Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” – A Critical Review

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Does it exhibit overt or subtle Hindudvesha?


Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is a New York Times Bestseller, highly acclaimed by Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Sebastian Junger, and others. It covers the history and evolution of humankind over 150,000 years, from the Cognitive Revolution to the Agricultural Revolution to Religion to the Empire Building to the Scientific Revolution, Industrialization, and Modern Times. As for the contribution of Hindus over time, there is a brief reference to Arabic/Hindu numerals, Hindu polytheism, and Sir William Jones’ ‘Discovery of Sanskrit.’ There is a relatively detailed account of the Caste System replete with all its ills beginning with racist Aryan invaders dominating the dark-skinned native Dravidians, subjugation of lower castes, and, of course, untouchability. Absent are myriad Hindu contributions in Mathematics, Astronomy, science, philosophy, music, and literature. There is no mention of Yoga, Ayurveda, Panini, Chanakya, or Kalidasa. Hindudvesha displayed in the book is striking. Whether it is deliberate or inadvertent, it is blatantly unambiguous.

Sapiens by Uval Noah Harari is touted as a sweeping tour of the history of our species. It attempts to shed light on the biggest breakthroughs in the human story, from our pre-history as hunter-gatherers to our present as technical wizards. The author structures this ambitious journey around three momentous events that have shaped the destiny of humankind: the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, and the scientific revolution.

Indian Contribution to Mathematics Glossed Over

The first reference to a Hindu contribution to civilization is in The Language of Numbers.

“A critical step was made sometime before the ninth century AD, when a new partial script was invented. It composed of ten signs, representing the numbers from 0 to 9. Confusingly, these signs are known as Arabic numerals even though they were first invented by the Hindus. But the Arabs get the credit because when they invaded India they encountered the system, understood

Zero or Shunya was a part of Hindu culture for thousands of years. Pingala’s Chhandashastra describes a Binary system of 0 and 1 used in 300 BC. Brahmagupta (c. 600 CE) used 0 as a symbol and a number at par with numerals 1 through 9.

In addition to Zero and the decimal number system, the Hindus made numerous breakthrough contributions in Mathematics and Astronomy. Great Mathematician Baudhayana (c. 800 BCE) came up with what was later known as the Pythagoras theorem, the value of pi, and the square root of 2. Panini’s Ashtadhyayi (eight chapters) is the foundation of the Mathematics of language and generative grammar. Its rules govern every aspect of the Sanskrit language. Phonetics of Sanskrit and, indeed, most Indian languages are incredibly mathematical, using five organs of pronunciation (throat, palate, etc.) and eleven qualities of modulation for their alphabet. Aryabhatta (510 CE or before) was the first to define trigonometric functions jya and koti-jya, later known as sine and cosine. Brahmagupta introduced the concept of negative numbers and developed their Algebraic properties. Quadratic Formula was another contribution of this great genius. Virahanka (c. 700 CE), followed by Gopala and Hemchandra, describe the series later known as Fibonacci numbers. Hindus used them in the context of music composition (sequence of laghus and gurus). Pingala’s Meruprastara came to be called Pascal’s triangle. Pingala also developed error-detecting and correcting codes for musical compositions. Madhava of the Kerala School of Mathematics (c. 1400 CE) enunciated the exact formula for pi, =4(1-1/3+1/5-1/7+1/9….).

None of these fundamental contributions to Mathematics are recognized by Harari. His passing reference to the Indian number system and omission of other great breakthroughs is unfortunate and perhaps biased by a Eurocentric colonial outlook

Tired Old Misrepresentation of the Caste System

Let’s now examine the relatively lengthy narrative and appraisal of the Indian Caste system.

After suggesting that all societies are based on imagined hierarchies, the author opens the discussion of Hindu caste system by stating,

“It took shape when Indo-Aryan people invaded the Indian subcontinent about 3,000 years ago, subjugating the local population. The invaders established a stratified society, in which they – of course – occupied the leading positions (priests and warriors), leaving the natives to live as servants and slaves.”

He goes on,

“They divided the population into castes, each of which was required to pursue a specific occupation or preform a specific role in society.” (p. 138)

First of all, the Indo-Aryan invasion theory is heavily debated and contested. As Edwin Bryant and Laurie Patton observe in ‘The Indo-Aryan Controversy – Evidence and Inference in Indian History’, there is a huge diversity of opinion about the Aryan Invasion theory. But even the diehard proponents of this hypothesis originating from colonial times concede that there is no credible evidence of invasion by marauding tribes of Aryans from the West and the Northwest some 3,000 years ago. They have started talking about Aryan migrations over time. There is no scholarly consensus about whether the so-called Aryans were indigenous or migrants from Europe or Central Asia. The racist underpinnings of Harari’s argument about the basis on which society was structured under the caste system between the Aryans and the natives are quite evident. It has also been challenged of late, but this debate is not admitted. To take what is, at best, a hypothesis and portray it as an established historical account is regrettable. A more balanced view would have recognized the controversy as an unsettled issue lacking scholarly consensus.

