Posts Tagged ‘Hindu’

On Argumentation

April 7, 2011

There are two aspects of an argument: its content and its construction. On this blog our focus is almost entirely on the latter; the only reason we have content is that we cannot do without it to construct an argument – an argument has to be about something. However, we have no material or emotional stake in the content; it is just a means to an end. In this post we explore in more detail the specifics of the end we have in mind.

There are at least three attributes of the construction of an argument that are critical: Credibility (whether the argument is supported by evidence); Coherence (whether the argument meets the tests of logic); and Consistency (whether the argument is free of contradictions). In order to illustrate these attributes we will resort to content provided by a participant in an earlier discussion. (more…)

Culture Bypass: A New Paradigm – 4

September 15, 2010

From A’daabKhuda HafizAllah Hafiz – How cultural expressions are transformed?

By Ahmed Kamran


In the previous three parts (here, here and here) we examined the long journey of Indian Muslims from the inception of a great common Indo-Persian culture in the 13th century to its political isolation especially by the end of 1930’s. By the time British rulers were fully engaged in World War 2, Muslims, with an acute sense of their separate identity that developed particularly in the backdrop of political events during 1920’s and 1930’s, were about to embark on a collision course with rest of the Indian people. Let’s discuss the key drivers of this great sea change in Indian politics as the British prepared to leave an independent India in the hands of indigenous people. (more…)

Indian Women: A Paradox?

October 31, 2009

By Anjum Altaf 

Bruised and battered as Indian women might be (psychologically, not physically as the poll on this blog suggests), there is another side to Indian femininity reflected in the myths of powerful goddesses. I came across an interesting perspective on this in David Shulman’s review (A Passion for Hindu Myths, NYRB, Nov. 19, 2009) of the new book by Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History:

Sometimes the history of India looks like a story about endless waves of virile invaders from the north-northwest – Scythians, White Huns, Afghans, Turks, and, most recently, the British – who slowly grow soft and decadent under the insidious influence of the dreamy, langorous, mystically inclined Hindus…. [But according to Doniger] India’s astonishing talent for absorbing and transforming the peoples pouring in from outside, seen through a Hindu lens, has nothing to do with any softening or melting down of a hard, preexisting monolithic culture; it is, rather an active process of selection and pragmatic recycling, with the female principle – mare, queen, dancing girl, or goddess – driving the rather helpless (often foreign) male. (more…)

On Emperor Akbar

September 18, 2009

I am grateful to reader Ganpat Ram for suggesting a new line of thought with the following comment on Emperor Akbar:

Every Muslim ruler with rare exceptions showed great concern to contain and push back Hinduism. Even the relatively broad-minded Akbar destroyed Hindu temples.

My response to Ganpat Ram was that this was one opinion in the spectrum of opinions and I recalled an article (East and West: The Reach of Reason) by Professor Amartya Sen published in the year 2000 in which a contrary opinion had been expressed. (more…)

Aditya Behl (1966-2009)

September 5, 2009

I am posting this tribute to Aditya Behl here for a reason. His work epitomizes the kind of passion and painstaking effort that are needed to understand the nature of past relations amongst the various communities inhabiting South Asia today.

I heard him read a paper only once (in 2008) and had a brief exchange after, noting in my mind that this was someone I wanted to meet again. He was a person who left a mark very quickly – with his scholarship, his sense of joy in his work, and the excitement he communicated to the audience.

I am reproducing here a tribute by someone who knew Aditya Behl well with the hope that the introduction to his work will help us in our own understanding of the past and thus fulfill a goal that was dear to him.


… Then one morning Naim saab became the bearer of unsettling news, we have lost Aditya Behl. One of the most talented young scholars in his early 40s, Aditya became known for his work in Persian and Urdu but he was at home in many languages including Sanskrit, French, Greek and Hindi. Aditya was the bearer of intimations of being Hindu and Muslim, which are perhaps lost except to a few persons/communities in our times.

Dazzling in his scholarship, repertoire and bearing, Aditya had carved out for himself an area of expertise in the genre of Sufi romances. He was one of the successors to the scholarship of an entire generation including Annemarie Schimmel, Christopher Shackle, Carl Ernst, Bruce Lawrence and Simon Digby (who accompanied him on some of his travels).

