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 term since we are familiar with it. But didn’t it undergo a very major shift with the Bhakti movement which we have not fully recognized? Not simply in terms of all these preachers and teachers, but precisely in terms of structures and the construction Kunal was talking about. The Bhakti movement has historical founders, it has something of a canon. Not in every case, but each sect has texts that it goes back to and regards as absolutely fundamental to the teaching. You have to know the texts, you have to discuss those texts and be familiar with them. As a reaction to this, maybe because of the attack on Buddhism, surely the matha in some cases plays the role of the vihara? They are both celibate and non-celibate and all the rest of it, but they are organizational institutions for the propagation of religion. Of course, the one major difference which Hinduism cannot appropriate is that it cannot be a missionary religion. Because of the caste factor mainly, but other features as well. But I think that this fundamental change that comes into the Hindu sects where you do not have a unitary Hinduism but a multiplicity of smaller sects which take on the form of a unitary religion by incorporating these features. This is an important difference between what happens to it from the first millennium to the second.
Chakrabarti. Yes, we must remember two things. One: is that it isn’t just Buddhists—I gave the example of Buddhists because the competition there was most fierce, the institutional identities more clearly etched. Usually, in the Puranic texts in which they are castigated in no uncertain terms, the term that is used is the internal critics—the nastikas. The nastikas, the lokayatas, the charvakas, etc.—that is one. And the ‘other’, particularly from the early medieval period onwards,are the tantrikas, and, more importantly, the more extreme vamachara tantra—the left-handed practices. For example, the kapalikas and so on.They are lumped together into one category who are denigrated by the Brahmans. When I say Brahmans, please be sensitive to the fact that we are not speaking of one community of people. It is a huge variety and a precisely constructed hierarchy depending on time and spacen. As early as 1912, a German Indologist called Wilhelm Holdfast produced a small book published by Strassburg publications, in which he wrote, ‘I have never come across a community of people who are so diverse and yet go under the same name—Brahmans.’ There is this enormous variety of the Brahmans and that is why Eleanor Zelliot wrote that wonderful book called Untouchable Saints: An Indian Phenomenon. This is one religion where untouchables are a strict no-no. At the same time, some of them could become as venerable as the founder of a Bhakti religion. So, yes, these Bhakti religions had a historical founder, many of them created a monastery or the matha. If they didn’t, their followers later did. Kabir, for example, had very little to do with the Kabir panthis. But the Kabir panthis later created their own canon, their own mosques, got patronage from the local zamindars, had land granted to them and so on. There are very large communities within Hinduism, for example the Sri Vaishnavas, the Veerashaivas,etc. The only difference, I’ll say, is that, over a period of time, these have been subsumed by the expansive frontiers of Hinduism as smaller sects within the same religion. No one would say that Ramanapanthis or Kabirpanthis are not Hindus. However they might have begun, however different their histories are from the central narrative of Brahmanism, they are still part of Hinduism.
I have a theory and I want to share it with you, particularly with you, Romila. All over India, wherever a new Bhakti or a new community arose, they eventually became a part of Hinduism except in Punjab where Guru Nanak came and then others, and created a very strongly identifiable community, became a separate religion or came to be recognized as a separate religion. My hunch is—and I wrote once that those who work on Punjab must work on this and dilate upon this—that it is because that is one major area in the Northern Indian plains where the Brahmanical penetration has been the least. That is the reason why the local Brahmans didn’t work to get it into it, and so it developed a history of its own.
Thapar. Since Kunal has raised the question of Punjab, I must mention that I have always been intrigued by two things. The Dalits in Punjab, of course, are segregated in orthodox Sikhism and take to the teachings of Ravidas who was himself a Dalit. That is partly what I was meaning when I talked about the avarnas being the alternate ‘other’. Because you do get, in the Bhakti movement, Dalits setting themselves up as teachers, which is necessary. But the more important point that has always intrigued me—and I have not found an explanation for it—is that in every religious group in Punjab that uses the Punjabi language (and most of them do), the word for God is ‘Rab’—a good old Arabic word!
Truschke. Just a brief comment: I like Brahmanism as a term for ancient India. I am not so convinced, however, of its usefulness in the second millennium, and I wonder if we see that in the jump from Brahmanism to Bhakti. I think that there has to be something in between. Brahmanism would seem to be in some sense an indirect definition of high Culture with a capital C. Bhakti is something much more diverse. What comes between these? Do we want to call it Hinduism? I don’t know, but I think there has to be some sort of broader thing there.
Shubranshu Roy. I am a student of history from Delhi, not a scholar or an expert. In the history that we have studied in school and later in college, or even later, the discourse tends to focus on what happened in the Puranas and Rigvedas: how old they are, etc. Or on what happened after the Muslims came, are the Muslims Indians, are the Afghans Indians, are the Turkmens Indians, is it east of Indus or west of Indus? There is hardly any reference to the travels and the logs of Hiuen Tsang and Fa Hien. They were dismissed in a mere paragraph or so. But according to most history books, he came to India during Emperor Harshavardhana’s rule, he came when Islam was taking shape in Arabia. If you go through his detailed descriptions, then you realize thatthe Hindu way of life was practised in Tashkent—there were Shiva temples, they were practising both Buddhism and Hinduism, there were Brahman priests in Tashkent, in Kashgar. But somehow we seem to have disconnected from Audrey said that there are no indigenous Indians—weren’t those people really Indians? The entire Indian culture and civilization might have been there, right from central India—it doesn’t need to be defined as what the British defined India as, the land east of Indus. Why is this not a part of our education and discourse? What did these people talk about? They talked about things like Rath Yatra in Tashkent in those days. They were also worshipping Buddhist deities over there, but nobody seems to be reading those books.
