Sharing a continent

By Razib Khan 58 Comments

25% of humans live in the Indian subcontinent. 18.5% live in China. Together that’s 43.5% of the world’s population in the two great Asian civilizations. Not a trivial number in the 21st century, especially in a nascent multipolar world.

And yet the two societies often lack a deep awareness of each other, as opposed to an almost pathological fixation on the West, and in India’s case the world of Islam.

Indians are clearly geopolitically aware of China. Obsessed even. But aside from cultural exotica (e.g., the Chinese “eat everything”), there seems to be profound ignorance.

This is illustrated most clearly when I hear Indian intellectuals aver the proud continuous paganness of their civilization. Setting aside what “pagan” means, and its applicability to the Hindu religious tradition, the key here is a contrast with the world to the west, which was impacted by a great rupture. The people of Iraq have a written history that goes back 5,000 years, but the continuity between ancient and modern people of the region is culturally minimal. Modern inhabitants of Bagdhad know on some level that their ancestors were Sumerian, but for most of them their identity is wrapped up in their religion and the lives of the Prophet and his family, or for Christians that of Jesus.

This is not the case with the majority of Indian subcontinental people, whose religious traditions and cultural memory go back further, literally to the Bronze Age at the latest. The foundational mythological cycles which define Indian culture probably date to 1000 to 1500 BC. During this time Kassites ruled Babylonia, and the Assyrians were coming into their own. Until modern archaeology, these people were only names in the Bible or in Greek historians.

But this is not only true of India. These Chinese also look to the Bronze Age Shang dynasty, and in particular, the liminal Zhou, to set the terms of their modern culture. The ancient sage kings, who likely predate the Shang, are also held in cultural esteem.

Does any of this matter? I don’t honestly know. I’m American, not India or Chinese. But perhaps it might help on some level if these two civilization-states could understand and accept that they share in common having extremely deep cultural roots apart from the revelation of the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.


History beyond the screaming

By Razib Khan 30 Comments

Last night I realized I’m not going to weigh in on history discussions on Twitter if they pertain to the Indian subcontinent. Even people who I know are not 13-year old incels behave totally emotionally and engage in shitposting posturing constantly. It’s really impossible to get a signal out of the discussion.

Indians and Pakistanis seem so intensively invested in various topics that it is literally and seriously impossible to get value out of any exchange, the swell of stupidity and bad faith (on all sides!) is so intense. There is a reality out there. There is a true history. But this is not what most of you really care about it, is it?

For example, reading India in the Persianate Age: 1000–1765 gives a nuanced and fully textured picture in outlines of the subcontinental elite in the premodern period. It aligns in broad sketches with what I know about human psychology and history elsewhere. But attempting to bring nuance seems like a fool’s errand in most of these debates.

Understanding the history of the Indian subcontinent is rewarding to me because there are comments here on the general human condition. I will not turn away from that. But, I do need to reflect on whether that is best done in solitude rather than engaging with the world “out here.”

Note: I don’t mind or care too much if particular truths are leveraged in some ideological manner. Rather, my suggestion is ideological priors are doing all the sifting of which truths are correct or not.


Why Turks ruled India for so long

By Razib Khan 117 Comments

After finishing Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity I continue to believe that geography and economics explain the basic reason for the very long ascendance of Turkic people in the Indian subcontinent, and, their eventual eclipse.

The context for this is the fact that many Indian and Indian American friends have posited cultural rationales for the Turkic hegemony. That is, there was a passivity and disunity in Hindu society which made it vulnerable to the Turks, who were also adherents to a separatist hegenomic ideology in the form of Musim. All this may very well be true, but I have always held that the key factor was that Turks and Muslims more general had ready and easy access to warhorses.

Between 500 A.D. and 1500 A.D. was the heyday of the nomadic pastoralist as a geopolitical force in Eurasia for various reasons. Even in the centuries after 1500 A.D. horses remained critical for mobility. The problem is that in much of agricultural Eurasia there is not sufficient pasturage to raise large numbers of horses.

Pretty much every Eurasian society within reach of the steppe (so basically every society except for those in Western Europe, Japan, and Southeast Asia) had to deal with the menace of armed nomads. Sometimes they paid them off. Sometimes they mobilized enormous armies which incurring crushing costs. And sometime they were conquered.

Between 1700 and 1900 this spectre faded. Improvements in military technology, transport, and mass national mobilization, leveled the gap between the steppe and the settled peoples, to the point where by 1900 the steppe was a marginal factor.

