Saturday, July 3

Archaeology and Bible, keep them separate

There was this fascinating lecture which I attended this week delivered by Professor Hugh Williamson at the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society at the British Museum.

It was a fascinating lecture and I learnt so much about the Bible and Archaeology. It was full of professors, people with spectacular beards and corduroy wearing historians, archaeologists and other luminaries.

My contact with Archaeology goes back to Professor Shankar Tiwari who was the father of a close school friend of mine. His house was brilliant. It was full of statues, coins, reliefs, strange piquant smells from the chemicals he used, dogs, tons of books. It was a total chaotic house and I loved it. I loved the idea of going into the wild and finding out new things, digging up history. Here’s one report of what he had done. He used to spend patient hours explaining what he had found, the history of India and the local areas. I would say that my interest in history is heavily influenced by him. For example, he spent much time in Bhimbhekta. That area shows that man has inhabited those lands with a recorded history and evidence going back 100,000 years. Then you had Wilbur Smith’s Sunbird. As usual, I would get excited when I read about something that proves the Bible was right, for example around the issue of Noah’s Ark.

To cut a long story short, going around in places like Greece, Turkey, Italy, Egypt, India and Israel, you could see the places and remember what you have read in the religious, mythology and history books. Israel specially is gobsmacking. It perhaps has the highest density of historically important events per square meter than anywhere else in the world. Well, at least for the dead kings, generals and priests. Which is what Professor Williamson said. Once history is extended to the ordinary citizen, then the links between archaeology and the Bible become even more diffuse. But more on that later.

Chaim Herzog and Mordechai Gichon wrote a fascinating book on Battles of the Bible. It talks about the various battles fought in Israel down the ages and is a thoroughly good read. Comes highly recommended. The group talks about how archaeology influenced the study of history and vice versa. It liberally refers to the Bible. When I first read the book, it was, on the face of it, quite interesting. It confirmed my deep seated thought the bible’s descriptions are factual and rely significantly on archaeological finds to buttress its claims. And in case, I was reading it from the perspective of military history, strategy and military tactics. Here is a website which describes what I mean. But after this lecture, I went back to reread it and found there is less of corroboration than I originally thought. More woolly and light on evidence I am afraid.

For example, Professor Williamson clearly said, there is simply NO evidence about Abraham that we have found up till now. None. Zilch, Nada, Zero. But look at this page from the Bible Archaeology website. Read it to see there are suppositions, assumptions and propositions about Abraham. Evidence, none. He also said the prevailing view of Israel being populated by external invasions and migrations is not that accurate. It grew more organically rather than from invasion. He clearly said that while he isn't a professor of archaeology, he is a professor of Hebrew and has joined in archaeological digs in the Holy Land before.

Another example he quoted was that of Joshua. No evidence there were any walls or any town that supported those walls. He is supposed to have brought it down and there is supposed to be a war. No town, no walls, no fight, no archaeological evidence whatsoever. Not even of Joshua himself. Jericho was a tiny settlement of 2-3 houses then. Btw, do you know that Joshua is the patron saint of Spies? (amusing!). Here is a good link on this Joshua debate. 

He showed some amazing photographs, but I simply couldn't take any good ones photos of my own with my little iPhone. One stone that he showed had Amharic writing about the existence of David engraved on it. This was found first, and then 2 additional fragments were found later on. Interestingly enough, the placement of the fragments against the main stone can change the point about David. I did not get hold of the details of the stone unfortunately so cannot report with some more facts on this.

History, historically speaking, is written for and about kings, generals and priests. Archaeology doesnt usually support the myths we have made up on them. Once we extend history, as is being done now, to the ordinary citizen, life becomes even more difficult for the people who are trying to establish facts to fit in what we see in the Bible. For example, he talked about pig bones were found in so many places and talked about the links with Jewish Dietary Laws and mentions in the Bible. Which brings into question the validity of the history of restrictions on pork eating. 

So his point was simple, do not look at the bible as a history book. Look on it as a book of faith, a book of myths and stories, a book which is full of parables. It was written by people who collect memories and then mix it up with rumours, myths, politics, and so on and so forth. All religious books are like this, without exception. Leave archaeology alone.

Here’s another example of archaeologists themselves encouraging thoughts like this. I quote:

The remains of a small house that can be dated back to the time of Jesus have been found in the past days during excavation works in progress in Nazareth, guided by a team of Israeli archaeologists. According to the scientists, this is the first house from that era ever uncovered. The find was announced by professor Yardenna Alexandre, who leads the project on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority. She said that the remains have been dated back, with a small margin of error, to around 2000 years ago. "The discovery is of the utmost importance since it reveals for the very first time a house from the Jewish village of Nazareth. It sheds light on common life (in Palestine) in that era", underlines Alexandre in a press meeting. "The building that we found is small and modest and it is most likely typical of the dwellings in Nazareth in that period," the archaeologist added, suggesting that "Jesus and his childhood friends may have known this house". Alexandre pointed out that according to the little written evidence available, including the Gospel, Nazareth at the time was a small Jewish village, which seems to be confirmed by the recent find. "Until now" she specified, "a number of tombs from the time of Jesus were found in Nazareth, however no settlement remains had been discovered that were attributed to this period"

See what I mean? suppositions and assumptions. Jesus may have known this house. This kind of thinking is dangerous.

