(This book review was first published in The Hindu.)
If your grasp of truth depends on opinion pieces and television debates, India might seem divided into two camps — people mourning the death of secularism, and people celebrating the inauguration of a Hindu rashtra. While the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and the ascendancy of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement have shaped contemporary interfaith relations in significant ways, it is important to remember that Ayodhya is, in no way, central to the conception of what it means to be Muslim or Hindu.
Chaturvedi Badrinath’s book Dharma: Hinduism and Religions in India is a timely investment for readers interested in the philosophical currents and civilisational dialogues that have brought us where we are. He says, “Indian philosophy is not ‘Hindu’ philosophy. There has been, from the 16th century onwards, a tremendous misconception that there is something called ‘Hinduism’; that ‘Hinduism’ is a religion… that the civilization of India is really Hindu religious civilization.” He emphasises the error in translating ‘dharma’ as ‘religion’, especially because the word ‘Hindu’ is not found in any ancient texts.
According to Badrinath, Arabs coined the word ‘Hindu’ in the eighth century AD, and that ancient thinkers of India did not identify themselves as Hindu. He also suggests that the word ‘Hinduism’ was manufactured by Catholic missionaries of the sixteenth century who were looking for a unified system of religious beliefs that could be designated as ‘Hindu’ but they were confounded by the diversity they encountered in terms of faiths, beliefs and practices. He is not in denial of the fact that meanings change over time, and that millions of people today do identify as Hindu.
Badrinath seems like a strong advocate of coexistence and dialogue, and this entire book is a testament to that. He states quite categorically that Muslim rule in India was not a foreign rule as British rule would be. He offers detailed notes to establish that the Muslim rulers of India were Indians.
Commentators from the right and the left often refer only to the fathers of Akbar, Jahangir, Shahjahan and Aurangzeb but Badrinath carefully mentions the mothers and wives. Some of them were Hindu, and were not required to convert to Islam when they got married.
The notion that Islam was thrust upon Indians by the armies of Muslim emperors is sharply challenged in this book. Badrinath attributes the spread of Islam to Muslim saints who were sought out for their miraculous powers of healing and conferring boons. It was the aesthetic appeal and philosophical affinity of Sufi mysticism that drew Hindus. Like Vedanta, it emphasises the oneness of all life.
Badrinath also recalls translations of Sanskrit treatises into Persian, thanks to Albiruni and Dara Shukoh. Slotting him into an ideological box can be difficult because he cites Swami Vivekananda quite extensively for the man’s appreciation of what he found valuable in Islam. Those who view Vivekananda as a Hindutva ideologue might indeed be shocked.
The arrival of Christianity in India is often linked to British rule but Badrinath attempts to correct that perception by talking about how it reached the southern parts of the west coast just five decades after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He asserts that the Syrian Christians here are far more ancient than the Christians in Europe.
While his attitude towards Jesus is of great respect, his strongest criticism is reserved for those among the clergy who reinforced the caste system by creating separate physical spaces for upper caste and lower caste converts in Indian churches. Jesus got absorbed into the Hindu pantheon, Brahmins benefited from English education, and Shudras continued to face discrimination.
Truth be told, Badrinath’s engagement with Jainism and Buddhism forms an extremely riveting part of this book because Vardhaman Mahavira and Gautam Buddha were in deep dialogue with the Indian philosophical ideas they inherited, examined, challenged and further developed. However, there are times when reviews ought to respond to political exigencies because reading too is an act of resistance.