Left-Hand Path, Right-Hand Path: someone being wrong on the internet
Good versus evil is not a universal religious or moral framing
I have a wide range of interests, many of them historical. One of the YouYube channels I have watched regularly is Dr Jackson Crawford’s channel on old Norse culture: serious scholarship delivered congenially in (generally) bite-sized pieces.
I have also listened to several of Tom Rowsell’s offerings from his Survive the Jive channel. He is mainly interested in matters Indo-European, but he ranges more widely, and some of his videos can be charming, such as this one on Hinduism in Bali. His material seems to be accurate (I have not spotted a significant error yet) and is engagingly presented.
Which brings me to Arith Harger’s channel. I listened to his video on What is the Left Hand Path? My interest in these matters is entirely historical and intellectual, but he gets SO much wrong in this video. Rather than give a detailed critique, I will cover the same ground based on available scholarship.
The first section of the video is actually quite a good discussion of the difference between Right-Hand Path and Left-Hand Path. He is correct in arguing that it does not neatly line up with good and evil. Even though, for Star Wars fans, the Right-Hand Path seems a bit Jedi-like and the Left-Hand Path rather Sith-like. It is when Harger tries to put the matter in a larger context that he goes seriously wrong.
There is an excellent introduction to this distinction, and its likely cultural and historical origins, in Thomas McEvilley’s classic essay The Archaeology of Yoga. This is available on Jstor here and on Scribd here. The essay is, in part, a precursor to McEvilley’s masterpiece The Shape of Ancient Thought in which he examines the history of Greek and Indian philosophy and their interactions.
McEvilley argues that the Left-Hand Path/Right-Hand Path distinction is driven by the interaction between the patrilineal (and patricentric) culture of the invading Indo-European pastoralists and that of the matrilineal (and matricentric) culture of the resident farming population. To use slightly old-fashioned scholarly language, Aryans versus Dravidians.
Whether the culture was patrilineal or matrilineal matters because, in a patrilineal culture, a child without a father lacked a crucial element of social identity. Patrilineal cultures tend to be particularly restrictive of female sexuality for that reason. Conversely, in a culture where a child gets their social identity from their mother, not having a designated father is likely to be less of an issue. Especially if uncles can readily substitute as protective male relatives.
So, mystical and occult traditions in patrilineal cultures are likely to be sex-restrictive, to be ascetic. Conversely, mystical and occult traditions in matrilineal cultures are more likely to be sex-permissive. The former naturally inclines towards the development of spirit-focused disciplines, where ascetic denial of indulgence and the body is the seen as the path to self-development. The latter naturally inclines to the development of self-capacity-and-bodily-focused disciplines.
There is no direct connection in this to any good-versus-evil dichotomy. But, outside the monotheistic traditions, good-versus-evil is not the normal religious dichotomy. In religions in the animist-polytheist spectrum, the more normal distinction is order-versus-chaos. This is particularly true in agrarian societies, where a bad harvest presages disease, death and, if there is a sequence of such harvests, disaster. This concern for order can be seen in the ancient Egyptian concept of maat. How to construct and maintain social order is a central concern of Chinese philosophy while to seek the Tao (or Dao) is to seek to be in accordance with the natural order of the universe.
Ascetic, sex-restrictive disciplines tend to be more orderly than than more sex-permissive disciplines. Especially if, as is the case in various forms of Left-Hand-Path, the deliberate breaking of conventions and restrictions is seen as a technique to develop one’s capacities. The highly patrilineal Indian elite would clearly tend to see the mother-right vestiges of Dravidian mysticism and occult practices as very much other. So, the Left-Hand-Path would be seen as more chaotic (because it was) and therefore negatively.
Arith Harger does not seem to be aware of any of this background. Of course, admitting the Left-Hand Path/Right-Hand Path distinction is originally Indian does rather get in the way of presenting it as Old Pagan Wisdom. Though somewhat similar, though less developed, patterns of patrilineal pastoralist Indo-European overlay interacting with matrilineal farming-religion survivals can also be traced in European cultures and their pre-Christian religious and occult traditions.
Where Harger gets particularly confused is over the good-versus-evil distinction. This is not remotely an originally European idea. The pre-Christian religious traditions of Europe fairly clearly follow the normal order-versus-chaos division. Thus, in Norse mythology, various monsters of chaos threaten the order upheld by the Aesir in a pattern that recurs across mythologies.
The good-versus-evil distinction is essentially (as far as we can tell) an invention of Zarathustra (aka Zoroaster). It fits nicely in with monotheism — with a Creator God who creates both the material and the moral order. Opposition to such a God is not merely chaotic and disorderly, it is anti-moral and destructive.
Hence the original Jewish understanding of the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was that they were cities that were systematically anti-moral, preying on the weak and vulnerable and refusing to respect others. (Which makes way more sense than the later interpretation of the key sin of the cities of the plain being unnatural sex: see Chapter Four of Michael Carden’s Sodomy: A History of a Christian Biblical Myth.)
Norman Cohn’s book Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come is a good introduction to the hugely important shift in moral perspectives from order-versus-chaos to good-versus-evil. A shift in moral perspectives that explains much of the antipathy between the Romans (who were mostly definitely all about order, including in ways that seem wildly immoral, or even evil, to us) and the Jews and later the Christians. If one is going to truly embrace a pagan perspective, good-versus-evil has to go.
So, the Right-Hand Path/Left-Hand Path distinction does not map to good-versus-evil. As it originally arose in the intermixing of cultures on the animist-polytheist spectrum, that is not surprising.
The Right-Hand Path/Left-Hand Path is originally an Indian distinction, but as patrilineal pastoralist Indo-European overlay over the culture and religious perspectives of resident matrilineal agrarians we see in India also occurred in Europe, the distinction has a relatively easy path into European pagan traditions, even revived ones.
But surely it is better to get the history correct, rather than hopelessly confused.