Prof. Andrea Acri
My presentation will take Johannes Bronkhorst’s Greater Magadha hypothesis as a stepping-stone to elaborate a novel framework of understanding for dynamics of linguistic, human, and cultural contact over the vast geographical area of Monsoon Asia in the longue durée. In so doing, it hopes to cast a fresh perspective on the prehistory of the Indian Subcontinent and its linguistic, ethnic, and cultural substrata. It will revisit the idea of an ‘Austric’ cultural substratum shared across Monsoon Asia elaborated by early 20th-century French scholars, such as Paul Mus, Sylvain Lévi, and Jean Przyluski, which has been only sporadically advocated by a handful of scholars during the past fifty years or so, and apply it to religious history, in particular the emergence of tantric traditions. It will argue that those traditions are unlikely to be uniquely the result of comparatively late, elite- and text-driven dynamics, and that even Vedic religiosity or Brahmanism are actually a mélange of heterogenous cultural elements with a long history and, even more importantly, a geography that transcends the borders of the Indian Subcontinent.
Recent research from the disciplinary perspectives of linguistics and genetics suggests that the advanced culture of Greater Magadha may have owed much to a predominantly Austro-Asiatic speaking substratum, and that the descendants of those populations are the Austro-Asiatic speaking ethnic groups that may still be found in areas of the Indian Subcontinent. These populations most closely resemble the oldest ethnic group of South Asia, namely that of the ‘Ancestral South Indians’, related to the Andaman Islanders. As it is now recognized that the Austro-Asiatic-speaking populations entered the Subcontinent not only through the Indo-Himalayan overland corridor, but also through the Indian Ocean maritime corridor (via the Andaman Islands) from a proto-Austroasiatic homeland located in the region between the Bay of Bengal, the Assam-Burma border, Mainland Southeast Asia, and Southern China around 2000–1500 BCE, and that traces of their culture can be found in the borrowings from Austro-Asiatic languages that we find in Sanskrit (mainly related to agriculture, plants, etc.), as well as parallels in the Chalcolithic and Neolithic material culture of Eastern India and mainland Southeast Asia, one should consider the idea that those Austro-Asiatic speaking immigrants—just like their Indo-Aryan counterparts—were carriers of a culture that was not fully ‘autochthonous’, which included a fully realized agricultural package, a developed metallurgy, and primitive navigational technology, among other things.
As early Brahmanical literature refers to Greater Magadha as an area inhabited by demonic, demon-worshiping, and barbarous ‘people from the east’, which apparently belonged to a different ethnic stock than that of the Indo-Aryan settlers, it seems legitimate to ask whether the set of cultural packages transmitted by Austro-Asiatic-speaking migrants included religious ideas and practices as well.