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Krishna Mohan Shrimali

Understanding the Idea of Indias

Gopika Nath, ‘Fragments of the Whole’, 2013. Photograph: Amitabha Bhattacharya

The long history of India is replete with examples of conquerors who established their authority over the conquered by refashioning old monuments and symbols. Quite often, this is done to humiliate the vanquished; mostly, it is to serve one’s own political interests. The pillars of Emperor Asoka occupy a distinctive place in the history of Indian monuments. It is, by now, fairly well established that the emperor made use of many pre-existing pillars, which may have been the remains of a “pillar cult”, for the dissemination of his own message, dhamma vijaya: conquest through dhamma, or righteous conquest. The famous Shore Temple of the Pallavas (7th to 8th centuries) at Mahabalipuram near Chennai was originally dedicated to Vishnu. Later, it was converted into a Shaiva temple.1 Similarly, one of the ayaka stambhas of the Buddhist stupa at Amaravati (Andhra Pradesh), which constituted the most important architectural characteristic of this Buddhist monument, was removed and installed in the neighbouring grand temple as Amaralingeshvara — a Shiva linga — by the thirteenth century Kakatiya monarch. During the long-drawn political struggle from the sixth to the eighth centuries between the Pallavas and the Chalukyas, a victor every generation would lift some monumental remain as a war trophy, and install it at a prominent place in his own empire as a symbol of his victorious power. Sometimes, he would even engrave his own record on the famous monument inside the enemy’s territory. This served as a perpetual reminder of the humiliation inflicted on the adversary. Such examples of transformation and/or distortion of religious monuments and remains can always be multiplied.2 With such a long history of “theological iconoclasm”, the “temple desecration and destruction” by Ghaznavids, Ghorids and Mughals from the tenth century onward can be located in historical perspective. The wanton destruction cannot be denied. But locating it within a larger historiographical context, Richard Eaton undertook an extensive documentation and mapping of as many as 80 instances of temple desecration between 1192 and 1760 CE. Arguing that the phenomenon of desecration was not indiscriminate, he pointed out that it occurred in those cases where it was strategically imperative — insofar as it happened in the territories of powers that were in the way of the state-building exercise.

Temple desecrations also occurred when Hindu patrons of prominent temples committed acts of treason or disloyalty to the Indo-Muslim states they served… These patterns also suggest points of continuity with Indian practices that had become customary well before the thirteenth century. Such points of continuity in turn call into serious question the sort of civilisational divide between India’s “Hindu” and “Muslim” periods first postulated in British colonial historiography and subsequently replicated in both Pakistani and Hindu nationalist schools. 3

There is the grand saga, without doubt, of tremendously dynamic syncretistic Indian mythology, as well as of gory narratives of sectarian turmoil. Notwithstanding the complete absence of Shiva in the Rigveda, the earliest literary text of India (ca. 1800 to ca. 1000 BCE), the transformation of the Rigvedic Rudra into Shiva, and subsequently into Maheshvar and Mahadeva; the mutation of the almost non-existent Vishnu (in the Rigveda) into Lakshmi-Narayana, which goes on to become a strong catalyst in absorbing numerous tribal cults through the avatar mechanism; the prehistoric fertility goddesses (not necessarily “mothers”) evolving into numerous Ammas, and finally emerging as the Great “Mother Goddess”, are just a few snippets of dynamism. The material milieu, varying ecological settings, corresponding social transformations and, of course, constantly evolving political structures constituted multiple determinants of this dynamism through several millennia.4

No less spectacular are the well-documented discourse of religious madness inherent in inter- and intra-sectarian rivalries; inter-religious acrimonies sometimes leading to physical violence and even extermination of adversaries; and humiliating acts of desecrating sacred spaces, even if rationalised in terms of political expediency or mere continuation of Indian practices. Despite this saga, there is also the great space that has always been accorded to voices of dissent and alternative visions. No wonder Amartya Sen could postulate the perennial “Argumentative Indian”, whose unthreatened existence may be located even in the Rigveda. Though Indra was supreme therein, there were plenty who ridiculed his alleged exploits. The famous “Frog Hymn” of the Rigveda, which compared Brahmins with croaking frogs, was also an early attempt to ridicule the Vedas and their reciters. There is a long litany, even in the Sanskrit textual tradition, that questioned the authority of the Vedas.5 One of the cardinal contributions of the Jainas has been their exposition of the Syaadvaada, a direct and potent onslaught on all notions of the absoluteness of the Truth, especially that which is enshrined in Vedic traditions. The Jaina view focused on the relativity, as well as infinite-sidedness, of Truth — what it saw as ananta-dharmaatkameva-tattvam. This deeply respectful treatment of multifarious alternative point of views was intellectual ahimsa of the highest order. That it was not lip service is indicated by 1500-year long debates among Jainas of different hues on the question of women’s potential to achieve salvation.6

