Sometimes in these comments or on social media, I see Hindus bemoan the passivity and weakness of their religion in the face of faiths with greater vigor and asabiyyah. This is such a common occurrence that I don’t often comment on it. But I have to say ironically that these sorts of comments exhibit a narrowness of perception, and a broader cultural involution, that typifies so many Hindus and is why they are often caught flatfooted against the partisans of other religions, usually Christianity and Islam.
First, there are 1.2 billion Hindus in the world. There is no near-term future where Hinduism will go extinct. And this number of Hindus is the very source of the religion’s likely rebirth: evolution operates upon heritable variation to drive adaptation and change. In a cultural sense, Hinduism has a great deal of variation, whether it be obscure ethnicities like the Cham Hindus of Vietnam, or the expansion of ISKCON around the world.
ISKCON itself is interesting because its reactions illustrate the weakness and likely end of some forms of Hinduism in the Diaspora, and likely ultimately in India itself. Though from what I can tell ISKCON does exhibit a level of unpalatable cultishness, some of its orthodox Indian Hindu critics exhibit a literal reactionary mindset that illustrates why many forms of this religion are not long for this world. After the hammer blow of Islam in the Indian subcontinent around 1200 AD Indian religious traditions, what we call Hinduism, nevertheless preserved and survived. This very fact illustrates a robustness that was lacking in Near Eastern Christianity and Zoroastrianism. But that survival likely depended upon particular Indian institutions, like jati-varna, that were decentralized and flexible in a manner that allowed Hinduism not to be decapitated in the same manner that Persian Christianity and Zoroastrianism were in the centuries after the Islamic conquest.
The centuries of dhimmitude transformed Hinduism into a far more Indian religion than it was in 500 AD. This may sound strange, but the genetic and cultural evidence are clear that a massive cultural extension of Hindu Indian civilization existed in Southeast Asia during this period. If Islam had not interposed itself, and India itself become part of the Dar-ul-Islam during the medieval period, it is quite plausible that a Hindu-Buddhism dharmic condominium may have emerged from the Indus to the Gulf of Tonkin over the last few thousand years.
But that is not what happened. At the same time as the Turco-Muslims invaded India maritime Southeast Asia began to realign itself with the Islamic international, a trade network that was beginning to dominate the Indian ocean. After 1500 most of the Hindu kingdoms collapsed and turned to Islam (with Bali and Champa being the exceptions). The geographic purview of the religions that ultimately drew from the Vedic traditions became constrained, and within India cultural adaptations emerged that allowed the religion to resist the stress tests of Islam.
The centuries after the fall of the Mughals the rise of the British, and now the rise to political domination by Hindutva, are creating new cultural configurations. Many Hindus retain the cultural mindset of the past, denying that Hinduism proselytizes when the very faces of the Balinese illustrate that this was not so in the past. These traditionalists assert jati-varna in a time when even within India inter-caste marriage is eroding the power of this communalism gradually but inevitably. They also deny that non-Indians can ever be genuinely authentically Hindu, even when those non-Indians oftentimes show a vigor of belief and practice that put Indians to the same.
Those who value purity above all else will slowly fade and diminish as they look back to the past. A new future comes, and we don’t know what it will be, but cultures are resilient.
Sundaram, who supports making caste a protected characteristic, said critiquing Hinduism — even in a country where Hindus are a minority — is not akin to promoting Hinduphobia. She said most discrimination against Hindus is based on the fact that many are South Asian, rather than on their religion, and that Hinduphobia is not a widespread problem.
There are two issues I have with this assertion.
As a person of non-Hindu background and upbringing, I can tell you that prejudice against the Hindu religion is tightly coupled with “anti-South Asian” bigotry. The number of times people made fun of me for “worshipping cows” or “elephants” and “monkeys” was frequent. I actually learned about Ganesh and Hanuman due to this mockery as I had to look up what people were making fun of.
If someone screams “go back to Mecca” at a bunch of Hindu Indian Americans is that not Islamophobia because they’re not Muslim and they are being targeted for being vaguely brown? Similarly, non-Hindu brown people are bracketed into the same category and subject to discrimination because of widespread prejudices against Hinduism. In fact, despite my clear Bengali non-ashraf appearance online Indian Leftists now call me an “upper caste Muslim” to insult me. Bangladesh, unlike Pakistan, does not have caste-like stratification (look at my genetics, my ancestors were clearly from many castes), so that’s wrong, and I’m not a Muslim by belief or frankly even much upbringing (I’ve always been an atheist or agnostic and was not raised in a Musim community). But even these secular online Indian Leftists deploy tropes and insults that draw on our South Asian ancestral culture, which is broadly Hindu, even if not always orthodox Brahmanically sanctioned Hinduism.
