Richard Eaton on the Desecration of Hindu Temples in India

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Richard Eaton on the Desecration of Hindu Temples in India

Kings, irrespective of their religious faith, adopted “the highly selective method” of isolating “for desecration only those temples that were identified with enemy kings.”

Richard Eaton on the Desecration of Hindu Temples in India

The 8th century CE Martand Sun temple in Anantnag in India’s Jammu and Kashmir, which was destroyed in the 14th century, as seen on September 10, 2011.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Varun Shiv Kapur

A grand consecration ceremony of the Rama temple at Ayodhya is scheduled for January 22. The temple has been constructed on the site where the 16th-century Babri Mosque stood until its demolition by Hindutva activists on December 6, 1992. Many Hindus believe that this site is Ramjanmabhoomi, or the place where the Hindu deity Rama was born. They believe that Muslim invaders destroyed the temple that existed there to build the Babri Masjid.

Whether a temple did in fact exist there is a matter of debate. It is a fact, though, that several Hindu temples were looted and desecrated over the centuries. A widely held perception is that temples were attacked only by Muslim invaders and that it was their hatred of the Hindu religion and iconoclasm that drove them to target Hindu places of worship. This perception is often used by Hindutva activists to justify their destruction of mosques.

So why were temples attacked? And who desecrated them? Richard M. Eaton, professor of history at the University of Arizona and author of “India in the Persianate Age: 1000-1765,” argues that ruling dynasties targeted temples even in the pre-Islamic period. In an interview with Sudha Ramachandran, South Asia editor of The Diplomat, Eaton pointed out that both Hindu and Muslim rulers attacked temples. The temples that were attacked were those that were associated with the king.

“Desecration of such temples was the normal means of detaching a defeated enemy from the most prominent manifestation of his former sovereign authority, thereby rendering him politically impotent,” Eaton said, stressing that the attacks were political and not religious.

The destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the upcoming inauguration of the Rama temple on the site of the demolished mosque are two milestones in India’s contemporary history. How will future generations of Indians remember these events?

Future generations might view the destruction of the Babri Masjid as the beginning of a fateful chapter in India’s history because it opened the door to challenging the identity of Muslim structures throughout India – even the Taj Mahal. As we know, the 1991 Places of Worship Act affirmed that the religious identity of any place of worship (apart from the Babri Masjid itself) could not be altered from what it had been on Independence Day, 1947. Although that act was intended to settle once and for all the status of India’s religious monuments, it actually had the opposite effect, partly because it raised people’s awareness of the religious character of physical monuments more generally, in the same way that nearly a century of British census operations – by requiring people to place themselves in government-defined ethnic categories in an atmosphere of gathering political competition – had raised people’s awareness of their own religious identities.

Moreover, by not considering the character of a place of worship prior to August 15, 1947, the 1991 Act led to agitation to restore any given religious structure to an imagined “original” state. Owing to Hindu majoritarianism, this has meant in practice that the original identity of any Islamic place of worship could be contested and litigated. What has made such litigation even more likely was the Supreme Court’s 2019 decision that awarded the land of the Babri Masjid to Hindus on the basis of a belief among Hindus that the god Rama was born on the site of the destroyed mosque. This astounding decision ignored not only the beliefs of Muslims, but also facts, since no historical or credible archaeological evidence indicates that a Hindu temple had ever existed at the site.

Building a great Rama temple at the same site raises other issues, for reasons that have much to do with deep-seated collective memories of ancient Indian conceptions of kingship, divinity, and royal temples.  I refer to the tradition, dating from around the sixth century A.D., of a Hindu king patronizing a magnificent and elaborately decorated temple intended to house the image of a deity understood as the divine overlord (or rashtra-devata) of that king’s domain. With their lushly sculpted images vividly displaying the mutual interdependence of kings and gods and the commingling of divine and human kingship, royal temple complexes were thoroughly and pre-eminently political institutions. In this view, it is the god that was more truly sovereign, not the king, who merely served that deity even while basking in the glow of the god’s divinity (rather like the moon revealing the reflected light of the sun). Moreover, since the deity’s sovereign domain coincided with the territory under the king’s effective rule, religion was perfectly aligned with statecraft and statehood, a formulation diametrically opposed to the ideals of a secular polity.

Without precedent in recent history, the Indian government’s patronage of the Rama temple at Ayodhya seems perhaps unwittingly to have tapped into this ancient paradigm of kingship and authority, making it something of an anachronism for a modern nation-state. With its foundation consisting of more than 200,000 bricks gathered from villages across India (with “Sri Ram” inscribed in various languages, including Telugu, Bengali, Tamil, and Gujarati), the structure bears the character of a national temple, and by implication, its resident deity as India’s national deity. Obviously, identifying a single divine figure as India’s de facto state deity drastically narrows the remarkably diverse nature of Hindu theology. It is possible, then, that Ayodhya’s new temple could upset future generations of Indians, especially those for whom Rama – at least as portrayed by Tulsidas – is not the ultimate focus of religious devotion.

Many Hindus associate the desecration of temples only with Muslim rulers and the medieval period in Indian history. But your research points to a different reality: Hindu kings also looted Hindu temples. Could you throw light on this?

If we look at the long sweep of precolonial history and note the contexts in which temples were desecrated, it is clear that state authorities left India’s thousands of ordinary temples alone, simply because they were politically irrelevant. But royal temples, elaborately endowed and situated in the heart of a sovereign realm, occupied a very different status.  Housing the image of a state’s divine overlord, such temples were above all the sites where Indian kingship was established, revitalized, or contested.  As such, royal temples were always subject to attack by state enemies, regardless of their religion.

Desecration of such temples was the normal means of detaching a defeated enemy from the most prominent manifestation of his former sovereign authority, thereby rendering him politically impotent. Similarly, under the sultans and the Mughals, any temple was considered liable for desecration if its patron rebelled after having earlier submitted to state authority. This was because rebellion was normally accompanied by an assertion of sovereign authority independent from that of the state.

This practice and its accompanying ideology happen to have considerable historical depth. Hindu rajas since at least the seventh century, and Muslim sovereigns since the late twelfth, routinely looted, redefined, or destroyed temples patronized by enemy kings or state rebels. Dynasties that engaged in this practice include the Pallavas of Kanchipuram, the Badami Chalukyas, the Palas of Bengal, the Karkotas of Kashmir, the Rashtrakutas of Manyakheta, the Pandyas of Madurai, the Pratiharas of Kannauj, the Candellas of Khajuraho, the Cholas of Thanjavur, the Kalyana Chalukyas, the Kalingas of Odisha, the Chalukyas of Vengi, the Suryavamsi Gajapatis of Cuttack, and the Tuluvas of Vijayanagara.

Whereas the dominant pattern was that of looting royal temples and carrying off images of state deities, we also hear of kings destroying royal temples of their political adversaries. In the early tenth century, the Rashtrakuta monarch Indra III not only demolished the temple of Kalapriya (at Kalpa near the Jamuna River), patronized by the Rashtrakutas’ deadly enemies the Pratiharas, but they took special delight in recording the fact.  In the late eleventh century, the Kashmiri king Harsha even raised the plundering of temples to an institutionalized activity.

When Turkic peoples acquired power in northern India from the late twelfth century on, they conformed to the political practices that were already familiar to their Indian subjects with regard to uprooting an Indian king’s political legitimacy. This point is confirmed by observing the close correlation between the chronological and geographical pattern of Turkish conquests in the thirteenth century, and the chronology and geography of temple desecrations. As those invasions proceeded from the Punjab down the eastern Gangetic plain, and then continued into the Deccan plateau, Turkish commanders systematically desecrated state temples patronized by enemy kings located on the cutting edge of their military frontier. However, once the Turks consolidated their rule in former enemy territory, temples, being viewed as state property, were left alone, or even supported.

Hindu nationalist historians claim that rulers of the Indo-Muslim states were driven by a “theology of iconoclasm,” fanaticism, and deep hatred of the Hindu religion and places of worship. Your research indicates that the conflict was political.

I think that my response to the above question addresses this matter. Simply put, any notion of an Islamic “theology of iconoclasm” would have required Turkish armies to destroy all temples lying in their path, instead of the highly selective method that we actually find. In practice, their policy was to isolate for desecration only those temples that were identified with enemy kings or those patronized by rulers who had formerly submitted to Indo-Muslim rule but subsequently rebelled.

Why did Muslim rulers not attack mosques?

Mosques carried very different political meanings than did royal temples in independent Indian states, or temples patronized by Hindu officers serving Indo-Muslim states. For Indo-Muslim rulers, as for ordinary subjects, building mosques was considered an act of piety. But all actors, rulers and ruled alike, appear to have understood that the deity worshipped in mosques did not share sovereign authority with a Muslim monarch or his state. Nor did mosques underpin the authority of an Indo-Muslim king, in the manner that royal temple complexes underpinned the authority of their royal patrons. In fact, dissenters in an Indo-Muslim state could avoid a ruler’s wrath by simply taking refuge in a mosque, which was politically inviolate since it was considered the property of God and not that of the ruler. In short, mosques were conceptually detached from both sovereign terrain and dynastic authority, and hence apolitical.  Their desecration would therefore have had no relevance for disestablishing a regime that patronized them.

The semi-demolished wall of the Kashi Vishwanath temple, its pillars, and ruins, visible in this sketch of the Gyanvapi mosque by James Princep. Credit: Wikipedia/British Library

The next item on the agenda of Hindutva groups is the Vishwanath temple/Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi. Could you explain the controversy over this mosque and how it is similar/different from the Babri Masjid dispute?

A direct line connects the resolution of the Babri masjid controversy with the agitation to challenge the religious status of the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi. In both cases, the Archaeological Survey of India looked for evidence of an earlier presence of Hindu worship. But at Ayodhya, courts ultimately allowed the construction of a Rama temple where the Babri Masjid once stood, on the grounds that people believed that a Rama temple had formerly occupied that site.

It is true that the 1991 Places of Worship Act had excluded the Babri Masjid case from its law that the religious character of places of worship could not be altered from their status on August 15, 1947.  But in the ongoing case of the Gyanvapi mosque, rather than adhering to the letter of the Places of Worship Act, Indian courts appear to be aligning their procedures and judgments with those used during the Babri Masjid controversy, whose resolution rested on the popular belief that evidence associated with prior Hindu worship was present on the mosque’s property. In effect, the methodology and reasoning used in the final ruling of the Babri Masjid case seems to have set a precedent for challenging the religious status not just of the Gyanvapi mosque, but potentially, of any mosque or shrine in India.

Yet there are also differences in the two cases.  For the Babri Masjid, we have no credible evidence that a Rama temple had ever existed at the site of the former mosque. At Varanasi, on the other hand, we know that the Mughal emperor Alamgir ordered the demolition of the Vishvanath temple in 1669. Moreover, the Gyanvapi mosque was built on the temple site during his reign.

We also know that, for practical purposes when building new monuments, it was a common procedure to reuse structural elements when those were readily available.  In this case, a wall of the ruined temple was incorporated into the mosque as its qibla wall. It is possible, then, that other structural elements of the ruined temple had been similarly incorporated into the mosque. But whether the mosque was actively used by Hindus as a place of worship on August 15, 1947, is another matter.

How is the dispute over the Gyanvapi mosque likely to unfold in the coming years?

Historians are trained to understand the past using known evidence and not to venture into the future, which necessarily leads to speculation on facts that are as yet unknown.

That said, it could nonetheless be useful to look backwards in time and reflect on how India’s great poet Kabir (d. 1518) might have reacted to the uproar surrounding this dispute. Unsparingly dismissive of the value of rites and practices of organized religiosity — in particular Hinduism and Islam — Kabir sought the universal spirituality that lies beyond those institutions.  “Brother, where did your two gods come from?” he asked.  “Tell me, who made you mad?  Ram, Allah, Keshav, Karim, Hari, Hazrat – so many names, so many ornaments, all one gold” [Bijak, śabda 30].

Ironically, Kabir was not only a native of Varanasi, but he worked his trade as a weaver only a kilometer from the present Vishwanath temple/Gyanvapi mosque.  It is fitting, then, that he should have the last word (Bijak, śabda 97):

Does Khuda [god] live in the mosque? Then who lives everywhere?
Is Ram in idols and holy ground? Have you looked and found him there?
Hari in the East, Allah in the West – so you like to dream.
Search in the heart, in the heart alone: there live Ram and Karim!