Chapter 8. Secularism and Composite Culture in a Pluralistic Society – Composite Culture in a Multicultural Society


Secularism and Composite Culture in a Pluralistic Society

Satish Chandra


While present trends do influence our thinking about the past, and the past influences our perception of the present, the present should not be made the basis of the past. However, this happens more often than not. Thus, the communal division of India in 1947 had led some to negate the process of cultural integration which was proceeding apace during the medieval period and continued up to 1857. Those who hold such views argue that whenever the Muslims are in a majority they favour secession, oppose secularism and try to establish a society based on fundamentalism or a narrow interpretation of the sharia. They also argue that whenever Muslims are a minority, they assert their separate identity and refuse to integrate with the mainstream.

Recent research on India’s partition, including the recently published book by N.S. Sarila1 attempt to show that the partition of the country was not so much based on a communal demand, though communalism was used to justify it, but as a part of a British geo-strategic plan to defend their interests. Also, that the demand for partition was not made by the Muslims who formed the majority in Punjab, Bengal and the North-Western Frontier Province (NWFP) but by Muslims from U.P., Bihar etc., where they were in a minority. Some of their legitimate fears and uncertainties in a new scenario were utilized by political elements that had their own ambitions, as also by the British rulers, to further their own ends.

We need not define here the concept of ‘cultural pluralism’ and ‘composite culture’. Whereas cultures were based on received values and structures, the concept of a composite culture was part of a process which evolved in different phases over time and space. It was not a unilinear process, since it was susceptible both to flux and to regression. Also, growth of a composite culture did not imply obliteration of separate cultural identities, but enlargement of a common sphere, which in course of time, becomes the crucial or dominant element (cf. Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony). The question is: does a composite culture contain within itself a mainstream or a hegemonic entity, even while all cultures are theoretically equal? We shall return to this question later in this essay.

The Indian Concept and Tradition of Secularism

The concept of cultural pluralism implies toleration, or the Indian concept of secularism. This does not imply the state staying away from religion, but celebrates religious toleration, and respect to all religions. The question is: does ‘respect’ means accepting equality of all religions, or can it be modified to mean acceptance of the superior position of one, with large or almost complete freedom to the others? This was a question which was much debated in the medieval times in India. While in general, the superiority of Islam was not contested, nor the fundamentally Islamic character of the state questioned, there was much debate about the extent to which the sharia could be enforced in India. This became critical because of the overwhelmingly non-Muslim population of India consisting largely of Hindus who were deeply attached to their faith. The position was summed up by Ziyauddin Barani who made a distinction between a state based on din-dari, which was not possible in India, and jahan-dari based on moderate Islam, which was actually the position during the sultanate, or early medieval period.2

While discussing the question of religious freedom and cultural pluralism in this context, the extent of religious and personal freedom available to different sections within such a state, their relationship with the administrative, judicial and political processes, and opportunities of economic growth available to them have to be taken into account.

Nature of Social and Cultural Interaction: Early Phase

Ever since the advent of Islam into India in a political form, from the entry of the Arabs into Sindh during the seventh century to the fall of the Mughal Empire around the mid-eighteenth century, the fundamentally Islamic character of the state was not in dispute, with the possible exception of the latter part of Akbar’s reign in the sixteenth century. At the outset, in Sindh, the Hindus were given the status of zimmis or protected persons in return of payment of jizyah and other taxes and loyalty to the Islamic state. In any case, the option of Islam or death was not enforced outside Arabia, as is evident from the case of Iran where fire worshippers and non-Muslims continued to live in pockets till the tenth century.

The argument put forward by some theologians before Iltutmish in the thirteenth century that the option of jizyah was not open to the Hindus because they were not ahl-i-kitab, i.e., following a revealed book like the Bible or Quran, was a later development, following the rise of the four schools of sharia. As is well known, their arguments were rejected by Iltutmish as being ‘unpractical’ since the Muslims were too few in number.3 Such arguments were not raised by any section of theologians in the subsequent period. Controversy, however, continued about the nature of the social and cultural intercourse between Muslims and Hindus. According to some political thinkers, kafirs living in a Muslim territory who were ahl-i-zimma and whose lives and properties were to be protected by the ruler had to be treated differently from the Muslims who formed a privileged group. While disagreeing in detail, apparently there was a consensus among the theologians that the non-Muslims should not dress like Muslims, they should not ride on horses with reins and saddles, or carry arms etc. Also, kafirs were not allowed to buy Muslim slaves.4 To what extent it was or could be enforced was a different matter, as we shall see later in this essay. In any case, there were no restrictions on social intercourse of a type advocated by Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi in the seventeenth century: that the ruling sections should neither mix with the Hindus nor have any public dealings with them. If, however, it was necessary to assign some jobs to them, care should be taken not to repose any trust in them.5

