“Old South Asia” and “Old Europe”: New DNA Research Suggests Tantalizing Relationships by Carol P. Christ


When European scholars began to study Sanskrit they were surprised to discover linguistic similarities between Sanskrit and Greek and Latin. Old Persian was found to be even closer to Sanskrit. Scholars thus began to speak of related groups of Indo-European languages stemming from an earlier language they called Proto-Indo-European.

Tracing the earliest incursions of Indo-European speakers into Europe from the north along the Danube River, Marija Gimbutas hypothesized that the Indo-European homeland was in the steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas. DNA research has confirmed Gimbutas’ view: Indo-European-speaking men from the Yamnaya cultural group who carried the YDNA gene R1b–which now is the largest YDNA group in Europe–arrived in large numbers about 2500 BCE from a homeland north of the Black and Caspian Seas.

Until now DNA evidence confirming the Indo-European incursion into India has been lacking. Hindu nationalist groups and some scholars have rejected the Indo-European hypothesis because it suggested that Hinduism and by extension “Indian culture” had a “foreign” origin.

Recent DNA research forwarded to me by Goddess scholar, iconographer, and bibliographer Max Dashu confirms that Indo-European-speaking Yamnaya men carrying the R1a gene entered Persia (Iran) and India in the second millennium (2000-1000 BCE). Moreover, this new DNA study finds the R1a gene in India to be located primarily in the Brahmin or priestly caste associated with the introduction and preservation of the Vedic religion and the Sanskrit texts.

The Indo-European genes R1a and R1b are carried on the male YDNA.  The persistence of earlier female MDNA (or MtDNA) groups among the women of India and Europe shows that the Indo-European migrants were primarily males who came without women or families. These men most probably seized and raped local women who were viewed as the “spoils of war,” and who became wives or concubines of the invading males.

This new DNA research also shows that Neolithic agriculturalists from the near east moved eastward into Iran in the seventh millennium (7000-6000) BCE at about the same time they began to move northward into Europe, where they established the culture Gimbutas called Neolithic “Old Europe.” The researchers also found that Neolithic peoples had moved westward from Iran into India by the fourth millennium (4000-3000) BCE and possibly as early as the seventh millennium (7000-6000) BCE.

This new DNA research provides one answer to the often-asked question: how is it that Hindus worship Goddesses in a patriarchal society where women are subordinated? The same question can be asked of classical Greek and other patriarchal Goddess-worshipping societies. My answer to this question in relation to the Goddess Athene, who, according to Aeschylus, stated that she sides with the male in all things, is that an earlier Goddess associated with olive trees and weaving was co-opted into a patriarchal system.

In her study of early Indo-European symbol systems in Europe, Miriam Robbins Dexter found that the original Goddesses of the Indo-Europeans were associated with the dawn, the sun, and other natural phenomena. Many of the more familiar Goddesses (for example, Athene) were later additions to the Indo-European pantheon. Similarly, Tracy Pintchman found that many Hindu Goddess traditions were not found in the earliest Sanskrit texts. A reasonable inference is that pre-Indo-European Goddess traditions were incorporated into Indo-European cultures in both Europe and India because the people of the conquered lands were unwilling to give them up.

Lakshmi

In my (admittedly non-specialist) study of Hindu Goddess traditions, I found a confusing admixture of life-affirming and life-denying elements. On the one hand, Goddesses like Lakshmi were identified with sexuality, fertility, and abundance; on the other, Goddesses like Kali danced in graveyards and carried human skulls on their belts. The Goddesses who affirmed life accepted their positions as wives and mothers in a patriarchal society, while the Goddesses who danced in graveyards transgressed every boundary in the name of a life-denying transcendence of the body and the world.

Although both Western and Indian feminists have been attracted to Kali’s fierceness, it seems to me that she had been shaped to serve patriarchal ends. Yes, there was a death Goddess in Old Europe, and I would imagine in “Old South Asia” as well. However, in the case of Kali, the death aspect of the Goddess is severed from the circle of birth, death, and regeneration. Rather than asking us to affirm death as part of a cycle that includes birth and regeneration, Kali calls us to transcend the body and the world. I believe she was drafted into service in the new religion of warriors who disparage this life in the name of so-called higher values including transcendence and self-sacrifice on literal and metaphorical battlefields.

