Chapter 7. Accommodation and Negotiation in a Culture of Exclusivism: Some Early Indian Perspectives – Composite Culture in a Multicultural Society


Accommodation and Negotiation in a Culture of Exclusivism: Some Early Indian Perspectives

B.D. Chattopadhyaya

This essay begins with two preliminary observations on the notion of ‘composite’ culture in the specific context of its application to early Indian society. ‘Composite culture’1 is an expression conceived in retrospect, in the context of a fast-paced growth of nationalist ideology. In such a context, it would have been particularly suitable to gloss over fundamental differences and to explain how Indian society remained a continuum through millennia. ‘Composite culture’, however, is not what Tagore would call ‘striving to forge relationships with others and to establish equilibrium between amazing divisions and contradictions within oneself’.2 Like the concept of ‘secular’, it would be really an anachronistic idea when applied to an ancient society which was ‘striving’. Second, ‘composite’, connoting a combination of various parts, would have been almost an anathema to early Indian, particularly Brahminical thinkers. To them, the term samkara (intermingling) would be the equivalent of ‘composite’ and would therefore be a term evoking disapproval.

Classical Brahminical thinkers, like their predecessors, were opposed to the idea of ‘mixed’, whether it was in the context of the composition of social groups or of the social conduct of human beings.3 Other traditions, which were non-Brahminical in origin may have taken the simultaneous existence or juxtaposition of cultures as a characteristic of a natural order, but they too did so through underlining the essential differences that exist between differentiable spaces and their cultures. Similarly, the notion of the ‘fundamental unity of India’,4 which has had many adherents following its enunciation in the early twentieth century, took the historical unity of India—for it was fundamental—for granted. Both ‘composite culture’ and ‘fundamental unity’ are in many ways like the concept of India as an ahistorical accomplishment of the Indians5—products of the nature of a wish fulfilment in the era of a major freedom struggle in the continent. In the urgency of the struggle, leaders had to bypass the necessity of having to check on the reality of the compositeness, and instead defined the unity of pre-Independence India.

These points of genuine reservation notwithstanding, there is at the same time the need to try and understand how India as we observe it today, evolved with variations, contradictions and confrontations as a continuum, separable from other societies. What contributed over millennia to the making of a society in which the major areas of conflict and the major patterns of integration today are only of recent origin?

An attempt at such an understanding, this essay presupposes, will have to begin by referring to some basic elements and internal contradictions which went into the making of Indian society and historical trajectories which accommodated these contradictions and variations to forge a structure. The process of this forging is historical and not something given from the beginning, and since historical trajectories of more than five millennia are implied in the understanding of the process of this forging, the statement that we shall prepare for this essay also has to be in terms of historical patterns of contradiction, accommodation and negotiation.

Perceptions of Heterogeneity and Irreconcilable Differences

The earliest expression of an idea of irreconcilable hostility is articulated in the hymns of the Rgveda,6 the earliest available Vedic text, placing the despicable dasyu and the dasa (non-Aryans) against arya, the representative of the respectable society. A typical hymn referring to the dasyus would read like this: ‘We are surrounded by dasyus; they do not perform sacrifice. Their rites are different; they are not human beings. O, annihilator of enemies, destroy them. Be cruel to the dasas’.7

Addressed to Indra, the warrior-deity par excellence of the Rgveda, the terms used with reference to the dasyus and dasas are curious. They are akarma, apparently referring to the set of proper rites (karma) which they did not perform; they are also anyavrata, devoid of the right kind of ritual, performing another kind instead. They are amanta, that is, they do not pay heed to what obviously requires careful attention, and are therefore not human beings, or are amanusa. The meaning of what otherness means to an arya is conveyed adequately by this hymn. The arya, a performer of sacrifice and speaker of excellent speech, was the representative of a civilized community. The ‘others’ did not belong to it.

It seems that a major cultural element in the construction of the hostile ‘other’ was the measure of difference and incomprehensibility of speech. The word mleccha,8 forcefully suggestive of the hostile ‘other’, the dasyu and dasa, may have originally meant ‘indistinct speech ‘or ‘that which is spoken indistinctly or harshly’. Mleccha-vac_was how the speech of the mlecchas or of those similar to them was characterized. The asuras too are derided for their barbarous speech. The negative qualities of speech in all these references were in contrast to arya, which was chaste, befitting a person who was honourable and embodied desirable social qualities.