The general assumption of the orthodox theologians was that the Hindus should be constantly humiliated and not allowed to live in dignity and affluence, nor be allowed to practice their religion in public. But, as Jalaluddin Khalji told his favourite Ahmad Chap, such a policy was impractical—the Hindus observed their religious ceremonies in public even in the empire capital, and rich Hindus lived there with ease and comfort.6 His successor, Alauddin Khalji, did try for sometime to prohibit the khuts (holders of superior land rights) living around Delhi from riding Arab and Iraqi horses or carrying weapons. We do not know how effective these restrictions were even within this limited range, but they disappeared after his death. Nevertheless, an attitude of not treating the Hindu equally, or humiliating them, did persist among some higher sections. Even the liberal Khusrau while praising the Brahmins, called the Hindus iron-hearted (dil-i-ahnin), and crow-faced (zaghru).7 Perhaps, he meant by these the lower Hindu revenue officials, shop keepers, etc., but this does portray an attitude which must have had a negative impact on the processes of social interaction. This coincided with the Hindu taboos on sharing food, or entering into matrimonial relations outside one’s caste. These restrictions, as is well known, were extended to the Muslims.

In this situation, what were the avenues of social and cultural interaction between the Hindus and the Muslims? Or did we have a situation of what has been called ‘cultural apartheid’? The question of ‘cultural apartheid’ at the lower or popular level hardly arose since the bulk of the rural population (except in West Punjab at that time, and later in East Bengal) remained Hindus. Wherever the Hindus converted, they continued their earlier social beliefs and practices. The question was of the towns, which were growing in political, economic and cultural importance, and of the middle strata living in these towns. Apart from the shopkeepers, the middle strata included the administrative, professional, cultural (poets, singers, etc), judicial and religious sections. Although the middle strata were not united among themselves, their attitudes, beliefs and ideals were important in the development of social and cultural norms of the society. However, the religious sections among them did have a vested interest in conflict. It is the writings of this section, especially chronicles, which have presented a rather biased and one sided picture of interaction between the two communities. An uncritical evaluation of these works has created confusion, and been used by people having a narrow, communal attitude.

Then, as now, the towns were a powerful means of communalizing or communication between diverse elements—the armed forces, servants, faqirs and beggars, and the growing section of artisans and merchants. A good deal has been written about the rise of new industries such as paper making, fireworks, the growth of arhats (incorrectly called the Persian wheels because Persia had little to do with them), strengthening of metal industries etc,. By and large, these industries were located in the towns. Amir Khusrau in his Nuh Sipihr mentioned a large number of artisans, and details of their positive and negative traits. But he does not separate them into Hindus and Muslims.8 Although each caste or group of artisans lived its own internal life, there seems to have been considerable mobility among them, with new professions and castes appearing according to needs. It is interesting to note that for the ruling class, these elements, both Muslim and Hindu, were ‘ignoble’ or na-asl and Barani compares them to ‘beasts of prey’. They were to be kept under tight control and not allowed to encroach on duties and functions of the upper classes.9

There is evidence to show that the middle strata, including the administrative sections, played an important part in the political life of the state, an aspect which has been relatively neglected. Thus, from the time of the Arab conquest of Sindh, administration, especially land revenue administration remained in the hands of local elements—Hindus and Buddhists in Sindh, and predominantly Hindus elsewhere. This continued in a major fashion throughout the medieval period. However, as the central administration expanded, Muslims, mainly converted Muslims, also began to fill some of these posts. The efforts of the Turkish ruling class to confine both these sections to subordinate and lower posts is reflected in Barani tirades against the na-asl. Balban’s efforts to check them seem to have only limited effect. The ending of Turkish monopoly of high offices by the Khaljis opened the door further to the induction of Hindus and converted Muslims into the services. This came sharply into notice under Muhammad bin Tughlaq who tried to use a growing number among them, raising some of them to higher administrative posts also. These sections were drawn from what may be called the Other Backward Classes (OBC) in the modern parlance! Thus, they came from ‘castes’ such as wine distillers, barbers, gardeners, weavers, even singers. Among the Hindus was Ratan, an accounting expert who was made the in-charge of Sindh. Kishan a trader (bazari) was put in charge of Awadh. Another Hindu, Kanna, rose to the position of naib wazir.10

