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.

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.

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.

The Hindu Pakistan

Modi with petals

India finally has the dictator it always wanted.

Narendra Modi has won a majority of seats in India’s election and is set to be re-elected as the country’s Prime Minister.[1]

Since coming to power in 2014, Modi’s administration has effectively co-opted the Indian media, judiciary and co-opted under the banner of Hindu Supremacism. Together, they have created a New India of book burnings, student arrests and the slaughter of Muslims, Christians and low-caste Hindus.

As James Crabtree points out in The Billionaire Raj, India’s economy has grown under Modi to become one of the most unequal on earth. Much of the benefits of this growth, Crabtree argues, has accrued to India’s billionaires class and their family run conglomerates (the Ambanis, the Godrej’s and the Birlas) rather than middle-class.

Under Modi, India has become the Hindu Pakistan, an India where Brahmanism (the religious ideology sanctifying caste) and capitalism march hand in hand. The constituents of a fascist society as explained by Jason Stanley in How Fascism Works (i.e. a strong charismatic leader, a romanticized vision of the past, an imagined ‘other’ etc.) were already well underway during the Prime Minister’s first term.

Now, they will be given an opportunity to come to fruition.

[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-48389130?intlink_from_url=https://www.bbc.com/news/topics/cg41ylwvgmyt/narendra-modi&link_location=live-reporting-story

A Tale of Two Indias

Indus Valley

In a recent paper, scientists from the United States, Russia and India, have concluded that the Indus Valley Civilization was the result of a mixing of South Asians and Iranian peoples.

The study also concludes that the group previously known as “Aryan” were in fact pastoral communities from Central Asia which moved south from the steppe into the Indus Valley.

The study examined the DNA of 612 ancient individuals from across Central Asia, Iran and South Asia. This data was then compared with the DNA of 246 distinct groups in South Asia.

The study identified the Ancestral North Indian and the Ancestral South Indian as the result of the mixing and combination of three potential groups of peoples:

  1. The South Asian hunter-gatherers, the indigenous inhabitants of the subcontinent;
  2. The Iranian agriculturalists who migrated into the subcontinent, and;
  3. The Steppe pastoralists who were also migrants into the subcontinent.

The study provided the following outline based on this genetic data:

  1. The Indus Valley Civilization arises through the mixing of South Asians and Iranians;
  2. The “Aryan” civilization arises through the migration of Steppe pastoralists into the Indus Valley around the 2nd millennium BCE;
  3. Some of the Indus Valley moves further south where they mix with more South Asians, creating the Ancestral South Indian population;
  4. In the North, the Steppe pastoralists mix with the remaining Indus Valley population, creating the Ancestral North Indian population.
  5. Subsequent South Asians are a result of mixing between Ancestral North Indians and Ancestral South Indians.

The implication of this is that there was an “Aryan migration” into the subcontinent from the outside and not vice-versa. That suggestion will anger with the Hindu Rights with its inference that their ancestors and ancestral religion (including the Vedas) originated outside of the subcontinent.

This would undermines the Hindu Right’s claims that they are the original inhabitants of India vis-à-vis those following foreign religions. It also suggests that modern South Asians are a mix of what we previously called “Aryan” and “Dravidian,” with no such thing as a “pure race” or “nation” which is basic to Hindutva.

The Hindu Right is already rewriting history books in India. It is already censoring any views and ideas that would suggest India is the creation of anything but the primordial Hindu Nation. This paper will not affect the momentum of that project, but it does throw to the wind some of the theories on which Hindutva rests.

– Thanks to Satdeep, for inspiration across continents 

 

The 70th Anniversary of the Partition of India

Pakistan India

Seventy years on, there’s still hope.

On October 6, Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmad spoke on the 70th anniversary of the Partition.[1]

Ahmad’s argued that the truth about the Partition must be known before there can be any meaningful reconciliation between India and Pakistan. Only if Indians and Pakistanis confront and accept what happened in 1947, can there ever be light.

For instance, many Sikhs revere the Maharaja of Patiala, Yadavindra Singh (1914-1974) as the icon of a bygone age. Some have suggested that he even gave sanctuary to Muslims during the violence of the Partition.[2]

yada

Ahmad’s research in the The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed (which includes eye-witness accounts from Patiala including from members of the Sikh community), shows a Maharaja who planned to cleanse his kingdom of his Muslim subjects.[3]

This was a shock even for some of my better educated friends in Patiala to learn. Maybe it’s time to pierce the veil of lies and illusions both India and Pakistan have woven these past seven decades. The Partition has scarred the subcontinent. Now it’s time to heal. Seek the truth. Study extensively, inquire carefully, sift clearly, and practice earnestly.[4]

 

Notes

[1] The lecture was part of a conference presented by the South Asian Film Education Society and the South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy presented at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University between October 5th to the 8th.

