Language, Lying & Ritual

While scanning the front page of the New York Times today, my attention was arrested by this startling sub-titular claim: “Hinduism’s profusion of gods and sacred texts lacks a single theological structure, but they sustain a long tradition of tolerance.” My first thought, informed by the long and violent history of Hindu-Muslim conflict on the sub-continent, was that this byline announced one of those idealist or aspirational pieces regularly penned by progressive ecumenicals who tell us that their faith tradition, “properly” interpreted and understood, is really about love and tolerance. My second fleeting thought was that the byline referred to the tolerance that Hindus have for one another, but then I recalled this is the tradition which odiously endorses and sustains the caste system and treats “untouchable” Dalits as ritually impure sub-humans.

My concluding thought, after reading the article (which is the ninth installment of The Stone’s interview series on the philosophy of religion), is that the byline is an editorial error or wishful thinking. I could not find, in Gary Gutting’s interview with Professor Jonardon Ganeri, the statement or claim that Hindu traditions promote tolerance. Any such statement or claim would have been seriously at odds with the facts.

Gutting begins the interview with his usual question, which we can appreciate for the contrastive light it sheds on provincial issues that often obsess Christians:

Gutting: How might looking at Hinduism alter philosophical approaches to religion that take Christianity as their primary example?

Ganeri: Taking Christianity as the exemplar of religion skews philosophical discussion towards attempts to solve, resolve or dissolve difficult philosophical puzzles inherent in monotheism: problems about God’s powers, goodness and knowledge; attempts to provide rational arguments for God’s existence; the problem of evil; and so on. Hindu philosophers have traditionally been far more interested in a quite different array of problems, especially questions about the nature of religious knowledge and religious language, initially arising from their concerns with the Veda as a sacred eternal text and as a source of ritual and moral law.

The remainder of the interview serves as a basic introduction to Hindu traditions. There was, however, one statement by Ganeri I found particularly interesting:

[Some Hindus] see the text of the Veda as itself divine. Its language, on this view, has a structure that is prior to and isomorphic with the structure of the world and its grammar is complete (although parts may have been lost over the centuries). The divinity of the text inverts the order of priority between text and author: Now, at best, assignment of authorship is a cataloging device not the identification of origin. Recitation of the text is itself a religious act.

This concept uncannily resembles claims made by Roy Rappaport in his seminal book, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999). In simplified form, Rappaport’s argument is as follows:

  1. Language is the fundamental evolutionary adaptation which makes us “human” and separates us from our hominin ancestors.
  2. For all its myriad and obvious benefits, language creates two critical problems: (a) the ability to lie, and (b) conceptual alternatives.
  3. Lying poses a serious and potentially fatal threat to trust.
  4. Conceptual alternatives logically entail choice and choosing between them creates conflict.
  5. In tandem, these problems disrupt, destabilize, and/or destroy social order.
  6. Once language had evolved, humans had to address, ameliorate and overcome these twin threats. Social order would otherwise be impossible.
  7. Humans preserve social order, and address these twin threats, through ritual:

I will argue that the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers [i.e., “ritual”] logically entails the establishment of convention, the scaling of social contract, the construction of integrated conventional orders, the investment of what it encodes with morality, the construction of time and eternity, the representation of a paradigm of creation, the generation of the concept of the sacred, the sanctification of the social order, the generation of theories of the occult [i.e., the hidden or invisible], the evocation of numinous experience, the awareness of the divine, the grasp of the holy, and the construction of orders of meaning transcending the semantic. (Ritual and Religion at 27).

These are some bold claims and I’m not sure I buy all of them, but they make a good deal of sense. Nietzsche had some similar ideas, which he hinted at in Genealogy of Morals (II:1): “To breed an animal with the right to make promises — is not this the paradoxical task that nature has set for itself in the case of man?” Right or wrong, Rappaport’s book is without doubt a work of provocative genius. If I’m not mistaken, all the work being done on “ritual” and “costly signaling theory” in evolutionary religious studies is indebted, in whole or large part, to Rappaport.

