Historian DN Jha says that his new book Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History aims to challenge the depiction of the “ancient period of Indian history as a golden age marked by social harmony devoid of any religious violence”. This purported era of peace, he says, enables Hindutva ideologues to “portray the middle ages as…a reign of terror unleashed by the Muslim rulers on Hindus”.

There is no doubt that religious sects in ancient India were accommodative of each other. But it is just as true that Brahminical sects “bore huge animosity towards the two heterodox religions, Buddhism and Jainism”, Jha writes. This rancour resulted in attacks and the appropriation of Buddhist and Jain sacred places.

These facts seem to be at odds with India’s school-level history textbooks, which have been written – at least until recently – to promote what Delhi University professor Upinder Singh in her recent book Political Violence in Ancient India described as “the idealised Nehru model of the ancient Indian past...one in which Buddhism, Ashoka, nonviolence, and cosmopolitanism had a pride of place”. Hindutva ideologues have exploited this myth to portray the iconoclasm of Muslim rulers as a total reversal of India’s civilisational norms. Implicitly, therefore, Against the Grain highlights the problems of writing history, especially for schoolchildren.

A history of religious violence

Jha marshals a wide array of examples to show the enormous scale of religious violence in ancient India. For example, in the 7th century, King Shashanka cut the down Bodhi tree, under which Buddha gained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, and replaced the Buddha’s statue with that of Shiva in a local temple.

Seven centuries earlier, in 185 BCE, Pushyamitra Shunga overthrew the Buddhist Mauryan dynasty, destroyed the Ashokan pillared hall and the Kukutarama monastery in Pataliputra. He is also said to have vandalised the famous Sanchi Stupa, burnt down the Ghositaram monastery in Kaushambi, and killed Buddhist monks wantonly. As a consequence, the Buddhist Sanskrit work, Divyavadana, describes him as the “great persecutor” of Buddhists.

National Council of Educational Research and Training textbook speaks of the Sanchi Stupa's construction plan but fail to mention that it was vandalised by Shunga king Pushyamitra. (Credit: Sumit12smart / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0)

In present-day Uttar Pradesh, a Brahminical appropriation of Buddhist sites occurred in Sarnath, the site of Buddha’s first sermon. For instance, the Main Shrine was built on the ruins of a destroyed Ashokan stupa in the Gupta period. In Sravasti, a Buddhist site was appropriated to build a temple with Ramayana panels. Mathura’s Katra Mound had been a sacred Buddhist site in the first century CE, as had been the spots where the temples of Bhuteshwar and Gokarneshwar stand today.

Kalhana’s Rajatarangini mentions Jalauka, a Shaivite king, destroying Buddhist monasteries even when the Mauryan emperor Ashoka was likely alive. Kalhana refers to king Nara burning thousands of monasteries in retaliation against a monk who had seduced his wife. The 10th-century ruler Kshemagupta destroyed a Buddhist monastery to build the Kshemagaurishvara temple.

There were bitter ideological battles. For instance, Sanskrit grammarian Patanjali, in Mahabhashya, likens the relationship between “Shramanas [Buddhists and Jains] and Brahmanas” to that between the snake and the mongoose. The 12th century Jain scholar Hemachandra denounced the ancient code of law Manusmriti on the grounds that it supported ritual violence. Vaishnava poet-saint Tirumankai stole a large golden image of Buddha from a stupa in Nagapattinam and melted it for reuse in a temple Vishnu had commissioned him to build. The hagiographies of the Lingayat saint Basava speak of the slaughter of Jains and the appropriation of their temples by his followers.

These are just some of the examples taken from Jha’s list of religious sites that were appropriated or destroyed, making it clear that ancient India witnessed a level of religious violence that was certainly not insignificant. However, this is barely evident in the National Council of Education Research and Training’s textbooks prescribed for India’s Class 12 students.

What the textbooks leave unsaid

For instance, though Themes in Indian History – Part I speaks of the construction plan of the famous Sanchi Stupa and deciphers its sculptures for students, there is no mention of Pushyamitra vandalising the shrine.

