Punjabi History: Hargobind (1595-1644)

Today, Sikhs around the world celebrate Diwali.

The Sikh celebration of Diwali commemorates the day when Hargobind (the sixth guru of Sikhism) was released from Gwalior Fort by the Emperor Jahangir (1605-1627). This is corroborated by the Dabistan-e-Mazahib (‘The School of Religions’). The Dabistan claims that Hargobind was imprisoned for 12 years before being released by the Mughal emperor.

There’s also a story about Diwali in the Punjabi Sikh tradition which devout Sikhs accept as true. There are, of course, myths, stories, and legends in all Punjabi traditions which believers accept as the “truth” …

If we can study Punjabi religions though, why can’t we study our history as history? Why do we feel the need to pass off religious traditions and folklore as historical “truths”?

Can’t we study Farīd (1173-1266), Nānak (1469-1530) or Bulleh Shah (1680-1757) without sanctifying them?

Can’t we question our past?

I look forward to doing just that.

Shah Hussain: Kāfi No. 1 and 2

 

shah hussain 4

Kāfi No. 1

Rabbā merā hāl dā mahram tūñ
Andar tūñ haiñ bāhar tūñ haiñ rom rom vich tūñ
Tu hī tānā tūñ hī bānā sabh kuch merā tūñ
Kahe Hussain faqīr nimānā maiñ nāhīñ sabh tūñ

O God, you are the confidant of my days
You are inside, outside, you are in every pore
You are the warp and weft, my each and everything you are
Says Hussein, the worthless fakir, I am nothing, you are all

Kāfi No. 2

Charkha merā rangā rang lāl
je va
charkha te va mune
hun kaha gayā bārāñ punne
sāīñ kāran lo’in runne
roe vanjāyā hāl
je va
charkha te va ghumā’an
sabhe āīāñ sīs gundā’an
kāI na āyā hāl van
ā’an
hun kāī na chaldī nāl
vacche khāhad g
ūhaā vāā
sabho la
da veā pār
maiñ kīa phe
yā veā dā nī
sabh paīāñ mere khayal
je va
charkha te va pachī
mā peāñ mere sar te rakhī
kahe hussein faqīr sāīñ dā
har dam nāl sañbhāl

My colourful spinning wheel I painted red
the bigger grew the wheel
the greater the weave
twelve years passed
for the sake of my Sain
these eyes weep
and weeping worsens my state
the bigger the wheel
the wider the spins
they all came to get their hair done
no one came to share my sorrows
no one willing to go along
a calf ate up the cotton ball
all my neighbours raised a ruckus
what did I do wrong? They all went after me
the bigger the wheel
the heavier the basket my parents placed on my head
say Hussein, the Sain’s fakir
take good care of what you carry

 

Read the original Punjabi in Shahmukhi and Gurmukhi

Translated by Naveed Alam (from Verses of a Lowly Fakir).

Transliterated and edited by Randeep Purewall

The History of Indo-Persian Literature (Legacy)


The legacy of Persian can be seen in the new literary genres it introduced to South Asia. In the writing of history, Persian introduced the biography, memoirs, chronicles and letters. Thanks to this literature, we have a remarkably detailed picture of Indian society from the descriptions of Mughal court life, to the biographies of religious thinkers to descriptions of the musicians, artists and commoners of Delhi.

delhiparade

The legacy of Persian is felt in the many loan words that have entered modern Indian vernacular languages. The influence of Persian on Urdu is especially noteworthy. While the legacy of Urdu is talked about in India and Pakistan today in poetry, film and ghazals, this is no less the legacy of Persian from which Urdu inherited much of its poetic tradition.

Qawalli

The romance tradition in Punjabi and Bengali was inspired by the tradition of Persian language and culture. Persian is still sung in the qawallis of Amir Khusrau and it left its mark on Sikh religious thought and modern Islamic philosophy. Lastly, through the writings of Sufis like ‘Ali Hujwiri (Data Ganj Baksh) and Nizam ud-Din Auliya, Persian has enriched the religious and cultural life of Indians and Pakistanis in terms of love, compassion and human feeling.

A History of Indo-Persian Literature (Part IV)

THE EARLY MODERN PERIOD

Jama_Masjid,_Delhi,_watercolour,_1852

During the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the Mughal empire declined and India fragmented into various competing kingdoms, confederacies and principalities. It was also during the eighteenth century that the British began to emerge as the dominant European colonial power.[1]

During the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Urdu grew in popularity and ultimately displaced Persian as the preferred language of poetry across much of North India. Nevertheless, Persian retained its prestige as the language of culture and refinement during this period especially in prose.

Prose

Georgian London

One of the most fascinating historical accounts of this period is Abu Mirza Abu Talib Khan’s (1752-1806) The Tales of Mirza Abu Talib Khan in Asia, Africa and Europe (Masir Talib fi Bilad Afranji). Born and raised in a wealthy family from Lucknow, Abu Talib travels to London, Paris, Constantinople, Cape Town and Baghdad and writes about the people he meets there and their social customs:

I was also much pleased to observe, that in European society, when a person is speaking, the others never interrupt him, and the conversation is carried on in a gentle tone of voice. One evening, while I was engaged in conversation with the lady of the house, the servant entered with a largely tray of costly china; and his foot catching the edge of the carpet, he fell, and broke the whole to pieces: the lady, however, never noticed the circumstance, but continued her conversation with me in the most disturbed manner.[2]

On London, he writes:

The greatest ornament London can boast, is its numerous squares; many of which are very extensive, and only inhabited by people of large fortune. Each square contains a kind of garden in its center, surrounded with iron rails, to which every proprietor of a house in the square has a key, and where the women and children can walk, at all hours without being liable to molestation or insult.[3]

In his Diary of the Revolt of 1857 (Dastanbu), Ghalib (1797-1869) writes about the siege of Delhi:

 “The city has become a desert … By God, Delhi is no more a city, but a camp, a cantonement. No fort, no city, no bazaars, no watercourses … Four things kept Delhi alive – the Fort, the daily crowds at the Jama Masjid, the weekly walk to the Yamuna Bridge, and the yearly fair of the flower-men. None of these survives, so how could Delhi survive? Yes [it is said that] there was once a city of that name in the realm of India.”[4]

 

THE COLONIAL PERIOD

The British abolished Persian as the official language of government in 1837. With the official institution of English and vernacular Indian languages such as Urdu and Bengali as languages of education, the status of Persian in India declined.

The growth of nationalism in India under the British and the idea of “one country, one language” meant that Persian was increasingly sidelined as a “foreign” language and one that belonged to India’s past.

Muhammad Iqbal

Iqbal

Born in Sialkot in 1877, Muhammad Iqbal is one of the greatest poets in the Urdu tradition of the twentieth century and the National Poet of Pakistan. He wrote most of his poetry, however, in Persian and he remains one of the few Persian poets from India who is known in modern Iran.

