Common section


650 to 1500 CE


570-632 Muhammad lives

c. 650 Arabs reach the Indus

711-715 Arabs invade Northwest India

1001 Mahmud of Ghazni (979-1030) raids North India

1192-1206 Muhammad of Ghor establishes Ghorid capital at Delhi

1210-1526 The Delhi Sultanate is in power

1325-1351 Muhammad bin Tughluq reigns

c. 1200 Early orders of Sufis arise in North India

c. 1200 Virashaivas, including Basava, live in South India

c. 1336-1565 Vijayanagar Empire is in its prime

c. 1398-1448 Kabir lives

1469-1539 Guru Nanak founds Sikhism in the Punjab


The Hindu says Ram is the beloved, the Turk says Rahim. Then they
kill each other.

Kabir, 1398-14481

Even if I am killed, I will not give up repeating the names of Rama and Rahim, which mean to me the same god. With these names on my lips, I will die cheerfully.

Mahatma Gandhi, 1947

The prophetic words of Gandhi, which he spoke just nine months before he was killed, apparently with those names on his lips,ih turn the more cynical words of Kabir on their head. It would be good for us to keep the two sides of this paradigm in mind as we consider the history of Hindus among Muslims in India. As Hindus responded to the various cultural transformations wrought by the Muslim presence, new religious ideas also arose to challenge the Brahmin imaginary.


In dealing with all but the earliest periods of Indian history, we gave up even the semblance of tracing any single historical center and settled for a selection of peripheries. We still have those peripheries, more than ever, in both the Hindu and the Muslim worlds, though now we also have two moments when there are serious contenders for a center, first the Delhi Sultanate and then the Mughal Empire. But even when there was a center for government, there was never a center for religion. Here, as so often, the main action, and the main evidence, are to be found not so much among the ruins of Delhi and in the chronicles of its sultans as in the records and remains of a dozen other capitals scattered across the subcontinent—Jaunpur, Ahmedabad, Mandu, Chitor, Vijayanagar, Gaur, and many others.2 Both the Hindu and the Muslim rulers are plural, not only in generally succeeding one another rather quickly but in being very different one from another. The messages from Delhi were therefore very different at different periods, and so were the messages sent back to Delhi.

Just as the term “Hindu” dissolved upon closer examination at the very start of this story, so now does the category of “Muslim.” Historians often invoke terms like “Hindu kingdom” in contrast with “Muslim sultanate,” but “Hindu” and “Muslim” are seldom the most basic way to distinguish one group from another. For religious differences were often overridden by differences in language, ethnicity, food, clothing, and much more. Most of our sources refer to ethnicities, not to religion; the Hindus generally thought of the Delhi sultans and their people not as Muslims but as Arabs and, later, Turks, often confusing the two groups, calling them all (Arabs as well as Turks) Turks (“Turuskas”) and regarding them all, like all non-Hindus, as barbarians (mlecchas). The Hindus also had very different attitudes toward the rulers, on the one hand, and the resident traders and clerks, on the other; though some Turkish or Arab rulers destroyed Hindu temples, breeding lasting resentment, the ordinary Muslims who worshiped in mosques and Sufi shrines were seldom a problem for Hindus, who had high regard for most Arab and Turkish traders, particularly horse traders.

The terms by which Hindus (more precisely, the people we call Hindus) referred to the people we call Muslims suggest assimilation rather than hostility. The term “Mus-ala-mana” (“one who submits to Allah”) is seldom used; this left Hindus the options of designating Muslims by their different ethnic and spatial origins or by using any of several generic terms for non-Hindus. Inscriptions and Sanskrit texts have no single term for the foreigners that the Hindus knew, but use Yavana (“Ionian” or “Greek”), mleccha(“barbarian”), and Turuska (“Turk”) interchangeably for Greeks, Persians, and Turks. There is irony in the fact that the stereotype of the Turk who destroys temples and idols, appropriates the temple lands of Brahmins, and eats beef became so clichéd, so generalized to the Terrible Other,3 that the Kashmir chronicle, in 1148 CE, describing a Hinduking who plundered temples and had excrement and wine poured over the statues of gods called him a Turk (Turuska).4

Some Hindus assimilated the Turks by creating ingenious, and positive, Sanskrit glosses for Arabic words and names: Thus the Ghorids became the Gauri-kula (“family of fair people” or “family of the golden goddess [Parvati]”), sultans became Sura-tranas (“protectors of the gods”), and Muhammad (or Mahmud) became Maha-muda (“great joy”). An inscription, in Sanskrit and Arabic, from 1264 CE about the construction of a mosque in Gujarat, at Somnath (a place of great historical controversy, as we will see), describes the mosque in Hindu terms, as a site of dharma (dharma-sthana), where people did puja in order to gain merit ( punya karma).5 Most significantly, the inscription begins by using the same wordii to denote both Shiva and Allah, invoking (“Om! Namah!”) Shri Vishvanatha (“Lord of the Universe”), meaning both the Hindu god Shiva as Somanatha and “the divinity to whom those whose prophet (bodhaka) was Muhammad were attached ( pratibaddha).”

On the other side, the Arabs and Turks usually did not think of the Hindus as Hindus;ij they thought of them as Vaishnavas, or Bengalis, or brilliant artists or airheads, as the case might be. Yet they certainly did notice that there were in India people who belonged to religions different from their own, including Buddhists, and they labeled themselves now with a word for Muslim (or, more particularly, Sunni or Sufi), in contrast with the general Hindu sectarian labels (Vaishnava or Shaiva) or, more likely, specific Hindu sects (Virashaiva or Sahajiya). With this initial caution, let us proceed, still using the indispensable terms “Hindu” and “Muslim” but attempting, wherever possible, to nuance them.


There is abundant and fascinating evidence, an embarrassment of riches, about the relationship between Hindus and Muslims in India from shortly after the time of the Prophet Muhammad, in the seventh century CE. The sources now include many more foreign visitors; in place of the occasional Greeks or Chinese in earlier periods, we now have a full Arabic and Persian historiography, beginning with Al-biruni (973-1048), who came to India, learned Sanskrit, translated Hindu texts, and wrote about the religion (sic: he regarded it as unified) of India. After him came a succession of other great historiographers of India who wrote in Persian and Arabic, such as Ziya’-ud-Din Barani (1285- 1357), Abu al-Malik ’Isami (d. 1350), and Ibn Batuta (1304-1368/1377).6 After the first few more or less contemporary Turko-Persian chroniclers, it was later Arab rather than Turkish historians who generally kept the record of the times (often in retrospect), even for the Turkish rulers.

Islam in India began not with the political conquest of India by Mahmud of Ghazni but much earlier, when the Muslims entered India not as conquerors but as merchants. We have noted the Arab presence in South India from before the time of the Prophet. Before 650, Arabs had made desultory raids by sea on the lower Sind, to protect the trade route carrying Arabian horses to India and Indian spices to Arabia. By 650 Arabs had also reached the Indus River, and though they rarely crossed it,7 their ideas swam across. In the sixty years after Harsha’s death in 647, Arabs established a Muslim bridgehead in Sind, a region that the Huns had devastated, Harsha had later infiltrated, and now was largely Buddhist.8 Then, in around 663, Arab forces crossed the Bolan pass (near Quetta in Pakistan)9 from Afghanistan into Sind.10 Peacefully, they traded horses for spices. Only later did the martial invasions come, first by Arabs and then by Turks (from many parts of Central Asia) and Mongols.

