The Opposite of Buddhism §9

Linguistics and the Pseudo-Science of Racism

[Reminder: this lecture was written for a Cambodian audience, and intended for translation into Cambodian.]


There is one more absurdity that I should draw attention to, as it is not well-known, and it brings the story back to Cambodia again: within Europe, the concept of the Aryan race didn't just exclude the Jews, but also the Finns and Hungarians. While many other “white people” were put together in this one category of “Aryan”, the languages of Finland and Hungary presented a bit of a puzzle in constructing such theories of ethnic origins.

Max Müller considered the Finns to be somehow linked to the Mongolians,1 and grouped the language together with Thai and even Malaysian;2 in one passage, he describes the Finns as “barbarians” in contrast to the rest of Europe.3 The man who founded Tibetan studies in Europe was a Hungarian who walked to Tibet in order to test the hypothesis that his own language and “race” had originated there;4 and, anon, his research helped to disprove the hypothesis.

Perhaps because all other theories had been exhausted, the Finno-Ugric languages were imagined to share some common origins with Cambodian. As late as 1930, George Cœdès himself (the most famous scholar of Cambodian language and history to have yet lived) supported the theory that the Khmer language was linked to the Finns of Europe via the Munda languages of India. (Nakprat, 1991, p. 355)5

I do not mention this to ridicule George Coedes, but to raise a related issue: today, most people raised in the decadent West are taught from a very early age that “race” is a cultural concept (malleable and misleading in its implications) but Europeans remain rather credulous when similar theories are posed in terms of language and linguistics. It is a regrettable fact that the most common excuse offered for Aryan race theory was that it should have remained a linguistic theory, and to suggest that it was somehow “misunderstood” as race (as if by accident). In the writings of Mr. Rhys-Davids, it was certainly not an accident. In his review of Wickremeratne's (1984) biography of Rhys-Davids, Richard Gombrich excuses Rhys-Davids' propounded thesis that “Westerners should respond to Buddhism because both were Aryan” on the grounds that “This confusion of language with race was commonplace in the nineteenth century.” (Gombrich, 1986, p. 121-124) Although Wickremeratne is consistently flattering to Rhys-Davids, his biography describes the use of Aryan race theory as a tactic (i.e., not as an accident resulting from any such confusion) that Rhys-Davids used to create public interest and seek government support (Wickremeratne, 1984, p. 163, 173, 198).

For anyone who took these theories seriously, the picture of the world that emerged was quite absurd: the British were supposed to be related to the Buddha, but the Finnish and Hungarians were supposed to be a totally alien ethnic group, linked to either Mongolia or Cambodia --anywhere but Europe.

Conversely, Aryan race theory was an uncomfortable match with questions of language and identity much closer to the core of the British Empire: how did this doctrine of racial unity (and disunity) seem to the Irish, the oppressed neighbors of the England, who were now counted as one race with their ancestral enemies? In fact, this question was put to Parliament in the year 1900: how was it possible that there were now university professorships dedicated to Sanskrit, but nothing for the study of Irish Gaelic?6 Although they don't quite use these terms, I might re-phrase the question as asking why the Irish language was supposed to “disappear”, like the languages indigenous to Australia and Canada (and many other conquered peoples), while Sanskrit was being glorified as British heritage?

My point here is that Aryan race theory did not make sense even with Europe: neither for the Hungarians, the Finns, nor the Irish --and so its implications for places like Cambodia and Burma are even more bizarre. The nature of the problem is that we must address it whether we like it or not, because it was a pervasive and formative influence on European Buddhism, and European assertions about “original” Buddhist philosophy.

[Footnotes for this section:]

1 e.g., “Among the Turanian nations, a few only, such as the Finns, and the Mongolians, have preserved some remnants of their ancient worship and mythology…”. Müller, 1867, p. xiv (i.e., the introduction).

2 “The third group of languages, for we can hardly call it a family, comprises most of the remaining languages of Asia, and counts among its principal members the Tungusic, Mongolic, Turkic, Samoyedic, and Finnic, together with the languages of Siam, the Malay islands, Tibet, and Southern India.” Müller, 1867, p. 22 (from Müller's 1865 “Lecture on the Vedas”).

3 “…the Celts, therefore, were not mere barbarians, or people to be classed together with Finns and Lapps, but heralds of true civilization wherever they settled in their worldwide migrations…”. Müller, 1871, p. 240.

4 I am alluding to Alexander Csoma de Körös, who was in fact from Transylvania, though he is considered Mayar or Hungarian in retrospect; he did literally walk to Tibet from Hungary, in search of the ethnic origins of the Magyars. (Duka, 1885, p. 156-7)

5 According to Nakprat, Coedes did not invent this theory, but cautiously proposed a modified version of it, following on the earlier work of an author named as Hevesy (circa 1930?); unfortunately, the latter was omitted from Nakprat's bibliography.

6 House of Commons Debates, for July 20th 1900, q.v. hansard, vol. 86 cc673-771 (esp. p. 725 & 756). I made use of the digitized record: