The Confluence of Two Seas: India and Arabia

Centuries ago, the Mughal Prince, Dara Shikoh wrote a treatise on the similarities of Hinduism and Islam – Majma-ul-Bahrain or The Confluence of Two Seas. Wading through the songs of sages born on holy riverbanks, Dara discovered striking similarities in Vedic verses with his beloved Sufi stanzas. Dara attempted to bridge Indian and Arab minds to not only bring material peace to communities in strife but also achieve inner peace by uncovering a quintessential spiritual unity.

Dara’s quest would be cut short by his fanatic brother, Aurangzeb, who would usurp the throne and execute Dara for apostasy. A reign of religious terror followed as Aurangzeb’s extremism left permanent scars on the subcontinent until the sparks of saffron would strike back as the upstart Marathas upended the Mughals into obscurity.

Yet, this is just a part of a much more ancient interaction. Before Islam galloped across the world, Arabs were aware of the subcontinent, al-Hind, and an interesting set of interactions played out. There is no grand trend or narrative here, but I want to tell you the story of an Arabia before and after Islam and how it spoke to an India that was eternally Hindu.

Past Lives

The samsara-like cycle of hadar (settled life) and badw (nomadic life) captures the essence of Arabia. From the deserts came raiders and traders into the sparsely settled lands of the Arabian peninsula. Initially, these settled folk would look upon these Bedouins as vagabonds of the dunes who dealt only in death and dirhams. However, the scorned of the scorched lands would ultimately find the greatest victory in the end as the hadar would bow down to the badw and their Lord.

The first mention of Arabs comes in 853 BCE from the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III as he declares victory over a Levantine coalition aided by the “Aribi.” If we round up a bit, this places the birth of Islam at about the halfway point of Arab history showing us how much perspective we miss in the mainstream discourse where Arabia equals Islam. Approximately 1400 years of Arab history were devoid of its iconic brand while the other 1400 were defined by it.

THE 2000-YEAR OLD RUINS OF HEGRA IN AL ULA, SAUDI ARABIA. BUILT BY THE ARAB FORERUNNERS, THE NABATAEANS OF PETRA, AS A TRADING OUTPOST FOR THE INCENSE ROAD CONNECTING ARABIA AND INDIA BY TRADE.

But who were these early Arabs? And what connections did they have with India? The connections are sparse, I’ll admit, but let’s connect a few dots between these 2 great civilizations as our tale travels forward.

Now while our Assyrian king denoted a group of people as “Arabs,” does that necessarily mean they were one people or even had a single identity consciousness? Probably not. Assyrians and South Arabians (The Sabaeans and Himyari from modern-day Yemen) point to these “Arabs” as synonymous with the desert-faring Bedouins mentioned earlier. Eventually, these Arabs would eventually record instances of the Ajam or non-Arabs (frequently when referring to Persians), and the perception of an outgroup would be matched by the realization of an ingroup – the Arabs. Nonetheless, the people of the Arabian peninsula would soon trade words and coins with those across the great blue horizon of the east.

Artha

While the Republic of India has vilified wealth creation and business for most of its tenure, ancient India had a special relationship with artha, meaning a goal or sense of purpose but more colloquially – wealth.

From the natural Himalayan border came sages to impart spirituality to the subcontinent, but from the seas came strangers bearing commerce and material opportunity. Arab and Indian nautical and commercial ambitions merged as the Indian Ocean trade began its first flows. Fascinatingly, a number of Arabic words – dūnīj (small boat), barja (group of ships), hūrī (small boat), balanj (cabin), nākhūdha (captain) are believed to have an Indian etymology. The ocean that kept them apart would eventually bring them together.

Early links between Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Indian civilizations would be the precursor to the new trade flourishing at the shores of Arabia. The Greek cataloguer, Megasthenes, remarks on the similarity of irrigation systems between India and Egypt. Barley at Mohenjo Daro along the Indus river was found to be the same species as that cultivated near the Nile. Tamil Sangam literature from the tip of the Indian subcontinent places an Indian trade base at Alexandria, while the Nabataean (now Syrian) city of Palmyra hosted a center of Indian trade as well. Artha brought the land of Āryavarta closer to the Assyrians, Akkadians, Alexandrians, and eventually the Arabs.

