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The Inter-face of Region and Religion in the Panjab-Romila Thapar


Updated: May 30, 2022

This talk was delivered as part of Shared Histories, a History for Peace conference for teachers held at and co-organized by St Kabir Public School, Chandigarh in May, 2019.

The Panjab was defined in a Persian text, the Char-Bagh-i-Panjab, written by a Panjabi khatriqanungo, Ganesh Das in 1849. He described it as a compact region, framed by the Indus river to the north before it turns south in the high Himalayas, and at the other end, the cis-Sutlej area. Das speaks only of the plains. This region gets extended to include the elevated region as well, where the five rivers of the Panjab rise, and which comes into prominence with the rise of the hill states from the early second millennium, and under the rule of Ranjit Singh and the Sikh misls. Substantially the whole region where the Panjabi language and its dialects were spoken, came to consist of two sub-regions–the five doabs between the rivers that constitute the plains–the lowlands divided into the upper and lower doabs, and the area along the foothills and into the lower Himalayas and extending partially into the northernmost doab, the uplands through which the rivers have cut their valleys, and where the foothills meet the plains. Das goes on to distinguish between the Panjab and what was often called Hind—the land and the people of the Ganga plain. I would like to trace the prevalent religions in the two regions and ask: Is there any co-relation between region and religion?

The two regions are morphologically and ecologically different. The uplands hosting pastoral communities and agriculture in the valleys, supporting small obscure kingdoms that came into prominence from the late-first and early-second millennium AD. The equation between pastoralism and agriculture was always rather chancy in many parts of Panjab. The uplands supported a larger population than the plains from the second millennium AD onwards.

The lower doabs, after a period of fertility, suffered desiccation and tended to be extensions of the larger kingdoms of the northern subcontinent and occasionally the Oxus plain of central Asia. The doabs towards the west—Sindh Sagar, Chaj and Jhang, mostly scrub and desert—were better for pastoralism as were the upper doabs, Rachna, Bari and Bist, except that here the flood plains could be cultivated. These sub-regions were ecologically fairly distinct. In the northernmost was located the Potwar plateau or the Salt Range forming an elevated island. The Mughals had their hunting grounds in the more southerly parts of the doabs.

Where the upper doabs met the foothills was the area of maximum communication with towns along the routes that passed through, parallel with the foothills. Frequent trade along these routes was from the north-west to the Ganges plain with some movement into the foothills. Each valley tended to host a small kingdom. The forms of religion prevailing in each sub-region occasionally overlapped in pockets, but were generally distinct. The outliers were in the upper Himalayan valleys bordering on and having affinity with western Tibet, and too distant to be part of Panjab.

By way of a preface I would like to reiterate that religion was never uniformly observed in India, neither vertically nor horizontally. It would be best to keep in mind the differing pattern of religions when speaking about even one region. I shall be arguing that there was a parallelism of different sects that prevailed in the Panjab. This parallelism took shape because of regional as well as social and economic factors, and inevitably was also determined by the kind of society that prevailed in the Panjab prior to the establishing of Sikhism.

A scattering of prehistoric sites point to a few small settlements. Towns of a substantial size emerge with the Indus civilization. Early evidence comes from cities of the third millennium, such as Harappa, Ganweriwala and Rakhigarhi in the plains. Harappa had a granary and grain-pounding platforms on the citadel mound that suggest the availability of grain in the vicinity. The high population density of the cities would support this. But by the mid-second millennium these areas are agriculturally much less active. The decline is attributed to hydrological changes and climate change. The reconstruction of religion remains speculative and will remain so until the pictograms on the seals are deciphered.

The first certain evidence about religion comes from the Rig Veda, composed largely in the Panjab plains to which the hymns refer, and their periphery–the saptasindhu area, and dating to the later second millennium BCE. It has been assumed that the Rig Veda was projecting a society that was uniform and singular, that of the Indo-Aryan speakers, and that their religion was Vedic Brahmanism. Linguistic evidence has been used to argue for an intermingling of Indo-Aryan speakers with non-Indo-Aryan speakers. More recently, genetic evidence through DNA samples is suggesting a mixed population of indigenous people and others coming from West and Central Asia. The construction of Vedic Brahmanism will now have to consider a variety of possible sources, both for religious thought and its practitioners.