We do not need to follow the political vicissitudes of these sections, and their displacement by Firuz Tughlaq. However, the rise of these sections had important social and cultural consequences. It was by no means accidental that the rise of Amir Khusrau, who considered India his watan, and gloried in its flora, fauna and climate, and its science and learning, coincided with the rise of these sections. The rise of these new sections—artisans, traders and middle administrative elements are also reflected in the growth of the radical Bhakti movement led by Kabir, Raidas, Sena and other saints. These saints stood for human equality, opposed the caste based hierarchical society, and emphasized the fundamental unity of all religions, especially Hinduism and Islam. The rise of Guru Nanak and Sikhism was a marked step forward in these efforts. These and many other saints advocated a religion based on love and inner contemplation, as opposed to book learning emphasized by the clerical elements of the two religions. Simultaneously, we have the emergence of Sufi poetical works in the local languages—Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi etc., wherein a systematic effort is made to find a meeting point between Hindu and Muslim practices and beliefs, and to draw upon Hindu traditions and imagery to convey their message. The notable personages among these were Qutban, Jaisi, Manjhan, Alaul etc. This development began during the second half of fourteenth century and continued well into the eighteenth century.

The rise of Amir Khusrau also marks a change in the attitude of the ruling class towards India, which had now become a homeland (watan), not by force of circumstances but because of its natural and human gifts. The rise of the Mongols, and the devastation they brought to Central and West Asia also became a factor in this change of attitude. Amir Khusrau who was proficient in music, and was called a naik, is considered to be the one who integrated Perso-Arab music into the Indian classical music. He is attributed with the introduction of new modes or airs in Indian classical music, such as Qan, Qalbana, Naqsh, Nigar, Aiman, Khiyal, Saham, Ghanam, etc, although in his own writings Khusrau makes no such mention. The Rag Darpan, which was translated into Persian as Ghuniyat ul Muniya lists the Indian instruments in use, and how Indian musicians and Perso-Arab musicians competed with each other in musical gatherings. Although Firuz Tughlaq was an orthodox ruler, he used to listen to music after every Friday prayer.11 There is a long list of Muslim rulers before Akbar, such as the rulers of Bengal and Jaunpur, who patronized Indian classical music.

The process of cultural rapprochement was also aided by the works of Sufis such as Nizamuddin Auliya whose doors were open to all, and for whom the Hindu worship of idols was not an anathema, but acts of faith which needed to be appreciated, as has been noted by Hasan Sijzi in his Fuwaid-ul-Fuad recording the conversation of the saint. It is also during this period (fourteenth century) that public appreciation of the earlier Sufis, Fariduddin Ganj-i-Shakar of Pak Patan, and Muinuddin Chishti of Ajmer grew. They were projected as votaries of peace and reconciliation between the two communities. We are told that in the sama gatherings of the Chishti Sufis, Hindi bhakti songs used to be sung. Although we do not know what these songs were, Abdul Wahid Bilgrani in his Haqaiq-i-Hindi explains how words such as ‘Gopi’, ‘Krishna’, ‘Jamuna’ etc., were explained in an allegorical sense.

Indian decorative devices, and even more important, the Indian sense of proportion was used commonly in architecture in this period. A much closer assimilation with local architectural forms took place in Gujarat and Bengal later on. Evaluation of material culture—food, dress, jewellery, etc., has not yet brought out sufficiently this evolutionary aspect. Clearly, much more work needs to be done in this field.

Another process which began in the fourteenth century and continued apace was the translation of Sanskrit works of drama, fables, music, astrology, medicine, etc., into Persian (though not works of religion at this stage). Zia Nakshabi (d. 1350) translated the Tuti Nama and Panch Tantra, which had been translated into Pehlavi much earlier. Both Firuz Tughlaq and Sikandar Lodi continued the work of translations. We do not know whether there are any parallel translations of Persian works in Sanskrit during this period. Translation of some science books such as the astrolabe called Maha Yantra is known.