In 713, Muhammad ibn Qasim invaded Sind, offering terms of surrender that included a promise to guarantee the safety of Hindu and Buddhist establishments and to allow Brahmin and Buddhist monks to collect alms and temples to receive donations. Hindus and Buddhists were allowed to govern themselves in matters of religion and law; Ibn Qasim’s people did not regard non-Muslims as heathens who had to be subdued.11 He kept his promises, though he did imposed the jizya,12 a tax on male adults who would have been liable to military service if they had been Muslims; non-Muslims were excused from this duty but required instead to pay for their military protection. His forces could not hold Sind, but the soldiers stayed on, intermarried, and brought Muslim teachers and mosques into the subcontinent. At the same time, in the wealthy Gujarati port of Bhadreshwar, the local Jaina rulers, eager to trade with the Arabs, had allowed the resident Ismaili merchants to build mosques in that area.13


Almost three centuries later, the Turks, Persians, and Afghans entered India through the traditional routes of the northwest. On November 27, 1001, the Turkish Mahmud of Ghazni (in Afghanistan) successfully invaded India, near Peshawar. The ruler whom he captured bought his freedom for fifty elephants but acknowledged the loss of caste implicit in capture, abdicated in favor of his son, and climbed on his own funeral pyre.14 In 1004 Mahmud crossed the Indus, fought again, and established a base in the Punjab, from which he continued to carry out raids; in 1018 he sacked Mathura (a great pilgrimage center on the Yamuna River, for worshipers of Krishna) and then Kanauj (which had been Harsha’s capital) and is said to have come away with fifty-three thousand slaves and 350 elephants.15 Turkish communities were also established in the region of Varanasi and elsewhere.16 It was a boom area for immigration from Persia and Central Asia, and this greatly added to the cosmopolitanism of the subcontinent, since culture under what became the Ghaznavid Empire in India (that is, the empire ruled by people from Ghazni) was “a blend of Greek philosophy, Roman architecture, Hindu mathematics, and the Persian concept of empire.”17

For the next four centuries, the northern and central part of the subcontinent saw an almost bewildering array of kings and dynasties, with constant warfare between (and within) them, punctuated by sibling power struggles. From 1192 to 1206 Muhammad of Ghor ruled from his capital at Delhi. One of his successors was a woman named Raziya, who ruled for four years, ending in 1240. She was said to be wise, just, and generous, as well as an effective general, and she brought peace to the country. Disdaining the veil, she went among her people in a cap and coat, like a man. She appointed as her personal attendant an Abyssinian who was probably once a slave and definitely an African.18 Conspirators captured her, killed her Abyssinian friend, and imprisoned her. She married one of the conspirators and marched with him (and with an army in which there were many Hindus) on Delhi, where she let her ally play the general, badly; she was much more at home than he in the saddle. They were defeated.19 In 1350, a century after Raziya’s death, the historian Isami objected to her blatant interracial liaison,20 remarking that a woman’s place was at her spinning wheel (charkha). This may be the earliest reference in India to a spinning wheel, which the Turks apparently imported from Iran. (The sexism they already had in India, thank you.)

Several of Muhammad of Ghor’s successors were regarded as slaves,ik and their dynasty as a slave dynasty, because they had once been Turkish captives.21 Ala-ud-din Khalji, an Afghan who ruled from Delhi for twenty years (1296- 1316), captured, redeemed, and made a senior commander a Hindu eunuch and slave named Kafur, who converted to Islam. 22 Holy wars (jihads) flared up from time to time, more often politically motivated than religiously inspired, but playing the religion card to rally support, and royal policy toward Hinduism and Islam during these five centuries varied widely. Ala-ud-din sacked and plundered Devagiri but then made peace, married a Maharashtra woman, prohibited the sale and consumption of alcohol, and left the kingdom and its religions otherwise intact.23 His son is best remembered for parading a line of naked prostitutes on the terraces of the royal palaces and making them pee on the nobles as they entered below.24

Then came Muhammad bin Tughluq, whom some regarded as a cruel, bloodthirsty, lunatic tyrant, others as a philosopher king and a genius.25 He challenged the Muslim ulama (the arbiters of Shari‘a law, a kind of Muslim conservative supreme court), the intellectual elite, by promoting Indian Muslims of low-caste origin, newcomers to the court,26 both because he was not a religious bigot and because he saw the advantage of accommodating non-Muslims in India.27 He took a great interest in Jainas, one of whom was very influential at his court.28 One thing that can be said of Tughluq is that although many suffered under his rule, at least he was even-handed.29

His successor, Feroz Shah Tughluq (1351-1388), desecrated the shrine of Jagannath at Puri, was said to have massacred infidels,30 and extended the jizya to Brahmins (who had been, until then, exempt). On the other hand, Feroz Shah redeemed a number of Hindu slaves as well as an African eunuch slave who founded the Sharqi kingdom of Jaunpur;31 the eunuch’s successors, whom he had to adopt, being unable to beget them, were also of African origin and became a powerful dynasty.32 The sultanate continued until Babur founded the Mughal Empire in 1526.

In general, the sultanate rulers did not attempt a mass conversion of Hindus, 33 but many Hindus did convert to Islam during this period, usually but not only low-caste laborers and craftspeople and, frequently, captives.34 On the northwest frontier, some Hindus switched both political allegiance and religion and fought for the Ghaznavids.35 In the course of conversion, Islamic figures (such as gods and saints) and concepts might be added to Hindu ones, identified with Hindu ones, or, occasionally, taken up in place of Hindu ones, eliminating them from the pantheon.36

The Delhi sultans levied the jizya, graduated according to income, with exemptions for people at both ends of the social spectrum, the poorest37 and (until Feroz Shah changed the rule) the purest, the Brahmins.38 There is also evidence of the existence of a “Turkish” (Turuska) tax, which may have been a poll tax on Muslims in India, a Hindu equivalent of the Muslim jizya.39 Taxes under the Delhi Sultanate seem to have been motivated much more by the need for revenue than by religious sentiments. Some Hindus also responded to the presence of Islam by a series of measures designed to strengthen their own religion, such as enormous land grants to Brahmins, which meant more taxes to generate revenues that could be converted into those grants (exacerbating social oppression and caste discrimination40), as well as endowing temples and providing social services on the local level (which mitigated that same oppression and discrimination).

The Brahmins were in a bind: They wanted to keep the barbarians out, but they also had to assimilate and legitimize the foreign rulers in order to keep temporal support for themselves. Their two options for the representation of mlecchas were either to legitimize them, as a contingent strategy, or to blame them for the destruction of social order. Within the first option, legitimation, lineages could be appropriated; an inscription from 1369 traces the descent of a sultan from the lineage of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata.