Iqbal’s mostly long philosophical poems show the influence of Rumi and Bedil as well as Goethe and Nietzche. He interprets Sufi concepts such as ‘ishq (love) in light of the philosophy of the European Enlightenment, namely as a force of will that animates and motivates the self (khudi) to create, imagine and conquer the world:

The luminous point whose name is the Self
Is the life-spark beneath our dust.
By Love it is made more lasting
More living, more burning, more glowing.

Iqbal’s epic poem, The Book of Eternity (Javednama), was inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. In it, Iqbal journeys through the celestial spheres with the poet Rumi as his guide encountering the spirits of the Buddha, Zoroaster, Christ, Muhammad, Hallaj, Ghalib and Nietzche along the way.

 


NOTES

[1] The word “modern” is not without its problems, but it refers here to a period where, even before the advent of European colonialism, India was opening up to the world. The Mughal Empire was part of a cosmopolitan Persianate world and India at the height of Mughal rule was well-integrated into a larger world economy.

[2] https://archive.org/details/travelsmizraabu01khgoog/page/n201/mode/2up

[3] https://archive.org/details/travelsmizraabu01khgoog/page/n295/mode/2up

[4] Ralph Russell and Khurshid Islam, Ghalib: Life and Letters (Delhi, 1994), 296.

A History of Indo-Persian Literature (Part III)

mughal court

THE MUGHAL PERIOD (1526-1858)

For over two centuries, the Mughal Empire united and ruled over much of India. It created a classical culture which combined the finest aspects of Persianate and Indic traditions. It united peoples from various cultures and religions across the subcontinent while the Mughal courts in Delhi, Agra and Lahore welcomed artists and traders from across Europe and Asia and Iran in particular.

 

Indo-Persian Literature

badshahi

Under the Mughals, Persian became the official language of education and its use expanded among the various religions, classes and castes of North India. It became the language of court literature not only in Delhi, Agra and Lahore but also among regional sultanates such as the Golconda Sultanate (1519-1687). Its use as a literary language also grew through poetic assemblies (mushaira), storytelling traditions (dastangoi) and Sufi monasteries (khanqahs) as well as the language of culture.

Iranian poets increasingly flocked to the Mughal courts so much so that India had become the leading centre of Persian poetry during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By this time, a classical Persian canon (Sa’di, Nizami and Hafiz) was in the making and the Mughals patronized not only new poets but also oversaw the translation of works in Sanskrit, Greek and Arabic into Persian.

 

Prose

The Indo-Persian tradition of romance (qissa or dastan) was already known during the Delhi Sultanate. Amir Khusrau’s The Tale of the Four Dervishes (Qissa-ye Chahar Dervesh) was a collection of tales and stories told by four dervishes as wise counsel to a king seeking immortality.

Hamzanama2

The Epic of Hamza (Hamzanama), composed under the reign of Akbar, was based originally on an oral tradition of storytelling. It tells of the adventures and exploits of Amir Hamza (an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad) in a world of battles, courtly politics, magic, fairies and trickery.

The writing of history flourished under the Mughals. Abu’l Fazl’s Akbarnama combined biography and chronicle in its portrayal of Akbar as the ideal monarch.[1] The memoirs of the Emperor Jahangir (Jahangirnama) tell us about the rivers and lakes of Kashmir while Dargah Quli Khan (b. 1710) provides a glimpse into the lives of the commoners, musicians, dancers, poets and artists of Mughal Delhi.

 

Poetry

old agra painting

Poets like Faizi (1547-1595), ‘Urfi (1556-1590), Talib (d. 1626), Qudsi (d. 1656), Kalim (d. 1650) and Sa’ib (d. 1677) continued writing in the classical Persian style while also expanded Persian’s poetic vocabulary through exchanges with languages like Sanskrit, Hindi, Turkish and Arabic.

In his masnavi (long narrative poem), Nal Daman, Faizi adapted a story from the Mahabharata with its themes of love, exile into a Persian saga on the lover and the beloved:[2]

The burning of desire and heartache
Like wine poured at once in two glasses
Like the same note sounded from two different keys
The same intoxication in two different spots.
The suffering that love induced in the Lover,
the Beloved welcomed as her guest.
The bell the Lover told in grief,
echoed in the Beloved’s heart.[3]

The poet Kalim wrote about a famine in the Deccan:

Not only the laughing buds
Are always fleeing from me …
Their relationship to me
Is like that of the shore to the sea:
Always coming towards me,
Then ever fleeing from me.
Life’s tragedy lasts but two days
I’ll tell you what these two are for:
One day to attach the heart to this and that;
One day to detach it again.[4]

‘Urfi crafted a more personal and emotional style:

From my friend’s gate – how can I describe
The manner in which I went,
How full of longing I came,
Yet how embittered I went!
How I beat my head on the wall
In that narrow alleyway …
In ecstatic intoxication I came
In troubled silence I went.[5]

Mughal poets praised the Sufi path of love and union with the divine over the formalism and hypocrisy of organized religion:

Give up the path of the Muslims
Come to the temple
To the master of the wine house
So that you may see the divine secrets.[6]

This was carried to the point of blasphemy by Sarmad (c. 1590-1661):

He who understood the secrets of the Truth
Became vaster than the vast heaven;
The Mullah says “Ahmed [the Prophet Muhammad] went to heaven”;
Sarmad says “Nay! Heaven came down to Ahmed!”[7]

By the eighteenth century, all classes in Mughal society who were educated in Persian began using it as a literary language.

Bedil

Bedil2

Born in 1644 in Patna, ‘Abdul Qadir Bedil was of Turkish descent. He was raised by his uncle after the death of his parents and was educated in Persian, Arabic and Turkish. He studied Sufism and was also known to the Mughal court (most notably Aurangzeb’s son, Muhammad ‘Azam).

Bedil is considered one of the leading poets of the “Indian style” of Persian poetry (sabk-i-Hindi). His philosophical and mystical verses are complex, challenging and captivating:

I read in the wave’s fickle, delicate form
The preface of the sea, the wind’s footprint.[8]

A delicate act is learning the secrets of love
The pen slips in scribing the word of error[9]

 

The trappings of desire adorn every heart’s shop
There’s no mirror but its house of clarity reflects a bazaar[10]

 

 

Regard the spring painted with hues of new secrets
What your imagination never held the spring carries[11]

 

Only wonder I seek from the world’s estate
Like the wall’s mirrored image is my house and what it holds[12]

Bedil was cited as an influence on both Ghalib and Iqbal in their Urdu and Persian verse. His verse remains popular in Afghanistan and Tajikistan where they are studied extensively.

 


NOTES

[1] Sunil Sharma, The History of Akbar.

