The Idea of India – Subhash Kak


Prof Subhash KakTo provide justification for colonial rule, the British declared that Indian society was pre-rational and it needed guidance by Western ideas. Depicted thus in textbooks at all levels, Indians came to believe this characterization, and this included nationalist politicians and intellectuals. – Prof Subhash Kak

There are many who see India’s recent election results as a repudiation of the textbook idea of India. They find the results painful, as if the walls of the India of their imagination have been brought down.

They say they love India as much as anyone, so they can’t understand how the people could have been so destructive to vote the way they did.

Spring is passing, the birds cry, and the fishes eyes fill with tears. — Matsuo Bashō (17th century)

I want to present a different take on the election. I concede that the results are a rejection of an India that many have come to feel comfortable with, but it is an India based on falsehoods and half-truths, motivated by pseudoscience and racism.

If the changes that have occurred inspire people to investigate the foundations of the rejected idea of India and examine them with an open mind, that will be a good thing. I am hoping they will be convinced that the past described in textbooks is inaccurate, make peace with it, look at the future with hope, and discover new ways for growth and prosperity for all Indians.

That will be a new dawn!

My barn burnt down, I can now see the moon. — Mizuta Masahide (17/18th century)

The Old Idea of India

The old idea of India emerged from the work of British colonial administrators and European scholars motivated by the demands of the Raj, pseudoscience and racial prejudice. The British dismantled India’s schools and created a new system of colleges and universities using English as the medium of research and instruction. Their understanding of India was imperfect quite like someone claiming to know Britain ignorant of Shakespeare and Shelley, Austen and Dickens, or Darwin and Dirac. But the British ruled the narrative; Indian classics were thrown out, and Indians could enter the academy only on the terms set by them.

To provide justification for colonial rule, the British declared that Indian society was pre-rational and it needed guidance by Western ideas. Depicted thus in textbooks at all levels, Indians slowly came to believe this characterization, and this included nationalist politicians and intellectuals. So I was not surprised that even a nationalist poet like Ramdhari Singh Dinkar in his much-praised Sanskriti ke chār adhyāya parroted this understanding.

There were two main elements to this idea of India:

One: India is a land divided by rigid caste and hierarchy and its social and intellectual history must be seen within this framework and as an encounter between different races.

Two: Indian society is deeply conservative and religious and it has no real tradition of science, arts and innovation. There has been some innovation in mathematics, architecture, and philosophy, but it was done by outsiders who were descendants of invading or migrating groups. India has received most of its worthy ideas from the west and the north, and this includes writing.

After the British left, the education, administrative, and political ecosystem remained tethered to this idea. There was challenge to it from scholars who knew Indian texts and by subaltern groups, but they were strongly ridiculed. New research over the last few decades has undermined the previous model and a new generation of serious scholars has joined in the criticism. It has become clear that the idea of India conjured up by the British is false, and mostly a fabrication.

But there has also been a reaction by others in the academy who are driven by Eurocentrism and prejudice. Astonishingly, some have even resorted to fabrication of evidence in support of the old view (for example, see here).

Caste in India

Many will be shocked to discover that the modern idea of caste is a colonialist construct (see also this). There is no synonym for caste in any Indian language. The word ‘caste’ comes from the Portuguese casta, a word that was meant to describe the jāti system that is composed of clan or occupation-based communities, but slowly it has come to have a much broader connotation. The term was conflated with varṇa, which is a theoretical classification based on social class.

India’s jātis represented a fluid system, not too dissimilar from that of other cultures. As people migrated from one region to another, they often changed occupation or were identified with a different class. There was also powerful religious sanction to the idea that varṇa, as representative of the class one fitted in best, was based on temperament rather than birth.

To get context for what was happening to the jātis, one should remember that the British destroyed India’s economy by crushing taxation and preventing investments in India just as the industrial revolution took off in Europe. India rapidly became deindustrialized and turned into a destination for British goods. This was great for the Empire but a disaster for India. The horror of that period may be guessed from the estimate that India’s share of the world manufacturing fell from 20% to about 1.4% during the British rule (the estimate if for 1750 -1914).

The dynamics between the jātis has been influenced a great deal by historical and political factors. During the periods of economic growth, the jātis have been relatively open-ended; during periods of hardships the jātis have tended to draw in for the sake of survival.

Colonial anthropologists failed to understand the complexities and fluidity of the jātis. The classification in terms of these castes was used to categorize people in the census forms in 1872. Most jātis were not aware of the specific varṇa class they belonged to but were squeezed into the varṇa system by the British administrators.