Note: the author of Escape from Rome attributes the rise and fall of Vijayanagara explicitly as a function of its access to horses.


Shaniwar Wada: The Palace Of The Peshwa

By GauravL 22 Comments
Shaniwar Wada
The seat of the Maratha empire from 1730 to 1818, the Shaniwar Wada is a very important place in Indian history. Built by the Peshwas (Prime Ministers) of the Maratha King (Chhatrapati), this palace fort has nearly been destroyed completely by a combination of military attacks and fires through the centuries.


Under the Peshwai (leadership) of Bajirao I, the capital of the Maratha Empire shifted from Satara to Pune. Bajirao chose Pune for his seat because he found the climate and geography of Pune most suitable for the Peshwai. As both ceremonies – laying the foundation stone and a house warming – took place on Saturdays and the Wada was built in Shaniwar Peth, it was named Shaniwar Wada.

Bajirao I – the Great Cavalry General and Peshwa who build Shaniwar wada as the prime seat of Maratha kingdom. © Gaurav Lele

The main entrance of the Shaniwar Wada is called the Delhi Darwaza, so called because it faces the north and due to Bajirao’s ambitions of conquering Delhi. The building of Shaniwar Wada is thus a pivotal moment in the history of Pune, which has been the cultural capital of Maharashtra ever since.

After Bajirao I

Nanasaheb or Balali Bajirao, the son of Bajirao-I, was the longest ruling Peshwa at 21 years and saw the glory of Shaniwar Wada multiplied during his tenure. However, by the end of his rule, the Marathas had lost the third War of Panipat which resulted in the glory of the Shaniwar Wada being somewhat diminished.

Madhavrao I – Nanasaheb’s second son, his eldest son having been killed in Panipat – who became Peshwa after Nanasaheb, spent considerable time and resources fighting many enemies of the Peshwai, including his uncle Raghobadada), and was thus unable to undertake further constructions in the Wada.

Continue reading “Shaniwar Wada: The Palace Of The Peshwa”


What is indigenous about Indian civilization?

By Razib Khan 204 Comments

The curry to the right contains potatoes, tomatoes, and chili pepper. All of these are features of Indian cuisine from the last 500 years, as they are New World crops. Unsurprisingly, they were often brought by the Portuguese and spread out from Goa. But, at this point, it’s hard to deny these have been thoroughly indigenized. So this brings me to some questions I have for readers (non-troll answers only, I may start banning people who answer unseriously, since I’m very busy this week and don’t want to waste time with drivel):

Continue reading “What is indigenous about Indian civilization?”


The myth of Brahmin supremacy!

By Razib Khan 63 Comments

It seems in this globalized world many intellectual movements deploy the same abstractions. For example, the terms “Brahmin privilege” and “Brahmin supremacy” are clearly constructed as perfect analogs to “white privilege” and “white supremacy.” Brahmins cannot have their own independent history, but operationalize a general model of power relations predicated on the white-black dynamic in the United States that developed in the 19th-century (nevermind that Brahmins were in existence long before this).

This piece, Anti-Blackness Goes Back To Ancient Times, has this passage which I know to be promoting ideas which are false:

Other scholars, such as Harvard’s Suraj Yengde, whose research focuses on the solidarity between Dalits and blacks, say that it wasn’t just outsiders — India gave birth to the original color-based social class system that dates back to the ancient Rig Veda texts, to around 1200 B.C. “The Varna system literally means ‘color’ system, so it’s not surprising that Indians in America have maintained these racist dogmas,” he said. Dalits and the black American experience have strong ties because they are the most disenfranchised people in their communities. “This whole situation is having a global ripple effect. I don’t know if it will bring about much change, but people are definitely talking about it.”

Yengde adds that the caste system and skin color are very much linked. “Oftentimes, we’ll see Brahmins push ideas of colorism, racism, casteism on British and Muslim invaders,” he said. That’s why Yengde doesn’t see the inherent bias of some South Asians going away anytime soon.

Within the piece itself, the author notes that there are early Hadith that express racism against dark-skinned people, presumed to be descended from African slaves. Racial attitudes were an issue in the early Islamic period, with a Turkic scholar making the case for the value of his own people, and Arab commentaries on Indians refers somewhat negatively upon their “black” complexion. This persists down to the period of Turkic rule when prestigious “white” Muslims (often born in Central Asia) were distinguished from local “black” Muslims (often descended from converts). Modern colloquial color categories in the Gangetic plain date to this period.

