Had India not been Invaded by Muslims

I shall not now speak of the knowledge of the Hindus. . . . of their subtle discoveries in the science of astronomy — discoveries even more ingenious than those of the Greeks and Babylonians — of their rational system of mathematics, or of their method of calculation which no words can praise strongly enough — I mean the system using nine symbols. If these things were known by the people who think that they alone have mastered the sciences because they speak Greek they would perhaps be convinced, though a little late in the day, that other folk, not only Greeks, but men of a different tongue, know something as well as they.

Severus Sebokht, Syrian astronomer-monk (662 CE) Cited by A.L. Basham in The Wonder that was India.

. . . .and the Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no king like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs. They are haughty, foolishly vain, self-conceited and stolid. . . . They are by nature niggardly in communicating that which they know, and they take the greatest possible care to withhold it from men of another caste among their own people, still much more of course from any foreigner.

al-Beruni in Tahqiq Ma-lil-Hind (Translated by Edward Sachau)

I. India Before Muslim Invasions

What if Muslims had not invaded the Indian subcontinent?[1] To answer this question, we should go back to the state of India before the arrival of Islam through traders and invaders. The subcontinent was no stranger to invaders, particularly those who came from Central Asia, Iran, and Afghanistan through the passes in the north-west and the west. The only exception were the Arab invaders of Sindh who came through the sea or the Makran coast. Arab traders were doing business on India’s west coast before the arrival of Islam. In the second half of the seventh century, Hindu rulers in Kerala allowed the Arab (Muslim) traders to settle and follow their own faith. Moplahs of Kerala are descendants of the Muslim converts of that period.

The problem with history is that as we go back in time the evidence and accounts get murky if not entirely unreliable. It is especially true of events before the age of the written word. The written word also came in so many different forms: inscriptions, coins, legends, and religious texts. We know far less about the Indus Valley civilisation at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa than we do about Alexander’s invasion of India (327–325 BCE) and the Maurya empire (322–183 BCE) in the days of Ashoka. After Ashoka’s death in 232 BCE, from about 200 BCE to 300 CE, there were several kingdoms contesting, expanding, and contracting in northern India. Some have called this period as India’s “Dark Ages”: cycles of order and disorder. The Dravidian south started to emerge in history in the second century after Christ. Tamil country was divided into three kingdoms. Cholas on the Coromandel coast, Cheras on the Malabar coast (Kerala), and Pandyas at the tip of the peninsula. These kingdoms were in a constant state of war. The Jain and Buddhist saints had visited the area before Christ. The Tamil — not really Aryanised — was “wild, heavy drinker, devotee of fierce gods, grave warrior.” This changed with Aryan penetration, but Dravidian instincts survived. Tamils invaded Sri Lanka and had sea-faring contacts with South-east Asia, going back to the second century BCE. In the first century after Christ, they had good trade with Egypt and the Roman Empire.

Let us turn to India’s history before the arrival of Islam. But first a few words about religion and caste in India.

1. Religion and Caste

In Hinduism (Brahmanism), the criteria of Vedic orthodoxy lie in conduct and not in belief. The criteria are:

1. Deference and support of the Brahman.

2. Acceptance of one’s caste.

3. Participation in rituals, festivals, and pilgrimages.

4. Propitiation of familial or local deities.

The principles of Dharma (piety, morality), karma (retribution for the deed done) and samsara (transmigration of souls) were in the Upanishads and shared by Buddhism. Brahmanism evolved in India after the invasion (migration) of the Arya — it means language and not race — pastoralists (cattle rustlers) from Central Asia, between 1500 and 1300 BCE. They moved into the Gangetic plain between 1100 and 1000 BCE and into the peninsula in around 800 BCE. On entering India, the Arya met the indigenous people they called Dasa, darker in colour hence inferior. The Arya-speakers did not have a caste system. Nor did they treat cow as sacred; they ate cows occasionally. They had three classes: priests (Brahmans), warriors (aristocrats) and the common people. Their class system transformed into a caste system after they encountered the indigenous (inferior) people. The Sanskrit word for caste is Varna (colour). The system crystallised into four castes.[2]

1. Kshatriya (warrior or aristocrat)

2. Brahman (priest)

3. Vaishya (trader, cultivator)

4. Shudra (Dasa or mixed Dasa and Arya)

The mythical origin of the caste system is in one of the hymns of the Rig Veda.[3]

When the gods made a sacrifice with the Man as their victim. . . .When they divided the Man, into how many parts did they divide him?. . . .What was his mouth, what were his arms, what were his thighs and his feet called? The Brahman was his mouth, of his arms were made the warrior. His thighs became the Vaishya, of his feet the Shudra was born. With Sacrifice the gods sacrificed the Sacrifice, these were the first of the sacred laws. These mighty beings reached the sky, where are the eternal spirits, the gods.

Brahmans achieved the top position because they claimed that they alone can assign divinity to the king and give religious sanction to the caste system.[4] The sub-caste (Jatti) relationships were based on occupations within the framework of the caste system. Caste became hereditary and with the close connection between the sub-caste and occupation, there was an automatic check on upward mobility. Since most villages were autonomous and economically self-sufficient the caste system regulated the daily rhythm of life though not always rigidly. Several unorthodox sects emerged in around 600 BCE. Two puritanical sects, Jainism and Buddhism, became independent religions and played an important role in the history of India until at least the tenth century after Christ. The basic tenets of Jainism, propagated by Mahavira, were that God is irrelevant; everything has a soul; soul cannot be purified by knowledge but by being a monk (ascetic); every life is sacred hence practice extreme non-violence. The founder of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha, preached that salvation or freedom from the wheel of rebirth — suffering caused by craving for things — can be achieved by following the ”Noble Eightfold-path”.[5] Buddha, like Mahavira was atheist, anti-caste, and pacifist. Both Jainism and Buddhism were popular with the urban mercantile class. While the followers of both religions in India shrank in number, Buddhism spread in Sri Lanka, China, Tibet, and South-east Asia.