Based on his understanding of the 1872 Census, the British administrator Denzil Ibbetson argued that jātis were a social rather than a religious mechanism for those who had converted to Islam also had it. He insisted that varṇa categories of Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra did not correspond to reality. He thought that the Kshatriya likely no longer existed and Vaishya certainly did not. There were classes of Brahmins who were viewed as outcastes even by the lowest ritual rank, the Shudra, and that the latter term was primarily used as a form of abuse rather than in any categorical sense.

But the ideas of racism were very strong and the perfect fit for the colonial project in India. Missionaries, anthropologists, and government officials set about identifying and classifying Indians into different castes. They used head measurements, skin color, physique, and occupation to develop a racial theory of Indian civilization.

The British Superintendent of the 1921 census summarized what they had done over the previous half-century: “We pigeon-holed everyone by caste and if we could not find a true caste for them, labelled them with the name of hereditary occupation. We deplore the caste system and its effect on social and economic problems, but we are largely responsible for the system we deplore.”

Some jātis were declared to be martial and therefore fit to serve in the army, others were left with menial jobs, and yet others were labeled criminal. The British created a system of institutionalized discrimination. Slowly, the jātis that came out on the top in this classification began to believe in the myth of their superiority since immemorial time. These false ideas have poisoned politics for over a century in the entire Indian subcontinent.

Think about this: H. H. Risley hoped to demonstrate that the social status “varies in inverse ration to the mean relative width of the nose” and his colleague guessed that “intelligence is in inverse proportion to the breadth of the nose.” People were discouraged to apply for clerical jobs if their nasal index exceeded 78.

The historian Thomas Trautmann considers H.H. Risley, who became Census Commissioner in 1899, along with the philologist Max Müller, to have most aggressively pushed the idea “that the constitutive event for Indian civilization, the Big Bang through which it came into being, was the clash between invading, fair-skinned, civilized Sanskrit-speaking Aryans and dark-skinned, barbarous aborigines.” Their influence is not entirely gone. Some of the most racist scholars are to be found in the Indology and Sanskrit departments of the West.

India and science

Writing in 1068, the Spanish-Arab savant Said al-Andalusi declared in his book Ṭabaqāt al-ʼUmam (“Categories of Nations”) comparing the science of the leading nations that Indians were the most advanced: “The Indians are the essence of wisdom, source of fairness and objectivity. They are the peoples of sublime pensiveness, universal apologues, and useful and rare inventions.”

The British administrators in the education system were generally ignorant of India’s history of science so they did not accept this characterization, even if they acknowledged that the Indian schools were able to impart basic education to broad segments of society, irrespective of their jāti. Macaulay famously stated, Indian knowledge was worthless, and reason enough to separate Indians from their traditions and books, and this became a cornerstone of their education policy.

It is now well accepted that India has been one of the leading scientific nations of the world. Since I have already written much on it elsewhere, here are the links to an overview of ancient Indian science and how it supplied the foundational bases of modern science. Nevertheless, this material is generally unknown to the layperson and therefore old myths persist.

An aside on why I ever got into the study of the history of Indian science. In the eighties, I happened to see a paper which argued that if there was something in Indian scientific texts that was not to be found in Greek or Babylonian texts, then it should be taken as an example of lost Greek or Babylonian knowledge. The fact that such a stupid hypothesis was taken seriously in the academy got me hooked into investigating this field (see also this).

The election and the aftermath

The election was held in the background of rapid economic growth (fastest of any major economy) when jobs have remained under pressure due to the inevitable increase in the use of automation and AI technologies. The policy differences between the BJP and the opposition parties were not large but their manifestos appeared to be motivated by distinctly different visions.

The BJP espoused a nationalism that appeared to reject the Western textbook idea of India, which was ridiculed by the media in India and overseas. The Left parties spoke of incremental change while continuing to see India through the colonial lens that has been the consensus for decades.

The magnitude of the Left’s defeat surprised most observers. The election turned out to have been a subaltern revolt against the elites. The well-informed subaltern felt morally and educationally superior to those with advanced degrees who are ignorant of India’s own history. Seen from this perspective, the election results are an indictment of India’s education system.

Let the light of knowledge banish old myths and darkness. To help that along, the government will do well to undertake these two administrative steps:

1. Discontinue the use of the inaccurate term caste in government and official documents, and replace it by jāti or community, as appropriate.

2. Introduce a course on the history of Indian science in high school and college curricula, and also a curriculum for those who are interested in Indian classics.

Indian culture is humanistic and universal; it has no dichotomy of believer and non-believer, and it has the capacity to deal with the challenges of artificial intelligence for all mankind.