Some feminists have wondered if the Neolithic cultures of South Asia were analogous to the cultures of Old Europe described by Gimbutas as peaceful, settled, agricultural, egalitarian, matrilineal and probably matrilocal, and worshipping the Goddess as the powers of birth, death, and regeneration in all of life. The large geographical distance separating South Asia and Europe has been cited in argument against such comparisons. Yet the new DNA research shows that the Neolithic cultures of both Europe and South Asia have a common origin in the Neolithic cultures of the near east, rendering comparisons between the two cultures more plausible.

Indus Valley Goddess 2500-1900 BCE

It is entirely possible that new studies will reveal an “Old South Asia” similar to “Old Europe.” Such studies would go a long way towards illuminating the “conflict of cultures” found within the Goddess traditions of India. My friend and colleague Miriam Robbins Dexter tells me that she and Laura Amazzone and Vicki Noble, all three of whom are deeply influenced by the work of Marija Gimbutas, are currently working on a book-length study of the pre-patriarchal and pre-Indo-European cultures of South Asia. I await it with bated breath. Such a book could revolutionize the way we think about the Goddesses of the Indian subcontinent.

Thanks to Miriam Robbins Dexter for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

 

Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer, activist, and educator living in Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol  has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.

Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parilament of World’s Religions.



Categories: Archaeology, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General, Goddess, Goddess Spirituality

Tags: , , , , , , ,

27 replies

  1. I agree with you that it is likely that there is an Old South Asia. It’s a guess, but I expect one is more likely to find it in the south of India where Hinduism is very strong, but also so many of the Pre-Indo-European elements are visible. The languages there are Dravidian rather than Indo-European and the literary traditions such as Sangam to me seem rather different from the strongly patriarchal language of Sanskrit (but even it has contemporaneous Prakrit traditions that appear to fly in the face of the patriarchal religion. I’m off to Chennai in a few days and will ber keeping my eyes open again.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. “Bibliographer” only insofar as I’m a historian and scholar of cultural studies. :-)

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  3. I have intuited for a long while that the goddess Danu is the transcontintental Mother Goddess that infiltrated cultures from the Indian subcontinent right the way over to Ireland’s Tuatha de Danaan. But I am no scholar and very little written about Danu. Speculation, I suppose.

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    • You are right. The myths of the Celts and the Indian Sanskitists are very similar. I suggest that it is because each lies at the furthest extent of these stories. In the middle everything becomes syncretised and mixed up with others. The same is true for Lithuanian and Sanskrit which share a lot of linguistic similarities.

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      • If the myths of the Celts and the Hindus are similar it is probably because the two groups share a common Indo-European ancestor, not because Hindus came to Celtic lands or vice versa. Indo-European is not just a group of languages but also a group of related symbol systems.

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        • You have misunderstood me. I am saying that they share the same substratum of myths and because they stand at each end of the Indo European language and culture the substratum shows up. Wendy Doniger’s work kind of shows this in quite subtle ways.

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      • Sorry Susan I didn’t think I was disagreeing with you, just clarifying how I think the influences may work. Now that we have the bones and the DNA, there is a lot more work to be done on what stems from the IE stratum what is earlier and what is later. I find it all very interesting and exciting.

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    • In my research into the Celtic Goddesses I found numerous scholars working on the connection between the Celtic and Indian myths. There is at least one book out there (whose name I can’t remember) which looks into this. Here’s a site I just found which has a very interesting look at Danu and her connection to Anu, the mother-goddess in the Rig-Veda of India.http://metrogael.blogspot.com/2008/11/celts-and-hindus-cognate-cultures-of.html

      Thanks for this fascinating addition to our understanding of the past. Do you know if these male invaders with the genes R1a and R1b were from nomadic societies in which men lived for long periods of time without women?

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  4. Cheers to you and Max and Miriam for doing such good and useful work.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks Carol, fascinating images and text. The art work here called Indus Valley Goddess 2500-1900 BCE, with her legs crossed, and her hands above her breasts, seems to imitate a yoga position done by women to help heal postpartum depression.

    Here’s the URL below, copy it into your browser and when you get to the site, scroll down and you’ll see the second photo with the woman seated with her hands above her breasts and her legs crossed, and the text is also very interesting, see:

    http://www.sonima.com/yoga/post-partum-yoga

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  6. Carol, I am fascinated though not surprised by this recent research that once again confirms Gimbutas’s scholarship…

    These words struck me forcibly because once again we see the ugly connection between invasion/men/normalized rape of women: DNA research has confirmed Gimbutas’ view: Indo-European-speaking men from the Yamnaya cultural group who carried the YDNA gene R1b–which now is the largest YDNA group in Europe–arrived in large numbers about 2500 BCE from a homeland north of the Black and Caspian Seas.