All this aside, Rappaport surely would have appreciated the Vedic idea that ritual recitation of the text — an oral performance of invariant sequences — is a religious idea. In fact, he comes close to saying something like this: “It is a major thesis of this book that it is in the nature of religion to fabricate the Word, the True Word upon which the truths of symbols and the conventions they establish stand. As I suggested at the beginning of this chapter, I take the foundry within which the Word is forged to be ritual” (21).


Unintentional Creationist Irony

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13 thoughts on “Language, Lying & Ritual

  1. Larry Stout

    Before someone spouts nonsense about some ostensible connection between Hinduism (or other religion) and tolerance, he should at least take a casual look at credible history, which should quickly dissuade him. All of known Indian history is framed in a succession of empires, each won and enlarged by war. Hindu-on-Hindu wholesale bloodshed. Ashoka, famed for his nice philosophical edicts inscribed on pillars and boulders, first repented the absolute slaughters he oversaw in enlarging the Mauryan empire, this before his adoption of Buddhism. (As for Buddhists — again, have a look at history.)

    Serious disinterested students of religion have long since classed all religious practices in two principal groups: those based in doctrine, and those based in ritual.

  2. GregJS

    I happen to be reading Alain Danielou’s defense of the caste system, India: A Civilization of Differences. I’m not in a position to say if he’s correct in all he says; but his rationale and thought process seem sound. His main gist is that the caste system preserves cultural variety, in comparison to which most modern societies are relative monocultures. He certainly makes me consider the possibility that the current view of the caste system – as an unambiguous evil – might just be another one of those sad, twisted up results of western colonial interference.

    Also on the topic of Hindu tolerance, my sense has been that, unlike Abrahamic religions, which all seem to be vying competitively (both within and between themselves) to assert the One True God/Book/Religion, Hinduism is more just a collection of approaches to spiritual-religious practice, much like science is a collection of approaches (biology, chemistry, physics, etc.) to physical-mechanical reality. Sure, adherents and practitioners of different approaches can get dogmatic; but even when they are challenging each other to intense debates and vigorously defending their points of view, they are actually part of some overall collaborative process – and have tended to be genuinely tolerant of each other, at least in the past. (Again, I see the more recent fundamentalist, right-wing versions of Hinduism as an unfortunate but understandable reaction to colonial interference.)

    Finally, (addressing your comment, Larry) tolerance and warfare seem to be two separate issues to me in the sense that, it’s one thing for people to fight wars of conquest and expansion – even massively bloody ones with huge casualties – and very much another thing for people to import and impose a monolithic way of life on another, highly diverse population. As far as I’m aware, the general trend in India up until fairly recent times (as in much of the ancient world?) was that, after you conquered a peoples in war, you exacted tribute from them and that sort of thing to make your empire stronger; but you pretty much let them live as they always did. You didn’t expect other people to start worshiping your gods or observing your customs, and so on. (If anything, you’d probably find it odd if they did.)

  3. Cris Post author

    Thanks for mentioning this book Greg. It is going to take some very heavy conceptual, philosophical, social, and historical lifting to convince me that “preserving cultural variety” (which is in the first instance instantiated by the system which rationalizes or lauds “variety”) can overcome the objections.

    I’m generally averse to all colonial projects and am well aware of their discourses, distortions and justifications. But in the case of the caste system, I can’t think of any (Kantian or Rawlsian) position which could possibly justify it. The “variety” being defended by Daneilou is not “natural” (as his book blurb suggests), but is a systematic imposition that occurs from within and which is assessed from within.

    The summary I just read says: “The Indian caste system is not a hierarchy with some who are privileged and others who are despised; it is a natural ordering, an organizing principle, of a society wherein differences are embraced rather than ignored. In the caste system it is up to the individual to achieve perfection in the state to which he or she is born, since to a certain extent that state also forms part of a person’s nature.”

    First and foremost, there is no “natural ordering.” That’s code for unnatural ordering. Hindus are born into socially constructed castes and can’t escape them. There is nothing natural about this.