If the people of India voted for progress (सर्वे भवन्तु सुखिनः, सर्वे सन्तु निरामया: “let all be prosperous and let all be wholesome”) and a rejection of the colonialist prejudices of the yesteryear, isn’t that a good thing? – Medium, 22 August 2019

›  Padma Shri Professor Subhash Kak is an author, historian and AI computer scientist at the Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.


Burden of proof lies in past cultural transgressions – Ravi Shankar

Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji

Ravi Shankar The destruction of ancient cultures is caused by insecurity and arrogant ignorance that impose an alien god’s law on vanquished populations. Rookie religions are predatory and political. – Ravi Shankar

History isn’t always written by the victor. It is rewritten by vandals and murderers, too. Today, the Great Indian Cultural Debate has Leftist scholars scoffing at the classical authenticity of the scriptures and the Right claiming spiritual provenance as proof.

But there could be more credible answer for the absence of written records detailing post-Vedic India. Islamic holocausts perpetrated by waves of invasions burned down libraries and condemned native knowledge as heresy.

The writings of Chinese explorer Hiuen Tsang who visited India between 627 and 643 CE reveal a highly sophisticated civilisation.

He wrote of people wearing clothes of cotton, silk and wool, were well educated and loved literature and the arts. Students between nine and 30 years of age went to school.

The written language was Sanskrit. Very little evidence of this lost era exists in India, but they do in Chinese records.

Hence, it would be correct to presume that the drafted history of India was obliterated by Islamic raiders like Bakhtiyar Khilji who burned down over nine million manuscripts at Nalanda.

The story goes that he claimed that libraries which did not stock the Koran offended god and if they did have it, there was no need for any other book.

The ISIS has followed Khilji’s template across the Middle East. The destruction of ancient cultures is caused by insecurity and arrogant ignorance that impose an alien god’s law on vanquished populations. Rookie religions are predatory and political.

In the days before Hiroshima and Chernobyl, neophyte converts weaponised faith to conquer nations and loot their resources—all in the name of God. Sure, there were benefits, too. Great art, music, dance and cuisine were born from the Mughal experience.

The British brought English and technology. But both diminished India’s cultural reserves and brutalised its religious, linguistic and artistic heritage. It was cultural imperialism with a divine discount.

But the Islamic invaders were simply following their Christian counterparts. For over 1,000 years, early Christians in different countries continued to follow their local traditions which threatened the power of the Roman Catholic Church.

It ordered a savage cleansing of “heretics and agnostics” like the Cathars in France and Italy. They were a highly evolved Christian cult which followed the New Testament, believed in gender equality and refused to convert to Catholicism, calling the Church corrupt.

The only information on Cathars lies in Vatican records, which would naturally be highly biased. After the Church’s attempts to bring Cathars into its fold failed, Pope Innocent III ordered a crusade in 1208, promising that killing a Cathar would assure the murderer a place in paradise. Sounds familiar? Only the 72 virgins are missing! – The New Indian Express, 29 September 2019

Ravi Shankar is an author, columnist and cartoonist in New Delhi.

Albigensian Crusade


The Vikram Sampath Interview – K. Bhattacharjee

Vikram Sampath

OpIndiaEver since it’s release, scholar Vikram Sampath’s book, Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past, has earned great praise from every quarter. Touted to be the definitive biography on the great Hindutva thinker, Sampath’s book has garnered serious attention across ends of the political spectrum. had the opportunity to interview Sampath on the book which was released recently. The following is an interview conducted over an email conversation.

• What inspired you to write this book?

• Savarkar had been an addiction since the time I first heard about him in 2003-04 when the whole controversy of dislodging his plaque at the Cellular Jail by Mani Shankar Aiyar happened. We had no reference to him in our school history books—I had studied in the CBSE and ISC syllabus. Yet, this was a figure from the past who was intruding [on] contemporary political discourse and that is what piqued my interest in him.

However, it’s only in the last 3-4 years that I managed to get down to serious research around him. A Senior Fellowship from the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) further aided this process. I was quite amazed to know that a man who evokes such strong, polarizing reactions even now, and whose philosophy and thoughts have shaped India in so many ways and continue to do, has been so less researched or written about.

I have been rummaging several archives across India and abroad, gathering original archival and court documents—be it at the National Archives of India, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Maharashtra State Archives, the India Office at British Library London, National Archives of UK, archives in France, Germany, etc. A lot about Savarkar and also his own writings are in Marathi and these have seldom been accessed by mainstream historians.

