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RAM JETHMALANI
ETHICS & POWER

Ram Jethmalani is a senior politician and eminent lawyer.

The defeat and retreat of Hinduism

Early Muslim settlers respected the social values, broad mindedness, and religious catholicity of India.

et me wish all my readers a very happy and prosperous New Year. May the year bring a new dawn of peace, growth and prosperity for our people and country.

And now in continuation of last week's piece (Hinduism is intrinsically secular, 29 December).

The early Muslim settlers of India respected the social values, broad mindedness, and religious catholicity of the local Hindu residents. The fourth Caliph, Ali bin Abi Talib, a cousin of the Prophet, who lived in his house and was most loved by him, is said to appreciate the fact that "The land where books were first written and from where wisdom and knowledge were born is India." Strong sections of Islamic tradition acknowledged the high respect and affection that Arabs had for India. Umar, the second Rashid of the Rashidun Caliphate was opposed to attacking India, even when he was told that "Indian rivers are pearls, her mountains rubies, her trees perfumes," for he regarded India as a country of complete freedom of thought and belief where Muslims and others were free to practice their faith. Early Muslims settled in southern India for the love of it, and gradually integrated with the local culture, with communities, old and new, enjoying the blessings of peace and cooperation.

The north, however, was a contrasting picture. Muhammad Bin Qasim of the Umayyad dynasty conquered Sindh in 711 AD, after several unsuccessful attempts by the Arabs. This is the same region where Alexander had met the naked fakirs of India known to history as Gymnosophists, around the third century BC, who had tried to talk him out of his foolish dream of world conquest.

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Al-Biruni singles out the Hindus’ pride in their civilisation and contempt for all things alien to Hinduism, and their reluctance to communicate their culture and knowledge to foreigners.

For a century after Bin Qasim's conquest, from Karachi to Multan, the Arabs were repeatedly repulsed by the local rulers, their most notable defeat being in the Battle of Rajasthan (738 AD) by a coalition of the Pratihara king Nagabhata, Jaysimha Varman of the Chalukya empire, and Bappa Rawal of the Mewar kingdom of Rajasthan. The Arabs in Sindh had taken a beating. Another attempt of invasion in the early 9th century was defeated by the Hindu coalition, after which Arab chroniclers record that Caliph Mahdi, "gave up the project of conquering any part of India".

For 400 years, the Arabs had lived relatively peacefully in Sind, their breakaway principalities paying tribute to the Gurjara Pratiharas and had traded further down the coast of Malabar. But the Arabs were soon superseded by the tough "Romans" of Islam, the dour Turks of Central Asia. Muslim imperialism in India started when the Turks stepped on to the sub-continent's historical stage. It started from Mahmud of Ghazni, one of the greatest plunderers of India, after his victory over the Rajput Confederacy in the 11th century, went through the Sultanate and ended with Mughal rule.

Mahmud seemed to enjoy taking Al-Biruni, the Master, one of the greatest scholars of the time, with him on his military and plunder campaigns. Apart from being a scientist, mathematician and astronomer, Al-Biruni also distinguished himself as a historian and linguist, with knowledge of Persian, Arabic, Greek, Hebrew and Sanskrit. In 1017, he travelled to the Indian subcontinent, where he had long sojourns, mastering Sanskrit and Hindu literature, scientific and religious texts, and doing a study of Hindu civilisation and society, which he has recorded in his famous work, Tahkik-i-Hind (An Enquiry of India). He is actually the first intellectual bridge between India and the Islamic world, and is rightly called the "founder of Indology".

Al-Biruni, though he does not explicitly denounce the barbaric plunder of Mathura and Somnath by his master, certainly betrays acute lament about it in his writings. What he does explicitly state is that Mahmud "utterly ruined the prosperity of the country", created a hatred of Muslims among the locals, and caused the Hindu sciences to retreat "far away from those parts of the country conquered by us" to places "where our hands cannot yet reach".

Al-Biruni singles out the Hindus' pride in their civilisation and contempt for all things alien to Hinduism, and their reluctance to communicate their culture and knowledge to foreigners. He also marvels at their religious tolerance and lack of theological disputations among pundits. He is astute enough to notice the change taking place in the Hindu ethos, presumably as a result of violent foreign conquest. This is what he has to say: "The Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no kings like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs. They are haughty, foolishly vain, self-conceited, and stolid. They are by nature niggardly in communicating that which they know, and they take the greatest possible care to withhold it from men of another caste among their own people, still much more, of course, from any foreigner... If they travelled and mixed with other nations, they would soon change their mind, for their ancestors were not as narrow-minded as the present generation is."

Al Biruni's sharp comments are not at all surprising. Intellectual spokesmen of a defeated society can hardly indulge in comfortable communication with counterparts representing the victors. But what comes through with enough conspicuousness is the retreat of Hindu society and culture into the isolation of the vanquished.

For five centuries, Northern India was ravaged by continuous waves of Muslim invasions, massacre, plunder and genocide. Their armies were composed of exceedingly brutish, violent men of war of Central Asia, who thirsted for the legendary wealth of India, accumulated by many centuries of a relatively peaceful Hindu civilisation. One after another, the northern Indian states, worn out and their spirit broken, were overrun by the conquering Turks. They submitted to the loot and wholesale destruction of the most precious relics of their great civilisation, with an almost indifferent fatalism.

Hindu Medieval India became afflicted by a debilitating pacifism, corroded by the idea of non-violence (ahimsa), the most convenient weapons of a defeated society. When Hindu society should have united to defend their land and fight the invaders, they found it convenient to leave this responsibility to the Kshatriya professional soldiers, the rest of the populace considering it none of their business.

The body of Hinduism was now prostrate at the feet of the Muslim conquerors; its soul however, crippled as it was, remained out of their reach. Hinduism could not absorb Muslims as it had absorbed all preceding invaders; but neither did the conquerors succeed in destroying the soul of Hinduism.

After the consolidation of the conquered territories, the ruling Sultanate realised the need to start freeing itself from the control of the "Ulama". Ala-ud-din Khalji was bold enough to state that all political matters he would decide alone, without ecclesiastical advice. The beginning of an Indo-Muslim spirit was taking shape.

With Emperor Akbar, the empire reached not only the zenith of its power and splendour, but also the peak of perhaps the wisest and most generous imperialism known to history. Akbar remains not only a great but also the most idealistic conqueror. But the Mughal era started in dilemma and ended in the same unsolved dilemma — should it remain purely Muslim or should it be a synthesis of Islam and Hinduism? Should it remain true to the conquering civilisation or attempt to blend the conqueror and the conquered? Swerving from one extreme to the other, according to the personal whims of various emperors, it was never able to resolve this conundrum, and failed to lay down a consistent, long-term vision. Certainly the most remarkable phase, the one that made Akbar into a world-historical figure of the first order, was the attempted synthesis.

The vague hope of success that attended this remarkable attempt lay in the Persian component of Muslim civilisation — the "Aryan", as opposed to the "Arab-Semitic" — that was always more open to Hindu influences than the rigid monotheism and theological orthodoxy of the Arabs. But even this failed to click.

 
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