    I get the distinct impression that Daneilou is working within the confines of (post-Neolithic) civilizational boxes and categories that most of us, at least on this blog, recognize as “cui bono” justifications and rationalizations for current orders. These boxes and categories also ignore, as they must, the very real contrasts and problems posed by “primitive” foragers and “modern” liberals.

    I just don’t see how this guy can win, or persuade me. As a result, I’ll get the book and give it a try.

  4. Cris Post author

    I may have to backtrack a bit on what I said in this post and later comment to Greg. Quite by accident, I just found this study on hunter-gatherers in India, and the press release announcing the study, which I will quote in full:

    “Although India has a long and rich history of civilization, recent research suggests that the country may be home to one-quarter of the world’s foraging people

    Civilization flourished in India as early as 3000 BCE. With a history of advanced agricultural production going back more than five thousand years, it would seem unlikely that hunter-gatherers would have escaped displacement by farming or integration into the new way of life. However, new scholarship suggests that of the 5.2 million present-day and recent hunter-gatherers worldwide, fully 1.3 million live in mainland India, in addition to 600 Andaman islanders. This would account for 25% of the global population of hunter-gatherers—a much higher fraction than had previously been assumed.

    To put this in perspective, the new estimates mean that India possesses five times the number of people living by this means of subsistence in North America and the Arctic region combined, four times as many as Australia, and nearly three times as many as Africa. This has led some to wonder: how could hunter-gathering cultures have persisted in India for so long with a complex agricultural society right next door?

    A new article in Current Anthropology seeks to answer that question through a survey of ethnographic information about hunter-gatherers in India and their neighbors. The author of the article, Peter M. Gardner of the University of Missouri, argues that Hindu culture may have actually protected these foraging peoples from assimilation pressure up until the twentieth century.

    When interviewing Tamil-speaking Hindus in the 1960s, Gardner found that his subjects considered the forager to be admirable and “one of us.” In the Current Anthropology article, Gardner outlines three elements of Hindu culture that may have accommodated the continuation of hunter-gathering on the Indian subcontinent.

    First, Hinduism emphasizes a system of mutual dependence among occupational specialists in their society. Since hunter-gatherers collected and exchanged medicinal plants, wild honey, and other valuable forest products with their specialist neighbors, they were believed to serve an important economic function and were allowed to continue their way of life unmolested. Hindus considered these foragers to belong to the larger social system.

    In addition, since they were not viewed as outsiders, Indian hunter-gatherers were not expected to prove their adherence to cultural norms. As long as contacts remained tangential, they merely had to provide lip-service to Hindu notions of propriety to avoid harassment from their neighbors but did not have to change their customs in any meaningful way.

    Finally, in Hindu society hunter-gatherers were appreciated for their simple, hermitical lifestyle. Living quietly and peaceably in the forest, these foragers were ascribed by many the ritual purity afforded to Hindu ascetics.

    With the encroachment of the modern state in the twentieth century, the protections traditional Hindu society provided hunter-gatherers began to erode. But the historical role of Hinduism in the preservation of hunter-gathering on the Indian subcontinent should not be understated. By creating an established place in the social order for hunter-gatherers, Hindu perspectives safeguarded this unique way of life for millennia.”

    This certainly sheds interesting light on the situation; after I read the study, I’ll have more to say. In the meantime, it sounds like Daniel Quinn (author of “Ishmael”) should read this study too; it’s directly contrary to the claims he makes in that book.

  5. GregJS

    That’s fantastic you found that study. I had no idea such a large number of foragers managed to survive for so long in India. The reasons cited in the press release ring true – and fit in well with Danielou’s p.o.v. Looking forward to your report after you’ve read the study.

    As for your first comment, I’m with you when you express your disagreements and suspicions: “First and foremost, there is no ‘natural ordering.’ That’s code for unnatural ordering. Hindus are born into socially constructed castes and can’t escape them. There is nothing natural about this.” And: “I get the distinct impression that Daneilou is working within the confines of (post-Neolithic) civilizational boxes and categories that most of us, at least on this blog, recognize as ‘cui bono’ justifications and rationalizations for current orders.”