Accessing these documents opened up a new dimension to the man’s life and vision and helped clear the cobwebs that history and politics have shrouded his image in. Interviews with old-timers, his proponents and opponents and support from his family, especially his grandnephew Mr. Ranjit Savarkar, who heads the Savarkar Smarak in Mumbai, travels to various places associated with him from Bhagur, Nashik, Port Blair, Mumbai, London, etc completed the research journey.

This incidentally is just the first volume of the two-volume series and covers the story of his life from his birth in 1883 to his conditional release to Ratnagiri in 1924. The second volume would cover the remainder of the journey—the social reforms that he undertook in Ratnagiri, his active political days as President of All India Hindu Mahasabha and his alleged role in the Gandhi murder.

• How is this book of yours different from the other books about Savarkar?

• That is honestly for the readers to judge! But I can say that I have tried my level best to make this a balanced and authentic account of the man, without resorting to the usual extremes of hagiography or demonization that has largely been the trend with books on a subject as important and also contentious as Savarkar. Like I mentioned earlier, it is also based on extensive research and documentation across countries and also the Marathi writings and records that are seldom accessed.

• In an article of yours, you had argued that Gandhi and Savarkar represented the poles of Indian politics. Considering the events since 2014, where the BJP has shown great reverence towards both of them, do you believe that dichotomy still exists?

• Gandhi has become this overarching political father figure of whom every party now wants to draw inspiration from or appropriate. The BJP is thus doing the same and I am not judging their political compulsions. I am talking about the polarities from a strictly ideological and academic viewpoint. In that sense, the twain do not seem to converge on any issue.

• In the prologue, you say that the book is neither a hagiography nor does it demonize Savarkar. So, could you tell our readers certain things about Veer Savarkar which the Hindu Right is likely to find problematic since we already know what the Left does not like about Savarkar?

• I do not foresee anything that Savarkar said or did that the “Hindu Right” will or needs to have a problem with. His vision of a modern, progressive India where everyone is equal irrespective of caste, creed, religion, and one that is driven by an industrialized, rapidly urbanized capitalist model of the economy is what India is becoming to a large extent.

His modern views on social practices, be it caste system and its complete dismantling in order to ensure a Hindu unification or the total eradication of untouchability, are things that posit him in a very liberal light. If at all, his views on cow worship vs. cow protection might raise some hackles where he mentioned that while he had no objections to people worshipping the cow, he personally did not endorse it.

Priority was the cow’s protection and its utilitarian aspect for Savarkar. Hindutva’s reigning deity needed to be Narasimha and not a docile cow for him. He also drew attention to how invaders had always used the cow as a shield and protection to weaken us and for those wishing to convert and break up Hindu society to use the cow as a means to deracinate the community.

The Hindus must not give their opponents such a chance by being so emotionally attached to the cow, he maintained. So, while these are very controversial and provocative statements, if one mulls over them, the rationale becomes clear.

• You have mentioned in your book that the Indian National Congress was formed as part of the British government’s strategy to further strengthen their hold over the country. Do you believe such a book could have been written at a time when the Congress party was still the dominant political power in the country? Do you believe these facts call for historians to relook at the events of the Indian independence movement from a more nuanced perspective?

Since I am not associated with any political party, I can say with certainty that this series is coming out now not because of the BJP or that the party is in power. Savarkar is an important figure in history and needs to be assessed and re-evaluated. It’s a historian’s burden for me to make this process possible. There has been no sponsorship or support from the Government or BJP or any organization associated with them in the writing of the book. Hence I do not attribute this book to them in any case.

What the Congress might have done is only speculative. Their track record when it comes to banning books and films that go against their ideology has been miserable, right from the times of Nehru to the UPA. So they might have well banned the book, maybe, but then this is again speculation.

Do historians need to re-evaluate our freedom struggle? Most certainly, especially since it’s been 72 years thence and it’s time to take a look again as a mature democracy must, in a dispassionate and authentic manner. The monochromatic narrative of the non-violent struggle that we have been fed for seven decades is now being challenged in the wake of more and more documents screaming to be heard and read that talk of a parallel freedom struggle, an armed revolution that had an unending chain right from the 1857 War of Independence to the 1946 Naval Mutiny in Bombay.

If we flip the historical narrative to make that the focus, then a completely different picture emerges. And history is a discipline with multiple view points, interpretations and assessments, so I feel this subaltern voice that has not found resonance so far, needs to be heard more and more through the works of several scholars. The rest is for the people of this country to make up their minds by comparative analysis of both accounts.

• In your book, apart from Savarkar, you also touch upon a previous generation of like-minded freedom fighters such as Wasudev Balwant Phadke and the Chapekar brothers. In what ways, according to you, was Savarkar similar to them and in what ways did he differ?

