Posts Tagged ‘Hinduism’

God, Music and Food for Thought

July 14, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

In a discussion of the arts, it was mentioned that middle-class families in India encouraged children to learn classical music because it was a mark of high culture; it made one special in one’s esteem and in that of others. It was then asked why classical music was not healthy in Pakistan given that much the same considerations should be applicable across the border. It is my sense that the question was less an expression of belief and more an opening for a discussion and I am going to exploit that to speculate on some topics of interest.

The one-word, and not altogether flippant, answer to the question is God. Hindu deities (Krishna and Saraswati, to mention just two) not only approve of but delight in music. Whether Allah approves or disapproves is still in doubt with no resolution in sight while the camp of disapprovers continues to add adherents. (more…)


China – 1: Why a Series on China?

May 17, 2009

Why should we write about China on The South Asian Idea?

For many reasons:

First, comparisons between the economies of China and India are becoming increasingly common. Both are categorized as emerging dragons and new global superpowers. In fact, a new name has been coined to refer to these twin stars of the future – Chindia!

Second, both represent amongst the most ancient, continuously-lived civilizations with very rich histories. It is possible to understand more about ourselves through a comparison of some aspects of these histories.

Third, both China and India are large, billion-plus countries and there is much discussion of what each can learn from the other. (more…)

Hinduism – 7: The Wall of Amnesia

May 2, 2009

In this episode we were scheduled to move into the period of the British encounter with India. But there is nothing inevitable about schedules. We take a step back because we have found another vantage point from which to observe the path and the past that we have already traversed.

This step back comes courtesy of Ian Almond who had no white friends till he was sixteen and, growing up amongst South Asians, answered only to the name of badam. Sharmila Sen, who writes about him, picks up on the phenomenon of collective memory and reminds us what an odd thing it can be: “We can remember a collective past that never existed and bring nations, religions, and cultures into existence. We can also suffer from collective amnesia and bring ourselves to the brink of destruction.” (more…)

Similar and Different: Common and Problematic

April 5, 2009

Two books have come out within a year pointing to a serious problem common to India and Pakistan.

Before describing the books let us note that we are now talking about what is common between India and Pakistan. This makes a lot more sense than debating whether Indians and Pakistanis are similar. Indians and Pakistanis have so many differences within their own communities that it is futile to try and reduce them to a single dimension that can then be compared. To take a very simple illustration: there are secular Indians and communal Indians just as there are secular Pakistanis and communal Pakistanis. There is no one type of Indian or Pakistani.  (more…)

Hinduism – 4: Early Interaction with Muslims

December 4, 2008

Continued from Hinduism – 3: Interaction with Muslims

This series of posts has a limited objective – to understand the nature and impacts of the historical interactions of Hinduism with Muslims and Britons. In order to make our point we took the incursions of Mahmud of Ghazna around 1000 AD as an adequate starting point. However, this created the impression that the first Muslims in India came as raiders. This is an incorrect impression and in fact there is an extensive prior history of peaceful contact. Although this history is not directly related to the objective of this series, it is important to document it in order to avoid misunderstandings.

Arab, Greek and Jew contact with the Malabar Coast of India had long existed on account of trade in spices and other articles and became predominant in the post-Roman period. Thus Arab contact with India pre-dates Islam. There were settlements of pre-Islamic Arabs in Chaul, Kalyan Supara and Malabar Coast and Arab merchants travelled along the Coromandel Coast on their way to China.

The emergence of Islam did not give rise to the Arab connection with India but it added a new dimension. Trade continued after the Arabs embraced Islam and Arab traders brought it to Malabar almost immediately. Colonies of Arabs became Muslim settlements and existed at major ports such as Cambay, Chaul, and Honawar. In other settlements along the Bay of Bengal the presence of Muslims is traceable back to the eighth century. The largest Arab coastal settlements were in Malabar where Muslims form a substantial part of the population today. These communities came into existence through the marriage of local women to Arab sailors. In Malabar, the Mappilas were the first community attracted to Islam because they were more closely connected with the Arabs than others. Mappilas comprise descendants of pure Arabs, descendants of Arabs through local women (the vast majority), and converts from among non-Arabic locals (mostly from the lower caste Hindus with some exceptions).

Native rulers extended facilities and protection to these communities because trade contributed to economic prosperity. The conversion of a local ruler to Islam further integrated the Muslim community into the social life of the region.