Chakrabarti. I know very little about Tashkent, so I cannot speak about that. But about the presence of Brahmanical religions outside the confines of what is now territorially called India—the best example, of course, is South East Asia. When I first read Sheldon Pollock’s exposition of the idea of the Sanskrit cosmopolis, I thought it was overdetermined. It is only after visiting South East Asia that I realized how true it is at one level. There were, in fact, very fertile interactions between what we call India today and this very large land mass called South East Asia. But why don’t they form part of our discourse? That what is part of Brahmanism was also practised—there are inscriptions in Sanskrit, there are ‘Hindu’ icons (and Buddhist, of course, to a very large extent)—they have their own individual histories. They are not part of a single history. Whenever there is a history of interaction, this comes up in a big way. Greater India is a concept that needs to be put under the microscope and seen very critically. Romila, would you like to comment?
Thapar. I think this is an extremely interesting question: ‘What did we export and what happened to it?’ And it is a question that began to interest Indian historians at the beginning of the twentieth century. But, it involved very tough work because it meant not just reading Sanskrit but also many other languages, and the matter just trickled away! And nobody today seems to be terribly interested. What fascinates me is: until about the ninth or tenth century, you have both Brahmanism and Buddhism rapidly rushing to South East Asia, establishing themselves, competing for status through royal patronage, and royal patronage is doling out vast sums of wealth to both religions. Gradually, however, Brahmanism declines and Buddhism remains. This is a very interesting question: Why is it that though both these religions were on par with each other at one stage, Brahmanism—and not Budhhism—declines by the eleventh/twelfthcentury? And so, today, the mainland countries of South East Asia are Buddhist. The islands converted to Islam in Indonesia and adjoining coastal areas.
The other side, which we are even less aware of, is what happened in Central Asia. On the Silk Route, you had both Brahmanism and Buddhism travelling out from north-west Indiaand going into Central Asia. What happens is that, in the beginning, you have the odd Brahmanical temple and the odd Buddhist monastery there. Gradually, the Buddhist monasteries become more powerful. A number of Indian Buddhist monks travel out, live in these monasteries, translate the Buddhist texts into Sogdian, into Uyghur, into Chinese, into other languages of those monastic centres and trading centres, because the main wealth comes from trade. And here again one says, ‘What happened to Brahmanism? Why did Buddhism become the predominant religion?’ Then, of course, after Islam arrives, a lot of the Buddhist territories convert and become Islamic. So we again wonder: Why is it impossible for Brahmanism to take root outside India? Which brings us back to the question of ‘What is indigenous?’ Why were this particular group of sects (which we call the religion) limited to this part of the world, to the subcontinent? This is something that historians have yet to understand.
Something else that amazes me in this connection is that you had very learned and wise people going out as monks to these monasteries in South East Asia and Central Asia. Two things happened: a revival of learning in South East Asia, or an establishment of learning with old Javanese and Sanskrit running hand in hand; and texts being written—for instance, the most marvellous narratives of the Ramayana. The Javanese Ramayana is very different from Valmiki’s, and even more different is the Malaysian Ramayana which brings in Allah and nabi [prophet] and everybody else coming and chatting with Ram and Ravan and what have you. It is really adopting what is thought to be a fundamental text to local, religious and social needs. And that aspect is very interesting.
On the Central Asian side as well as the South East Asian side, the Chinese travel out to Central Asia on their way to India from the fourth century ad onwards, and write copious books on their travels. Where they went, how they went, how they were received, what was the degree of Buddhism people knew, what were the texts they were reading and about all these little or not so little Central Asian kingdoms. Finally, they come to Nalanda, spend time here and go back. We have a complete textual coverage of this from the Chinese point of view from about the fourth century ad to about the tenth century, but nothing at all from any Indian. Dozens of educated Indians go there but they do not write a single sentence!
Truschke. So far the question is: Why don’t we hear about Indian things outside India? My answer is that, you do hear a lot about that, all the time. Scholars do talk about that with a great degree of frequency, just not in the way perhaps that most people expect. So,did something like ‘a Hindu way of life’ exist outside India? I’m sure it did at some place and some time, but ‘Indian’ and ‘Hindu’ are not coterminous. There are other ways to look for things that originate in India, outside the subcontinent. For example, think about Indo-Persian poetry or Indo-Persian translations of Sanskrit texts into Persian. What happened to those? Did any of that material get back to Iran? Some of it did, but not very much. The Persian Razmnama—a translation of the Mahabharata from Sanskrit into Persian—is printed today out of Tehran, not out of India. So thingsdid make it back even though they were not necessarily ‘Hindu’ or at least not exclusively ‘Hindu.’
Also, I would introduce the terminology of South Asia versus India, and that is not because I like it but many scholars do use the term ‘South Asia’ or ‘South Asian’ as opposed to ‘India’ or ‘Indian’. I don’t like ‘South Asia’ in some ways because it is a ‘social science’-like term—it is a creation of the cold-war world and post–cold-war world. I don’t like that sort of newness of it. But I do like ‘South Asia’ insofar as it separates out the modern nation-state of ‘India’ created in 1947, whereas what came before need not be subsumed within a nationalist reading of the past. I think shaking up our terminology can help us resist the push towards a nationalist narrative, which I think is a push that we all feel even if we want to resist it.