• Savarkar drew inspiration from these early revolutionaries. It was the execution of the Chapekar brothers that inspired him to take a vow in front of the idol of his family Goddess Ashta Bhuja Bhawani that he would keep fighting with the enemy till his last breath. Unlike his predecessors, Savarkar created strategic thinking and organization within the revolutionary movement.

Being the founder of the first organized secret society of India, the Mitra Mela (later became the Abhinav Bharat Society), he inspired thousands of young men across Maharashtra and outside to form part of these organizations. They called for arms training and creation of a network across India, especially with Bengal and Punjab to create a planned, coordinated and simultaneous armed uprising to overthrow the British.

This was in some ways a correction of the flaws of 1857. Savarkar also led the first student bonfires of foreign clothes in Pune in protest against the Partition of Bengal, as a student of Fergusson College. Theirs was among the first to give a call for “complete freedom” at a time when moderates in the Congress were petitioning the Government for concessions and even the “extremists” were calling for “responsive cooperation”.

That these different revolutionary organizations did not achieve their goal entirely is another matter. Savarkar also created a vast intellectual corpus for the revolutionary movement. Savarkar’s five years in London were stormy and with a host of amazing revolutionaries—Shyamji Krishna Verma, Madame Bhikaji Cama, Lala Har Dayal., Madan Lal Dhingra, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, M.P.T. Acharya, V.V.S. Aiyar, Sardar Singh Rana and others became a kingpin of a vast intercontinental effort to liberate India through armed struggle.

Savarkar’s works, the biography of Italian revolutionary Joseph Mazzini and his magnum opus on the 1857 uprising which he called as the First War of Indian Independence for the first time were veritable bibles for the revolutionary movement in India. They inspired future revolutionaries, be it Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev who made a study of these criteria for entry into their HSRA or Rash Behari Bose and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose who had copies translated and distributed to several members of the INA.

As Rash Behari Bose said in a Japanese magazine Dai Aija Shugi of March-April 1939 where he called Savarkar “A rising leader of New India. … In saluting you, I have the joy of doing my duty towards one of my elderly comrades in arms. In saluting you, I am saluting the very symbol of sacrifice itself.”

• How much of an impact did the work of Bal Gangadhar Tilak have on Savarkar?

• Tilak and the editor of the Kaal magazine Shivaram Mahadev Paranjape were his ideological gurus. He grew up reading the writings of Tilak and Paranjape and was deeply influenced by them. In fact, both of them recommended him to Shyamji Krishna Varma for a scholarship to study law in London. But Savarkar went beyond Tilak’s idea of responsive cooperation to complete freedom through armed struggle and revolution.

• What, according to you, is Savarkar’s greatest contribution to Indian politics?

• Creation of a Hindu identity that had never existed so far; consolidation of Hindu society without the fetters of caste and creed. When every other community was being mobilized on their religious identities, be it the Khilafat Movement by Gandhi that sought the Muslims to act for the sake of Caliphate in Turkey or the rampant conversions through force and allurement, it was unfair to expect the Hindu to take all of this quietly only because she was in the majority. This “Hindu consciousness” which need not be at odds or in conflict with other religions and identities and which has now become such an integral part of Indian politics is in my view Savarkar’s greatest contribution.

• What is your personal opinion of Savarkar?

• I have always categorized him as a historian’s enigma, a bundle of contradictions. He means many things to many people. But nonetheless, his life, his views and his philosophy are critical to be examined to understand the trajectory that India has taken and continues to take.

• Lastly, considering that your book has a lot of facts that certain ends of the political spectrum don’t like discussing too much, did you face any difficulty finding publishers for your book?

• Not at all. Penguin Random House India was more than happy to commission this project and I am deeply thankful to my editor Premanka Goswami and Meru Gokhale of PRHI for reposing the faith in this book! – OpIndia, 26 August 2019

› K. Bhattacharjee reports for OpIndia in New Delhi.

Savarkar Book Cover


Video: Manu and the origin of Hindu civilisation – Graham Hancock

Manu and Seven Sages of Sanatana Dharma

This video is a fascinating review of the origin of civilization on the Indian subcontinent. It looks at the undersea archaeology started by Indian scientists in the seas off the coasts of Gujarat and Tamil Nadu and includes revealing maps of ancient India after the last ice age. Interviews with Dr B.B. Lal, Dr David Frawley, and Dr N.S. Rajaram are included. Indian civilisational history can be pushed back ten thousand years and more BP with archaeological evidence to support the dating.

Note that the video is misleadingly titled “Ancient Tamil Civilization – Truths Hidden by the Indian Government”. The video concerns all of Indian civilisation with a special focus on the archaeological exploration in the seas off Gujarat and Tamil Nadu. None of the research has been hidden by the Indian government.


