This essay is highly speculative in nature and I have many doubts about many of the things stated below, but I have tried to coherently bring together distinct threads of early Indian history into an explanation for the great stratification of Jati-Varna
Ancient history is in general a tricky subject to delve into, but when it comes to ancient Indian history, the tricky becomes almost entirely speculative. The entire narrative is based on a series of texts, from the Vedic canon to Pali texts – none of them are dated precisely in absolute terms. The paucity of inscriptions from ancient India makes dating much more difficult as oral texts are much harder to accurately date.
One of the early inscriptions from Ancient India, Ashoka’s 13th major rock edict from Kandahar reads
Except among the Greeks, there is no land where the religious orders of Brahmanas and Sramanas are not to be found, and there is no land anywhere where men do not support one sect or another.
Here Brahmanas are mentioned but not as a Varna per se but as analogous to various Sramanas (priests / philosophers). Some academics have come to regard the Sramana traditions as somewhat antagonistic to the orthodox Brahmanical traditions. However, the earliest written reference to these traditions, Ashoka’s Rock Edicts mention them always together. Patanjali and others too mostly mention them together and never as quite as antagonistic as later Sramana canon or modern scholarship would have us believe.
However, it is undeniable that one cannot be understood without the challenges presented by the other. Ahimsa and Vegetarianism are generally acknowledged (and contested) to be Sramana influences on Classical Hinduism. A lot of digital and literal ink has been spilled to answer the question of how these two currents have interacted and shaped each other – mostly through the lens of Ahimsa, Dha(r/m)ma, Moksha and only rarely Karma.
Johannes Bronkhorst’s Greater Magadha thesis offers a tenuous but interesting take on these interactions. The basic premise of the thesis is that the region of Greater Magadha was home to the Proto-Sramana traditions while the Kuru-Panchala region to the Vedic Brahmanas and that many ideas central to classical Hinduism like Karma, Rebirth, and Ayurveda came into it from the Sramana traditions of the Greater Magadha via the esoteric Upanishads (especially the ones which were composed in the horizon of Greater Magadha). The whole thesis rests on the revised chronology which only makes sense if the thesis is true – so I doubt the book is going to convince anyone. But it has catalyzed a rudimentary and dormant theory that came to my mind years ago while reading Ambedkar’s writings.
The composition of the Manava Dharma Shastra (100 BCE to 200 AD) is generally considered to be an indication (or instrument) of Varna ossification. The Varna system in some form ought to have existed (especially in the Gangetic heartland) since the late Vedic period (Purusha Sukta), yet both textual and genetic evidence points to this period as being one of great mixing. Hence it is fair to assume that whatever rudimentary Varna system existed, it was not very rigidly followed in these times. Also its important to note that traditional Varna system may have never been a reality south of the Vindhyas.
It is difficult to pin the Varna ossification to any particular political period. The only pan India ancient empire – the Mauryas are unlikely to have imposed any Varna hierarchy on their subjects as the pedagogic Ashoka doesn’t once mention Varna in his Rock Edicts. The Shungas are seen as the Brahmanical pushback against excesses of the Mauryan state but their power was both too limited in time and too restricted in region to have made any major impact. The same is true for most other political powers in the country for the next 500 years.
Brahmins had begun moving out of the Gangetic heartland as early as the late Vedic period itself. So why did the Varna system, suddenly begin to ossify centuries later? Surely some metaphysical, philosophical, and/or political explanation is required to make sense of this phenomenon. Also, Jati endogamy which is the true hallmark of the Indian Caste system cannot be explained by the Brahmanical Varna system – even the rigid one prescribed in the Manusmriti. The answers may lie in a core philosophy of the Indic faith systems.
So what is the common characteristic that defines Indian religious thought? The answer is easy – the concept of Karma, Rebirth and Dharma. Even if we reject the thesis of Greater Magadha, we have to accept that the concepts of Rebirth and Karma are explored in far more detail in the Sramana schools – namely Buddhists, Jainas, and Ajivikas. The whole philosophical aim of the Sramana schools is to avoid Bad Karma to primarily get Good Karma and finally Moksha. This is in clear contrast with mainstream Vedic thought. Though the early Upanishads (Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka) touch the Karma doctrine it’s in no way as critically dissected as by the Sramanas. The lengths to which the Jainas and Ajivikas go to avoid all Karma; the detailed linking of the intention of the “Actor” to the Karma done by Buddha illustrate that the Sramanas, in general, were way more focused on Karma than their Brahmana counterparts. More importantly, the concept of Karmic retribution in Rebirth is much more detailed in early Sramana traditions than the Upanishads (Yajnavalkya doesn’t link Karma directly to Rebirth but discusses both separately). So it remains fair to assume that even if doctrines of Rebirth and Karma didn’t come into Classical Hinduism as an import from Sramana traditions, it can surely be thought that the Sramana innovations in the Karma and Rebirth doctrines challenged the more “this-worldly outlook” of the Vedic Brahmanas.
But how does this matter to the Jati Varna matrix? The initial conception of Varna sees it as a natural order of things (not unlike stratification seen in most ancient societies). Moreover, this conception is in no way rejected by the Sramana traditions even Buddhism – thought Buddha did not give Varna the emphasis it received from the Vedic Brahmanas. Even today caste is practiced in the Jainas. So how did the conception of Karmic retribution affect this system? The answer seems obvious enough. It meant that the position of one in the Varna hierarchy could be justified as the fruit of Karma of previous births and not only as a Natural order. In other words, the ritual status was awarded to certain births for their good Karma and vice-versa. In many ways, Karmic retribution is a fundamental shift from the “this-worldly” ways of the composers of Rigveda.
This change is captured in the Bhagavat Gita, arguably the most important book of the Hindu canon. While there continue to be many interpretations of the doctrine of Karma espoused in the Gita, the one reading tells us to fulfill the Dharma (of your Varna/ Position/ Situation) with the implication that it would result in Good Karma and better Rebirths – the ultimate aim of Moksha notwithstanding. That indeed seems to be one of the simplistic messages of the Gita which would have begun spreading in the society with the final versions of Mahabharata. The prescriptive Manusmriti is one thing, but the bonafide revelation of Gita is another (though it is not my point that Karmic retribution is the core message of Gita but it is hard to argue against it being a vehicle of the spread of these memes). This doesn’t mean that Varna became birth-based at this moment in history – it is fair to assume it always was at least partially birth-based though more flexible. But we can state that at this stage, one’s Birth became Karma-based and Varna also became inextricably linked to Karma.
This could have resulted in two primary effects:
It would mitigate the sense of injustice perceived by sections of the society who had it tough. The injustice of birth was not injustice but the karmic justice of previous births.
It associated “ritual Varna hierarchy and division of labor” with moral dimension (Karma of previous birth). Potentially this moral dimension would buttress the existing Varna hierarchy.
It’s easy to imagine how this would in turn result in decreasing porousness between Varnas. Incidentally, this is attested through the first/second-century inscription near Nasik by Brahmana Satavahana Queen Gotami, which praises how her son prevented the mixing of the Varnas. This is one of the most solidly dated references against the mixing of Varnas (as it is an inscription) issued by a political authority (not just religious abstractions).
However in a pre-modern subcontinent without a strong centralized state, these ideas would have spread very slowly through the network of Brahmins and various (particularly) Vaishnava sects through the vehicle of Gita. The Hindu Golden age of the Imperial Vaishnavite Guptas – who ruled the second-largest and arguably the richest empire of ancient India, in the fourth/fifth century AD nicely correlates with these timelines. Thus we could say that by the time of the Huna invasions of the 5th and 6th century the Varna ossification was prevalent, but even that doesn’t explain the complete story. Still, we have no philosophical or scriptural basis for Jati endogamy.
Anthropologist Irawati Karve in her book “Hindu society” was one of the earliest to claim that the Jati system was a pre-Aryan reality upon which the abstraction of the Aryan Varna system was imposed. Academically her work has been contested and not accepted in mainstream Indology, but her case is very compelling, given that it is based on her immense fieldwork in “Non-Aryan” tribes who have maintain very strict endogamy. But how does her thesis map onto what we know from genetics? Endogamy in India roughly seems to have ossified between 0 AD and 500 AD but who is to say that less rigid endogamy (not detectable) was not the norm earlier? Is it possible that the self-conception of Jatis is indeed is an ancient Pre-Aryan reality that was less rigid during the Vedic times? Clearly, there are no easy answers as all we can do is speculate and wait for Ancient DNA from India to show if there existed any pre-Aryan structure in the populations of the Indus valley.
Many tribal (hunter-gatherer) societies have endogamy baked into their cultures. But generally, as these tribal societies get integrated into the agricultural societies, this endogamy tends to break down – as evident for recent genetic findings (particularly Europe). But what if the tribal societies which integrated into the emerging Urban civilizations (first the Indus and then the Ganga) , never fully gave up their tribal/clan identities? The hundreds of excavated IVC villages point to sophisticated trade/occupational specialization. If both the sexes work in their ancestral trades per se, it would naturally result in tribal endogamy as it makes occupational sense. But that would not necessarily lead to rigid endogamy to the levels we see in the subcontinent- probably because this doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world. Though the identities of groups by kinship (precursor to Jati) may have existed even before the Varna system began to take form (let alone become rigid).
But why does this Jati endogamy become sharper with the ossification of the Varna system? Some take the explanation as Jatis arising out of the mixing of Varnas seriously, but that thesis (ludicrous imo) can be jettisoned without a second thought as Jatis exists even in those who are outside the Varna hierarchies. A potential answer may again lie in the doctrine of Karmic retribution.
Unlike the original simplistic Varna hierarchy – the concept of Karmic retribution enables hierarchies within hierarchies. Every Jati can be ranked within the Varna hierarchy based on the perceived moral inheritance (Karma) of their profession. Additionally, better births and even salvation are promised to the ones following their Jati-Varna Dharma. Thus Jatis would have both religious as well as occupational/cultural reasons for enforcing stricter endogamy which is far more believable than assuming these norms were somehow imposed across the subcontinent in pre-modern times by machinations of Dvija Varnas.
None of the above points are sufficient but all are necessary to explain the great vivisection of Indian society. Chronologically first the kinship-based (not gotra) groups were integrated into the expanding Aryavarta both culturally and genetically while the late Vedic abstractions of Varna and ritual purity began to take root in the orthodox Vedic traditions. When the rudimentary conceptions (Vedic or non-Vedic) of Karma and Rebirth were taken up by the Sramanas, taking them to a complex, philosophical, and rigorous extreme, they began to affect the Vedic philosophies.