In both northern and southern India, the devotees of Brahminic religion followed the cults of Shiva and Vishnu. Brahmans gained more power, castes became more rigid, and the mercantile class became weaker. However, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas were not rigid in their adherence to caste rules. Several mixed castes had developed. Jainism was strong in the west, Rajasthan, Marwar and Gujarat and Buddhism in the east but it was losing support. (Buddhism and Jainism were religions mostly of the mercantile class.) The Hindu military theology did not accept the principle of non-violence (ahimsa) of Jainism and Buddhism. Non-violence held appeal among the followers of the devotional cults in southern India.

2. Conditions in Northern India

In our context, a good starting point is the Gupta empire (320–540 CE) in northern India. It is significant for several reasons. First, it was the second biggest empire India had known after the Maurya empire. Second, unlike the highly centralised Maurya empire, it was a feudatory state. Third, during this period several invaders, Kushan (Yue-chi), Shaka, Pahlava (Parthians), and the Hun, came into India from Central Asia through the north-west. Finally, the Gupta period is called the “Golden Age” of northern India. In southern India, the “Golden Age” came after the Guptas. Guptas were perhaps large landowners in the Magadha region (southern Bihar). The dynasty’s founder was Chandra Gupta I (319–335) who rose to power by marrying a princess of the powerful Licchavi tribe. He expanded his control west up to Allahabad and his successors largely restored the splendor of the Mauryas.

Chandra Gupta’s successor, Samudra Gupta (335–375), made Pataliputra his capital and expanded his territory from Assam to Punjab. His inscription in Allahabad says that he “violently uprooted” no less than nine kings in northern India. The tribes of Rajasthan and others in the borderlands paid him tribute. Samudra also invaded the south-eastern part of the peninsula up to Kanchipuram. The defeated kings paid him tribute after they were reinstated. He couldn’t defeat the Shakas who controlled Malwa and Kathiawar from Ujjain — they had ruled the region for over 200 years. Samudra’s younger son Chandra Gupta II (375–415), defeated the Shakas and annexed western India. With that all of northern India was under the Guptas. In the peninsula, Chandra Gupta made a matrimonial alliance with the Vakataka dynasty on the west coast and other dynasties in the Deccan. The only exception was the north-west that the Shakas and Kushans occupied. His reign was a “Golden Age” — it was probably the best time politically and culturally — as described by Fa-Hsien, a Buddhist traveler from China. According to him, the administration was mild and the country peaceful. The upper caste was vegetarian, but others ate meat. Buddhism was flourishing, but theistic Hinduism was widespread. Jainism and Buddhism had positively affected the society’s character. Needless to add, Kalidasa, the great poet, was part of Chandra Gupta’s court.

Chandra Gupta II was succeeded by his son, Kumara Gupta (415–454), who preserved the empire. He also revived the horse sacrifice like his father. But towards the end of his reign, Huns (Hunas) invaded India from the north-west — they kept coming until the middle of the sixth century. Kumara’s son, Skanda Gupta (455–467) was able to keep the Huns at bay, but his fight against the invader started to weaken the Gupta empire. There was an economic crisis and the feudatory governors and kings with hereditary rights rebelled against the emperor. Central authority broke down. Soon Guptas had only titular power beyond Magadha and Bengal. In the fifty years after Skanda, the Gupta empire broke up into smaller kingdoms. Towards the end of the fifth century the Huns broke through into India. They ruled from Afghanistan (Bamiyan) up to central India. Two of their mighty rulers were Toramana and his son Mihirakula who was a great persecutor of Buddhists. In 534–535, Narasimha Gupta drove Mihirakula from the plains into Kashmir where his tyranny knew no bounds. The Hun threat eventually came to an end for the rest of India. But the Hun incursions completely destroyed the Gupta rule by 540 CE. Another Gupta line ruled the Magadha region until the eighth century.[6]

In the sixth century, there were sixteen major dynasties and numerous lesser dynasties. Dynasties multiplied in the next five centuries. Territory shrank and dynasties weakened. Fragmentation was the norm. The religious and secular land grants led to a feudal system in which subinfeudation created layers of intermediaries between the king and his subjects. They weakened the king’s authority and impoverished the peasant. There is a gap between the fall of the Gupta dynasty and the rise of Harshavardhana (606–646) of the Pushyabhuti family. In northern India, there were four kingdoms vying for territory and power.

1. Guptas of Magadha (not related to the other Guptas)

2. Maukharis (capital at Kanauj)

3. Pushyabhutis (capital at Thanesar)

4. Maitrakas (capital at Valabhi in Gujarat or Saurashtra)

Of these kingdoms, only Maitrakas in Gujarat survived up to the middle of eighth century when they succumbed to the attacks by Muslim Arabs. At the margin of these four kingdoms there were numerous smaller feudatory states or principalities fighting each other for territory. The centre of interest in the late sixth century was Thanesar where a king of the Pushyabhuti family had made successful raids in the west. At this time, the second Gupta line and Maukhari were each other’s enemy — the Pushyabhuti king, Prabhakaravardhana, had relations with both of them. The Pushyabhuti king died when the Guptas and Maukharis were at war. His successor, Rajyavardhana, went out to help the Maukharis and Sasanka, the Gauda king of Bengal, came to the help of Guptas. In the war, Rajyavardhana and his brother-in-law, Grahavarman, king of Kanauj, were killed. After the death of the king of Kanauj, his nobles asked Harshavardhana (known to us as Harsha), the second son of king Prabhakaravardhana in Thanesar, to combine the two kingdoms and move his capital to Kanauj.