New edition of The Myth of Saint Thomas and the Mylapore Shiva Temple published by Voice of India – IS

Book Cover (2019)

Updated Fourth Edition of The Myth of Saint Thomas and the Mylapore Shiva Temple now available in print from Voice of India and Amazon Pages 451 › Price Rs 395 › ISBN 978-81-85990-11-8.

Book Review: Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples – Koenraad Elst

Meenakshi Jain

Dr Koenraad Elst

Even in their hour of defeat, Hindus kept on trying to save as much as possible of their civilization. They didn’t take it lying down. They struggled, and in most of India, they ultimately won. – Dr Koenraad Elst

Dr Meenakshi Jain, Senior Fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research and former Associate Professor, Delhi University, has established herself as one of India’s principal historians. Most conspicuous and most relevant to the public debate have been her books on the Ayodhya controversy (judicially not yet ended at the time of this writing) and on Sati, long extinct but still used as a stick to beat Hinduism with.

Her present book, Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples, is essentially a sequel to the temple destruction part of her own work on Ayodhya and to the late historian Sita Ram Goel’s list of temple destructions across India plus analysis of their doctrinal justification (Hindu Temples: What Happened to Them, 1990-91). Now that we know about the large-scale and long-lasting campaign of iconoclasm, this book discusses what happened next: what did Hindus do to save what could be saved when unbeatable Muslim armies came in to destroy their society, beginning with their places and objects of worship?

The destruction of Hindu murtis and temples was sometimes met with clever ways of spiriting the deities to safety, and was mostly the beginning of long periods of struggle to somehow maintain or restore the tradition, including the worship of the targeted deities.


For a proper reporting on and analysis of temple destructions and the reaction to it, several fallacies have to be pin-pricked. One is the thesis by Irfan Habib, Richard Eaton, et al. that the perpetrators motive was only economic. This secularist narrative flies in the face of the Muslims’ own testimony ever since Mohammed himself, for whom idol-breaking was a central practice affirming loyalty to Allah alone.

Another fallacy is that Hindu temples were mainly political institutions, which flies in the face of the Hindu awe for the sacred, to be seen with your own eyes in Hindu temples even today. Conspicuous in this analysis is “the absence of any reference to the Hindu notion of the sacred. … What prompted ordinary devotees, far removed from political processes, to endanger their lives to protect deities enshrined in temples? And why were temples rebuilt again and again, even in the absence of Hindu kings?”

Yet another is that Hindu kings practised iconoclasm themselves, as if the handful of cases of idol abduction (to continue the idol’s worship in the victor’s own temple, allowing also the loser to continue the deity’s worship at the original site through a new idol) were the same in magnitude and especially in intention as the millionfold icon destructions as signs of the annihilation of the defeated religion. The ridicule gets complete with the recent addition that the re-use of temple parts displayed in mosques (like the walls of the Kashi Vishvanath or the pillars inside the late Babri Masjid) were nothing but a deliberate and creative “engagement with local traditions of temple architecture” by the mosque builders.

Hiding the icon

The Hindu practices described in this book refute these stories. In literally many thousands of cases, idols from every sampradaya were spirited away and buried. Cases are related of areas where hundreds of idols have been found buried face down, sometimes by temple priests who preserved the memory of their whereabouts, but in the modern age far more often coincidentally by villagers or by construction workers. One case I came across myself is the Brahma Temple in Varanasi, where the murti was hurriedly thrown under water and later re-installed.

The story of many icons is followed in detail. Thus, “during Muslim attacks, many idols … were saved from defilement by being hidden in saddle bags of people fleeing into the desert.” Often they were then re-installed in makeshift temples in still-safe territory. In Mathura, when Aurangzeb ordered mass iconoclasm in 1669, “the royal decree led to a mass migration of deities. … Temples were built for the deity in flight … the images were consecrated in a hurriedly raised structure. … It was the first temple without a shikhara, without a mandovara and without a pitha, all obligatory as per the shastras. The threat from Aurangzeb had made it difficult to adhere to shastric injunctions.”

In auspicious circumstances and in the geographical margins, Hindus sometimes managed to save the essential by means of delays and dissimulations, e.g. when Aurangzeb wanted Jagannath Puri destroyed, the Raja of Khurda prevailed upon the Subedar in Cuttack to mislead the emperor: “some minor structures were pulled down and a replica image of Jagannath was sent to Aurangzeb.” Later the emperor found out about it, deposed the Subedar, but the priests managed to wall in the temple and keeping it closed for years, but allowing a priest in through a secret entrance to continue the daily rituals.