In essence, the religious innovations of Karma, Rebirth and Dharma when coupled with pre-existing concepts of Varna, ritual purity, and tribal occupational endogamy conjure up a perfect storm that continues to flow through the blood of around 1/4th of humanity, in form of thousands of distinct streams.
What is not discussed above is the impact on the subcontinent of the violent Huna invasions which along with internal strife resulted in the collapse of the Gupta empire. The rapid de-urbanization which is speculated to have occurred in the fifth and sixth centuries would have also played a crucial role in this ossification. The second millennium with the Turkic invasions would have also played some role in the maintenance of this now-steady state.
I continue to have a lot of doubts about the above speculations, but when I read books on Indology and Indian prehistory, I find even more tenuous speculations (made by professional academics) than the ones I have proceeded to make in this essay. At least these speculations seem to align with the history alluded by the genetic data of caste (Or I have made them align).
I had thought along these lines even before reading about the interactions of Brahmanas and Sramanas but while reading the Greater Magadha thesis and following a YouTube seminar I thought the thrust of my current argument was staring me in the eye. I expected someone to draw the conclusions I had drawn, but was extremely surprised than no one has gone there.
The references for this essay are numerous and diverse to be noted here. Anyone interested please reach out to me.
A year after my blog post on the topic of the Aryan invasion, I am revisiting the topic on Brownpundits, not as a query into the historical question but as a question of identity and politics.
The Aryan debate touches a variety of political faultlines in India and hence is not going to be settled anytime soon I presume, yet intellectually I think it is a non-sequitur for most of the alleged issues around which the issue is discussed. Those issues being (not necessarily in order of importance)
Western colonialism and racism and its converse in India. (Identity)
The Jati-Varna system and its legacy in India
Islam and Christianity in Modern India.
Love for native antiquity and religious dogma.
My primary issue with the politics around this issue is that it clearly prevents intelligent and passionate people interested in the topic from pursuing it clear-headedly (Not that researchers don’t get illogically attached to their theories in face of overwhelming evidence). Perhaps the example of Colin Renfrew (Anatolian farmer hypothesis) accepting the Kurgan hypothesis (Marija Gimbutas) after the ancient DNA work came out is an outlier but it is still good to know such examples.
As far as the politics go, it’s fair to state that it’s the Hindutvadis who are at the vanguard of pushback against AIT/AMT (however it’s important to note that there are notable exceptions, and not all Hindutvavadis are invested in this debate). Also some non-Hindutvavadi (especially traditional Hindus and Indians with nativist anti-colonial mindset) are also invested in this debate.
Identity: Western colonialism and racism and its converse in India.
The genesis of the Aryan invasion theory was in the racist notions of white and European superiority – “White horse warriors who spoke a form a proto Sanskrit arrived in the subcontinent and subjugated the dark, stubby-nosed natives of India” (in process civilizing them). The extrapolation of this being – what the British colonizers were doing was just the latest upgrade of civilization being uploaded in the lands of relapsed natives. But then the stunning finds of the IVC began poking holes in this simplistic racist take. Though initially Indra was accused of the destruction of the IVC, later developments in the field acquitted him. However, it is important to note that as migrations became unpopular in global academia for the spread of cultures (post the Nazi Aryan theories), the Aryan migration theory remained mainstream in Indian academia (though the initial racist and simplistic narratives were rejected even by eminent Secular/Marxist historians).
Rejection of the AMT based on the circumstances of its genesis still remains a major reason for the rejection of AMT by Indians. The sentiment behind it being “No white men from outside civilized us”. However, it needs no pointing that in the academic chronology of Indian history, the Pre-Aryan IVC is the major Copper-Bronze age civilization known to us. As we discover more about pre Iron age peninsular India, we find the Stone-Chalcolithic age in the geographic region of India went far beyond the IVC and north Copper hoard sites. At this point, it is fair to assert that Rice cultivation developed somewhat independently in the region East of Punjab. Even basic ancient Indian books like Ancient India by Upinder Singh and India’s Ancient Past by RS Sharma have good length devoted to non-IVC pre-Iron age India.
No white men from outside civilized us” seems settled but its converse is commonplace in nativist Indian circles these days. The term Indus valley “civilization” is only used for the 2600bce to 1900bce Urban period, yet the web is replete with articles that push back the dates of “civilization” in IVC sites (as back as 8000 BCE), particularly Rakhigarhi which incidentally falls in modern India. This need for everything good happened in Ancient India first manifests itself in badly researched and tenous articles like this one – My response to it – here.
I see this need to find Ancient Indian examples for political or scientific advances without robust data to be the mirror to the Racist colonial theories.
Varna divisions and Dravidian faultlines:
Some critiques of the AIT/AMT take umbrage to the instrumental use of AIT/AMT by Brahmins/Kshatriyas to justify the Varna system and also by Dalit/Bahujan activists to “Smash” Brahmanism and thus by proxy Hinduism. The annual Durga-Mahishasur controversy and the Vaman-Bali Onam flamewars keep the controversy in the news.
The Eurasian-like ancestry (ANI ancestry) in India (Both Steppe pastoralist and IVC-like) is mostly correlated with the Varna status. The somewhat ethnic nature of the Varna hierarchy is unpalatable for modern Hindus to digest. However, it is important to note that such ethnic divisions in classes are commonplace around the world. While it is fair to assume in pre-modern times the interactions which led to the great mixing of the Indian subcontinent (2000BCE to 0AD) had violence and exploitation cooked into them, the reasons also could be explained without the worst subjugation imaginable.
Anyways it’s a fool’s errand to indulge in finding conclusive evidence in pre-literate history, I would argue that the question of Aryan Migration is irrelevant to this oppressor-oppressed narratives. From outsiders’ accounts, native sources as well as genetics, I think it is fair to conclude that after initial intermixing, a group of people who happened to have a higher proportion of certain ancestry (genetic/ cultural) dominated another set of people – either organically or systemically. Razib Khan makes this point very succinctly in his substack.
However, to this uncomfortable conclusion, it does not matter whether the ancient Arya expanded from the Kazakh steppes or the Punjab region or even Anatolia for that matter. The boundaries of Aryavarta in the subcontinent were themselves always expanding into their margins, and only after the complete expansion does the notion of Sacred geography become important; not before. Politically this point will be made either honestly or dishonestly by westerners and political opponents of Hinduism (not just Hindutva) – but there is space for a nuanced counter without indulging in ad-hoc denial which logically may be irrelevant. Even the most dogmatic adherents of sacred geography have to reflect that there was a time the geography wasn’t sacred.
While most of the points made in the above passage are relevant to the question of Dravidian nationalism, its (Dravidian nationalism) basis is shakier than the Varna ethnic division. This point is made wonderfully by Razib khan here. Most probably IVC exodus had begun before the arrival of Steppe pastoralists (Arya in my opinion), so at best the pre-history can fit a model of subjugation of peninsular natives (AASI adjacent) by the farmers and pastoralists who left the collapsing IVC southwards. As mentioned before, it is a mug’s game to impose oppression Olympics on pre-history, but if it has to be done then the one mentioned in the previous line makes more sense than the Aryan-Dravidian dichotomy. The model that two elite cultures were interacting, integrating, subjugating, and co-opting natives – one in the north and one in the south while interacting with each other along the periphery seems to be the parsimonious explanation. In the mood of speculation, I would add that there was another elite culture in the mix – which Michael Witzel now calls – Kubhā-Vipāś substrate (which he earlier called Para-Munda) – corresponding to the remnants of the IVC in the North.
Islam and Christianity:
Arguably this remains the biggest reason Hindutva remains politically opposed to AMT. The initial framing of Hindutva by Savarkar and Golwalkar made use of the insider-outsider analogy. While Savarkar saw no dissonance between his framing of Hindutva and Aryan migration, it was the religiously dogmatic and un-intellectual-ish Golwalkar whose framing of Hindutva rested on Hindus being native to the subcontinent since the beginning of time. Armed with the AIT/AMT the opponents of Hindutva have attacked this particular point scornfully in Golwalkar’s framing as a slam-dunk. Examples of this being this particularly transparent framing by Shoaib Daniyal. (given that he knows linguistics and must know that Rigvedic Sanskrit was most probably spoken in India around the same time).
However, this point shouldn’t matter for the intellectual foundation of native Indian thought (Hindutva ++) because.
One of the most common points made by AMT skeptics is that the Rigveda doesn’t clearly remember some older homeland. This point alone is enough to deny the Hinduism is foreign to the subcontinent argument. Firstly what we understand as Hinduism today is far different from the religion of the Rigvedic Aryans. Hinduism cannot at the same time be a British invention as well as imposed 3 thousand years ago by invading Aryans.
On the contrary viz. Turkic invaders who became rulers of the North and Central subcontinent were evidently aware of their foreign stock. Before most of the north Indian dynasties could go native, they were replaced by newer invaders for centuries. The Portuguese who violently brought Christianity to the coasts of India were equally sure of who they were and who they were not. As with the Parsis, Cochim Jews and British.
As I have argued before, current Hindu-Muslim faultlines have less to do with what the medieval invaders did and more what the Pakistan movement achieved and how Muslim intransigence and Hindutva consolidation have progressed since independence. This is a contested opinion and I plan to handle it sometime later in a separate post.
While Aryas and Medieval invasions remain contested and debated hotly, the dozen or so invaders who invaded post the Vedic period (barring Alexander) are not even footnotes in the discourse of the day. This brings me to the more important differentiation – data becomes sparse we go back and wrt to the Aryan migration we are truly holding at straws for building our narratives. Ex – the alleged anti-idolatry sentiment in the Rigvedic Aryans (wrt to some smashed Proto-linga from old Indus sites) is so flimsy and incomparable to the medieval invaders (more importantly the iconoclasm of the later kind remains as relevant today as it did in the medieval time)
Ideally in a modern democracy, all citizens have equal rights no matter whose ancestors came into the geographical entity when, but some framings of Hindu Rashtra (not all) make Muslims and Christians lesser citizens. While this yardstick continues to be used, arguments and rebuttals on this dubious point will continue (but it need not be).
