Some Historical Questions
Sita Ram Goel
Why did Islamic invaders continue to destroy Hindu temples and desecrate the idols of Hindu Gods and Goddesses throughout the period of their domination? Why did they raise mosques on sites occupied earlier by Hindu places of worship? These questions were asked by Hindu scholars in modern times after the terror of Islam had ceased and could no more seal their lips.
In India - and in India alone - two explanations have come forth. One is provided by the theology of Islam based on the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet. The other has been proposed by Marxist professors and lapped up by apologists of Islam. We shall take up the second explanation first.
The credit for pioneering the Marxist proposition about destruction of Hindu temples goes to the late Professor Mohammed Habib of the Aligarh Muslim University. In his book, Sultan Mahmud of Ghaznin, first published in 1924, he presented the thesis that Mahmud’s destruction of Hindu temples was actuated not by zeal for the faith but by “lust for plunder.” According to him, India at that time was bursting with vast hoards of gold and silver accumulated down the ages from rich mines and a prosperous export trade. Most of the wealth, he said without providing any proof, was concentrated in temple treasuries. “It was impossible,” wrote the professor, “that the Indian temples should not sooner or later tempt some one strong and unscrupulous enough for the impious deed. Nor was it expected that a man of Mahmud’s character would allow the tolerance which Islam inculcates to restrain him from taking possession of the gold… when the Indians themselves had simplified his work by concentrating the wealth of the country at a few places” (p. 82).
Professor Habib did not hide any of the salient facts regarding destruction of Hindu temples by Mahmud, though the descriptions Le gave were brief, sometimes only in footnotes. He also narrated how Mahmud’s exploits were celebrated at Baghdad by the Caliph and the populace and how the hero was compared to the companions of the Prophet who had achieved similar victories in Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Only the conclusion he drew was radically different from that drawn by Mahmud’s contemporaries as well as latter-day historians and theologians of Islam. “Islam,” he wrote, “sanctioned neither the vandalism nor the plundering motives of the invader; no principle of the Shariat justifies the uncalled for attack on Hindu princes who had done Mahmud and his subjects no harm; the wanton destruction of places of worship is condemned by the law of every creed. And yet Islam, though it was not an inspiring motive could be utilised as an a posteriors justification for what was done. So the precepts of the Quran were misinterpreted or ignored and the tolerant policy of the Second Caliph was cast aside in order that Mahmud and his myrmidons may be able to plunder Hindu temples with a clear and untroubled conscience” (Pp. 83-84, Emphasis in source).
This proposition of Mahmud’s guilt and Islam’s innocence appealed to the architect of India’s secularism, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. In a letter dated June 1, 1932, he wrote to his daughter, Indira Gandhi, that Mahmud “was hardly a religious man”, that he was “a Mohammedan of course, but that was by the way” and that Mahmud would have done what he did “to whatever religion he might have belonged” (Glimpses of World History, 1982 Reprint, p. 155). In fact, Pandit Nehru went much farther than Professor Habib. The latter had written how Mahmud gave orders to burn down thousands of temples at Mathura after he had admired their architectural excellence. Pandit Nehru narrated how Mahmud admired the temples but omitted the fact that they were destroyed by him (Ibid., Pp. 155-156). Thus a determined destroyer of Hindu temples was transformed into an ardent admirer of Hindu architecture! This portrayal of Mahmud remained unchanged in his Discovery of India which was published in 1946 (1982 Reprint, p. 235).
In days to come, Professor Habib’s thesis that lust for plunder and not the Islamic theology of iconoclasm occasioned the destruction of Hindu temples, became the party line for Marxist historians who, in due course, came to control all institutions concerned with researching, writing and teaching of Indian history. This was extended to cover all acts of Muslim iconoclasm in medieval Indian history. It became a crime against secularism and national integration even to mention Islam or its theology in this context. Any historian who dared cite facts recorded by medieval Muslim historians was denounced as a “Hindu communalist.” Three Marxist professors wrote a book attacking Dr. R.C. Majumdar in particular, simply because the great historian was not prepared to sacrifice truth at the altar of Communist politics. The book was printed by a Communist publishing house and prescribed for graduate and post-graduate courses in Indian universities.
What was more, the Marxist professors discovered a political motive as well. Hindu temples were seen as centres of political conspiracies which Muslim sultans were forced to suppress. And if the temples got destroyed in the process, no blame could be laid at the door of the sultans who were working hard in the interest of public order and peace. In a letter published in the Times of India on October 21, 1985, twelve Marxist professors rallied in defence of Aurangzeb who had destroyed the Keshavdeva temple at Mathura and raised an Idgah in its place. “The Dera Keshava Rai temple,” they wrote, “was built by Raja Bir Singh Bundela in the reign of Jahangir. This large temple soon became extremely popular and acquired considerable wealth. Aurangzeb had this temple destroyed, took its wealth as booty and built an Idgah on the site. His action might have been politically motivated as well, for at the time when the temple was destroyed he faced problems with the Bundelas as well as Jat rebellion in the Mathura region.”
The climax was reached when the same Marxist professors started explaining away Islamic iconoclasm in terms of what they described as Hindu destruction of Buddhist and Jain places of worship. They have never been able to cite more than half-a-dozen cases of doubtful veracity. A few passages in Sanskrit literature coupled with speculations about some archaeological sites have sufficed for floating the story, sold ad nauseam in the popular press, that Hindus destroyed Buddhist and Jain temples on a large scale. Half-a-dozen have become thousands and then hundreds of thousands in the frenzied imagination suffering from a deep-seated anti-Hindu animus. Lately, they have added to the list the destruction of “animist shrines” from pre-Hindu India, whatever that means. And these “facts” have been presented with a large dose of suppressio veri suggestio falsi. A few instances will illustrate the point.