Harsha’s reign began in 606 and lasted for 41 years. Hsuan Tsang, a Buddhist pilgrim from China, and Bana, a Sanskrit biographer, have left a good account of Harsha’s rule. Harsha had Buddhist sympathies. That may be the reason why he took over Bengal from Sasanka, its anti-Buddhist ruler. Harsha’s kingdom stretched from Kathiawar to Bengal in northern India. He failed to get a hold in the Deccan; he tried but was defeated by Pulakesin II of the Chalukya dynasty. Harsha travelled throughout his empire several times to keep in touch with his subjects. He was a man of culture, wrote poetry and plays. While Harsha became pro-Buddhism, aggressive Hinduism and its practices were getting forceful and Buddhism was on the decline. The Chinese pilgrim also noted that law and order deteriorated during Harsha’s long reign.

Harsha’s kingdom in the north was a loosely connected confederacy of many small kingdoms with a feudal structure. He could not build an empire because of certain economic and social conditions.

· Local administration was largely independent of the central authority. The provincial and district administrators were the links between the local and central administration.

· Villages had local councils, headmen and elders.

· Similarly, city administration was represented by guilds of merchants, artisans, and the chief scribe.

· While in theory all land belonged to the king, the system of land grants to Brahmans and the state officials in lieu of cash payments — salaries in cash were paid only to the military personnel — gave rise to a feudal structure. The land grants to Brahmans and Buddhist monasteries were tax-free. The secular land grants were hereditary but their owners had to pay taxes. The land-grant system weakened the authority of the king and exploited the peasant. The feudatory state created layers of intermediaries, thanks to subinfeudation, between the king and his subjects. In fact, this feudal system was a major source of instability in the Hindu kingdoms and the impoverishment of peasantry.

· The caste system combined with the hereditary occupational structure reinforced the self-sufficient economy of the village with little room for trade and industry.

Harsha’s fall started when some disaffected Brahmans attempted to kill him. He died in 646 (647) and with him the kingdom. His throne was usurped by one of his Brahman ministers. The usurper mismanaged relations with the Chinese who raided northern Bengal. After Harsha, the confederate kingdoms let their allegiance to lapse. The subject dynasties started to resume their old rivalries. Northern India turned into a state of confusion. In the meantime, the second Gupta dynasty revived. Adityasena Gupta was the most important king in the second half of the seventh century. He was also the last king to perform the Vedic horse sacrifice. Early in the eight century — when the Muslim Arabs had conquered Sindh — Yasovarman, an upstart took over Kanauj but was soon dislodged by Lalitaditya, the king of Kashmir.

In the next two centuries, northern India was divided between two great dynasties: Palas of Bihar and Bengal and Gujara-Pratiharas of Kanauj. Palas extended their kingdom west and occupied Kanauj. The Pala power reached its zenith under the long reign of Dharampala (770–810). His son, Devapala (810–850) kept contact with the kings of Sumatra. The Pala kings patronised Buddhism and during their reign it spread into Tibet, though it was waning in India. The Gujara-Pratiharas, whose origin was Rajasthan, ruled in the north with Kanauj as their capital during the ninth and tenth centuries. They were able to contain the Arabs in Sindh and Multan. The two powerful kings of the Gujara-Pratiharas were Mihira Bhoja (840–885) and Mahendrapala (885–910) who pushed back the Palas and became the overlords of northern India up to Bengal. But Pratiharas were weakened by repeated invasions by a third dynasty: the Rashtrakutas from the Deccan. They occupied Kanauj temporarily in 916. Their attacks against the Pratiharas distracted the latter’s attention from the north-west where the Turkish (Muslim) forces were gathering to come into India. While Pratiharas were able to regain their capital, Kanauj, they never recovered their power while their feudatories grew in strength at their expense.

Rashtrakutas were a family that had taken power from the last of the Chalukya kings in the Berar (Nagpur) region. A senior member of this rising family was Dantidurga who took advantage of the death of Vikramaditya II in 747 and enlarged his territory, including southern Gujarat, northern Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh. Rashtrakutas defeated the Chalukyas. When Dantidurga died childless in 756, his uncle Krishna I took over the reign of power. Krishna conquered Karnataka subdued the Gangas in Mysore and took over the western coast. His sons conquered Vengi on the east coast from Eastern Chalukyas who made a matrimonial alliance with Rahtrakutas. When Krishna died in 773, Rashtrakutas were masters of the Deccan. They did not go into the extreme south, nor beyond the Vindhya hills into the Gangetic plain. Their Arya-Verta was the Doab between the Godavari and Krishna rivers in the Deccan. But under Dhruva the Rashtrakutas moved north in 780. He first secured the southern border by rubbishing the Gangas and the Pallavas. Then he crossed the Narmada river, conquered Malwa and along the Chambal river moved into the Gangetic basin and headed to Kanauj.

Kanauj was the centre of the northern empire since the days of Harsha. But in the eighth century it was a capital without empire — the ruler was a puppet of the contesting kingdoms of Palas from the east and Gujara-Pratiharas from the west. With the arrival of Rashtrakutas from the Deccan, it became a three-way contest. For almost two centuries each of them laid claim on Kanauj as a victor. Palas remained victorious in the Arya-Verta (Ganga-Jamuna Doab) for one century from the early eighth to the early ninth. Their rivals, Gujara-Pratiharas, are much celebrated in the Hindu history for protection against Islam. As the Pala kingdom retracted under Devapala’s successors and the Rashtrakutas were indifferent, the Pratihara king, Bhoja I (836–886), in Kanauj had control of the territory from Gujarat to Magadha and Bengal. The Pratiharas lost their kingdom in 950 to the Chandelas of Bundelkhand. Kacchawas of Gwalior and Tomars of Delhi followed them: they were all feudatories of Pratiharas!