Issues with academic chronology:
Unlike most states who have founding myths in historic times (barring China, Egypt, and Iran I guess), the foundations of the Indian civilizational state go back well into the Bronze-Iron age. The historic timeline of Agriculture (till IVC) 3500BCE -> IVC (2000BCE) -> Vedic period (1500-700 BCE) -> MahaJanapada period (700-300 BCE) are at odds with most chronologies popular among Hindus (even Jains for that matter). While the absolutely ludicrous timelines presented by Nilesh Oak have widespread support, it is far beyond my ability to address them. However, the academic dating of Indian history makes the Rigveda a 3500-year-old text at most, the events of Mahabharata (if they really occurred) as a 3000-3500 -year-old event. I guess Hindu traditionists (not necessarily Hindutvavadis) cannot digest the inconsistencies of traditions with academic history. While this appears to be an insoluble issue, I think like scientific oriented Christians and Jews who no longer hold the Book of Genesis as a historical text, Hindus can also look at their traditions from a rational lens (though currently where the truly scientific lens differentiates from the colonial lens is contested). However, this is easier said than done as the parallels between Creationism and Indian traditions (especially Itihasa) are unfair (as especially young-earth Creationism is way easier to dismiss).
In most of the above points, the Aryan debate remains irrelevant to the political narratives if one faces them with intellectual honesty, maybe except in the case of timelines. Ex: Brits whose self-conception goes back to the Magna Carta at most, don’t care whether Romans invaded and occupied Celtic Britain. Neither do they care about the Viking invasions or Norman conquests (as much). Unfortunately, Indian self-conception as a civilizational state goes back further than the Muslim invasions. Hence to counter the inconvenient history, the pre-historic events attested in one of the earliest texts of human history remain contested. Also the “we are a 5000-year-old civilization” drum cannot be beaten endlessly if Rigveda is dated to 3500 years ago – the date is irrelevant – the idea of the antiquity of ancient texts is not. It is the notion of eternal or Sanathan Dharma that trumps considerations, whose genesis is lost in the mist of time.
This essay is not an attempt to convince the ideologically dogmatic about the intellectual irrelevance of the debate but to convince those who try to be intellectually honest on both sides to rethink the linkages of politics to this debate.
Also, the AIT/AMT debate is not politically used against Jainism and Buddhism – whose texts also had the Arya-Mleccha distinction. Indra continues to be a Buddhist/Jain deity even outside the subcontinent.
A close childhood friend, a passionate and active supporter of Aam Aadmi Party-whilst he retains his deep personal and family linkages with the Congress party- his grandfather served as a minister in a Congress run Madhya Pradesh government in the 70s, is a regular sparring partner on arguments around ideological moorings of Modi Sarkar and its performance.
A comment he made in a recent argument, he was explaining to me why the opposition in India behaves the way it behaves and what is the opposition’s role, quoted a famous Hindi adage- Aag ko Pani ka bhay (The fear of water should be inculcated in every fire). Coming from someone who has been extensively involved in political mobilization and has had a close view of governance in this country, the comment is a remarkable summary of the sub-continent’s politics over the last 100 years.
The comment made me once again read M. J. Akbar’s seminal work on Pakistan- Tinderbox the Past and Future of Pakistan, relook at the structure of modern Indian state, its institutions and the incentives that drive the political parties in India.
Akbar’s book presents the intellectual foundation of the idea of Pakistan, the political land scape that nurtured the idea making the idea a potent force, eventually leading to the partition on the sub-continent on religious grounds and founding of an Islamic nation.
Akbar submits that the fall of Mughal empire and with the emergence of British as the de-facto rulers of the sub-continent, the Muslim elite that that ruled for over five hundred years felt politically disenfranchised and powerless.
One of the ways in which the elite responded to this defeat was by nurturing the idea that Akbar calls- Theory of Distance. He credits the origin of this theory to Shah Walliullah a pre-eminent Islamic theological intellectual of 18th century. The theory claimed that the Muslims were suffering, because the difference between believers (the Muslims) and infidels (the Hindus) had blurred in India. They had abandoned the purity of their faith and forgotten they were a distinct entity.
As the British consolidated their rule over India in the late 18th and the 19th century, their policies encouraged this distinction and the Muslims increasingly felt the British were discriminating them vis-à-vis Hindus.
The British on their part, during the years in power, saw the Indian sub-continent not as one Nation but an amalgamation of multiple groups each with its own sectarian identity.
Their experience of 1857 made them consider Muslims as a political force that posed the gravest threat to their rule.
In the first half of the 20th century, they used the force of Muslim identity as a counter-weight to the nationalist movement which was primarily led by Hindu leaders.
The British stoked the fear of a numerically dominant Hindus will deprive Muslims of any power sharing. Starting with separate electoral colleges for Muslims, British support for ‘Theory of Distance’ culminated in Two Nations theory with partition and creation of Pakistan.
The British Raj ruled by the principles of pitting caste and sectarian identities against each other and using these identities bulwark against the freedom movement. Their encouragement and support of the Two Nations Theory has left a lasting legacy in the sub-continent.
Post 1947, the two nations have followed different trajectories.
Pakistan has slowly, steadily and surely moved in the direction that was envisioned for it, by founders of its idea. A state founded, as Akbar writes in his book- not only as a separate nation from Hindu India but also a laboratory and fortress of Islamic faith.
It’s laws today discriminate its citizens on religious grounds- only a Muslim by law can become its Prime Minister or President. It has enshrined Islamic practices in its constitution and its once Westernized Army, its most dominant institution, now has Faith, piety, Jihad for the sake of Allah, as its motto.
Although Islam could not hold the country together, its eastern wing seceded in 1971 to become Bangladesh, it has continued it march towards a homogenous Islamic country. Religious minorities made up for 31 % of Pakistan’s population in 1947, today they make for 4% of it’s population. Its current prime minister aspires to make Pakistan a modern-day version of Riyasat e Medina.
Akbar’s book introduces us to actors who gave birth to the ideas of Muslims as a separate nation, the need for an Islamic republic in the sub-continent and those who fought- politically and violently for fulfilment of these ideas.
It is unfortunate that we don’t read about these men- they are all men, in our school text books. Ideas of Walliullah, the Ulemas of Deoband, Maulana Madudi and Zia ul Haq have shaped the destiny of the sub-continent and continue to drive the actions of those running the countries in the sub-continent.
The book, well researched and mercifully does not read like a Phd thesis, fills this space remarkably. My one quibble with the book would be that it does cover the role played by Hindus in the emergence of two nations theory. The most towering leaders of the freedom movement were Hindus but they were avowedly secular and considered Muslims as equal stakeholders. Where and why did they fail in garnering mass support for their ideas of United Secular India.
India inherited the Raj in 1947. It opted for the Westminster style, first past the post model for it legislative function. Its bureaucratic service is modelled on the lines of British era Indian Civil Service and its police force even after 75 years of Independence follows the procedural manual laid down by the British. The Indian state continues to enforce The Indian Penal Code, enacted by the British in 1860 and India’s Supreme Court functions in English. Its successive governments not only inherited, and have largely preserved the British era state structure, they also inherited India’s sectarian fault lines.
Setting it up as a multi-party democracy, the founders of the modern Indian republic continued to see India the way British saw it- a union comprising of multiple religious and geographical identities. Shashi Tharoor captured the idea of the Indian Republic pithily when he compared India with a traditional Indian meal called –Thali.
A Thali is a traditional India meal comprising of an array of dishes in uneven quantity with each dish bringing its own distinct taste and flavor; a sum of its parts a Thali makes for a delicious wholesome meal with each dish contributing to the culinary experience.
The problem with looking and treating a country like a Thali whilst governing it as boisterous electoral democracy is that sooner than later politics of identity will kick in. Each sub-group will look to the trump its own interests over the interests of the larger group as a whole. Its design will make sure that the incentives of the politicians representing each sub-group, will always be aligned with achieving optimum output for the sub-group that they represent even if those goals are achieved at cost of the largest group- the nation state. While there is merit in the arrangement, why should the size of the largest group be allowed to dominate the smaller units, a side effect of this approach is that it leads to the politics of – Aag ko Pani ka Bhay.
In the absence of a unified Indian identity, crafted in a melting pot with its religious and geographical diversity as ingredients, we as a nation always end up playing the balancing act. Let us guard against the majoritarian tendencies of its majority community by vesting its religious and cultural institutions in the hands of a secular state. Let the dominant religious minority have its own personal laws otherwise it will feel alienated. Let us split the state purse on religious lines as a mark of our commitment to building a nation that treats all religions equally. Let us ride roughshod over rights of the real minority- the individual for the sake of a group’s sentiment. We have ingrained in our laws all these principles.
Design a state structure that looks as Indians first on what are their religious beliefs and then their caste denomination. Give them a polity that will thrive on amplifying their differences and pitting the fear of one identity against the other. Fail to build state capacity that can be a neutral arbitrator of conflicts between these identities or can forcefully maintain law and order and you will end up with the polity thriving, on politics of ‘otherization’ of the ideological and political opponents; and one that challenges state’s monopoly over violence repeatedly. Instead of supremacy of the law performing the role of Pani to the Aag of anarchy or the will of the people acting as the Pani to the Aag of governments not delivering, politicians get to play one identity against the other.
The Indian sub-continent has been carved into three separate nations in the last 75 years in an attempt to balance Aag and Pani. While two of three nations are forging common national identity, for a better or for worse time will tell, the largest of three continues to stumble along. How soon its people come together and forge an identity that subsumes their smaller group identities- one wonder if its citizens even want to do that, will shape the destiny of the sub-continent in this century.
The world is surprised, and now even memeing, about the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, the outside country most responsible for this (unless you count America and the stupidity of its occupation strategies as the most responsible) there have been broadly three camps on this. The majority feeling was one of awkwardness, trepidation and a calling of the equivalent of councils of war. In the Army Chief’s staff rooms, in the Prime Minister’s and Chief Ministers and political party heads’ secretariats and across media stations in Pakistan, the national security and Afghanistan experts were on display and they were giving their council to their respective audiences on what was happening with the fall of Kabul and what it meant.
A smaller minority was one that was sometimes part of this but also openly condemning the takeover of the Taliban. Honourable mention should go to the Women’s Democratic Front for openly condemning the takeover of Afghanistan and various branches of Pakistan’s new-on-the-scene Aurat March (Women’s March) parroted their view. Frankly, I am very happy for the Aurat Marchers to get an explicit foreign policy – that would be cool. The PPP, as far as I can tell did not explicitly condemn the Taliban takeover in Kabul and as far as I know, no Pashtun nationalist formation did either, although if the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement did, I am waiting for their views.
