The Glorious Past
The pre-Christian, pre-Islam period was the era of the pagans. And Hinduism was undoubtedly the leading force amongst them! Let me quickly add here that “pagan” is a poor adjective when it comes to describing Hinduism.
It is a word that reflects the Christian worldview which sorted everything pre-Christ into the broad category of “pagan”. No doubt, nature-worship and living in harmony with the environment is an inseparable part of the Hindu ethos, but calling it merely as a pagan religion does a grave injustice to the astounding heights of sophistication and complexity that Hindu philosophy had reached in describing man’s relationship with the natural and the supernatural.
The geographical spread of the Hindu civilization was at its peak around 1500-2500 years ago. This was the period when Hinduism was the dominant religion over a vast swathe of Asia that began from Afghanistan in the west and went up to the outermost islands of Indonesia in the East.
Civilisationally also, scholars agree that this was the golden period for Bharatvarsha under the Gupta dynasty from the third to the sixth century CE when Indic achievements in science and technology, mathematics, arts and culture, religion and philosophy reached their zenith. Economically, Bharat accounted for 25-30% of the world’s GDP and was renowned as “soney ki chidiya,” the Golden Sparrow.
However, this territory under Hinduism’s sway gradually began shrinking due to the birth of other new religions.
The spread firstly of Buddhism from 500 BC, and then of Islam from the sixth century CE onwards, steadily eroded the Hindu base. By a fortunate coincidence, the other new expansionist religion of this period – Christianity – spread mostly westwards from its point of origin and did not end up on the Indic shores for a long long time.
Though both Buddhism and Islam believed inactive and mass proselytization, there are notable differences in the way both the religions expanded. Buddhism was born within Bharatvarsh and grew outwards.
Soon, rulers began converting to the new faith, notably King Ashoka of the Maurya dynasty, the Kushan dynasty, etc and they helped in spreading Buddhism through trade and conquests. Towards the west of India, Buddhism found footholds in areas that are now under Pakistan, Afghanistan, and central Asia.
On the eastern side, it spread from Myanmar all the way to Indonesia. The devout and determined monks crossed over the great Himalayan barrier as well and took Buddha’s teachings to Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan.
The notable points about the spread of Buddhism were that the conversions were mostly peaceful and voluntary, and secondly, Buddhism, not being a monopolistic religion, never sought to eradicate the prevalent faiths of these lands.
Hinduism and Buddhism co-existed harmoniously for several centuries in most of these lands, sometimes even getting merged with each other.
Both these features were missing in the new alien entrant – Islam. The violent advent of Islam marked the beginning of the decline of both Hinduism and Buddhism on the western borders.
Iran, the Zoroastrian buffer state between Bharat and Turkic-Arabia, fell to Muslim invaders in seventh century CE and Islam came knocking on Bharat’s outermost frontiers in Afghanistan.
The period after that is well-documented. The next few centuries saw a series of invasions and raids from Central Asian general-conquerors beginning with Muhammad bin Qassim, followed by Mahmud Ghazni, Muhammad Ghori, and others.
With each victory, the invaders inched deeper into Bharat’s heartland and finally managed to take Delhi, establishing the Delhi Sultanate in 1206 AD. By this time, Afghanistan completely and Pakistan significantly were Islamicised.
The Sultanate lasted for nearly three hundred years till it was overthrown by the Mughal Babur in 1526 AD.
The unspeakable horrors and barbarism that were unleashed by these invaders on the Hindu populace, their temples, structures, and culture during the entire second millennium are well-known and seared into the collective memory of the Hindus.
While all this was transpiring on the western front, things were not looking too cheerful on the eastern side either. Buddhism had faced the same rout as Hinduism in Central Asia, but it had been entrenching itself ever more firmly in South-East Asia.
When the second millennium began, Hinduism still had large pockets of influence across South-East Asia. Though Buddhists co-existed with Hindus in this region, Hinduism was on an irreversible downward slide here as well.
For instance, the great Angkor Wat temple complex, dedicated to Lord Vishnu, was built in Cambodia in the 12th century CE. However, within two centuries of its completion, Cambodia had become almost entirely a Buddhist country.
It may come as a surprise to many that Indonesia was largely Hindu till as late as 1550 AD, though presently it has the distinction of being the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
Within the mainland, the Bhakti movement from the 15th century onwards gave much-needed support to Hinduism by simplifying the religion, removing its elaborate rules and procedures, and taking it to the masses.
But, by projecting God as a doe-eyed gentle, and kindly entity who is supposed to protect the devotee, it may have played a role in the emasculation of the Hindus.
So what is the point of repeating all this history here?
The idea is to force today’s Hindus to develop a geo-historical perspective. To make them appreciate the fact that the civilisational Bharat of yore was a much greater entity than current geographic India.
That there was a time when Hinduism was the single largest religion in the world that was followed by nearly a third of the global population.
In that age, Kashi-Mathura-Ayodhya perhaps had been aspirational pilgrimages for international Hindus and enjoyed a similar status to what is accorded today by Catholics all over the world to the Vatican and by Buddhists to Gaya-Sarnath.
How far we have slid down from that glorious peak!
The land area of what we today call India is one-third of the peak area that was part of the Hindu civilisation 1500 years ago.
Just one-third! We have lost two-thirds of the area that was under our socio-cultural influence! The most recent loss of territory was the 1947 partition, where we gave up another 25% of the pre-division landmass.
It can be argued that the 1947 event was merely the physical implementation and acknowledgement of the civilisational partition that had already happened in the preceding several centuries. But, the fact remains that we did lose a large piece of our land fairly recently.
While one can go on reminiscing about the greatness of our ancestors, we must realise that what we have today is the undeniable reality and no amount of basking in the reflected glory of the past is going to change the present. But we can try and change the future through our collective efforts!
So, what we need to do is:
- Re-learn our history in the right context, which has been attempted very briefly in this first part,
- Understand the reasons for our present situation, which will be covered in the second part, and
- Discuss the future course of our civilisation, which will be the subject of the final part of this series.
To be continued…
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