Tuesday, 16 February 2016


NOTE: In this article, the term Indic refers to the autochthonous religions of South Asia, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, but excluding Sikhism, which is a relatively recent religion. In some cases, the term Hinduism is used instead of Indic religions for convenience.
The ideas and views presented here come from a perspective of inspiring reform and lifting Indic religions out of the declining trajectory they have been on for centuries. They are meant to, and should be taken as intended to, provoke introspection, rather than outrage or denial or nitpicking.
A basic familiarity with the history of the Indian sub-continent reveals Hinduism shrinking over the past one and a quarter millennium in the face of external invasion and evangelism. Hinduism, and overlapping religions Jainism and Buddhism (together referred to here as Indic religions), used to extend from Afghanistan to Indonesia. Over the past dozen centuries, this area has shrunk greatly and now remains confined to the Rrepublic of India. This isn’t due to relentless attacks by immense armies. Mohammad Qasim or Babur attacked India with a few thousand men and were able to conquer a country of millions. So did numerous foreigner invaders with armies insignificant compared to the population of India then, including the British whose army was primarily manned by Indians themselves.
This process is still underway. In the latter half of the 20th century, we see in both Pakistan and Bangladesh Hindus being expelled or massacred. In the late 20th century, Hindus have been expelled from Kashmir, having been already reduced to a minority there centuries earlier by Afghan and Mughal rulers. Even within India currently, we see a demographic shrinkage of Hinduism. Thus, it is clear that Hinduism is in a long term trend of decline, with perhaps a hiatus for now. In general, a trend that persists for centuries cannot be blamed on individual errors or misfortune; there are likely more systemic reasons for it. What then could be the reason for the slow decline of Hinduism?

The decline of Indic religions in the subcontinent is congruent with conversion to Islam and this article will focus primarily on why I believe they have lost so much ground to Islam. The reasons commonly put forward for conversion from Hinduism to Islam are:
  1. Invasion and demographic displacement by foreign Muslims like Arabs or Turks.
  2. Conversion at sword point.
  3. Conversion to obtain patronage or privilege or escape taxation (jizya).
  4. Conversion to escape caste discrimination.
  5. A reason which I don’t see mentioned often, which I think likely plays an important role is the desire to imitate the winners and dominant rulers of the day, much like trends from the West, whether bell bottoms or jeans, or socialism or democracy, are avidly copied in India in recent times.
All of these likely have contributed to varying extents to the displacement of Hinduism, however, we can assume that conversion of local Indians to Islam forms the vast bulk of the Islamic population in the subcontinent today, thus the focus of this article will be on points 2-5.
Why were Indic religions susceptible to conversion? After undertaking a study of the relevant topics, I have come to the conclusion that to an overwhelming extent, this is a natural consequence of the respective natures of Indic religions and Islam. Although the following might feel hurtful to some, the intent is not to insult but to introspect and improve.
Let us begin by discussing the respective characteristics of Indic religion and Islam.

HINDUISM: The oldest and most authoritative religious texts of Hinduism are the Vedas, in particular the Rig Veda. The Vedas comprise of 2 broad parts, the Mantras or Karma Khanda (action part, dealing with sacrificial rituals and hymns) and the Bramhanas and Aranyakas or Jnana Khanda (philosophical sections). Within the Jnana Khanda, we find the Upanishads, which contain the philosophical doctrines that has come to shape Hindu thought through the millennia.

The Upanishads, of which there are hundreds, and 108 in the Muktika Canon, are thought to have been composed starting several centuries BCE, upto the 2nd millennium CE (1), and they contain the core philosophy that has shaped Hinduism.

Apart from the Upanishads, texts such as the Bramhasutras, Bhagwad Geeta and the Manusmriti, themselves influenced by the Vedas, have shaped or reflected Hindu spiritual and practical thought over the ages.

The time span over which these primary texts of Hinduism were composed are generally considered to span several centuries, involving during the course of which the emphasis and scope of the texts undergo change. Nonetheless, the broad thrust of Hindu philosophy, as contained in the Upanishads, is as below. Hindu readers who have experiential knowledge of Hinduism will find these points quite familiar.

a) A prescription of detachment from this world and a desire to escape from it.

b) Related to the above, conspicuous absence of communal identity or collective consciousness or presence of outside competitors. This is compounded in daily life by divisions on the basis of caste.

c) Resulting from point b, a lack of zeal in defending or proselytizing the religion.

