Devdutt Pattanaik: Historians too should share the blame for the rise of religious radicalism

It is easy to blame radical politicians and religious leaders for igniting the spark. But let’s not forget those who fuel the fire.

As a child, when I visited Jagannath temple of Puri in Odisha, my mother told me how Kalapahada, a Muslim king, had attacked and destroyed much of the temple. She added how Ma Mangala, the local Thakurani (village goddess), protected the shrine, and forced Kalapahada to retreat. Eight such Thakuranis guard the temple, she told me. I was filled with awe at the image of warrior-goddesses riding lions and tigers, protecting the grand temple complex that was at the heart of my cultural inheritance.

Years later, during a tour of South Indian temples, I heard a similar tale, of a Muslim warlord called Malik Kafur who attacked and desecrated the shrines of Madurai and Srirangam. The narration had details of a fascinating adventure embarked upon by local priests who went all the way to Delhi, disguised as singers and dancers, impressed the Muslim ruler there, and convinced him to return their sacred icons. In some stories, a Muslim princess follows them and ends up deified as the Muslim consort of a Hindu deity. Were these pre-modern attempts to reconcile communal rivalry?

Over time I encountered similar tales in Ujjain, Mathura, Kashi, Ayodhya, Kolhapur, Somnath and Kashmir. Most of these stories had many self-evident internal inaccuracies and contradictions. Such is the nature of orally transmitted lore. What was interesting is not what was said, but how it was said.

There was never any rage or bitterness in my mother’s voice, or any sense of victimhood, when she narrated the story. She did not want me to hate Kalapahada, or Muslims. In fact, she almost seemed to justify Kalapahada’s action by telling me how he was actually a Hindu who was stopped by orthodox priests from entering the temple as he had either married a Muslim girl he loved, or had been forced to convert to Islam by his captors. This made him angry, because he loved Jagannath too much, and that is what made him a monster. The point of the narration, for my mother, was to impress upon me, how the glory of Jagannath survives despite all attacks and misfortunes, which is why we must have faith in him, cling to him as a raft in tempestuous waters. In other words, the narration was rooted in the paradigm of karma.

Image credit: Bernard Gagnon [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Image credit: Bernard Gagnon [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Justice for the gods

Karma, however, is often mocked in educated circles. In lecture after lecture, for the past 20 years, I have encountered young students who present a common understanding of karma rooted in colonial and missionary discourse. Reduced to fatalism and determinism, karma is seen as a cultural excuse for maintaining caste hegemony and social stagnation, one that must be abandoned. It is never seen as a key factor for Hindu tolerance, the ability to reconcile with change and diversity.

Students of modern education are trained to be scientific and rational in their thinking. This demands rejecting the paradigm of karma and embracing the paradigm of justice, equality and revolution. We are told the latter is the rational way, the right way. No one points to the underlying Abrahamic “saviour” complex.

Revolution is seen as anti-determinism, anti-fatalism, anti-karma – as something that determines progress, and grants freedom. This makes it “the good fight”. This paradigm fuelled national building as we rose up against imperial powers, and did not just accept them. It led the founding fathers of our country, many of them lawyers trained in England, to challenge what was claimed to be old traditional (karmic? regressive?) modes of thinking and establish a constitution that would create the Idea of India. Sadly, it had unintended consequences.

What was embraced by the Left was also embraced by the Right. If the Left saw the immediate past as oppressive, the Right saw the medieval past as oppressive. If the Left sought justice and equality for the poor and the marginalised, the Right sought justice and equality for Hindu gods whose houses, they believed, had been torn down by Muslim kings and whose doctrines, they argued, had been mutilated by colonial scholars. Those who demanded an end to Brahminical privileges on grounds that they had enslaved the Dalits for centuries started being challenged by those who demanded an end to what they called state-sponsored appeasement for Muslims who, they argued, had enslaved India for a thousand years, and who had, they pointed out, wiped out all trace of Hinduism, and Buddhism, in Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and now Kashmir.

Educated members of the Right saw temple lore not in terms of karma and devotion, but as memories of social injustice. They started demanding equal treatment for Ram, and Krishna. Temple discourse was systematically changed. It was no longer about the glory of stoic and wise gods, who patiently watched the rise and fall and rise of their temples, but of devotees who wanted the glory of their gods to be restored. Hindu religious leaders who during the Freedom Struggle focussed on rediscovering and popularising Hindu philosophy were recruited to speak of the lost glory of Hinduism to evoke a sense of victimhood in their disciples and followers in India and abroad. For the Right knows, like the Left, there can be no revolutions unless there is a festering wound, and a villain.

