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Roots of Hindu-Muslim Tension in India

Info: 2600 words (10 pages) Essay
Published: 6th Sep 2017 in History

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India has had a long history of religious violence, stemming as early as the Middle Ages when Muslim expansion spread into the Indian peninsula to the British Invasion of the middle 19th century. Various events throughout history have contributed to the tension between the Hindus and the Muslims; some Indians converted to Islam to lessen tension, but the fragile coexistence between Indian Hindus and Indian Muslims continually gave way to violence between the two groups.    

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As basic context, Hinduism is considered one of the world’s oldest religions. It predates Christianity and Islam by centuries. Hinduism is a difficult religion to understand because it doesn’t have a strictly structured set of beliefs. In more ways than one, Hinduism is inclusive of other religions, such as Christianity, Jainism, Buddhism, etc. It is often considered more of a way of life or a philosophical set of beliefs rather than a ‘religion’ as other faiths would be considered to be. Hinduism views life as a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, with Karma acting as a guiding force. Islam is a monotheistic religion based on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, who lived between 570-632 BCE. Followers of Islam are called Muslims and Muslims worship the Supreme Being, Allah, and follow his revelations contained in their sacred text, the Quran.

This history of Hindu-Muslim tension has mostly been studied in political sciences, as it is one of the most striking examples of Indian Politics, and the question of how and why riots occur has been a pressing issue for years. However, such history is also discussed in religious- studies professors, such as Valerie Stoker, a religion philosophy and classics professor at Wright State University. Her book, Polemics, and Patronage in the City of Victory: VyāsatÄ«rtha, Hindu Sectarianism, and the Sixteenth-Century Vijayanagara Court, uses the Vijayanagara Court as a way to understand the dynamic interaction between religious and royal institutions during the time period of 1346-1565. While Stoker’s main question is ‘how did the patronage activities of India’s Vijayanagara Empire (c. 1346-1565) influence Hindu sectarian identities?’, she addresses that the Vijayanagara Court was actually very selective in its patronage of religious institutions.

The Vijayanagara Court was the precolonial Southern Indian primary political power, with ‘Vijayanagara,’ meaning “city of victory” for its status as the center for emerging global economy. It attracted merchants and business from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Because of the wealth Vijayanagara Court had acquired by the early 1500s, it had become one of the greatest and most diverse urban populations of the world. Due to the increased interest from the Middle East and invasion of northern India, it was primarily known as a Hindu ‘wall’ against Muslim invasion. Geographically, Vijayanagara Court was located in the center of the country, encompassing people primarily of the Hindu and Christian faiths, as shown in Map 1. vc_map.JPG

In Map 1, the region that is indicated by “Vijayanagara” is the only region that is still primarily Hindu and Christian, and it’s important to note that all of the other regions above have been marked with Muslim invasions, such as:

  • Faruqi
  • Imad Shahi
  • Nizam Shahi
  • Barid Shahi
  • Qutb Shahi
  • Shitab Khan

The origins of the Vijayanagara Court have been noted to be the result of the Sangama Dynasty of 1336-1337, in which the rulers, Harihara I and Bukka Raya I, were commanders-in-chief when stationed in the Hoysala Empire to ward off the Muslims during the early invasion attempts of South India. The Hoysala Empire was the last of the Hindu states that survived the invasion at that time. However, these origins are not confirmed, but Stoker claims that after the death of Hoysala king, Veera Ballala III, during a battle against the Sultan of Madurai in 1343, the Hoysala Empire merged with the growing Vijayanagara empire. Until 1509, the Vijayanagara Court warded off five invasions from the Deccan Sultanates, five dynasties combined into one large empire. These five dynasties included the Muslim-ruled late medieval kingdoms of Bijapur, Golkonda, Ahmadnagar, Bidar, and Berar of south-central India. This Sultanate seems to be what caused bitter relations between the Hindu and the Muslims because at this point in time, beginning 1500 AD, India went through an extensive period of religious violence at the hands of the Sultan’s Army. Of the two sects of Islam, the perpetrators were Sunni Muslim and the primary victims were Hindus. Between the years of 1000 and 1500, the population of the Indian subcontinent had decreased by eighty million. Even the Hindus that has converted to Islam were not spared in the violence.

