The religion of Hindus before Hinduism

37 Comments

India in the Persianate Age: 1000–1765 is a good read and I recommend it. But the author, Richard Eaton, is not a guru or a sheikh, and should not be taken as such.

A comment Eaton makes offhand several times is that the conflict between Turks and Indians should not be understood in confessional terms. This is a commonly asserted, and on some level, it reflects elements of the truth. Hindu Rajputs served under Muslims, and Turkic soldiers served under Hindus. You can’t reduce everything to confession.

But, it is clear that confession and civilizational identity did exist, and it was robust. Going from the specific to the general.

  1. A great deal of text given over to Man Singh’s glorification of his conquests as an Indian warrior, and his patronage of Indian religion, in particular Vaishnavism.
  2. Eaton highlights the rapid Indianization of practices and hegemonic motifs present among the Turks and Afghans who were born and raised in India. And yet despite the syncretistic tendencies which occurred, ultimately these ashraf elites remained identified as Muslims and often were pulled back to world-normative Islam over the generations.
  3. Vijayanagara persisted as a Hindu polity for three centuries. The cross-cultural analysis shows that recalcitrant pagan powers always convert to the religion of their enemies eventually. The leader of the pagan resistance in Saxony became a Christian. Pagan resistance to Christianity in Sweden, Lithuania, and ancient Rome were only temporary, as resistant lineages eventually were assimilated into the new order. Resistance to Buddhism in Japan and Tibet was initially violent, but futile. In iterative games, paganism is the eternal ‘beatable’ strategy.

The only point to posting this is that there is a common assertion that Hinduism as a religion or identity only emerged in the 19th century. I am now convinced that this confuses the name of the phenomenon for the phenomenon. The Indian religion of the Hindus was clearly bundled together in a way that allowed for their elite deployment as a meta-ethnic identity that separated them from the Turks and Afghans who ruled them. Similarly, the Islam of the Turks and Afghans (and variegated Ethiopians, Arabs, and Persians), separated them from the Indians whom they conquered to prevent full assimilation as an Indian elite with popular roots in early modernity.

There is a major issue where our conception of religion qua religion is conditioned on an intellectual revolution rooted in the Second Reformation of the Calvinists. But, I think it is important not to get carried away with this construct, and assert that Calvinist religion is qualitatively different from pre-Calvinist religion. I don’t think it is. Rather, it simply shifts some of the parameter values within the model. Similarly, the identity of a coherent Hindu Rashtra with a post-caste socio-religious identity is an invention of modernity, but its roots are ancient and indigenous, and not postcolonial fictions.

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37 Replies to “The religion of Hindus before Hinduism”

  1. @Razib
    Do you think Hinduism requires a protecting Nation-State for it to survive? At least in the US, it seems it is practiced by the immigrant generation to varying degrees but the later generations either secularize or convert. Muslims and Sikhs seem to do a lot better in keeping their traditions going. I know more HINOs that I can care to count! Their drift does not appear to be because of any theological or philosophical evolution. looks like a simple drift.

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  2. To anyone in 19th Century India it would have been obvious that Hinduism was a name for a pre-existing phenomenon rather than a recent invention. It took late 20th century intellectuals to invent the “invention of Hinduism” as part of their two favourite sports: discrediting the scientific (well in this case anthropological) achievements of the Britishers in India and denigrating Hinduism.

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  3. At least in the US, it seems it is practiced by the immigrant generation to varying degrees but the later generations either secularize or convert. Muslims and Sikhs seem to do a lot better in keeping their traditions going.

    Hinduism is more rooted in in place than Islam or sikhism

    i don’t know about sikhism (do you have any data that doesn’t control for the rural/more working class migration stream?), but for Islam lots of ppl do secularize, but there is a broader pan-ethnic Muslim culture in the USA they can assimilate into

    hindus don’t convert in places where they move as a jati. places where they are market dominant minorities. in the USA it’s pretty fractured tho

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    1. “do you have any data that doesn’t control for the rural/more working class migration stream?”