Vedic society, the contours of which we derive from the Vedic corpus, was neither singular nor uniform, and reflected more than one population and culture. Questions currently being asked concern deviant customs, such as: cremation is preferred yet burial is discussed despite its being associated with the Asuras, the non-Aryans; or there are no remains of Vedic sacrificial altars in the lowlands and these are rare in the uplands. Curiously little of the Vedic religion remains in the Panjab, and not even a tradition of Vedic scholarship, until it was introduced in the nineteenth century. It is only in the Lahnda and Saraiki dialects that there are traces of early Indo-Aryan forms. Yet it was once an area with many settlements of Indo-Aryan speakers. The opening of the river valleys to upland settlements in the late-first and early-second millennia AD took some Sanskrit and rudimentary Panjabi into the uplands and resulted in regional dialects.

Vedic Brahmanism focused on a range of deities to be worshipped for diverse purposes; on the ritual of divinely sanctioned elaborate public sacrifices–the yajnas conducted by a hierarchy of priests; in the belief that there was an immortal atman, later associated with rebirth after death; and on rituals defining varna and vice versa. This neat trajectory of Vedic Brahmanism was opposed by groups of thinkers, some called Shramanas, and their sects. Among them were the Buddhists, Jainas, Ajivikas, Charvakas, and such like. They denied the existence of deities, questioned the performance of sacrificial rituals as worship, opposed the idea of an immortal soul and marginalized varna.

By the mid-first-millennium BCE, there were at least two recognized and distinct forms of religious articulation, referred to as the dharma of the Brahmanas and that of the Shramanas. This duality mentioned in many sources continued up to the time that Buddhism declined, but then took other forms and remained a presence in Indian religion, even if not always assertive and not recognized by modern historians. I would argue that the history of religion in the Panjab carries this duality in various ways and becomes evident in the religious differences in the two regions. The concept and diversity in these dharmas was rich and complex in religious terms and different from the ways in which they have most often been described in surveys of premodern religion in India. Even if the focus is only on what has been called Hinduism, the evolution of parallel sects and their deviant forms make of it a religious articulation quite unlike most other belief systems.

The Vedic presence becomes scarce in later sources pertaining to the Panjab.The brahmanas were never the dominant caste with access to material wealth as they were in the uplands. They performed routine rituals of later Hinduism and that was about all. Greek accounts of Alexander’s campaign in the Panjab indicate the existence of small tribal communities, ganarajyas, and of kingdoms. The subsequent Mauryan invasion may have brought some cohesion. But, interestingly, there are no Ashokan edicts in the Panjab doabs. Samudragupta claims to have uprooted the gana-rajyas. In the absence of a strong brahmana presence, it is likely that Buddhism would have been the more accessible religion.

By the turn of the Christian era, the duality of dharma was visible in the spread of the Shramanic religions, and in the new form of the worship of deities associated with Hinduism, focused on the worship of Shiva and Vishnu and other ancillary deities. The Puranas were initially the central texts of this worship so it may be called Puranic Hinduism. But these sects were flexible enough to incorporate or juxtapose other forms of popular worship, as, for example, the Shakta-Tantric cults and practices. The brahmana-shramana duality was widely referred to in texts and inscriptions. Patanjali describes it as oppositional and compares it to the snake and the mongoose.

In this period, Buddhism is more visible in some areas, as, for example, at Sanghol in the cis-Satlej area. The main routes and the Mauryan highway passed through the area at the base of the foothills, doubtless linking trade centres and administrative requirements. These would have interacted with at least a few Buddhist centres. The increasingly important links to Afghanistan and central Asia were being made through the Swat valley and the Khyber Pass. Should we see the Panjab as the frontier zone of the Kushana kingdom based in Bactria? Subsequently, Gandhara hosted the emergence of Mahayana Buddhism and, soon, traders, monks and Buddhist teachers were travelling to and fro central Asia to central China. Panjab would have been a geographical and political threshold.

The spread of Buddhism in the north-west was linked with the presence of Indo-Greeks and Kushanas. These in turn connected Panjab to Central Asia. The far bigger concentration especially of Mahayana sites, lay in the clusters of stupas and viharas in Gandhara with an epicentre in Taxila, and at the other southern end around Mathura. Buddhist centres at Taxila and Mathura book-ended the Panjab. One may well ask why there was a paucity of Buddhist sites in the plains of the Panjab. One exception was the Katas Raj, originally a Buddhist site, not too distant from the foothills but converted to a Shaiva site probably when the Hunas patronized Shaivism. Small temples are scattered across the Potwar Plateau in Hindu Shahi times, but none of any consequence.

