In the past couple of decades, India has been rocked by communal disturbances which have claimed the lives of people from different religious communities. While disturbances between religious minorities are not unknown, most of such communal incidents take place between Hindus and one of the religious minorities in the country. How is it that even 7 decades after independence and even after rapid political, social and economic strides that the nation has made, India continues to grapple with the threat of communal violence. How is it that Sikh pogrom, Bombay riots, Gujarat riots, Muzaffarnagar riots and countless other communal flare ups still happen unabated. Is it that the Hindu majority of India is inherently communal and it is this intolerance that exhibits itself from time to time, most recently in the savage attack in Bisada village?
This multi-part series will track the history behind Hindu communalism. Part 1 of this series talks about Hindu Communalism in ancient India i.e. from its inception till about 1000 CE.
1. The Rise of Hinduism
Ancient India had no concept of Hinduism in the sense that we know today. Indus Valley civilization, in some ways may be considered as the bedrock from which Hinduism emerged. The traditions of Indus valley culture, were fused with the existing Dravidian, tribal and animist cultures that were present in the subcontinent, to which the migrant Aryans added their own cultural thoughts. Over a period of several millennia, authoritative works such as the four vedas (Rig, Yajur, Atharv and Sam), Upanishads, commentary in the form of Brahmanas etc. came to be written. The caste system, initially created for the sake of economic expediency was also born sometime during this era. Over a period of time, Hinduism became more formalized with specific rituals, modes and methods of propitiating the deities. This period also saw increasing urbanization of India. Thus emerged the first challenges to Hinduism
2. The Emergence of Buddhism and Jainism
The urbanization of India resulted the first challenges to the Hindu orthodoxy in the form of Jainism and Buddhism. Both had several common features with Hinduism, but varied vastly in several ways. For starters, both despised the intricate rituals followed in Hinduism. Both Buddhism and Jainism were also opposed to the system of Vedic sacrifices. They also differed with Hinduism in their approach to salvation. Lastly, both repudiated the concept of castes, which by then was well entrenched in Hinduism. While Jainism had a significant impact on Indian thought, it remained a minor player in terms of its outreach. Buddhism on the other hand, became the religion of the Kings, starting from Ashoka and spread out far and wide. This was also a time, when several schools of thought emerged within Hinduism, at times, vastly at odds with each other.
3. Hindu philosophy
By the beginning of the common era, broadly two schools of thought were already in place. One school of thought recognized the primacy of Vedas and was hence called Astika, the other rejected Vedas as the source of knowledge and was hence called Nastika. Buddhism and Jainism came under the Nastika school. The Astika school was sub divided into Samkhya (rationalist), Yoga (believed in the concept of personal God), Vaisheshika (Atomist), Nyaya (realist), Mimansa (orthopraxy) and Vedanta (Knowledge based). These schools were sub divided into several sub-groups. Each of these schools had their own set of adherents, their own set of practices and their unique belief in God, often at variance with each other. The rise of Puranic Hinduism 500CE onwards which replaced rituals with devotion, saw the rise of Shaivaite and Vaishnavite schools, whose adherents worshipped Shiv/Vishnu as their prime deities.
To put it succinctly, the scope for communal conflict in Ancient India, existed between Hindus, Jains and Buddhists and among various schools of Hindu thoughts. We will now examine historical incidents highlighting this conflict.
1. Hindu-Buddhist conflict
Buddhism was never seen as an alien religion in India. Even though it enjoyed royal patronage for a substantial time, the Kings were equally favorably disposed towards both Hinduism and Buddhism. There are many examples to show how Hindu Kings built Buddhist temples and Buddhist Kings built Hindu temples. The name of Pushyamitra Sunga is often quoted to show the intolerance of Hindus towards Buddhists. Pushyamitra (185-149 BC) was a Hindu King from the Sunga dynasty, who is alleged to have destroyed Buddhist stupas and slaughtered Buddhist monks. There is considerable academic debate on this, primarily due to the lack of archaeological evidence. Modern day research points to Pushyamitra’s attack on Mauryas, reflecting merely the decline of Buddhism in Sunga imperial court. This is believed to have forced Buddhists to seek help from Pushyamitra’s enemies, which might have resulted in an attack on Buddhists to secure political power. Even if one were to accept this story, it would appear that the attack on Buddhists by Hindus was an exception rather than the norm. It seems more likely that this was a battle between political powers with Buddhists on the wrong side. Another case of persecution of Buddhists is by the Hun King Mihirakula (502-530 AD), who had become Hinduised and who severely persecuted Buddhists across Northern India. Apparently, Mihirakula’s blood lust didn’t end with the destruction of Buddhist temples. He is believed to have destroyed Hindu temples as well. Persecution of Buddhists appears to have abated after Mihirakula’s death.Kumarila Bhatta was a Hindu philosopher from the Mimamsa school who challenged and defeated Buddhists in philosophical debates. He is believed to have played a major role in hastening the decline of Buddhism in the subcontinent.
2. Hindu-Jain conflict
The conflict between Hindu and Jains in ancient India, seems to be more academic rather than physical. Jains rejected Vedas as they were anonymously written . They rejected Vedic sacrifices, questioning how killing could lead to enlightenment. For every Hindu epic, a counter Jain epic was in place. There are apocryphal tales of the massacre of Jains at the hands of Shaivites or Buddhists, however, none of these are found in Jain literature and are believed to be Hindu/Buddhist propaganda at embellishing their strength. However, it is widely believed that Jainism held sway in the Southern parts of India, before being swept aside by a resurgent Hinduism.
3. Philosophical intolerance
There is a tradition of debates between philosophers from different schools within Hinduism and also with those from the Nastika School of thought. Adi Shankara (788-820 AD) is believed to have travelled widely and participated in philosophical debates with different schools. Shastrath, which institutionalized debates between different philosophers was also prevalent. In fact, there was a free flow of ideas and principles between Astika Schools and between Astika and Nastika schools due to these debates. The level of diffusion was such that many have claimed that Adi Shankara was a crypto-Mahayana Buddhist. There was also a great deal of debate between the adherents of Shaiva and Vaishnava schools which was relatively free from violence at this time.
In light of the above, it will be difficult to believe that Hindu society in ancient India was communal in the sense we define Communalism today. Religion based violence does not seem to be prevalent in general. Isolated incidents are also of doubtful authenticity. There is no doubt that Hindu society was not perfect, that there were several glaring shortfalls (e.g. caste system) that made it difficult from realizing its full potential, but on the whole, ancient India seems to be a place of Communal harmony, in part due to the fact that Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism were all native religions that had sprouted from the same source. Hindus looked at Buddhists and Jains, not as enemies but as people with a different approach to God. It was this tolerance that made diffusion of ideas between them possible.
The next part of the series will cover the period between 1000 AD- 1500 AD.
Wendy Doniger- The Hindus- An alternative history