History of Hinduism: The Medieval Period


by Jayaram V

Hinduism faced a very stiff competition from Islam during the medieval period. Free booters and plunderers from the harsh plains of central Asia and Persia descended upon the Indian subcontinent carrying in their hands the flag of Islam and in their hearts dreams of looting the vast and legendary treasures of the country and establishing great empires.

They occupied vast territories in northern India, plundered and destroyed many temples, traditions, practices and native kingdoms and tried to introduce the new religion among the native people with a zeal and enthusiasm that was totally alien to the native traditions and religious practices. Some of these rulers adopted very cruel and inhuman methods in their zeal to convert people to Islam. But they were hardly successful in their objective.

These rulers succeeded in establishing large empires in the subcontinent on the lines of Islamic traditions, in establishing their own system of political administration, taxation and jurisprudence, and in forcibly converting many to Islam either through the fear of punishment or the lure of royal patronage or elevation of their social status.

They also succeeded in imposing additional taxation on the people of other faiths, inflicting undue suffering on Hindus through persecution and biased treatment as a part of their religious propaganda, and thereby reducing many rich Hindu families to utter penury and social degradation so much so that some of them had to do menial jobs in the Muslim households to eke out a living.

But despite all the suffering and cruel treatment, despite all the temptations of joining the new creed, despite their losing power prestige and status, despite the insults and ignominy they had to bear, majority of the Hindus clung to the religion of their ancestors and remained steadfast in their devotion to the gods of their ancestral land. Many preferred to die honorably than converting to the new faith.

Amidst this political turmoil and religious bigotry, the followers of Hinduism remained largely intact, rooted in their traditions, accepting suffering and social disabilities as a part of their lives. It was a sign of bad days or Kaliyuga, of bad karma or some divine retribution for their past misdeeds.

The Muslim rulers who ruled the country during the medieval period were largely unaware that what they were dealing here were not the people but a tradition and faith that were much more stronger, sturdier and steadier than their own political power.

Even those who accepted Islam as their new religion either under some political or economic compulsion, or willingly on their own, could not completely align themselves with the alien thought and culture because of their old mindsets and the deep rooted influence of their former religion. Into the new religion they marched willingly or unwillingly with a new faith, but with a mind set that was peculiarly Indian and traditional.

They were the new converts, the neophytes, with new hopes and enthusiasm, but with minds already conditioned by age old traditions and beliefs, from which there was hardly any escape. What happened to them mentally and socially, what conflicts went on in their minds as they adjusted themselves slowly to the new religion, only history, if it has a voice of its own, can tell.

The Mughal rulers who came to power subsequently and established their domain far and wide in the subcontinent, except for some parts in the south, were not much different from the previous Muslim rulers in their attitude towards the native rulers whom they killed quite mercilessly and forced a great number of people to convert to Islam. Though modern historian tend to be sympathetic towards these rulers and often describe them in glorious words, a careful reader of history would not miss the element of disgust and contempt these rulers most often showed towards idol worship and other religious practices of the native population. It is difficult to believe and conclude that these rulers were tolerant.

Babar the founder of the dynasty is credited with instances of destroying many Hindu temples and waging wars in the name of Islam. A lilliput in the politics of central Asia, who would have otherwise died an unknown death somewhere in the snow clad lands of Central Asia, the incompetent Indian rulers of his time, made him truly great and famous by their pathetic lethargy, internal quarrels and their singular unwillingness to give a serious and united fight to this intruder.

His successors, Humayun and Akbar were no less cruel towards Hindus. Although historians tend to favor Akbar with a great deal of Catholicism, he too had his own share of atrocities perpetrated against innocent Hindus in the earlier days of his regime.

He married many hindu wives not because he liked Hindus or their methods of worship, but because that was how he declared his supremacy as the emperor in charge to the weak and vacillating Rajput chieftains of his time. what more greater satisfaction would there be for a ruler of his stature than to marry these helpless hindu women and force them to serve him and produce children for him? He also killed many hindus during his wars with uncompromising Rajputs, decimating at times whole armies.

It is true that he allowed the weak Rajputs to occupy prominent places in his administration. But again this was done not because he liked Hindus, but because he had little faith in the loyalty of his Muslim noblemen who were for ever scheming against him. It is a fact that his own uncle Bairam khan, his childhood friend Adamkhan, and his own son Salim were unhappy with him and tried to finish him politically as well as physically.

