Episode 10: North India – before and after Harsha



Another Browncast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify, 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!

The history podcast returns to North India. Gaurav and Jay are in conversation with Maneesh about the changes in the North Indian landscape before and after the times of Harsha – generally considered as the last Emperor of “Ancient India”. We touch upon political splintering that followed the fall of the imperial Guptas, the political Game of thrones that followed, the Kumbha Mela and the decline of trade. 玄奘  (Xuanzang) and Banabhatta make appearances as prolific storytellers along with the stories of contested Urban decay and decline of Buddhism in the Indian heartland.

References for the episode:

A Comprehensive History of India – Vol III
The History and Culture of the Indian People: Volume 3. The Classical Age
Imagining the Urban – Sanskrit and the City in Early India by Shonaleeka Kaul
Urban Decay in India (c. 300-c. 1000) by Ram Sharan Sharma
Upinder Singh – Ancient India.
Upinder Singh – Political violence in Ancient India
Upinder Singh – Culture of Contradictions.
Romila Thapar – Ancient History
Romila Thapar – Past before us
RS Sharma- India’s Ancient Past

Live History India (Paid + unpaid)

The History of India Podcast – Kit Patrick
Echoes of India Podcast – Aniruddha Kanasetti



Episode 8: The Guptas and Classical Age of India

© Asitjain / Wikimedia CommonsAnother Browncast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify, 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!

In this episode of the History series, we return to North India and talk about the Age of the Guptas. We touch upon the military genius of Samudragupta and various Gupta emperors, the emergence of Classical Hinduism and various forms of Art, Music, Science which consolidated during this era. The speakers of the episode are Gaurav Lele and Jay Vardhan and the discussion is moderated by Maneesh.

@jayvtweets  @maneesht @gaurav_lele

Links to the previous podcasts: Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3 

Episode 4:  Episode 5: Episode 6 Episode 7

Supplementary blogpost : Legacy of the Gupta Age – Brown Pundits

Sources and References:
Books and Blogs
 Upinder Singh – Ancient India.
 Upinder Singh – Political violence in Ancient India.
 Upinder Singh – Culture of Contradictions.
 Romila Thapar – Ancient History
 RS Sharma- India’s Ancient Past
 Gupta Vakataka Age RC Majumdar

 Live History India (Paid + unpaid)
 Early Hinduism — the epic stratification | by Gaurav Lele | Medium

 The History of India Podcast – Kit Patrick
 Echoes of India Podcast – Aniruddha Kanasetti


Legacy of the Gupta Age

© Asitjain / Wikimedia Commons

The rule of the imperial Guptas is generally considered as a Golden Age or Classical Age of Indian history. Generally arguments for “Golden Age” are rife with retrospective imposition or wishful thinking, but still nonetheless the Gupta Age still deserves to be recognized as an age of immense consequence.

Rome fell in the 5th century, a topic on which whole hundreds of careers have prospered over the centuries. On the other hand, the Imperial Guptas – their rise, their fall and their legacy all remain somewhat uncertain but that may be down to Indian history in general. While Rome as a empire existed from before common era, the rise of the Guptas was a much later event. But there would be some interesting parallels in which these two empires. Rome began becoming increasingly Christian during the 4–5 centuries CE. Guptas who were devoted to Bhagvata sect are also seen as the Great Hindu rulers of the subcontinent. One of the major reasons of the fall of Imperial Rome were the series of events triggered by invasions of violent Huns led by Attila the Hun. Similarly the Hunas who invaded subcontinent are said to be distantly related to the Europeans Huns (only distantly) — but essentially nomadic cavalrymen invaded both these empires and fall of these giant empires is in large part attributed to these Central Asian “Barbarians”/ Mlenchhas.

If we assume (as is the case according to most scholars) — that Indian armies were mainly infantry supplemented by elephantry and cavalry — the tactics used by Skandagupta and later indian rulers to defeat these Hunas must have been fascinating — interesting pop culture parallel would be the Dothraki versus the unsullied.

Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 2

Integration of Classical Hinduism:

Hinduism as we define it today became something clearly recognizable during this time. One interesting way to look at Hinduism is using the metaphor Rajiv Malhotra uses — about Indra’s net — in terms of Software Hinduism is a open architecture software based on the Vedic traditions where different Apps and programs can be installed as long as they are compatible with open architecture. If we are to explain using that analogy — then the various Sampradayas and local deities cults slowly got integrated into the Vedic architecture. The devotional cults of Vishnu and Shiv and Devi clearly had some Vedic as well as non Vedic antecedents . The Bhagvata cult from North India may have had its origins in the Vedic period around the Vrishni Hero Krishna Devakiputra & others like Samkarshana, but by the time of Guptas the Bhagvata sect become something very different. The Puranas which were composed around these times played a key role in the linking of these various cults and deities into a somewhat coherent (yet extremely contradictory) mythology.

Apart from Vaisnava sect — various traditions of Shakta, Saivism and Tantra were also becoming popular. According to most scholars — Saivism was more popular at this time than Vaisnavism. Apart from the imperial Guptas, most other rulers of the time were devotees of Shiv. Whereas the Vaishnava traditions were more synchronized with Vedic traditions, some local, Tantra and Saiva traditions were not accepted in the mainstream Vedic religion. There are many stories of initial conflict of such local cults with Vedic traditions while these cults were slowly integrated into the Shrauta Vedic traditions. (Something I have touched previously in this piece – Hindu Integration: Brahmanas and Gramadevatas – Brown Pundits). The mechanisms of this integration are varied and complex — some deities become avatars of Vishnu — some become children of Shiv and some are added into the complex narratives of the Puranas. Kumārasaṃbhavam by Kalisada is also a fine example of the storytelling employed by composers while weaving this complex mesh of Hinduism.

Photo Dharma from Sadao, Thailand, CC BY 2.0

Devi also becomes increasingly interwoven with other deities — as illustrated by the tale of Mahisasur Mardini from the Puranas. The Udaygiri cave complex is a fantastic example of one of the earliest manifestations of such rich stories and motifs and their interplay — Vishnu as Varaha, Shiv Mukhalingam, Mahisasur mardini, Skanda, Ganesh etc.

In a way traditions based on Vedic Yajna based practices which are more transactional began giving way to more devotional forms of worship. These include grand temples, Teertha Kshetras and Shakti Peeth. Small temples may have existed before — we cannot be sure as archeological record is sparse; but during these times ruler began to patronize rich temples complexes — like the Udaygiri caves, Pravareshwara temple complex – which were mediated by Brahamanas practicing Vedic traditions but focus began shifting on the devotional aspects on faith.

One of the interesting foreign accounts we have of this time is that of Fa-hien — a Buddhist monk from China — who writes about a somewhat Golden age — where crime and punishments are low and people are wealthy, where vegetarianism is a norm and people even abstain from garlic and onions. The important thing to glean out of this is the fact that practices like Vegetarianism were becoming widespread around these times — something that has been linked heavily with Vaisnavism as well as Sramana traditions — especially Jainism. This era was also the time when the Mahabodhi temple, Nalanda university were constructed, so Buddhism was also in fashion as was Jainism — though Jainism seems to be more dominant in the west and south.

BodhGaya : Attribution: Neil Satyam

Architecture and Art:

The oldest Hindu temples clearly go back to pre Gupta times but the recognizable Hindu temple forms also took shape during these times. Early temples used to be short constructions made of mainly wood — around 10–10 feet square. Temples with their distinctive “Shikhar” began becoming constructed around this time.

In Cave architecture , apart from the Udaygiri and Elephanta caves (which are not firmly dated) — cave architecture seems to have been predominantly Buddhist — as attested in the fantastic Ajanta caves. Even though some of the early caves of Ajanta cave complex go back to the Satavahanas — like the Karla and Bhaja caves, the more spectacular cave art — both paintings and sculpture goes back to the age of the Golden age of the Vakatakas  – around the end of 5th century.

In the times of the Kusanas the art form known as Gandhara sculptor developed (with influence from Greeks), during the Gupta period, the Mathura & Sarnath schools continued to innovate to new heights. The Sarnath Buddhas are considered as one of the greatest art produced in India. Among some other famous sculptures of this times are the terracotta of personified Yamuna and Ganga from Ahhichattra . Yamuna-Ganga figures along with the royal standard Garuda denote the Gupta and their patronage as the Gupta originated from the region of Prayaag.

The Natyasastra which is dated to the first and second centuries CE also deserves a mention while talking about the classical age of India. One of the central concepts of Natyasastra is Rasa — Rasa is what the audience is supposed to feel as an effect of the performance. Rasas and not emotions but they map on to emotions — like Shringara Rasa with love, Vira Rasa with energy — Rasa is not the feeling or emotion but Reaction— which i have to say is a very sophisticated way of looking at it. Audience was not supposed to be a passive observer, but a highly trained and sophisticated participant in the process of Drama. The Natyasastra also prescribes that death, love making, bathing, eating should never be shown on stage and dramas should always end on a positive note — unlike famous Greek tragedies.

Fa-hien also talks about buildings which acted as hospitals existing in north India. The Sushruta Samhita which probably goes back to the late Vedic or early Mahajanpada period, but the Caraka samhita which has many layers was probably work in progress till the Gupta era. The Bower manuscript which is dated to 5–6th century CE gives a fascinating peek into the developments of Ayurveda. It refers to passages from or commentaries on the Caraka Samhita. The text also refers to Sushruta as the one who originally got this knowledge from the king of Kashi.

Legacy of invaders, Indian Kingship and religions:

Coins of Samudragupta

By and large Indian kings right from the times of Bimbisara, rarely persecuted religions sects even if they were personally devoted to some competing sect. This made good pragmatic political sense — this is the argument made by a section of scholars while looking back at these policies of religious pluralism. Many of the ruling elites after the times of the Mauryas like Hunas during this age — were “foreigners”/ Mlencchas — like most steppe warriors of these Hunas must have mostly practiced some form of Iranic religion like the earlier Sakas and Kusanas or Shamanism like the later Mongols. But inspite of what we noted earlier — about Mihirakula being among the few ancient Indian rulers to resort to religious (anti religious) zealotry — the Hunas went native quite soon. These streams of invaders who came to shape the subcontinent from the time of the Buddha to the fall of Gupta empire — Persians, Macedonians, Bactrian Greeks, Sakas, Kusanas, Hunas — we find that all these identities melted into the Melting pot of India. Indian religions — especially Hinduism and Buddhism in large part absorbed, reshaped and restyled the faith systems of the invaders. From between a few generations to few centuries all these invaders “went native” — so in a way what became Classical Hinduism was shaped by these invaders. This integration of the “invaders” would stop in the coming centuries.

Here is a quote from Upinder Singh — History of ancient and earlier medieval india.

Kashmir Files : Short Review

Short Review
#KashmirFiles – forgive my typos and terseness – i posted this in a hurry
I was pleasantly surprised by how effective the movie was in conveying what it started out doing. I had a very low bar after Tashkent files. Some would take umbrage to the Loud direction at times. Personally I think that was vivek agnihotri’s choice and overall the Loudness has the desired effect. Having seen more gory scenes in Visual medium and read more graphic details about Kashmir Pandit I did think the violence was NOT overdone though Loud at times. Rather some of the more ghastly things documented were not shown. RAPE which was common and effective tool used by Kashmiri Islamists to scare Pandits wasnt depicted in the movie. Anupam kher shines, among his finest performances. I even liked Mithun’s role. Darshan Kumar also pulled through on a tough role (though with glitches).
Overall acting is just above average – especially by actors in crucial moments in the film which somehow let me down – especially during the final monologue. It could’ve packed more punch with a flawless monologue like that of Kay Kay from Gulaal but it didn’t. 
As a result I didnt get emotional watching the movie (except maybe the Biscuit scene by Anupam Kher) while I had shed some tears while reading Pandita’s moving memoir. To the readers, I would still recommend Pandita’s book over this movie but this movie will reach places which a book could never do. Book Review: Our moon has blood clots | by Gaurav Lele | Medium
Sad that a fine mind like Pandita has not *yet talked about the impact of the film (probably due to history with the director).
But most importantly the movie does what only a movie can (not books or newspapers or even podcasts). So it’s a very necessary counter weight movie especially in company of Haider and Mission Kashmir. The criticism I had watching was the absence of positive Kashmiri Muslim characters who helped Pandits risking their lives (though the final monologue makes that point along with many other nuances). Personally I think that’s not fair depiction but award winner “Haider” didn’t have a single positive Pro India character – all Kashmiris who were pro India were corrupt – so maybe judging Kashmir files with that level of harshness itself isn’t fair.
In that space #KashmirFiles corrects a lot of narrative around the Kashmir in general in Pop culture and also tells the stories of the Kashmiri Hindus with focus solely on their plight.
There are some errors and unbelievable plot points. The characters (5 dinner table characters) appear half baked and under acted at times. In many places multiple character arcs are fused into a single character which leaves things undercooked.
I also felt the #Article370 part is overplayed and made simplistic and dumbed down. That part almost feels like propaganda for current BJP government. Ofcourse it’s part of story so that’s fine in a story. #KashmirFiles
Personally I felt the multiple Amarnath killings should have also been part of the film – whose aim was to further prevent any attempts to lay claim to Hindu legacy of Kashmir. But @vivekagnihotri can’t get it all inside the movie.
JNU is naturally shown caricaturish – but frankly I care far more about Kashmiri Muslim caricature than JNU caricature. Also don’t think the bright minds of Azadi in JNU would be seed any space in one monologue :). But maybe that was wishful thinking by director. The use of CAA protest fame song – Hum Dekhenge is at times not loud but effective nonetheless.
In summary the movie shifts the Pop Culture pendulum on Kashmir to its end powerfully (probably overcompensates a bit), but is no means is it a complete film – its a message meant primarily to highlight the plight of the Kashmiri Hindu community. But it does so (with exception of the final monologue) making a caricature of Kashmiri Muslims as either fanatics or cowards when there have been documented instances of Kashmiri Muslims risking their lives for India in general and Pandits in particular. But that is what you get when the only person willing to voice this issue honestly is Vivek Agnihotri – when Bollywood in 30 years came up with ZERO films on this tragedy and what they managed at last was the PC and poorly made Shikara. In that context you have to not only live with Kashmir Files but somewhat embrace its core message.
Kashmir files uses a lot of Hindu imagery and symbolism – sometimes subtly sometimes overtly. I felt the use of Shiv makeup Anupam Kher was deliberate – especially in the light of retrospective offense taken by newly aware(woke?) Hindus about the Shiv scene from PK. 
#KashmirFiles has started a conversation and hopefully later entries in the debate will add more nuance which is missing in the movie.