Starting with the basic distinction between arya and dasyu-dasa or mleccha, it is necessary to move further to understand the extension of the meanings of the terms in actual social contexts. Arya, meaning civilized, included not just language: Buddha’s noble truths were arya; the address for a civilized person had to be prefixed with arya; aryadharma was the standard social code, but only the upper varnas were entitled to perform its prescribed rites. In fact, the image of the arya was so positively imbued with all the elements of being ‘civilized’, that in its modern Indian manifestation ‘aryanization’ came to be accepted as the historical model of how civilization gradually spread over India, from its ‘aryan’ core through a process of expansion.

The dasyu, the mleccha, along with others such as the raksasa (lit. demon) came to represent the irreconcilable other because of the negation of civilizational norms they came to be associated with. In the epics, it was the raksasas and raksasis who hampered performances of sacrifice and had to be killed.9 The negation of the relevance of Vedic sacrifice was the core of Buddhist dissent too.

Historical developments added new dimensions and specificities to the definition of who constituted the ‘other’. The emergence of a complex society with its locus in a rural and urban milieu marginalized the forest dwellers forever. Even in the hymn to aranyani (forests) in the Rgveda,10 the one who strayed into the forest was haunted by the spirit residing there. The sense of uncertainty and insecurity from which a villager or a city dweller suffered when encountering the forest led to the marginalization of the latter for members of the ‘civilized’ community. As the Ramayana amply demonstrates, the forest and its inhabitants constituted an entity which had to be tamed, chastised and subordinated. The forest dwellers, variously mentioned as candalas, nisadas, pulindas, vyadhas, and so on, were generally described as violent, ferocious-looking, flesh-eating hunters, following abhorrent customs.11

There were exceptions, but only when forest dwellers or others like them came close to the norms of civilized society. This explains how different ethnic groups like the Greeks, the Scythians, the Parthians, the Kusanas, and so on (Yavana, Saka, Pahlava, etc., of texts) could be grudgingly considered as vratya (fallen) Ksatriyas after they became rulers and began extending patronage to established institutions and religions practices. In the Ramayana, the recovery of priest Vasistha’s wish-fulfilling cow was made possible by an army created for the purpose, which comprised the Yavanas, Pahlavas, Sakas, Kambojas, Barbaras, Kiratas and Haritas, all of them mlecchas.12 As an invader, the mleccha was as ferocious-looking, ruthless and vicious as the forest dwellers.

Then that red-eyed and red-attired clever mleccha king Amlata will destroy the varnas; he will totally upset the established order….

There will be Yavanas here for reasons of dharma, artha, karma. They will not be properly anointed kings and will follow evil customs. Massacring women and children, and killing one another, kings will enjoy the earth at the end of the Kali Age.13

In early Indian tradition, the definition of civilized and its contrast with what was abhorrent also had space as a reference point. The pure land was of course aryavarta, the land inhabited by the arya (with its home at Madhyadesa, the central region). Manu defines the pure space thus:14

The country that the gods made between the two divine rivers, the Sarasvati and the Drsadvati, is what they call the land of the Veda…. The field of the Kurus, the Matsyas, Pancalas, and Surasenakas constitute the country of priestly Sages, right next to the land of the veda…. The country between the Himalayas and the Vindhya mountains, to the east of Disappearance and to the west of Prayaga, is known as the Middle country. From the eastern sea to the western sea, the area in between the two mountains is what wise men call the land of the Aryans. Where the black antelope ranges by nature, that should be known as the country fit for sacrifices; and beyond it is the country of the barbarians.