As far as the British, their ideas of race, color, and caste, were shaped by the Atlantic trade and slavery, as well as contacts with Native Americans, long before the rise of the Raj. There was a history of the British Empire long before intense engagement with Indian Brahmins.

I do knot know Yengde’s work, but he seems of a type of modern scholar, taking a meta-narrative, and fitting all of history into that meta-narrative, no matter how absurd. Ultimately this is not a scholarship, but a form of polemic and propaganda.

I stand against this. I will always will.

Addendum: I should note, though there are poor Brahmins, all across India Brahmins tend to be placed nearer the top of the social scale. In a literal sense “Brahmin privilege” is real. But this phenomenon should be explored in the context of Indian history, not a meta-narrative derived from the American context.


Maratha Mindset: How to Control Your History and Emotions to Grasp the Future on Your Terms

By Razib Khan 66 Comments

The film Panipat is on Netflix, and I watched a bit of mostly for anthropological reasons. It seems a typical melodramatic Bollywood gloss on this period, and I found the depiction of Ahmad Shah Durrani rather amusing.

But it brought to mind a broader issue that I’ve been reflecting on over the past few years: the re-pivoting of Indian historical imagination around the Maratha moment. Most recently my thoughts have been sharpened by the goings-on in the United States, as we reevaluate our own historical figures and events. History is what it is, but the interpretation is multi-layered, and the process of analysis is subject to an infinite chain of point and counterpoint.

For example, Ulysses S. Grant has been rehabilitated because broadly on the questions of racial justice he was on the “right side of history,” though ultimately his efforts failed. This, after a period in the 20th-century when Southern historians slandered his character and competence in a clever trick of defeating him long after his death through control of historical memory.

And yet, if you talk to a Native American their view of Grant is far less positive. This is due to the fact that Grant participated in and executed the American government’s wars against Indian tribes.

The final verdict on Grant and his legacy depends on where you stand. The elements of history which lead up to this judgment though are far more solid. The terminus of the analysis is conditional on the analyst, but the facts themselves are invariant.

So how should we view the Marathas and the Mughals? When I wrote Haunted by History I alluded to general issues I’ve noticed in Indians in relation to their past. I have read enough history to be aware of the Marathas as a factual matter. But my conscious understanding of what they meant to Indians, and what they could have been, was stimulated by the arguments of a Hindu nationalist friend of mine.

In the 19th and 20th century various nationalist movements rose up which recaptured the political system from cosmopolitan and/or alien elites. The Chinese took back their state from the Manchus. Across Europe, ethnic groups such as the Lithuanians and Hungarians, submerged, sublimated, or subordinated, rose up and asserted their national identity. Lithuanians and Hungarians, to give two examples, had great histories as nations in the past, but by the early modern period, their elites had become subordinated and assimilated. The Lithuanian nobility became totally Polonized after the Union of Lubin. The rise of Habsburgs, and the fall of the Hungarians to the Ottomans, resulted in a Magyar nation which was under German and Turkish domination for centuries. The Dual Monarchy period after 1868 allowed the Hungarian nobility more freedom and status, though ironically they continued to oppress and subordinate the ethnic minorities under their hegemony in the eastern part of Austria-Hungary.

The emergence of these new identities entailed a reinterpretation of the valence of historical events.

Before we get to that, let’s consider the Marathas, of all castes and persuasions. The debates I have seen often end up at two antipodes. On the one hand, the Marathas are depicted as proto-Hindu nationalists, defending themselves against Muslim oppressors, and giving their swords in the service of the broader pan-ethnic Hindu Rashtra. The contrasting position is that the Marathas were motivated by more prosaic concerns, and their Hinduism was a secondary or ancillary element to their identity. In fact, one might problematize what “Hindu” even meant in the 17th and 18th centuries. That is, they didn’t have a “Hindu identity,” but had a Maratha identity, and Maratha religious practices and beliefs.

Both of these views are I think wrong-headed in understanding this period and these people. Humans are complex, and not cartoons. Someone like Shijavi may have reimagined who he was, what he could become, over his lifetime. In the beginning, he fought to survive. By the end, he fought to conquer.