      Unfortunately, I am a total amateur, and not particular well versed either. your blog helps me learn and satiate my curiosity.
      With Sikhs, my kids’ school has a handful of second/third generation kids who keep all tenets of Sikhi and are extremely devout.
      Also many many Muslim kids who keep halal, and several girls who keep hijab.
      OTOH, so many beef eating, almost never been to temple Hindu kids.
      Your assertion about the place-centrality of Hinduism makes a total sense to me.
      Thank you

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  4. Are there any similarities between religion in China and Hinduism or Dharmic religions in India? Is popular Hinduism as practiced by the masses more akin to Chinese folk religion? Will it become more like that with greater development and urbanization?

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  5. the chinese in a way remain more pagan. less confessional. animism is animism.

    korea china japan all seem to be undergoing confessionalization but large % say ‘no religion’ even though they are basically animists.

    china’s ‘high religion’ was totally transformed by the arrival of western religion. that is, Buddhism. neoconfucianism and religious daoism incomprehensible without Buddhist stimulus and Buddhism introduced totally new metaphysical and ritual concepts to china

    that being said, Buddhism is at odds with china’s familialism, and burial traditions. so not a perfect fit

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  6. // Hinduism is more rooted in in place than Islam or Sikhism //

    Yes & another point is evolution regarding identity among Hindus did not happened till they encountered the Abrahamic religions – Islam & Christianity. For e.g. When Indo-Greek kingdoms formed Indic traditions got patronized & Greek Gods got assimilated alongside them etc.

    Hence historically Hindus always gave predominance to –
    1. Region or Ethnicity e.g. Yavanas, Turushkas, Sakas etc.
    2. Profession
    3. Language & other regional differences like clothes, eating etc.

    It took centuries for Hindus to start consolidating & forming identity under Islamic empire shows their lack of understanding regarding Identity which Abrahamics had & for a long time they probably saw Muslims in the same vein as earlier Greek Or Saka invaders but started consolidating once they noticed the changed terms of engagement.

    ——————————————————————————-

    Some resources for BP users other than Razib {He like concise answers} –

    https://www.academia.edu/2399492/Doxography_and_Boundary_Formation_in_Late_Medieval_India

    https://www.academia.edu/35568138/Pollock_and_Weber_preprint
    Same paper behind paywall – https://mws.quotus.org/article/MWS/2017/2/6

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=84dIMH8tS9k – The Making of the State Societies in Early India: Prof. Ranabir Chakravarti {Major criticism here is that Professor is projecting his political & ideological biases aka Brahmanism to the early society rather than seeing it organically emerging as a responses to the challenges of transformation of landscapes.}

    https://scroll.in/article/925096/did-the-secular-sanitisation-of-pre-colonial-indian-history-allow-hindu-nationalism-to-weaponise-it

    Octavio Paz – The encounter between “the strictest and most extreme form of monotheism” and “the richest and most varied polytheism”, Octavio Paz wrote in his luminous study of India, left a “deep wound” on the psyche of its people.

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  7. It took centuries for Hindus to start consolidating & forming identity under Islamic empire shows their lack of understanding regarding Identity which Abrahamics had & for a long time they probably saw Muslims in the same vein as earlier Greek Or Saka invaders but started consolidating once they noticed the changed terms of engagement.

    this is misleading. indians clearly had a sense of their civilizational boundaries. the persians and arabs did too.

    and yes, they saw musliims like the greeks of saka. but that doesn’t mean they were purely reactive. bhakti devotionalism predates Islam and probably is reactive to internal dynamics

    basically, i think Islam and Christianity had an effect. but ppl confuse it as primary when i think it’s secondary/complemntary

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    1. // indians clearly had a sense of their civilizational boundaries //

      I am not denying that rather i am suggesting that it is better to see civilizationals bond separate from identities e.g. Culture & religion {Similar yet different}. Indians did see the region culturally bounded but they no dynasty since Maurya’s was able to to harmonize or consolidate it like Chinese people did {neither religiously nor culturally}. Hindus assumed everyone else to have similar attitudes {based on previous experiences with Greeks, Romans, Sakas etc.} as they had not encountered people with different attitude regarding identities & it took them centuries to consider the question of identities & making Hindu identity coherent enough to use it for negotiations under Islamic rule {Ram’s elevation, increasing importance of cow etc.}

      Above theory also questions Richard Eaton’s assertions regarding Bengal frontier Or abt. Punjab. Hindus/Buddhists/Jain etc. in Sindh & Punjab got overrun before they could understand the difference in attitude regarding identities while Bengal was facing expansionist ambitions. This led to following patterns –

      https://www.academia.edu/2399492/Doxography_and_Boundary_Formation_in_Late_Medieval_India {As Hindu identity formation is going on the conversions are happening in Bengal}

      Witness to Marvels {Open source book about Sufi world in Bengal} – https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520306332/witness-to-marvels

      Later on Maratha attacks on Bengal – https://scroll.in/article/776978/forgotten-indian-history-the-brutal-maratha-invasions-of-bengal

      You should compare Bhakti texts of different periods & from different regions because it was always relative & reactive to certain attitudes & periods and it varied a lot.

