How serious is the Hindu-Muslim conflict in India ?

Writing in the journal India Review, Korean scholar Heewon Kim says,

This article reviews the approaches used to understand the BJP-led NDA government’s policies toward religious minorities and argues that far from marking a radical departure, there are more continuities than discontinuities in these policies with previous administrations.

For all kinds of keyboard internet warriors, this conclusion would come as a disappointment. But it is only the boring conclusion to a truly banal argument.

There seems to be an understanding among many that Hindu-Muslim conflict is primordial, immemorial and ultimately irreconcilable. Partition is seen as incontrovertible proof of this view.

I would like to offer another perspective. In my view, taking into context the entire history of the twentieth century, the Hindu-Muslim conflict in India is rather benign, mainly due to the low real stakes in this conflict. I base this view on my readings of Russian, Chinese and Mexican history, especially the scale and intensity of armed conflict seen in inter group rivalries within those countries.

The forces of industrialization and democratization unleashed by England starting from 18th century proved immensely destabilizing to all world civilizations. This period saw extremely volatile political competition between groups harboring competing, irreconcilable visions for the future of various countries. In Russia, China and Mexico, this competition took the form of conservatives (usually capitalists), versus radicals (usually leftists). In the Muslim world, such competition has appeared in the form of secular regimes being pitted against Islamist movements, and increasingly, sectarian conflicts amongst various conservative movements.

The stakes for both sides in these conflicts were extremely high, and no accommodation with the opposing group was sought. This is evident from the sheer scale of warfare seen in these conflicts. The death tolls in each country ran into the multi millions, with decades of devastation.

Italian Trulli

Such high levels of conflict are not seen amongst Hindus and Muslims in India. The real stakes in Hindu-Muslim arguments are simply too low to militarize the conflict. On the table in other world conflicts, were programs of massive wealth transfer via land reform, extreme and eternal concentration of political power and utter suppression of language and religion. In contrast, Hindus and Muslims mostly argue about long dead kings, culinary choices and obscure theological points.

The simple truth is that even the establishment of a Hindu state will not alter the ground realities for India’s Muslims. Nepal was a Hindu monarchy for many decades, and its 5% Muslim population showed no interest in challenging the regime. Interestingly, the eventual overthrow of Nepal’s Hindu monarchy was carried out by a leftist movement (comprised of Hindus) in a civil war, much like the pattern seen in Russia, China and Mexico.

In many ways, India’s immense diversity and the sheer scale of its minority population, has restricted conflict to elite sparring rather than total war, which has very much been the norm across the world. But it has also prevented a genuine confrontation between the masses and the elites, the often mentioned lack of a revolution in Indian society. For a left vs right conflict in India, Hindu would need to fight Hindu. But the very presence of the Muslim seems to have softened any edge in this conflict.

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BrownCast Podcast episode 22: Ajay Verghese on pre-colonial India, Hindus, Muslims, etc

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsyniTunes and Stitcher. Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe at one of the links above.

You can also support the podcast as a patron (the primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else…). Would appreciate more positive reviews.

Today we talk to Ajay Verghese; Ajay is an assistant professor of political science at UC Riverside and has written extensively about ethnic and religious conflicts in pre-colonial, colonial (i.e. British Colonial, not earlier Turko-Mughal colonists) and independent India. We talk about Hindus, Muslims, religious conversion, conflicts, and other fun stuff.

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Religious change, genocide, and culture in the Indian subcontinent and Eurasia

Since many readers of this website refer to “genocides,” and all of them were born in the 20th or 21st centuries, I want to put a note here which I think will illustrate why it is important to be careful of the use of particular words and what their connotations are as a function of time. In the modern period, the term “genocide” has a particular valence. The Nazi killing of Jews, the Ottoman genocides of the early 20th century, and the killing of Tutsis in Rwanda. These were, I believe, expressions of the mass politics and mobilization. As such, they are not entirely analogous to ethnic and religious turnover in the premodern era, where death was often secondary or a side-effect.

Continue reading “Religious change, genocide, and culture in the Indian subcontinent and Eurasia”

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Against being an intellectual subaltern

Over at my other weblog, The blood on brown hands is a legacy of all of history. Basically, a long essay where I fire broadsides at reductive postcolonialism in the context of Indian history and communal divisions. The motivation was straightforward: twitter is not really good to outline more subtle or detailed perspectives. But, it is a good platform for people to pepper you with many, many, questions.

Below is the first paragraph of the post:

Yesterday I put up a tweet which went a bit viral (I won’t embed since it has a vulgarity). It was the result of my frustration with a very liberal Indian American who was using unfortunate tensions in the Indian subcontinent to attack “white supremacy.” My frustration was due to the reality that a major conflict between India and Pakistan would not just impact India and Pakistan, though that is dire enough. In a globalized world, a war involving the world’s fifth largest economy, situated athwart the southern flank of Asia, would impact many people outside of the subcontinent. In the midst of this, the fact that someone was using this to promote their own ideological hobbyhorse was offensive to me.

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White Hepthalites?

This is a parody account, which has been started by that blonde twitter account (I can’t recall her name).

However what I find interesting is treating the Hepthalites as “white.” There is a strain in Anglo-Saxon civilisation to absorb other heritages into their own. Furthermore as a shadow of the Western hegemony, “whiteness” is a trait often bestowed (the Aryans are treated as a white people).

I understand that there are many nuances but as the Devil Wears Prada teaches us, subtleties in the elite level trickle all the way down into the popular one.

The average Persian or India has a continuous link to their ancient by way of geography, history or ethnicity. What link does the average WASP really have to Alexander the Great; except a sentiment that they belong to the same “civilisation.” Constantly absorbing the winners of history into a mythos is what led to disasters like the film 300. The last traces of colonisation is economic & psychological; you still have to perceive another civilisation as superior to be able to buy into their lifestyle.

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An Eye transplant and a Pound of Flesh

An article from a Sri Lanka newspaper.

By Bhante Dhammika of Australia

Sibi is a small rural town in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province and like many such places it has little to recommend it. It is occasionally the scene of terrorist attacks by Balochi separatists, it has no forts, palaces or ancient ruins that might attract tourists from outside, and it often records the highest temperatures in Pakistan. But as unlikely as it may seems this woebegone, dusty town was once the setting for one of Buddhism’s most enduring and beautiful legends.

Depiction of the  Sivi Jataka from Gandhara, 5th century CE

 

 

 

In ancient times it was the capital of the small city state of Aritthapura and at one time was ruled by a king named Sivi or sometimes Sibi or Shibi. This king gets a mention in the Mahabharata and the Cholas of south India claimed to be descendants of him, a claim that had no basis in fact.

The earliest mention of King Sivi however is from the Jataka, in the Sivi Jataka, number 499 of the collection. According to this story the Bodhisattva was once reborn as King Sivi and he had made a vow to give anything if anyone asked it of him. Aware of this vow, Sakra decided to test the king to see how genuine his vow was. He manifest himself as a blind man and approached the king pleading; “Give me sight. Will no one give me sight?” Hearing this, filled with compassion, and determined to fulfil his vow, the king led the blind man to a surgeon and asked that his own eyes be taken out and transplanted into the sunken sockets of the blind man. At this point the Jataka increases the tension of the story by having the surgeon ask the king; “Are you sure this is what you want to do?” But the king is adamant and requests that the operation proceeds. What follows is a fairly explicit description of how the eyeballs were squeezed from their sockets, how the optic nerve (or is it the extraocular muscles?) is severed, and the pain this caused. Before the surgeon severs the optic nerve for good he again asks; “Are you sure you want me to do this? Once I cut it there is no turning back.” The king, now in terrible pain, begs the surgeon to hurry up and do the needful. The scene is so vivid that one is tempted to think that the ancient Indians may have actually tried to perform such an operation. As happens in most such Jatakas, the drama ends well with the king’s sight being restored.

In later Buddhist Sanskrit text there is another version of this story. Here King Sibi makes a vow that he will do whatever he can to save a life should the need ever arise. Saka manifests himself as a hawk who catches a dove within view of the king. Seeing this the king pleads with the hawk to release its prey but the bird retorts: “Then how am I to feed myself and my young?” The king thinks for a moment and then says; “I will cut some flesh from my thigh and give it to you if you let the dove go.” Driving a hard bargain the hawk agrees but says it wants the same amount of flesh as would have been provided by the dove. The king agrees, a pair of scales are produced and the process of slicing off a dove’s-worth of flesh is about to begin when Sakka reveals himself and expresses his satisfaction that King Sibi has had the courage to go through with his vow.