 Jannat al-Baqi in Medina Saudi Arabia. Image credit: Mardetanha [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Jannat al-Baqi in Medina Saudi Arabia. Image credit: Mardetanha [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Truth of the historians

Then came the historians. Armed with data, they claimed the Right was spreading lies, and all these temple lore, retold over generations, were myths. By myth they meant fiction. A few sensible historians prefer the use of the word imaginary, over fiction, or myth, for they realised that not a single religious “fact” however profound, from resurrection to prophethood, is based on measurable, verifiable, facts. Where one locates matters of faith, still remains a question. Rational extremists insist that all religious doctrine is essentially “fake news”. And you see this in the writings of many modern young, rather combative, historians, who want to prove that all Hindu temple lore are nothing but fabricated propaganda serving Right Wing radicals.

First, these modern historians argue that Muslim kings broke temples because temples were centres of wealth and power, and there was no religious motivation whatsoever. It had nothing to do with the Islamic contempt for shirk, or idolatry, and polytheism. These Muslim kings were actually mimicking their local Hindu counterparts, these historians argue, who were also breaking temples of rival Hindu rulers. It had all to do with wealth and power, not Ram or Allah. In other words, these historians separate the political from the religious.

Second, they point to the relative paucity of archaeological evidence of temple desecration, disproportionately low compared to the perception whipped up by temple lore. They provide evidence of how many temples were given grants by Muslim kings, how many Hindu officers worked for Muslim kings, and Muslim officers worked for Hindu kings, almost indicating the total absence of bigotry – or, at best, prevalence of cynical secularism that uses religion as a lever to secure rules, breaking and building temples and mosques as per convenience.

Third, they argue that biographers of Muslim kings, not wanting their masters to appear greedy, draped the political action with a religious cloak, and went on to highly exaggerate the extent of the plunder, describing in gory details how Hindus were killed or enslaved or converted for the glory of Islam. Writing of such hagiographies began 800 years ago, and continued for nearly 500 years.

Finally, these historians show how, during the British Raj, colonial historians who were the first to apply scientific methods in the study of history, had prejudices of their own. Their uncritical examination of the hagiographies of Indo-Muslim rulers helped them to establish the idea that India was plundered and enslaved by Muslims. This was to discredit the local kings and to establish the East India Company as saviours. Later, this became a lever in their divide-and-rule policy. This discourse contributed greatly to the demands for Pakistan, the partition of India, and the clamour for Hindu Rashtra, cherished by those who subscribe to the Hindutva doctrine.

This separation of the religious from the political by historians is an interesting exercise. It almost grants legitimacy to temple breaking. It does not distinguish the difference between breaking of Hindu temples by Hindu rulers, who would move the images to their own private temples (not as trophies, but as deities), and Hindu temples by Muslim rulers, who would not do the same. For example, in Puri Jagannath temple complex, the guides point to images placed in minor temples, with full fledged rituals and priests of their own, that were as per temple lore brought by kings of Puri from Kanchi in the South after a great battle. Did Sikandar Butshikan, who 500 years ago broke the Martand temple (dedicated to the sun-god) in Kashmir, do the same?

Babri masjid being demolished on December 6, 1992. Image credit: Vimeo
Babri masjid being demolished on December 6, 1992. Image credit: Vimeo

Not bigots but cynics

If non-religious but merely political breaking of Hindu temples is not such a big deal, could it be argued that the breaking of Babri Masjid, had it happened in medieval times, would have been fine as long as it was a Hindutva, hence political, exercise, and not a Hindu, hence religious, one?

Right now, holy and historical monuments around Kaaba in the holy city of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, are being torn down to make way for five-star hotels. This is being done by the local government, and the royal family, who are guardians of the shrine. Protests by Shia Muslims and historians of Islam are falling on deaf ears.

Are these religious actions of the Wahabi theocracy, or simply economic activity to cater to the vast number of pilgrims entering the holy city, as is being claimed? Will these historians declare mosque-breaking in Mecca legitimate if inspired by economic ambition, may be even political, but illegitimate if inspired by religious sentiments? If it is alright for Muslims to break mosques, can Hindus break mosques too? Or will such thoughts be dismissed as false equivalence, and reckless whataboutery?

Many have argued that Islam is being treated with kid gloves in academic circles, almost the same way as so-called “cow protectors” seem to be treated by the current government. While it is perfectly fine for educated liberals of the West to mock Christianity or even (pagan?) Hinduism, the very same people take pains not to appear Islamophobic, going to the extent of arguing that hijab is empowering. Why, Saudi Arabia has even been included by United Nations Women’s Rights Commission.

