Languages with more than 30,000,000
Speakers as of 2005, classified
by Civilization

Of the 40 languages listed below, no less than 18 are spoken in India (including Pakistan and Bangladesh) or China. Of the remaining 22 languages, 9 are European in origin, 3 were in the ancient cultural sphere of influence of China (Japanese, Korean, & Vietnamese), 7 are in the cultural sphere of influence of Islām (Arabic, Persian, Malay, Javanese, Turkish, Swahili, & Hausa -- not to mention Urdu, already counted in India), 2 were in the ancient cultural sphere of India (Burmese and Thai-Lao -- and as was Javanese before the advent of Islām), and the remaining one, Tagalog, was culturally isolated, in the Philippines, until the arrival of the Spanish. The white spaces on the map, mainly in Africa, simply mean that the local languages, like Tagalog, are not classified in the cultural spheres of India, China, Europe, or Islām.

The "cultural spheres of influence" of India, China, Europe, and Islām are founded on the World Civilizations of their central or foundational regions, which may be defined by religion or culture but most precisely by the possession of an ancient Classical language attended by a large literature in that language. In India this language is Sanskrit, , which is first of all the sacred language of Hinduism but otherwise contains extensive secular literature and occurs as a principal language of Buddhism also. In China, Classical Chinese not only possesses literature back to the Spring and Autumn Period, but it was extensively used until even the modern period by educated writers in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam -- people who otherwise did not even speak Chinese.

952 M873 MSino-TibetanCHINA
English470 M309 MIndo-EuropeanEurope/
HINDI418 M180 MIndo-EuropeanINDIA
Spanish381 M322 MIndo-EuropeanEurope/
Russian288 M145 MIndo-EuropeanEurope/
Central Asia
Arabic219 M206 MAfro-Asiatic,
Middle East/
N Africa
BENGALI196 M171 MIndo-EuropeanINDIA
Portuguese182 M177 MIndo-EuropeanEurope/
Malay --
Bahasa Malaysia/
155 M46 MAustronesian,
Japanese126 M122 MAltaic (?)Japan
French124 M64 MIndo-EuropeanEurope/
German121 M103 MIndo-EuropeanEurope
URDU100 M60 MIndo-EuropeanINDIA
PUNJABI94 M87 MIndo-EuropeanINDIA
Korean75 M67 MAltaic (?)Korea
TELUGU73 M69 MDravidianINDIA
MARATHI70 M68 MIndo-EuropeanINDIA
TAMIL69 M66 MDravidianINDIA
66 M54 MSino-TibetanCHINA
65 M77 MSino-TibetanCHINA
Javanese64 M75 MAustronesian,
Vietnamese64 M67 MAustro-Asiatic,
Mon-Khmer (?)
Italian63 M61 MIndo-EuropeanEurope
Turkish (Azeri,
59 M
(18 M)
50 M
(37 M)
AltaicWest &
Central Asia
Tagalog53 M15 MAustronesian,
50 M67 MSino-TibetanCHINA
Thai & Lao50 M49 MTai-KadaiS.E. Asia
Swahili48 M5-10 MNiger-
East Africa

48 M36 MSino-TibetanCHINA
Ukrainian47 M39 MIndo-EuropeanEurope
44 M35 MDravidianINDIA
Polish44 M42 MIndo-EuropeanEurope
42 M26 MIndo-EuropeanINDIA
GUJARATI41 M46 MIndo-EuropeanINDIA
Hausa38 M24 MAfro-Asiatic,
West Africa
Persian & Tajiki34 M35 MIndo-EuropeanIran/
Central Asia
34 M29 MSino-TibetanCHINA
32 M31 MIndo-EuropeanINDIA
Burmese31 M32 MSino-TibetanBurma
In Europe, there is only one Classical language common to the whole area, and that is Greek. In a large and dominant subdivision of Europe, we also find Latin as the Classical language. Historically, that region can be distinguished as "Francia." It can also be called simply "Latin" Europe, although some might think that this would only apply to areas with languages, like French and Spanish, that are actual descendants of Latin. "Latin" Europe, however, would mean everywhere that Latin was used as the language of religion or scholarship. That would include Germany, Britain, Scandinavia, and Eastern European states like Poland and Hungary.

The youngest civilization and cultural area would be that of Islām, whose language, Classical Arabic, represents a large body of secular and religious literature from the Middle Ages down to the present.

With all Classical languages, other languages within their sphere of influence tend to borrow vocabulary, and sometimes even grammar, extensively from the defining language of the civilization. Along with that come references to particular items of literature, history, and religion. Thus, Arabic words frequently occur in Persian, Turkish, Hindi-Urdu, Malay, Swahili, etc., even as Greek and Latin words are regularly and easily found in English, or Chinese words in Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese. Educated Europeans can be expected to know about Thermopylae, while educated Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese would be expected to know about the Three Kingdoms, and Muslims about the Bloody Shirt of 'Uthmān.

These numbers are from The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1995 [Funk & Wagnalls, 1994, pp. 598-599] and The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2008 [World Almanac Education Group, Readers Digest, 2008, pp. 728-729]. The 1995 edition reports data from 1993, and the 2008 edition data from 2005.

The treatment of the languages is awkwardly different in the two editions. In 1995, the languages were listed alphabetically and all speakers were given for each language. In 2008, however, the languages are listed by country and only numbers for those who speak them as first languages are given. This results in some dramatic changes in the numbers. Languages widely spoken as second languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, English, Hindi, Russian, Arabic, Malay, French, and Swahili, thus seem to have lost millions of speakers by 2005.

Indeed, the 2008 edition does not list Swahili at all -- a very grave and strange oversight, especially when the list claims to include all languages with at least 2 million speakers. Swahili, which has a large Arabic component, may have ten million or fewer speakers as a first language; but it is a national language in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and the Congo and is even used by the United Nations. It has the reputation among some of being the common language of all of Africa, but it is actually not spoken in the West or South.

Arabic also receives odd treatment in the 2008 edition, since it is broken up by dialect (16 of them) for various Arabic speaking states. In general, these are not separate languages, although North African Arabic, Maghribī, is rather different from the Middle Eastern dialects. Nevertheless, this overlooks the written language (the dialects are explicitly identified as "spoken"), which is the much more unified language of literary Arabic. Since Arabic is the language of Islām, Moslems around the world, as far afield as Indonesia (which is over 90% Moslem), learn it it for religious reasons as a second language (which is not reflected in the 2005 data). The treatment of Arabic in the 2008 Almanac means that, while it was given on a short list as one of the "principle languages of the world" in 1995, Arabic disappears from the corresponding 2008 short list of "languages spoken by the most people." Certainly, speakers of any dialect of Arabic would find this development annoying, misrepresentative, ahistorical, and perhaps insulting.

By some estimates, up to a billion people could have some competence in English. But even the figure for Mandarin shrinks when we leave out other Chinese (perhaps a hundred million) who have learned Mandarin as a second language. Some languages, like Swahili, , and Malay, , started out as trade languages which soon were essentially second languages. They continue to have a far smaller number of speakers as first languages than as second. Malay is the first language of less than 50 million people. But as a trade language which has become a national language of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore (called Bahasa Malaysia, Bahasa Indonesia, and Bahasa Melayu respectively), Malay, a Malayo-Polynesian language, is one of the major languages of the world. One would not know this from the 2005 data.

Apart from Malay and Swahili, some languages on the list drop below 30 million in the 2005 data for reasons that are less obvious. Thus, Tagalog, Bihari, Hausa, and Hakka all lose millions of speakers from 1993 to 2005. With Tagalog this may reflect its use as a national language of the Philippines and so as a second language for many speakers of other Philippine languages. Hakka, as a language of traders, and with a geographical distribution that is very scattered, also may have a significant population who use it as a trade language. With Bihari the problem may have been the unreliability of census data (perhaps a problem with other Indian and Chinese languages).

Other languages on the list probably have lost numbers because of an actual shrinkage in the number of speakers, as with Japanese, German, Polish, and Ukrainian, where populations have been aging without a replacement level of births. It does surprise me some that no new languages have grown to have more than 30 millions speakers between 1993 and 2005.
Sundanese26 M27 M30 MAustronesian,
However, there is one possibility. Sundanese, which is spoken on Java by the Sunda Strait, was reported with 26 million speakers in 1993 and 27 million in 2005, but Kenneth Katzner (see below) gives the population of speakers at 30 million. So I add an entry for this just in case.

Mandarin Chinese has been expanding against the other Chinese languages because of its political, cultural, and demographic dominance and the peculiar relationship of these languages to each other (they are written with the same Classical Chinese characters). In India no language has a status comparable to Mandarin in China. Indian states have their own official languages, recognized by the Constitution; but the plan to make Hindi, which is common in the North, the only official national language, eliminating English, actually set off riots. Various Indian languages are certain to continue and thrive, while English continues for purposes of neutral national communication -- with the interesting feature that it is the English version of laws that is authoritative, while the Supreme Court of India deliberates in English. The list of languages in the 1995 Almanac overlooked Bihari in India and Hunan in China, so I had to use numbers from other sources. The 2008 Almanac, on the other hand, has a rather full list of Chinese and Indian languages.

Hindi and Urdu are really the same language (Hindi-Urdu or Hindustani), with Hindi spoken by Hindus and Urdu spoken by Moslems. On the literary level these languages now diverge in vocabulary, with Hindi borrowing from Sanskrit [Sãskṛta, ] and Urdu borrowing from Arabic and Persian. Hindi-Urdu, however, because it grew up under the Moslem Moghul Emperors, had a Persian and Arabic component from the beginning, which survives even in Hindi. "Hindi" [Hyndi, or -- with the "n" written as a nasalization] itself is from Arabic Hindī [], though that is ultimately from Sanskrit sindhu [], meaning a river, the Indus River, or the Sindh region of India. "Urdu" [Wrdu, ] is from Persian ordu, meaning a camp, or Turkish ordu, meaning an army. Both are derived from Mongolian orda (which had both meanings), as does the English word "horde," which came through the Polish rendering, horda. The name "Urdu" commemorates the circumstance that the language developed in the army camps of the Moghul Emperors, where the originally Turkish and Afghani forces of the Moghuls interacted with the locals. As such, Hindustani was written in the Arabic alphabet; and it is an innovation that Hindi is now written in Devanagari. Both Hindi and Urdu have borrowed from English and other modern languages [note].

While Hindi and Urdu are widely spoken in the North of India, regional languages dominate elsewhere, and linguistic politics can rise to serious levels of conflict. Thus, the English name of the city of Bombay has become a casualty, as people have come to insist that the "real" name of the city be used. It has become a mark of sophistication, or political correctness, to shun "Bombay." However, most people outside India using Mumbai may be at a loss to identify the language to which this name belongs. Hindi might be a good guess, but that would be wrong.

Bombay in Hindi is Bambai, (an anomalous spelling in terms of Sanskrit, since Hindi is missing a vowel that Sanskrit would pronounce -- we might expect , , , etc.). This is phonetically not much different from the name in English. Instead, the Indian State of Maharashtra, where Marathi is the official language, decided, in a surge of nationalism, to officially stop using "Bombay." Maharashtra, unlike several other Indian States, does not have English as an additional official language. When we consider that English is the only politically and religiously neutral language in India, the change reflects, not so much an antipathy towards English or the British -- although the change is sometimes expressed in those terms -- but towards other Indians. Thus, where the politically correct American may think that the change from "Bombay" is some sort of statement about imperialism, it is instead part of the fierce and often hostile internal politics of India, in this case on behalf of the Marathi language. Nevertheless, although many residents of the very city themselves still say "Bombay," we now find "Mumbai," , used even in Hindi.

I understand that Marathi nationalists may react with hostility when anyone, anywhere uses "Bombay." Thus, they wish to erase the very history of Bombay, and to claim the right to govern the languages of others, some of which may not have the labial sounds to even say "Mumbai." This the kind of thing we see now with proprietary claims over the language and beliefs of anyone, anywhere, including the demand that others unquestioningly accept nationalist mythologies. This is, of course, a totalitarian project, which is the kind of thing now popular again, as it was in the 1930's, among the intelligentsia, revealing the submissive minds eager for a Stalinist lover.

In 1950, the new Constitution of the Republic of India anticipated that the Government of India would stop using English in 1965, relying only on Hindi as the national language. This development was forestalled by the Official Language Act of 1963, which allowed for the continued use of English. However, in 1964, proposals were made to phase out English, and this resulted in actual riots in States were Hindi was not used, especially those whose Dravidian languages were unrelated to Hindi, but also including Maharashtra. The Official Language Act was amended in 1967 so that English could not be replaced without the consent of every single State where Hindi was not an official language. Meanwhile, the authoritative text of all National statutes and enactments is the English version of the same, and the deliberations of the Supreme Court of India are in English. At the same time, citizens of India are entitled to address the Government in any language native to India, even if it is not an official language anywhere.

