Published on 8th July, 2018, in Mumbai Mirror.
Hindu wisdom states that wherever there are brothers, there will be rivalry. In the Puranas, the children of Kashyapa keep fighting with each other: Devas with Asuras, Rakshasas with Yakshas, Garuda with Nagas. And this manifests in history, too. While anti-Muslim tirades define many Hindutva followers, anti-Hindu tirades define many Muslims and Leftists.
A thousand years ago, before Hindu-Muslim rivalry, for a thousand years before that, there was intense rivalry between followers of the Buddha and the Jina and the followers of the Veda. Such rivalry was, and is, invariably greater amongst the elite classes over control of resources and social discourse than amongst the common folk, the subaltern. We can be sure about this because at the ground level, we find many shrines where the presiding deity is an amalgamation of a Hindu Sant and a Muslim Pir, which arose when Islamic rulers controlled much of India. Likewise, we find Goddess Tara in Eastern India, an amalgamation of Kali and Saraswati, who is simultaneously Hindu and Buddhist, and the lion-riding, child-bearing Goddess Ambika in Western India, who was simultaneously Hindu and Jain.
We would like to believe that all religions were created in a pure form in a vacuum without any external influence. However, this is not true. Every religion is an outcome of many historical and geographical forces. Every religion has a past and transforms over time. A ‘fanatic’ or ‘fundamentalist’ is often someone who refuses to recognise this reality. He lacks the intellectual wherewithal to grasp how human ideas are born through interaction, and rivalry.
Buddhism would not have existed if Vedic Hinduism didn’t exist. And Vedic Hinduism would not have transformed into Puranic Hinduism without Buddhism. Puranic Hinduism played a key role in establishing Mahayana Buddhism of multiple Buddhas that saw older Buddhism based on a single historical Buddha as Hinayana, or the lower vehicle. Had it not been for Jainism, the obsession with purity, vegetarianism, celibacy, non-violence and monasticism would not have changed Puranic Hinduism to monastic Hinduism.
Indian Islam that flourished in Lucknow was influenced by certain Hindu customs and motifs. At one time, 300 years ago, it rivaled Persian Islam and Arabic Islam. Sadly, this Indian Islam is now almost forgotten as Arabic Islam dominates global Islam and refuses to acknowledge any form of internal diversity. The Western gaze sees these transformations as unidirectional, from bad to good, or from good to bad, but the Indic worldview sees these changes as cyclical and multi-directional.
Bhakti is a case in point. Bhakti is an ancient idea. Some people have traced it to the Vedas, but it is made explicit for the first time in Bhagavad Gita of the Mahabharata. This is 2,000 years ago. But a thousand years ago, in South India, it reached a phenomenal proportion as a collective of poet saints known as Alvars and Nayamnars saw Vishnu and Shiva as their personal God and sought a personal connection with him. In this milieu, the Bhagavata Purana reached its final form, probably in South India. Did Islam play a role in this? We cannot be sure.
Attributing a date to Hindu literature is tough as Hindus were not obsessed with history as the Greeks, Chinese or Arabs were. The poet-sages of India lived in the moment and sought validation from timelessness rather than the past.
But we do know that a thousand years ago in South India, merchants who traded with Arabs would have been familiar with Islam. In Kerala, we have one of the oldest mosques in the world. Later, Islam came from the North with the marauding warlords of Central Asia and exerted its influence across the subcontinent by 1300 CE. The idea of one God, one truth, one book and one messenger became very important in the social discourse. As a result, we see a shift in Hindu ideas, a greater emphasis towards nirguna bhakti (God without form), monotheism (ekanama-jama), greater value on a holy book (Shrimad Ramayana or Shrimad Bhagavata or Shrimad Gita), and greater importance to guru parampara and mathas. Note: shift in emphasis, not new ideas.
Likewise, the value of iconography in Hinduism must have been spurred by interactions with Indo-Greek rulers of 100 BCE and the Kushana rulers of 100 CE. It is after this period that we find Indian iconography blossoming, with a unique full-bodied ballooning Mathura style in Gangetic plains and the Amravati style in Andhra lands, very distinct from the more stylized Greek-like Gandhara style. Buddha was earlier shown only through symbols as a footprint, a tree or a crown. Then, it was shown as a stylized human being with holy marks.
As Puranic Hinduism overshadowed Vedic Hinduism and storytelling became more popular than chanting mantras, the gods and kings and sages were carved out on rocks and in caves. Some of the earliest stone images of Hindu gods and goddesses can be found in Elephanta and Ajanta caves near Mumbai and in Mammalapuram near Chennai. Before that, Hindus were content with visualising gods in rivers, mountains, rocks and pots.
Every bodybuilder knows that resistance is important to build muscles. In the same way, religions and their mythologies transform when faced with rivalry and resistance. Hinduism is no exception.