While, we have evidence of Indian seals and pottery found in Bahrain, dating to the erstwhile Dilmun civilization, it may be across the width of Arabia where we find some of the more tangent links in the rocky realm of the Sabaeans. The Sabaeans looked down on their savage desert dwelling neighbors initially. They were a hadar people who used their extra settled time to focus on engineering and commerce. They resided in a “southern fertile crescent” as mountainous terrain and fortuitous rivers allowed this hadar living. But while the Sabaeans didn’t speak Arabic, their legends would spread north across Arabia, similar to how the Bhakti and Vedantic philosophies cultivated by southern Tamil Indians would transform the subcontinent. The Sabaeans supreme god al-Rahman would be an alternate name for the Lord of Mecca centuries later. They are said to have built a legendary dam, the Great Dam of Mar’ib, whose eventual collapse is said to have sent the children of South Arabia scattered across the wildernesses north. This exodus forms an origin story for many Arabs. The biblical Queen of Sheba is also said to have resided in southern Arabia as she would be a small footnote in the story of Islam that would be formed later on, yet an integral uniting piece of the Abrahamic tradition that the Quran claims to finally seal.

THE ICONIC QUEEN OF SHEBA’S VISIT TO KING SOLOMAN

So technically it is here we see again that India would first interface with the Arabs through their intermediaries or their ancestors, depending on one’s narrative. South Arabia formed a gateway to India via the sea.

An Ocean of Churn

One of the creation stories of Hinduism involves the churning of the cosmic ocean by the gods and demons alike. Out of this great churning came many treasures but eventually a poison, halāhala, was released near the end. Lord Shiva, the god of destruction would consume this poison that threatened to destroy the cosmos if left unimpeded. All good things eventually yield malaise.

INDIAN OCEAN TRADE ROUTES – ADEN IN SOUTH ARABIA WOULD BE AN ESSENTIAL STOP ACROSS THE WHOLE REGION

The great Indian Ocean that brought riches between Arabia and India would eventually harken conflict.

Now, I am an unapologetic critic of the Islamic invasions of India. I have no qualms pointing out the loss of life, destruction of temples, and persecution of native traditions that characterized a large section of Islamic India. But I don’t want to define this Indo-Arab relationship by that. Muhammed bin Qasim, the first Islamic Arab invader of India would only form a small foothold in Sindh as Indians found a rare moment of unity when the Rajput confederacies put an end to the greatest Arab raid in history. As the caliphate collapsed soon after, commerce thrived between India and Arabia as well as something even more profound – ideas.

That audacious armada of the religion of Hijaz

Whose insignia reached every corner of the world

Which learned no obstruction from any fear

Which felt no hesitation in the Persian Gulf or faltered in the Red Sea

Which valiantly crossed all the seven oceans

Oh, drowned was that armada, when it reached the mouth of Ganga!

– MAULANA ALTAF HUSSAIN HALI

Arabian Islam’s spread in India is the most obvious idea exchange here, but what did India give to Arabia? Science and even a tinge of spirituality.

It was during the Abbasid era that the Caliph al-Ma’mun would send his emissaries to gather knowledge from the frontiers of the empire. Newly conquered Sindh functioned as a conduit to the ideas of India as advancements in math, astronomy, medicine, and other sciences would form the foundations of a large chunk of the Islamic Golden Age as well as transmission to the West. Brahmagupta’s Brahmasiddhānta would form the bedrock of much of this knowledge as it directly led to the acquisition of the Indian numeral system that became the native language of mathematics, science, and applied technology across the world. Baghdad would soon host a retinue of scholars trained in both Arabic and Sanskrit to translate Indian works.

