Sunday, October 28, 2018

Yuval Noah Harari, Western Academics and Jeyamohan: Criticisms and Prejudices

Yuval Noah Harari's 'Sapiens: A brief history of humankind' has sold over a million copies and has been praised to the skies by the likes of Bill Gates. A reader of Jeyamohan has taken exception to Harari characterizing India's caste system as an imposition on a native population by the Aryan invaders. Jeyamohan latched onto that and used the complaint to tar and feather western academics as stooges of a insidious agenda  to portray India in unflattering terms bending facts and freely dishing out ignorances dressed up in academic verbiage. Is Jeyamohan correct? Of course not. Here's why.

Jeyamohan - D.D. Kosambi - Yuval Noah Harari

Criticisms and Conspiracies:

Jeyamohan's blog titled 'The Defeated Intellectual Front', ('தோற்கடிக்கப்பட்ட அறிவுத் தரப்பு') addresses a letter from one reader, with a pseudonym 'Pichaikkaran' and the letter opens with a quote from an earlier blog of Jeyamohan that had alleged that two threats to Hinduism are efforts by foreign religions to destabilize Hinduism and the opposing effort that has taken the form of Hindu fundamentalism. 

That quote itself needs a detailed rebuttal but let's do with a short one for now. First, what does Jeyamohan mean by 'foreign religions'? Chistianity, the youngest religion in India, has a recorded history of over 500 years and a longer history if one took into account what existed in the margins for centuries before that. At what point will Jeyamohan accept that Christianity is as much Indian as the rest? Is Jeyamohan operating on the Dravidian political principle which calls Brahmins, a people with a history of several millennia in India, as foreign? I hope not. Second, if one accepts that 'foreign religions' are destabilizing Hinduism then one has to accept, however bad it may be, a response that is fundamentalist in nature. After all, that is a just response to a destabilizing act. The latter becomes unacceptable, completely, only when the former is established as a conspiracy theory, sort of Trumpian, to justify the latter. 

The reader/letter writer then asks, oh so innocently, that outside of those two groups should not Jeyamohan try to address a third kind. The 'third kind' Pichaikkaran identifies is a group of opinion makers and writers, like Yuval Noah Harari, who, absolutely in good faith and no malicious intent, could still create opinions that are unfair to Hinduism and may get entrenched in popular narrations and being cited by others. 

Jeyamohan then lashes at Harari and western academics. Paragraph after paragraph he lambastes them of serving some agenda, accuses them of serving some political intent and so on. Yet not a shred of concrete evidence is provided. I am sure if he reads this blog he'd supply twenty links of some earlier writings where he may have cited something. He admires how China is pushing back on so called Western narrative and laments India's lack of effort. This is facetious at best. What specific narrative has China corrected? What counter-narration by China has become verified and accepted fact replacing biased Western narrative? No evidence. 

American universities and the western academic structure is the envy of the world. Indian universities, academic structures and intellectual climate are better served by not being commented upon at all. If these western researchers had been just dishing out politically motivated nonsense they'd not be holding the place of exaltation that they do today. Ask the thousands of Indians lining up to get a student visa to USA. 

This is not to say that every book published in a university or by a westerner is god's word. Far from it. Not just on Indian history even on American history the books are hotly contested for political slant, colored opinions and what not. There are books that claim America is built on slave economy and there are books that say the complete opposite. This is EXACTLY what a robust intellectual climate produces. The Trump election has seen a plethora of books excoriating the excessive reach of political liberalism as a cause that led to the election of Trump and there are books that push back on that narrative. Jeyamohan is absolutely welcome to critique any book but there are rules. 

Harari, Pichaikkaran wrote, says that caste was introduced by Aryan invaders and that his sources were western researchers and, Pichaikkaran continues, those researchers in turn might cite other western researchers before them. Essentially, it is turtles all the way down. Harari, Pichaikkaran chides, did not yet hear that Aryan invasion is contested theory and not settled fact and Harari does not yet know about opposing theories. 

Harari's Books Critiqued:

Harari, in 414 pages, tells the entire history of the human genome, Homo Sapiens, as a story. In 20-30 pages per chapter Harari squeezes topics which have been debated for decades in books that can fill entire libraries. One chapter, titled 'Capitalist Creed', deals with economics in nearly 30 pages. The subtitles of sections are interesting, 'The cult of the free market', 'The capitalist hell'. Harari's book is that kind of a book that tells in packed chapters a succinct account in sweeping manner entire era boiled down to themes. This kind of a book is interesting to the common reader but is often dismissed by specialists who'll blow more holes into each topic than holes in a swiss cheese. 

