Development Of A Common Culture
Akbar had built so well that the edifice he had erected lasted for another 100 years in spite of inadequate successors. After almost every Mughal reign there were wars between the princes for the throne, thus weakening the central power. But the court continued to be brilliant and the fame of the Grand Mughal spread all over Asia and Europe. Beautiful buildings combining the old Indian ideals in architecture with a new simplicity and a nobility of line grew up in Agra and Delhi. This Indo-Mughal art was in marked contrast with the decadent, over-elaborate and heavily ornamented temples and other buildings of the north and south. Inspired architects and builders put up with loving hands the Taj Mahal at Agra.
The last of the so-called ‘Grand Mughals‘, Aurungzeb, tried to put back the clock, and in this attempt stopped it and broke it up. The Mughal rulers were strong so long as they put themselves in line with the genius of the nation and tried to work for a common nationality and a synthesis of the various elements in the country. When Aurungzeb began to oppose this movement and suppress it and to function more as a Muslim than an Indian ruler, the Mughal Empire began to break up. The work of Akbar, and to some extent his successors, was undone and the various forces that had been kept in check by Akbar’s policy broke loose and challenged that empire. New movements arose, narrow in outlook but representing a resurgent nationalism, and though they were not strong enough to build permanently, and circumstances were against them, they were capable of destroying the Empire of the Mughals.
The impact of the invaders from the north-west and of Islam on India had been considerable. It had pointed out and shown up the abuses that had crept into Hindu society—the petrifaction of caste, untouchability, exclusiveness carried to fantastic lengths. The idea of the brotherhood of Islam and of the theoretical equality of its adherents made a powerful appeal, especially to those in the Hindu fold who were denied any semblance of equal treatment. From this ideological impact grew up various movements aiming at a religious synthesis. Many conversions also took place but the great majority of these were from the lower castes, especially in Bengal. Some individuals belonging to the higher castes also adopted the new faith, either because of a real change of belief, or, more often, for political and economic reasons. There were obvious advantages in accepting the religion of the ruling power.
In spite of these widespread conversions, Hinduism, in all its varieties, continued as the dominant faith of the land, solid, exclusive, self-sufficient, and sure of itself. The upper castes had no doubt about their own superiority in the realm of ideas and thought and considered Islam as a rather crude approach to the problems of philosophy and metaphysics. Even the monotheism of Islam they found in their own religion, together with monism which was the basis of much of their philosophy. Each person could take his choice of these or of more popular and simpler forms of worship. He could be a Vaishnavite and believe in a personal God and pour out his faith to him. Or more philosophically inclined, he could wander in the tenuous realms of metaphysics and high philosophy. Though all their social structure was based on the group, in matters of religion they were highly individualistic, not believing in proselytization themselves and caring little if some people were converted to another faith. What was objected to was in interference with their own social structure and ways of living. If another group wanted to function in its own way, it was at liberty to do so. It is worth noting that, as a rule, conversions to Islam were group conversions, so powerful was the influence of the group. Among the upper castes individuals might change their religion, but lower down the scale a particular caste in a locality, or almost an entire village would be converted. Thus their group life as well as their functions continued as before with only minor variations as regards worship, etc. Because of this we find today particular occupations and crafts almost entirely monopolized by Muslims. Thus the class of weavers is predominantly, and in large areas wholly Muslim. So also used to be shoe-merchants and butchers. Tailors are almost always Muslims. Various kinds of artisans and craftsmen are Muslims. Owing to the breaking up of the group system, many individuals have taken to other occupations and this has somewhat obliterated the line dividing the various occupational groups.
The destruction of crafts and village industries, originally deliberately undertaken under early British rule and later resulting from the development of a new colonial economy, led to vast numbers of these artisans and craftsmen, more especially the weavers, being deprived of their occupations and livelihood. Those who survived this catastrophe drifted to the land and became landless labourers or shared a tiny patch of land with their relations.