Chintan Girish Modi. What would this discussion be like if we introduce the category of faith in addition to religion, and what would anthropology and history have to contribute to that discussion? I am thinking here especially of the work of Jurgen Wasim Frembgen—a German, he was born into Christianity, then embraced Islam and then wrote an ethnographic study of the pilgrimage to Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine. What is it like when a scholar talks about their own practice and their own faith when they are writing about religion? What are the gains and challenges in that scenario, as opposed to this discussion where we are talking about practices, beliefs and religious structures of people out there—but we don’t really have to put ourselves in that discussion?
Taneja. I am going to start with a sh‘er—‘Meer ke din-o-mazhab ko puchhte kya ho un ne to/qashqa kheencha dair mein baitha kab ka tark islaam kiya’. I am not just being flippant by quoting Meer and saying ‘Why are you asking me about religion and my sect? I have put on the qashqa and sat in the temple’. What Meer tells us is that, in the eighteenth century when he was writing it, the possibility of embracing what seemed like ‘otherness’ outside the confines of one’s social and religious identity was real. The ‘other’ existed not only as an antagonist but also as a possibility for the self.
This is a trope that keeps coming up in Urdu poetry. How does faith influence our reading and our understanding of what is objective humanity in social science research? And how does the idea of faith work for my fieldwork? So far, we have talked a lot about religion, but we have not talked about faith. So let me start with the ethnographic thinking about the ‘other’—the person who is not me, whom I am talking to, and then bring it back to the ‘self’.
When I was doing fieldwork, the question of faith—or what in Islamic terms would be aqeedat—didn’t really come up. What came up was maan-na—to believe, and, more importantly, lagaav or mohabbat—attachment and love, respectively. People seemed to have a very intimate relationship with the saint or saints of Firoz Shah Kotla, based on various kinds of encounters, most often, dreams. A figure in your dream tells you something—that is a figure of inspiration, that is a figure of dream. That is not something social science deals with very well. Does that mean it is not an integral part of human experience? It is! And I think what we need to do is to start to think of that as people’s religious experience instead of as rationality, and the ways in which that is actually often transformative in their lives.
What do these dreams refer to? This is where history might have to come in conversation with psychology, and anthropology needs to be in conversation with theology. To think about the ways in which certain aspects of the past or history also manifest themselves through dreams. Taymiya R. Zaman, a historian, has recently written an essay in The American Historical Review about this: What does it mean for me to be a believer and yet study history? What are the ways in which I have to distance myself to produce a certain kind of work?—and you have to disassociate yourself from being a religious person to be allowed to say a certain kind of thing. Your objectivity is immediately in question. Can I be a good historian? Can I be a conscientious historian and also be a believer? This is an important question and one we need to pay attention to.Otherwise, we leave the field open to—let’s just say the word—the Hindutva-wallas, who often have a political project as their idea of Hinduism as opposed to a certain kind of lived relationship to the faith. So, it is not an answer, it is a series of suggestions to take things further.
Truschke. I am asked about the relationship of my personal religious disposition to my work with some frequency and it is not a topic that much interests me, so I decline to comment on it. But I am much more interested in general assumptions grounded in Protestant thought that we all share. This comes out more powerfully in the United States, where I live, butit probably comes up here as well. As I emphasize to my students, you don’t need to know anything about the Bible or be a Christian in order to have embraced some basic Protestant presumptions, such asthe idea that monotheism is better than polytheism, the idea that religions need to have a single book, and, perhaps above all, the idea that religion is in fact about faith, that it is about an internal disposition. These are Protestant-based assumptions that were not alwayspresent in Indian society before the colonial period. And, I think, once we recognize this set of preconceptions that many ofyou share regardless of where you go and pray, or, whether you do or don’t, that can open up new ways of thinking about religion in India’s past.
Chakrabarti. The texts that I work with are mostly prescriptive texts where you are being asked to be faithful. From that, it is difficult to deduce what faith exactly is. We begin to get a testament of faith from about the medieval period, from the literary product of the great Bhakti saints. Much earlier in the South. In the North, from about the medieval period. The translations of these texts give you an idea of what is meant by intense, selfless surrender to God, a matter of faith.Those of you who may not be familiar with the original vernaculars, you could read the excellent translations by A. K. Ramanujan, for example. But that is one kind of faith, the faith of a practising saint. When somebody is asked to practise a set of rituals. For example, the vrathas, vows to visit centres of pilgrimage, teertha and so on—people are performing them on a regular basis, undertaking penances, inflicting pain on their body, getting into a temporary renunciatory mode. But what do these mean? That is actually the anthropologists’ domain.Unfortunately for us who work with ancient Indian texts, we have very little to go by. But, yes, I am curious about what it is that compelled them to make that commitment and undertake that renunciation.
Audience Member. I am a student of social anthropology as well as a student of history. And I think I am in the most confused state ever! I am always in a dilemma about what I should follow as an anthropologist. One of the biggest problems I find is applying social anthropology in reframing history, or reframing religion. I think as anthropologists we face this problem every day. We don’t know how to frame religion on the basis of people’s perspective, and, at the end, there is ancient history waiting for us, to criticize us. So it is an entangled and very complicated matter. As anthropologists, we always try to put people’s perspective first, and then think about the scriptures. To be very honest, when we talk about religion, we cannot ignore the scriptures.On the other hand, in the modern world we live in, we cannot leave out people’s perspectives either. So, how do we arrive at a compatible and happy bond between these two perspectives?
