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Updated: Apr 27, 2021

This discussion was held on 3 August 2018 as part of The Idea of Culture History for Peace conference in Calcutta.

Audrey Truschke. We are here to talk about the shape of cultures, in the plural, in history, specifically in the second millennium, in India. I thought we might start by talking about ‘religion’. Religion is—as far as I am concerned—often the elephant in the room. I mention religion in particular, because I was reading Kunal’s introduction to Romila’s book published earlier this year, The Historian and Her Craft, a four-volume work on religion and society. Kunal very correctly points out that Romila often writes about religion—in fact, she often forefronts it, and that is rather unusual for a historian.

Historians cite religion with some frequency, especially as a sort of legitimation tool for political power. For example, they will point out that a certain king benefitted from patronizing a temple or claimed to be nearly divine. However, in terms of thinking about religion itself—as a set of beliefs, as a set of practices, as a social phenomenon—that is quite unusual for historians.

Religion is something that unites all four of us on this panel today. Kunal, for example, has written at length about religion as a social phenomenon, including as a way through which the Brahmins interacted with indigenous social groups; he has also explored what happened through those interactions. Anand has talked about religion in a slightly different way in his recent book Jinnealogy, where he discusses Islam as an almost ethical inheritance. He has analysed Islam not as a set of theological precepts or something defined by going to the mosque but as a sort of inheritance that can be claimed by not only Muslims but also by all Indians.

In my own work, I have vacillated on the topic of religion. In my first book, Culture of Encounters, I shied away from religion. I chose to write about Persian and Sanskrit-based interactions and avoid the over-familiar discussions about Hindu–Muslim encounters. And I argued about how those interactions was really more defined by literary cultures and not so much about religion. More recently, however, I have returned to, or started anew with, using religious categories in my work. In part, that is a practical move as I increasingly try to speak with non-academic audiences—and so I need to use terms that everyone is familiar with. If we always use specialized terminology, no one outside the academy will know what we are talking about. But I have also returned to using religious categories because I think they are important—I think religion is important, and it does make a difference to how we understand history. It is everything beyond that which is subject to debate and analysis. Why is religion important? How does it matter through the course of the second millennium AD in South Asia? What religions are we even talking about, and in fact, what is religion itself (this being a category that really came to India as late as the nineteenth century)? So, with that, perhaps we will begin. If I can invite Romila to comment first, then we’ll go to Kunal, and Anand, and then the audience.

Romila Thapar. I am going to take a much wider view of the subject and talk about religion as part of culture. Therefore we need to be much more careful about how we define culture. Not just careful, but concerned. We have taken it for granted far too long. I think it is about time we look at it again and, in that, religion comes in as a category.

I am also going to talk about the link between culture and history, which I think is a very important one. To use the analogy that Naveen used earlier about the mirror and the shadow: one keeps on asking oneself which in fact is the mirror and which the shadow in the relationship between culture and history.

Is culture deliberately constructed to suit a particular purpose? Who constructs it? From what? Objects, monuments, ideas? Why is it constructed—with what intention? Now, in a sense, these sets of questions could also be asked of religion. I don’t know what answers we are going to get, but certainly one can think of it as a construction. Then, the questions follow: Who does the constructing? Is culture singular or do we have to talk about cultures?—and I believe the latter. Are our cultures or is any one culture among them self-contained, distinct? Or do they get integrated into each other and into the more dominant aspects of society? Do cultures pertain to only one segment of society? In particular, what do we mean when we speak of a Culture? When we talk about culture, our ancient culture, Indian culture, when we are trying to define this, are we defining it only in terms of a single segment of society? If that is so, it is generally the elite. Very few people will talk about anything other than the culture of the elite when they talk about ancient Indian culture. This is partly because it is a little difficult to reconstruct the culture of the non-elite due to the paucity of sources from this segment of society. Nevertheless, the interest is focused very much on a particular section of society.

Then the inevitable question comes: What is it that ultimately causes the non-elite to intrude, or to get inducted into what we call culture? And I would like to say that up to about the nineteenth century, what was defined as culture was the articulation of the dominant social groups’ past and present—what we assumed was the articulation of the groups of the past and what we know to be the articulation of the groups in the present. This was emphasized in the concept of civilization, and civilization has had three features that have been centrally important: (a) firmly demarcated territory (b) a single religion and (c) a single language. This‘single religion’ in the concept of civilization gives additional force to our understanding of the role of religion in history. I have problems with all three, but I will not go into them now because that is a different story altogether.

The other problem about the concept of civilization is that it has been treated as uniform and unitary. There were blocks: Graeco-Roman civilizations, Europe—West Asia—Islamic Civilization, South Asia—Sanskrit Civilization, China—Confucian Civilization. And these blocks moved forward in time. There really wasnot too much understanding of how the blocks were created and why they moved. But the twentieth century did see a shift in the meaning of culture and in the meaning of civilization. Some of us, for example, are worried about regarding civilization as a block—according to us, it is something that emerges out of the interaction between various groups. It is actually a very porous construction, unlike what we have been made to believe.

That’s one set of questions that relates to culture, to history, to religion and so on. I would also like to look at the role that history—or the treatment of history—has had in defining both religion and culture, and briefly talk about periodization.

We are all aware of the outlines. Periodization started with [James] Mill’s periodization of Indian History as the Hindu, Muslim and British periods. Mill was the founder, the creator, of the Two Nation theory. The Hindus and the Muslims formed two nations and were constantly antagonistic towards each other, and the periodization therefore was applied to Indian history. Even the labels—Ancient, Medieval and Modern periods—area reiteration of the Hindu, Muslim and British periods, because the parameters do not change in the reiteration. But this periodization has other effects which I think are very important for the understanding of both culture and religion.

The periodization, as it existed, assumed that once the so-called Hindu period came to an end in 1200 ad, the texts that were used to reconstruct the culture, the religion and the history of that period would come to an end. Sopeople stopped looking at Sanskrit texts and inscriptions—they believed that wouldbeall written in Persian and Turkish from then on because Persian- and Turkish-speaking people had become the rulers. So, source material that was crucial to the study of culture and religion was, as it were, put aside and not given the kind of importance that it should have been given. The importance of Sanskrit continues, as when I look at the inscription [from AD 1264], for example, which has both Sanskrit and Arabic versions. A Persian trader issues an inscription in Somnath, Gujarat, where he wants to build a mosque.The local people who are all Hindus are only too keen to give him land and facilities for doing so. The feeling one has is that here is a community that is so anxious to accept the activity of trade that religion doesn’t really interfere. They seem to have forgotten about Mahmud [of Ghazni] raiding the temple of Somnath, because they are perfectly ready to give grants of land from the estates of that same temple to this trader.