[2] Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Writing the Mughal World: Studies on Culture and Politics (Columbia University Press, New York: 2012), 204

[3] Masnawi Nal-Daman Faizi, ed. Muhammad Taiyab Siddiqui (Patna: 1987), 191 (12-15) cited in cited in Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Writing the Mughal World: Studies on Culture and Politics (Columbia University Press, New York: 2012) 216.

[4] Annemarie Schimmel, The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art and Culture (Reaktion Books Ltd., London: 2004), 247.

[5] Schimmel, 248.

[6] Muzaffar Alam, “The Pursuit of Persian: Language in Mughal Politics,” Modern Asian Studies 32, 2 (1998), 333.

[7] Fazl Mahmud Asiri, Rubaiyat-i-Sarmad (Shantiniketan, 1950) cited in Natalia Prigarina, Sarmad: Life and Death of a Sufi (https://iphras.ru/uplfile/smirnov/ishraq/3/24_prig.pdf).  

[8] Annual of Urdu Studies (Vol. 27), 2012, Translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi: https://minds.wisconsin.edu/bitstream/handle/1793/66726/20BedilPoems.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. 

[12] Ibid.

A History of Indo-Persian Literature (Part II)

Sufis performing Sama before Shaikh Nizam al-Din Auliya (2)

The Delhi Sultanate united North India for the first time since the reign of Emperor Harsha (r. 606-647). It integrated India into the international trading networks and cosmopolitan civilization of the Islamic world. It also introduced new ideas in art, architecture, religion and technology, including paper-making which revolutionized literature, scholarship and the graphic arts.[1]

 

INDO-PERSIAN LITERATURE

The Mongol invasions of Central Asia and Khorasan during the thirteenth century caused Persian speaking poets, artists and Sufis to flee cities like Balkh, Bukhara and Samarqand and settle in and around Delhi.[2] For a while, in fact, Delhi was seen as a haven for Persian scholars and artists in Asia.


Indo-Persian literature developed during the Delhi Sultanate through both court patronage and through an expansion of ever-widening networks of Persian-speaking literati, merchants, artists and Sufi monasteries (khanqah) across North India. Sufi centres like Nizam ud-Din Auliya’s (1238-1325) in Delhi also attracted men of learning like Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) and the historian, Zia ud-din Barani (1285-1358) who wrote in Persian.[3]

Prose

Indo-Persian Literature


One branch of literature that Persian introduced to India was the writing of history. In fact, Persian literature introduced new genres such as biography, memoirs, chronicles, travel writing and letter writing to Indian literature.

The two best-known works of history written during the Delhi Sultanate were Barani’s, The History of Firoz Shah (Tarikh-e- Firozshahi) and The Rules of Government (Fatwa-i-jahandari). The former chronicled the history of the Sultanate from Balban (1266-87) to Firoz Shah Tughlaq (1309-1388) while the latter emphasized the importance of the study of history.

The compilation of conversations between Sufis and their disciples (malfuzat) was another branch of Indo-Persian prose literature that figured prominently during the Sultanate. The malfuzat also included hagiographies on the Sufi masters and their teachings. The Morals of the Heart (Fawa’id al-Fawad) by Amir Hasan Sijzi (1254-1337) was one such malfuzat on Nizam ud-Din.

The Delhi Sultanate also saw the appearance of Indo-Persian fiction which combined Persian, Arabic and Indic styles of storytelling. The Tutinama of Zia al-Din Nakshabi Badayuni (d. 1350), based on the Sanskrit Sukasapatati (‘Seventy Tales of the Parrot’), was one such collection of fifty-two tales told by a parrot to its mistress to prevent her from committing adultery.[4]

 

Poetry

While Sufi poets like Shah Bu ‘Ali Qalandar (d. 1323) and Fahkr-al Din Iraqi (1213-1289) wrote during this period, few poets could match the renown and influence of Amir Khusrao.

Amir Khusrao

Amir Khusrao remains one of the greatest Indo-Persian poets. A court poet for five of the Delhi sultans and a disciple of Nizam ud-Din, Khusrao composed five dīwān (collections) of poetry that included qasida (panegyric), masnavi (narrative) and over four thousand ghazal (love poems).[5]

Born Abu’l Hasan Yamin ud-Din Khusrao in Delhi in 1253, Khusrao was raised by his maternal grandfather, Imad al-Mulk, a powerful nobleman in the service of the Sultan Iltutmish (r. 1211-1236).

Khusrau began his career as a poet at the age of 20 as the protégé of senior poets at the courts of Delhi. He also served patrons in Bengal and Multan and was on one occasion, captured by the Mongols who raided Multan in 1285. He later wrote an elegy on his experience:

People shed so many tears in all directions
That five other rivers have appeared in Multan
I wanted to speak of the fire in my heart
But a hundred fiery tongues flared up in my mouth[6]

In 1289, Khusrau returned to Delhi where he became the chief court poet of Jalaluddin Khalji (r. 1290-96) and Ala’ ud-Din Khalji (r. 1296-1316). It was during this period that he wrote much of his finest work including his ghazals on love and longing:

I am about to breathe my last.
Come, so I may live.
What good will it do for you
to come once I am no more?

My heart left me but longing
for you won’t leave my heart.
My heart broke apart, but pain
For you won’t diminish.

Khusrao wrote in a style at once mystical and secular:

Bring bright wine,
for dawn has shown its face
At a moment like this
there’s no being without wine.[7]

There is a prosperous and populous city
where fragments of moon gleam at every turn.
Each fragment holds a shard of my shattered heart.[8]

His poetry also captured the Indian landscape of monsoon clouds and rainy seasons:

The clouds and the rain and
I and my love waiting to say farewell:
For my part, weeping,
and for the cloud’s part,
and for my love’s.[9]

He also wrote of his love for Nizamuddin:

I have become you, you have become me
I have become life, you have become body
From now one, let no one say that
I am other and you are another.[10]

Amir Khusrau is one of the few Indo-Persian poets who became well known outside of India. His verse is said to have even inspired the great Persian poet, Hafiz of Shiraz (1315-1390).[11] His works are still read in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan while in India and Pakistan, his poetry has been popularized through musical traditions like qawalli.

 


 

NOTES

[1] Richard M. Eaton, India in the Persianate Age: 1000-1765 (University of California Press, Oakland, CA), 136. See also Keay, India: A History (Harper Collins, London: 2001), 247.

[2] Eaton, India in the Persianate Age, 60.

[3] Ibid., 98.

[4] Nabi Hadi, History of Indo-Persian Literature (Iran Culture House: New Delhi, 2001), 178-179. See also Perso-Indica online (http://www.perso-indica.net/work/fables_and_tales/tuti-nama-1).

