When he became emperor in 1658, Aurangzeb attempted a radical “Islamification” of Mughal India, imposing a strict interpretation of Sharia law and implementing reforms that he thought would benefit Muslims more than adherents of other religions. Repudiating his great-grandfather Akbar’s vision of religious transcendence and harmony, while Aurangzeb stopped short of forcible conversion, he offered incentives to non-Muslims to convert, destroyed many of their temples, and reimposed the hated jizya tax. This tax on Hindus had been abolished by Akbar in 1564, and its reinstatement by Aurangzeb in 1679 triggered mass protests and violent reactions from authorities in the many cities. Revolts among Sikhs and among Hindus left the Mughal Empire weakened and in decline by the time of Aurangzeb’s death in 1707. An excerpt from his proscriptions is offered below.
Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur (1483–1530) was born a prince of Fergana in Transoxiana (modern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan), a region that had been conquered (briefly) by the army of Alexander the Great in the 320s BCE and more recently by Babur’s ancestor Timur-i Lang, or Tamerlane (r. 1370–1405). Driven from his homeland, Babur conquered neighboring kingdoms and moved south into Afghanistan, capturing Kabul in 1504. By 1519, he stepped up his raids into northern India, and his highly mobile, if vastly outnumbered, army defeated Sultan Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat in 1526. Victory at Panipat was followed by the conquest of the Lodi capital of Agra and further defeats of Hindu leaders in northern India. Babur’s dynasty would become known as the Mughals (from “Mongols”), but his legacy can also be gauged from the success of his memoirs, the Baburnama. Composed and reworked throughout his life, the Baburnama is the first true autobiography in Islamic literature, and it can be read for insights into his own character as well as the military tactics he employed on the battlefield.
The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor, trans. and ed. Wheeler M. Thackston (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 328–329, 330, 331.
A diverse set of writings, the Upanishads were thought to convey secret knowledge and serve as the vedanta, or fulfillment, of the Vedic tradition. Among these documents are the Aranyakas (“forest books”), which may have been recited originally by hermits who had retreated to forests. Throughout the Upanishads one can see the full development of the principle of the joining of the individual self (atman, or “soul”) with the brahman, or “world soul”/ “soul essence.”
The Upanishads, vol. 2, trans. F. Max Müller (Oxford: Clarendon, 1884), 100–101 and 103–105.
Composed in Arabic and translated into Persian in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Chachnama details the Arab conquest of the Sind (a province corresponding to northwest India and Pakistan) in the eighth century. The work details the most successful of the many attempts by Muslims to conquer the region, which was led by Muhammad Ibn Qasim, a cousin of the governor of Iraq. In this history of the campaign, Ibn Qasim is both a conquering hero and a defender of Islam, subduing non-Muslims and imposing new religious values in his wake.
The Chachnamah: An Ancient History of Sind, trans. Mirza Kalichbeg Fredunbeg, available online at http://persian.packhum.org/persian/main?url=pf%3Ffile%3D12701030%26ct%3D0.
The Code of Manu deals with many different features of Hindu life, such as the proper behavior of different castes and methods for ritual purification. The “Manu” referred to in the title is the legendary “first man” of Hindu culture, also recognized as the first lawgiver. Thus, the Code of Manu is thought of within Hinduism as a text based on human traditions (smriti), but it is also believed to be consistent with the values included in texts that are divinely revealed (shruti), such as the “Purusha Hymn.” As a result, it restates and reaffirms traditional values and structures, but it does so on the basis of religious authority.
The responsibilities described for women in the Code of Manu need to be understood within the context of Hinduism. A central component of Hinduism is the concept of dharma (“that which is firm”). Hindus believe that by living up to the religious and social responsibilities attached to one’s social position (caste and gender), one sustains the proper order of the universe and gains good karma, moving up the scale of reincarnation toward unity with the brahman, or World Soul. Composed following a period of unrest, the Code of Manu represents a vigorous attempt to reestablish order within the Hindu world.
The Law of Manu, in The Sacred Books of the East, vol. 25, trans. G. Bühler (Oxford: Clarendon, 1886), 194–197, 328–330, 332, 335, 344–345.
