Interview: Prof Upinder Singh

‘Love jehad is a pernicious recent invention’

Print edition : November 19, 2021

Dr Upinder Singh. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Interview with Professor Upinder Singh, author and Professor of History, Ashoka University.

She grew up surrounded by books. Most were books on economics, a subject she did not quite like. But she liked books, so when Upinder Singh grew up she decided to write, edit and co-edit them. With a dozen titles to her credit, Professor U. Singh, as she is often called, has just published Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions. Such is her mastery over her craft that on reading this refreshing take on ancient times, the reader begins to find parallels with contemporary India, be it the existence of pluralism as well as religious violence, or the presence of misogyny.

Now a Professor of History at Ashoka University, Professor U. Singh was earlier Head of the Department of History at Delhi University. The elder daughter of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Gursharan Kaur, Professor Singh wears her lineage with humility. She spoke to Frontline about her latest book, published by Aleph Book Company. Excerpts:

Your book resonates with examples one can relate to in contemporary India. For instance, you talk of ancient India being full of pluralist benevolence and religious violence.

Our understanding of history can be transformed if the past resonates with us, if we see it in terms of issues that are important to us today, and if we invest time and energy to try to truly understand it. That is why my book is structured around the coexistence of certain radical tensions and contradictions that were present in ancient India and are also visible today—between social inequality and salvation, desire and detachment, goddess worship and misogyny, violence and non-violence, and debate and conflict.

Also read: ‘To bring Asoka back in public discourse was important’

Asoka’s desire to promote dhamma and genuine religious dialogue and concord is exceptional, but even lesser kings did not try to create a theocratic state. Most of them followed a pluralistic policy and extended patronage to a variety of religious groups, regardless of their personal religious beliefs. This is something positive, to be appreciated. But there are references to episodes of violence. For instance, the Buddhist text “Chulavamsa” refers to a Pandyan army carrying off a golden Buddha image from Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. It also states that when Rajendra Chola’s army invaded Sri Lanka, it broke into relic chambers and monasteries and looted images made of gold and other precious materials. An inscription on a stone door guardian proclaims that it was wrested from the Chalukyas by the Chola king Rajadhiraja after he had burnt down the Chalukya capital Kalyanapuram. We should note that these accounts of the looting of religious images and destruction of religious structures were part of narratives of war.

Religious persecution down the ages

We know of the large-scale desecration of temples by Muslim rulers in medieval India. Similarly, Brahmin rulers destroyed hundreds of Buddhist monasteries in ancient India. Have we always been a nation of a dominant religion riding roughshod over all else?

The truth often lies between exaggeration and denial. There are several significant references to religious persecution in ancient texts. For instance, Buddhist tradition describes Pushyamitra Shunga as having destroyed 84,000 stupas, killing all the monks in a monastery at Pataliputra, and announcing a bounty of a hundred gold coins to anyone who brought him the head of a Buddhist monk. The Huna rulers Toramana and Mihirakula are also accused of persecuting Buddhists. The Pallava king Mahendravarman is said to have persecuted Jainas. A Pandya king is said to have impaled 8,000 Jainas. Kalhana’s Rajatarangini says that king Shankaravarman plundered 64 temples. King Kshemagupta is said to have destroyed a monastery in Srinagara and used the material to build a temple. King Harsha of the Lohara dynasty is reported as having plundered the wealth of temples and appointed an official for melting down images of the gods for the royal treasury.

Of course, we should not take all these details or statistics literally, but the evidence does clearly indicate that the pragmatic multi-directional patronage and live-and-let-live attitude of rulers of ancient India was sometimes punctured by violent persecution, sometimes backed by political or economic motives.

Why is it that the common Indian knows about Aurangzeb but is ignorant of the actions of say, Pushyamitra Shunga or Mihirakula?

Historical figures (including Aurangzeb) are not as simple as they seem. Historians have long known about these things, but not all history percolates into the popular domain. History has always had a political angle to it. But these days, the state is making a stronger pitch to reshape history in the educational and popular domains because it thinks it will reap political gains. History and political propaganda are two different things. History should be left to historians who are faithful to their discipline and not to the agenda of a political party.

