The latest controversies around Gyanvapi, Qutb Minar and the Mathura Mosque have revived the accusation that Hindus have committed violence against Buddhists and Jains in the past. Evidence of such violence comes from a few errant references in the Divyavadana where Pushyamitra Sunga allegedly hunted down Buddhist monks and a few references that tell us that the Huna ruler Mihirakula destroyed Buddhist monasteries and killed monks. Romila Thapar also cites references to Ajaypala in Gujarat who desecrated Jaina temples. In all of the 3,000 years of recorded history, these are the only examples of evil behavior in the name of religion in pre-Islamic India.
Nowhere in Indian texts has any act of desecration been valued as bringing glory to God. Richard Eaton refers to incidents where the idol in one temple was removed by a rival king and installed elsewhere in a temple. In the early 10th century, King Pratihara Herambapala seized a solid gold image of Vishnu Vaikuntha when he defeated King Shahi of Kangra. In the middle of the 10th century, the same image was seized from the Pratiharas by King Chandella Yasovarman and installed in the Lakshmana Temple of Khajuraho. However, this is very different from the broken images used by the invaders to wipe their feet.
There are also no reports of mass murder in the name of religion. This is what distinguishes these acts from what India saw during the Turkish and Afghan invasions from the 11th century until the Marathas put an end to them at the end of the 17th century. Contemporary Islamic chroniclers who wrote about these events made it clear that the killing and desecration of temples was entirely justified in religious jihad and that non-believers were an inferior class of human beings.
In her book Somanatha, Romila Thapar does not deny that the Somanatha temple was destroyed and Shiva’s lingam broken, the top half being taken to Ghazni for people to walk on. Nor does she deny that the priests of Somanatha previously supported the efforts of Persian traders to establish a mosque near the temple. But she does her best to find what can best be called justifications for Sultan Mahmud’s actions. Is it not possible, she suggests, that the Turkish-Persian chroniclers exaggerated in order to glorify the sultan as the founder of Islamic rule in India? In addition, she points out, Mahmud has also desecrated the mosques of Muslim minority groups like the Ismailis and Shiites.
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Is anyone afraid to admit that there was indeed a group of people in India who imagine their religion to be the only possible truth and who think it is normal to make war on those who believe differently?
The idea that God takes multiple forms, that there are multiple truths, is rooted in the Indian mind. Whatever text you might choose to pick up, be it one of the Smritis or the Vedas or whatever, you will easily find an equal and opposite view. Even the parody of Hinduism as an Abrahamic religion sought to be created during British rule found little resonance among the masses. Scholars like Raja Ram Mohun Roy claimed that the Advaita philosophy of Sankaracharya, Vedanta was the living proof that Indian religious tradition had the idea of one god. But Ram Mohun found no takers for what he said, even among his own family. Belief in monotheistic Hinduism remained confined to an Indian elite reeling from British rule and eager to claim that the religion’s Abrahamic credentials also existed within Hinduism.
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Hindu reluctance to recognize that Muslims were willing to kill for their beliefs did not make those beliefs go away. In a survey of the opinions of Muslims in 21 countries conducted between 2008 and 2012 by the Pew Research Center, support for suicide bombings against civilian targets as justification for defending Islam against its enemies was found among 39% of respondents. in Afghanistan, 26 percent in Bangladesh and 13 percent in Pakistan. Researcher Christine Fair, who used this dataset, finds a strong correlation between these views and scriptural literalism – what is said in the scriptures should be taken at face value.
Whether you believe in peace or not, the Taliban recently christened a military contingent in Afghanistan as Panipat.
This column first appeared in the print edition of May 28, 2022 under the title “Violence of Monotheism”. The writer is in the Department of History, Panjab University, Chandigarh