I wonder if this has something to do with collective Euro-American guilt at turning a blind eye to the Holocaust or to the role the West played in establishing the Jewish state of Israel in Muslim-controlled regions thus triggering the Palestinian tragedy that haunts us to this day. Or does it have to do with American military interests in West Asia – what they call the Middle East. After all, only in the United States, are educational institutes mapped on geographical grounds, mirroring military divisions. Thus we have Departments for South Asian, or for African, studies, for example.

Balustrade entrance to ornate open mantapa at Vittala temple, Hampi. Image credit: Dineshkannambadi [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Balustrade entrance to ornate open mantapa at Vittala temple, Hampi. Image credit: Dineshkannambadi [CC BY-SA 3.0]

If these modern historian commentaries on pre-modern history is to be believed, then religion played no role in the fall of the Vijayanagar empire in the 16th century at the hands of the Deccani sultans. Likewise, the rise of the Maratha Empire spearheaded by Shivaji in the 17th century was recast as religious only during the freedom struggle, not before. And kings like Tipu Sultan were just complex politicians, destroying some temples, supporting others, and cynically using Islam only to make alliances with the Ottoman Empire, never letting their private faith interfere with their public policies.

It almost seems these historians are trying to tell us that modern secularism is a re-discovery of medieval secularism, and that religious fanaticism is a recent invention. Medieval Muslim – or Hindu – kings, were not bigots. Religion played no role in their decisions. That is like saying that religion played no role in the migration of Protestants to America, or in the rise of England as a nation-state. Or that Evangelical Christianity plays no role in the political decisions of Singapore and South Korea. Or that religion was not the core issue for the Crusades, that horrific war between Christians and Muslims that lasted for centuries.

This character-certificate-giving approach of some modern historians, who it would seem, like to see themselves as warriors against fake news, makes me wonder how scientific these historians are in attitude. Why do they seem to function with an agenda in mind? Why do their writings appear to presuppose a villain over whom they are trying to intellectually triumph? Does that not make them activists, rather than social scientists?

Scholarship in the humanities has today become about identifying privilege and exploitation. It is about reframing the past in terms of injustice and inequality. It is driven by the demand for social justice. There is an increasingly evangelical tone in historical writing, as if to assert relevance, and guarantee research grants.

Recently, there was news of local Indian historians who traced vast metal bells taken from Portuguese churches and placed in Hindu temples by Maratha warlords. From all accounts in the public domain, these historians have neither tried to give their scholarship a communal twist as the Right tends to do, nor have they pretended to to call this a secular exercise, as the Left tends to do. There is an acknowledgment of the intense Maratha-Portuguese rivalry along the Konkan coast 300 years ago, but there is no attempt to define the battles as political, economic, or religious – or to declare them legitimate or illegitimate. It is simply acknowledging a historical fact, and letting the readers wonder about motivation and drive. There is no defendant or prosecution here, just a tone of mature scholarship, aware of contemporary political realities.

Naro Shankar Ghanta on Banks of River Godavari. Image credit: IANS Photo
Naro Shankar Ghanta on Banks of River Godavari. Image credit: IANS Photo

History, myth and memory

Culture is not shaped only by history. It is also shaped by memory of people. And their myths, their truths, their notions of God and pollution, which inform their identity. In the quest for what they define as truth, smug historians remain clueless about emotions that cannot be captured in epigraphy or archaeology, which carry forward over generations in complex ways. Will those historians eager to see Ashoka’s edicts as truth, not royal propaganda, also see Modi’s ‘mann ki baat’ as the material on the basis of which he has to be understood by future generations?

As I write this essay, I am well aware that the Left will slot me as a Hindu sympathiser (which is true) hence Hindu fanatic (which is false). But it is important to spotlight the deep and dark and insidious prejudice of many scholars in the humanities, who have reduced science into religion and rationality into activism. Let us not forget that words like “developed”, “progress” and “privilege” are not factual, but emotive adjectives, designed to manipulate the mind, enforce a value judgement and evoke a particular kind of reaction. Political correctness is an obstacle to systematic thought. It stops us from understanding the root cause of crisis in contemporary times. Missionary zeal of historians often mimics the missionary zeal of Christian Evangelists. Both want to save the world with truth. They just differ on what truth is.

To dismiss emotions of a people, to reduce what my mother told me as “fake news”, or seen as no different from Right Wing propaganda, can be very annoying. Mocking a community’s cherished truths as disingenuous and inauthentic can irritate the most mature and sensible of people of that community who understand the complex nature of inherited communication. When this irritation dips into rage, rationality evaporates. And that is when the politician sweeps in and argues for a “post-truth” world, where the traditional is respected in the most grotesque way.

As the world hurtles towards rage and violence, a sense of misunderstanding prevails. It is easy to blame radical politicians and religious leaders for igniting the spark. But let these truth-seeking academicians who create a storm over memory and myth in the name of objectivity also take responsibility for collecting the fuel.

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