Rashtrakutas intervened in the north, first between 780 and 814 and much later under Indra between 914–928. They had built their empire in the peninsula and secured it before coming north. Their first capital was Ellore in northern Maharashtra, where they built the cave and free-standing temples. The Kailasa temple, a marvel, is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Like all empires, the Rashtrakutas were assaulted by the rising Cholas in the south and by the Paramaras, erstwhile feudatories of Pratiharas, in the north. By 980, Rashtrakutas became insignificant and the Deccan Arya-Verta ended with them.[7] The simultaneous decline of Pratiharas, Rashtrakutas and Palas is not surprising. They had similar large-size armies and their source of revenue was land. Wars had put equally unbearable pressures on the armies and revenue. Their fight over Kanauj gave their feudatories the opportunity to become independent. The attacks from the north-west (by Turks) and from the south (by Cholas) ended the three dynasties in the north. There were some smaller states left and many local principalities.[8] The foothills of the Himalayas had several hill states. They fought each other but remained independent of the plains. Kashmir started to expand in the seventh century and controlled a major part of northern Punjab.[9]

3. Conditions in Southern India

Let us now turn to the Hindu kingdoms in the peninsula. In the south, the Vedic culture from the north competed against Jainism and Buddhism and the cults of Vishnu and Shiva. The Vedic rituals were sacrificial. The devotional cults emphasised the personal relationship between the deity and man. Jainism and Buddhism gave way to these cults. Tamil saints became the centre of devotional cults — they ignited the Bhakti movement which spread throughout India. Its motto was: love of man for God as was love of God for man! The Vishnu and Shiva saints took precedence over the Vedic gods. The Tamil devotional culture was an expression of resistance against Aryanisation (Brahmanism). The use of Tamil language against Sanskrit and Prakrit was another expression of the non-Brahman castes. Tamil saints rejected rigid caste structure: non-Brahmans can also have knowledge! Dancing and hymn singing were part of the temple ceremonies. But the temples still excluded Shudras and the outcastes. The cave and free-standing temples of Buddhism and Brahmanism at Ajanta and Ellore are impressive. The murals in Buddhist temples are equally great.

In the south, conflict between warring kingdoms lasted for centuries. There were four contesting kingdoms — there were several lesser kingdoms as tributaries vying for power — from the middle of the sixth to the mid-ninth century when the Cholas of Tanjore rose to power.[10]

1. Chalukyas of Badami (Hyderabad)

2. Pallavas of Kanchipuram

3. Pandyas of Madurai

4. Cheras on the Malabar coast (Kerala)

In the middle of the sixth century, the western and central parts of the peninsula were controlled by Chalukyas. They built their kingdom on the ruins of the Vakatakas — they had started to decline after the Guptas. Pulakesin II (609–642), the Chalukya king, expanded his kingdom on the west coast going north, conquering the Malavas in Malwa and Gujaras in Rajasthan; he established a viceroyalty in Gujarat. He had crossed the Narmada and threatened Harsha and his confederates. Pulakesin then moved east taking Orissa and reached the Bay of Bengal. On the way he had taken Andhra Pradesh as well. He moved south on the eastern coast and subdued the Pallavas but left them in Kanchipuram. He moved further south crossing the Kaveri and conquered Cholas in the Kaveri delta, Pandyas of Madurai and Cheras of Kerala. Pulakesin was now master of all lands south of the Vindhya hills — the entire peninsula was under his paramountcy.[11]

For a century the peninsular kingdoms fought each other. Pallavas, whom Pulakesin II had left in Kanchipuram, rose against Chalukyas. Their king Narasimhavarman I destroyed Badami and defeated Pulakesin II. For about eight years after the death of Pulakesin in 642 there was much confusion among the Chalukyas. Then one of his sons Vikramaditya I struck against the Pallavas but was repulsed from taking Kanchipuram. Eventually his great-grandson, Vikramaditya II, conquered Kanchi in 740. Pandyas had good relations with Pallavas as did Cheras of the Perumal dynasty of Kerala. Cheras were also hosts to the Muslim Arab traders from the seventh century. They allowed them to settle and do trade. The Pallava dynasty survived the Chalukyas by one century. But in the ninth century their power had waned because of Pandyas. By the end of the century the Pallava territories were annexed by Cholas of Tanjore, who were once the feudatory of Pallavas. Pallavas were great builders of grand temples and seem to have encouraged the Aryan institutions in the south.[12] In the seventh century, Chalukyas were divided into eastern and western branches, but the western branch was dispatched by the Rashtrakutas in the next century. Chalukyas recovered their lands in the Deccan in 973 and controlled the region until the twelfth century when their empire was divided between the Yadavs of Devagiri in the north Deccan, Kakatiyas of Warangal in the eastern part, and Hoysala of Dorasamudra in Mysore.

