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Romila Thapar – Destroying shrines #Religion #Politics

Religious faith has never been the sole reason for the destruction of places of worship; greed and a desire to assert power are also at play. The Babri Masjid’s demolition was motivated more by the desire for political supremacy than by religious animosity. By ROMILA THAPAR

I HAVE just finished reading the third volume of Abdul Gafoor Noorani’s study of the events around the destruction of the Babri Masjid. In the earlier two volumes, the narrative of events and the reference to comments and debates came up to the year 2003. This volume brings the discussion up to date and also considers the recent judgments of the court. It is a fine summary of the main issues, with appropriate emphases. In the course of reading it, I again had the same thoughts that I have had about why religious structures, throughout history and in many parts of the world, have been targets of attack by followers of other religions.

What happened to the Babri Masjid has to be seen in the context of why every religion, even while claiming to be tolerant and non-violent, or being called upon to be so in its scriptures, can on occasion turn hostile to other religions and violently so. When this happens, places of worship are converted, desecrated and, in some cases, destroyed. In such situations, it becomes necessary for us to investigate the reasons for these actions and not limit our understanding to a single cause. Religious faith alone should not require the destruction of places of worship.

Buddhists vs megalithic culture

In India, as elsewhere, this has been going on for centuries. Buddhist stupas, of the first millennium B.C., are sometimes built closely adjacent to or even encroaching upon the graves of the megalithic people whose culture preceded the Buddhists. The people of the megalithic culture, prevalent in the peninsula and about whom we are gradually beginning to know more, buried their dead in elaborately and carefully constructed graves, marked by the placement of megaliths, or huge stones. The burials of partial skeletons were accompanied by “grave furniture”—pottery, iron horse bits and such like, suggesting a belief in an afterlife. The emphasis on demarcating the site points to it being regarded as special and probably sacred. Elsewhere, in the north-west, the famous Takht-i-Bahi monastery complex is thought to have been built over a Zoroastrian place of worship. So what was the Buddhist structure signalling? Was it appropriating the association of sacredness from the older site, or was it stating symbolically that it was now the new belief system that was replacing the old?

Hindu vs Buddhist 

Hindu temples began to be constructed later in time in the early centuries A.D. The brahmanas and the shramanas (the Buddhist and Jaina monks—the nastika heterodoxy opposed to Vedic Brahmanism) were distinctly separate entities as is mentioned in various texts. The grammarian Patanjali compares their relationship to that of the snake and the mongoose. This could and did on occasion result in conflict. Kalhana, who wrote his famous history of Kashmir, the Rajatarangini, in the 12th century A.D., refers to earlier Shaiva kings ordering the destruction of Buddhist monasteries and the killing of monks in north-western India in the mid first millennium A.D.

Existing Buddhist complexes were not destroyed but a few were converted into Hindu temples. The chaitya hall, the hall of worship, at Buddhist sites with its votive stupa at one end, could easily be converted into a Hindu temple as was done in places such as Ter, Chezarla and elsewhere. At Karle, the votive stupa in the Buddhist rock-cut monastery was reconstructed into a large lingam so that the Buddhist site could become a Shaiva temple. The site then reverted to being a Buddhist chaitya hall when it was restored in colonial times. One could argue that such conversions meant an appropriation of the sacred space, except that, given the rivalry between the brahmanas and shramanas, it could have been a statement of the former replacing the latter. Such replacements have been noticed but have not been commented upon in detail by historians since the heterodox sects are generally viewed as part of the ensemble of Hindu sects, with minor disagreements. That there could have been animosity because of the obvious contradictions in belief and practice has been overlooked.

Then the Turks arrived in north-western India, and some Hindu temples were desecrated in the name of religion. Islam objected to idol worship, and the temples housed idols of deities. Historians have discussed the evidence for the number of temples actually destroyed. The number is a small fraction of what is popularly claimed by those who insist that this destruction must be avenged. Nevertheless, some were destroyed and a few converted into mosques. Were these to be understood as demonstrations of the varying degrees to which the one wished to override the other, or were there other extraneous reasons for the destruction?