[5] Amīr Ḫusraw Dihlawī, Duwal Rānī wa Ḫiżr Ḫān in Perso-Indica: An Analytical Survey of Persian Works on Indian Learned Traditions (online at http://www.perso-indica.net/work/fables_and_tales/duwal_rani_wa_h%CC%AEidr_h%CC%AEan)

[6] Paul E. Losensky and Sunil Sharma (trans.), In the Bazaar of Love: The Selected Poetry of Amir Khusrau (Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2011), xix.

[7] Paul E. Losensky, In the Bazaar of Love (Ghazal 26), 47.

[8] Ibid, (Ghazal 1772), 75.

[9] Ibid., (Ghazal 1), 3.

[10] Ibid., xxx.

A History of Indo-Persian Literature (Part I)

 

Turkish Conquest

Histories of Indian literature often neglect, if not completely overlook, the contribution of Persian to Indian literature. Given that Persian was the language of literature for over eight centuries in India and, given the ongoing Hindu Nationalizing of India’s history, an understanding of the history of Indo-Persian literature is more necessary than ever.

 

THE TURKISH CONQUEST

The north-west of India has been subject to invasions since ancient times. Beginning in the second millennium BCE until the 10th century, north-west India experienced invasions at the hands of Aryans, Iranians, Greeks, Parthians, Scythians, Kushans and Huns.

In 962, Alptigin (901-963), a Turkic general in the Samanid Empire (819-999) abandoned the court at Bukhara and established a semi-independent state with its capital in Ghazni (present-day Afghanistan).[1] He was succeeded by his son, Abu Mansur Sabuktigin (942-997), who in 986 launched an attack on Kabul and Punjab. Sabuktigin died in Balkh in 997 and was succeeded by his son Mahmud (971-1030).[2]

Ghaznavid Empire

Between 1001 and 1017, Mahmud launched a series of raids into northern India from Ghazni. In 1008, he conquered and annexed Punjab. By the time of his death in 1030, his empire spanned Khorasan, Samarkand, Afghanistan and Punjab.

 

EARLY INDO-PERSIAN LITERATURE

The Turkish conquest of north-western coincided with what the British historian E.G. Browne has called the “Persian Renaissance.”[1] Beginning under the Samanid Empire in Bukhara, which saw the completion of the Shahnama (‘Book of Kings’), Persian literature flourished in courts across Central Asia and Iran.

Mahmud’s court at Ghazni became a centre of Persian literature. Mahmud brought scholars, merchants, artists and Sufis with new ideas in art, architecture, literature and religion to India. Mahmud’s court attracted the scholar Al-Biruni (whose work on the history of India included an assessment of scientific works in Sanskrit and Hindu philosophies and religion) and Firdowsi, author of the Persian epic, Shahnama.

The Ghaznavid Empire in Khorasan was repeatedly invaded by the Seljuq Turks until it was lost in 1040. In 1163, the Ghaznavid Sultans moved their capital from Ghazni to Lahore where they would rule from until 1186.

It was in Lahore where the first Indo-Persian literature appeared. ‘Ali Hujviri’s (d. 1071) Kashf-ul Mahjub (‘Veiling the Unveiled’) was the first Persian treatise on Sufism. It set out such themes as the love of God, the importance of contemplation and the stages of the mystical path:  

Man’s love toward God is a quality which manifests itself in the heart of the pious believer, in the form of veneration and magnification, so that he seeks to satisfy his Beloved and becomes impatient and restless in his for vision of Him, and cannot rest with anyone except Him, and grows familiar with the remembrance of Him, and abjures the remembrance of everything besides.[2]

Early Indo-Persian poets like Abu al-Faraj (d. c. 1102) continued the Persian tradition of panegyric poetry (qasida) at court as well as the Persian poetic tradition of contrasting metaphors such as moth and flame, rose and nightingale and lover and beloved.

 

MAS’UD SA’D SALMAN (1046-1121)

Mas’ud Sa’d Salman’s poetry was especially important to the development of early Indo-Persian poetry. While Mas’ud continued to write in the tradition of Persian court poetry, his verse also showed openness and sensitivity to the new Indian poetic landscape.

Born in Lahore, Mas’ud was of Iranian ancestry. His father, Sa’di Salman, had come to Lahore as an accountant in the entourage of Prince Majdud who had been sent by Sultan Mahmud to garrison Lahore in 1035-36.[3]

Mas’ud spent much of his professional life as a poet between the courts of his patrons and in prison for reasons which are not clear. It was in prison, however, that he pioneered the habsiyat (prison) genre of poetry, a genre that would appear in the later Urdu poetry of Ghalib and Faiz Ahmad Faiz.[4]

Mas’ud often wrote on the pain of his separation from his beloved city of Lahore:

O Ravi, if paradise is to be found, it is you,
If there is a kingdom fully equipped, it is you
Water in which is the lofty heaven is you
A Spring in which there are a thousand rivers is you.[5]

He also introduced the Indian genre of the baramasa to Indo-Persian poetry:

O beauty whose arrows are aloft on the day of Tir
Rise and give me wine with a high melody
Sing of love in the mode of love
Call forth the delightful melodies of nature[6]

 

THE GHURID INVASION

In 1186, Lahore was conquered by Muhammad of Ghur, one of vassals of the Ghaznavid Empire. Like the Ghaznavid Empire, the Ghurid Sultanate encompassed much of Central Asia, Iran and northern India. In 1192, Muhammad defeated Prithviraj Chauhan at Tarain (present-day Haryana) from where he conquered the political centres of north India.

 

THE FOUNDING OF THE DELHI SULTANATE

 

 

In 1192, Muhammad of Ghur ordered his Turkic slave, Qutb al-Din Aibek (1150-1210), to push further east.[7] This resulted in the conquest of Delhi which, along with Lahore, Muhammad placed under Aibek’s governorship.

In 1206, Muhammad was assassinated. A civil war broke out between his slave commanders with Aibek emerging the victor.[8] Aibek established his own empire with Delhi as his capital, thus founding the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526).

… to be continued.

 

NOTES

[1] Richard Eaton, India in the Persianate Age: 1000-1765 (University of California Press: Oakland, CA: 2019, 13), 30.

[2] Ibid., 30.

[3] Sunil Sharma, Persian Poetry at the Indian Frontier (Permanent Black: New Delhi, 2010), 19.

[4] Annemarie Schimmel, Islamic Literatures of India (Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, 1973), 11: https://archive.org/details/IslamicLiteraturesOfIndia-AnnemarieSchimmel/page/n3/mode/2up

[5] Sunil Sharma, Persian Poetry at the Indian Frontier, citing Diwan, 391.

[6] Sunil Sharma, Persian Poetry at the Indian Frontier, citing Diwan, 947-8.

[7] Richard Eaton, India in the Persianate Age, 42.