The rise of Cholas in the south in the ninth century was remarkable. They were Dravidians from the Kaveri delta and were vassals of Pallavas from sixth to ninth century. Their ambitions revived as Pallavas were engaged with Chalukyas, Pandyas and Rashtrakutas. In the late ninth century, King Aditya I (870–906) managed to defeat the Pandyas and get the Pallava territories. He built numerous temples on the bank of the Kaveri. His son, Parantaka I (906–953) improved his father’s digvijaya. But in 949 the Rashtrakuta king Krishna III defeated him and captured Tanjore, the Chola capital. Cholas revived their power with the accession of Rajaraja I (985–1014): he defeated Pandyas and their allies Cheras of Kerala. The two became his feudatories. He then invaded Buddhist Sri Lanka, caused much destruction there, and then took over Maldives and other islands. Rajaraja built one of the most impressive temples, Rajarajesvara, in Tanjore — perhaps the largest and the best in India. Rajaraja’s son, Rajendra I (1014–1042) fought against the eastern and western Chalukyas. While the eastern Chalukyas became his allies, Rajendra was brutal against the western Chalukyas in Bijapur. His armies plundered and caused destruction on a large scale.[13]

In 1020, Rajendra I sent one of his generals to Vengi (Andhra Pradesh) and then to Orissa (Kalinga) against the eastern Ganga dynasty. From Bhubaneshwar, he moved north towards the Ganges. He defeated the Buddhist Mahipala I of the revived Palas in Bengal and took booty including women. The major trophy was the water from the Ganges which was delivered to Rajendra at Godavari from where he carried it home! The purpose was to build the Arya-Verta in the south. Rajendra called his new capital Gangaikondacholapuram. There is now no trace of that city; only a temple stands. Rajendra was not done. In around 1025, he launched a naval expedition to South-east Asia, Nicobar islands, Sumatra and the Malay peninsula. The intent was to get hold of the Malacca straits from the Buddhist kingdom of Srivijaya. The reason may have to do with trade and religion, or just plunder in Keda on the Malayan peninsula. Rajendra ruled for 33 years, during which time he expanded the Chola empire and made it the most respected Hindu “state of the time”. But he failed to subdue his immediate neighbours, Pandyas and Chalukyas, in the Deccan. Sri Lanka was lost by his successors in 1070. But they sent missions to China and maintained relations with the Buddhist kingdoms in Burma and Cambodia and also with Keda. The Chola dynasty lasted until the early thirteenth century. Their territory was shared by Hoysalas of Mysore and the revived Pandyas of Madurai.[14]

In the south, centralised power was not feasible. Geography was one factor. The other was the feudatory system. Only Cholas were able to control their feudatories to a large extent. In the Chola administration, the cult of god-king was promoted and royal patronage was used extensively. Officers were recruited by considering, family, caste, and qualifications. There were 8–9 provinces. Each province had districts. The districts were divided into groups of villages. Village was the basic unit of administration as in the Gupta empire. However, in the Chola kingdom, villages were far more autonomous. Each village had three kinds of assemblies. State taxes were collected by the general assembly. Land grants to Brahmans and officers made them intermediaries between the king and peasants who cultivated the land. These intermediaries collected share of the king in the revenue. As in northern India, feudatories had become a political force and were not subservient to the king. They weakened the power of the king and oppressed the peasants. Most villages were self-sufficient: little surplus was produced for exchange or trade. But by the eleventh century both on the east and west coasts trade became significant and the economy was monetized: use of coins was getting more common. Merchant guilds controlled the trade.

The centre of social and cultural activities was the temple. Temples were built by donations from the king, merchants, guilds, and villagers. Their maintenance was organised on a large scale. Some of them had hundreds of workers and dancers on payroll. Caste consciousness was ubiquitous. Society was divided between Brahmans and non-Brahmans. In southern India, among the non-Brahmans, Shudras were the prominent caste. But they were not allowed into the temple, though Ramanuja, leader of the Vaishnava movement, was against this practice. The non-Brahman castes besides Shudras were quite fluid. Brahmans wanted rigidity, but it was not practiced. There were clean (non-polluting) and dirty (polluting) Shudras. Brahmans enjoyed both religious and economic power — they had land, paid no tax, and had royal support. Slavery was common: slaves were used for domestic services or attached to temples. The fall of Jainism and Buddhism in the south was due to the emergence of the devotional cult and the cults of Shiva and Vishnu. There was seemingly a compromise between the Vedic Brahmanism and the devotional cults. The devotional cult centred on the direct relationship of the individual with God: salvation was through devotion to God. In the south, besides Sanskrit, Tamil literature developed quite distinct and lively personality. Also new languages branched out from Sanskrit: Marathi from the local Prakrit and the Dravidian roots for Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada — they all have Sanskrit vocabulary.

4. India’s Feudalism

Feudalism was one of the major reasons for the instability and fragmentation of the larger Hindu kingdoms, first in the north and then in the south. The king usually enjoyed greater power than feudatories because of the Brahman support, the principle of hereditary kingship, the divine-based authority, and the king’s obligation to the warrior caste. One of the problems was that the king did not have direct contact with the subjects. Their loyalty turned to the feudatories. King’s obligation to protect them did not matter much. The feudatories were not homogeneous: some were more powerful than others. The non-Brahman feudatories had come with military power. The Kshatriya caste (especially Rajputs) developed elaborate codes to engage in war and find excuses. Land and caste gave them power and position (nobility).

The king granted the revenue in various proportions to his officers or selected holders of land (vassals). Secular land grants in lieu of cash salaries intensified the feudal process.[15] Land was cultivated by Shudras who were tied to the land and had to give a fixed proportion — ranging from one-sixth to one-third and sometimes more — to the landholder. The cultivators had to pay other taxes as well. The feudatory could hire out his land assignment to cultivators and collect revenue, part of which he retained and part he gave to the king. He was expected to maintain feudal levies from his share of the revenue. These feudatories had their sub-feudatories: there was a hierarchical structure. This was certainly the case in the Gupta period. Feudatories had other obligations besides sharing the revenue with the king. Supplying the army when needed was the most important. With time it became more significant because the kingdoms were frequently at war with each other. Land grants were first given to Brahmans and Buddhist monasteries who neither paid any tax nor provide military service. The king did not give all land in grants. Some were crown lands administered directly by his officials. The land grants given to feudatories did not mean that they owned the land: only the revenue from that land was granted. King could confiscate the grant if the holder failed to meet his obligations. While in theory the land grant was not hereditary, in practice it was especially when the king was weak. The wealth of the king and feudatories was not used for trade or manufacturing but for conspicuous consumption. The number of sub-feudatories led to the diffusion of income from land and also weakened the king and the cultivator. Feudatories also started to grab common land in the villages. While the feudal system relieved the king from maintaining a central administration, feudatories became lords of the territory assigned to them.

