Something I have meant to write upon for some time, are the religions of the Kalasha and Nuristani groups found in the mountainous northern borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
They attract attention for obvious reasons – because they are not what we expect from this area.
This is partially because of their sympathetically resonant story – as non-Muslims who lived (and still live, in the case of many Kalasha) under significant threat and ongoing persecution from their neighbours, heroically attempting to hold onto their Indo-European culturo-religious heritage against ever-spiraling odds for the best part of a thousand years.
However, it is also because we don’t tend to expect to see lighter hair and eyes in that specific part of the world. And in-line with that, exoticized narratives around “the last descendants of Alexander’s armies!” begin to flow. Hyping which, in case you were wondering, doesn’t really have any viable evidence behind it – yet nevertheless continues apace precisely because it sounds cool.
Now, the actual topic of Nuristani & Kalasha religion(s) is an immense one, and has been rather under-analyzed by experts with the appropriate perspectives and informational bases to bring to bear. It gets mentioned a fair bit, sure – but usually in passing, or treated to once-over-lightly brief synopses which don’t really drill down into the proper Indo-European correlates and context, instead contenting themselves with uncritically repeating various ‘comfortable’ claims that have not been properly investigated.
I’m not going to get into the intricacies of various of those here – that’ll be the task of future output in this area.
Instead, I want to begin – somewhat as I mean to continue – by addressing (if not, at this time perhaps, dispelling) another and rather more ‘surface level’ conception that I’ve frequently seen bandied about the place.
Namely, this notion that what these people are practicing as a religion is some sort of ‘Pre-Hindu’ or even ‘Pre-Vedic’ and therefore ‘Purer’ Indo-European religion.
Because, frankly, this does not seem to be the case.
Now I do not deny for a moment that theirs is an Indo-European faith with archaic roots – indeed, I’ll be writing more about how various of their beliefs DO share considerable coterminity with not only the Hindusphere, but also more westerly Indo-European canons as well.
However, it is similarly evident that various things have ‘shifted’ for them in the intervening centuries. Both in terms of relative isolation leading to particular elements developing and changing whilst others have seemingly become de-emphasized or even dropped out entirely. But also due to cultural contact with surrounding groups leading to influence and incorporations of various kinds.
And that is just as we ought expect. After all, the regions these groups inhabited have not always been so ‘isolated’, ‘backwater’ and, in a word, ‘paganus’ as they are today. Once upon a time, Afghanistan was not just a ‘crossroads of Empires’, but housed quite the diversity of groupings at various times. These included prominent Hindu kingdoms, Buddhist communities, other and more obscured forces like the Zunbils – and yes, even Greek/Macedonian successors as well.
It should require quite the improbable effort to somehow remain untouched by any and all of these over an escalating span of millennia even before we get to the impact of Islam.
So the question becomes a simple one: namely, why is it that there is so much readiness to believe that these groupings are (or were, in the case of the Nuristanis and at least some Chitrali Kalasha) ‘pre-Hindu’, ‘pure’, ‘pre-Vedic’ and all the rest of it.
Well, part of the explanation to this is a foundational misapprehension of the actual place of the Vedic religion and its subsequent Hindu eras of flowering in all of this.
As I have covered in numerous previous works, there is a veritable cottage-industry of people from quite an array of backgrounds and motivations all endeavouring to ‘prove’ that this or that feature of Vedic religion and mythology is somehow ‘non-Aryan’, ‘non-Indo-European’ – and invariably missing quite a wealth of obvious evidence showing they are demonstrably incorrect on these fronts.
You see it when people claim Indra to be a BMAC incorporation rather than the Indo-European Striker/Thunderer deific. Or when Rudra Shiva is held to be ‘non-Aryan’ instead of – just as we see with Nordic Odin – the Sky Father deific with particular emphasis upon certain prominent features. (And yes, yes the ShivLings are demonstrably IE too based around both Nordic and Greek comparanda … right down to the milk oblations)
It gets even more shrill as applies the Hindu religion of the post-Vedic era. No matter how much evidence is produced to demonstrate that the modern religion is a direct continuance of these archaic foundations – and remarkably conservative, in fact, in various ways up to and including the performance today of the literal exact same liturgy and ritual elements as found most of the way to four millennia ago … people keep trying to pretend otherwise.
