Harmony in History


Ram Puniyani


The rise of communal problem in India has been accompanied by a great deal of misinterpretation of history, especially the medieval history. It has been propagated that the invasion of Muslim Kings has brought about the slavery of Hindus; it has brought in the spread of Islam on the strength of the sword; it has resulted in great suffering to the Hindu masses etc. This selective projection of history itself is not only wrong but feeds into the communal prejudices.

This type of mythification of history has served as a potent tool in the hands of communal forces who in turn, then demonize the whole community leading to intensification of hatred in the society. What is the real truth? Is the history of medieval times, all about invasions of Muslim kings to destroy temples and convert the people to Islam? Is this period of history the dark period of our social life ? Far from it. The diversity of Indian society has been a rich source of strength and resilience of the community. Though it is true that kings fought amongst each other for larger control of  territories and the clergy (Ulemas and Brahmins) looked down upon others mode of worship. The average people, the toilers, the downtrodden of both the  religions celebrated the interaction with each other. While the kings had bigger preoccupations with expansion or preservation of their kingdoms for their material benefit, the large chunk of society derived the pleasure from their social and community life. While different sectors of nobility were more interested in consolidating their social powers and humiliating the other, different creative layers of society: poets, laureates, architects, performing artists, folk artists and painters integrated the other streams into their art ,enriching the art itself in the process.

RELIGION: Biggest synthetic trends are discernible in the popular religions,  Bhakti from Hindu side and Sufi from the side of Islam are the major religious trends to have come up in this period. Kabir, Nanak and Tulsidas reflected the synthetic trends and the influence of both religions in their lives and works. Kabir, rejected  Sanskrit, the language of elite Brahmins and communicated with people in simple Hindi and reflected the building of bridges between the two communities. In one of his Sabda he goes on to say that just as ornaments are different manifestation of some basic product, gold, so Allah, Ram, Rahim ,  and  Hari were all  different names of the same god. Puja offered by Hindus and Namaz offered by Muslims are just different methods of adoration of the same God. Kabir was a harsh critic of institutionalised religions and the religious traditions which divided people.

He was a critic of  the mullahs and pandits in equal measures, and the social evils which had infested the society in the name of religion like caste system and untouchability :his teachings spread amongst vast followers of major religious trends to have come up in this period.

Tulsidas another poet sage of this time in an autobiographical couplet  shows how the religious synthesis was operating at this time:

A slave of Ram is Tulsi,

What ever they say let them say.

On alms I live, the mosque is my refuge,

my give and take with the world is done.

 (Tulsidas: from Kavitavali)

One of the greatest Ram bhakts of the time was living in a mosque, from where most of his devotional works for Lord Ram emanated. Guru Nanak was for peace in the society, he was influenced by  the ideas of Kabir and was a strong proponent of syncretism. He tried to unite Hinduism and Islam by adopting beliefs from both these religions. Borrowing from Islam, it believes in one God and prohibits image worship. From Hinduism it adopted the theory of reincarnation and karma according to which a persons actions determine his fate in future incarnations. It was against the caste system. Their holy book, Adi Granth, quotes exclusively from Kabir and Sufi saints like Baba Farid. Also one of the Sufi saints Mir Miyan was requested to lay the foundation stone of the Golden Temple.

Sufis attracted a large following among the lower classes and castes. It was their unorthodox and simple lifestyle which attracted large number of low castes to convert to Islam. Their majars (holy places) were open to all irrespective of their religious following. Sufis were basically upholding the spiritual side of Islam, and it can be said that it was a revolt against the rigidities of Islam, propagated mainly by the Ulema. One of the great Sufi saints Muhiuddin Ibn Arabi founded the doctrine of Wahahdat-al-wujud  i.e. Unity of being, which promoted spiritual universalism, in turn demolishing the barriers of caste and creed. This doctrine states that the real being is One and we are all its manifestations, this brought in harmony amongst followers of different religions.

It is interesting to note that the Sufi saints writings were very close to the people. Baba Farid wrote poetry in Punjabi and his writings are a part of Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs. Baba Farid’s most distinguished follower was Nizamuddin Auliya, who proudly used to say that there were as many ways of worshipping God as there are particles of sand.  He was very fond of listening to bhajans, being touched equally by bhajans and quawallis. His respect for local traditions was tremendous. One small story  will illustrate as to how he was away from Islamic orthodoxy and had great respect for local traditions. “One day he was passing through the bank of Jamuna in Delhi, along with his disciple, the famous poet Khusrau, and saw some Hindu women bathing in the  Jamuna and offering prayers to the sun. To this Hazrat Nizamuddin said, O Khusrau , these women are also praying to Allah; they have their own way of prayer; and then he recited a verse from Quran: “ And every one has a direction to which one turns, so vie with one another in good works” (from A.A Engineer, Sufism and Inter-faith Harmony: Institute of Islamic Studies ,March 4, 95)