Conversions to Islam in those days, whether individual or group, probably aroused no particular opposition, except when force or some kind of compulsion was used. Friends and relatives or neighbours might disapprove, but the Hindu community as such apparently attached little importance to this. In contrast with this indifferent attitude, conversions today attract widespread attention and are resented, whether they are to Islam or Christianity. This is largely due to political factors and especially to the introduction of separate religious electorates. Each convert is supposed to be a gain to the communal group leading ultimately to greater representation and more political power. Attempts are even made to manipulate the census to this end. Apart from political reasons, there has also been a growth in Hinduism of a tendency to proselytize and convert non-Hindus to Hinduism. This is one of the direct effects of Islam on Hinduism, though in practice it brings it into conflict with Islam in India. Orthodox Hindus still do not approve of it.
In Kashmir a long-continued process of conversion to Islam had resulted in 95 per cent of the population becoming Muslims, though they retained many of their old Hindu customs. In the middle nineteenth century the Hindu ruler of the state found that very large numbers of these people were anxious or willing to return en bloc to Hinduism. He sent a deputation to the pundits of Benares inquiring if this could be done. The pundits refused to countenance any such change of faith and there the matter ended.
The Muslims who came to India from outside brought no new technique or political and economic structure. In spite of a religious belief in the brotherhood of Islam, they were class bound and feudal in outlook. In technique and in the methods of production and industrial organization, they were inferior to what prevailed then in India. Thus their influence on the economic life of India and the social structure was very little. This life continued as of old and all the people, Hindu or Muslim or others, fitted into it.
The position of women deteriorated. Even the ancient laws had been unfair to them in regard to inheritance and their position in the household—though even so they were fairer than nineteenth-century English law. Those laws of inheritance derived from the Hindu joint family system and sought to protect joint property from transfer to another family. A woman by marriage changed her family. In an economic sense she was looked upon as a dependent of her father or husband or son, but she could and did hold property in her own right. In many ways she was honoured and respected and had a fair measure of freedom, taking part in social and cultural activities. Indian history is full of the names of famous women, including thinkers and philosophers, rulers and warriors. This freedom grew progressively less. Islam had a fairer law of inheritance but this did not affect Hindu women. What did affect many of them to their great disadvantage, as it affected Muslim women to a much greater degree, was the intensification of the custom of seclusion of women. This spread among the upper classes all over the north and in Bengal, but the south and west of India escaped this degrading custom. Even in the north, only the upper classes indulged in it and the masses were happily free from it. Women now had less chances of education and their activities were largely confined to the household.* Lacking most other ways of distinguishing themselves, living a confined and restricted life, they were told that their supreme virtue lay in chastity and the supreme sin in a loss of it. Such was the man-made doctrine, but man did not apply it to himself. Tulsidas in his deservedly famous poems, the Hindi Ramayana, written during Jehangir’s time, painted a picture of woman, which is grossly unfair and prejudiced.
Partly because the great majority of Muslims in India were converts from Hinduism, partly because of long contact, Hindus and Muslims in India developed numerous common traits, habits, ways of living and artistic tastes, especially in northern India—in music, painting, architecture, food, clothes, and common traditions. They lived together peacefully as one people, joined each other’s festivals and celebrations, spoke the same language, lived in more or less the same way, and faced identical economic problems. The nobility and the landed gentry and their numerous hangers-on took their cue from the court. (These people were not landlords or owners of the land. They did not take rent but were allowed to collect and retain the state revenue for a particular area. These grants were usually for life.) They developed a highly intricate, and sophisticated common culture. They wore the same kind of clothes, ate the same type of food, had common artistic pursuits, military pastimes, hunting, chivalry, and games. Polo was a favourite game and elephant fights were popular.
