(Journey of Religion Or Journey of Faith)
Ideas, inventions and belief systems travelled with human beings throughout history and as people travelled, they traded and interacted with other parts of the world. Like the movement of material goods, different ways of worship have also travelled thousands of kilometres from where they were first born. Different faiths have over the years, been warmly welcomed by people of distant lands. India has been hospitable to an ocean of ideas making this sub-continent a special place to live in. Are we in danger of losing this precious tradition in the 21st century?
Due to the special place and power that religion has always been able to command on the lives of human beings; men over the ages have always used religion as a means of retaining their hold over large populations. The question of the rulers and their beliefs has always influenced events in history.
Many rulers have used religion to unify their people, others to retain control over others. Every civilization has examples of rulers tolerant and inclusive to different cultural and religious traditions. There are also those who have used religion as a tool to segregate and exclude peoples. Rulers from ancient times have used religion and faith to extend imperial power
Rulers of different religions have done it, Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim. This has not been the prerogative on one faith.
Well known examples and much-touted of invaders who may have used Islam can be matched by Persian kings like Xerxes who also used faith to subjugate another people, Hindu kings targeted Buddhist monasteries as much as they sometimes became a target of Muslim kings. Christian kingdoms targeted the Jews who were safer under the Moors of Islamic faith in Spain. Available historical records suggest that Buddhism travelled to Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka) and the far- east, under the Mauryan Emperor Asoka who sent missions to spread the faith.
In two of these (the region of Malaysia/Indonesia and the region on the mainland extending from Myanmar to southern Vietnam), the main connections have been via trade routes with India and Sri Lanka(Ceylon). In Vietnam the main connections have been with China. Buddhism, born on Indian soil, is a very important religion in China even today. Today Buddhism is alive in various forms, also in Japan and Tibet.
Both Hinduism and Buddhism made a tremendous impact on the civilizations of Southeast Asia as did Islam. They also contributed significantly to the development of a written tradition in that area. Around the beginning of the Christian era, Indian merchants in comparatively large numbers settled in Southeast Asia. They were accompanied by, or actually brought with them Brahmans and Buddhist bhikshus monks
These religious persons were patronised by local chiefs, who converted to the new religion. The earliest recorded, historical evidence of Hinduism in Southeast Asia comes from Borneo. Here, late 4th-century Sanskrit inscriptions are testimony to the performance of Vedic sacrifices by Brahmans
These Vedic sacrifices, according to the Sanskrit inscriptions were performed at the behest of local chiefs Chinese chronicles write of an Indianised kingdom in Vietnam two centuries earlier, that is in the second century AD. The dominant form of Hinduism that was exported to Southeast Asia was Shaivism. Some Vaishnavism was also known there. Later, from the 9th century onward, Tantrism, both Hindu and Buddhist, spread throughout the region.
The civilisations of Southeast Asia developed forms of Hinduism and Buddhism that had distinctive local features
Both religions and accompanying traditions adapted the local cultures; Stories from the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata became widely known in Southeast Asia
They are still popular there in local versions. The people of Bali (in Indonesia) still follow a form of Hinduism adapted to their own genius.
Like the movement of material goods, different ways of worship have also travelled thousands of kilometres from where they were first born. Different faiths have over the years, been warmly welcomed by people of distant lands. India has been hospitable to an ocean of ideas making this sub-continent a special place to live in
Some Balinese traditions differ from Indian ones. For example, though most Indian Hindus cremate their dead, the Balinese sometimes bury them for years before until they can afford the cremation and funeral rites. The Balinese have ancient temples in honour of the gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, images of Ganesha, the widely known Gayatri mantra and other prayers. Most significantly, the great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are very popular
When we can celebrate this, how can we not celebrate Christianity and Islam that have enriched us so deeply in our midst? Christianity came to India in 53 AD under one Thomas, who the Christians believe to be St Thomas, who founded the Syrian Christian Church. Christians believe that he was none less than the Apostle St Thomas who visited here arriving first at Kottayam in that year. Thereafter through different periods of history Christianity travelled here. This was long before the colonisation of the sub-continent by the British. Indian Christianity, like Balinese Hunduism has distinctive cultural features that are typically Indian. For example, the sweets made at Christmas time are akin to those made by different regions of Indians at Diwali.
The religion that was born perhaps around 1200 BC in Persia, today’s Iran. By the seventh century BC that is 500 years later, it had spread across the Iranian plateau Cyrus, the emperor (known as Cyrus the Great), who established the Persian Empire in the 6th century BC adopted Zorastrianism as a state religion . But Xerxes (486-465) grandson of Cyrus, was ruthless in dealing with rebellions of the Mesopotamians in Babylon. In retaliation for their bid to seek independence from the imperialist Persians, he destroyed and desecrated the holy places of the god Marduk and the Tower of Babel in Babylon
Priests were executed and the statute of Marduk was melted down
Zoroastrianism’s imperial history ended with the spread of Islam by chieftains who had adopted the faith in the seventh century BCE. Zoroastrians are tenth century migrants to India
They arrived on the western coast, landing in Sanjan in the state of Gujarat, in boats after being persecuted by the new rulers in Persia
Contrary to communal historiography that seeks to dominate popular discourse, Islam travelled to India in the course of the commercial exchanges/trade between the west-coast and Arabia, Palestine and Egypt. Arabian traders were involved in trading activities with India even before the advent of Islam.
After the rise of Islam in the 7th century AD, these commercial transactions were carried on with additional verve and enthusiasm. Muslim Arabs are recorded to have first settled in three towns along the south-western coast of India and Ceylon.
These interactions between Arab traders and Indians living on the west coast and in south India, took place a good 100 years before the conquests in the north.
These exchanges resulted in many local communities being formed after the traders settled down here and married locally.
Islam, when it appeared on the scene appeared to people as a simple formula of faith, with clear do’s and don’ts and a democratic theory of social organisation. It inspired the last of the Cheraman Perumal kings of Malabar who reigned at Kodungallur to convert to Islam of his own free choice.
This event of the conversion of the king produced a great effect on the local people and is still kept alive in Malabar through a local ritual. Through this period of history, Muslims were accorded great respect by the local population.
They were designated the name Mappillas (Moplahs) which means either “a great child” or “bridegroom”. It is considered a title of honour. Incidentally sometimes this title was also bestowed on Christians of the regions who were called Nussarani Mappillas.
Many local narratives about the arrival of Muslim Arabs on the coast of Malabar point to the fact Muslims appeared on the Indian coast not long after the death of the Prophet and swiftly gained a status of privilege and influence here.
On the eastern coast, their principle settlement being Kayalpatanam in Tinevally district near the mouth of the Tamraparni river in around the tenth century.
Labbes and Ravuttans, were two, south Indian Muslim communities definitely borne out of this interaction. Located in Madura and Trichinopoly they believe that they were persuaded to change their religion by Nathad Vali whose tomb exists in Trichinopoly and bears the date of his death as 1039 AD.
It was in the ninth and tenth centuries that the subsequent conquests in the north-west under armies whose chieftains had converted to Islam began.
By the time of the conquests in north-west India, Sind, Islam had already been welcomed on Indian soil in the region of south India.
Inclusive history is the hallmark of a rational and comfortable civilization
(The author has used this research for her work on democratizing the social studies and history curriculum, www.khojedu.net)