Conventionally, the phrase “composite culture” has been used to describe the symbiosis and syncretism between Hindu and Muslim cultural traditions in the medieval period. However, the idea covers a much larger ground and goes far back into the history of Indian civilisation. The process of hybridisation and intermingling began in the Vedic period itself and continued unabated in subsequent centuries. Rabindranath Tagore, widely regarded as an authentic voice of Indian civilisation, remarked that his family was the product of three distinct cultures, namely, Hindu, Muslim and British. There is a tendency in certain quarters to characterise the advent of Muslims in India exclusively in terms of barbaric invasions and conquests. It is nothing but a distortion of history. For one, the various groups of Muslims who entered India at different points of time didn’t comprise a culturally homogenous entity. They were different in ethnicity, motivation, and occupation. The first wave of Muslims who entered India in the 7th century included traders, merchants, scholars and men of piety. They were followed, in the course of time, by artisans, craftsmen, Sufi saints, men of letters, poets, soldiers and conquerors.
India has suffered a long spell of exploitation at the hands of colonial powers. The policy of divide and rule has obscured much of its past. The people of India should know that a dialogue has two dimensions – a “horizontal” one, in which we interact with other people, and a “vertical” one, in which we look inwards into our own consciousness. Every religion speaks of that inner light; Rumi called it the Nur-i-Elahi, the Sikhs describe it as Ek Omkar, the Hindus say it “shines like a thousand suns.” If we look into our hearts, we shall seek peace, love and harmony. No amount of dialogue with others is going to create that peace, love and harmony in the world.
Religious feuds and hatred are more prevalent among Hindus and Muslims. To add to this misfortune, communal groups are gaining support from political parties. Both religious as well as secular leaders try to take advantage of this situation. Politicians have no interest in bridging the gap between communities, but have, in fact, a positive stake in ensuring that it remains as wide as possible. They succeed in misguiding their ignorant co-religionists in the wrong direction and towards the wrong goals, which are against the interests of the people themselves. The manipulation of religious feelings is an old phenomenon. But the show of strength at the time of religious festivals in our times has become a new pattern. When a procession of a particular community passes through the area of the other community, attempts are made to shout slogans or tease them. This often creates a communal clash.
Religious fanaticism among the people also has its source in the constant preaching and actions of communal organisations. Since they are interested in sharpening the differences between religious groups, their work is meant to make people unreasonable and passionate. They present a manipulated form of religion which is farthest from the actual tenets of the religion. A common feature observed in every religious/ communal group is unity whenever the “religion in danger” slogan is raised. Politicians and priests mobilise people around this slogan, but this fostering of fanaticism is facilitated by the ignorance of people. That is why vested interests have a stake in keeping as many people ignorant as possible and for as long as possible.
It is really unfortunate that the Hindus and Muslims, heirs of a great composite tradition, fall in the trap of opportunist politicians and religious fanatics. Sarvepalli Radhakrisnan had said that “Hinduism has not sufficiently profited from her experience of Islam”. It is quite true that reform movements such as those of Chaitanya, Kabir and Nanak were much influenced by the spirit of Islam, and the monotheistic elements of Hinduism have become more emphasised since the spread of Islam in India, but Hinduism could have learnt more. Some of the practices of the uncultured Moslems blinded the eyes of the Hindus to the ideals of Islam. While there is much for Islam to learn from a sympathetic understanding of Hinduism, there is also much for Hinduism to learn from Islam. For one thing, Hinduism must learn to be less compromising and more emphatic in its denunciation of imperfect conceptions of God and cruder modes of worship.
The spirit of tolerance, understanding of others’ religions, and cooperation in promoting peace and justice is the need of the hour. The examples set by our forefathers, the sages, saints, and Sufis, must guide us towards communal harmony and preservation of our composite culture. Indian religious and cultural traditions have made an enormous contribution to inter-religious tolerance, peaceful co-existence, and cultural synthesis. We should know that whenever external forces cast an evil eye over India’s rich civilisation, all stood united to defend her. There is a record in the British House of Commons debates that whenever Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan waged ballet against the British, prayers for them were offered in all temples and mosques. It is a spectacular example of composite culture. It is true that conflicts have taken place, but they have taken place due to political reasons. Through cultural and spiritual ways, even the most intractable political conflicts can be resolved.
The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of Islamic Studies, Baba Ghulam Shah Badshah University, Rajouri.