I met Aditya for the first time at the University of Chicago in the winter of 1980-81. He was deeply into Sufi studies (much before the subject had become fashionable!). I was then distant from South Asian studies, and instead immersed in European theories of state formation. He spoke to me of the patronage of Mughal and Maratha rulers of Gwalior and Indore and the creativity of sufis.

Over the last twenty years my own area of interest has developed in Muslim identities in Persian/Urdu/Rajasthani texts and the Hindu-Muslim city and I have come to deeply appreciate Aditya’s understanding of facets of Hindu-Muslim relations. I was enthralled by his translation of Mir Sayyid Manjhan Rajgiri, Madhumalati: An Indian Sufi romance, done in collaboration with Simon Weightman and published in the Oxford classics series.

In the last decade our interests grew closer. He was also mining the medieval Rajput-Charan texts that I was using. When I convened a double panel on the Universes of Indian Islam for the Conference on Indic religions, which my colleague, Madhu Kishwar, was organizing, Aditya’s was one of the first names that came to my mind. Illness -presaging perhaps the present moment – came in the way of his participation.

In September 2006 he gave a Seminar at CSDS on the Dabistān-i mazāhib, an Encyclopedia of Religion. By then he was holding the chair of South Asian Studies, at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. It had been a long day at work, but the seminar was invigorating. I have in my notes of that evening the words, “As always I like his work and the way it opens up a vista.” The Dabistān-i Mazāhib is a 17th century text, “authored” by a Zorastrian who has a surface duplex identity with two names, Zu’lfaqar Ardistani and Husaini Shah. The author identifies various groups such as Zorastrians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims. The “Hindus” refer to a geographic category and include a variety of sects, Aditya pointed out. The Zorastrian group from Azerkhaiban had suffered persecution under the Safavids and had come to practice taqiyā-using the tools of the conqueror against them. Aditya read the text in terms not of identity but as difference. My question for him had been that instead of the incommensurable difference he read, the text suggested to me numerous encounters and conversations: the reference to yogic breathing and other techniques; the Prophet being described as a disciple of Gorakhnath who taught him yoga; the description of Sarmad’s identity who is a Jew-Sufi. There is a reference to divisions, of course, that China and India will send forces that will reverse the Muslim expansion! The larger picture is of the Mughal Empire with its imperial bureaucracy in place, its agricultural productivity and considerable prosperity, and hence, the movement of holy men. I debated with him later that material prosperity alone does not explain this movement, particularly when it comes to holy men in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. What one needs to know more about is the popular support for holy men, the interaction between the village/town and these figures. I recall on the occasion Shuddhabrata’s comments that the last group of Mutazzilites was in Patna and that this was a period conducive to the writing of such “encyclopedias.”

In the last few years Aditya had become interested in the figure of Nazir Akbarabadi (1735-1830), immortalized in Habib Tanvir’s play Āgrā Bāzār. Nazir, the proponent of the language of the street and the bazaar, the poet of the carnivalesque kite flying and Holi festivals, the portrayer of vendors such as the watermelon seller, and of the sensual. He presented his work at the Delhi School of Economics and later wrote it up in, “Poet of the bazaars: Nazir Akbarabadi 1735-1830.” This was published in A wilderness of possibilities-Urdu studies in transnational perspective, edited by Kathryn Hansen and David Lelyveld. Aditya in this paper is interested in the formation of the Urdu literary canon, how Nazir’s verse was seen as vulgar by Mustafa Khan Shefta, characterized as “psychological impotence” by Shamsur-rahman Faruqi and seen as distant from the “high-minded Islamic revivalism” of Altaf Husain Hali. His interest was in Nazir’s poems on pleasure and how it requires a sensual sensibility, quite anamolous for the Urdu canon.

Aditya, I miss you already, the many conversations real and imagined that we had and could have had. You opened for the English reader a magical, miraculous world of medieval Sufi poetry, the premākhyāns notably Manjhan’s Madhumālati, Jayasi’s Padmāvat and Qutban’s Mrigavatī. A glorious Sufic contribution to Hindavi, but also to Brajbhasha and Avadhi and of thinking beyond “religion.”

You were an exceptionally talented person and explored a beautiful universe. Now you know more than any of us, what its deepest secrets are, of fanā and baqā, and the truths of wahdat ul wujūud and Alakh Niranjan!!

