VOI message

n.rao at rz.uni-sb.de n.rao at rz.uni-sb.de
Tue Apr 11 21:34:48 UTC 1995

>I'm not interested in responding to VOI but I would be interested in
>a discussion on how to approach such questions in both philology and
>history.  ARticles by Sheldon Pollock and Romila Thapar come to mind as
>possible starting points.  Is it possible to be apolitical altogether?
>What are the texts (or other sources) that deal with inter-community
>differences--sectarian puranas, anti-Buddhist vedantic polemic,
>Islamic histories, dynastic inscriptions, alternative Ramayanas?
>Given the competing histories and archeologies of Ayodhya, where does the
>concerned but independent scholar position him/herself?
>Tim Bryson (bryson at harvarda.harvard.edu)

Back in 70s there was a discussion in India about some text books written by 
Romilla Thapar and some others from JNU. Some JanSangh members apparently 
wanted to remove the text-books from circulation. At that time I remember to 
have read articles by Romilla Thapar or her late brother. One assertion in 
those days was that the history books till  then were anti-Muslim since they 
stressed  Muslim destruction of temples and did not take notice of similar 
destruction of temples by other kings. 

At least the historians from JNU at that time wanted to be 'political' and 
not 'apolitical'. Their understanding of their text books was that it would 
contribute to overcome the 'revivalist' mentality (at that time the word 
'fundamentalist' had not yet made its appearance as an epithet for JanSangh 
politics).  This was in line with the slogans of the 60s and 70s that all 
activities, especially academic research, are necessarily 'political'. 

I do not subscribe to this slogan, but nor do I want to subscribe to the 
propaganda levelled against those and similar text books. However, what I do 
want to suggest is that in India there is a tendency, especially amongst 
historians, wanting to say that destruction of temples during medieval 
period was just a part of war and animosities among people of that time. 
This is in reaction against the glorification of the so called 'Hindu 
tolerance'. Similarly, because the idea that Islam caused destruction of 
temples in India is an emotional issue susceptible to current political 
propaganda, the easy way taken to counter this propaganda  is either to deny 
its veracity or to  suggest that if destruction took place, the motive was 
not Islamic religiosity.   

People in India perhaps were not more nor less tolerant than people 
elsewhere. But, were there destruction of temples or not? , or when it took 
place, was  it  just because of animosities amongst different groups of 
people.  One lement in answering this question should be to consider the 
role of  the  concept of  'idolatry' in Palestinian religions. Practices 
prevailing in India, according to the Islam of that time,  were not 
something flowing from the 'Religion of the Book' ( and I think it was a 
correct perception too: The present day Neo-Hinduism, which sees 
Bhagavadgita and Upanishads, and even Veda as 'sacred texts' is of a recent 
origin), and Islam had an obligation to eradicate the practices that were 
not flowing from the 'Religion of the Book'. For the purpose of school text 
books (in my school days in India, I had such texts) one may make the issue 
of  'idolatry' innocuous looking by speaking of superstitious 'idol' worship 
and the heroic fight against it by Islam and Protestant Christianity.  
However, The notion of 'idolatry' , for Islam as well as for Christianity,  
is certainly something more than a question of people bowing before idols.

In the face of this, there is another tendency - equally strong in some 
quarters in India - to say something to the effect, 'all religions hate 
practices other than their own'. Perhaps. But a notion like that of 
'Idolatry' is not universal. (A friend of mine has argued in his doctoral 
thesis, that even the idea of 'religion' is not universal. His thesis is 
that in Asia till the advent of Islam, and later Christianity, there were no 
religions). To say this is neither giving a testimonial to pre-Islamic 
people of Asia, nor condemning them for their lack of some supposed 
dimension of life, it is just asserting that  some of the categories that we 
are accustomed to use in our enquiry into different 'cultures', are not 
universal; they are inherited from the Tradition influenced by the  
Palestinian religions. Most of the categories used to talk about the 
pre-Islamic Indian 'culture' do commit the mistake of assuming  the 
parochial notions that we are accustomed to, as if they are universal 
notions. ‘Idolatry’ and ‘religion’ are good examples of such notions. 
Remember? Buddha according to lot of Indology books is supposed to have 
rebelled against the ‘idolatrous’ practices of vedic rituals!
Dr. B. Narahari Rao
F.R. 5.1. Philosophie
Unversitaet des Saarlandes,
Postfach 15 11 50,
D-66041 Saarbrücken


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