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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Rewinding the Traditional Clock – Part III

Geography of Jambudwipa series:

 Are the Sanskrit sources relevant in understanding the Indus Geography?
Here I would like to quote Prof. Asko Parpola in a recent interview.
 “I think these two language families have been in contact with each other ever since the Indo-Aryan speakers entered South Asia. It is impossible to leave Indo-Aryan sources out of account. They have preserved very important information of Harappan heritage.”
Coming from an authority like Prof. Parpola, whose contribution to the understanding of Harappan script and culture is respected by the scholars cutting across the parochial and ideological boundaries, the statement supports the rationale of drawing clues from the Sanskrit tradition in understanding the geography of the civilization milieu.
Similarly, the Dravidian literature also must have retained some of the clues, if we agree to the possibility that multilingual populations had shared the same civilization.
Where else do we look for more clues?
The literary tradition aside, the subcontinent has a culture complex with a multitude of isolated populations which retained some common memories and legends that had not transcended the folk domain to be a part of the written tradition. 
Finally, the geographical map as viewed by the civilization was not a constant. Coming to Jambudwipa, if that was what we assume they called their land, it must have changed with the times and therefore requires a look in from different chronological view points. 

7th Millennium BCE

Was the concept of Jambudwipa present in the 7th millennium BCE?
Archaeology tells us that most of the early farming sites are concentrated in the upper river valleys of Hindukush range. If we look at the map, Quetta Valley has the largest concentration of sites. We know that the valley is situated on a natural highway between the subcontinent and the Levant. It is plausible that the early farming communities of the Levantine Crescent and the sites in the subcontinent are somehow connected. Prof. Colin Renfrew thinks that it was during this period that a Proto-IE language had spread with the establishment of these communities. If that was the case, the original IE people belonged to the earliest of these farming communities. Mehrgarh certainly is a candidate along with some of the Palestinian and Anatolian sites.
Now the question is, ‘Were they the Rig Vedic people?’
True, there were many common names and legends Rig Veda shares with those of the classical Mediterranean cultures. But those came about much later and any commonality is probably due to later dissemination. Further, the Assyrian and the Rig Vedic traditions are entirely distinct. There are a few shared events and legends like the much touted flood legend of circa 3100 BCE belonging to Post-Ubaid, Jemdet Nasr period.
Therefore, Rig Veda may not be helpful in understanding the early farming communities of 7th millennium BCE. Secondly, we are not sure if these early farmers belonged to the same people or entirely independent of each other, even though those village sites looked functionally similar.
I am not trying to speculate on whether these cultures evolved indigenously or were planted by the migrants from the west. Archeologically, they were present in the Quetta Valley in the 7th millennium. I am looking only at the fact that when these technologically advanced communities existed, there were many indigenous communities that coexisted who were at an earlier cultural phase. Topographically, most of these farming sites are found in river valleys at substantial elevation – at an average of thousand meters above mean sea level, Mehrgarh being the lowest at around 700 above msl.
The hunter gatherers that lived in the plains must have looked at these technologically advanced people with awe. Their technology – their ability to control the animals and plants – was probably considered some kind of superhuman magic. These people of the ‘High place’ were probably the catalyst for the origin of the Meru myth. Naturally, when in the latter days, a geographically cogent world view developed, this mythical High place became its center.
Etymologically, it can be argued that Meru is derived from the Dravidian root, ‘Mél’. Not surprisingly Mél in Tamil is associated with height and the cardinal west.  
Zhob in all probability was the focus of this nascent civilization of the super human people and is the same river ‘su-po-fa-su-tu’ (or Subha-vastu) as mentioned by Hsuen Tsang. This argument is consistent with my earlier post – Finding Mount Meru …
This entire argument above presumes that the concept of Jambudwipa belonged to a later phase in the prehistory of the subcontinent. Therefore, let us look at the next phase in my time-list to understand the Jambudwipa as a concept.