Lastly, I have to mention the Taliban supporters. From heads of religious groups, to Taliban and ’80’s Afghan Mujahideen fanboys in the Pakistani media, this was, I feel, an even smaller group, restricted by age, that was openly hailing the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. It really was/is a sight to behold to see men in the media, of or beyond retirement age, hailing the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban – a sick joke. My guess is younger fans of the Taliban were either intelligently hiding, or more likely taking part in either jihadi ops or doing propaganda or harassment for the Taliban. So the pro-Taliban crowd inside Pakistan might be quieter than its portrayed – a bit like Italy after it switched ides in WWII to join the Allies against Germany.
But that’s Pakistan. What about India? This is one time BP commenters are welcome. Sound off and tell us what the Indians thought about the Taliban, what were the camps inside the country and how large they are.
Postcript — The Pakistan government and establishment’s view:
The official Pakistan government view, of the foreign ministry, the part allegedly controlled by Imran Khan says that they will not stick their neck out as an individual country and will only recognise Taliban control of Afghanistan if a group of countries, likely Russia, China and Iran, all simultaneously recognise the Taliban’s control of Kabul. I used the word alleged, because the foreign ministry takes its marching orders from the Pakistan Army’s General Hear Quarters, Imran Khan is fine with that, and so the foreign ministry’s views are the Army and establishment’s views.
Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on Libsyn, Apple, Spotify, and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!
Akshar chats with Gaurav on the coronavirus’ impact in India, societal permutations, and a special tour of the Marathi political landscape. Gaurav writes on the Brown Pundits blog and features an eclectic array of positions across the Indian political spectrum.
This is not a well-thought-out piece but a sort of rambling rant of thoughts in my mind for a year. My previous writing on Covid is here and Ayurveda.
I have no medical/biology/medicine background nor am I am a scientist nor do I claim to understand statistics. Read this as some thoughts of a layman.
It’s been a year since India went hard into the lockdown. And after trying N things for over a year, we are back on the verge of lockdown in Maharashtra. (at least the CM keeps threatening a lockdown). Unlike initial predictions of respite from Covid in warm weather, it appears both Covid spikes in India have occurred in the considerably warmer weather while mysteriously getting low during the winter months. While I am yet to find a convincing argument that explains several strands associated with mechanisms of spread of Covid19, some aspects of the challenge, namely public reaction needs to be assessed as we get into the second year of the pandemic.
A question to ask here is – how different would the global reaction to covid19 have been without the world witnessing the Chinese state response in the first place? Did it act like a guess in an optimization algorithm – which eventually decides the outcome in some cases no matter it’s value? The European nations first chose to ignore and when they acted they acted in echoes of China. While totalitarian states like China or the gulf countries have been able to reign in the pandemic, no significantly sized country has. What would have been the Italian reaction had they First Guess been other than China? This is not to condone any herd immunity strategies – but at least in a country like India, the cost-benefit analysis needs to be done.
Additionally, should we ask if how much did lockdown work? Dr. Watve, a scientist based in Pune has some good blogs on the topic. While I am not convinced by Dr. Watve’s reasoning yet, its opposite doesn’t appear convincing too.
What else (if anything) could we have done differently? especially in India. Critics of government often talk about the lack of testing as an issue in India. Personally, I feel once we get a critical mass of vectors, testing and tracing becomes merely a placebo exercise. Aping the WHO models on test, trace on Indian scale (at least with the resources we have).
Another thing that continues to bother me is the Fomite transmission theory. Going through the literature, I couldn’t find convincing research to believe it in the first place, let alone taking it to the insane level it was taken to – especially in India. Newspapers and milk delivery was turned off for months. Home deliveries of groceries were turned off initially. Shops were open only for small durations of the day. All these measures together meant that whatever essential services were available were often extremely crowded with people. How much did these bizarre policies initially aid the transmission of covid?
I still remember vividly the most spectacularly stupid team meeting I have been part of. This meeting took place around 10-15 March 2020 to let the employees know that the company was doing everything they can to stop covid around the company premises (which was mostly a rain of sanitizers). In this meeting, the management called around 30-40 people in a closed room and talked without masks (that was early 2020, and even the scientists and WHO were maskophobic back then). Anthony Fauci who today, parades in “Rand Paul’s words” in two masks after getting two shots of vaccine, was saying a year back that masks are unnecessary (or even counterproductive). It’s perfectly acceptable for humans to make errors and correct those in the course of action – that’s something we should all try to do. But an analysis of what led us to make those mistakes in the first place ought to be done. Or was it just another example of the Sun revolves around the earth?
Local authorities (including society chairmen etc) have been on a different level of insane. After seeing city authorities sanitizing roads, pavements, trees, and even migrant laborers, whenever a patient is found in a building, the staircases, floors, and grounds continue to be sanitized. I am not even a novice on Bacterial evolution, but on my rudimentary understanding- this use of sanitizers scares the shit out of me. It is not that I am totally sure that fomites don’t spread covid, but the focus on fomites has also meant the possible aerosol spread was not focussed on. What’s worse, in my opinion – the focus on fomites and sanitization has lulled large swathes of people into the sense of false security. People wash their hands, sanitize groceries, but when talking to people often take down masks. Almost 95% of the cases I have heard have of contracting covid from a distant family member indoors or at some function. Yet people continue to focus on sanitization while attending public gatherings and religious ceremonies. At one point in my society, deliveries had to be collected at the society gate while members celebrated Diwali, New years, and Republic day inside without masks in large numbers. To this day, servants and handymen are treated with suspicions while friends and family (some of whom may have more exposure) arent. We have a separate lift for non-members – while members don’t mind traveling in lifts with unmasked members.
However, another question posed by this pandemic is, what should be the role of the state? and what should be its Aim?
Is the Aim to try and prevent every covid infection – at cost of the economy and livelihood?
Is the aim to avoid the overcrowding of medical facilities so as to avoid collateral damage?
Is the aim to keep pushing potential cases in the future – so as to reduce potential cases by vaccination?
When it comes to livelihoods, we need to separate two strands – the effect on the economy due to natural fear in people & and lockdown invoked economic downturn.
The mathematics of economic catastrophe is clear enough to follow – while the mechanism of spread seems to allude even the best of the minds. Every time someone comes up with reasons for why Covid stopped spreading rapidly around the end of 2020 in India and began afresh in 2021. The lockdown had ended in October and *new normal* activities had opened by November, but it appears this increased activity didn’t immediately accelerate the pandemic. Intuitively I would guess it takes time to gain a critical mass and a similar time for it to reduce. The momentum of the critical mass of vectors ought to carry on the spread (due to unavoidable contacts) in spite of overall contacts being low. Maybe once the first fuel was exhausted, it took time to gain a similar mass of vectors before it could truly explode. Add to this the new variants and reinfections (especially those who were asymptomatic the first time), then maybe the second wave starts making sense. Or maybe I am just pulling theories out of my ass which has no value – Either way I don’t mind as no one seems to have any deep insight into this.
All well-meaning people have been trying to shield the elderly for over a year. I have myself spent hours convincing older people to stay secure. But at what point does this become unbearable for a 75-year-old? Would it be wrong for an older person to be to think that they might not survive the pandemic (dying naturally amidst it) to live the end of the pandemic? Can they decide to take the risk of living a few months dangerously ahead of being condemned to a year in lockdown. (This equation has changed now with vaccines but the question still carries some weight I reckon)
Maybe this time next year we would have more answers than we have at this point. And hopefully, we would devise better strategies in countering such events in the future than acting like imitating monkeys in an experiment.
I came across this wonderful interview with Florian Wiltschko, an Austrian Shinto negi (priest) based in Japan courtesy Akshay Alladi. I was struck by some of the similarities in Wiltschoko’s worldview and my own sanskaras- the approach to life I was taught by my elders, particularly my mother.
“[Japan] is rich and the seasons colour the natural landscape in beautiful ways. Maybe that’s why a monotheistic belief system did not evolve here,” he says. “The bounties of nature, on the other hand, were seen as being the workings of divine forces that needed to be respected and cared for.” This struck a chord. It’s a very Dharmic sensibility and worldview.
There’s also the challenge of adaptation and change, without losing the essence. Incorporating good ideas, discarding the bad ones, but all the while maintaining the core spirit. Wiltschko’s observations are based on the interactions between Shinto and Buddhism, but the same would seem to apply to modern Hinduism, which has over the centuries blended Vedantic and Shramanic metaphysics with folk tales and traditions. It’s a complex mélange and trying to describe it precisely to non-Indians reminds me of the parable of the blind men and an elephant.
What is noteworthy about Wiltschko is that he is a priest by profession. In my compartmentalised mind, there are gurus/yogis and then there are pujaris/purohits/archakas. The former are philosophers and the latter are pedants. There is some experiential basis for this, but perhaps some of it is also a function of my own biases. I “lost” religion in my teenage years through my twenties and identified as an agnostic classical liberal, only to “rediscover” it in my thirties. The religion that interests me is still quite rationalistic: a Vendantic Monism based principally on the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, with an interest in Buddhism, Kashmiri Shaivism and Yoga. It is certainly not ritualistic. Temple visits are only to admire the architecture. The privileging, as it were, of jnana marga (the path of knowledge) over bhakti marga (the path of devotion).
But perhaps there is wisdom in customs and rituals too. There need not be a neat bifurcation between the high philosophy and the riti-riwaj. Jnana marga and bhakti marga are not mutually exclusive.
“It’s very important to maintain a positive inner spirit,” Wiltschko signs off. “You might say that it’s my mission or my calling to contribute to maintaining this spirit.” The words of a modern Rishi.
I just finished reading Michael Axworthy’s Iran: Empire of the Mind, one of Razib Khan’s recommended reads on Iran. The book serves as a useful primer on Iranian history for novices (such as myself), covering over 3,000 years of history in less than 300 pages. It lacks the literary flair and flourish of Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s magisterial Arabs. I found myself skimming through the latter parts of the book- the Pahlavi era and the subsequent Islamic Revolution- as I am broadly familiar with the events of the modern period.
Pre-Islamic Persia was an advanced and sophisticated civilisation. Axworthy provides a good overview of the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanid periods of Iranian history. Ancient Iranians developed a complex and nuanced theology centred around the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster. Zoroastrianism was the predominant religion of the Sassanid Empire, one of the superpowers of the pre-Islamic world. All of this was to change with the arrival of Islam in the seventh century. The armies of Islam burst out of the Arabian Peninsula like a supernova and reduced the Sassanid Empire to dust. The Zoroastrian religion was swept away in this upheaval.
