A Brief Point On “Barbarian” Labelling In Sanskrit

Earlier, I’d been discussing with associates the curious co-occurrence of Barbaros / Barbara in Sanskrit and Ancient Greek respectively. This lead to the following – presented here for a broader audience. 

“as applies the linguistics, I think from memory that earliest attested occurrences in Ancient Greek are some centuries prior to earliest attested occurrences in Sanskrit (and the former are also prior to established cultural contact between the two spheres), but I’ll have to check my notes.

I mean, Sanskrit is a language which has .. how to say – it is like Eskimos and Snow.

There is a well-known cliche that the Eskimo has 50 different words for snow.

This is false.

What he actually has … is fifty words which mean very different things to him. The sort of snow it is safe to walk upon, the sort of snow that is fine powder and is unsafe for foot, the sort of snow which is freshly fallen, and presumably the sort of snow that is yellow and should not be drunken. All of these things, in English, we would simply term “Snow”. But for him – that would not be acceptable, it would not suit what he perceives, as he is more attuned to it and needs to be able to make succinct meaningful distinctions between these different kinds as they constitute his environment … and so he has this beauteous pallet.

I feel it is rather similar as applies “Barbarian” and Sanskrit.

Insofar as yeah, sure, one can find terms that can be rendered as Barbarian very, very easily … but there are so very very many of them. Some of them denote ostensibly quite specific peoples and tribes – others … actually don’t, but appear to (and there I am thinking of rather peculiar ethnonyms wherein the two bearers are at opposite ends of the country of Aryavarta, their only coterminity being that they both live in relatively mountainous regions). Some are ‘functional usage’ – these ones are ‘hunters’ with the bow, for instance; others are more ‘descriptive’ in other senses – ‘these ones are flesh-eaters’, you get the idea.

This has occasionally produced some rather interesting and downright innovative ‘folk-etymologizing’ – around Yavana, for instance. We know it to be ‘Ionian’ calqued into Sanskrit [likely via Iranian]; and yet, native grammarians instead insisted that it meant something along the lines of ‘Nomads’, ‘People Who Go’ – which makes quite some logical sense when one considers the direction these ‘Yavanas’ were coming in from …

Now, the most archaic general term which I can think of for this sphere … leaving aside Dasa and Dasyu and all of that (or, for that matter, the simple ‘opposite form’ A-/An- prefixed terms which ‘bolt on’ to terms for somebody of the community) – is Mleccha. A term which appears to derive from ‘Mala’ ,in the sense of ‘dirty’ etc .. and likewise, is utilized to refer to somebody with ‘indistinct speech’, ‘dirty speech’ for the ritual context. Indeed that’s literally where it first occurs – in the Shatapatha Brahmana, describing some suspiciously Indo-Iranian speaking A’suras [as in, they are apparently speaking a corrupted form of not-quite Sanskrit] in just such an event.

Speech, here, is a shorthand for ability to participate in and ‘belong to’ the community. Just as, we might say, ‘Arya’ in its true sense – is somebody who knows (and performs) the proper ways , and connotes belonging to the Ethos [note: not ‘Ethnos’].
However, the thing which interests me is that we also have all of these other terms of potentially more archaic – but also more specific – usage , that are so often glossed over.

There is some very interesting speculation around Avestan (I think?) Maryana [it is spelled .. infuriatingly differently in various sources – Mariyana, etc.] which may be correlate with Marut. And refers to, implicitly #GangSteppe – (young) guys out riding chariots and horses, dressing in black leather and with a silver dragon emblem carrying out raids on the more settled and sedentary Zoroastrian polities of later times. A remembrance of the Indo-Iranic past and all which Zoroaster in his calumny had sought to suppress! No wonder they were terrified of them!

Turanian is, of course, conceptually related to this – as i’ve detailed elsewhere. And as a point of brief interest, we find “Scythian” utilized almost as a shorthand for “Barbarian” from the ‘outer’ / ‘utter’ [indeed that’s English but you can see the Sanskrit cognate ..] most reaches, in various texts including the New Testament of the Bible.

But I digress.

The term I had actually felt was worthy of bringing up here is Vratya.

We find it utilized in quite some interesting ways! For example, to mean I suppose ‘Outlaw’, ‘Vagrant’ [if memory serves, there is some semi cognate relationship of conceptry – ‘Vagrant’ is from same root as ‘Wanderer’] … and yet also at the same time, particular sorts of devotees of Lord Shiva in the Vedic Age. Men on the periphery, ‘barbarians’ of frightful appearance and strange potencies – like Munis, you know ? And Lord Shiva as the AdiVratya amongst Them. Hence the AtharvaVeda’s very pointed instruction that one must treat the Vratya Who appears at one’s gates with utmost respect. You know … just in case. [and in this, there is direct correlation with Odin, with Zeus and Hermes, going about in disguises as vagrants testing the commitment to the Xenia, the Sacred Hospitality, of the Nordic and Greek peoples alike]

However, it also shows up in application to an array of persons on the ‘periphery’ of Vedic sphere proper. And most prominently in later usage wherein we find the Greek rulers of the Indo-Greek realm hailed as “Vratya-Kshatriyas’. Because they were ‘Outlaw Kshatriyas’, ‘Barbarian Kshatriyas’ .. and yet also, at the same time .. were effectively Kshatriyas .. both in the broad sense of being warriors, but also the rather narrow sense of ruling kingdoms under which Hindu communities existed as ‘legitimized’ figures, if you will. It gets complicated.

Anyway, I have digressed – and wandered – rather wildly.

My point here was simply to note that when one delves through the Vedic and later Hindu literature, one finds quite an array of ‘Barbarian’ terms employed.

Some of which, yes, are reasonably simple and straightforward and simply mean somebody exterior to our realm [and interestingly, ‘Rakshasa’ even today has some coterminity of utilization in that regard] … and others of quite more specific intended scoping and ambit of meaning.

One thought on “A Brief Point On “Barbarian” Labelling In Sanskrit

  1. Pingback: A Brief Point On “Barbarian” Labelling In Sanskrit – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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