Stoker primarily focuses on South India, and religion is mainly discussed in the chapter called Hindu, Ecumenical, Sectarian: Religion and the Vijayanagara Court, in which the above information stems from. However, it is important to note that the Vijayanagara Court in itself, as a strong Hindu Empire, had strict rules on which sect of Hinduism would primarily be followed and which sect had the governing power during the reign. Within Hinduism itself, there are many sects. These sects, since Hinduism has no central doctrine, follow traditions and beliefs in accordance of the three main gods: Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma. Shiva, being The Destroyer, Vishnu, being The Protector, and Brahma, being The Creator. The Hindu denominations who follow Brahma as their guiding force, are the ones that considered to be the ‘most pure’ and the ‘utmost’ followers of Hinduism. Historically, the Brahmins; followers of Brahma, were primarily the royalty or upper middle class. So, the Vijayanagara Court were also strong Brahmins, and “Vijayanagara royals’ religious patronage played a critical role in shaping the various practical mechanisms that enabled the empire to function” (Stoker, Chapter 6). Now, it is important to note that the Vijayanagara Court wasn’t always governed by the Brahmins. Originally, when the empire was created, the founders, Harihara I and Bukka Raya I, were strong devotees of Shiva. Despite their sectarian preferences, the Vijayanagara rulers, on the whole, adopted the deliberate policy of tolerance towards all sects to incorporate them all within the policy.

The next ruler after Harihara and Bukka Raya, Devaraya II, took over the empire and was deemed the most successful of all of the rulers that had power over the Vijayanagara Court. Devoutly religious, Devaraya II endowed Sri Vaishnava temples at Srirangam and Tirumalai, and favored Jain institutions in the capital and elsewhere since the highest form of devotion was found in intricate temples. Most importantly, Devaraya II employed Muslims in his army and allowed them to practice their religion freely. Thus, Vijayanagara royals well-maintained Indian traditions of tolerance and inclusivism that nevertheless privileged specific religious formations. That is quite different from European states in the same period, which, for the most part, waited until the Enlightenment to recognize the political value of religious tolerance. Yet while in some ways, these enlightened Indian attitudes toward religious diversity.

To contrast the heavy emphasis on precolonial South India that Valerie Stoker places in her monograph, Audrey Truschke, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, discusses the Northern Indian aspect of the Hindu-Muslim tension in a chapter of her new book, Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court. Truschke argues that most of the religious conflict India is fueled by “ideological assumptions about that period [medieval times] rather than an accurate rendering of the subcontinent’s history”. In pages 27-63, Truschke discusses the influence of Brahmins in the Mughal Empire, which was the primary governing Islamic empire of the North. The Mughal Empire was about a century later than the Vijayanagara Court, ruling during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, founded near the end of the Vijayanagara Court, in 1526.

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Babur was the founder of the Mughal Empire, and subsequently its first ruler. He invaded India from Central Asia with only 12,000 men, and defeated many larger armies, eventually forming the Mughal Empire. Humayun, Babur’s son, lost control of his empire soon after taking the throne. With the help of his Persian advisors, Humayun regained his empire and even expanded to the South and East. It is important to note here the Persian influence and the help of Persian and Central Asian advisors straightened what was to be a long lasting cultural impact from the subcontinent’s western neighbors. Later during his reign, the presence of Persian advisors was a constant feature of his court.

The Emperor Akbar the Great, who ruled the Mughal Empire from 1556 to 1605, was one of the most important Mughal rulers for fostering religious cohesion amongst Muslims and Hindus. His trusted friend and advisor, Abul Fazl, wrote a book, the Akbarnama (Truschke, Chapter 4), describing the rule of emperor Akbar including Akbar’s religious views and policies toward Hindus. Abul Fazl wrote a lot about the interactions and policies that the Muslim government established in response to the Hindu majority. This shows the tolerance of the Muslim leadership toward another religion in order to keep power peacefully. The text even talks about the similarities in the religions. The tolerance and acceptance shown to the Hindus by the Muslim rulers of the time were a “politically savvy move”. Ruling an empire where the majority of the population did not have the same religious views as the ruling class presented many obstacles, and required the Mughal rulers to practice religious sensitivity in order to maintain power.

