Islamic perspective

Composite culture: celebration of Indian unity


Composite culture is celebrated by some and denounced by others. The purists of all religions denounce the concept of composite culture. They accept nothing short of 'pure Hindu' or 'pure Islamic' culture. The pure culture, needless to say, divides while composite culture unites the people of a country.

The separatists are quite uncomfortable with composite culture and hence culture develops its own politics. And in democracy culture is highly politicised. Until the advent of the British, composite culture was the ruling culture in India, particularly at the level of the masses. Even at the level of ruling elites composite culture was widely prevalent particularly during the Mughal period. We would throw more light on composite culture little later. But with the advent of the British rule in 19th century a new politics of culture started. The elites of the two communities i.e. the Hindu and Muslim communities began to assert purity of their respective culture in order to generate separate and sharply defined identities.

The need for sharply defined identity was felt when the British introduced local elections. The Shuddhi and Tabligh movements started asserting purity of Hindu and Muslim cultures flying in the face of empirical reality. In fact except in a few pockets no such pure culture ever existed. Both the masses and the elites had liberally borrowed from each other's traditions for centuries. It was not only in the field of arts, architecture, cuisine or attires but also in the field of religion and religious beliefs.

The question is: in a multi-religious or multi-cultural society, is it at all possible to have 'pure' religious or cultural traditions in any community? Obviously not. If people of diverse religious beliefs and cultural traditions co-exist to-gether how can their practices remain pure? It would indeed be a Herculean effort to maintain ones purity. The Ulama and the Brahmins were determined to maintain this purity. But, on the other hand, the Sufi and Bhakti saints were trying their best to evolve composite trends.

While the Brahmins and the 'Ulama wrote in Sanskrit and Arabic respectively, the Sufis and Bhakti saints wrote in local language, or even dialect. Baba Farid or Kabir or Sant Tukaram all wrote in local dialects and hence were much closer to the people. Popularity of these saints was indeed tremendous and these saints helped evolve a composite traditions. Among Muslims Mujaddid Alf Sani, a contemporary of Jehangir who stood for purity of religion and culture and wanted to purge Islam of all Hindu influences, was hardly known among the common masses, let alone being influential among them. His influence was limited to a section of nobles of Jahangir's court.

While Mujaddid, a purist, was unknown among the people, Sufi saints were greatly popular and influential precisely because they identified themselves with the popular traditions and never opposed blending of Hindu and Muslim customs, practices and beliefs. Similarly while the Pandits in Benaras and other holy places kept their distance from popular practices, sants like Kabir, Gnaneshwar and Tukaram not only identified themselves with the masses but also faced severe persecution at the hands of these Pandits. And ultimately it is these Sufi and Bhakti saints who became so popular that even great rulers were envious of them.

We would give some examples of composite culture which forged unity among the people and which is our valuable asset and heritage that will bring about greater cohesion among the people of India. We find quite illustrious examples of composite culture as far back as 13th and 14th century, or even earlier.

Khusro, the celebrated disciple of Nizamuddin Awliya the great sufi saint and a great Persian poet, a poet laureate of Sultanate period, was a great upholder of composite traditions. He became quite popular as he wrote in local dialect and at times even combined it with Persian verses. One line used to be in Persian and one line in the boli i.e. local dialect. He was also an inventor of ragas and musical instruments. He lived in Delhi and was so proud of this great city that he compared it with other cities of the world, specially of the Central Asia and proved Delhi's superiority. He compared the flora and fauna of India with those of other countries and observed that India was unparalleled in this respect. He described the beauty of peacock in detail and said that no such bird of great beauty existed anywhere in the world.

Ras Khan and Rahim, similarly, wrote in Avdhi and local dialect and adored Indian traditions and even expressed devotion for Lord Krishna, a Hindu god. For that matter even Hasrat Mohani, a noted Urdu poet and a great freedom fighter, used to visit Brindaban on Janmashtami regularly. Similarly Indian festivals were jointly celebrated by Hindus and Muslims throughout centuries. The Hindus, for example, participated in observation of Muharram and Muslims in celebration of Ramleela. Even some Muslims would play the role of Ram or Hanuman in the religious drama.

Even today such examples are aplenty. Sixty year old Abdul Rashid Ismail of Baroda, Gujrat, for example, has been described by many as 'confluence man'. He is a Muslim by birth and a Hindu by virtue. He is a devotee of Lord Ganesha and is an official priest of the little Ganesha temple in the M.S.University premises. He is a Sanskrit scholar with impeccable command over shlokas and he performs the daily morning and evening puja at the temple. "I am the Muslim Brahmin here", he says. He is popularly known as chacha (uncle) on the campus.

In Bombay we have another Sanskrit scholar Mr. Ghulam Dastgir. He has in depth study of Vedas and is invited all over India to give lectures on these scriptures. He also showed me the Sanskrit translation of the Holy Qur'an, something not generally known. He is highly respected figure among many scholars of Hinduism.