Taneja. I don’t think I will be able to give you a good answer without knowing the specificities of your fieldwork. The methodology of sociocultural anthropology is ethnographic fieldwork: you go and spend time with people—you spend a lot of time—until you begin to understand the way they understand the world, and it unsettles the categories you bring. For example, working at Firoz Shah Kotla, the ideas of Hindu–Muslim and the easy divides between them were completely unsettled. Ideas of past, present, how people relate to history—completely unsettled. That unsettling is the primary thing that we do, and then bring that to existing debates, existing literatures. Rather than applying the ideas we are picking up from anthropology, it is the people we are talking to who allow us to question, challenge and broaden what our definitions of categories are.
Coming to how this relates to the texts: this is something that I have actually worked with a lot—through people who talk to and have a relationship of veneration to jinns. Is there a South Asian precedent to this? When you begin to look for a precedent, you may not find it in the ‘usual religious texts’. In my case, I found it in rekhti poetry, a genre of Urdu poetry in which men write in women’s voices, claiming that they are recording the lives of women. Like [Sa’adat Yar Khan] Rangin who claimed to have invented the genre in the late eighteenth century, and who said, ‘I am just documenting the lives of women I know and setting them in verse.’ Twenty per cent of his diwan is about women’s relations to jinns and fairies. You can trace that back to the Quran and other aspects of the Islamic tradition, except that it is not a straight-line transmission in the manner of what one sheikh is saying to the next sheikh. There is, rather, a popular reworking and remaking of ideas that are present in the Quran. Of course, you constantly have to be aware of the interplay of politics and history and everyday life, and that is what anthropology does.
Audience Member 2. My question follows from the last one about teaching history in schools. What we end up teaching is almost a grand narrative-driven event–incident–ruler-driven narrative—there is very little about cultural materialistic approaches. Which is why I found it so interesting that most of this conversation draws on evidence from inscriptions. Sadly, we have not found a way to insert that into the school syllabus. So I was wondering if you had any suggestion as to how, when we are dealing with multiplicity of cultures, do we deal with that in tight frames of curriculum?
Thapar. Dealing with the multiplicity of cultures is certainly tough, but I think you have to sort them out. I don’t mean do a typology or a characterization, but sort them out in terms of: Whose cultures are these? What are the practices? What are we actually dealing with here? What is the agency through which the culture is being promulgated and what is the purpose? I think these sort of questions would help you to do a kind of cross-cultural analysis of multiple cultures, which is really what you want. Because if you study them individually, you have a bouquet of cultures and you don’t know what to do with this bouquet, especially if the fragrances are different. But if you do that kind of cross-cultural analysis, it might give you some idea of the interrelationship between those cultures. For example, talking about the relationship between Brahmanism and Buddhism, we should also look at the interrelationship between Vaishnavism and Shaivism, and their construction of each other. These are as interesting and as revealing as the construction of the definitive ‘other’, the external deviant ‘other’ and so on.
Truschke.A practical tool I use in my college courses when I do an overview of South Asia is that I sometimes teach the same period twice, using two different models. First, I would do, say, Indo-Islamic political history, covering the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals. That is our classic ruler-driven narrative that emphasizes kings, like Muhammad bin Tughlaq, Akbar, and so forth.Then, I would go back and cover the same period of time by looking at Sufism. So, there are a couple of big Sufi momentsthat happen: people coming into India, centres being set up in certain places, and so on. The downside of this approach is that you can end up with the illusion that the two storylines are disconnected. Of course it is not so. I don’t do this for all periods of South Asian history, but I do find that an exercise like this can jar students out of thinking—‘Oh, it’s all about who is sitting on the throne in Delhi’, when there is so much more going on.
Taneja.Having been a student of history in Indian classrooms, it was extraordinarily political. It is all a history of what happened, what happened, and what happened. Especially after you stop talking about the ancient period. So, is there a way we can broaden the conversation between/beyond a kind of teleology of politics and the nation- state? I wonder if getting people involved in more localized exploratory ideas of history might be beneficial. Just now, while we were having a discussion over coffee, someone talked to me about how just talking of the history of his own family really problematizes the category of Hindu. So why not do that in the classroom and open it up for discussion? And have an exploratory and discussion-based model which is very much rooted in the local, like there are things in Calcutta, Delhi, in places in-between, where there is an enormous amount of local history. We should be pushing people to explore that local history by themselves rather than simply memorizing names and dates. Of course, that requires a completely different model of how history is taught and who decides what the syllabus is, and I don’t know if we are capable of doing that in the current political dispensation.
Audience Member 3.The first question is: If the relationship between Brahmanism and Buddhism was so antagonistic, how did the nature of that relationship change? When we look at it today,we don’t see that kind of an antagonistic relationship any more. The second question is: We have been saying that Brahmans are a very small group or a small sect, at least that is what I understood from the conversations. If that is the case, then how did such a small group acquire this kind of power or hold for itself from the very early times or the ancient period?