Dr. Ahmad is a now retired professor who taught Political Science at the University of Stockholm in Sweden. He was also a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore and the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

[2] This last point is suggested by filmmaker Sara Singh in The Sky Below.

[3] Ahmad’s research has also been cited and excerpted in magazines and editorials like in the Hindustan Times, Frontline and Caravan.

[4] The words of the Chinese philosopher, Zhu Xi (1130-1200)

India at 70

the-indian-flag

Written by Randeep Purewall

This year marks the 70th year of India’s independence.

Since 1947, India has grown to become one of the world’s largest economies. It has become self-sufficient in food production, developed a space program and created a large skilled, middle-class. And, it has maintained its democratic political system.

In India Unbound (2002), Gurcharan Das envisioned an India bypassing the industrial revolution to become an IT superpower. Shashi Tharoor spoke of a soft-power superpower spreading Bollywood and its spirit of religious tolerance globally.

Both men are loath to admit, however, that, for all its achievements and potential, India remains a poor country. It is poor in terms of the absolute number of its poor and in terms of its per capita income. Its governments have failed to invest adequately in health and education and India ranks lower than Sri Lanka and Indonesia on the Human Development Index.

India has failed to become an IT superpower. While it has produced successful companies like Infosys and Wipro, its high-skilled labour force comprises no more than 2% of the country’s labour force. Industry employs less than 15% of Indian workers with most eking an existence off the land.

India’s secularism and its democratic political system are also being eroded. Under Narendra Modi and the Hindu-Nationalist BJP, the Indian Government has curtailed freedom of expression and dissent by authors, students, scholars and filmmakers. It has also stoked violence against India’s Muslims through its cow-protections laws.

Its worth reflecting on what India is today and where it is going. In Midnight to MilleniumTharoor remarked that the BJP and Hindu Nationalists could not destroy India unless they destroyed India’s political culture of secularism and its acceptance of pluralism. With that culture now being undermined, can India be far behind?

Punjabi Poetry: Ustad Daman

Trans.daman

Written by Randeep Purewall

Ustad Daman (né Chiragh Din) was born in Lahore in 1911. As a boy, he worked at his father’s tailoring shop while also attending school. Daman learned classical Punjabi poetry at home and was educated in Urdu. He also learned Persian and English including Shakespeare, Keats and Hardy.

Having participated in school poetry recitals, Daman began attending musha’ara in the parks, fairs and bazaars of Lahore as a teenager during the 1920s. The movement for India’s independence had already begun. In 1929, the Indian National Congress made its Declaration of Independence from Lahore. The city was also home to Marxist groups like the Kirti Kisan and anti-colonial and revolutionary groups like the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association.

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Daman recited his own revolutionary and anti-colonial poetry at the musha’ara. While attending one such gathering, Jawaharlal Nehru referred to Daman as the “Poet of Freedom.”

‘In China the Chinese are grand,
In Russia they do as they have planned.
In Japan its people rule over its strand.
The British rule the land of England,
The French hold the land of France,
In Tehran the Persians make their stand.
The Afghans hold on to their highland,
Turkmenistan’s freedom bears the Turkmen’s brand,
How very strange is indeed this fact,
That freedom in India is a contraband’
(Trans. F. Sharma)

Daman remained in Lahore upon the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The riots of the Partition had consumed his shop and library and he lost his wife and son to illness. His first act of political defiance came in 1958 when he made fun of Pakistan’s first military coup under Ayub Khan. Daman’s arrest however did little to temper his criticism of Pakistan’s military dictatorships and the corruption of its civilian governments in his poetry.

Daman wrote in Punjabi and the form, rhythm and metaphor of his poetry bears the influence of the classical and folk Punjabi tradition. If he could be sober and thoughtful in writing on the Partition, he could also adopt a more comic and satirical note in criticizing General Zia. He maintained a friendship with poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib, but lived unassumingly in an old apartment in the precinct of the Badshahi Mosque.