One group of Zoroastrians escaped and sought refuge in Gujarat in Western India. These Zoroastrians are commonly known as the Parsis (from Pars or Persia). The essay below is a personal account of the Parsis of Mumbai. I had written it a decade ago. Reading Axworthy’s book brought some of those sweet memories back.
In its period of rapid economic growth, Indian democracy was successful in redistributing gains from urban centered, globalization led growth to the rural agrarian economy. The redistribution of available economic and administrative resources among competing groups is a primary concern of democratic politics. The situation is very different in non-democratic polities. In the figure below, we see that during globalization led growth, the ratio of per worker agrarian income to overall per capita GDP drops to less than a half in China and Vietnam, while it remained above or close to one in India and Indonesia. In other words, agrarian workers in one-party China and Vietnam became relatively poorer while their country became richer, agrarian workers in India and Indonesia did not incur a relative disadvantage.
In India the vast rural population with more than a century long experience in political mobilization, has pushed governments to spend money in rural areas. Redistribution has occurred via irrigation projects, rural roads, NREGA, subsidies, loan waivers and recently, direct income transfers. Any negative externality arising from agrarian activity has been borne by urban residents (eg: Delhi smog) but farmers were not penalized. Aside from rural-urban dynamics, democratic redistribution has led to a spatial equalization of agricultural productivity across the country.
Though the condition of Indian cities is depressing, the upshot of a democracy dominated by the rural majority is comfortable food security. In fact, even though India’s use of pesticide is quite low by global standards, and its agricultural yields, cold-chain infrastructure sub-par, it has become a major net agricultural exporter. This is in huge contrast to China which has become a massive net importer of food. This is an important strategic advantage for India.
There are signs, though, that India’s redistribution toolkit might be reaching the limits of its efficiency. Concurrently, a more reformist Indian government, awash with surplus grain, wants to re-orient farmers towards higher return crops or even an exit from farming. An urbanising electorate may also not be as willing to redistribute their hard earned tax monies towards their rural co-citizens.
The reorientation of the Punjab-Haryana farmer away from rice and wheat will require tact and persuasion, not ordinance fiat. The set patterns are very comfortable from the economic (MSP + diaspora remittances + armed forces recruitment) and psychological (we feed and secure the nation) perspective. The simple promise of higher incomes might not convince historically agrarian communities who havent fully embraced the money economy.
The Prime Minister has proven to be a masterful communicator. We have not yet seen the same skill in his dealings with the farmers. The approach there has oscillated between genuflection and disregard. The potential is there for the 200000 sq. km tract of well irrigated, fertile land in India’s north west to become the new California Central Valley (47,000 sq km). India can then become the land that greatly increases global access to premium agro-products like fresh, dry fruits and vegetarian protein. The latter (beef-mukt world) will also resonate with many urban supporters of the government and even the farmers themselves.
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What is Bengal?
The survival of Indic and Dharmic cultures into the 21st century is nothing short of a miracle. These are traditions that have overcome countless obstacles — some internal, others external — to ensure their survival into the modern age. They have constantly adapted to the different threats of different eras. They have dealt with the destructive and consumptive desire of Islam in the medieval ages (as it endeavored to turn India into Persia or Mesopotamia —another ancient civilization and culture forgotten to history), as well as the inquisitive and penetrating eye of western liberalism that came with British colonial rule, which posed many (justified) questions about the moralities and validity of Indic cultures and traditions. These indigenous cultures continue to adapt and evolve to ensure their survival in the modern age. The resilience of India’s indigenous cultures is something that every person who identifies with India should be proud of.
But the reality is, that these cultures and the people who used to follow them, haven’t survived all in one piece. In the rigorous process of history, Indian civilization and Dharma has been in retreat for hundreds of years, and has lost its left and right limbs (Punjab, Sindh, Bengal) as a result of this retreat. This is if we just restrict our imagination to the historical territorial boundaries of India. If we extend our sight to the cultural frontiers of India — through the proliferation of Hinduism and Buddhism — these frontiers can extend all the way from historical Afghanistan to historical Malaysia. Buddhism in itself is a curious piece of Indian history — and criminally under-appreciated and often forgotten. It is one of the four main independent religious traditions that have come up in India — along with Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism. And even though Buddhism is India’s most successful “export” ever (although that is being changed in modern times with Yoga), we have almost no “ownership” over Buddhism and almost no authority to speak for it. It is a curious paradox of our history.
The reality for a non-Abrahamic, indigenous culture in the 21st century is that due to the nature of the world we live in, which is dominated by two Abrahamic religions that are based on revelation and obsessed with expansion and evangelization, the survival and propagation of these indigenous cultures cannot be taken for granted. In my opinion, there are perhaps very few places in India where the roots of Dharma are as threatened as in Bengal. More precisely, I am talking about West Bengal, the 37% of Bengal that still remains with us in the Indic fold. The conversation becomes much more complicated if we try to include all of Bengal in this story. I say this with full humility, as I am not a Bengali myself. But I have lived in Kolkata for more than two years and, as a student of history and political science, I have not been able to stop thinking about this curious part of the Indian subcontinent.
So what does the world see when it looks at Bengal? How do we understand its history, its culture and identity? A simple Google image search result tells us that when the world looks at Bengal, it sees this: [This is one of the first search results for Bengal in Google Images]
If you’re an American, you probably think of the Football team from Cincinnati
Most people, unless they are from the Indian subcontinent, rarely think of the land of Bengal when they hear the word. There isn’t a lot of curiosity for this most-fertile of regions, its culture, its tradition, or its history. This is sadly seen among India as well, especially in the political realm, where states like Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra have historically dominated the discussion. However, I think that this topic, especially the history and culture of Bengal, deserves more discussion and attention. This dissatisfaction with the way Bengal is viewed by the world is what has driven me to write this article.
There are probably many factors that have contributed to the current predicament of how we see and understand Bengal today. The historical narrative of the land of Bengal is muddied and foggy. One gets the feeling that it has been purposefully obfuscated by our historians to avoid coming to terms with the history of Partition and the desire to uphold what I call the “Commandment of Communal Harmony”. This is a favorite technique of the modern Marxist Indian historians who, due to a combination of ideological leanings and political patronage (mainly by the Nehru-Vadra family and the Left parties) were given almost a free-hand in shaping India’s historical narrative in the post-Partipendence (Partition + Independence) period. To break through this fog, one must go back to primary sources and also realize that history is complex. Often, many different things are going on in the same society at the same time, and that usually, the accepted narrative of “history” (that is, for example, taught to us as History in our school textbooks) is decided for political or activist purposes. A lot of local history in India is also not available in English, but is rather recorded by local authors in their vernacular languages, something that makes it slightly tougher for English-speaking academics to access. For example, we must realize that the creation of the Indian Muslim League in Dhaka in 1906 is just as much the history of Bengal as the activities of Surendranath Banerjee, Swami Vivekananda or Aurobindo Ghosh that were part of the freedom struggle of India. One part of Bengal considers Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy as their hero, while the other considers Subhas Chandra Bose to be theirs. The stories of West Bengal and East Bengal are parallel stories in many regards and as such, lead to what psephologists call a “fractured mandate”, when it comes to being able to claim “ownership” over Bengali history and identity.
In this article, I am going to attempt to understand the history of Bengal through a Dharmic sense, and to think about a recipe for revival.
Bengal: A Fractured Land
Firstly, for those of us in India, it is important to realize that this is Bengal too. As is this. Bengali identity, history, language and culture is sadly not just ours to claim. We have to share this identity with a rather curious neighbor — one that has changed clothes thrice in the last 100+ years — First being known as East Bengal, then as East Pakistan, and now, Bangladesh. I prefer to call it East Bengal. You can see this in the results of a 2002 survey conducted by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) about the Greatest Bengalis of all Time. The list is not topped by Tagore (although he does come second) or Bose (who comes fifth), but rather by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of the current nation of Bangladesh. Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, the man known in India as the “Butcher of Bengal” and someone who perpetrated attacks on his own Hindu citizens as the Prime Minister of undivided Bengal on Direct Action Day (16th August, 1946), stood 20th in this list. If that doesn’t tell you how distant the East Bengali mind is from the West Bengali mind, nothing will. And for me, it is a good embodiment of the problem that Bengal faces today: It is a fractured land with a fractured identity.
The roots of this confusion are found in the history of the land that makes up undivided Bengal. Bengal suffered from almost uninterrupted Islamic rule from the 13th century onwards till basically the Battle of Buxar in 1764. Other parts of India suffered from this destruction as well, but many of these places resisted and fought-back, as one can see with the Marathas in Central India, the Vijayanagara Empire in the South, the Ahoms of Assam and Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Punjab. These other parts of the country saw twists and turns, where Dharma was able to resist and reassert itself, thereby undoing the demoralization and fear that Hindus (and Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs) must have lived through under the tyranny of Islamic rule, which came along with things like the Jizya tax. Nothing like this ever happened in Bengal. In places like Awadh and the parts of the country that today make up the states of U.P., Rajasthan and M.P., even though the people had to live under the thumb of Islamic rulers, they often had local, Indic rulers who still maintained local autonomy by accepting the suzerainty of the Islamic rulers in Delhi or Agra, and resisted the complete Islamization of the population of the Indian North. For example, an interesting counterfactual question could be asked: what would the religious demographics of Rajasthan be today, had the Rajput rulers not acted as a buffer to preserve their own faiths (and the faiths of their subjects), as they did by accepting the suzerainty of the Mughals? Would Rajasthan even be part of India today? Or would it have been another province of Pakistan, given that it is attached to Sindh, where this change in the demographics of the rural population did occur?