The large scale intrusion of Afghans into India from the fifteenth century also effected social and cultural changes, which has received scant recognition. The large scale settlement of Afghans in the rural areas not only changed the character of Muslim society in the region, but also provided avenues of greater interaction at the grass root level. First, it led to the growth of what has been called ‘Qasba culture’, that is Muslim rural elites living in small towns and providing a focus of culture between the towns and the rural areas. Second, it led to a closer interaction between the Afghans and the regional Hindu elites. This was the background of the emergence of Hemu as the commander-in-chief of Adil Shah’s armies, and being his virtual wazir. This is also highlighted by the fact that even after the loss of Afghan power, for 50 years, from Sanga’s time (1527) to Rana Pratap (Haldighati, 1576), Afghans fought side by side with the Rajput against the Mughals.

Rise of a Secular State Based on Sulh-i-Kul and a Composite Ruling Class: Second Phase

That the process of cultural integration was carried forward vigorously under the Mughals, crystallizing during the reign of Akbar and finding expression in diverse fields, such as architecture, painting, music, literature, etc., are too well known to be discussed in detail here. Two aspects, however, need consideration. These are the concept of sulh-i-kul, and the gradual emergence of a new ruling class which had a more composite character, and projected and propounded a liberal, tolerant ethos. The extent to which Aurangzeb represented a set back or a reversal of the processes of cultural rapprochement also needs consideration.

The concept of sulh-i-kul or peace for all implied equal treatment to religions; equal justice for votaries of all religions, high or low; and concern for public welfare. It clearly implied that the ruler was not answerable for his conduct, political or personal, to the clergy, but to God alone. Further, it implied rather than asserted the evolution of a composite ruling class consisting of votaries of different religions. As the leader of all communities, the king was also expected to be the fountain head of fostering and promotion of cultural life.

We need hardly concern ourselves here with the extent to which these ideas were based on the earlier syncretic traditions which we have outlined, the extent to which they were derived from the liberal philosophy of Ibn Arabi, the Sufi saints like Maulana Rum, Hafiz etc., and the impact of Chingez’s liberal tradition, including the yassa which supplemented the sharia, and advocated equal treatment to all religions. All these factors played a role which explains its durability in the Indian soil.

For us here, the important question is the ramifications of the doctrine of sulh-i-kul, and the extent to which it continued to remain as the bed-rock of the Mughal state, despite Aurangzeb’s efforts not so much to discard as to modify it in important respects. At the heart of the controversy about the concept of sulh-i-kul, which may be considered rooted in the Indian concept of secularism, was the question: did equal treatment to the votaries of all religions imply acceptance of the doctrine that all religious were equal, being merely different roads to the attainment of Truth and Salvation? Or, could toleration to all be combined with the superior position of one, either because of the position of the ruling class, or because of the number of the adherents of a particular religion in the country? It will be seen that this question has been a persistent one. Though sought to be answered in different ways at different times, its intrusion into the present political landscape of the country is too obvious to be missed.

The emergence of the Rajputs to the position of being not merely the sword arm of the empire but being partners in the kingdom coincided with Akbar’s break with the orthodox ulema. This was marked by the promulgation of the mahzar (1579). The concept of sulh-i-kul also emerges at this time. The association of the Rajput with the ruling class had been preceded by inducting a large number of Hindus from other sections into the administration at middle levels. When this was objected to, Akbar pointed out that most Mughal nobles had their finances managed by Hindus. The use of persons such as Todar Mal and Rai Rayan Patr Das in the revenue administration as also in military operations, took place even before Rajput rajas had begun to participate in such operations outside Rajasthan. In fact, it may be said that the abolition of the pilgrim tax in 1562 and the jizyah in 1564 were efforts more to win over these sections than to satisfy the Rajputs whose states were at that time out of the administrative control of the Mughals, and did not pay jizyah, while autonomous Rajas paid peshkash or a lump sum including land tax.

