How the world saw India

How do other people think of us? I think all of us have wondered that at some time. The answer often depends on where we are at the time. This is also true for nations. So how has India been seen in the past? India has played a key role in the history of its region from the origin of Buddhism to the trade and cultural exchange over the Indian Ocean. But I’d like to discuss something Indians don’t like to think about as much. It was a time of great change in the culture and civilization.

Even at the time of the Abbasid Caliphate, star charts and astronomical tables from India were translated into Arabic. The Muslim world was clearly aware of mathematics and astronomy from the sub-continent. But there was little other contact. Compared with this, the works of Greek philosophers were far more numerous and influential in shaping the Arabic renaissance.

After the collapse of the centralized Caliphate, the Muslim world fragmented into a number of competing political states, but they maintained a relatively uniform culture. In this scenario arose one of the most demonized figures in Indian history, Mahmud of Ghazni. This Afghan warlord made repeated raids into north western India (most of which is present day Pakistan) in search of loot. Interestingly, his army was a varied sort with Turkish, Afghan and even Indian soldiers.


Mahmud of Ghazni

At the time, Buddhism had died in India and the Vedic religion had evolved into something closer to Hinduism as we know it. But politically, the region remained divided. India was rich but weak and hence ripe for plunder from the west.

One of the consequences of the raids was that many valuable hostages and captives were taken from India back with Mahmud’s army. This included skilled artisans, scribes and also Hindu scholars and priests. Taking captives was a part of the campaign and did not reflect any interest on Mahmud’s part for the people or culture he was fighting. Indeed, it was rare for any Muslim scholar to take an interest in India. Hindus were popularly caricatured as a degenerate polytheistic people who had stagnated in their development. They were not “people of the book” like Christians or Jews and were hence suitable for plundering and taking as slaves.

There was one notable exception to this, at the time Mahmud’s court contained one of the finest medieval scholars, Al-Biruni who had been practically kidnapped and kept hostage there. To understand Al-Biruni’s position, it is important to understand that at the time, it was a measure of a ruler’s prestige that his court contain scholars, poets and men of learning. They gave an air of learning, wisdom and legitimacy to their patron regardless of how much or little the ruler chose to listen to them. In a way, the court intellectual’s life could be compared with that of a caged bird forced to sing for its master’s pleasure.


Al-Biruni depicted on a Russian stamp

Al-Biruni was a strikingly original thinker. He almost uniquely chose to interest himself in the culture and thought of the Indians and came to respect it as a holistic world view. In his book, Tarik Al-Hind, he wrote extensively on Indian science, geography, religion and mathematics often comparing them with the much better understood Greek models. Al-Biruni’s work is remarkable for its dispassionate assessment of India and also for the intense trouble he took to understand the Indian calendar, a subject close to his own researches.

Al-Biruni was quick to see the parallels between ancient Indian and Greek thought. But as per the opinion of the time, he too felt that whereas Greek thought had evolved into Islamic thought (along with China, the leading light of that time), Hindu thought and science had stagnated. The reason for this, he felt was the Sanskrit language with its emphasis on homonyms and poetic association in contrast with the precise and practical language used to convey the scientific thoughts of the Greeks.

Al-Biruni brought out the Tarikh Al-Hind shortly after Mahmud’s death in 1002 and for this work some regard him as the first anthropologist. But the work remained obscure. No other Islamic scholar chose to follow up on Indology. Al-Biruni was remembered for his contributions to mathematics and astronomy. In fact, his work on India only became popular in the 19th century when the British were eagerly translating historical works in their effort to understand India.


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