Religion in Indian History

Edited by Irfan Habib

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Religion has been, and is, an important element in Indian society and history. It is, however, rare for the subject to be discussed with the necessary degree of detachment. This volume was, therefore, planned with the object of providing a collection of studies that would deal with the role of religion in Indian history on the basis of a rigorous application of academic criteria. The results may surprise those who are more familiar with chauvinistic or apologetic interpretations. The editor’s introduction and the fifteen chapters range over an extensive period, from prehistory to the present day, and take up specific problems of crucial significance in exploring the inter- relationship between religion and social change. This volume draws on new research and is meant for academics as well as general readers, who may find here much that is of relevance to their social and intellectual concerns.Religion has been, and is, an important element in Indian society and history. It is, however, rare for the subject to be discussed with the necessary degree of detachment. This volume was, therefore, planned with the object of providing a collection of studies that would deal with the role of religion in Indian history on the basis of a rigorous application of academic criteria. The results may surprise those who are more familiar with chauvinistic or apologetic interpretations. The editor’s introduction and the fifteen chapters range over an extensive period, from prehistory to the present day, and take up specific problems of crucial significance in exploring the inter- relationship between religion and social change. This volume draws on new research and is meant for academics as well as general readers, who may find here much that is of relevance to their social and intellectual concerns.

 

REVIEW:

This book is an anthology of 15 scholarly articles relating to “religion in Indian history” and based on different topics covering periods of disparate nature, with no claim to have exhausted the central theme. Irfan Habib’s brilliant introduction probes into the archaeology and history of religion building up from irrational fundamental premises to ethics and theology or philosophy. He discusses in great depth historical and theoretical problems involved in looking for the roots of religion in India.

In the first article D.P. Chattopadhyaya explores most carefully the ways religions develop. Examining the comparative philological point of view of Chinese, Helenic and Islamic theologians, the anthropology and sociology of religion, the relationships between mythology and history, and the interface of the scientific and Marxist views, he emphasises the professed unifying role of religion and its historically evident divisive workings in practice.

Social dimensions

The three articles that follow deal with changes within Brahmanism in the wake of the consolidation of the caste society. One is K.M. Shrimali’s explanatory piece delving into the socio-economic implications of the ensemble of numerous post-Mauryan popular sects/faiths and forms of worship, the theologically augmented Mahayana Buddhism, incorporation of “danamahima” by the Jains, Shaivites and Vaishnavites and, seeks to prove the identification of the period by Vincent Smith and K.P. Jaiswal as “dark age” unfounded. The next is Suvira Jaiswal’s article that examines social dimensions of the spreading cult of Lord Rama. Then the joint article by Nupur Chaudhuri and Rajat K. Ray discusses the role of Tantricism in providing escape routes from a vigorously ordered society. Nupur and Ray argue that love existed in all ages but never as the same, which accounts for its splitting between high and low, Vedic and Tantric, day and night, open and secret.

In his article, Barun De expands the topic of how religion has to be studied in terms of spiritual creativity and the flowering of individual mental consciousness, as a force for social welfare, on the one hand and, an instrument of obscurantism and traditionalist superstition seeking to enforce elitist authority on democratic creativity on the other. He takes stock of how two leading historians D.D. Kosambi and Niharranjan Ray, dealt in different ways with the relationship between religion and changes in social history.

Coexistence

The next two articles deal with the Islamic background of the Indian religious culture. One is by Athar Ali, exploring some of the features of the Islamic past including secular developments and highlighting as a very significant aspect the long history of Islam’s fruitful coexistence with Hinduism, despite all the violence that occurred in military campaigns, conquests and depredations. The other is a profound article by Irfan Habib, examining how in 15th and early 16th centuries, both Islam and Hinduism encountered the popular monotheistic movement, associated with Kabir’s name and insightfully unveiling the material, social and ideological basis of the thought of Kabir and other like-minded preachers.

The following three essays deal with certain aspects of religion, in Mughal India, especially the spectacular events at Emperor Akbar’s court, from 1517 A.D. onwards. Osamu Kondo discusses in his essay the text and significance of the scholars’ “mahzar” of 1579 A.D honouring Akbar “just king” or interpreter of the Muslim law. He argues that the Emperor was probably not happy about the ‘declaration’ for its limiting or sectarian implication.

Considering in depth the northern Indian situation of coexistence and interaction of religions at the time of Akbar’s accession Shireen Moosvi in her essay seeks to analyse the influences of the emperor’s childhood experience, education and personal character on the constitution of his religion.

Invoking the context of Sunni- Shia’ite debates that had been a common feature in Muslim intellectual life in the “free-for-all” atmosphere of Mughal India, S.A. Nadeem Rezavi in his essay assesses the influence of Mulla Sadra (1640 A.D.), the Iranian Shi’ite philosopher, regarded both as a votary of reason and as a logician within the realm of Muslim theology, on the scholarly tradition of India.

New Movements

There is an article on Sikhism and the position of women by Kamalesh Mohan, which examines the role of socio-historical environment and its interaction with material factors in shaping new religious movements such as the Sikh movement and its agenda. D.N. Jha in a serious analysis exposes the a-historicity of reconstructions of Hinduism, the fantastic antiquity assigned to it, and the lack of substance behind the concept of the Hindu cultural nationalism.

V. Ramakrishna’s article discusses the grasp of socio-religious reformers of the Andhra region about the growing impoverishment of India under the exploitative British rule. The last but one in the collection, Farat Hasan’s article, on Foucault’s post-modernist critique of rationalism, does not fit in with the theme.

The eminently readable volume closes with Nirmalamshu Mukherji’s perceptive article in search of the roots of communalism in India’s culture and polity.

– Rajan Gurukkal. The Hindu

Irfan Habib

Irfan Habib is Professor Emeritus of History at the Aligarh Muslim University. He is the author of The Agrarian System of Mughal India, 1556–1707 (1963, revised edition 1999), An Atlas of the Mughal Empire (1982), Essays in Indian History: Towards a Marxist Perception (1995), Medieval India: The Study of a Civilization (2007), Economic History of Medieval India, 1200–1500 (with collaborators, 2011) and Atlas of Ancient Indian History (with Faiz Habib, 2012). He has co-edited The Cambridge Economic History of India, Vol. I, UNESCO’s History of Humanity, Vols. 4 and 5, and UNESCO’s History of Central Asia, Vol. 5. He is the General Editor of the People’s History of India series. He has published two monographs on modern Indian economic history and a study of certain aspects of the National Movement.

Other books by Irfan Habib