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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.