Friday, June 03, 2005

The Gates of Delhi

The al Aqsa Mosque provides Jerusalem, or al Quds, the distinction of being the “third holiest city in Islam”. Built atop the ruins of Solomon’s Temple, its sacred status derives from the fact that the Prophet visited it in a dream. Mohammed never actually went to Jerusalem in the flesh, but his somnambulance was enough to establish its claim as a holy shrine of Islam. The Muslims did not have to destroy the infidel Jewish Temple themselves, since the Romans had already done it.

But the Muslim invaders of India had a more hands-on approach. During the same period that the Ottoman invaders were repeatedly besieging Vienna, the Muslims of the Mogul Empire were fighting the infidel Hindus on the Indian subcontinent. When Aurangzeb became emperor in 1658, he began a systematic campaign to destroy the infidel temples in Uttar Pradesh.

One of the most sacred shrines of the Hindus, roughly equivalent to Solomon’s Temple and the tomb of Christ all rolled into one, was the temple built on the site of the birthplace of Krishna at Mathura. If you read about the area in a travel guide, the description is dry and not particularly evocative of controversy:
     Mathura & Vrindavan is the city which is associated with the most venerated of Hindu Gods– Lord Krishna. Mathura is the nucleus of Brajbhoomi. The surroundings ‘Braj Bhoomi’ is where Lord Krishna is supposed to have grown up.
Mathura which is most popularly known as birth place of lord Krishna is located on the western bank of river Yamuna at latitude 27° 41 min N and 77° 41 min E. It is situated at a distance of 145 Km to the south-east of Delhi and 58 Km north west of Agra in the State of Uttar Pradesh. For about 3000 years it was the focal point of culture and civilization and was an economic hub. It is located at the junction of some relatively important caravan routes.
A brief historical account hints at the strife that wracked the area:
     After a series of wars of succession, the throne fell to Aurangzeb in 1658 — even though his father Shah Jahan was still alive. A devout Muslim who was displeased with the tolerance his forbears had shown Hindus, he levied taxes that only Hindus had to pay and forbade them from building new temples. He also had Sikh leaders murdered and tried to capture Guru Govind Singh.
But a deeper examination of the history of the period reveals the ruthlessness and brutality of the Mogul conquerors. According to Francois Gautier,
     American newspapers publish daily commentaries by eminent Muslims, who all want to prove that Islam is a tolerant creed, that the Taliban were an isolated aberration, and that Osama bin Laden is desecrating the scared [sic] non-violent tenets of Islam with his terrible deeds.
It is in such times that it is useful to remind the world, particularly the United States - which has chosen as a frontline state for its war on terrorism, a nation which breeds terrorism - that while Pakistan is an aberration of what Islam has stood for since its inception in the 7th century, India is a living example of a peace loving nation, tolerant of other creeds, ethnic groups and religions. Most Western history books, for instance, eulogise the Mughal period in India as a time of refinement and enlightenment, and many of them say that Aurangzeb was a strict but just emperor. What is the truth?
Aurangzeb (1658-1707) did not just build an isolated mosque on a destroyed temple, he ordered all temples to be destroyed and had mosques built on a number of cleared temples sites. All other Hindu sacred places within his reach equally suffered destruction. A few examples: Krishna’s birth place temple in Mathura, the rebuilt Somnath temple on the coast of Gujarat, the Vishnu temple replaced with the Alamgir mosque now overlooking Varanasi and the Treta-ka-Thakur temple in Ayodhya. The number of temples destroyed by Aurangzeb is counted in 4, if not 5 figures. According to his own official court chronicles: “Aurangzeb ordered all provincial governors to destroy all schools and temples of the pagans and to make a complete end to all pagan teachings and practices.” Aurangzeb did not stop at destroying temples, their users were also wiped-out; even his own brother, Dara Shikoh, was executed for taking an interest in Hindu religion and the Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded because he objected to Aurangzeb’s forced conversions.
The Hindus themselves, even after three and a half centuries, have most emphatically not forgotten or forgiven the offenses committed against their sacred sites. The view of the Hindunet website:
     Lord Krishna, one of the most important avatars of Lord Vishnu is universally worshipped by Hindus. It was Lord Krishna who gave Bhagwad Gita to the world. Today, the at the birth place of Lord Krishna stands a Masjid (Moslem place of worship), Shahi Mosque, instituted by a foreign invader who destroyed a magnificent temple that stood there for centuries if not more. A Hindu movement is underway to reinstate this temple.
Excavations have uncovered archaeological evidence of the original temple in the form of idols, statues, and decorations.