Daman died in 1984. His poetry was published after his death by his friends and followers. The room he lived in near the Badshahi Mosque has since become an academy in his name.

Selected Poems (Trans. F. Sharma)

We may not say it but know it well
You lost your way. We too.
Partition has destroyed us friends.
You too, and us.
The wakeful have quite plundered us.
You slept the while, and we.
Into the jaws of death alive
You were flung. We too.
Life still may stir in us again:
You are stunned yet, and we.
The redness of the eyes betrays
You too have wept, and we.

What a house, this Pakistan!
Above live saints, down thieves have their run
A new order has come into force
Up above twenty families, below the hundred million.
Other people conquered mountains,
We live under the divisions heavy ton.
Other people may have conquered the moon.
But in a yawning precipice a place we’ve won.
I ran and ran and was aching all over,
I looked back and saw the donkey resting under the banyan.


Two gods hold my country in their sway
Martial law and La Illaha have here their heyday.
That one rules there over in the heavens
Down here this one’s writ runs.
His name is Allah Esquire.
This one is called Zia, the light of truth in full array.
Hurrah, General Zia, hip hip hooray,
Whoever can make you go away.

Ecstacy does my land surround
All around the Army is to be found.
Hundreds of thousands were surrendered as POWs.
Half of the land was bartered away in the fray.
Hurrah, General Zia, hip hip hooray,
Whoever can make you go away.

On TV you give recitations from Quran
With fables and traditions you go on and on.
Here we are engulfed in a brouhaha
While up there you are still there, my Allah
A pretender has staked his claim today
Hurrah, General Zia, hip hip hooray,
Whoever can make you go away.

Thankful are some if they can chop wood
The others, on them, their orders bestow.
Why have the people lost their mind?
For every one the Almighty has a loving glow.
People are the real masters of this world
Orders do not from the handle of a sword flow.
The ones, Daman, who have forsaken God,
Those Nimruds are laid low at the very first blow.

The Poems of Bedil

bedil2

Written by Randeep Singh

Mirza Abdul Qadir Bedil (1644-1720) is one of the leading poets of the Indian school of Persian poetry.

Born in Azimabad (Patna) into a family of Uzbek descent, Bedil lost his parents at an early age and was raised by his uncle. He received a classical education, but also mastered poetry and philosophy through self-study. Bedil served in the Mughal army, but returned to Delhi during the reign of Aurangzeb. It was there that he devoted himself to writing poetry.

Bedil composed over 16 books of poetry including ghazals, rubais and masnavis. His poetry deals with philosophical and metaphysical themes and his verses are complex, challenging if also captivating. He was not well received in Iran which generally disdained the “Indian School” of Persian. He remains, however, an iconic poet in Central Asia and Afghanistan. The Urdu poets Ghalib and Iqbal cited Bedil as an important influence on their poetry.

The selected verses below were translated from Persian into Urdu by Afzal Ahmed Syed and from Urdu into English by Musharraf Ali Farooqi (unless otherwise noted).

For too long the heart’s desire bound me
With a drop of blood I was painted whole
Ulfat dil umr haashad dast o paaim basta ast
Qatra-e khoon az sar taa paa hunaaim basta ast

I read in the wave’s fickle, delicate form
The preface of the sea, the wind’s footprint
Mara ma’aena shad az khat-e shakasta mauj
Ki naqsh-e paa-e hava sarnoshat-e aeen darya’st

What heart’s shop is not adorned by desire?
The mirror’s realm of clarity reflects a bazaar
Ko dil-e kaz havas aaraaesh-e dakaanash neest
Dar safaa khaana har aaena baazaare hast

Behold the spring painted with hues of new secrets
What your imagination never grasped the spring reveals
Chasm va kun rang-e asraar-edagar daard bahaar
Aan cha dar vahamat naganjad jalwa gar daard bahaar

In the desert of fancy there are no fixed points
To find our bearings no need have we
Dar dasht-e tauham jahate neest ma’een
Maa raa chi zaroor ast badaaanem kujaayem

In contentment’s land seek not the sun and moon
If a bread and lamp in night rations has been provided to you
Dar mulk-e qanaat ba ma o mahar mapardaaz
Gar naan-e shabe heest o chiraagh-sar-e shaame

For ages we’ve been amused at expressing worthlessness
We are the opener of the pages of stories of nothingness
You could expect nothing from us, but name
we are the messengers of the world of nothingness