Second, it’s pretty apparent there is an anti-Hindu streak in American society simply because of its Christian (and Abrahamic) cultural basis. Sometimes it is hateful, sometimes it is mean. Many conservative Christians, including some Hindu converts to Christianity, believe that Hindu gods do exist, but that they’re devils and demons. I once asked a friend who is from a Hindu background but converted to Christianity in college if he believed his ancestors worshipped the devil, and he pretty much admitted he believed this to be the case. Some of the same apply to Islam, but most Christians outside of the fundamentalist fringe generally concede that Allah (Arab Christians use this word for God) is the same God that they worship.
This Hinduphobia is broad, but shallow. It doesn’t effect most peoples’ lives deeply, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Many, though not all, Indian American Hindus are clearly embarrassed by their religion because of the mockery. This is obvious when I hear young Indian Americans emphasize that “actually our religion is monotheistic just like yours.” This is the Hindu version of Muslims saying “actually Jesus is a prophet.” Both of these assertions might be true, but the impulse behind them is to mitigate marginalization and pull themselves back to the center and normalcy.
Note: I dislike terms like “Hindophobia” and “Islamophobia,” and the stance of becoming a victim to win an argument. But this is how the game is played in America now.
Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on Libsyn, Apple, Spotify, and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!
In this episode of the history podcast, Omar and Jay discuss the period of Delhi Sultanate with Jay and Gaurav. We go over all the major dynasties and also discuss the religious, economic aspects of this time.
As Omar Ali puts it, the legacy of Delhi Sultanate is the legacy of Islam in the subcontinent.
1. The Emergence of the Delhi Sultanate, 1192-1286 by Sunil Kumar
2. The History and Culture of the Indian People: Volume 6: The Delhi Sultanate
3. India in the Persianate Age: 1000-1765 by Richard M. Eaton
4. Medieval India – Vol. 1 by Satish Chandra
5. Advanced Study in the History of Medieval India: Volume I by J L Mehta
6. A Comprehensive History of India: The Delhi Sultanat (A.D. 1206-1526), ed. by Mohammad Habib and Khaliq Ahmad Nizami
Lawyer and author J Sai Deepak is back with the book of his India that is Bharat Quadrology. I had reviewed his first book India that is Bharat almost a year back – you can find my review here.
J Sai Deepak’s second book dissects the time from the fall of the Mughal empire to the Khilafat movement relying heavily on the tools developed in the first book and a vast number of primary sources. The author also investigates the trail of the Islamic doctrine consolidated during the Fatwa-e-Alamgiri (compiled on orders of Aurangzeb) back to the 13th century Islamic scholar Taymiyyah and Syed Ahmad Sirhindi (a contemporary of Mughal Emperor Akbar).
The two figures covered in detail among the post Mughal Ulema are Shah Wahiullah Dehlawi and Syed Ahmad Baraelvi – the two giants who have shaped the Islamic revivalism in the 18th century. The establishment of Wahhabi power center in Northwest of Punjab, establishment of the various schools of Islam in North India – Deobandi, Barelvi, Ahl-i-Hadith, Ali-garh and the British crackdown of Wahhabism are all discussed in sufficient detail before jumping off to Syed Ahmad Khan and the modern genesis of the two-nation theory. The author then covers all the important events from the Partition of Bengal to the Khilafat movement – relying heavily on primary sources. The book ends with a summary of the Khilafat riots – especially the Mopla massacre.
My 2 Annas:
It took me 3 weeks to complete the first section of the book. I completed the rest of the book in 2 days. I think this statement itself is a review in a nutshell. If I had to give a one phrase review for book 1 it would be “Overstated yet immensely Consequential“, if I have to do the same for book 2 it would be “About time or Oh My Gods“. This is not to say I don’t have disagreements with the book – especially some of author’s conclusions, but the overwhelming thrust of the book is something I strongly agree with.
