Friday, March 9, 2012
History and Geography matter (i.m. Gherardo Gnoli)
What one is and what one thinks and writes also depend on one's context. Original thinkers are not completely determined by their context, but they use the elements they derive from it as the building blocs of their own system. One of such original thinkers was Zarathustra, who —among other things— changed the semantics of two key terms in Old Iranian and used ahura (Sanskrit.asura) to denote God (Ahura Mazda "the good Ahura") and daeva (Sanskrit deva) to denote the demons. This is probably due to the fact that he wanted to turn upside down the previous religious beliefs and that he, consequently, identified the previous gods as demons. Thus, in order to understand his thought one needs to understand what he was reacting against. Furthermore, one needs to know which were the most influential religious models of his time. One easily sees that Persia was at that time not the cultural centre of the Middle East. Rather, the Eastern side of Mesopotamia was, with its Semitic inhabitants. It is hence not surprising that one finds female deities in Zarathustra's Mazdeism which can hardly be explained if one only considers its inner consistency or its indoeuropean parallels (female deities tend not to be very popular in Vedic religion), whereas they are easily explained if one compares them with their semitic counterparts. A typical example is Anahita and her Semitic counterpart Ishtar.
Long story short: History matters, but also Geography. I learnt it from one of my first university teachers, prof. Gherardo Gnoli (an short biography in English can be found at the beginning of the Preface of a Festschrift dedicated to him and which can be downloaded here), who passed away a few hours ago, on the 7th of March 2012. May some propitious ahura help him in his after-life journey!
Further examples of the importance of the geographic contexts? (Please no hypothetical contexts, such as the dravidian, muṇḍa or african origins of the Buddha.)
I dedicated many posts to history, e.g., this one (on the purpose of studying history) and this one (on the importance of historiography).