Or, you have the inscription near Delhi—the Palam Baoli inscription—in which, again, there is a merchant from Uch (near Multan in the Punjab) praising Muhammad bin Tughlaq, the local ruler,and describing him as very helpful and a great patron. This inscription therefore links the coming of the Turkish rule with the earlier rulers of Delhi, namely, the Tomars and the Chauhans, before Muhammad and his dynasty. It would seem that there was a smooth transition. One doesnot know how smooth it actually was, but it is worth considering that the people who were putting up these inscriptions and writing these texts had a different view of history from what we have, in terms of the change that took place during that time.

Sanskrit continues to be used in some of the most interesting texts of the big courts; the other texts come from the smaller royal courts of local rajas. My favourite two are the ‘Chambavamshavali’ [chronicles of the rulers of Chamba], written in Sanskrit, and the ‘Mushakavamsha-kavya’ [chronicles of the Mushaka dynasty in the form of an epic poem] from Travancore, also written in Sanskrit but which, I am sure, nobody really understood except those who composed it. But there we are. This continues, the epics continue, the Puranas continue. When I say the epics continue, I mean that they continue to be written in local languages, regional languages which become important for us. There are grammars, literary criticisms and endless commentaries on the earlier texts in Sanskrit, a large body of literature we have tended to rather sidetrack because of the feeling that, once we move into the medieval period, it is only the Persian sources that matter. Not that I have anything against Persian sources, but I do think that this continuity from the earlier times needs to be looked at much more closely than we do. Especially the Sanskrit texts from around the sixteenth/seventeenth century, because this marks writing in the regional languages.For example, Brajbhasha became almost a court language in the region of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh by about the eighteenth century.

Periodization of this kind also cuts off what is regarded as ‘items of culture’. When we talk about Culture with a capital C, we think of temples. And the periodization is such that we tend to assume that no major temples were built after ad 1200. But when you start looking at the really huge and wealthy temples, then you realize that many of them were, in fact, built precisely in this period—in the second millennium, and very often after ad 1200. These are big temples which play multiple roles. Now, what do I mean by multiple roles? We always think of and define temples in terms of religion—this temple is a sun temple, this is a temple dedicated to Shiva, this is a temple dedicated to Durga and so on. But I would like to say that temples have a very extensive role. First of all, what is their religious identity? That is important, of course, because they are ostensibly built for a religious purpose. The architectural style is also commented on. These two characteristics are what usually constitute the definition of the temple as an ‘item of culture’. But much else is very important: Who were the patrons? Was it always the royal family, the royal court? Or were there other patrons—wealthy merchants, for example? Local landowners? There was a variety of patronage that was important. Why do people raid temples as sources of wealth? Obviously because temples contain a lot of wealth in different forms. Where did the economic wealth of the temple come from? That is another aspect of the culture of the times and the religion of the times. What were the social discriminations that had been made in these religious institutions? Why is it that certain templesdecide that only certain castes and certain communities can come into the sanctum sanctorum to worship or into the courtyard, and so on?

These items of social discrimination are tied to religious attitudes, to culture, to social history, and have to be considered as well. What this kind of periodization does is that it tends to solidify the religious identity and cuts out the religious diversity that one normally associates with the articulation of places of worship.

Cultural items can be of many kinds, but broadly speaking, there are two distinctions: abstract ideas and tangible objects. In each case, there are again two issues that are extremely important. One is chronology, the centrality of defining when a cultural articulation occurs or when a religious articulation occurs—they donot all go back to the same period of time, much as we would like to think that everything began in the Vedic age and nothing was new. There is a great deal of innovation, of newness, that comes with history as we go along. The second thing that is important in chronology is a question of causation. Does B come out of A? Does A lead to B? Or is there no connection between the two? And this is as important in the history of religion as it is in the history of culture.

The question that has bothered me a lot and I have not been able to find an answer to it is: Were past societies also concerned about their pasts? How, for example, did the Guptas look at the Mauryas? We know how we look at the Mauryas, we know how we look at the Guptas. And then you have people saying, ‘Oh, there was a certain interest in architecture because there are pillars in the Gupta temples which imitate some of the Mauryan styles.’ Or, you have this one-off bit of literature, the Mudrarakshasa, a play by Vishakhadatta and is all about Chanakya, and the rivalry between Chanakya and the minister Rakshasa of the Nandas. Now, this is a deliberate attempt by someone living in the Gupta age to go back to an imagined Mauryan period and write a play about it. And I keep asking myself:What are the sources he consulted? Whom did he talk to? How did he get this information? It is very interesting. I think that we have to pay a little more attention to questions such as:What did people in the past think of their past? It is not always what we think of the past, but we also have to ask that question, which we seldom do.

Apart from chronology, an aspect which is fundamentally—politically—important today is the identity of a culture, or the identity of many cultures. Where, when and how does the question of identity become the framework of defining whose culture we are talking about? Identifying cultures involves recognizing patronage which is of various kinds. Again, we tend to concentrate on royal patronage when in fact there was an infinity of other forms of patronage, epecially when we consider non-elite cultures or cultures somewhat distanced from what we regard as elite cultures—wealthy individuals, landowners, wealthy traders, corporate groups and guilds. For instance, the Mandasor inscription was issued by a guild; there are also references to the Ayyavole guild in South India. Both ofthese were supporting cultures.We also have to lookat sourceslike this and ask: What are they telling us about the non-elites? Do we have information on the rest of society? And this, somehow, inadvertently creeps into the information about the elite sections. Does patronage change with style? Does style change with patronage? I am very struck by the fact that, in the early centuries of the first millennium, painting was largely mural painting, frescos and so on, on cave walls, palace walls, temple walls. When you come into the second millennium, to the Jain manuscripts, and later on, the Mughal period’s manuscripts, it is all miniatures, illustrating books—you donot get that interest in murals any more. Few, here and there maybe, but not such substantial interest. What changed? What led to that change?

