It was Dussehra the other day, and now it will be Diwali. Both occasions, like other Hindu festivals, are celebrated in different ways in different regions of India and are also known by different names. Dussehra in north India more or less coincides with Durga Puja in Bengal.
Many Buddhists in India mark Emperor Ashoka’s conversion to the faith around the time of Diwali. For people like me the festival heralds foggy winters when mothballed woollies are hung out in the fading sun before being ready to be reused.
A lot of Indians celebrate Hindu festivals for similar reasons, which increasingly find Muslims in Pakistan observing Hindu customs. They go for the cultural and aesthetic appeal, and not always for the belief associated with them.
I know Pakistani women who ask their husbands when they visit India to fetch them sindoor, the vermillion mark worn by married Hindu women in the parting of the hair. Partly this could be the influence of Hindi movies. There are Pakistani women who also want their husbands to give them the mangalsutra, a special necklace that symbolises matrimony for Hindu women. Quite a number of my contemporaries don’t go to these celebrations any longer, partly because Hindutva has hijacked the festivals.
The flip side offers another compelling reason why Hindutva-run schools would never risk teaching Ghalib or Mir or so many other Urdu poets who challenge their stereotype of Hindu-hating Indian Muslims. Not surprisingly, these cultural mascots from our past are shunned equally in Muslim seminaries of Pakistan for just as valid or invalid a reason. How else would either of them whip up the required mistrust of the ‘other’ if their cadre were to be exposed to, say, Mir Taqi Mir’s couplet from the 19th-century cultural ambience?
Chhor ker sab deeno-imaa’n Mir jiske waastey/ Hum huey kaafir to wo kaafir Musalma’n ho gaya (I forsook my faith to become a kafir like the beloved/ The beloved betrayed me and turned a Muslim instead)
For Muslim extremists, Mir would be deserving of the ultimate punishment for deserting his religion. For Hindutva, the far-sighted poet posed a more contemporary threat — an artificially induced enemy, a ‘love-jihadi’ who they imagined or claimed was preying on their daughters.
There has been a traditional affinity, even bonding, between Hindu and Muslim extremists of the subcontinent. They have both mistrusted the liberals within their respective folds. It was natural, therefore, for Hindutva in India to emulate its narrow-minded Muslim counterparts in Pakistan to jointly target the genial Emperor Akbar, otherwise considered a symbol of enlightenment and religious tolerance.
The Indian Express reported last week the feverish work being done by Hindutva historians to rob Akbar of his secular halo. They want to project Hemu, a Hindu chieftain who briefly gave Akbar a hard time, as the last grand emperor of Hindu India. Goebbelsian myth making can succeed in the short run but it would not be able to completely airbrush the hard evidence produced by Prof Sharif Husain Qasemi on Akbar’s behalf.
As India’s leading Persian scholar, Prof Qasemi published an amazing book recently — A descriptive catalogue of Persian translations of Indian works. Sanskrit work related to Hindu religion, philosophy, mysticism, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, music, history, romance, historical and semi-historical tales and “moral fables” together with some works on the Sikh religion have been catalogued.
Qasemi sahib describes his seminal work with characteristic modesty. It is a record, he says “of the endeavors of Muslims in India to understand their ancient homeland and its magnificent culture in a large scene”. At a popular level, Dara Shikoh was one of the last notable Mughal princes to be credited with translating Hindu scriptures from Sanskrit into Persian. The fact is, as Prof Qasemi illustrates, that Dara was only following a tradition that emulates Akbar and often goes beyond the emperor by a few centuries.
For example, Mohammed bin Qasim’s conquest of Sindh in 711 AD and his cordial and friendly ties with the local Brahmins are recorded in Fath Nama-i-Sindh, popularly known as the Chach Nama. The original Arabic manuscript was lost without a trace, but Prof Qasemi has catalogued its Persian translation in the reign of Nasiruddin Qabacha as an early quest by arriving Muslims to blend with the local culture.
Qasemi sahib read out a lovely story from his Persian papers about Emperor Akbar. The ruler had ordered the translation of the Sanskrit epic Mahabharat into Persian. His close associates found Abdul Qadir Badayuni appropriate for the job. Highly competent in his work, Badayuni was a narrow-minded Muslim. Akbar knew of this tendency, and was wary of him.
When the first translation of Mahabharat, translated mostly as Razm Nama — or chronicle of wars — came before him, Akbar wondered why it carried references to heaven and hell for the righteous and evil-doers in the epic. As a young prince he had learnt of the Hindu faith in transmigration of souls, but nothing of hell and heaven. He reported the matter to the Fazl-Faizi duo, who collared Badayuni.
For all his puritanism, Badayuni writes how he called the Brahmin priests before the emperor who advised Akbar that the concept of hell and heaven did in fact exist in Hindu philosophy. That’s how Akbar the ruler-cum-editor let his second edition of Mahabharat be published. He got it distributed to the elite to make them understand and embrace the great culture they were privileged to savour, says Prof Qasemi.
Meanwhile, by not celebrating Dussehra or Diwali I have saved time to start reading the Hindi translation in three volumes of the epic Ramayan. To make it more intractable for the Hindutva simpletons, a Hindu scribe named Sumer Chand wrote it in Persian. To make it even more perverse for Hindtuva, two Muslim scholars at Rampur’s famed Raza Library translated Ramayan into chaste Hindi from its original Persian. Votaries of Hindutva can eat their hearts out.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
This article first appeared in Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest daily. Click here to go to the original.