Let us consider this in more depth.

Perhaps the most distinctive doctrine of Hinduism, is that each being has a soul (Atman), which undergoes a series of cycles of death and re-birth in different forms, a fate which is considered sub-optimal at best and repulsive at worst. Salvation from this cycle, called Moksha, is attained by realization of, and submergence into, the ultimate reality of which everything is composed, Brahman. There are variations on this theme (Dvaita, Advaita, etc schools of thought), but the general idea is the same.

No empirical evidence is proffered in support of the above Moksha thesis, which must be taken for granted on the authority of scripture. This is illustrated by the verses below:

Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7:

“Now, that which is the subtle essence−in it all that exists has its self. That is the True. That is the Self (Atman). That thou art, Svetaketu”

Katha Upanishad (II.20):

“The Self is subtler than the subtle, greater than the great; It dwells in the heart of each living being. He who is free from desire and free from grief, with mind and senses tranquil, beholds the glory of the Atman”

Mundaka Upanishad (3.1.9):

“That subtle Atman is to be known by the intellect here in the body where the prana has entered fivefold. By Atman the intellects of men are pervaded, together with the senses. When the intellect is purified, Atman shines forth.”

Chhandogya Upanishad 5.10.1-2:

“Those who know this and those who, dwelling in the forest, practise faith and austerities go
to light, from light to day, from day to the bright half of the moon, from the bright half of the
moon to the six months during which the sun goes to the north, from those months to the
year, from the year to the sun, from the sun to the moon, from the moon to lightning. There
a person who is not a human being meets him and leads him to Brahman. This is the Path
of the Gods (Devayana).”

Chhandogya Upanishad 5.10.7-8:

“Those whose conduct here on earth has been good will quickly attain some good
birth−birth as a brahmin, birth as a kshatriya, or birth as a vaisya. But those whose conduct
here has been evil will quickly attain some evil birth−birth as a dog, birth as a pig, or birth as
a chandala”.

“Those who neither practise meditation nor perform rituals… ...become those insignificant creatures which are continually revolving and about which it may be said: ‘Live and die.’ This is the third place. Therefore that world never becomes full. Let a man despise this course… “

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10:

“This self was indeed Brahman in the beginning. It knew itself only as "I am Brahman." Therefore it became all. And whoever among the gods had this enlightenment, also became That Brahman. It is the same with the seers (rishis), the same with men.”

Manusmriti 1.50:

“The (various) conditions in this always terrible and constantly changing circle of births and deaths to which created beings are subject are stated to begin with (that of) Bramhan and to end with (that of) these (just mentioned immovable creatures, like plants and trees)”

Adi Shankara’s Upadesa Sahasri, 1.44:

“One, who is eager to realize this highest truth spoken of in the Sruti (revealed texts, i.e. Vedas), should rise above the fivefold form of desire: for a son, for wealth, for this world and the next, and are the outcome of a false reference to the Self of Varna (castes, colors, classes) and orders of life.…”

Apart from the existence of the self, which is self-evident (e.g. Descartes’ Cogito ergo Sum; I think therefore I am), no empirical evidence is put forth for the existence of, or the special mystical properties attributed to, Brahman, or the existence of concepts such as re-incarnation and Moksha. The general implicit perspective is presented in Upanishadic and thereby broader Hindu thought, whereby existence in this world is considered a burden to be stoically borne, serenely doing one’s prescribed duty (Nishkama Karma; described in the Bhagwad Geeta), or even a distasteful misfortune to be spurned, by adopting renunciation (Sannyasa) in the pursuit of Moksha, to be attained by various means, including spiritual exercises (Yoga), as prescribed by Adi Shankara.