I remembered hearing about the riots in 1964 but was long under the false impression that they were over Hindi being made the official language of India. I was latter puzzled to learn that it was already the national language. So, as it happens, the complaint was over English being removed, not over Hindi being instituted. Knowledge of English is widespread enough in India that Americans often have the experience of their customer service calls to American companies being answered by people in India. And Indian immigrants to the United States have the advantage of already speaking the language. This may be a factor in people of Indian derivation being the most economically successful ethnic group identified by the United States Census. My first clue about the success of people from India was finding an Indian run motel in remote Artesia, New Mexico, in 1982. Later, a hotelier told me the saying, "Hotel, Motel, Patel."

The sentiment that "Bombay" should not be used just because it is not the name in the local language, the "endonym," is a notion immediately forgotten when people say "Rome" in English or French, or Rom in German. They apparently do not reflect that the city has been Roma in the local language, Latin and Italian, for more than two thousand years. Are they not now insulting Italians by using some mangled version of the name in foreign languages?

Of course, one point about foreign languages is that it may be impossible for foreigners to pronounce the local name in the local manner. We see this as Beijing, , has replaced "Peking," where not only is the word commonly pronounced as though it were French rather than Chinese, people who do not speak Chinese have little chance of pronouncing it within shouting distance of actual Mandarin phonology.

People who give the name a French pronunciation, thinking hey are politically correct, often seem positively unaware that this mangles the phonology to a considerably greater extent than "Rome" does "Roma." Traditional English versions of foreign place names are usually due to the unavoidable challenges of pronunciation and spelling, which persist despite any level of cultural sensitivity or anti-imperialist sentiment. We also get curious grammatical scrimages, such as over the use of the article in English with the name of the Ukraine.

An interesting case in such controversies is the Kingdom of Navarra in Spain. "Navarra" its name in Spanish. However, heiresses of Navarra repeatedly married French Royalty or Nobility, namely King Philip IV of France (by Juana/Jeanne I), Philip Count of Evreux (by Juana/Jeanne II), Gaston IV Count of Foix (by Leonora), John d'Albret (by Catherine), and Anthony Duke of Vendôme (by Juana/Jeanne III). Anthony became the heir of Boubon, and his son, by Jeanne III, Henry III of Navarre, was then Duke of Bourbon and finally King of France, as Henry (Henri) IV of Bourbon. Navarra in French is "Navarre."

Thus, it cannot be decided without a great deal of casuistry whether "Navarra" or "Navarre" are the "correct" names for the Kingdom at a given time for a given person. The heiresses I have introduced first as "Juana" are almost never known by that Spanish name, since they lived with their French husbands in France. They are figures mainly of French history. On the other hand, Navarra was ethnically and linguistically a domain of the Basques, who have their own language, in which the name of the Kingdom is "Nafarroa" -- "Juana" or "Jeanne" in Basque is "Jone" -- all names one really never sees used in historical literature. So, as with most of these controversies, the disputes seem foolish and pointless, and behind them one usually finds some political axe being ground.

I have given Turkish, meaning the Osmanlı () language of Turkey, with other languages, Azeri and Turkmen, which are so closely related as to sometimes be considered one language (Oghuz Turkish, in the family of Altaic languages). However, both Almanacs, and most other sources, list them all separately, mostly for political, nationalistic reasons. Similarly, I have given Persian and Tajiki together because the latter really is a dialect of Persian -- though I notice some sources confuse it with the nearby Turkic languages.

Only two Sub-Saharan African languages -- Hausa and Swahili -- appear on the list. This reflects the circumstance that a large number of languages are spoken in Africa, and many areas are not densely populated. The most populous country in Africa, Nigeria, with over 100,000,000 people, contains many languages. Of its principal languages, Hausa, Ibo (or Igbo), Yoruba, and Fulani (or Fula), only Hausa makes the list. As of 1993, Ibo had 17 million speakers, Yoruba 20, and Fulani 13 (many of them outside Nigeria). The 2008 Almanac gives only 24 million speakers for Hausa, 18 for Ibo, 19 for Yoruba, and skips, in the peculiar way of its treatment, Fulani altogether -- 22 million is given by Kenneth Katzner, in the book cited below. Hausa evidently is widely used as a second language, which may account for the drop of over 10 million in speakers from one list to the other. Katzner gives an estimate of a total of 55 million Hausa speakers.

The languages with the largest number of speakers in South Africa, Zulu and Xhosa, have about 9 million and 8 million speakers, respectively -- 9 and 7 in the 2005 data. Both Hausa and Swahili are identified as part of the culture area of Islam, because Hausa is predominately spoken by Muslims and because Swahili, although an African language spoken by many non-Muslims, grew up as a trade language under Islamic influence. Thus, the name Swahili itself is Arabic, , Sawāḥilī, from , sāḥil, "coast," and , sawāḥil, "coasts" (in Arabic a "broken" or irregular plural). The Swahili word for "book," kitabu, is Arabic (, kitāb); but since many nouns in Swahili begin with ki- and form their plurals by changing that to vi-, "books" is vitabu, which is not at all like Arabic, where the plural is the irregular or "broken" plural , kūtūb.

Lost in the vast extent of the World Civilizations is a culture with a claim to be a civilization in its own right. That is Ethiopia. As a Christian nation, Ethiopia shares in a sub-Roman civilization, but it is otherwise related to the language, alphabet, and culture of South Arabia. South Arabia itself, of course, became part of Oecumene of Islām, which spread around Ethiopia and cut it off from most contact with the outer world -- even while its suriving connection, through the Coptic Patriarchate in Egypt (which appointed the Primate of Ethiopia until 1945), was compromised by the difficulties of travel, the alienation of the Coptic Church from Greek and Latin Orthodoxy, and, of course, the Arab Conquest and occupation of Egypt. This left Ethiopia as its own kind of Island Universe in world history. It even possesses its own Classical Language, Ethiopic or Ge'ez. But the major modern descendant of Ethiopic, Amharic, is only spoken by 17 million people -- so it did not make the cut for the table above.

A legend arose in Europe in the Middle Ages that there was a lost Christian kingdom, ruled by the saintly "Prester John," somewhere in Africa or Asia. Although it is hard to know if there was any factual basis for this legend at the time (there may have been rumors of Nestorian rulers of Black Cathay), when the Portuguese arrived in the Indian Ocean, they soon discovered that there was indeed just such a Christian kingdom in Africa. The Portuguese then helped the Ethiopians fight off attacks from Islamic allies of the Ottoman Turks, who had advanced down to Yemen. Later, the French arms helped Ethiopia fight off the Italians in 1896; but then no one helped when the Italians returned in 1936.

Even now, it is hard to know just how to classify the place. The Mediterranean world of Rome, to which Ethiopia was connected, is long gone, but it doesn't sound even remotely correct to then include Ethiopia in the European civilization that is Rome's successor. So Ethiopia remains an anomaly, economically one of the poorest countries in the world, but historically and culturally ancient, unique, and extraordinary in its mountain fastness. It is also where coffee comes from.

The following map adjusts the size of the areas of the earth to their population. We see why so many of the languages of India and China belong to the 40 languages with over 30 million speakers. I have adapted this from the Fontana Pocket Atlas [Fontana Books, William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1969, p.114-115]. Since I bought the book in 1970 (in Beirut, of all places), the proportions may not be entirely up to date -- it looks like the population of Africa has doubled in the meantime. The book completely overlooked the Philippines, whose population now is about four times that of Taiwan (Luzon has about twice the population of Taiwan). So I have tried to produce a likely estimate. The languages in the table above are identified on the map either by language (Swahili) or by country (Nigeria for Hausa). Some places are identified for interest or clarity (Cyprus, Bali).

General information about world languages may be found in The Languages of the World, by Kenneth Katzner [Routledge & Kegan Paul, revised 1986, Third Edition, 1995, 2002, 2006] and The World's Major Languages, edited by Bernard Comrie [Oxford University Press, 1987]. There is a lot of uncertainty about the populations for Chinese "dialects." The separate discussion for Chinese dialects should be consulted. Thorough treatments of Chinese may be found in The Chinese Language, Fact and Fantasy, by John DeFrancis (University of Hawaii Press, 1984) and The Languages of China, by S. Robert Ramsey (Princeton University Press, 1987).

Classical Languages

Genetic Distance and Language Affinities Between Autochthonous Human Populations

The Dialects of Chinese

The Semitic and Other Afroasiatic Languages

The Pronunciation of Ancient Egyptian

"Knowing" Words in Indo-European Languages

Greek, Sanskrit, and Closely Related Languages

The Spread of Indo-European and Turkish Peoples off the Steppe

The Altaic and Uralic Languages

The Austronesian and Polynesian Languages

How to Pronounce "Hawai'i"

History of Philosophy, Indian Philosophy

Philosophy of Science, Linguistics

Philosophy of History

Philosophy of Science

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Languages with more than 30,000,000 Speakers as of 2005, Note;
Transcribing Hindi and Urdu

The transcription of Hindi today tends to follow the conventions of writing Sanskrit, with long and short vowels, e.g. "a" and "ā." However, the modern vowels actually contrast quality rather than quantity in pronunciation, like "long" and "short" vowels in English. In Persian, which is written using the long and short vowels of Arabic, but also has modern contrasts of quality rather than quantity, the differences in quality are easily rendered. The Old English ligature of "a" and "e," "æ," can be used for the "short a," a sound that is like the "a" in Modern English "bad." For Persian we can also write the short vowel of Arabic with "a" and the long vowel with "ɑ," what is called the "Latin alpha" letter. This latter is the convention in the classic Persian Grammar by A.K.S. Lambton [Cambridge, 1953, 1967, p.xiii].

As luck would have it, both Sanskrit and Arabic use the basic vowels "a," "i," and "u."
& Arabic
In both of them, "e" and "o" (which occur in Modern Arabic) derive from the diphthongs "ay" and "aw" (e.g. Arabic bêt for Classical bayt, "house"). The Persian "e" and "o," however, are the modern pronunciation of the short "i" and "u" from Arabic.

A system similar to that of Persian was used in the original edition of Teach Yourself Urdu, by T. Grahame Bailey, J.R. Firth, and A.H. Harley [David McKay Company, New York, English Universities Press, 1950, 1956, 1967], and in the 1972 edition of Teach Yourself Punjabi, by C. Shackle [Hodder and Stoughton, Ltd., David McKay Company, 1972, 1980]. There, the short "a" is pronounced and written with the "shwa," "ǝ," an indefinite reduced vowel, like the "a" at the end of English "sofa." The short "i," pronounced as in English, is written "y." And the short "u," like English again, is written "w." "Y" can be a vowel in English, but not "w"; but there will be no confusion for Urdu, Hindi, or Punjabi if we don't get combinations like "yy" for "yi" or "ww" for "wu." Apparently we don't.

I have not seen this elegant system used for Urdu or Punjabi beyond these particular books. Instead, the sources tend in Urdu to follow the transcription conventions for Arabic, as Hindi and Punjabi do for Sanskrit. Indeed, this is what is done in the new edition of Teach Yourself Urdu [David Matthew and Mohamed Kasim Dalvi, Hodder Education, McGraw-Hill, 1999, 2003, 2007]. I have not yet examined more recent editions of Teach Yourself Punjabi. Such an approach has also been something one sees a lot with Persian, despite its unsuitability. For Urdu, Punjabi, and Hindi this is a shame, since the student will be startled to find how some familiar names, like Tāj Mahal, are actually pronounced as they would be written in the old Teach Yourself Urdu:  Taj Mǝhǝl. I have used some forms above from these older Teach Youself books but have followed the other, Arabic/Sanskrit conventions elsewhere at this website.

I have been featuring images above of the letters introduced into the Arabic alphabet to write sounds in Persian that do not occur in Arabic, and of the Persian prounciation of several letters from Arabic that have sounds foreign to Persian phonology. Urdu inherits these letters from Persian, with their Persian pronunciation. It is then necessary, as displayed at right, to introduce some new letters to write sounds in Hindi-Urdu, namely the retroflexes, that do not exist in Persian or Arabic (with their Devanagari equivalents).

While it is good form in Urdu to give the sounds from Persian their proper pronunciation, and this is specified even in dictionaries of Hindi, several of the sounds from Persian are actually foreign to Hindi-Urdu phonology and are not always pronounced properly in ordinary usage. The diagram at left displays this complicated situation. Arabic letters are shown with their Arabic pronunciations in green. Devanagari letters are shown with their Sanskrit pronunciation in red -- which is the default pronunciation for purely Indian phonology. The dot under the Devanagari letters shows that in Hindi they may be used with their Urdu/Persian pronunciation, which is given at right in purple. Or the dot may merely indicate that the word is of Arabic origin, with a letter that has already lost a distinctive pronunciation through its assimilation into Persian. The θ, theta ("th" as in English "thin"), χ, khi ("kh" as in German Nacht), and γ, gamma ("gh"), have their Modern Greek pronunciation as this is used in various international pronunciation alphabets. The ð, eth ("dh" as in English "then"), from Old English, is the voiced equivalent of the theta, in the same usage. Theta and eth occur in (Classical) Arabic, but not in Persian. In many transcriptions these fricatives are written in digraphs, e.g. "th" for theta, that makes them look like aspirates, which they are not (although older sources, out of linguistic naiveté or ignorance, may call them that). Sanskrit and Hindi-Urdu have the true aspirates. Urdu writes its aspirates with digraphs using a form of Arabic "h."