Chakrabarti. At the level of institutional identity, there was a very fierce competition—that doesn’t mean that from the very beginning there wasn’t an exchange of ideas. For example, the Buddha was born into an intellectual milieu which was distinctly Upanishadic, and he imbibed a great deal from that. As Buddhist philosophies and the Brahmanical schools of philosophies developed, they interacted continuously, as did those who worked with such traditions, Wilhelm Holdfast for example, gave an account of the intellectual interaction between the two. The two major schools of Buddhist philosophy—Madhyamaka and Yogachara—deeply influenced some of the so-called Sikh schools of Hindu philosophy. So,on that level, interaction was continuing despite fierce competition for patronage, the question of identity and the construction of the ‘other’. By the way, I have been speaking primarily from the point of view of Brahmanism, because these are the texts I am more familiar with.There wasn’t an almost equal attempt to define themselves, stave off these attacks from the Buddhists’ side, neither was there a reciprocity of symbolic violence that the Brahmanical religion performed on Buddhism. So, obviously a lot was going on in that sphere, but there was also that very strong intellectual tradition where there was give-and-take at a very fundamental level.
Of course, there are certain landmarks, as it were, in the trajectories of this relationship—for example, Shankaracharya, the ninth/tenth century and so on. From about the fourteenth century, the hagiographies of Shankaracharya began to come in, so we get to know about his digvijayas—victory tours. He had been engaging the Buddhist philosophers in public debate and defeating them, and was, in a manner of speaking, reasserting the supremacy of Brahmanism-like Shaivism, because he was a Shaiva. So, that is one identifiable landmark if we construct a trajectory of the relationship. Part of the larger and complex history of that same relationship is the question of what happened to a very large community of Buddhist leychies, what its relationship with the Brahmanical religions was, what was the nature of their interaction. Then, after Buddhism more or less disappeared from the Indic land, as it were, what remained were the ideas. Of course, what also remained were the institutions, martyrs for sometime—which, due to lack of patronage and various other factors, went into decline. But what certainly remained were the ideas, and a time came when they became indistinguishable from the set of ideas which were closely articulated by the Brahmanical philosophers.
Thapar. Let me give you a worm’s-eyeview which is rather different from what Kunal was doing—he was quite correct, but I feel that there is another view as well, that relates to the question of faith and religion. As I see it, faith is something very individual. Each individual does or does not have faith, and the nature of the faith that that individual has depends very much on the individual. And I would bring in the psychologist, the social anthropologist, the historian and the theologist, because I think that is extremely important to the study of faith and to the understanding of faith. The other side of religion is partly dependent on faith. You have to have some degree of faith in order to follow a particular religion, but it also involves a study of the social institutions that arise in the name of that religion. Whether they be monasteries,chaityas, stupas and the worship at these, whether they be temples, pathashalas or gurukulsor whether they be mosques, khanqahs,madrasas—these are institutions that organized religions have for socializing their followers into a particular kind of society that they think is the ideal society. That institutional side, the socializing of people into institutions, I think, is a very important aspect of religion which has a bearing on the influence of religions on society.
Let me illustrate this by saying that what is interesting is, of course, the dialogue between Brahmanism and Buddhism in the early period when they were equally matched, or when Buddhism was better off before it gradually declined. There are two sides to the control that these religions have—one is the question of superstition and astrology. I think that is extremely important to the hold that certain kinds of Brahmanism in particular had on royal families. We find that in the Indian tradition—I think it was in your book, Audrey, that you talked about Aurangzeb’s astrologer Ishvaradasa. There is a whole tradition of Brahman astrologers who are attached to Mughal rulers and presumably this goes back to earlier times. It is the same with the Brahman element in the South East Asian royal kingdoms. It is the astrology aspect which was extremely important to the royal family and was a very strong tie between Brahmanism and the royal families. Now this is just one aspect, but we cannot ignore it because it is an aspect that touches on both faith and religion—even if in a peculiar way.
The other very important aspect is, of course: How did these religions manage, control or involve themselves in the economy of that period? We now have studies of Buddhist monasteries,Gregory Schopen’s studies, for example, of Buddhist monasteries being deeply involved in commerce and trade. They are staging points along trade routes, they are investors, and they act as financial banks, and there is evidence coming through all the manuscripts that are found on the Central Asian trade routes that many of the Buddhist monasteries were commerciallyabsolutely crucial to the traders. Now I am not suggesting that there is an economic basis to everything religious, but there is that side to the institutions of religion that we cannot ignore and have to understand.
Similarly, it is quite interesting that the rise of Brahmanism in a substantial way occurs after the Gupta period—the late first millennium adgoing into the second millennium, when the maximum number of grants of land were given to Brahmans. The Brahmans are, in fact,much more dominant as recipients of handsome grants of land. If you look at the Chola economy, for example, where detailed studies are being done, it has been argued that, during the Chola period, the Brahmans as a whole virtually controlled the economy because they had very strong investments in commerce as well. So, I think these are aspects which we cannot ignore because these aspects financed, organized and helped expand the institutions that religions established as institutions for socialization. They may have stopped at some point to merely socializing and actually become economic institutions, but they have remained important and need to be looked at.
Abhishek. I am a student of peace and conflict studies. Coming back to the question of the idea of indigenous culture of India, don’t you think that our mixed culture is actually our indigenous culture? Just to explain the matter—there is an inherent culture among the Bengali Muslims in Bengal as well as in Bangladesh, where they say ‘Paye hath diya salaam karo’, which means ‘touch the feet of the elder and do salaam’—prostrating in front of the creation rather than the creator itself. So don’t you think this mixed culture, which had been indigenous, can be the source or resolution of conflicts?