In terms of perceived differences, religious practices and doctrines constituted a major field for contestation. In several of his edicts, Emperor Asoka (third century BCE), who was striving to introduce a measure of homogeneity to a newly-established empire stretching from Afghanistan to the Deccan, repeatedly referred to the various demerits which followed doctrinal differences. In his empire, people followed various pasandas or religious/doctrinal sects, and disputes between various sects were a wholly unwelcome development which needed to be avoided at all costs.15

The Brahminical discourse about society of course did not underline plurality but a sharp dichotomy between the followers of the Vedas and those who chose to stay outside: the carvakas or the nastikas, the saugatas or the Buddhists and the nirgranthas or the Jains,16 not to speak of the anyavratas (other religions) of the Rgveda, who followed different rites. Bypassing the details of religious history and history of sect fragmentation and contestation, what concerns me more here is the perception of the link between social norms and social order and the possibility of assault on them by enemies. It was this perception that would bring in ruin. The Vedic animosity against the dasas and the dasyus, and the Dharmasutra/Dharmasastra insistence on the distinction between desirable and undesirable spaces and on purificatory rites following acts of deviation were derived from a fear of the threat of intervention against an established social order. At a later stage of the crystallization of ideas of the perfect social order, the acute apprehension of the threat is embodied in the concept of kaliyuga, the last era, when social order would turn upside down.17 Redemption would be possible only in a renewal.

To return to Emperor Asoka, despite his advocacy of mutual understanding amidst doctrinal and other differences, we find him demonstrating almost a sense of insecurity in the face of heterogeneity. He not only found the forest dwellers to be not conforming to his desired objectives, and therefore deserving of the demonstration of the emperor’s power,18 he also found it undesirable that people, particularly women, performed on all conceivable occasions what he called mangala: domestic rituals. And, of course, he thought it prudent to ban the holding of samaja, a kind of popular festival, with religious performance at its core, which was characterized by community participation and transcendence of regular social norms.19 To an established order, this was seen as a potential source of threat and therefore untenable and had to be replaced by what was official, innocuous and in keeping with the moral code he advocated.

The link between the perceived threat to social order and the source opposed to it, at a later stage of history, took the form of the Turuska or Turk the invader.20 The emphasis was not on ethnic difference and not on religious difference either. Even earlier, Kalidasa’s allusion to some of the ethnic traits of the Parasikas,21 made in the context of the great ruler Raghu’s extensive conquests, had no connecting reference to religious difference. From the eleventh-twelfth century onwards, however, the Turuskas or the Turks (originally an ethnic term but acquiring a generic connotation for different communities of Muslim conquerors) came to symbolize such a threat to the socio-religious order that in some brands of historical writings the articulation of insecurity and suppressed animosity has been characterized, though wrongly, as chronic xenophobia. The established socio-religious order of the period was predominantly characterized by a profusion of prosperous agraharas (Brahmin settlements), performing Vedic rituals; the landscape of sacred centres; fervent worship of idols; and of course varnasramadharma (duties related to the four-fold division of life), which was the bedrock on which desirable society stood stable. The Turuskas represented willful and ruthless destruction of this idyllic society. Among many texts of the sense of insecurity and loss, and at the same time of reassertion of cherished values, we cite one, the Madhuravijayam of Gangadevi:22

When I look at the state of the temples of other gods also, my distress knows no bounds. The foldings of their doors are eaten up by woodworms. The arches over their inner sanctuaries are rent with wild growth of vegetation. Those temples, which were once resonant with the sound of mrdanga drums, are echoing the fearful howls of jackals.

The Brahmin streets, where once the sacrificial smoke was ever seen rising and the chanting of Vedas always greeted the ears, now exude the musty odour of meat and resound with the lion roars of the Turuskas.

I very much lament for what has happened to the groves in Madhura. The coconut trees have all been cut and in their place are to be seen rows of iron spikes with human skulls dangling at the points….

The waters of Tambraparni which were once white with sandal paste rubbed away from the breasts of charming girls are now flowing red with the blood of cows slaughtered by miscreants….

I am very much distressed by looking at the tearful faces of Dravidas, their lips parched by hot sighs, and their hair worn in utter disorder.

The Kali age deserves now deepest congratulations for being at the zenith of its power; for, gone is sacred learning; hushed is the voice of dharma; destroyed is discipline, and discounted is nobility of birth.

Diverse records, mostly in the form of inscriptions and texts, dating from the eighth century onwards, gradually build up an image of these neo-Yavanas or neo-mlecchas, which becomes a stereotype.23 The mleccha or the Yavana or the Turuska is vicious, aggressively masculine, breaker of temples and sacred images, persecutor of Brahmins, eater of the flesh of cows, and willful destroyer of the social order. This image of the conqueror is repeatedly stated, with the overthrow of Turuska rule and the subsequent restoration of the former social order being hailed.