      // basically, i think Islam and Christianity had an effect. but ppl confuse it as primary when i think it’s secondary/complemntary //

      Hence i shared some of the relevant research stuff which highlights these changes in chronological order {ancient to Medieval period} & helps one to gauge which effects were primary or secondary.

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    1. It is misleading. Prabhu gives the caste Hindu view of Indian history. It would be interesting to read the Ambedkarite interpretation of British colonialism in India.

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      1. Yeah and y would Ambedkar view carry more weight than let say caste Hindu view of Indian history. If u meant demographically than dalits are as numerous as upper castes. And why just dalits , what about the dravidian view of Indian history, or muslim view of Indian history.

        U keep on slicing and dicing u can have as many configuration as u want.

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        1. Both are wrong because both have lot of presumptions into their theories while there are enough sources {epigraphical, archaeological etc.} to counter both sides.

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  8. Wiki: “The Indo-Aryans brought with them their language[93] and religion.[94][95]”

    Genetics field is pretty much clear, but this religion and language are still taboo topics even here at BP.

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    1. @MIlan Todorovic
      You can always post. Narasimhan — if his modelling is correct — is on record saying that Indo-Aryan customs are indigenous development; they only brought language based on his paper. This is because Bustan — an IA region recognised by Indology experts — has nil to negligible Steppe ancestry. Right now, IE question is just about language — and nothing more.

      I would love to see what you can post that can be justified by genetics. Good luck!

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  9. The Indo-Greeks, Sakas, Kushanas and Hunas all adopted Brahmanism/Buddhism within one or two generations.

    “The cross-cultural analysis shows that recalcitrant pagan powers always convert to the religion of their enemies eventually.”
    You must be aware of the Raja Ganesha of Bengal who converted to Islam sometime after usurping the throne.

    “Eaton highlights the rapid Indianization of practices and hegemonic motifs present among the Turks and Afghans who were born and raised in India.”
    I haven’t read Eaton’s book – but a counter to this could be how always the Newer Turcko-Afghan rulers were higher in Military and administration over local-born descendants of invaders – As late as the 18th century most nobles of the Mughals were born beyond the Indus – Nizam, Sayyid brothers, Bangash.
    It has been argued that lands beyond the Indus lead to hardier folks while India watered them down over generations AND|OR the elites wanted to reduce the power of local-born Ashrafs (who could challenge the throne) & keep the Rajputs from getting more power.

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    1. “As late as the 18th century most nobles of the Mughals were born beyond the Indus – Nizam, Sayyid brothers, Bangash”

      some corrections are in order. sayyed brothers were indian born muslims. in fact they were the leaders of the “hindustani” party at mughal court. they were also on very friendly terms with hindu warlords. they were instrumental in inviting a maratha army into delhi for the first time and giving marathas an opening to meddle into empire’s affairs. (this was the famous expedition of first peshwa balaji vishwanath bhat to delhi).

      first nizam asaf jah I, even though generally accepted as a turani noble, was actually born in india. i am not sure about muhammad khan bangash though. he was probably a genuine FOB afghan.

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      1. if i may throw in some more interesting historical tidbit – you will be surprised to note that aurangzeb, even though he was a something of a sunni bigot, was actually wary of employing his fellow turani sunni warriors in critical battles. he preferred rajputs and persians over turanians in pitched battles. the reason was a turks/turanian were practical fighters. they were great while on offensive, but were too smart to fight to the end in a lost battle. they would rather flee and live to fight another day. by contrast persians and rajputs were driven by the stupid notions (aurangzeb’s words!) of honor and chivalry, and would fight to death even for a lost cause.

