Review of Romila Thapar’’s ““Somanatha, The Many Voices of a History”

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Meenakshi Jain

Meenakshi Jain is an Associate Professor of History at Gargi College, University of Delhi. She was Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, Teen Murti. Her recent works include Parallel Pathways. Essays on Hindu-Muslim Relations (1707-1857). She is the co-author of The Rajah Moonje Pact. Documents on a Forgotten Chapter of Indian History.

A Review of Romila Thapar’’s
“Somanatha, The Many Voices of a History”
(Penguin 2004), Rs. 375

By
Meenakshi Jain
(Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teen Murti, Delhi.)

Indian Marxists, notwithstanding their claims to originality, have always been faithful followers of Western intellectual trends, often long after these were dated in the west. Thus, well after Western academics expounded upon European feudalism, Indian Marxists continue to search for point-by-point parallels between post-Gupta India and the West. Similarly the once-in-vogue notion of ‘imagined’ communities continues to bewitch our Marxist brethren who remain committed to fitting the history of the subcontinent to this maxim. Only the western rethinking on old patriotisms underpinning the new nationalisms has yet to win the allegiance of Indian Marxists.

As of now, they continue to argue that the genesis of the Hindu community dates back to only the nineteenth century and is inextricably linked to the competition for middle class employment. For a Hindu community, Marxists allege, became a requisite for political mobilization under colonial rule, when representation by religious community became the key to power and economic resources. Hence, Marxists want us to believe that though the peculiarly Hindu institution of caste existed from early historic times, the Hindu community itself did not then come into being. So, while Brahmins, Rajputs, Vaniks, Chandals and Doms evolved from amorphous entities to identifiable groups, the Hindu community as a whole did not emerge from its parts. The same was true of the Hindu tradition. Shaivites, Vaishnavites, Shaktas, Buddhists and Jains, all stretched back into antiquity. Yet Hinduismitself was claimed to be a nineteenth century western-inspired abstraction.

Romila Thapar’s “Somanatha, The Many Voices of a History” (Penguin 2004), represents one such attempt to reinvent the past. Inverting remembered history, Thapar dismisses notions of Hindu trauma over Islamic iconoclasm as a later-day fabrication. Rather, she alleges, in medieval times Hindu kings often vandalized temples and images, even if they did not surpass the Muslim record in this respect. Contemporary Hindu sources are silent about Mahmud’s attack on Somanatha, she assert, because “the looting of a temple (was) not such an extraordinary event, given that some Hindu rulers also attacked the temple of those they had conquered, or in order to confiscate the wealth of the temple.”

Thapar however ignores the pertinent fact that the alleged attacks by Hindu kings on images and temples did not rest upon any shastric commandment. In the few known incidents when images were taken away from enemy kings, the Hindu ruler honoured the idols thus acquired and built stately temples for them. As for the so-called Hindu destruction of Buddhist and Jain places of worship, even the evidence for such acts is vague and unconvincing.

Strangely for a historian, Thapar takes no cognizance of the Prophet smashing360 idols at Kaba and the Quranic injunction: “Fight them until idolatry is no more and God’s religion is supreme”. Artificially insisting that political and economic motivations superseded iconoclastic compulsions, she never explains why all Muslim (and not just Turk) attacks on temples always resulted in the desecration of idols. Indeed, Arab literature on Sind and Hind is obsessed with idolatry. The Arab rulers of Sind even sent cartloads of idols to Baghdad in lieu of revenue. The Turkish assault on Hindu idols was more thorough, as their Indian encounter was lengthier than that of the Arabs. Iconoclasm, as Thapar well knows, was a feature of Islamic polity till its very end; few rulers were an exception to this rule.

Mahmud’s assault on Somanatha electrified the Muslim world because it was viewed as a sequel to the Prophet’s action at Kaba. Muslims identified the Somanatha idol as that of Manat, believed to have been ferreted out of Mecca just prior to the Prophet’s attack on its temple. By destroying Somanatha, therefore, Mahmud was virtually completing the Prophet’s work; hence the act was hailed as “the crowing glory of Islam over idolatry”.

To establish economic motives for iconoclasm, Thapar contends that exaggerated reports of wealth motivated ghazis to join Mahmud’s Indian campaigns. But this ignores the evidence of early migration of Ghazis from Central Asia to eastern Bengal in service of the Crescent. Muinuddin, founder of the Chishti order in India, set up his headquarters in Ajmer, the heartland of the Hindu military aristocracy. Sufis participated in warfare in the Deccan during the 13th and 14th centuries, to extend the frontiers of Islam. The lure of lucre is difficult to discern in these cases.

Equally awkward is Thapar’s claim that substantial numbers of mercenaries in the Ghaznavid armies “were Indians, and, presumably Hindu.” Surely she does not suggest that the Turkish conquest of India was a Hindu-Turk joint venture?