These trading contacts were accompanied by equally extensive intellectual exchanges.     

Indo-Arab intellectual collaboration was at its height during the reigns of Mansur (753-774) and Harun-al-Rashid (780-808). Embassies connecting Sind to Baghdad included scholars who brought important books with them, scholars were sent to India to study medicine and pharmacology, and Hindu scholars came to Baghdad as chief physicians of hospitals and as translators into Arabic of Sanskrit books on such subjects as medicine, pharmacology, toxicology, philosophy, and astrology.

In mathematics the most important contribution of India to Arabic learning was the introduction of what are known in the West as ‘Arabic numerals,’ but which Arabs themselves call ‘Indian numerals’ (al-ruqum-al-Hindiyyah). Indian medicine received even greater attention; the titles of at least fifteen works in Sanskrit which were translated into Arabic have been preserved, including books by Sushruta and Caraka, the foremost authorities in Hindu medicine. Indian doctors enjoyed great prestige at Baghdad and were personal physicians to the Caliphs. Many Indian medicines, some of them in their original names such as atrifal, which is the Hindi tri-phal (a combination of three fruits), found their way into Arab pharmacopoeia.

Literary works gained great popularity. Some of the stories of the Arabian Nights are attributed to India, and Arabic translations of the Panchatantra, popularly known as the story of Kalila and Dimna, have become famous in various Arabic and Persian versions. The games of chess and chausar were also brought from India and transmitted by Arabs to other parts of the world.

It is important to keep this narrative in mind as we cover the journey from the past to the present. Because so few students today are exposed to a study of history it becomes easy to project the present onto versions of the past that have no correlation with real events. The onus of verification rests on us.

To be continued…

Sources consulted:

1. Muslim Civilization in India by SM Ikram

2. Wikipedia on Mapillas 

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Hinduism – 3: Interaction with Muslims

October 24, 2008

Continued from Hinduism – 2: Getting to Terms with Religion

It is time now to take stock of the encounter of India with Muslims.

The first aspect that needs to be clear in our minds is whether this was an encounter between Hinduism and Islam or between Hindus and Muslims. This will make a significant difference to our understanding of subsequent events. We will argue that this was not a clash of religions, that it was an encounter of Hindus and Muslims. Of course, this encounter had an influence on both Hinduism and Islam, but the influence was indirect.

As always, this is the starting point for a conversation. We are open to alternative interpretations that are cogently argued.

Raiders or Crusaders?

Frequent and repeated interaction of Hindus in India with Muslims from Afghanistan began around 1000 AD with the raids of Mahmud of Ghazna followed by those of Mohammed of Ghor.  In 1206, the Slave Dynasty under Qutbuddin Aibak established a permanent presence in Delhi. Muslims have been in India ever since.

A number of points need to be considered in this context.

First, these were pre-modern times; there were no nation-states, agreed-upon borders, or notions of sovereignty in those days. Raids and expansionism were the norms. Alexander had marched through Persia into India in 327 BC; the Roman Empire had spread into Africa; the Byzantine Empire into the Middle East; the Arab Empire was in Spain; the Mongols were all over including in India. So there was nothing out of the ordinary about the raids from Afghanistan into India – the distance was just a few hundred miles.

Second, there is little evidence that these raids were of a nature similar to that of the First Crusade, launched by Pope Urban II in 1095, of which we have written earlier. The Pope had urged the Christians of Europe, in the name of Christianity, to march 3000 kilometers to Jerusalem to avenge alleged atrocities committed by Muslims against Christian men, women, and children. Pope Urban had launched a religious war. The modern parallel would be Osama bin Laden’s religious war against the Christian West.

There seems to be no evidence that the Afghan raids into India were inspired by some grand Islamic consensus to show non-Muslims the righteous path or to avenge atrocities against Muslims. Any such reading of the history is not compatible with the frequent conflicts between Afghans, Iranis and Turanis who were all Muslims. Babar established his dynasty by displacing an Afghan ruler. Nadir Shah and Ahmed Shah sacked Muslim kingdoms in Delhi; there is no documentation that their treatment of the residents of the city discriminated between Muslim and non-Muslims.

The Afghan raids into India can be considered analogous to a robber raiding a bank. The religion of the robber is incidental to the enterprise; the objective of the robber is to acquire the wealth, not to show the right path to the owners and staff of the bank. It is a reasonable analogy except, as mentioned earlier, that there was no law against raiding territory at that time. Raiders, who happened to be Muslims, came into India; some of them captured territory and stayed.