Another convention at this website is to use the standard form of written Arabic, the naskh or naskhī, , for all uses of the Arabic alphabet. This contrasts with the style commonly used for writing Persian and Urdu, the nasta'līq, , short for naskh ta'līq, , "hanging naskh." The nasta'līq is an oblique, sloping, ornate version of the alphabet, which I find difficult to read.

A friend of mine started taking Arabic at the American University of Beirut when we were there in 1969. The class began with learning the alphabet and how to write it. There were some Iranians in the class, who of course already knew the alphabet. When called to the blackboard, they wrote the letters in their accustomed fashion. Professor Ghoul, (yes, the word "ghoul" in English, and the star Algol, ), turned to the class and announced that this was the "Persian Hand" and that it would not be tolerated in his class. The Iranians would need to learn the proper way to write Arabic. The naskhī does seem more natural to me for the printed page.

Modifications of the Arabic Alphabet for Malay

Return to Text

Classical Languages

I found that one of the most permanent cultural traits in the written cultures of Eurasia (including the Northern part of Africa and Ethiopia) is precisely the phenomenon I am calling hieroglossia. By this I mean the sum of relations that develop between a language perceived as a central or founding element in a given culture area (this language being the hierogloss) and the language or languages that are perceived as being dependent, not historically or linguistically, but ontologically or theologically, on that hierogloss. Within a hieroglossic relationship, the language perceived as dependent, often called the "vulgar tongue" or "vernacular" (or, as I will call it, "laogloss"), is clearly considered not to be self-sufficient.

Jean-Noël Robert, "Hieroglossia," Nanzan Institute for Religion & Culture, Bulletin 30 (2006), p. 26

Languages die when others take their place -- we don't need Latin or any dead language, because we've got languages of our own.

John H. McWhorter, The Power of Babel [Perennial, 2003, p.255]

Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), "Sailing to Byzantium"

John McWhorter is a fine scholar in linguistics and an engaging and attractive teacher of the subject. However, for someone who agonizes over the loss of even one of the 6000 living spoken languages in the world, despite many languages with very few speakers and no literature, his attitude seems curiously inconsistent when it comes to "dead" languages like Latin, as we see in the quote above. Presumably, if the language of the Seneca Indians died out, then it would be of no interest to him and he would express a similar level of contempt. Somehow I doubt that would be the case. Do we need the Tonkawa language, which used to be spoken in central Texas? For certain purposes, yes, scientific, aesthetic, and historical. But, apart from linguistics, there is not much else to do with Tonkawa. With Latin there is much to do, because there is much to read. We learn of people, events, and ideas over a span of many centuries.

And that is the point. It used to be the case that education meant learning the Classical language of one's civilization. This was not just an exercise in memorization to show off. There was stuff to read. Early on, there was originally nothing else to read, because the Classical language might be the only written language in the culture, and its literature the only literature. You read that or nothing else.

This meant that even a Classical language that was the first language of no person, and was learned by no one in the cradle, nevertheless was a "living" language in most senses that we could possibly attribute to it.

Love the Lord your God in all your heart
and in all your soul and in all your mind.
People did speak it. People read it. And people wrote in it. Again, it might be the only language that they wrote. Or, even if it wasn't, even if there were spoken, vernacular languages that were written and read in daily usage, the Classical language was the doorway, if not to the only learning of the civilization, but to the fundamental, formative, and defining learning and knowledge of the civilization.

The neglect of the Classical languages of Europe, Greek and Latin, today is the consequence of the vernacular languages, not only becoming written languages themselves, not only containing their own extensive literature, but actually replacing the culture and literature of the Classical languages as the proper representatives of their civilization, rendering the Classics "dead" through a sense of irrelevance. I think there are three main reasons for this:

  1. One is nationalism. National pride may not be able to countence the implication that an ancient language, a literature, and a civilization transcend and outweigh that of any particular modern nation.

  2. Another reason is the precedent of science. It does not matter that Issac Newton wrote the Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis in Latin. No physicist needs to read the Principia in Latin, or even at all, to do physics. Physics has changed so much, and even the practice of Newtonian mechanics is now so different, that the original text itself is superseded and superfluous. It is unlikely that one becomes a better physicist by understanding Newton in the original.

    Progress means that the civilization, and its language and literature, are always new. Whether science should be taken as a paradigm in other areas of life, however, is open to serious question. History, philosophy, and ethics are not necessarily understood better by more recent historians, philosophers, and moralists than by ancient ones, although, to be sure, this is open to debate. But it is not as though translations of Thucydides are being read in English or Italian as diligently as University students were once expected to read him in Greek. Greek and Roman literature now tend to be neglected nearly as much as their original languages. So the debate doesn't even start.

    Instead, the conceit is that Classical learning, into which the Classical languages were windows, is as obsolete and superseded as Classical physics. This is a pretence of deep folly. The Olympian level of wisdom that produced the United States Constitution, for instance, is almost wholly lacking from recent American politics. American politicians literally do not have the same education; and the result is that they do not understand, and certainly do not believe in, the Constitution they all take an oath to "preserve, protect, and defend." But, after the miserable offerings of modern "education," it is not as though most other people know better.

    That Classical civilization should be despised by modernity contains its own bitter irony, when American education now is nearly as deficient in mathematics and science as it is in the Classics. The modern intelligentsia affects a nihilism whose contempt and ignorance fall equally on Greek, Latin, science, and even progress itself. The result is evidently supposed to be some kind of liberation from the shackles of the past and of arbitrary authority. The effect, however, is merely the autism and stupefaction of a dumb and self-referential twilight existence, in an isolated present. The particular, the subjective, and the irrational become the inspirations for conflicts in which even common humanity is dismissed.

  3. The third reason for the neglect of Classical languages is the influence of an attitude in linguistics exemplified by John McWhorter himself. This is the belief that spoken language, because it came first by many millennia, is "real" language and that written language is a derivative phenomenon that is both "unreal" in relation to spoken languages and improper in the sense that the dynamic of written language works against the dynamic of spoken language. Since the dynamic of spoken language is change, but written language inhibits change, written language has a negative and corrupting influence.

    Perhaps only someone who is not a historian could think such things. But it is also not right for a linguist. Language, by entering a new medium, takes on a life of its own and becomes a different phenomenon. Most importantly, it becomes durable, and this means that it preserves the past, both as a record of the past and as a medium for the transmission of the literature of the past, which previously had to hazard the imperfections and misadventures of an oral tradition. But there is more. Language functions differently in writing. All the clever dialogue of great plays and novels is something we rarely to never hear in real conversation, where even great wits may contribute no more than a few bons mots. Similarly, long, majesterial sentences, in literature, history, or philosophy, are only possible in writing. Nor should we think that long sentences are bad form. Great literature in Greek, Arabic, French, and German has extremely long sentences. McWhorter knows all this, but he does not recognize or embrace the truth it reveals, that written language represents a life and a dimension apart from spoken language. Classical languages are the ultimate expression of that life and that transcendent dimension [note].

The only Classical language that all European civilization has in common is Greek. Next comes Latin, which was current within Francia (through which once ran the writ of the Popes, until the Reformation). Behind Greek and Latin, however, there is Hebrew, which also counts as a Classical language for Christendom as well as for Judaism because an essential item of religious literature, the Hebrew Bible, is in that language (and some Aramaic).
Europa est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam Romaniam, aliam Franciam, tertiam Russiam.
Europa1. Romania2. Constantinople1. Greek
2. Francia1. Rome2. Latin
3. Russia3. Moscow3. Old Church Slavonic
In Christendom, however, there really is no other Hebrew literature, since Biblical scholarship and religious writing has been conducted either in Greek, Latin, or later languages. Until the modern revival of Hebrew, even Jewish literature in Hebrew was almost exclusively religious in character. Something similar may be found in Old Church Slavonic, which was adopted, instead of Greek, as the liturgical language of the Orthdox Churches of Slavic (and a couple non-Slavic) peoples. I don't believe it was ever used for secular purposes or has any modern literature.

In the history of Christianity, there have been similar cases, where languages like Syriac, Coptic, or Armenian are at once national languages, religious languages, and foundational languages for particular traditions of ancient culture and religion, sometimes with larger implications -- such as the Syriac translations of Greek philosophy that mediated its ultimate translation into Arabic. But usually these languages did not rise to larger significance and were not learned outside their nations except by specialist scholars.

The European Union has 24 official languages and 5 semi-official ones (shown in parentheses below).
Most European Union members (with 21 of the official languages) are from the area of Mediaeval Francia and would have once used Latin as their default literary and legal language. But Latin isn't even one of the offical languages of the EU. Three EU members are from Mediaeval Romania, including Greece, whose default language is of course Greek, Bulgaria, with Old Church Slavonic in the background, and Modern Romania, which is somewhat anomalous in that (1) it was never part of Mediaeval Romania, (2) its language, Romanian, it is actually derived from Latin, like Italian or French, and (3) it has progressively Latinized the language with the adoption of the Latin alphabet (after originally being written in Cyrillic) and programs to purge non-Latinate vocabulary. If the EU expands to the Ukraine, this will pull in a state from historic Russia; but this now seems less likely with Vladimir Putin's conquest of Ukrainian territory and the appeasement policy of the Western powers. Other states from Mediaeval Romania, like Albania, Montenegro, and Serbia, may be more likely EU members. Although Turkey once looked like a likely EU member, the erosion of democracy and increasing Islamicization, the opposite of Atatürk's inspiration, have compromised its promise.

Francia :
European Union Official and Semi-Official Languages
& Ireland
English (Gaelic, Welsh)Irish
Spain:Spanish (Basque, Catalan, Galician)Portuguese
A curious thing about the European Union is that all of its official languages are used equally in all of its publications, and the text in each of the languages is equally authoritative for all purposes. This really is asking for trouble when it comes to the laws and regulations of the EU, since there is no governing text that can be authoritatively cited. The highest court in the EU must try and determine the original intent of each law and regulation, using particular texts only as clues. The deliberations of the court, curiously, are themselves in French, but with judges representing each of the official languages, issuing each decision in their own language. This is where Latin would have been a lot of help, since the authoritative text of any law or regulation could be put in Latin, whose suitability for legal texts consists in the tradition of Roman Law common to all of Francia and Romania. On the other hand, since Greece and Bulgaria are linguistically distinct from Latinate Europe, one might even propose that Κοινή (Koinê) Greek be made the authoritative default language of the EU -- with Latin legal terminology already translated into Greek by Justinian. The Greeks would certainly love that; and since Classical Greek is taught in Greek schools, we could even say that the Koinê is more of a living langauge than Latin (although this survives, to an extent, in the Vatican). Somehow, I think that the EU would rather struggle with its current Babel than appeal to either Latin or Greek, although non-EU Switzerland, with four official languages (German, French, Italian, and Romansh), is officially the Confederatio Helvetica, in Latin.

The "semi-official" languages are obviously linguistic minorities in particular countries, in particular the UK and Spain. The possibility of Scotland or Catalonia breaking away from their existing countries means that Gaelic and Catalan could become, with EU membership, new official languages.

Outside of Europe, there is greater simplicity to the foundational Classical languages of the other great centers of world civilization. In Islam, Arabic is the surpreme and defining Classical language, with an unmatched religious preeminence but also with many centuries of secular literature, much of which made its way into Europe in the Middle Ages, although its place in the modern world is less cosmopolitan. Nevertheless, spoken dialects of Arabic still compete with an elevated, literary Arabic, approaching the Classical language, as the dominant written language in Arab countries. Since the literary standard is little removed from the Arabic of the Qur'ān, disparaging remarks about the Classical language might, in this day and age, attract death threats. Historically, Persian has often competed with Arabic as a literary and secular language, and other modern languages of Islam, from Swahili to Urdu or Malay, now have their own literature; but no language of an Islamic culture will ever escape the shadow of Arabic. And all serious Muslims will learn Arabic to some degree in order to read the Qur'ān.

In India, Sanskrit is foundational for the autochthonous civilization and for all the religions -- Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism in particular -- with an Indian origin. A vast literature in Sanskrit begins with the Vedas and continues nearly to the present. The language is still actively taught and used, although I am not aware of much original literature now being produced in it. Nevertheless, its influence continues on the modern languages, like Hindi, that place themselves deliberately in the tradition of Sanskrit civilization and consequently use it as a source of borrowings and neologisms, as European languages do with Greek and Latin. The sacred character of Sanskrit is more marked than with the likes of Greek or Latin, and it is hard to imagine Hinduism giving up the Sanskrit formulae of the Vedas for vernacular translations as Christian churches have generally done in Europe. As with Arabic for Islam, or Hebrew for Judaism, the language itself is essential to the religion, its meaning, and its power -- the Qur'ān, as with the Vedas, is believed to exist eternally in its original language.

