Representational photos | Hindu priests perform evening prayers at Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi | Kanishka Sonthalia/Bloomberg
Representational photo | Hindu priests perform evening prayers at Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi | Kanishka Sonthalia/Bloomberg
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What bleeds India today is a profound historical error. The error lies in our understanding of state and religion – both as political concepts and as historical entities. We have borrowed these terms from western European history and applied them unthinkingly to ourselves, without acknowledging that what we today recognise as state and religion actually evolved very differently in India.

It is ironic that those who glorify ancient Indian history, including in the ruling BJP, and accuse liberals of being Westernised make this error most spectacularly and with pernicious results for all of us.

Also read: Bhagavad Gita wasn’t always India’s defining book. Another text was far more popular globally

Dharma to religion

We have inherited the term religion from the Judeo-Christian tradition and applied it indiscriminately to different Indian philosophies, myths, rituals, and practices. But there is really no one term for religion in India. There never has been. The term dharma does not mean religion. It simply means duty.

Duty could be social duty, often interpreted in caste terms in the dharmashastras. So kshatriya-dharma would be war and shudra-dharma service. But there could also be universal duties, like ahimsa (non-violence) and anrishamsyata (non-cruelty). Duty could also be individual, such as towards gods, ancestors, teachers and the poor, where duty assumes the sense of a debt that can never be fully paid. Next to dharma was karma, sacred activities like sacrifice, worship and pilgrimage, which varied greatly across regions and communities.

Then there were numerous devotional sampradays and Sufi silsilas in India, across ancient and medieval times, with their own rituals, practices, teachers, martyrs and gods. This was the realm of popular spirituality that often emerged in either indifference to or defiance of the dominant order of things. Some communities eventually came to be absorbed within Brahminism or Wahabism in later times, some became powerful counter-communities like the Sikhs and some even became the locus of strong anti-caste movements, among both Hindus and Muslims.

Many of these communities were about alternative social imaginaries, which innovated upon caste and gender norms and rules of living and eating together, and were often looked down upon by dominant social groups, be it Brahmins or Ashrafs. They also often fought for self-rule and could be armed communities (like the Nathpanthis and the Faraizis) or pacifist proponents of love and aesthetics (like the Bauls).

And then there were terms like matadarshana and agama – opinions, perspectives, paths – such as Vedanta, Mimamsa, Yoga, Buddhism, Jainism, etc., which dealt with philosophical questions regarding the nature of the self and the world. Some of these philosophies talked about a god or a deity, others did not. None of these was theology in the western European sense of the term. None of these had scriptures. And none of these talked of ‘faith’ in opposition to reason. In fact, they were all concerned about philosophical and logical insights into whether the world was real or unreal, changeful or immutable. And above all, none of these had any conception of a political establishment like the church, meant to shore up their respective schools of thought.

These diverse aspects and forms of spirituality did not add up to anything called Hinduism in India’s past (though there was indeed something called Brahminism, which never went unchallenged either in religious or political terms).

Hinduism is really a modern-day invention by colonial powers, who mapped the world in terms of unities like Hinduism (India), Islam (Middle East) and Confucianism (China), each constructed in the mirror image of Christianity. We seemed to have bought into this false map of the world and in the name of national identity, drained ourselves of the rich diversity of alternative world-views and forms of sociability that we possessed historically. We also emptied our traditions of philosophical significance and killed our spiritual creativity.

This is not to say that there was no religious hostility in India.  But religious hostility in India did not directly map onto state rivalries in the way that it did in Europe, especially after the bloody religious wars of the 16th century. In Europe, the modern absolutist state acquired its monopoly of violence by usurping political power from its biggest rival, the Church, which too had its own armies and own police (recall the Inquisition and the Crusades). Hence 16th century onwards, states in Europe began to claim state religions, persecuting Jews, Muslims and heterodox Christians (like Catholics in England and Protestants in France) within their borders, as a way of denying the Church, or any other extra-territorial power, political or moral right over its subjects. This is the theocratic history of early modern Europe that paradoxically still plagues the Indian contemporary.

