Wednesday, Sep 28, 2022

The mythical horses shaping India

Pegasus spyware, named after the winged horse of Greek myth, is currently featuring in media and drawing room conversations

Pegasus on a Parthian era bronze plate excavated in Iran’s Khuzestan province. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) brings out an annual Democracy Index. The report for 2020, published earlier this year, pushes India two places down, from the 51st to the 53rd. It takes no more than one’s horse sense to guess that the idea of democracy in India is under siege. To citizens struggling to survive the daily grind, this isn’t news; and we hardly need an EIU Index to tell us how bad things have been, for that is no Greek and Latin. Yet, new Greek and Latin connections have turned our daily reality into intriguing news. The news is neither about horse play in Parliament, nor about horse trading in state assemblies, but about horses, mythical and historical.

The ancient Greek god Poseidon was believed to have fathered two horses. Areion — a ferociously fast horse — resulted from his snooping on the goddess Demeter. The other one, he foaled on the Gorgon Medusa, a winged female with living, poisonous snakes for her hair. This particular horse, with a mane as white as his father’s beard, and wings like his mother, was named Pegasus. Forgotten for millennia, Pegasus is back in the news, thousands of miles away from Greece, in Bharat.

The Latin term for horse was equus. It was used for all kinds of horse-like species including donkeys and zebras. Unlike the deadly horses of Greek mythology, the Latin equus was a pure vegetarian type, all its females ready to accept the mastery of a single stallion lording over a herd in a defined territory. At least some of the equus varieties were domesticated by humans in the region around modern-day Ukraine and Kazakhstan in about 4000 BCE. Over the next 2,000 years, horse domestication became a part of human life. Archaeological finds in Sintashta and Petrovka show horses buried in graves around 2000 BC. Genetic research points to the possibility of all horse population having come from a single sub-group — haplotype — of the genus equus. All of this should, no doubt, be irrelevant to a society battling Covid, unemployment, astronomical prices, lack of personal safety, and the collapse of democratic institutions and intimidation from as many directions as possible. Yet it is the spyware sold “only to governments” by a company registered in Israel by Omri Lavie, Shalev Hulio and Niv Carmi, called NSO Group, that has brought Pegasus into TV news rooms, print media and the drawing rooms of Indians. And, it is the unusually virulent attack by the RSS historians on the “Western”, “Marxist” and “anti-national” historians that has brought equus into webinars and the torrents of misinformation on WhatsApp.

Reports say that when a sustained campaign of horse-trading was unleashed under “Operation Lotus” in order to topple a democratically-formed government in Karnataka, the phone numbers of G Parameshwara (ex-deputy CM) and the personal secretaries of Siddaramaiah (ex-CM) and H D Kumaraswamy (ex-CM), were sent to Pegasus for targeting the political stables and political stability. The modern avatar of the winged sea-horse was let loose on not just many naamdharis but a few kaamdharis as well. And since the Constitution of India has provided us with the three wings of authority, the two-winged horse was asked to snoop on mighty persons in the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, so true to the letter of the Constitution.

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Moving from the Greek to the Latin horse, one must say that at no time in Indian history has it been of greater importance to answer the question about whether horses slipped into India from outside, bringing in a new language and a different oral poetry and culture, or whether they galloped out of India and established mastery over the entire “old world”, spreading the language of their indigenous Aryan masters. All of the research on the evolution of the equus species flies in the face of the “indigenous Aryans” hypothesis. But a chance horse tooth from the late Harappa cultural period has rekindled the hopes of those who believe that the emergence of Sanskrit pre-dates the historical slot provided for it by the international community of researchers, linguists, archaeologists and historians. This right-wing historiography is keen on establishing that the Saraswati-Sindhu river culture is the cradle in which the Vedic wisdom started sprouting. If that is shown as “logical”, the question of the outsider/insider of the Hindu Rashtra can be settled with the ease of a hot knife slicing through butter. Horse, equus, chariot, weapons, wars, language are all materials of the narrative that can sanitise Indian pre-history and ensconce it cosily on the throne of Hinduism.

The simple difficulty is that in doing so the non-scientific assumptions, evidence and conclusions that will crowd the conception of India’s past will be like the Augean Stables that Hercules had to clean. The 20th century world has had a test of how far nationalism seen in terms of genetic purity can go and the ignominy that has to be faced by the “others”. The blending of Hindutva with an engineered view of history implies the blending of a theocratic state and racist politics. As the 75th year of independence draws near, it would serve us well to recall that the sacrifice of the martyrs of the freedom struggle was meant to bring India into a democratic universe of freedom, social harmony and equality of citizenship rights. It was not for bringing about an ashwa yuga, an era of snooping horses, fabulated horse histories and horse-trading, no matter what the manufactured consent factories on WhatsApp want us to believe.

This column first appeared in the print edition on July 23, 2021 under the title ‘The neighs have it’. The writer is national president of Rasthra Seva Dal and chairman of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India.

First published on: 23-07-2021 at 03:01:06 am
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