- Aryans, Jews, Brahmins. Theorizing Authority through Myths of Identity
Aryans, Jews, Brahmins. Theorizing Authority through Myths of Identity is an impressive book in its scope. In it the comparatist scholar Dorothy M. Figueira chronologically examines, from the Enlightenment to the twentieth century, the ways in which European and Indian scholars have reinterpreted the shared Aryan race "myth of descent" (3) as a manner to legitimize "the construction or the deconstruction of society" (1). Figueira systematically discusses the modes in which a variety of Eastern and Western thinkers have authoritatively and idiosyncratically appropriated the canonical fiction of the Veda text to create the ideology of an Aryan past and identity in an attempt to justify and explain the present.
The book consists of two parts respectively entailing four chapters. In Part I, "The Authority of an Absent Text," Figueira presents the Aryan myth construction in the context of an enlightened Europe where, based on an absent or inaccurately present Veda text, thinkers, in a desire to expose the repression of the organized Christian Church and question its role in society, often portrayed Asia as "the domain of reason and virtue" (9), and Hinduism and Confucianism as tolerant religions. Starting with Voltaire, Figueira illuminates how India supplied the philosopher with an opportunity [End Page 326] not only to question the origin of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but also to express his bias against Jews as the chosen people. The posited ancient Vedic past allowed Voltaire to reduce the historical importance of Jews to the role of "the great plagiarists of history" (17) who had limited themselves to imitate and distort the tenets of the true founders of Christian faith: the Aryans.
Figueira goes on to illustrate how, in their quest for origins of language and religion, German scholars such as Friedrich Schlegel and Johann Gottfried von Herder, respectively, came to view India as "the Urheimat" of the German language and the German as a "Volk family" (31); and as "the cradle of humanity" (31). Additionally Figueira shows how the longing for a Vedic past led Karl Ritter to claim that the aristocratic Aryans, a pure race, were the direct ancestors of modern Germans. The comparatist further elucidates the impact of the deceptively critical analysis of the Veda accomplished by the Indologist Friedrich Max Müller. Figueira's work exposes how Müller's over-investment in ancestral Aryan life and thought contributed to brand modern India in Western consciousness as a degenerate nation trapped in Hindu idolatry. But, most of all, the scholar illustrates how the proliferation of his utopist Vedic discourse assisted in the crucial displacement of the Jews and their religion from universal history, a decisive intellectual move that twentieth-century anti-Semitic Aryan nationalists, as "fictitious descendants" (49), would emulate with the disastrous outcome we are all aware of.
After offering a balanced explanation of Friedrich Nietzsche's appropriation of Vedic Aryan thought, largely based on his reading of Louis Jacolliot's popular and faulty reading of the Sanskrit text Les législateurs religieux: Manou-Moïse-Mahomet, Figueira closes the first apart of her work presenting some of the racial fictions elaborated by Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Gotthard Heinrich von Treitschke, Ernest Renan, Arthur de Gobineau, Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Alfred Rosenberg; their racial theories partly resonate with Herder's mystical notion of the Volk and its Geist, and with the European desire to deny their Judeo-Christian roots and authenticate their Aryan past. In this last chapter, called "Loose Can(n)ons. Racial Theory: An Overview," the author devotes individual sections to more specifically discuss the racial ideology of Gobineau, the Germanophile Chamberlain and the Nazi leading figure Rosenberg.
In Part II, called "Who Speaks for the Subaltern?" Figueira embarks on her analysis of the text-specific Indian myths of the Aryan. By presenting readings of the Indian subaltern subjects, the scholar questions [End Page 327] postcolonial theoretical claims that, stripping the colonial subjects of their complexity and agency, have posited...