These were areas that hosted the Yavanas who, interestingly, seem to have been more ready to convert to local religions than to convert the locals to theirs, judging by a few Yavanas declaring themselves to be Buddhists, and one who was a Vaishnava. The Yugapurana leaves no doubt about brahmana hostility to the Yavanas, who even as Vaishnavas, would not find an adequate caste status among those favouring the Manu Dharmashastra. The fear was that the Yavanas would destroy the varna system. They were declared to be of mixed caste—varna-sankara, with a kshatriya father and a shudra mother. But the Mahabharata gives them a high ancestry as the descendants of Turvasha, the son of Yayati. Did the Yavanas prefer the less caste-defined Buddhism, or was the theology more attractive, or was political patronage more supportive of Buddhism?

In southern Panjab, there was some activity around the area of the confluence of the five rivers and the Indus in places such as Multan. Possibly the proximity to the Bolan Pass reaching from Baluchistan to Iran was another route that had been used earlier and was now either continuing or being revived. From Multan, the route skirted the Satlej to the south and came to Delhi and Mathura. Were these halting points before continuing east into the Ganga plain? Trade along these routes would have involved horses from Central Asia and elephants and salt from the northern subcontinent. It was as a frontier region that Panjab received the Hunas. They were said to be Shaivas and severely anti-Buddhist. Shaivism continued but remained tentative under the Hindu Shahis, and soon the Ghaznavids also settled in the Panjab lowlands.

If ecological and climate change had brought desiccation to central Panjab in the late Harappan times, much of the doab area would have been dry scrub, given over to pastoralism—a condition that remained so in the western Panjab lowland until the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, clan names as occupants of the doabs changed from Rigvedic to later times, or, in some cases, their status was lowered. The Madras are mentioned in the later Vedic texts but in the Mahabharata their unacceptable social habits are criticized. The epics speak of the Kekeyas, Mallas, Ambasthas and such like, not mentioned in the Rig Veda or in later texts.  The Ambasthas were slotted as a lower caste. Was there a change of settlers or a change in custom that would have introduced different religious ideas and a non-observance of conventional codes?

During the first millennium ad, there is an absence of any independent concentrated political power in the Panjab. But by the second millennium there are two distinct foci. There is a visible bifurcation pertaining to religion between the upland, as different from the Panjab doabs—the plains or the lowland. Two new groups of people make an appearance. The Gujjars are pre-eminently the pastoralists in the upper doabs gradually moving to agriculture and migrating from north to south, and the Jats/Jatts who migrate from Sindh into Panjab and occupy the doabs, ultimately forming the main peasant community in the upper doabs where agriculture becomes  feasible.

The regional differentiation is marked by religious change in the late-first and early-second millennia ad. Some population movement from the plains into the valleys is indicated by the scatter of temples along the routes along the valleys, but none are spectacular or suggestive of major migrations. Temples of importance are located in the foothills and the uplands, some built in the late-first millennium but many more in the second millennium ad. Central Panjab seems empty of impressive temples, nor is there evidence of temples being converted into mosques as further south in the Delhi region, nor references to the destruction of wealthy temples. The Panjab temples were too insignificant and lacking in wealth.

The uplands hosted a number of small hill states, such as Chamba, Kangra, Saket, Mandi, Sirmur, Basholi, Guler. Average-sized temples of recognized architecture, dedicated to Puranic iconic deities mark their landscape. There is a hint of the same reaching the Potwar plateau. This was the edge of Panjab, the virtual frontier of the Hindu Shahi kingdom that extended into Afghanistan. Curiously, the temples of the foothills and the uplands suggest links less with the Panjab plains and more with regions beyond. The architecture of some temples, as for instance those in the cedar forest at Jageshwar in Kumaon, have been shown to be strikingly similar to some in Gujarat. Was this because surveyors, supervisors and masons required for temple architecture were unavailable in the Panjab? Or was there a lack of finances and patronage to build large temples such as those in Kashmir ? Or was there a lack of worshippers?

