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Syncretic Traditions Prior to Medieval Times

The twin elements of South Asia's social heritage – syncretism (Syn-together, cretein-to believe) and plurality- are not synonymous or interchangeable. It is possible, or certainly conceivable, for societies to contain features of syncretism without being plural, and vice versa. The strength of the traditions contained in the South Asian social structure is that they are plural and syncretic. Plurality here refers to multiplicity of traditions articulated mainly in terms of religions and languages. And this plurality is syncretic in the sense that they all share common elements; they interpenetrate each other like overlapping circles; they merge into each other at the edges; and yet they retain their separateness. Again this plurality is not inherently syncretic or composite; it is a uniquely Indian feature. It is precisely this Indian uniqueness that has baffled western scholars since the last century. The British ethnographers, at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, looked only at India's plurality, overlooked the interconnectedness of these traditions, and declared India to be a fragmented society. They focused only on the tip of the social structure, from where Sub-continent's plurality was visible to them, but the interconnections were not.

It is also not the case that certain institutions of South Asian social structure have been plural whereas certain others have been syncretic. Two instances would demonstrate how South Asia's social institutions have combined the two features. It is a truism to state that South Asia is a land of many religions. Whereas the indigenous ancient traditions of Brahminism, Buddhism and Jainism continued, many others arrived from different shores, like Zoraastrianism and Christianity. Christianity, it may surprise some, arrived in South Asia before it took roots in Europe. Islam and Sikhism added to the list in the medieval times. The important thing is that whereas all (with the possible exception of Jainism) these traditions have remained intact, they have all developed common features. According to the People of India Survey, all the major Indian religions have a caste structure: Hinduism has about 3000 caste groups, Islam around 500, Sikhism and Christianity have 150 the same number of caste groups. Caste has therefore emerged not just as a Hindu institution, but rather as an Indian institution. This alone makes Indian Islam different from the classical Arabic Islam; it is more Indian than Arabic, yet it remains essentially Islamic.

Language is another area where both syncretism and plurality are manifest in a combination. According to the famous Linguistic Survey of India, conducted (by the leading linguist George Grierson) in the late 19th and early 20th century, Indians spoke a total of (at least) 179 languages that reached out to include 544 dialects. This alone made India a truly multi-lingual society. But all the dialects and languages, it was pointed out, were products of only four language families (Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Austric and Sino-Tibetan). What is more, most of the major Indian languages have sprung from a similar linguistic stock and share many common features. Yet there has been no linguistic fusion and it would be absurd, even today, to talk of only one Indian language. It is this tradition, which has come under a systematic assault for the last two decades. This assault is geared towards undermining, and eventually destroying, all those institutions that have nurtured the elements of India's composite heritage. Hence the desecration of over 268 Sufi shrines in Gujarat. In order to protect and nurture this heritage, it is necessary (though far from sufficient) to first capture its essence, and this can best be done through the rubric of language and literature; Sufi and Bhakti traditions; fine arts, architecture, music and painting; and the freedom.

The world of literature and language bears a testimony to our composite culture, more than anything else. From the 12th century onwards, Indian literature flourished in most parts of the country in a continuous and unbroken chain. It was difficult, if not altogether impossible, to identify this literature on the grounds of religion and nationality. The only distinction that could be made was between the classical literature, written in Sanskrit and Persian, and the rest. Amir Khusro (1254-1323), the earliest and one of the most distinguished poets of the Hindavi tradition, wrote in both Persian and Hindavi/Hindui (a name designated to a cluster of languages/dialects spoken in the area of Hindustan from 11th-12th centuries onwards) but took great pride in his literary creations in Hindavi/Hindui. In one of his verses meant for his Persian speaking audience, he wrote: "Chuman tooti-i-Hindam, ar rast pursi; Ze man Hindui purs, ta nagz goyam (I am an Indian rose finch, if you want to speak to me; speak to me in Hindui, so that I may tell you beautiful things.)". Baba Gorakh Nath, a saint from the 12th-13th centuries, described himself quite matter of factly in these words: "Utpati Hindu jarna jogi akal pari Musalmani (I have a Hindu origin, jogi appearance and a Muslim wisdom)". Many poets of the Belgram region (part of present-day U.P., near Hardoi), like Mir Jalil, Raskhan, Abdul Wahid Belgrami, Mir Miran among others, wrote poetry that would simply not allow any religious stamp. One of them wrote: "Pemi Hindu turak mein, Hari rang rahyo samaay; Deval aur maseet mein, deep ek hi bhay (I am both Hindu and Muslim and completely engrossed in my God; Only one lamp is appropriate for both temple and the mosque)".

Instances like this can be easily multiplied. It is important to recognize that the composite literary tradition that is generally identified with Kabir, was not confined only to him. Kabir certainly represented its high point and also its finest expression. But it was a general pattern of popular literature from the 12th to the 18th centuries. Similarly in the field of languages, a number of speeches had overlapping boundaries and often a number of expressions were employed (Hindi, Hindui, Hindavi, Dehalvi, Zaban-i-Hindotan, Dakhani, Bhakha, Zaban-i-Urdu-i-Mualla, Zaban-i-Urdu, and simply Urdu) for the same linguistic stock. It would be unwise to trace a separate history for Hindi and Urdu, prior to the 18th century, for the simple reason that no such separate history existed. Modern Hindi and Urdu were created in the 18th- 19th century out of a common language pool, and their separateness, often taken for granted today, was not a part of a normal linguistic evolution but a rather unnatural and artificial creation. (For instance, which language did Amir Khusro write in, Urdu or Hindi?). Very similar trajectories of such composite characters can be drawn in the realm of art and architecture, music and paintings.

Our freedom syncretic and plural traditions got an impetus in the modern times by our anti-imperialist national movement. Sub-continent's movement, in a larger sense, emerged as more than a battle against British imperialism. At a time when India's plurality was threatened under the homogenizing impulses of modernization, the national movement stood up to preserve our social heritage. Out of this heritage was constructed the fabric of secularism and nationalism. Thus the traditional values inherent in our syncretism and plurality did not have to be sacrificed for the sake of modern impulses of secularism and national unity. Thus we were able to embark on the path of political modernity (and take on the alien rule) without abandoning our traditional reservoirs. Our society was thus able to enter the first phase of modernity without paying too much of a price in terms of its traditional resources. If we have preserved our syncretism and plurality thus far thanks to the freedom movement, used it to our advantage, we simply must not allow this wealth to be destroyed now.

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