One of my favourite examples to demonstrate why Hindus and Muslims are like chalk and cheese (or cheese and chalk- no value judgment implied by the metaphor!) is their respective treatment of Jains and Ahmadiyyas.
We all know about the plight of Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan. Not a week goes by when there isn’t a story in the media on Ahmadiyya persecution. To Indian eyes, this can be quite baffling. The Ahmadiyyas reserve a highly exalted position for Prophet Muhammad. By all socio-cultural markers: naming and dressing conventions, eating habits, praying patterns etc., they appear “Muslim”. Yet certain theological red lines are crossed- including the recognition of Indic icons such as Buddha and Krishna as prophets, but most importantly the perceived violation of the doctrine of Khatam-un-Nabiyeen: the finality of Muhammad’s prophethood. A clear case of orthodoxy trumping orthopraxy. This hostility towards the Ahmadiyyas is not a recent phenomenon and can be traced back to the views of the founding fathers of Pakistan, such as Allama Iqbal.
From a Hindu perspective, this can appear bizarre- ethnic Punjabi “Muslims” who share so much in common in both cultural and kinship terms are so hostile towards each other due to some theological disputes. There are more consequential theological disputes within sects of Hinduism. For example, within Vaishnavism, there is the Dvaita Vedanta school founded by the 13th century scholar-saint Madhavacharya which believes that the Divine (i.e. Vishnu or the supreme being) is distinct from the individual. The better known Advaita Vedanta school founded by Adi Shankaracharya is Monistic (i.e. believes in the essential unity of the Divine or Vishnu and the individual). From a theological perspective, these ruptures are perhaps as radical as those between Sunni Muslims and Ahmadiyyas. Yet, the average modern Hindu, even someone who self-identifies strongly as a Vaishnavite, would find the notion of being hostile to other Vaishnavites on the basis of doctrinal differences to be bizarre and laughable.
This is because for Hindus, culture almost always trumps religion/theology. The salient case in the point are the Jains. From a theological standpoint, Jainism is clearly distinct: it is an atheistic religion that does not accept the authority of the Vedic corpus. Yet in a broader cultural sense, they can be regarded as “Hindu”, for want of a better word. In the sub-continent, the clearest distinction between an in-group and out-group is whether the communities in question have roti-beti ka rishta. In other words, do the communities inter-dine and inter-marry. Between urban Gujarati Hindus and Jains- a milieu I am deeply and intimately familiar with- the answer is a clear and resounding yes.
I have observed this phenomenon most clearly in the arranged marriage context. In my grandparents generation (born in the 1920s and 1930s), endogamy was almost the universal norm. All my relations from that generation married within the Gujarati Hindu Lohana community. The norms started relaxing (or the notion of endogamy became wider) in my parents’ generation. In my generation (born in the 1980s and early 1990s), the norms have relaxed further still. The acceptable ambit for an urban middle class Gujarati Lohana boy or girl looking to get married would be a range of Gujarati “Hindu” communities. This would include Brahmins, Patels, Bhatias, Baniyas, numerically smaller castes such as Bhanushalis, amongst others. The Jains usually tend to be Baniyas and are typically looked at no differently from a Hindu Baniya from a matrimonial perspective.
Both my wife and I happen to have cousins who have married Jains. In my wife’s case, two of her mother’s siblings have married Jains. For a Pakistani Muslim, looking at the world through theologically tinted glasses, the difference between Hindus and Jains must appear stark. Yet from a Gujarati Hindu perspective, I would regard Jains as an in-group. This is because the socio-cultural norms of Jains: naming and dressing conventions, eating habits, cultural reference points etc. are so similar. Certainly there would be theologically inclined Hindus or Jains for whom these differences would matter. But in an urban middle class setting, these would be a small minority in the same way in which Lohanas looking to marry within caste would be a small minority.
This phenomenon is not restricted to just Gujarati Hindu-Jain relationships. In urban India, a similar phenomenon can be observed in Hindu-Sikh relationships. This is again because cultural affinity trumps theological differences. I do not know of any Punjabi or Sindhi Hindu whose family does not revere Guru Nanak as a great saint. Back in my teenage years in Mumbai, I was surprised to learn that the elder brother of one of my Sindhi Hindu friends was getting married in a gurudwara, even though both bride and groom were Sindhi Hindus. When I expressed my surprise, I was told that the Bhagavad Gita and the Guru Granth Sahib have an equally exalted status in the homes of Sindhi Hindus. Given this context, it is not surprising that an urban Hindu Punjabi Baniya marrying a Sikh Khatri would be regarded as an in-group marriage, in the same way as a Gujarati Lohana marrying a Gujarati Jain Baniya. Again, I would acknowledge that the divide is probably hardened in the Jat Sikh heartland of rural Punjab, where this phenomenon may not exist to the same degree.
I said above that for Hindus culture almost always trumps religion. The caveat I had in mind is the Muslims. The clearest example I can provide is again from the Hindu Lohana community. Several Lohanas (both Sindhi and Gujarati) converted to Nizari Ismaili Shiism over the course of Islamic rule over India. In fact, my great grandmother recalled that her grandparents knew of some Lohana families who had converted, clearly indicating that some conversions were fairly recent. This group, known as the Khojas is a prosperous urban mercantile community, much like the Lohanas.
The Khojas had a long history of syncretic Hindu practices which were retained after their conversion to Islam. The compartmentalisation brought about by the British colonial administrators, aided by competing Hindu and Muslim nationalisms has hardened the divide on both sides, seemingly irreversibly. Some of these trends are captured in Amrita Shodan’s book A Question of Community: Religious Groups and Colonial Law which I had read back in law school in India. The book traces how the Pushtimargis (a Vaishnavite sect to which many Lohanas belong) and the Khojas became clearly distinct communities during the colonial period. You do not have to fully agree with the thesis of the book, but there is clearly an element of truth to it.
The project which was begun by British colonialists, Islamist Two Nation Theory supremacists and early Hindu nationalists has been brought to fruition by 70 plus years of Hindutva in independent India. It would be unthinkable for a Lohana to meet a Khoja in an arranged marriage context due to the Hindu-Muslim divide. In fact, I am certain that there would be less opposition to my sibling or cousin marrying any Hindu from any other part of India, or any Buddhist, Sikh or even Christian for that matter, than there would be to them marrying a Khoja. This is despite the common ethnic roots and socio-cultural similarities. The Hindu-Muslim divide has become the salient feature of Indian life, one that trumps all other factors. That is the biggest legacy of the Two Nation Theory, the Partition of India and the Hindutva project.
[The author tweets @paragsayta]