Indians or Colonialists?

Here we come face to face with the next important question. How do we look upon the Muslims who came from outside but stayed on in India. Were they Indians or colonialists? Once again the answer to this question will have an impact on how we understand subsequent events.

It can be argued that at some point those who stayed became inhabitants of the land. They did not owe allegiance to, or were representatives of, some external overlord; they did not direct their activities to serve the interest of a foreign power; they did not transfer wealth abroad; they did not plan on returning ‘home’ at the end of their working lives. All these characteristics militate against categorizing them as colonialists.

The Muslims who stayed were ‘new’ Indians. They were a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. Many may wish they had never arrived.  But we have to understand the events that occurred and wishes, especially intense wishes, only get in the way of that understanding. It was a commonplace in those times for people to leave one home and make a new home in some distant place without asking for permission or requesting residency status.

(An interesting aside is a reminder of the commonly accepted parallel with the much earlier arrival of the Aryans in India. We will keep this in the back of our minds because at the end of this series of posts we will try and explain why it has become necessary for some to argue that Aryans were the original inhabitants of India. When and why does it become necessary to dispute and reinterpret the past?)

With this as the background, we will explore in the next post how over time the interaction of Hindus and Muslims influenced the nature of Hinduism and Islam in India.

To be continued…

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Hinduism – 2: Getting to Terms with Religion

October 16, 2008

Continued from Hinduism – 1: What is ‘Hinduism’?

It’s time to remove the quotation marks around ‘Hinduism’.

It just adds to the confusion when one argues in this day that Hinduism is not a religion in the sense religion is understood in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is better to explain that ‘religion’ has a wider scope.

See how religion is defined in the 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language:

Religion, in its most comprehensive sense, includes a belief in the being and perfections of God, in the revelation of his will to man, in man’s obligation to obey his commands, in a state of reward and punishment, and in man’s accountableness to God; and also true godliness or piety of life, with the practice of all moral duties.

If one starts with that definition it would be very hard to fit Hinduism into the mould.

However, one can take a modern perspective and understand religion as a “system of symbols (creed, code, cultus) by means of which people (a community) orient themselves in the world with reference to both ordinary and extraordinary powers, meanings, and values.” In this perspective, Hinduism is a religion but with characteristics very different from those of a Judeo-Christian religion.

One can immediately see the big difference between Islam and Hinduism in this context. The former placed a lot of emphasis on the ‘true’ word of God, quarreling even amongst fellow Muslims on correct interpretations of the true word. The latter placed much more emphasis on the practices of everyday life with a lot more room for variations from any externally prescribed way.

One can also now understand the puzzlement of the British when they got ready to conduct the first major census in the Punjab in 1868. The presence of Muslims and Sikhs convinced them that Punjab society could only be understood through the lens of religion.  But when they attempted to define Hinduism they were stumped: “Primarily and historically, it is the antithesis of Islam. Religion, in the etymological sense of the word, it is not, and never was.”

Denzil Ibbetson in the Punjab Census Report of 1881 wrote that “the books on Hinduism describe Hinduism as it ought to be, Hinduism as it once was, perhaps Hinduism as it now is among the pandits and educated Brahmans of the holy cities; but they do not describe Hinduism as it is in the daily life of the great mass of the population.”

And thus the rule that was adopted for the census definition of Hindus was “that the Native of India must be presumed to be Hindu unless he belongs to some other recognized faiths.”

This different nature of Hinduism as a religion was not trivial and one would need to keep it in mind as we proceed to explore its interaction with Muslims and the British in the posts to follow.

To be continued…

The definitions of religion are to be found in a thoughtful post in Religion Dispatches. The material on the Punjab Census is from In the Making: Identity Formation in South Asia by Kamaljit Bhasin-Malik, Three Essays Collective, New Delhi, 2007.

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Hinduism – 1: What is ‘Hinduism’?

October 12, 2008

Is it a Religion?

(The subtitle has been added following an intensive discussion that is recorded in the comments section. The point at issue was that the title of the post was misleading giving the impression that the subject pertained to the content of Hinduism whereas the intended perspective was quite different. The series was intended to explore the interactions of three religions (which is how we perceive history in retrospect, incorrectly as this series intends to argue) for which reason it was important to define at the outset the ways in which the three religions were alike and different. This anticipated the point raised in Part 2 of the series which referred to the first census in British India which institutionalized religious identities for non-religious purposes. In this census, the census-takers made the claim that in the etymological sense of the word, Hinduism is not, and never was a religion. The first two posts in the series were an attempt to deal with this definitional dilemma which is why the term Hinduism was used in quotes.)