[8] Ibid., 44.

China and the Uighurs

Chinese Uighur

The situation about the Uighur Muslims has attracted widespread media coverage in the past year.  In light of the West after 9-11 and India under Modi, it may be easy for observers to assume that this is a case of Islamophobia in China.

China’s human rights abuses, while they should be condemned unequivocally, do not constitute a case of Islamophobia as they do in the case of India and China.

First of all, Islam in China has a very different history compared to its history in the West and in India.

In China, Islam came through trade. During the cosmopolitan empire of the Tang Dynasty (618-906 CE). Arab and Central Asian merchants brought Islam to Turkestan (now north-western China) and to Chinese cities like Chang’an, Kaifeng and Luoyan.[1] Islam has long been associated with trade in China’s history and the most famous Muslim in China’s history, Zheng He (1371-1433), was a mariner and explorer.

Turkic migrations

China’s Han majority population also accepted Islam through conversion. Although a minority within the larger Han population, Han Chinese Muslims (known as the ‘Hui’) are virtually indistinguishable from their Han brethren except in their avoidance of pork.

Islam thus has a comparatively peaceful history in China. Compare this to the West where Islam was branded a Christian heresy from its inception and associated with the Crusades or in India where Islam has been associated (especially by Hindu Nationalists) with the looting of Hindu temples by Turkish mercenaries like Mahmud of Ghazni.

Secondly, the human rights abuses suffered by China’s Muslims have been confined to Xinjiang. They do not envelop the entire Chinese Muslim population the way they have Muslims in the West after 9-11 or in India under Modi.

China is home to over 20 million Muslims.[2] Of these, 41% are Uighur while 48% are Han Chinese (Hui) and the remaining 11% belonging to Kazakh, Uzbek, Tajik, Tatar and other ethnic groups.[3]

If Islamophobia were rampant in China, it would’ve been all over the Western media by now.  Instead, what has been making cover stories in the West (besides the Corona Virus scare and the crackdown on the Uighurs) is China’s ability to digitally monitor the activities of its citizens, Uighur, Han or otherwise.

Third, and most crucially, the crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang should be understood in light of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) obsession with maintaining state power and control. This obsession extends to suppressing any religious fervour which threatens or is suspected of threatening the CCP’s grip on power.[4]

The CCP has a long history of penetrating and monitoring religious establishments, ensuring they are subordinate to the party-state.[5]  This is due in part to the official atheism of the CCP, but it owes far more to a long history in China of regulating religion and suppressing religious fervour as a political threat.

There’s plenty of historical precedents to make the CCP nervous. A Daoist sect called the Yellow Turbans undermined the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD).[6] The Red Turbans, a Buddhist sect, led to the fall of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) had to contend with the White Lotus Rebellion (1794-1804), another Buddhist sect. The Taiping rebellion (1850-1864), a Christian millenarian movement, fatally wounded the Qing and killed upwards of twenty million people.[7]

The CCP most notoriously suppressed the Falun Gong sect in the late 1990s and into the new millennium. Besides branding it an “evil cult,” the National People’s Congress amended article 300 of the Criminal Code on October 30, 1999, enabling the CCP to suppress spiritual groups deemed “dangerous to the state” (the Falun Gong claimed millions of members across China).

The oppression of China’s Uighurs is about the Chinese state maintaining its state power and control over the country and its citizens. It should be understood in light of China’s long history of regulating and suppressing any religious fervour (real or imagined) and not as a projection of the West’s own Islamophobia on to other societies.

Sources:

Darren Byler, “China’s hi-tech war on its Muslim minority,” The Guardian, April 11, 2019 (online): https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/apr/11/china-hi-tech-war-on-muslim-minority-xinjiang-uighurs-surveillance-face-recognition.

André Laliberté, The Legal-Formal Status of Religions in China in In  Dirk Ehlers and Henning Glaser, ed.,  Political and Religious Communities: Partners, Competitors, or  Aliens? Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2019 (forthcoming).

Lipman, Jonathan Newman (1997), Familiar Strangers, a history of Muslims in Northwest China, Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

 

NOTES

[1] Lipman, Jonathan Newman (1997), Familiar Strangers, a history of Muslims in Northwest China, Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 25.

[2] https://www.pewforum.org/2009/10/07/mapping-the-global-muslim-population/

[3] Armijo, Jackie (2006), “Islamic Education in China”, Harvard Asia Quarterly, 10 (1), archived from the original on 2007-09-28

[4] Darren Byler, “China’s hi-tech war on its Muslim minority,” The Guardian, April 11, 2019 (online): https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/apr/11/china-hi-tech-war-on-muslim-minority-xinjiang-uighurs-surveillance-face-recognition. Byler reports how the Chinese state has grown anxious over the growing sense of Uighur religious and cultural identity (fostered and disseminated through social media including Uighur Muslims praying five times a day, Muslim women veiling themselves and the import of food, movies, music and clothing from Turkey and Dubai) and in growing Uighur social and political activism.

[5] André Laliberté, The Legal-Formal Status of Religions in China in In  Dirk Ehlers and Henning Glaser, ed.,  Political and Religious Communities: Partners, Competitors, or  Aliens? Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2019 (forthcoming).

[6] The following historical examples are cited by Laliberté in The Legal-Formal Status of Religions in China.

[7] The Qing Dynasty also suppressed Muslim rebellions in the north-west during its expansion into Turkestan in the 18th century.

 

 

The East India Company

shah alam

…”Corporations have neither bodies to be punished nor souls to be condemned. They, therefore, can do as they like (Lord Chancellor Thurlow).”[1]

How did a subcontinent come to be ruled from a boardroom in London?[2]

On December 31, 1600, Queen Elizabeth I granted a royal charter to over 200 English merchants who wanted to get into the East Indies spice trade.[3] England wasn’t a major European power yet and the Spanish and Portuguese empires ruled the trade.

When England defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, however, it had blown open the shipping routes used by Spanish and Portuguese traders. So the East India Company was ready to sail eastwards … but was unfortunately outdone by the burgeoning Dutch East India Company.

The Dutch went on to capture the spice trade in Indonesia. The East India Company had to settle with India.

mughal court

In the early seventeenth century, India was the world’s largest economy.[4] It was known for its cotton, silk and textile industries. Tales of the wealth and splendour of the Great Mughal had begun doing their rounds in England.[5]

When trying to enter India, however, the East India Company clashed with the Portuguese who had been there since 1510. The English defeated the Portuguese at the Battle of Suvali in 1612, ending Portugal’s monopoly of Indian trade.

That same year, James I dispatched an embassy to India led by Sir Thomas Roe. Roe signed a treaty with the Mughal Emperor Jahangir which let the Company set up factories in Surat in 1612.