Shail Mayaram
Visiting Professor
Indian Institute of Advanced Study

This tribute is reproduced with thanks from Chapati Mystery.


Jaswant Singh: What’s All the Fuss?

August 25, 2009

It is sad that the history we are taught in our countries is so one-dimensional that even the thought that the ‘Other’ might be semi-intelligent (let alone great) makes people catatonic. The predictable reaction is either to impugn the motives of the writer or to find selective evidence to prove that the real blame rests entirely on the ‘Other.’ The alternative of sifting through the arguments on their merits remains alien, unacceptable, impossible, or just too tiresome.

The reason Jaswant Singh’s book has made such a splash is because he is a front ranking politician with a very high reputation for integrity (for which, read Strobe Talbott’s Engaging India) and belongs to the BJP, all of which make the story impossible to ignore. Otherwise, this is an argument that has been made before and forgotten. (more…)

Similar and Different: Bengal Revisited

April 17, 2009

What have we learnt from this extended discourse on similarities and differences? It is time for a recap and a summary.

We started with Vir Sanghvi’s angry pronouncement that Pakistanis and Indians were no longer similar; they may have been 60 years ago but by now ‘they’ were fundamentalist and ‘we’ were secular.

There were immediate rejoinders to this burst of annoyance with hurt pronouncements of sharing the same music and the same sports.

It became immediately obvious that there were two flaws with the framing of this discussion. First, human beings were not one thing or another; rather, they were better characterized as bundles of attributes. (more…)

Similar and Different: Black and White

April 12, 2009

In an earlier post we had referred to two very recent books that highlighted the crucial role of education in inflaming relations between communities in multi-ethnic and multi-national countries.

Some very candid comments by Vinod alerted us to the fact that socialization at home plays an equally important role in forming our opinions of others in the community – whether we see them as different from us and, if so, what values we attach to the differences.

This raises the obvious question of the relationship between socialization at home and education in schools. In searching for an answer, Dr. Meenakshi Thapan (Department of Scociology, University of Delhi) pointed us to the recent work of Latika Gupta on this subject. (more…)

Ghalib – 19: New Year Thoughts

January 10, 2009

One would expect Ghalib to have a unique way of welcoming the New Year:

dekhiiye paate haiN ushshaaq buton se kya faiz
ik barahman ne kahaa hai kih yih saal achchhaa hai

let’s see what favors lovers find from idols
a Brahman has said that this year is good 

This is indeed a very clever and witty she’r, as the interpretation at Mehr-e-Niimroz will make clear. The play is on the word but which in Urdu, in the context of the lover, signifies an extremely beautiful woman. But but also means ‘idol’, and that pairing with Brahmin is perfect in the second line. Who would be a better authority on the behavior of ‘idols’ than a Brahmin (who is an ‘idol-worshipper’ in the eye of a Muslim)?

[A digression. Here is Marco Polo on his stop in India on the way back from China in 1292 AD describing the people: They ‘pay more attention to augury than any other people in the world and are skilled in distinguishing good omens from bad.’ They rely on the counsel of astrologers and have enchanters called Brahmans, who are ‘expert in incantations against all sorts of beasts and birds.’] 

Now consider the she’r as a totality: it is a comment on the myopia, the parochial self-interestedness of the lover. The astrologer has augured that this would be a good year and the lover immediately takes that to imply that the beloved would bestow favors upon him. For all we know, the astrologer could well be predicting that there would be no wars or terrorist attacks in the New Year. The astrologer may not even be aware of the existence of this particular lover. But the lover is only interested in taking the meaning that advances his suit.

But this is a layered she’r and this is where you have to acknowledge the genius of Ghalib. In 18 words, he rips the hypocrisy of human beings to shreds and leaves them naked, shorn of all their righteousness and moral pretensions.

Consider this as the classic interaction of two ‘Others’ – in this case, Muslim and Hindu. Now imagine a Hindu soothsayer offering to make the ultimate dream of the Muslim come true. How many Muslims would there be who would reject the offer because the benefactor is the ‘Other’, an infidel, an unbeliever, one who should be put to death instead?

Suppose instead that the two have a difference of opinion on the distribution of an asset. How soon is this likely to turn into an issue of historical injustices and oppression, of having nothing in common except an intense hatred of the ‘Other’s’ ancestors? How soon would there be cries to bomb the ‘Other’s’ entire community into oblivion?

