On the Scandal of Soma

George Thompson gthomgt at ADELPHIA.NET
Thu Dec 18 20:47:31 EST 2003

[forwarded from Lars Martin Fosse's email list, with apologies to those who
may receive it twice:

Dear List,

Last year I was invited by the editors of a new journal on traditional
Indian modes of thought to  write an article for their next issue.  This
journal is intended to introduce a general audience to the whole range of
darshanas, with special attention to yoga.  Several scholars have been
invited to write non-technical introductions to these traditions, alongside
of articles by yogic practitioners, photographic essays on traditional holy
sites, etc.  Well, it was decided by the editors that an accessible article
on Soma would be of interest to its intended audience.  And so I set out to
do something that I had never done before: to write something for a general
audience instead of for other scholars.

It took me a long time to find the right tone and diction.  The tone and
diction of the academic lecture or paper was not wanted.  Footnotes were
discouraged.  Well, I tried to write an article about Soma that was informal
but serious.  I briefly contrasted the yoga traditions, which I consider to
be indigenous to the Indian subcontinent and not readily apparent in oldest
Vedic, with the Soma tradition, which clearly isn't indigenous at all but
obviously very evident in the Rgveda. I gently gave the Indo-European and
Central Asian background to some of the material, sprinkled in Avestan
cognates in order to show the Indo-Iranian origins of some things, and
pointed out the absence of Avestan cognates in other cases to show that
other things were more likely to be indigenous.  And I concluded by
presenting a translation [along with the Sanskrit text, which the editors
insisted on] of a famous Soma hymn, Rgveda 10.119, which I have lectured on
in many places, and written about in a recent issue of the "Electronic
Journal of Vedic Studies."

Well, it was a pleasure to learn that the editors, and others among whom the
article circulated, enjoyed the paper very much.  And so the work of
editing, re-formatting diacritics, proofreading galleys, etc. proceeded, and
the paper was due to be published this month.

Last week, I received a telephone call from one of the editors, who by the
sound of his voice seemed to be quite agitated.  Apparently, within a few
days of publication, and after having held the article for about five
months, the editors had decided that a few references in the article to
nativist historians and their revisionist views of India as the cradle of
civilization were a 'serious digression' which needed to be edited out of my
article.  When I pointed out that my remarks on yoga were also a digression,
the rather nervous fellow suggested that some digressions were more
appreciated than others.  Well, to be brief, the editors did want to publish
the article, but they didn't want to deal with 'undocumented charges'
against 'nativist historians' [and they were terrified of stirring up
'controversy']  Of course, when I gladly offered to document the charges
[regarding recent attacks on Romila Thapar and the Rajaram Harappan horse
hoax] my offer was politely rejected. So, not as averse to controversy as
they, I decided to publish the article elsewhere.

The point of this anecdote is this: I am utterly persuaded that these
editors, apparently innocent -- until recently -- of any knowledge of the
Hindutva culture wars, had been informed by someone with influence on them,
in the final stages of the editorial process, that reference to such things
as the vicious attack on Thapar and Rajaram's fraud, was politically

So, if in fact the Hindutva-vadins are winning the culture war against
'Western Orientalists', it is not simply because scholars have not tried to
reach a broader non-academic audience.  Think of Michael Witzel's efforts
[along with Steve's] to confront the Hindutva propaganda-war in various
public places.

Well, for the moment, my effort to confront this propaganda-machine has been
thwarted.  But I have decided to find some other place to publish my 'Soma
for the Masses' article, perhaps with some discussion of the politics
involved in the matter.

In any case, I believe that we have to work harder to get the message out
that scholars are not "evil-doers," to use the favorite term of the idiot
who is presently the president of my country.  It may well be necessary to
bring this 'controversy' to the attention of more right-minded people, who
will otherwise remain unaware of it.

Best wishes,

George Thompson

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