But some Hindus and Muslims curiously also desecrated their own temples and mosques. Kalhana writes of some Hindu rulers of Kashmir looting Hindu temples. The most extreme among them, Harshadeva, in the 11th century, established a special officer, the devotpatana-nayaka, whose duty it was to supervise the desecration and looting of Hindu temples. Disgusted by this action, Kalhana explains that it was undertaken because of a financial crisis faced by the kingdom of Kashmir. But the method of desecration as he describes it was quite horrendous.

The person who at the popular level has become the ace destroyer of temples is of course Mahmud of Ghazni. In 1026, he desecrated the temple at Somanatha and destroyed the idol. He made many raids on temples in the north and west of the subcontinent. These raids are commonly referred to. But what is not generally mentioned is that the chronicles also state that he attacked mosques at places such as Multan, because these mosques were in the hands of Shias, whom he, as a Sunni Muslim, regarded as heretics and enemies even though they were also Muslims. In fact, the chronicles mention that from time to time he killed 50,000 kafirs and the same number of Shias. The figure seems formulaic.

British era

And then came the British as a colonial power. They did not have to destroy temples and mosques—the religious structures of the existing religions—because they were contemptuous of all religions practised in India, and religious concerns were subsidiary to their interests. The British were seeking wealth but they had other mechanisms for appropriating the wealth of the colony, and in far larger amounts than the loot from temples. They treated monumental religious structures from the past primarily as historical evidence, and they referred to them when writing their version of a history of India. So the older ones became protected monuments as was the Babri Masjid. It is not enough to merely say that religious structures were destroyed or converted by whosoever and leave it at that. Historians have to investigate the specifics of what led to these actions, drawing on evidence and logical analyses to explain the reasons. These are many, and it would seem that they vary not only according to the overarching religion but also as determined by the interrelations of the religious sects that are included in the religion as well as by the broader social function of the actual structure destroyed or converted. Religions in India were characterised by a multiplicity of sects, sometimes linked to particular caste groups. It would be useful to know which particular sect was involved in a specific aggression. This is not in order to downplay the aggression but to understand it better. With reference to brahmana-shramana hostilities, one could ask whether the Shaiva sects were a trifle more aggressive than the Vaishnavas whose opposition was perhaps more frequently expressed in some of their texts. This question would have to be investigated before being answered.

The immediate reason for temple destruction that is almost automatically given is religious animosity. If this was the invariable reason, then one wonders why the more sacred shrines of the Shaivas, Vaishnavas and Shaktas were not the first to be destroyed. But the most sacred are not invariably the prime targets. The temples looted and desecrated tended to be the richer ones with treasuries of gold and jewels as well as those that were the symbols of the ruling dynasty. Somanatha did have an idol and was therefore a target. It was not an early temple, having been built in the 10th century. But it was extremely rich given the trading wealth of the region and the fact that it received the patronage of the Chalukya rulers of Gujarat. When restored by Kumarapala Chalukya, it was one of the symbols of Chalukya state power in the 13th century. Could this have made it more vulnerable than other temples in the vicinity?

Temples were destroyed, but the motivation was not limited to religious animosity. There was also a greed for wealth and a desire to assert power. Wherever great wealth accumulates, whether in secular or religious institutions, with management committees to administer and enhance the wealth, as was the case in the richer temples, there is inevitably an involvement with non-religious concerns. This becomes evident when one delves into the history of temples that became objects of political manipulation as did many. The reasons for both the construction and the destruction of the temple at Mathura were not unconnected to the entanglements of the Mughal court, the Bundella chiefs and the Rajput clans, over a long period.

Then came what has been called the Hindu destruction of the Babri Masjid. This act, it was said, was motivated by religious animosity. But by their own admission, some of the political leaders involved in the act stated that political reasons had precedence. The people mobilised to destroy the mosque behaved like those whom they condemned.

The immediate trigger for the religious animosity was the claim that the mosque was built after destroying the existing temple on the site. The temple, it was claimed, marked the exact location of the birthplace of Rama. Noorani’s volumes include discussions by various scholars on the archaeology and history of the location. These question the evidence for such a temple.

The claims made by those who destroyed the Babri Masjid, and their rationale for doing so, raise many problems for the historian. One of the frequently repeated debates focusses on the historicity of Rama. According to one of the three judges in the latest case, the date for Rama goes back to 80 lakh years before the present, that is circa 80,00,000 B.C., when we know there was no human habitation on the subcontinent.

