The Mughal Influence on Vaisnavism, Part 43

BY: SUN STAFF - 4.4 2019

Mughal Equestrian 
Rajasthan, 18th century

A serial presentation of the Mughal effect on Vaisnava society.

One of the points that we have made repeatedly throughout this series is that history is written from the viewpoint of the observer, then told and retold according to the interpretation of successive consumers of that history. This has been particularly emphasized in reference to the Mughal Emperor Akbar, who is often cast in the light of a benevolent invading dictator, particularly by those serving as apologists for Islam.

Before proceeding with our study of Akbar's reign and his influence on Vaisnava India, we would like to first offer a few key examples of how Mughal history is misstated by modern historians and pro-Muslim writers. This subject has been covered by many analysts, some of whom have critiqued textbooks that are used in school curriculum on Indian, Muslim, and Mughal history.

Vishal Agarwal has deconstructed the writings of Wendy Doniger in her book "The Hindus, an Alternative History", and makes a number of points that were previously touched upon in this Sun series. For example, he points to this statement from Doniger's book (pg. 550):

"It is a simple fact that contemporary Hinduism as a living practice would not be what it is if it were not for the devotional practices initiated under the Mughal rule. Amitava Ghosh (1956 - )"

We pointed out a similar comment made by author William Pinch, whose writings we critiqued in Part #30 of this series. Pinch wrote:

"As I suggest in the chapters that follow, the devotional meanings and styles that we today associate with being Hindu were coming into shape in the Mughal and late Mughal period."

Taken on their face, these really are quite extraordinary statements. In the lexicon of these authors, modern Vaisnavism is included under the umbrella of "contemporary Hinduism". But which of our devotional practices supposedly came from the Mughals? None, of course.

We don't know what the source of William Pinch's comment was, but in his analysis of Doniger's book, Vishal Agarwal offers the following explanation of the above quote:

"Doniger quote these words of Amitav Ghosh (an English fiction writer) from an introduction that Salman Rushdie (another English fiction writer) wrote to an English translation of Babar's autobiography published recently.[1] Rushdie's so called introduction is nothing but a political sermon discussing 9-11, Afghanistan, Babri Masjid etc.

The fact that Doniger has to rely on a second hand quote of an English fiction writer by another English fiction writer to suggest that Hinduism flourished under the Mughals and that the Mughals somehow contributed to the development of Hinduism is not just poor scholarship, but sad, mischievous and agenda driven. In fact, Amitav Ghosh's views are found online (at in the leftist magazine "The Little Magazine" and we reproduce them in extenso and critique them in Appendix 1.

The Hindus constituted an overwhelming majority of the population of the Mughal Empire, [2] and it would be an insult to their intelligence to even suggest that Hinduism could not undergo any natural, internal developments (despite hindrances) during the period of 200 years from 1500-1700 CE. Moreover, Doniger's suggestion also overlooks the fact that the developments in the Hindu society during this period were largely a continuation of the Bhakti traditions that originated in Hindu peninsular India even before Islamic armies invaded India. In many cases, Hindu saints or their families from areas outside (or nominally under) the Mughal rule had migrated to north Indian Hindu pilgrim centers out of religious piety and gave a fresh lease of life to Hinduism there. Examples include Vallabhacharya, Ramananda, Namadeva, Chaitanya etc. who originally hailed from peninsular India or Bengal (outside the Moghul rule)."

Actually, if we take Doniger's quote exactly, she does not refer to the progression of Hinduism's growth, or as Agarwal puts it, 'Hinduism flourishing', rather she refers to the 'living practice' of contemporary Hindusim as it relates to the 'devotional practices' initiated under the Mughals. There is an important distinction to be made between practices (religious acts) and growth (the adoption of those practices).

In the case of Vaisnavism, what is most relevant about our living practice is how successfully we adhere to the ancient Vedic practices – the execution of pure devotional science as handed down by the Supreme Personality of Godhead in disciplic succession. This has absolutely nothing at all to do with the presence of the Mughals, or even with growth in the number of adherents.

Another statement made by Doniger (pg. 551) that Mr. Agarwal takes to task is this one:

"Devotional Vaishnavism flourished under the Mughals in the sixteenth century in ways that are foundational for subsequent Hinduism."

Agarwal writes:

"A basic and fundamental rule of statistics is that a positive correlation does not imply cause and effect relationship.

How would Doniger explain the fact that Sikhism flourished under the Mughal rule even though several Mughal Emperors tried to persecute the Sikh Gurus (Babur, Jehangir, Aurangzeb, Farrukh-Siyar etc.)? Or how would she explain why Shavism and Shakta Hinduism did not flourish under the Mughals? Is it because the Mughal persecuted Shaiva and Shakta Hindus, or is it because the growth of devotional traditions of Vaishnava Hindus had nothing much to do with the attitude of Moghuls towards them?

Therefore, to suggest that Vaishnavism flourished under 16th century Moghuls is misleading because it suggests some sort of a cause and effect relationship between Moghul patronage and the growth of Vaishnavism.

As a counter to Doniger's claim, it can be pointed out that none of these dozens of Vaishnava Saints of medieval India lived in the same space or time as the Moghuls (or were arguably outside of Moghul influence) – Mirabai, Namadeva, Jayadeva, Purandaradasa, Chaitanya, Bhadrachala Ramadas, Kanakadasa, Jnaneshwar, Narsi Mehta, Annamacharya, Jana Bai, Shankar Dev, Poontanam, Narayana Bhattadiri, Samartha Ramadas, Vallabhacharya, Prativadi Bhayankara, Eknath, Chandidas etc etc. If all these Saints could have flourished outside of Mughal rule, then it is incorrect to attribute the growth of Vaishnavism during the Mughal rule to the Mughals.

Tulsidas was patronized by not Akbar, but by his devotedly Hindu noble Raja Man Singh. In his Dohavali, Tulsidas laments that in the Kaliyuga, the 'Yavans' (a category that would have included Akbar) have become the rulers of this earth. Surdas supposedly met Akbar but the Emperor is not conclusively known to have patronized the saint. Some Hindu nobles and a few others patronized the Vrindavan Goswamis.

But, after the relatively peaceful interlude (for Hindus) of 100 years covering the reigns of Akbar, Jehangir and (portions of) Shah Jehan, it was back to square one for Hindus – destruction of temples, Jaziya (poll-tax on infidels), discrimination for administrative posts, forcible conversions etc. And even these three Emperors periodically oppressed the Hindus for religious reasons."

In the segments to follow we'll continue to look at some of the historical makeovers that are now being memorialized in the writings of modern academics.



[1] Wheeler M. Thackstron, The Baburnama- Memoirs of Babur, The Modern Library (2002)

[2] Even Emperor Jehangir (1605-1627) notes that 5/6 of his subjects were Hindus. Note that his empire included just the northern half of India (with the exception of the kingdom of Ahmadnagar), practically the whole of Pakistan, much of Afghanistan and western half of Bangladesh. The last 3 now have 88-100% Muslim majority today.