This is exactly what happened in Bengal for hundreds of years. There was no Indic resurgence akin to the Marathas or the Khalsa, and there were no truly powerful local rulers to act as shock-absorbers against the consumptive onslaught of Islam. I believe that this is why the software of Islam is so deep-rooted here, and why such a large percentage of the total Bengali population (that today make up West and East Bengal) left their ancient cultures and faiths and adopted a foreign faith in huge numbers, especially the peasantry of East Bengal. This phenomenon has been manifested very clearly in the creation of East Pakistan, and later, Bangladesh. My intention here is not to paint Islam as a villain in all this. Islam is what it is — an unavoidable political and social phenomenon. It, along with Christianity, is one of the most significant social forces in the last two millennia of history. It is rooted in territorial expansion, conversion of non-believers, a strong sense of homogenization and discipline, etc. Islam is a primary driving force of history (like Christianity and Capitalism) and over the centuries, it has swallowed-up many ancient and proud civilizations like Persia, Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Central Asian tribes, and of course, a significant chunk of India. But for whatever reason, it couldn’t completely dismantle the roots of Indic civilization. And as someone who is an inheritor of this resilient Indic tradition, I am interested in asking why we survived, while ancient Persia or Mesopotamia didn’t. And as such, I’m less concerned with Islam’s history around the world, and more with its history in India. Islam’s adventures in India are, for me, best understood as analogous to an incomplete hostile takeover by a foreign venture capitalist of home-grown firm. It was an incomplete conquest and it ran into the resilience of the indigenous Indian cultures.However, despite this overall resilience, some places, like Bengal got the full force of the medieval Islamic onslaught. The result is that in the worldwide Bengali speaking population, nearly 70% of the people are Muslims, and about 30% are Hindus. Bengali, Sindhi, Punjabi and Kashmiri Hindus (and followers of other Dharmic faiths) are unique in India because they are minority populations among their sub-group. Would East Bengal be a separate country today if a Bengali version of Shivaji had emerged to reassert the primacy of Indic civilization in this region? It’s a question worth pondering over…
When thinking about Indian civilization and its history, a question posed by economist Harsh Gupta is often tough to answer: “Why is it that persons from Jammu and persons from Tamil Nadu consider themselves to be part of the same country, but persons from West Bengal and those from Bangladesh consider themselves to be from different countries? In an academic sense, East Bengal is the biggest conundrum, and potential lesson, for those who care about the preservation and restoration of Indic civilization. Even more so than Punjab and Sindh (i.e. Pakistan), which were buffer regions between India and Afghanistan/Persia, and were therefore always going to be tricky to keep in the Dharmic fold. Unlike Punjab and Sindh, there was no Islamic nation on the border of Bengal. Dharma fell apart here on its own. If you care about the preservation of Bengali Hindu culture and Bengal’s Indic identity, the scale of our problem is summed-up by this unfortunate fact: If any foreigner today picks an individual out of a randomized sample of the worldwide Bengali population, the probability of that individual being a Hindu is rather small. Just based on the numbers alone, Dharma cannot claim to represent Bengali identity. At the same time, it’s also important to realize that the smarter sections of East Bengal’s population must understand this confusion too. Once you go beyond the ethnic cleansing of Hindus and Buddhists in East Bengal in 1947 and 1971, you will observe the countless Hindu and Buddhist sites which are peppered all over the country that today calls itself Bangladesh. These sites are a physical reminder of the unerasable Dharmic past and identity of the land of East Bengal, and that is why these sites are often the targets of attacks from Islamic extremists in this country.
Bengal, and Bengali identity, is fragmented. The populations of East and West Bengal are long-lost brothers and sisters, who have so much in common with each other. However, the chasm between them, due to the political and social outcome of demographic and religious changes, is also incredibly large. And this is a sobering fact.
But let’s go back to the medieval era for a bit. Not surprisingly, having had the freedom to do what they wanted, Islamic invaders like Bakhtiyar Khilji (who destroyed the world-famous ancient university of Nalanda and is largely considered responsible for the spread of Islam in Bengal) and later, the Governors appointed by the Sultans of Delhi and the Mughals, went about erasing any surviving aspect of ancient Bengal that they could find. This must have included Hindu and Buddhist religious sites, but also non-religious “secular structures” as well that must have existed in Bengal before the arrival of the medieval invaders. This can be demonstrated by the fact that unlike other parts of the country, Bengal doesn’t really have a modern city which can say that it has survived from ancient times (like Kashi in U.P. or Madurai in Tamil Nadu). Most surviving major cities in undivided Bengal (in 1947) were from the Mughal or post-Mughal era (Murshidabad, Dhaka) or the British colonial era (Kolkata).
More than anywhere in India, Ancient Bengal — its artistic and architectural style, its literature, its philosophy, its culture — has been systemically airbrushed from memory. In my two-three years here, I have almost never heard anyone bring up the famous Pala kings of ancient Bengal (who were Buddhists and ruled the current Bengal-Bihar area between the 8th-12th century) or the Sena kings who succeeded them (who were Hindu rulers and ruled between the 11th-12th century). When it comes to historical references, the story of Bengal in the public consciousness (or how it’s presented to us) seems to begin with the British travails against the Nawabs of Bengal. And there is a curious silence about the history of Bengal before the rule of Murshid Quli Khan (whose birth name was Surya Narayan Mishra), the first Nawab of Bengal .
One of the famous cities of the Palas that lies in current-day West Bengal was the city of Gauda, which lies in the Nadia district. Its current dilapidated state is a good reflection of the severing of Ancient Bengal from its present psyche. Why do we not remember the great Gauda king Sashanka? Why does he not occupy the same space in the modern Bengali consciousness that King Harsha does for north India or Rajaraja Chola does in Southern India? Why is ancient Bengal such a distant and nebulous place in our minds?
This amnesia is not only in the mind, but also gets reflected in the infrastructure and architectural style of the land that today makes up West Bengal, as represented by the dilapidated state of many ancient monuments in Bengal. I don’t think any other part of India has been as deprived of a connection to its ancient past as Bengal has.
The interesting thing about this is, that despite all this, the Bengali Hindu culture, in West Bengal and in other parts of India like Delhi, remains vibrant and strong. Many years of living in Kolkata and going to Durga Puja pandals has shown me that this is the case. Bengali Hindus wear their faith and culture on their sleeves, are passionately devoted to Maa Durga and Kali (and of course, as we found out in 2019, to Lord Ram too), and are extremely proud of their culture and language, as they should be. Everyone in India who is not Bengali knows that the Bengali language is among the sweetest sounding languages of India, with an almost musical quality to it that makes every sentence sound like the verse of a song. However, even though Bengali Hindus are still passionately committed to their culture, the actual land of Bengal (forget about East Bengal, I’m talking about the small fraction still left in India) — its infrastructure, its themes, its temples, etc. — increasingly looks less and less Indic. Most of the structures in West Bengal today reflect a lifeless, “secular” style, which does the job of physically erasing Dharmic identity in public spaces. This is the part of India, at least according to my anecdotal and personal experience, where you will find the fewest number of temples or Buddhist structures. This, predictably, has an effect on the resilience of Dharmic life and attitudes. Ceteris Paribus, the fewer Indic artistic and architectural elements in an area, the more distant Hindus feel from their culture. I have observed this in Kolkata, a city that has a strange architecture and style, which I feel is partly affected by its British roots and partly by Partition. Due to the 30+ years of Communist rule, there has also been a proliferation of lifeless, brutalist architecture all over Kolkata that our Comrades imported from their Soviet Masters. However, the strength and resilience of the Bengali Hindu mind becomes clear during the period of Durga Puja, where these same, architecturally lifeless streets get illuminated with light and color. In a sense, these lights represent a sprinkle of Dharma, so strongly present and preserved in the Bengali Hindu mind, over their “secular” and brutalist surroundings.
I have really learned to admire the spirit and liveliness of the Bengali Hindu mind over my two-plus years here, and it is no surprise to me that Bengal was the wellspring of new ideas and revolutionary fervor when it came to fighting British colonial rule. However, while I believe all these things to be true, I think they also hide a darker, more uncomfortable part of Bengal’s history.
The fact of the matter is that Dharma is losing the land of Bengal, if we haven’t already fully lost it. Just like Punjab, Sindh and Kashmir etc. were lost in the past. And this is not to say that just because a place becomes Muslim-majority, it gets to lost by Dharma. There are many places in India where the majority population is Muslim, but those places do not feel like Pakistan or Afghanistan. There is something more complex going on here, which I am not sure about, but I think it has something to do with the fact that most Indian Muslims, despite having changed their faiths, still consider themselves to be part of India’s civilizational history (which of course, they are), but those from Pakistan and Bangladesh, and sadly, most of them in Kashmir too, have severed their centuries-long connection to Indian history and the faiths of their ancestors. It doesn’t matter to them that they wear Hindu names like Bajwa, Sethi, Tikoo, Wani, etc. Their narrative is now the narrative of the Ummah. To fully understand this, one must realize that the Partition of India wasn’t just an act of dividing up territory and a partial population transfer, it was an irreversible act by Punjab, Bengal and Sindh, of permanently leaving one’s home — physically and psychologically. Think of it like new software being installed in the same old hardware. Those of us who still believe in Dharma must realize the sobering fact that if we go far back enough in history, our ancestors and the ancestors of these very people who are today working to destroy Dharma, prayed to the same Gods. We must come to realize what a grave sense of injustice it is against Dharma that the sons and daughters of this soil — our brothers and sisters — are at war with Dharma because of the Abrahamic software that has been imposed on them. For me, understanding and feeling this sense of loss is essential for anyone who wants to fight to preserve, protect and even reclaim Dharma and Dharmic lands.
So, where does that leave East Bengal?
It is undeniable that places like Pakistan and even Kashmir (which is still in India), despite being historically considered part of India, are today outwardly hostile to those who practice any Indic faiths, or even for that matter, a different faith like Christianity, Judaism or Zoroastrianism. It is simply not possible, in 2020, for a Hindu or Sikh go to Multan, or Rawalpindi, or Peshawar, or Anantnag, or Karachi, and live a life of dignity and respect. All of these places were historically home to many Hindus and Sikhs, have long and famous (but often forgotten) Indic histories, but today, no Hindu or Sikh would even think about settling there. Now, the question I have for my Bengali friends is, does the same also not apply to Dhaka and Chittagong?
Burying the Pain of Partition
This is something I’ve been ruminating about since I’ve been here in Kolkata. As a student of political science and history, I cannot help but ask these questions, even if they might make some people uncomfortable. They come to my mind even if I don’t want them to.