A very late Buddhist book from Sri Lanka accuses Pushyamitra Sunga, a second century B.C. king, of offering prizes to those who brought to him heads of Buddhist monks. This single reference has sufficed for presenting Pushyamitra as the harbinger of a “Brahmanical reaction” which “culminated in the age of the Guptas.” The fact that the famous Buddhist stupas and monasteries at Bharhut and Sanchi were built and thrived under the very nose of Pushyamitra is never mentioned. Nor is the fact that the Gupta kings and queens built and endowed many Buddhist monasteries at Bodh Gaya, Nalanda and Sarnath among many other places.
A Pandyan king of Madura is reported to have been a persecutor of Jains. This is mentioned in a book of the Saiva faith to which he belonged. But the source also says that before becoming a convert to Saivism, the king was a devout Jain and had persecuted the Saivites. This part of the story is never mentioned by the Marxist professors while they bewail the persecution of Jains.
According to the Rajatarirgini of Kalhana, King Harsha of Kashmir plundered Hindu and Buddhist temples in his lust for the gold and silver which went into the making of idols. This fact is played up by the Marxist professors with great fanfare. But they never mention Kalhan’s comment that in doing what he did Harsha “acted like a Turushka (Muslim)” and was “prompted by the Turushkas in his employ.”
This placing of Hindu kings on par with Muslim invaders in the context of iconoclasm suffers from serious shortcomings. Firstly, it lacks all sense of proportion when it tries to explain away the destruction of hundreds of thousands of Brahmanical, Buddhist and Jain temples by Islamic invaders in terms of the doubtful destruction of a few Buddhist and Jain shrines by Hindu kings. Secondly, it has yet to produce evidence that Hindus ever had a theology of iconoclasm which made this practice a permanent part of Hinduism. Isolated acts by a few fanatics whom no Hindu historian or pandit has ever admired, cannot explain away a full-fledged theology which inspired Islamic iconoclasm. Lastly, it speaks rather poorly of Marxist ethics which seems to say that one wrong can be explained away in terms of another.1
Coming to the economic and political motives for the destruction of Hindu temples, it does not need an extraordinary imagination to see that the Marxist thesis is contrived and farfetched, if not downright ridiculous. It does not explain even a fraction of the facts relating to the destruction of Hindu temples as known from literary and archaeological sources. Even if we grant that Hindu temples in India continued to be rich and centres of political unrest for more than a thousand years, it defies understanding why they alone were singled out for plunder and destruction. There was no dearth of Muslim places of worship which were far richer and greater centres of conspiracy. The desecration of Hindu idols and raising of mosques on temple sites is impossible to explain in terms of any economic or political motive whatsoever. Small wonder that the Marxist thesis ends by inventing facts instead of explaining them.
Professor Habib cannot be accused of ignorance about the theology or history of Islam. The most that can be said in his defence is that he was trying to salvage Islam by sacrificing Mahmud of Ghaznin who had become the greatest symbol of Islamic intolerance in the Indian context. One wonders whether he anticipated the consequences of extending his logic to subsequent sultans of medieval India. The result has been disastrous for Islam. In the process, it has been reduced to a convenient cover for plunder and brigandage. The heroes of Islam in India have been converted into bandits and vandals.
It is amazing that apologists of Islam in India have plumped for Professor Habib’s thesis as elaborated by succeeding Marxist scribes. They would have rendered service to Islam if they had continued admitting honestly that iconoclasm has been an integral part of the theology of Islam. Their predecessors in medieval India made no bones about such an admission. Nor do the scholars of Islam outside India, particularly in Pakistan.
What we need most in this country is an inter-religious dialogue in which all religions are honest and frank about their drawbacks and limitations. Such a dialogue is impossible if we hide or supress or invent facts and offer dishonest interpretations. Mahatma Gandhi had said that Islam was born only yesterday and is still in the process of interpretation. Hiding facts and floating fictions is hardly the way for promoting that process.
Indian Express, April 16, 1989
1 It is intriguing that the Marxist professors never mention the destruction of Buddhist and Jain establishments in Transoxiana, Sinkiang, Seistan and India which on the eve of the Islamic invasion included present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Every historian and archaeologist of that period knows that the vast Buddhist and Jain establishments at Bukhara, Samarkand, Khotan, Balkh, Bamian, Begram, Jalalabad, Peshawar, Takshasila, Mirpur-Khas, Nagar-Parkar, Sringar, Sialkot, Agroha, Mathura, Hastinapur, Kanauj, Sravasti, Ayodhya, Sarnath, Nalanda, Vikramsila, Vaishali, Rajgir, Odantpuri, Bharhut, Paharpur, Jagaddala, Jajnagar, Nagarjunikonda, Amaravati, Kanchi, Dwarasamudra, Bharuch Valabhi, Palitana, Girnar, Patan, Jalor, Chandrawati, Bhinmal, Didwana, Nagaur, Osian, Bairat, Gwalior and Mandu were destroyed by the swordsmen of Islam. Smaller establishments of these faiths, which met the same fate, add up to several hundred.