An obvious question is: why did highly placed Muslims, and not inconsequential ones at that, turn their creativity towards Krishna bhakti? Modern historians have called them Muslim Vaishnavas, but they did not call themselves that. They called themselves Krishna bhaktas. Their intention pointed to their identity and possibly reflected far more than religious devotion. It was a cultural indicator of a substantial kind, yet we hardly give it attention. This can be partly explained by the narrowness of the contemporary definition of Indian culture that excludes those aspects that bring in the wider assenting and dissenting dimensions that are inevitable in the creation of any expansive culture.
We often forget that cultures evolve from the interface of many strands in the life of communities and reflect a mixture of many patterns. No culture is singular in its origins. culture assumes a form once the strands are well integrated. We overlook the fact that the Mughal–Rajput alliances had many dimensions apart from the overtly political. For instance, the Kachvaha rajputs of Amber claiming high status as Suryavamsha kshatriyas gave their daughters to the Mughal ruling family who were thought of as turushkas. This contributed to a rajput presence and practices in the Mughal royal family. These would have been viewed by the Muslim orthodoxy as acts of defiance by the non-Muslim, and on other grounds disapproved of by orthodox brahmanas.
The patronage of the Govind Dev temple at Vrindavan with its unusual Indo-Persian architecture strikingly different from the other enormous temples constructed in this period reflected the mixture of rajput and Mughal. This joint patronage doubtless helped to enliven Vrindavan as the focus of Krishna bhakti. This was more than a matter of marriage alliances. It was also making a statement about finding a new identity, giving it form and imbuing it with legitimacy, not to mention its political ramifications. where Krishna bhakti is linked to the patronage of the Kachvahas and the Mughals, there it touches the political culture of both and its activities acquire yet another dimension. Does dissent gradually give way to accommodation when the latter is thought to be politically more expedient?
Puranic Hinduism was now at one level inducting some local dimensions of bhakti and therefore incorporating regional cults that sometimes became sects at other levels. examples of this could be Jagannath in Odisha, said to have had beginnings in tribal worship in the area; Vitthala in Maharashtra, thought to have grown out of the worship of a hero-stone; Hinglajmata in Sind, which has been and is of special importance to nomadic pastoralists and traders; Bonbibi the forest goddess in the Sundarbans, and so on.
To turn to another situation of those times, namely, the view that the Muslim was always the other and qualified by his religion—Islam. Even a preliminary look at the sources indicates that within the structures of Indian society at the time, that which can be labelled as consent or dissent, accommodation or confrontation, are far more complicated matters than we have assumed. This is not a new feature but existed among well-defined communities as we have seen from earlier history. what is important is to recognize the transition towards consent or dissent of varying degree, and to ask what determines the direction.
We use the label of Muslim uniformly today for anything with a touch of Islam. It was used only occasionally in public discourse and then too with particular reference in earlier centuries. What we often overlook is that non-Muslims did not generally refer to Muslims by the single label of Muslim as we do today. In those days, references to them in Sanskrit and other languages were based on a different category of names such as yavanas or Shakas or turushkas. These labels were ethnic and not religious. They also link up interestingly with earlier history. Yavana was used for the Greeks and those who came from the west. So it was used for the Arabs and later for anyone regarded as foreign coming from the west, such as even Queen Victoria. The ancient Shakas were the Scythians from central Asia, the homeland also of the turushkas, the turks. So strong was the association of the turushkas with central Asia that Kalhana, writing in the eleventh century in his Rajatarangini, describes the Kushans coming from central Asia in the early first millennium AD as turushkas. These, therefore, were historically authentic names used for the Arabs, Afghans, turks and Mughals who came from these regions. It also suggests that they were viewed as descended from the earlier peoples as indeed some historically were. The labels of Hindu and Muslim as referring to those identified by uniform monolithic religions came later.
However, some turushkas on occasion are also referred to in Sanskrit sources as mlecchas, used either in a derogatory sense or as just a passing reference to difference. For example, in one Kakatiya inscription from the Deccan, in Sanskrit and telugu, the Delhi Sultan Muhammad bin tughlaq, after a successful campaign in the area, is described by the local defeated raja as a dreadful man who killed brahmanas, destroyed temples, looted farmers, confiscated the land granted to brahmanas, drank wine and ate beef. This was now to become the stereotypical description of a Muslim ruler whenever a negative projection was required. It carries an echo of the description of the kala yavanas / black yavanas of a millennium earlier in the Yuga Purana, when probably the Indo-Greeks were being referred to in an uncomplimentary manner.
The social distancing of the savarna and the avarna communities was immutable and continued even among those who had converted to Islam or those who had become Sikhs. Theoretically, these religions did not observe caste distinctions, but in effect there was a distancing between erstwhile upper and lower castes.
The exclusion of Dalits continued as conversion did not liberate them from caste. The lowest castes may have been equal to the upper castes in the eyes of Allah, but not in the eyes of the existing upper castes, irrespective of the religion they followed. There is a social message of dissent from the formal social codes in the teachings of the bhaktas from the lower castes and avarnas, which we should listen to.
The Krishna bhaktas who were born Muslim were viewed as the other by two categories of Selves. The qazis and mullahs of orthodox Islam strongly disapproved of them as did orthodox brahmanas. On occasion, the qazi tried to win back the bhakta by resorting to negotiation but this rarely succeeded. It continued until it became helpful to the formal religions to incorporate some of these teachings. Therefore, both the other and the Self have to be carefully defined each time either is referred to in different historical contexts. This might be a necessary exercise in clarifying identities, and more so where there is an overlap.
This excerpt from Voices of Dissent: An Essay by Romila Thapar has been published with permission from Seagull Books.