I believe that there is a question of periodization as well as an identity. What is indigenous? There is a great debate these days in India on indigenous culture and ‘in the indigenous identity of things’—‘Is this indigenous?’ ‘Are people indigenous?’ ‘Are we Aryans indigenous?’ What do we mean by this? There is a very easy definition that is used politically, which is a certain given territory, a boundarywhich is usually the boundary—interestingly—of British India.Nobody goes back to the earlier boundaries because they are much too confused and change very often, but the one present-day, stable boundary was British India, until Partition came along of course, and so the indigenous becomes that which is produced within this boundary—and one thinks of cultures and religions, Buddhism for example, as it developed in an area like Gandhara. Gandhara lay in the North-West of the subcontinent, the Indus borderlands, the Swat Valley and areas like that, bordering on the edge of what came down from the Oxus plain and then later spread into Central Asia. Gandhara was the hub of Eurasian trade, right through the first millennium into the early second millennium ad. Who were the people ruling and who were the patrons of religion and culture? The Indians, the Achamaenids, the Hellenistic groups, the Kushans, the Hunas, the Turks, the Mughals, the Mongols?

Now, in all of this, one asks: Where is the indigenous? And yet, this is a major debate in what is called hybrid art—Gandhara art which is a mixture of the Greek,the Indian and Central Asian, and other forms of art. More importantly, it is the very hub of the beginnings of Mahayana Buddhism which plays a crucial role in the extension of Buddhism right through Central Asia into China, and from China into Japan. So, in terms of the defining of the religion, the spread of the religion, Gandhara is a key area. Yet, you cannot say this is what was indigenous to Gandhara because it was the most mixed-up area as far as population movements, political control and economic directions were concerned. It really is much more complicated.And what I find very interesting in terms of Gandhara art, becauseit is largely Buddhist of course, is that people once used to saythat it was the greatest art school that India had produced! Why? ‘Because it’s so Greek in its forms!’ In those days, Greek art was considered to be absolutely the best.Then you have the reactions of the nationalist art historians, saying, ‘No, this is hybrid art, it’s no good, it’s a total mixture.’ Now, there is a kind of gentle moving back to saying, ‘Well, we are not sure whether to call it the best thing or a hybrid thing. But it’s a very interesting school of art—historically provocative . . . ’

Then, there is the question of the historical method and historiography. Historians are now conscious of the fact that there are new ways of looking at the past, and as I said, even something like culture is being defined in a completely new way, partly due to the influence of archaeology and anthropology.Today, when you talk about a culture, you tend to be talking about a pattern of living rather than only about temples, mosques, mausoleums, philosophical texts, great literature and so on. You do bring in other aspects of life when you talk about culture being the pattern of living.

But in all of this—history, culture, religion and the areas that I have been talking about—there are other questions that also come up which need to be defined. If we are talking about one process that brings in new ideas and innovations, and changes society, then it is the migration of people—new people coming in and settling, and the Indian subcontinent has had an absolute plethora of migrants coming in. In a sense, the exercise that is being carried out in Assam today is a futile exercise if one goes back in history, because history witnessed migration after migration, and the Indian subcontinent is not an exception. Some people would argue—and I think with a fair degree of sense—that history itself is often a history of migration.It is the people coming in from all over, mixing, creating cultures, creating activities, creating objects that we admire. So, migration is a very important aspect too.

How do societies change? Through two channels: one is an external stimulus, and the other is internal social evolution. The external stimulus can be migrants coming in. We talk about the ‘strangeness’ of people in the North-West Frontier—none of these people were strange because there was a lot of communication between the North-West, the GangeticPlain and Gandhara, Bactria, the Oxus, Central Asia and so on. Partly, that is what introduced some kinds of religion into these areas. The internal social evolution is where, very often, subordinated communities are able to express themselves differently from the dominant communities,are able to assert themselves. This is a common and constant process, and, in a sense, when one is talking about assertion and the form of elite cultures, one has to ask: What is the context in which an elite culture is asserting itself? It is not doing so in a vacuum—there has to be the ‘other’, or something to which it is reacting or favouring. And so that context becomes extremely important to any aspect of culture, be it art, literature, religion or the economy.

Now, when we talk about external elements in migrations, we have to define what agencies are involved in introducing ‘foreign elements’.We are very fond of talking about it these days. There is so much emphasis on ‘Is this indigenous to India?’ Everything that makes us uncomfortable, we say it must be foreign—‘it’scome from outside’. What do we actually mean by foreign elements in a historical sense? The migrations of people? I have already mentioned the major migrationsfrom Central Asia. Similar were the migrations from East Africa and the coast of Arabia.People sailed across the Arabian Sea and settled along the west coast of India as did the Arab traders.On the other side was the Tibeto-Burman influx, the Ahoms and various other people who came with them. So there has to be an understanding of who the people are that one is talking about. What is their background? What is their context? What are their aspirations? How are they using items of culture in history in order to strengthen themselves or assert themselves? Is it through trade that they are coming in? Or through invasions? We give a lot of emphasis to invasion, but, in fact, invasions are much less important—they are sudden, they are immediate, the army comes in, ravages the place and goes out.What happens subsequently is the migration of people into the region, trade routes being opened up and religious missionaries coming in. If it hadn’t been for the Turkish, Central Asian invasions of north-western India, would we have had so many Sufi groups following after, coming in, realizing that this is an area where Sufi missionary work might be successful? It indeed was extremely successful, and if there are groups coming in like that, the next question is: How did they influence the existing religion? Obviously, they were not going to influence Brahmanism. Vedic Brahmanism was safe because it was isolated. But did they have any effect on other aspects of what we call Hinduism? And what were the effects that they might have had? So, it is no longer a case of talking about Hindus and Muslims. You have to break the categories down to which sects among the Hindus and which sects among the Muslims were in communication with each other, and what was the nature of this communication—they would not have been the same from one lot of conversations to another. Sometimes the sects are so mixed that it is difficult to identify them as either Hindu or Muslim. And when we are talking about religious missionaries, we cannot forget that the great missionary religions in Asia were Buddhism and Islam. Buddhism went to South East Asia, it went all over Central Asia—they sent out scholars (rather like the Jesuits of Catholicism) who went and lived in monasteries, translated texts, taught courses and all the rest of it. This is again something that we leave out of the discussion when we talk about religion in the late first and second millennium ad, but it is very important.