Plurality of Rama-katha 

Discussions of the many versions of the Rama-katha are being objected to. The plurality of the story in these diverse versions has been quite acceptable up to now and has produced some remarkably poetic expressions of Rama bhakti in various languages and folk compositions. Why do we now have to limit ourselves to discussing only one version, claimed as the authentic one by some, and dismiss all others as unauthentic? The story has not been treated as such in the past.

A story as rich and nuanced as the Rama-katha becomes a cultural idiom for many, not because there is only one version but because it is picked up and retold from the perspective of a variety of groups. Each version reflects a part of society that has internalised the story. This is what makes it unique to Indian culture and to the cultures of many parts of Asia. In almost every century, communities in every region have composed new versions and each is viewed as authentic from their perspective. There have been hundreds of versions—in India, in South-East Asia, and elsewhere—each claiming the story as its own, despite sharp differences.

The Jaina version, of the early centuries A.D., the Paumachariyam, maintains that its narrative is more authentic than the others. It broadly follows the story as given in Valmiki Ramayana but its explanations contradict some of what Valmiki says. A much later version introduces the chaya Sita. When Sita has to undergo the agni pariksha, a shadow Sita is substituted for her—so Sita is spared the fire ordeal. The Hikayat Seri Rama was composed in Malaysia in medieval times. Here it is Allah who bestows boons on Ravana for his devoted worship and also shows support for the family of Rama.

The multiplicity of versions reflects variant traditions of sacred geographies. What are of interest to us are the forms in which the narrative is recreated and the purpose leading to each recreation. Some forms are poetically sophisticated in their beautiful use of language as is that of Valmiki, others are more in the nature of folk tales. They reflect far more open and inclusive societies than what we have today in India, when variant versions are proscribed in some places. The claim is that only the Valmiki version is authentic and that the others hurt the sentiments of Hindus, yet it was many of our Hindu forefathers whose creativity found expression in these different versions.

One has to ask what was gained by the destruction of the Babri Masjid. It is claimed that it has avenged the raid of Mahmud on Somanatha. This was almost a thousand years later. So are we to go through our history avenging the actions of past times, sometimes even by imitating them in reverse? And who decides what is to be avenged, and who is to be the avenger?

If we choose to repeat the activities of the past, there is a wide choice of what to repeat, including the tactics of Harshadeva of Kashmir. Since a protected monument can no longer claim protection by the state, as was demonstrated in the destruction of the Babri Masjid, do we now assume that mobs are free to destroy whatever their political leaders want them to?

The events involving the destruction of the Babri Masjid and its aftermath raise many questions that are becoming increasingly pertinent to our times. Will questions of religious faith and belief dominate our reading of the past, to the exclusion of other factors involved in past events, and will this reading continue to play a significant role in contemporary politics? Can we not go beyond this slanted view of our past?

Should we not remind ourselves that when we talk about religion in India—any religion—we should ask ourselves the fundamental question, which is, whose religion are we speaking of? A large population at the lower end of the social hierarchy—Hindu Dalits and lower castes, Muslim Arzal castes, Mazhabi Sikhs—were debarred from the well-established sacred places where they were forbidden to worship. They did not identify with the mandirs, masjids and gurdwaras that kept them out. They found their own sacred spaces. For them, religion did not require richly endowed places of worship. It required communing in whatever way one chose, in whatever language one chose, with whatever deity one chose to worship, or whatever one chose to honour. It was this bhaktithat ensured the continuity of their religion. It protected them from the predatory politics of those who have played with destroying temples and mosques.

This article is based on a speech delivered at the launch of the book Destruction of the Babri Masjid: A National Dishonour by A.G. Noorani (Tulika Books, pages 506, Rs.995, hardback) on December 3, 2014, at the India International Centre, New Delhi.


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  1. Throughout humankind’s history the symbolic centresof the other, besdies their living spaces, have been targets of destruction and by this the heart of the other’s symbolic life is destroyed. This is human violence at its worst because these symbolic centres give meaning to individual and community in a meaningless or even purposeless universe. Being reflective, human kind needs to make sense of life and give themselves meaning to live for. Its destruction leads to arrogance of the destroying group, arrogance in the original sense of the word: claim all sense of life and meaning to one’s own system of belief and meaning.

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