Chinese civilization (and those it influences) has a unique relationship to its Classical language. The modern spoken languages, although quite different, nevertheless use most of the ancient characters, the (kanji in Japanese), which means that reading knowledge of Mandarin or Cantonese gives one very nearly all that is needed to begin reading the Classical language. Consequently, Chinese language departments often present Classical Chinese as a subsidiary study to something like Mandarin. Some people are left under the impression that the Chinese of Confucius is an artificial language that has been abbreviated from something that was already much more like Mandarin. The interesting case is then, historically, when Koreans, Japanese, or Vietnamese read and wrote Classical Chinese without ever learning or speaking the contemporary spoken versions of Chinese. Some Chinese scholars find this incomprehensible, improper, or offensive. Yet that is the history, and it also means that much of East Asian civilization, in all the areas around China, has been expressed through, and influenced by, Classical Chinese literature. By abandoning Chinese characters, Korean and Vietnamese have lost their connection to the ancient language; but it is still a living presence in Chinese, in all its separate modern spoken languages, and Japanese. As with Arabic and Sanskrit, Classical Chinese is simply not a "dead" language.

Greek and Latin are not quite dead languages either, but a great deal of effort is being put into making them so. Having inspired this attitude, science itself gets tossed away equally in the general shambles and militant ignorance into which Western "education" is being steadily reduced. So impressive is what civilization has done in the present, the false lesson is that just anything, and especially any self-indulgence, will be just as good as whatever was in the past -- the fruit of the long discredited but nevertheless continuing "self-esteem" movement. This is an approach whose payoff is self-destructive and suicidal. One wonders if it is also behind the self-hatred that is found in much educated opinion in the West. The enlightened no longer have anything rational or substantive to believe in and actually develop a rage, like an abandoned child, for the disappointing and absent parent. The orphans of Western civilization are neither wise or happy people.

Since I posted the original essay above, my wife has drawn my attention to the article "Hieroglossia," by Jean-Noël Robert [Nanzan Institute for Religion & Culture, Bulletin 30, 2006], which echoes in some detail many of the points and sentiments presented here, complete with a critique of attitudes (like McWhorter's) in modern lingusitics, using examples as disparate as Syriac, Armenian, Persian, and the use of Chinese in Japanese literature. I have added an epigraph from Robert's article at the top of this section. Otherwise, I warmly recommend the full original, which is available on line. While I would prefer not to call Classical languages in which literature is actively generated "dead" languages, as Robert does, he does supply a useful term for classical languages that are used only for liturgy, like Old Church Slavonic or Coptic, and so are approaching truly "dead" status:  "passive" heiroglossic languages. To Robert's excellent discussion of the Arabic element in Modern Persian, I would like to add my discussion of the Arabic and Persian elements in Ottoman Turkish.

Prescriptive Grammar

Languages with more than 30,000,000 Speakers as of 2005

The Dialects of Chinese

The Contrast between Classical and Modern Chinese

The Semitic and Other Afroasiatic Languages

"Knowing" Words in Indo-European Languages

Greek, Sanskrit, and Closely Related Languages

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Copyright (c) 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2019, 2020 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Classical Languages, Note;
Prescriptive Grammar

This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.

Winston Churchill, variously quoted, provenance uncertain.

A similar and related issue also arises over prescriptive grammar, i.e. teaching people that certain usages are wrong (e.g. "between you and I") because of a rule that was generalized for an earlier, written, and more prestigious stage of the language, or was generalized from a misconceived notion of an earlier, written, and more prestigious state of the language. John McWhorter doesn't have much use for this kind of thing either.
Laurent de La Hyre (1606-1656), Allegory of Grammar, 1650, National Gallery, London; "a meaningful utterance which can be written down, pronounced in the proper way"; one of the seven Liberal Arts
He values the living, changing, spoken language, where usage steadily changes and grammar and vocabulary evolve over time. Dealing with this is simply "descriptive grammar," not "prescriptive." Of course, it turns out that some examples of prescriptive grammar are things that never were features of usage (like the evils of the "split infinitive" or ending a sentence with a preposition, about which we see
Winston Churchill's famous response above) but that were made up out of whole cloth by grammarians, who had their own aesthetic preferences and then believed that others should agree with them. There was also the problem of getting right the grammar that actually applies to a language like English, rather than to Latin.

A good example would be correcting people who answer "That's me" rather than "It is I." The former uses a pronoun in the accusative case as a predicate nominative, where it should be in the nominative. The latter corrects this "error." Unfortunately, no one says "It is I" in genuine, colloquial speech. Also, one wonders if the same criticism would be applied to Louis XIV for saying L'état c'est moi, which by the same grammatical principle should be *L'état c'est je. The latter, however, truly is bad French; but moi seems to be neither nominative (je) nor accusative (me). Modern English, which is strongly influenced by French, uses "me" for both the accusative case and for this sort of "topical" use of moi. Latin doesn't have anything quite like that. "That's me" or "It's me" are perfectly grammatical, just not obviously in terms of Latin grammatical cases.

Another issue would be the inherent ambiguity of certain grammatical rules. The Bible says, "For the wages of sin is death" [Romans 6:23]. There is something odd and archaic about that sentence, probably because the plural number of the subject ("wages") does not agree with the singular number of the verb ("is"). The verb actually is agreeing with the number of the predicate nominative ("death"). There is in truth a dilemma here that is not easily resolved. Where the number of the subject and the predicate nominative do not agree, there is going to be a sense of inconsistency whichever number the verb is in. Where today we may expect the verb to agree with the subject, come what may, the translators working for King James apparently saw the matter otherwise. Whichever way we go, there is clearly an arbitrary element, which is something that grammatical martinets seem reluctant to allow.

Once upon a time, I was hoping to consult the Greek text and follow its usage. However, what we get at Romans 6:23 is τὰ γὰρ ὀψώνια τῆς ἁμαρτίας θάνατος, tà gàr opsónia tês hamartías thánatos, "The for wages of-the of-sin [is] death." There is no verb here. It is a nominal sentence. So Greek doesn't need to worry about whether to match the number of the verb with the (plural) subject or the singular predicate nominative!

Apart from the silly idiosyncrasies of grammarians, confusions about getting the grammar right, and inherent logical problems in grammar, the issue is still a serious one in another respect. As language changes, new languages emerge, which are as different and foreign from the parent language as many unrelated languages. This means you can no longer read the literature. Old English (Anglo-Saxon) is as foreign to Modern English as German, while Middle English (Chaucer) is barely more intelligible than Dutch. Jane Austin (1775-1817) is recognizably Modern English, with some curiosities.
The stream of Time, irresistible, ever moving, carries off and bears away all things that come to birth and plunges them into utter darkness, both deeds of no account and deeds which are mighty and worthy of commemoration; as the playwright [Sophocles] says, it "brings to light that which was unseen and shrouds from us that which was manifest." Nevertheless, the science of History is a great bulwark against the stream of Time; in a way it checks this irresistible flood, it holds in a tight grasp whatever it can seize floating on the surface and will not allow it to slip away into the depths of Oblivion.

Anna Comnena (1083-1153), The Alexiad, translated by E.R.A. Sewter [Penguin Classics, 1969, p.17]. Contemporary image of the Empress Maria, the Alan.

John Locke (1632-1704) is also Modern, but with more curiosities, most of which can be recognized from context (e.g. where "without" can mean "outside" -- "within" and "inside" still have identical meanings, though the former has an archaic ring to it).

A century before Locke, however, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) uses language that to me is often completely unintelligible -- McWhorter admits that he has problems with Shakespeare also. Nevertheless, Shakespeare is closely studied by many and his language recovered. People learn that "wherefore" simply meant "why." But this is not an entirely easy process.

N.M. Gwynne says, in his popular Gwynne's Grammar [Knopf, 2014], "Shakespeare can be followed nearly as easily as if the plays and sonnets were written today" [p.xxi]. I think this is quite false, as the dense footnotes on any page of a Shakespearean play can testify. I've sat through performances of unfamiliar plays and have come away with only the vaguest notion of what was being said or what was going on. McWhorter says that he has sat through The Tempest no less than three times and still doesn't know what it is about.

I think that the problem with Gwynne is that he has already studied Shakespeare and has forgotten what all he needed to learn to be able to understand it. Gwynne also quotes approvingly the statement of J.M.D. Meiklejohn in 1894, "Any Englishman of ordinary education can read a book belonging to the latter part of the fifteenth or sixteenth century without difficulty" [from his English Language: Its Grammar, History, and Literature, cited by Gwynne, p.xxii]. I think that this is nonsense. English becomes generally intelligible to us only in the 17th century. The irony is that the argument of Gwynne would be strengthened if he admitted that the neglect of the received language, in grammar and vocabulary, is the reason for the loss of our ability to understand the earlier language.

The process by which a writer like Shakespeare ceases to be easily understood by speakers of the recent language is one that John McWhorter seems quite happy to see speeding along. As with his disdain for Classical languages, the result is the same:  the loss of the past. Through most of human history, this would have been viewed with alarm. The loss of sacred languages -- Hebrew, Sanskrit, Arabic -- would even have been viewed with horror and fear. It is only now that people assert or affect no interest in the past, seeing it as a weight and a shackle to the new and better. As discussed above, this is an attitude of great folly, and not just as a matter of intellectual curiosity. John McWhorter certainly should know better, but his is a common attitude in linguistics -- we also see it in Steven Pinker. The practice of science is usually to study rather than use. Linguistics ironically studies "dead" languages as much as living ones, but it then sees "use" only in terms of people speaking, not in terms of reading the words of those long dead -- people whose minds nevertheless still live through their writings. That is the miracle of the written language, through which Socrates, Dante, and Confucius come to life, and without which Linguistics as a science as well as books by John McWhorter would be impossible.

As it happens, McWhorter himself is alarmed about a closely related issue. In his Doing Our Own Thing, The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care [Gotham Books, 2004], McWhorter laments the loss of the elevated oratorial and rhetorical tradition of spoken language which derives from the written medium. He sees the virtually illiterate modes of spoken language alone coming to dominate public speech, literature, poetry, and also even music, to the great loss of art, intellect, and sophisticated communication. I don't think that McWhorter appreciates, however, the degree to which his own dismissal of Classical languages and prescriptive grammar contributes to this "degradation," as he calls it himself, of language. After all, as he admits, the whole tradition of oratory and rhetoric goes back to Classical models. Famous speakers of the past, such as Edward Evertt, whom he considers at the beginning of his book, had certainly been educated with a Classical and grammatical emphasis that McWhorter otherwise decries or dismisses. I don't think he appreciates that the loss or "degradation" of one part of the tradition marches in step with the general loss of literate sophistication -- and the consequent loss of the past -- that he targets. We can certainly benefit from a better understanding of questions about grammar, and I would thus agree with McWhorter that educational reforms about language were in order, with respect to many attitudes of the 19th century or earlier; but I do think he has missed an essential part of what has happened, and of which he has therefore himself been a part of the negative and degrading tendency.

Even some of the silliest cases of prescriptive grammar may represent something important. McWhorter himself admits that "double negatives," which are common in other languages and in many varieties of English, or sentences like, "Billy and me went to the store," actually sound "wrong" to him, even though he knows that in some cases the usage goes back to before prescriptive grammars were written for English. And I bet he thinks that the use of "ain't" sounds substandard, even though he would know that it is a very old form and even turns up in the speech of King George III. Curiously, I have yet to see McWhorter discuss this expression, although perhaps I am not familiar enough with his work. But in disparaging the "correct" perscriptive usage, and clearly not using "ain't" in his own speech, McWhorter commits a key sin in terms of his own discipline.

"Correctness" in linguistics derives from usage; and usage is known from the spontaneous reactions of native speakers. Therefore, if "Billy and me" sounds "wrong" to John McWhorter, as it does to me, then it is wrong. It does not matter if the usage has been influenced by the concoctions of some 18th or 19th century grammatical martinets. They succeeded in establishing a standard of usage that is now indicative of education and an elevated level of language. There is indeed really nothing wrong with the contraction "ain't," which has been around for centuries and had long been used in polite society. But now it is not characteristic of educated speech. This is not mean that it should never be used, but it does mean that those who use it should be aware that they are speaking in a particular cultural, regional, or ethnic dialect. Being educated means that they are able to speak an elevated or standard English if they wish to, or if the circumstances call for it. McWhorter's own usage reflects his own education; and when it comes to the sub-standard forms that he discusses, he rarely uses the worst of them. No "ain'ts" that I can find in his books or lectures.

Much of modern education is hostile to the whole idea of elevated levels of speech and discourse. It is "elitist" -- promoted by people who usually represent a privileged elite of comfortable bureaucrats. Thus, grammar and spelling are far down the list of what is considered important in theories of pedagogy and schools of education. If we then ask what the results of this have been, whether the modern student has now broken free of the shackles of the past and has entered a Nirvana of voluminous and enlightened learning, the sober truth is that little less than a dark night of ignorance has descended instead. The modern student may know little about anything. And not just in the United States. The British psychiatrist, Theodore Dalrymple [Life at the Bottom, The Worldview That Makes the Underclass, Ivan R. Dee Publisher, Chicago, 2001], found that his young patients, after years of education in British schools, often had no idea when the World Wars had been fought, why, or by whom. American students don't know who Lee and Grant were. But they may have been well indoctrinated, on the other hand, with all the shibboleths of importance to politically correct opinion. Which perhaps gives away the game. Ignorance serves a purpose. I think that John McWhorter sometimes suspects this himself.