The Company went on to set up trading posts in Madras (1639), Bombay (1664) and Calcutta (1696). It faced competition from yet another European power: the French had established trading posts and factories in the south of India.[6]

The Company’s fortunes, however, were about to change. The Mughal Empire, having expanded into the Deccan, had now grown too large to be governed effectively. The Emperor Aurangzeb’s religious intolerance had also sparked resentment and rebellion across India including among the Marathas and the Rajputs who formed the backbone of the Mughal army.

When Aurangzeb died in 1707, the once-mighty Mughal Empire, strained and divided, began to disintegrate. New regional powers like the Marathas in western India began forming their own kingdoms while others, like the Nizam of Hyderabad, declared their independence from the Mughals.

By this time, the British and French East India Companies had built their own forts and settlements in southern India and in Bengal. As Mughal India fragmented into regional kingdoms, the British and French took advantage of the political situation by playing off one Indian ruler against another.

The Indian kings were also keen to wipe one another out by accepting British and French military assistance. The Maratha prince, Balaji Baji Rao, for one, offered the Company land for batteries of artillery and trained gunners.[7] The princes of Karnataka enlisted the Company’s help which they paid for by assigning it lands and the right to collect taxes.[8]

From Company to Conquest

In Bengal, however, the British met with resistance.

Bengal was the richest, most fertile and densely populated region of India.[9] The Company had established a trading post there in Calcutta in 1696, known later as Fort William.

With the break-up of the Mughal Empire, Bengal came to be ruled by local princes (nawab in Urdu). In 1756, Siraj-ud Daula became Nawab of Bengal. Wary of the growing British presence there, he ordered his troops to seize and occupy the Company’s bases at Kasimbazar and Calcutta in 1756.[10]

plassey 3

The Company reacted with vengeance.

Under the leadership of Robert Clive, it quickly recaptured Calcutta on January 1, 1757, and, on June 23, 1757, it defeated Siraj’s forces at the Battle of Plassey (above). The Company’s conquest of India had begun.

The Plunder of Bengal

Between 1757 and 1763, the East India Company drained Bengal’s wealth. It forcefully taxed peasants, punished unwilling suppliers who objected to its prices and vanquished local competitors.[11] Tragically, its ruthless extraction of Bengal’s resources aggravated the Great Bengal Famine of 1770 which killed over 10 million people (roughly one-fifth of Bengal’s population).[12]

The Company meanwhile shipped bales of cotton, calico, muslin and chintz from Bengal back to Britain.[13] Its huge wealth and vast resources had made it, in the words of one of its directors, “an empire within an empire,” answerable to no one except its shareholders.[14]

Men like Clive (above) made huge fortunes in Bengal and returned to England as “nabobs” (a corruption of nawab).[15] Once back home, the nabobs bought seats in Parliament and bribed senior politicians for favours toward the Company. Parliament responded by investigating the nabobs and the Company for corruption and extortion in their dealings in Bengal. One parliamentary pamphlet decried the looting of:

“Lacks and crowes (lakhs and crores) of rupees, sacks of diamonds, Indians tortured to disclose their treasure; cities, towns and villages ransacked and destroyed, jaghires (jagirs) and province purloined. Nabobs dethroned, and murdered, have found the delights and constituted the religions of the Directors and their servants.”[16]

The Conquest of Hindustan

From Bengal, the Company marched up the Ganges into the heart of India.

In 1764, the Company defeated the Mughal army of Shah Alam II at the Battle of Buxar. The Treaty of Allahabad of 1765 (pictured at the top of the page) brought Awadh under Company control and won it the diwani or right to collect taxes on behalf of the Mughal emperor.

In less than a century, the Company swooped across the south through conquest and by granting suzerainty to local rulers such as the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1747. Having annexed the Punjab in 1849 (after defeating the Sikhs in the Second Anglo-Sikh War), the Company had brought Hindustan to heel.

EIC Map

By 1857, India was ruled from a boardroom in the City of London.

The Company laid the foundation for British rule of the subcontinent. The historians of the British Raj, however, would see the Company as a national embarrassment. By the 19th century, Victorian Britain had begun to see the British nation (and not a predatory corporation) as the builder of destiny and the shaper of progress. The Company became in the eyes of many a “tyranny which [had] encouraged and exploited human suffering.”

The East India Company was the world’s first truly multinational corporation. Its plunder of India should serve as a warning to a world ruled by Walmart, Apple, BP and Wells Fargo.

Sources

The Anarchy: A New Book by William Dalrymple: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUeyOEY9oWg

BBC Start the Week (Dec. 2, 2019): https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000bvw5

British Library (East India Company): https://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item102770.html

William Dalrymple, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company (Bloomsbury Publishing: 2019 [Audiobook]).

William Dalrymple, “The East India Company: The original corporate raiders,” The Guardian, March 4, 2015: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/04/east-india-company-original-corporate-raiders

Lawrence James, Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India (St. Martin’s, New York: 1997).

Ben Johnson, “The East India Company and its role in ruling India,” Historic UK: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/The-East-India-Company/

Andrea Major, “The East India Company: How a trading corporation became an imperial ruler,” HistoryExtra: https://www.historyextra.com/period/tudor/the-east-india-company-how-a-trading-corporation-became-an-imperial-ruler/

Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. (Oxford University Press: 1982). Available online: https://www.prismaweb.org/nl/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Poverty-and-famines%E2%94%82Amartya-Sen%E2%94%821981.pdf

Notes

[1] William Dalrymple: The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUeyOEY9oWg). This was Lord Chancellor Thurlow speaking at the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings.

[2] I was inspired to write this blog after listening to a BBC Podcast on William Dalrymple’s latest book on Indian history, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company.

[3] William Dalrymple, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company (Bloomsbury Publishing: 2019), Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 (audiobook). The royal charter was granted after a Dutch delegation arrived in England offering to buy out all English ships which were intended to voyage to the East. This infuriated the English merchants who petitioned the Privy Council to reject the proposal for the “honour of [their] native country.” The charter also authorized the East India Company to wage war, raise forts and make settlements in any new territory to which they voyaged.

https://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item102770.html. The “East Indies” here refers to Asia.

[4] BBC Start the Week (Dec. 2, 2019): https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000bvw5. Dalrymple estimates that India generated roughly 30% of the world’s GDP at the time.

[5] A Handbook for India: Being an account of the Three Presidencies and of the Overland Route (London: John Murray), 1859, lxxx. In 1603, the English Jesuit priest and missionary, Thomas Stephens, visited the Mughal capital of Agra, returning to England with stories of the wealth of the Great Mughal.

[6] The French established a factory at Masulipatam (Andhra Pradesh) in 1669, acquired the area of Pondicherry in 1673.

[7] Lawrence James, Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India (St. Martin’s, New York: 1997), 10.

[8] James, 9.

[9] James, 30.

