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.
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 mata, darshana 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.
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.