Although the imagery of cutting eyes balls out of their sockets or slicing flesh off a living person are disconcerting, even shocking, the purpose of both versions of this Jataka story is clear. A true hero will be prepared to sacrifice much of himself or herself for others. Jesus said pretty much the same thing in the Gospel of John: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Depiction of the Sivi Jataka from the Borobudur temple, 11th century CE.

The Sivi version of the story is depicted in a relief from Sarnath and Nagajunakonda in Andhra Pradesh, in a mural on the walls of the Mulkirigala temple in Sri Lanka and elsewhere.

This version has had an unexpected consequence. Sri Lanka has the highest number of people willing to donate their corneas after death to be used to help restore sight to the blind. This is due to campaigning starting in 1964 by the Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society and also because Buddhists in the country  are familiar with the story of King Sivi’s gift. The society has 450 branches in the country and every year is able to provide thousands of corneas to be used in eye surgery around the world.

The alternative Sibi version of the story is depicted in the art of numerous Buddhist countries. Perhaps the most well-known of these is the depiction on one of the panels of the great Buddhist temple of Borobudur in Java. In the middle of the panel a pair of large and impressive scales can be seen and in the right hand dish of the scales the dove is waiting to be weighed against the king’s flesh. This version of the story has had an influence too, although in literature rather than medicine.

In around 1597 William Shakespeare wrote his famous play The Merchant of Venice. In the play a young merchant promises to guarantee a loan his friend plans to take out in order to woo his sweetheart. The agreement is that if the loan, which is given without interest, cannot be repaid by a set date the moneylender will be repaid not in cash but with a pound (about 450 grams) of the guarantor’s flesh. The moneylender has made this stipulation because he secretly hates the guarantor and hopes that he will not be able to repay the money. The date passes without the loan being repaid and the moneylender demands his pound of flesh. The lender is soon able to repay the loan and even offers to double the amount rather have his flesh cut off, but the moneylender demands that the original agreement be kept. He does not want the money, he wants the pound of flesh. They go to court and the judges uphold the original agreement but they also decide that moneylender can have his pound of flesh but without shedding a drop of blood, which would be a criminal offence under the law.

This is one of Shakespeare’s most dramatic plays and the origin of the ideas in it have been explored in great detail. Its chief source was Giovanni Fiorentino’s llPecorone written in 1378. But where did Fiorentino get the idea of cutting off flesh of a certain weight to repay a loan? The simple answer is that no one knows. But the idea is so gripping, so iconic, so unusual, that one cannot help thinking that at some time before the 14th century, probably many centuries earlier, it may have travelled from India, through the Middle East and eventually filtered into Europe. If this is correct, it may be a small contribution Buddhist literature made to the works of Shakespeare.

The story of King Sibi endured for centuries despite the disappearance of Buddhism in India. In 1907 M. Longworth Dames published his Popular Poetry of the Baloches, containing English translations of verses, songs and poetry he had transcribed in the Balochi tongue during the previous decades. One of the poems he recorded in 1884 is immediately recognizable as the Jataka story, only the king is a Muslim named Ali.

But to return to the town of Sibi. In a semi-desert area to the south of the town is a collection of ruins. One of these looks suspiciously like it was once a stupa. We know that there was such a monument somewhere in or near the town because the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang mentioned one in his travelogue, erected “where King Sivika sliced his body to ransom a dove from a hawk, in order to acquire Buddhahood.” No archaeological examination has ever been done to determine the date and purpose of this monument, and probably never will be. But it is quite likely that it is what remains of the stupa erected to commemorate King Sivi’s noble deed.

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What to read if you don’t want to read Guha

In the podcast with Kushal Mehra he made an offhand comment that it was strange that conservative American intellectual Ben Shapiro was reading India After Gandhi to understand his country. Mehra’s confusion is simply that Shapiro is on the Right, but he is reading from the perspective of Indian Left to understand India. Though probably hyperbolic, perhaps it would be like a Hindu nationalist reading Howard Zinn’s A Peoples History of the United States to understand America.

I know there are issues India After Gandhi. My friend Reihan Salam thought that Amardeep Singh was entirely too uncritical when he blogged the book many years ago. Since I have no read the book I will not hazard to offer an opinion.

But, the question then remains: what books on Indian history should an American read to offer up some balance? This is a live issue, as an American conservative friend was himself considering reading  India After Gandhi before being taken aback by Mehra’s comment about Shapiro and his reading habits.

Please leave book recommendations!