Harari goes on and says,

“The Hindu caste system and its attendant laws of purity became deeply embedded in Indian culture. Long after the Indo-Aryan invasion was forgotten, Indians continued to believe in the caste system and to abhor the pollution caused by caste mixing….Eventually the original four castes turned into 3,000 different groupings called jati (literally ‘birth’). But this proliferation of castes did not change the basic principle of the system, according to which every person is born into a particular rank, and any infringement of its rules pollutes the person and society as a whole.’’ (p. 139)

“Whenever a new profession developed or a new group of people appeared on the scene, they had to be recognized as a caste in order to receive a legitate place within Hindu society. Groups that failed to win recognition as a caste were, literally, outcasts – in this stratified society, they did not even occur the lowest rung. They became known as Untouchables. They had to live apart from all there people and scrape together a living in humiliating and disgusting ways, such as sifting through garbage dumps for scrap material.” (p. 139)

“The Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist secret society, could have taught the Hindu Brahmins a thing or two about purity laws.” (p. 143)

The Varna/Jati system, later called the caste system by Portuguese and other European explorers/invaders, is much more complex, diverse, and not monolithic across India. The Christian colonial mind has not understood its fluidity, heterogeneity, and positive influence in maintaining a productive social order over several millennia. Their stigmatizing Hindus with negative, exploitative stereotypes is an oversimplification. As noted by S. V. Ketkar, who studied for a Ph.D. in the early twentieth century at Cornell, “The mystery of caste is a hard problem for a foreigner to understand”. “An American missionary finds the subject very useful to induce his countrymen to subscribe money to save the souls of two hundred million people from heathenism.” It turns out that Western missionaries in Colonial India faced tough resistance from Hindus organized as Jatis, particularly in villages, and failed monumentally in their efforts to proselytize. Conducting the census of 1901, Sir Herbert Risley admitted, “Even in this caste-ridden society, a person, when questioned about his caste, may offer a bewildering variety of replies according to whether he chooses to emphasize his sect, subcaste, exogamous section, titular designation, occupation, or region.” Middleton, one of the two census superintendents in 1921, observed that the so-called occupational castes have been largely manufactured and almost entirely preserved as separate castes by the British Government.

“We pigeonholed everyone by caste and if we could not find a true caste for them, labeled them with the name of a hereditary occupation. We deplored the caste system and its effects on social and economic problems, but we are largely responsible for the system we deplore”.

The origins and evolution of the Varna/Jati or ‘Caste system’ deserved a more sophisticated, nuanced, and balanced approach. The author failed in this and also omitted to consider the basic fact that most societies in the East or the West were organized in some form of hereditary and hierarchical social order until the Industrial Revolution. Disparaging the Hindu social order without analyzing its virtues and perils is quite remarkable.

Shoddy Treatment of Hindu Philosophy, Sanskrit, and More…

In addition to mathematics, as pointed out earlier, Hindus have made tremendous contributions over the ages to religion, philosophy, language, astronomy, science, economics, music, yoga, and literature. Most of these are missing in ‘Sapiens’.

In Chapter 12, ‘The Law of Religion’, the author draws a distinction between monotheism (particularly the proselytizing variety) and polytheism and points out the tolerance inherent in the latter.

“The insight of polytheism is conducive to far-reaching religious tolerance. Since polytheists believe, on the one hand, in one supreme and completely disinterested power, and on the other hand in many partial and biased powers, there is no difficulty for the devotees of one god to accept the existence and efficacy of other gods. Polytheism is inherently open-minded, and rarely persecutes ‘heretics’ and ‘infidels’,” (p. 214-215)

While Hinduism is complimented for its religious tolerance, it has not been recognized for fundamentally seeking knowledge as opposed to a superhuman order. The philosophy of Vedanta and the Upanishads is far more profound than a primitive belief in spirits and gods. The Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita are noteworthy for deep and exquisite dialogues, not dogma. Hinduism is unique in its approach and should have been acclaimed as such.

Sir William Jones is extolled for his observations on the Sanskrit language, which pioneered the science of comparative linguistics.

“In his publications Jones pointed out surprising similarities between Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language that became the sacred tongue of Hindu ritual, and the Greek and Latin languages, as well as similarities between all these languages and Gothic, Celtic, Old Persian, German, French and English.” (p.300)

While Jones is accredited for his ‘discovery’ of Sanskrit, the unique mathematical structure of the language and its generative grammar as described by Panini in his Ashtadhayi, escape the author’s attention altogether. The Algebraic rules and phonetics governing every aspect of the Sanskrit language should be saluted as an extraordinary contribution by ancient Hindus. Sanskrit is unique among all the Indo-European languages in its scientific structure. Another major lapse by the author in crediting Hindus for outstanding contributions to civilization.

The last reference to Hindus is in the chapter on bionic life.

“Like some Hindu goddess, Aurora now has three arms.” (p.406)

It is a relatively benign statement with no judgment on Hinduism.

The criticism of the book in its elucidation of the place of Hindus in the story of Sapiens is not in what it recounts but in what it leaves out. It is not worthy of a historical narrative so widely acclaimed. It is regrettable and a subject of indignation for Hindus.

  1. Yuval Noah Harari: Sapiens, Harper, 2015
  2. Edwin F. Bryant and Laurie L. Patton: The Indo-Aryan Controversy, Routledge, 2008
  3. Nicholas B. Dirks: Castes of Mind, Princeton University Press, 2001
  4. Manjul Bhargava: India’s Contribution to Mathematics Through Ages, AICTE, YouTube, 25th February 2022

Sarvajit Thakur is a technology entrepreneur and mentor based in Silicon Valley. Raised in a family of Vedic/Sanskrit scholars, he is keenly interested in Hindu civilization, knowledge systems, history, and existential threats currently faced by Hindus worldwide.