The type of secular, poly-cultural, liberal state set up under Akbar was far in advance of anything similar anywhere in the world at that time. It has, therefore, been assumed that such a state was liable to be destabilized after Akbar’s disappearance from the scene, and that the reaction against it, which surfaced under Aurangzeb fifty years later, was a natural consequence. An influential reaction among historians from Pakistan has argued that the maintenance of the empire was always considered the responsibility of Muslims. Akbar undermined it by his efforts to build a composite ruling class, and by equating Islam with Hinduism. This, according to them, paved the way for the disintegration of the empire.12

Without entering into a debate about the causes of the disintegration of the Mughal Empire, I would like to underline what recent studies have shown: Akbar managed to build a far more strong empire than has been imagined. Akbar was able to create a band of nobles who were not only personally loyal to the emperor, but shared the view that the longevity of the empire depended upon the steadfast loyalty of the Rajputs, and of the Hindu administrative personnel consisting largely of Kayasthas, Khatris and a few Brahmins, as also by adhering to a policy of peace and compromise with the votaries of all religions. This implied eschewing religious narrowness. Thus, it was not the sharia but the Akhlalq Namas both past and present,13 which advocated a policy of peace, harmony and expediency which became the basis of the intellectual ethos of the Mughal nobles, combined with the liberal philosophy of Hafiz and Rumi. The upholding of Akbar’s policy of sulh-i-kul by Jahangir, and the failure of the efforts of orthodox elements represented by Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi to re-establish an Islamic state based on sharia by appealing to the nobles to exert pressure on the emperor for the purpose, exemplify this trend. The Niti Shataks of the time, written in ‘Hindi’ also emphasize peace and harmony. Thus, Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khanan not only declares that one should not abase oneself before the clerics, but also that they should not accept their advice if it was ‘improper (anuchit)’. Vrind, who had been appointed as a tutor to Aurangzeb’s grandson, Jahandar Shah, echoes the views and attitudes of Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khanan. According to them, social ethos was to be decided by the high minded upper sections (baran), among whom they make no distinction on the basis of religion. For Rahim, the state was like a family in which the elders (baran) were responsible for the affairs. Rahim enjoins upon the elders to behave in a compassionate manner even though the smaller members of the family, or the lower order created disturbances.14 Unlike Tulsi, who considers the lower sections consisting largely of wicked and evil element,15 Rahim does not portray a negative image of these sections.

There has been a great deal of debate on the significance of Shah Jahan’s declaring himself to be a ‘Protector of Islam’, and of banning the building of new temples till the prince Dara Shikoh rose to prominence and negated this policy. The banning of building new temples by Shah Jahan has been considered by some modern observers of reasserting the essentially Islamic character of the state. But this had not been disputed by anyone. What was at issue was asserting the superiority of Islam and the sharia by keeping the Hindus out of higher offices of state, and keeping them in a debased, dependent position. Neither Jahangir nor Shah Jahan departed from Akbar’s policy of alliance with the Hindu ruling and superior elements (rajas, zamindars), including administrative sections among whom Kayasthas, Khatris and Brahmins predominated. Aurangzeb, on ascending the throne, renewed the order against building new temples, and also banned many practices considered ‘un-Islamic’. However, the demand of the orthodox elements to re-institute jizyah considered the hall-mark of an Islamic state, asserting the inferior position of the non-Muslims in the state, was carried over only in the twenty-second year of the reign. Aurangzeb refused the demand of the orthodox elements to exclude Hindus from superior service. Even attempts to exclude Hindus from the posts of diwans failed due to the opposition of the nobles. Efforts to give concessions to Muslim traders by not charging or charging reduced sales tax from them also had mixed results. Conversion of a few individuals to Islam was made much of publicly, but privately Aurangzeb expressed a negative opinion about them.16 However, some of the steps designed to assert the Islamic character of the state were undoubtedly discriminatory.

The question is: was this a rejection of Akbar’s concept of secularism, or of a state based on sulh-i-kul and all its implications? Alternately, was it part of an attempt to use religion for political purposes—to safeguard Aurangzeb against the public outrage at imprisoning his father and executing his brothers, and later, his desire to gear up the state to counter the growing aggressiveness of the Marathas under Shivaji and, even more importantly, to wage all out war against the Muslim states of Bijapur and Golconda who were siding with the Marathas? The situation was a complex one, and can hardly be analyzed in the limited scope of this essay. The point to be noted is that there does not appear to have been any ground swell of opinion in favour of Aurangzeb’s policy of giving greater respect and weight to clerical elements and opinions in the running of the state. The nobles were not prepared to mould their lives according to the dictates of the sharia: they refused to give up wine-drinking (even his favourite Qazi Abdul Wahab drank privately), continued to maintain large harams, and patronize music and poetry on both of which Aurangzeb frowned. In fact, the nobles were unhappy at the intrusion of theologians in public affairs, Mahabat Khan, a leading noble, protested that ‘experienced and able officers of the state are deprived of all trust and confidence while full reliance is placed on the hypocritical mystics and empty headed ulama.’17