Also read: For Modi and Amit Shah, the word ‘Hindu’ is devoid of a moral compass. It’s just us vs them

Much ado about religion

Mark the contrast with Indian history. Asoka, who ruled in the name of dhamma and could therefore be seen as propagating a state religion, invoked nothing more than moral duties like non-violence and kindness towards animals, slaves and prisoners. As political theorist Rajeev Bhargava shows in an interesting essay called ‘We (in India) Have Always Been Post-Secular’, with respect to quarrelling communities, Asoka propagated restraint in speech, prohibiting not only hate speech but also untrammelled self-glorification in his kingdom. If Pushyamitra Sunga, in a Brahminical reaction to Buddhism, violently overthrew the Mauryas, destroying the Kaushambi monastery and the Deur Kothar stupa, monasteries at Sanchi and elsewhere in central India continued to flourish in his times.

As historian Upinder Singh shows in her book on Political Violence in Ancient India, even when kings in ancient India sponsored particular royal deities and royal temples, their power actually depended on the breadth of their patronage of multiple communities and multiple religions. Kings destroyed the royal temples of rival kings, only to set up new royal places of worship. For there was really no other way to rule a multilingual and multireligious land except through imperial pluralism, which is why – as medieval historians Muzaffar Alam and Audrey Truschke show – the Mughals defied injunctions by the orthodox ulema and continued to promote diverse religions and communities in India, going on to oversee mutual translations of innumerable Sanskrit and Persian texts, including the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and setting up an ibaadat khana to host religious and philosophical discussions.

It is telling that the Kashmiri Nyaya philosopher Jayanta Bhatta wrote a play called Agamadambara (‘Much Ado About Religion’) in the 9th century, which asks people to stay within fair limits in the propagation of their religions and the king to punish religious excesses amongst his subjects. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah will do well to read that play. They will also do well to take off their European spectacles, desist from weaponising history and show some genuine shraddha towards India’s ancient and medieval pasts.

The author is a historian and professor at Centre for Study of Developing Societies. Views are personal.

Also read: Why Ambedkar chose Buddhism over Hinduism, Islam, Christianity


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30 Comments Share Your Views


  1. India was not India till the late 17th century. It was a conglomerate of kingdoms . Only after the British saw a opportunity if making this subcontinent a nation under their Empire did it become a nation. We inherited this from their Imperial Highnesses ! Yes there was no well defined borders to Hinduism. All those religions that were distinct from the Abrahamic faiths originating in West Asia were included. Hinduism too made many primitive beliefs part of Modern Hinduism.

    • If India wasn’t India then why was the East India company called so?
      Or why Al Biruni wrote Kitab al Hind?
      Why did Shankaracharya established four shaktipeeth in four corners?
      Or why Megasthenes wrote Indica?
      Or where did Alexander come?
      Or why Maha Bharata was called so?

      • India” came from hellenized name of Sindh. Anyway the modern Republic of India and Pakistan are just two artificial countries created because of sectarian hate between hindus and muslims.

  2. This is a new game. Half baked truth is covered with sweet lies! The author succumbed to what she was complaining about in the 2nd half of article. I request her to give 20 examples of ‘Hindu kings destroying another Hindu/Jain/Buddhist kings temples – but I can give 20000 examples of how the Muslim rulers and invaders were peacefully living next to the Yindoo kafirs by destroying their temples! And those like Dara Siko who translated and promoted Hindu scriptures were beheaded! Not sure if she is an apologist or a typical researcher wearing Marxist glasses!

  3. Please stop looking outside your country for someone to blame, something to hang your victimhood status upon, like the British. The word religion is from the Latin ‘religio’ which simply means to ‘bind back’ or ‘yoke’. Wouldn’t that also apply to the many belief systems practised in the Indian subcontinent? And if dharma includes the ‘social duty’ of abiding by the caste system, then dharma is 70 years overdue for a revision. India’s Constitution upholds equality for all people under the law.

    • You need to watch shashi tharoor’s speech in Britain before talking about Victim card and if you don’t understand the subtle difference between varna jati and caste and also how the british exploited it you better first educate yourself about it.

  4. These people are ‘easy chair poets’.
    They do not understand how Weaster Religions treat other religions.
    They should understand that people commit suicide when in trouble or allow it to persist. They try all means to survive and keep up their unique identity and remain as an example.
    How can it different when it comes a unique country, India!
    Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life. We should at any cost protect our ways of living and remain an example. Let not allow others dictate!

  5. Am curious about a sweeping generalisation that looks so shaky and totally contrived when it is extended to “Mughal” rulers in general.