As for blame, the Brahmins could always fall back on myths such as the flood, as in a late-fourteenth-century poem from South India that describes the desecrated temples: “Like the Turushkas who know no limits, the Kaveri has forgotten her ancient boundaries and brings frequent destruction with her floods.” A Chandella inscription from 1261 speaks of a king who, like Vishnu (in his avatar as the boar), lifted up the earth when it was submerged in an ocean of Turushkas; another calls the Turushkas the great burden of the earth, and likens to Vishnu as the boar the Hindu ruler who conquers them and relieves the earth’s burden.41 But the very same myth is used in reverse in another inscription, from 1491, which depicts Turushkas, Shakas (Scythians), and mleccha s as shouldering the great burden of the earth and relieving Vishnu of his worries. It is difficult to argue that chronologically one representation replaces the other.42 The negative and positive views coexisted, as did the people who held them.


We have noted the role played by horses in the invasion of India from the time of the Indo-Europeans and Vedic peoples, and then, at regular intervals, by horsemen from Greece, Scythia, and Central Asia. Intimacy with, and mastery of, horses are the common property of Indo-Europeans and the Turkic peoples of Central Asia.43 We have also noted in passing the constant need for native rulers to import horses into India and the importance of the horse trade in bringing Arabs and Turks (and, with them, Islam) to South India. Horses continued to play a central role in the activities of the Turkic peoples who founded the Delhi Sultanate. Here is also the place, however, to remark upon the importance of elephants,44 which supplemented horses in essential ways, the tank corps division that supported the cavalry. Elephants were far better suited to the environment, but they were even more expensive than horses (the Mughal emperor Babur complained about how much it cost to feed them: as much as two strings of camels45). Together, horses and elephants were simultaneously essential military equipment and luxury status symbols, like Cadillacs and Rolls-Royces.

Central Asia, probably one of the first places where horses were domesticated, produced great horses as well as great horsemen and horse breeders. Mahmud of Ghazni had the advantage of having his forces mounted on Central Asian horses; the most an Indian could hope for in an encounter with them was “perhaps a fleeter horse.”46 Al-biruni remarked that the Turks were famous for their horses, Kandahar (in Afghanistan) for its elephants, and India for its armies.47 When Muhammad bin Tughluq recruited men from western and Central Asia, he made them submit to a test of equestrian skill before he signed them on.48 The Turkish conquerors introduced polo into India in the thirteenth century;49 Muhammad of Ghor’s successor was killed in 1210 when his polo pony fell on him in the course of a game. 50

Once they got to India, the Turks had to import most of their horses rather than breed them in India. A steady stream of Central Asian imports was “seemingly vital to the virility of Muslim rule.”51 The Deccan sultans and their opposite numbers, the martial Hindu Kshatriyas of Maharashtra and the kings of Vijayanagar, imported Arabian horses on a large scale, “in order to improve the breed of cavalry horses in their own districts.”52 The best horses were imported from Central Asia (“Turki” horses), Iran or Arabia (“Tazi” horses).53 Marco Polo (1254-1324), who visited India in around 1292, remarked that the Pandyan ruler of Madurai imported two thousand horses a year, “and so do his four brothers.”54 South Indians, particularly in the vicinity of Madurai, still tell stories about the Pandyan kings’ energetic importation of horses. 55 There is ample testimony from both foreignil and Indian sources that South Indians imported as many as fourteen thousand horses a year.56 One of the sixteenth-century South Indian kings of Vijayanagar is reputed to have imported thirteen thousand horses annually for his own personal use and for his officers, 57 and ten thousand Arab and Persian horses were imported into Malabar every year. 58

Vijayanagar was a conspicuous consumer of foreign imports, including “the desiderata of every Indian army, namely horses, mostly from the Persian Gulf, and some fire-arms.” Many horses died onboard ship, for they cannot throw up, and so their seasickness is almost always fatal; they develop severe colic and often die of a twisted gut. Since shipping such fragile and valuable cargo in a pitching ship was a costly and risky venture,59 to encourage people to undertake the risk of shipping horses who might well die at sea, “it was said that the Vijayanagar rulers would pay even for dead ones.”60 When Vijayanagar was at war with Portugal, the Portuguese monopoly of the horse trade simultaneously deprived Vijayanagar of important revenues and interfered with the supply of remounts.61

The need to import horses was exacerbated, according to many foreign observers, from at least the time of the Delhi Sultanate, by the Indian habit of feeding their horses inappropriate foods.62 Marco Polo insisted that horses in India died from the climate and from unsuitable feeding; even if they bred, they produced “nothing but wretched wry-legged weeds.”63 A few centuries later Akbar’s historian Abu’l Fazl testified that in addition to grass when available, and hay when there was no grass, horses were fed boiled peas or beans, flour, sugar, salt, molasses, and, to cap it all, ghee.64 Other sources agree that lacking the right sort of fodder grasses and hay, people in India fed horses mainly wheat, barley, and gram and mixed these grains with all sorts of stuff: cow’s milk, coarse brown sugar, sometimes even boiled mutton mixed with ghee,65 to the horror of Middle Eastern and European visitors. 66

No oats were grown in India until the nineteenth century. By that time Rudyard Kipling’s father, who was a veterinarian, concluded that the Indian diet was detrimental to the horse’s liver and caused many diseases and high mortality rates.67 Much of this criticism, from the Delhi sultans to the Kiplings, smacks of foreign prejudice and imperial self-justification. Surely the foreign horsemen could use their own good horse sense when it came to feeding, as well as bring along some of their own grooms. The ghee mash legend may be one of those canards that just got repeated over and over. On the other hand, people do tend to feed their most precious horses (and dogs) the things that they themselves like best (like chocolates), which often prove disastrous.

The importing of bloodstock was therefore “India’s main extravagance.”68 During the sultanate period, Persian and Arabian horses were called bahri (“sea-borne”), because they were imported, perilously, by sea.69 Many were brought in overland, but they too underwent hardships and losses. Horses were far too expensive 70 to use as farm animals or beasts of burden, and in any case, the heat and humidity made them fairly useless for that sort of work,71 which was usually done by water buffalo or oxen. Horses were mostly used for war, as cavalry, supplemented by elephants.72Thus the horse remained a Kshatriya animal, with all the negative connotations of that class—power, domination, extortion (by tax collectors who rode into the villages on horseback), death—to which was now added a major new factor: Many of these Kshatriyas were not Hindus but Muslims. Horses therefore both affected the practical relationships between Hindus and Muslims and functioned, in art and literature, as a symbolic gauge of shifting attitudes within those relationships.


As we turn now to less positive aspects of interactions between the Delhi sultans and the Hindus, this is a moment for a hindsight alert: Nowadays the story of Hinduism as told by Hindu nationalists always includes a chapter on the Horrid Things Those Bad Muslims Did. Hindu nationalism has given prominence and importance to stories of victims and victimizers that otherwise would have been just drops in the ocean of vicious battles that have plagued the subcontinent, indeed the planet, for millennia. Yet it is true that some Muslims did Do Horrid Things, including that great breeding ground of resentment, the desecration of temples.