Chakrabarti. Yes, obviously there has been so much give-and-take, particularly in certain regions at given points in time, that it is difficult to claim exclusivity. Therefore, the kind of syncretism that eventually comes out of this relationship may demand a different denomination. Call it indigenous, or what have you. For instance, the example that you took of the Bengali Muslims—fortunately, a lot of work has been done on them and therefore I need not speak for them. As late as the census of 1901, Richard Eaton writes, when someone was asked ‘What is your religion?’ in the enumeration of his identity markers, the response was ‘I am a peasant.’ The reason, of course, is that the identifying characteristics of Islam were not very strongly imbibed by a very large number of Muslims in Bengal, and that is one area where the study of Islamization has been done by Eaton. This is a major question in Indian history.
Almost all over the world, wherever Muslims ruled over an extended period of time, if not the majority, a very large number of people have been converted to Islam—except in India. But there are pockets, for example Eastern Bengal which is now Bangladesh, which became overwhelmingly Muslim, and Eaton actually shows the historical process of the extension of the frontier through which the particular socioeconomic underpinnings of that, the ecology of that movement and all of that has been discussed. But the most important thing is that these people, the local peasants and primarily fishermen of this very swampy, low-lying area, where land had to be reclaimed in order to start wet rice cultivation, had imbibed a combination of popular cultures. One of the most important elements of that has been the epics, which once Romila had described to me as ‘the two most important civilizational texts of India’. And as A. K. Ramanujanonce said in an article, ‘It [the Ramayana] is so pervasive, that an Indian doesn’t really have to read in order to learn.’ They imbibe, as it were, almost through a process of osmosis. So, these were obviously very well known to the Muslim peasantry in Bengal. That you get to know from literature, you get to know from sociological studies, and that explains the importance of the Wahabi movement in Bengal to bring about pure Islam. The Faraizi Movement too, which is almost particular to Bengal, to revive pure Islam. The popular element, or, if you want to call it indigenous.It doesn’t matter what label you give it, but there was a very strong intermixture of popular cultures at the grassroots level—there is no doubt about that.The Bengal Muslims are a very good example of that.
Truschke.Might I just add as a footnote on the Indian epics—I think that one really crucial point about them that many people have made is that these are not exclusively Hindu epics. We have Jain versions, we have Buddhist versions earlier on,we also have Persian versions. The Ramayana, for example, was first translated into Persian in the late 1580s at the court of Akbar,the Mughal emperor, and thereafter, there wasan explosion of Persian Ramayanas over the next 200 years. There are over two dozen discrete Persian versions of the Ramayana story that still exist, many of them dedicated to Mughal emperors including Aurangzeb. So you have this mixture of high and low cultures, stretching across religious boundaries, as it were.
Thapar.I think your question also raises the issue of, to be absolutely blunt, the Muslims migrants. Are they all migrants? All Muslims? Or are they local converts? We tend to say that Muslims are migrants, they are foreigners, they are aliens because we only look at the elite groups where there were Turks, Afghans, Mongols, Mughals and Arabs—a few of them actually, but nevertheless. If you look at the majority, they are Indians who converted.Now, what does conversion mean? Normally, you have a religion that converts and says that the person converting forgets about everything else, obliterates their earlier religion. However, if you are converting by caste, as it seems to have been the case with Islam, then those caste practices and mythologies inevitably continue into the new religion. You’ve been brought up on those, generations of your family have been brought up on those myths and practices, they continue. The proof of this is partly, again, what many of the orthodox Persian texts of the eighteenth century say—their objection is to all these lower-caste Muslims who joined in Holi and Diwali and celebratedthem with all the others who were doing so. So there is a fair amount of celebration among Muslim castes as well—lower castes particularly.
The second thing, of course, is that you have a strong avarna section in Islam—a strong Dalit section in Islamic society. The pasmanda Muslims are after all Dalits and are kept alienated and segregated. Now, this is a very complex separation vis-à-vis conversion. It is not an ordinary conversion and I think it is something we need to study much more.
Taneja.Of course the idea of indigenous culture which is a mix of cultures should be promoted because it complicates the very easy binaries that we have, but I don’t think we can stop there because that also has the implicit idea that this is syncretic, this is Indian, hence it is good, it is still us. For example, the RSS uses that idea to promote the concept of the good Muslim versus the bad Muslim. So, they will promote someone like Raskhan who used to write Krishna Bhakti bhajans—as a good Muslim. But if you don’t do that, you are not ‘integrating’, you are a bad Muslim. This idea of syncretic culture is important, we should promote it in the North, so we talk about Ganga–Jamuni Tehzeeb. What I am trying to say is, coming back to the point Romila made earlier when she was talking about the Palam Baoli inscription where Muhammad bin Tughlaq is a mleccha: he is a sultan but he is also a foreigner. We really need to come to terms with foreignness as an integral part of what we are. Islam and Christianity bring foreign things, they bring different sets of ethics, they bring different understandings of morality, they bring different theologies and people choose them. People have voluntarily chosen them through generations. So, that foreignness adds to whatever it means to be Indian and we should, instead of being ‘nationalist’, have a more cosmopolitan understanding. Someone is a stranger, someone is bringing new ideas and different ideas from outside—we have something to learn from them. This is why people have turned to those ideas and this is the basic idea of historical respect for conversion. People made rational choices or at least some kind of choice, which is to be different from what they were. We need to really come to terms with that and understand that. You need cosmopolitanism, in [Immanuel] Kant’s sense—you need to welcome and learn from a stranger rather than nationalism.
