A Temple Where I Begin To Understand That Neither Hindu Nor Muslim Means What We May Believe

The Hindu temple contains two shrines, both to men who were once Muslims. As I write last statement this I realize that the two religious categories mentioned here - Hindu and Muslim actually make little sense. The fact remains that neither the word Hindu nor the word Muslim used here describes a set of clear, precise, differentiated, and orthodox ideas of the two religions. Here, in the village of Deoli, deep in the heart of Eastern Maharashtra where I have been traveling for some weeks, one comes face to face with the realization that these definitional categories hide more than they reveal.

More importantly, that by labeling someone as Muslim or Hindu tells us almost nothing about their life, values, experiences and outlook. It may not even tell us that they are followers of even the basic and simple tenets of the religion. And most importantly, it does not tell us how the lived practice of the religion was influenced, physically, emotionally, intellectually and psychologically, by the other religious practices occurring close by. These categories idealize and mislead. They lie.

Muslim modernists have remained uncomfortable with the complexity, fluidity and the indigenous nature of South Asian Islam. It is a discomfort that gives shape to a concerted effort on the part of the orthodox to eradicate any and all variations to the ‘orthodox’ ideas of the religion largely imported from what is seen to be the ‘true’ place of Islam – the Middle East. Oddly, this prioritizing of the alien in fact negates the lived practice of the majority of the world’s Muslims in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia. It takes the popular, the larger, the more complex, the genuinely regional and attempts to cleanse it and reject it. What makes us uniquely South Asian Muslims is precisely what the modernists and reformists reject most vehemently. Their attacks of ‘deviations’ and ‘heretics’, their rejection of the shrines of saints, and regional practices with direct and clear influences of India’s pre-Islamic past e.g the nerchas of the Mapila Muslims of Kerala, are a reflection of these attempts at erasure.

The category of Hindu is even more complex, as it is meant to incorporate into it thousands of years of religious practice, with thousands of different deities and rituals, none of which can effectively be lumped under any one title. In fact, the word Hindu was once associated with all those people who practiced any faith outside the regions main religions like Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism and so on. But Hinduism as we know it today, the official, orthodox variety is a product of 19th century reform movements. Pankaj Mishra argued this powerfully in an essay called The Invenstion Of The Hindu argued that there was:

…no such thing as Hinduism before the British invented the hold all category in the early nineteenth century, and made India seem the home of a “world religion” as organised and theologically coherent as Christianity and Islam. The concepts of a “world religion” and “religion” as we know them now, emerged during the late 18th and early 19th century, as objects of academic study, at a time of widespread secularisation in western Europe…But academic study of any kind imposes its own boundaries upon the subject. It actually creates the subject while bringing it within the realm of the intellect. The early European scholars of religion labelled everything; they organized disparate religious practices into one system, and literally brought into being such world religions as Hinduism and Buddhism.

Hinduism’s boundaries, once near infinite, being constricted by, as Ashia Nandy has argued, the values and priorities of Brahmanical, middle-class, westernizing Indians to their uprooting, cultural and geographical. Their reforms were, and remain, a direct criticism of Hinduism as it is lived and practiced across this land. As Nandy states in his essay ‘The Twilight of Certitudes’ in his work Bonfire of Creeds:

The votaries of Hindutva (modern Hindu nationalism) will celebrate the death of Hinduism. For they have all along felt embarassed and humiliated by Hinduism as it is. Hindutva is meant for those whose Hinduism has worn off. It is a ware meant for the supermarket of global mass cuture where all religions are available in their consumable forms, neatly packaged for buyers…To those who live in Hinduism, Hindutva is one of those pathologies that periodically afflict a faith. Hinduism has…handled many such pathologies; it still retains the capacity…to handle one more. (page 129)

Nandy’s argument is very simple: Hindu modernists were deeply anti-Hinduism, going so far as to be embarrassed of its millions of gods and their rather human like frailties and inconsistencies. As Nandy points in another essay called ‘A Report on the Present State of Health of the Gods’ again in Bonfire of Creeds that:

…if you read the literature of Hindutva you will find a systematic, consistent and often direct attack on Hindu gods and goddesses. Most stalwarts of Hindutva have not been interested in Hindu religion and have said so openly. Their tolerance towards the rituals and myths of their faith have even been lower. Many of them have come to Hindutva as a reaction to everyday, vernacular Hinduism.

And this vagueness of religious definition, this ‘fuzziness’ of religious practice and sense of identity, as Kaviraj has argued, did not allow for hard separation of beliefs into categories of religion as those found on British period census forms. Kumar Suresh Singh’s survey of Indian communities showed that hundreds of communities can be classified as having more than one religion. That there were at least 116 communities that are both Hindu and Christian and at least 35 that are Hindu and Muslim. Again, the definitions Muslim and Christian and Hindu remain problematic in this idea i.e. that there are no concrete definitions of these terms to begin with. We can only loosely approximate their meaning and boundaries in identity and cultural terms.

Both Hindu and Muslim modernists share their revulsion of the vernacular practices of their faiths. They both tried to tear down the lived faiths. As Pankaj Mishra points out,

Only a tiny minority of upper-caste Indians had known much about the Bhagavad-Gita or the Vedas until the eighteenth century when they were translated by British scholars and then presented as sacred texts from the paradisiacal age of something called “Hinduism.” in the nineteenth century, movements dedicated to reforming Hinduism and recovering its lost glory grew very rapidly. The inspiration or rhetoric of these neo-Hindu movements might have seemed archaic. In fact, they were largely inspired by the ideas of progress and development that British utilitarians and Christian missionaries aggressively promoted in India.

As I stand here at this shrine to a man who was born a Muslim and later adopt as a Hindu guru, these thoughts run through my head. Miranath was born a Muslim but adopted Viswanath Maharaj, a Brahmin, as his guide and teacher. I am reminded of the story of the great Indian poet Kabir, who too was born a Muslim, but raised, educated and nurtured under a Hindu guru. The temple also contains a shrine to a Muslim friend of Miranath, the saint Dina Shahwali. The devotees who flock here for puja, and the thousands who congregate for the annual mela, are largely Hindus. Their devotion to a man whose identity, ideas of faith and spirituality, trespass boundaries of accepted religions, reflects a cultural continuity that defies the modernist definitions and categorization. They represent a necessary, alive and passionate faith that is not transcribed in books, or sustained through mass campaigns of control and direction.

It is here that one begins to understand that the census like precision of categories such as Muslim or Hindu make little sense and do little to help us understand the ease with which these men, and this community transcended the boundaries between faith. It is as Farina Mir, Associate Professor at the University of Michigan, keeps reminding me, that we can’t begin to understand such trespassing of faiths by assuming the clarity and precision of categories such as Muslim or Hindu. Here, standing outside this unique temple to a Muslim man, in this small village of Deoli on the outskirts of the town of Wardha in Eastern Maharashtra, I am beginning to understand her argument.

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