If we take the example of Chamba, the vamshavali is a chronicle that overviews the history as recorded by local authors. The Bhagavata and Skanda Puranas are claimed as sources. Links are made for local royalty by stating that an ancestor fought in the Kurukshetra battle or that the genealogy of the royal family has links with the Puranic descent groups and the family is of the ancient Suryavamsha lineage. It states that initially the siddhas arrived bringing the worship of Shiva through the appearance of multiple lingams. Their boons led to the rise of a dynasty. This is partially confirmed by the archaeological evidence of small temples to Narasimha, Ganesh and Nandi of around the tenth century in Brahmour/Brahmapuri, in a high valley. The temples were central to the settlement and dedicated to Puranic and local deities.

The chronology of the siddhas is uncertain. An important figure was Charpata, a known yogi from the Nathapantha of Gorakhanathas. But reference is also made to one from the south—dakshine yogasiddha. The siddhas/jogis were concentrated in the Potwar Plateau and most likely came from there. However their presence is shortlived as the uplands soon received many brahmana invitees.

Copper-plate charters of the tenth and eleventh centuries confirm grants of land and its ownership to brahmanas and temples. The grantee had administrative rights and the right to collect revenue and taxes from those in the jurisdiction assigned to him. In the twelfth century, the Varman dynasty decided to move the capital to a lower valley with a better command of the valleys and agricultural land, as well as access to the plains. This brought to a head as it were, the changes of the preceding centuries, with agraharas bestowed on immigrant and local brahmanas, to encourage their religious activities. This can perhaps be seen as a form of conversion through settling the equivalent of missionaries in new lands. The brahmanas legitimized the status of their patrons. The Chamba rajas claim to be Suryavamsha Rajputs, a claim that required bestowal by brahmanas. They could then take titles such as … paramabhatarakha maharajadhiraja parameshvara … deva … The kingdom by now was well-established and many more grants were made to brahmanas.

The royal Lakshmi-Narayan temple and others, such as the one that had an icon of Vishnu carved from a special stone brought from the Vindhyas, were constructed. Brahmanas were imported not from the lowlands, as presumably there were none, but from the Ganges heartland, Guada, and some who are called Dravida. The consecration of royalty is a political statement and requires legitimation from Brahmanical authority. Unlike in the doabs, the brahmanas in the upland are figures of authority and they propagate Puranic Hinduism. In theory, the social format of the Dharma-shastras was being observed, but local factors would have intervened. Nevertheless, the conformity was greater than in the doabs, the patronage of royalty in the uplands continuing to support Puranic Hinduism.

Land grants to the brahmanas and some others, follows a pattern familiar from areas other than the Panjab. It was the way of giving wealth, status and authority to the brahmanas. Inscriptions recording the grants speak of the samantas as ranas, and mahashrisamantas. Those consecrated as kings take the usual royal titles. This method of legitimizing kings guaranteed an income and status for the brahmana who created a genealogy for the king. This was also the introduction of Puranic Hinduism not only bringing in major deities but also incorporating local deities, all of which required priests to perform the puja. Some brahmanas took on this role and local priests could also be trained to do so. Commentaries on the Dharmashastras at this time debate the status of the shrotriyabrahmana with that of the temple priest. The local term for brahmana in Chamba was badu, and they either used their own names or took on Sanskrit names. Thus, badu Leghna has two sons, Gangadhara and Gayadhara. Gradually the kayastha scribes move in to record administrative matters. The vamshavali was maintained by the purohitas and the raja-gurus. The pattern is not limited to the Panjab upland.

Influence from the Panjab doabs seems to have been marginal. Occasionally, a Persian word enters the vocabulary of the inscriptions but most of them gradually start using words from Chambayali, the local dialect. Upland society was also distinctly different from that of the upper Himalaya, further up, which was integrated with the Buddhism of western Tibet, as is evident from monasteries such as Tabo and extending to Alchi in Ladakh.

The plains present a different picture. Much of the area remains pastoral with some agriculture in the upper doabs. The absence of substantial temples continues. There are hardly any land grants to brahmanas in the doab areas. Had there been a need for settling brahmanas in the cultivable areas of the flood plains, a system of grants would have been possible. This absence is noticeable even before the arrival of the Ghaznavids so it cannot be attributed to the region being ruled by non-Hindu rulers. Why there was a paucity of brahmanas as compared for example to the hill states, needs an explanation.