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        1. Battle of Khanua, even with cannons and stuff, Babur remarks that it was his army which was unnerved rather than Sanga’s, and almost all generals of the rajputs side died on the battle (apart from Silhadi who defected)

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          1. Don’t forget Medini Rai and the Jauhar-Saka at Chanderi. Interesting tit-bit on Silhadi’s descendants and clan (Karma is a bitch):

            Bhupat Rai and Puran Mal, sons of Raja Silhadi accepted service under the regime of Malwa in recognition of their interest in the Raisen region…..
            ……Sher Shah then ordered Puran Mal to be brought before him. Puran Mal agreed to accept his lordship and left his brother Chaturbhuj under Sher Shah’s service. In exchange Sher Shah vowed to safeguard Puran Mal and his land.

            The Muslim women of Chanderi, which Sher Shah had taken under his rule, came to him and accused Puran Mal of killing their husbands and enslaving their daughters. They threatened to denounce Sher Shah on the Day of Resurrection if he did not avenge them. Upon reminding them of his pledge to safeguard Puran Mal, they told him to consult his ulema. The ulema issued a fatwa declaring that Puran Mal deserved death. Sher Shah had his troops encircle Puran Mal’s camp. Upon seeing this, Puran Mal beheaded his wife and ordered the other Rajputs to kill their families too. Nizamuddin Ahmad writes that 4,000 Rajputs of importance were there. `Abd al-Qadir Bada’uni puts the number of Rajputs at 10,000.

            “While the Hindus were employed in putting their women and families to death, the Afghans on all sides commenced the slaughter of the Hindus. Puran Mal and his companions… failed not to exhibit valour and gallantry, but in the twinkling of an eye all were slain.” Only a few women and children survived. Puran Mal’s daughter was given to minstrels to be a dancing girl while his three nephews were castrated. As an excuse for the treachery, Sher Shah claimed it as a revenge for enslavement of Muslim women and that he had once, when seriously ill, pledged to wipe out the Rajputs of Raisen.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sher_Shah_Suri#Conquest_of_Marwar

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        2. @gauravL One of the most impactful books I ever read was B. M Purandare’s magnum opus on Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj. There is a cringe worthy tale of two Maratha Sardars fighting over a mad elephant and the Badshah stopping the fight by simply lifting his hand (if my memory serves me right!) Sort of speaks to Scorpion Eater’s point about the Islamic Badshahs treating these Sardars (Rajput and Maratha) like their Pet Dogs in many ways.
          Do you know if an English Translation of that book exists? If not, Can you find someone ( like retired parents!!) to translate at least that chapter and post here?
          The propensity of Marathas to be tactical, short sighted and downright selfish has been seen time and again. (certain ‘Sena’ also comes to mind! Even our wiliest modern politician.. the Fox Pawar is also so self serving and tactical)
          I can only see three strategic thinkers in Maharashtra history.Shivaji, Bajirao-1 and Madhavrao.
          You have to come all the way to Lokmanya Tilak to see such a thinker again. (How important was Ganeshotsav for Indian/Hindu revival?)

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          1. i am personally not a great fan of Purandare – i gave up reading Raja Shivchatrapati around 200 pages. Used to listen to his talks as a child a lot during diwali and ganpati in Satara. Janata Raja is also great – but on books front, I am not a huge fan -; His work is largely hagiographical though not devoid of proofs and facts. Even the northern invaders are painted too black and white for my liking.
            At times the message is too simplistic – be wary – but not enough focus on military tactics and technology and internal issues IMO

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          2. His work is largely hagiographical though not devoid of proofs and facts
            Well.. he never hides his bias (or even agenda) He even calls himself as “ShivShaahir” with literally translates as Shivaji’s Hagiographer.
            Lot better than Thapar, Jha et al who are perhaps more agenda driven that he ever was.
            I was introduced to that book in my 4th grade and remember devouring it in one sitting.
            Its not like I am a blind Shivbhakta, but it did vaccinate me against the poison the later history education introduced.
            Simplistic arguments are important for a learner who is uninitiated.
            If you Read Faster Fene (book 5in the original series.. Javan-mard Faster Fene) you would think India came out victorious in 62 war. But that’s not the point.. the point is to not feed the children ‘Melya aaiche doodh!’. That creates a deracinated society. In my opinion such society neither thrives nor wins at anything!
            I agree that nuances should be introduced as the learner gets more understanding of the subject. Otherwise you create a deluded citizenry with obscurantist worldview that falls behind the advanced, critical thinking societies.
            Additional point Re Purandare.. Read Pu La’s musings toward the end of his essay on Haritatya, where he talks about the invisible bracelets of strength Haritatya gave the children. Purandare was our Haritatya!