The Idea of Indias

This long and undulating history of the formation of religions in India may lead to the impression that the life of common people revolved around religion. The ground reality is quite different. Even in the Rigveda, when people of different clans and tribes invoked scores of forces of nature as their divinities, material concerns were never forgotten. Signs of rank materialism are evident in demands made to almost all deities — demands for cattle, the chief form of wealth at the time; horses; and sons — for patriarchy seems to be quite pronounced. The millennia-long histories of the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent show that they have been known through several identities; and sometimes all these identities at the same time. Mlecchas in the Shatapatha Braahmana (ca. 800 – ca. 700 BCE), for example, were thus identified because they had subterranean burials of a different shape, and spoke a language different from the “Sanskrit” speakers whom we generally tend to identify as “Aryans”.

At the launch of the Linguistic Survey of Punjab under the joint venture of the Punjab Government’s Language Department and the Punjabi University in Patiala, noted litterateur Professor Hazari Prasad Dwivedi drew attention to the perils of naming linguistic identities. His argument was that very often such identities are not only thrust on people by outsiders, but also in a somewhat contemptuous manner. Such instances include Bengalis calling the language of the people of Bihar khotaa bhaashaa or some people in Bihar identifying Maithili as chhikaa-chhikii.7 We may, in this context, remind ourselves of how some tribal groups mentioned in the Rigveda were castigated by “Sanskrit” speakers as mridhrvaachiis — speakers of false/ corrupt language. The exercise of establishing identities has been quite onerous. Getting to know self-perceptions is all the more problematic. Modes in which people have been situated include the ethnic, linguistic, regional, cultural, sectarian, and so on. Diversities in each such label have been recently expounded by Professor Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya by retrieving “voices from India’s ancient texts”.8

There are two points, however, that need to be underlined. First, considerable emphasis on the so-called “regional” identities seems to lead to their subsuming other identities. Second, even when religious identities are invoked, they are far from monolithic or “sectarian” in character. Of the “regional” identities, their expositions in Sangam literature and Raajashekhara’s Kaavyamiimaamsaa provide two temporal and spatial poles. The composition of Sangam poems, if not their compilation into anthologies which may have taken shape at a later date, has been dated to the period between 300 BCE and 300 CE, and located in the modern state of Tamil Nadu. Raajasekhara was a Kaviraaja (poet laureate) at the court of Mahendrapala of the Pratihara family with its sway over Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, and is generally placed in the late ninth/ early tenth century. The five tinais of Sangam texts are eco-geographic and cultural zones distinguished on the bases of landscape; flora and fauna; peculiar form of economic activity for subsistence (agriculture using irrigation and plough cultivation in marudam); their cultural equipment; their principal communities (kuravar in kurinji, idaiyar in mullai); and also their deities Mayon=Krishna in mullai and Varuna in neydal). Tinais also constituted literary genres since each had its distinctive poetic mood — romantic dalliance of the kurinji (forest tract), separatism of the palai (arid zone), and conjugal as well as illicit love of the marutam (settled agrarian tract).9 Following Bharata’s Naatyashastra, Raajashekhara’s Kaavyamiimamsaa, too, talks about regions on the bases of vritti (nritya-giita-kalaavilaasa-paddhati), pravritti (vesha-vinyaasa-krama) and riti (vachana-vinyaasa-paddhati). Essentially, it is an attempt to establish regional identities taking cognisance of people’s life-styles — their dress, hair-styles, language and speech, their love for dance and songs, and so on. Religion as a factor is apparently of no consequence in these criteria.10