The dominant caste in the plains was that of the khatris, who like the brahmanas in other areas had received grants of land but were more active in trade and administration. They did not need to convert to Islam when the doabs came under the rule of the Sultans and Mughals. It was enough that they adopted the Persian language, were indispensable at court—the etiquette of which they readily internalized, and had access to the higher administrative positions. Das does not hesitate to laud his own caste and claim that they came originally as migrants from ‘Hind’. As upper-caste Hindus, the khatris did not have to be intolerant of the Sufis and Jogis since, similar to all upper-caste Hindus, they already had a target for their intolerance—the avarnas, a group that existed as part of every religious society.

What begin to appear from the early-second millennium AD are the dargahs of pirs, and some centuries later the impressive gurudvaras. Das gives a list of places sacred to a variety of sects. Temples of various kinds add up to about 47 out of the 224 places listed as sacred sites of various religions, which makes them approximately one-fifth. Plotting religious structures of premodern times on a map emphasizes the difference with the upland areas. How is this to be explained?

The narrative of the doabs revolves around other religious groups. The Sufis from Iran and Central Asia first arrived as migrants in the confluence area of Multan. Their impact on popular religion and culture were of greater significance than the Ghaznavid, Ghori and Mughal invasions. The Sufis came to Multan and Uch in the early second millennium and from there moved upriver to Lahore and then south to Delhi. Their settlements tended to be in the vicinity of towns and trade routes. The absence in the Panjab plains of brahmanas in important positions, as well as records of land grants to them, is a striking feature. Curiously, where they do seem to be wealthy and with status is, for example, as horse traders, mentioned in a votive inscription from Pehoa, north of Delhi.

The local Sufis initially were also mentors to the pastoralists and the peasants. Some degree of conversion to Islam took place with its appealing message of social equality, but the effectiveness of the latter was soon negated, since caste-status remained unaltered. Islam was not the path to social equality. Conversion was more often by jati rather than individually, so that occupation and rules of marriage continued. Perhaps those claiming to be Rajputs in the Panjab and who converted to the Sufi religion, as many did, used their existing caste to maintain status.

Political patronage was available in Lahore and Delhi, during the Tughlaq, Lodhi and Mughal period. Khanqahs arose in various places, some quite magnificent as tombs of the holy men. They became the physical focus of the followers and were imbued with the sacred. The grandeur of royal mosques came with Mughal patronage. Wealthy temples of earlier times were sparse, if any. Provision of meals and day-long recitations of Sufi and Bhakti compositions gave the khanqahs greater brilliance than just a place of worship. Sufi supporters were largely khatris and the Jatt peasantry, the same that supported the Jogis and later the Sikh gurus. The common audience was a reflection of much that was common in the teachings of the gurus and the pirs, and was a source of bonding. The Sufis received grants of land and claimed to bestow the grace of God on their patrons. But they did not bestow lineage connections to ratify the political authority of their patrons, as did the brahmanas. The Sufis, coming from Central Asia, were viewed more as a historical continuum from previous times. Buddhist monks of various ethnic origins had come and gone through this region. The provenance of the Nath Jogis was unimportant. They had incorporated some of the Sahajayana Buddhism into their teachings and this might be a clue.

Baba Farid in the twelfth century travelled from his khanqah in Pak Pattan, a crossroads of trade, to Lahore and then to Delhi where he had disciples such as Nizam-ud-din Auliya. Sufi teaching projected religious freedom of a kind that had not been unfamiliar in earlier Buddhism as well as the teaching of various Bhakti sants. But some Sufi sects were closely Islamic. Nevertheless, the more open Sufi teaching would have found a resonance among other sects who had similar views on the meaning of religion and the search for God.

Among the latter were those associated with the Nath Siddhas, popularly referred to as Jogis. Their ideas came from early Shaiva sects such as the Pashupatas and Kapalikas and strands of Tantric and Shakta teaching. But ultimately, they worked out their distinctive beliefs and practices as taught by their own gurus and siddhas. A centre was established at Tilla Jogian in the Potwar plateau/the Salt Range. Some sects acquired fame later as the Kan-phata Jogis. Because the Nathapanthis preached among the pastoralists and peasants, and had unconventional teachings, and some pursued an interest in alchemy, they were treated with suspicion by the orthodox and the upper castes. Alchemy was viewed as a search for immortality, as indeed was hatha-yoga, as a form of control over the body. The formless and eternal God was of lesser interest.