Let me return now to what I was saying at the beginning—history and culture. It begins with a fairly sharp distinction between North Indian cultures and the cultures of the peninsula. In the mid-first millennium bc, when urbanization was taking place in the GangeticPlain, what did we have in the south? We had the Kaveri valley, we hadsplendid megalithic cultures which a few historians try and correlate with what was happening in the north, an understandably complex theme. The first millennium sees the development of Puranic Hinduism and the Shramanic religions as they are called. And this is something which interests me very much. Because if you go through many of the sources from the Mauryan period up to Al-Biruni, religion is usually in the form oftwo strands: Brahmanism and Shramanism. The inscriptions of Ashoka, for example, always talk about Brahmanas and Shramanas, and this carries on even up to the time of Al-Biruni who mentions these two sects who do not get along. So, these two strands are extremely important. When a new religion comes in, as Islam, it comes in different forms. The Islam of the Arab traders who settled on the west coast of India was very different because it led to the emergence of distinct communities—Khojas and Bohras, Navayats and the Mapillas. It was not the same as the Islam that came in on the backs of invaders into North India. So, which groups is it in conversation with? That seems to me to be a pretty crucial question if one is talking about the interaction of religions: defining a particular religious sect and considering who they were in interaction with. It has been worked on much more by historians in the colonial period. The emergence of Hinduism as part of the Indian middle-class cultural tradition and history is much clearer because we have talked about it and discussed it to a greater extent.

My final point, of course, is the passing on of culture, or what we call culture. ‘This is our culture from the ancient period’, and then in a subdued voice, ‘This is our culture from the medieval period’—we are really not clear about this culture! So, what is it and how is it being passed on? It is not being passed on like a package from generation to the next—it changes. Every generation adds to and subtracts from and repacks the package, takes out things, puts in new things. So where is it that we arrive at finally and what is the process by which this culture, or these cultures, these religions, these social formulations, these economic forms take the shape that they do?

Truschke. There is a lot of rich material there. Maybe if I could invite Kunal and then Anand to comment?

Kunal Chakrabarti. The basic issues with which we are going to remain this morning have already been raised by Audrey and Romila. Therefore, without going into each of these or even attempting to do so, because Romila really touched on a very large part of the issues that concern the idea of culture, let me simply locate myself within this and say that I am a historian and I specialize in the ancient period of Indian history, and within that, one of my primary areas of interest is the history of religion.I must further qualify that by saying—the social history of religion. I do not work with theological doctrines and precepts. Within this specific area, I primarily work with Brahmanical Sanskritic texts. And therefore, all I have to say this morning will mostly be concerning Brahmanical religion and its relationship with other institutional and non-institutional religions in the pre-modern period, primarily ancient, but even later.

The reason I am calling it ‘Brahmanical’and not the more popular, well-known term ‘Hindu’ is that the latter is a term which was invented much later—how much later is a debatable issue. For example, a large number of historians in recent years have claimed that it is actually a colonial construction, that it came from the late eighteenth/ early nineteenth centuries, primarily in relation to the kind of cultural challenges that colonial rule brought about in India—the work of Christian missionaries for instance. Historians like Andrew J. Nicholson, for example, are attempting to push the boundary of the identity of Hinduism to about the sixteenth century—according to him, at least as far as philosophical ideas are concerned, that was when an attempt was made or a sensitivity developed to such inexplicable connections between various schools of philosophies. This then is from when one can begin to think of in terms of identified religion.

As a historian, and particularly as an ancient Indian historian, what I see is a congeries of religious cultures. Coming to the label Brahmanism and why I use the term . . . Romila has used and partly explained the term Brahman, explained that there were two major religious groups called Brahmanas and Shramanas, and this was both indigenously known and particularly observed by visitors. The Brahmans were the priests, the authors of the religious scriptures and, by and large, the custodians of the various religious cultures that developed within the umbrella of Brahmanism. Therefore, I prefer to call it Brahmanism rather than Hinduism. Some of you may know this, but it is still worth reminding ourselves: the word ‘Hindu’ came about quite accidentally.

As you know, the Arab traveller Al-Biruni first called the land to the east (because he was coming from the west) of the River Indus—Sindhu—‘Hindu’ because that is how the letter ‘Sa’ is pronounced in Arabic, and that is how this area came to be known as Hindustan. But since Al-Biruni was an extremely erudite person, he made efforts to learn Sanskrit and various other cultures that were available and left behind an extremely important text for us. In it he does not say that the religion of the Hindus is a single, unified religion; rather, he speaks of various religions. It is only from about the sixteenth century, with the coming of the Europeans, that we begin to get texts about Hindus—uninformed texts where there is an attempt to describe all the various forms, from the most animistic to the most elite, cultural and sophisticated, as part of one religion. Those fantastic images that the Hindu religion displayed and which are being described as much-maligned monsters, all of that began to come up from about the sixteenth century in European travellers’ accounts. Therefore, the term ‘Hindu’as a collective noun, representing a group of people who subscribe to one religious form—that is a very recent phenomenon. So, when we talk about cultures, we say ‘Brahmanical’ religious cultures.Or that’s how I look at it.

Romila also spoke about the spaciousness, the tolerance of the people who subscribed to the Brahmanical religious cultures and eventually came to be conveniently described as Hindus, using examples such as the donation of land to a west-Asian Muslim merchant to build a mosque and so on. If occasion permits, I will talk about how intolerant this Brahmanical religious culture has been and its relationship with the other most important institutional religion in ancient India: Buddhism.

Anand Taneja.There is a direct link between Professor Thapar’s work and my own. My book is about Firoz Shah Kotla, a fourteenth century ruin that has become a sacred site—a dargah—in contemporary Delhi. And, of course, at the centre of that ruin is an Ashokan pillar. What I am going to try and do here is talk for a few minutes about the particularities of the place that I have worked on, just to be able to connect it to some of the points that Professor Thapar and Professor Chakrabarti have raised. Firoz Shah Kotla has become quite prominent in Delhi as a dargah, since the 1970s. And here the saints that are venerated are not humans but genies/jinns. The title of my book is Jinnealogy (a pun on ‘genealogy’ of course): Time, Islam, and Ecological Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi.