This cannot be understated. Without Brahmagupta’s Brahmasiddhānta and Khandakhādyaka as well as works from Aryabhatta (astronomy), Sushruta (medicine), Charak (medicine), and others, the Islamic Golden Age may have never happened. The mathematical base created by ancient Indian scientists would become the native language of science itself. Indian numerals and their mathematical derivations would be used by Arab and Persian scholars to assemble new modes of thinking and recover old discoveries from Greeks and Persians as this wonderful hisāb al-hindi (Arab term for Indian numerals) would create a new eloquence and efficiency to express other cultures’ scientific methods.

A MANUSCRIPT OF THE BRAHMASIDDHĀNTA

These numerals would also be great for counting the newly reinvigorated commerce that took place on the currents of the Indian Ocean. Tombstones carved in the modern-day Gujarat region of India would bear motifs from Hindu and Jain temples but would arrive at the burial sites adorned with the iconic Arabic script that was spreading like wildfire, ironically across the waves of an ocean. Trade flourished and Arab blood would become an insignia of status across the Islamic world including amongst Muslims in India. Hindu and Muslim, Indian and Arab alike would take advantage of the trade routes riding the monsoon winds with expeditions from Mombasa to Malacca, from Malabar to Malaysia, from Basra to Bharuch, and many other alliterative outposts. Artha became a seafaring pursuit.

But artha was never the ultimate destination of Indian philosophy. The horizon and home of India’s spirituality were found at the feet of the Gurus, the granters of moksha – liberation.

Ana al-Haqq

India was known as a land of wisdom and philosophy to the Arabs. So much so, that one man, Hussain ibn Mansur al-Hallaj, would follow the footprints of conquest and beyond to the banks of the sacred rivers of al-Hind. At the turn of the 10th century, al-Hallaj would travel across India drawing parallels between the Sufi mystics who gave refuge to him before and these Hindu renunciants who he now found refuge in. He came back profoundly changed, exclaiming “Āna al-Haqq!” – “I am the truth!” Perhaps an ode to the Upanishadic verse spoken thousands of years prior, Aham Brahmāsmi, taken as recognizing the divinity of God (Brahman) within oneself – “I am Brahman.” Of course, an entire dissertation could be written on the mahāvākya or great saying of the Upanishads that would become the object of reverence for Dara Shikoh years later.

Al-Hallaj would return home and transgress the house rules with his Hindu ways. He advocated a “personal” Hajj where he circumambulated an object and fed 30 orphans as a substitution for the Meccan Hajj. His mannerisms and mentality couldn’t be tolerated much longer as he would soon be imprisoned by the local rulers. In jail, Al-Hallaj’s spirituality reached the fringes of myth. The legends of the yogis beyond the Indus were born again in this jail as Al-Hallaj was reported to have demonstrated strange powers such as spreading his body to cover every inch of the jail cell, producing dirham coins at will from his sleeves, and creating perfume-like scents with a dash of his hand. The mesmerism and mantras would eventually result in his execution in 922 CE, but his legend of subversion and rebellion controversially lived on in Arab minds.

PAINTING OF PRINCE DARA SHIKOH

Arabs would view many of the practices or rituals of Hinduism with disdain, but they generally had a high appraisal of the overarching philosophy. The Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh would meld Arab and Indian thought (of course with Persian intermediaries) with his magnum opus in Majma-ul-Bahrain. He theorized that the flow of knowledge in the Upanishads secretly fed the spiritual oasis of Islam in Arabia. Hinting to the Kitab al-Maknun or “hidden book” in the Quran, Dara believed that he had finally found the elusive tome in the Upanishads. This spirit of forging connections, commonalities, and curiosity that crosses borders and boundaries is lost on many today, but Dara embodied this spirit as attempted to meet the Arab and Indian mind to discover the ultimate truth – moksha.

Much of this piece derives from the fantastic paper “Early Arab Contact With South Asia” and Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s masterpiece – Arabs: A 3000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes, and Empires.

Reposted from The Emissary. Follow me on Twitter!

16 Replies to “The Confluence of Two Seas: India and Arabia”

    1. Why though? Most folks who come here are moderately conservative to conservative. The 2nd group are genetics types. Which also seems more of obsession of internet hindu right then liberals. I think the blog caters to both demographics quite well.

