The Origins of World Mythologies
Author: Michael Witzel
Publisher: Oxford University Press, price not mentioned
The book tries to revive discredited race theories in the name of comparing mythologies, says N.S. Rajaram
Racism, the notion that some races like the White are inherently superior to darker skinned and Jewish people was acceptable in academic discourse until the end of World War II. Following the Nazi horrors and the American Civil Rights Movement race is now a dirty word. This does not mean that racial prejudices have been eradicated the way polio has been eradicated. Some writers, even academics at supposedly prestigious institutions continue to produce works advancing racist positions behind thinly veiled sophistic arguments while avoiding overtly racist terms. The Origins of World Mythologies is the latest addition to this dubious genre by a singular scholar.
Its author, the German-American linguist Michael Witzel is better known as a crusader in support of his pet Aryan invasion (or migration) myth than any contribution to Sanskrit or Vedic literature, in which, he has been shown to be seriously deficient. (He claims to have found dialectic changes in the Rigveda around 1200 BC soon after the non-existent Aryan invasion.) More activist than scholar, he took the lead in a political campaign to have the Aryan myth taught as history in California schools. More recently, he was involved in the campaign to stop Subramanian Swamy from teaching economics at Harvard.
Witzel’s latest book looks at world mythologies, going back 100,000 years when the first anatomically modern humans were identified in the African Rift Valley. From there, he claims to trace two tracks of mythological development- the Gondwanian and the laurasian. But this is just camouflage, for his agenda is ultimately racist. As Tok Thompson of the University of Southern California exposes, Witzel’s book claims that these represent two races in the world, distinguished by both myth and biology.
As seen by Witzel, “…the dark-skinned Gondwana are characterised by ‘lacks’ and ‘deficiencies’ …and are labeled ‘primitive’ at a ‘lower stage of development’ while the noble laurasian myths are …the only ‘true’ creation stories, and the first ‘complex story’, which the Gondwana never achieved.” The common African origin of modern humans is acknowledged, but the sting is in the tail: the dark-skinned Gondwana never progressed beyond their primitive stage to catch up with the ‘noble laurasians’- their ‘superiors’. But this is just camouflage, for his agenda is ultimately racist. As Tok Thompson of the University of Southern California exposes (as do others), Witzel’s book claims that these represent two races in the world, distinguished by both myth and biology.
If supported, the notion of the superior white and inferior dark races will be scientifically validated. This is the real agenda of the book, but its ‘science’ is rubbish. it does not even rise to the level of pseudo-science. Mythology is just a camouflage to push this prejudice that is simply not worth spending time over.
Except for the terminology, its arguments are indistinguishable from those of Houston Chamberlain, Arthur de Gobineau and other race theorists who provided justification of the Nazi idea of superior Aryan race. But their source was European, more specifically Teutonic German. They worshipped Teutonic deities like Thor and Odin, not Vedic ones like Indra and Varuna. Their Swastika was also the German Hakenkreuz (‘hooked cross’) not the Indian svasti symbol. It was seen in Germany for the first time when General Walther von luttwitz’s notorious Erhardt Brigade marched into Berlin from lithuania in support of the abortive Kapp Putsch of 1920.
It is unfortunate that Indian historians have not made a critical study of this brand of European myth-making as history that has distorted Indian perceptions also. Worse, some insist that Vedas and Sanskrit are foreign impositions (like Islam and Christianity). So we have to turn to European authors who have been much more forthright like Nancy Stepan and Stefan Arvidsson.
Recently, the Swedish scholar Stefan Arvidsson raised the question which in effect asked: “Did the end of the Nazi regime put an end to race based theories in academiaIJ” An examination of several humanities departments in the West suggests otherwise. The latest exercise in this attempt to prove the superiority of one race over others is Witzel’s book.
But why this attachment to the idea of a superior race long after science has demolished the whole notion of raceIJ Arvidsson’s answer is: the goal of these scholars is to “show that there existed a rich ‘German’ mythology that could successfully compete with classical Judeo-Christian traditions.” It is hardly surprising that anti-Semitism came to be tied up with it. Now anti-Hinduism has taken its place. It is rare to find an ‘Indologist’ in Western academia who is not also anti-Hindu, sometimes obsessively so like Witzel himself. (This may have something to do with the fact that Hindu scholars like this reviewer have been at the forefront in debunking their theories.)
Arvidsson also observed: “There is something in the nature of research (by these scholars) that makes it especially prone to ideological abuse- perhaps something related to the fact that for the past two centuries, the majority of scholars who have done research have considered themselves descendants of this mythical race.”
It is also part of their identity. This race was not only mythical, but superior to others- a fondly held belief that has been shattered by science and history. This is what Witzel is really trying to revive and make the officially sanctioned academic view. His excursion into world mythologies is just camouflage. The real goal is to assert their racial superiority.
The reviewer is a scientist and historian