4500 BCE – Atlanticum

Om Bhūr Bhuvar Swar …. Thus goes the Gāyatri mantra. The spiritual interpretation of this is not what I would touch upon. But the context in which the mantra is first uttered is when the person enters the community as an accredited member. Manu samhita says that Vyāhritis – the three mystical words to have been milked by the first man from the three Vedas – resulted in the three lokas: Bhūr, Bhuvar and Swar. In essence, Gayatri is a pledge of loyalty taken by the newly inducted citizen to the way of life as dictated by the God of Bhrigus, the original source of illumination. It was the energy of the Sun that had brought these three spheres into one body. Every member of this emergent Aryan community was bound by this pledge. 
It is a rather simplistic and materialistic interpretation, but the people of the early urban milieu were also simple people – still evolving into a syncretic community combining three streams of subsistence. Please see my earlier post Rewinding the Traditional Clock – Part II

Let us look closely at the words – Bhū-r, Bhuva-r and Swa-r.
The suffix ‘ar’ always denoted people. It was probably derived from the Dravidian tradition. But many North Indian Jāti names also end with this suffix – Kumh-ar, Cham-ar etc.
Bhūr-loka became synonymous with the land, a plain on which the normal humans lived; while Bhuvar and Swar came to be known as some kind of celestial plains where the mythical superhuman beings like the gods existed. The rivers – Sindhu, Saraswati and Sarayu were the focus of this human habitat … 

Let us start with the identification of this Bhūr-loka in the prehistoric archaeological milieu.
We know where Sindhu is.
Saraswati is no more a speculation.
But, Sarayu is an enigma. I would like to point at a Rigvedic legend much touted in later epics…
“It was on the banks of Harayūpiya, Indra killed hundred priests called Vrichivats”, says Rigveda. Rāmāyana mentions the legend of Viswāmitra killing a hundred of Vasishṭa’s sons at Hariyūpa. They were called Vālashikhas. Sudas killed a hundred Vaikarnéyas on the banks of the river Parushni. Vālashikhas, Varashikhas and Vaikarnéyas belong to Vāsishṭa gōtra. All these above legends allude to one single incident in the remembered past.
We know Parushni is the ancient name of Rāvi on whose bank we find Harappa. Therefore, it is possible that the original Sarayu/Harayu is none other than the river Rāvi.
The three principal rivers – Sindhu, Sarayu & Saraswati – were Indus, Rāvi and  Saraswati (whose upper tributary was Sutlej). The riparian map of Punjab probably looked like this…
It was here the first native agrarian communities had established themselves and called their habitat drained by the three rivers as Bhūr-loka. 

It was the land of the ancestors. Those, who were looked up to. There are two names that crop up – Vasus and Pitris.  Pitris is just a synonym for the ancestors. I have – in my earlier post – speculated upon the possible association of the original builders of Neolithic communities in the upper Zhob region with the Vasus.
These inhabitants of Bhuvar-loka had reciprocal relationship with the dwellers of Bhūr-loka – as benefactors and receivers of annual tribute. 

It’s called the abode of the gods. Rigveda calls it by the name ‘Divi’. Three sets of superhuman beings occupied this sphere in successive periods. They were Gandharvas, Asuras and Dévas. Clues to the identification of this region lay in the various legends about its original occupants – Gandharvas.
Who are they?
Rigveda calls them Divya Gandharvas, meaning Gandharvas of Divi. They are the beings of the night. They came in their winged craft with the background of setting sun, their amphorae filled with intoxicating Sura and rejuvenating ambrosia. Their women Apsaras accompanied them, the nymphs of water with floral garlands bouncing on their naked breast to their gyrations to the tunes of divine music of their lute playing singers. They are free spirits unrestricted by the norms that governed the common folk.
I want to draw a parallel … the experiences of those early explorers of 19th century who described the islands of the South Pacific – the Polynesian society. We know from the anthropological sources that the early migration route taken by the native populations of the Pacific islands had passed through the subcontinent. Remnants of these cultures still exist among the hill tribes of the region – speakers of Munda language group. 

Legends have it that the Gandharvas were evicted from their original homes by the Asuras and they fled to the hills. The most populous Munda tribes are still known by names such as Khonds, Gonds etc. Ramayana recollects that the Lanka was ruled by Kubéra, the overlord of Gandharvas who had to relinquish his control to Rāvan and relocate himself at Alaka near Méru. Gandharvas and their women, Apsaras were the children of Nārāyana, the original ancestor who had his floating abode in the waters of Nāra. The dancing girl bronze of Mohenjodaro has strong Austric features. The early levels of Kot Diji, Dholavira, Amri and Chanhudaro show distinct polychrome designs, indicating a lively lifestyle, as compared to the staid unadorned pottery of the later phases. Divi is synonymous with ‘island’ in most Munda and Dravidian languages. Lanka is an island. ‘Ganda’ means ‘Man’ in many Dravidian languages.
All these point to a vibrant native culture that had existed in the lower Indus region – where the rivers split into a myriad of distributaries creating many islands and oxbow lakes – drawing subsistence from the bounty of the river. No wonder, the eastern stream of Indus delta is even today known by the name ‘Nāra’.
We may conclude that primarily these three streams of people – the three lokas – with distinct cultural backgrounds constituted the builders of the first urban civilization.
For now it should suffice to say that the idea of Jambudwipa came into being only after the integration of early Neolithic peoples into a singular urban culture and the resultant need for an identity as opposed to the Upper Paleolithic people that surrounded it. The Gāyatri mantra was instituted as an instrument of recruitment into this emerging culture.
The integration had taken place sometime later. The spark that had ignited this process and the resultant worldview that had developed will be discussed in my next post.  