However, what is interesting about Truschke’s argument in the first chapter of her book is that she also finds it important to highlight that the Muslim invasion wasn’t all negative. While it is not to lessen the negative impact of Muslim Invasion on the Indian subcontinent, it is also important to note that “Muslim rule in India from the 16th to 18th centuries was, in fact, one of ‘tremendous cross-cultural respect and fertilization,’ not religious or cultural conflict.” She said her research overturns the assumption that the Mughals were hostile to traditional Indian literature or knowledge systems. In fact, her findings reveal how Mughals supported and engaged with Indian thinkers and ideas. Early modern-era Muslims were, in fact, “deeply interested in traditional Indian learning, which is largely housed in Sanskrit,” says Truschke.

For example, in the Vijayanagara Court, Brahmins were the primary governing Hindu denomination; similarly, in the Mughal Empire, the Brahmins had detailed interactions with the intellectuals of the Mughal Empire. The Brahmins became influential members of the empire through composing Sanskrit works for Mughal readers and through writing about their imperial experiences. Through this observation, it seems as though Truschke looks at the Hindu-Muslim interaction in a precolonial era of the Indian subcontinent more positively than in contrast to the more common, media-based views that assume that Muslim interaction and presence has always been malicious to Indian religions, languages, and culture.

This example of Mughal artwork depicts Emperor Akbar presiding over discussions in the Hall of Religious Debate, ca. 1600. (Image credit: Chester Beatty Library, Dublin). The original painting is found in Dublin, and naturally, the image has been cleaned through computer graphics. This artwork is found in The Akbarnama. ‘Akbarnama’ means ‘Book of Akbar’ and it is an official, imperial biography, written by Akbar’s close friend and associate, Abul Fazl, who was mentioned earlier in this essay. In the illustrations to the text, Akbar is portrayed as a powerful, versatile, and heroic figure, as he seems to have been perceived by his contemporaries. In this painting, however, another aspect of the emperor’s personality is portrayed: his intense curiosity about other religions. Akbar is shown in the midst of a theological debate with Jesuit missionaries in his Ibadat Khana, or House of Worship. Mughal artwork of religious scholars engaging in discussionMughal artwork of religious scholars engaging in discussion

Hindu-Muslim has long been a source of conflict in India and the Indian subcontinent as a whole. While it was not discussed in this paper, religious violence began as early as the 7th century with the earliest of Muslim invasions, and that time onwards, the conflicts have only risen. From the Vijayanagara Court to the Mughal Empires, hundreds of invasions and wars have been fought. The Mughal Empire was the precursor to the British Empire, who brought a new wave of imperialism once again in the Indian subcontinent. This occurs in the beginning of the 19th century. The British benefited from pitting Hindus and Muslims against one another and portrayed themselves as neutral saviors who could keep ancient religious conflicts at bay. While colonialism ended in the 1940s, the modern Hindu right has found tremendous political value in continuing to proclaim and create endemic Hindu-Muslim conflict. More of the British invasion, and the Partition of 1947 will later be discussed in paper two.

Works Cited:  

  1. Fazl, Abul. Akbar and the Jesuits. 1600-03 India. Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, Ireland. Chester Beatty Library Image Gallery. Chester Beatty Library. Web. 14 Feb. 2017.<http://www.cbl.ie/cbl_image_gallery/collection/detail.aspx?imageId=99&ImageNumber=T0004641&collectionId=2&page=8>. Mughal Artwork from the “Akbarnama” book written by Abul Fazl
  1. Truschke, Audrey. Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court. Columbia University Press, 2016, www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/trus17362.
  1. Stoker, Valerie. Polemics and Patronage in the City of Victory: Vyasatirtha, Hindu Sectarianism, and the Sixteenth-Century Vijayanagara Court. Oakland, California, University of California Press, 2016, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1kc6jt3.


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