It is then not surprising that a focus on empirically unsupported metaphysics of withdrawal and renunciation should lead to neglect of a sense of community or group identity, compounded by caste discrimination. Thus, it is no surprise that the name commonly used to refer to Hindus, is not given by Hindus themselves, but originates from foreigners referring to the residents of the banks of the Sindhu (Indus) river. It is also to be expected that, lacking a sense of group identity and believing in renunciatory metaphysics, we see no historical example of Hindus mounting a collective defense of their religion or culture when attacked by Muslim invaders who burned libraries and temples or imposed jizya. This is in contrast to examples like that of Christians defending the Middle East against Islamic invasion by launching the Crusades, or the more recent example of the Islamic nations against Israel.

A very similar renunciatory trend is seen with other Indic religions, namely Buddhism and Jainism; quite possibly based on the same zeitgeist which permeates the contemporary and preceding Upanishads. Briefly (assuming the reader has basic familiarity with Buddhism), the four noble truths of Buddhism declare that dukkha, or sorrow, is caused by attachment or craving, and that this can be remedied by putting an end to craving and instead undertaking behavior that leads to Nirvana or release. As with Hinduism, the implied perspective is one of dissatisfaction with the rigors of the world, of escaping from it rather than taming it.
Similarly, the word Jain is derived from Sanskrit Jina, meaning victor. In this case the victory is over mental passions like greed, lust, anger etc. In practice, Jainism is emphatic about non-violence, not just towards fellow members of society, but all humans, and sentient being, even including animals and insects, possibly an extension of the Hindu concept of the Atman (soul) being one across all living creatures.
Given this metaphysical perspective pervading the ancient Indic religions Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, it is unsurprising that persons who are accorded an exalted status in Indic religion and culture are Sannyasis, Bhikshus and Jinas or Tirthankaras, who have attained a metal state of indifference towards the world.
Let us now look at the nature of the major competitor of Indic religions, Islam.

In contrast, the nature and circumstances of Islam from its foundation onwards have been concerned with survival, conflict and expansionism. Briefly, after having to flee his native Mecca upon claiming prophethood and casting doubt on the reigning deities of the Kaaba, Muhammad with a few followers emigrated to Yathrib (now Medina). Here he gained political power for the first time and engaged in raids and several armed conflicts with rivals from Mecca as well as within Medina, in the course of which hundreds of people were killed and women and children enslaved, as was the norm then. Eventually Mohammad emerged victorious and conquered Mecca itself. His utterances during the course of his life, many of them explicit calls to war, form the koran and Hadith, which are considered perfect and immutable. There are also more placatory sayings, but these are typically made in Mecca when his political position was tenous and are superseded by the later, violent Medinan ones. The sayings in Medina, upon attaining power include the infamous verse of the sword 9:5:
Then, when the sacred months have passed,
slay the idolaters wherever ye find them,
and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush.
But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free.
Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful

There is much debate today about the context of these verses, but there does not seem have been any doubt in the minds of his immediate followers, who, well placed to judge the context, after Mohammad’s death in 632AD proceeded to attack and conquer neighboring Byzantium and Persia. The motivation of these early Arab conquerors is perhaps summed up in the passage below,
“..he ordered us to invite neighboring nations to justice. We are therefore inviting you to embrace our religion…if you refuse, you must pay the jizya. This is a bad thing, but not as bad as the alternative; if you refuse to pay, it will be war” (2).
Given the cut-throat nature of life in the steppes of Arabia, Mohammad insisted on the unity of all Muslims, whether rich or poor, into one community, called the ummah. An illustration of the zealousness with which this unity is guarded is illustrated by the fact that conversion from Islam invites the death penalty in many Islamic countries today. The promotion of unity amongst the nomadic tribes of Arabia re-directed their military potential from being focused on each other to being focused on outsiders (a theme we see again with other mobile nomadic peoples like the Mongols and Huns). Thus, following Muhammad’s death, the newly converted Arab tribes burst forth from the steppes and successfully conquered their immediate neighbors, the Byzantine and Persian Empires.
Eventually the Arabs extended their reign over all of North Africa, Middle East and much of central Asia, and attacked and conquered Afghanistan and Sindh in the Indian sub-continent. Although the Arab Empire started to decline eventually, the mantle was taken up by the recently Islamicized Turks, who started invading South Asia in subsequent centuries.