It might surprise Pichaikkaran and Jeyamohan that this book, as far as I know, was not reviewed by New York Times or The Economist. The book was not shortlisted for any prize. This is NOT a critically acclaimed book. Many, including Bill Gates and even Jared Diamond, have said something nice but that's not critical acclaim. The amazing sales is more testimony to the story telling ability of Harari than for academic rigor.

Books like these will have their shortcomings and errors. A much respected doctor I know liked Siddhartha Mukherjee's 'Gene' but he said there are mistakes in the book. Harari is no exception. The Guardian reviewer wrote, "the attractive features of the book are overwhelmed by carelessness, exaggeration and sensationalism". "There's a kind of vandalism in Harari's sweeping judgment, his recklessness about causal connections, his hyper-procrustean stretchings and toppings of data". I balked at buying Harari's book for long because I never considered Bill Gates to be an arbiter for what I should buy. I finally bought it more out of curiosity than out of respect for academic rigor.

New York Times reviewer of Harari's sequel 'Homo Deus' echoes the same criticism, "Like 'Sapiens' it (Homo Deus) is lively, provocative and sure to be another hit among the pooh-bahs. But readers ought to be prepared: Almost every blithe pronouncement Harari makes has been the exclusive subject of far more nuanced books". "I do mean to caution against the easy charms of potted history". Commending Harari's ability to stitch an argument together the reviewer cautions, "an argument can look seamless and still contain lot of dropped stitches".

It is absolutely ok for readers and reviewers to critique or even trash a book but don't blame the author solely for what you've learned. What distinguishes a lay reader from a discerning reader is in the ability to select books, critique ideas presented, continue the learning by comparing and contrasting with other books that one has read in the past or in later years. Treat Harari's book with liberal skepticism but there's value in the book. If it was pure crap it'd have been trashed. Only when there's redeeming value do reviewers take the pains to point out the shortfalls. Read the book for the themes that Harari paints but don't stop with Harari or any one author as for that matter.

What Harari Actually Wrote:

The chapter that deals with India's caste system is titled "There is no justice in history". The chapter is about how humankind organized itself "in mass cooperation networks, when they lacked the biological instincts necessary to sustain such networks? The short answer is that humans created imagined orders and devised scripts". "The imagined orders sustaining these networks were neither neutral nor fair" and so Harari marches on to eviscerate American history, amongst others, as being built to the advantage of few while disadvantaging many.

In one paragraph Harari reduces American revolution to mere establishment of a hierarchy and calls America's founding fathers as hypocrites. Now, there are tomes by many, including those by academic historian Gordon Wood, that'd blow apart that notion as silly. Surprisingly not many reviewers in the West took issue with those. But then Indians are thin skinned. 

Harari does mention the Purusha Suktha that is popularly blamed for establishing the caste order. But he passes on that to the part that Pichaikkaran either misunderstood or did not comprehend. Harari writes:
"For instance, many scholars surmise that the Hindu caste system took shape when Indo-Aryan people invaded the Indian sub continent about 3000 years ago, subjugating the local population. The invaders established a stratified society"
Romila Thapar, a historian who can raise Jeyamohan's ire, in 'Ancient India' suggests that pre-Vedic period had stratified society but the real establishment of caste, jati, took place after vedic period.  Unlike what Pichaikkaran accuses Harari does not ascribe the theory any certainty but clearly says "many scholars surmise".

Pichaikkaran alleges that Harari took western sources. Harari's sources on caste are Ramesh Chandra's "Identity and genesis of caste system in India",  Susan Bayly's admirably written "Caste, Society and Politics in India: From the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age" and the genome research by Michael Bamshad. Apparently the portions on the origins of caste system are from Ramesh Chandra and not the westerners.

Here's what Susan Bayly, a member of the much maligned class of Western academics, actually wrote, "(William) Jones treated the vedic texts which he studied and translated as an historic record of the coming of Brahmanical religion to India. His writings about this material gave rise to the powerful and far reaching myth of an ancient invasion of the subcontinent by 'tribes' of the so called Aryan race". Bayly, in her footnote, thanks her fellow researcher Trautmann and emphasizes that the "ideas of race as having played a major role in India's intellectual history". Pichaikkaran and Jeyamohan confuse western academics with Karunanidhi style history writing. This selection from Bayly shows how western academia have moved beyond the days of William Jones. Bayly is a scholar and an academic, Harari is not yet one.