Villages were self-sufficient: there was little surplus for trade outside the village. Peasants had no incentive to increase production. The village assemblies or councils — their role included making decisions about local issues and problems and assisting king’s officials — had lost some power. The village panchayats (councils) were replaced by panchayats of each caste. They almost died in the land-grant areas. Specialisation of labour in the rural economy led to the proliferation of sub-castes (Jattis). The caste dilution weakened political loyalty. Towns did not grow by much and the guilds became weaker. The only group that prospered were the moneylenders. Peasants got increasingly into debt, hence remained tied to land. Only on the two coasts of the peninsula there was prosperity because of trade with the Middle East and South-east Asia. But the trade with South-Asia was falling.

II. Muslim Invasions of India

Now let us look at the arrival of Muslims on the subcontinent. Arab traders had been doing business with the two coasts of the peninsula long before the rise of Islam. In the second half of the seventh century, Hindu rulers on the Malabar coast (in Kerala) allowed the Muslim traders to settle in the port cities. These settlers and their clerics were the main source of conversion of the indigenous people to Islam — Moplahs are their descendants. At about the same time, Arabs sent sea expeditions to Thana (near Bombay), Broach (Kathiawar) and Debal (near Karachi) but they were unsuccessful. The story of the first successful Arab expedition to Sindh on land through the Makran coast is a bit murky. There are two versions. One is that this expedition was an unprovoked attack on the Chach kingdom of Sindh. The other version is that the expedition was sent to retrieve some Arab women and men who, while travelling from Sri Lanka to Basra in Iraq, were captured by (Med) pirates near Debal. One or two sea expeditions sent earlier to Debal had achieved nothing. So, in the year 711, Yusuf ibn Hajjaj (694–714), the Governor of Iraq, sent a military expedition under the command of his seventeen-year-old nephew Muhammad bin Qasim (695–715) to annex Sindh. The expedition came to Debal via the Makran coast. Qasim and his army defeated Raja Daher, who died in the war in 712. Next year they conquered Daher’s kingdom stretching from Debal to Multan, between the Suleman range in the west and the Thar desert in the east. The Arab rule in Sindh lasted for 300 years; its expansion beyond Sindh was frustrated by the Hindu kingdoms in Rajasthan and Gujarat.[16] Though the Arab rule in Sindh was quite unstable it was not insignificant.[17] Another important point is that the Arabs did not use force to convert people to Islam. Muslim mystics (Sufis) and clerics (Ulama) played a major role in the proselytisation process.

I should add that Raja Daher’s father, Chach, was a Brahman who had usurped the throne from the legitimate King of the Rai dynasty. Chach acquired control of various parts of Sindh by force and cunning. He died in 674 and his son Daher succeeded him. The population of Sindh was divided between Hindus and Buddhists — the latter group was in fact dominant. It was not a time of peace or unity in the kingdom. One of the reasons for Daher’s defeat was the political division among the political elite. Another reason was simply the difference between the weaponry and military strategy of the two armies. Added to this was the fact the Arab forces had a mission whereas the locals were deeply divided hence their morale was low. The point that intrigues me is why no other Hindu king came to the help of Daher, say from the north in Punjab or Kashmir or from the east in Rajasthan and Gujarat? I have found no satisfactory answer to this question. I suspect the Hindu rulers in the neighbourhood were too busy fighting each other or were not certain of their power compared to that of the Muslim invader. They were probably also aware of the risk of revolt by their feudatories.

The first Muslim (Turco-Afghan) invasion of the subcontinent from the north-west was in the last decade of the tenth century. But first a few words about Islam in Persia, Afghanistan, and Transoxiana. The Arabs defeated the Sasanid ruler in 642 and became the masters of Iran. By the year 712 they were in Samarqand and by the middle of the eighth century they had conquered Khurasan, Balkh and Transoxiana. But they were not able to subjugate Kabul or any part of the Suleman range. There is evidence that Muslims and non-Muslims had established contacts in the north-west: some Muslims had settled in the Hindu Shahiya kingdom. The Arab ruler of Seistan captured Kabul in 675 and founded the city of Ghazni at the same time. But his successor lost the city to the Shahiya king. In the meantime, Samanids, a new Iranian dynasty, rose to power with their centre in Bukhara. Under them, the Turkish slaves gained much power. One of these, Alptigin, rebelled against his Samanid masters and established himself at Ghazni in 962.

At this time, the north-western part of India was ruled by the Hindu Shahiya dynasty. Their capital was in Waihind (Mardan district) near Peshawar. Their rule extended to Kabul in the west and the Beas river in the east. In 977 Subuktigin, another Turkish slave and son-in-law of Alptigin, became the ruler of Ghazni. He started to expand his tiny kingdom in the adjacent areas in Khurasan, Seistan and Lamghan (Jalalabad). Jaipala the Shahiya king was alarmed and moved towards Ghazni. In the battle, Jaipala was defeated and agreed to pay a large indemnity to Subuktigin. But he defaulted and tried to avenge his defeat. Jaipala was defeated again and had to cede the area between Lamghan and Peshawar. Subuktigin was no defender or propagator of Islam: he never crossed the Indus and the only two expeditions he undertook were intended as measures of reprisal and securing his dominion. He however paved the way for Mahmud (971–1030), his aggressive son, to march into India. Mahmud raided the subcontinent seventeen times between 1001 and 1027. He made Ghazni, a small town in modern Afghanistan, the envy of cities in splendour with the booty he acquired from plundering Hindu temples and shrines in India.