Return to Classical Languages

The Earliest Civilizations

The basic meaning of civilization is the presence of cities, and the basic meaning of history is the presence of written records. There can be civilization without writing (the Incas), and perhaps writing without much in the way of cities (runes), but the creation of writing gives to the earliest historical civilizations a role that prior urban culture (as at Jericho) could not match. The four earliest centers of historical civilization stretch diagonally across south Asia into Africa. They are defined by their writing systems. The earliest is in Sumer (or Sumeria), where we now have evidence of a long pre-history of writing. After early pictograms, the writing system that emerged, cuneiform, is named after the wedge shapes that were made by reed pens on clay tablets. This was a cumbersome and messy medium for writing but possesses the virtue from our point of view that burned tablets can become as durable as bricks.

The Sumerians themselves did not last long, and are no longer distinguishable as a people after the end of the III Dynasty of Ur, around 2000 BC. Their language has no known affinities, though the Caucasus is still home to similarly isolated and unique language groups, three of them. A chain of ancient non-Indo-European and non-Semitic languages -- of Elam, the Kassites, the Hurrians, and Urartu -- stretched from Sumer to the Caucasus, but too little is known of these languages, or of the early forms of the Caucasian ones, for certain connections to be drawn. Sumerian civilization, however, did not die, since most of its elements, and the cuneiform writing system itself, were adapted to writing a Semitic language, Akkadian, whose daughters, Babylonian and Assyrian, bore the literature of subsequent Mesopotamian civilization, even while lovingly preserving knowledge of Sumerian. The last cuneiform text is from 75 AD, and so this is taken as marking the end of Sumerian civilization, even if the end of the Sumerians themselves long antedates it.

Hard on the heels of Sumer came Egypt, with evidence of Sumerian influence, where a new writing system, hieroglyphics, developed -- now with some evidence emerging of its antecedents in Egypt. Of the durable systems of writing, hieroglyphics alone retained its pictographic character, though the Egyptians developed cursive and abbreviated forms for more practical purposes. The Egyptians also developed a more practical medium for writing, papyrus scrolls, though these have the drawback, from our point of view, of easily burning and decaying. An intact Egyptian papyrus is a prize, though these are more common in the dry climate of Egypt than similarly volatile media would be in the damp Ganges Valley of India. The Egyptians themselves, and their writing, were somewhat more durable than Sumer. The last hieroglyphic inscription was carved in 394 AD, and the last cursive (Demotic) papyrus is from 480 AD. That, even then, the Egyptian language survived, as Coptic, written in the Greek alphabet, is discussed elsewhere.

The Indus Valley of India is where the next civilization emerges, again with evidence of Sumerian influence. The Indus pictographic script is not well attested and remains undeciphered. Nor, unlike hieroglyphics and cuneiform, are there any bilingual texts to aid in decipherment. So we don't even know what the people of the Indus Valley called themselves or their place -- perhaps the closest we can get is that the Sumerians called the place Meluḫḫa, . The problem is that the Indus Valley civilization did not survive, flourishing only from around 2800 to 1500 (or even just from 2600 to 1900). The examples of Indus writing are brief and fragmentary. Just what happened is still mysterious. The advent of Indo-European steppe peoples with horses and chariots undoubtedly had the kind of effect that is also evident in the Middle East, where small numbers of such people established regimes in Babylonia (the Kassite Dynasty) and Mitanni, and the technology made a foreign regime possible in Egypt. The Indus cities, however, now seem already declining, vulnerable, and perhaps even abandoned, perhaps because of climatic and hydrological changes. There is little real evidence of violent conquest, though a similar absence is also noteworthy with respect to the Kassite regime in Babylon, the Mitanni, or the Hyksos in Egypt. In any case, India passed into a Dark Age and emerged contemporaneous with the beginning of Classical civilization in Greece, circa 800 BC. Further discussion of this can be found under the treatment of the steppe peoples.

While contact between Sumeria, Egypt, and the Indus occurred early, the fourth center of civilization, in China, remained relatively isolated and emerged considerably later, with the Shang Dynasty, about the time that India has passsing temporarily out of history. Of all the early systems of writing, Chinese Characters, the direct descendants of Shang pictographs, are the only one still in use today. The Indian system, of course, ended with the Indus civilization. Cuneiform and hieroglyphics were replaced by alphabetic scripts that developed, perhaps under Egyptian influence, in Phoenicia and Canaan.

A striking geographical feature of the early civilizations is that they were all in river valleys, and not only that, but desert, or at least desicated, river valleys. That circumstance might be overlooked in the Middle East, where the climate is uniformly dry, but is conspicuous in India and China, where the rivers in deserts (the Indus), or at least relatively dry areas (the Huang He), are matched by rivers that are in areas of heavy rainfall (the Ganges & Yangtze). In China, an old saying has it that in the north (Huang He valley) you go by horse, and in the south (Yangtze valley) you go by boat -- . That life and agriculture likely was easier in rainy areas may have been just the problem. The irrigation systems that were necessary for reliable agriculture in the desert climates imply a level of organization and technological development, let alone records, which are just what we find in the earliest days of Sumer, Egypt, and the Indus valley. In these terms, it should not be surprising that civilization in India began on the Indus rather than the Ganges, and in China on the Huang He rather than the Yangtze. This even made a difference in the Chinese diet, since rice, which we think of as the Chinese staple, would only grow in the wet south. In the north, it was wheat that was grown, and the staple diet was based on something else which is still conspicuous in Chinese cooking, noodles -- early examples of which were recently discovered by archaeologists.

Another curious, but unexplained, feature of these civilizations is that the delay in the develoment of China, and the hiatus in the development of India, end up producing a philosophical culture simultaneously with the development of Greek philosophy, while the independent Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations were far gone in decline. The multiple points of similarity between the thought of the Greece, India, and China, evident in the simplest terms in their respective treatment of the physical elements, cannot be accounted for by mutual influence, which does not seem to have existed at the earliest period. The undoubted transfer of ideas between Greece and India in the Hellenistic Period, and the export of Buddhism from India to China beginning in the Han Dynasty, provides us points of comparison with what, the uninfluenced traditions, came before. The time when Parmenides, Confucius, and the Buddha all lived, the end of the 5th century BC, has been called the "axial age"; but it remains mysterious that such simultaneous and sometimes parallel development should have occurred.

The age was also one of religious innovation. In India, where religion and philosophy remain closely related, Buddhism, Jainism, and Upanishadic Hinduism straddle the distinction. In China, schools that are pretty purely philosophical, Confucianism and Taosim, eventually attract religious elements and grow, with Buddhism, into the three religious "Ways" of Chinese civilization. Greek religion, of course, was doomed to extinction, replaced by Prophetic Judaism and its daughter religions, Christianity and Islām. Meanwhile, of course, the Jewish tradition had been profoundly influenced by Greek philosophy, so that when Christianity was adopted by Rome, it could be said to repesent a synthesis of "Athens and Jerusalem." The place in this of the religious revolution in Irān, Zoroastrianism, is more obscure. The moral rigor of Zoroaster, in separating all evil from God, may actually be the source of similar reforms in both Judaism and in Greek philosophy, but there is little in the way of direct evidence of this.

The Earliest Civilizations considered above, and the Four World Civilizations discussed at the top of this page, are part of the larger pattern of the development of civilization on the planet. The civilization of Sumer and Akkad (1), the earliest of all, quickly came into contact, and may have substantively influenced, the nearby centers of Egypt (2) and India (3). This forms a pattern in the area, both for the sub-Mesopotamian civilizations of the Levant, Anatolia, Iran, and even (the easily forgotten) Yemen, but for the more independent and more dominant civilizations that developed later, namely Europe (7), by way of Greece and Rome, and Islam (8), which cannot have developed as they did without their antecedents. Separated by mountains and deserts from the older civilizations of Asia, China (4) developed in relative independence but then was directly influenced by India and entered into exchanges of varying and uncertain content by way of the Steppe.

The New World civilizations of Meso-America (5) and the Andes (6) involve some anomalies in comparison to the Old World civilizations. Most conspicuously, they do not originate or continue in river valleys. The Maya, for instance, relied on rain, cisterns, and ground water. Long droughts may have been what wiped out the Classical civilization. The absence of rivers not only rendered agriculture dependent on rain, but it eliminated avenues of intercourse and trade. At the same time, the Andean cultures, culminating in the Incas, did not possess writing. Given the Cyclopean building of the Incas, it is hard not to think of them as a bona fide civilization, but they were limited to oral history and accounting, which give us a real sense of the history only of the latest culture, the Incas. Despite the sophistication of the Mayan system of writing, later Mexican cultures did not adopt it in any kind of complete fashion. Thus, while we can read what the Maya inscribed about their history, for Mexico, like Peru, we only know about the latest events, among the Aztecs. Despite developing much later than the Old World centers, both the Meso-American and Andean civilizations were actually at a Neolithic level of technology, with no metal work beyond the use of gold and silver. Altogether, such deficiencies would seem to be the result of their isolation, not only in relation to the Old World, but even in relation to other areas in the Americas. The highways of commerce, communication, and conquest in the Old World, like the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean Sea, or the Steppe, did not exist in the New.

Apart from the centers of civilization, we also see the occasional great work that bespeaks a potential, at least, for a more sophisticated culture. The most impressive of these is with the Anasazi of the American Southwest. Adjacent to the Colorado River, which flows through a desert, we might think this would have the geographical potential for a substantial civilization. That the river largely runs through narrow canyons and deep gorges shut off this possibility, and we see the principle structures of the Anasazi built along tributaries of the Colorado. The greatest center and work of stone buildings, at Chaco Canyon, also was mysteriously abandoned. Without writing, it was long a matter of controversy whether the subsequent Pueblo culture, which gravitated towards the Rio Grande Valley, was derived from the Anasazi or not. It probably was, and the pueblos, now of adobe, survive as often impressive structures (often with adjacent casinos), principally in New Mexico.

Otherwise, we have the limited but striking works of Great Zimbabwe in Africa and of Easter Island. The former was built starting in the 11th century but, again, in the absence of writing, what it and similar smaller sites in the area were originally all about has been lost. They certainly were engaged in the Indian Ocean trade that involved the Arabs and even the Chinese in the Middle Ages, and memory remains of successor states, but why the sites were abandoned and the stone architecture not continued remains mysterious. On the other hand, the monumental sculptures on Easter Island are more understandable in terms of the rest of Polynesian culture, which otherwise would have used wood for such things, and Easter Islanders themselves continue to live on the island. But details of the construction and movement of the figures have remained matters of uncertainty and controversy, and it has only recently been argued that the statues were actually still being made when Europeans arrived in 1722. The thesis that the work was done by the Incas seems to have gone the way of the idea that Great Zimbabwe was built by the Queen of Sheba.

Even more mysterious than any of these are various megalithic structures, such as Stonehenge in Britain or on Malta. No clue remains who built these things or exactly when or how. The notion that the Druids were responsible for Stonehenge appears to be anachronistic and without historical or archaeological foundation. Some other megalithic sites exist around the world, but sometimes it is a matter of dispute whether their origin is geological or by human -- or extra-terrestrial -- design. They are explained or described by historical accounts no more than Stonehenge. Since that allows speculation to run wild, they exercise a public appeal that may exceed the more pedestrial charms of actual textual history, archaeology, and epigraphy.

  1. Index of Mesopotamian and Ancient Middle Eastern History
  2. Index of Egyptian History
  3. Emperors of India
  4. Emperors of China
  5. Meso-America
  6. The Andes
  7. Historical Background to Greek Philosophy
    1. Rome and Romania
    2. Francia
    3. Russia
  8. Islam, 622 AD-present

Guide and Index of World History, Dynasties and Lists of Rulers

History of Philosophy, Indian Philosophy

History of Philosophy, Chinese Philosophy

History of Philosophy

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Copyright (c) 2000, 2003, 2004, 2008, 2013 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

The Spread of Indo-European and Turkish Peoples off the Steppe,
The Indus Valley Civilization

The grassland across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the Steppe, is one of the great highways of world history. Equipped with horses and cattle, people could live easily on the Steppe and move freely across it, all the way from Mongolia to Hungary. From the Second Millennium BC until well into the Middle Ages, movements back and forth across the Steppe, and especially off of it at the periphery, profoundly influenced the history of the surrounding lands in Europe and Asia, particularly Eastern Europe, the Middle East, India, and China. The most dramatic example of this in Ancient times was the descent of the Iranians into the Middle East and India. Introducing horses and chariots for the first time into these areas of earlier civilization, the Iranian invaders not only revolutionized warfare, but were the ones to reap the first advantages from the innovation. The occupation of the Iranian plateau established their permanent presence there, with the great successor kingdoms of the Medes and the Persians. An Iranian elite, at least, imposed themselves on the Hurrians and the Kassites of the Middle East. With the Hurrians, the kingdom of the Mitanni then became one of the great second millennium powers of Eastern Syria, while with the Kassites, an ascendancy was established over Babylonia. In a 13th century treaty with the Hittites, the Mitanni listed their gods, which are evidently the same gods as in contemporary Iran and in Vedic India.