Thank God Harari Did Not Read D.D. Kosambi:

D.D. Kosambi is almost a sacred cow in the Jeyamohan circle. While I admit I've not read him comprehensively a few selections from Kosambi makes me wonder which Kosambi is being hailed by the Jeyamohan circle? Harari, I'd say, thankfully did not read Kosambi else his chapter might've been harsher.

Kosambi lashes at the caste system thus: "the tightening of the caste bonds and of caste exclusiveness threw away the possibility of finding some common denominator of justice and equality for all men regardless of class, profession, caste and creed. As a concomitant, almost all Indian history is also obliterated. The fifth century B.C, tribes (Licchavi, Mallas, and the Aryans in the Panjab) defended their liberties as stubbornly as any greek city-state and far more vigorously than Athena against Macedon. Only, no brahmin Aristotle ever studied their constitutions", "brahmin indifference to past and present reality not only erased Indian history but a great deal of Indian culture as well". Kosambi berates "medieval Sanskrit purana" as "endless insipid drivel". "Caste division an brahmin cunning kept the country superstitious, helpless in the face of foreign aggression. Nevertheless  caste did protect the poor at times even under feudal oppression".

Then Kosambi lands a blow, "The absence of logic, contempt for mundane reality, the inability to work at manual and menial tasks, emphasis upon learning basic formulas by rote with the secret meaning to be expounded by a high guru, and respect for tradition (no matter how silly) backed by fictitious ancient authority had a devastating effect upon Indian science".

Imagine, for a moment, if the above had been said by Bayly or Harari how Jeyamohan and his circle would react. They'd be apoplectic and call the author a paid stooge of CIA and American imperialism or a panhandler, a pichaikkaran, seeking evangelical largesse. Now, I'm actually wondering why is this Kosambi so loved by Jeyamohan.

But, pause and digest what Kosambi says. Harari paints a theme that hierarchy based societies were created across history to benefit few at the expense of many when a chance historical event leads to control of a section (he cites the control of blacks), establishing discriminatory laws leading to poverty and lack of education (he's referring to blacks in the example, again) and finally leading to creation of cultural prejudices that in turn feeds into the discriminatory laws thus forming what he calls, aptly, a 'vicious circle'

Would not that absolutely apply to India's caste system? That's the value in Harari's book.

Irrational Fear:

Pichaikkaran's fear that this fleeting passage by Harari would become a cited and established fact is sheer paranoia. It is laughably silly. There are many who gnash their teeth and clench their fists about Jeyamohan's epic retelling of the Mahabharata in his Venmurasu precisely on that same count. Quite a few are livid that this Mahabharata, Jeyamohan's creative retelling, might become an accepted version and that'd irreparably damage the real epic. Likewise there are quite a few who have been livid about his lectures on Gita and Shankara. This is all ill founded. Knowledge keeps expanding, better understandings have evolved and discerning readers and time have always separated the chaff from the rice. India's problem and the circulation of old truisms are due to an intellectual incurious readership, lazy readership and paucity of readership. There's no light at the end of the tunnel for that in the near future.

It is also silly to smear western researchers as not using Indian sources. Time and again I've been struck by how many Indian sources are cited by western researchers. Lazy readers do not verify bibliography or the notes to the sources. 


I cannot say how many times I've come to admire and rely on Western academics for learning about India. How can one learn about 1920's Tamil Nadu politics without reading Irschick or C.J. Baker? Where can I learn reliably, with detailed data tables, about Nattukottai chettiars? Who tells me a nuanced story about Nadars? The amount of Sanskrit texts in Columbia University is staggering. Is it not with good reason that the Murty library is being published by Harvard? Why does Princeton University hold the collected works of Gandhi, Nehru, Lohia, Prasad, Patel and others? Why do I learn about Lala Lajpat Rai as a scholar and one who wrote not just a rebuttal to Katherine Mayo but a book about America too at Princeton University? Even if all Indian universities disappeared from the face of the earth tomorrow American universities can supply good lot of material to reconstruct India's intellectual heritage.

We can answer criticisms or critiques that rely on evidence but we can never answer, quite enough, those who traffic in conspiracies.


1. Sapiens: A brief history of humankind - Yuval Noah Harari
2. Ancient India - Romila Thapar
3. Ancient India: A history of its culture and civilization - D.D. Kosambi
4. Caste, Society and Politics in India: From the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age - Susan Bayly ( link
5. New York Times review of Homo Deus
6. The Guardian Review of Homo Sapiens
7. Genetic evidence  on the origins of Indian caste populations - Michael Bamshad et al
8. Jeyamohan's blog 'தோற்கடிக்கப்பட்ட அறிவுத்தரப்பு'

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