The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Vedic faith of the Mitanni horse-lords

Barnes and Noble helpfully sent me a twinned couple of coupons, so I used these nāsatyau to buy two of Wendy Doniger's books. One of these is The Hindus: An Alternative History - the one that got pulped in India. I'll get to reviewing it more 'formally' tomorrow next week, when I've read more of it. In the meanwhile I have Things To Say.

So far I'm still in the prehistory: six chapters in, up to 500ish BC. This handles India's geological record (badly), and then we get Harappan civilisation and the contemporary Rig Veda hymnal. The sixth chapter handles the Rig Veda's gemara in the Brahmanas.

The contrast between Harappa and Rig Veda is ... striking. Doniger snarks - against archaeological mistakes of times past - that at Harappa, unicorns were real and horses weren't. Doniger makes no claim to read the local script, but she doesn't have to; she can look at the artwork and the material remains. In the whole subcontinent, only Rajasthan has supported horses (p. 41). The Indus cannot, and so the Harappans didn't even bother drawing the beasts. The Rig Veda by contrast makes sense only in context of a horse-culture. Sanskrit culture is, therefore, exactly as "Aryan" and foreign to old Tamil India as the Indo-European languages are Aryan and foreign to northern and western Europeans.

We all already knew that, mostly; but it's interesting to see the horse singled out as an equus probans, so to speak.

I'm also seeing how old Sanskrit texts can illuminate the Mitanni, ruling caste(s) of the Hurrian Hanigalbat. We don't know all that much about the Mitanni; we haven't even found their capital Wasshukanni. But we do know about their commoners, the Hurrians / Horites; Hurrian was one of the Hittite Empire's many second languages, and its pantheon heavily influenced the Imperial religion. This means we have a baseline for Hurrian, and we can detect foreign intrusions. In the case of the Mitanni, those intrusions affect three spheres: their religion, their kings and horses. In all three cases the intrusions are consistent: those would be [drumroll] Sanskrit[ish].

And if we read the names, we can be more specific than that: they're Vedic. The gods were Varuna, Indra, Mithra, and - in a treaty - the Nasatyas, "Helpful Ones". The dynasty meanwhile expected you to fear the charging chariot of King Tushratta, and to hold as precious the horse of Prija-ashuva. The Hurrian Kikkuli used Sanskrit when counting the turns of wheels and when naming the types of horses. Circling back to the Nasatyas, the Vedics refer to them as the "Ashvins" which is, as Doniger points out, the exact Sanskrit word for Latinate "equine" (p. 114). Mitanni was a horse culture, and if their horses could speak they would have used Sanskrit.

Doniger's text doesn't much explain Ṛta (she calls it ''rita''), except that it used to mean a shorthand for the divine order of things (p. 201). This too was upheld by several Mitanni kings, like the various Artatamas and the one Artashumara. For the Vedics, Ṛta was the domain of the god Varuna. (p. 131) Somewhat confusingly, Sanskrit has another royal-friendly word "artha", which meant naked power; the cuneiform in which we read Mitanni has problems distinguishing /t/ from /th/. But it strikes me, and it struck the first researchers, that kings who swear by Varuna will insist upon arta in their propaganda, and upon artha only within the court. This would inspire Kautilya's cynical thoughts on artha too: p. 202.

Indra and Varuna, by the way, are implicated in the Vedic soma ritual (p. 129); and the Ashvins' part in it - what made them Helpful to men - was stealing the secret of soma from Indra. One wonders if soma, likewise, had entered Mitannian ritual.

What's not so easy to tell is whether the Mitanni cared nearly as much for the cow as they did for the horse. It's commonly understood that the whole point to domesticating the horse was to help in herding large flocks - not least, cattle. Hence the myth of the cattle-raid shared from India all the way to Ireland, yet somehow not in Hanigalbat. We don't even hear what they thought of the asuras: whether Varuna might still be one of them as in the Vedas (p. 108), even as their "asura mazda"; or if, like later Hinduism, the asuras were now like Titans. Speaking of these Indic titans, also missing is Agni, who is the Divine Fire and a(nother?) Vedic answer to Prometheus. Both the cow and the holy fire are common to the Vedas and to the Iranian religions, including Zoroastrianism; and seem to be shared with other Indo-European cultures. Perhaps the Mitanni ruling over Hurrians, rather than over Tamils, had something to do with this; here were Sanskrit para-Brahmins and para-Xatryas without their para-Dasas.

UPDATE 6/21: Didn't get to my usual review-place in time. And then I decided I needed to read more of the book, and to read it all more slowly. So instead of that full review, I've added more material here and posted additional essays. Scroll up.

posted by Zimri on 15:21 | link | 0 comments

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