Also read: New perspectives on Aurangzeb

We have recently had a couple of instances when attempts at an independent take on religion received much flak. I am referring to a clothing line’s Diwali advertisement, and earlier the arrest of a satirist in Madhya Pradesh for a joke on a BJP leader. Have we always been so intolerant of criticism of religion or leaders in our history?

People of all kinds—film-makers, writers, artists, historians—have borne the brunt of the “ban culture”. This breeds an atmosphere where free thought or creativity cannot flourish, where writers and artists are forced to either engage in self-censorship or face the music, an ugly music.

In ancient India, although religion was a serious business, there was also a tradition of making fun of it, for instance in texts such as the Mattavilasa Prahasana and Bhagavadajjukam Prahasana. The Agamadambara is a Sanskrit play written by a respected Brahmin Nyaya philosopher, Jayanta Bhatta. The play contains religious satire, serious philosophical discussion, and reflections on the political management of a pluralistic religious terrain. The works of Kshemendra also contain a great deal of social and religious satire.

Ancient India had a long and lively tradition of philosophical dialogue, debate and disagreement on issues such as dharma, the nature of reality and existence, ethics, and the path to liberation from samsara. Look at the Mahabharata. There were also debates within and across various disciplines. This is something that has to be recognised and appreciated. But we also need to understand that debates were not always open-minded discussions. They were often games of one-upmanship, geared to demonstrate mastery and superiority over rival thinkers or systems of thought. We should also remember that the participants in these debates were usually upper-class, upper-caste men.

Varnas in ancient India were largely endogamous. Interestingly, there were different yardsticks (“anuloma” and “pratiloma”) for men and women who married above or below their station. What does it say about gender relations and women’s position in society?

Although the ancient texts speak with horror about varna-sankara or the mixture of varnas, the four varnas were not conceived of as necessarily endogamous. Dharmashastra texts accept anuloma marriages between a man of a higher varna and a woman of a lower varna, but disapprove of the reverse (pratiloma marriages).

Caste or jati is supposed to be endogamous. The caste system cannot survive without control over the sexuality and reproductive potential of women. Many ancient texts indicate increasing efforts to control and confine women within the bounds of the family and household and to inculcate a certain model of docile, obedient behaviour. This may sound depressingly similar to attitudes prevailing in India today, but then, as now, there were women who did not conform and who dared to strike their own path.

Also read: Power of patriarchy

It is simplistic to talk about “the position of women” in ancient India. Male dominance and women’s subordination are features of all societies known so far in history, not only in India, but all over the world. Women never were and are not a homogenous category. Their experience has always varied, depending on class, caste, and economic and political standing. The degree and nature of their subordination depended on these factors and on the nature of the kinship structure.

For a common man, yesterday’s “pratiloma” marriage is today’s so-called love jehad, or a Dalit man’s marriage with an upper-caste woman. Do you agree?

These things are quite different. The ancient Dharmashastra idea of pratiloma marriage is based on varna, or hereditary class. The idea of the so-called “love jehad” is a pernicious recent invention, aimed at preventing inter-religious marriages from a Hindutva standpoint.

What is common to both is the interest in defining social boundaries by regulating marriage. Also, the idea that a woman has no independent identity or autonomy, that her identity is subsumed into that of the husband and the family into which she marries. Throughout history, we see attempts to control women’s sexuality and reproductive potential in order to perpetuate some powerful people’s notion of an ideal society.

Caste in ancient South India

Unlike the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, Sangam poetry does not talk in terms of caste. How did caste enter South India in a big way?

The social milieu of early Tamil Sangam poems is very different from that of the northern Sanskrit texts. These poems mention Brahmins, but the fourfold varna system does not seem to have made any real impact. Early Tamil society was based not on caste but on lineage-based descent groups known as kutis. There were ideas of impurity, and of high and low social status, but these did not amount to the practice of untouchability. Taboos on intermarriage and inter-dining are not visible. In fact, some of the groups which in later times were considered “untouchable” have a fairly respectable status in Sangam poems.