      There are many blogs , websites for NRI wokes and liberals.

      1. What’s an example of a blog for liberals (or libertarians) of the “brown” variety? Not talking about lefties or wokesters.

        Also, I don’t know if you are right about internet Hindus being obsessed with genetics. If you are referring to the OIT advocates, they seem to spend a lot of cycles arguing against recent genetic discoveries, or spinning around them.

        1. Amit Verma and his galaxy of friends website, blogpost and podcasts. IVM, Econ central, Seen Unseen etc.

          1. Amit Varma has his own private friends’ circle. It’s not an online weblog like this where people can hang out and comment and argue. I do occasionally listen to his podcasts but I’m just a passive consumer. Ditto for his blog, where he posts once every few months.

      2. There are many blogs , websites for NRI wokes and liberals.
        Just curious, do you see this website (or any website really) as a club for like-minded people? What’s the point of that? Clubs are good in real life because people need community, but hopefully people on the internet can have more frank discussions across ideological boundaries (especially under the cover of anonymity) without being hamstrung by the rules of political correctness (which we all have to abide by in the physical world in some shape or form).

        1. On the contrary i welcome more non-conservative engagement on the blog. Always supported Kbir’s post b4 he was banned. Sbrakkum and other non Pakistani/Indian voices too. Also tried to engage with the other side in real life. Too bad i have lost many liberals friends (cancelled) . Have stopped discussing politics after that in real life, and mostly comment on line.

          On Amit Verma, i did not refer to any private club. Mostly referring to the guests who come on his shows repeatedly who are mostly libertarian and non-woke. Felt they could be more similar to your tastes. They have their own blog and post regularly, though Amit doesnt. Most engagement is thru twitter through.

          Was genuinely trying to help. Not to score any points. Peace.

          P.S On my comment on genetics and Hindu right. I am skeptical that either liberals or Hindu right are actually concerned on genetics as such. They have their pet peeves which is confined 2 OIT , AIT etc. Within that narrow framework i feel Online Hindu right is more concerned about all this, than liberals.

          1. Felt they could be more similar to your tastes.

            To the contrary, that’s what I feel about this blog. I would find it the most boring thing in the world to hang around in a forum where everyone shares my priors.

            In any case, I’m hardly out of the “mainstream” around here. I lose my cool when people misconstrue me or argue in bad faith (or call me a hypocrite, like someone did a few days ago), otherwise I probably end up falling more on the conservative than the leftie side in general.

            Was genuinely trying to help. Not to score any points.

            Didn’t mean to suggest you were. Sorry if my comments came out that way!

  1. I wrote before extensively about pre-Arabs Arabia. I may repeat soon some key points from history which are within the scope of the Intro text.

    Minoan Arabia – the capital was Karana (now Karnal-Manazil) – Serbian tribes from Crete came during the Mino dynasty.

    Sabeyska (Sabeian) Arabia, south from Minoan Arabia, (the capital was Saba today Sable) – Serbian tribes (names: Seba, Saba, Sabta, Sabteka mentioned in Old Testament) came from Lycia in Asia Minor.

    Both, Minoan and Sabeian Arabia composed Happy Arabia. ‘Happy Arabia’ or ‘Fortunate Arabia’ or ‘Flourishing Arabia’ are translations of the Latin name – Arabia Felix.

    While waiting for more information about Fortunate Arabia and their connections with India, let listen Handel and The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-TGKJ9MgCOQ

    1. As a self-confessed Serbophile, I cannot confirm or deny those Serbian links but indeed there were regions of Arabia known as Arabia Felix (South Arabia) along with Arabia Deserta (Empty Quarter) and Arabia Petraea (Levantine-ish north Arabia/Sinai).