Recent scholarship has begun to discount to role of the Iranian invaders in the introduction of the horse and in dominating the Hurrians and Kassites, since horses appear before their arrival and the evidence of the Iranian element among the Hurrians and Kassites is thin. However, the Iranian movement was certainly more that of a migration than the invasion of organized armies. As such, its influences were somewhat more in the way of diffusion than of conquest. Horses arrive before an Iranian population does because they were traded ahead of the migrants. Someone brought them -- horses (and chariots) did not simply suddenly wander across the Central Asian deserts into the Middle East and India. There is no doubt that horses did not exist in the 3rd millennium BC in Egypt or Sumeria. When horses do arrive, they are adopted as quickly as possible. Horses clearly arrived in Egypt with an invasion, that of the Hyksos, but there is no evidence that the Hyksos were Iranians. Whether or not the Hurrians were ever dominated by Iranians, there is undoubted Iranian influence there, with the names of the gods. The gods can have diffused along with the horses. That the Iranians are near is incontestable -- they are soon revealed on the Iranian plateau, and in India, and their languages have been in those places ever since. Consquently, it doesn't make much sense to completely discount the traditional notions of the role and influence of the Iranians.

The Indus Valley Civilization

India is where the eastern branch of Indo-Aryan steppe invaders, the Ārya, , or Āryajana, (i.e. "Aryan race/kind/people" -- in meaning and use jana, , is much like the Persian zādeh, ), imposed themselves and, erasing whatever establishment or vestiges were in place of the older Indus Valley Civilization -- known to the Sumerians as Meluḫḫa, -- laid the foundation of a new civilization with their own language and gods. A subsequent Iranian people, the Sakas, later also invaded India. The Sakas had been dislodged, as the most distant Indo-European occupants of the Steppe, known as the Yüeh Chih (Pinyin Yuezhi, the "Moon Tribe") to the Chinese, were thrown back into the Tarim Basin (the Lesser Yüeh Chih) and Transoxania (the Greater Yüeh Chih). The Greater Yüeh Chih, organized as the kingdom of the Kushans, later continued the tradition by invading India themselves.

Argument continues over the role of the Ārya invaders in the end of the Indus Valley Civilization -- one of whose famous artifacts is shown at left -- with the evident rima pudendi that is unusual in world art but that is conspicuous in India later, both in art and actual dress. This culture is now usually said to have been in decline and to have come to an end through its own decadence (cf. The Oxford Companion to Archaeology [Oxford University Press, 1996], "Indus Civilization," pp. 348-351) or natural disasters (cf. "Indus Civilization, Clues to an Ancient Puzzle," National Geographic Magazine, Vol.197, No.6, June 2000, pp.108-129). Civilizations, indeed, have their ups and downs. Egypt during its Intermediate Periods, or China after the fall of the Han, are good examples. However, they rarely disappear as the result of such low points. Even Mayan Civilization, which essentially did collapse, still left the Mayan people, speaking their own language, behind. It is thus hard to imagine no connection between the invasion and the disappearance, even as the probable language of the Indus Valley, a Dravidian language, was erased from most of the north of India. Egypt had a tough enough time shaking off the Hyksos.

Claims are also now made, perhaps not coincidentally starting with Indian scholars, that the Ārya originated in India, that the Vedic language is closely related to the Dravidian languages and the source of all other Indo-European languages, and that the hitherto undeciphered Indus Valley script is actually the basis of both the much later (700 or 800 years) Brahmi alphabet in India and even the Phoenican/Canaanite alphabet of the Middle East. These are inherently suspect and improbable claims, examined in some detail elsewhere. Otherwise, the binary or hexadecimal system of weights that is discernible in the Indus culture may well have survived as late as the coinage of British India.

The Indus, by Andrew Robinson

All these issues are now explored in an introductory book The Indus by Andrew Robinson [Reaktion Books, London, 2015, 2017]. Robinson's conclusions are generally modest, and he disposes of most of the Hindu nationalistic claims and mythology, although without as much detail about the languages as would be helpful. But there are some pecularities in Robinson's treatment that may reflect a reluctance to allow too much credit to the Ārya as invaders and conquerors.

Thus, Robinson features a photograph of skeletons sprawled on an excavated street of Mohenjo-daro. It is hard to look at this without concluding, as the original excavators did, that these individuals have been struck down with weapons while in flight, with their bodies left to lie where they have fallen. However, Robinson labels the photograph, and otherwise refers to it, as involving the very neutral description "unburied skeletons" [pp.132-133]. All he allows himself to say is that "the excavators concluded that these cities had been abandoned." Well, if the enemy who left the skeletons in the street didn't bury them, and no one did, then the city probably was "abandoned" as the result of invaders who, having wiped out and/or driven out the inhabitants, had no interest in occupying an urban environment. Further on, Robinson features a photograph of skeletons tossed in a pit. He labels it, "Victims of a massacre, or of disease?" [p.139]. Since forensic examination now concludes that these were plague victims, Robinson seems to conclude that massacres, in general, therefore did not happen, ignoring the evidence of the skeletons from a few pages earlier. Also, the plague victims have been tossed haphazardly in the mass grave, which bespeaks a certain level of confusion, disorder, and haste. That calls for some comment, which we do not get. Also, the skeletons in the street and in the pit could certainly be dated. Why don't we hear about that?

Where we get more actual discussion is when Robinson turns to the account in the Rig Veda of fighting against the "Dasas," i.e. dāsa, , "foe, demon, infidel, slave, servant" (dāsajana, , "slave, servant") . The circular forts of the Dasa are described in the Vedas, and forts of precisely such design have been found in the North-West, in Bactria and elsewhere [pp.141-142]. Since these designs are not found down in the cities of the Indus Valley, Robinson seems to conclude that the Ārya of the Rig Veda therefore are not to be considered as invaders there. However, having begun calling their enemies "Dasa," it would not be surprising if the Ārya took this to mean everyone they subsequently encountered -- they would not be careful ethnographers, and, as noted, dāsa does come to have a quite general meaning (which Robinson doesn't mention) -- and their oral tradition is not liable to be scrupulous in recording the architecture of every enemy encountered. The account of the Dasa forts filled the buffer of oral memory, and they probably made more of an impression than the generally unfortified cities of the plains.

We might call into question Robinson's judgment in such matters when he comments on a unrelated case:

Like the much better-documented collapse around 1200 BC of the Bronze Age civilization in the eastern Mediterranean (including the cultures based at Knossos, Mycenae, Troy and Ugarit and in New Kingdom Egypt), the disappearnace of the Indus civilization remains puzzling. In the Mediterranean, it used to be thought that unknown 'Sea Peoples' were responsible. No one, however, has been able to identify them satisfactorily for the scholarly community, and so an invasion by the Sea Peoples no longer washes an an explanation of the collapse of civilization in the eastern Mediterranean. [pp.141-142]

This argument is absurd. Robinson doesn't mention and perhaps has forgotten that the expression "Sea Peoples" was actually used by the Egyptians to refer to the people that they actually fought. Thus, the "invasion by the Sea Peoples" is a historically documented event, celebrated by Ramesses III in graphic detail, not a largely speculative construction such as we are thrown back upon for India. The identity of the "Sea Peoples" is thus in fact irrelevant to the issue. Robinson acts like, because we can't identify the invaders, therefore there was no invasion. What doesn't "wash" is that Robinson misses the difference between an explanation, which is an inference or a speculation, and historically attested facts. And while he does carefully say "in" New Kingdom Egypt, which may make a difference, we are nevertheless left with the impression that "Bronze Age civilization" collapsed in Egypt, which it clearly did not -- certainly not in comparison to that of Mycenae, Ugarit, or the Hitties, who were all erased from history by, well, something...

The speculation now is that that the Peoples of the Sea, and the Philistines, were actually Mycenaean Greeks, who had been pushed off by what the Greeks themselves thought of as the invasion of the Dorian Greeks into the South of Greece. The speculative element of this is large, and some scholars seem to reject the whole business as fictional, but there is no doubt that in historic times Dorians occupied the areas that had been Mycenaean (or Minoan), except for the isolated area of Arcadia, and its evident outlier on Cyprus. There is also no doubt that the archaeology of Mycenaean cities shows damage and abandonment, which significantly attends the loss of literacy -- except, again, on the outlier of Cyprus. With the eclipse of records, Greece entered its "Dark Age," until the language was again expressed with the adoption of the Phoenician alphabet. That violence and disorder attended this is not an unreasonable inference.

With parallel events in India, especially the loss of literacy that motivates the use of "Dark Age" there also, we must wonder why a parallel explanation is not in order. With the return of literacy, all of Northern India is covered with Indo-European languages, except for isolates and outliers (of the Southern Daravidian languages) that Robinson discusses in some detail [pp.165-170]. The formative event of the loss of literacy, when is all but diagnostic for the history of Greece, India, and Dark Age Britain, occasions one of the strangest passages in Robinson's book:

'The disappearance of writing at the end of the Indus tradition in the north can possibly be correlated to an increase in the dominance of the Vedic ritual elites, Brahmins', notes [Jonathan Mark] Kenoyer [Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley, 1998]. The explanation for the disappearance has to be that these Brahmins revered the power of memory, rather than writing, because it enabled them to restrict knowledge of the Vedic scriptures to their own caste. Their sacred literature was entirely oral and was written down only much later in the Hindu tradition. Even today, Brahmin priests take pride in reciting the scriptures from memory rather than reading from manuscript sources. [pp.135-136, boldface added]

This argument is, once again, absurd. The explanation "has to be" nothing of the sort. First of all, we know from the devlopment of Sumerian writing that its origin is in commercial and financial records. Since Robinson himself recounts the evidence of the presence of Indus merchants in Akkad, there can be no doubt that Indus merchants kept records. But none of these survive in India, which must mean they were kept, as in Egypt, on perishable media. What survives are the seals, which, in parallel with Sumer, would have been used for identification, authentication, and signatures. Thus, whatever the Brahmins wanted to do with the Vedas, this cannot explain the general disappearance of writing. That can only happen with the disapparance of merchants, business, and trade, a phenomenon that otherwise only happens anywhere when illiterate nomads, who live off of theft rather than trade, snuf out an urban, literate, and mercantile culture. Not to admit and recognize the evidence for this in India is no less than perverse.

Furthermore, Robinson (and Kenoyer) manifestly reverse the causality here. Literacy was not lost because the Brahmins decided to lose it. No. The Brahmins are illiterate because literacy had already been lost, and the Brahmins belonged to people who never had it. Homer did not decide to abandon Mycenaean Linear B and stick to memory. It was already lost. The Jutes, Angles, and Saxons did not decide to abandon writing. They had never had it. It would be an extraordinary revolution for literate Brahmins to decide to be illiterate, just because they unaccountably came to privilege memory over writing, and simultaneously had the unlikely power to force everyone else in society to become illiterate also, devastating the means of business and trade.

No, when writing is available to priests, it is the sacred writings that become privileged, which is nowhere more obvious than in the history of Bible, and even the Quʾrān -- both arising in areas with long histories of literacy. The belief about these tends to be the eternity of the scriptures (scripturae, which means, by the way, what is written). Where in India, exceptionally, it is the eternity of the spoken word that is affirmed, the origin of this in an illiterate culture is almost too obvious even to dispute. Yet Robinson neither acknowledges nor discusses these circumstances.

We also might note a bit of Protestantizing anti-clericalism here. The scheming priests, the Brahmins, want "to restrict knowledge of the Vedic scriptures to their own caste." Actually, knowledge of the Vedas is not restricted to the Brahmin caste. It belongs to all the Twice Born, whom it is the duty of the Brahmins to teach. So, with a falsehood, Robinson is really off on the wrong foot here. Otherwise, the trope of malicious priests, willing to destroy the entire economy of a civilization just to impose their own oral preference, is a bias so transparently and ridiculously anti-clerical that it is hard to beleive it exists in modern scholarship. Yet I have already described it at some length elsewhere, where popular books, with scholarly credentials, argue that selfish Catholic priests destroyed an enlightened (i.e. naturalistic, non-sexist, democratic) Gnosticism in the interest of their own power and authority. Perhaps that legitimized the use of the idea for India.

So why these distortions about the Indus Valley Civilization? Why these oversights, perverse inferences, and misrepresentations? Well, what is obviously out of favor is the idea that the Ārya invaders overthrew the Indus Valley civilization. Robinson even transfers this paradigm to the end of the Bronze Age in the West, fictionalizing the historically attested Sea Peoples just so he can draw the parallel of other non-existent invaders. The existence of those invaders, however, is starkly evident. That we have less information about India does not motivate the levels of agnositicism that now exist in the scholarship. After all, the Hittites were manifestly routed out of their homeland, by people whose identity, at the time, is invisible. Some "Neo-Hittites" survived in Syria, while the Phrygians and Cappadocians are subsequently found occupying old Hittite territory. While arguments are made that the Indus declined for internal or environmental reasons, no such explanations are going to "wash" for the eclipse of the Hittites, whose late politics and culture betray nothing unusual and whose environment was unchanged.