The practical effects of this difference of outlook is vividly exemplified by the contrasting behavior of Hindus and Muslims when their lands are attacked. At no point did Central or South Indian Hindus unite together to launch a collective defence of Northern India during the Islamic conquest, unsurprising given the lack of community in Hinduism. In contrast, we see nations like Malaysia or Indonesia, which do not share either the language or the blood of Arabs, vociferously refusing recognition to Israel, solely on the basis of religious solidarity.
Moreover, on a long term, statistical level, in competition with a religion like Islam which promotes reproduction, wealth accumulation etc, the fate of Indic religions is sealed; they prescribe or at least celebrate, worldly extinction in the form of Sanyasa or monkhood (renunciation), often following directly after Bramhacharya (studentship) without starting a family, to its adherents (as exemplified by famous proponents of Hinduism like Adi Shankara or Swami Vivekananda), while Islam prescribes conquest, wealth acquisition and reproduction. Thus, it is likely that, in an evolutionary sense, the number of devoted Hindus who take Hindu metaphysics seriously will not grow at the same pace as their Islamic counterparts, if at all, based on the respective prescriptions of their religions.
We can now return to the causes of conversion from Hinduism to Islam mentioned above.

  1. Conversion to obtain patronage or privilege or escape taxation (jizya).
  2. Conversion to escape caste discrimination.
  3. A desire to imitate the winners and dominant rulers of the day, much like fashion trends from the West, whether bell bottoms or jeans, are avidly copied in India in recent times.

a) Conversion at Swordpoint/to escape taxation: In my view, two developments are necessary for this to occur; military weakness, and weak attachment to religion. Given the aggressive milieu in which Islam arose, it is no surprise that they embarked on an invasion of their neighbors. To substantial extents, Indic religions are vulnerable on both counts owing to their renunciatory metaphysics, especially the explicitly non-violent prescriptions of Buddhism and Jainism. A lack of attachment to religion is also likely given the exclusive focus of Indic religions on personal salvation rather than the promotion of a unified community.
b) Conversion to escape caste discrimination: Given the focus of Indic religions on the individual, much less focus is directed at the creation of a unified polity. This leaves space for divisions based on caste or ethnicity to arise and persist. In contrast, the aggressive and insecure environment of the steppe necessitates close group affinity for security, a feature carried over into Islam, although ethnic discrimination is not absent. Nonetheless, the theoretical equality available in Islam is an understandable incentive for those irreversibly stuck at the bottom of Hindu society.
c) A desire to imitate winners: This path is particularly likely in the absence of a strong sense of identity and attachment to one’s community, a point on which, Indic religions are particularly vulnerable. It is also possible that conversions to Islam that have occurred without a significant external invasion, such as those in Kerala or South East Asia, may have been owing to the attractiveness of a pro-wealth and growth religion like Islam, when contrasted with the austere and retreating ideology put forward by Indic religions.
It must be pointed out that other socio-political and geographical issues have a substantial role to play apart from the reasoning mentioned here. There are also warlike statements in some Hindu scriptures like the Bhagwad Geeta, in which Lord Krishna urges Arjun to war even against his relatives. It is also likely that the general political and military leadership in India was not aligned with the renunciatory direction prescribed in Indic religions although other elements of society likely were.
Nonetheless, I believe the overall point remains that the decline of Indic religions by conversion to Islam is at least partially a natural consequence of their respective tendencies and outlooks.

What must be done to salvage Hinduism? The answer may lie in what we have already seen regarding the Upanishads. These texts were written by numerous authors over a span of several centuries (centuries BC to centuries CE), and reflect a change of focus relative to the preceding texts and even direct criticism of the preceding Vedic approach (Chandogya Upanishad 1.12), and have passed on into the Hindu religious canon. Irrespective of whether one agrees with them or not, we thus see a plasticity in Hindu thought, which there is no need to think has exhausted itself. Thus, the authors of the Upanishads chose to lay out what they believed was the best approach to fulfilling what they thought ought to be the goal of life, thus reforming Hinduism to what they thought worked best.
If we are their true descendants, we must live up to their example and do likewise.
How? I shall lay out my thoughts about this in the near future.


  1. The great Arab conquests, Hugh Kennedy, 2008 edition, pg 51.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are reactively moderated. Please avoid ad hominems and crude language.