In the later part of his life he turned to other religions for inspiration. He even tried to establish a new religion of his own called Din-Ilahi. But we have reasons to believe that his Din-Ilahi was more a product of his megalomania or wishful thinking than a serious attempt to start a new religion. It is hard to believe that Akbar had ever reconciled himself with Hinduism or with any other religion. To listen to Christian teachings or allowing his wives to celebrate indian festivals in Fatehpur Sikri, in no way prove that he had the same attitude towards his Hindu subjects in political matters. A shrewd emperor, he knew when to punish them and when to ignore them. At the most he was like an American farmer of 18th Century who would not advocate abolishment of slavery, nor would like free his slaves, but for some personal or selfish reason would be kind to them!

His successors Jehangir and Shahjahan were very cruel rulers who never missed an opportunity to punish the Hindus. Jehangir executed a Sikh guru and destroyed many temples and idols. His successor, Shahjehan, was more intolerant than even Jehangir. Though he built the beautiful Tajmahal, he had no liking for the Hindus and put many to death.

His son Aurangazeb was even more cruel. He made it a state policy to persecute the Hindus openly, subjecting them to all possible methods of harassment. Under him Hindus suffered greatly. His short sighted religious policy in a way proved to be the undoing of the Mughal dynasty. A series of rebellions broke out during his time and shook his empire. The Marathas under Shivaji and the Sikhs in the Punjab under Banda gave him a lot of trouble. With his death, the Mughal dynasty began to decline, under the weight of its past misdeeds and the increasing resistance from the Hindu ruling classes, especially the Marathas in the south.

From the time Islam entered the country it was inevitable that the two religions would clash and challenge each other. While the two religions weighed and watched each other suspiciously as well as curiously, the broadminded as well the enlightened among both sections of society tried to find similarities among the two religions and worked for religious harmony.

They were probably more successful than the Delhi Sultans or the Mughals in fulfilling their objective. Many ancient Indian scriptures were translated into Persian and Urdu, the new language of the land slowly became a popular native language in its own right.

The Islamic art and architecture, music and cuisine, modes of dressing etc, found their way into the Indian milieu, while Hindu art and architecture found ready patrons among the Muslim nobility. The Sufi saints found acceptance among the Hindus, while many of the native traditions were continued to be followed by the new converts to Islam.

During the medieval period, Hinduism witnessed a great and silent revival through the rise of bhakti movement. Bhakti or devotion to a particular God became the central theme of many social and religious reform movements of this period.

This movement laid particular emphasis on devotion and surrender to God as the best way to attain salvation. It set aside knowledge and asceticism as the means for salvation and took up devotion as the best and the easiest path to achieve the same.

The rise of bhakti was very timely and momentous in the religious history of Hinduism because it not only protected the religion from degeneration but also enabled the masses to participate in it. In all fairness we must say that instead of destroying Hinduism, Islam strengthened it. It helped Hindus to come together and regroup themselves silently and religiously. By challenging its tenets, it helped Hindus to look at their religion afresh and strengthen its weaker aspects.

Many prominent personalities like Shri Ramanuja, Shri Ramananda, Nimbarka, Shri Vallabhacharya, Shri Basava, Lord Chaitanya, Mirabai, Tulsidas, the Nayanars and Alvars of south, Shri Namdev, Shri Chandidas and Vidyapati, Sant Tukaram and many more played a key role in the bhakti movement.

Through their sincere efforts and total devotion to God, they raised the religious fervor of the masses, bringing God closer to their homes and hearts. They completely relied upon simple faith and total devotion as the best means to protect Hindu Dharma from destruction.

Bhakti movement also contributed to the rise of devotional literature. Many of the scriptures and epics were translated into native languages, as Sanskrit was slowly losing ground to other languages due to absence of royal patronage. Tulsidas translated the epic Ramayana into Ramacharitmanas. Shri Surdas composed the Sursagar containing devotional hymns depicting the childhood exploits of Lord Krishna. Many famous literary figures from the south translated the epics into vernacular languages.

In south, Hinduism found great patronage among some strong and powerful rulers like the Rayas of Hampi and Gajapatis of Orissa. These rulers aware of the political situation in the north, did their best to prevent the Muslim rulers from entering deep into the south and also worked for the welfare of Hinduism. Themselves great devotees, they encouraged religious activity among their subjects and were responsible for the construction of many temples in their kingdoms.

Another momentous event of this period was the birth of Guru Nanak in 1469 in the region of Punjab, whose teachings gave raise to the formation of a new faith called Sikhism. Sikhs played a very prominent role during the medieval period and along with Hindus they stood against any unjust treatment in the hands of Mughal emperors.

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