Would you be surprised if I told you that a man with Indian ancestry “discovered” that India once colonized the Middle East and exercised decisive influence over the region in ancient times? It’s almost humorous how the world-conquering superheroes almost invariably reflect the ethnic origins of the person making claims on their behalf. Our latest claimant is Subhash Kak, an Indian American computer scientist at Ohio State University who is also known for his writings on the history of Indian science. Mathematician Alan Sokal once identified Kak as a Hindu nationalist.
In 1994, Kak published The Astronomical Code of the Rig Veda, in which he proposed that astronomical references in the Sanskrit text could be used to revise the chronology of India, making it the oldest urban civilization on earth, dating back to the seventh millennium BCE. He based this on fanciful claims that a hidden code in the Rig Veda encodes the measurement of the distance between the Earth and the sun and other astronomical numbers. Fellow Indian scholars have criticized such claims as pseudoscientific.
In a posting on LinkedIn this week, Kak took on a different claim, that the Jews originated in India. This claim can be found in Flavius Josephus’ Contra Apionem 1.22, where he quotes Clearchus, a member of the school of Aristotle, who said in On Sleep that Aristotle had described the Jews thus: “These Jews are derived from the Indian philosophers. They are named by the Indians, Calami; and by the Syrians, Judæi: and took their name from the country they inhabit; which is called Judea” (trans. William Whiston). While this seems strange, it is not dissimilar to Clearchus’ other known statements, such as his claim in On Education that the ascetic Indian philosophers called gymnosophists were descended from the Chaldean Magi (Diogenes Laertius Lives 1.9). Kak prefers to ignore the latter statement and embrace the former.
The word given above as “Calami” is, by most accounts, a corruption of Kalanoi, referring to the followers of Kalanos, a gymnosophist from Taxila, a city now in Pakistan, who was attached to Alexander the Great. The correction is offered on the strength of parallel accounts in other authors, like Megasthenes, who refer to Calanus or Kalanos by name. Thus, for Clearchus, the Jews descend from those Magi who traveled to India to gain ascetic value at the edge of civilization. This was all fictitious, of course, meant for Clearchus’ polemical evaluation of the relative value of different Greek philosophical schools. Diogenes Laertius, who gives us one of the surviving fragments of Clearchus, added immediately after that others said that the Jews were the descendants of the Magi, and we can see how the arguments all dovetail together.
Fun fact: Because the nineteenth century fringe American history of Constantine Rafinesque and the massive fringe tome Anacalypsis by Godfrey Higgins confused Megasthenes with Clearchus—both working form an earlier source—most fringe writers, including Helena Blavatsky and Phillip Gardner, mistakenly say Megasthenes said the Jews were Indian. The confusion comes because Rafinesque’s and Higgin’s source, Constantin François Volney’s New Researches on Ancient History, listed both the reference to Megasthenes in Eusebius’ Praeparatio Evangelica 9.6, where he is quoting Clearchus’ On Sleep, which merely compares Jews and Brahmins, alongside Clearchus’ statement that the Jews were the Calami. Later authors missed the distinction.
Kak doesn’t want any of this. Working from Whiston’s English translation of Josephus, he proposes an entirely different reading: “I can think of two places that might have been the Calami of Aristotle. The first candidate is the famous port city of Kollam, in Kerala, which was well known to the Phoenicians and Romans, and the second is the ancient city of Kalyan, in Karnataka, which was to later become the capital of one branch of the Chalukya Empire.”
What a coincidence that both places are in the modern country of India, unlike Taxila, in rival Pakistan.
Kak tries to argue that Vedic Indians were already present in the Middle East, and that this fictitious claim that Clearchus concocted sometime after 327 BCE (when Alexander met Kalanos) is actually proof of a long-lasting folk memory of the connect between ancient Levantine cultures and Vedic India in the Bronze Age:
That India and the West had rich interaction in the second millennium BC is known only to scholars. This was the time of the Mitanni of Syria, who worshiped Vedic gods. The Mitanni ruled northern Mesopotamia (including Syria) for about 300 years, starting 1600 BC, out of their capital of Vasukhani. In a treaty between the Hittites and the Mitanni, Indic deities Mitra, Varuṇa, Indra, and Nāsatya (Aśvins) are invoked. Their chief festival was the celebration of viṣuva (solstice) very much like in India. It is not only the kings who had Sanskrit names; a large number of other Sanskrit names have been unearthed in the records from the area.
Notice that Kak’s phrasing and assumptions place the weight of interaction on Vedic India, from which he presumes such deities spread. Non-Indian historians see this very differently, and they suggest that the Mitanni were an Indo-European people (at least linguistically), from the same Indo-Aryan branch that gave rise to Vedic India. For our purposes, we will not get into all of the controversies over the Indo-Aryan migration theory except to note that Hindu nationalists reject the idea of Indo-European peoples originating outside of India and believe that the Indo-European language and culture originated in India.
Outside of Hindu nationalism, the picture is less clear. It is uncertain whether an “Aryan” elite from India took up residence among the Mitanni, and some have argued that texts from the Mitanni can be understood as using technical terms related to horsemanship attested in Sanskrit. The trouble, though, is that it is not yet possible to determine whether the Indo-Aryans of Mitanni were returning from India or on their way to it; the latter is more likely since there is no evidence of migration out of India, which would suggest that the Mitanni were side branch of the Indo-Aryan migrations of 1800-1600 BCE. Because Kak wants to extend the Vedic period back 5,000 years earlier, this is impossible for him to accept, so for him the Mitanni must be Indians who ruled over the Middle East. He claims that a drought and earthquakes drove a Vedic elite out of India and into Mesopotamia. “We do not have to accept Aristotle’s claim on an Indian origin of the Jews as literal truth. But perhaps it is true in a figurative sense that some ideas that are held with the greatest passion in the Middle East had an Indian origin.”
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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