The Muslim rulers of India in this period were not all alike in their treatment of Hindu temples. Some Muslim rulers, like some Hindu rulers before them, destroyed Hindu temples.73 Desecration was not necessarily prompted by bigotry, 74 though some rulers might well have been motivated (or have claimed to be motivated) by religious fanaticism, a hatred of idolatry or polytheism or any religion but Islam. Some, lured by the legendary wealth of the temples,75 did it to get the plunder, and others went for the temples because as we saw in South India, the temples were the centers of political and economic power. Piety and greed, so often paired, operated here too: Images of gods were made of solid gold,76 and the temples were also filled with treasures that Hindu rulers had already stolen from other Hindu temples and from Buddhist stupas.77 Moreover, temples were not only places of worship and banks but also political symbols and, at times, military strongholds. They could also be hostages: In parts of Sind in the tenth century, Arab families that ruled what was still a largely non-Muslim population would threaten to vandalize the city’s most revered temple whenever “trouble stirred or invasion threatened.”78 Think “marauding nomads” rather than “fanatical Muslims.”

Mahmud of Ghazni, an observant Sunni, took a great deal of gold, silver, and precious stones from the images of the Mathura temple in 1004 and then burned it to the ground.79 In 1026 he attacked the temple of Somanatha (Somnath), which held a famous Shiva linga; this much, at least, seems to be historical fact. Then comes the mythmaking. According to some versions of the story but not others, he stripped the great gilded linga of its gold and hacked it to bits with his sword, sending the bits back to Ghazni, where they were incorporated into the steps of the new Jami Masjid (“Friday Mosque”).80 Triumphalist early Turko-Persian sources paid a great deal of attention to this event; medieval Hindu epics of resistance created a countermythology in which the stolen image came to life and eventually, like a horse returning to the stable, returned to the temple to be reconsecrated;81 and British historiographers made much of it for their own purposes (such as the claim that they had rescued the Hindus from oppression by Muslims). Other sources, including local Sanskrit inscriptions, biographies of kings and merchants of the period, court epics, and popular narratives that have survived, give their own versions of the event.82 Here is a good example of history making mythmaking history.

When Muhammad of Ghor routed the Rajputs in 1192, his armies massacred the people and plundered and destroyed many monuments.83 In Varanasi, according to the rather boasting accounts of some of the Arab chroniclers, his forces demolished the idols in a thousand temples, carted away fourteen hundred camel loads of treasure, and rededicated the temples “to the worship of the true God.”84 They left intact the exquisite Jaina temples carved out of near-translucent white marble between 950 and 1304 CE in Gujarat, most famously at Mount Abu, the exterior of which is rather plain, not unlike a mosque. The plain façade may have been an intentional reversal of the pattern of Hindu temples, which kept the interior plain and saved all the ornamentation for the outer wall, and may have been intended precisely as “a protection against Turko-Afghan attacks.”85

Ala-ud-din, who had left Devagiri more or less intact in 1296, two years later attacked Somnath (which the Hindus had rebuilt after Mahmud of Ghazni’s depredations more than 250 years earlier) and, allegedly, redemolished it, again hammering the (replacement) linga into fragments to pave the ground for Muslim feet, this time in Delhi.86 (Romila Thapar’s study of Somnath87 documents the Hindu claim that the Muslims destroyed the same shrine again and again.88) In Citamparam, Ala-ud-din’s forces attacked the Nataraja temple and destroyed the lingas that “the kick of the horse of Islam,” as one Indo-Persian poet put it, had not previously attempted to break.89 Ala-ud-din’s successor, the redeemed slave Kafur, conquered Andhra, rich in diamonds, which was ruled by a queen acting as regent for her grandson; he stripped the temple cities of Madurai, Shrirangam, and Citamparam of their solid-gold idols, and carried off 612 elephants and 20,000 horses.90 The attack on Shrirangam inspired a rich mythology, according to which, when the image of Vishnu as Ranganatha was captured by the sultan’s army and taken north, it came to life by night and seduced the sultan’s daughter (who, in one account, died of a broken heart and in another was absorbed into the image), and was eventually returned to the Shrirangam temple, often with the help of the theologian Ramanuja. To this day the Ranganatha image receives daily puja in the style of the sultan’s court, complete with food cooked in the North Indian style.91

Some of the theft, rather than destruction, of Hindu images by Muslim conquerors was a kind of recycling, Indian style. Like cannibalism, consuming the parts of someone else’s religious monument may either dishonor the source (destroying and desecrating it) or honor it (taking to yourself the power and status of the source). But putting the stones on the ground to be trodden on by people of another religion was unequivocally adding insult to injury. It was the order of the day to destroy other people’s religious monuments and steal their treasures; the Muslims had no monopoly on that. The whole basis of Hindu kingship, beginning with the cattle raids of the Rig Veda, was the desire for land and plunder. In the sultanate period, an invading army was expected to loot the local temple, and when people told stories about invasions, they always mentioned such looting, whether the teller was a court historian or an old fellow in the local toddy shop, and whether the looting had happened or not. Certainly there was exaggeration. With each telling, the temple got richer and richer, and the army had more and more elephants.92 Not surprisingly, these acts provoked some resistance, and the tall stories provoked both taller deeds and taller stories, such as the claim, made by contemporary Muslim sources, that a Hindu named Bartuh killed 120,000 Muslims in Awadh in Uttar Pradesh in around 1220.93

“Here be dragons,” the maps of medieval Europe used to say, and a map of medieval India should certainly say, “Here be monsters.” The landscape was peopled by inhuman human rulers on both sides. The difference is not merely that some Muslims may have had the additional incentive of iconoclasm but that for the most part during this period the Turks had more power to destroy Hindus than Hindus to destroy Turks. But the will, including, in many quarters, goodwill, was there on both sides.


In addition to the monsters on both sides, there were on both sides if not angels at least people who resisted the infinite regress of bloodbaths and retributions, who respected other people’s religions or, at the very least, were indifferent to them. Dear reader, you will not be surprised to learn that some of the Delhi sultans were horrible, and others were decent blokes. Some of the Muslim rulers of India have been called “India-oriented, mystical and inclusive,” while others were “Mecca-oriented, prophetic and exclusive.”94The conquests, like most conquests, were pretty brutal: temples sacked, people murdered. But when the battles ended, the conquerors, dramatically outnumbered, had to administer a gigantic territory, and compromises were made. The situation itself was unbalanced; one group had power over the others. But individual rulers shifted the balance for better or for worse. And the same Hindu political theory that caused so much of the trouble (“the country on my border is my enemy; the enemy of my enemy is my friend”) also mitigated some of it; the Rashtrakutas, for instance, encouraged Hindu-Muslim relations and protected Muslim merchants, not through any particularly liberal principles of tolerance but because their enemies, the Gurjara Pratiharas, were the enemies of the Arabs of Sind, making said Arabs the Rashtrakutas’ natural allies.95