There is a movement afoot in India to desecularize the shrines and re-establish Hindu religious control over them. Various organizations aligned or associated with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party are planning to right the wrongs of the 17th century by removing the mosques and restoring the original temples. For them, the mosque at Ayodhya was only the beginning; they are simply biding their time until the birthplace of Lord Krishna is itself reborn.

The Great Islamic Jihad has many fronts, and one of them is in South Asia. Our troubles with Islamism in the West loom so large to us, yet there are more people in India than in the United States, Europe, and Russia combined. The subcontinent is a crucial theater in this conflict.

As I have said before, we are in the newest phase of a very old war.

Hat tip: krishna_kirti


Pofarmer said...

Well, that certainly puts the current conflict between India and Pakistan a little more in focus, doesn't it? No love lost there, I'd bet.


wildiris said...

I don’t have much time today to organize my thoughts before writing them down, so I’ll apologize in advance for what will be a rambling post. The focus of this most recent post on the Hindu cultures of India raised once again in my mind the question as to just how much of the cultural advances that are credited to the Arab world are products of the Moslem culture itself or were in fact actually the product of the cultures conquered by the Muslims and for which the Arab world was erroneously given historic credit for?

The case in point is the so-called invention of the concept of “zero”. Although the Arab world has historically been given credit for this innovation, it appears that is originated in India first and was only adapted later by the Arab world and by which it made its way finally to western Europe. To understand the significance of this innovation, “the zero as a number”, one needs to look at the history of mathematics going back to at least the ancient Sumerians. As long as there has been the “counting table” there has been both the concept of and a notation for the result “an empty column here”. The counting table is the predecessor of the abacus and is at least as ancient as the Babylonians (2000 BC?). While the abacus used beads on rods, the counting table was just a flat surface with slots or groves that beads or stones could be moved in. A bit of trivia, the counting table is the origin of our use of the word “counter” to describe a long flat table that you stand to work at. To understand what comes next I’ll point to the Roman system of numbering as an example. The roman system of numbering was used in Europe up until the introduction of the “Arab” numerals, 0,1,2...,9, around (1000AD?). Counting tables were used to do calculations, and the “empty columns” were kept track of during arithmetic operations, but when results were finally written down, they were written in roman numerals, which did not have a zero symbol. In other words, the roman numbering system did not reflect the counting table’s operation. The thing we today call “the invention of the zero” was simply the adaptation, by a culture, of a numbering system that reflected the actual use of the counting table. This adaptation may seem to be a pretty obvious thing to do. So the question becomes, why didn’t any culture think of this earlier? The answer I would venture is the following; in ancient times things like reading, writing and arithmetic were the province of the priesthood or a special elite of a society and as such there was no pressure for these areas of endeavor to be made easy, think ancient job security here. The only reason for a numbering system to evolve into the decimal system we have today, thanks to the Hindu culture of India, was that arithmetic must have move from being an art reserved for a few elite, to just another learned skill used by the average Joe six-pack of a culture’s societies. But this could only happen if the average Joe six-pack was capable of abstract mathematical thinking. Clearly the Hindu religion reflects this level of abstract thought. There is no equivalent, I can think of, in the Islamic cultures that corresponds the level of abstract thought that one sees reflected in the cultures of the Hindu religion. As a companion example I’ll point to the printing press. The ancient Chinese seem to be the true inventers of movable type, but in never evolved in China the way the printing press took-off in Europe. The reason is the same. In China, reading was the sole province of a bureaucratic elite, so there was no reason or incentive for the masses to read; hence no reason to invent a printing press and a corresponding publishing industry. In Europe though, the collective human conscience seems to have evolve to the level were reading and writing was accepted as something every one should/could do. It was the “democratization” so to speak of mathematics that drove the evolution of the modern decimal system, just as the “democratization” of reading and writing led to the invention of the printing press.

Something else that has bothered me for a long time is the notion that the Arab world was responsible for preserving much of ancient literature, while the Christian culture of Western Europe were responsible for destroying it. The climate of Western Europe was cold, damp, moldy and dark in the winter months while most buildings were made of timber and heated in the winter by open-hearth fires and lighted by open flames from candles and lamps. If you think about it for a moment, you would realize that the “shelf life” for a book in medieval Europe was probably very short. Contrast this situation with the climate and living conditions of the desert Arab lands were a book could easily last on a shelf for centuries with no degradation in its condition. The labor devoted to reproducing books that was undertaken by the monks of the Christian Church has no equivalent that I know of in the Islamic cultural history. Can anyone reading this post think of any example? The truth is that the Moslems appear to have simply been “collectors” of the books and scrolls from the peoples they conquered rather than the “perseveres” they are credited with being. It was the Christian Church that seems to have been devoted to an extraordinary level of effort to preserve, via a unending process of reproduction and against very harsh conditions, what literature it still had.