Christian conversions in rural India

Arrests, Beatings and Secret Prayers: Inside the Persecution of India’s Christians:

The Christians were mid-hymn when the mob kicked in the door.

A swarm of men dressed in saffron poured inside. They jumped onstage and shouted Hindu supremacist slogans. They punched pastors in the head. They threw women to the ground, sending terrified children scuttling under their chairs.

“They kept beating us, pulling out hair,” said Manish David, one of the pastors who was assaulted. “They yelled: ‘What are you doing here? What songs are you singing? What are you trying to do?’”

The attack unfolded on the morning of Jan. 26 at the Satprakashan Sanchar Kendra Christian center in the city of Indore. The police soon arrived, but the officers did not touch the aggressors. Instead, they arrested and jailed the pastors and other church elders, who were still dizzy from getting punched in the head. The Christians were charged with breaking a newly enforced law that targets religious conversions, one that mirrors at least a dozen other measures across the country that have prompted a surge in mob violence against Indian Christians.

Pastor David was not converting anyone, he said. But the organized assault against his church was propelled by a growing anti-Christian hysteria that is spreading across this vast nation, home to one of Asia’s oldest and largest Christian communities, with more than 30 million adherents.

The article makes it clear that this is mostly a feature of the “Cow Belt” and due to the conversion of Dalits and the like. This is The New York Times so I view this skeptically, but if this is happening it seems likely a large proportion of Dalits will convert to Christianity since the Hindu reaction here is depicted as literally reactive.

One thing that does cross my mind is that the Hindus in the piece are depicted as aggressive. But the Christians have an ambition of converting most of the population, and once and if they became the majority they would surely not be the gentle flock they are now. It’s sad, but true.

India that is Bharat — The Good, the Bad and the Overstated

The early 2010s saw the internet (particularly youtube) filled with “Takedown” videos of famous public intellectuals and debaters of the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro. These figures typically have a contrarian take, rhetoric flourishes, exuberant confidence, and sometimes even persuasive arguments. As Youtube and Takedown videos become popular in India, one individual has made more waves than most others — J Sai Deepak – a lawyer cum debater.

India that is Bharat was published 4 months ago and has created quite a buzz — which isn’t restricted to social media. The book is a bestseller on Amazon with 1584 ratings with an average of 4.8. Even on the conservative Goodreads, the book is rated at 4.55 after 167 ratings. I decided to review this book in detail after a few recommendations, especially as I feel people to the liberal side of me in the Hindutva — Liberal Overton will not give this book the honest assessment it deserves.

India that is Bharat is book 1 of a trilogy that seeks to set the foundation for the arguments J Sai Deepak is going to put forth in volumes 2 and 3. The basic premise of the argument (i am paraphrasing) is that events from the 15th century to 19th century Europe that shook the world led to universal definitions of concepts like “Modernity”, “Secularism”, “Equality” and “Rationality”. The author claims that these definitions were fundamentally shaped by the Protestant reformation and underlying Christian morality and are hence “Christian”. In addition, these values went hand in hand with the 18th and 19th-century colonization of Bharat, the legacy of which is still ubiquitous in India. For someone who is even superficially well-read on these topics and has an open mind — this claim is not unsupported (though one could argue on the fine details). The clarity of thought of the author is at display in every word of the book. The book is not a scholarly exercise but a precise multi-utility instrument at the disposal of the ever-growing Indic consciousness movement.

Having accepted this basic premise, the 4 “schools” thought to address it are — Modern, Post-Modern, Postcolonial, and Decolonial, of which the author clearly favors “Decolonial school” as it addresses the “Protestant” elephant in the post-colonial nation-states — Coloniality. The book is divided into three sections, Coloniality, Civilization, and Constitution; each of which is expanded using primary references juxtaposed with the author’s insights. The references give the narrative authenticity but those need analysis and extrapolation which the author goes on to provide with surgical precision with a clear end-goal. In most cases, the analysis of the primary references is convincing and solid (though there are some glaring misses — will expand on them later). The extrapolation from even the most solid inferences is however hit and miss. Like the author, I would also attempt to break my review into three neat sections — the Good, the Bad, and the Overstated.

the GOOD:

The immense work put into building this narrative doesn’t escape the reader’s attention. Especially the argument put forth in the final chapter — “the standard of civilization” is a compelling one and doesn’t often get recognized in the public international discourse. A lot of the issues from that very framework continue to haunt countries like India under the veil of international consensus. The author also does a good job of convincing the reader that seeing India as a “civilizational state” is wishful thinking at best. The author also convincingly brings the various points of divergence between India/Dharmic and Christian/Protestant thinking. It is undeniable that this divergence brought about both the direct and indirect stereotyping of “Hindoos” and their “traditions”, the legacy of which the Hindus of the 21st century have to countenance. Eg: The academic mainstream thought of viewing the Sramana traditions (and to a lesser extent Sikhism), primarily as revolts against Brahmanical orthodoxy (of Varna)— similar to the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic church. Also, the Essential practices test applied to Hindu Sampradayas with emphasis on the written word.

Another interesting point brought forth by the author is the difference in attitudes towards non Humans (nature in general) between the Abrahamic faiths and Indic faiths. What the author didn’t touch upon, but could have added is the attitudes towards Darwinian evolution are also in great divergence in these two OETs (onto etymologies) of Western and Eastern faiths. If a man is a part of nature, evolution is easier to digest. Sadly this harmony with nature which takes the form of worship of nature is seen as a joke in the Abrahamic OET. (Though I do not concur with the author in fullness that a lot of current problems with environmentalism come out of this universalism).

In general, the primary references in the book are well researched and the inferences drawn from them are robust and provide a solid foundation for an interested reader to extrapolate. Constituent assembly debates, House of common debates are presented tersely enough to get a moderately deep understanding of the discussions at hand.

However, the biggest positive contribution of the book is that it recognizes “Coloniality” as an impediment to the realization of Indian(particularly Bharatiya) potential. The continued and blind aping of the west — be in food habits, dress codes, language policy all prevent the confidence of the native from growing. Good communication is often correlated with good English in most fields where the institutional imprint is high (from the Tech industry to journalism). I can tell this from first-hand experience that the country has lost thousands (maybe lacs) of brilliant and honest minds, who are not “Modern” in their outlook, do not get the necessary support from society in general and institutions in particular.  Nowhere is this more self-evident than in the Supreme court and English media journalism. Mediocre yet articulate English-speaking elites have suppressed the talents from the subaltern sections of the society from rising up.

the BAD:

Having said the above, I have profound problems with a lot of narratives in the book. My primary problems (as well as support) with the narrative are illustrated below


Below are a few of the numerous examples in the book which signify the fallacies of the narrative.

  1. In a robust argument about Colonial ethnic cleansing/genocide of Native Americans, the author lets slip the following UNREFERENCED line — which is not just an exaggeration but an objectively falsifiable statement.

In some cases diseases, such as smallpox and the plague, were introduced with the knowledge that the indigenous community was not immune to them.

Kindle location 1054

2. The author addresses the Christian/Colonial framing of the Jati-Varna system by quoting the works of Nicolas Dirks’ among others. While the Colonial reading of Jati-Varna which became the modern Caste System is refuted; the alternative hypothesis for the reality of the Jati-Varna system is missing. The author also completely avoids the recent genetic studies which point to unique endogamy among Indian Jatis which has poked a lot of holes in Nicolas Dirks’s hypothesis. 