    I agree completely. There really is nothing “natural” about the caste system itself or the roles assigned to caste groups. What could be natural about being a sewer cleaner or a prince? Danielou certainly is working within the confines of civilized categories – and may have had his personal reasons for promoting a particular view of the caste system.

    But I should clarify that Danielou is not saying that the caste system was created specifically to “preserve cultural variety” or that this was an explicit value held by Hindus at any point in their history. I think it’s more that he is simply noting that preserving cultural variety is indeed an effect that the caste system happens to have – and clearly HE values it and thinks his readers should as well. (Probably the more explicit Hindu value was along the lines of “all groups should have a specific place and role in the larger society” or something like that.)

    What does seem to be “natural” in the caste system is that, by preserving a great diversity of cultures, it preserves something of the relatively small, tightly-knit, supportive, extended kinship communities that, traditionally, humans have always been part of and that we need to be part of in order to have a true and stable sense of belonging, connectedness, security, and meaning. This, I believe, is what gives people the ability to let others follow their chosen ways of life – and even to possibly respect and admire them; and it gives people immunity from the alienation, emptiness, and insecurity that drives global consumer monoculture.

    Great last line of that comment!: “I just don’t see how this guy can win, or persuade me. As a result, I’ll get the book and give it a try.”

    So here are a couple of quotes to give you a taste (keep in mind, they could be from as far back as the late 1930’s):
    “Human groups that have been persecuted or eliminated everywhere else live and prosper in India and even, when they have the ability, manage to play a leading role in the nation’s affairs, as do the Parsis. The Jewish and Christian communities, which have been settled for nearly two thousand years, have never encountered the slightest problem, or experienced the least persecution or xenophobia. The primitive tribes, still living in the Stone Age, have never – until our own times – been disturbed.”

    “Whatever its faults, the Hindu caste system has over the ages prevented genocides, and found a place for all minorities, all ways of living, and all religions. The attempt to suppress the privileges of the various ethnic groups, in the name of an egalitarianism imported from the West, has led to the recent wars of religion, social conflicts, and tribal genocides in India.”

  6. Connor Wood

    Glad to see you touting Rappaport! I agree – nearly all the work in costly investment and signaling theory and so forth flows directly from Rappaport’s work (although unfortunately, not all of it is cited as such).

    Nice summary of his points, as well. The problem of how to communicate reliably and establish stable signaling ecologies is a serious one for humans, and I think the evidence is excellent that religions help solve that problem. However, I’d argue that you can’t really understand Rappaport’s argument without recourse to Peirce’s semiotics, especially the concept of index as opposed to symbol. It’s really key to his entire system.

    As you say, it might not all be right, but it is genius. My copy of that book is the most heavily marked-up book I’ve ever owned. And what’s most important, the book is chock-full of testable ideas.

  7. Connor Wood

    Just saw the thread about the Indian caste system and hunter-gatherers…fascinating. I tend to be more comfortable with non-Western Enlightenment moral systems than you are (it wouldn’t even occur to me to wonder what Rawls, with his ghostly, hyper-decontextualized moral vision, would think about a given ethical situation), so I’m probably more easily able to entertain the idea that the caste system has offered such benefits, even though it also has some very nasty drawbacks. India does seem to have been historically pretty free of persecution on religious grounds. But outcastes really were treated horribly. Both things are true. Letting the horrific stuff blind us to the surprising benefits is as shortsighted as making the reverse mistake.

  8. Chris Kavanagh

    India has only been historically free of persecutions if you ignore the centuries of Islamic empires that periodically invaded/ruled vast territories in the Indian sub-continent throughout the medieval period. Their persecutions did not encourage religious harmony. Aside from that I agree wholeheartedly that we should be willing to acknowledge the good and the bad of complex social systems.

  9. Gyrus

    I agree with acknowledging the good and bad sides of complex social systems, as long as the complex relationship between the two is maintained. William Burroughs once remarked that “a functioning police state needs no police”. So a lack of the overt signs of oppression says little to nothing about oppressive structures that have been internalized and made invisible. Also makes me think of Schele and Friedel’s argument in Forest of Kings, claiming that Maya kingship arose to reign in the breakdown of egalitarian structures. They say: “Kingship addressed the problem of inequality, not by destroying or denying it, but by embedding the contradictory nature of privilege into the very fabric of life itself.” This may well have been a necessary trade-off between controlled and uncontrolled inequality. But once skewed power relationships like this are embedded (for good reasons), they inevitably become hard-to-detect fodder for bad reasons, too.