The point that I’m trying to get to is that a culture is not driven or shaped by its religion, but that it is the opposite that is true, that a religion is just one manifestation of many of a culture or society’s collective human conscience. The Hindu culture of India could begin the evolution of the modern decimal system because the collective human conscience of its people was ready to take that abstract cognitive leap. Both the Protestant Reformation and the printing press were products of a same leap in collective human conscience that occurred in Western Europe, during the years we now refer to as the Renaissance, and is marked by the first appearance of our modern notion of “one as an individual”.

Just as humans have evolved as a species over the millennium, human conscience has been evolving too. One mistake that I feel that is constantly being made when discussing cultures is the assumption that we (all humans) think alike. Why is it that no one has a problem understanding, that even though two computers, a Wintel machine and a Apple Mac for example, may perform outwardly the same functions that doesn’t mean or imply for a second that they work the same internally, but that when the same analogy is applied to the human thought process, they can’t imagine, even for a second, that two people, from different cultural backgrounds, may be processing information entirely different from each other?

As a final comment I would like to propose the following hypothesis. That it is not the religion Islam that the west is at war with, but with a culture whose collective human conscience manifests itself, among its many ways, with a religion like Islam. That what we’re seeing today in Islam’s reactions towards the west is, from the perspective of the evolution of human conscience, the equivalent of what happened when Neanderthal man first encountered and began their ultimately losing competition for the same resources with modern Cro-Magnon man.

Baron Bodissey said...

Wildiris -- I generally support what you are saying. You are right about the zero. The Hindus have generally been superior mathematicians; some of the finest mathematicians today are Indian. I think, as you say, it must be cultural. The phenomenon may also be reflected in the intricate and elaborate theology of Hinduism.

The point about Islam is well-taken. Is the "religion of peace" a spiritual expression of an honor-based, tribal, misogynistic, and superstitious culture? I doubt that the explanation can be so completely simplified; still, there is a kernel of truth there.

truepeers said...

Wild Iris,

When I hear people talk about Arab or Muslim contributions, they mention usually math, astronomy, and medicine. Any thoughts on the latter two? I don’t suppose we would say medicine necessarily involves a lot of abstract thought; in any case there are a number of successful Arab physicians in the west today, so there seems to be some scientific tradition there. But yes, cultures do not all think alike; in fact, India is the only place where western science has been not simply adapted but taken up in innovative and creative ways. China, for example, seems less capable in theoretical pursuits, though they are incredibly practical and open in their adoption of outside ideas.

A couple of other responses to your fascinating post.

“There is no equivalent, I can think of, in the Islamic cultures that corresponds the level of abstract thought that one sees reflected in the cultures of the Hindu religion.”

- The problem as I see it is why is Islam different from the monotheistic Judeo-Christian tradition from which it first emerged, at least in significant part? I have come to think that the basis for Jewish skill in abstract thought is the Mosaic revelation of an unfigurable and paradoxical divinity. One awaits the Messiah in a world defined by his deferred arrival. As Kafka put it: “The Messiah will first come when he is no longer needed, he will first come on the day after his arrival, he will not come on the last day, but on the last of all.”

Islam inherits from Judaism an unfigurable monotheistic divinity, but this comes through an emphasis on his worldly prophet and on the spread of the faith by force of arms - i.e. an emphasis on worldly victory. Instead of the Jewish deferral (into abstraction), Islam focuses figural attention, not on Allah, but on the enemy of the faith who is scapegoated ad nauseam.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder if there are not strains of thought in the Moslem world that make more of the paradoxical unfigurability of Allah as a basis for entry into abstract thought (in contrast to the eternal and uncreated Koran which can be taken strictly literally, or as an entrée into the paradoxes of religion, and hence into abstraction). Here I am showing my ignorance but wonder about the basis for claims of Arab skill in, say, astronomy or banking.

“The point that I’m trying to get to is that a culture is not driven or shaped by its religion, but that it is the opposite that is true, that a religion is just one manifestation of many of a culture or society’s collective human conscience.”