These were the sects that carried traces of the earlier teachings of the shamans, the mystics and some of the renouncers. Their mathas as institutions became a focus of religion not devoid of wealth from donors and the patronage of the powerful. Who could be so rational as not to succumb to magic, mantras and superstition? Some replaced even the few brahmanas that had earlier been legitimizers of status. The followers of these sects were recruited from among Hindus and Muslims with just a slightly higher percentage of the former. These would be largely people for whom caste was not central to ritual, and commonly held religious beliefs would be foundational. Both the Natha Jogis and the Sufis, whose teachings were often close, constituted the main religious identity in the doabs. As such they differed from the Vedic, Puranic and conventional Islamic. They created what I have elsewhere referred to as the flexible Guru-Pir religion. The aim was to so love God/the Deity as to achieve oneness with him. The Sufis call it fana, literally annihilation. This teaching echoes some of that from the Shramana religions although the paths chosen, differ.

The network of Jogis grew to be extensive in northern India with their own circuits of pilgrimage, their own sacred centres, their own commercial interests as is common to most religious groups, and eventually their own sectarian hostilities. Their teaching and observances were distinctly different from those of Vedic Brahmanism or Puranic Hinduism. There was some proximity to Sufi teaching such as that perfection is necessary to be free from rebirth in order to attain moksha. Their claim to evoking powers of all kind attracted some royal patronage but it was limited. The question is how many of these practices went back to other altogether different sources such as those of the prevalent shamanism quietly pursued by many. Were the siddhas continuing the shaman traditions?

The patrons who gave status to the Sufis and the Nath Siddhas were not herdsmen but the chiefs of large tracts of pasturage, a few of whom took on the airs of minor royalty. This is the background to the most-loved qissa or epic of the Panjab, Hir-Ranjha, and Bulleh Shah interprets it through Sufi philosophy.

Hovering in these various religious centres were concepts from the Bhakti sants. It could be argued that elements of this teaching come to the fore with Nanak. Did Nanak derive some of his teaching from this tradition as is suggested by the verses from Kabir and Ravidas quoted in the Adi Granth? That the path ultimately led to the Sikh kingdom possibly has more to do with the politicization of the Khalsa under the later gurus. Ravidas’ concepts reflected the aspirations of the avarnas and eventually he was to become important to the mazhabi Sikhs. What the Sufis, Jogis and Bhakti sants had in common was a distancing from the orthodoxy of the formal religions—the brahmanas, qazis and mullahs. The marginalization of the brahmanas also meant that the notion of pollution was not so immediate. However, it was by no means absent as is evident even from the large number of mazhabi Sikhs and pasmanda Muslims, apart from the usual avarnas.

One may ask whether the evolution of Sikhism can be described as a successful attempt by Nanak at welding a variety of religious sects functioning in the plains, into a broader unified religion. It reflected the range of prominent Panjabi castes with a primary khatri following, expanded to the Jatt peasant castes, and further incorporating the various avarna groups. Custom and practice pertaining to occupations and kinship rules continued despite the adoption of another religion. By contrast, Sikhism had a limited presence in the upland. The Puranic Hinduism of the upland was strengthened in the Panjab doabs, particularly with the emergence of the middle class through colonial enterprise. This was accompanied by the wish to recreate Vedic Brahmanism via the Arya Samaj. Colonial policy was ready to trifurcate religious identities into three: Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs.

If what I have argued is sustainable, then the obvious question is: What occasioned such diversity and its patronage? Did the differences in geomorphology and ecology, condition the variation, and if so then up to what point? The doabs were open to the spread of Buddhism, and later of Islam, as happened also in Central Asia, but Puranic Hinduism marked a lower presence. Did pastoralists in the scrubland and the desert, and peasants in the riverine plains of the doabs, find the flexibility of Sufi and Nathapanthi teaching more attractive than the greater rigidity of caste-based Puranic Hinduism of the upland valleys? Urban traders along the main route linking the towns of the foothills might have searched for more overlapping religious thought and practice in the midst of many sects.