[10] On the night of June 20, 1756 (in what came to be known as the “Black Hole of Calcutta”) Siraj’s forces herded an unknown number of British prisoners into a small cell in the dungeon of Fort William where over half of the prisoners suffocated to death.

[11] James, 38-39.

[12] Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. (Oxford University Press: 1982), 39.

[13] James, 10.

[14] James, 49.

[15] Dalrymple estimates that Clive returned to Britain with a personal fortune valued then at £234,000 (around £23 million in today’s currency) making him the richest self-made man in Europe.

[16] James, 49. The pamphlet dates to 1773. Parliament’s investigations reached their climax between 1788 and 1795 with the trial to impeach the Governor of Bengal (Warren Hastings) for looting and corruption. Hastings was acquitted.

Buddhist Political Philosophy

buddha and flower

I first began studying Buddhism in 1999 while living in Canada. Having lived and grown up in the West, I saw how Buddhism was adopted and adapted by the West in terms of science, psychology and the art of living.

I have always been interested, however, in Buddhism as a philosophy and, in particular, as a  political philosophy. For me, this involved thinking about the world and political phenomena from a Buddhist philosophical and ethical perspective.

I will be speaking more about Buddhist political philosophy here in Uddari. For me, it is something that means a lot to me as a South Asian living in the diaspora. Buddhism not only originated and developed in South Asia but it has also become an increasingly influential philosophy in the Western culture in which I have grown up.

India’s Moment of Reckoning

TOPSHOT-INDIA-POLITICS-RIGHTS-UNREST

In 1938, a Nazi law forced German Jews to register their property and assets with the government. In 2001, the Taliban forced all religious minorities in Afghanistan to wear distinctive marks on their clothing to distinguish them from the country’s Muslim majority.

Now, in 2019, the BJP government of India has passed a law which, in effect, will decide whether Indian Muslims are citizens or not on the basis of their religion.

On the face of it, the Citizenship Amendment Act (the “Act”), states that (non-Muslim) illegal migrants who have fled religious persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan are eligible to apply for Indian citizenship.

When read in conjunction with the National Register of Citizens (the “NRC”), however, the Act threatens to render almost two million Muslims in India (who migrated to Assam from Bangladesh) stateless.

By making religion a condition of citizenship, the Act and the NRC throw the very idea of India as a secular state into question. Will the law apply only to Muslim migrants and their descendants (even if born in India)? Will it be used against those poorer Indian Muslims who have lived in the country since time immemorial but who have no documents to prove their citizenship?

In 2018, Republicans in Georgia threatened to blacklist African-Americans from voting because they could not prove their identity. Will disenfranchisement hang over the heads of Indian Muslims if they cannot show the right kind of documents if any at all?

Historically, citizenship in India (like elsewhere) was acquired by the citizenship belonging to one’s parents (the jus sanguinis or ‘right of blood’ principle) or by naturalization if the person has been resident in India for more twelve years. Descent and residence on Indian territory were sufficient for the sake of claiming Indian citizenship, not religion.

In protest of the law, India has witnessed some of its largest demonstrations in decades with public figures like Ramachandra Guha and Shabana Azmi expressing solidarity with the protestors. The Supreme Court of India has issued notices to the Government of India on petitions challenging the constitutionality of the law.

I hope that these protests are an illustration of the Daoist principle that when things reach one extreme, they revert and start moving back in the opposite direction. Just like we saw with the “wake” movement in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter, the demonstrations in India have the potential to crystallize into a mass-movement that challenges Hindu Nationalism if they are given the right direction and organization.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Classical Indian Literature: The Southern (Tamil) Tradition

tamil love poem

Like the classical Western tradition, the classical Indian tradition has two classical languages: Sanskrit and Tamil. Most histories of classical Indian civilization, however, focus on the Sanskrit literary tradition to Tamil’s neglect.

Both traditions, I argue, are integral to our understanding of classical Indian literature. The Tamil tradition is classical not only in the sense that it is ancient (dating its earliest poetry back to the 100 BCE to 200 CE), but in that it constitutes the foundation of an entire tradition that continues without a break to the present.

Early classical Tamil literature was written in a society that recalls Italy during the Renaissance. Southern India during the turn of the Christian era was a confederation of states (the Pandya, the Cheras and the Cholas) which were continually warring and trading with one another.

The Tamil states grew wealthy from sea trade routes that connected India to the West (including the Roman Empire which sought peppers, indigo, cotton and pearls from South India) and South East Asia. Classical Tamil poetry tells the stories of wealthy merchants, warehouses bulging with goods and ships from many different countries meeting at palm lined ports along the east coast.

Classical Tamil poetry is said to have been composed in academies or assembles called the Sangam during which time the principles of poetics, rhetoric and prosody were outlined in the Tolkapiyyam, the first grammar of the Tamil language.

Classical Tamil poetry can be classed broadly into poems on the interior landscape (love, emotions) and poems on the exterior landscape (war and heroic poetry).

Landscapes and emotions are carefully interwoven in classical Tamil poetry and each poem is assigned a tinai (‘place,’ ‘region,’ ‘site’) in which the five particular landscapes or regions of the Tamil country with their accompanying seasons, flowers, waters, inhabitants, wild life and time of day correspond to the emotions of the lovers in the poems:[1]

  1. Mountains: union (clandestine); kurunji flower; midnight; winter; waterfall;
  2. Forest: expectancy; jasmine; evening; late summer; rivers;
  3. Fields: irritation; marudam; before sunrise; late spring; ponds;
  4. Seashore: separation; water lily; sunset; early summer; sea;
  5. Desert: impatience; noon; summer; dry wells or stagnant water.

In classical Tamil poetry, nature and landscape symbolize the various moods and experiences of lovers. For instance, a love poem may follow the kurinici convention where the theme is the surreptitious meeting at night of an unmarried woman and her lover in the mountains.

tamil nadu mountain.jpg

The puram poems also have their thematic situations which deal with the warfare and exploits of kings as well as ethical instruction in the form of lyrics, panegyrics and hymns. The puram poems of classical Tamil poetry tell us about the kings, chieftains, battles, political and social life of ancient Tamil kingdoms.

The secular, sensual and naturalistic tone of the early Tamil poetry makes for a refreshing change to the religious and mythological tone of much of classical Sanskrit poetry. Here are some English translations of classical Tamil poetry by A.K. Ramanujan.

 

Sources:

Ancient Indian Literature: An Anthology (Volume Three), New Delhi : Sahitya Akademi, 2000.

Encyclopedia of Indian Literature (Volume 5), New Delhi : Sahitya Akademi, 1987-1992.

The Four Hundred Songs of War and Wisdom: An Anthology of Poems from Classical Tamil (New York : Columbia University Press, 1999), Translated by George L. Hart and Hank Heifetz.