In the culture at large, Hindus adopted a number of Muslim social customs. When the royal women of the Turks and the Rajputs first met, the Muslim women did not keep particularly rigidly to purdah; they joined in the drinking parties and literary salons (as we know, for instance, from Babur’s memoirs). It was after they had lived in India for a while and encountered the Rajput codes of modesty and honor that the women were more strictly concealed by the curtain of purdah and the zenana (harem) and at the same time also adopted some aspects of the Hindu caste system. Hindu women, in turn, adopted a modified version of the Muslim purdah. What a pity that each side took the worst of both worlds; why not ditch both purdah and caste? How very different world history would have been if they had. Even within these restrictions, however, some women asserted themselves; the ten thousand women allegedly sequestered in the harem of one sultan set up what has been called a feminist republic, with their own administration, militia, manufacturing system, and market.96

This was a time when agricultural frontiers expanded, extensive commercial networks developed, gradual technological change took place, and new political and religious institutions (including Hindu ones) developed.97 Even under Muhammad bin Tughluq, most trade, industry, and financial services remained in Hindu hands, and some Hindu converts to Islam achieved particularly high office. Throughout the Delhi Sultanate, Hindus controlled the royal mints and generally ran the economy. Hindu bankers got rich by helping Muslims, newly arrived from Central Asia, to buy slaves, brocades, jewels, and even horses (previously imported from Central Asia) that they would then present to the sultan. Particularly among working people, among artisans, cultivators, and the commercial and secretarial classes, Indian Muslims and lower-caste Hindus lived and worked together and changed each other.98 Women circulated like money (as is generally the case); many Muslims took Hindu wives. And when you add in the gardens and melons and fountains that the Mughals gave to India, not to mention the art and architecture, the picture of cultural exchange brightens considerably.

In dramatic contrast with Buddhism, which was driven out of India by a combination of lack of support, persecution, and the destruction of religious monuments and monasteries (by Hindus as well as Muslims), Hinduism rallied and came back stronger than ever. Though most sultanate rulers condemned idolatry, they did not prevent Hindus from practicing Hinduism. A Hindu inscription of c. 1280 praises the security and bounty enjoyed under the rule of Sultan Balban.99 In 1326 Muhammad bin Tughluq appointed Muslim officials to repair a Shiva temple so that normal worship could resume, and he stated that anyone who paid the jizya could build temples in Muslim territories. Another Delhi sultan, ruling in Kashmir from 1355 to 1373, rebuked his Brahmin minister for having suggested that they melt down Hindu and Buddhist images in his kingdom to get the cash.100

Indeed, in general, despite the evidence of persecution of varying degrees in different times and places, Hinduism under Islam was alive and well and living in India. The same sultans who, with what Hindus would regard as the left hand, collected the jizya and destroyed Hindu temples also, with the right hand, often married Rajput princesses, patronized Hindu artists and Sanskrit scholars, and employed Hindus in the highest offices of state. In Bengal in 1418 a Hindu actually became sultan, Raja Ganesh. His son, converting to Islam, ruled under his father’s direction until 1431. He was succeeded by an Arab Muslim, Ala-ud-din Husain (r. 1493-1519), who revered the Vaishnava saint Chaitanya, in return for which the Hindus regarded the sultan as an incarnation of Lord Krishna. On the other hand, during a war, the same Ala-ud-din Husain destroyed a number of temples, particularly in Orissa.101

Yogis and other ascetics on the fringes of society appear to have been open to friendly exchanges with Muslims from an early date. The Persian merchant and traveler Buzurg ibn Shahriyar, writing around 953, commented that the Skull Bearer (Kapalika) ascetics of Ceylon “take kindly to Musulmans and show them much sympathy.”102 The Tibetan Buddhist historian Taranath, writing in the thirteenth century, was critical of the Nath yogis for following Shiva rather than the Buddha and for saying “They were not even opposed to the Turuskas [Turks].”103 A new generation of Indo-Aryan languages, the linguistic and literary ancestors of all the modern North Indian languages, was evolving. The new languages drew their genres, conventions, and themes from both Muslim literary languages (Persian, Arabic) and Hindu languages—classical (Sanskrit) and vernacular (dialects and Prakrits). Persian and Arabic words and concepts entered the vocabularies of Indian languages at all levels.


Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, heavily influenced and was influenced by Hinduism. By the middle of the eleventh century Sufis had reached the part of Northwest India that was under Ghaznavid control.104 Khwaja Muin-ud-din (or Moin-al-din) Chishti is said to have brought to India the Chishti Sufi order; he came to Delhi late in the twelfth century and settled in Pushkar in Ajmer, a place of Hindu pilgrimage.105 He had many disciples, both Muslim and Hindu. The Chishti Sufi masters were powerful figures in the cultural and devotional life of the Delhi Sultanate (where their followers were often influential members of the court), despite the fact that they regarded “going to the sultan” as the equivalent of “going to the devil.”106

For many Hindus (though, of course, not for the Sufis themselves), Sufism was Islam lite, or a walking incarnation of interreligious dialogue. Early Indian Sufism proclaimed that Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Hindus all were striving toward the same goal and that the outward observances that kept them apart were false. This idea was then incorporated into Hinduism as a major strand of the bhakti movement, which was growing in both power and complexity in this period. In court literature, the Sanskrit theory of the aesthetic emotions (rasa), particularly the erotic emotion, fused with the Islamic metaphysics of the love of God to produce a Sufi narrative simultaneously religious and erotic; the Sufi romances made their hero a yogi and their heroine a beautiful Indian woman.107

Our main subject here is the Muslim contribution to Hinduism, but we must at least acknowledge, in passing, the flow in the other direction during this period, Hindu influence on Muslim culture. Azad Bilgrami (d. 1785) attempted to prove that India was the true homeland of the Prophet,108which is perhaps going too far, but India was indeed the homeland of many important Muslim cultural traditions. One text, The Pool of Nectar, which circulated in multiple versions and translations, made available to Muslim readers certain practices associated with the Nath yogis and the teachings known as Hatha Y oga.109 A school of Kashmiri Sufis, whose members call themselves rishis (the name that Hindus use for their pious sages), are strict vegetarians and recite the verses of Lal Ded, a fourteenth-century poet and Hindu holy woman from Kashmir. Sufis appropriated the Sanskritic poetic language of emotion and devotion from the sects devoted to the worship of Krishna and incorporated much of the philosophy of yoga.

Arabs and Iranians learned much about storytelling in India, and passed on this knowledge to Europeans; many of the same stories are told both in the Hindu Ocean of the Rivers of Story, in which the gods are Shiva and Vishnu, and in The Arabian Nights, in which there is no god but Allah; some of the stories that these two texts share (such as the plot of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well110) got to England long before the English got to India. Al-biruni made excellent use of Sanskrit and Indian scholarship111and produced a fine study of Hindu culture.112 The Delhi sultans employed Hindu temple building techniques and Hindu artisans to build their mosques,113 which was less expensive than outsourcing to Afghanistan. As a result, some mosques are decorated with carved Hindu temple moldings that reveal, in subtle ways, “the unmistakable hand” of Indian artisans.114 This use of Hindu temple techniques not only gave employment to Hindu artisans but was also much easier on Hindus than the use of the actual stones from Hindu temples to build the mosques.