So, Ghalib has proven it to you – there is nothing principled in these righteous positions that people take; the positions are taken in the service of selfish and parochial material interests.

[I am waiting for someone to come after me for being a Muslim-hater. Rest assured, the process of ‘Otherizing’ is entirely symmetric. Switch the religions of the soothsayer and the client and nothing much changes (or does it?) except that the story gets weaker – Brahmins, as Marco Polo noted, are justly reputed to be the best soothsayers with a greater knowledge of idols. From which, of course, follow the associations employed by Ghalib who knew such things well.]

And this brings us to the Partition in which a million people died and ten million had to leave their homes. It turned on a difference of opinion on the mode of governance that would best meet the concerns of all the stakeholders. It became a battle of the ‘Others’ who convinced themselves they had nothing at all in common after having lived together for a 1000 years, who were not willing to compromise on anything to prevent a million deaths.

We have mentioned in an earlier post that the situation in Malaysia was more complex – not only were there Hindus and Muslims but Chinese as well who owned most of the wealth. But people sat down and compromised and found a way out. It can be done. It can be done when we look upon the person across the table not as the ‘Other’ but as someone we would eagerly embrace if he offered to unite us with the beloved.

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Hinduism – 6: Interactions in the Mirror of Sex

December 27, 2008

Continued from Hinduism -5: Impacts of Interactions With Muslims

The aim of this series of posts is to comprehend how Hinduism was impacted by its interactions with outsiders – first Muslims and then the British – in order to better understand where we are today and how we got here.

In the last post, we concluded that interaction with Muslims had very little impact on how Hindus viewed their own religion – its philosophy, practices or traditions. However, the social stratification of Hindu society contributed a significant number of converts to Islam or to syncretic practices that could loosely be termed as Hindu-Muslim.

We will argue later that the impact of the interaction with the British was very different. But before we address that topic in detail, it is both useful and interesting to presage the argument with a specific illustrative example. The illustration pertains to the attitude towards sex and is described largely in the words of William Dalrymple as they appear in his highly informative article (India: The Place of Sex) in the New York Review of Books (June 26, 2008). 

Dalrymple portrays pre-Islamic India using the art forms prevalent at the time of the Pallava dynasty (590-630 AD):

This was a world where the frontier between the divine and the human remained porous. Vishnu, Brahma, and especially Shiva turn up intermittently to give advice at the Pallava court and intervene in its battles. Images of the holy family of Lord Shiva echo those of the Pallava dynasty: only the number of arms and heads distinguishes one from the other. Queens, courtesans, and goddesses alike are shown carefree and sensual: bare-breasted, they tease their menfolk, standing on tiptoe to kiss them, hands resting provocatively on their hips….

There is something wonderfully frank and direct about these gods who embody human desire. Lord Shiva reaches out and fondly touches the breast of his consort, Uma-Parvati, a characteristically restrained Chola way of hinting at the immense erotic powers of a god who embodies male fertility. Elsewhere, Hindu sculpture can often be explicitly and unembarrassedly erotic, as can much classical Hindu poetry: Kalidasa’s poem The Birth of Kumara has an entire canto of ninety-one verses entitled “The Description of Uma’s Pleasure,” which describes in graphic detail the lovemaking of the divine couple. The same is true of much of the secular poetry of the period….

Sexuality in India has traditionally been regarded as a subject of legitimate and sophisticated inquiry. It was looked upon as an essential part of the study of aesthetics: srngararasa—the erotic rasa, or flavor—being one of the nine rasas comprising the Hindu aesthetic system. If the Judeo-Christian tradition begins its myth of origin with the creation of light, the oldest scriptures of the Hindu tradition, collected in the Rig Veda, begins with the creation of kama—sexual desire: in the beginning was desire, and desire was with God, and desire was God. In the Hindu scheme of things, the gratification of kama remains one of the three fundamental goals of human existence, along with dharma—duty or religion—and artha, the creation of wealth.

The explicitly erotic sculptures that fill the walls of temples such as Khajuraho and Konarak in central and eastern India, as well as the long Indian literary tradition of erotic devotional poetry, may be read at one level as metaphors for the longing of the soul for the divine, and of the devotee for God. Yet such poems and sculptures are also clearly a frank expression of pleasure in life and love and sex. In pre-colonial India the devotional, the metaphysical, and the sexual were not seen as being in any way opposed; on the contrary the three were closely linked.

