Recent controversies over Gyanvapi, Qutub Minar and the mosque in Mathura have given new life to the accusation that Hindus have committed acts of violence in the past against Buddhists and Jains. Evidence for such violence comes from some stray references in the Divyavadana where Pushyamitra Sunga is said to have persecuted Buddhist monks and some references telling us that the Huna ruler Mihirakula destroyed Buddhist monasteries and killed the monks. Romila Thapar also cites references to the Ajaypala in Gujarat who desecrated the Jaina temples. In all 3,000 years of recorded history, these were the only cases of evil behavior in the name of religion in pre-Islamic India.
No acts of desecration anywhere in Indian texts have been evaluated as bringing glory to God. Richard Eaton refers to incidents in which an idol in a temple was kidnapped by a rival king and placed in a temple elsewhere. In the early 10th century, the Pratihara king Hirambabala captured a solid golden image of Vishnu Vaikunta when he defeated the Shahi king at Kangra. By the middle of the 10th century, the same image was taken from Pratiharas by Chandella king Yasovarman and installed in the Lakshmana temple in Khajuraho. However, this is quite different from the images that are broken and used by the invaders to wipe their feet.
There are no reports of mass killings in the name of religion. This is what distinguishes these works from what India witnessed in the context of the Turkish and Afghan conquest from the eleventh century until the end of the Marathas in the late seventeenth century. Contemporary Islamic historians who have written about these events clearly indicated that the killing and desecration of the temple were fully justified in religious jihad and that non-believers were an inferior class of human beings.
In her Sumanata, Romila Thapar does not deny the destruction of the Sumanata temple and the breaking of Shiva Lingam, the upper half of which was moved to Ghazni for people to walk on. Nor does it deny that Sumanata priests had earlier supported the efforts of Persian merchants to erect a mosque near the temple. But it does its best to find what might at best be called justifications for Sultan Mahmud’s actions. Is it not meaningful, you say, that the Turkish and Persian historians were exaggerating in order to glorify the Sultan as the founder of Islamic rule in India? Besides, she points out that Mahmoud desecrated the mosques of Muslim minorities such as Ismailis and Shiites as well.
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Is someone afraid to acknowledge the existence/existence of a group of people in India who think their religion is the only possible truth and who think it is acceptable to wage war against those who believe differently?
The idea that God takes many forms, and that there are multiple truths, is ingrained in the Indian mind. Whatever text you may choose to capture, be it any of Smritis, Vedas or something else, you will easily find an equal and opposite view. Even parodies of Hinduism as an Abrahamic religion, which was sought to be established during British rule, found little resonance among the masses. Scholars such as Raja Ram Mohun Roy claimed that the Advaita philosophy of Sankaracharya, Vedanta was living proof that religious traditions indicated the existence of a single God. But Ram Mohun did not find any receiver for what he said, even among his family. Belief in monotheistic Hinduism remained confined to an Indian elite reeling under the influence of British rule and eager to claim that the Abrahamic norms of the religion also existed within Hinduism.
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The reluctance of Hindus to admit that Muslims were willing to kill for their beliefs did not make those beliefs disappear. In a survey of Muslims in 21 countries conducted by the Pew Research Center between 2008 and 2012, 39 percent of respondents in Afghanistan found support for suicide bombings against civilian targets as justification for defending Islam against its enemies, or 26 percent. percent in Bangladesh and 13 percent in Pakistan. Researcher Kristen Fair, who used this dataset, found a significant correlation between these views and biblical literalism – what is said in the Bible must be taken literally.
It doesn’t matter whether you believe in peace or not, the Taliban recently named a military unit in Afghanistan as Panipat.
This column first appeared in print on May 28, 2022 under the headline “Violence of Unification”. The writer works in the Department of History, Punjab University, Chandigarh