Truschke. This ‘being foreign’ versus ‘being Indian’ division, that you can’t be foreign and indigenous, I think, is really a modern construct. For instance, the Mughals didnot refer to themselves as Mughals but generally as Timurids and that was because they traced their lineage back to Timur. Timur was not Indian, but tracing their lineage to Timur gave the Mughals—in their opinion—claim over the Indian subcontinent because Timur had sacked Delhi. So in this sense, claiming to be Timurids was a claim to be both foreign and to have a claim to India. It was not a conflict, it was a confluence.
Chakrabarti. Since your question was specifically about Bengal Muslims, I responded in that way but this is true of all these institutional religions which came to India, definitely as Anand said, as outsiders. Christianity, for example. Historian Tapan Raychaudhuri writes in his autobiography that his family had land and a few subject peasantry,some of whom had converted to Christianity. They called themselves romai cathics (Roman Catholics) but most vigorously participated inKali Puja—the annual worship of Goddess Kali in Bengal—that coincides with Diwali. So when he, as a child, asked them, ‘How come you are so enthusiastically participating in Diwali?’, their surprised response was: ‘We have given our religion—does it mean that we have also lost our social identity?’ Now the Bengali word ‘jaath’ should be translated as ‘caste’, but it is not caste—it is a broader social identity.
Vanshika. This is going to be on a more macro level: I want to know your view on culture and geography. Obviously,for anybody studyinh ancient history, the focus of studying spaces, places and people is mostly the northern part of India, the movement and migrations from Central Asia to the north-west and the movement towards the east, the rise of civilizations and so on. But the coast and the southern part of India only come in a little bit around the megalithic period and then, of course, the dynamic and vibrant period of the Sangam Age. So, I would like to know how culture and geography impact notions of identity, items of culture and how then technology comes in? How do you see all three interacting?
Truschke. You are right, many tend to talk about North India first; South India and the coasts come later. To me, one lesson of this is the limits of history and the limits of a single historian. History and historians cannot tell you everything about the past. In fact, we only tell you about little slivers of the past, in-between which there is a certain curtain drawn across dark areas. One way to deal with that is that we need to be forthcoming about what our evidence is, and what it shows and does not show, within the limits of what we know. I often tell my students that historians work in terms of degrees of certainty, not absolute truth. Other than the names and dates of some key people, everything else is subject to questioning and debate. Some facts are pretty certain,but others are best described as probably, and still others are ‘up in the air’—who really knows! I think this is also the reason to perhaps talk less about India and Indian civilization as a monolithic ‘mega’ thing and to talk a little bit more precisely in terms of regions and specific groups.
Thapar. Where does one begin? I would have said that there was a time when historians had a rather limited view of history as suggested in some of the earlier books. Partly because you cannot, as Audrey said, cover the whole history of every aspect of every little inch of the subcontinent. You have to pick and choose. So, historians pick and choose, and you judge the historians by what they pick and choose and how they justify their choice. That is one aspect of it. The other aspect is that the reverse is also happening now in history, in the sense that the interconnections between activities are being recognized to a much greater extent. So, if you are talking about migrants coming in from the north-west, or even the migration from central to south India, you have to go into questions like: What was the ecology of these two regions? What was the economy of these regions? What drove the migrations? Who were the people who migrated? Was it everybody that migrated? Which groups migrated? What did they aspire to at the end of the migration? Where did they settle? How did they react to the areas where they migrated and how did the people who were already in those areas react to them?—(this is a question we seldom ask)—we always talk about the migrants coming in, but we seldom say ‘and so the local people reacted like this’ and you have to add that to it as well. So really, by the time you finish, you have to pick and choose. Because one historian cannot handle all these areas and all these different questions in any kind of meaningful way. You have to say that there are certain trends which seem to you to be much more valuable in understanding what happened in the past.
Taneja. In terms of teaching, we have had a certain geographically bound model of what India and Indian history is. [Finbarr] Barry Flood in his book Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu–Muslim” Encounter talks about ‘roots’ that can be defined more clearly by ‘routes’. So, instead of thinking about places being ‘rooted’ in the soil, think about the ‘routes’ through which ideas, people and material objects travel. Thus, to think of India as not just the nation-state and not even just the subcontinent but as a set of intersecting geographies, movements. For example, there is the Sanskrit cosmopolis that we talked about which includes India, parts of South East Asia and even parts of Central Asia at some point—so India was part of that. This is a larger geography of which we can talk, or we can talk about what Shahab Ahmed has recently called ‘the Balkans-to-Bengal complex’. From the fourteenth to the nineteenth century, where he is talking about the Balkans, the westernmost part of the Ottoman Empire, to Bengal, the easternmost part of the Mughal Empire, this area for over 500 years is interconnected through the movements. It is never exclusively a Muslim world, but interconnected with the movement of goods and people, and Persian high culture. Or, we can talk about the Indian Ocean world which connects east African coast and Arabia to the coast of India and to South East Asia. So I think we should expand in our teaching, we should explore the kind of rootedness/routedness of Indian history, and think of all the ways in which we have always been connected to these different networks of movement.