Subuktigin died in 997. His son Mahmud ascended the Ghazni throne after a bit of struggle against competitors. In the year 1001, he defeated and captured Jaipala who committed suicide. His son, Anandpala, formed a league of Hindu princes against the invader, but their disunited and unwieldy forces lost to the enemy. Mahmud launched his raids into India: plundered and destroyed several temples in Kangra, Thanesar, Kanauj, Mathura, Bundelkhand, and Somnath in Kathiawar.[18] He annexed Punjab and Sindh where he removed the Ismaili ruler in Multan. After the sack of Kanauj the Pratihara dynasty disappeared. Mahmud also put the Chandelas down and forced them to pay him tribute. For 150 years after Mahmud, who died in 1030, northern India did not face another Muslim invader from the north-west. Apparently, the Hindu kings did not learn the lesson from Mahmud’s raids.[19] At the end of the twelfth century, there were three chief kings in northern India. Prithviraja of Chauhans, Jayachandra of Gahadavalas, and Paramardideva of Chandelas.

The next Muslim invader of India was from Ghor in Afghanistan. The Ghori dynasty annexed Ghazni and the Ghaznavid possessions in India. Then they turned their attention to the Hindu kingdoms. Prithviraja of the Chauhans defeated Muhammad (Shihab ud Din) Ghori (1149–1206) in the first encounter at Tarain in 1191, but the raja was defeated and killed in the second battle in 1192. Muhammad went back to Ghor and left one of his generals, Qutub ud Din Aibak, who moved east and occupied Delhi. The capture of Delhi was the beginning of the Muslim rule in India that lasted until the mid-eighteenth century. Neither Mahmud nor others who followed him used force to convert Hindus or Buddhists to Islam. This was left largely in the hands of mystics and clerics. The Sultans of Delhi and their successors did, however, use policies and methods that discriminated against non-Muslims and even persecuted them. Conversion to the new faith was in any case attractive to the low or oppressed castes and the Hindu opportunists to get jobs and attain status.

III. India without Muslim Invasions

We can say that in the eleventh century the subcontinent was hopelessly divided in the twilight of Hindu rule. In addition to the major kingdoms, there were numerous feudatories that were independent of their overlords or revolting against them. John Keay has put it aptly. “Lesser feudatories nibbled at greater feudatories, kingdoms swallowed kingdoms, and dynasties devoured dynasties, all with a voracious abandon that woefully disregarded the shark-like presence lurking in the Punjab.”[20] There were several factors underlying the highly fragmented state of the subcontinent. One was the feudatory structure of the state in which the king and his subjects (peasants) were at the mercy of the holders of land grants and their sub-feudatories. The second factor was the self-sufficient economy of the village which left little room for trade or industry outside the village. The third factor was the caste system, one aspect of which was the hegemony of the Brahmans and Kshatriya castes at the expense of the Vaishyas and Shudras. The other aspect was the occupational division of the caste itself. The fourth factor was that the kingship was supported by Brahmans as divine and hereditary — few kingdoms were republican and few kings were not either Kshatriya or Brahman. Finally, communities were competing against each other on the basis of ethnicity (Dravidians and Aryans) and religion, Vedic Brahmanism, Buddhism, Jainism, and other cults.

The evidence is clear and copious: Hindu kingdoms showed no sign of unity against the Muslim invaders. Had these invaders not come, would these kingdoms have any reason to stop fighting each other? I think not. The subcontinent would have continued to be a patchwork of fiercely contesting big and small kingdoms. Were there any internal forces in their feudal structure to wean them away from a perpetual drama of war, plunder, and destruction? Three scenarios come to mind.

1. The Hindu kingdoms would have continued to fight each other, “big fish eating the small ones,” and the “small sharks killing the big whales.” Perhaps until the arrival of Europeans on India’s shores.

2. Only a few kingdoms would survive, after subjugating others, and find a modus vivendi for the well-being of their subjects.

3. A third possibility is that the dynastic kingdoms would have transformed into constitutional monarchies or even republican states with or without feudal institutions. These institutions could have been dismantled by deep reforms or swept away by repeated revolts.

However, in these scenarios, I do not see the subcontinent emerging as a “nation state”. India would have been the home of multiple states, of which the number and structure are hard to speculate. We know that the subcontinent was unified for a while only once before the arrival of Muslims — that was under the Maurya empire, long before Christ. After Ashoka the empire soon broke up into many kingdoms with competing claims. The fact is that India as a politically united entity was the work of the British after 1757 when they defeated Siraj ud Daulah at Plassey in Bengal. There never was national consciousness in India before the twentieth century.

The Hindutva project of a major political party in today’s India is primarily a delayed cultural backlash against the long Muslim rule and everything associated with it. It is also a movement — I will not call it revivalist — harking back to a mythical past and not the real one before the arrival of Islam in India. Even a cursory reading of history from the times of the Mauryas reveals that the subcontinent was never united under one banner until after the arrival of the British. The Hindu kingdoms were almost always on each other’s throat even when the first Muslim invaders started to grab territory and expand their control of the subcontinent. What could have brought peace between these kingdoms and united them?

[1] The subcontinent includes today’s India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal.