What underlies the peculiarities of Robinson's analysis may be fear -- fear of the Āryajana, . Not that the Ārya will ride in as conquering hordes but that the very idea of the Ārya invokes the misuse of the name by Friedrich Nietzsche, the Nazis, and others who historically have promoted racist ideas. Merely entertaining the idea that the Ārya overthrew the Indus Valley Civilization, the way that the Dorians overthrew Myceanae or the Goths and Vandals overthrew the Roman Empire in the West, may be enough to get a scholar associated with the racists as a racist himself. There will be a stampede away from this by worried, politically correct historians. But denying or ignoring obvious facts or inferences about India, which have nothing to do with someone else's ideas about the "Aryans," is pointless. That Andrew Robinson offers at least two arguments that are no less than absurd should be a caution that fearful reasoning quickly leads to loss of reason. Indeed, as leftist ideology becomes more irrational -- in terms of fact and logic -- its tolerance for rational disagreement declines, as is now evident at American universities.

Strange Claims about the Greeks, and about India

Since the early Iranian peoples were illiterate, much of their movement and activities remain concealed from history. With the spread of literate civilization, however, much more can be discerned when the entire process of spreading across the Steppe was repeated all over again in the Middle Ages by the Turks. Moving from east to west, the Turks came as far west as the Iranians on the Steppe itself. The remaining Turkish presence in Europe looks at least in part associated with the later Mongol invasions. Thus Kazan, which was the capital of the Mongol Khanate of Kazan, is now the capital of the Russian republic of Tatarstan, where the Turkish language of Tatar is spoken. Ajacent to Tatarstan we find the closely related languages of Chuvash and Bashkir (now in Bashkortostan). Other Tartar speakers remain in Central Asia. The Crimean Tatars, surviving from the Mongol Khanate of the Crimea, were deported to Central Asia by Stalin in 1944 for supposedly collaborating with the Germans. Recently some have been returning -- although now perhaps leaving again as Vladimir Putin has annexed the Crimea.

In the Ukraine, earlier Turkic peoples like the Khazars, Patzinaks, and Cumans have disappeared. The Bulgars, originally Turkic, were absorbed by their Slavic subjects. Nor did the Turks settle nearly as much of the Middle East. However, the whole area around the Aral Sea became permanently Turkish, now dignified as "Turkestan," while the defeat of the Romanian/Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV at the battle of Manzikert by the Seljuk Turk Great Sultān Alp Arslan in 1071 opened up Asia Minor, which Iranians had never penetrated (despite the Persian conquest), to permanent Turkish occupation and settlement. The presence of Turkey amidst and upon older Indo-European peoples, the Greeks and the Armenians, and overlapping an Iranian people, the Kurds, has not made for forgiveness or forgetfulness of their recent advent (i.e. almost 1000 years ago). Although a Turkish ethnic presence was never established in India, Turkish princes in Afghanistan profoundly influenced Indian history, first by the invasion of Maḥmūd of Ghazna in 1008, when Islām was first solidly planted in Indian civilization, and by the later invasion of Babur, the first of the Moghuls, in 1526.

The most spectacular and rapid movement of conquest across the Steppe, through the Middle East, and into Europe and China, was that of the Mongols in the 13th Century. Although several significant and a few durable kingdoms resulted from this conquest, little remains by way of permanent Mongol ethnic presence. The Kalmyks on the lower Volga are the only Mongolian speaking group left in Europe, Buddhist in religion and evidently associated with the Khanate of Astrakhan. The Mongols thus repeated the earlier, and less well documented, career of the Huns, who also left few durable marks of their presence (like the name "Hungary"). Subsequently, the conquest of the Steppe came from off of the Steppe, especially as the Russians, who had moved across Asia north of the Steppe, in the forest land of the Taiga, occupied much of the central portion of it from the north in the 19th Century. The advent of gunpowder removed the advantage that the horse and the composite reflex bow had given nomadic Steppe dwellers for so long.

Grasslands at the corresponding latitudes elsewhere in the world did not have the same impact on world history as the Steppe. The Pampas of South American and the Veldt of South Africa were far too small to provide a highway between different cultural regions.

The Prairie or Great Plains of North America, although extensive, were still not as extensive as the Steppe and lacked the key ingredient: A domesticated animal for riding. Although the horse had actually evolved in North America, it died out there and historically is only found in Asia and Africa (Zebras). The reintroduction of the horse into the New World by the Spanish set off the development of a romantic Plains culture among American Indian tribes who adopted the horse; but this did not involve the historic transmission of cultures around the periphery, nor did it last very long -- only a century and a half, at most. What these grasslands could mean in modern life was as appropriate ranges to grow a domesticated grass, wheat, and similar agricultural staples. The steppe and similar provinces thus have gone from being highways of history to being breadbaskets of the world.

Tornado Alley

The Great Plains, however, do provide a kind of highway, not for culture, but for weather. To the South is the seasonably hot, damp bathtub of the Gulf of Mexico. To the North are the seasonably cold, dry plains of Canada. In Texas, the saying is that there is nothing between the Panhandle and the North Pole but a barbed wire fence. And someone left the gate open.
Tornado over Kansas, or The Tornado, 1929, by John Steuart Curry (1897-1946), Muskegon Museum of Art, Muskegon, Michigan

When the air masses from these two directions meet, especially in the Spring, when the air from the North is still particularly cold and dry, but the Gulf is already heating up, the result is violence. Massive thunderstorms stretch across several States, and more tornadoes are spawned than anywhere else in the world. The ferocity of many of these storms is almost unbelievable. They can all but sweep whole towns into an oblivion of matchsticks and shattered trees. People can be sucked out of their cars, even out of their shoes, and tossed to the ground miles away. We don't find this quite anywhere else -- outside a World War I battlefield, or Hiroshima.

Central Asia has plenty of cold, dry air, probably a lot colder and drier than in Canada, and if it were ever able to meet the air from the Indian Ocean, we would have Kansas and Oklahoma all over again. But it doesn't meet. The Himalayas are in the way. These mountains wring a lot of rain out of the Monsoon flow, the most anywhere, but without the clash of air masses and the violence that we see in North America.

The weather in North America may have had little effect on history, but it is hard to ignore the distinctive meteorology that goes with the geography of the Great Plains. The tides of humans on the Steppe are here replaced by the awesome, sublime, and terrifying mountains of clouds that sweep the sky with rain, hail (from peas to grapefruits), and fierce winds. As history ebbs and flows, and the Steppe armies and migrations disappear, the tides of air return tirelessly every year on the Plains. "Tornado Alley" comes alive again.

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The Fours Vedas
and the Parts of the Vedas

The Vedas and all their parts are śruti, , "revelation." The sectarian teachings, Vaiṣṇavite (the sect of Viṣṇu), Shaivite (the sect of Shiva), & Shākta (Tantric, sect of Shakti), may regard their texts, the āgamas, as shruti also. The pious view is that the Vedas are eternal and uncreated and exist essentially as sound. More conventional, but still pious, scholarship may still exaggerate the antiquity of the Vedas, sometimes claiming they go back to 10,000 BC or earlier. Now, however, it looks like even the oldest parts of the Ṛg Veda do not antedate the arrival of the Arya in India, circa 1500 BC, although the gods and elements of the stories are older, since they are attested with Iranian peoples and the Mitanni, with parallels in Greek and Latin mythology. The word "veda," , is from the root vid, "to know," making for other derivates like vidya, , "knowledge," and avidya, , "ignorance." The vid root is cognate to idéa in Greek, video in Latin, and wit in English. Claims can be found on the Internet that the Arya and their gods were autochthonous to India; but the linguistic, archeological, and epigraphic evidence is overwhelming in favor of their arrival from the Steppe, like the Turks and Mongols centuries later, and of their origin elsewhere.

I. Ṛg Vedathe oldest Veda, from c.1500 BC; from ṛc, "sacred hymn or verse"; liturgial manual of the hotṛ, chief sacrificial priest.
II. Sāma Vedafrom sāman, "song, chant"; hymnal of singing udgātṛ priest, assistant of the hotṛ.
III. Yajur Vedafrom yajus, "sacrifical formula"; liturgical manual of adhvaryu priest, assistant of hotṛ charged with ritual preparations, "practical work."
IV. Atharva Vedathe youngest Veda, c. 800 BC; from atharvan, the "fire priest," not originally associated with Vedic sacrifice, later added as brāhmaṇa, the fourth sacrificial priest.

Each Veda consists of four parts.

I. Saṃhitās (or Mantras)


Ṛg Veda Saṃhitās: 10522 verses The saṃhitās and brāhmaṇas are the karmakāṇḍa, "action part," of the Vedas, studied by the pūrva mīmāmsā, "prior interpretation," or Mīmāmsā school.
Sāma Veda Saṃhitās: 1984 verses
Yajur Veda Saṃhitās: 1875 verses
Atharva Veda Saṃhitās: 5977 verses
II. Brāhmaṇas

Ritual Texts

The brāhmaṇas, using much mythic material, are commentaries on and explanations of the hymns and ritual practices.
III. Āraṇyakas

Forest Treatises

The āraṇyakas verge into philosophical writing but often are indistinguishable from the brāhmaṇas; they may be regarded as philosophical texts written by or for forest dwelling hermits or as brāhmaṇa ritual texts written for forest dwellers who cannot practice the ordinary household rituals described in the brāhmaṇas proper. The āraṇyakas and upaniṣads are the jñanakāṇḍa, "knowledge part," of the Vedas, studied by the uttara mīmāmsā, "posterior interpretation," or Vedānta, "End of the Vedas," school.
IV. Upaniṣads

Philosophical Texts

The Vedas are traditionally taught by a Brahmin teacher (guru) orally to a student (brahmacārin) in sequences (called "branches") of associated saṃhitās, brāhmaṇas, āraṇyakas, and upaniṣads. For example:

Ṛg Veda
Shakala Branch SaṃhitāsAitareya BrāhmaṇaAitareya ĀraṇyakaAitareya Upaniṣad

The 33 Gods of the Vedas

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The Thirteen Principal Upaniṣads
with their associated Vedas, Brāhmaṇas
and Āraṇyakas

Translations of Upaniṣads, , range from the classic Sacred Books of the East versions by F. Max Müller in two volumes, originally published in 1879 and 1884 (reissued by Dover in 1962), to a recent new translation by Patrick Olivelle (Upaniṣads, Oxford, 1996). Olivelle should be consulted for the most recent thinking and scholarship. Mircea Eliade says that only the Upaniṣads listed here, out of more than 200, are considered to be shruti. At the same time, I've seen claims that the Upaniṣads are not even part of the Vedas. Olivelle says that these (his collection does not include the Maitri Upaniṣad) are in fact the whole of the original Upaniṣadic literature -- indeed, that the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and Chāndogya together "constitute about two-thirds of the corpus of ancient Upaniṣadic documents" (p. 4). Subsequently, however, numerous, often Sectarian, documents were produced, as late as the 16th century, which were regarded as Upaniṣads by different people (p. xxxiii). Collections of Upaniṣads varied by region. Olivelle mentions a northern collection of 52 and a southern collection of 108 (p. xxxiii). The only modern publication of the additional Upaniṣads I've seen is K. Narayanasvami Aiyar's Thirty Minor Upanṣads (Parimal Publications, Delhi, 1997), although I have not been keeping up with the literature. The late Upaniṣads are not part of the Brāhmaṇa literature and tend to be ascribed to the Atharva Veda. This is already true of some of the Upaniṣads listed here.

The Upaniṣads are basically about two things:  Brahman, , and Ātman, . Brahman is ultimate reality in the external world, the Ātman the ultimate reality in the internal world and hence the Self. The Buddhist doctrine is anātman or "no self." The fundamental division in Vedānta, , which is the interpretation of the Upaniṣads, is whether Brahman and the Ātman are identical or different. If they are identical, we have a school of , Advaita or "non-dual" Vedānta. A "non-dual" doctrine can also be called "Monism," that there is only one thing. If Brahman and the Ātman are different, we have a school of , Dvaita or "dualistic" Vedānta. The Dvaita Vedānta of Madhva (12381317 AD) is a Theistic doctrine of a personal God, with the "five differences":  that (1) Brahman is different from Ātmans, (2) Brahman is different from matter, (3) Ātmans are different from each other, (4) Ātmans are different from matter, and (5) pieces of matter are different from each other. Thus, it is a pluralistic metaphysics, not just dualistic. In the "qualified" Advaita Vedānta of Ramanuja (10171137 AD), Brahman is a personal God, who nevertheless contains all reality, including multiple selves and the world. This may be called a "Pantheism" and is comparable to the metaphysics of Baruch Spinoza. The God of both Madhva and Ramanuja is identified as the devotionalistic deity Viṣṇu.