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          3. yes. i agree – but thats why i am partial to his Bhashans/Storytelling and Plays over books – one expects more nuance and both sidism in books. But his work in popularizing Shivaji Maharaj is second to none.

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      2. Yes. By time of Sayyid bros of time of Bajirao they were “Hindustani” and they had been on friendly terms with Marathas before their killing. But they were “Syed” so did they have some privileges above the Normal Ashraf ??

        Yes.Bangashs origins r a bit shady but most think he was a Afghan

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  10. I haven’t read Eaton’s book – but a counter to this could be how always the Newer Turcko-Afghan rulers were higher in Military and administration over local-born descendants of invaders – As late as the 18th century most nobles of the Mughals were born beyond the Indus – Nizam, Sayyid brothers, Bangash.

    mughals were more systematic about favoring outland turks and persians. the pre-mughal Islamic polities were a more slapdash affair, and some of the ‘afghans’ in places like bengal became highly indigenized (the legend has it my paternal grandfather got the khan name from an old afghan/pathan lineage of yore; which matches the y chromosome, but that could be indigenous, so who knows? he was light and tall, but my father is only a big nw shifted and his mother is half bengali brahmin so could be that)

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  11. I doubt that folks who propagate ” Hinduism as a religion or identity only emerged in the 19th century.” themselves believe it. Mostly rhetoric tool, its preaching to the choir and folks in the west

    Mostly are non believers or folks who are superficially “Hindu”, that’s y they have no idea how embedded Hinduism is. I have a “Hindu” friend who feels that the only thing which binds Hinduism is belief in caste. No prizes for guessing how much understanding of Hinduism he really holds, since he reads Amartya Sen to understand Hinduism.

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    1. I recall reading Sen’s book without being aware of his politics. I revered him as I knew little besides his Nobel (and had read a hagiography of an article on him).
      I kept scratching my head not because I disagreed, but because how juvenile his arguments were.

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  12. “The leader of the pagan resistance in Saxony became a Christian.”

    %%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%

    There are a couple of additional background information for the knowledge ever hungry pundits….

    This guy was Widukind.

    Widukind was a leader of the Saxons and the chief opponent of the Frankish king Charlemagne during the Saxon Wars from 777 to 785. Charlemagne ultimately prevailed, organized Saxony as a Frankish province, massacred thousands of Saxon nobles, and ordered conversions of the pagan Saxons to Roman Catholicism. In later times, Widukind became a symbol of Saxon independence and a figure of legend. The Vita Liudgeri biography mentions him accompanying Charlemagne on his campaign against the Veleti leader Dragovit.

    >>> (MT): Veleti were a Serbian tribe and Dragovit was their pagan ruler.

    The Veleti (or Wilzi(ans), also Wiltzes) were a group of medieval tribes within the territory of modern northeastern Germany, related to Polabian Slavs. In common with other Slavic groups between the Elbe and Oder Rivers, they were often described by Germanic sources as Wends. In the late 10th century, they were continued by the Lutici.

    >>> (MT): From this large Serbian tribe Lutici (modern Serbian surname=angry or hot (like chilli)) originated later Martin Luther and Leibnitz.

    The name Veleti stems from the root vel- (‘high, tall’). The Veleti were called by other names, probably given by their neighbours, such as Lutices, Ljutici, or Volki, Volčki. The latter means ‘wolf’, and the former probably ‘fierce creature’ based upon the comparison with the Serbian form ‘lyutyj zvěr’.[2]

    Dragovit (Latin: Drogoviz) was a pagan ruler (prince or chief) of the Veleti (Latin: rex Wiltorum; “king of the Wiltzes”). It is thought that Dragovit began his rule c. 740.[1]

    >>> (MT) Dragovit is a modern Serbian surname. A part of the tribe Wiltzes moved to British Isles. Wiltshire, with a main city Salisbury (former Serbarium) and nearby Stonehenge got the name from them.