3. In general the references to and inspiration from Greco Roman culture in Enlightenment are largely omitted while its Protestant roots are overemphasized.

It abounds with works of imagination not inferior to the noblest which Greece has bequeathed to us

Location 5209

References like these in Macaulay’s minute are totally ignored

A lot of the modern concepts which gained traction in the Enlightenment were clearly of Greco-Roman (or even Indian, Persian) origins. While these may be denied by a section of Christian thinkers in the past (and even so today) — that is not true for the mainstream Western scholarship.

4. It would be fair to assert that the nuance of piecemeal and incremental progress (which incidentally the author might support as a legit way of native reform) has been put through the post-modern lens. Eg: The takedown of Emmanual Kant and his Christian worldview which encompassed racism.

There are some more examples that illustrate my broader point, but I will not add all of them here. (Maybe I can publish my detailed notes somewhere else if needed). In addition to these specific issues, the major incoherent argument made is the insistence of viewing “Modern” concepts of “Equality”, “Liberty”, “Rationality”, “Reason” as at least quasi Protestant. The natural consequence of this is the call for being “Vary” of these concepts themselves – not just their imposition by Coloniality. 

This assertion of erroneous as looking at Englightenment primarily a consequence of Protestant Reformation is tenuous at best. But more importantly, history is rife with Concepts/“Memes” which come out of an OET per se and over time lose connection to the OET itself (to view those concepts from the lens of their germination). The savior/messiah concept seems to have made an impression on Indic faiths from Judeo-Christian OET leading to “Maitreya the messiah” (on may also claim that Hindu Kalki is also a result of that but I am not confident about it). This clearly happened without “Coloniality” as Rome only became a Chrisitan empire later. The same is true for the Crystallization of Islamic orthodoxy which not only drew upon concepts of Totalitarian Assyria but also learning mechanisms of Turanian Buddhism (Buddhist influence of Madrassas).

Ironically the template used by the author to claim that modernity and rationality are Christian (Protestant) is exactly the template used by post-modernists (and now Woke) to classify modernity, science, and rationality instruments of White supremacy. This is also the exact same mechanism used by Leftist scholars and Ambedkarites to dismiss or oppose aspects of Hindu culture under the guise of attacking “Brahminism”.

This is a plain double standard disguised as moral relativism.

Another major umbrage I take to the narrative (at least in the first book) feeds into a post-modern and moral relativist framework for contemporary issues. It is one thing to view the past through moral relativism, but completely different to view and judge different groups in the society using different standards. Concepts of community rights and standards become imperative in such a framework and the author makes it crystal clear in the following passage

Kindle Location 3448-3455

While it would be incorrect to claim that the author’s narrative is attacking individual rights, it is clear “if individual rights are adversely affecting interests of a group then the individual right must be traded off against the greater good”. To bolster this position one might take the example of Sabrimala but let’s take a slightly different and problematic example. Will an individual who stands to inherit immense ancestral wealth lose it because of an unapproved marriage or a lifestyle decision? Will the group interest (endogamy/tradition) trump individual rights? More importantly, how is “group interest” defined? In this framework is Jati endogamy as a tool of preserving ancestral traditions a valid “Group interest” which trumps individual rights (related to property specifically). I am not suggesting that this framework wouldn’t allow individuals to legally marry outside group, but the costs associated with such an activity could be legally recognized. Will the provision in Article 35A for Kashmiri women to lose state domicile be defensible under this framework of Preference for “Group interests” over individual rights?


The author spends the first section of the book linking Coloniality to Protestant reformation and its ramifications. While the link between the two is undeniable, the emphasis laid on Christian roots of Western civilization, Coloniality, and to an extend Enlightenment is strongly contestable. It is not about whitewashing history but acknowledging how other factors play an important and even at times decisive role in the changes that took place after the fifteenth century. This omission would lead an ignorant reader to put the onus of the New world order emphatically on Protestant reformation and its repercussions while ignoring the other factors.

The author almost spends an entire chapter (10) bolstering the idea that British Secularism (or somewhat even-handed treatment of faiths) is a result of pragmatic and mercantile self-interests and not secular enlightenment principles. This is a classic strawman, for even Anglophiles do agree that the British outlook towards religions in India was due to a pragmatic and mercantile attitude; of first the Company and then the Crown. Quotations from conservative members of an Anglican monarchy (not a secular republic unlike France) and Bishops are used to convey the idea that the British Crown and its parliament were Christian and not secular. While the British Anglican church is always seen as somewhat benign compared to other Protestant denominations, the claim that they are seen as secular/idealist in outlook isn’t true for even the 20th century — let alone 19th century (which the book claims to refute).

This line of argument takes the form of overstatements like “Christian character of Government of India” and “legislative bodies acted with the political theology of Christianity”, “Christianisation of morality” and a lot more with immense emphasis on the Christian side of British coloniality. But if this efficient and well-oiled state machinery secondary or even tertiary plans of proselytization, wouldn’t have managed to convert more than 1% of the mainland Hindu population? (most Christians at the time of Independence resided in Goa, Kerala, and Northeast).


Overall it is fair to say that the author doesn’t confront the plurality of viewpoints on the topic he is addressing. The rhetorical tools which the author deploys in the audiovisual medium are somewhat blunted in the written word, and this also is a weakness of the book. He makes a persuasive case for Decoloniality despite these flaws, but the argument is far from water-tight. (though clearly, a majority of readers would disagree). Every now and then amidst robust points, the author also displays his tendency for hyperbole like calling retention of Hindu identity of the geography of the majority a paper identity. Not only that, but the author also uses postmodernist (“woke terms”) like “politico-epistemic violence of modernity” which is a red flag for whoever is following the debates around these issues in the West.

The book comes out as a precise instrument and not as an inquiry — which is both its strength and its biggest weakness. To date, I have not come across one legitimate critique of the book, either on GoodReads or Amazon or any digital or non-digital publications. The reason for this is clear though, one side of the ideological spectrum treats the author and his arguments as a pariah or upstart — either too extreme or too mediocre for attention. On the flip side, the other side has and will continue to treat this work as “Groundbreaking”, “Red-pilling” or “even personification of perfection” which seems a stretch even with concessions – especially coming from people who are vastly well-read and more of an intellectual bend than myself. I would argue the people on all sides of the political spectrum taking these positions are either dishonest, myopic, or incompetent. Or maybe it’s that they’re blown away (or repelled) by the personality and rhetoric prowess of the author.

While the readers of this post wouldn’t necessarily agree with all the criticisms I have made above, at least some of the criticisms ought to stick.

Having said that, the book was very important and consequential, especially due to the ingrained coloniality in our institutions and minds (especially the courts). For all its faults, the core argument of the book — that India still has a considerable colonial hangover and needs to shed it to become Bharat — stands solidly by the end of the book. The author has also inspired and convinced me to become more Bharatiya despite my profound disagreements with the book. For context: On identifying with the label “Liberal” over “Conservative”. My position on the liberal/conservative scale has shifted slightly to the conservative side due to my engagements with the author’s (and many other) viewpoints in general and this book, in particular. This book can also be seen as part of the famous Tilak vs Agarkar/Ranade debates that have shaped the Marathi society for the last 100 years. One could say that the intellectual and state pendulum has swung more in Agarkar’s favor and this book is an attempt to wrestle it back towards Tilak.

