Friday, 24 March 2017

Derrett's Blemmya in India

Maudgalyayana was a leading disciple of the Buddha who used his supernatural powers to visit various tormented souls in the after-life to explain to them how they came to suffer such terrible afflictions. Gaining this knowledge, these souls were put on the path to Liberation.

In the East, this sage is the exemplar of filial piety. He offered up the fruit of his own good deeds to save his mother

In ancient India, there was a story about a creature without a head, whose eyes were in its breast, which had long arms which it used to grab people and stuff them into its mouth which was also its belly. The demon Kabandha in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata is a creature of this type. The name derives from 'kavanda' meaning trunk of the body.

The Sage Maudgalyayana meets a horrific creature of this description in the Hell dimension. Its name is Haarika (the grabber). The Sage puts it on the path to salvation by explaining that it is being punished for having been a heartless killer in Rajgir.

No doubt, there is more to this story than may appear. Perhaps it condemns capital punishment. Maybe it illustrates some subtle aspect of esoteric psychology or soteriology. What this story does not do, however, is support the notion that Buddhist texts derive from a Western source and, moreover, that mention of this kabandha demon is proof that 'African Blemmya' existed in India and had some connection with Buddhism.

Yet this is precisely the assertion of one J.D.M Derett- an emeritus professor of Oriental Law- in a 2002 article archived here. 

What is going on here? Does the learned Professor not get that kabandha monsters don't exist? They can't come from Africa to India because Africa never had them in the first place.

It does make sense to picture the Executioner- or indeed the sort of Society which thinks Executioners are necessary- as a sort of kabandha monster ceaselessly grabbing victims for its belly which is also its mouth.
It does not make sense to say that the Buddha was wrong to castigate a bunch of headless pirates from Africa as being equivalent to Indian public executioners because no extant Greek or Latin source mentions this acephalous race as having discharged any such function.
There were no headless pirates in Africa. Those Greek or Latin sources which suggest otherwise are not alethic. They are fanciful.  Blemmyae don't exist. They never did.

It might appear that I am needlessly holding up to ridicule an elderly scholar's one folly. Indeed, Wikipedia describes this final article of the Professor's as his 'Waterloo'. The truth, however, is American Indologists have gone much further down this particular Bedlam path than our British savant. Their entire methodology has been to take fantasy for fact in order to construct a historicist hermeneutic with current political implications. By contrast, is there not a touch of wry humour, but also Swedenborgian pathos, in the manner in which our learned barrister ends his essay?

Scholarship is not a safe vessel for crossing the ocean of Samsara.
Derrett could see this as he slipped towards the antarabhava.
But then, he was a law-minded man.
Pollock and Doniger and Witzel will be vouchsafed no such saving vision.

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