    Because of their constant hatred and hostility toward the Franks,[2] in the late 8th century, Frankish king Charlemagne organised campaigns against the Veleti, and fellow Slavic tribe of the Linonen. With the aid of Frisian, Obodrite1, Saxon and Sorbian1 reinforcements, Charlemagne managed to cross the Elbe River, advancing toward the Havel River into Veleti territory. Outnumbered, Dragovit, in 789, was forced to pledge loyalty to the Franks and surrender hostages.[3] Among others, Dragovit was also forced to pay a tribute and accept the influence of Christian missionaries among his people.[4]

    His capital was a fortification known as civitas Dragowiti (City of Dragovit). Its location was at Brandenburg (original Serbian name was Branibor).

    During the conversion of pagans to Christianity, millions of Serbs got killed. Often, converted tribes were involved in campaigns against remaining Serbian tribes which were still unconverted (e.g. after their conversion, future Polish were engaged in such campaigns).

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  13. India was a reasonably coherent cultural network and Muslim foreigners recognised it as such. Islamic period severed some connections but also created new ones.

    Politically India was always very fragmented because it is a very difficult job to combine so many people into a single political state and ultimately needed the Brits – and modernity generally – to solve this problem (likely for good).

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    1. Pre-Islamic society & polity in India had many distinct features –

      1. Kings had to recognize regional tribalistic territorial boundaries of Chiefs or Tribesmen & their rights. Although King had ultimate authority {in terms of disputes} but never had total control of regions & thus Indian kingship is marked by give & take with Clan/Chieftans/Tribal leaders.

      http://www.yosothor.org/uploads/images/Udaya/Udaya_pdf/Udaya-Yosothor/No-14-2019/05_Goodall_Udaya%2014_Final.pdf – {From Cambodia}

      https://www.academia.edu/43761012/Caste_and_Kingship_pre_publication_version_for_JUles_Naudet_and_Surinder_S_Jodhka_The_Oxford_Handbook_of_Caste_To_be_published_end_2020

      2. The lack of focus on identity as a source of ‘Rights’ is a really important feature which people keep missing out on. Yes rights & laws differentiated based on profession, social status of community and region. Since there were no hard & fast rule for rights {except mutually agreed practices – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apastamba_Dharmasutra#Significance} it allowed different communities to negotiate their way with each other.

      3. As i mentioned before Indians lacked the sense of identity so the differentiation markers back then were –
      a. Profession
      b. Region – Sakas, Yavanas, Turushkas etc.
      3. Language & distinct cultural norms – Clothing, food etc.

      To claim that single political state, single polity are only good modern solutions shows the lack of nuance regarding history. Yes they seem good in modern terms but they solve almost nothing & inherit same problems which were present even before these concepts were implemented. E.g.
      Minority persecution in Indian subcontinent intensified after partition & now consider what prevented it before that ? Alternatively did partition helped Indic communities a second chance to thrive in the world & the answer is Yes.
      Or
      Take Europe where each region basically became homogenized before forming alliances & develop enlightenment values. Point being that’s why homogeneity was considered pre-condition for democracy.

      https://carnegieendowment.org/2007/08/19/big-democracy-appreciating-miracle-of-india-s-triumph-over-chaos-pub-19524

      Researchers are now looking at alternative ways of explanations of identity, rights & nation states. So to assume that British were a necessary evil & polity now is better than before is probably wrong way to look at it.

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  14. When I was told the hypothesis that “Hinduism started in 19th century”, I was awestruck as to how such a supremely dumb idea can even be proposed. I come from a fairly ritualistic family and I could easily recognize the rituals performed by people from all geographic distribution across India. It can only be postulated and repeated by people who have zero experience and understanding of rituals.

    If once just orders the most important rituals in the life of an individual. birth, education, marriage, kids, and death, there is a high degree of similarity among the rituals (across the jatis). Moreover, the mantras recited all primarily belong to puranas. During Dussera, a lot of people pan India recite Adi Shankaracharya’s work. While worshipping Shiva, people recite Shiva Tandava stotra.

    The same “Hinudism is 19th century” gang somehow believes that Brahmins have been oppressing all other jatis since the birth of Manu. Am I the only one who sees this inconsistency?

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