Sanitizing Temple Destruction

Meenakshi Jain

 

The author is a historian and professor at Delhi University. This article first appeared online at Sulekha Columns in 2001 (reproduced with the author’s permission).

 

Politics may or may not be the art of the possible, but historical writing on the Muslim community in India is certainly fast approaching that exalted state. It is truly extraordinary that as echoes of jihad reverberate through the subcontinent, Western and Marxist scholarship should be desperately segregating present battles from past contests and in the process, wilfully exonerating Muslims of acts of commission traditionally laid at their door. The sanitization of Islam’s public profile is all the more intriguing given the West’s own growing preoccupation with problems of fundamentalism and terrorism.

Be that as it may, there is a continuing thread between India’s historic experience and contemporary predicament, which we can ignore only at our peril. At the heart of the matter is the long drawn-out unresolved and stalemated civilizational struggle, which refuses to blow away, and in fact demands final resolution. This is not simply a clichéd clash between Islamic monotheism and Hindu polytheism as is made out in standard accounts on the subject. The issue is far more visceral, which explains both its extended duration and bearing on mankind.

Scholars of religion would see merit in the proposition that India is the last refuge of a once universal spiritual tradition that has everywhere been replaced by Semitism of varying varieties. Given that Islam is the extreme form of Semitism and India the greatest expression of ‘paganism’, the formula of accommodation can logically have no appeal for the former. This remains the painful reality, however well historians may camouflage it.

The intolerance of idolatry was first exhibited in Arabia and by the Prophet Mohammad, who had never set eyes on India. That was the inexorable logic of the religious movement he had set in motion. (Muslims, like many others, confused the Hindu practice of image worship with idolatry. Hindus were never idolaters. The image was always perceived as a means of focusing on the Almighty, it was never equated with the Almighty. Elaborate rules governed the consecration of a statue into an image of worship, and its disposal in case of damage).

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Since the issue of temple destruction has acquired a fresh leash of life in the wake of the Babri Masjid–Ram Janmabhoomi controversy, it is understandable that academics should have directed their considerable talents to clearing up this particularly messy bit of the past. It is not possible here to take note of the rich literature generated on this vexatious issue. A reference to Richard Eaton’s essay on ‘Temple Desecration and Indo-Muslim States’, published in his book, Essays on Islam and Indian History (OUP 2000), would suffice to highlight the main theses of this genre of historical writing.

The preliminary argument expounded holds faulty use of Persian chronicles and treatises responsible for the unflattering depiction of Muslims down the ages. British administrator-scholars, so the story goes, consciously produced inaccurate translations of Persian texts in a bid to contrast their beneficent rule with that of their bigoted and intolerant predecessors. The historical truth, present-day apologists of Muslims argue, is that Persian chroniclers of medieval times widely exaggerated and sometimes even invented, the temple-demolition sprees of their patrons.

But surely this raises more questions than it solves. One does not need to be communally-minded to infer that desecration of Hindu holy sites was held to be meritorious activity in the entire Muslim world, which is why the writers in question felt the need to glorify such acts, whether they actually took place or not. Certainly, even the most pro-Muslim historian would be hard put to name a single medieval writer of whatever stature, who disapproved of such vandalism or regarded it as un-Islamic. Further, the fact of a level of destruction is not contested by any scholar, though there is debate on its possible motives.

Pertinent in this context is the Muslim community’s perception of the manner of its spread in the subcontinent, and the pivotal role played by temple destruction in the ‘remembered past’ of the Muslim state and people. Local legends invariably eulogize a small band of the faithful who arrive as torch-bearers of the faith in the hostile terrain and face the resistance of the infidel populace. The ensuing bitter struggle climaxes in the take-over of the area temple by the army of Mohammad, its transformation into a mosque, and the conversion of the principal pagan leaders to Islam. The mosque thereafter serves as the disseminator of Islam in that region, in course of time contributing to the establishment of a sizeable Muslim population in the environs. However modern historians may interpret such narratives, they are indicative of the Muslim community’s preferred account of its expansion.

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The ingenuity of modern scholarship is most severely put to test in the case of Mahmud Ghazni. Even in the Muslim world, it is difficult to rival his record in temple destruction, he belonging to a breed apart. Yet we are asked to believe that these were ‘secular exploits,’ waged with a view to financing political ambitions in Khurasan. His plunder of Iranian cities is cited in defence of this argument. But, sceptics may well ask, did he also attack Muslim sacred architecture in erstwhile Persia? Further, what fraction of the wealth of India was actually concentrated in temples, and what proportion did it constitute of Mahmud’s total haul from this country? Did the indemnity and spoils of war from Indian princes not far exceed the loot from temples? If wealth to pursue an expansionist programme were all that was needed, would not the booty obtained from Hindu rajas have sufficed?