Given the popularity of the book and the author, the cliche saying “Love it, Hate it but you can’t ignore it” is perfect, to sum up the book in particular and the Decoloniality movement in general. It is definitely a must-read for all interested in public discourse about India that is Bharat.

Post Script:

There may be some errors in my original criticism – especially Point 1 of section the “Bad” which can be worded better. My criticism was about allegation of “with the knowledge that the indigenous community was not immune to them” which was not supported by the author by references. That narrow point stands it is unreferenced but pointed criticism around it I made is wrong.

I was unaware of the scholarship which points that early Europeans may have some awareness of the way immunity works and how the it played in way of accelerating their colonization.

Mawtana Rabba and the Role of Climate Change and Plague in the Rise of Islam

Part Two:

Modern tree-ring dating techniques inform us that during the 6th century CE most of the world was enveloped in a 125-year-long mini Ice Age . It was caused by 1) eruption of an immensely powerful series of volcanoes in Ice Land during the years 536, 540 and 547, and 2) in the south west corner of Central Americas (modern el-Salvador), during the year 540, eruption of a volcano of such great power that it is counted among the top 10 most destructive volcanoes of the last 7000 years, and due to which the Maya civilization suffered a catastrophic collapse with more than 100,000 deaths.

The colossal volume of smoke released from these two volcanoes kept most of the world in a foggy darkness for many years, sun’s warmth remained distant, and average global temperature even during the summer months remained between two and twelve degrees celsius. Sixth century Roman historian Procopius wrote that “sunlight was as faint and empty of warmth as that of the moon.”

Due to this paucity of sunlight and its warmth during the sixth and early seventh centuries, most of the Middle East, Mediterranean, and Central Asia suffered a devastating series of famines, thousands emigrated from Central Asia to Middle East, Persia, Europe and India, but Arabia’s otherwise barren deserts enjoyed a historic period of high-yielding fertility.

Then in 541, a bubonic plague emerged in Egypt and spread with such swiftness that in a short while pathways from Egypt to China and the island of England began filling with dead bodies. The original culprit was a bacteria named Yersinia pestis which transmits to humans via flea carrying rats. An infected person starts to notice black or purplish buboes popping up on the skin, along with high fever, and if not treated, the person would most probably die within ten days.

During the next 200 years, between 536 and 745, Justinian plague kept recurring every ten to fifteen years. It seems from the writings of sixth century historians that the plague began in Kush (Ethiopia) and spread its trail of destruction via Egypt and Yemen to Palestine (Levant), Constantinople, and eventually, China and England. But modern genetic research reveals that Yersinia pestis first emerged in the Central asian mountain ranges of Tian Shan (heavenly/celestial mountains), also called Tengri Tagh (God/spirit mountains) in Turkic, evolved there, and possibly transmitted via trading vessels from India and Indian ocean to Africa and Egypt.

The principal sources available for studying this plague are written in four languages: primarily Syriac (the liturgical language of eastern Christianity), and then Greek, Latin, and some Arabic. Contemporary Syriac accounts named the plague “mawtana rabba.” The generic term for pestilence or epidemic disease in Syriac is mawtana, “mortality,” which corresponds to “waba” in Arabic, or sometimes simply mawta, “death.” A “great plague” is called a “mawtana rabba.” Later historians named it the Justinian Plague.

The lengthiest account on “mawtana rabba” is found in the Syriac Ecclesiastical History of the Bishop John of Ephesus. John (Youhanan in Syriac) of Ephesus was a native of Amida (modern Diyarbakr) in northern Mesopotamia (southern Turkey), and had the misfortune of traveling from Egypt to Constantinople in 541 AD. In Palestine, John wrote that he saw entire town populations wiped out. “During the tumult and intensity of the pestilence,” he wrote, “we journeyed from Syria to the capital. Day after day we, too, used to knock at the door of the grave along with everyone else. We used to think that if there would be evening, death would come upon us suddenly in the night. Although the next morning would come, we used to face the grave during the whole day as we looked at the devastated and moaning villages in these regions, and at corpses lying on the ground with no one to gather them.”

According to John, some people carried corpses all day, while others spent the day digging graves. Houses and farms were abandoned; animals forgot their domestication. “Crops of wheat in fertile fields located in all the regions through which we passed from Syria up through Thrace were white and standing but there was no one to reap them and store the wheat. Vineyards, whose picking season came and went, shed their leaves, since winter was severe, but kept their fruits hanging on their vines, and there was no one to pick them or press them.” In his Lives of the Eastern Saints, John reported on one monastery that buried eighty-four of its members who had died of the plague. He writes that in Constantinople, more than 10,000 were dying each day, and when the number exceeded 230,000 the administrators stopped counting.

Other Syriac writings contain details of later outbreaks in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, including the Chronicle of Zuqnın, whose monastic author, in recounting the epidemic of 743–745 under Umayyads, specified that the victims had swellings in the groin, the armpit, or the neck. The Zuqnın Chronicle records a pestilence (mawtana) that broke out in Mesopotamia in during 546 and 547 CE, and a great pestilence (mawtana rabba) that broke out at Amida in during 557–558 CE, where 35,000 people died within three months.

The principal Greek source is the work of the historian Procopius of Caesarea, who was present at the court of Justinian in Constantinople in the early 540s. In his Persian War, Procopius wrote, “there was a pestilence by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated. . . . It started among the Egyptians. Then it moved to Palestine and from there spread over the whole world. . . . In the second year it reached Byzantium in the middle of the spring.” He says that for the majority of those struck, fever was the first sign, then developed after a few days a bubonic swelling, either in the groin, in the armpit, or beside the ears. He reports that the mortality rose alarmingly, eventually reaching more than ten thousand each day. Procopius also mentions that the emperor himself was taken ill. Justinian, however, recovered and reigned for two more decades.

The lawyer Agathias undertook to continue the history of Procopius. He wrote that after 544 when plague ceased in Constantinople, it had never really stopped but simply moved on from place to place, until it returned to the city almost as though it had been cheated on the first occasion into a needlessly hasty departure. This was the spring of 558, when “a second outbreak of plague swept the capital, destroying a vast number of people.” The form the epidemic took was not unlike that of the earlier outbreak. A swelling in the glands in the groin was accompanied by a high fever that raged night and day with unabated intensity and never left its victim until the moment of death.

In churches, temples, roads, and caravanserais people would often drop dead. Many died while hoisting the dead bodies of their loved ones. One Nestorian priest from Basra wrote that a seemingly healthy man strolling in front of him suddenly opened his mouth wide, winced as if a knife had ripped him, and then dropped dead. John of Ephesus painted such haunting images in his account as if narrating a zombie movie: healthy people in streets swirling down as if dazed and died, their bellies stretched beyond human limits, mouths wide open, lifeless eyes staring at howling winds, hands reaching out as if clasping their souls back, and then their bellies would rip, spilling pus mixed with blood which would run down the streets as if water. Women quarters filled with bodies, their mouths open, and bellies stretched wide. An unbearable stench tyrannizing entire cities.