The point I am trying to make is that early statements about culture and social order specialize in highlighting the norm and its abominable opposite. It is not concerned with the inequality and exclusion which are built into the norms of the envisaged structure. The central reference point to which everything returns marks the culture by its exclusivism, which wished only to remain unsullied, devoid of any admixture (samkara).

How has then heterogeneity remained the hallmark of Indian society, if one were to talk of society in the singular? The quest for an answer will have to follow leads into different directions, looking at not only the Sanskritic textual discourse both from inside and outside, but also at the possibility of other discourses and dialogues which may elucidate the process of forging a curious juxtaposition of exclusivism and heterogeneity. This can be attempted only from the vantage point of the present looking back at the past using several perspectives.

Of Spaces and Peoples

Those selling honey and roots eatable

Exchange them for fish’s fat and wine

They barter sugar-cane and roasted rice

For toddy and deer-flesh. The fisher-folk

Sing hillmen’s song, while hillmen garlands

Wear of fragrant blooms that grow along the coast

The dwellers of the desert sing the songs

Of those in fertile lands, and these in turn

Praise forest lands where grows the mullai blue

The wild fowl eats rice, while the domestic

Eats millet grain. The hillside monkey rolls

In salty marsh, while canes that take a bath

In briny sea-waves rest themselves on hills

Four diverse pleasant regions are thus found

Together in a single realm.

The extract from this ancient Tamil poem24 refers to four segments of a region constituting what was called Tamilaham by those who wrote about it and its inhabitants in their poems. The extract suggests a natural passage, despite very fundamental differences, from one of Tamilaham’s sub-regions to the other. It points to the ease with which men and animals transcend physical and behavioural barriers and adapt, retaining at the same time the signatures of their own distinct spaces. Tamilaham over time became a part of a larger cultural horizon, but the point to derive from the fascinating poem is that spaces as distinct as a hilly forestland and a coastline can be considered to represent and does represent a larger formation. In other words, heterogeneity is an inevitability in any structure of a culture and its textual representation.

In identifying perceptions of spaces and peoples as preliminary to the study of heterogeneity, I propose briefly to suggest how within the Sanskrit textual tradition, the evolution of the concept of a country could accommodate diversity and forge a structure with heterogeneous elements. The textual evidence has in the beginning references to a few physical landmarks such as rivers; it develops into a concept of different habitats arranged according to directions in which they were located. The habitats were of course around a centre, the madhyadesa (central region). The centrality of madhyadesa was beyond dispute, whatever the text. For example, for the Jainas and the Buddhists the text had to accommodate the middle Ganga valley, associated with the founders of their faiths. Despite the cultural centrality of madhyadesa in the design, the concept of space accommodates a variety of communities, located around the centre, in the directions to the east, the south, the west and the north.25

The concept of the country (desa from dis or direction) developed through Jambudvipa (island of Jamun trees) or Bharatavarsa in an elaborate cosmography in which Bharatavarsa was only a component, and the numerous individual units of which were the Janapadas of different communities. When the Buddha was hailed by a contemporary, according to an early Buddhist text, as a Khattiya (Ksatriya) as well as a Kosalan (from Kosala), the reference was both to his varna status and to the janapada (kingdom) in which he was born.26 The way the janapada scheme, constituting Bharatavarsa, was elaborated to incorporate a vast space, accommodating segments of modern India and beyond and without making any cultural differentiation, was significant. For example, a tenth-century text Kavyamimamsa by Rajasekhara, in its chapter (17) on the ‘divisions of the country’ (desavibhaga),27 lists many janapadas of the east, such as Anga, Vanga, Kalinga, Kosala, Nepala, Pragjyotisa, Suhma and so on together, although by the tenth century the cultural distinctions between Kalinga, Nepala, Pragjyotisa, to take a few janapadas as samples, would have been many. In fact, the spatial scheme of Bharatavarsa simply accommodated many communities within a broad frame and did not or could not underline cultural differences or insist on a territorially circumscribed country. The locations of janapadas, listed in the tenth-century Kavyamimamsa or indeed in the earlier Puranas, could extend to central Asia, or to Sri Lanka, although Bharatavarsa was expected to conform to the space between the Himalayas and the ocean. The reality of the dispersed locations of different communities within the design of a spatial structure had therefore to have the flexibility to accommodate heterogeneous cultures: of the inhabitants of the plains, of the forest dwellers (vindhyavasin); and of those who lived on mountain stretches (parvatasrayin).28