Since temple destruction did not cease with Mahmud Ghazni, this is obviously not a wholly viable interpretation of events. Indeed, every single Muslim ruler after him till Aurangzeb indulged in this pastime, with similar or lesser frequency. So, modern scholarship defines temple destruction in this era as a purely political activity intended to ‘de-legitimize and extirpate’ defeated Hindu ruling houses. Scholars like Eaton argue that it was only in instances where Hindu rulers had linked their political authority to royally patronized temples that destruction was resorted to. This activism, he says, was not prompted by the ‘theology of iconoclasm’, but by the desire to sweep away all ‘prior political authority’ in the newly conquered territory. Further, Eaton says, attacks on images patronized by enemy kings was well integrated into Indian political behaviour from the sixth century AD itself, long before the Islamic advent in the subcontinent. The Muslims, he contends, only followed and continued established subcontinental norms.

This is a skilful dressing-up of events, but alas, grievously faulty on many counts. As is abundantly obvious, its fundamental thrust is to reduce, if not altogether eliminate the religious dimension in the world-view of Muslim conquerors. But the supposed secular orientation of the Sultans is not easy to reconcile with their consistent endeavours to remain on the right side of Islam’s religious divines. Logically, the goodwill of the latter entailed compromise with the former stance. The two were diametrically opposed perspectives.

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Indeed, Eaton himself draws attention to the intimate links forged between Muslim religious divines (he mainly focuses on the Chishti Sufi order) and the Islamic state. In every instance of the establishment of a Muslim state in the subcontinent, Muslim divines, he says, injected a legitimizing ‘substance’ into the newly created body politic at the moment of its birth.

It would be natural to infer from the steady association of Sufis with Islamic state formation that Muslim empires had a pronounced religious dimension. In the Hindu world, by contrast, religion and state never acquired such a symbiotic relationship, there being few instances, if any, of Hindu pundits actively participating in state formation. Separation of religion and state was a fact in the Hindu world from the very outset. Certainly, its spiritual leaders did not pontificate on matters of state or on the policies to be pursued vis-à-vis state subjects belonging to other denominations. Buddhist bhikshus, for instance, never advised Emperor Ashoka on his dealings with his Hindu subjects, just as Brahmins refrained from directing the initiatives of Gupta kings towards the sanghas.

Further, though Hindu rulers patronized temples, they did not uproot existing modes of worship or impose their own favourite gods on their people. In a significant number of cases, in fact, they elevated already existing local deities, a phenomena which accounts for the great spurt in temple building from the 6th century onwards, that Eaton refers to. Lord Jagannath, widely acknowledged as the state deity of Orissa, was, for instance, originally worshipped among some tribal communities, and was later adopted as the regional deity by successive ruling dynasties.

Even if it is conceded that temples had become sites for ‘contestation of kingly authority’ before the coming of Muslims, the fact remains that Hindu kings were thereby attempting to appropriate the identity symbols of their rivals, and not to crush or destroy them, as in the case of Muslim conquerors. The difference in the two intentions is important.

It is also not inappropriate to question why Muslim rulers fighting rival Muslim contenders never vandalized Muslim sacred architecture, sponsored or patronized by the enemy party. If temples were destroyed merely to ‘sweep away’ prior political authority, mosques, mazhars, dargas and madrasas associated with renegade, rebellious or usurper Muslims should have been meted the same fate. That this was not so was because they were part of a shared religious culture that was common to Muslims on both sides of the political divide. Hindu temples, not partaking of this spiritual tradition, and in fact constituting the despised ‘other’ in Muslim theological discourse, inevitably met a different end.

Lastly, Prof. Eaton makes the point, that once the territory of a Hindu raja was incorporated into the Muslim realm, the temples within it were treated as state property and left unmolested. However, he hastens to add, that any suspicious activity on the part of the Hindu ex-ruler rendered the temples immediately vulnerable to attack.

Surely this admission exposes the chinks in Prof. Eaton’s argument. If, as he had earlier claimed, Muslim Sultans attacked temples because they were a source of legitimacy, then surely the link between the Hindu ruler and the temple had snapped on annexation of the kingdom and its absorption into the Muslim dominion. Why then was this form of punishment now resorted to? Such behaviour on the part of Muslim sovereigns is eloquent testimony to the hollowness of the so-called synthesis that allegedly evolved under their dispensation. It is farcical to talk of a Hindu-Muslim political, material and spiritual culture when the first and set response of every Muslim ruler on however slender a pretext, was to attack the holy sites of their infidel subjects.