From the North African city of Carthage, we have testimony of the Latin poet Corippus. In 549 he recited at Carthage his epic poem, the Johannis, on the recently concluded war between the Byzantine army and Berber tribes. In the midst of the war a terrible pestilence arrived by sea. Death was so widespread, he reports, that people became desensitized to it, no longer shedding tears even for their loved ones or observing those rites traditionally due the deceased. Social breakdown was further evident in the scramble among survivors to take possession of the properties and belongings of the victims. Wealthy widows were more sought after than young maidens. References to a later plague epidemic in North Africa, in 599 and 600, are found in the correspondence of Pope Gregory the Great.

Modern historians advise caution in accepting these accounts and numbers prima facie, and it’s true that often medieval authors gave high numbers only to signify the intensity of an event. But what’s undeniable is that almost all of these chronicles share same tale of horrors, of symptoms and signs, of periodic waves, that had devastated their home towns. The contemporary narrative sources available to the historian, be they from East or West, written in Latin, Greek, Syriac, or Arabic, speak with one voice in describing the plague as having had a major demographic impact on communities, urban and rural alike. 

Not unlike most modern maladies, “mawtana rabba” too first descended upon the impoverished neighborhoods of a city, and then advanced to the palatial elites. And somewhat like the modern world, all sorts of rumors on its possible causes started to spread before the plague’s actual descent. The rumor among Palestinians was that dark headless men holding long copper rods were visiting the cities from the ocean every night in glistening copper boats. In Constantinople, people started acting on the odd rumor that if plates and pots made with clay were to be thrown on the ground from the top most windows of the house, the plague will flee. First the men and women of one neighborhood began throwing down their dishes, then second, and third, and for three days nobody was to be seen at the city streets because all were busy slinging their dishes down. And when that didn’t work, people started acting on another rumor that the angel of plague approaches them in the form of a priest or monk, and they started yelling at priests and monks to leave them alone, that they still have time left in this world. When leaving their homes, people would hang tags with their names and addresses on their necks.

Even those who managed to recover suffered intense fatigue for years, buboes emerging and popping, spilling pus down their bodies, not a single strand of hair left on their heads. It became hard to distinguish a monk from a commoner.

Usually plague-ridden dead bodies were buried in mass graves outside the city gates, or they’d be collected in large stacks and tossed via boats into oceans. As the numbers of dead escalated, cities further dipped into chaos, and people began abandoning the traditional religious rites offered for their dead. When no one was left to sink or bury the dead, the emperor Justinian ordered his ministers to invite the tribes inhabiting the mountains, and offer them as much gold as they might want but to do this godawful job. According to his minister Theodore, these tribals first stamped down on these bodies and then bundled them together, then they buried them inside giant pits dug outside the city.

The volume of trade and of production declined generally in the mid-sixth century. In some places, new housing ceased. The coastal cities (the greatest centers of wealth) were hit first and hardest, and perhaps their weaknesses rippled through the Mediterranean lands. Both Kulikowski (in Visigothic Spain) and Peter Sarris (in Byzantine lands) have detected attempts to tie increasingly scarce labor to land, attempts especially notable in a time of legal and economic turmoil.

In his edict, Justinian complains of how, in the wake of the plague, tradesmen, artisans, and agricultural workers had given themselves over to avarice and were demanding twice or even three times the prices and wages that had hitherto been the norm. The emperor decreed that those responsible for issuing wages and stipends to building workers, agricultural workers, or any other group of workers were not to credit them with anything more than their customary remuneration. Likewise, Banaji’s statistical analysis of Egyptian land-leases recorded among the papyri would appear to record a marked improvement in the security of tenure enjoyed by lessees from the middle of the sixth century onward. From the first half of the sixth century to the second, the proportion of leases of indefinite duration increased from 17.2% to 39.4%. The proportion of leases of only one year’s duration declined over the same period from 29.3% to 9.1%

That the plague visited Yemen appears to be corroborated by the inscription of Abraha on the dam at Ma’rib dated 543 CE, which refers to death and sickness striking the community at Ma’rib; the dam was repaired when the fatal epidemic had passed. This outbreak of bubonic plague lasted longer in the east. At the end of his account of the three years of plague, John of Ephesus remarks that “these same calamities still persist in the eastern territories and are not over.” The pre-Islamic Arab poet Hassan Ibn Thabit records the pestilence, described as “the stinging of the jinn,” devastating the rural population of the empire’s eastern fringes. It appears to have reached China by the early seventh century.

“Mawtana Rabba” kept returning in waves for more than 200 years. The Syrian Christian priest Evagrius wrote that during the last decade of 6th century “in a total of 210 years from 541 to 750, there were about eighteen outbreaks of the plague.” This amounts to an average of one outbreak about every 11.6 years. This seems to apply to the first six plague waves for which we can compute the inter-epidemic intervals for Constantinople. These range approximately from eleven to seventeen years, with an average of 14.2 years, a fact corroborated by Evagrius, who records that the plague seemingly broke out during the first or the second year of the indiction cycle, indicating a periodicity of roughly fifteen years. From the thirteenth to the eighteenth wave, Syria was reportedly hit on all six waves, with inter-epidemic periods ranging from five to nine years and an average of 6.6 years.

Not unlike our times, people in sixth century reached for all kinds of explanations. We know, via archeology, that there was a spike in construction of new churches and monasteries. On the other hand, according to John of Ephesus, some Egyptian and Palestinian towns returned to worshipping their idols. As the plague was ravaging Egypt and Alexandria in September 541, crowds in Constantinople gathered round a woman who had gone into ecstasy and was claiming that in three days time the sea would rise and swallow everything. Agathias narrates case that occurred in Constantinople in 557 when the city had been visited by a devastating earthquake. Some individuals claiming to be prophets or possessed by demons began announcing that even worse catastrophes were imminent. These are some of the many testimonies that bear witness to the eschatological climate that must have been dominant at the time. Historian Procopius wrote from Constantinople that, “a plague of such deadly nature has spread from Egypt and Palestine to the rest of the world that it seems the end times are imminent.” 

The plague was perceived in both a religious and a rational way. According to the religious approach, plagues were an expression of divine retribution or punishment, and the result of human sins, either individual or collective, and that it announces the end times. This was a notion central to both popular Greek and Jewish thought. Although in the New Testament, Christ does not present disease as a necessary result of sin, the Christian interpretation of disease established and stressed exactly this relation. In Byzantine texts dealing with the plague, this was the dominant opinion. Collective sin of people bringing about the just divine wrath in the form of the plague. In two polemical instances, this transgression is not presented as collective, but as individual: Justinian, termed “lord of demons” in Procopius’ Anecdota, is made solely responsible for the plague, as is the iconoclastic Emperor Constantine V by iconophile authors.

Youhanan Bar Penkaye wrote that this collective onset of famines, earthquakes, and plagues is an irrefutable sign of end times. Procopius wrote that there could not be an earthly or natural explanation of this plague, it must have been sent directly from God almighty himself. John of Ephesus wrote that an angel whose duty is to dissociate humans from worldly desires and to guide them on a spiritual path towards God is responsible for this plague, that in his eyes this plague is a lash of mercy from God, and an opportunity to plead God for forgiveness. On the other hand, according to the Greek priest Zachariah, this plague was directly from Satan who was left on a leash by the God so that he could punish people for their sins.

