Religion and civilisation - I

THIS LAND of over a billion people has been the cradle of three religions - Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Here people worship the mountains, the rivers, the stars, the morning sun, and the glittering stars. Millions yearn for the opportunity to take a dip into the many sacred rivers that flow from the Himalayas to cleanse their body and soul. When dead, their ashes are immersed into these rivers. The Ganga and the Yamuna have flowed from time immemorial, but organised religion did not exist at the dawn of civilisation in what is known as the Indo-Gangetic belt. The religion that developed around 2000 B.C. until roughly 500 B.C. was embodied in a collection of hymns, ritual texts, and philosophical treatises called the Vedas. The final authority of the Vedas (Rig Veda, the earliest of these texts, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda) embody the essential truths of Hinduism.

The seventh and the fifth centuries B.C. witnessed the rise of various heterodox movements, notably, Buddhism. Its founder, a scion of the ruling class, repudiated the authority of the Vedas and the ascendancy of the priests, i.e. Brahmans. He underlined the `Four Noble Truths': (a) that all life is inevitably sorrowful; (b) that sorrow is due to craving; (c) that it can only be stopped by the stopping of craving; and (d) that this can only be done by a course of carefully disciplined and moral conduct, culminating in the life of concentration and meditation.

The simplicity of this message reached far and wide. Yet, Buddhism has practically disappeared from the land of its birth. Hinduism, with its remarkable capacity to absorb various traditions, has assimilated some of its principles. Jainism, originating at the same time and in the same region as Buddhism, survives as a separate religion, though its one time ascendancy in parts of western and southern India is lost. Unlike Buddhism, it did not spread beyond the land of its origin.

And then came the monotheistic religion of Islam from a distant land, aggressive in its posture but quick to adapt itself to the local cultural and social milieu. The early encounter in the western coastal region with the Arab traders was peaceful, but the establishment of Muslim settlements elsewhere and the establishment of Muslim dynasties was not. Tensions developed not between two religious entities - Islam and Hinduism - but between a centralised empire and the local potentates. The Turks, first to establish their rule in north India in 1206, created not an Islamic polity but a state based on the traditions of kingship they had inherited. Like the Turks, the Mughals, descendants of Chingiz Khan and Tamerlane, also made India their home in 1526. They did not set out to create an Islamic state, though some amongst them used the Islamic rhetoric to legitimise their imperial designs. When this happened, they rocked their own boat. Indeed, the Mughal Empire weakened in the 17th century because of the breakdown of the consensus among the ruling elites, such as the Mughals, the Rajputs and the Marathas.

From a few hundred Muslims who marched through the Khyber Pass in their quest for wealth, power and glory, Islam spread rapidly gaining converts by force as well as through persuasion. Most converts were drawn from the depressed castes, who were kept out of the Hindu caste structures. Islam's egalitarian principles offered them a hope of a better future. The Sufi orders, counterpoised to orthodox Islam, also gained converts. They incorporated many Hindu beliefs and practices, and identified closely with local values and traditions. In a sense, they spearheaded the ``Little Traditions'' in a society that was relatively free from the homogenising role of orthodox Islam and Hinduism.

It is hard to detail the dialectics of the Indo-Muslim encounter in this short note. But suffice it to say that the `clash of civilisations' theory, or the supposed enmities dating back to the early Arab or Turkish invasions, is refuted by the process of widespread acculturation that has taken place in Indian society for centuries. This process was aided by a number of factors, including the amorphous character of Hinduism, the rise of heterodox movements, with their emphasis on bhakti, or devotion, and spiritual cleansing rather than outward rituals, the appeal of Sufi ideas, and the inter-community alliances forged by the Muslim rulers to sustain and fortify their empire.

Three additional points deserve merit. First of all, the entry of Muslims in South Asia through so many and such separate doorways, their spread by so many different routes over many centuries, and the diffusion of Islam in different forms from one area to the other, ensured its bewildering variety. Second, Islamic dogmas and tenets were incorporated into regional and local belief structures and rituals. For this reason, Islam, past or present, was by no means a part of the ``Great Tradition'' - codified, rigid and unchanging, insular and closed to external influences. If anything, the history of the Muslim presence illustrates the disjunction between the formal ideology of Islam and the actual day-to-day beliefs and practices of Muslims. Finally, the spread and variety of Muslim religious sites and their co-existence with Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Christian religious places of worship provide living testimony to the fusion of ideas and beliefs. This is what leaders of the Indian nationalist movement, Gandhi and Nehru included, described as `composite culture'. This is what formed the bedrock of secular nationalism, the essential feature of the Constitution, and the basis of the present secular Republic.

An inspiring legitimisation of the more mundane expressions of peaceful co-existence comes daily in the sounds of Muslim shehnai (a reeded clarinet-like instrument) mingling in the deities of the most sacred Hindu temple at Benaras, or in some villages near Ajmer, close to the shrine of a charismatic Muslim saint, where Muslims celebrate the Hindu festival, Deepavali, with a full- fledged worship of the goddess of wealth.

Do these examples vindicate the `clash of civilisations' theory? Or do they reveal the survival of pluralist values in India? The answers are not so simple. A society in transition - and a large country like India will always remain in a transitory stage - is always pregnant with new possibilities. And yet history and contemporary politics, though mired in various controversies, rekindle the hope that the vast subcontinent will retain its multicultural character.

The long journey - from colonial bondage to freedom on August 15, 1947 - had its high and low points. From the last quarter of the 19th century, the nationalist leaders endeavoured to evolve an inclusive ideology designed to embrace various castes, communities, regions and languages. But they encountered two major difficulties. First, they had to contend with the policies of the British Government that fostered the growth of religious identities, and used one community against the other to counter the rising tide of nationalist sentiments. Identities were, thus, created not around group or class affinity but around religion. Politics was structured not around interest groups, but around religious categories. For India, this was a recipe for disaster. Immediately, the existing Hindu-Muslim differences came to the fore. The ensuing result was the polarisation of Indian politics around religious lines. Partition was the outcome.

Second, there were sharp divisions within the nationalist ranks over their strategies in achieving their goals. It was easy to prepare a blueprint for the struggle against the British, but difficult to weld so diverse and divided a people into a coherent whole. Some public men, and these were mostly trained in British- run schools and colleges, preferred a secular ideology, divorcing religion from politics and political mobilisation. Others invoked the symbols of Hinduism to bring about social change and sensitise the masses to the exploitative character of British rule. Regeneration was their common cry, but they differed over the means. Political independence was their common goal, but their method of mobilisation was not akin to each other. These contested visions dominated the 20th century discourses. Indeed, they survive till this day.

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