Why rulers patronised and pillaged others’ religious places.

Prof. Romila Thapar

Prof. Romila Thapar

Ancient India

Within colonial historiography, we have two distinct trends- the Orientalists and the Utilitarians. The first presented a sympathetic image of a Golden Age. The Utilitarians (James Mill for example) on the other hand, moved away from this romantic vision of a glorious Indian past and periodised Indian history into three periods, Hindu, Muslim and British (not Christian). This was a meaningless categorisation as it no way reflects or characterises an age.
In their search for an identity in the early part of this century, nationalist historians harked back to the descriptions and imagery of golden ages of the past. To fight colonialism these interpretations of Indian history pointed to a backward-looking utopia.
All these streams show a close link between ideology and history writing. And it was in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s that the culmination of this link, this time in the form of communal ideologies and history writing, became transparent. This clash of communalisms continues with us (Hindu and Muslim communalist history writing).
One way of breaking out or away from these kinds of motivated interpretations of history is to study an age not merely through political events but also through social and economic relations.
A major theory of historical explanation which evolved in the 19th century was the theory of the Aryan race. This theory, developed as an explanation of common origin by Max Mueller who held that the Aryans originated in Central Asia and came as invaders into North-Western India, subjugating the locals and imposing their language, Indo-Aryan (technical term for Vedic Sanskrit). This theory divided Indian society along racial lines arguing that the fair arya and the dark dasa of the Rigveda were racial distinctions.
This theory is untenable because it equates language with race. Language is an acquired, cultural feature which can be learnt by a member of any race provided it is taught whereas race has got to do with biological descent.
An interesting thing happened with this theory of the Aryan invasion. Jyotiba Phule argued that the Aryan invasion brought the brahmanas who subjugated the indigenous peoples; thus making them – sudras, dalits and tribals – the rightful claimants and inheritors of the land.
At the other end is the Hindutva version of history which holds that there was no invasion, the Aryans being indigenous to India, therefore giving a clean, linear descent to the Hindu Arya as the rightful inheritor of the land.
The explanation of origin is critical to any communal ideology. For Hindutva to be tenable, it must be established that only Hindu Aryas are true descendants of the land. How else can the notion of pitrubhumi hold valid?
Neither of these interpretations, however, is borne out by historical evidence. Apart from the Rigveda being the earliest source that refers to the arya, today we have the evidence provided by archaeology and linguistics. The Harappan cities cannot be equated with Vedic society as the urban culture of the former is distinctly different from the predominantly pastoral culture of the latter.
Archaeological evidence from the North-West of the subcontinent and dating to 3000 B.C. onwards provides no evidence of a large scale invasion or migration. However there is evidence of contact between the North-West and the areas beyond in Afghanistan, North-Eastern Iran and the Oxus valley, especially in the second millennium B.C. That would suggest there was a frequent movement of people and goods between these areas.
Religious monuments, their creation and destruction, often become central to communal discourse. In studying history, we must understand that religious monuments represent the religions of the elite, that they are a statement of wealth, power and authority. Only the rich build monuments and because the religious monument, be it the temple, mosque or stupa has also been the safe deposit for a lot of wealth, they have been the target over the ages of ravage and plunder.
Religious conflicts there have been many and periodic. But that these have been only between the Muslims and the Hindus is nonsense. Shaivites and Buddhists had conflicts, King Shashanka of Assam destroyed Buddhist temples in the North-East and there is evidence of Jains and Shaivites clashing in the region of Karnataka during the ancient period.
When we study Indian history, we also need to examine religion in Indian history which was quite different from the way religion evolved through the history of Europe. Indian or sub continental history is replete with instances, from the ancient period on, of the patronage by rulers of religions other than their own. The ruler or the monarch had to observe a policy of pluralism.
This is unheard of in European history where you would never hear of a Christian monarch ever building a mosque. Various eras in Indian history are full of such examples: during the rule by the Kushans, there was evidence of a co-existence of Shaivism and Buddhism, during the medieval period, the Moghul kings provide examples of this.
So we need to ask ourselves the motive or reason behind this multi-purpose patronage? Was it a good political policy? Or was it pragmatic for a pluralist society?
—Prof. Romila Thapar
J.N.U. New Delhi

In 1997, Khoj education for a plural India programme held a workshop that enabled interaction
between in India's leading historians and school teachers in Mumbai. This article is the edited transcript of the lecture by professor Romila Thapar. 
Archived from Communalism Combat, March 1997 – Cover Story




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