Certainly, it seems probable, to give a different example, that Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor, reconceptualized his relationship to his new faith over the decades and also reimagined what it might mean for Rome. This is a different reading than that of those who assert that Constantine was never really a Christian because in the early years of his acceptance of the new faith he seems to still have nodded to aspects of the Solar cult which he was once a devotee, or of those who assert that he was a zealous Christian as they would understand it after he issued the Edict of Milan.

Where does this leave us? I have spoken earlier of the fact that to be frank, many people from Uttar Pradesh who are Hindu seem somewhat “broken.” Perhaps I should use a different word, as what I’m trying to get at is ineffable. But I believe that hundreds of years of continuous Turco-Muslim domination, and the historical predations upon their sacred geography, has left an imprint. Their land was the heart of the Mughal Empire, the shining exemplar of Turco-Muslim civilization. Though the Indian religion and self-identity maintained itself in a resilient fashion, it was subaltern. Though never sublimated as the Lithuanians were, it was subordinated.

Mount Rushmore means a very different thing to Native Americans than it does to white Americans. To many Hindus from the Gangetic plain, the apogee of the Mughals means something different than it does to Urdu-speaking Muslims. One man’s glory is another man’s shame. One man’s seduction is another man’s cuckoldry.

Which brings me to the “Maratha mindset.” What do I mean by this? I mean a self-assured, self-confident attitude. The sense that the arc of history bends toward the Dharma. The Maratha project failed in the end, but its ultimate failure was due to the reality of European hegemony and the rise of white supremacy across the globe. It seems possible in an alternative history where European domination occurred later, or in an incomplete fashion, the Maratha polities would have served as the ultimate basis for what became the Indian nation-state. This does not mean that Maratha would be the language of the Indian nation-state, or that the culture of the northwest Deccan would be hegemonic. An analogy here might be the role that elites from the Chūgoku region of western Japan played in driving modernization in the Meiji period, before eventually ceding ground to the resurgent Kanto region around Tokyo. Chūgoku was the nucleus, but only the beginning, the “starter.” The final product is always richer and more multi-faceted.

The moral of this post is that the Hindus of the Gangetic plain resisted Islamicization through a process of fracturing into localities, with a broader civilizational identity. But the resistance and centuries of Mughal domination crushed cross-regional asabiya, which is necessary for nation-building. Obviously the nation is built, and Uttar Pradesh in particular is politically central. But the psychology of the Hindus of this region has to move from negation, reaction, to positive action. They need to shake off their history and move forward into the future. They need to adopt the Maratha mindset.


Lord Indra the brutal!

By Razib Khan 77 Comments

In the post below a question comes up: what about the Indo-Aryans?.

First, before we move on, I want to stipulate that I am going to assume that the Indo-Aryans were intrusive around ~1500 BC. I believe this is true, though I understand not everyone does. Stipulating that this is true, was the intrusion brutal? Looking into the admixture coefficients it seems plausible that the Indo-Aryan ancestry genome-wide in the Upper and Middle Gangetic plains, the heart of Aryavarta, is in the range of 10-20%. For various reasons, I lean toward a higher estimate. This is lower than the proportion of “steppe” ancestry in Northern Europe, and in the range in parts of Southern Europe (though still lower than much of Southern Europe).

The contrast with Turco-Muslims could not be more striking. The distinct part of Turco-Muslim ancestry is East Asian. Some of this can be found in groups like Pashtuns, and in a few rare cases in Indo-Muslims, but it is entirely absent in the non-Muslim population. The exceptions are totally comprehensible; Indians from the Himalayan and Northeastern fringes. If the Muslims did rape Hindu women they killed them all. This is not implausible on the face of it, but in the context of human civilization, it seems unlikely. Rather, the situation more like the rape of the Sabine women is the norm (I believe most of the sexual exploitation of Hindu Indian women eventually resulted in Indian Muslims).

To be frank: I believe that the Indo-Aryan intrusion into what became Aryavarta resulted in more death proportionally than the Turco-Muslim intrusion. There are several reasons why this might be.

Like the migration of the Rohirrim into part of the fallen kingdom of Arnor, I suspect that the Indo-Aryans arrived in a landscape where the machinery of the Indus Valley Civilization  (IVC) had already fallen apart due to the early Bronze Age climatic shock (which impacted West Asia as well). What the Indo-Aryans encountered probably resembled the petty kings of Dark Age Greece after the fall of the citadel culture.