Several significant points seem to emerge from the janapada scheme of community space. Different texts could make derogatory or appreciative remarks about the cultural practices of different janapadas,29 but the juxtaposition of multiple communities within a space which was Bharatavarsa implied a complementary space for cultural contestation. As was mentioned earlier, an individual was indentified not as being an inhabitant of Bharatavarsa but as belonging to a particular janapada or to its important city such as Ujjayini, Varanasi, Pataliputra, Mathura, Madurai or whatever. The Yavanas, the Sakas or the Hunas were ethnic groups whose cultures were perceived as being vastly different from that of madhyadesa, but so were cultures of pracya (the east) or daksinapatha (the Deccan). The concept of a ‘foreigner’ (videsi) was not a part of the concept of Bharatavarsa.30 The absence of the element of territorial exclusiveness from early Indian political and geographical thought may be an explanation for easy natural accommodation of diverse sources of culture within a loosely woven fabric. Perhaps, the loose structure of the fabric will be clearer when we turn to that central principle of early Indian social thought: dharma.

The Many Meanings of Dharma

There does not exist any acara, that is, ‘social practice’ which is conducive to the welfare of all beings.

Santiparva, Mahabharata31

In the Mahabharata is an enigmatic statement that the theory of dharma (dharmasya tattvam) is buried in a cave. The incomprehensibility of dharma is again underlined in a text, the Apastamba Dharmasutra, which states: ‘Dharma and adharma do not go about saying “here we are”, nor do gods, gandharvas or (departed fathers say “this is dharma, this is adharma”)’.32 If there was a mystique surrounding the exact meaning of dharma, it was nevertheless essential that it be prevalent and pervading in all transactions of life. Societal disorder takes place through the absence of dharma or its aberrations.

The contradiction between the apparent ‘confusion’ regarding the exact meaning of dharma and the essentiality of its presence in all social transactions may be resolved by considering the office of the king for the present context. Early Indian thinkers seem to agree that all dharmas merge in rajadharma (the king’s dharma) and that rajadharma is at the head of all dharmas.33 In fact, the legitimacy of the king’s office derived from the guarantee that the king would ‘protect’ his people. The Manusamhita says:34 ‘The king was created as the protector of all the classes and the stages of life, that are appointed each to its own particular duty, in proper order’ or, in other words, the varnasramadharma which symbolized the ideal social order. This he could do by wielding the danda or rod of punishment; in fact, dharma was considered as equivalent to danda (dandarupa).35 However, Manu reminds us that when ‘properly wielded, with due consideration, it makes all the subjects happy; but inflicted without due consideration it destroys everything.’36

If, as the Santiparva of the Mahabharata admits, there was no acara (social practice or community custom) which was conducive to the welfare of all beings, then how was the king to rule? One way was to try to homogenize, without of course bypassing the ideology of varnasramadharma. An attempt at something similar to homogenization was perhaps made by Emperor Asoka, who considered all his subjects as his children.37 Since Asoka’s aim was to remove all sources of conflict, political and doctrinal, he sought to reach his objective by introducing an alternative code, without disturbing the existing social groups. The alternative was his own dharma, a moral code, which as Asoka himself said, was already well-established in societies undisturbed by war. Asoka’s massive investments in terms of capital and manpower made him convinced of the success of his dharma. The question would be, did it really succeed? Did fishermen and hunters in fact give up fishing and hunting, as Asoka claimed they did?38 There are repeated admissions in the Smrtis (body of texts on law, religion, philosophy, proverbs, etc.), mostly codified in periods after Asoka, that dharma is indeed heterogeneous, and the meaning of king’s protection of dharma in fact implied protection of this heterogeneity. Note, for example, what Yajnavalkyasmrti says in connection with the wielding of danda:

Whatever dharma is of the king in ruling his own country (rastra), the same dharma goes to the king in (protecting) the other countries (Pararastra) brought under submission. Whatever be the acara, vyavahara and kulasthiti (of the country brought under submission) are to be retained as they are.39

In fact:

In case the kulas, jatis, srenis, ganas, janapadas (that is, units ranging from extended family to the janapada) deviated from the path of their own dharma, he (the king) is to bring them back on the track.40

In another context, Yajnavalkya further clarified that as vidhi or principle with regard to the sreni, naigama, pasandi (heretics) and ganas, the king should protect their bheda or distinct character and their and their vrtti or the mode of living.41 Mitaksara, a later commentary on the text by Vijnanesvara, advises the king not to impose the custom of his own country on the conquered people. Narada, author of another Smrti text, is equally emphatic about the preservation of varieties of dharma: ‘The conquered ought to maintain as before (yathaivapragasit) the customs, social conventions and traditions of transactions of each country’,42 In a chapter titled ‘Non-observance of Conventions’, this is what Narada recommends.43

The rules that govern heretics, corporate bodies, and the like are called their conventions. The king must protect the conventions of heretics, corporate bodies, guilds, councils, troops, groups, and the like in town and in the countryside.

Whatever their laws, duties, rules for worship, or mode of livelihood are, he must permit them.

These were of course with a set of provisos. But that the dharma (or samaya as it is called by Vijnanesvara) of the pasandas or the pakhandis (Buddhists, Jains and also the nastikas or atheists) too is a part of the Dharmasastras’ recognition of dharma heterogeneity would perhaps make it relatively understandable which directions negotiations between disparate doctrines and religious practices may have taken place.44

Religious Practice: Negotiating Heterogeneous Sources

Dharma in Yogini-pitha (Assam) is of Kirata origin.


According to the Yogini-Tantra, a sixteenth-century text, religious practices (dharma) had its origin in Assam among the Kirata communities of north-eastern India, and indeed sources of religion in the country were many. To return to Emperor Asoka, with his usual emphasis on ceremonies associated with ‘dhamma’, he found other ceremonies commonly observed by people to be too many and as ‘of dubious value’. I quote him:

People perform various auspicious ceremonies on the occasion of illness, the weddings of sons, the weddings of daughters, the births of children and the setting out on journeys. On these and similar other occasions, the womenfolk in particular perform many and diverse ceremonies which are trivial and meaningless.46

And further:

… The growth of the essentials of Dharma is possible in many ways. But its root is in regards to speech, which means that there should be no extolment of one’s own sect or disparagement of other sects on inappropriate occasions and that it should be moderate in every case even on appropriate occasions. On the country, other sects should be daily honoured in every way on all occasions.

… Persons of all sects [should] become well informed about the doctrines of different religious and acquire fair knowledge.47

In the perception of an emperor of the third century BCE the range of religious observances and sectarian and doctrinal differences was vast, a feature of the heterogeneity which would surely have widened further with the passage of time. I have been quoting liberally from the edicts of Asoka mainly to make two points: (i) negotiation was not inherent in the process of religious evolution; (ii) there could be situations, as Asoka’s statements with regard to the sects (pasandas) suggest, of sectarian contestations in which interventions were necessary. One has therefore to start with the premise that in a complex society an amazing measure of religious heterogeneity without contestation and conflict may not have been the natural order of things. In fact, if one considers the combined testimony of textual tradition, actual historical instances of persecution of Buddhists and Jains, and conversely, the ridicule and subordination of Brahminism and of Hindu gods and goddesses by Buddhists and Jains, the religious scenario of what we may call the post-classical period of early India would be one of acute contestation. And this would extend to similar contestation among sects and subsects of what constitute Hinduism.48

It is beyond my competence to outline how historically the structure of Hinduism evolved in a way that made a satisfactory and acceptable definition of it almost impossible. However, if a rastra or an early Indian state represented an amalgam of disparate dharmas within the authority of rajadharma, then perhaps the juxtaposition of disparate sources within the structure of Hinduism will have to be looked for in the way they related to one another, within, or without reference to, an overarching authority. I am saying this despite the authority of the Vedas, because apart from the issue of orthodoxy, there are elements within the structure of what is Hindu, which do not have the Vedas as a reference point at all.