Part I describes various sects participating in philosophical debates that were deemed democratic and civilised. “If a philosopher succeeded in convincing one of his rivals, the followers of the latter also became his disciples,” it observes. “So support for any particular sect could grow and shrink over time.” However, students are not told about how Buddhists were killed for challenging Brahminism.

This lacuna is partly offset by a passage in Themes in Indian History – Part II. “Those who valued Vedic traditions” condemned the practices that did not involve sacrifices or the precise chanting of mantras, it says. Their “relations with other traditions, such as Buddhism and Jainism, were also often fraught with tension if not open conflict”, the passage notes.

Part II also says that “one of the major themes in Tamil bhakti hymns is the poets’ opposition to Buddhism and Jainism”. An explanatory sentence follows: “Historians have attempted to explain this hostility by suggesting that it was due to competition between members of other religious traditions for royal patronage.”

Yet, the picture of the past that Part I and Part II create is far removed from the one Jha paints – contestations that often snowballed into violence, destruction and appropriation of places of worship of those sects that lost royal patronage, as Buddhism and Jainism gradually did.

The underplaying of religious violence is equally true of Part II, which mostly deals with the Muslim rulers who came later. “Several” Muslim rulers are credited with granting land endowments and tax exemptions to non-Islamic religious institutions. One sentence names two Mughal emperors – Akbar and Aurangzeb – for making such grants.

Aurangzeb and the siege of Golconda, 1687. The history taught in schools paints a picture of a harmonious ancient India till the arrival of the Muslim rulers. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

That, indeed, is a fact. But Part II mostly glosses over Aurangzeb’s reign, including his destruction of temples. It does mention jizya, which is defined as a tax paid by followers of “revealed scriptures, such as the Jews and Christians” for gaining the “right to be protected by Muslims”. It adds, “As you will see, rulers such as the Mughals came to regard themselves as emperors of not just Muslims but of all peoples.” A sentence crediting Akbar for abolishing jizya in 1564 is followed by another saying Aurangzeb re-imposed it.

Certainly, these few sentences do not provide a perspective to students on whether it was fair to impose jizya and Aurangzeb’s motivation in reversing Akbar’s abolition of it. Part II says the sultans of Bijapur, Golconda and Ahmadnagar joined forces to sack Vijayanagar in 1565. The treatment is too cursory for students to grasp whether people like Nobel laureate VS Naipaul have tenable reasons to nurse a deep grievance against those who turned Vijayanagar into a ruin.

Growing up on a myth

Apart from reinforcing the model of a harmonious past in the hope of creating a peaceful present, the scholars who drafted the National Council of Education Research and Training’s policy perhaps believe contentious issues of religious differences, discrimination and conflict are just too sensitive for Class 12 students.

Yet, the irony is that Class 12 students are mostly 18 years or 17 years of age, already voters or months away from being able to exercise their franchise. Their voting decisions are supposed to be based on reasoned judgement. With history increasingly becoming a site of political contestations, their school books do not equip them to engage with contentious ideas such as Muslim rule having been a “reign of terror”.

The knowledge of history that most people have is confined to what they read in school. They grow up with the myth that India was free of religious conflict until the arrival of the Muslims. This is precisely why even middle-class Hindus are susceptible to political campaigns built around stories about the persecution of Hindus by Muslim rulers.

India’s text books have created a history, however true, that is out of sync with a remembered past that has been crafted and popularised to fan hatred. This notion of the past is not interrogated in textbooks.

School is, of course, just one aspect of a student’s social milieu. On hearing the incessant chatter, particularly from parents and friends, about the violence that Muslim rulers perpetrated against Hindus, an 18-year-old cannot be faulted for thinking that the writers of schoolbooks practise deception through concealment.

In the preface of Against the Grain, Jha writes that his book is “addressed to the people who are vulnerable to the balderdash of the Hindu Right”. Once acquainted with knowledge of sectarian fissures and conflicts in the first millennium, India’s young students will be equipped to perceive the religious policies of Muslim rulers as a continuation of the norms that had long prevailed. Against the Grain should be the model for writing history textbooks for schools.