In short, one reason that the Indo-Aryan impact was so strong is that Indian agricultural society was much thinner and less dense in the second millennium BC than in the second millennium AD. The threads which bound societies together were much more robust after thousands of years of institutional development, and economic advancement and technological innovation.

Another reason is that elite ideologies and outlooks had changed. It is entirely plausible that the Indo-Aryans and the native elites faced each other in a game of animal competition and elimination. The strategy of later barbarians, whether it be Huns or Khitai, was to extract tribute from agricultural societies which produced much more aggregate wealth and specialized luxury goods. This may not be a situation that occurred in much of Eurasia in the second millennium BC, as conquest elites perceived themselves to be primary producers rather than extractors of tax. As such, no accommodation may have been possible in many more cases than would be true later.

Peter Turchin has argued that violence probably peaks in the “pre-state polity” phase. The emergence of complex institutions and world religions in the first millennium BC was part of a process of smoothing over the autocratic brutality of the new regimes. The reality is that despite the ideological differences, the Turco-Muslims who arrived in India were primarily motivated by material considerations of extraction.

So what’s going on with the different views of the Turco-Muslims vs. the Indo-Aryans? Clearly time matters. The Turco-Muslim hegemony lasted into the early modern period. It is raw. In contrast, the Indo-Aryan fusion with the Indian substrate occurred before history. The keyword here is fusion. Despite what I believe are the violent antecedents of the pairing of fair Arjuna and dark Draupadi, out of the union was born the culture and people of North India. In contrast, the Turco-Muslims introduced a religion and culture which was incompletely digested and synthesized.

If the Turoc-Muslims and their Indo-Islamic descendants severed connection with West Asia and broader institutions such as the Naqshbandi tariqa, then a synthesis might have emerged. As it is, the synthesis was frozen and incomplete. The Muslim people of the Indian subcontinent are ancestrally no different than the non-Muslim people, and speak similar languages and eat similar food, but their identity is deeply different and distinct. In some ways, they exist as an inversion or negation of the native religious traditions, with their tacit polytheism and explicit idolatry (of course there are exceptions). Though some interaction has long occurred between Islam and Indian darshanas, it is not reciprocal and explicit. The metaphysical presuppositions diverge.

So there you go. At the end of the day problem is rather straightforward and plain. Like oil and water Indian Islam and non-Islam remain separate and wary, each unable to absorb or marginalize the other. If Muslims were a few percents of the population some level of synthesis would naturally occur. Conversely, if Muslims were more than 90 percent of the population, likely more liberal and progressive Muslims be curious about mining and rediscovering their Indian religious traditions and history. But as it is, we’re in an unstable equilibrium in between.


Haunted by history

By Razib Khan 128 Comments

Aurangzeb, a good Muslim

Today Genghis Khan is a hero in Mongolia. This, despite the fact that the rise of his Mongol Empire was associated with mass death. This mass death resulted in reforestation, which changed atmospheric CO2 levels.

There are many histories of the rise of the Mongo Empire, but Frank McLynn’s Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy, is probably the most balanced treatment.

During Genghis Khan’s lifetime, the most impactful and catastrophic conquests were of Central Asia and the obliteration of the Khwarezmian Empire. After the death of Genghis Khan, his heirs further obliterated the world of Islam, including killing the last significant Caliphs of the Abbassids. To a great extent, Genghis Khan ended with finality the world of the Iranian people of Turan, leaving the Tajiks as the Persianate rump. Economic historians have suggested that the destruction of Iranian agriculture (e.g., the qanat system) that occurred during the Mongol conquest was so great that the region did not recover until the modern era.

Muslim historians, some under the service of Mongol successor dynasties, have taken a mixed view of Genghis Khan and those who descend from him. On the one hand, their destructive impact is impossible to deny. The Mongols were one of the last of the steppe nomads to explode out of the Eurasian interior, but they were one of the largest military-political shocks, destroying multiple polities. But descent from Genghis Khan became prestigious in the Turkic world.

This is somewhat discomfiting and paradoxical because Genghis Khan was proudly pagan. And, it was not in dispute that the Mongol invasions had been brutally destructive. The prestige and glamor was clearly a nod to the fact that Genghis Khan’s conquests were evidence of glory sanctioned by God.

Despite Genghis Khan’s pagan beliefs, and the negative impact that the Mongol conquests had on Islam, somehow elements of Mongolic ruling culture became normative among the Muslims of Central Asia. This is how the name “Khan” became associated primarily with Muslims in the Indian subcontinent. Though there are non-Muslim Khan’s in South Asia, on the whole, the surname is associated with those of Muslim background, which is ironic given that it is a purely pagan title.