-this is anachronistic in the sense that in primitive societies there can be no distinction of culture and religion; in the primitive world where there can be no myth without a ritual, i.e. no independent story. In western history, it is only with the separation in classical Greece of the esthetic (and its attendant history of art as an entrée to a secular understanding of the history of society) from the religious world of myth and ritual, and with the Jewish separation of religion from primitive esthetic figures, that we evolve the basis to distinguish culture and religion. Islam also divorces esthetic figurality (with exceptions like Mosque architecture) from religious consciousness, but in making the Koran an eternal and uncreated truth it mitigates against an evolving historical consciousness (such as exists in the Judeo-Christian consciousness of an evolving history of prophetic revelation) and hence it also mitigates against a solid border between religion and the secular world and authority. These seem to be built in limits to abstract thought.

So I would agree that Islam constitutes restraint on abstract thought. But there is enough evidence that some Moslems and Arabs have abstract skills to make us wonder how complete this restraint is in every sect and social class.

wildiris said...


Sometimes my thoughts seem even to me to be a bit out there and I wonder sometimes if people think I wear tinfoil on my head, but yes, it may be an incredibly simplistic and harsh opinion, but it's what I honestly conjecture is going on in our world today.

Truepeers. Here are some quick responses to your points.

There have always been great minds that show up in every major civilization, but the important thing to look at “is did their work translate itself down to the world of the everyday man/woman? Hero of Alexandria (62BC?) invented a working steam engine, but his work never saw any expression in the society as a whole. The steam engine was not reinvented and final put to useful work almost 1500 years later by James Watt. It's seems to be a unique attribute of the Western European Protestant cultural heritage, that this boundary between the elites and their world and that of the common person, which appears across human history, seems to be broken down. The printing press happened not because a few elite people could read and write, but that many people across society could final read and write. I’ll return to the example of roman numerals. The calculators (people not computer chips) of Roman time would take a problem in roman numerals; translate it into a decimal or decimal equivalent number system in order to do their work on the counting table. Then when they got their answer, they would convert it back to roman numerals. I never could understand why the “concept of zero” seemed so important to people because from a mathematical point of view, calculators had been using the decimal or some mathematical equivalent number system, along with a zero, on their counting tables for thousands of years. The significance was not the number zero itself, but that someone had finally come up with a number notational system that matched the way they had been doing their calculations all along. In another of saying it, it was the mathematical equivalent of the creation of a phonetic alphabet. And just as a phonetic alphabet made reading and writing accessible to the common person, the innovation of a decimal counting system, along with its “zero”, made arithmetic finally accessible to the common person. It’s not whether-or-not there has been some stellar mathematical or scientific talents among the Moslem cultures, but what was the level of mathematical and scientific understanding among average citizens. My speculation is that the appearance of the “zero” as people call it, correlated with a rising middle class of shopkeepers and business men, who needed to keep track of their transactions but had no time to waste on the elites and their fancy and convoluted way of doing mathematical calculations the old way.

For almost 900 years, the Moslem world sat astride all of the trade routes, both land and coastal sailing, from the East to the West. This fact was responsible for the wealth that many of these Moslem kingdoms accumulated over the centuries, and with the constant flow of foreign traders, craftsmen and other travels through their worlds, this fact was also the source for much of the intellectual life of their societies as well. It’s no coincidence that the sharp decline that the Arab world saw in the late Middle Ages, correlates exactly with the discovery of ocean sailing trading routes from the east to the west that bypassed Arabia entirely.

"I have come to think that the basis for Jewish skill in abstract thought is the Mosaic revelation of an unfigurable and paradoxical divinity".

The early Christian community had some of its roots in the Greek Mystery Cults of that time and as such had some of their own traditions of “unfigurable and paradoxical divinity”. That is, one way to look at the significance of such things as the Virgin Birth and the Holy Trinity is to view them as meditations, much like the Zen Buddhist’s One Hand Clapping, impossible things that meditation upon pulls one into a deeper understanding.

Baron Bodissey said...

ronin -- are there 1546 of you? Yow!

But you are right about Muslims and intellectual endeavor -- If it's not in the Koran, there's no need for a true Muslim to know it, and it may even be dangerous.

When Islam was expanding, it tried to absorb what it could from other cultures to serve the propagation of the Faith. But now it just doesn't want to know.

Unknown said...

fundamentalist christians ALSO believe that everything they need to know is written in scriptures, and that other sources of knowledge are 'dangerous', btw
I think the problem is religious fanaticism, rather than any religion or culture in particular. Why is this a more noticeable phenomenon in some regions than others? Any ideas?