Why time? People have relations with the jinns and they are mentioned in the Quran; jinns are present in a lot of Islamic folklore. But the idea of them being saints in their own right, having their own dargah, this is very unusual. So, why does this become such a prominent site in post-1970s Delhi—in post-Partition Delhi? What also began to interest me the more I began to talk to people and spend time there was the expansive sense of time that jinns open up for human beings. In the stories that people tell about jinns, whether it is in popular theological books or in oral historical narratives, the jinns—in Islamic cosmology, they tend to live much longer than humans—connect humans centuries otherwise far apart in time. In some stories, they connect Moses and Jesus to Prophet Muhammad—there is a jinn who has lived so long that he has met Moses, and he conveys his greetings to Jesus (so, he has met Jesus), and he conveys his greetings to Prophet Muhammad. These stories become prominent in post-Partition Delhi where the Islamic landscape of the city is very badly damaged, almost erased, in the violence that ensued in 1947. They also assume prominence because the postcolonial Indian state is really not interested, or has a very contested relationship (even though it is an ostensibly secular state), to its Islamic past. So, one of the things that I suggest in my book is: We cannot look at religion in isolation. There is a certain politics that people live in their everyday life, there is an experience of the politics of Partition . . . dargahs have been destroyed, mosques are no longer accessible, people have gone away . . . there is an entire landscape of memory and belonging that has been erased or is under threat, and it is at that point that you want to have this expansive sense of time and connection to the past which is disappearing from your experience of the life of the city, and that is what the jinns make possible.

So, how do we think about what religion is? How does it react/interact with politics? It is not always about claiming a certain state, it is not always about Hindu nationalism or the Islamic state. There are other ways in which religion and politics have a strange interaction and I think we can think about those things as well.

One of the other things, as Audrey also pointed out in her introduction to my work, is that we should not think of Islam—or any religion for that matter, but I focus specifically on Islam—as just another religious identity, or only as a religious identity, as we tend to do. Rather, we should think of it as an inheritance—an inheritance that is open to people beyond our standard religious boundaries. The reason I make this argument is that I have spent a lot of time doing fieldwork in this place, interacting with the people who come here, which includes both Muslims and non-Muslims, and the predominant sense among people is that ‘Oh, more Muslims come than non-Muslims.’ Even though everything about this place is very explicitly Islamic, the language in which people talk, the vocabularies they use, the theology that informs them, whether it is Hindus or Muslims, they all talk in this way. Why do I talk about an ethical inheritance? One of the interesting things about this space is that the people who come here (and I noticed this after a few months) do not use proper names. If my name is Anand, and her name is Audrey, you make some assumptions about who we are. I sound Hindu, she sounds Christian, white—but, what happens when people stop using proper names? These are people who come to this space every week, come every Thursday, become really close friends, form social bonds, and nobody uses names. Of course, they talk to each other a lot and share lots of family secrets, people even write letters to this place where they talk about their problems with their families.

So, one of the things I became interested in is how coming to this place allows people to re-make their lives and remake their sense of self. And of course, I began to wonder why it was this place, this Islamic place, this dargah, that makes it happen as opposed to other places. Why do they come here? And I started thinking about the logic, which is inherent in many dargahs, of gharib nawaazi—hospitality to strangers. It does not matter who you are—even if you are a stranger, you are welcome. This is an idea we see in the honorific of Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer, the most prominent Sufi saint in India. He is called ‘Khwaja Garib Nawaz’. So, this idea of garib nawaazi, which is an Islamic idea, is something that Hindus, Muslims and others are using in this space—to come to this space where they can shed their social identity (our social identity in India seems to be overdetermined by families), and re-make themselves.

I’m sure all of you have heard the song from Jodhaa Akbar, ‘Khwaja Mere Khwaja’, which starts with that invocation of ‘Ya Garib Nawaaz’. So, what is the distinction, then, between religion and culture when popular culture like Bollywood is constantly drawing on these religious tropes? One of the other things which I found was in the letters that people write at this shrine. The letters themselves are interesting because they are invoking an older medieval form of the shikwa which you would present to a sultan. But of course now those letters are often photocopied and have passport photos attached. In those letters there is a way in which the present and the past are in a constant dialogue. In them, people are often talking about transgressive affairs, wanting to marry someone who is from another religion or another caste or who seems to be disapproved of. This is happening at the dargah. If you look at popular Bollywood films, for example Veer Zaara where the Indian Hindu and the Pakistani Muslim meet—where do the lovers who were separated meet? At the dargah! Even if you look at the film Fire, which is a lot more transgressive—where is it that the characters played by Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi can first utter their desire to run away with each other? Again, at the dargah of a Sufi saint. So, there are ways in which the distinction between religion and popular culture is very porous in North India, or at least I found so from my experience of this dargah.

One more aspect to thinking about religion and its relation to the life of the city is that of ecology. Firoz Shah Kotla is a place where many animals come, and it is a place that has green lawns where people relax and like to spend time. I was trying to find precedents to this—was there ever a sacred place like this in Delhi? If you look at the eighteenth and nineteenth century descriptions of dargahs in Delhi, in Urdu and Persian accounts like Muraqqa-e-Dehli, the very nature of the sacred is often connected to greenery, flowing water and the scent of flowers. It is a very ecological sense of the sacred which is connected to Delhi’s topography and Delhi’s ecology in those eighteenth and nineteenth century texts. This, of course, gets broken by the colonial state first, then by the building of British New Delhi, and much more so by the postcolonial development of Delhi after Partition when the refugees came in and Delhi expanded substantially. The connection between these traditional dargahs of Delhi, or the traditional temples, and the ecology of the city, was lost. An entire way of inhabiting a sacred landscape, an entire phenomenology of the sacred, completely disappeared—except in a few pockets like Firoz Shah Kotla which are revivified. We have the disappearance of an entire experience of religious life in the city and there has been no work on this. There has been no work in religious studies or history to think about the ways in which people’s experience of the sacred have changed. So, what does that tell us about religion or religious experiences—and of course, ultimately, the identity of a culture that Professor Thapar mentioned? That is the question I want to return to.

If Hindus and Muslims can and continue to inhabit the same spaces and make these interactions with each other through these shared ethics, what is the identity of a culture? What is indigenous? If, as I argue, Islam is an integral part of North Indian culture, of ‘Indic-culture’, then what do we say of the distinctions that we constantly make between Indic and Islamic?