Firstly, the book busts all the popular notions of two-nation theory and it being solely a creation of the British. The author effectively traces the modern origins of the two-nation theory to Syed Ahmad Khan and the Aligarh movement at the very least. The book also covers some of the lesser-known events from the 19th century – the Wahhabi movement and the conflict in the Northwestern frontier province. The book makes it abundantly clear that Islamic revivalism was less a reaction to Colonialism and more a reaction to Hindu and Sikh resurgence. The fact that both the British and Muslims saw each other as closer religiously and hence more acceptable/worthy instead of the “Hindu” is driven through via a vast number of primary sources.
The common trope among the secular (even Hindutva discourse) about the Syncretic nature of Sufis is addressed (though I felt the author didn’t fully go into this question).
Pan-Islamism and its proponents – especially Al-Afghani are also covered in the book.
Secondly, the book also goes into origins and progress of “Moderate Nationalism” under Indian National Congress right up to the ascendency of the “Mahatma”. I had expected the author to be slightly unfair to the Indian National congress and especially the role of Gandhiji but to my surprise he hasn’t. Though some conclusions may seem a tad unfair at times but because the author relies heavily on primary references the “judgement” is moderated. Most importantly the support of Khilafat which is put firmly on the shoulders of Gandhiji in Hindutva circles, is clearly shown to be a mainstream view of Indian National Congress years before ascendency of Gandhiji, absolving Gandhiji of some of the blame.
The inability of the “Indian nationalism led by Hindus” in dealing the Islamic exceptionalism both before and during the period of “Hindu-Muslim” harmony is on display in the book. The author compares “Coloniality” of the Hindus to the “Rootedness” and “Intransigence” of Muslims for these defeats. Whereas there can be no doubt that Muslim “Intransigence” was important, I find the blame laid on “Coloniality” not watertight.
Take example of Jawaharlal Nehru and Kemal Pasha “Attaturk”. Both were modernizers who tried to jettison the past of their respective countries. What separated them both wasn’t any rootedness or lack of deracination – but a personal attribute, namely political ruthlessness, incidentally something Mohammad Ali Jinnah shared. Kemal Pasha not only broke the tradition of the Khalifa but also forced the Roman alphabet overnight on the Turks. Similarly, in India the two heads who had the most clear-eyed vision of the thread of Islamic exceptionalism were Dr Ambedkar and Veer Savarkar (both “Modernists”). I would instead put the blame on Hindu naivete which is an unfortunate byproduct of Hindu Pluralism – we simply never understood the other. Most of our ReConquistadors (with notable exceptions) did not pursue Reconversions.
Another thing I found mildly irritating in the book (continued from book one) – is the use of the term Middle eastern coloniality/consciousness. Ironically the term “Middle Eastern” itself reeks of its Western Colonial origins. I would have used the term Islamic or Arabic instead, but this is sematic disagreement which doesn’t matter much.
a Not so Gentle Reminder:
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results“.
The disagreements with the author’s conclusions notwithstanding, the book is a not so Gentle Reminder for the India that is Bharat. In retrospect, the compromises Bharatiya nationalism offered, from accepting disproportionate Muslim representation to supporting the fanatical Khilafat movement, may have worked against the Indian civilization itself. While it may be unfair to excessively blame the Bharatiya leaders from the past, it’s imperative to call out those who are flirting with the same approach in the 21st century (incidentally my position a few years ago). Essentially the Hindu leadership made a Faustian bargain and sold their brains. Though Swatyantraveer Savarkar is almost absent from the book, he cast a long shadow in my mind while I read the book.
Another popular trope I felt the author could have busted was the trope that Islamic intransigence in India is largely the legacy of “it having been spread by the sword”. The Mopla carnage was undertaken by descendants of Arab traders who came without any major conflict. Maybe violent intransigence and exclusivity is a feature not a bug.
The book becomes unputdownable after the Lucknow Pact, as the Hindu-Muslim unity discussed here which didn’t even last a decade remains as relevant today as ever. The riots covered in the end of the book – especially the Mopla carnage is almost unbearable to read reminding the reader of Kashmir. The letter by Annie Beasant to Gandhiji stands out. The book also brings into focus some of the lesser-known riots like Kohat. Incidentally the trigger for the Kohat ethnic cleansing was blasphemy, a topic which continues to remain as relevant as ever.