[2] The so-called Untouchables (Dalits) were added later to the caste system.

[3] Cited by Romila Thapar, A History of India.

[4] Kingship in India was claimed to be of divine origin and hereditary. Rule according to Dharma and the animal (horse) sacrifice were essential part of the orthodox (Vedic) creed. The Hindu kingdoms were mostly dynastic, but some were ‘republican’. Similarly, not all kings were from the Kshatriya caste; some were Brahman and even Shudra.

[5] It includes right views, right aspirations, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right contemplation.

[6] Huns were attacked by the Turks and Persians in Bactria. After Huns, Gujaras, came into India from Central Asia and settled in the north and western regions. It is from the Gujaras that most of the Rajput clans descended and established strong dynasties in Rajasthan. These newcomers had replaced the martial tribes whom the Huns had dispersed or destroyed.

[7] Cholas of Tanjore had a similar plan to build the Arya-Verta in the mouth of the Kaveri river. They did not get the chance to water their horses in the mighty Ganges. The first Muslim incursion into India from the north-west came in the early eleventh century. The real Arya-Verta (Ganga-Jamuna Doab) would be violated by Mahmud of Ghazni.

[8] These states were: Nepal, Kashmir, Kamarupa (Assam), Utkala (Orissa), Eastern Chalukyas, Gangas in Mysore, and Chalukyas (Solanki) of Gujarat.

[9] In the eleventh century, Bhoja of Dhar (near Indore) was ruler of Marwar. He was from the Paramar dynasty of Rajputs. He was unable to expand his kingdom because of Chalukyas in the west and the Deccan and Chandelas in Bundelkhand. Bhoja was a lover of knowledge and himself a poet.

[10] The seesawing of kingdoms in the south had two good reasons. First, they were more or less balanced politically and militarily. Second, they were feudatory and not centralised states: layers of intermediaries existed between the king and his subjects and the villages and towns were autonomous run by local councils and guilds.

[11] The descendants of Pulakesin’s brother will later be called eastern Chalukyas and merge with the Cholas in the eleventh century.

[12] Building temples and shrines was an expression of piety and authority. Pulakesin II built an impressive temple in Karnataka in 636.

[13] The Chola kings behaved somewhat like Mahmud of Ghazni: plunder the enemy brutally and distribute the booty generously among the subjects — a necessity for support.

[14] Muslims were now entering the peninsula led by Ala ud Din Khilji (1296–1315) and his general Amir Kafur. A new Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar was founded after the Muslim raids (1336). Vijayanagar dominated the area from the Krishna to the south. It was able to resist the Bahmani sultans of norther Deccan. This Hindu kingdom survived until the sixteenth century and even later. Visitors to the state capital were impressed by its splendour. Krishna Deva Raya (1509–1529) was a formidable foe of Muslims. But the kingdom was waning in the reign of his successor Acyuta (1529–1542). In 1565, Rama Raja, def facto ruler of Vijayanagar was defeated by the Deccan sultans and its capital sacked. It was the last Hindu kingdom in the south until the rise of the Marathas in the western Deccan in the late seventeenth century.

[15] See Ram Sharan Sharma, Indian Feudalism. Sharma gives an impressive account of feudalism and its consequences for the state and society, starting from the Gupta period to the eleventh century. He summarises (pp.195–196): “Never before was land donated to secular and religious beneficiaries on such a large scale; never before were agrarian and communal rights undermined by land grants so widely; never before was the peasantry subjected to so many taxes and sub-infeudation; never before were services, high and low, rewarded by land grants in such numbers as now; never before were revenues from trade and industry converted into so many grants.”

[16] Junaid, who followed Muhammad bin Qasim, tried to expand the Arab territory into Rajasthan, Malwa and Gujarat, but his raids were just that and no more. After Qasim’s departure from India in 713, the conquered territory was nominally under the Caliph until 870 when the allegiance was broken. It was then divided between the Sunnis in the south and Ismailis in the north until Mahmud of Ghazni removed the Ismaili ruler from Multan in the eleventh century.

[17] It encouraged trade on the west coast and new settlements on the east coast and in South-east Asia; allowed cultural assimilation; helped improve the quality of leather and camel breeds; and made it possible to translate Sanskrit texts into Arabic and transfer them to the Abbasid court in Baghdad.

[18] al-Beruni said the following about Mahmud’s raids.

“Mahmud utterly ruined the prosperity of the country, and performed their wonderful exploits, by which the Hindus became like atoms of dust scattered in all directions, and like a tale of old in the mouth of the people. Their scattered remains cherish, of course, the most inveterate aversion towards all Muslims. This is the reason, too, why Hindu sciences have retired far away from those parts of the country conquered by us and have fled to places which our hands cannot yet reach, to Kashmir, Benares, and other places. And there the antagonism between them and all foreigners receives more and more nourishment both from political and religious sources.”

[19] In Kanauj and Benares, a new dynasty Gahadavalas managed to build a prosperous kingdom. In Rajasthan, Chahamanas (Chauhans0 of Ajmer rose to prominence and power. The Chandelas of Bundelkhand grew in power. In Gujarat, the western Chalukyas (Solankis) — they were Jains — ruled. In Malwa, the Paramara dynasty flourished — their legendry king Bhoja (1018–1055) was an accomplished scholar and builder. Madhya Pradesh was ruled by the Kalacuri dynasty. In Bengal, Palas were replaced by the Senas, who were followers of orthodox (Vedic) Hinduism and fiercely anti-Buddhist.

[20] John Keay, p.225.

Retired professor of Economics, Simon Fraser University, Canada

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Mahmood Hasan Khan

Mahmood Hasan Khan

Retired professor of Economics, Simon Fraser University, Canada