Aurangzeb’s efforts to woo the Maratha sardars (nobles) to come over to his side after the conquest of Bijapur and Golconda in 1686–87 and recruiting large numbers of them in the nobility (the proportion of Hindus in the nobility rose to 33 per cent), not carrying out any large scale destruction of temples in the newly conquered territories of the Deccan (in contrast to the harsh policy adopted in Marwar, appointing officials to destroy or shut all temples following the death of Jaswant Singh and the ensuing war in 1679). Finally, jizyah was withdrawn in the Deccan in 1703 ‘for the duration of the war’ (the end of which was not in sight).Thus, Aurangzeb seems to have begun to realize the futility of trying to institute a state based formally on the sharia. It is also to be noted that while upholding the sharia, Aurangzeb never repudiated the yassa of Chingez. In his advice to his sons, he reiterated the Akbarian concept of justice giving it greater weight than protection of the faith (din).18

Thus, the Akbarian concept of a state based on peace and harmony with votaries of all religions, a composite ruling class representing basically the regional ruling elites and a section of the middle bureaucracy, and promotion of a culture based on the poly-cultural traditions of the country combined with Persian and Central Asian culture had struck deep roots and could not be dislodged, despite the efforts of some narrow minded theologians enjoying state support. Nor were the efforts of Aurangzeb to use religion for political purposes successful. Hence, in the period following his death, there was a sustained effort to revert to the Akbarian model, in the hope of giving new life to the state. The restrictive measures instituted by Aurangzeb, such as revival of jizyah, restrictions on building new temples, prohibition of the use of Arabi and Iraqi horses and palkis by Hindus (though Rajputs were exempt from such restrictions), refusing high mansabs and high offices to Rajputs, etc., were done away with within half-a-dozen years after Aurangzeb’s death. It should be noted that for some of these measures, such as abolishing jizyah and granting high mansabs and high offices to Rajput rajas, the lead was taken by two of the leading nobles of Aurangzeb, Asad Khan who had been his wazir for a quarter of a century, and his son Zulfiqar Khan, who had been his Mir Bakhshi.

The eighteenth century, far from being a period of stagnation and widespread conflict, is now considered a period in which economic growth continued, particularly during its first half. Although the eighteenth century saw extensive conflict between the Marathas and the Mughals and their successor states, Bengal and Hyderabad, and the rise of Jat power in close proximity to Delhi, it was not a period of religious conflict. Following the example set by Shivaji, the Marathas never interfered with Islamic practices, or broke any mosques. Thus, when Peshwa Baji Rao came from Mewar to Ajmer, he and the Maratha chiefs dismounted from their horse and with the utmost respect visited the tomb of Muinuddin Chishti.19 Raja Suraj Mal Jat, on his way to Delhi in 1760 with the Bhau, refused to destroy a mosque at Mathura since it would inflame communal passions. 20

Thus, the de facto secular character of the state was largely maintained up to the eighteenth century. The Marathas abandoned the slogan of Hindu-pad-padshahi, both Shahu, Shivaji II, Balaji Vishwanath Peshwa and Baji Rao accepting Mughal mansabs (though they never behaved like Mughal mansabdars). In the riyasats of Bengal and Awadh, Hindus were given positions of trust and honour. There is no mention of re-imposition of jizyah in these states or destroying of temples.

Culturally, the eighteenth century saw a resumption of the process of cultural integration. Classical music received a great impetus under Muhammad Shah who even composed poems under the name ‘Rangile Piya’. Painting also continued, receiving support not only from the Mughal rulers and the riyasats, but from regional states such as Basoli, Kangra Hills, the Rajput states, etc. Urdu supplemented Persian in the Hindi region, drawing in section of both Muslims and Hindus from civil society, and carrying forward the liberal tradition of Persian poetry.