Coming to religious identities per se, we need to take note of the following: (a) Not too long after the mahaaparinirvaana of the Buddha, his followers got split into several sects — Theravaadins, Sarvaastivaadins, Mahaasaanghikas, etc. — which in turn were further split into several sub-sects, which rarely identified themselves as Buddhists; (b) the case of the Jainas is no different — while the Digambaras, vetambaras, Yapaniyas represented the better known sects, the medieval svetambara Jainas were characterized by a division of the monastic community into several rival lineages or gachchhas, which argued vociferously over who among them represented the true practice and understanding of the teachings of Mahavira;11 (c) when Islam entered India, we talked more about the ethnic identities of its followers, viz., Arabs, Turks, Turushkas, Afghans, Iranis, Turanis, Uzbegs, Mongols, Mughals, and so on, and not of Muslims or Mussalmans; (d) we had to deal with the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, and the French as traders before encountering them as Christians; (e) indeed, even amongst the so-called “Hindus”, sectarian labels alone mattered, which they displayed through their forehead marks. Broadly, they were Shaivas, Shaaktas, Vaishnavas (with their further sub-divisions), rather than an omnibus term called “Hindus”. This was the case at least till the arrival of the Arabs (7th – 9th centuries), who were the first to use the expression “Hindu” but that too in a geographical and ethnic sense, rather than a religious one. One would look in vain for any reference to a “Hindu” in any pre-Arab text. No wonder, some distinctive stages in the evolution of Sanskrit texts-based religions have been identified as “Vedism”, “Brahmanism” “Puranic religion”, and so on.

Where do we stand today?

The Anthropological Survey of India launched the People of India (POI) Project in 1985. Colonial ethnography studied communities in isolation, and covered British India and a few Princely States. In contrast, the POI project covered the whole country, each and every state and union territory. The project aimed to study the impact of change — the development process in all communities, and the linkages that brought them together. The project identified 4,635 communities, 325 languages belonging to 12 different language families, with the prevalence of bilingualism as high as 65.51 percent, and as many as 24 scripts all over India. The Survey also identified 91 eco-cultural zones. Obviously several Indian states had multiple cultural zones — six each in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, for example, and as many as seven in Tamil Nadu.12 It was evident that poly-religious, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic identities that have evolved over several millennia have defined India. This can truly be called THE IDEA OF INDIAS, with India in the plural — Indias of diversities, of conflicts and tensions.

Can we rest content with that? Perhaps we can do so only at our own peril.

This idea of Indias is under severe threat since the late 1980s, when the movement for the “Grand temple of Lord Rama at Ayodhya” was launched by chauvinistic “Hindu Nationalists”. Recall that our present Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi also identified himself with such an appellation not too long ago. Till the mid-1980s, both Shrirangam and the Rock Fort temples at Trichy used to send their elephants to the Nathar Vali dargah for the annual Moharram procession. The practice has now been suspended. In 1990, Chennai recorded its first communal riot in recent history. The reason: the Vinayaka Chaturthi procession passing through the Muslim dominated Triplicane area raised provocative slogans, and went on a rampage resulting in three deaths. The grand old legend of the Snowy Shiva Linga Cave at Amarnath being discovered by a Muslim shepherd named Adam Malik has been contested. A folk hero of Rajasthan, Baba Ramdeoji, who has been worshipped by lower caste Hindus and Muslims for the last several centuries in his temple at Pokharan in the Jaisalmer district, has now been brahmanised. The lower caste pujari has been replaced with a brahmin priest, and the Baba is projected as an avatara of Lord Rama, purging his pir aspect. In a process akin to proselytisation, gods and goddesses of numerous Adivasis (tribals) in Gujarat, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Bundelkhand, Manipur, Odisha are being “Hinduised” in concrete ways.13

The last three decades have seen violent cultural policing in the form of prescriptions of dress codes for women; protests against the celebration of Valentine Day; “Honour Killings” and “Love Jihad” against Hindu-Muslim marriages; the burning of churches in Gujarat, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and now even in Delhi; the passage of Anti-Conversion Laws in several states under the charge of the “Hindu Nationalists”; and the recent campaigns of “Ghar Wapsi”, or “Return of the prodigal son”, a pseudo-term for reconversion, and “Shuddhikaran” (“purification”). Nathuram Godse, the killer of the Father of the Nation is hailed as a “Patriot” and his statues installed.

