Hinduism – 7: The Wall of Amnesia

In this episode we were scheduled to move into the period of the British encounter with India. But there is nothing inevitable about schedules. We take a step back because we have found another vantage point from which to observe the path and the past that we have already traversed.

This step back comes courtesy of Ian Almond who had no white friends till he was sixteen and, growing up amongst South Asians, answered only to the name of badam. Sharmila Sen, who writes about him, picks up on the phenomenon of collective memory and reminds us what an odd thing it can be: “We can remember a collective past that never existed and bring nations, religions, and cultures into existence. We can also suffer from collective amnesia and bring ourselves to the brink of destruction.”

Ian Almond has written a book (Two Faiths, One Banner) “to reverse one particularly dangerous strain of collective amnesia that has infected the world today. It is this collective amnesia that leads people to see Islam as deeply non-Western and a threat to the Christian West…. He shows us how Muslims and Christians, far from having an unrelentingly antagonistic history, have often fought on the same side, against other Muslims and Christians, during defining moments of European history.”

Why is this important? Because, as Sharmila Sen warns: “It is not easy to stop forgetting. Amnesia is a wall. It partitions the past from the present. Muslim from Christian. Us from Them. You from Me.”

And why is this relevant? Because what is true of Islam and Christianity could also very well be true of Islam and Hinduism, couldn’t it? There are things we could have forgotten, allowing the wall of amnesia to partition the past from the present, Muslim from Hindu, Us from Them, You from Me. We could have forgotten so that now we are convinced the past was comprised of two armies, Muslims and Hindus, arrayed against each other, driven by religious ideology, and bent upon doing in the other to death.

We have no Ian Almond to help us here but just a quick trip to Wikipedia should open a chink in that wall of amnesia. On a whim, I googled “Man Singh” and here are all the things I learnt:

Raja Shri Man Singh Ji Saheb (Man Singh I) (May 9, 1540- July 6,1614) was the Kacchwaha Rajah Saheb of Amber, a state later known as Jaipur. He was a trusted general of the Mughal emperor Akbar, who included him among the Navratnas, or the nine gems of the royal court. However, he was a devotee of Shri Krishna, and not an adherent of Akbar’s religion, Din-i-Ilahi.

Before proceeding any further, I looked up exactly who were the Nauratans of Akbar:

Abul Fazl (historian); Faizi (poet and tutor); Miyan Tansen (musician); Raja Birbal (poet and bon vivant); Raja Todar Mal (finance minister); Raja Man Singh (military commander); Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana (poet and protector); Fakir Aziao Din (advisor); Mullah do Piaza (advisor).

With finance under Raja Todar Mal and the military under Raja Man Singh, it already becomes hard to imagine the past as armies of Muslims and Hindus arrayed against each other.

But let us go back to Raja Man Singh:

Raja Bharmal, the first Rajput ruler to marry his daughter to a Mughal, was Man Singh I’s grandfather…. Raja Man Singh was the guardian of Khusrau, the eldest son of Jehangir, and Akbar called him Farzand (son).

Kunwar Man Singh led the Mughal army in the well-known battle of Haldighati fought in 1576 between theMughal Empire and Maharana Pratap.

In the Battle of Haldighati, despite exaggerated figures, it is estimated that Rana Pratap had 3,000 horsemen, some elephants and the same number of Bhil warriors under Rao Poonja or Rana Poonja. A small artillery unit was also with him under Hakim Khan Sur. The force was divided into five wings. Advance wing was under Hakim Khan Sur, Bhim Singh Dodiya, and Ramdas Rathore. The right wing was under Bhamashah and Ramshah Tanwar. The left wing was under Jhala Man Singh. Rana Pratap was in the centre. Behind him was Rao Poonja with his Bhil warriors.

The Mughal army had 10,000 horsemen, some elephants and infantry. Among the horsemen 4,000 were Kachwaha Rajput warriors. One thousand other Hindu warriors and rest were Uzbeks, Turks, Kazzakhs, Saiyads and other Muslims. This force divided into five wings. There were two advance wings. The first was under Sayyad Hashim Barah, Jagganath Kachwaha and Asaf Ali Khan. The second advance troop was under Madho Singh Kachwaha. Behind this was Man Singh. To his right was Mulla Kazikhan Badkhsi and to left were Sayyads of Barah.