As I write this review a century after Mopla Riots, raids are conducted on Popular Front of India members while the PFI supporters can call for Hartals with partial success in Malabar coast. If the first book was a red pill in a blue jacket (Akshay Alladi (@akshayalladi) / Twitter), this is a केसरी (Saffron) pill in a green jacket.
I have skipped over many topics from the book in this review for brevity, but I would urge the reader of this post to buy and read this book in its entirety and engage with the uncomfortable facts it lays down infront of us.
The book ends with the following quote
Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
The above line becomes even more relevant especially give the way history is taught in India. I would end this review with a quote (in one of its many forms) most people reading this review would recognize.
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.
A comment Eaton makes offhand several times is that the conflict between Turks and Indians should not be understood in confessional terms. This is a commonly asserted, and on some level, it reflects elements of the truth. Hindu Rajputs served under Muslims, and Turkic soldiers served under Hindus. You can’t reduce everything to confession.
But, it is clear that confession and civilizational identity did exist, and it was robust. Going from the specific to the general.
A great deal of text given over to Man Singh’s glorification of his conquests as an Indian warrior, and his patronage of Indian religion, in particular Vaishnavism.
Eaton highlights the rapid Indianization of practices and hegemonic motifs present among the Turks and Afghans who were born and raised in India. And yet despite the syncretistic tendencies which occurred, ultimately these ashraf elites remained identified as Muslims and often were pulled back to world-normative Islam over the generations.
Vijayanagara persisted as a Hindu polity for three centuries. The cross-cultural analysis shows that recalcitrant pagan powers always convert to the religion of their enemies eventually. The leader of the pagan resistance in Saxony became a Christian. Pagan resistance to Christianity in Sweden, Lithuania, and ancient Rome were only temporary, as resistant lineages eventually were assimilated into the new order. Resistance to Buddhism in Japan and Tibet was initially violent, but futile. In iterative games, paganism is the eternal ‘beatable’ strategy.
The only point to posting this is that there is a common assertion that Hinduism as a religion or identity only emerged in the 19th century. I am now convinced that this confuses the name of the phenomenon for the phenomenon. The Indian religion of the Hindus was clearly bundled together in a way that allowed for their elite deployment as a meta-ethnic identity that separated them from the Turks and Afghans who ruled them. Similarly, the Islam of the Turks and Afghans (and variegated Ethiopians, Arabs, and Persians), separated them from the Indians whom they conquered to prevent full assimilation as an Indian elite with popular roots in early modernity.
There is a major issue where our conception of religion qua religion is conditioned on an intellectual revolution rooted in the Second Reformation of the Calvinists. But, I think it is important not to get carried away with this construct, and assert that Calvinist religion is qualitatively different from pre-Calvinist religion. I don’t think it is. Rather, it simply shifts some of the parameter values within the model. Similarly, the identity of a coherent Hindu Rashtra with a post-caste socio-religious identity is an invention of modernity, but its roots are ancient and indigenous, and not postcolonial fictions.
Since about 2006 I’ve had to write the same post again and again due to the nature of my audience: religion is not the purview of technically oriented nerds, and technically oriented nerds just don’t “get” it intuitively. This is something that is relevant to me personally, because I am myself a technically oriented nerd, and I just don’t “get” religion.
A few years ago I was asking a co-worker whey he believed in ghosts, and he stated: “because I’m human.” This is actually a good response, as all societies have the sorts of supernatural beliefs that we might categorize under beliefs about gods, spirits, and demons. This is the cognitive raw material of religion, which is a universal feature of human cultures.
A minority of people lack such intuitions. At least with any strength. I am definitely one of those. My realization that I was an atheist occurred when I was eight, as I thought for a few moments about the idea that God might not exist. At that moment I realized I did not think God existed, and, I also realized I hadn’t really thought about it before because religion was simply something I never really gave much thought to.
When I began to give more thought to religion when I was a teenager in the 1990s it was due to its cultural salience. By this, I mean two things. First, the rise of Islamic terrorism and political violence. Second, the emergence of the Christian Right in the United States. In my personal and private life, I had many conservative Christian friends and would engage them in the discussion from my atheistic vantage point.
Between 1995 and 2005 I went through a “Richard Dawkins” phase. As it happens, I met Dawkins casually in 1995 at a talk and had been reading his biology works. I was not particularly interested in his religious commentary. Rather, I read books such as Atheism: A Philosophical Justification or relevant portions of Summa Theologica. I plumbed the depths of ontological, teleological, and cosmological arguments. I engaged with the works of men such as Norman Malcolm and Richard Swinburne.