Thapar views the construction and destruction of Somanatha as a “counterposed legitimation,” whereby re-consecration gave legitimacy to Hindu kings and destruction validated the Turkish Sultans. Surely this proves the conflicting value systems of the two communities. Marxists must explain why Turkish vandalism was almost always directed at non-Islamic objects, but not against mosques or other sacred architecture associated with rival Muslim kings. For instance, when Mahmud attacked the Ismailis of Multan, he did not destroy their mosque.

Thapar makes much of the contemporary Hindu silence on Somanatha as if, barring it, the Hindus catalogued every other instance of Islamic iconoclasm. The fact is that the Turkish intolerance of imagery deeply preoccupied Hindus. Medieval Hindu historiographical works, temple hagiographies (mahatmyas), site histories (sthala puranas), dharma nibandhas and even inscriptions, all bear witness to the experience of cultural disruption and desecration of the sacred by the Turks. Islamic iconoclasm layat the heart of the psychological rejection of the Turks (turushkas) and is central to the remembered medieval past of the Hindus.

Medieval Hindu literature grapples with the searing issues raised by Islamic iconoclasm. In the Ekalinga mahatmaya, the sage Narada enquires of the God Vayu how an image of God could be destroyed by Muslims if it was indeed God himself. Vayu responds that just as the demons had tried to harm Gods, so the Yavanas had a natural tendency to destroy divine images. Though they had the capacity to retaliate, the Gods understood that their conflict with the demons was eternal and that each was fated to suffer setbacks, for periodic dissolution of the world was part of the natural order. The Vimanarcanakalpa, a medieval priestly handbook of the Vaisnava Vaikhanasa school, lays down ritual procedures for burying images in times of danger.

The rich body of medieval Jain literature is notable for its strident assertion of the power of the faith and images to withstand the Islamic onslaught. Images that had retreated or gone into exile reappear more powerful than ever, and even those mutilated reveal increased ability to perform miracles. Jain literature discusses the entire gamut of problems related to image worship in the medieval era, including the appropriate medium in which to fashion icons in times of Muslim threat, the sufferings of the true faith in an age of declining virtue, the necessity of hiding images for safety, the divine order to unearth images and resume their worship, the smashing of images by “those wicked Muslims” and their final restitution through the agency of a devotee. Thapar overlooks all these concerns and equates Turkish iconoclasm with an imagined Hindu vandalism.

Notwithstanding her attempts to invoke the class factor, medieval Hindu literature associates all sections of society, viz., kings, saints, and ordinary devotees, with the heartbreaking task of protection and restitution of images in temples. The recovery of buried images invariably follows a divine communication to a humble cowherd. In the case of the Sri Ranganatha image, a female devotee follows the Sultanate army all the way to Delhi and is instrumental in the eventually retrieval of the idol.

Thapar makes much of a land grant by the Hindus of Somanatha to a trader from Hormuz for constructing a mosque some two centuries after Mahmud’s raid. Yet this Hindu gesture only reinforces the opposing perspectives of the two sides. While the Arab trader wished Somanatha might come to Islam, his Hindu hosts showed no desire to convert him, and facilitated the construction of a mosque so he could properly adhere to his faith. Thapar’s shoddy insistence that the gesture was dictated by the greed of Hindu traders for a share of the Arab trade is typical Marxist drivel. Events in the erstwhile Soviet Union (the former Mecca of those supposedly in the vanguard of the proletariat) prove that man does not live by bread alone. The overt manifestation of Christianity in Mother Russia (briefly the Soviet fatherland) should convince Marxists of the need for deference to the spiritual underpinnings of Indian civilization.

Going through Thapar’s bibliography, one is struck by a major omission. Though Thapar cites a volume recently edited by Sheldon Pollock, she studiously ignores two of his most seminal articles on the Islamic encounter with India. In the first, Pollock demonstrates that the period between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries represented a special historical juncture in which a Ramayana imagery became predominant in the public political sphere. And the Hindu rulers of the time deliberately styled themselves as Rama incarnates, dedicated to complete his mission against demon forces.

In the second article, Pollock shows that massive volumes of intellectual works emanated from the courts of Hindu kings around this time. At one level, these dharmanibandhas were digests on social-religious codes of conductfor Hindu society. In essence, however, they were a major reaffirmation of dharma which, for the first time since the writing of the dharmasastras, faced in the persona of the Central Asian Turks, a radically different and resolutely unassimilating social and religious formation. It would have been interesting to know Thapar’s response to such crucial observations.

Source: The Pioneer, 21st March 2004

 


Meenakshi Jain is an Associate Professor of History at Gargi College, University of Delhi. She was Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, Teen Murti. Her recent works include Parallel Pathways. Essays on Hindu-Muslim Relations (1707-1857). She is the co-author of The Rajah Moonje Pact. Documents on a Forgotten Chapter of Indian History.

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