Here is how Dalrymple describes the encounter of this world with Islam:

Islam brought with it to India a very different attitude toward sexuality, which was much closer to Eastern Christian notions—the environment in which so many early Islamic attitudes developed—and which divided the mind from the body, and the sensual from the metaphysical. Like much early Christian thought, Islam emphasized the sinfulness of the flesh, the dangers of sexuality, and, in extreme cases, the idealization of sexual renunciation and virginity. In Iranian literature, love is usually portrayed as a hazardous, painful, and dangerous condition: in the great Persian epic Layla and Majnun, Majnun is driven mad by his love for Layla, and ends up dying wasted, starving, and insane.

Yet, remarkably, Islamic rule did not disturb the long Indian tradition of erotic writing. The Kamasutra survived and in time even helped to convert to the life of pleasure India’s initially puritanical Muslim rulers. Between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries many of the classics of Hindu writing on the erotic were translated into Persian for the use of the princes and princesses of Indian Muslim courts. At the same time there was an explosion of unrestrainedly sensual art and literary experimentation. This was the age of the great poet-courtesans: in Delhi, during the late eighteenth century, the courtesan Ad Begum would turn up stark naked at parties, but so cleverly painted that no one would notice:

“She decorates her legs with beautiful drawings in the style of pyjamas instead of actually wearing them; in place of the cuffs she draws flowers in ink exactly as is found in the finest cloth of Rum.”

At this period, too, a new specialist vocabulary of Urdu words and metaphors developed to express the poets’ desires: the beloved’s arms were likened to lotus stalks, her thighs to banana stems, her plaited hair to the Ganges, and her rumauli—a word that was coined to describe the faint line of down that runs down the center of a woman’s stomach, just below her navel—to the River Godavari. In this spirit, the Lucknavi Muslim poet Shauq (1783–1871) wrote a series of masnawis—or rhymed couplets—on amorous subjects entitled Fareb-i-Ishq, or The Wiles of Love. At the same time Islamic weavers struggled to produce not the heavy burkhas now worn by their Wahhabi-influenced successors, but ever more transparent and revealing cholis, or blouses, with weaves of wondrous lightness named baft hawa (woven air), ab-e-rawan (running water), and shabnam (evening dew).

Similar concerns inspired the ateliers of the miniaturists. In eighteenth-century Delhi one of the later Mughal emperors, Muhammad Shah II, commissioned miniatures of himself making love to his mistress, while further south in Hyderabad the artists were producing miniatures that tapped into the old erotic pulse of pre-Islamic Indian art, and that were concerned above all with the Arcadia of the scented pleasure garden. Here courtesans as voluptuous as the nude apsarases—the beautiful, heavenly sprites of ancient Pallavan stone sculpture—attend bejeweled princes. Such images would be unthinkable anywhere else in the Islamic world.

And what transpires with the arrival of the British:

It was not, therefore, during the Islamic period that the dramatic break with India’s erotic traditions occurred; instead that change took place during the colonial period with the arrival of evangelical Christian missionaries in the mid-nineteenth century. Responding to the evangelical diatribes about “Hindoo immorality,” a new generation of British-educated Hindu reformers began critically to reexamine their own traditions. A movement arose advocating the banning of courtesans, and chastity and modesty were elevated as the ideal attributes of Hindu womanhood.

Today, there is much embarrassment and denial about both the role of the erotic in pre-modern Hinduism and India’s history of sexual sophistication. When asked to come up with a response to the growing Indian AIDS crisis a few years ago, the health minister of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party proclaimed that “India’s native traditions of chastity and fidelity were more effective than the use of condoms.”

Dalrymple traces this history partly to explain the prudishness of modern right-wing Hindu reformers. We will argue that their militancy can also be attributed to a similar process.

This is the essence of the story of India and its interactions with outsiders – how Muslims became Indians absorbed by the openness and informality of Hinduism; and how Indian elites (both Hindu and Muslim) became quasi-English impressed by the superiority of science and rationality.

This was also how Hinduism began to doubt its strengths and started to remake itself in the image of another faith. The details have to await the next post which will then set up an explanation for how two streams, Hindu and Muslim, merged into an Indianness only to diverge again with tragic consequences.

To be continued…

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