’aumrîst kî sargarm-e bayân-e heechîm
tumâr gushâyee dâstân-e heechim
bâ nâmi az ân mîyân, zi mâ qane’a bâsh
mâ qâsed-e paighâm-e jahân-e heechîm
(Translated by Nasim Fekrat)

Sources:

Annual of Urdu Studies: http://www.urdustudies.com/pdf/27/20BedilPoems.pdf

Encyclopaedia Iranica: http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/bidel-bedil-mirza-abd-al-qader-b

A History of Buddhist India

Written by Randeep Singh

The Buddhist period of India’s history (c. 273 BCE-646 CE) refers to a time where Buddhism shaped India’s culture, religions, social and political institutions and its relations with other countries. The Buddhist emperors ruled over multi-ethnic and multi-religious empires, and not over the monolithic Hindu nation India is imagined to be.

Ashoka (r. 273-232 BCE)

Ashoka was the last major emperor of the Maurya Dynasty (321-185 BCE). He unified most of the Indian subcontinent and helped spread Buddhism throughout his empire. His empire included Buddhists but also Jains, Brahmins and followers of different sects. His policy of “dharma” exhorted religious tolerance and expressed his concern for the welfare of his subjects.

Kanishka (r. 127-150 CE)

Kakar_map1-DINExhB

Above: Map of the Kushan Empire

Under Kanishka, the Kushan Empire encompassed Bactria, Afghanistan, the Punjab and the Indo-Gangetic plains. Ruling from Purusapura (Peshawar), his empire was home to Zoroastrians, Brahmins, Jains, Buddhists, Greeks and other pagan cults. He connected India to the Silk Road and his patronage of Buddhism helped it spread to Central Asia and China.

Harsha (r. 606-647)

Harsha was the last great “ancient” emperor of northern India. He patronized Buddhist universities like Nalanda and established benevolent institutions throughout his empire. He established relations with China and welcomed monks like Hsuan Tsang (602-664) to his court. He was also, incidentally, a patron of Sanskrit literature and himself wrote plays.

nalanda

Above: Ruins of the Nalanda University. Nalanda was founded during the fifth century. Its subjects included Buddhist philosophy, logic, grammar and philology and medicine.


Dharmapala
(r. c. 780-820)

Dharmpala was a ruler of the Pala Dynasty (750-1174). His empire spanned Bengal, Bihar and central India. He founded the Vikramshila University which attracted students from across India, China, Tibet and South East Asia. The Buddhist architecture and iconography of his reign would influence styles found in Burma, Java, Tibet and Nepal.

Ambedkar, Buddhism and Caste

ambedkar

Written by Randeep Singh

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was one of modern India’s most remarkable statesman. He drafted the Constitution of India, served as the country’s first Minister of Law and led the Untouchables in his fight against the caste system.

Ambedkar singlehandedly revived Buddhism in India. On October 14, 1956, he converted to the religion, prompting the mass conversion of hundreds of thousands of his followers. He created a new identity for India’s Untouchables, but he polemicized his interpretation of Buddhism in the process.

Ambedkar claimed that the Buddha did everything to uproot the caste system, but ignored the fact that the caste system remained entrenched in India throughout the Buddhist period (c. 268 BCE – 551 CE). He did not mention that the practice of Untouchability first emerged during this period. He gushed about how Buddhism gave India democratic parliaments with whip, quorum, resolutions, ballot voting and vote counting.

He still inspires me though and I believe that Buddhism, as secularized political philosophy, can help undermine the caste system. It was the first religion to challenge the caste system by turning upside down the concepts upholding it. Its insights in this respect are interesting from a modern, secular perspective.

Buddhism is concerned with the end of suffering as a human problem.  Its primary concern is to promote human welfare and happiness. It holds that only humans can end their own suffering through moral action, self-discipline, and understanding. No God, divine being, black magic, superstition or astrological charts are necessary.

Humans are equal in Buddhism in the sense of being equally capable of achieving enlightenment. They are equally subject to one universal moral law (‘Dharma’) with moral obligations to one another such as to respect one another’s life, liberty and dignity. This contrasts to the caste system which differentiates laws on the basis of caste.

The Buddha recognized the existence of caste in his society. He exhorted his followers, however, to emphasize the cultivation of moral character as an indication of self-worth. Caste or rather class in Buddhism arise due to human expediency, not divine sanction: it is a matter of vocation, not birth.