Akbar the Great was Mughal emperor from 1556 until his death in 1605. One of the main sources we have of Akbar is a commentary written by a Portugese Jesuit, whom Akbar had invited to his court to explain Christianity. Akbar the Great was Mughal emperor from 1556 until his death in 1605. Father Antonio Monserrate (1536–1600) was thought to be a humble, God-fearing man. He was chosen as part of a mission sent in 1578 at Akbar’s request to instruct him about Roman Catholicism, and he remained in India till 1589. An indication of Akbar’s opinion of him is that he asked Monserrate to serve as tutor to the crown prince. The Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, was a Catholic religious order that sought to recapture areas lost to the Reformation and to spread Catholicism to areas that had not benefited, as they saw it, from exposure to the true faith. Like many early Jesuits, Father Antonio Monserrate was intelligent and intense. He accompanied Akbar on some of his campaigns and enjoyed discussing religion and ideas with him. Fortunately, from the point of view of the historical record, Monserrate was instructed by his Jesuit superiors to keep a written account of his experiences, which he did in the form of a diary. Later, he compiled a general account that is the best European appraisal of Akbar. He affords us glimpses of Akbar’s enduring interest in religion, and he also provides us with a general characterization of the man and his rule.
The Commentary of Father Monserrate, S. J. On his Journey to the Court of Akbar, trans. from Latin by J. S. Hoyland and annotated by S. N. Banerjee (London and Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1922), 196–211.
This head, crafted from copper alloy, is all that remains of an impressive image found in central Vietnam. It depicts the Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of Buddhist compassion, and the Amitabha Buddha is perched on the crown. It points to the emergence of a pan–southeast Asian bodhisattva type in the eighth and ninth centuries, as well as to the superb metal-casting skills of artisans in the Cham territories of Vietnam.
Photo: Thierry Ollivier. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY
This remarkable account of a merchant’s travels throughout Eastern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and India resulted from the singular obsession of a monk in retirement. Determined to prove that a proper understanding of earth’s geography would confirm God’s creation—and that the earth was a flat, oblong table surrounded by the ocean—the monk Cosmas reflected back on his extensive voyages, which had probably been undertaken to further a spice-import business. Cosmas commented on the trading practices of the Aksumites and on their wealthy culture, providing one of the few outsider glimpses of Aksum that are now available.
Cosmas Indicopleustes, Christianike Topographia, Book 3, trans. and ed. Christopher Haas, Villanova University; available online: http://www29.homepage.villanova.edu/christopher.haas/cosmas_indicopleustes.htm<
Kautilya was a political advisor to the first Mauryan king, Chandragupta Maurya, who in c. 321 BCE. created a vast empire across northern India. Kautilya wrote this treatise to guide Chandragupta and his successors, but his text was influential on subsequent states and empires as well. In this excerpt, Kautilya describes how a village should be organized and run; it reflects the pragmatic approach Kautilya had toward politics in general. Although written later than the other material in this chapter, it is another example of the far reach of Vedic influence.
Translated by R. Shamasastry, 1915.
Muhammad Ghawth Gwaliori
In sixteenth-century Hindustan, the Sufi mystic Muhammad Ghawth claimed to have experienced an astounding ascension through multiple heavenly spheres up to the throne of God. This intensely personal experience, which he underwent in his 20s, occurred within a volatile political and social context. Born around 1501, Ghawth left home at age 12 to further his religious education and to undertake a series of mystic initiations that prepared him for his ascension in 1526. Ghawth lived during the rule of Humayun, when Mughal control was still tentative, and Akbar was still a young man. After his mystical experiences made him famous, Ghawth was seen as a spiritual support for the Mughal regime. When Humayun fell from power in 1540, Ghawth was persecuted by a group of Afghan warlords who followed a more orthodox form of Islam and attacked the reality—as well as the political implications—of his mystical experiences.
Excerpts from Scott A. Kugle, “Heaven’s Witness: The Uses and Abuses of Muhammad Ghawth’s Mystical Ascension,” Journal of Islamic Studies 14 (2003): 17–20.
The Rig Veda is the oldest of the Vedic texts, and consists of 1028 hymns. It was transmitted orally for centuries, and probably assumed its present shape c. 1200 BCE. There are three other Vedas, two of which contain material from the Rig Veda, thus making the Rig Veda the foundational text for the entire Vedic tradition and its successors, including Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism. Most of the hymns in the Rig Veda relate to the rituals of the Aryan religion, although a few explore more theoretical questions “Purusha” can be translated as “cosmic giant”.
From Sources of Indian Tradition. Theodore de Bary, ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.
The worship of Agni, as the fire principle animating a burnt offering to the gods, features prominently in the Rig-Veda. The voice of Agni was thought be heard in the crackling of the fire beneath a sacrifice, and it was a crucial element of Vedic tradition that the priest perform the ritual correctly. Fire was conflated with the emanations of the sun, and the priestly varna, or caste, was thought to be the community’s best representative to the god.
The Hymns of the Rigveda, trans. Ralph T. H. Griffith (Benares: E. J. Lazarus, 1889), 333–338.