I need some help from readers.

I am not a historian, nor do I have the luxury to devote time to intensive research. And yet, I have some hypotheses about ‘Hinduism’ turning over in my mind that I need to work through.

The only way I can do so is to take advantage of the blog format. I will set out the hypotheses as markers of my present state of ignorance and hope that readers will help chip away the false from the true and lead to a more accurate understanding.

This exercise will benefit me but I am sure it will be useful to all those in South Asia who are now growing up without adequate knowledge and information about their neighbors.

The principal questions in my mind are the following: What is ‘Hinduism’? What were the major characteristics of Muslim and Christian interaction with ‘Hinduism’? And how is today’s ‘Hinduism’ impacted by those interactions?

Here is how I see the questions at this time:

What is ‘Hinduism’?

There is a reason I have put the term ‘Hinduism’ in quotes. The very word makes me wary because it is an obvious Anglicism. The term ‘Hinduism’ could not have existed before the arrival of the British in India. It’s like referring to Islam as Mohammedanism, which is not quite the same thing. It is one of the isms like socialism or communism that derives its meaning from what precedes it.

So is it the ism, the ideology, of the Hindus? But the term ‘Hindu’ itself is of Persian origin and could not have existed before the arrival of the Persian speakers from Afghanistan. The river Indus marked the boundary of the domain of the Afghans and anyone who lived beyond the Indus was a ‘Hindu’. This was quite analogous to their use of ‘Hindi’ or ‘Hindavi’ as the generic term for the language of the people living beyond the Indus. This generic characterization made no concessions to the differences that no doubt existed between old Punjabi, khari boli, braj bhasa, Oudhi, etc.

People belonging to monotheistic religions like Islam and Christianity could not have helped speculating about the ‘religion’ of the ‘Hindus’. But was what they termed ‘Hinduism’ really a religion in the terms in which they understood it?

‘Hinduism’ has no one founder, no one sacred text, no one place of pilgrimage, no one time of worship. If we feel the need to pigeonhole it in the category of a ‘religion’ we must make the effort to understand what kind of religion it might be.

One can infer that before the terms ‘Hindu’ or ‘Hinduism’ came into vogue there were dharms or ways that characterized the behaviors of the people who lived in the lands of the Indus.

There were two principal characteristics of these dharms that are relevant to our discussion. First, the practices that made up these dharms were extremely localized. Different communities could worship the deity of their choice, participate in the rituals of their preference, and do it in ways that were convenient for them. Second, there was a uniform social organization that was very hierarchical with extremes of segregation amongst caste groups determined by birth.

Note that this societal arrangement of a centralized and common social organization with localized and differentiated ‘religious’ practices was quite contrary to what we are familiar with in pre-Enlightenment Europe with its centralized religious practices and localized social organizations.

I don’t know enough to go into how and why these arrangements emerged but from a modern day perspective I can hazard two observations about this ‘way’ or dharm.

First, from a modern-day perspective, the fuzziness (or lack of rigidity) of ‘Hinduism’ was its great strength. It made ‘Hinduism’ extremely tolerant, if not indifferent, to variations in ‘religious’ practices. There was no such thing as ‘deviation,’ no ‘heresy,’ and therefore no ‘inquisition.’ ‘Hindus’ did not feel the need to convert anyone to their own superior way or ‘religion’ and could coexist easily with outsiders. ‘Hinduism’ had the kind of philosophy and attributes one would want in all religions today.

Second, again from a modern-day perspective, the hierarchical social organization and discrimination in ‘Hinduism’ was its major weakness. Today, a worldview that looks upon others as ‘inferior,’ whose very shadow can be polluting, is not acceptable in the framework of human rights. This was acknowledged by the government of India that made caste discrimination illegal in the Constitution of 1949.

To conclude: ‘Hinduism’ before its interaction with Afghans and Europeans was better characterized not as a religion (in the Judeo-Christian framework) but as a ‘way’ with two dominating attributes; localized and flexible worship practices and centralized and rigid social organization. From a modern-day perspective, the first constituted a major strength, the second a major weakness.

To be continued…

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