  10. Larry Stout

    In the preface of his book “Ashoka: The Search for India’s Lost Emperor”, Charles Allen writes:

    “…[an] important reason for the failure of Buddhism in India — one that few followers of the Hindutva nationalist movement (which believes that the only good Indian is a Hindu Indian) are prepared to accept [is] Brahmanical intolerance, which at times was as unbending in its hatred of heresy and heretics as later Muslim hardliners were in their jihads against unbelief and unbelievers.

    “Much of the evidence for this Brahmanical oppression comes from India’s Buddhist neighbours in Tibet, Nepal, Burma, and Ceylon. However, there are also Brahmanical texts that demonstrate an implacable hostility towards Buddhists and record their persecution at the hands of orthodox Hindu rulers. And there is the evidence of archaeology.

    “The politicians who in 1991 egged on the mob that destroyed Babur’s mosque at Ayodhya on the grounds that it was built over the Hindu warrior-god Rama’s fort may be surprised to know that some of the most famous Hindu temples in India almost certainly began as Buddhist structures, often incorporating Buddhist icons….”

    “However, the most striking evidence of Brahmanical hostility towards Buddhism comes in the form of silence: the way in which India’s Buddhist history, extending over large parts of the country and lasting for many centuries, was excised from the historical record.”

  11. Larry Stout


    ‘Schele and Friedel’s argument in Forest of Kings, claiming that Maya kingship arose to reign in the breakdown of egalitarian structures. They say: “Kingship addressed the problem of inequality, not by destroying or denying it, but by embedding the contradictory nature of privilege into the very fabric of life itself.”’

    Epigrapher and art historian Mattew Looper elaborates at length on Maya kingship at Quirigua, Guatemala, in his exhaustive scholarly book “Lightning Warrior”:

    And scholar Elizabeth Newsome treats in great detail kingship at the closely related Mayan site Copan, in Honduras:

    These are very abstruse books, but well worth the while of anyone with serious interest in anthropology. Their common theme, differently expressed, is that Classic Maya kings were, in fact, the enablers of life itself, through exclusive communion with the gods, sacrifice, and autosacrifice, expressed in dramatic ritual performances, probably including induced halucinations, and documented in stelae.

  12. Gyrus

    Many thanks for those references Larry. I had assumed that Schele & Friedel’s perspective was mainstream if not orthodox within Maya studies. For the research I’ve been doing, I didn’t need to delve too far into this area, but I came up against fascinating issues I’d love to revisit. I wholeheartedly support Schele & Friedel’s agenda (in Maya Cosmos) of rescuing some of the lost dignity of contemporary Maya cultures, by showing that Classic Maya myth bound the whole society together, and much of it was inherited by the peasant cultures that survived the collapse and the conquistadors. On the other hand, there’s some interesting tensions in, say, the Zapatista sense of Maya identity, given their fierce egalitarianism. There’s an interesting article by Gary Gossen ( which goes into the links between the masks worn by Maya kings in ritual performance and the Zapatista’s customary ski mask. Not a direct inheritance of course, but an interesting intensification of the Maya leader’s self-negation in the interests of the community.

  13. Larry Stout

    Well, I see that I somehow failed to include a link for the Newsome book:

    We should keep in mind with regard to the Classic Maya that “whole society” translates as city-state, that there were numerous city-states, and that the city-states warred continually. Military forays were mythically timed by appearances of Venus (so have been termed “star wars”).

    Also, the rulers at Copan, at the southeastern fringe of the Maya area, seem to have found it necessary toward the end to adapt their myths and rituals somewhat, in an attempt to appeal to and include non-Maya peoples with whom they interacted, and who may even have constituted a considerable proportion of the city’s population.

    All of this history, of course, is rather obscure, requiring a great deal of inference, and speculation — which only adds to the fascination.

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