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Religion in Indian History

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Item Code: NAM690
Author: Irfan Habib
Publisher: Tulika Books
Language: English
Edition: 2015
ISBN: 9789382381549
Pages: 340
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 inch x 5.5 inch
Weight 440 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

Religion has been, and is, an important element in Indian society and history. It is, however, rare for the subject to be discussed with the necessary degree of detachment. This volume was, therefore, planned with the object of providing a collection of studies that would deal with the role of religion in Indian history on the basis of rigorous applications of academic criteria. The results may surprise those who are more familiar with chauvinistic or apologetic interpretations. The editor’s introduction and the fifteen chapters range over an extensive periods, from prehistory to the present day, and take up specific problems of crucial significance in exploring the interrelationship between religion and social change.

This volume draws on much new research and is meant for academics as well as the general reader, who may find here much that is of interest or relevance to their social or intellectual concerns.


About the Author

Irfan Habib, Professor Emeritus at the Aligarh Muslim University, is the author of The Agrarian System of Mughal India, 1556-1707 (1963; revised edition 1999), An Atlas of the Mughal Empire (1982), Essays in Indian History: Towards a Marxist Perception (1995), Medieval India: The Study of a Civilization (2007), Economic History of Medieval India, 1200-1500 (with collaborators,2011), and Atlas of Ancient Indian History (with Faiz Habib, 2012). He has co-edited The Cambridge Economic History of India, Vol.I, UNESCO’s History of Humanity, Vols.4 and 5, and UNESCO’s History of Central Asia, Vol.5 He is the General Editor of A People’s History of India series, and has authored seven volumes and co-authored two volumes in the series.



The Aligarh Historians Society organized, with the assistance of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi, and the Project of History of Indian Science, Philosophy and Culture, a panel on Religion and Material Life at Mysore on 29-30 December 2003, alongside the 64th session of the Indian History Congress. Most of the chapters in this volume were, in their initial versions, presented as papers at that panel. I am most grateful to the contributors who came to Mysore and threw open their papers to lively discussions. In addition, I am grateful to Mrs Feroza Athar Ali, who has permitted us to reprint the article on the Islamic Background to Indian History by the late Professor M. Athar Ali; to Professor Osamu Kondu for permission to include his paper on the Theologians’ Declaration of 1579; and to Professor D.N. Jha for permission to reprint a large part of his address to the Indian History Congress (January 2006) on Constructing the Hindu Identity. Professor Kamlesh Mohan let us have her paper on Sikhism and women, after our panel had been held. My own paper on Kabir is a much revised version of what I had earlier published in Social Scientist.

The subject of Religion in Indian History is so vast that a volume like ours can hope to cover only bits and pieces of it, especially when our contributors wish to take up specifically defined themes in order to study them in some depth. The Introduction picks our four themes across our past (including prehistory), but it is intended more to raise questions or offer tentative hypotheses than to present an overarching survey of the field. I should mention that for Section 4 of the Introduction I have drawn heavily on certain drafts I had prepared for my chapters in UNESCO History of Humanity, Vol.4, and History of the Civilizations of Central Asia, Vol.5.

As to transliteration, different contributors have generally followed their own systems, mostly using, in the case of Sanskrit, the standard one, and in the case of Persian, that of Stengass’s Persian- English Dictionary. But in the Introduction as well as in Professor Shrimali’s Chapter, ‘ch’ and ‘chh’ in Sanskrit words stand for ‘c’ and ‘ch’; ‘sh’ and ‘sh’ for ‘s’ and ‘s’; and ‘ri’ and ‘r’ of the standard system.

The text has been processed at the office of the Aligarh Historians Society by Mr Muneeruddin Khan. Much other work including the keeping of accounts and Xeroxing has been carried out by Mr Arshad Ali and Mr Idris Beg. Professor Shireen Moosvi, Secretary of the Society, is chiefly responsible for the fact that the papers in the volume could at last be brought together and made ready for publication.

On the side of Tulika Books, Dr Rajendra Prasad, Ms Indira Chandrasekhar and Mr Shad Naved have borne patiently with my delays, and made every effort to produce a volume that can hopefully be put alongside their other publications.



I. Religion and History

Any work dealing with religion (that is, religions in plural, rather than a particular religion) must grapple with the problem of definition. The massive Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives a number of distinct senses of the word 'religion', but the most relevant for us are the following two senses:

(i) 'Action or conduct indicating a belief in, reverence for, and desire to please a divine ruling power; the exercise or practice of rites or observances implying this.'

(ii) 'Recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power as having control of his destiny, and as being entitled to obedience, reverence and worship: the general mental and moral attitude resulting from this belief, with reference to its effect upon the individual or the community; personal or general acceptance of this feeling as a standard of spiritual or practical life.'