    I am also fascinated by your views on Kali… because on a gut level I have experienced Kali as a terrifying image – not one about positive woman power – no earthing – just transcendence – and we know where this leads us…

    I will post this essay on my FB page…

    Thank you so much, as always, for this scholarship.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. One more point: “In her study of early Indo-European symbol systems in Europe, Miriam Robbins Dexter found that the original Goddesses of the Indo-Europeans were associated with the dawn…” This association of the goddess with dawn feels just right to me. Obviously this is not an intellectual realization but an emotional response to the sun rising… Once risen the natural power associated with dawn seems to dissipate… and when goddesses are interpreted as being associated with the bright sun of mid day I can’t relate at all. I do believe some wise part of ourselves knows these sorts of truths through our bodies… would be interested to know if others have had similar experiences.

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  8. Great post, Carol. I’m so glad that Marija Gimbutas’s work is finally receiving the recognition that is due. and now even extending into a new field, that of South Asia.

    But once again, I have to disagree with your understanding of Kali. She is originally a Dravidian goddess, not an Indo-European goddess. Like all Dravidian deities, She was affected by Hinduization, but less so than the goddesses who were married off to more powerful gods (i.e. Lakshmi, etc.). Instead Kali, Durga, Bhairavi and other similar goddesses are unmarried, untamable, and very difficult to contain, even by such expert “subsumers” as the Brahmins in India. She comes into the Hindu pantheon about the same time as other Dravidian deities. She is, was, and continues to be a goddess of birth, life, death, and rebirth as I carefully explained in my 3-part essay on FAR (https://feminismandreligion.com/2014/08/30/kali-ma-the-dark-creator-and-destroyer-by-nancy-vedder-shults/, https://feminismandreligion.com/2014/09/21/ramakrishna-devotion-to-kali-ma-part-2-of-3-by-nancy-vedder-shults/, https://feminismandreligion.com/2014/10/31/kali-ma-part-3-of-3-by-nancy-vedder-shults/).

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    • I have read your insightful work of course, I guess we just disagree about an image holding a sword and holding a severed head. I believe such an image must come from a warrior culture. I am aware of metaphysical interpretation but for me it just doesn’t wash. I am not in favor of a war against the flesh or illusion either. But we can disagree with respect.

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      • I guess the images of war permeated my psyche a little too far during my youth which was during the Vietnam war. I have a deep revulsion to any images that remind me of that war or of any war. I believe war arose at a certain point in history and that is when the “armed” “archetype” also developed. I was also deeply influenced by a phrase from Jacques Maritain my teacher Michael Novak used to quote often, “the means are the end in the process of becoming.” I recognize that other feminists have adopted warrior archetypes and armed Goddesses because they feel they help us fight for our lives. I choose other images and other means. Among such feminists are FAR writers Laura Shannon and Nancy Vedder-Shultz and there are many others. I often feel I am a voice crying in the wilderness so to speak but I will keep crying for all that is lost and raising my voice against all images of war.

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        • Having written the above I am having body memories of having been hit by my younger brother too many times. I fought back with cruel words that he also remembers to this day. I am not proud of any of that and I am sorry for both of us.

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      • As I said, all the pre-Indoeuropean goddesses incorporated into the Hindu pantheon were tainted by that Hinduization. Kali’s sword is definitely part of that. For me, that doesn’t make Her a goddess of war, because I revere Her in Her pre-patriarchal form. If as feminists we are going to be interested in almost any ancient goddess, we will need to go back to their original pre-patriarchal for (with the possible exception of DemeterPersephone, who in Her patriarchal form teaches us how to resist patriarchy). How is this any different from the “Goddess Athene, who, according to Aeschylus, stated that she sides with the male in all things, is that an earlier Goddess associated with olive trees and weaving was co-opted into a patriarchal system”? And Kali is not about life-denying transcendence. In my experience, Her worship in India is all about sensuality, earthiness, life, and its inevitable end. It’s just that She’s “in-your-face” about death, which we in the US really want to avoid. It’s one of our major taboos. As a result, She helped me overcome my fear of death.