What this also highlights is the basic duality in most religious expression in India that continued from early times. Every religion has diverse sects, some breakaways and some add-ons. Every religion has orthodoxy and heterodoxy. A few of the latter aim at opposing orthodoxy, others at competing for status, but most at providing a viable routine for daily living. This may determine whether religion assumes a monolithic theology and institutional structure, or whether it can be more flexible with multiple sects whose existence is conceded although they may not all live harmoniously. I would like to argue that the majority of the people in India have generally preferred the second. This may be because of the close interknitting in particular between religious practice and caste. Where, when and how rituals are performed are indicators of caste. This has greater clarity in some sects than in others. Since religion is a human creation, it must reflect human society.

Question and Answer Session

Raman. I’m an independent documentary filmmaker. My question relates to your observation that the Brahmans afforded a sense of lineage or provided a lineage to the rulers of the day. Would you say they also provided legitimacy to the rules that the different rulers made and how it suited them.

Thapar. Yes, very much so. The desire for lineage, especially when you link that lineage to the Puranic lineages, which you do if you claim to be Suryavansh or Chandravansh—you are automatically linked to the lineages of the earliest Bharat Varsh. The moment you do that, you get legitimized, you not only get caste status but get legitimized. It is your right to rule because you have the right connections.

Raman. Would you say that is the beginning of the mixing of politics and religion?

Thapar. I think politics and religion have always been mixed. It is a question of mixing them to a further degree. Yes, this is an aspect of mixing politics and religion.

Navleen. How do we bring into deeper consciousness that which we think is our religion? The so-called monolithic organized religions that we’ve been put into are nothing but colonial constructs. The Puranic people or ancient people were more flexible and more fluid in terms of what they believed and how they interacted with people who believed in something else. How do we bring this into a local or deeper consciousness of the people of today?

Thapar. I think the difference is not so much of time, it is also a question of which social strata. We moderns do think much more in rigid frameworks than people of the past. There is a tendency and I deliberately use the word ‘tendency’ for those that belong to elite groups—kingship, aristocracy, higher administration, court circles and so on—they tend to conform much more to formal religions because they have to declare themselves to be this, that or the other. So religion tends to get frozen, however flexible it may be—Buddhism is a lovely example of that—it begins in a very flexible way and then slowly and gradually gets frozen. When that happens, the groups in authority begin to formalize the religion. But if you look at the religion of the majority in these societies, it’s much more flexible. It crosses many borders. Take somebody like Hinglaj Mata, who was a very famous deity of western India pre-Partition, and still is. She has a shrine near Karachi. Who are the people who go there to worship? Umpteen Hindus and Muslims. The Muslims call her Bibi, the Hindus call her Mata, but they are all there together, worshipping.  Now that to me is a much more important aspect of the link between religion and society and the potentiality it holds, both for religion and the way society develops, than just the limited religion of the few people in authority. And how do we get to that? We get to that by looking at sources other than the ones we’ve been helmed in up till now. We move from the text to the oral traditions and we start asking communities what their prayers, their songs and mythology was in the oral tradition. You start looking at the objects that they worship. Not simply in fashionable social terms of ethnic religion—no. You look at it as the reality of the religion of the community that is doing that worship—what does it mean to them? Why do they choose these symbols, these particular deities that have nothing to do with Hinduism or Islam or any other religion? What is their relationship with something beyond them which they call religion? Then I think one begins to understand much more clearly, not only what was the religion of the larger population at that time but even aspects of the formal religion. Remember, that whatever is observed by those in authority is not cut off from their supporters. So if you have a following which says ‘no, I don’t quite believe in this deity, I prefer that’, there is a tendency for authority to say ‘we’ve got to carry them along with us, so we will also incorporate’. And the history of Puranic Hinduism is an absolutely magnificent history of incorporation. Every time there was a problem, they incorporated the deity—it became a part of Hinduism. It’s like a conversion, really. You don’t go through the formality of the conversion. You simply incorporate the object of worship, the people who are conducting the worship and the people will worship him.

Navleen. I have a follow-up question. We talk about religion but do we also know about factions of people who lived without religion?

Thapar. We should know, because there were enough of them. People either lived without religion or had doubts. And very often it is those doubts that lead to another sect coming up. After all, Buddhism and Jainism started with doubt. They doubted the Vedic, Brahmanical tradition and started thinking differently. So yes, you have to consider those that are supposedly without religion and try and understand why they are without religion.


Romila Thapar is an Indian historian as well as an Emeritus professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her principal area of study is ancient India.

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