Question. Rabindranath Tagore in his novel Gora talked about diversity and his ideas about India and cultures in India. It is about the question of diversity which we heard from all of you so far. What is the role of dissent and dissenters? This is so important today in light of what we have heard and what Rabindranath wrote in Gora.
Chakrabarti.The role of dissent is a fundamental one. I would definitely ask Romila to talk about it, because she is the one who has talked about the renunciatory tradition so much. Some of this is part of the larger recommended processes of life-cycle rituals, for example, the Ashrama system. But in many cases, these are rebellions. The Bhakti groups often began as dissenters.It depends on the manner in which this dissent has been articulated. There are certain dissents which are expansed, there are certain others which are accepted within the larger fold, and over a period of time are absorbed into the larger, very spongy appearance of Hinduism. Hinduism is so fluid that I can almost describe it as an amoeba. It just inflates itself, then divides and so on. So, there is definitely a space for dissent,but renunciatory tradition is only one of them, the Bhakti tradition is another and it goes on.
There is also the question of opting out of the religion, which would not necessarily accept another institutional religion, that is to say, a votary of Brahmanical religion converts into Buddhism. One can become a tantric, one can become a lokayata, a nastikaand so, all of these are either individual or group dissent. Certain dissent groups always lived on the margins of Hinduism—neitheras part of the other institutional religions nor not accepted by Hinduism. So there are various articulations of dissent. You said diversity of the religion, I am saying diversity of dissent.
Thapar. Diversity is not sufficient, you have to say that there is also dissent. Because dissent is not automatically included in diversity. Diversity can be very positive all the way but be just a little different here and there, where as dissent is a definite position that is opposed to just being diverse. I think that one of the conspiracies of modernization in India during the colonial period was to downplay the notion of dissent in Indian civilization as it was then described. This downplay was partly because the Indian literati was very anxious to show that there was no dissent, that it was all harmonious, peaceful and that everybody agreed. And perhaps the colonial power was anxious to avoid the notion of dissent because that would have led to all kinds of complications in terms of the relationship between the colonial power and the colonial people. You do not encourage dissent by referring to dissent in your culture if you are ruling that way.
Dissent has been, in fact, a very important aspect of Indian culture and it is important in two ways. One is in the figure of the renouncer—the Indian renouncer, I think, is almost unique in world civilization. He appears occasionally in Christianity, but it is not the same as the Buddhist, the Jain, the ascetic and the Brahmanical traditions. Here again, the renouncer is not a single category, it is a world in itself. So what we really need to do is a very serious study of the whole span of people who are renouncers and sects that were renunciatory sects. Some were very extreme,went often into isolation and really made themselves socially negative because they didnot come back and do anything to the society—they just disappeared! The other lot of people joined a comfortable monastic order. They also didnot do very much to society because they joined an alternative system—they opted out. So, what is it about dissent? At different periods in time when there was dissent, what role did it play? That is the fundamental question which still has to be answered. Both at the philosophical level and at the literal level of how society worked.
The fact is that there was an acceptance of dissent naturally in the orthodox texts of both the Brahmana and the Buddhists. Dissent is not underlined—it wouldnot be because conservative orthodoxy refers to dissent but dismisses it in every religion, in every ideology almost—it is the same with the Buddhists. King Ashoka is very interesting because he calls for everybody respecting the other person’s sect, but when it comes to the Buddhist traditions, the Buddhist sangha, he says to the sangha, ‘You are to observe the following rules or behaviour, you are to read these texts’, and if there is dissent, the dissenting monks are to be dressed in white and banished from the monastery. Now I find that a very interesting contradiction in a man who is, in fact,said to be supporting tolerance and lack of dissent to the extent that we have made an icon of him. But I am much more impressed in some ways with the texts of the fourteenth century. The Sarva-Darshana-Sangraha, for example, a text which puts together all the philosophical schools that existed at that time and starts off by saying, ‘My opening chapter is a long chapter on the Charvaka system. I do not believe in the Charvaka system, I do not accept it. But since other people do, I am discussing it at length.’ The first chapter is on dissent, then it carries on with the other philosophical schools. I think that that is the kind of attitude we need now. You donot have to believe in a particular notion of dissent, but you should be determined to discuss it, understand it and explain it to others because it is important to your way of thinking.
Romila Thapar is an Indian historian whose principal area of study is ancient India. Author of several books, including Early India, History and Beyond, The Past as Present, she is currently Professor Emerita, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Audrey Truschke is Assistant Professor of South Asian History at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. She is the author of Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court and Aurangzeb: The Man and The Myth.
Kunal Chakrabarti is Professor of Ancient Indian History in the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His research interests include social history of religion, regional histories with special reference to Bengal, history of environment with special reference to the forest, early Indian political ideas and institutions, and early Indian textual traditions. Amongst his work, mention must be made of Religious Process: The Puranas and the Making of a Regional Tradition and Historical Dictionary of the Bengalis. He has also written the ‘Introduction’ for Romila Thapar’s The Historian and Her Craft,Vol. 4: Religion and Society.
Anand Vivek Taneja is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University. His research and teaching interests include urban ecologies, enchantment and ethics, animality, historical and contemporary Islam and inter- faith relations in South Asia, post-colonial urbanism, Urdu poetry, and Bombay cinema. His book, Jinnealogy:Time, Islam, and Eco- logical Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi, won the 2016 Joseph W. Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences, awarded by the American Institute of Indian Studies.