The Silence

in univerCity

A bit curious, historically, is the lack of interest the Muslims rulers of India took in Hinduism. If one compares the translation projects of Greek and Armaic sources into Arabic during the 9th-11th centuries in Damascus and Baghdad with the projects undertaken for Sanskrit, one realizes that there were no projects undertaken for Sanskrit. Not until Akbar, was such a project carried out. That’s the sixteenth century! Muslims and Hindus have been rubbing elbows since the sixth.
So what accounts for this lack of curiosity in their religion? Is it the hubris of monotheists amid polytheists? Was only the intellectual family of Abraham worthy of study? [hmm…they did wipe those Zorastrians out pretty quickly]. Can I ask the same question re: Buddhism? [harder that, because of the Great Escape of Buddhism from India early into the Muslim reign].

Let’s do a faulty memory review. Leave aside Kalila wa Dimna which was a Sanskrit text translated into Pahlavi and from there into Arabic by AbdAllah ibn Muqaffa in 750 or so. We know that Indian physicians and alchemists were present in the ‘Abbasid courts where they presumabley gave the Arabs the numeric system [and the number Zero] but nothing survives of any texts that they translated. In any case, these were not religious texts. The only early Muslim intellectual who paid any attention to the Hinduism as a religion was al-Biruni [d. 1048]. He translated portions of the Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali’s Yogasutras. After him, silence again from the Muslim intellectuals. The Mahabharata was translated into Persian in Kashmir way later in the fifteenth century.

Akbar, they say, instituted a system of translations to augment his wacky new-agey religion. I am not a fan of that particular hypothesis but let’s keep moving on here. The fact is that he did commission an amazing amount of Sanskrit works [Mahabharata becomes Razmnama] to be translated into Persian and vice versa. The translated works were used mainly as poIitical histories of India by Muslim chroniclers [Farishta, for example, uses the Mahabharta as a chronology of Indian history]. It was Akbar’s grandson Dara Shukuh [d. 1659] who really set the ball rolling in terms of puranic and yogic translations – as religious texts. He oversaw the translations of the Upanishads [Sirr-i Akbar]. He had in his court munshis like, the one CM friend Rajeev is working on, Chandarbhan Brahman who translated vedantic works into Persian. Dara Shukuh’s project was more about mingling the twin streams of mysticism then a serious inquiry into the religious life of the populace. He treated the Upanishads as literal equivalents of the Qur’an. This study by analogy will sound pretty familiar to the colonial translation projects that will follow shortly. Cue William Jones and the EIC initiatives.

Back to our Monday Morning Quaterbacking. Why were the Muslims not interested in Hinduism? Either, Hinduism becomes a colonial created text [which would explain the immense output of persian translations in the early modern period but which will also take this post in an entirely different direction] OR:

Is idolatry just the rawest of raw nerve of Islam? Idolophobia? [my neologism for the day] One thinks of the cathartic idol-smashing of Muhammad on his triumphant return to Mecca. One thinks of the severity of iconoclasm established in the earliest centuries. One thinks of the famous episode when Muhammad b. Qasim enters a temple for the first time [ok, only I think of that since no one else even knows about that]. One thinks of Sa’adi’s Indiana Jonesesque adventure in Somnath. One thinks of Somnath itself. One thinks of the rise of Sufi shrines. One thinks of the Wahhabi reaction to the rise of the Sufi shrines.

I am just wondering out aloud. I don’t really have an answer for this silence. Lack of curiosity is not something I can accuse Muslim rulers of India in any other area of. I am also aware that my over-generalization leaves me up for ridicule on the “immutable category of ‘Muslim’ against ‘Hinduism'” front. So, I am an idiot. But my question remains. Why were the Muslims of India not curious about the faith of those they governed? Especially since they did show such curiosity with respect to Judaism, Christianity and Zorastrianism. Why did this cow not moo?

unrelated: One of these days, I will look for my interest in politics. It is around somewhere. For now, I find the recent triumphalism [after Lebanon’s Gucci Revolution – look Rob, cleavage!] of Bush’s agenda a tad moronic. I mean millions show up when Hamas or Hizbullah throw a parade against the Israelis or the Americans and that is not a “revolution!” for terrorism? David Adesnik can go plow the fields of Iraq for his democracy. Juan Cole says something right and something not quite but I approve of his general thrust.

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