Until then...

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Bamboo - A Disaster Waiting to Happen!

Bamboo - A Disaster Waiting to Happen

Last weekend I was driving back from Coimbatore to Bangalore after a round of golf. Instead of the regular highway, I took a detour – had lunch at Ooty and drove through the Nilagiri Biosphere that includes Madhumalai on Tamil Nadu side of the border and Bandipur in Karnataka. Of course Wynad in Kerala lay to the west and out of my route.
Even though the forests in each of these states are named differently, they are one singular entity. The life which depends on the forest doesn’t recognize the borders. But the departments that report to the authorities in Madras and Bangalore manage their territories differently, resulting in a striking difference in their appearance.
Madumalai - No Bamboo in sight
It was a rude shock to the eyes looking at the profusion of Bamboo on the Karnataka side.
You may ask, “Why should it shock you? Bamboo is a species that grows wild in the forests and why should anyone try to interfere with natural selection?”
Here, let me explain. If the principle of natural selection has to run its course, there won’t be any forests left in any part of India.  According to 2010 census, there are 3.5 humans living in every hectare of Indian Territory; and if you go back a hundred years, it was the other way around – one human being per every 3.5 hectares. Without governmental intervention, there would have been a complete wipe out of forest cover in India.
Let me throw some statistics at you… Present forest cover is around 20% of the total land in India. This includes any small bit of land – a hectare or more – with a minimum of 10% tree cover. The forests as we know that host diverse wild life – like the Tiger Reserves – constitute less than 3% of the land. The size and the fact that huge distances exist between these bits of thick forest negate their sustenance if they are left without positive intervention.
Bandipur - Unculled Bamboo
Our so called populist environment groups that advocate non interference of the government agencies and the involvement of local people in the management of forests only play into the grasping hands of local interest groups. 
Even the movements like Chipko, though outwardly conservationist, only boil down to the protection of local peoples’ rights to exploit the forests.
On the other hand, the bureaucracy has lost its values and the official is hand in glove with the unscrupulous politician businessmen nexus exploiting the land with no concern for conservation. 
But bureaucracy is a necessary evil. If we have to preserve our nature’s diversity for the future generations, a proactive bureaucracy is the only resort.
Bandipur - Bamboo Everywhere 
Now, let me get back to Bamboo.
Karnataka has a gory history of uncontrolled forest fires, especially in recent past. I don’t want to get into the debate now about the agencies that triggered these. 
Normally, dry Bamboo rustling in the pre-monsoon wind has been the most import natural trigger of forest fires. Once the fire is started, Bamboo is a sustaining torch that burns long and strong. The worst is yet to come. Bamboo shoot - with its air chambers - is a natural explosive with each blast carrying the embers across a radius of 300 meters, and more with the assistance of hard blowing summer wind.
Any proactive forest department would try and control the proliferation of Bamboo. It has been a practice since the beginning of the century.
While the department and the politicians that control wait for some paper or pulp manufacturer to pay them suitable bribes before culling the Bamboo, another series of disasters are waiting to happen.  Some right thinking bureaucrats should take initiative and avert the calamity. 
Let's see....

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Corporate Social Responsibility – Through Ages

Corporate Social Responsibility – Through Ages
- Sai Papineni                       

The Great Depression had brought into focus a few lacunae in the system and forced the intelligentsia to look closely at the capitalist ideal; and the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility had its genesis; a concept made popular by the management thinkers like Drucker in mid 20th Century. In India the word began to make rounds very recently – of course, true capitalism here is a new, post-liberalization phenomenon – but is it really new to us?  
If one explores various phases of India’s long and illustrious history, there are many phases during which welfare activities were undertaken by the the mercantile and industrial enterprises. But the social processes and particularly the parlance differed significantly from what we understand it as today. 