True, interrelated modes come to mind while sifting through the material from early India to understand its structure: reciprocal incorporation and appropriation; identification and universalization, and construction of networks. It may be, and has been, suggested that what they represent is religious syncretism. ‘Syncretistic cults’ are an expression, which is often used in works on early Indian religious history and iconography.49 There were, to be sure, cases when two or more cults coalesced to create a new cult icon or even a pantheon. Images of Harihara (combination of the iconographic features of Visnu and Siva), of Ardhanarisvara (of Siva and Parvati), and the pantheon of Durga50 are well-known examples of this. The fact that the Buddha, whose doctrines and followers were consistently derided by the chroniclers of orthodox Brahminical faith, was regarded as an incarnation of Visnu, is further seen as evidence of syncretism. One should, however, remember that such evidence of syncretism and accommodation is available roughly of a period when Buddhist sculptures representing the conquest of Hindu deities in the form of trampling on them were fashioned.51

It is, therefore, necessary to look for parallel processes rather than syncretism as the only explanation for the way one particular cult interacted with another. Within the space of this essay, all that I can hope to do, by way of stressing the argument, is to cite a few examples. The first would be a reference to sakti, the feminine principle, marginal in the Vedic tradition and quite irrelevant to early Buddhism and Jainism. It was only later, at a distance from the basic Vedic practice of sacrifice, that sakti emerged historically through iconographic representations and textual compositions. By what may be called the classical period of early Indian history, the worship of sakti as Devi, Durga, Uma—all by then incorporating several cults—became common in the country. Sakti, in turn, became an incorporator in the sense that aniconic local deities—worshipped in the form of a tree or a block of stone—could come to be identified as the manifestation of universal mother. In a previous work,52 I cited an early medieval inscription from Rajasthan referring to a deity who is first conceived as a yaksini (an astral female form) who, further, is Durga. The goddess Vatayaksini-Durga in fact represents multilayered identification: Vata as yaksini as Durga, the universal mother goddess.

Perhaps the most important evidence of identification is provided by the way God was perceived in Islam. To be sure, there was no early exposition of Islam or translation of the Quran, either in Sanskrit or in any vernacular language. There was perhaps no dialogue similar to what one comes across in later centuries. I have already mentioned that the raiders and invaders are consistently seen as representing the negation and violation of all norms constituting good society. However, in texts available for the period, the Muslims were perceived neither as a homogeneous group nor as irreligious. There is no perception of the Almighty in Islam as irreconcilable to the conception of God in the Brahminical tradition. A thirteenth-century Sanskrit inscription from Gujarat53 could thus refer to a newly-constructed mosque as dharmasthana, a site of dharma or religious observance, in a period when the Sultanate was firmly established in Delhi, and significantly, more than two centuries after the same area in Gujarat had been devastatingly raided by Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni. The description of the Almighty in the Sanskrit inscription was visvanatha (lord of the universe), visvarupa (image of the universe), sunyarupa (formless) and laksyalaksya (visible and invisible). There is nothing in this description which would be inappropriate in an invocation to god Somanatha or Siva, the presiding deity of the place.

Within Hinduism, the historical process of metamorphosis through identification and universalization—a process very active even today—was essentially achieved via the expansion of Brahminical/Sanskritic idioms, invariable attributes of a monarchical domain. Even for early India, for which evidence is decidedly meagre, one can cite examples to show that a local deity would acquire a shrine; the deity might or might not acquire an iconic form; provision would be made for performance of daily rites, and over time the deity’s purely local character would be subsumed within an ever-growing pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses.54 The loss of the original identity of an image has never been considered significant; a new identity would be invented. The worship of Didarganj yaksini as Laksmi; of Jain images as forms of Siva or Bhairava; of hero-stones as Hanuman are some examples of the loss and reinvention of identity of live objects of worship.55 The codification of an amazing number and variety of domestic rites, prescribed particularly for women in the Puranas and Nibandhas is a further indication of an expansive character reaching out to accommodate what Emperor Asoka considered irrelevant and pointless. Religious network worked both ways: through dissemination and integration. Channels of dissemination were many: Sanskrit, and later vernacular texts; temples—and not necessarily royal temples, and the widely dispersed exponents of texts and narratives forever driving home the virtue of being audience to moral lessons and other types of social communications.56 Integration was through pithas (sacred centres) and tirthas (pilgrimage centres). Literally meaning ‘crossing over’, tirthas signified reaching out to spaces difficult to negotiate. Like Durga, also meaning ‘difficult to access’, tirthas and pithas too made unknown, inaccessible terrains familiar religious rites, where disparate regions and communities could converge.

