The earliest, indeed the very first, dialogue between a Muslim scientist and Hindu thought took place when Albiruni (971-1039) arrived in India in the second decade of the eleventh century in circumstances that were rather ironical. He came as a camp follower of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni (967-1030). Whereas the chief purpose of Sultan Mahmud, the king of Ghazni, was to plunder the immense wealth in the form of gold and money at some of the more famous Hindu temples, the sole aim of Albiruni was to gain from the immense riches of Indian philosophies and the sciences.

That was probably also the time when Indian sciences had, on the whole, no longer anything of theoretical importance to add to their earlier great achievements. The most creative period of science in India was over by a century or two, perhaps. None of the sources Albiruni mentions in his Ta’rikh-ul-Hind was contemporary.

A man of rare intellect, and of rarer honesty, Albiruni diligently looked for the sources from which to study Indian thought, and mentions them in his India. He mentions Samkhya of Kapila and the Book of Patanjali, which, he tells us, he had himself translated into the Arabic. He studied the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, along with Vishnu Purana, Matsya Purana, Vayu Purana and Aditya Purana.

Some of these, especially the Samkhya philosophy, were also among the sources of scientific concepts and theories about the universe. Albiruni was greatly fascinated by Indian philosophy, as he was by Greek philosophy, and he came to believe that, in many respects, the two were alike.

It is well known that the popular mind leans towards the sensible world, and has an aversion to the world of abstract thought which is only understood by highly educated people, of whom in every time and every place there are only few. And as common people will only acquiesce in pictorial representation, many of the leaders of religious communities have so far deviated from the right path as to give such imagery in their books and houses of worship, like the Jews and Christians, and, more than all, Manichaeans.

From this common human tendency, Albiruni did not exclude Muslims.

These words of mine would at once receive a sufficient illustration if, for example, a picture of the Prophet were made, or of Mekka and the Ka’ba, and were shown to an uneducated man or woman. Their joy in looking at the thing would bring them to kiss the picture, to rub their cheeks against it, and to roll themselves in the dust before it, as if they were seeing not the picture, but the original, and were in this way, as if they were present in the holy places, performing the rites of pilgrimage, the great and the small ones.

And it is to that human tendency that he traced the beginning of idol-worship.

The true spirit of dialogue with the other is in wanting first to understand why. The Muslim in Albiruni was naturally averse to idol-worship among the Hindus, but the honest intellectual in him granted at once:

This is the cause which leads to the manufacture of idols, monuments in honour of certain much venerated persons, prophets, sages, angels, destined to keep alive their memory when they are absent or dead, to create for them a lasting place of grateful veneration in the hearts of men when they die.

From this he concluded:

But when much time passes by after the setting up of the monument, generations and centuries, its origin is forgotten, it becomes a matter of custom, and its veneration a rule for general practice. This being deeply rooted in the nature of man, the legislators of antiquity tried to influence them from this weak point of theirs. Therefore they made the veneration of pictures and similar monuments obligatory on them, as is recounted in historical records, both before and after the Deluge. Some people even pretend to know that all mankind, before God sent them his prophets, were one large idolatrous body.

But he quickly added that Hindus were not one large idolatrous body. Before proceeding “to explain the system and the theories of the Hindus on the subject”, and “their ludicrous views”, he said:

We declare at once that they are held only by the common uneducated people. For those who march on the path to liberation, or those who study philosophy and theology, and who desire abstract truth which they call sara, are entirely free from worshipping anything but God alone, and would never dream of worshipping an image manufactured to represent him.

To illustrate this, Albiruni narrates, as fully as in the Mahabharata, the story of King Ambarisha and god Indra.

To study Hindu astronomy, mathematics, chronology, geography and astrology, Albiruni consulted chiefly the works of Brahmagupta (c AD 598), Varahamihira (c AD 550), and the two Aryabhattas (c AD 476 and 950). He mentions Charaka Samhita, in an Arabic edition, as his source for learning about “Hindu” medicine; and a work on metrics. All these belonged to the earlier centuries.