In the religious ideological field, there were contradictory trends. At one level, the tradition of what Amartya Sen calls ‘argumentative heterodoxy’ continued.21 The efforts of Dadu and Rajjab in the seventeenth century, and their advocacy of ‘nipakh’ or rising above religious and sectarian conflicts, 22 was continued in the eighteenth century by Jagjiwan Das who reorganized the Satnami sect which did not respect distinction of caste, rejected religious separation, and had a strong egalitarian approach. This sect had suffered serious assault from Aurangzeb. Another prominent saint who strongly advocated Hindu-Muslim unity, and opposed orthodoxy in religion was Pran Nath. Names of many others have been mentioned by Tara Chand in his classic work ‘Impact of Islam on Indian Culture’, and need not be repeated here. The revival of the liberal Chishtiya silsilah under Shah Kalimullah, the writing of Mazhar Jan-i-Janan who tried to provide a philosophical basis for respect and toleration to the idol-worshipping Hindus, reinforced the liberal ethos of the ruling classes.

However, the orthodox trend also remained strongly entrenched. Among the Muslims, it culminated in the writings of Shah Waliullah who tried to integrate Sufism with traditional Islamic teachings. There is no such single figure among the Hindus, but Brahminism did make a revival. The works of Chaitanya, Surdas and Tulsidas were used to reinforce a religion of rituals based on ‘ashtadham puja’, or constant prayer to a personal deity all aspects of which were to be supervised by the Brahmins. In the process, the caste based hierarchical order was also reinforced.


While the middle age in India did see a lot of violence and bloodshed, and destruction of many ancient centres of learning, public buildings, and temples, it was able, in course of time, to develop a fairly flexible type of secular state, one in which broad freedom was accorded to various religious segments. The process of cultural interaction also continued apace. However, orthodox and heterodox ideas continued to flourish side by side and to contend with each other. However, the strong trend of centralization led sometimes to erosion of community lives. For example, in Bhimbhar in Kashmir, a part of the community had converted but maintained their social customs and practices. If a Hindu gave his daughter in marriage to a Muslim, when she died, she was buried. If a Muslim gave his daughter to a Hindu, she was cremated when she died, Shah Jahan forbade these practices.23 It has been argued that the Jat rebellions in the Agra region were not only due to exactions by corrupt local officials, but also efforts to interfere in the community structure of the Jats.24

Thus, we cannot conclude that the process of cultural integration in a pluralistic society was progressing in a satisfactory manner and continued even during the eighteenth century. Nor can we conclude that the process could have continued apace without solving serious internal problems. The most serious internal problem facing India during the medieval times was the deeply entrenched hierarchical social order, and the superstructure which had arisen on it. Although the radical Bhakti saints, and others, such as the Sikhs, emphasized an egalitarian social order based on equality, communal harmony, and social justice, they failed to bring large segments in the village society into their fold or their way of thinking. Brahminism made a revival, conceding that the faith of Bhakti was open to all, but combined it with personal devotion to a living God who would be ministered to only by the Brahmins. Hence, outside the fold of the devotees, the old social order, buttressed by the caste system and legitimized by the Dharmashastras, continued to hold sway. Among the Muslims, also, while religious equality was affirmed, social inequality, and distinction between rich and poor were legitimized, being the creations of God along with the creation of the phenomenal world.

Among the leaders of the two main religions, Hinduism and Islam, there was little attempt to study and understand each other’s ideas and beliefs, and the ignorance among the religious leaders of the two communities of the standard works of the other community, and their upholding ‘the pillars of blind following’, as Abul Fazl had noted in his introduction to the Persian translation of the Mahabharata, continued.25

We may also note the remark of the French traveller Francois Bernier, that unlike France, there were no great academies in India where the study of the sciences (in the European sense, this included both natural and social science) could be carried forward.26 Apparently, Akbar’s effort to emphasize the study of secular subjects had been defeated, and the religious syllabus held sway both among Muslims and Hindus. In the process, the radical Bhakti saints, and their teachings were marginalized.

The intermediary elements, the shopkeepers, bankers, financiers, traders, etc., and the artisans, including master artisans, did grow in numbers and affluence during the medieval age, their growth continuing up to the middle of the eighteenth century, if not beyond. But they never challenged the cultural and political hegemony of the feudal classes, backed and supported by the priestly order. In such a situation, the process of cultural integration and growth, and the upholding of a secular order became heavily dependent upon the values and interests of the privileged classes.