Why is it that Bengal and Hindu Bengalis have chosen to bury the memories of Partition so deeply into the ground? This is one of the only two states (if you don’t consider the unique case of Kashmir), along with Punjab, that suffered directly from Partition. Such a violent and seminal event usually becomes the very cornerstone of any society’s collective memory, and the society usually vows to “never forget”. The commitment to memory that is seen in the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and their progeny is a good example of this. But this has not happened here in West Bengal. In fact, when someone like me, who is not from Bengal, tries to bring up these stories and talk about them, he is often met with a strange kind of silence. As if the Bengali Hindu knows what I’m saying is true, but would rather not talk about it. It looks to me like a case of a victim of trauma trying to forget about the atrocities committed against him, hoping that this would be the only way to move forward. But I do not think that is the correct approach. Many people talk about how Hindus should forgive and forget about these unpleasant events of the past. They say that there is no point in bringing up the dark memories of the ancient or medieval past. Leaving aside the fact that atrocities against Bengali Hindus were conducted as recently as 73 years ago during Partition, and then again, about fifty years ago, during the 1971 War (i.e. they are not ancient or medieval history), I believe no self-respecting society should just forget everything and offer unqualified, blanket forgiveness.
Firstly, I think that societies should never truly forget the past atrocities committed against them. Dealing with the past, the positives and the negatives, is a very important part of the story we tell ourselves about our own history. For example, the primacy of the discussion about caste discrimination among Hindus is a good example of our society trying to deal with its complicated past. These discussions are often a great source of rancor in our society, but we still must have them. We cannot ask the progeny of those who faced untouchability in their past to simply “move on” and “forgive and forget”. This is a mistake I have often made as an upper-caste Hindu who despises the caste system and the divisions and discrimination it has caused in my own community. I feel strongly that this system has divided brother from brother and has laid down the seeds of the subjugation that we suffered through the ages. It has allowed those who wanted to destroy us, to be able to use our own divisions against us. However, it took me a while to understand how insensitive the statement “I do not believe in caste” can be, especially when coming from an upper caste Hindu. Brilliant Dalit intellectuals like Guru Prakash Paswan have rightly pointed out that it is easy to say this when you have never been made to suffer or discriminated against for your caste, a phenomenon that is still regrettably common in India, especially in rural areas. My change of heart on this issue is, I feel, a good example of how honest discussions about the past can help foster unity in a society. The past, in a sense, flows into the present, and these disagreements can be a form of therapy for broader society. So yes, even if it is uncomfortable, even if it can seem like unfair historical baggage, I do not think any society should ever forget its past. Because those who do not learn from their own mistakes are doomed to repeat them.
Secondly, forgiveness is a more complex phenomenon. I do believe that even if a community should never forget the atrocities committed against it, it should eventually try to forgive, in the interests of moving-forward as a society. There is just one, small, problem here. Forgiveness is not, and cannot be, a one-way street. In particular, why should a community that has suffered atrocities in the past ever forgive the guilty party, if the latter has never asked for forgiveness and does not think that it did anything wrong? This is just my opinion, but I feel forgiveness granted without an apology is not that far from foolishness.
As far as I am aware, East Bengal has never apologized for the atrocities committed against Bengali Hindus in 1947 or in 1971. Yes, East Bengal has changed clothes since then — it has gone from being wanting to be known as “East Pakistan” to being called “Bangladesh” — but it has never acknowledged the atrocities of the Noakhali Genocide (a massacre where the majority of victims were Scheduled Caste Hindus) or Direct Action Day (in Calcutta and Dhaka). This shows that East Bengal is not just a place or a piece of land. It is a state of mind, a “Nazariya”. While Bangladesh has done well to recognize the atrocities of the Pakistani Army in 1971 against its own, mostly Muslim Bengali citizens, it has never acknowledged the fact that in 1971, the sentence “How many Hindus have you killed?” was used just as often by the Punjabi Pakistani Army as “How many Bengalis have you killed?” Indians and Hindu Bengalis should offer no forgiveness to East Bengal unless it specifically acknowledges the religious cleansing done in Bengal in 1947, 1971 and continued anti-Hindu incidents we still see in Bangladesh today. Bangladesh and East Bengali Muslims must also admit their role in the creation of Pakistan, the reduction of millions of East Bengali Hindus to the status of religious refugees in their own land, the crimes committed against Hindu Bengali women, the forced conversions, the destruction of temples, etc. They should offer an explicit and honest apology for all of these incidents of the past and promise to protect the tiny Hindu and Buddhist minority that still calls Bangladesh home today. They must also promise to stop the forced demographic changes in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and promise to protect the indigenous Chakma and Hajong populations of this area. Then, and only then, should we ever consider forgiving them.
For some reason, Bengali Hindus have an aversion (at least according to my experience) to talking about their own historical pain. Maybe this is a result of the desire to forget, maybe it is a result of the 30+ years of Communist rule in this state, that had an almost totalitarian reach in the schools, the universities, and the media, and led to an entire generation being raised in this mindset. Maybe it is also because many Bengalis, especially upper-caste Hindu Bengalis have migrated out of Bengal, either to other parts of India, or to the other countries (a phenomenon, which when taken with the infamous brain-drain from Bangladesh in the late 20th century, can be sadly called “Bengali flight”).
All of this, combined with massive demographic and religious changes in the last decade (in places like Malda, Murshidabad and Burdwan) due to unchecked illegal migration from Bangladesh, has put the state of West Bengal in a strange condition of unease. Add to this is the presence of a wrecking-ball politician like Mamata Banerjee and the arrival of the BJP into the state, and you almost have the making of a perfect storm.
So is there a way out? Maybe. But I have to say that I am pessimistic, given how things have played out in the Indian subcontinent in the past, even the recent past. Dharmic society has yet to emerge out of these civilizational battles — in Punjab, East Bengal or Kashmir — with a positive outcome. But we cannot give up. We must break this cycle of defeat and retreat.
Reviving Dharma in Bengal
There are many things that can be done to fix the current issues facing West Bengal. There are economic problems, political problems and even social problems. But I do not want to get into those issues. Whether it is the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or the National Register of Citizens, these purely political issues are not the focus of my article. Instead, all of the issues I have raised need to be addressed and countered at a deeper level. To solve many of these issues, I think we need to take a detour to the 19th century, and take inspiration from the phenomenon known as the Indian Renaissance.
It is not new knowledge to anyone who has studied modern Indian history that the Indian Renaissance of the 19th century was an almost uniquely Bengali phenomenon. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, K.C. Sen, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Debendranath Tagore, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay were the leading lights of the early 19th century revolution in Indian thought. These names were followed by brilliant figures like Ramakrishna Paramhans, Swami Vivekananda and of course, the illustrious Rabindranath Tagore. The names can go on and on. Bengal was a force of nature in the 19th century. And of course, it did not stop there. Even in the freedom movement, Bengal had a huge role to play. In the Indian National Congress (with prominent early leaders like S.N. Banerjee, A.M. Bose and Deshbandhu C.R Das), in the Revolutionary Movement (Aurobindo Ghosh, Rash Behari Bose, Surya Sen), the working-class and Communist movements (M.N. Roy), and then, right at the end, after a brief period of Gandhian dominance, Bengali excellence revealed itself again in the form of Subhas Chandra Bose. Even the current right-wing in Indian politics, represented by the BJP, owes its founding to the often-forgotten Syama Prasad Mookerjee.
In my opinion, however, the 19th century Indian Renaissance was incorrectly named. It was actually part of the European period of the Enlightenment, and was clearly inspired by Enlightenment ideas of liberalism, free speech, tolerance, reason, logic, etc. A more historically accurate term would be the Bengali/Indian Enlightenment.
We are all aware of the brilliance of the 19th century Indian Renaissance. At the same time, we must also realize that in this same period of elite Bengali brilliance, where the pot of incredible ideas was churning, the seeds of communal differences were being sown of across many different parts of Bengal (especially East Bengal), which would start the process that would culminate in the events of the 1947 Partition. So a re-evaluation of this period in Bengal’s history is necessary for us to get the full and accurate picture of what happened in Bengal. And this can only happen when the people of Bengal are ready for a more honest conversation about their own past and the true, complete, history of the land they call home. Any discussion about Bengali history will hit what I call the “East Bengal event horizon”, a point after which it becomes impossible to ignore the fractured nature of Bengal, its people and of its history and the role of Islam in forcing this fracture. Only after this point can truly honest conversations about Bengal and its history, happen. But this can wait for another moment. For the moment, let’s go back to the the 19th century.
I believe the solution to all the problems I have listed can be found in an actual artistic revolution in Bengal, like the European artistic renaissance of the 15th-16th century, to complement the rebirth of thought that took place in the 19th century. Even though thinkers like Ram Mohan Roy and I.C. Vidyasagar were able to introduce revolutionary ideas and undertake long-due social reforms in Hindu society, they were unable to produce the kind of physical changes in art and architecture seen in places like Florence, Rome and Bologna during the European Renaissance, because it was the British state that exercised political power. The Bengal Renaissance in this sense feels incomplete, having only witnessed the intellectual aspect and not the physical aspect. The European Renaissance was, as the name suggests, a period of artistic and architectural “rebirth” for European society. It flared up the spirits of the population of Europe, brought them out of the intellectual rut of the Dark Ages, and laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment to follow in the next 100–150 years. Something similar is needed in West Bengal.
A movement like this could also have a galvanizing effect on the rest of India as well. And it must come from Bengal, given the history of this land and its people in being the leading lights for so many national movements in the past. In a sense, as Indians across the country chase a civilizational identity, an answer to the question, “Who are we?”, we are demanding true freedom from our colonial past and the history and identity it has defined for us and allotted to us. We are trying to figure out our identity in our own words, learning to read our own history in “first-person” and telling a story of India that is true, and free from the invisible hand of deception of activist and colonial historians. In this flame for a civilizational freedom, it would only be fitting for the spark to come from Bengal. In India’s history, the road to civilizational recovery has often run through this area of Bengal, and for the sake of India and our indigenous identity, it must do so again in the future.
This artistic Renaissance in Bengal must focus specifically on architecture and physical construction, but of course, should not be limited to it. Ideally, it would proliferate in all matters of arts, music, literature, etc. But, given the unique challenges that West Bengal faces, I think the solution can be found in the construction of many, many new temples and Buddhist structures all over Bengal. Coming from other parts of the country, one quickly realizes that the number of temples here in West Bengal is very small. And this is of course most likely due to the historical destruction during the medieval period, but can also be due to other causes like neglect. What better way to resurrect the spirit of Dharma in Bengal and reclaim the narrative of Bengal back from East Bengal, than to physically build Hindu and Buddhist structures to connect the Bengali population back to its ancient past? It would be an act of physical, as well as psychological rebirth of the forgotten ancient Bengali past. An explicit act to connect the present with the past, in acknowledgement of the unbroken nature of Indian civilization. A Dharmic rebirth, or as the French might call it, a Renaissance.