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We are all Aryans now

Last year I contributed a chapter to a book soon to be published in India, Which of Us are Aryans? In answer to the question, the straightforward answer is that almost all of us are Aryans. That is, the thin but persistent layer of Indo-Aryan (“steppe”) ancestry is present across the subcontinent. In higher fractions among Brahmins and Kshatriyas than in Dalits, in the northwest than the southeast, and among Indo-European speakers than Dravidians. But this ancestral component and its cultural correlates are found across southern Asia.

Secondarily, there has been some discussion about the negative valence in the West about the term “Aryans.” In particular, its “cultural appropriation” by German Nazis by way of Theosophy and various spiritual and quasi-spiritual movements in the early 20th century.

As an American to see the word “Aryan” bandied about like this is strange and a bit uncomfortable. But there are now more than 1 billion Indians, so I don’t believe we in the West are a position dictate in terms of the lexicon that we borrowed from Indians in the first place, often without clear attribution (most Americans and Europeans would be surprised that “Aryan” is an Indian and Iranian term).

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Review: The Buddha and the Sahibs and Ashoka—The Search for India’s Lost Emperor

A review by my Uni batch mate,  Sunil Koswatta

Charles Allen has written two books on The Buddha and the Sahibs and Ashoka—The Search for India’s Lost Emperor.  The second book, written about a decade after the first one, is largely an expansion of the first.


Both are the stories of the “Orientalists” who discovered India’s lost history, the lost Emperor Ashoka, and the Buddha Dhamma that thrived in India during Ashoka’s time.  Their methods of discovery were crude, sometimes outright criminal by today’s standards.  However,there  were honest“sahibs” who dedicated their whole lives to science and discovery; conversely, there were opportunistic and greedy “sahibs” whose only objective was wealth.  Allen weaves his tale in a way to take the readers along with the discoverers while (mostly) permitting the readers to judge for themselves.

Among the most interesting are William “Oriental” Jones, who established the Asiatic Society of Bengal; James Prinsep, who deciphered Ashoka texts; George Turnour, who translated Mahawansa from Pali to English; Alexander Cunningham, who discovered many of the Buddhist pilgrimage sites; Dr. Waddell, who discovered Kapilavastu and Lumbini; and John Marshall, who finally introduced proper methods of archeological excavation.

Prinsep worked to decipher the lettering on the pillar known as the “Feroz Shah’s Lat” or “Delhi No 1” for four years.  His breakthrough came when he examined two dozen brief inscriptions of the same lettering at the Great Stupa at Sanchi.  Prinsep guessed that these short inscriptions could only be records of donations.  He was struck by the fact that almost all short transcripts ended with the same word with two characters: a snake-like squiggle and an inverted T followed by a single dot.

Here, he observed that the language was not Sanskrit but a vernacular modification of it, which had been fortunately preserved in Pali scriptures of Ceylon and Ava, a nineteenth century Burmese kingdom.Prinsep’sassistant with Pali was a Sinhalese named “Ratna Paula” (quite likely a corruption of the name “Rathanapala”).Both in Sanskrit and in Pali, the verb “to give” was “dana” and the noun “gift” or “donation” was “danaṁ” sharing the same Indo-European root as the Latin “donare” (to give) and “donus” (gift). This led to the recognition of the word “danaṁ,” teaching Prinsep the two letters, d and n of Brahmi 1. The snake-like squiggle represented the sound “da”, and the inverted T with the single dot the sound “naṁ.”

Too, Prinsep noticed that a single letter (like an inverted y) appeared frequently before or near the terminal word. Prinsep determined this letter to mean “of,” the equivalent of Pali “ssa,” based on his earlier investigations of the coins from Saurashtra.  If his hunch was correct, then the general structure of each sentence was something like “So-and-so of the gift.”Prinsep’s translation of one such Sanchi inscription is “Isa-palitasa-cha Samanasa-cha danaṁ” (The gift of Isa-Palita and of Samana.)

The opening sentence of Delhi No 1 had been observed to repeat itself again and again at the start of many sections or paragraphs of text in the pillar inscriptions and on the rock edicts.  This,Prinsep could now read as “Devanampiyapiyadasi raja hevaṁ aha.”  After conferring with Ratna Paula, Prinsep concluded that this opening phrase was best represented in English as “Thus spake King Piyadasi, Beloved of the Gods.”  Prinsep published his findings in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in April, 1837.

