Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Naastika and Swastika

Here is a further explanation of the title of this blog. As a linguist, I have studied quite a few languages in depth, although my most fluent foreign languages are Russian, French, and Spanish. In the early 1970s, I was a graduate student at Ohio State University, and I was naturally interested in Sanskrit, the literary language of the Vedas. So I took some Sanskrit courses, studied Panini's work (Panini being the greatest of all ancient linguists), and even studied a little Yoga. For those who don't know it, Sanskrit is part of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family, which also includes Germanic languages such as English.

The Sanskrit word asti means "it is" in English. The suffix -ka attaches to verb stems to form nouns, so the word aastika (आस्तिक) would literally correspond to "being" or "beingness" in English, but a better translation might be "orthodox". The word naastika (नास्तिक) is the negation of this. So it means "unorthodox" or "heterodox". These words are related to the Sanskrit word swasktika (स्वस्तिक), which is a symbol of "well-being" or "lucky charm" in the Hindu religion and some other ancient cultures (See Roman mosaic image). The root contains the word su "good" and asti. The German Nazi party co-opted the symbol as their own before the period of WWII, so the name and the sign carry a hefty stigma in modern Western culture.

It has always intrigued me that the ancient Hindu tradition was far advanced over other classical civilizations in many subjects, particularly linguistics. The Greeks are credited with creating the first purely alphabetic writing system, but their linguistic theories never came close to the genius of Panini's Ashtadhyayisutrapatha (literally Book with Eight Chapters) or simply the "Ashtadhyayi". It was Panini's work that ultimately gave rise to modern linguistic theory in the 19th century, although Western linguists have too rarely given it credit.

What is most interesting to my "unorthodox" viewpoint is that the Naastika tradition includes the Carvaka school of atheist materialism, which died out sometime in the 14th century. The school was founded by Brihaspati, who wrote the now-lost Bārhaspatya-sūtras, which were written sometime in the early BCE centuries (Mauryan period). To those who see atheism as a new phenomenon that has gotten a lot of "buzz" in the beginning of the 21st century, we should remember that atheism has been a part of human history since the beginning. Unlike the religious traditions it has rejected, records of atheism and their impact on society have either not been recorded or have been destroyed by those who cannot stand the idea that sane human beings could reject belief in gods.

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