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Islam and Hinduism in South Asia

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Atlas of the World’s Religions, Second Edition What is This? Depicts the historical development and present state of the world's major religions

    Islam and Hinduism in South Asia

    Islam and Hinduism in South Asia

    3. Vijayanagara

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    THE ISLAMIC PRESENCE in South Asia can be divided into two broad periods. Although Afghani rulers like Mahmud of Ghazni and Muhammad Ghur raided northwestern India for the gold hoarded in Hindu temples in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the first Islamic polity was not established in India until the thirteenth century, when Qutb ud-Din Aibak established a Sultanate at Delhi. Muslim influence continued to spread more widely throughout the fourteenth century. Muhammad bin Tughluq extended Sultanate power to the south, leaving a weak successor state which broke up into five smaller sultanates by the end of the fifteenth century. But the Sultanate's push southward was met by stiff opposition from a Hindu empire centred in Vijayanagara (or ‘City of Victory’), which proved to be the greatest of the southern kingdoms, bringing nearly all of the south under its umbrella before its demise in wars against the Deccani sultanates in the sixteenth century.

    The Rise of the Mughals

    By the end of the fifteenth century the power of the Sultanate was considerably weakened, and in 1526 Babur, descendant of the Mongol Timur, defeated Ibrahim Lodi, the last sultan of Delhi, to establish a new Muslim imperium in north India, known as the Mughal empire.

    Islam and Hinduism in South Asia

    1. India in the 16th Century

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    The Mughals consolidated their power in a society where many Hindu groups accepted the legitimacy of Muslim rule. They established an empire of complex and shifting alliances (the most famous of which were those sealed through marriage with the Hindu Rajput kings of Rajasthan) that produced one of the most splendid cultural legacies India has ever known. Among the more famous Mughal emperors were Akbar ( 1542 - 1605 ) and Aurangzeb ( 1658 - 1707 ).

    The rise of Islamic polities inevitably led to religious change in the subcontinent. In the course of wars, Hindu temples were destroyed and mosques erected in their place, but conversions, though popular among the lower orders who sought escape from the caste system, were not widespread. Muslims constituted one-fifth of the population in the areas of their heaviest concentration and Muslim rulers had to come to terms with the fact that their subjects were largely Hindu. Some Muslim emperors, like Akbar, fused the religions into an imperial cult, while others, like Aurangzeb, honoured their distinctiveness while giving clear but hardly unprecedented favour to Islam.

    At one level, the new situation led to a hardening of orthodoxy. The conservative factions of the Muslim religious leadership were a force to be reckoned with for their rulers. Hinduism, meanwhile, saw a hardening of of its own law-codes and a renaissance of Vedic scholarship under the brothers Sayana and Madhava at Vijayanagara. But there was also both accommodation and mutual influence between the religions. The bridge for such links was Sufism and bhakti.

    Mystics and Poets

    Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, came to prominence in tenth-century Persia. Its search for ecstatic union with God drew suspicion and sometimes persecution from the Muslim orthodoxy, which only furthered Sufi esotericism. India, with its traditions of asceticism, provided a sympathetic atmosphere for Sufis. They formed orders under pirs, or teachers, and resided in hospices called khanqahs. Sufis provided a crucial conduit for religious exchange at the grassroots level, and were revered by Hindus and Muslims alike.

    In north India Muslim rule unwittingly freed bhakti, conceived of as an absolute relation between God and devotee, from its earlier function as a theology of feudal relations, allowing its liberating potential to be tapped by new reformers. North India now became the ground for religious change. The bhakti tradition developed around particular saints (sants) who composed poetry in the languages of the people, and vibrant vernacular traditions developed during this period. The southern Indian, Ramananda ( 1400 - 70 ), preached devotion to Rama in Varanasi. In Rajasthan, Mirabai ( 1503 - 73 ) rejected her mortal husband in favour of a life-long commitment to Krsna. After an epiphany, Caitanya ( 1486 - 1533 ) of Bengal preached absolute devotion to Krsna. The blind poet Surdas ( 1483 - 1563 ), who lived in Agra, was also devoted to Krsna.

    Islam and Hinduism in South Asia

    2. Bhakti Poet-Saints, 13th to 18th centuries

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    New Religious Orders

    While Sufism and bhakti shared similar ideas, bhakti tended to be less esoteric. The Islamic influence on the bhakti movement was indirect, as the sants used a Hindu vocabulary to express their devotion. But two thinkers stand out as having founded new religious orders which drew equally on both religions. The poet Kabir ( 1398 - 1448 ), born a lowly Muslim weaver, ridiculed orthodoxy and asceticism and argued that Hindu and Muslim beliefs were both inadequate apprehensions of a single God. Guru Nanak 1469 - 1539 ), born in rural Punjab, joined a Sufi order but left to travel and preach a devotion to God that was neither Hindu nor Muslim. Both leaders founded new religions expressing the aspirations of the common man against orthodoxy, inevitably in the hands of the elite. They gained large followings amongst farmers and artisans. In time, the followers of Kabir (Kabirpanthis) came to be regarded as a Hindu sect, while the followers of Nanak, the Sikhs, maintained their autonomy, and developed their own orthodoxy, hierarchy and identity.

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