Dwelling a bit on one of the subjects of the last post, I thought I’d spend a little time on the nature of Indian identity. I do so, dear reader, as a man whose only understanding on India hitherto has come from sport, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and reading The Economist, whose single lens is one of government deregulation like a stuck record blaring out peons to free trade, drowning out other perspectives but appearing to inform. So, if I appear gauchely simplistic, or indeed step in the cow poo of historical inaccuracy (a particular crime in this bovine hero state), please forgive me. My intention is not to be authoritative but to pass on what strikes me, as it might other chaps from my generation similarly starved.
I remarked that Indian history seemed less Hindu than I had been expecting: the religion of the ruling Mughals had in fact been Islam, and whilst they destroyed many Hindu temples, they did not seem too keen to subject their newly conquered peoples to much forced conversion. Over time, they seem sensibly to have assimilated many of the native traditions and beliefs, blending what they regarded as the best of all the traditions into an imperial humanist creed – a sort of Now That’s What I Call Religion 1. Thus the Mughal Emperor Akbar, arguably the greatest of the great Mughals, could fashion a column (below) upon which he sat to receive counsel from his advisors that incorporated both Islamic and Hindu imagery, and even Graeco-Roman columns, acknowledging the influence particularly Alexander the Great had on the country.
At the same time in Europe, the French were massacring each other on St Bartholomew’s Day, the English were burning each other, and the Germans were gearing up for a Thirty Year War that seems to have been every bit as defenestrating (as it were) for the common man as the Second World War. And all over (simplistically) liturgical differences. Of course, it was more complex than that: ambitious would-be kings clothed themselves in religious grievance to surf to power, but that is my point: there doesn’t seem to have been this rigid church-state attachment in India, giving the lie to my lazy assumption that the world has become more ecumenical as it has aged.
Another reason for less historical religious heat and light in India is that those religions originating here are less about preparations for the next life, and more about how to go about this one. Perhaps that’s why they can be blended more easily than “true path” religions, where borrowing suggests apostasy. Which gets us back to indianness: from the very ancient civilisations that grew up around the Indus, through the Mauryan Empire and onto the Mughals, there has been a strong strain of non violence and a sense of the pursuit of transcendence (India gave Buddhism to the World, after all) which gives them a general serenity that I find remarkable and charming.
Before you charge me with having a few too many Kingfishers, I’m not blind to some of the rough edges in their past. Karen and I visited the site of Gandhi’s assassination (of course by a Hindu nationalist upset by his tolerance of Islam), where the pain of the partition is particularly evident – there was violence on scale that dwarfs Aleppo. Talking to Indians today, that decision to create Pakistan in 1947 still rankles and methinks there might be a few more chapters to go on that one. All I’m saying is that India seems not to be an idea dependent on a particular religious creed, battle or sense of injustice (and, believe you me, they’ve had a few of those, particularly from us British), in great contrast to some European states I could mention.