Hindus and Muslims
Posted on 1-April-2016
What has been conveniently called Hinduism for the last two hundred years or so as if it was the name of a single religion is in fact a whole collection of different beliefs, traditions, rituals and even non-religious cultural practices, as often similar as dissimilar, with probably a few unifying links such as belief in reincarnation of the soul and the doctrine of karma and many shared myths. Hindu belief systems tend not only to be luxuriantly polytheistic--as some writers point out, new gods and goddesses continue to be invented--but also for most devotees of one principal deity, it is quite normal to worship whichever other sanctified figure they come across. A Hindu worshipper of Vishnu or Rama or Krishna would unhesitatingly worship Shiva, Kali, Durga or Hanuman, or he would feel the same sense of devotion in a Sikh temple or in a Buddhist shrine--in fact for many Hindus Gautama has become a part of the Hindu pantheon. If the arrival of Christianity or Islam in India had followed a trajectory different from the one it did in fact, Hindus would easily have adopted Jesus, the Holy Trinity as well as Allah into their pantheon. Many modern Hindus have no difficulty in visiting Sufi shrines. And at Gandhi's prayer meetings, the hymn most frequently sung offered prayers to Rama whose names, according to the hymn, were also Ishvar and Allah.
Of the three monotheisms that arose in west Asia, Islam is the most purely monotheistic, the daily iteration of the creed--there is no God but one God-- required of Muslims, leaving no room for deviation. Christianity makes a deviation in the sense that the Holy Trinity or the veneration of Virgin Mary sit ill with pure monotheism. Popular Islam which in many Sufi traditions admits of veneration of departed local holy men across the Muslim world barely dilutes the absolute monotheism of Islamic doctrine. For a Muslim follower of a Sufi saint it would be unthinkable to go to worship at the shrine of a Hindu or Sikh holy man, leave alone offering any worship at a Hindu or Sikh temple. It may be apposite to mention a personal conversation I had some time ago with an Indian Muslim friend, as modern as any educated urban middle class Indian. At one point the conversation turned to the above hymn sung at Gandhi's prayer meetings. He said that he had a problem with it because his belief system would not allow equating Ram with Allah. He added for good measure that he would have no problem with treating Ram as another messenger of God. There is no reason to doubt the correctness of this friend's opinion from his religious perspective. A similar view informed the attitude of Muslim members of the Constituent Assembly of India who had reservations about Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's song Vande Mataram being made the National Anthem of India. Similar was the attitude of a Muslim member of Maharashtra legislature who had reservations about the slogan Bahrat Mata ki Jai--victory to Mother India.
Creedal incompatibilty between polytheism and monotheism is not the only basis of difference between Hindus and Muslims of India. The two, especially the upper classes among them, have for long lived in separate psychological and mental, even physical compartments. There are important differences in food habits which go beyond differences in attitudes towards beef eating. Each of the two communities has its own stock of shared stories; each has its own stories about the other commuinity. By and large, Hindus and Muslims are ignorant of each other's religious beliefs and practices. For Hindus, India has always been their land to which Islam and Christianity came from outside. Many upper caste Muslims talk of their ancestors as having come from Arabia, Persia, Afghanistan or the mythical Khorasan. An example of this came recently. Naseeruddin Shah, one of top film actors of Hindi cinema, recently expressed his anxieties about being a Muslim in present day India. In one television interview he did not stop at saying that he belonged to this country as much as anyone else but added that his family had been here for four generations. In a television interview with another Hindi film actor, Shahrukh Khan, the interviewer, the bearer of a Hindu name, asked the actor if it was not remarkable that three of the top billed Hindi film actors of the present were all Khans. It was left to Shahrukh Khan to say that what was really remarkable was that this situation should appear remarkable. Perhaps the interviewer was too dull witted to see the full significance of Shahrukh Khan's rejoinder. Then there are Hindu politicians, writers and journalists who remind whoever listens to them that Hinduism is informed by a spirit of tolerance, almost implying that intolerance is a trait of Islam. They do not explain why the tolerant Hindu society has bred groups like the Bajrang Dal, the Vishva Hindu Parishad or the Rashtriya Svayamsevak Sangh.
In any discussion of relations between Hindus and Muslims of India, particularly in discussions of tense relations between the two, members of Indian intelligentsia tend to iterate a number of clichés. One of these is that Islam in India has for long been syncretic and therefore shorn of fanaticism of any kind. No one ever explains what syncretic Islam is. Another is that most of Indian Muslims' attitudes have been tempered by the spirit of Sufism. A third is that Hindus and Muslims have always enjoyed fraternal relations, participating in each other's religious festivals forgetting that while a few Muslims may take part in Holi, Diwali or in Ganapati processions in Mumbai and a few Hindus may join their Muslim neighbours and friends in celebrations of Id-ul-Fitr or Id-ul-Adhha,--there are people everywhere in the world for whom festivals, even religious festivals, are simply occasions for merry making--vast numbers of Hindus and Muslims celebrate their festivals among their co-religionists. Those who iterate these clichés do not stop to explain why, in spite of syncretic Islam, Sufism and centuries of fraternal Hindu-Muslim relations, there is an eruption of murderous violence between Hindus and Muslims every so often. Nor do they explain why in spite of syncretic Islam and Sufism, there have arisen in India Deobandis, Barelvis and the Jama'at-e-Islami.
Talk of syncretic Islam, extolling the virtues of Sufism and of the true spirit of India--whatever that may mean--are at best half answers to the problem of difficult relations between Hindus and Muslims and at worst a disingenuous attempt to paper over the jarring reality of Hindu-Muslim divide. To deal with this reality, it is necessary first of all to face it. It cannot be said that Hindus and Muslims of India have not for the most part lived in peaceful, harmonious and friendly relations with each other. This has nothing to do with their religious beliefs nor with whether they take their religious teachings more or less literally. Human beings everywhere living their ordinary lives engage in trust based exchanges of all kinds with their fellows. For conducting such exchanges people value truth, loyalty and peace. Such exchanges, if left undisturbed, can and frequently do overarch ethnic or religious differences. But the same people who have had peaceful and harmonious relations among them can turn violent against each other if driven by fear, suspicion, greed, need or by the megalomania--another form of greed-- of their rulers. The Hindu-Muslim divide has unfortunately the ever present potential for being exploited for political gain or for pure and simple loot.
If India were to move away from this religion-based division in Indian society it would need to go far beyond the theoretical separation between the state and religion that the Indian Constitution enjoins. What is needed is to remove religion in all its forms from the public sphere even to the extent of stopping bhajans--Hindu devotional songs--and azans being played from temples and minarets over noisy loud speakers. Religious and quasi-religious functions in the garb of cultural festivals must move out of public roads and public land. Carrying this a little further, the government should have nothing to do with the organisation of pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave in Kashmir nor with the organisation of the Hajj. A little more than this must be done but can be done only if India can produce a more responsible, more high-minded breed of politicians than it has and that is that religion should be completely banished from political campaigns of all kinds. Then all violence, religious or otherwise must be punished according to law. And finally, Hindus being by far the dominant religious community must be careful about causing any feeling of insecurity among India's religious minorities.