Looking closely at these definitions it is obvious that the OED editors' citations have references only to theistic religions, based on the worship of God or gods, A broader definition should cover all modes of human thought or action designed to cause or cajole a natural, or supernatural being, or force, or mechanism, to confer some benefit on, or ward off some harm from, the individual or group in this life or the conjectured existence beyond. Such a definition, while not con- fining religion to merely God/god-worshipping faiths would include nature-worship, cults of human gods (like the pharaohs) and 'philosophical' religions like Buddhism and Jainism with their karma doctrine. So enlarged in its meaning, the term 'religion' would include practically all forms of 'superstition' which the OED, s. v., defines as 'unreasoning awe or fear of something unknown, mysterious or imaginary, especially in connexion with religion' or 'an irrational religious belief or practice; a tenet, scruple, habit, etc. founded on fear or ignorance'. Since all religion is founded on basic premises that are ultimately not subject to the scrutiny of reason, 'superstition' can usually do duty for any religion which is different from the one to which the speaker belongs, or is familiar with.

With religion as a distinct factor guiding human conduct, human actions become divisible into two kinds: one, where, knowing the inevitable or likely consequences from his own observation or practical experience, an individual acts in a particular way; or, secondly, where, by a belief communicated by custom or instruction he feels he has to act in a certain way, for otherwise by some supernatural action, he would suffer or fail to receive a benefit he could have received in this life or beyond. The fear of death often creates or fortifies a belief in afterlife where only a supernatural force can provide one with either some comfort or some form of existence. Religion seems, therefore, to meet a vital psychological need.

The following words come from Karl Marx, during an early phase in his intellectual life (1844), precisely to this effect: 'Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heart -less world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.’

These remarks are prefaced by the statement that 'man makes religion, religion does not make man? Marx calls this formula the basis of 'irreligious criticism'; it also necessarily represents the stand- point of the critical historian, except, perhaps, with the qualification that once made by man, religion also influences human conduct, and, to that extent, makes man.

Man-made, existing purely in human minds, religion is subject to change in the same manner as are all other mental constructs. Marx had been greatly affected by Ludwig Feuerbach's work The Essence of Christianity (1841) in which that philosopher had argued that man makes God in his own image, but producing a reverse kind of image - 'God is what man is not.' This being SO,3 as human rational knowledge grows, the realm of the supernatural contracts. 'The course of religious development', Feuerbach wrote, 'consists specifically in this that man abstracts more and more from God and attributes it to himself." It is inherent in this process that isolated cults, which we today regard as superstitious beliefs and rituals, give way in time to widely spread religious systems, or, as in China, to ethical codes.

In Chapter 1 of our volume Professor D.P. Chattopadhyaya discusses in great depth the theoretical and historical issues involved in our search of the roots of religion; and the ways religions develop are most carefully and clinically explored there. I need here only deal with two points.

Religions, by and large, tend to accommodate their ethical codes to existing social circumstances. (This matter will be discussed, particularly with reference to the growth of the caste system, in Section 3 of this Introduction.) It may, then, happen that a religion, or certain aspects of a religion, become popular as they adjust better to the changes in the economic or social order. This is what Marx said in 1867 with respect to Christianity, but especially, its 'bourgeois developments, Protestantism, Deism, & c.', as being more suited to the conditions of rising capitalism. Max Weber in 1904-05 presented a contrary view where 'Protestant ethic' was seen not merely as a consequence or complement of capitalism, but as the very source of ' the spirit of capitalism'. The historical part of Weber's thesis was weak and unconvincing. But surely when a religion suits a particular form of social order, it also helps to sustain and reinforce it; and to this extent, as we have affirmed, religion also 'makes man', of whatever kind. Professor Barun De in Chapter 5 in this volume takes stock of how two leading historians of ancient India, D.D. Kosambi and Niharranjan Ray, dealt in different ways with the relationship between religion and the changes in social history.

The second point I wish to take up concerns the spheres of religion and reason. Implicit in Feuerbach's formula of man 'abstracting' more and more from God, is the notion that the realm of reason advances as religion retreats. The general truth of the proposition may be conceded, but complexities cannot be ignored. Religions build up from their irrational fundamental premises a superstructure of theology or philosophy, which follows the methods of rational logic; on the other hand, many premises prevail in the realm of reason, like the current love of market and awe of globalization, which have, to say the least, questionable credentials from the point of view of the interests of large numbers of people. Dr Farhat Hasan in his essay (Chapter 14) takes up the issue of the post-modernist critique of rationalism offered by Foucault, who himself was quite firmly on the side of those resisting contemporary neo-imperialism. It happens, then, that the US assertions of supremacy in West Asia impart to the resistance the colour of practically a religious war, so that 2007 in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon may remind us quite forcefully of our own 1857.