The entire Indian cultural landscape is being transformed radically, and lamentably, into a regressive mould. The space for dissent diminishes by the day. The voices of “reason” get feeble. Are we going to lose the millennia old “argumentative Indian”?

The last three decades have also seen the new “cult of sants” and other religious preachers entering our living rooms through television channels such as “Aastha” and “Sanskar”. New age religious gurus take financial advantage of a growing sense of insecurity among large sections of the people because of neo-liberal and market-oriented economic policies. Religious fundamentalists of all hues package and market themselves. All kinds of religious fundamentalism is rooted in patriarchal and anti-women discourses. These dharma ke saudagars (merchants of dharma) spew venom, having forgotten the dicta of Asoka’s edicts and the Mahabharata. King Piyadassi, Beloved of the Gods, said in his Rock Edict XII:

Growth of the essentials of Dharma is possible in many ways. But its root lies in restraint in regard to speech… Truly, if a person extols his own sect and disparages other sects with a view to glorifying his sect owing merely to his attachment to it, he injures his own sect very severely by acting in that way…14

And the Great Epic, too, reiterates in the same strain:

Dharmam yo baadhate dharmo na sa dharmah kudharma tat /
Avirodhii tu yo dharmah sa dharmah satyavikrama //

Dharma that stands in the way of another dharma is not dharma at all. It is evil dharma. O one for whom valour is based on truth! Dharma that does not conflict with anything is the right dharma.15

Those who claim that the entire world was originally inhabited only by the Hindus, and those who say things such as “Everyone is a born Muslim,” are but two sides of the same coin.

The decades since the 1980s have also rejuvenated Vir Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar, whose vision of India stands in total contrast to the Idea of Indias we are concerned about. While the RSS supremo has, of late, been making overt references to “Hindu Rashtra”, our “Hindu Nationalist” Prime Minister masquerades as “Vikas Purush” — the “Development Man”. Behind this façade of “development” is the project to create a “monolithic Hinduism”, a Hinduism that has never existed. Homogenising several identities into a single mould is the brazen undertaking. More important is the attempt to identify the “nation” with a particular religious identity: BEING HINDU IS BEING INDIAN. Some people seem to have arrogated to themselves the right to impose such a religious identity on others — by, for instance, describing Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists as “Hindus” despite their protests. The Sikhs once proclaimed loudly — maans gau ka khaayenge, Hindu nahin akhwaayenge (We shall eat beef and will not let any one call us Hindus). The followers of all non-Indic religions (Islam, Christianity etc.) are demonised and labelled “The Other”. With these new demons in mind, new iconographies are created, so that violent and ferocious forms are imposed on Rama, Durga, and even Ganesha.

The Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevaka Sangh with their slogan of “Hinduise India and militarise Hinduism” constituted only a fringe element of the early twentieth century nationalist movement in India. They represented “fragmented nationalism” then. Today they stand for fascistic “homogenisation” in the name of a singular religious identity. Today there is every danger that they may come to occupy centre stage, and demolish the millennia-old “idea of Indias” in the same way they demolished the sixteenth-century Babri Masjid at Ayodhya on December 6, 1992. The “Idea of Conflicts and Tensions” needs to remain inherent in numerous diverse identities. It is in such conflicts, tensions and struggles where we will find the seeds of fresh and enriching creation, possibly compassionate humanism.


This essay is an edited extract from a keynote address entitled “The Formation of Religious Identities in India” delivered at the Paschimbanga Itihas Sansad 31st Annual Conference, January 22-24, 2015, Kolkata. Read the entire paper here.


1. John R. Marr, “Note on the New Excavations at the Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol.54, No.3, October 1991, pp. 574-576.

2. Richard Davis, “Trophies of War: The Case of the Chalukya Intruder”, in Catherine B. Asher and Thomas R. Metcalf, eds. Perceptions of South Asia’s Visual Past, Oxford & IBH Publishing Co. Pvt. Ltd, New Delhi-Bombay-Calcutta, 1994, pp. 161-77.