While coming out of the lecture, I noticed these three columns. The one on the right is an ancient Egyptian Stone Pillar of more than 3000 years old. Then you have a silvery lighting tower and finally an information white tower. One is a religious book, the other two are functional or factual. Mixing does not make sense, does it?

While exiting the British Museum, guess who I bumped into? One of the Kings (well, Prince Charles in this case) for whom history is written.

Widow Remarriage in Hinduism

In response to an email which I received:

Hello all,

Is there any reason why divorced women should not remarry?
I have been told that a divorced woman cannot do some of the wedding rituals such as fera (circling the holy fire).

I would be interested in your thoughts on this.

This is what I wrote back:

One has to note that the concept of second marriage simply did not exist. So philosophically, the idea of going through life's phases was so ingrained that the idea of going through a life phase again simply did not exist. For example, one wouldn't consider going through the study phase again after completing the marriage/householder/grihasta phase for men. They would go straight into vanvas/renunciation phase. Similarly, if a woman was widowed, that was it, the phase was over, you move on to the next phase. That said, there are serious variances in practises across India.

Some castes would be reduced in status if they allowed widow remarriage. In particular, Jain castes such as Leva Patidar, Mesari Bhavasar allowed widow remarriage, and this was actually one of the reasons why these castes were lower on the hierarchy. There is documented evidence on groups such as Rajbansis of Darjeeling Terai, Umar Banya caste of United Provinces, some Jat tribes. There have been documented evidence that widow remarriage was quite common across the sub continent with references from Poona, Madras, North East, etc. but mainly in lower caste tribes such as Chamars, Bhangis, Gujjars, Ahirs, Rajputs and artisan castes.

The prohibition against widow remarriage was primarily an upper caste phenomena, and any children emerging from such a remarriage were considered to be illegitimate. My personal sense is that this was more due to the property and wealth rights rather than religious sanction. For example, looking at the Dayabhaga and Mitakshara schools of Hindu Law (1), a woman could inherit only if there were no sons. And crucially, if she did inherit, then the estate will remain with her (and thus with the family) only till she is "chaste" i.e. unmarried. This idea was overruled in the case of Har Saran Das v. Nandi in 1889 in the Allahabad High Court where the provisions of the Hindu Widows Remarriage Act of 1856 were applied for the first time. And the widow post remarriage managed to keep hold of property that belonged to her first late husband.

Vrihaspati's quote, "of him whose wife is not deceased half the body survives. How then should another take his property while half his person is alive" is the crucial point. Marriage results not in 2 bodies joined together but the birth of One dual body. Another textual reference is with the Yajnayavalka Smriti, and I quote:

Wife (widow), daughter, father, mother, brother, their sons, gotraja (of the same family), bandhus, disciple and Brahmacharias of the same school, each succeeding one is heir in the absence of the person immediately preceding him in the order of enumeration-this is the law in respect of the inheritance to the property of a sonless deceased person of whatever caste.

Virat Manu's quote:

The widow of a childless man, keeping unsullied her husband’s bed, and persevering in religious observances, shall present his funeral oblation and obtain his entire share.

Katyayana's quote on this issue:

Let the childless widow, keeping unsullied the bed of her Lord, and abiding with her venerable protector, enjoy with moderation the property until her death. After her let the heirs take it.

A survey (2) carried out in Mathura and Saharanpur in the mid 1960's found that nearly 30% of women remarried, mainly lower castes, while upper caste widow remarriage was only 7%. Another good survey was done in the 1990's by Sarah Lamb (3) confirms the idea which I propounded at the beginning, that it was considered to be a normal phase of life.

Finally, to answer the original question, I have been unable to find any good reason behind this prohibition other than to make some guesses. The marriage was supposed to be eternal and thus even if the spouse died, the marriage still survives. Rest of the rot relating to eating meat and and and seems to be just a way to keep the women down. Even the High Court (Matungini Gupta v. Ram Rutton Roy, Calcutta High Court, ILR 19, Cal. 289) was not able to find any documentary reference to any extant Hindu scriptural law which forbade women from remarrying. There is also no reference whatsoever that I could find about widow's not being able to do any religious ceremony.

Pandit Vidyasagar, that brilliant man, went after customs, not law or scripture. Another brilliant Christian lady of India did huge things for widows (3). But the problem seems to be still there, there are tons of widows rotting in the various dharmashala's along the rivers of India. I totally agree with all the respondents on this email chain. They should be encouraged to do what they want, including remarry.