An individual, who I have come to conclude is a troll after further comments (they are banned), mentioned offhand that Hinduism and/or Hindu identity is reactive Islam and the British, and that its origins are in the 19th century. This is a common assertion and presented recently by one of our podcast guests. I myself have entertained it in the past. It’s not prima facie crazy.
But I have come to conclude that this is not the right way to think about it. Or, more precisely, it misleads people on the nature of the dynamic of Indian religious identity and its deep origins. This is why I think Hindus themselves self-labeling ‘polytheists’ or ‘pagan’ can mislead people. Not because these are offensive terms. People can refer to themselves however they want. But these terms have particular relational resonances with other groups, periods, and peoples.
One can point to al-Biruni’s external observations about Indian religion, or Shijavi’s personal opinions in his correspondence, to make a case for Hinduism and Hindu identity (using both terms to avoid troll-semantic ripostes) being older than the 19th century. But this is not the argument that is strongest to me. I have spent many years and books reading about the cross-cultural emergence of religious identity, and its change, in places as diverse as Classical Rome, post-Arab conquest Iran, and 7th century Japan, to name a few places. Many of these places and times had local religious cults and practices. In all of these places, they were assimilated and absorbed into the intrusive “meta-ethnic” religion. In Rome, Tibet, and Japan, the religion had major initial setbacks, but eventually, the meta-ethnic “higher religion” came back and captured the elite.
In the modern world, we see massive Christianization, and to a lesser extent Islamicization, in Sub-Saharan African. The traditional religions persist, in particular in West Africa, but history is clearly against them. Importantly, most of the religious change occurred after the end of colonialization.
The relevance of this is clear. The Indian subcontinent would be an exception for all these above cases if the vast majority of people were unintegrated animists with only local religious cults. The precedent from Europe and the world of Islam is that Brahmins and a few other pan-Indian groups (e.g., Jains) would persist as religious minorities, while the vast majority converted to the newly introduced meta-ethnic religion.
The Hagia Sophia reconversion ultimately points to the failure of the Kemalist project of top-down secularism. Much like the state secularism of nationalist authoritarian leaders in Egypt, Iran, Iraq etc had failed to lead to the secularisation of the wider society, it seems Turkey is no longer the exception it was long hoped to be. More fundamentally, the failing secularism of Turkey and India begs the question: is secularism even possible in non-Christian/non-Western societies? Without the Western experiences of Reformation and the Enlightenment, hard-fought victories as they were, can non-Western societies value the principles of freedom and secularism? Why is it that, unlike in the West where democratisation and secularism went hand in hand, greater democratisation has seemed to only bring religious chauvinism in India and Turkey?
Too often non-white intellectuals, in particular those from the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East, look only to Europe as their historical exemplars.
There is a legitimate argument that secularism in the Westphalian nation-state context, and using the model of the American republic, is the contingent outcome of the Reformation, and in particular Radical Protestant anti-state sentiment as well as Calvinist disenchantment with the world, and the sieve of the Enlightenment. But I don’t think this is what the author meant. Rather, I think the author is highlighting the importance of religious identity across the world.
In India and Islamic societies, your religion defines you in a very deep way. Religion and state have been deeply connected. The American and French models are objects of emulation but from a deeply alien tradition.
But these are not the only models and outcomes. China, Korea, and Japan are all societies where public religious identity is not nearly as important as it is in the Indian subcontinent and the world of Islam. I am not saying that people in East Asia are not religious or do not have supernatural beliefs. On the whole, they are less religious and more atheistic. But looking at religious affiliation numbers overstates this truth.
Rather, these are societies where religion does not dominate public political life because they have a particular history with organized religion which subordinates it to the political life of the society and nation.
Let me give three examples
– In the 9th century, the Tang dynasty expropriated property from Buddhist monasteries and defrocked monks and nuns. This is due to the fact that Buddhism was starting to become as powerful in China as the Catholic Church was to become in Europe.
– In the 15th century, the Joseon dynasty of Korea suppressed Buddhism in cities and drove the religion to the mountains. The percentage of Buddhists in Korea has actually increased in the 20th century for this reason.
– In the 16th century, Oda Nobunaga broke the power of Buddhist monasteries, in part by burning the down.
There is a history out there that is not European. Read some books.