But who was the author of these extraordinary edicts?  Who wasPiyadasi?  Prinsep couldn’t find a Piyadasi in all Hindu genealogical tables that he consulted.  Only one possible candidate presented himself, one who had emerged from George Turnour’s translations of the Pali Chronicles of Ceylon: “King Devanampiatissa succeeded his father on the throne of Ceylon in the year of Buddha 236.  He induced Dharmasoka, a sovereign of the many kingdoms into which Dambadiva was divided, and whose capital was Pataliputta, to depute his son Mahinda and his daughter Sangamitta, with several other principal priests to Anuradhapura for the purpose of introducing the religion of Buddha.”

In a letter sent to Prinsep on June 6th of 1837, Turnour excitedly revealed the identity of Piyadasi.   “I have made a most important discovery. You will find in the introduction to my Epitome that a valuable collection of Pali works was brought back to Ceylon from Siam, by George Nodaris, mudaliar in 1812. This collection of Pali texts included a copy of the Island Chronicle, the original chronicle from which the later Great Dynastic Chronicle took its earliest historical material, but a less corrupted version—and with crucial differences.  While casually turning the leaves of the manuscript I had hit upon an entirely new passage relating to the identity of Piyadasi … who, the grandson of Chandragupta, and own son of Bindusara, was at the time Viceroy of Ujjayani.”

King Devanmpriya Piyadasi of the Feroz Shar Lat inscription (Delhi 1) was not King Devanampiathissa of Lanka, as Prinsep had assumed. He was his Indian contemporary Ashoka Maurya.

After Prinsep’s death his work was continued.  Alexander Cunningham relied on the accounts of the Chinese pilgrims Faxian and Xuanzang to discover the Buddhist pilgrim sites.  Faxian’s Records of Buddhist Kingdoms was translated in 1836, and Xuanzang’s History of the Life of Xuanzang and His Travels in India was translated in 1853.  Faxian, who travelled to India in 400 CE, identified Ashoka as Wuyou Wang (The King Not Feeling Sorrow).  Faxian visited Sankisa, and Lumbini, and from Lumbini travelled south to cross the Ganges at the point he describes as “the confluence of the five rivers,” just upstream of the capital of the country of Maghada: Pataliputra.  Faxian describes Wuyou’s palace and his towering city walls and gates as being inlaid with sculpture-work.  About two hundred years later, when Xuanzang arrived, the Buddha Dhamma was in decline and the Pataliputra was all but abandoned.  Cunningham conducted his field surveys with copies of Faxian’s andXuanzang’s travels in his knapsack.  He tracked down almost all sites visited by the Chinese pilgrims, including Sravasti, Kosambi, Ayodya, Sankisa, Taxila, and Nalanda.

However, Cunningham assumed that Pataliputra must have been swept away by the changing course of the Ganges.  Dr. Waddell thought otherwise.  Taking together both Faxian and Xuanzang accounts,Waddell prepared a chart of Ashoka’s palaces and other chief monuments, and his chart led him over a railway line that marked the southern limits of “old” Patna, to a series of mounds known as Panch Pahari or the Five Brothers.  He wrote afterwards, “I was surprised to find most of the leading landmarks of Ashoka’s palaces, monasteries, and other monuments when reexamined so very obvious that I was able in the short space of one day to identify many of them beyond all doubt.”  Around the modern village Kumrahar, Waddell found various fragments of sculpture and other confirmatory details and learned from the villagers that whenever they sunk wells, they stuck massive wooden beams at a depth of about 20 feet beneath the ground.  Megasthenes, a Greek diplomat who stayed at Pataliputra for six months during the Emperor Chandragupta’s reign, had recorded that Pataliputra was surrounded by wooden walls.

As mentioned before, not all sahibs treated their objects respectfully.  James Campbell, the Commissioner of Customs, Salt, Opium and Akbari in Bombay Presidency in the 1890s, excavated several sites in Gujarat.  Among his early triumphs was finding a new Ashokan rock edict, which he had allowed to be taken to bits, mislaid, and lost. A relic subsequently identified by the accompanying inscription as a segment of Buddha’s alms bowl was thrown away.  He then moved on to tear apart the “Girnar Mound,” a large stupa a few miles south of the famous Girnar rock inscription.

In spite of some irresponsibility, all of these men contributed to the rediscovery of India’s past.  The books that tell their stories are excellent,  and in this reviewer’s judgment both belong in any Sri Lankan’s private library.

Sunil Koswatta

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