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    • i overcame my fear of death long ago, but that is another subject.

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      • Hi Vicki,

        Thanks for adding your thoughts.

        I am quite familiar with Greek funeral practices in the villages. In Molivos Lesbos if the death occurs in the home, the neighbor women come to wash and prepare the body and then they sit with the bereaved overnight or until the funeral. The bones are exhumed and washed and at least in some places the skull and crossbones are set on a cloth in the church next to the cemetery. The bones are then put in a box about twice the size of a shoebox (in my village) and put in the ossurary or bone room.

        These practices may stem in part from there not being a lot of land easily used for burial and not needed for agriculture in Greece.

        I do not have any problem with these practices in relation to the dead. Secondary burial is far more ecological than permanent burial (think of all the graveyards that line the freeways in NYC).

        The Greek women do visit the cemetery regularly until the time of exhumation. Their focus is on keeping a light burning so the dead can see in the dark and on keeping them company. I am not sure how I feel about this. Sometimes if feels right sometimes a bit morbid.

        When my mother died I felt that the Greek custom of wearing black for a year when your mother dies would have been helpful to me. I was in deep grief for that first year.

        The Orthodox belief is that the bones will be raised and resurrected at the second coming but Loren Danforth found that many Greeks do not believe this–I once asked around and did not find that to be true.

        At the same time, the Greek attitude toward death is not what I would consider (my bias of course) “healthy.” Even doctors usually don’t tell people when they are dying of cancer, the word cancer is usually not spoken, and the newspapers speak of “so and so” losing the “final battle against death.” Traditionally a woman’s life is considered ended when her husband dies and she is expected to wear black in mourning for the rest of her life–unless she remarries which is not the usual course of events.

        I believe that the ancient Cretans also practiced secondary burial. In the round tombs of the Messara there are bone rooms where the bones of the community are all piled together with no individuation. To me (my bias again) this suggests that the focus of the ancient Cretans was on the survival of life not the survival of the individual.

        I am not a Buddhist though I sometimes say I am a kind of a Buddhist because my life experiences have forced me to give up a great deal of my ego, to recognize that I will not necessarily get what I want (or deserve) in life, and to understand that the world does not revolve around me. At the same time, I am not attracted to the idea of slaying the ego, I prefer more gentle means. Perhaps there was too much violence done to me as a child for me to want to inflict any further violence on my self. This may be one of the reasons I am not a Buddhist, but I usually say it is because I do not wish to deny the ego only to set it in a web of relations in the web of life and in community.

        Again we can disagree with respect for our different experiences and paths.

        Carol

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  9. Carol and all, I don’t know if this will be helpful or not, but in Tibetan Buddhism the female wisdom element is called “prajna,” and is described as decisive and emotional, “cutting like a knife.” The practice I perform in devotion to Troma, the Black Dakini, are said to cut through obstacles such as fear and doubt. Troma’s practice is called “The Laughter of the Dakini: Subduing the Demons through Spendour.” The practice known as Chod (“to cut”) where in visualization one makes an offering of her body to all the Beings, is done for the purpose of letting go of the normal self-cherishing of the ego. I know this all sounds a bit abstract, but I believe these practices evolved from more ancient women’s funerary practices, where it was women (we would say priestesses or yoginis) who facilitated such practices as they still do in so many other places even today. Gimbutas described rural places in Europe where the old women still facilitate the the ancient rites of excarnation or “secondary burial” practice by exhuming the bodies 3 or 5 years after burial, washing the bones and cleaning the skulls, before reburial. Dianne Skafte further reports that in Greece the old women bleach the washed bones in the sun as an oracle: if they are white, good; if they turn black, “you know something is not okay” with the person, perhaps a secret that needs to be exposed; sometimes even letters appear on the bones. (Her marvelous book, When Oracles Speak, includes a long colorful description of how the women describe their experience of these practices.) I have long been fascinated by the role of women in funerary practices and the continuities with later descriptions of yoginis living and practicing in the cemeteries and charnel grounds. I wrote about some of this in my book, The Double Goddess.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I eagerly await Miriam Robbins Dexter, Laura Amazzone, and Vicki Noble’s upcoming book.

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  11. Reblogged this on FeistyAmazon and commented:
    Fascinating to understand the widespread depths of Goddess worship cultures.

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