Marx said that for religion to be abolished, the conditions of society, 'the vale of woe', must be abolished first." This recognition of the roots of religion is constantly impressed upon us, in a myriad of ways, as we read our daily newspapers.

II. Religion in Prehistory

The moment when hominids began to think in some logical sequence, relating cause and effect, was probably also the moment when they began to entertain fears of the unknown and the unforeseen and look for rescue and protection from supernatural forces, which they hoped could be pacified or won over by gifts and ritual. Death being the supreme disaster to be afraid of, a netherworld or some other world had to be invented. Human burial is, therefore, one of the earliest indications of the arrival of religion. Such a development did not wait for the evolution of our own species, the Homo sapiens. With the Neanderthal man, living 230,000 to 30,000 years ago, burial was al- ready a common practice. At the Teshik Tash cave, in Uzbekistan, was found, with the characteristic 'Mousterian' stone tools of the Neanderthal, 'the burial of a Neanderthal child surrounded by six pairs of horns of a Siberian mountain goat'. Our own, being a younger species, is, therefore, likely to have been already affected by religious superstitions when it originated by hominid evolution in Africa some 150,000 years ago.

The earliest evidence of our species' recourse to religion in India seemingly comes from the Upper Palaeo lithic settlement at Baghor I (Sidhi district, Jharkhand), datable to between 25,500 and 10,500 years ago. Here a sandstone rubble platform has been unearthed, at the centre of which was found embedded a piece of ferruginous sandstone, brought from a considerable distance. It must have had some cultic significance, as a charm or even as a representation of a deity. By 10,000 years ago or 8,000 BC as the Mesolithic hunter- gatherers in the Central Gangetic Plains began to gather wild grains, the signs of religious practices and beliefs become more visible. There were regular burials, with bone ornaments and slaughtered animals also buried apparently to serve for food in the afterworld. The bone ornaments were worn by men, apparently not only as decorations, but also as charms. A bone figurine has been recovered from the Belan valley south of Allahabad, and engraved ostrich egg shells from Patne in Maharashtra and Rojde in Madhya Pradesh in Mesolithic contexts. These, again, probably had some cultic significance. There could also have been some religious motive behind many of the famous Bhimbetka rock paintings near Bhopal, which could date back to 6000 Be, and have Mesolithic associations.

The physical remains that point to the existence of beliefs in the supernatural or extra-human forces controlling events do not directly indicate how the cults represented by these beliefs were organized or institutionalized within human groups. A distinguished prehistorian writes with confidence that already in the Upper Palaeo lithic (preceding the Mesolithic) phase:

Another person, apart from the chief, dominated the social group, namely, the 'witch doctor' or 'shaman', to whom was attributed the power of communicating with spirits. This individual had to secure the group's survival through magical practices, by ensuring the success of hunt, for example.

These are, it must be insisted, mere guesses. Practices found among 'primitive' tribes of recent times cannot be invoked with any real degree of certainty as evidence for what prevailed in early human communities where the reserve food available for maintaining any specialists in religion or magic must have been small. In any case, it is very likely that immense variations in beliefs and ritual prevailed among the widely-spaced hunting and gathering communities, using a possibly ever increasing multiplicity of tongues.




  Preface ix
  Introduction xi
1 In Search of the Roots of Religion or Dharma: Linguistic and Social Routes 1
2 Religions in Complex Societies: The Myth of the 'Dark Age' 36
3 Social Dimensions of the Cult of Rama 71
4 Eros and History: Sahajiya Secrets and the Tantric Culture of Love 102
5 Religion and Material Life in Ancient India: D.D. Kosambi and Niharranjan Ray 125
6 The Islamic Background to Indian History: An Interpretation of the Islamic Past 133
7 Kabir: The Historical Setting 142
8 Akbar and the Theologians' Declaration (Mahzar) of 1579 158
9 The Road to Sulh-i kul: Akbar's Alienation from Theological Islam 167
10 The Philosophy of Mulla Sadra and its influence in India 177
11 Women in the Sikh Discourse: Liberation or Ambivalence? 187
12 Constructing the Hindu Identity 210
13 From Religious and Social Reform to Economic Nationalism: The Nineteenth- Century refumers of Andhra 238
14 Reason and Faith: A Defence of Foucault's Critique of Post- Enlightenment Modernity 251
15 Contemporary Communalism: Textuality and Mass Culture 263
  Contributors 284
  Index 286


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