians”.

In Vedic Sanskrit, it meant the self-designation of the Paurava tribe within which the composition of the Vedic hymns took place. For non-members culturally influenced by the Vedas, it came to mean “Paurava”, Vedic”. Thus, the name of the modern Hindu reform organization Ᾱrya Samāj, working under the motto: “Back to the Vedas”, means approximately: “Vedicist Society”. The Vedic country, North India, became Ᾱryāvarta, “circle of the Āryas”.

In all cases, the word had an elitist connotation. In India, this could be taken to follow from the reservation of a Vedic initiation to the upper castes, but the elitist usage is probably older. The meaning “noble”, well-known internationally for being mentioned by the Buddha in the “four noble truths” and in the “noble eightfold path”, can be interpreted both as “Vedic” (since the Buddha himself had considered his own teachings as a revival of the Vedic seers’ original instructions before they got corrupted by the priestly class, a less literal way of going “back to the Vedas”); and more generally as “socially upper-class”, and hence metaphorically “morally upper-class”. This is the same semantic evolution as in English, where “noble” originally means: “Characteristic of the hereditary upper class”, but now predominantly has its metaphorical, meaning “morally upright, magnanimous”, as opposed to “petty”. (To pre-empt false conclusions, let me add that the appearance of this word in Chinese long predates the transmission of Buddhism to China.)

At any rate, the Iranians came to boast of their Aiirya-ness, as does Cyrus, founder of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, in his well-known Cyrus Cylinder inscription of ca. -535. So did the Bactrian aristocracy. It is with this elitist connotation that the word also came to mean “us, Chinese”, whence developed the meaning “the Chinese”.

And so, in the state of Zhao and later in all of China, the character Xia also acquired the meaning of “grandeur (in manners)”, “courtly sense of ceremony”, while the character Hua also came to mean “splendid”, “excellent”. As a name for the Chinese people, Hua is unapologetic in its claim to superiority.

So, the same word came to designate the ethnic specificity of Afghanistan, Iran, North India and China. The unexpected commonality between India and China is reflected in Tibetan. There, the word for the Chinese is Rgya, from Hua, from Ᾱrya; for India it is Rgyagar, apparently from Ᾱryavarta. At any rate, most of Asia called itself Ᾱrya at one time.

Here we are reminded of the Manu Smṛti, in which it is said that even the Greeks and the Chinese (both of whom the Indians met in Bactria) had once been Ᾱrya, but had lapsed from that status due to a lapse from Dharmic norms, a barbarian-type conduct. Manu was not much of a historian, but at least he was right in seeing something Ᾱrya in the Chinese. For us, then, this glimpse into the strange itinerary of the term Ᾱrya is a healthy exposure to the relativity of core Vedic vocabulary.

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