Hindu Hagiography, Secularism, Islam and Resistance

Hindu Hagiography, Secularism, Islam and Resistance

This is Ishan Chakrabarti, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. Broadly speaking, I work on medieval and early modern literature from South Asia to the Middle East (Sanskrit, Bangla, Hindi-Urdu, Farsi, Arabic) focusing on themes of religion and cultural difference. I am currently working on furthering two connected projects.

The first of these traces Muslim figures through a variety of Vaishnava Hindu hagiographical compendia produced in the 16th and 17th centuries, immediately before the colonial encounter. The majority of the Muslims one encounters in these texts are kings. The kings have heard of the fame of the poet-saints and summon them to court, asking them to sing their devotional songs and perhaps a praise-poem for the king. The saints all refuse to do so, rejecting the king’s authority by adhering to the higher authority of Krishna. The kings attempt to give the saints gifts, but the only gift the saint-poet wants is to never have to see the king ever again. The king, after getting over being angry, realizes that this refusal of power is the mark of true devotion.

Contemporary South Asian politics would read the above as disclosing communalism. It would see in this narrative proof that the origins of the present-day communal strife between Hindus and Muslims lie in the pre-modern period, and that the blame for such lies with Muslim rule. In this vision, our saints would use Hinduism to resist Islam, embodied in the figure of the Muslim king. But we must read otherwise, and we must do so for a whole host of reasons: political, literary, theoretical and more.

I track narratives in the same texts where the saints meet Hindu kings. In those narratives, the exact same things happen, in the exact same order: Hindu saints resist Hindu kings. The tale isn’t about communalism at all, but rather centers on devotion and asceticism as a mode of life that necessarily rejects power. The incidental Islamic identity of some of these kings is merely that: incidental.

The second of my projects crosses over from the world of the saint to the world of the king and examines Farsi and Arabic texts on ethics and governance in attempt to sketch a genealogy of another secularism. I understand secular to mean not just a division of powers between religious institutions and the state, but also to mean a particular attitude toward religious difference (tolerance partially describes such an attitude, but is inadequate to a theorization of the secular) and the elaboration of an ethics without direct reference to any particular religion.

The texts I read are Islamic philosopher al-Ghazzali’s 12th century text Nasihatu l-Muluk (Counsel for Kings) and Nasiruddin Tusi’s 13th century Axlaq-i Nasiri (Nasirean Ethics). The kings represented in the hagiographies extensively studied such texts: in governing over a largely non-Muslim population, the techniques of difference-negotiation theorized in these texts informed their praxis.

al-Ghazzali’s concern over the role of the Caliph (the religious head) in state affairs opened the discourse of secularism. In his theorization, the Sultan (political leader) had all constituent authority, but was to be appointed by the Caliph, and had to swear an oath of allegiance to him. It was a compromise between State and Religion that did not dispense with Religion altogether but moved it away from the work of the State, that is, from governance. In practice, the Caliph’s role was reduced to that of a figurehead: Saljuq-era coins depicted the Caliph’s face even as the Saljuq regents – and not the Caliph – governed the city of Baghdad, the seat of the Caliphate.

Another nexus for secularism lies in al-Ghazzali’s treatment of what I call Islam’s “virtuous pagans,” to borrow a metaphor from the European Middle Ages. al-Ghazzali highlights the pre-Islamic (Sassanian) Zoroastrian kings of Persia as the highest exemplars of justice. In his history, the Prophet Muhammad is glad to have the good fortune to be born during the reign of Anushirvan the Just. The “virtuous pagans” in al-Ghazzali’s text serve as a model of conduct for Muslims, and this influence permeates Islam from its very origins.

Nasiruddin Tusi, commissioned by Mongol non-Muslim kings, theorizes an ethics independent of religion that focuses on the concept of Love/Justice. The two are related insofar as Justice is the juridical name of Love: Justice supplements and makes up for the fact that Love does not necessarily exist between all subjects.
Tusi never mentions the word ‘Islam’ and only states that the king needs proper religion: he does not need to be of the proper religion. In order to sustain an irretrievably plural society consisting of many religions, the king must dispense justice without attending to religious difference, and the subjects in turn must love one another disregarding their differences. But such Love/Justice, aimed at the sustenance of the state, ends up as another name of power.
This is where my two projects connect.

The Muslim kings of the hagiographies utilize the Nasirean ethic: they tolerate, dispense justice to, love and appreciate their Hindu subjects. They believe that non-Muslims can be exemplars of an ethical life, and divorce their acts of governance from religion. This is why such kings call Hindu saints to their court. But the subjects do not return this love/justice: the saints refuse their audience, reject the king and ask only that he never come to them again. What happened to the subject’s love for the king?

I propose that devotion – called bhakti in Hindi, Bangla and other Indic tongues – forms another ethics: an ethics of resistance to power. As noted earlier, this has nothing to do with communal politics. The ascetic has no interest in sustaining an elitist and statist politics/ethics, but desires rather to upset and reverse the power structure of the king. The ascetic, then, resists such power, and uses religion to articulate this reversal.
Is this resistance limited to Hinduism? Certainly not. The word used for Love in Tusi is muhabbat, but there is another: `ishq. That word is more central to the world of devotional Islam (Sufi or otherwise). I wonder if those Sufi orders that resisted temporal powers did not articulate their resistance in terms of this other love, another love that perhaps – like bhakti - would not just be a name for power.

boats at sea
Thanks for reading, and I openly welcome any comments, criticism or suggestions. I have much more written on all of the ideas above, and if anyone would like to read it, I would be happy to send copies.

My next post will examine manuscript differences in the hagiography of Kabir: a non-Hindu and non-Muslim ascetic consistently eulogized in Hindu hagiographies. I seek to relate these minute shifts in manuscript to a history of communal difference. Such a task is all the more crucial given the urgency of the present political situation in India, where, in the name of fighting terrorism, communalism and hatred are once again on the rise.
Posted by Ishan Chakrabarti