Sufi mysticism heavily influenced the North Indian tradition of bhakti Sants (“saints”), who emphasized the abstract aspect of god “without qualities” (nir-guna ).115 Many of the Sants who straddled Hinduism and Islam were both low caste and rural, such as Ravidas, who was a Pariah leatherworker (Chamar); Dadu, a cotton carder; Sena, a barber.116 But not all bhaktas were of low caste; Guru Nanak (who founded Sikhism) was a Kshatriya, and Mirabai a Kshatriya princess. Sants from the thirteenth to seventeenth century in Maharashtra were drawn from all castes. 117

The most famous of the Sants was Kabir, who was born in Varanasi around the beginning of the fifteenth century into a class of low-caste weavers who had recently converted from Hinduism to Islam.118 One early hagiography mentions that Kabir had previously worshiped the Shakta goddess, suggesting that Kabir’s Muslim family may have converted to Islam from a yogic sect related to the Shaktas, such as the Naths. His mixed birth gave rise to many different stories, some of which attempt to show that Kabir was not really a low-caste Muslim by birth but was adopted by Muslims. Sometimes it is said that Kabir was a Brahmin in a former life or that he was of divine origin but adopted by Muslim weavers of the Julaha caste, who had been Brahmins but had fallen from dharma and become Muslims. Or that he was adopted by Brahmins, worshipers of Shiva, whom some foreigners (perhaps Muslims) forced to drink water from their hands, making them lose caste and become weavers.119 One version says that a Brahmin widow conceived him immaculately, gave birth to him through the palm of her hand, and set him afloat in a basket on a pond, where a Muslim couple found him and adopted him 120 (an episode that follows the Family Romance pattern of the birth of Karna in the Mahabharata), or it is said that the Brahmin widow became pregnant when a famous ascetic blessed her, but she exposed the baby in order to escape dishonor.121 All these stories attempt to drag Kabir back over the line from Muslim to Hindu.

Kabir is widely believed (on scant evidence) to have become one of the disciples of the Hindu saint Ramananda (c. 1370-1440), who was said to have been a disciple of the philosopher Ramanuja and who preached in Hindustani and had many low-caste disciples. There’s a story about Kabir’s tricking Ramananda into accepting a Muslim disciple: Kabir lay down across the stairs where Ramananda bathed every morning before dawn; Ramananda tripped over him and cried out, “Ram! Ram!” thus (Kabir argued) transmitting to him Ramananda’s own mantra, in effect taking him on as a pupil.122 This Ram is not Sita’s Ram, however, but a god “without qualities” (nir-guna), whose name, evoking no story, is complete in itself, a mantra.

Scholars believe that Kabir probably married, and indeed had a son named Kamal, but the Sadhus of the Kabir Panth insist that Kabir was celibate, just as they are.123 There are, in any case, stories about Kabir and his wife, such as this one.


Kabir had no food to give to the dervishes who came to his house; his wife promised the local shopkeeper that she would sleep with him that night if he gave them the food on credit. When she hesitated to keep her promise, Kabir carried her to the shopkeeper that night, as it was raining and muddy; when the shopkeeper learned of this, he was ashamed, fell at Kabir’s feet, gave everything in his shop to the poor, and became a sadhu.124

This is also a story about the exploitation of women and the lower castes by men of the higher castes. Despite his casual attitude to his wife’s fidelity in this story, Kabir often used a wife’s impulse to commit suttee, in order to stay with her husband forever, as a positive metaphor for the worshiper who surrenders his ego to god.125 And he described Illusion (maya) as a seductive woman to whom one becomes addicted and from whom one must break away.126 Women evidently meant several different things to him.

Kabir preached in the vernacular, insisting, “Sanskrit is like water in a well; the language of the people is a flowing stream.” With the social identity of a Muslim and both the earlier family background and the belief system of a Hindu,127 being a weaver, he wove the woof of Islam onto the warp of Hinduism (or, if you prefer, the reverse) to produce a religion of his own that emphatically distanced itself from both. He once described the two religions, disparagingly, in terms of the animals that Hindus offered to the goddess Kali and that Muslims killed at the end of a pilgrimage: “One slaughters goats, one slaughters cows; they squander their birth in isms.”128 Not surprisingly, both groups attacked him during his life; more surprisingly, both claimed him after his death. For this is the sort of thing that he said:

Who’s whose husband? Who’s whose wife?
Death’s gaze spreads—untellable story.
Who’s whose father? Who’s whose son?
Who suffers? Who dies? . . . If God wanted circumcision,
why didn’t you come out cut?
If circumcision makes you a Muslim,
what do you call your women?
Since women are called man’s other half,
you might as well be Hindus. . . .
If putting on the thread makes you a Brahmin,
what does the wife put on?
That Shudra’s touching your food, pandit!
How can you eat it?
Hindu, Muslim—where did they come from?
Who started this road?
Look in your heart, send out scouts:
where is heaven?129

Religious affiliation was just window dressing, as far as Kabir was concerned:

Veda, Koran, holiness, hell, woman, man. . . .
It’s all one skin and bone, one piss and shit,
one blood, one meat. . . .
Kabir says, plunge into Ram!
There: No Hindu. No Turk.130

Kabir challenged the authenticity of the amorphous word “Hindu” in part because it was beginning to assume a more solid shape at this time, precisely in contrast with “Turk” (standing for Turks, Arabs, and other non-Hindus).

Kabir regarded caste as irrelevant to liberation,131 and many stories are told about his challenges to the caste system. For instance:


When Kabir became famous, he was mobbed by so many visitors that he had to get rid of them. So he went to the house of a prostitute, put his arm around her neck, grabbed a vessel of holy water as if it were liquor, and drank; then he went to the bazaar with her, and the townspeople laughed at him, and his devotees were very sad. The Brahmins and traders reviled him, saying, “How can low-caste people engage in bhakti? Kabir tried it for just ten days and now has taken up with a prostitute.” The king showed him no respect, and everyone was astonished.132

The willful seeking of dishonor bears a striking resemblance to the methods used by the Pashupatas, though for an entirely different purpose.

Another story about caste is also a story about talking animals:


One day Kabir and some of his disciples came among Ramanuja’s spiritual descendants, all Brahmins who would not eat if even the shadow of a Pariah fell on their cooking places. They did not want Kabir to sit and eat with them. Rather than say this outright, and knowing that low-caste people were forbidden to recite the Veda, they said that only someone who could recite Vedic verses could sit with them. Kabir had a buffalo with him. He put his hand on the buffalo’s head and said, “Listen, buffalo! Hurry up and recite some of the Veda!” The buffalo began to recite. Everyone was astonished and begged Kabir to forgive them.133

But the strongest testimony to Kabir’s attitude to caste comes from his own poetry:

Tell me where untouchability
came from, since you believe in it. . . .
We eat by touching, we wash
by touching, from a touch
the world was born.
So who’s untouched? asks Kabir.
Only she
who’s free from delusion.134

Yet Kabir was not a revolutionary in any political or even social sense. Iconoclastic, yes; anti-institutional, to be sure; poor and low in status, you bet, but not concerned about putting an end to poverty. His goal was spiritual rather than economic or political liberation.135


Hinduism in this period turned in new directions not only in response to Islam, though that too, but in response to new developments within the Hindu world itself, some of which were and some which were not directly influenced by the Muslim presence. Because of the importance of Vijayanagar and the abundance of available light there, let us let it stand for all the other Hindu kingdoms that thrived at this time.