In 1659 Afzal Khan desecrated the Bhavani image in Tuljapur, at least according to the Sabhasad Bakhar, a Marathi chronicle on Shivaji, which adds an apparition of the vengeful goddess correctly predicting his impending death. Probably more credence can be given to another chronicle, the Chitnis Bakhar, which states that “the priests managed to remove the deity to safety … to Pratapgarh fort.” Here, Meenakshi Jain exercises a historian’s caution when she considers both, including the possibility that the finally reconsecrated murti may have been a replica: “Whether the image was old or new, the pitha (place of residence of the deity) was ancient.”

Similar stories can be told of Christian iconoclasm, as when the Portuguese “destroyed an ancient temple called a pagoda”. What happened was that “in 1560, the Temple of Saptanatha was destroyed by the Portuguese and a chapel constructed at the site with material from the demolished temple. A devotee took the linga to Bicholim, where it was consecrated. Subsequently the Maratha leader, Shivaji, had a temple built for the linga.” (p.216-217)

In the easiest cases they could negotiate the return of stolen-but-not-destroyed idols, e.g: Akbar, patron saint of Nehruvian secularism, was not so innocent regarding iconoclasm, but when he needed the military aid of his new ally Rai Singh, the latter “succeeded in obtaining from Akbar the 1050 Jain idols looted from Sirohi in 1576. He dedicated them to the Chintamani Temple in Bikaner.”

Some temples or other centres of worship were reconstructed again and again, or kept alive even if not architecturally. Hindus kept on coming to Rama’s birthplace, celebrating his birth in the open air even when their temple had been demolished. The Somnath Temple was rebuilt eight times. The Kashi Vishwanath Temple was demolished a first time by Qutbuddin Aibak in 1194 but became “the prime symbol of Hindu resistance: they repeatedly rebuilt as Muslims continually destroyed.”

Art smuggling

Sometimes, the story of iconoclasm ends up mixed with a different problem: art smuggling. Thus, villagers found a Nataraja statue buried in Shivapuram (Tanjore) and gave it to the local temple. When sent for cleaning, “a copy was surreptitiously made and returned to the temple as the cleaned image”, while the original was “eventually purchased by the Norton Simon Foundation in 1973”.

In the Danish colony of Tranquebar in 1799, construction workers discovered a series of Chola bronzes buried five centuries earlier during an invasion by the Delhi Sultanate. They were judged too thoroughly desecrated by the local Brahmins and ceremonially entrusted to the local governor, who returned the favour with gifts to the then-existing temples. Later in life he took them home, and they are now in the National Museum of Denmark. ”From being objects of veneration in majestic temples, to being buried for centuries, to being transported to foreign shores, it has been quite a journey!” For once, this expatriate art has no history of being stolen.

Another modern problem is the sorry fate of temples at the hands of “atheists, sceptics, rationalists and unscrupulous idol smugglers”. Lust for financial gain often mixes with ideological motives to usurp temple lands or the income from them, and to siphon off funds meant for their upkeep. But that is another story, one that the ancestors who sacrificed so much to save them wouldn’t understand.

Doctrinal foundation

Like iconoclasm itself, the defence against it had a doctrinal foundation. Temple hagiographies and site histories discuss the issue, that had become an acute problem and an ever-looming eventuality. In the Ekalinga Mahatmya, devoted to the Eklingji Temple in Mewar, Vayu tells Narada that this is part of the eternal struggle between gods and demons, and advises to simply replace a destroyed murti with a newly-consecrated one, for which “stone images should be preferred to costly metal ones”.

The Vaishnava priestly handbook Vimanarcanakalpa “recommended interment of images in times of danger”.  It prescribes ritual rules for this, such as appeasing the Earth Goddess who is asked to give hospitality to Vishnu, and transferring the icon’s energy to a bundle of grass that was to serve as a temporary stand-in.

It was known to temple-destroyers that Hindus had a way of reviving idol-worship, e.g. the elderly Aurangzeb ordered an inspection around Somnath, that he had earlier had destroyed once more, to see whether “Hindus have revived worship”, in which case every trace of it should be uprooted.

Down with defeatism

The theme of this book, the Hindu reaction to temple destruction, is a novelty in Indian historiography. That already would make it a path-breaker, a milestone specifically for historians. But it is of even greater importance for Hindu society as a whole.

