Temple Desecration: Using History As A Weapon.

Currently the “Holy Cow” Politics is in the ascendant just as the Bihar elections are underway. Often, the antisocial elements, always alive to emerging opportunities to foment trouble for selfish gains, do take advantage of overarching atmosphere of tension, hatred and mistrust that is created by much larger political, social or religious formations to meet their own overt and covert agendas. The Dadri incident, where Akhlaq was brutally murdered by a rampaging mob over allegations of slaughtering cow, and storing and eating beef; may later prove to be handiwork of miscreants out of personal enmity or property dispute, who disguised their murderous intent under the cloak of charged atmosphere of “Holy Cow” politics. Whatever the truth, it doesn’t absolve those who are responsible for raking up issues and ratcheting up tensions to create a highly combustive communal situation. Another issue that is raked up on and off to vitiate the atmosphere is of “temple desecration” in medieval India by Muslim States. Sitaram Goel is the much sighted scholar to rest the case. I came across an article that was published in Frontline in the year 2000-2001, which I thought sheds same sober light on this vexed topic.

Richard Eaton wrote a two part article in Frontline issues of 22 December 2000 and 5 January 2001. The article examines the evidence of temple desecration in medieval India by Muslim States and the rationale behind those acts. Which temples were destroyed, why and by whom. He gives examples of some 80 temple desecrations and adds the list is not exhaustive. However, the thesis put forward by Sitaram Goel in his book “HINDU TEMPLES WHAT HAPPENED TO THEM” that tens of thousands of temples were destroyed by Muslim rulers, Eaton argues, evidence doesn’t support such indiscriminate wholesale destruction. The source for Goel’s contention was archaeology or survey of monuments; and either literary accounts of contemporary witnesses/ writers, who were often court-writers given to hyperbole in the praise of their masters and somewhat later accounts or inscriptions found at rebuilt-destroyed sites. While it is well known that Prophet Mohammed did destroy hundreds of idols at Mecca and Arab armies continued to be zealous iconoclasts in the initial conquests of Islam; Goel argues that desecration of temples in India too was driven by same religious ideology of iconoclasm. He produced a list of such desecrated temples that runs to some two thousand cases. Iconoclasm was not the sole or root cause of temple desecration according to Eaton and reasons for “targeted temple desecration” were more rooted in power politics of the day and exigencies of the rulers. 