Vijayanagar (“City of Victory”), the capital of the last extensive Hindu empire in India, between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, had an estimated population of five hundred thousand and was the center of a kingdom that controlled most of southern India, from the uplands of the Deccan plateau to the southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent, and, at various times, the Doab, the Deccan, Orissa, and points east and west.

Located just south of the Tungabhadra River in Karnataka, in South India, Vijayanagar, five kilometers square, was founded in 1336136 by Harihara I (r. 1336-1357), a warrior chief from the Sangama dynasty, and Harihara’s brother Bukka (r. 1344-1377). The story goes that that the brothers had been captured by the army of the Delhi sultan and hauled up to Delhi, where they converted to Islam and accepted the sultan as their overlord. The Delhi sultan then sent them back home to pacify the region. Upon their return south, they promptly shed their allegiance to the sultans, blocked Muslim southward expansion, and were reinstated as Hindus, indeed recognized as reincarnations of Shiva.137

Vijayanagar is a sacred site, which many Hindus regarded as the location of the kingdom of the monkey Hanuman, studded with spots identified with specific places mentioned in the Ramayana, an identification that didn’t politicize the Ramayana so much as itpolis-ized it, turned it into a city-state. Inscriptions, historical narratives, and architectural remains suggest that the concept of Rama as the ideal king, and Ayodhya as the site of the Ramayana legend, came alive in central and North India in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, but only during the Vijayanagar Empire did the cult of Rama become significant at the level of an imperial order.138 The Ramayana had long been an important source for the conceptualization of divine kingship, but now for the first time historical kings identified themselves with Rama and boasted that they had destroyed their enemies as Rama destroyed Ravana; in this way, they would demonize—more precisely, Ravana-ize—their enemies. Scenes from the Ramayana appear in temple wall friezes from at least the fifth century CE, but the figure of Rama was not the object of veneration, the actual installed icon, until the sudden emergence of a number of temples at this time.139 Now Rama and Hanuman became the focus of important sects in northern India, especially around Janakpur, regarded as Sita’s birthplace, and Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, regarded as Rama’s birthplace.

But this was only in part a reaction to the Muslim invasions and the rapid expansion of the Delhi Sultanate. True, Devaraya I (1406-1422) built the first Rama temple at Vijayanagar in the midst of the power struggle with the Delhi sultans. But the story of Rama’s defeat of Ravana was celebrated in rituals before the rise of Islam in India, and there are no anti-Muslim statements in any inscriptions relating to the Vijayanagar temples. The fact that Shri Vaishnavas built many of the Rama temples in Vijayanagar,140 with endowments by a variety of groups, including royal agents, subordinate rulers, private citizens, and merchant guilds, suggests that the cult of Rama had a life of its own, with theological motivations, in addition to its significance for the ideology of kingship.141

The Vijayanagar temples may well have been built in part as a response to theological challenges posed by the Jainas, for there was still considerable conflict at this time between Jainas (who were now on the decline) and both Shaivas and Vaishnavas (from the fast-growing sects of Basava and Ramanuja). When the Jainas complained to Bukka I, in 1368 CE at Vijayanagar, about the injustice done to them by the Shri Vaishnavas, the king proclaimed that there was no difference between the Jaina and Vaishnava philosophies and that the Shri Vaishnavas should protect the Jaina tradition.142 The king would not have to have made an edict urging the Hindus to treat the Jainas well if they hadn’t already been treating them badly.

Finally, there was no unified Hindu consciousness in which Rama was personified as a hero against the Muslims. Indeed, one Hindu Sanskrit inscription from the early seventeenth century regards the Lord of Delhi (“Dillishvara”) as the ruler of a kingdom just like Ram-raj, the mythical kingdom of Rama.143 Vijayanagar yields much evidence of Hindu-Muslim synthesis rather than antagonism. The Vijayanagar empire and the sultanates were in close contact and shared many cultural forms; court dancers and musicians often moved easily between the two kingdoms.144 The kings of Vijayanagar, careless in matters of dharma, used a largely Muslim cavalry, royal fortresses under Brahmin commanders, Portuguese and Muslim mercenary gunners, and foot soldiers recruited from tribal peoples. In 1565, at the battle of Talikota, a confederation of Muslim sultans routed the forces of Vijayanagar and the Nayakas. The usual sacking and slaughter, treasure hunting and pillage of building materials ensued, but without bigotry; the temples were the least damaged of the buildings and were often left intact.145

The Nayakas rose to power after Vijayanagar fell in 1565,146 and they ruled, from Mysore, through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The story of the founding of the Nayaka kingdoms follows lines similar to those of the story of the founding of Vijayanagar: Sent out to pacify the Cholas, the Nayakas double-crossed the Vijayanagar king just as the founding Vijayanagarans had double-crossed the Delhi sultans.147 What goes around comes around. The Nayakas brought dramatic changes, a renaissance in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Tamil country and Andhra, ranging from political experimentation and economic and social change to major shifts in concepts of gender.148


The Vijayanagar kings used their plunder and tribute for elaborate royal rituals, academic patronage, and trophy temples. The plunder of Hindu temples made possible the building not merely of superb mosques but, indirectly, of superb Hindu temples. Just as Hindu temples had vied, in competitive fund-raising, with Buddhist stupas in South India, so under the sultanate, Muslim and Hindu kings competed in architectural monumentalism, the Muslims inclining toward forts and cities (as well as mosques), the Hindus toward temples, temple complexes, and temple cities (as well as palaces). However different the styles may have been, the two sets of rulers shared the grandiosity; they egged each other on: Godzilla meets King Kong.

There was a break in the building of Hindu temples during each new Muslim invasion, with few new commissions and the loss of some temples that the Muslims destroyed, but then there followed an even greater expansion of art in all fields.149 Throughout India, Hindu dynasties responded to the entrance of Islam not only by building forts and massing horsemen but by asserting their power through extravagant architecture, most spectacularly at Hampi, Halebid, and Badami. Indeed, the leveling of the sacred monuments at Mathura and Kanauj coincided precisely with the construction of other great dynastic temple complexes.150 It’s a rather backhanded compliment to the Muslims to say that because they tore down so many temples, they paved the way for the Hindus to invent their greatest architecture, but it is also true. For not only is there a balance between the good and bad karma of individual rulers, but the bad things sometimes made possible the good things; the pillage made possible the patronage. In a similarly perverse way, the withdrawal of royal patronage from the temples and Brahmin colleges may have encouraged the spread of new, more popular forms of Hinduism such as bhakti. The dynamic and regenerative quality of Hinduism was never more evident than in these first centuries of the Muslim presence.