Harsha Vardhana, one of the better known monarchs of India, controlled a wide swath of territory in the northern subcontinent between 606 and 647 CE. Harsha was visited during his reign by the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuan Zang, who described his court and government, and the poet Bana wrote a biography of the king called the Harshacarita. However, Harsha himself also wrote at least three plays, two of which were dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and incorporated actual incidents from his court. While the plays are ostensibly fictional, the scene below draws on a real event, reported by Xuan Zang, in which Harsha saved an image of Buddha from a fire that had broken out in his palace. His plays reflect the cosmopolitan and religiously eclectic nature of his court, as well as his view of the status of the advisors and women in his orbit.
Harsha Vardhana, The Lady of the Jewel Necklace, trans. Wendy Doniger (New York: NYU Press, 2006), 259–265.
Buddhism had begun to spread widely within India after the conversion of Asoka in the third century BCE, and his promotion of the religion as part of a syncretic (a combination of elements from different beliefs) emphasis on dharma (sacred duty) as the bond between his government and his subjects. It may have been these efforts at popularizing the religion that gave impetus to tendencies within the religion that eventually carried it in a new direction. By the first century CE, these tendencies had begun to come together into a self-conscious new school of Buddhism, described by its practitioners as Mahayana, or the Greater Vehicle—meaning that this sect promised to carry far more people to salvation than the older version could. Followers of Mahayana Buddhism referred to the older version as Hinayana, or Lesser Vehicle. The followers of the older version, though, preferred to refer to their religion as Theravada, or the Teaching of the Elders. This religion continued to exist and itself spread to parts of southeast Asia. It was the Mahayana version of Buddhism that first became widely popular in India and then, during the early centuries CE, spread all over central and East Asia.
In Mahayana belief, the Buddha has become an all-knowing being, somewhere between a divine person—a mortal man who achieves immortality— and a god, to whom even Hindu gods offer respect. His wisdom surpasses that of the other gods, because he recognizes the uncreated and infinite nature of the universe, whereas some of them imagine themselves as creators.
Accompanying the belief in the Buddha’s divinity is a belief in a class of beings known as bodhisattvas, or Wise Beings. Essentially these are people who had reached the edge of nirvana, release from the cycle of death and rebirth, only to compassionately turn back to help others cross over into bliss. Nirvana itself evolved from the somewhat abstract notion of “extinguishment”—of the soul becoming one with the cosmos and escaping the illusion of individuality—to a notion of a heavenly paradise. The image often used to explain the role of the bodhisattva is of a ferryman who repeatedly carries masses of devout worshippers over to salvation on his giant barge, while Theravada Buddhists cross the river one at a time and each one only once.
One of the most popular of the bodhisattvas was Avalokitesvara, or “Perceiver of the World’s Sounds,” who first shows up in a book called The Lotus Sutra, one of the earliest and most influential of the sacred texts of Mahayana Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra describes the ten cosmic levels of existence, from hell up to nirvana, with bodhisattvas on the ninth level working to remove the suffering of the world and to carry people to the highest level. Avalokitesvara is prominent among the bodhisattvas of The Lotus Sutra, and his cult spread with the dissemination of the text. The work was first translated into Chinese in 255 CE, and a Chinese translation made in 406 is the basis for this English translation. One interesting note about the transmission of Buddhism to China is that in later centuries Avalokitesvara, called Guanyin in China, was transformed into a female. In either form, “Perceiver of the World’s Sounds” illustrates the central characteristics of Mahayana Buddhism’s encounter with the transcendent.
The Lotus Sutra, trans. Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press (1993): 298–303. Copyright © 1993 Columbia University Press.
Muhammad Dara Shikuh
The eldest son of Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal emperor, Dara Shikuh was defeated by his younger brother in a struggle for power in 1658. The victorious brother, Muhiuddin, ruled as the Emperor Aurangzeb, and he had Dara declared, by a court of nobles and clergy, an apostate from Islam and assassinated in 1659. Dara left behind a remarkable series of writings, advocating an enlightened program of harmonizing the various, bitterly opposed religions of the subcontinent. He had developed friendships with Sikhs, followed a Persian mystic, and completed a translation of 50 Upanishads from their original Sanskrit into Persian in 1657. His most famous work, the Majma-ul-Bahrain (The Mingling of Two Oceans), addressed the overlapping ideas of Hindu and Muslim mysticism. His attempt to combine the traditions into a coherent whole may have been rejected by his fervently Muslim brother, but he also represents a strain of ecumenical thought within the Mughal Empire.
Muhammad Dara Shikuh, The Mingling of Two Oceans, trans. and ed. M. Mafuz ul-Haq (Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1929), 50–53.