Reaching out to the immense riches of the philosophic and scientific thought of the people who had by then come to be called “Hindus”, Albiruni also engaged in conversations with such men of learning among them that were willing to have a dialogue with him. To that undertaking, he found a most singular impediment – the language. In regard to that, Albiruni pointed out two things, and it is best to read him:

(i) If you want to conquer this difficulty (ie to learn Sanskrit), you will not find it easy, because the language is of an enormous range, both in words and inflections, something like the Arabic, calling one and the same thing by various names, both original and derived, and using one and the same word for a variety of subjects, which, in order to be properly understood, must be distinguished from each other by various qualifying epithets. For nobody could distinguish between the various meanings of a word unless he understands the context in which it occurs, and its relation both to the following and the preceding part of the sentence. The Hindus, like other people, boast of this enormous range of their language, whilst in reality it is a defect.

(ii) Add to this that the Indian scribes are careless, and do not take pains to produce correct and well-collated copies. In consequence, the highest results of the author’s mental development are lost by their negligence, and his book becomes already in the first or the second copy so full of faults, that the text appears as something entirely new, which neither a scholar nor one familiar with the subject, whether Hindu, or Muslim, could any longer understand. It will sufficiently illustrate the matter if we tell the reader that we have sometimes written down a word from the mouth of Hindus, taking the greatest pains to fix its pronunciation, and that afterwards when we repeated it to them, they had great difficulty in recognising it.

Albiruni spoke of a further, and the greater, impediment to a fruitful dialogue between Muslims and Hindus, which he described as follows:

The Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no kings like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs. They are haughty, foolishly vain, self-conceited, and stolid. They are by nature niggardly in communicating that which they know, and they take the greatest possible care to withhold it from men of another caste among their own people, still much more, of course, from any foreigner. According to their belief, there is no other country on earth but theirs, no other race of man but theirs, and no created beings besides them have any knowledge or science whatsoever...

...all their fanaticism is directed against those who do not belong to them – against all foreigners. They call them mlechha, ie impure, and forbid any connection with them, be it by intermarriage or any other kind of relationship, or by sitting, eating, and drinking with them, because thereby, they think, they would be polluted.

He qualified these observations by adding, “If they travelled and mixed with other nations, they would soon change their mind, for their ancestors were not as narrow-minded as the present generation is.”

Albiruni’s honest conclusions were honestly endorsed, at the end of the nineteenth century, by the man who came to be mostly looked upon as the dominant voice of renascent Hinduism – Swami Vivekananda. If attentively heard, his was a dominant voice in civilisational dialogue, which required each civilisation to have a dialogue with itself in the first place.

He was urging the Christian West to stop denigrating Indian civilisation and open itself to Indian thought and its universalism. But he was also reminding it that in the drunkenness of material prosperity, it had forgotten Jesus, and had to have a dialogue with itself, to consider whether the foundations upon which it was now building its civilisation were even Christian.

In most strident notes he was urging the Hindus to begin a dialogue with their self first, to reflect upon the causes of the sorry state their society had fallen into. He had independently come to the same conclusion as Albiruni had, that the Hindus were by nature reluctant to share knowledge, carefully withholding it from men of another caste among their own people, still much more from any foreigner, the mlechcha.

And it is to that primarily – the closed Hindu mind – that Vivekananda traced the downfall of India. He said: “India’s doom was sealed the very day they invented the word MLECHCHA and stopped from communion with others.”

And he spoke of that moral law, that “none can hate others without degenerating himself”, which, he said, India was the first to discover, and soon to violate.

Swami Vivekananda said:

To my mind, the one great cause of the downfall and degeneration of India was the building of a wall of custom – whose foundation was hatred of others – round the nation.

I am thoroughly convinced that no individual or nation can live by holding itself apart from the community of others, and whenever such an attempt has been made under false ideas of greatness, policy, or holiness – the result has always been disastrous to the secluding one.

Give and take is the law, and if India wants to raise herself once more, it is absolutely necessary that she brings out her treasures and throws them broadcast among the nations of the earth, and in return be ready to receive what others have to give her. Expansion is life, contraction is death. Love is life and hatred is death. We commenced to die the day we began to hate other races, and nothing can prevent our death unless we come back to expansion, which is life.

On the subject of the Hindus withholding knowledge from some among their own people, Swami Vivekananda’s voice was even more strident and no less pained. In his dialogue with his own society that continued till his dying day, he was saying to the Hindus: “The chief cause of India’s ruin has been the monopolising of the whole education and intelligence of the land, by dint of pride and royal authority, among a handful of men.”

Excerpted with permission from Dharma: Hinduism and Religions in India, Chaturvedi Badrinath, edited by Tulsi Badrinath, Penguin Viking.