The details and subtleties of this history are on my mind because of the conversation I had yesterday with Neha Srivastava. It strikes me that in some ways she is haunted by history. In particular, the history of Turco-Islamic domination and brutality in the Indian subcontinent. She mentions offhand a Bollywood star giving her son the name Timur, which is reminiscent of a brutal Turco-Muslim conqueror, Timur the Lame.

This is where details became important. Neha no doubt remembers the brutal sack of Delhi. Though most of the dead were not Muslim, it is important to remember that Timur’s target was a polity ruled by Turco-Muslims, like himself. Importantly, and ironically, despite being a Muslim, Timur the Lame wrought his destruction exclusively in Muslim lands, or lands ruled by Muslims (India).

Though many facts of history are beyond dispute (e.g., Timur’s sacking of Delhi), the valence with which we recollect them varies. The Mongols view Genghis Khan as a great leader and a cultural figure of worth and note. Muslims take a more mixed view. Meanwhile, for European Christians and the Chinese, the Mongols are a purely destructive force. Whether the Mongols and Genghis Khan are worthy and of admiration is clearly filtered through a cultural lens.

Because I’m a bit of a Mongol history nerd, the name Timur to me actually is not closely associated with Timur the Lame! It as in fact closely associated with Khans of the Yuan Dynasty of China and Mongolia, who never converted to Islam. But then, I’m not an Indian Hindu.

Nevertheless, the issue of the name Timur is an illustration of the general phenomenon: a lack of the acknowledgment of the cultural brutality and domination which Turco-Muslims wrought upon the Indian subcontinent and its native peoples in the period between 1200 and 1800. Six hundred years of domination to varying degrees.

I will interject here an objection to what I see as some hyperbole. Oftentimes Hindus make the case for almost Nazi-like domination of Islamic power in medieval and early modern India. There are two major objections to this extreme characterization.

First, premodern societies did not have totalitarian state capacity. Both the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic polities were fixated on a universal state religion. But their coercive power had limitations. There were pagans who lived in southwest Peloponnese until about the year 1000 A.D., when they were finally converted. State Christianity did not have the power to coerce these isolated people, because the state was thin and weak. Similarly, the pagans of eastern Afghanistan, the Nuristanis, were forcibly converted to Islam in the last decade of the 19th century.

Second, the vast majority of the people in the upper Gangetic plain, the core of Turco-Islamic rule in the Indian subcontinent, remain Hindus. That is, practitioners of native Indian religious traditions. This is simply incompatible with the idea of centuries of totalitarian rule. Again, going back to the first point, premodern states had limited capacity for domination and coercion. The power of the Roman state or the Caliphate was an ideological one, as local officials were bound together by their allegiance to a figurehead. But if a local ruler or administrator wanted to operate at sharp variance from the ultimate ruler, it was entirely feasible. Central state capacity was weak.

The Islamicization of much of the Punjab and Bengal were not a function of the greater state capacity of the Turco-Muslim rulers of northern India. Rather, they were a function of the peculiar characteristics of unstable borderlands, which tend to be much more attracted to dynamic novel ideologies promoted by ruling elites, which in the late medieval and early modern period meant Islam. This is the same reason why Zoroastrianism (and Buddhism) was replaced by Islam much more quickly amongst the populace in Central Asian Turan than in Iran proper. Turan was frontier land. Iran was not.

With that preamble out of the way, it is not disputable to me that the Turco-Muslim conquest elites in the Indian subcontinent engaged in plunder, extraction, and subjugation, in a relatively brutal manner.  The emergence of ISIS in the middle of the teens illustrates the nature of Islamic dominionism. The sexual exploitation of Yazidi women is in keeping with a tradition in Islam of sexual slavery of the women of conquered infidel peoples. This is not unique to Islam of course, but neither is not something one can deny as being part of Islamic history.

Now let us imagine an alternative history where the Turks who invaded the subcontinent were not Muslim. It is quite likely that like the Tai Ahom they would have become Hindu. It is quite likely that initially, they would have been just as brutal and exploitative as the Turco-Muslims. And, if they retained self-awareness as a distinct people for long enough that nature of a ruling class would persist despite the slow accretion of Indian cultural features. But, eventually, they would have become fully Indian, and gone into the mists of a legend like the Huna of yore.

