1.) Mahmūd of Ghazna—Two Perspectives

The regnant perspective on Mahmūd of Ghazna may be said to be represented by the following citation:

…The Turkish tribes at this time may perhaps be described as semi-barbaric, owing allegiance to Islam and accepting Persian culture, but being liable to strange aberrations of tyranny and savagery. In 1071 they burst into the West when they overthrew the Greek emperor and overran Asia Minor. Five years later they took Jerusalem, an act which set in motion the Crusades. Eastward they established themselves at Ghanzi, between Kabul and Kandahar in modern Afghanistan. From this point their leader Mahmud led a series of raids on northwest India, culminating in the sack of Mathura (sacred to Krishna) and the destruction at the great temple of Somnath, on the coast of Kathaiwar in 1024-25. It is typical of the Turks of that time that the ruthless destroyer of temples and slayer of idolaters was a patron of the arts in Ghanzi. Alberuni, the Muslim savant who wrote a classical work on Hinduism, resided at his court. Mahmud’s raids had two important results. The first was the conquest of the Panjab, which, with a few interludes, has been Muslim territory ever since. The gateway of India had been secured. The second was to set up in Indian minds a tradition of Muslim intolerance. After the early Turkish period the tradition was so deeply rooted that no policy of toleration, nor the general practice of the live-and-let-live principle which was the day-to-day custom of Indian life, could eradicate it. In the popular Hindu mind a Muslim was as intolerant as a bania was avaricious or a Rajput brave. Perhaps the chance of the ultimate conversion of India to Islam was lost in the din of Mahmud’s idol-breaking.[1]

It may have to be revised, however, in the light of the following facts:

In the context of the less liberal Turco-Persian conquest of north-west India it has to be remembered that Mahmūd’s iconoclasm was aimed against images and not men. He regarded administration of the state as a practical proposition not necessarily related to religion. While he sacked Hindu temples he also mobilized three Hindu divisions in his forces and at least three Hindu generals, Sundar, Nāth, and Tilak rose to positions of high responsibility in the Ghaznawid army. Sundar was the commander of Hindu troops under Mas‘ūd (1030-40). Tilak, the son of a low caste barber, who would have had no opportunities to distinguish himself in the caste-ridden Brahamnical society, took up service in Mahmūd of Ghanza’s court, and by his eloquence in Hindi as well as in Persian, his ability as an interpreter, his alertness of mind, and his capacity of securing the loyalty of the scattered Hindu military communities in the Ghaznawid Kingdom he rose to a position of trust and power.[2]

Two points in this connection are particularly worth noting: (1) “even Mahmūd is not reported by any historian of his time to have demolished a temple in times of peace”[3] and (2) Mahmūd “permitted image worship to his Hindu subjects in their separate quarters in his own capital”.[4]

Aziz Ahmad thus brings greater nuance to the position adopted by Percival Spear. But Aziz Ahmad’s own comments perhaps need be nuanced further. He states that Tilak, the “son of a low caste barber” may have had “no opportunities to distinguish himself in the caste-ridden Brahmanical society,” and his position would seem to be valid in general. His remarks, however, pertain to social mobility in the political realm and it therefore becomes necessary to note that Hindu rulers, already by the time of Kumārila Bhaṭṭa (c. seventh century A.D.), were drawn from all the four varṇas, and not just from among the kṣatriyas.[5] This also holds for later times. The fact that persons of all varṇas, including śūdras,[6] could become kings, suggests that Aziz Ahmad’s remark may be theoretically defensible but is historically inexact, and thus seems to contain an element of overstatement.

[1] Percival Spear, India: A Modern History (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972) p. 103-104.

[2] Aziz Ahmad, Studies in Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964) p. 101, emphasis added.

[3] Ibid., p, 87.

[4] Ibid., p, 90.

[5] P.V. Kane, History of Dharmaśāstra (Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1973) Vol. III (second edition) p. 38.

[6] Ibid., pp. 39-40. Women rulers were also known (ibid., p. 40).


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