Contrary to this divine aetiology, a rational interpretation of disease had been first established almost a thousand years ago by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates: “I do not believe that the ‘Sacred Disease’ is any more divine or sacred than any other disease, but on the contrary, has specific characteristics and a definite cause.” According to him, epidemic diseases were defined as follows: “When a large number of people all catch the same disease at the same time, the cause must be ascribed to something common to all and which they all use; in other words to what they all breathe.” This definition was later adopted by the other great medical personality of Antiquity, Galen, and retained its authority throughout the Middle Ages in both Islamic and Christian world. The malignant air responsible for these outbreaks was called miasma.

Even more remarkable in this respect is Anastasius of Sinai’s Questions and Answers, a work written at the very end of the seventh century. Question 114 addresses the topic whether it is possible to escape the plague by fleeing to another location. Anastasius answers with a piece on the origin of plagues. They either break out as a result of divine chastisement or because of corrupt air, vapors, pollution, and stench. In the first case, they cannot be escaped, but in the second, with God’s will, flight to a location with healthier air will often help avoid death. This is Anastasius’ effort to offer a compromise between “Hellenistic rationalism and Christian views on direct divine intervention,” between a “pre-Christian medical and physiological tradition” and the Judeo-Christian model of disease as “chastisement from heaven . . . designed to drive out the evils afflicting the body politic.”

To what extent was this series of plagues, famines, and the little Ice Age responsible for the destruction of the Roman and Persian empires and the emergence of Islam?

Historian Peter Sarris writes in his excellent book Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam that “a diminution in tax revenues caused by the demographic impact of bubonic plague and aristocratic tax evasion appears to have occasioned mounting difficulties in paying the army. It is in this context that we should understand the attempted reduction in military pay proposed by the Emperor Maurice in 588.” (In 588 the garrison at the important frontier city of Martyropolis simply handed it over to the Persians, declaring that they ‘would not be ruled over by a shopkeeper.’ That same year, much of the imperial field army, stationed at Monocarton near Edessa, rose up in rebellion against the Emperor Maurice’s proposed 25 per cent reduction in military pay.)

He notes, “Failure to pay the army adequately or on time, however, tended to lead to desertion, defection, or revolt, as most vividly revealed by the Eastern field army’s response to Maurice’s attempted cuts. Moreover, at some point in the late sixth century, it appears to have become common for the cash component of the stipend issued to garrison troops to be paid in copper rather than gold. Consequently, the collapse in the purchasing power of the copper follis from the reign of Justin II onwards is likely to have had ever more pronounced implications for the loyalty and morale of the military rank and file, as well as of the civilian population of the empire.”

Eventually, Rome under the astute leadership of Heraclius managed to defeat Persia, but, according to professor Sarris, “The Eastern Roman Empire was thus restored territorially, but it was a shadow of its former self. The imperial concentration on the East had necessarily led to a further weakening of its position in the Balkans … Many of the cities of Anatolia and Asia Minor had been ransacked by the armies of the shah or exhausted by the fiscal demands of Heraclius’ war effort. In Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, the reassertion of imperial control at this point must have been largely nominal.”

(If you like what I do, please please consider supporting me: https://ko-fi.com/syedmuzammil1225 )

In Part three, Mawtana Rabba in Persia, more on the 6th century war between Rome and Persia, and the five waves of plagues under Umayyads.

Part 1: https://www.brownpundits.com/2021/10/09/the-plagues-of-justinian-and-amwas-the-200-years-long-series-of-plagues-and-pestilence-and-the-conquest-of-muslims-over-rome-and-persia/


History of al-Tabari: The Conquest of Iraq, SouthWestern Persia, and Egypt Vol XIII (Trans. Gautier H. A. Juynboll)

Arabic Plague Chronologies and Treatises Social and Historical Factors in the Formation of a Literary Genre, Lawrence I. Conrad

TA ‘UN AND W’ABA: Conceptions of Plague and Pestilence in Early Islam, Lawrence I. Conrad

The Comparative Communal Responses to the Black Death in Muslim and Christian Societies by Michael W. Dols

Epidemic disease in central Syria in the late sixth century: Some new insights from the verse of Hassān ibn Thābit, Lawrence I. Conrad

Abraha and Muḥammad: Some Observations Apropos of Chronology and Literary “topoi” in the Early Arabic Historical Tradition, Lawrence I. Conrad

Life and Afterlife of the First Plague Pandemic, Lester K. Little

Historians and Epidemics: Simple Questions, Complex Answers, Jo N. Hays

‘For Whom Does the Writer Write?’: The First Bubonic Plague Pandemic According to Syriac Sources, Michael G. Morony

Justinianic Plague in Syria and the Archaeological Evidence, Hugh N. Kennedy

Crime and Punishment: The Plague in the Byzantine Empire, 541–749, Dionysios Stathakopoulos

Bubonic Plague in Byzantium: The Evidence of Non-Literary Sources, Peter Sarris

Procopius and the Sixth Century, Averil Cameron

When Numbers Don’t Count: Changing Perspectives on the Justinianic Plague, Monica H. Green

Rejecting Catastrophe: The Case of the Justinianic Plague, Lee Mordechai, Merle Eisenberg

Ancient Yersinia pestis genomes from across Western Europe reveal early diversification during the First Pandemic (541–750), Marcel Keller and others

The Political and Social Role of Khurasan under Abbasid Rule 747-820, Elton L. Daniel

Browncast – Shazia Ilmi BJP National spokesperson

Shazia Ilmi

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify, 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!

In this podcast Mukunda and I talk to Shazia Ilmi – BJP National spokesperson about Indian politics, Muslims in Politics and Society and a lot more.


Hindutva, Asabiya and Apostacy

This particular blogpost is triggered by the following thread

It has been fashionable for long to use historic Hindu pluralism as a defense against claims of rising intolerance. The above Twitter thread was spawned by comparisons (premature IMO) of Hindutva rage at Beef eating by “members of the one’s tribe” to the Islamic practice of Takfiri and apostasy. The fears of liberals like Dhume may be exaggerated, but the potential of Apostacy and Takfiri memes arising in Hindutva needs to be inspected.

Historically, Hinduism (especially Brahmanical) had a concept similar to Takfiri. However, unlike Islam, this concept in Hinduism was mostly associated with Ritual purity and orthodoxy and rarely had political manifestations. I am naturally talking about social ostracization. This ostracization was not only limited to the Untouchables, but also to those Savarnas who went against the prevailing orthodoxies and customs. About this, we have a good number of examples in the Medieval period (especial Bhakti movement) but not many in the ancient period. Dr. Ambedkar in his book on Shudras claims that beef-eating was weaponized  (and hence political) by Brahmins to make the defeated Buddhists or Broken men “Untouchables”. As these claims are unsubstantiated or out of date with the current scholarship, it’s safe to assume Hinduism had no equivalent of political apostasy, unlike the Abrahamic faiths.

It is one thing to hound, oppress and kill the Other but to justify in-group political violence needs the emergence of concepts like Apostacy and blasphemy. However, it is important to note that the emergence of Apostacy in Islam cannot be understood without the concept of Asabiya (In group solidarity/ brotherhood) and the repercussions of the overthrow of the Ummayads by the Abbasids. Without strong Asabiya and its political implications, it is probable that strong defense mechanisms in Islam like Apostacy and blasphemy would not flourish. All cultures and systems which have strong Apostacy like memes tend to have strong Asabiya – even in non Abrahamic faiths, as such examples are rife in Medieval and Modern China. Closer to home, the secular Marxist-ish LTTE also came up with ideological justifications for hit jobs against Tamil “traitors”.