    *Wonder how anyone can paint Mughal rulers with one colour of “continuing to promote diverse religions and communities in India” . *

    Isn’t this a fabrication planted with the intent of whitewashing over the atrocities and discrimination (persecution and religuous tax etc ) other religions faced under many Mughal rulers like Aurengzeb.

    Some authors have even made Aurangzeb secular tolerant and benevolent. Why is this Prathama Banerjee, whoever she is, lapping up and spreading questionable theories ???

    QUOTE :-

    …_as medieval historians Muzaffar Alam and Audrey Truschke show – the Mughals defied injunctions by the orthodox ulema and continued to promote diverse religions and communities in India, going on to oversee mutual translations of innumerable Sanskrit and Persian texts, including the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and setting up an ibaadat khana to host religious and philosophical discussions._


  6. Its a real shame to read such comments people’s like Rajvir Singh must be arrested and judge. I’m really shocked how can people have such behaviours and opinions.
    Incredible Indian(s).

  7. If the description of what is called by Europeans as Hinduism is what is given in this article, then having a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ now would certainly not be a calamity at all! The so called ‘Hindu Rashtra’ would be based on dharma and one’s duties to oneself, to family, to society, to nature etc etc and Karma of actions. This would be a secular state by today’s terminology. So these sickulars are tying themselves in knots by trying to find ways to attack Modi Shah, as this gang is shocked by quick decisions taken by Modi in his second term.

  8. ہر شخص کو اپنی راے کے اظہار کی پوری آزادی ھے اور کسی کی تحقیق کو پوری قوم کے خلاف ماننا ایک صریح حماقت ھے

  9. Doesn’t it feel good to find a third party to blame? However, finding comforts in untruths or partial truths is a dead end. How does the destruction of temples fit in your scheme? In their own words, Muslim rulers told us of their hatred towards Hindus. We have almost 1000 year recorded history that you want to wish away. Remember that nobody is asking for revenge or reparations. All most of seek is peace and reconciliation. Rewriting history with lies is simply repeating the follies of the last 70 years.

  10. It appears to be a nefarious article by a very deceitful pseudo-liberal historian. Christianity wasn’t born in Europe. It was born in the same middle East where it’s elder brother Judaism and its younger brother Islam, was born. All of three are son of same father Abrahamism. They are not very different from each other.

  11. Then what was the purpose of JAZIA tax? And then what’s the history of vote bank politics in young democratic India? Surely, Nehru was too suave to indulge in it? Was it then his daughter Indira who introduced this vile practice? Wasn’t it Sonia, who, instead of discarding it, adopted this practice, when she appealed to Shahi Imam before 2014 GE?

    • The purpose of JIZYA tax was to raise revenue for the government. Why? As to vote bank, it is everywhere in the world! In India every party has its vote banks. Also the votes arr bought with money, alcohol, and even drugs! Doesn’t the EC catch these items every election anywhere in the country?


  12. I think the United States is fortunate not to have a long history. Here and now, let’s get on with making and keeping America great. Surviving occasional meteorites like President Trump. So we should stop obsessing with what the British with their Divide and Rule did to us, the great economic harm that colonialism caused. We started on a clean slate in 1947. A young nation made its choices, a constitutional democracy, wonderful, socialism, not so great. Secularism, of which Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was a fine example and votary. So why are we now trying to put the clock back, trying to create a Hindu Rashtra, sharpening and accentuating fault lines that go back hundreds and thousands of years. People who care so deeply for Hindus – 100, not 130, crores – should identify the caste system as a scourge that we need to get rid of.

    • Write with your real name, you coward. Secondly those 18-19 crores with Middle East name must be kicked out from this country, or should be told to adopt local religion.

      • A paid commentator! Because of sell-outs like you, “those 18-19 crores with Middle East name” could conquer and rule India for centuries! Modi is again begging the clergy of “those 18-19 crores with Middle East name” to calm them down.


    • For this joke of writer, propagandist Truschke is a historian. India should know who their evil enemy are, the two dangerous Abrahamic religions.

      • So why millions of hindu Indians actually live in Malaysia, UAE,, Oman, Europe, Canada or Australia? Maybe they should go back to “Hindu Rashtra” if you guys hate us so much?

      • Yes the real enemy are those two religions because you follow an evil religion. The common people needs to be liberated from the tyranny of the indian religions and let freedom prevail.


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