And this is not all Europeans or Americans (or, for that matter, certain diaspora Iranians), either – there are vested (para-)political efforts at this kind of thing from some persons and groupings in India pushing the exact same thing, but often from the ‘opposite side’ of the fence. That is to say – whereas some of the former grouping will try and assert “Shiva is not Indo-European – therefore Shiva is not Our God”, various of the latter will agree : “Shiva is not Indo-European – therefore Shiva IS Our God”. But I digress.
The point is, when it comes to these claims that the Nuristanis / Kalasha are somehow ‘pre-Vedic’; it is simple enough to explain.
There is a significant enthusiasm out there for a whole lot of people in ‘knocking Hinduism off its perch’.
We (Hindus) are the last surviving Indo-European religion – at least, of any serious size. We also possess the oldest textual corpus – with direct transmission running at least from the early centuries of the 2nd millennium B.C. ; and elements contained within those texts demonstrably predating them all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European Urheimat (as can be attested via comparative analysis with the congruences found amidst relevant more Westerly spheres).
If you want Proto-Indo-European religion – or, for that matter, to understand the Post-Andronovo Indo-Iranic religious orthodoxy – then the closest you are going to get, both in terms of timescale but also in terms of depth, comprehensiveness, quality of preservation, and actual content … is the Hindusphere. There is no substitute.
And if you don’t happen to like Hinduism? Harbour a certain degree of ‘insecurity’ about the realities of the religion in question and its archaic dna? Or you have some unfortunate sentiments about various persons or peoples within our aegis? Well, it is not hard to see why something like a half-read synopsis of the beliefs of these isolated tribes up in the Hindu Kush should prove alluring.
“Oh, Vedic religion isn’t all that archaic and authentic – look, there’s these guys practicing a non-Vedic Indo-European religion nearby and it’s got all these different-looking and less ornate features … so obviously, they’re doing the more original thing!”
Or, for a certain sort of Internet Racist … “Indians are Brown(ish), darker skin hair and eyes – therefore their beliefs MUST be corrupt(ed); meanwhile these Kalasha, blond hair, blue eyes and much whiter skin – so their beliefs MUST be more authentic!”
Seriously. If you think I’m making that up … then you have more faith in various corners of humanity than ongoing observed reality have left me with.
In any case, I do not for a moment mean to tarnish everybody who has ever voiced an opinion in favour of the ‘archaic’ or even ‘pre-Vedic’ characterization of Nuristani / Kalasha religion(s) with especially that latter brush.
It is perfectly possible to express reasoned perspectives on these matters without being the sort of person who will shout until they’re blue in the face that Poseidon has to be a non-Indo-European deific due to having blue-black hair the colour of the ocean and is therefore a non-IE ‘subversion’ [again, absolutely not joking about having observed this ridicularity occurring … along with the perennial(ist) favourite – “THIS DEITY IS CALLED BLACK AND HAS BLACK SKIN, THEREFORE MUST BE NON-INDO-EUROPEAN” in relation to a Night figure … ].
However, the trouble is that the vast majority of people talking about these kinds of things are all ‘singing from the same song-sheet’ – because whatever they may think about the matter were they to be seriously ensconced in the actual evidentiary coalface (as I have been for the past few weeks), that is not where they’re getting their information.
Instead relying upon conclusions propounded by a very narrow array of secondary, tertiary, or even quaternary (insofar as it’s outside academia entirely) perspectives whose own views have been missing quite crucial components to ‘the puzzle’.
So hence why I’ve found myself going back to as extensive an array of primary and (close) secondary source material as I’ve been able to find – to more properly explore and analyze these fascinating religious spheres, and in something perhaps a little closer to ‘their own terms’ as well as in direct comparative reference to the broader Indo-European spectra of tradition and faith.
I am pointedly aware that I have set out little in the way of substantive evidentiary material in the above with which to convince a reader of the fundamental unsoundness of the wrong-headed position I sought to engage against.
For those insights, you’ll just have to see what comes next.