In the "unqualified" Advaita Vedānta of Shãnkara (c.788-820 AD), Brahman is the only thing that exists, and the world and individual selves are part of illusion, Māya, (which is not illusion, but the creative power of God, for Theistic or other realistic versions of Vedanta). Since the Ātman, identical to Brahman, is not an individual self or soul, individuality over time and from life to life must be carried by the "subtle" bodies that are examined in the following Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad. Brahman is left without much in the way of positive characteristics, much like the "One" of Being in Parmenides. But there are three essential attributes of Brahman that are expressed in the formula, , Saccidānanda.

First is , sat, which is "existence." This is the same root as , satya, "truth," which turns up in the Satyāgraha, , or "Truth Force" of Mahātmā Gandhi. Second is , cit, which is consciousness. This diverges from the characterization of Being by Parmenides, who left the existence of both consciousness and the world unexplained. Here, the world, even as illusion, can exist as a representation within the consciousness of Brahman. Third and finally there is , ānanda, which is "bliss." "Ānanda" was also the name of the Buddha's personal attendant, who figures in many stories about the Buddha. Brahman is existence, consciousness, and bliss. The ultimate Self within each of us, the Ātman, is this also. So we do exist, and our consciousness is the consciousness of Brahman.

However, where is the Bliss? I may have the existence and the consciousness, but the bliss is missing. That is where we are damaged by Māya. To be free of illusion and to achieve Bliss in Brahman is Salvation or Liberation, the goal of religious and meditative practice, the Yogas, .

Action PartKnowledge Part
Ṛg Veda, Shakala BranchAitareya Brāhmaṇa [2]Aitareya ĀraṇyakaAitareya Upaniṣad [1]
Ṛg VedaKauṣītaki (Shānkhānaya) Brāhmaṇa [2]Shānkhānaya AraṇyakaKauṣītaki Upaniṣad [1]
Sāma VedaJaiminīya (Talavakāra) Upaniṣad Brāhmaṇa [3]Kena Upaniṣad
Chāndogya Brāhmaṇa [4]Chāndogya Upaniṣad [1][5]
Kṛṣṇa (Black) Yajur VedaTaittirīya Brāhmaṇa [6]Taittirīya ĀraṇyakaTaittirīya Upaniṣad [1]
Maitri (Maitrāyani-Brāhmaṇa) Upaniṣad [7]
Shvetāshvatara Upaniṣad [7]
Kāṭha Upaniṣad [7][8]
Shukla (White) Yajur Veda, Vājasaneyi SaṃhitāÎshā Saṃhitā Upaniṣad [9]
Shatapatha Brāhmaṇa [10]Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad [1][11]
Atharva Veda, Pippalāda Branch [12]Prashna Upaniṣad [7]
Atharva Veda, Shaunaka BranchMuṇḍaka Upaniṣad [7]
Atharva VedaGopatha BrāhmaṇaMāṇḍūkya Upaniṣad [7][13][14]

Note 1: Early Upaniṣad, between 800 and 500 BC.

Note 2: The Ṛg Veda contains only the two Brāhmaṇas listed.

Note 3: The Sāma Veda contains eight Brāhmaṇas, including the Pañcaviṃsha Brāhmaṇa, the Ṣaḍviṃsha Brāhmaṇa, and the Prauḍha Brāhmaṇa.

Note 4: Eight out of ten chapters are the upaniṣad.

Note 5: Contains the , mahāvakya, "great sentence," for the Sāma Veda: tat tvam asi, , "thou art that."

Note 6: The only Brāhmaṇa of the Black Yajur Veda.

Note 7: Upaniṣads of the middle period, between 500 and 200 BC.

Note 8: Some attribute the Kāṭha Upaniṣad to the Atharva Veda or the Sāma Veda.

Note 9: Unusally positioned with saṃhitās instead of with āraṇyakas.

Note 10: The only Brāhmaṇa of the White Yajur Veda.

Note 11: Oldest upaniṣad, appended to the Shatapatha Brāhmaṇa, contains the teaching of the Unknown Knower and the mahāvakya, "great sentence," for the Yajur Veda: , aham brahmāsmi, "I am brahman."

Note 12: The only Brāhmaṇa of the Atharva Veda is the Gopatha Brāhmaṇa. I am not aware of the Branch to which it is supposed to belong.

Note 13: The Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad is found embedded in the Kārikā Āgama, not attached to a Brāhmaṇa or Āraṇyaka.

Note 14: Contains the mahāvakya, "great sentence," for the Atharva Veda: , ayam ātmā brahma, "this self is brahman."

The Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad

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The Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad

translation substantially that of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan & Charles A. Moore (1957) and Thomas E. Wood (1990) with modifications

The The Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad, , is one of the shortest Upaniṣads, only twelve verses long, and it is very late, conventionally associated with the Atharva Veda; but it is also one of the most important Upaniṣads, with commentaries by great Indian philosophers, like Shãnkara. Different schools of philosophy interpret the text according to their own doctrine. Quoted definitions are dictionary citations from Arthur MacDonell, A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary [Oxford, 1929].

1. Om: this syllable is all this. A further exposition of it is: what was, what is, and what will be -- all is only Om. And whatever else is beyond the three times, that also is only Om.

The The Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad says it is about the syllable "Om." This is a sacred syllable that can be used as a mantra for meditation or written on things for good luck. I have an Indian cookbook whose author says that her mother wrote Om on her tongue in butter when she was born. The different ways to write the word are discussed at "Greek, Sanskrit, and Closely Related Languages." An abbreviated writing is given at the top of this page. Nevertheless, nothing is really said about Om here. It is used as a device to symbolize what the Māṇḍūkya is really talking about, which is consciousness.

2. All this, indeed, is Brahman. This Self is Brahman. This Self itself has four quarters.

"This Self is Brahman," , Ayam ātmā brahma, is the , mahāvakya, "great sentence," of the Atharva Veda. The four "great sentences," one from each Veda, express the fundamental teaching of the Upaniṣads. The other three are: , tat tvam asi, "thou art that," , aham brahmāsmi, "I am Brahman," and , sarvam khalu idam brahma, "all this indeed is Brahman." The latter looks like it is also included in this verse but, sorry folks, only one great sentence per Veda. The "four quarters" of the Self are going to be the four levels of consciousness. Tat tvam asi, , "thou art that," is the most famous of these propositions and the only one commonly quoted in Sanskrit.

3. The waking state, outwardly cognitive, having seven limbs, having nineteen mouths, enjoying the gross, the worldly (vaishvānara), is the first quarter.

This verse is about the first state of the jīva, or the individual phenomenal self. The physical body accompanies the waking state. The "nineteen mouths" are the five senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell), five organs of action (speech, hands, feet, genitals, anus), five vital principles (prāṇa, apāna, samāna, udāna, vyāna), and the "sensorium" (manas) reason (buddhi) ego (ahamkāra) and apperception (citta). "Gross" is sthūla, "thick, bulky, big, large, stout, massive; coarse, gross; dull, stupid; material, tangible (phil.)..." The "worldly," where here characterizes the waking state, means "belonging to all men; universal, dwelling or worshipped everywhere, generally known....consisting of all men...intellect conditioned by the aggregate (Vedānta phil.)..."

4. The dreaming state, inwardly cognitive, having seven limbs, having nineteen mouths, enjoying the exquisite, the brilliant (taijasa), is the second quarter.

This verse is about the second state of the jīva, dreaming. The dreaming or "astral" body accompanies the dreaming state (calling it the "astral" body is borrowed from Neoplatonism). Much has been made recently of "astral projection," where real journeys can supposedly be made in the separated astral body -- though the ultimate would be "teleportation," where an astral projection ends with the physical body appearing where the astral body traveled.

5. Where one, asleep, does not desire any desire whatever, sees no dream whatever, this is deep sleep. The sleeping state, which has become one, just pure cognition, made of bliss (ānanda), verily an enjoyer of bliss, whose mouth is thought, the cognitional (prājña), is the third quarter.

This verse is about the third state of the jīva, deep sleep. The causal body (kāraṇasharīra) or karmic body (kārmaṇasharīra) accompanies the third state [note]. For the Jains this simply consists of one's karma and is responsible for the existence and circumstances of life in the phenomenal world. "Pure" cognition which is neither inner nor outer seems to be cognition without an object altogether. This is what we call "unconsciousness," but there is no unconsciousness in ātman or Brahman. The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad had asked the question what the Knower without the Known would be. Since the Known, and any object of consciousness, would be part of illusion, Māya, the Knower without the Known would be the subject without an object. So "pure" cognition looks like what to us, and also to Dvaita Vedānta (and others), would be unconsciousness. Since Brahman is defined as sac-cid-ānanda, , "existence, consciousness, & bliss," "made of bliss" strongly suggests that deep sleep is closer to Brahman than the previous two states, a hierarchy rejected by those opposed to the Monistic interpretation of Vedānta (see comment on verse #6). The "cognitional," prājña (an intensifying prefix on jña, one of the knowing roots in Sanskrit), is "intelligence associated with individuality (phil.)"; "Intensely Conscious Being or Conscious Intensity." Interpretations of the third state as a state of ignorance, avidya, , of unconsiousness, will have some difficulty why it would be called prājña.

6. This is the lord (īshvara) of all; this is the knower of all; this is the inner controller; this is the source of all, indeed the origin as well as the end of all beings.

Does this verse go with verse #5, and so with deep sleep, or with verse #7, and so with the ātman? "Îshvara" is traditionally interpreted to mean God in a personal sense, which in #5 would be merely part of Māya, "Illusion," (as in monistic Advaita Vedānta) or in #7 would be identical with Brahman (as in theistic schools of Vedānta). Verse #6 sytlistically does seem to go with verse #7, but "īshvara" may not be used here in the loaded sense of meaning a personal God -- the difference may not be conceived as clearly in this Upaniṣad as it would be in later Vedānta, and we might regard the causal principle in the third state as no more than the causal body.

7. Not inwardly cognitive, not outwardly cognitive, not cognitive both ways, not pure cognition, neither cognitive nor non-cognitive, unseen, beyond speech, ungraspable, without any distinctive marks, unthinkable, undesignatable, the essence of the knowledge of the one Self, the cessation of the phenomenal world, quiescent, auspicious, nondual (advaita) -- [such] they think, is the fourth. He is the Self. He is to be known.

This verse is about the fourth state, which leaves the jīva behind and now is the pure Self, the ātman. Note that the term "nondual" (advaita) is actually used in the text. "Auspicious" in Sanskrit is Shiva, which is the name of a devotionalistic God in Hinduism, but important theistic interpretations of the Māṇḍūkya tend to be Vaishnavite rather than Shaivite.

8. This is the Self with regard to the syllable "Om", with regard to the elements: the quarters are the elements and the elements are the quarters: the letter a, the letter u, the letter m.

Om was originally pronounced aum; and this is remembered here, where Om is analyzed into three parts, with an intangible fourth part.

9. Vaishvānara (the worldly) is the waking state, the letter a, the first element, either from "āpti" (obtaining) or from "ādimattva" (being first). Verily, he obtains (āpnoti) all desires and becomes first (ādi) -- he who knows this.

10. Taijasa (the brilliant) is the dreaming state, the letter u, the second element, either from "utkarṣa" (exaltation) or from "ubhayatva" (intermediateness). Verily, he exalts the stream of knowledge and becomes equal-minded; no one ignorant of Brahman is born in the family of him who knows this.

11. Prājña (the cognitional) is the sleeping state, the letter m, the third element, either from "miti" (erecting) or from "apīti" (merging). Verily, he erects (minoti) this all and he becomes its merging -- he who knows this.

"Miti" can also be translated "measuring" -- the translation prefered by those who see "īshvara" as a creative God to be identified with the fourth state. A third state which "erects" the world does not require that kind of function in the fourth. However, the theistic interpretations of the text are up against another problem. The theistic Dvaita Vedānta view is that the third state is a state of unconsciousness and ignorance; but this is contradicted by the very name of the third state, "Prājña," which means "intelligent, wise, clever" (from jña, "know"). This is not ignorance. But what "erects" the world doesn't have to be God even in the third state. It can be karma.

12. The fourth is what is without an element, what cannot be dealt with or spoken of, the cessation of the phenomenal world, auspicious, nondual. Thus Om is the very Self. He enters the Self with the Self -- he who knows this.

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The The Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad, Note:
Subtle Bodies

The astral body and the causal body, in contrast to the gross physical body, are "subtle" bodies. This works clearly and simply in the Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad. There is a tendency, however, mainly outside of India, to add more subtle bodies. In the diagram we see the addition of a particular subtle body, the "etheric" body, in different systems. The "various" heading shows the etheric body inserted between the physical and the astral bodies. I have found this in two different books about astral projection and even in a book about massage (where the subtle bodies are described as auras extending beyond the physical body). The astral projection books disagree about what the etheric body is supposed to be. In one, it is part of the astral body left behind in the physical body during astral projection; in the other, it is comparable to the astral body in that it projects, but it travels to physical locations, while the full astral body travels to locations on the astral plane. The other cases are from Theosophy and Eckankar (whose main project used to be teaching astral projection but now apparently places emphasis on meditation). In the former, the etheric body, as the "lower mental body," is added between the causal and the astral body, while in the latter it is added, as the "mental body," above the causal body. These various and conflicting interpretations of the etheric body perhaps attest to its late introduction.

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