Let us simplify the term CSR into easily comprehensible words…

“Voluntary alienation of one’s wealth for the general good of many”

This may not explain the concept in its entirety, but it should suffice for now. The contexts, the motivations and the priorities differed from time to time. However, in this simplified form, it is not new to India from the earliest times known.
Dāna is a term well known from the earliest literary tradition available to us – Rig Veda. The number of instances, of a wealthy patron – a warlord or a landlord –, giving away cattle or gold or some such movable tokens of wealth to the officiating priests at the sacrifices, abound in the Vedic tradition. The size of these donations preempts their enjoyment by a single individual or a family; they were essentially meant for the community benefit and differ from the mandatory taxes such as Bali and Bhāga.
The concept of taxing the business as a means to state led welfare schemes is part and parcel of civilized societies from the times immemorial. When a strong welfare state exists, the focus on CSR becomes irrelevant. The focus on the direct contribution of non-government institutions, therefore, is inversely proportional to the people’s confidence in state-led welfare processes. In the occident, the church became the agent of welfare and the tithes a means for the welfare of the parish. Its prominence increased with the weakening state authority during the dark ages. Its Indian parallel is the rise of temples as nuclei of rural communities.  
Therefore, religious sanction to the endowments made by commercial institutions and wealthy individuals has been a fact that persisted through ages in different social and religious milieu. The individual motivation remains the same, “Donor acquires merit (Puṇya) and also material wealth (Artha) in one’s lifetime”. Is it in reality different from the motivations of a modern corporation? To me they are essentially the same – a long-term image building for the corporate brand and improved economic conditions leading to a stronger customer base.
Now, if you look back at the historical times, one may argue that the purpose of donations had nothing to do with the welfare of people, even though they might have had indirectly contributed to the community benefit. However, there is no denying the fact that some literary and epigraphic records do establish that the donors were conscious of the purpose for which the donatives were made.  

A later codicil of the Mahabharata story, the Anusāsanika Parva, differentiates dānas into two distinct types – Işṭa & Pūrta. While the Işṭa dāna is a honorarium for officiating a ritual, the Pūrta dāna was specifically towards such activities like digging wells, repairing irrigation tanks and building of temples. While Işṭa dāna is mandatory, the Pūrta dāna is voluntarily made by the Landlord / Merchant. 

 Arthashāstra is a manual on statecraft representing a strong unitary state – probably 2000 years old – and primarily deals with the welfare initiatives that are state led. A modest provision in its tax collection and administration code gives discretion to the collectors to waive the duties if the articles of trade are meant for community benefit, indirectly pointing to the fact that such practices had taken place even though at a low key.

Vinaya piṭaka, from the Buddhist canon mentions such terms as Shréni, Puga, Nigama etc. which denote corporate organizations or guilds that are engaged in industry and trade. There were references of such guilds providing regular supplies of food and clothing not only to the monks, but also to the destitute and the disabled.

There are several inscriptions of early historic period referring to wealthy persons investing in guilds towards some pious endowments, the interest from the investments to be utilized for the needy and towards improving public amenities. For example, an inscription from Junnar refers to an investment with one Konachika guild for the purpose of planting karanja and banyan trees on the highways. 
Dharmāta, the practice of setting aside a part of the profit margin towards some pious activity is followed even today by the most traditional Jain and Marwadi business houses  in India; a practice that had its origins in the earliest Jain literature dating back to the pre-Christian times.
Sharia, the Islamic law book institutionalized the process, by making it mandatory for every pious businessman to set aside a portion of his income towards alms for the poor and the destitute.

Medieval texts list Sapta Santānas, seven kinds of progeny – the legacies one may leave to improve one's merit afterlife – and these are namely, Rest house, Irrigation tank, Book, House, Temple, Orchard and New Village Settlement. A large number of inscriptions spread across the country, belonging to this period, evidence contributions made by the wealthy merchants and manufacturing groups towards such activities like building, maintenance and repair of community infrastructure. 

This brings us to the fact that the Oriental affinity to contribute a part of the wealth towards the general welfare of the community is very much alive even today. During the years of colonial high tide, the institutional endowments dwindled as the economy suffered. But the instinct was internalized at an individual level, which is evident from the number of alms-seekers at every traffic junction in India. At the institutional level there certainly is a discontinuity. With the rise of modern enterprise and businesses, and the growing disenchantment with state apparatus, a need exists to channelize this proclivity into effective strategies to address the current social needs and priorities.
But … how true is our current crop of NGOs to this purpose?