The subcontinent’s syncretic religious identity: Why we need it now more than ever

Religious identities in India have historically been more flexible than today.

WrittenBy:Ammara Ahmad
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Mastani’s character in the latest film, Bajirao Mastani, is fascinating not just because of her beauty, wit, and bravery – but also because of her syncretic religious identity.

Mastani, as historian Kusum Chopra asserts in her book, was a Muslim princess from Bundelkhand, the daughter of Maharaja Chhatrasaal, a believer in the Pranami, a faith that brings Hinduism and Islam together. Consequently, Mastani was a Krishna bhakt, who sang bhajan and offered Namaz. This is why she named her son Krishnasinha.

Religious identities in India have historically been more flexible than today. Communities gradually became more distinct, partly from fear of merging with each other, and partly because of the uncertainties of a displaced life that colonialism and then urbanisation have brought to the sub-continent, as elsewhere, in the name of modernity. In any case, the end result has been less tolerance of any significant theological re-interpretation and much less dissent.

Most Muslims and Hindus had the same religious ancestors in the subcontinent, except for the few migrants who moved from the Middle East and Central Asia. Therefore, they were not just ideologically influenced by each other, but the rites and rituals pertaining to events like birth, marriage and death remained comparable.

However, some people in the subcontinent carved out an independent identity for themselves, which was either devoid of organised religion or melded more than one faith together. This includes the poet Kabir, who is said to be born in a Muslim weavers’ family but was later influenced by the Hindu Bhakti leader Ramananda. He later criticized both Islam and Hinduism. Both the communities threatened him during his lifetime, but eventually fought over his burial rites, each claiming him as their own. His verses today form the largest non-Sikh component of the Adi Granth (Sikh holy book).

Baba Farid was one such poet and Sufi saint in Punjab. His poetry preached austerity, kindness, charity and love. He influenced Guru Nanak and nearly 134 verses in Guru Granth are ascribed to him now. Guru Nanak Dev is said to have met him twice. The fifth guru of Sikhism, Guru Arjun himself incorporated his “slokas” (sacred couplets) in the Adi Granth, the book which is a predecessor of the Guru Granth.

Guru Nanak himself was familiar with the basic teachings of Islam. Since the age of 16, he started working with a Muslim, Daulat Khan. He is said to have visited Mecca and even performed pilgrimage. Much like Islam, Sikhism’s main principles include a belief in one God, an omnipotent, omniscient, formless and indestructible entity, again much like Islam.

Nanak also propagated that every human can get in touch with God, directly. He rejected the authority of Vedas, priests, caste system and propagated equality and equanimity. Nonetheless, many early Sikhs retained “Hindu” culture – and were often seen as Hindus by the rulers of the day (and perhaps by themselves too). This last point is controversial and hence instructive regarding the retrospective nature of historical discourse in the subcontinent given the Hindu-Sikh schism starting from around the Arya Samaj days in 19th century Punjab and continuing in the Khalistan movement in post-partition India.

Nanak’s teachings embody the message of the Sufi and Bhakti saints and emphasises on selflessness through Seva (service) and Satsang (meditation in God’s name).

The Sufi saints offered a vibrant set of familiar sacraments and gave Muslims images and symbols for prayers and worship that were different but understandable to the local mindset. Most of these saints are still venerated in the sub-continent. People often pray on their shrines, believing the saint will transfer their request to God, just like many Hindus pray to the deities who they think represent God. But the recent orthodoxy in Islam challenges these similarities with Hinduism and condemns them.

There were two Muslim poets who became famous as Krishna Bhakts – Raskhan and Rahim Das. Born in 1548 AD, Raskhan became a bhakt in his early years, started living in Vrindavan and died there. Though most of his work is dedicated to Krishna, some is dedicated to Goddess Ganga, Radha and Lord Shankar as well. Another such poet was Rahim Das, who was born during King Akbar’s rule. He was one of Akbar’s ministers, referred to as Navaratnas. He started writing Hindi poetry and dohas, translated Babar’s autobiography from Chagatai language to Persian.

Though all these figures faced some resistance, none of them was ostracised or experienced the kind of persecution he would have today, particularly in Pakistan. This division in communities gradually intensified and the British helped in this shift.

After the 1857 revolt, the British wanted to understand the Indian society. Therefore they organised the census in India, to collect figures for easier administration, governance and power politics. However, designing such a census, the largest and most complex ever, was challenging because of the inter-mixing and overlapping of caste, race and religion. But it continued to be organised every decade since 1871(with 1881 being the first complete census), giving people simplistic and often single choices for caste and religion, thus pushing them towards an inflexible identity. The “martial race” theory was yet another example of this pigeonholing after the 1857 revolt – whereby young men from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal fell out of colonial favour for army jobs. This exacerbated the Hindu-Sikh divide, and made Punjabi Muslims, consisting mostly of peaceful agricultural communities, to think of themselves as uniquely warrior-like in the subcontinent (with tragic consequences later on).

Over the years, especially in the 1980s during Zia ul Haq’s era, a lot of money was channelised from Saudi Arabia, to further Arabicise Pakistan. This eventually took a toll on the status of women, marriage traditions, music and entertainment industry, even festivals like Basant. In India, Right-wing politics nowadays uses religious symbols, meant to soothe the Hindu majority which feels victimised by medieval Muslim invaders and the new Pakistan, successfully presented as the “other.” In Pakistan’s public imagination on the other hand, the Hindu, Indian and avaricious baniya appear to be synonymous to each other. The majority in each country is increasingly narrow-minded and self-righteous, without realising that our common ancestors were followers of Baba Farid, Kabir and Guru Nanak, whose message transcended all religions.

As historian Romila Thapar recently stated during her Asghar Ali Engineer Memorial lecture, unless the identities in India (and in my opinion, also in Pakistan) do not move away from religion, caste and language to becoming equal citizens of a nation, we cannot progress. Only when the personal identities are reformed, can we push back against our states from further entrenching them.


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