The premodern world was brutal. The brutality of the Turco-Muslims was not unique. Julius Caesar may have been responsible for the deaths of 1 million Gauls. It must be noted here that the death was often not by direct killing, but through the starvation that occurred when populations were dislocated and dispersed. The brutality of the premodern world has an instrumental, material, rationale. Conquest was a way for elites to extract wealth out of the population. Death was not optimal, because extraction required bodies, but capture may have entailed some death.

Brutality was necessary, but not sufficient, to generate the trauma of modern Hindus. 

But again, I need to step back, and admit something: there is some evidence that brutality is accentuated across ‘meta-ethnic’ boundaries. This comes from research by the quantitative historian Peter Turchin. He shows that civil wars tend to be characterized by less atrocity, while the most brutal killings occur across civilizational boundaries. The sack of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, for example.

This implies that the Turco-Muslim treatment of local Indian populations would be more exploitative and inhuman with a lack of common identity. The Turco-Muslims considered themselves white, and the natives black, and retained a separate language for much of their tenure. And, of course, they had a distinct religion from the native people.

In the modern Middle East, all of the subcontinental people are objects of contempt from the native Arab Muslims. But non-Muslims in particular seem to be the targets of unmitigated contempt (and, due to legal inequality, targeted for sexual predation).

Though on the whole, I would argue that the religious difference between the conquest elites and the native people makes the former more brutal toward the latter, I think the biggest distinction is that the conquest elites are more culturally destructive.

Neha discussed at length the impact on the temples of native peoples. Cultural displacement in terms of public religion is a key sign of hostility between the ruled and the rulers. The end of paganism in the Roman world began with the shutting down of public temples.  Private paganism in household shrines continued for decades, but it slowly withered. I have written at length elsewhere about the robustness of Hinduism in the face of Islamic rule, so I will go no further on that issue. Rather, note that despite attacks on public Hinduism in North India the religion maintained and persisted due to its decentralized nature.

The crux of the issue is that modern Hindu Indians have to acknowledge that the core of Aryavarta was dominated politically by Muslims between 1200 and 1750. During this period Indian culture and society changed, some of it through interaction with the Muslim rulers, and some of it in situ. In either case, in some ways separating North Indian culture from the Islamicate period is insuperable. But Hindus know and understand that their role in this culture was as inferiors. Subordinates, if not slaves.

The flip side of this is that the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent are almost all descendants of converts from the local population, and their culture is clearly subcontinental. Though they may bear Arab, Persian, and even Turkic names, their faces are no different from their Hindu neighbors. It is hard to deny that fundamentally their past is one of subordination (as non-Muslims) and capitulation. They assimilated their own subcontinental identity, with brown faces, Indo-Aryan languages, and native cuisines, with the Islamic faith which had them face toward Mecca.

I may quibble and dispute some of the details of Neha’s assertion of inter-generational trauma due to the conquest (as I implied in the podcast, I believe women kidnapped and raped by Muslim elites today have Muslim descendants, so I would suggest that the trauma is elsewhere in the specifics), but the fact remains that Hindus with a profoundly different religious outlook and identity from Muslims are often uncomfortable praising a Mughal Golden Age where their own identity was of a conquered people. Dhimmis.

If Indian was 99% Muslim this might not be a great issue. Arabs can look dimly on their period of Ottoman hegemony in their nation-states, as very few Turks remain (there are Turkomans in Iraq!). But in a place like Uttar Pradesh, 20% of the population is Muslim. These people have a different identity in some deep ways from their Hindu neighbors, despite shared ancestry, language, and cuisine. I have never met a person from this background who was not proud and whistful about the period of Mughal rule in India. They identify this with this dynasty, and its predecessors, because of shared religious identity.

This is the fundamental tension in modern India. A substantial minority of the population is an adherent to the mythology of a conquest elite which the majority perceives to be traumatic, even genocidal. I do not have solutions for this issue, and I am not taking sides because it is really not my history anymore. But there it is.


Browncast Episode 104: The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia

By Razib Khan 21 Comments

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!

You can also support the podcast as a patron. The primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else. This website isn’t about shaking the cup, but I have noticed that the number of patrons plateaued a long time ago.

We discuss Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan Empire in this podcast.Browncast Episode 103: Abhijit Iyer-Mitra on Indian Defense, Economics, and History