Convergence was experienced also on occasions of utsavas and samajas, that is, festivals of different kinds which brought different communities and social groups of different persuasions at one site. I have already mentioned that Emperor Asoka imposed a ban on popular samajas and sponsored official ones. Despite royal participation, perhaps the utsavas and samajas of later times regained their community character. When Kharavela, king of Kalinga—the region conquered by Emperor Asoka—put up a stone record of his achievements in the first century bce, he mentioned entertaining (kidapayati) his subjects by holding utsavas and samajas.57 The king’s closeness to utsava and samaja, that is, festivals, gatherings, religious celebrations, fairs and merrymaking, suggested also by a second-century record from Nasik in Maharashtra,58 was a continuing tradition and brought the ruler and the elite in close communion with the larger community, its heterogeneity and its cultures. Whether it is the rath (car) festival of Jagannatha of Puri in Orissa or the Dussehra festival of Mysore in Karnataka, even the symbolic convergence of a deity, a seamless crowd and a king in the post-monarchical era continues to underline, more than anything else, the surge of heterogeneous humanity on a festive occasion. And if one takes into consideration the number, frequency and geographical density of folk festivals across the subcontinent,59 perhaps no other better proof of heterogeneity around essentially local cults would be required.


The multicultural profile of Indian society can be, and has been, seen as deriving from the essential liberality of Indian thought in which everyone else in the entire world is one’s kinsman. However, seeing everyone else in the entire world as one’s kinsman is a quality attributed to the liberal-hearted (udaracarita); it is a virtue to be cultivated and is therefore largely a matter of choice. It is not a social norm, in the sense of various dharmas, underlining the existence of heterogeneity, as it were. One has to seek out an explanation for the character of Indian multiculturalism in Indian society’s historical experience because it involves conflicts and attempts at negotiation.

One explanation may lie in the way the state system in India emerged. The early territorial states had to recognize the existence of a multitude of non-state terrains and their cultural specificities. Even in periods when large state structures emerged through territorial expansion, the impracticability of administrative centralization was recognized; hence the Dharmasastra injunction on preserving the character of conquered territories. In fact, the idea of political sovereignty had to contend with the autonomy of a multitude of political formations and symbols of acknowledgement of sovereignty, rather than sovereignty through administration homogenization were expressions of attempts at homogenization.

Second, the concept of Bharatavarsa or the country of India, from the early days of its civilization, came to connote a country of many janapadas. The cultural differences between different janapadas and their communities are recognized in the absence of a notion of the ‘foreigner’ in the territorial sense, accommodation of new ethnic communities in a loose-ended social structure and no fixed apparatus of hierarchization.

Third, religious practices in India being many and rooted in cultures of communities constituting the fabric of Indian society, accommodation through recognition of this diversity was the alternative to incessant conflict and compartmentalization. Actual conflicts did take place among established religions for hegemony, but the religious process in India was not of homogenization from a hegemonic source but of interpenetration in diversity and of emergence of symbols of universal recognition.

Hopefully, the profile of the early society presented here is not that of a random conglomeration of communities and cultures. To illustrate my argument, I have invoked the policy of Emperor Asoka a number of times. To a well-intentioned emperor of the first major empire of the subcontinent of the third century BCE, it was imperative to bring about a measure of cohesion, if not through territorial and administrative centralization, then through a common set of moral observances. Despite the profound impact of the Mauryan empire on different parts of the subcontinent, post-Asokan Indian society does not bear the imprint of the intended homogeneity. It remains to be seen, after sustained efforts at bureaucratic homogenization from the colonial imperial history onwards, what shape Indian multiculturalism—that is, cultures interpenetrating each other—takes in the age of globalized commercialism.