The account of Eaton shouldn’t be presented without the critique of Koenraad Elst, who holds a pride of place in the pantheon of Hindutva.  The main points of examination are thus:
  1. Eaton lists only 80 cases [representative, not exhaustive list]: The Seventh example in the list is Ghurid Army’s desecration at Benares [see table on page 7 above]. The source given is Taj al-ma athir by Hasan Nizami as given in Elliot and Dawson  History of India as Told by its Own Historians, v2, p223. Elst says that the same source says that Ghurid army desecrated 1000 temples in Benares at the same time. Therefore, he asserts that Eaton’s figures need to be multiplied by x10, x100 or even x1000 as in this case. Elst has ‘picked on’ just one example to advance his ‘number theory’, and this “figure of x1000” he doesn’t back up with archaeological or physical survey evidence. Elst too deliberately ignores what Eaton had to say about the “motivations” of that very source. Elliot had a mission: The mission was to contrast “the benign, cultured and magnificent influence in just a half century of British rule” against “the barbaric, bloodthirsty and iconoclastic rule of Muslims rulers before” [see page 1 and 2 above].  British had indeed thus perverted history repeatedly as was shown by Dharampal by his painstaking research of original archived material. Therefore, while Eaton seems right in not accepting naively everything in the source outright, Elst shows no such qualms. 
  2. While Muslim iconoclasm is minimised by Eaton so as to make it look insignificant charges Elst, he holds the former has simultaneously transmogrified the Hindu King’s temple desecration [Elst calls it Hindu-iconoclasm] in stealing idols or looting royal temples to make it look like Zeitgeist of first millennium ACE. Elst has missed the whole point of Eaton’s labour in this regard. Royal deities held a very special place of power and worship in Hindu kingdoms. The sovereignty over the kingdom was held as if jointly by the presiding deity and the king, whereby each drew legitimacy from the other and imparted absolute power over subjects in return. Therefore, vanquishing the king in war also often meant not letting the royal deity remain unvanquished. On the other hand in wars among Hindu kings as the victorious king came from the same ethos as the vanquished, it is unimaginable that he would dare break the idol, destroy the temple or desecrate either in any way. However, that did not stop him from forcibly taking away the idol or from looting the temple riches. Eaton is unscholarly lax in using the phrase “Attacks on images” when he said: “But it is also true that attacks on images patronised by enemy kings had been, from about the sixth century A.D. on, thoroughly integrated into Indian political behaviour“. However, Eaton’s somewhat sweeping contention that an attack on a kingdom de rigueur meant in 6th century ACE onwards that the image of the royal deity would be seized as would be the temple’s riches in every case does not seem to be supported with necessary evidence. However, the necessity of cutting the umbilical cord between the King’s power to Royal Deity’s power to subjugate conquered population and to prevent future uprisings if possible did not obviously go unnoticed when the rulers professing different religion -Islam- came to this land as conquerers. Freed from the burden of common ties of religion or culture, these new rulers experienced no compunction or hesitation in breaking idols or desecrating temples when they saw it politically expedient to their rule to do so. Naturally, Muslim rulers would justify their iconoclasm based on their own Islamic theology, though the result they desired of their actions was no different from what Hindu rulers wrought. However, they also must have reckoned the dangers of resorting to unbridled desecration of every idol or temple they came across just because of the “essentiality of iconoclasm in Islam” [as Sitaram Goel posits according to Elst] or because they were goaded by fanatic Mullahs in their ranks. Nowhere Eaton makes a case though that Muslim rulers learnt their iconoclasm from Hindus as Elst chose to read in his writings. 
  3. Even Elst has to concede that Muslim rulers were human beings, and all manner of circumstances determined to what extent they implemented Islamic injunctions. Many were rulers first and Muslims second. Often they had to find a modus vivendi with the Hindu majority in order to keep fellow Muslim sectarian or dynastic rivals off their own backs, and in order to avoid Hindu rebellion. If ‘many were rulers first and muslims second’ as Elst says, then they would automatically choose a course of action that favours them or favours them more rather than favours their religion but harms them politically. If this overarching principle of ruler’s psyche is grasped correctly, then what Eaton is saying begins to make more sense.
  4. Eaton mentions that mosques in the territory of the vanquished Muslim rulers were not desecrated by the conquering Muslim rulers and sights the apolitical nature of mosques: “though religiously potent, were considered detached from both sovereign terrain and dynastic authority, and hence politically inactive“. Because he seems to assert that “act of desecrating mosques” played no role in emasculating and delegitimising the vanquished ruler. Elst finds fault with this by giving modern example of mosques as “centres of Islamic political activism, not just in Delhi or Lahore or Cairo but even in New York“. While Elst’s point seems legitimate, he doesn’t mention that when such a challenge to sovereign’s authority emerged from within a mosque, the rulers did not hesitate to launch an assault on such mosques to traduce the “offenders” hiding there. House of Saud even attacked the holiest place of Islam, Al-Masjid Al-Haram [where Ka’aba is located], when armed insurgents captured it in a bid to overthrow the Saudi rulers by fomenting a rebellion in 1979. Moreover, the challenge to rulers’ authority seldom rose from among the masses in medival times, but almost always came from other hostile rulers, who had no need of a mosque to carry out their intrigues or plots.  
In conclusion one may say that
  • Major acts of temple desecration were political in nature and were carried out by conquering  Muslim rulers against royal deities of vanquished Hindu kings to stamp their authority.
  • However, it cannot be unequivocally denied that Islamic iconoclasm played no role in other cases of temple desecration. Also imitative behaviour by the satraps of main rulers too may have played role in desecration of minor temples. Islam did not remain immutable through subsequent centuries and her interactions with other cultures that it came in contact with. Therefore, to argue that Islam’s iconoclastic behaviour remained undiminished and unaltered through ages would be to deny the evolution it went through as witnessed in it’s often conflicting myriad sects, sub-sects and divisions.
  • Had the temples been desecrated wholesale as some hold, then one wouldn’t be left with such rich, varied and plentiful temple heritage as one witnesses even today in India.
  • Lastly, one wouldn’t find the many instances of Muslim rulers providing for the upkeep of temples within their dominion that one discovers in land records and historical documents making grants, had iconoclasm been an unmitigated passion and mission of Muslim rulers. This fact is noted by India’s first president, Rajendra Prasad, in his book “India Divided“. Incidentally, Prasad is not regarded as a person in the “Nehruvian Secularist Mould” either by his admirers or critics. The pages 30 to 40 extracted from the book “India Divided” speak about the “Religion Aspect” of Indian culture in the context of partition of British India on religious grounds. The extract can be accessed below.

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