This is an account of one of the critical battles of the times and we have two forces against each other but it is not Us versus Them. Both forces are comprised of Muslims and Rajputs – leaders and generals from different religions mixing easily with each other and trusting each other with their fates and lives.

It would be very difficult to characterize these conflicts as wars of religion unless there is some comfort we wish to derive from our collective forgetfulness; or unless there is some advantage from hiding behind the wall of amnesia.

There is surely a flip side to this phenomenon that Wikipedia does not mention. Just as the contenders for power, the challenged and the challengers, were multi-religious coalitions, one can imagine that the marginalized and forgotten, the wretched of the earth, were also multi-religious in their composition.

Whatever was going on, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, had little to do with two religious armies – Us and Them – arrayed against each another. We do our selves and our fellow citizens a disservice by such a simple re-imagining of our past.


  • kabir
    Posted at 17:59h, 03 May Reply

    In the movie Mughal-e-Azam, we see Jodha Bai (Man Singh’s sister?) praying to Krishna, and the pivotal scene where Salim meets Anarkali takes places at a Holi celebration (“Mohe Panghat Pe Nandalal ChaiR gayo”). We definitely need to remind ourselves that this Muslim/Hindu dichotomy is relatively recent and not something permanent and fixed. You are right in pointing out that the main opposition was between elites and others (sometimes also different groups of elites). Religion was not always the deciding factor.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 06:31h, 04 May Reply

    This is an article that every Indian and Pakistani should read.

  • almostinfamous
    Posted at 03:46h, 08 May Reply

    agree with Vinod. i like the Sen article as well. very timely!

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 08:26h, 09 May Reply

    I think it is quite the other way round.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 14:15h, 09 May Reply

    I meant the dichotomy of us vs. them is created by Muslims rather than the rest of the world! There is something anachronistic about all religions but Muslims take it another level.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 19:41h, 09 May Reply

    Anil, First of all – Welcome back. I have been concerned about you.

    Second, it does not really matter if it is the other way round. Before the Internet, the presenting of views placed a certain responsibility on the presenter because the audience could not talk back. Now, in the interactive mode, the starting point or the point of view of the initiator is much less important. We can be sure of getting the right side up as long as we continue talking to each other and not at or past each other.

    One of the dimensions I keep stressing on this blog is that we should not generalize or interpret history from a time-bound experience. It is true that an Us vs. Them dichotomy has been created by Muslims in the last twenty years but the Us vs. Them dichotomy itself is very old. Somebody or the other is creating it all the time.

    Over a thousand years ago Pope Urban launched the First Crusade by creating an Us vs. Them dichotomy; the Europeans created one against the natives when they reached America; whites created one against blacks; imperialists created one against the colonized; Nazis created one against the Jews; Americans created one against Russians; Huntington created the Clash of Civilization; Bush created the axis of evil; etc., etc.

    The intriguing question is why does a particular dichotomy get created at a particular time? When we look at events in that perspective we end up with fascinating accounts of history (of the Crusades, for example) and brilliant theoretical studies like Orientalism by Edward Said.

    It is feeling of liberation when one does not feel obliged to defend or blame someone or the other. Many things have happened over history. We seek to understand their causes and learn some lessons for the future.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 17:01h, 10 May Reply

    I think it is important to know who is to be blamed else remedy is not possible. In addition not pointing out who is to be blamed is cowardly. Doing so from a detached perspective is the key.

    Today both Hindus and Muslims are a hysterical lot while Christians and Jews have largely succeeded in modernizing their religions. Buddhism on the other hand is very personal religion as all religions should be.

    I think the rank gullibility of Asians falling prey to demagogues and cliques has basis in their not being sufficiently or intensely materialistic. The idea may appear counterintuitive but the more selfish and self centred we are the less likely we shall be gullible. A selfish person is unlikely to blow up himself for any cause.

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