All this intercourse and common living took place in spite of the caste system which prevented fusion. There were no intermarriages except in rare instances and even then it was not fusion but usually the transfer of a Hindu woman to the Muslim fold. Nor was there inter-dining but this was not so strict. The seclusion of women prevented the development of social life. This applied even more to Muslims inter se for purdah among them was stricter. Though Hindu and Muslim men met each other frequently, such opportunities were lacking to the women of both groups. These women of the nobility and upper classes were thus far more cut off from each other and developed much more marked separate ideological groups, each largely ignorant of the other.
Among the common people in the villages, and that means the vast majority of the population, life had a much more corporate and joint basis. Within the limited circle of the village there was an intimate relationship between the Hindus and Muslims. Caste did not come in the way and the Hindus looked upon the Muslims as belonging to another caste. Most of the Muslims were converts who were still full of their old traditions. They were well acquainted with the Hindu background, mythology, and epic stories. They did the same kind of work, lived similar lives, wore the same kind of clothes, spoke the same language. They joined each other’s festivals, and some semi-religious festivals were common to both. They had common folk-songs. Mostly these people were peasants and artisans and craftsmen.
The third large group, in between the nobility and the peasantry and artisans, was the merchant and trader class. This was predominantly Hindu and though it had no political power, the economic structure was largely under its control. This class had fewer intimate contacts with the Muslims than any other class, above it or below. The Muslims who had come from outside India were feudal in outlook and did not take kindly to trade. The Islamic prohibition against the taking of interest also came in the way of trade. They considered themselves the ruling class, the nobility and functioned as state officials, holders of grants of land or as officers in the army. There were also many scholars attached to the court or in charge of theological and other academies.
During the Mughal period large numbers of Hindus wrote books in Persian which was the official court language. Some of these books have become classics of their kind. At the same time Muslim scholars translated Sanskrit books into Persian and wrote in Hindi. Two of the best-known Hindi poets are Malik Mohammad Jaisi who wrote the ‘Padmavat’ and Abdul Rahim Khankhana, one of the premier nobles of Akbar’s court and son of his guardian. Khankhana was a scholar in Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit, and his Hindi poetry is of a high quality. For sometime he was the commander-in-chief of the imperial army, and yet he has written in praise and admiration of Rana Pratap of Mewar, who was continually fighting Akbar and never submitted to him. Khankhana admires and commends the patriotism and high sense of honour and chivalry of his enemy on the battlefield.
It was this chivalrous and friendly approach on which Akbar based his policy and which many of his counsellors and ministers learned from him. He was particularly attached to the Rajputs, for he admired in them qualities which he himself possessed-reckless courage, a sense of honour and chivalry, and an adherence to the pledged word. He won over the Rajputs, but.the Rajputs for all their admirable qualities, represented a medieval type of society which was already becoming out of date as new forces were arising. Akbar was not conscious of these new forces, for he himself was a prisoner of his own social inheritance.
Akbar’s success is astonishing, for he created a sense of oneness among the diverse elements of north and central India. There was the barrier of a ruling class, mainly of foreign origin, and there were the barriers of religion and caste, a proselytizing religion opposed to the static but highly resistant system. These barriers did not disappear, but in spite of them that feeling of oneness grew. It was not merely an attachment to his person; it was an attachment to the structure he had built. His son and grandson, Jehangir and Shah Jehan, accepted that structure and functioned within its framework They were men of no outstanding ability, but their reigns were successful because they continued on the lines so firmly laid down by Akbar. The next comer, Aurungzeb, much abler but of a different mould, swerved and left that beaten track, undoing Akbar’s work. Yet not entirely, for it is extraordinary how, in spite of him and his feeble and pitiful successors, the feeling of reverence for that structure continued. That feeling was largely confined to the north and centre; it did not extend to the south or west. And it was from western India, therefore, that the challenge to it came.
* And yet many instances of notable women, scholars as well as rulers, occur even during this period and later. In the eighteenth century Lakshmi Devi wrote a great legal commentary on the Mitakshara, a famous law-book of the medieval period.
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