Thomas R. Trautmann
Few things are more tantalizing to historians than an undeciphered script. Hundreds of broken and intact Harappan seals have been discovered in numerous sites throughout the Indus Valley, many that combine a line of symbols assumed to be text with an image of an animal. Denoting them seals, historians have determined that most were used to identify someone involved with an object (owner, craftsmen, or merchant). It is also possible that the seals, and other examples of the Indus script, were protective in nature, operating as a talisman. However, without the ability to read the symbols, how the seals and other objects with writing were used to convey information is a matter of speculation. It is hard to understand how a text is used if one cannot read the content. In the excerpt below, historian Thomas Trautmann, a leading specialist on ancient India, provides an overview of the mysterious Harappan seals.
The most intriguing artifacts of the Indus sites are rectangular steatitei seals, because of the writing on them. These seals, little more than an inch square, generally bear an incised image, beautifully carved, of which the humped bull is a common type. Other animals (tiger, elephant), composite mythological beasts, and the rare human form are figured on other seals. They also bear a short inscription across the top, in a script that has defied many attempts to decipher it. This script contains more than four hundred signs, too many to be purely alphabetic or syllabic because no language is known to have more than a hundred phonemes. Although many of the signs are obviously pictographic, other elements act as modifiers, perhaps as word endings, and others are clearly numerals. The seals were meant to be pressed into soft clay as a mark of ownership, in all likelihood. The inscriptions are short, presumably recording little more than the owner’s name. The language of the script is unknown; a Dravidian language would be our best guess because of islands of Dravidian language in the Indus and Ganga valleys, but other languages cannot be ruled out. We do not have a bilingual inscription, like the Rosetta Stone by which the Egyptian hieroglyphics were deciphered, or the Greek and Prakrit inscriptions on coins by which the inscriptions of Ashoka were read. However, because the Indus people were involved with seagoing trade with other literate people, especially the Elamites and perhaps the Mesopotamians, there is a chance that a bilingual inscription will be found one day…
From India: Brief History of a Civilization. Thomas R. Trautmann. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 22-27
Abu Raihan is often known in the West by his westernized name, Alberuni. Early in life, Alberuni gained a reputation as a scholar, writer, and scientist, and served as an advisor for local princes. Around 1030 C.E., he traveled to India, and wrote with an objective observer's sensibilities about this foreign land. Writing as a Muslim, Alberuni does not hesitate to point out things he dislikes about India or its inhabitants; at the same time, however, he is quick to praise things he likes.
Alberuni's India. Edited by Edward C. Sachau. (Delhi: S. Chand and Co., 1934)
Faxien (circa 334-415 CE) was a Chinese monk who, with several companions, traveled the Silk Road to India and returned via the Indian Ocean trade route between 399 and 413 CE. Their successful quest to obtain Buddhist scriptures helped to disseminate the religion throughout East Asia. Faxien also recorded his travels, which provide a comprehensive geography of central and south Asia of the time.
Faxien, A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms: Being an Account by the Chinese Monk Faxien of His Travels in India and Ceylon, trans. by James Legge, 1886.
Gandhara became the center of a vibrant artistic tradition for several centuries. As Greek Bactrians merged their cultural values with Buddhists, Hellenistic artistic techniques fused with the practices of Mahayana Buddhism, yielding a renaissance of daring, boldly innovative sculpture. Among the products of this cultural synthesis was a seated Buddha which incorporates both Hellenistic and Indian aesthetic elements.
©The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.
Ho Chi Minh (Nguyen Ai Quoc)
On September 2, 1945, the day of Japan’s surrender to the United States, the leader of the communist resistance in Indochina, Ho Chi Minh, read a Vietnamese declaration of independence to half a million people in Hanoi. Newly liberated from occupation by Nazi Germany, France hoped to reassert its power in the region it had colonized in the previous century, but the communist Vietminh refused to budge from their demands for independence. The French persuaded the United States that this colonial conflict was an outgrowth of the larger Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union, and the American administrations of Presidents Truman and Eisenhower (1945–1961) provided financial and moral support to the French as they clashed with Vietnamese insurgents. The French surrendered in 1954, but Vietnam was divided. The United States continued its involvement in South Vietnam—soon to be accelerated with the dispatch of military advisors and military personnel by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy (1961–1963). Published in April 1960 in a Soviet journal entitled Problems of the East, this statement by Ho Chi Minh encapsulates his thinking on the example of Vladimir Lenin in his own struggle against Western imperialism.
Ho Chi Minh, Selected Works, vol. 4 (Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1962), available online at http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/ho-chi-minh/works/1960/04/x01.htm