Poems of Love and War from the Eight Anthologies, and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil (selected and translated by A.K. Ramanujan).

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sangam_landscape#Poetic_Attrib

Tomorrow in Surrey: Women Who Named the Unnamed: Pakistan’s & Local Women Heroes

pakistani women

What inspires me most about this program is the courage of the women it honours. Through their art, their activism, their poetry and their writing, they have dauntlessly challenged institutionalized systems of patriarchal, racial and religious authority, making the world a freer place for all of us regardless of who we are …

Tomorrow, Surrey Muse Arts Society (SMAS) presents “Women Who Named the Unnamed: Pakistan’s & Local Women Heroes” (Sept 28, 6 – 9 PM, Centre Stage, Surrey City Hall). It’s a groundbreaking three-hour stage show which recognizes, for the first time in Greater Vancouver, the contributions of 15 distinguished Pakistani, Punjabi, South Asian, Muslim and women of colour from Pakistan, Surrey and Vancouver to the development of our communities through literature, art, scholarship and activism.

Our distinguished guests for the evening are Sunera Thobani, Harsha Walia, Surjeet Kalsey, Darshan Maan, Indigenous scholar/historian Deanne Reder, and, Katheren Szabo. We will also recognize a Surrey Woman of Courage.

You can find out more about our program here:

https://pakistanswomenheroes.wordpress.com/2019/07/15/women-who-named-the-unnamed-pakistani-local-women-heroes-saturday-28-sept-2019-centre-stage-surrey-city-hall/

We look forward to seeing you tomorrow!

 

 

Indian Mythology

Kurukshetra

In a country like India, where every fact is infinitely malleable and where every interpretation is politicized, the need to distinguish between history and mythology is more important than ever.

Myths were created by human beings to explain previously inexplicable phenomena such as how the universe was created and where thunder and lightning came from. Unlike history, myths are not meant to be verified.

Myths are thus associated with the religious and cultural beliefs of a people. They do not inquire into the past the way history inquires.

They are valuable nonetheless for helping to create a sense of a common origin among people and in explaining the basis of their religious and cultural values and institutions.

Mythology is the means by which most Indians (Hindus) have sought to understand the past. The mythology of the Vedas, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Puranas, are thus as, if not more, important to the Indian than the legend of King Arthur is to the English or the Kojiki is to the Japanese.

Here are some key myths from Hindu mythology in context:

  • The origins of humanity: the first man is Manu from which the Sanskrit word for man (‘manava’) is derived. Manu saves the world’s animals from the Great Flood (Adam and Noah in one!) and is the father of the first kings and queens in Indian mythology.
  • Dynasties, Kings and Sages: ancient Indian dynasties typically claim descent through lines traced back to one of Manu’s two children (Ishvaku and Ila). The hero of the Ramayana, Rama, traces his ancestry to the line associated with Ishvaku, [1] while the Pandvas and the Kauravas of the Mahabharata trace their descent from the line associated with Ila.[2]

The Puranas contain genealogical lists of kings and sages (e.g. Kashyapa, Atri, Vishvamitra, et al) in a manner reminiscent of the list of patriarchs, prophets and progenitors in the Old Testament (e.g. from Abraham to Ham, Shem, Canaan and Rachab).

  • Bharata: The word for “India” in Sanskrit, “Bharata,” derives from the eponymous mythical emperor. Bharata is believed to have united much of what we now call India stretching from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin.

The “Bharata” were also an ancient clan mentioned in the Vedas which emerged victorious in battle over other Indo-Aryan tribes and clans.[3]

  • The Class (Caste) System: in the Vedas, the cosmic man (Puruṣa), is said to have been divided into four parts. From his head came the Brahmin class (priests and teachers), from his arms and torso came the Ksatriya (warrior), from his legs came the Vaisya (farmers and merchants) and from his feet came the Sudra (servants).

These are just some of the myths which Indians and Hindus look to in understanding themselves and the origins of India.

 

Notes

[1] The Sūryavaṁśa (solar dynasty).

[2] The Candravaṃśa (lunar dynasty).

[3] The Mahabharata also takes its title from this clan.

 

 

The Aryans of India

 

aryan migration

During my mid-twenties, one of my aunts told me that we (ethnic Punjabis) were descended from the Aryans of ancient India.

I first learned about these Aryans while studying Indian history during my undergraduate degree. I learned that that the Aryans had originally migrated into India from the north-west and that they first settled in the Punjab around 1500 BCE. I also learned that their religious beliefs and lifestyle were recorded around 1200 BCE in a literature known as the Vedas.

Like me, most peoples of the subcontinent (particularly northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) claim to be descended from the (Indo) Aryans. The term Indo-Aryan refers not only to an ethnic group (which is religiously, culturally and regionally diverse), but also to a family of languages spoken by this group, including Punjabi, Hindi/Urdu, Bengali and Gujarati.

Of course, not everyone believes that the Aryans migrated to the subcontinent from the outside. Few are more outspoken in their opposition than the Hindu Nationalist who believes that the Aryans were indigenous to India.

This is, of course, really just a political claim. To claim that the ancestral religion of Hinduism (in the Vedas) is native to India is to claim that it “belongs” to India in opposition to those Indians belonging to “foreign” religions (i.e. Muslims and Christians).

Fantasizing about purity of race and origin, however, turn deadly. We can think of Hitler’s ideas about the Aryan Race as German, the Ku Klux Klan theory of the Teutonic Race or the Japanese idea of the Yamato Race during World War II.

Over the past nearly thirty years, Hindu Nationalism has stirred up pogroms, vandalism and attacks on India’s minority groups (especially Muslims, Christians and Dalits or lower-castes). Its pogroms, including the Gujarat “riots” of 2002 against Muslims has left thousands dead and their homes and places of worship vandalized or destroyed.

Hindu Nationalism basically seeks to rationalize and politicize an emotional need: the need to belong and to know oneself. Mythology is a human institution that fulfils that need by giving us a sense of where we come from. Mythologies like those in the Vedas are Puranas, like those in the Bible or King Arthur are valuable in giving us a sense of who our ancestors might have been without needing to be factually verifiable.

To that extent, I have read the Puranas and the Mahabharata.  I am fascinated, as someone of Indian origin, about where I come from and how my ancestors thought of themselves as a people and about my origins. But my fascination is much the same as someone who reads old genealogies of the Bible or of a Han Chinese taking pride in his descent from the Yellow Emperor.

So, I will call myself Indo-Aryan, Punjabi, Sikh, British, Canadian and Buddhist. I can have a sense of where I come from in terms of mythology without proclaiming it as history for political purposes or otherwise. Living on the land of the Coast Salish People in British Columbia, I realize that they too were like the ancient Aryans in migrating across territories rather than being bound by them.