Similarly I met a deputy director of the Institute of Indian Foreign Trade in Delhi Mr.Jyoti Pande who has been greatly influenced by Shiah Islam and is a great devotee of Imam Husain, the grandson of the Holy Prophet who was martyred in Iraq in 62 A.H. Jyoti Pande, who hails from a family of musicians from Madhya Pradesh, recites elegies to Imam Husain in chaste Urdu in Indian Ragas. I was wonder struck when I heard him sing marsiyah (elegy) written by the great poet Anis in Bangalore. His passion is to video film the rituals of azadari (mourning for Imam Husain) in various shiah Imambaras in India.

Going back to medieval India Guru Nanak was greatly influenced by both Hinduism and Islam. In fact his religion is a creative synthesis of both. One of the close associate of Guru Nanak was a Muslim and many Ragis i.e. singers of Guru Granth Sahib were Muslims from Punjab until partition. Guru Nanak visited many holy places of Islam including Kaaba, the holiest of the holy mosques in Islam. He is also reported to have visited Baghdad where his footprint has been preserved. When the foundation stone of Har Mandir was to be laid, a Muslim Sufi Mian Mir was requested to perform the ceremony.

Recently the Bababudangiri shrine became controversial in Karnataka due to agitation by the VHP. This shrine also represents the composite religious traditions in the region. This shrine has both a burial place for a Sufi saint and a Hindu deity Dattatreya Peetham. It is under overall charge of a Muslim keeper. The VHP attacked the dargah precisely to 'liberate' it from the influence of a Muslim keeper. The VHP wants it to be a 'pure' Hindu shrine.

The Haji Malang Dargah in Kalyan is looked after by a Brahmin family of Ketkar. For ages this Brahmin family has been in charge of this Dargah. The present keeper is Kashinath Gopal Ketkar. The Shiv Sena in Thane region, however, claims that it is not dargah but a samadhi of Shri Machhindarnath, a Hindu ascetic. Earlier the Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Parsis used to celebrate the urs (death anniversary) of Baba Malang together. Now on every urs day the state has to deploy a huge police force to avoid communal clashes.

The Mughal rulers used to celebrate various Hindu festivals with great fanfare. the Holi, which often results in our own time in communal tension, was celebrated on grand scale by the Mughal emperors. On that day Ahmed Shah bin Mohammad Shah (1748-1754) used to arrange for dancing and singing. All the nobles of the Mughal court used to participate in these celebrations. Shah Alam II (1759-1806) also observed the festival of Holi on a grand scale. Nawab Asaf-ud Daula of Avadh also observed this festival with great enthusiasm. If we read the poetry of Nazir Akbarabadi, a noted Urdu poet from Agra we see that as late as nineteenth century the Muslim courtesans, nawabs and feudal lords, used to observe the festival of Holi in particular.

Coming to our own times in Indian villages such composite traditions are very much alive. I would like to cite example of a village from Kutch known for its rich culture and devotion to gods and goddesses. Thikariyah - a small village under Wankaner taluka inhabited by Hindus is a great example of communal harmony. It is a village with a difference since the entire population of 2,200 Hindus assemble once in a year, in the month of Ashadh, at Pir Dargah, to celebrate the urs of the Muslim saint Asmal Pir by offering Chadars and Dhwajas (sheets of clothes and flags). Every family contributes Rs.2 per head and 250 grams of food grains for preparing 'lapsi' (a sweet porridge) and without any distinction of caste, creed or religion they sit together and eat the porridge. The Pir commands great respect of all villagers and the sole family of Muslims is the seventh generation Mujavir (keeper) known as Haji Shah Gigashah.

Many more such examples can be given from other villages. In Marathwada region of Maharashtra, for example, there are two neighbouring villages, one inhabited entirely by Muslims. It has a Hanuman temple which is maintained by Muslims of the village and contribute money every year to celebrate the temple day. Some Hindus of neighbouring villages visit on that day and they are fed by the Muslims. Similarly the neighbouring village has only Hindus and has a Dargah. The dargah is maintained by the Hindus who contribute money to maintain it and to observe the annual Urs.

The composite culture is far more widespread even today than is generally realised. This has been vividly brought out in a recent study conducted by the Anthropological Survey of India under the 'People of India Project.' According to its findings, Indian Muslims share a very high percentage (96.77) of material and cultural traits relating to ecology, economy and occupation with Hindus. And the ratio of shared traits between Muslims and Sikhs is 89.95 per cent and between Muslims and Buddhists 91.95 per cent.

This empirical study of our composite society clearly proves that the project of cultural nationalism is without any roots in our society and can hardly carry conviction with the common people. It is bound to remain confined to the exponents of Hindutva. It also falsifies those who expounded the two-nation theory.

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