It must be noted that the Indian revolutionaries had by and large avoided the “traitoring” of the brother during its long years of fight against the British. Designs at assassinations of political moderates (like Gopal Gokhale) were almost always given up on principle. This was only to change with the biggest assassination of Modern India, that too under the guise of protecting India and particularly its Hindus. However, most of the Hindu population vehemently condemned the actions of Godse and co. Incidently this assasination also resulted in a huge setback to the attempts of developing an Asabiya which were gaining traction among the Hindus since the late 19th century.

However, the Hindutva of the 21st century, especially after the rise of the Modi and RSS is no longer a movement with insignificant Asabiya. Over a century ago, the greatest Indian leader of his time, Lokmanya Tilak had once said something along the lines of this – “What would the son of an Oil-presser do in the parliament ? Pass laws ?” Today such a person is not only THE leader of the nation, but also the Hindu Hriday Samrat. Changes in the fabric of Hinduism have been fantastic and Hindus have achieved some sort of Abasiya which they never had at any time. If the latest voting patterns show us anything, it’s that at least in national elections, Hindus are increasingly voting over caste lines in favor of a strong Hinduva leader. One of the cores of Hindu traditional society, the Varna system has changed much more in the last 100 years than it did at any such period in the last millenia.

At such a dynamic time in the history of Hindu society, claims of “over the past millenia” hold less water than they did even a few decades ago. There exist far more incentives to have strong Asabiya in modern democratic nation-states than ever before. As a result, it is only fair to extrapolate that far more incentives and mechanisms exist today which can select controls like Apostasy and Blasphemy to a degree. That doesn’t mean that Hindu(tva/ism) will become like Islam and India like Pakistan, both material and philosophical constraints will continue to prevent this IMO. But its not insane to expect the Apostasy and Blasphemy will NOT remain irrelevant in the Hindutva project. Especially given the sorry state of the Rule of Law in the country, it is not very paranoid to be vigilant about such trends. To what degree is this justified, we cannot comment today. Five years ago, I would have been more alarmed by the potential of such norms getting established given the killings of rationalists (Dabholkar and co), which took place in a span of 3-4 years. Even though these murders did not result in a spree of killings as many had feared they were a rude awakening nonetheless.

Hence I argue that to assume such norms would NOT take root in the coming decades with increasing Hindu Asabiya is unwarranted. And this can be argued only because the norms “over the past millennia” have changed drastically in the recent times.

Hindutvavadis are not Bhakts

As an atheist, I don’t appreciate and understand religious leanings especially the spiritual and devotional aspects. But from time to time I obsessively listen to Devotional songs especially Marathi Abhangs. One of the earliest Marathi devotional songs I remember seeing is a song titled Tujhe Roop Chitti Raho. The song is a devotional song to the deity Vitthoba by a Bhakti saint Gora Kumbhar. The ghastly incident picturized in the song is

Once, his wife left her child in the courtyard where Gora Kumbhar was working and went to bring water. Gora Kumbhar was busy in preparing the mud required to make the earthen pots and was as usual engrossed in singing bhajans of Pandurang. His child playing near him, fell in the shallow ditch where the mud for preparing the pots was laid. Gora Kumbhar was churning the mud with his feet. While doing so, he accidentally crushed his child under his feet. He was so lost in singing the bhajans of Pandurang that he didn’t even hear the cries of his child.

Though as an 8-9-year-old boy, this song had a profound effect on me, the reaction I felt back then nothing compared to the one I felt last week as a father of an infant in the age of Helicopter parenting. The tale invokes comparisons to the sacrifice of Issac by Abraham to the one God. In the tale of Gora Kumbhar, his boy is brought back to life thanks to Vitthal while in the case of Abraham a messenger of God stops Abraham from sacrificing his son.

For all the 3 major dharmic faiths of the subcontinent at that time, this Bhakti might have been a surprising element. We don’t know much about the Brahminical response to this particular case, but it unlikely that it would have been positive given what we know about the Brahminical response to the Bhakti movement in general. In the Buddhist view of Karma, Gora Kumbhar might be dealt with less harshly as he had not intended to crush his son. The Jaina view however would result in significant negative Karma associated with Gora Kumbhar. In the Bhakti narrative, it’s penance (where Gora Kumbhar broke his arms) that started the annulling of his bad Karma. However, according to the tale, Vitthal only brings his son back to life when Gora Kumbhar’s wife who has been abusing Vitthal and her husband’s blind bhakti for the loss of her son, prays to the Lord Vitthal. The example of Gora Kumbhar crushing his child under the intoxication of Pandurang is extreme and strawman-ish for the sake of the argument but I use it nonetheless as the difference between this and the mainstream Bhakti movement is not one of quality but magnitude alone.

This is not a case of modern morals dissecting and judging medieval tales, but the criticism of the core idea of Bhakti itself. The suspension of belief, apparent transcendence felt while deeply engrossed in the Bhakti is physiologically not very dissimilar to the effects of psychedelics. Why then in a society where the latter is taboo while the earlier is revered? For this particular reason, for all the elements of social progressivism in it, (something I am partial towards), I have never truly had a fully positive outlook towards the Bhakti movement.

Unlike spirituality and religions, politics in general though rife with religion and demagoguery has counter-balancing pragmatic currents, especially in democracies. Coming to the title of the post, sometimes I wonder whether the pejorative “Bhakt” was used for Modi/Hindutva followers (implying their blind faith in Modi and the doctrines of Hindutva) is a harsh use of the word on Hindutvavadis. I have used the word as a pejorative and I have been called out by people of the Hindutva leanings for using a word with positive religious connotations as a pejorative. While I sometimes agree with this criticism, I do so for the exact opposite reason. I find a lot of even most hardline Hindutvavadis, rational in their personal lives and not prone to Bhakti – an exact opposite of the archetypical Bhakt.

For all the criticisms one can have of Modi, he has actually delivered quantifiable benefits to large masses of Indians. I cant totally put a finger on it, but I see a tangible difference between the adulation Narendra Modi receives from his supporters to the adulation South Indian leaders – Amma, MGR, YSR have received in the past. The second has all the tell-tale signs of Bhakti, while Modi’s support base and particularly the broader Hindutvavadis lack it. Though one might argue that the cult of Modi is barely ten years old, and it could reach new heights in the near future making my current assertion out of date – but that’s to be seen.

In retrospect, particularly in the state of Maharashtra, we can see the Bhakti movement as a catalyst that had magnified and spread confessionalism and devotion in a personal god into the ritualistic orthopraxy of elite-driven Hinduism thus making Hinduism competitive with monotheistic faiths. It also enlightened the masses to the political and social currents of their environment thus empowering the Rayat (masses) who got their Raja in the coming centuries. In other words, the Bhakti movement fertilized the ground on which the Maratha Hindavi Swarajya and later Hindutva germinated. This point has been more succinctly and coherently by @kaeshour in Hindutva is the woke culture of India.

Yet it is fair to say a sense of historical injustice and insecurity is the sentiment that drives Hindutva not Bhakti, but that’s a separate discussion. Is it fair to see the term Bhakt as a pejorative, If yes then for whom? Anyways in the woke currents of times we live in, I cannot see any other beneficiary of the current use of the word Bhakt* than Hindutva. Not that any partisan liberal will see this.

Brown Pundits