Islamic architecture was introduced into India, and welcomed enthusiastically by Hindu builders, long before the establishment of Muslim rule in the thirteenth century. Trade partnerships between the Gujaratis and the Arabs made it possible for Gujarati painters, working under Hindu and Jaina rulers, to absorb Persian and Turkic techniques.151 Islam gave India not merely the mosque but the mausoleum, the pointed arch, and the high-arching vault, changing the entire skyline of secular as well as sacred architecture—palaces, fortresses, gardens.152 Mosques also provided a valuable contrast with temples within the landscape of India. The Hindu temple has a small, almost empty space in the still center (the representation of the deity is always there), surrounded by a steadily escalating profusion of detail that makes rococo seem minimalist. But the mosque creates a larger emptiness from its very borders, a space designed not, like the temple, for the home of a deity but for congregational prayer. The mosque, whose serene calligraphic and geometric decoration contrasts with the perpetual motion of the figures depicted on the temple, makes a stand against the chaos of India, creating enforced vacuums that India cannot rush into with all its monkeys and peoples and colors and the smells of the bazaar and, at the same time, providing a flattering frame to offset that very chaos.


Sects of renouncers had always followed a religious path away from houses. But now, during this period when so many great temples were being built and the temple rather than the palace or the house was the pivot of the Brahmin imaginary, one large and influential South Indian Hindu sect differed from earlier renouncers in spurning not houses but stone temples, the very temples that were the pride and joy of South Indian rulers and the bastions of the social, economic, and religious order of South India. These were the Lingayats (“People of the Linga”) or Virashaivas (“Shiva’s Heroes”), also called Charanas (“Wanderers”) because they prided themselves on being moving temples, itinerant, never putting down roots.153 Their founder was Basava (1106-1167), a Brahmin at the court of King Bijjala of Kalyana.154 Basava preached a simplified devotion: no worship but that of a small linga worn around the neck and no goal but to be united, at death, with Shiva. He rejected the worship of gods that you hock in bad times or hide from robbers (a possible reference to the vulnerability of temple images to invading armies): “How can I feel right about gods you sell in your need, and gods you bury for fear of thieves?” 155

The only temple you can trust is your own body:

The rich
will make temples for Shiva.
What shall I,
a poor man,

My legs are pillars,
the body the shrine,
the head a cupola
of gold.

Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers,
things standing shall fall,
but the moving ever shall stay.156

And the name “lord of the meeting rivers” resonates, among other things, with the meetings of the community of devotees from every caste and class.157 “Things standing shall fall” mocks the megalomania of the temple builders.

The Virashaivas were militants who attacked the normative social and cultural order of the medieval south; some people regarded them as heretics, and many classified them as “left-hand” (artisans, merchants, servants) in contrast with “right-hand” (agricultural workers). Legends about the early Virashaivas say that the son of a Pariah married the daughter of a Brahmin; the king condemned both their fathers to death; the Virashaivas rioted against the king and assassinated him; the government attempted to suppress the Virashaivas, but they survived. Basava was against caste and against Brahmins. Muslim social customs, unrestricted by caste, influenced him deeply, and the Virashaivas’ rejection of the Brahmin imaginary may be beholden to the influence of Muslim missionaries who were active on India’s west coast just when the Virashaiva doctrine was developed there. On the other hand, the threat of Islamic iconoclasm may have been one reason for the widespread use of portable temple images (or portable lingas).158

The earlier poems of the Virashaivas were composed in Kannada, but the earliest extant full narrative of the Virashaivas is in Telugu, the thirteenth-century Telugu Basava Purana of Palkuriki Somanatha. It is largely a hagiography of Basava, but it is also, in David Shulman’s words, “an extraordinarily violent book . . . the Virashaiva heroes are perpetually decapitating, mutilating, or poisoning someone or other—their archenemies, the Brahmins and Jains, or their political rivals, or, with astounding frequency, themselves (usually for some minor lapse in the intensity of their devotion).”159 Where does this violence come from? We may trace it back to the Tamil saints of the Periya Purana, or to the wild followers of Shiva as Virabhadra in Andhra, who represent “an enduring strain of potentially antinomian folk religion that breaks into literary expression under certain historical conditions,” such as the political vacuum that existed in twelfth-century Kalyana.160 Much of the aggression and violence in the Basava Purana is directed against conventional religion: The god in the temple murti (icon) is so humiliated that he sneaks out the back door; washer-men, thieves, and Pariahs win out over the political and religious power mongers. A devotee’s dog (actually Shiva disguised in a dog’s skin) recites the Veda, shaming the caste-obsessed Brahmins,161 as the buffalo does, in Kabir’s poem; making the interloper a dog instead of a buffalo intensifies the caste issue. Several stories also describe victories over Jainas, some of whom are blinded.162Eventually Basava reacted against the Virashaivas’ violence and lived his life away from the community he had founded.


In the twelfth century a woman Virashaiva saint named Mahadevyyakka composed poems in Kannada163 that simultaneously addressed the metaphysics of salvation (including the problem of Maya, [“illusion”]) and the banal problem of dealing with in-laws:

I have Maya for mother-in-law;
the world for father-in-law;
three brothers-in-law, like tigers;

and the husband’s thoughts
are full of laughing women:
no god, this man.

And I cannot cross the sister-in-law.
But I will
give this working wench the slip
and go cuckold my husband with Hara, my Lord.164

On the banal level, the poem refers to the difficult situation of a woman under the thumb of her mother-in-law in a patrilocal society (which means that you live with your husband’s family); “no god, this man” is a direct contradiction of Hindu dharma texts such as that of Manu (5.154), which instructs a woman to treat her husband like a god. There are also more abstract references, some explicit (Maya and the world as mother- and father-in-law), some implicit: The three tigerish brothers-in-law are the three strands of matter (gunas), the components of nature that one cannot escape. A. K. Ramanujan sees the husband as symbolic of karma, “the past of the ego’s many lives,” and the sister-in-law as the binding memory or “perfume” (vasana) that clings to karma. None of the people in the poem is related to the speaker/heroine/worshiper by blood; she defies them all, using a vulgar word for “cuckold” that would surely shock them. The poem presents the love of god (Hara, a name of Shiva) as both totally destructive of conventional life and illegitimate, transgressive. 165

We can reconstruct quite a lot about the life of Mahadevyyakka. She regarded herself as married to Shiva, and tried in vain to avoid marrying Kaushika, a king who fell in love with her. She wrote of this conflict:

Husband inside,
lover outside.
I can’t manage them both.

This world
and that other,
cannot manage them both.166

Eventually she left her husband and wandered naked, clothed only in her hair, like Lady Godiva, until she died, still in her twenties. Ramanujan writes her epitaph: “Her struggle was with her condition, as body, as woman, as social being tyrannized by social roles, as a human confined to a place and a time. Through these shackles she bursts, defiant in her quest for ecstasy.”167 Though hardly a typical woman, Mahadevyyakka nevertheless provides a paradigm precisely for atypicality, for the possibility that a woman might shift the paradigm, im as so many other women have done in the history of Hinduism, so strongly that their lives may have functioned as alternative paradigms for other women.

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