      1. Thanks Emi, your text is excellent and is touching very interesting and exotic but not well explored domain. It seems that this area was the richest part of the world. There is a legend about the wealth brought by queen of Sheba when visiting the king Solomon. I have some material which is not available in (English) public domain and I may present some as soon as I get some free time (pretty busy in the following few days). There are interesting connections with Egypt, too. Palmyra – I wrote before about this that all toponyms which contain MIR, including South Asia, are the most likely Serbian. There are also some Serbian toponyms across the water in Ethiopia. Sinai is full of Serbian toponyms including Mt Serbal (still the same name in Arabic – Jebel Serbal) where Moses got 10 commandments from the God. From Mt Nebo (in Serbian – sky) Moses watched the promised land. Ch.

        1. PS: some additions…

          Sabeyska (Sabeian) Arabia, south from Minean, (the capital was Saba) – Serbian tribes (names: Seba, Saba, Sabta, Sabteka mentioned in Old Testament: Job 1:13-15, Isaiah 45:14, and Joel 3:4-8 and the Quran Sura 34) came from Lycia in Asia Minor.

          At its height Saba was one of the greatest kingdoms in antiquity and ruled over a land that, to many, was considered blessed by the gods.

          (The following text by Joshua J. Mark)
          “Saba (also given as Sheba) was a kingdom in southern Arabia (region of modern-day Yemen) which flourished between the 8th century BCE and 275 CE when it was conquered by the neighbouring Himyarites. Although these are the most commonly accepted dates, various scholars have argued for a longer or shorter chronology with the earliest date of c. 1200 BCE; most agree on the terminus of c. 275 CE, however.

          In its prime, however, Saba was known as a wealthy kingdom which grew rich through trade along the Incense Routes (also known as the Spice Routes) between southern Arabia and the port of Gaza on the Mediterranean Sea. Most of the biblical and quranic references – including the tale of the famous queen – reference Saba’s wealth and success in trade.

          The Sabeans supplanted the Mineans in orchestrating trade and quickly became the wealthiest kingdom in southern Arabia. Goods were sent from Saba to Babylon and Uruk in Mesopotamia, to Memphis in Egypt, and to Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre in the Levant and, from the port at Gaza, even further. By the time of the reign of the Assyrian king Sargon II (722-705 BCE), their trade routes required his permission to operate in his realm and extend through Assyrian lands. The Egyptians had been trading with the land of Punt (modern-day Puntland State of Somalia) since their 5th Dynasty (c. 2498-2345 BCE), as well as their southern neighbour Nubia but had since initiated trade with southern Arabia. Gold from Nubia travelled north to the capital of Egypt at Memphis and then overland east and south down to Saba.

          Sabean kings (known as mukarribs) rose to power and commissioned great building projects from their capital at Ma’rib (modern-day Sana’a, Yemen). The most famous of these projects is the Ma’rib Dam, the oldest known dam in the world, blocking the ravine of Dhana (the Wadi Adanah). The mountainous ravine would flood during the rainy season and the dam was built to control and divert the water to the low-lying farms in the valley.

          Irrigation of the farmlands was so successful that Saba was consistently remarked upon as a “green country” by ancient historians such as Pliny the Elder (c. 23-79 CE) who called the region Arabia Eudaemon (“Fortunate Arabia”), a term later used by the Romans as “Arabia Felix”. The dam, considered one of the greatest engineering feats of the ancient world, was built under the reign of the Sabean mukarrib Yatha’ Amar Watta I (c. 760-740 BCE).

          Prior to the 8th century BCE, trade in the area seems to have been controlled by the Mineans of the kingdom of Ma’in but c. 950 BCE the Sabeans dominated the region and taxed the goods heading north from their southern neighbours of Hadramawt, Qataban, and the port of Qani. Sabean trade suffered during the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt (323-30 BCE) when the Ptolemies encouraged sea routes over land travel, and Saba’s prestige declined until they were conquered by the neighbouring Himyarites.

          In c. 575 CE the Ma’rib dam failed and Saba was flooded. The Quran attributes the flood to an act of God (Surah 34:15-17) as punishment for the Sabeans refusing to accept his gifts. If so, said punishment was severe and resulted in the abandonment of towns and cities as the people were forced to leave the area or starve. A more rational explanation for the dam’s failure is simply its age and lack of maintenance, although secular legends claim it was due to rats weakening the dam’s supports by chewing on them.”

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