Porous divide

Print edition : July 24, 2015

A portrait of Shah Jahan. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Dara Shukoh, Shah Jahan's son. His foray into Hindu texts largely served to consolidate and secure his essentially Quranic world view. Photo: The Hindu Archives

A 1863 picture of gurus of the Vallabhacharya sect. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Rather than looking at religious communities as binary opposites, the book presents a picture of a religious spectrum where considerable osmosis took place among various sects in the Mughal period.

The book Religious Interactions in Mughal India attempts to bring forth the varied nature of religious engagements in north India during the Mughal period. Edited by Vasudha Dalmia and Munis D. Faruqui, it tries to juxtapose and consider various religious formations together—an approach which has not been followed by scholars extensively. Even there, hardly any modern work exists that seeks to bring out the positive impact of such exchanges on the literature of the period under study. This is by no means to say that the book misses the critical evaluation of these religious interactions. In fact, unlike other works on related themes, where the balance tilts towards one religious denomination or the other, here the authors have consciously maintained that equilibrium.

Divided into two substantive sections, “Of Intersections” and “Of Proximity and Distance”, the book tries to capture the religious ethos and sentiments of the communities making efforts to propagate their teachings or philosophy. The articles by Eva Orthmann, Faruqui, Supriya Gandhi, Christopher Minkowski, Stefano Pello and Ramya Sreenivasan in the first section focus on the intensity of Hindu-Muslim exchanges from the 16th to the 18th century and try to see the common grounds where these communities converged. The second section, with contributions from Francesca Orsini, Monika Horstmann, Vasudha Dalmia, Heidi Pauwels, Shandip Saha and Brendan LaRocque, captures the processes of contestations and assimilation of ideas by various religious groups and the perception and creation of the “other”. Set in the context of the period when numerous hagiographies, such as tazkira and malfuzat, were being written, the authors argue that there existed dialectical relations among various religious communities and it would not be tenable to see them in terms of neat binary opposites of Hindu versus Muslim. In fact, the book is of the view that Hinduism was not a monolithic category and there prevailed varied equations among different bhakti traditions. It is argued that there existed intense and at times fierce rivalry within the bhakti traditions. Kabir’s diatribes against sakta and the “other” in the Vallabha sampradaya confirm that.

Eva Orthmann’s article focusses on the Mughal emperor Humayun’s efforts in giving shape to a new and ambitious imperial ideology, which drew elements from pre-Islamic Iranian, Islamic (specifically Sufi), Indic traditions, natural science and philosophy. The works Qanun-i humayuni of Khwandamir and Tarikh-i humayuni of Ibrahim Jarir substantiate the fact that Humayun consciously cultivated the image not so much of a warrior-king but rather of an innovator, which manifested in his attempts to impart a new ideological foundation to the state.

Humayun’s administrative classification and classification of society on the basis of cosmological symbols is clearly indicative of a new approach in statecraft, for no other Muslim ruler divided society in this manner. Humayun’s astrological symbols, especially taskhir al-kawakib, a technique which was popular among Shattariyya Sufis to subjugate planets, also had similarities to Hindu cosmology. The emperor advertently or inadvertently propagated such cosmological symbolisms, which were comprehensible to all. Thus, Humayun created an ideological framework which was not only followed by his successor Akbar but was enhanced under the concept of farr-i izadi (supernatural effulgence).

In his article, Faruqui contends that it is necessary to rise above the categorisation of Dara Shukoh as a “good” or “bad” Muslim. He stresses on the need for careful reading of Dara’s work Sirr-i akbar (The Great Secret), which calls for more nuanced consideration of his persona. Faruqui argues that Dara’s findings were that the Upanishads embodied humanity’s first revelation about Divine Unity. Thus, in the views of the author, for Dara the Upanishads were more Quranic, which, however, the orthodox Muslims failed to understand, and consequently, charged him with heresy.

Quite contrary to the general notion about Dara, his foray into Hindu texts largely served to consolidate and secure his essentially Quranic world view. Through religious inquiries, it is argued, Dara was consciously building a self-image and was, albeit in a subtle manner, positioning himself as the best option for the Mughal throne.

Supriya Gandhi stretches the religious interaction canvas further when she mentions that the translation of Indic texts into Persian was part of the broader cultural processes that began well before Dara and had a long continuum. For instance, the process of Persian rendition of “Hindu” texts continued even during the reign of Aurangzeb. Minkowski sheds light on “Hindu-Yavana” relations as appeared in the works of learned Brahmins. Narayana Bhatta, Kavindracharya and Jagannatha Panditraja were some of the well-versed Brahmins.

Through the survey of their works, it is shown that in their Sanskrit and Brajbhasha compositions these Brahmins showered encomiums on the Mughal rulers and their patrons. Kavindracharya especially praised Shah Jahan for his many ideal qualities. But despite such a narrative, there also existed a Brahminical ambivalence about yavanas, which found evocation in the form of earth’s plight under yavana taxation and the need to save it from their clutches.

Sociocultural seepage

Stefano Pello discusses tazkira Safina-yi hindi of the Hindu Persian poet Bhagwan Das “Hindi” and arrives at the conclusion that there existed deep sociocultural seepage among religious communities in Shi‘i Lucknow.

Ramya Sreenivasan focusses on the tensions and anxieties that marked both Mughal and Rajput sources on the question of elite Rajput conversion to Islam. She writes that while scholars have acknowledged the role of “political patronage” as an incentive for conversion, they have not focussed on the consequences for the convert and his kin. Her essay explores this particular aspect and also how the instances of elite conversions were actually comprehended by contemporary observers.