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What emerges starkly from the tour de force of modern scholars on temple destruction in medieval India is that though the motives of the Muslim Sultans may have ‘evolved’ and ‘advanced’ over the centuries, there was no variation in the end result. On the admission of modern scholars, be it financing expansionist programmes, consolidating political authority, punishing formerly loyal Hindu princes, Muslim rulers without exception responded with one standard solution — temple destruction. It is astounding that modern scholarship should gloss over this fact.

Further, the issue of temple destruction cannot be relegated to the backburner, given its hold on the Muslim psyche. In the last half century, temple destruction has been liberally indulged in, in Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Kashmir Valley, to name just three prominent arenas. Since Muslims constitute the dominant majority and political community in all the three areas and face no threat from the Hindus, temple desecration here cannot rightly be attributed to the alleged political compulsion to contain infidels.

Leftist Indians who talk of the futility of righting medieval wrongs exhibit complete insensitivity to the fact that temple destruction is not just a past hobby in the Muslim world, but a continuing modern trend, and that, its underlying motivation is religious not political. What makes the Babri episode so galling for Muslims is that it constitutes a rare instance of them being at the receiving end, though even here Hindu actors in the drama had taken care to select a non-functional masjid as the ground on which to join this issue.

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The Islamic problem in India cannot however, be reduced to a single point issue of temple destruction. That was only symptomatic of the deep chasm between the two antithetical belief systems. Genuine synthesis was never a feasible proposition given the Muslim religious fraternity’s profound horror and disdain of native traditions. No school of Islamic theology in the subcontinent ever advocated dialogue, much less rapprochement with the native faiths, which is the pre-requisite of a synthetic culture. Hinduism and Islam were never placed on an equal footing throughout the period of Muslim political domination.

Scholars who treat Muslim rule as just one of the routine dynastic shuffles in India show inadequate appreciation of the cataclysmic nature of the change that occurred in 1196 AD with the establishment of the first Islamic state in the subcontinent. Hindu and Buddhist rule never acquired the brutal edge that remained the trademark of Muslim domination; they never entailed forcible conversions, the imposition of a foreign political elite or the ascendancy of an alien language and culture. India had known foreign rulers in her ancient past as well, but they had completely immersed themselves in the spirit of the land and become propagators of her civilizational greatness. No one can honestly claim that Muslim rulers sought to emulate such predecessors.

By now sufficient documentary evidence exits of the Muslim religious classes’ resolve and determination to ensure that Islam retained its pristine purity in this land. Scholars who harp on the Hindu practices of Muslim converts refer to an interim period during which such behavioural patterns were gradually replaced by Islamic ones. Though one can list endless number of Muslim revivalist movements, one is hard put to name any that advocated that the faith strike local roots.

On the basis of available evidence, it is difficult to support the contention of Marxist scholars that a composite culture eventually evolved in the land. It would, however, be equally erroneous to conclude that either faith triumphed over the other. The implicit struggle resumed during colonial rule with the overwhelming majority of Muslims refusing to countenance the possibility of Hindu political ascendancy. Partition flowed from the logic of events, but in the nature of things it, too, was an expression of the continuing civilizational deadlock. The Hindu political community in independent India fudged the larger dimension of the struggle and embarked on a policy of identity-dilution and Muslim appeasement. In other words, it ensured the continuation of the civilizational stalemate, rather than its termination. This monumental lapse of the Indian political elite has facilitated Islam’s burning quest to re-join battle with its millennial foe. Kashmir is an expression of that renewed struggle, as is the silence of most Indian Muslims on this new theatre of the war.

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Viewed in the context of implacable Islamic hostility towards paganism and the expansionist nature of the faith, Pakistan’s policies towards India assume a frightening coherence. Its espousal of the cause of Kashmiri Muslims and silence on Muslims in the rest of India is indicative both of its strategy and objective. It stands to reason that if Muslim rights are ensured in the rest of India, they cannot be endangered in Kashmir, where in any case, the Muslims are treated by the Indian state as more equal than their co-religionists in the rest of the country. Clearly this dimension of the problem needs to be explicated.

Today, there is a two-way battle being fought in the Indian subcontinent. There is, most prominently, the old millennial struggle between Islam and the kafirs. Less noticed, but not less crucial, is the contest between predominantly Sunni pan-Islamism with its international dimension and disdain of local cultures and a non-Sunni Islam that is wary of being swamped by the former and in search of allies and indigenous links. This latter Islam is yet very much a fledgling struggling for survival. Not surprisingly, its pre-eminent exponent hails from the strife-torn state of Jammu & Kashmir, where both the battles are acutely joined. He is the state’s present Chief Minister, Dr. Farooq Abdullah.

 
       
 
 
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