It is interesting to note here that “Ulema often denounced all those who followed religions other than Islam as kafirs, where as Sufis respected similar spiritual practises in all other religions and showed utmost respect for them “ (A.A Engineer, above paper). Similarly Mazhar Jan-I-Janan was a Sufi theologian of repute who was again a great upholder of respect for others traditions. Dara Shikoh, the heir of Jahangir’s throne, who was murdered by his own brother for the sake of power was a great Sanskrit scholar who had studied the Hindu scriptures at depth and had written a book called as Majmaul Baharayn (The meeting of the two great oceans, Hinduism and Islam). In this book he compared the Islamic and Sufi Phraseology and that of Hinduism and shows that there is much in common between the two.

The interaction of the practise of these two religions has been very well summarised by well known scholar Dr.B.N Pandey, “Islam and Hinduism which appeared at the start so anti-thetical , at last intermingled , each one stirred the profoundest depth of the other and from their synthesis grew the religion of Bhakti and Tasawwaf, the religion of love and devotion, which swept the hearts of millions following different religions and sects in India. The current of Islamic Sufism and Hindu Bhakti combined into a mighty stream which fertilised old desolate tracts and changed the face of the country. It was this spirit of India which achieved apparently an impossible task of reconciling the puritanical severity and awe inspiring transcendence of Islam into luxuriant fullness and abundance of form and the intuitive perception of their immanent unity with Hinduism, and created those monuments of art, literature, painting, music and poetry and love inspired religion which are the heritage of Indian History, during the middle ages”.

CULTURE: Due to the interaction of the Muslim kings, Islam and local culture there developed a whole stream of synthetic culture in all walks of life, in music khayal, ghazal and thumri are outstanding contributions of these interaction. North Indian classical music as known today, is a thorough blend of Hindu and Muslim elements achieved over 500 years. Ibrahim second Adishahi of Bijapur (1580-1626) had 300 Hindu singers in his court. To popularise this music among Muslims he himself composed Kitab-e-Naurang in Urdu (a book containing 59 poems) and of those the first one is an invocation of goddess Saraswati). Chaitanya Maha prabhu and most of the Vaishnav saint poets influenced many Muslims to write in their idiom.

Rahim and Raskhan are among the very popular Hindi poets who have written in Brij-bhasha in praise of Lord Krishna. Syed Wazid  Shah wrote Hir and Ranja the greatest classic of medieval times. Sheikh Mohammed has greatly contributed to Marathi literature and Shivaji’s guru (saint teacher) Ramdas had special words of praise for him.

Mixture of Persian dialect with Western Hindi spoken in and around Delhi produced a new language which later on came to be called as Urdu. There were great Hindu scholars who took to Urdu not only as administrative language but also wrote and contributed to Urdu literature. Hindu architecture was masked by profusion of intricate sculptured detail, while Islamic architecture was notable for elegance and lightness. The fusion of the two manifested in different architectural marvels which came up during this phase. This fusion is seen in Jodhabai’s palace in Agra fort, in Fatehpur Sikri, and in arches of Kuwat-ul-Islam mosque. The influence of this mixture is discernible far and wide in the haveli’s of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and the Indo-Saracenic architecture of Jodhpur, Bikaner and Jaisalmer. Similarly fusion of Persian techniques and brilliant Hindu colours resulted in the type of miniature painting marked by beauty and lyricism.

One of the most valuable relics of the harmony of mediaeval society which has survived the onslaughts of different communal forces is Sufi dargah (shrine). These dargahs are scattered in many a cities, managed by Hindu or Muslim families and visited by people of all religions, unmindful of the communal venom being poured by practitioners of communal politics. Right near Mumbai, Haji Malang shrine is a very good expression of syncretic ethos of medieval times. The hereditary trustee of the shrine is the Kailashnath Gopal Ketkar (a Brahmin). The offerings given at the shrine are a mixture of Hindu and Muslim traditions. Devotees offer chaddars, coconuts, flower and sheets of flower.

Such examples are numerous and scattered all over. Today there is a conscious attempt to downplay such a valuable tradition and to harp upon the differences of the elite and the rulers. There is a need to look at the truth as a whole. There is a need to observe the richness of these syncretic traditions, which are a rich tribute to our communities love, respect and tolerance for each other. These syncretic traditions which are a rich tribute to our communities’ love, respect and tolerance for each other.

(Writer is recipient of National Communal Harmony Award 2007, can be reached at, ram.puniyani@gmail.com)