Truschke. One recurrent theme in what everyone has said is how specific aspects of the history of the second millennium in India and South Asia can challenge modern conceptions or modern ideas. I don’t know what everyone else thinks, but I feel that this is totally fine and normal, and in fact unavoidable. Just as culture is always articulated in a particular context, so too are our historical questions. We cannot take ourselves out of 2018, nor should we seek to do so. We should try to not read the past through the lens of the present such that we promote negative misconceptions, but, rather, admit our own contexts and consider how history might be relevant to us. I am thinking here about Kunal’s story of ‘Hindu’ as a term, as an identity, and how this emerges through the second millennium, then is adopted, integrated into Indian culture and society. Kunal mentioned that the earliest Sanskrit use of the word ‘Hindu’ is in the mid-fourteenth century. In the Vijayanagara inscriptions, there is mention of King Bukka I who adopted the title ‘Hinduraya-Suratrana’, meaning Sultan (‘Suratrana’ being a transliteration of‘Sultan’ in Sanskrit) among the Hindurayas (among the Hindu kings).

Two things I find interesting: one, that Bukka I is claiming not to be a Hindu; he is clearly saying, ‘I am a Sultan unlike these lower Hindu kings. ’Two: it is explicitly political. We are talking about kings here, we are talking about rayas, about rajas, about sultans. We are not talking about ‘Are you going to a temple or a mosque? Who are you worshipping?’ It’s not that sort of thing. So, we have come a long way from that identity to what Hindu is usually used to mean now, and tracing that story is so important.

I am thinking of other stories as well. Romila talked about Sanskrit inscriptions and specifically mentioned the thirteenth century inscription in Somnath where a certain trader came, built a mosque, and then for reasons that remain slightly unclear at least to me, he had an inscription made in Sanskrit about it—as opposed to an exclusively Arabic inscription. What struck me about the inscription is how non–self-conscious it is, at least as I read it. There is no sense that this is unusual—‘I am going to build a mosque, and I am going to have a Sanskrit inscription’. It seems like the most ordinary thing in the world to do! ‘People have been patronizing inscriptions in Sanskrit for temples and other places of worship for hundreds of years, why don’t I do the same?’

I would add another aspect to that storyline. I have been working recently on my third book which argues that Sanskrit texts and inscriptions sometimes have more negative depictions of Muslims—it is not always people sitting around and singing ‘Kum ba yah’! I have been working on inscriptions from the thirteenth century and the fourteenth century in particular, at different places in India. They talk very negatively about Muslims at times, but they do not use the term ‘Muslim’ or its Sanskrit equivalent but, rather,talk about mlecchas and yavanas.

What is really intriguing are the reasons for which Muslims are criticized in these inscriptions—because they are usually not specific to the people being Muslim. The main charges that are levelled—by what we would by now call ‘Hindu’ inscriptions about and against Muslims—is hurting Brahmans, eating meat and so on. These are accusations that Brahmans in particular had lobbied against whoever was acting against them for well over a thousand years before this. This is completely non-new—it has nothing to do with Muslims in particular. These inscriptions also repeatedly mention that Muslims drink alcohol. Whether historically accurate, it is a very old criticism and it is also said without any trace of irony. Obviously, in theory, Muslims are not drinking. Not only were these criticisms not specific but also the Brahmans patronizing them could not be bothered to even make them conform to basic Islamic theology and prescriptions against the consumption of alcohol. I think that is another way to get a bit of the history of violence into our stories about the second millennium as well, which I think is important.

The last thing I would pick up on at this point is this whole question of ‘indigenous’. What is indigenous to India? My general answer to that question is: Probably nothing! In a sense that nothing is indigenous to anywhere outside of Africa (as far as I am aware). With India, we have some sense of when people first came here, maybe 50,000 years ago. Even the basic building blocks of Sanskrit were not born in the Gangetic valley, so to speak. And so, to take a step back: instead of simply announcing ‘Nothing is indigenous’, why not ask: ‘Why does it matter?’ Why does it matter if things are indigenous to India or not? This matters in different ways for different people but it seems to me that the question is asked in the current political context in pursuit of seeking a singular narrative. The grand narrative. The Hindutva folks are always talking about this, the grand narrative of Indian history. What is that narrative and how does indigeneity seem to play a particularly crucial role there? I would argue against that narrative on the grounds of evidence (a lot of stuff is not indigenous to India), but also on the grounds that singularity is a problem. In my opinion, there is no single narrative of Indian history, nor should we be looking for one. A more honest reading of the Indian past is to see multiple narratives that overlap in some ways and do not overlap in others. And here, I think, is where historians confront a problem that perhaps we have not always been so forthcoming about. We tell stories that are not as good, narratively, as those who talk about the past in a non-historical way. A grand narrative about the Indian past may not be very unsatisfying in terms of the evidence, but it makes for a really appealing storyline. It has a clear plot, you can get into it, get behind it. I think it is very attractive in the twenty first century. And so, as historians, we are not only fighting on evidentiary grounds, which I think we win hands down, but on narrative grounds as well, where I think we are in a much more precarious position.

Taneja. Just on the issue of narrative, I think yes, historians, anthropologists, social scientists and everyone else need to put in more attention to the narrative. I think you are making a distinction here or maybe there is a conflation of something being good and something being simple?

I think it is possible to tell a complex story very well. Of course, we all need to work on our narrative skills and present things in public and do the battle, but not without losing complexity. If we look at the classical (Indian) tradition, the cultures of encounter in the stories that have been translated, why are those stories appealing to the Mughals? Why is the Mahabharata appealing? It is an incredibly complex story in which moral ambiguity dominates. So, who is the winner, who is the loser? Why is it that Karna, who should be an arch-villain, is one of the most sympathetic characters in the Mahabharata? So, no, I think we need to work on the complexity of stories.