Caste and untouchability took root in South India sometime between the third and sixth centuries and are even more visible during the Pallava period (sixth to ninth centuries). The hymns of the bhakti saints suggest that “untouchables” were not allowed to enter temples. The spread of caste and untouchability in South India seems to be connected with royal patronage of Brahmins. But the early history of caste is not fully understood.

You talk of goddesses in ancient India, Ushas and Aditi, Prithvi and so on in the Vedic Age. Yet we have had a subordinate, male-centred life for women. How does one explain this irony? Is this fascination for male-centred existence the reason why we always see Radha along with Krishna, and not as an independent deity?

The story of goddess worship in India is not one of diminishing significance, but of increasing vibrancy and importance. The ability to visualise divinity in feminine form is seen in ancient India right from prehistoric times. “Goddess culture” formed a strong, continuing aspect of popular belief and practice, cutting across sectarian identities and divides. Goddesses were important not only in Hinduism, but also in Jainism and Buddhism. The great Hindu gods have their consorts, but there are also independent goddesses such as Durga. But we should not be surprised to find that goddess worship coexisted with the subordination of women.

Also read: A caste variant of love jehad vitiates social atmosphere in Tamil Nadu

Gender relations in ancient India present a complex picture. While the Manu Smriti puts forward the model of an obedient woman within the household, dependent on her father, husband and son in different stages of her life, other sources give a different picture. Hundreds of inscriptions from across the subcontinent record gifts made by women to religious establishments. The importance of women of the royal household is evident from texts such as the Arthashastra, and also from the example of queens such as Prabhavatigupta and Didda. Buddhist and Jaina texts talk about women who renounced the world and joined the monastic order. Andal and Akka Mahadevi were bhakti saints who rejected traditional womanly roles in order to pursue a higher spiritual calling. So it is a complex, mixed picture. There was subordination, but there was also agency.

You write in the book that desire and love featured in ancient Indian texts. Yet we have plenty of instances of moral policing by non-state actors on Valentine’s Day in the name of Indian culture today. So, what exactly is Indian culture?

What we refer to simplistically as “Indian culture” is neither singular nor homogenous. It has multiple strands. It includes continuities and changes, tensions and contradictions.

One of the chapters in my book discusses the many different attitudes towards love and sexual desire in ancient sources. Ancient literature in Tamil, Prakrit, and Sanskrit eloquently express the sentiments of love and longing. The Kamasutra contain the kama-experts’ analysis of pleasure. Sculpture (mostly found in religious spaces) celebrates the human body and ranges from subtly sensual to frankly erotic. Pleasure was recognised as a legitimate goal of human existence, to be pursued with a sense of balance and in harmony with the goals of dharma and artha, even moksha. Extreme love was justified only when it formed a template for love for god. In bhakti poetry, the love between devotee and deity was visualised as reciprocal, intense, sublime, a path to a higher spiritual goal.

And yet what is interesting is that these diverse perspectives coexisted with powerful philosophical and religious traditions that viewed all forms of desire as sources of bondage and suffering, to be abandoned and transcended.

Finally, in the times of an authoritarian government and an even more intolerant society, how relevant is Kautilya’s warning about cruel and unjust rulers meeting their nemesis? I ask because our media bandies about the name of Kautilya rather freely, even irresponsibly. Kautilya’s “Arthashastra” is a very complex text….

Kautilya’s Arthashastra is indeed a complex text whose complexities are often not properly understood. I think that the text’s warning of cruel and unjust rulers meeting their nemesis due to prakriti-kopa, ‘anger of the people’, is quite prescient and suits modern democracies better than ancient monarchies. It is quite amazing that a text written around 2,000 years ago was able to visualise a potential state in such a brilliant manner and can speak to us even today.