The decline of the Mughal dynasty has its seeds sowed in many factors, such as persistent European interference in Indian affairs and a central bureaucracy losing more and more influence to regional chieftains and kings. However amongst these factors, the question of religion is minor, and by itself ineffective in being the prime catalyst of change. While historically speaking, religious banners are very effective in uniting people, whether being waved in good faith or exploited a political tool, the fact that the Mughal Empire had distanced its institutions from the sort of heavy reliance on Islamic texts that was prevalent at the time in Ottoman policy making debunks religious backlash as the sole or even primary reason for the fall of the Turkic Empire in India (since Islam was only rarely used to ‘oppress’ its subjects.)
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Furthermore, the fact that Hinduism, then and now the majority religion in India today, was not administered by a single governing body whose proclamations on religious doctrine (doctrine that in any case was not as rigidly defined by broad consensus as it in the Islamic tradition; the Vedic texts after all are just that – a subsection of the body of ancient Sanskrit literature which as a whole was over a millennia old) could reach the ears of every believer precludes the notion of a large-scale Hindu self-consciousness forming among the populace, much less that sort of identity forming the backbone of revolutionary sentiment against the authorities (who had been very generous in allowing Hindus and other non-Muslims to accede to posts of power.)
At its most basic level Hinduism as a religion cannot be as easily demarcated as traditional western religion, owing to “a great diversity of practice and belief [that makes it] difficult to identify a distinctive essence.” [Coward] This lack of a clear definition, coupled with (or in some ways sustained because of) the lack of a central administrative body meant that Hinduism at the time could in no way wield a sort of unifying power from the streets of the Mughal capital to the dense jungles of the south of the Deccan : that promise of egalitarianism that made both Christianity and Islam very palatable, and helped facilitate their spread far past the lands of their inception Because this was impossible, Hinduism as an agent that could weaken so-called “Islamic” Mughal power (if we are to for a moment ignore the heavy integration of Indians of all creed in the government) in India was always limited to being a tool which could only spread as far as the regional government which employed had influence. And because of the fractiousness in inter-Indian relations, no single power could unify the whole continent solely on the basis of religion (after all, both the Mughals and the Marathas, the only indigenous-born empire whose size came close to rivalling the Mughal empire at its height, practised religious pluralism and tolerance, a policy also adopted by the Sikh Empire and the Kingdom of Mysore), otherwise it wouldn’t be able to get expand beyond a very limited sphere of influence, for a potential backlash due to perceived oppression could easily arise.
The argument of the religious factor as the root cause of Mughal decline also fails to appreciate the complex inter-faith relations that were customary in India at the time (and still are to a point.) Mughal society as manifested through arts and culture was a blend of both Islamic and indigenous ingredients, with even Muslim religious life having “evolved together with the religious life of non-Muslims. ” [Metcalf 8] It was only after the advent of English empire in India that the sort of religious barriers which can (and have led) to quarrelling and internecine formed through vast segments of Indian society – one of the unfortunate imports of European mentality to the Indian sub-consciousness. While large-scale religious riots have been frequent since independence and with tensions across the Indian-Pakistani border erupting into full-out warfare four times, the roots of these conflicts do not lie in Mughal-induced religious tensions in pre-colonial India, but rather are the direct result of English meddling in Indian affairs during colonisation with its culmination in Partition.
However, while religious tensions were not the primary instigator leading to the fall of the Mughal Empire, it is undeniable that society during the decline of the empire was markedly less harmonious then a hundred years prior. With central power diminishing greatly and the once-tributary states gaining sovereign power within the subcontinent, Indian politics as a whole saw the rise of a variety of entities vying for power, the most importance of which would be increasingly large European settlements taking hold on the coast. But while India as a whole was experiencing a shift in which no one power could maintain hegemony over the whole of the subcontinent, the question of whether or not this period of time was one of “chaos and decline” is something that must be examined on a more fundamental level. During the reign of the Mughal empire, the same kingdoms outside of the capital Delhi which would later serve as the basis for the patchwork of states that later came into being were, by first declaring subservience to central Mughal authority, allowed to maintain a degree of autonomy in a hands-off style of government – a situation which was not wholly changed as Mughal influence weakened and was replaced by those of the regional powers. Though it is undeniable Delhi and its environs were under great threat (demonstrated in the sack of Delhi by the Safavid king Nadir Shah) it has to be emphasised that large parts Indian landmass, as far as the decline of the Mughal dynasty is concerned, would only be feeling the ripples from the tumultuous waves that engulfed the centre. Indeed for areas to the south and east the loss of Mughal authority did not immediately lead to unbridled disorder and confusion.
However an important change in those areas started to emerge. With new states competing for dominion, the demand for a modern infantry became much more evident than during Mughal rule. These states found their answer in European mercenaries, training and leading battalions that were more disciplined and orderly then the Mughal army had ever been. [Metcalf 34] This attracted more and more Europeans to expand in what was another profitable trade, while also leading to a race to arms by various states. This race to arms manifested itself especially in succession disputes, where two factions would vie the throne of a state. In these conflicts the Europeans, who were already competing amongst themselves for premiere influence, would lend their infantries for the support of one faction on promise of returns (often unrealistic returns which could amount to usury) when they won. Essentially, in trying to establish independent indigenous kingdoms, Indian states unwittingly invited European conquest, which with Clive’s victory at Plessey and virtual usurpation of the Bengali throne by the English, led to a non-Indian power (that was far more foreign then the Mughals) governing India.
The advent of English imperialism brought with it what would eventually lead to the disenfranchising of the majority of Indian society, leading to the aforementioned religious tensions as well as the systematic loot and plunder of the wealth and resources of the subcontinent. The terms “chaos” and “decline” are more appropriately measured in a contextual basis – despite the relative instability of Indian society during the twilight of the Mughal Empire the situation for India would only start to worsen with the aggrandising of the East India Company’s power. Colonisation would lead to the death of traditional Indian industry, a mass exodus from the impoverished countryside (now forced to rely solely on agriculture) to the slums of India’s modern metropolises, religious tensions and violence, as well as a host of other issues. Given this context, it can be said that India’s situation after colonisation only worsened, so wouldn’t it be accurate to say that India was not “saved” by the creation of Empire but rather quite the opposite – that India overall was harmed by the East India Company’s actions?
Ahmed, Akbar. “Islam’s Impact on India.” Encyclopedia of India. Ed. Stanley Wolpert. Vol. 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006. p304-311. 4 vols.
Coward, Harold. “Hinduism.” Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. Ed. J. Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2003. p399-400. 2 vols.
Imber, Colin. “Islam in the Ottoman Empire.” Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. Ed. Jonathan Dewald. Vol. 3. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004. p292-299. 6 vols.
Khan, Iqtidar Alam. “Empires: Mogul.” Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World. Ed. Richard C. Martin. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. p212-214. 2 vols.
Metcalf, Barbara; Thomas R. Metcalf. “A Concise History of Modern India.” Second edition. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
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