Among Hindus conscious of the Islamic atrocities, there is all too often a defeatist streak: “Look what happened to us. We Hindus have always been defeated by foreign invaders. Ultimately it was only yet other foreign invaders, in this case the British, who could defeat our conquerors.” This, of course, is not true. The scenario only happened to work out like that in Bengal, where the Hindu population did indeed applaud the British victory in Plassey (1757) over the Moghul forces. In the rest of India, Moghul power was pushed back by the Marathas, and in their wake the Rajputs, Jats and Sikhs.

But moreover, there was this constant resistance first brought to the attention of us moderns in this book. Even in their hour of defeat, Hindus kept on trying to save as much as possible of their civilization. They didn’t take it lying down. They struggled, and in most of India, they ultimately won.  – Pragyata, 28 March 2019

» Orientalist Dr Koenraad Elst studied at the Katholieke Universiteit in Leuven, Belgium, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Banaras Hindu University, he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism. He has earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism, the secular state, the roots of the Indo-European, the Ayodhya temple-mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy.



Why the Left isn’t right about the Ayodhya dispute – Arun Anand

Sri Ram

Arun AnandThe issue of whether Lord Rama was born there or not, and whether a temple existed, has already been decided upon by the Allahabad High Court. Now the dispute is over a piece of land and it is a title suit in the Supreme Court. – Arun Anand 

The Allahabad High Court judgment on the Ram Janmabhoomi, delivered on September 30, 2010, caused great discomfort to Left historians and commentators. This discomfort has now increased with the Supreme Court setting up a panel for mediation on this issue with a time limit of eight weeks. And, there also seems to be a systemic campaign to build a communal narrative around this issue: To project it as a dispute between two communities while questioning the credibility of the panel itself (‘The mediation trap’, IE, March 11).

To begin with, Pratap Bhanu Mehta subtly questions the historicity of Lord Rama by taking the medieval period as the reference point for his existence: In 1989, Left historians began this campaign by misusing the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, to publish The Political Abuse of History: Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhumi Dispute—An Analysis by Twenty-Five Historians. The launch of this book led to systemic efforts to project that Rama was not a historical figure, Ayodhya was a mythical city and, more importantly, worshipping Rama was a phenomenon which started not more than 300 years ago.

On the contrary, Sanskrit scholars like Maurice Winternitz (History of Indian Literature, Vol, I-III), A. A. Macdonell (A History of Sanskrit Literature), A. B. Keith (A History of Sanskrit Literature) and John Brockington (Righteous Rama: The Evolution of an Epic) have clearly established that the story of Rama, that is, “Ram Katha”, dates back to almost fifth century BC, when it was told orally, and, later on, the sage Valmiki composed it around the third or fourth century BC.

As one goes through the accounts of foreign travellers, too, like William Finch and the Austrian Jesuit Joseph Tieffenthaler, who toured Awadh between 1766 and 1771, one finds out how committed and attached Hindus were to the birth place of Lord Rama. The fact is a large number of Muslims also support the construction of the Ram Temple. The issue of whether Lord Rama was born there or not, and whether a temple existed, has already been decided upon by the Allahabad HC. Now the dispute is over a piece of land and it is a title suit in the SC.

But still, attempts are being made to turn this issue into a Hindu-Muslim dispute by Left commentators and historians. They have been, it seems, stung by the fact that contrary to the common expectation that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) would react strongly against the recent direction of the apex court, the RSS has refused to play into the hands of its detractors. Thus, attempts have begun to discredit the panel itself. Ever since the mediation panel has been set up, there have been concerted attempts to raise doubts about the credentials of Sri Sri Ravishankar. In his article, Mehta writes, without any evidence: “(Sri Sri) has more or less intimidated institutions arguing that violence will ensue if a temple is not built….”

Sri Sri has never intimidated institutions nor has he ever argued that violence would ensue if temple is not built. In fact, he had started the mediation effort months before the apex court’s decision. He has been honoured by the governments of several countries for his peace efforts and is a well-known international figure in the field of conflict resolution. Just because he is Hindu and a spiritual guru, he has become the target of the Left.

His organisation, The Art of Living, is known to run a large number of social welfare projects. So it is not clear on what basis Mehta has written that, “(Sri Sri) represents the unsavoury aspects of a modern entrepreneurial figure to whom proximity to power matters more than spiritual values.” To accuse Hindu spiritual gurus who are gaining popularity is the latest weapon in the Left’s argumentative armoury: But that won’t cut much ice now as they have lost touch with ground realities. They fail to understand that Lord Rama’s birthplace is revered by all communities in the country and any attempt to wedge a drive between them on this issue would be futile. – The Indian Express, 13 March 2019

» Arun Anand  is CEO of Indraprastha Vishwa Samvad Kendra.

Mediators: Kalifulla, Sri Ravi Shankar & Sriram Panchu