I think we cannot shy away from histories of conquest. And this is where Shahid Amin’s work becomes important. There are negative depictions of Muslims, as Audrey pointed out—they hurt the Brahmanas, they eat meat, and that resonance of eating meat is something that we are dealing with in the politics of now. Drinking alcohol is interesting—I think we can talk about the ways in which Shahid Amin has complicated the narrative of what counts as ‘normative Islamic behaviour’. But when he talks about conquest in the narrative of Ghazi Miyan—just to do a quick recap—Salar Masood Ghazi of Bahraich is supposed to be the sister’s son, or the nephew, of Mahmud of Ghazni, the invader. Except that he has a massive shrine venerated in Bahraich in eastern Uttar Pradesh, near the Nepal border. He is supposed to be an even better warrior than Mahmud, and stories of his raids—even though that is all in some sense impossible to prove in history—exist as popular narratives. Shahid Amin’s work is to think about the community around that shrine which includes many people we would identify as Hindus. Salar Masood Ghazi is a Ghazi, an Islamic warrior, because he fights to save cows, not kill them. Whose cows is he saving? He is saving the cows of what we would now call ‘Yadavs’, or pastoral groups. And who are the villains in the story? The Rajputs. There are no Hindus in the story, there are particular groups. We have to deal with the history of this fact and with the contemporary reality of the fact that often those who are speaking of the Hindu identity are speaking in terms of protecting Brahman and Rajput privileges which were affected by the coming of the ‘Muslim invaders’.

Chakrabarti. Among the issues raised by Audrey, I would like to addressthe question of the construction of identities, especially of the ‘other’. For example, Audrey referred to the Muslims in the medieval Sanskrit inscriptions in which they have been represented in very negative and derogatory terms. This is not the first time that an‘other’ is being represented thus. Much before the Muslims, the Buddhists have been described by the Brahmans in more or less similar, if not worse, terms because,at one particular time in history, there was a fierce competition between Brahmanical religions and Buddhism for patronage. Primarily royal patronage, but even patronage from important local landed magnets, trading communities and so on. The other reason—this is what I want to emphasize and it touches upon the question of Hindutva and the singular grand narrative that Audrey was talking about—is that the Hindu self is essentially a very ‘loose’ self. That is to say, often the Hindus had to identify themselves, define themselves, in relation to the ‘other’. If we could go back to the question of the mirror and the shadow: the construction of the self has been in relation to the construction of the ‘other’. Andfor a very long period in ancient history, that ‘other’ was Buddhism. Because the two institutional religions in ancient India were Brahmanism and Buddhism.That was the real area of friction or conflict, and therefore, the question of tolerance came in.

Now, if I must spend a little time on why I think that the Hindu self is a rather loosely constructed—somewhat artificial—self, as it were. From my point of view, that is to say from the vantage point of history, there are certain fundamental problems in terms of certain essential features or characteristics of Hinduism. The first is that Hinduism is a religion without a historical founder. And in this respect, it is completely different from all other institutional religions of the world—Christianity, Buddhism, Islam,etc. Therefore, as historians, it is extremely difficult for us to decide from which point in time we begin to write the history of Hinduism. If I am asked to do a popular book on the history of Hinduism, it will be a moot point for me to decide where to begin. And that is the point when the question of the indigenous also comes in. What is indigenous? What was absolutely basic to the ethnic communities that lived in India before any of the Brahmanical religious cultures began to develop? What was before three-and-a-half millennia ago? Obviously they were practising religious cultures—what were they? How did they come to interact with the first attempt at institutional religion, the creation of institutional religion? Stemming from this absence of a historical founder is the absence of a stable canon. Now, obviously, no religion can function without a canonical mooring—it must have something irrefutable, immutable to go back to. The later Brahmanical literature, the Smriti literature, began to define the origin by referring to the Vedic literature as that canon. The Vedists themselves do not claim so and this is a very artificially created relationship.

As you know, the Brahmanical scripturesare divided into two groups—the Shruti,the heard or revealed truth, and the Smriti, the remembered truth. The remembered truth is continuously reaching out to the revealed truth. So, from a historical perspective, Hinduism has the advantage of the truth having been revealed towards the very beginning but being lost—however, not irrevocably.Thus, continuous attempts are being made to reach out to and reinvent that truth. That is the subsequent history. And historians—Sanskritists actually—Brian K.Smith, for example—have written books such as Reflections on Resemblance, Ritual, and Religion where he is arguing about six narrative strategies of going back to the Vedas, making connections, real or synthetic, but making connections to the Vedas nonetheless. Therefore, as I said, in the absence of a canon, it is a loose set of scriptures.

Religious communities, sects—these are terms being consistently used for about 200 years but they are problematic terms. When we started writing the history of Hinduism in English, all kinds of problems came up. For example, the term ‘sacrifice’, which is a conflation of both yagna and bali, or ‘caste’ which is a conflation of varna and jati. Similarly, ‘sect’ in Christianity has a completely different connotation from the sects in Hinduism. We use the term ‘sect’ as sampradaya, and that is why sampradaya and its derivative sampradaayikta (communalism) and so on and so forth. The trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva as ‘the sacred trinity’ has a very different meaning from what the term represents in Christianity.

To me, a very fundamental aspect of Hindu religious culture is the absence of a central monastic organization—that is absolutely fundamentally important to Hinduism. Think of Buddhism, what is the triratna—the three fundamental, inalienable principles of Buddhism? Buddha, Dharma, Sangha or the monastic organization. And what is the role of monastic organizations in institutional religions? They train their priests. Think of the Christian seminaries—there are courses, people are inducted, they have to do the required readings, sit through exams, qualify and then get into the priestly hierarchy. Similarly in other institutional religions. In Hinduism, who is a priest? The priest’s son! And that is the reason why we see this enormous variety among the Brahmanical priests. From the semi-literate domestic priests to the enormously erudite scholar whomay double up as a priest. This enormous variety is engulfed by one signifier that is the Brahmanical and the Shramanical priests. So, because of this peculiarly loose structure, there is no central monitoring agency for Hinduism. For example, to decide who is a Hindu and who is not a Hindu. What is unique to Hinduism is that it is one religion where no scriptural formulations have been made for formal conversion into this religion. In other words, if you are not born a Hindu, you cannot be a Hindu. That is, if you are born a Hindu, you can become a Muslim, you can become a Christian, you can become a Buddhist. But, if you are a Christian or a Muslim and so on, you cannot become a Hindu. At the same time, if someone claims ‘I am a Hindu’, begins to emulate the way of life of a Hindu, adopts a Hindu name (as Anand said, our names are giveaways), there is no single monastic organization to say, ‘No you are disqualified. You are not a Hindu.’