Ramya Sreenivasan’s arguments that the observers and converts from the 16th and 17th centuries could not resolve such questions as minutely as they might have liked suggest how contested the interpretations of Rajput conversions to Islam were during the period. She cites the example of a Silhadi, a Purabiya Rajput originally from Gwalior, who became a Muslim, and how Nizam al-Din Ahmad, the chronicler of Tabaqat-i Akbari, saw a tension between Silhadi’s loyalties as a new Muslim and his loyalties as a Rajput. It is argued that it was predominantly politics rather than any spiritual or ritual motive that led to the conversions. This finds reiteration in Nyamat Khan or Jan Kavi’s Kyamkhan Rasa. Kyamkhan Rasa elaborately brings out the dual affiliations of the Kyamkhani Rajputs as Muslims and as Rajputs where the word Chauhan is mentioned at least 136 times. The author also invokes Cynthia Talbot, who has argued that Jan Kavi and other Kyamkhani Chauhans inhabited multiple cultural realms. To what extent these conversions brought political benefits to the converts is debatable. Therefore, it cannot be conclusively said that conversions brought windfall gains for the religious converts.

Francesca Orsini and Monika Horstmann, by exploring the works from 16th-century Awadh and 17th-century Rajasthan respectively, bring to centre stage the shared religio-cultural temporalities made possible by the common linguistic base of much of north India. By taking the case of Harikatha of Malik Muhammad Jaisi, Francesca Orsini shows that despite its bhakti overtones its audience range was wide. The performers of these kathas freely used idioms and vocabulary from different sources and thus tried to fashion equivalences among religious communities. Monika Horstmann’s article echoes similar views. The poetry of Sundardas shows how the poet was opposed to orthodox Hindu views, especially rituals, and was proud to take the middle path between Hinduism and Islam.

The process of ‘othering’

Vasudha Dalmia’s essay deals with the Vallabha sampradaya, or the Pushti Marg, which was founded in 1492 by the southern Brahmin Vallabha (1478-1530), and its attempts to locate itself vis-a-vis other religious orders of the time. The author contests that the rivalry of this order was more with other bhakti groups. Today, they all can be put under the umbrella of Hinduism, but it was not the case in the period under study. There, in fact, existed conflicts and rivalry to get the maximum support of the people and assert dominance over other orders and pilgrimage centres. Anyone who was anyashraya (seeking refuge in another religious order) and anyamargiya (follower of another path) was condemned and rejected as per their religious station. And even if an anyamargiya was a Brahmin, he was seen as lower in the hierarchy to a Pushti margiya Shudra. The case of Vishnudas, cited by Vasudha Dalmia, attests this. Zealous attempts were made to establish Thakurji as superior to Krishnas of other sampradayas, especially that of Mathura Shri Keshavrai. Vasudha Dalmia dwells on the process of “othering” undertaken by the Pushti Marg. She argues that the Pushti Marg established a variegated type of hierarchy involving accommodation and rejection, establishing equations or denigrating, and in some cases according limited concessions by acknowledging merger or uncomfortable coexistence. But Keshavrai, a more immediate rival, was shown no tolerance. Ultimately, in this “othering” process, only one manifestation of Krishna was acceptable, that of Shri Nathji, addressed as Shri Thakurji. Non-Vaishnava deities were either sidelined or displaced. Even Chaitanya and Mirabai were not spared. Expletives were hurled, especially at the latter. Muslims in this religious scheme of things figured only as the very distant “other”.

The reason was, as Vasudha Dalmia argues, the Pushti Marg’s main competition was with similar religious traditions.

Heidi Pauwels’ essay is another attempt at addressing the issue of “proximity and distance”. The author focusses on the songs of Kabir found in various recensions such as Kabir granthavali, Adi Granth, and Bijak and posits him vis-a-vis other religious pantheons. Interestingly, what emerges is contrary to the popular image. Here, Kabir emerges as having contempt not only for pundits and mullahs but also for the saktas and roaming ascetics. Heidi Pauwels argues that Kabir reserves the highest vitriol for those who practised tantra and supported animal slaughter. Thus, in Kabir’s case it was the saktas who became the “other”.

Shandip Saha and Brendan LaRocque explore Hindu-Muslim dialectics present in varta literature and in the Pranami sect respectively. Saha shows that the varta literature of the Vallabha sampradaya stayed away from religious polemics against Islam. It does not refer to Muslims in terms of their religious identity. In fact, varta texts mention that those who went astray from their religious paths in their previous births were cursed to be born as Muslims. The case of Akbar is cited. Thus, varta texts accept that even Muslims can achieve divine grace. LaRocque focusses on the Pranami sect founded by Prannath in Gujarat and highlights how the founder embraced both Hindu and Muslim ritual practices. Thus, Prannath epitomised multiple religious strands and cannot be identified with any one religious group. Any attempt to cast him in staunch Hindu or “crypto” Muslim mould or his actions as predominantly guided by either religious affiliation would be too parochial.

Religious Interactions in Mughal India is certainly a novel initiative for it provides new perspectives on the religious identities and exchanges of different communities in the Early Modern period. Rather than looking at religious communities as binary opposites, it presents a picture of a religious spectrum where considerable osmosis took place among various sects. The book could not have come at a better time, for divisive forces are once again becoming active to carry forward their nefarious designs. The book tries to send out a strong message that the establishment of Hindu-Muslim “fixities” or binary opposites was substantially the work of colonial times and that religious realms remained considerably porous in the period under study.

Despite throwing open interesting possibilities for research on the theme, the work, however, falls short of an in-depth dealing of the subject. The reason is obvious. The work being a collection of essays does not give enough scope for elaborate arguments, which is possible in independent works. The book’s credentials will be established if the articles presented here are developed into books. It will inspire scholars to study religious parleys from newer angles and give new insights into the complex dynamics of the religious ethos in medieval times.