Caste is not static either. Like all existence, individual or collective, it is subject to change, interrelated and composite and conditioned by many interdependent factors. The seasons come and go, empires rise and fall and ancient communities perish. There is no “caste” other than the conditions giving rise to it.

Lastly, Buddhism left an important secular legacy for India. It inculcated a more humane ethic in politics (e.g. the reign of Ashoka). It formulated a social contract theory of government. It established inclusive social institutions such as universities, monasteries, and hospitals. Its appeal to reason, ethics and its concern for human well-being, can enlighten India yet.

 

Nanak Shah Fakir

nanak-shah

Written by Randeep Singh

In April 2015, Sikhs in India, UK and the United States, forced the withdrawal of the film Nanak Shah Fakir from cinemas. The film, a biopic on the founder of Sikhism, was objected to by Sikhs and Sikh organizations on the grounds that filmic representations of Guru Nanak are prohibited. I became aware that this film was banned just a few days back when I was speaking with an old acquaintance about the current state of cinema in India.

I doubt that the depiction of Nanak was prohibited given that there was no film in Nanak’s day, and given how he is depicted with abandon by Sikhs in paintings and images obviously not sanctioned by him.

Jesus has been depicted in films like The Passion of Christ. Muhammad has been depicted in films like The Messenger. Why prohibit films on Nanak? It is so that Sikh religious institutions, and members of the Sikh community, can maintain a particular, sanitized image of Nanak for themselves. They refuse to admit Nanak was a human being or anything less than divine.

Sikhs and non-Sikhs should welcome films and literature that furthers understanding of historical figures like Nanak. Surely the life of the subcontinents great historical personalities – whether Nanak, Amir Khusrao or the Buddha – deserve to be known better.

The director of Nanak Shah Fakir, Sartaj Singh Pannu, stated in November last year, that he would release the film with amendments. It makes me wonder just what protestors in cinemas like those in Wolverhampton found so objectionable in Nanak Shah Fakir? The refusal to conform to officially standardized representations of Nanak?  The nerve to ask questions? Surely, Nanak, someone who in the traditional accounts, traveled far, encountered new ideas and debated vigorously against religious leaders, still has a lesson to teach to today’s self-appointed guardians of faith and culture.

India Wins Freedom – The Maulana Speaks

freedom53

Written by Randeep Singh

The complete text of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s India Wins Freedom was not released until 1988. Until then, Azad (1888-1958) had withheld his personal comments on the responsibility of Vallabhbhai Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi for the Partition of India.[1]

The “founder of Indian partition,” was Patel, says Azad. Patel saw partition as a way to eliminate the Muslim League from Indian politics. He found it impossible and frustrating to work with the League’s members as part of an interim government and “openly said that he was prepared to have a part of India if only he could get rid of the Muslim League.”

While Nehru was less enthusiastic about partition, he became gloomy about the prospects of working with the Muslim League in government and acquiesced to the idea of partition.

Nehru sowed other seeds too. Congress had approved a plan proposed by the British cabinet to create a federation of Indian states with guarantees of provincial autonomy (including Muslim majority areas). This only just placated the Muslim League, says Azad. Nehru however proclaimed that Congress would be free to modify the plan as it wished. This alienated the Muslim League so as to make any further negotiations with Congress pointless.

The “greatest shock” for Azad was the Mahatma’s change in his attitude toward the Partition. The apostle for Hindu-Muslim unity gradually became less vehement in his opposition to Partition. Indeed, Gandhi became convinced that partition was inevitable after his suggestion to invite Jinnah to form the government was flatly rejected by Nehru and Patel.

What I found most illuminating about “India Wins Freedom” is Azad’s prescience regarding what the Partition meant for India’s future. Partition did not solve India’s communal problem; it lodged it permanently in the Indian psyche. In accepting Partition, Patel and Nehru had endorsed the Two Nations Theory. How then were they any different from Jinnah?

“India won her freedom, but lost her unity,” says Azad. It’s worth remembering 69 years on, that those who get the credit for winning India’s freedom should also bear the blame for dividing it.

Further Reading:

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, India Wins Freedom (Orient Longman: Hyderabad, 1988).

[1] Azad was the longest serving President of the Indian National Congress before 1947 and served as independent India’s first Minister of Education. He narrated his experiences in India Wins Freedom in Urdu between 1955 to 1957 to Humayun Kabir who transcribed and translated them into English.