Look at the Krishna Consciousness Society which is popularly known as the Hare Krishna movement. They adopt Hindu names, adopt the vegetarian way of life, the Hindu dress, the Vaishnava religious cultures and claim themselves to be Hindus—there is no one to say with any definitive authority that they are not Hindus. So, if this is the description of the Hindu religious cultures, for it to define itself, it must necessarily have to do so by constructing a more definitive ‘other’ in relation to which the self is often defined. When you are creating an‘other’—there are different kinds of ‘others’, of course—there is a simple recognition of difference. If you look different, if you speak a different language, your food habits are different—you eat meat, you consume alcohol—that is one recognition of difference, that is one ‘other’. There are other ‘others’, for example—equal ‘other’, inferior ‘other’; but among the various ‘others’ that you can possibly conceive, the most strident one is the external and the deviant ‘other’.

That external and deviant ‘other’ for the ancient period was primarily the Buddhists for the Brahmans; in the medieval period, primarily the Muslims and so on. Of course that is not to say that throughout the medieval period—from the thirteenth century onwards, when in many parts of India there were Islamic rules—they have been consistently described in derogatory terms. Professor B.D. Chattopadhyay’s work, for example, shows from the Deccan inscriptions of the medieval period that they have been described as a religious community very seldom, extremely infrequently—he shows that the term ‘Mussulman’ has been used only twice in the large corpus of inscriptions he was looking at. There were Yavanas, Turushkas and so on. That is to say, they were identified in terms of the place of their origin, the languages they spoke, and so on. What I am trying to say is that there has been a consistent attempt at creating an external deviant ‘other’ because the deviant ‘other’ is the strongest oppositional category that one can possibly create.It is very important to know that theconstruction of the ‘other’ has been fundamental to the creation of the self for the Hindus. That is perhaps one reason why it is necessary for those who have been preaching the ideology of Hindutva to create a single community, a grand narrative, because there has been such a palpable absence of that.

One, therefore, realizes how artificial that attempt is. As a matter of fact, the ideals[S11] of the Hindutva are very ignorant people—I’m sorry to use a flat term like ignorant, but they indeed are. Some of them may have known some Brahmanical scriptures, but they are certainly insensitive to the history of the evolution of the religion called Hinduism, the evolutionary trajectory of Hinduism. It has always been a very fluid religion with very porous boundaries, and if you attempt to create that extremely well-defined, tight community in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’, it is completely destructive to the history of Hinduism—the very Hinduism that they are supposedly upholding.

Thapar. I am very bothered by the frequency with which we produce single examples of statements that we think apply to a larger group. I particularly mean this when we look at inscriptions and say, as we often do, that ‘the author is a Brahman and he is saying such and such about the Buddhists’ or ‘he is saying such and such about the Muslims’. I think one has to understand, one has to always ask, when we look at these sources: ‘Which category of Brahman is issuing this inscription?’—particularly in view of Kunal’s exposition of the differences in the structure of the Hindu religion. I am struck by the extremely interesting discussion, for example, in the medieval Dharma-shastras which go into great detail about who is of a higher status—the Vedic Brahman or the temple priests. It is a fundamental distinction and it arises simply out of the fact that there isn’t a clear hierarchy.

One of the inscriptions I was referring to earlier, the Palam Baoli inscription, written by a merchant in praise of Muhammad bin Tughlaq. refers to him as a mleccha. Now, this certainly does not mean a low caste, ‘other’ person—the author would not dare say that in the inscription about the sultan. So, what is he meaning when he calls him a mleccha? The context of the word becomes extremely important—you have to really go into the question of ‘What is this word being used for?’ Is it being used in the same way it is being used in the Vedas, and has a different meaning altogether from the way in which it is used in medieval times. He is foreign, he is alien, not foreign in our sense but simply alien—culturally alien. Although he is culturally alien and is a mleccha, he is to be praised for doing such and such work. So, you see, it is a different kind of meaning. And I think the contextual aspect is very important if we are going to talk about ‘Are these the views of the Hindus about Muslims?’

When it comes to the question of indigenous, of course, the whole idea has been in a sense muddied by the ideologies in the twentieth century. Indigenous is absolutely essential to the notion of the Hindu Rashtra—there is no question. The definition of Hindu in this conceptis he who is born within the territory of what we call India, which is, again, British India. The definition of a Hindu is that he follows a religion that originated within the territory of British India. Therefore, being indigenous is absolutely crucial. The debate about the Aryans being indigenous and not coming from outside—never mind the evidence from linguistics, DNA and all the rest of it—is not even a debate. Some just insist that the Aryans are indigenous. This is really tied into the question of Hindu Rashtra, and I think that this is something that we have to be very aware of as historians. In serious historical analysis, you have to keep the notions of the present at the back of your mind. I think it was Eric Hobsbawm who said that the best historians are those who are aware of the present when they are writing about the past, and I think that is a very essential feature of all historical writing.

The relationship between Brahmanism and Shramanism is quite fascinating. I am constantly quoting the passage from Patanjali’s grammar where he talks aboutthere being two dharmas—Brahmana and Shramana—and about the relationship between the two being comparable to the relationship between the snake and the mongoose. I think that just sums it up beautifully: that the relationship between the Brahmana and the Shramanais the competition, the rivalry, the instinctive hatred the snake has for the mongoose which is repeated in what Kunal was talking about. The Puranas are full of these dreadful people who go around in red robes—the worst things are said about them!

I am also fascinated by the fact that the Jains are attacked after the Buddhists have been kind of subdued. If you look at the literature, for example, in the Mudrarakshasa or other plays e written in the late first millennium, the Jain monk is always inauspicious, he is always the butt of hatred. ‘We’ve seen a Jain monk, it means our plan will not succeed’—this is a common attitude. Hence I am fascinated by Audrey’s work on the Jains and the Brahmans of Akbar’s court where they do not seem to have been abusing each other. Maybe they were, but not ostensibly. And I would love to know a little more about this relationship and what they were discussing about what was to be translated.

The construction of the ‘other’ is extremely important, as Kunal said. I would add that it was not just Brahmanism versus Shramanism—that is certainly how it is put in the texts and how it is read—but remember that the ‘other’ was also the avarna—the one outside caste. That is a very serious ‘other’—it is ignored because you do not bother about the avarna. The avarna doesn’t really matter, he is almost non-existent, but that is a construction which I think is very much part of the construction of the ‘other’.

The Hindu religion remains a religion of sects, to use that