Beating the Dharmic Retreat
It is my belief that there is a direct link between Hindu demoralization and the destruction of our sacred places by our medieval friends. When the Turks, Afghans and Persians were destroying Hindu and Jain Temples and Buddhist sites, they were not just doing what they thought was their religious duty. They were trying to break the spirit of Indic civilization by severing all connections to our past and by denying our own public spaces to us for our worship. They were trying to break the back of an ancient, proud and independent tradition and civilization. And to an extent, they succeeded. The areas that today make up Punjab, Sindh, Kashmir and East Bengal are monuments to their success. The playbook was similar to how Islam replaced the native, indigenous cultures of places like Persia, Egypt and Mesopotamia. For a new culture like Islam to take hold, the old needs to be destroyed, physically and intellectually. But Indian civilization was made of sterner stuff. When the invaders destroyed our temples and replaced them with tombs and mosques, Hindus, Buddhists and Jains (and later Sikhs) did not just give up the fight. Instead, denied the usage of public spaces to assert our faith, we looked inward into our own houses. In my opinion, nothing embodies this spirit more than the Puja Rooms one can find in every Hindu household all across India.
It is perhaps the strongest symbol of Hindu resilience in the face of the unrelenting force of the medieval onslaught. And it was a silent revolution. It is a sign of our spirit that for every great Hindu public temple that these invaders destroyed or burned, thousands of new temples sprang up in Hindu houses across the country — from Lahore to Chittagong. In this sense, Hinduism is like a hydra. You can destroy one big temple, hoping to erase the indigenous and pagan identity of its followers, but thousands of smaller temples will spring up in its stead. And this happened in Hindu households rich or poor, big or small, in the north or the south. There are no people who embody this more than the Pakistani Hindu refugees in India, who live in places like Delhi. Having been completely ignored and failed by the Indian State, they live in shanty houses and slums. But even in these houses, you will find a temple room, or an idol, or a picture of God or Goddess. These people, in my opinion, are the greatest embodiments of the resilience of Dharma. And we as Hindus will do well to remember and embrace this aspect of our past.
But while it was admirable, this phenomenon was also a sign of Hindu retreat. Closed-off from our public places of worship, forced to pay the Jizya, we looked inside our own houses to protect our identity and faith. It decentralized our faith and traditions (moving from the public sphere of temples to the private sphere of the home), making them more resilient but also ending up in the loss of the social aspect of religion, as manifested in the public sphere. It has made us good at surviving, but not good at thriving. We shirk away from public spaces and avoid exerting our religious identity in public, relegating it to the private sphere. This is embodied in the fact that today if you go to a Hindu temple, you do not talk to anyone who is there to worship with you. Instead, you go with your family, worship the deity, take the prasadam and leave. In this process, it is possible you may not talk or interact with even a single other person there. This has led to the loss of a sense of community, of a common brotherhood among Hindus. This decentralization was the need of the hour, and is one of the reasons why Hinduism — unlike Ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia — has lived to tell its tale, but it came at a cost.
Restricted to our own houses, we developed an aversion to public construction of temples and other holy sites. And this created a vicious cycle. Because any person of any faith, no matter how strong the ideology is, also needs physical symbols of his faith in her surroundings to engender in her a sense of cultural belonging. And in the absence of such structures, she gets demoralized about her culture and faith. It is time we start building big again. In its darkest hours, Hinduism had to become the faith of Puja rooms, or of small, roadside temples under trees. This helped us survive in that period. But I feel that, despite “Independence”, mentally we are still living in that period. To break through this barrier, we need to build structures that any Hindu can feel proud of, that sing back to us our history and traditions every time we walk past them, and that gives the Hindu a sense of belonging to the public spaces again. Nowhere is this needed more urgently than in Bengal.
I can already sense the opposition coming from a section of people reading this: “Why not build schools and hospitals instead?” And to this, I would say, “Of course!” Let’s do that as well. But while constructing these schools, hospitals and other structures, let’s build in an architectural style that is uniquely Bengali — that I want to call the “Neo-Bengali” style — so that any person can look at buildings from Bengal and immediately identify where they are from — just like they can with classical European buildings. More broadly, we can extend this to an umbrella artistic revolution of a “Neo-Indic style”, to represent the diverse artistic and architectural style of different parts of India. An example of what can be considered a “signature style” is the Greco-Roman pillar, which is an instantly recognizable hallmark of Western European Architecture.
The Parthenon of Athens in Greece has been “kept alive” in modern times with structures like the White House of the United States of America, or even the British-built Raj Bhavan in Kolkata, West Bengal. These structures show an architectural and civilizational continuity through thousands of years, and act as “signatures” of Western civilization. They are an example of cultural and civilizational “rhyming”, and act as the thread of continuity for any civilization. What is stopping us from searching for our own signature styles?
Reclaiming the public space through architecture
So what should these Neo-Indic structures look like? I think this is a discussion that our society should be having every living day. There is no shortage of artistic creativity and splendor in India, and I think it just needs to be channeled in the right direction. This Neo-Indic style will also vary by region, but in Bengal, there is a style I have been able to find that fits the bill for what we’re looking for.
Even though there was no true, Indic resistance to Islamic rule in Bengal comparable to the Marathas or the Sikhs, there were some smaller kingdoms that managed to retain some autonomy and build Hindu temples in the midst of the onslaught of the medieval era. Among them were the Malla kings of Birbhum and Bishnupur, who, along with many other local Rajas and Ranis, built some beautiful temples in many parts of West Bengal. These temples have a beautiful, unique style to them and the Do-chala curved roof on which the dome sits is truly iconic. They are a strong retort to anyone who claims that there is no “Bengali” style of Temple building.
I think that these Terracotta structures should be used to develop a “Neo-Bengali” architectural style that can be used in buildings all across Bengal.
Similar temples in this style are found all over Bengal. Most of these structures are built in the “Pancharatna” (five pillars) and Navaratna (nine pillars) style, a style that is native to Bengal. The Malleshwar Shiva Temple in Chandrakona in Paschim Medinipur is another temple built in the same style. And there are many surviving Hindu temples in East Bengal too. Even here, the iconic curved roof is visible:
Now, the funny thing is, that it seems like someone here in Bengal has definitely recognized the need for a temple revolution in Bengal. Given the fact that this is Bengal, that should not be surprising at all.
In 1855, Rani Rashmoni oversaw the building of a famous temple near Kolkata that was devoted to Maa Kali. And lo and behold, it is an example of exactly the kind of new temples I would like to see all over Bengal!
This is, of course, the famous Dakshineshwar Temple near Kolkata and if you look closely, especially in the roof of the temple, the Terracotta temples of Bishnupur will sing-out to you. This is a great example of Neo-Indic art, a structure that takes the best out of the old, and brings it into modern times. It creates a link to the past, while meeting us in the present. As a society, we must attempt to undertake a movement to build temples all over Bengal that are inspired by the look of the Dakshineshwar Temple. Not only that, the iconic Do-chala and Char-chala curved roof of these temples can even be used as a motif in normal structures like residential buildings, offices, schools, etc. A consistent architectural style can really add to the beauty of a place — as we see in Indian cities like Jaipur and Chandigarh — while a confused architectural style often leads to a confused identity — as is seen in Delhi (Lutyens vs. Old Delhi). And architectural beauty is a potent force for inspiring the people that live in that place.
A good example of what not to do is the structure being constructed by ISKCON in Mayapur, West Bengal. While ISKCON is doing many good things in working for the revival of the Hindu spirit in West Bengal, especially in the part of the state where Mayapur is located, the huge structure that it is building with the investment of millions dollars is sadly, a missed opportunity.
This structure, while aesthetically pleasing, is unfortunately very stylishly disconnected to Bengal and its history. In fact, this structure looks more like a Roman structure, similar to the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. in the U.S. or even the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata. In my most charitable opinion, I find it to be artistically and stylistically confused, as if it is trying to straddle the line between the Indian and Western Greco-Roman style. And let me be clear, I am not completely opposed to such a fusion of styles. I think they can lead to some beautiful creations and structures. However, I see this new Temple being constructed in Mayapur as a missed opportunity. It seems to be a project being done with the best of intentions, and no one can doubt the commitment of ISKCON to the revival of Dharma, but it also seems to be missing the point a little. I cannot imagine how wonderful it would have been to instead have a structure that takes its inspiration from the Terracotta structures of Bishnupur and had the size and scale of this Temple being constructed in Mayapur. But oh well, at least ISKCON is trying to do the right thing here, even if I feel like they have missed a great opportunity to construct something that could be the crowning jewel in Neo-Bengali art. I must say, it is also possible that I am missing some context with this temple. Maybe it takes inspiration from a different Bengali form of architecture that I have simply not encountered. Maybe more thought has gone into it than I am realizing and this structure is trying to represent something I cannot comprehend. That could be the case, but I remain skeptical and am left rueing a missed opportunity.
An architectural movement across Bengal in this style, and of course, in Buddhist styles as well to honor the great Buddhist Pala kings of Bengal, is what I think Bengal needs right now. It would be a beautiful way to restore the physical presence and emotional spirit of Dharma all over Bengal. Because make no mistake about it, preserving Dharma in the little part of Bengal that we have left is absolutely essential to the survival of India. This is because India, in the last 70 years, has not only lost the territory and people of Punjab, Sindh, and a slightly smaller extent, Kashmir. We have also lost these places in a civilizational sense. These are all places with long Indic histories, are home to countless Indic shrines and monuments, had famous Indic rulers (like Kanishka in Kashmir, Raja Dahir in Sindh and Ranjit Singh in Punjab) and were home to large populations who considered themselves as a part of the Indian civilization and its history. But that connection has almost completely been severed in the last seventy years, forcefully and violently.
Regrettably, the same applies to Dhaka and Chittagong, places whose names ring loudly in our history but are today distant memories to us, with populations openly hostile to Indian civilization and Indic faiths. I do not think Indic civilization can survive the loss of the entirety of Bengal, and this is why it is so important to preserve Dharma in Bengal. To do this, we must attempt to bring about an architectural revolution in how structures are constructed in Bengal through the development of a unique, Neo-Bengali style, and construct hundreds of Temples and Buddhist sites. The hope is that this would lift the spirit of the land of Bengal and lead to another golden era for the state and its people.