3. Richard M.Eaton, “Temple Desecration and Indo-Muslim States”, in David Gilmartin and Bruce B. Lawrence, op.cit., pp.246-281. This essay has also been reprinted in Eaton’s Essays on Islam and Indian History, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2000, pp. 94-132. See also Romila Thapar, “Destroying Shrines”, Frontline, January 9, 2015, pp. 51-56.

4. Some insightful glimpses of this dynamism can be found in Sukumari Bhattacharji, The Indian Theogony:  A Comparative Study of the Indian Mythology from the Vedas to the Puranas, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1970, pp.12-13; Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Shiva, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1973; and Thomas B. Coburn, Devi Mahatmya: The Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1984.

5.  For a recent enumeration of such allusions, see D.N. Jha, “Eternal India and Timeless Hinduism”, in idem, ed., Contesting Symbols and Stereotypes: Essays on Indian History and Culture, Aakar Books, Delhi, 2013, pp. 32-36.

6. Padmanabh S. Jaini, Gender & Salvation: Jaina Debates on the Spiritual Liberation of Women, first published by the University of California Press, 1991, reprinted in India by Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, 1992.

7. Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Bhasha, Sahitya aur Desh, Bharatiya Jnanpitha Prakashan, New Delhi, 2nd ed., 1998, pp. 45-52.

8. Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya, “Interrogating ‘Unity in Diversity’: Voices from India’s Ancient Texts”, General President’s Address, Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Platinum Jubilee (75th) Session, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi,2014, (Aligarh, 2015), pp. 10-13. A case for diversities in religious practices has also been made on the basis of the form and structure of early “religious” architecture in Himanshu Prabha Ray, “The Archaeology of Sacred Spaces in India: From Multi-Religious Sites to Monuments”, Presidential Address at the Indian Archaeological Society Meeting (2013), Puraatattva, No.44, 2014. However, Ray’s indiscriminate use of “Hindu temple” throughout this “Address” is absolutely unwarranted and, therefore, not acceptable. For some details of diverse religious identities and sectarian tensions and conflicts, see D.N. Jha, “Of Conflict, Conversion, and Cow”, in Idem, ed., Contesting Symbols …, pp. 52-63.

9. Cf. Noboru Karashima, ed., A Concise History of South India: Issues and Interpretations, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, p.45; Rajan Gurukkal, Social Formations of Early South India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2010, pp. 77-94, 136-54; Vijaya Ramaswamy, Historical Dictionary of the Tamils, The Scarecrow Press, Maryland-Toronto, 2007, pp.278-81. Recently an attempt has been made to study textual evidence on tinais in the context of material remains from excavated burial and habitation sites belonging to the iron age and early historic period in the Thondaimandalam area of Tamilnadu (cf. Smriti Haricharan and Naresh Keerthi, “Can the tinai help understand the Iron Age Early Historic Landscape of Tamilnadu?”, World Archaeology, Vol.46, No.5, December 2014, pp.641-660). The study brings out some perils involved in establishing a direct correlation between the two sets of evidence, viz., literary texts and archaeological remains.

10. Pandeya Rameshwar Prasad Sharma, Rajashekhara aur unka Yuga, Bihar Hindi Granth Academy, Patna, 1977, chs. 2 & 3.

11. P. Granoff, “Other People’s Rituals: Ritual Eclecticism in Early Medieval Indian Religions”, Journal of Indian Philosophy, Vol.28, No.4, August, 2000, pp. 399-424.

12. K.S. Singh, People of India: An Introduction (National Series, Volume 1), Anthropological Survey of India, Calcutta, 1992, pp. 13-16, 102-107.

13. Cf. Dharmendra Kumar and Yemuna Sunny, Proselytisation in India: The Process of Hinduisation in Tribal Societies, Aakar Books, New Delhi, 2009. See also Arvind Sharma, Hinduism as a Missionary Religion, first published in 2011 by State University of New York, Albany, Indian Edition, Dev Publishers & Distributors, New Delhi, 2014, in which a distinction is made between “missionary” and “proselytising” religions, and Hinduism included in the former category.

14. D.C. Sircar’s translation in Inscriptions of Asoka, Publications Division, New Delhi, fifth edition, 2009, p. 42.

15. Mahabharata, Critical Edition, VI. (Aaranyakaparva) 131.10: Translation: Bibek Debroy, The Mahabharata, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2011, Vol. 3, p. 144.