About Hinduism and India

The destruction of Indian literature was so extensive that no record of pre-Islamic history remained in India. In fact, whatever history of ancient India exists now, was re-constructed by the Europeans with the help of writings that survived mainly, in Sri Lanka, China, Myanmar, Nepal and Tibet.  Another source of information was the biographies and official records of Islamic rulers. Hindus sources like Puranas and Vedas were dubbed as mythology by British historians and their clones like Nehru, in India. The gaps in history were therefore filled up by interpretation of British historians to suit their political and colonial aims.

Islamic Contributions

It cannot be categorically stated, that all Muslims were barbarians, while most of them were. Some refined Muslim intellectuals, particularly from Sufi cult in Islam, not only studied Hindu scripture,s but had them translated to Arabic and Persian language. Some Muslims poets and philosophers also enriched our intellectual heritage by their individual contributions. Prominent among them were Amir Khusro, Malik Muhammad Jayasi, Rahim, Raskhan, Maseet Khan, Raza Khan and Dara Shikoh. They contributed mainly towards literature, music, and other arts.

Although Islamic invaders had indulged in reckless destruction of educational institutions and massacre of intellectuals, but many texts in the field of mathematics, astrology, medicine and philosophy had already been translated into Arabic, before Indian universities were burned down and inmates killed. Some manuscripts that were scattered over the country, escaped destruction as they remained in safer hands.

Prominent Translations within India

Some notable translations into Arabic and Persian are:-

  • Al-Bairuni – He was a Muslim Saint and contemporary of notorious Muslim invader Mahmud of Ghazni. It is said that many often he preceded the campaigns and acted as Mahmud’s mentor. He translated Brihatsamhita to Arabic.
  • Aziz Shams Baha-i Nuri – Subsequent to Al-Bairuni’s translation, Aziz Shams Baha-i Nuri translated Brihatsamhita to Persian.
  • Nakhshabi– During his conquest of Nogarkot in 1362, Sultan Firuz Shah Tughlaq acquired 1300 books from Jwalamukhi temple. He commissioned Sanskrit scholars to translate some of them to Persian. On the basis of the translation of texts on Physics and Astronomy, ‘Izzu’d-Din Khalid Khani compiled the Dala ‘il-Firuz Shahi’ and ‘Abdu’l.
  • Sultan Sikandar Lodhi – Sikandar Lodi also ordered the translation of many Sanskrit works to Persian with a view to enrich the language.
  • Sultan Zaynu’l-‘Abidin – Sultan Zaynu’l-‘Abidin of Kashmir had some Sanskrit Texts translated to Persian in Kashmir.
  • Mughal Period – Mughal Emperor Akbar had established a translation bureau Maktab Khana for translation of Sanskrit texts to Persian and Arabic. Sanskrit books were translated during Jehangir’s period also. Prince Dara Shikoh translated Upanishads to Persian.
  • Retranslation of Translated Sanskrit Texts – Anquetil Duper Ron re-translated the Persian version of some Sanskrit texts to French and Latin, which influenced many intellectuals in Europe including German scholar Schopenhauer.

Slow absorption of Knowledge

Initially the Europeans were slow to absorb knowledge, such as new type of numbers. Much of the work in universities and monasteries was limited to copying the manuscripts and translating them. They were not able to use decimals until a Dutch mathematician Simon Steven (1548-1620) explained the system in a book called La Thiende (The Tenth). After him, Magini and Christopher Claudius used them in their works. In 1621, Bachet published the Latin version of Arithmetica from Arabic.

Accounts of Foreign Travelers 

Since the period of Mauryan Dynasty foreign travelers and diplomats had been visiting India. They carried scriptures as well as accounts of India’s progress in various fields.  Some of their accounts influenced the spirit of Renaissance in Europe and explorers from those countries embarked upon reaching Indian shores. Kamasutra of Vatsayana had been one such text that interested most of the Europeans during the age of Renaissance and afterwards. Navigators from England, France, Portugal, Spain, and Holland competed against each to reach India during fifteenth century. Some of the foreign travelers are mentioned below:-

  • Megasthenes – Megasthenes (350 – 290 BC) was a Greek ambassador in the court of Chandragupta Maurya. He has given accounts of older Indians who knew about the pre-historic arrival of Dionysus and Hercules in India. He mentioned about devotees of Hercules (Shiva) and Dionysus (Krishna or Indra). His classic Indicaserved as an important source to many later writers
  • Buddhist Monks – Emperor Ashoka had sent many Buddhist monks to Tibet, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, China, Japan, Cambodia and several South East Asian countries to propagate the message of Buddhism. They carried with them several texts and art forms. Qandahar (then Gandhara) in Afghanistan, being located along the silk route was an important center for transfer of scriptures and practical interaction between countries in Central Asia and the Middle East. Tibetan alphabet bears influence of Gupta period.
  • Fa-Hien – A Chinese Buddhist monk traveled extensively in India, and Tibet through Kashmir, Kabul, Qandahar, and through Punjab to Central India. He remained in India for about 10 years, seeking complete copies of the Vinaya-pitaka and compiling information regarding Buddhism and the life of its founder. Thereafter he went to Ceylon where he copied many sacred texts. After his return he wrote an account of his travels. His narrative was translated to French by Rémusat (Paris, 1836) and to English by Beal. His accounts inspired Chinese historical novelist to write ‘Journey to the West’ in English.
  • Hiuen-Tsang– Hiuen-Tsang was a seventh century Chinese Buddhist pilgrim. He knew about Fa-Hien’s visit to India and like him was concerned about the incomplete and misinterpreted nature of the Buddhist scriptures that had reached China. Starting from China in AD 629, Hiuen-Tsang passed through Central Asia by the northern trade route via Kucha and reached Northern India, where, at the city of Kannauj, he was the guest of Emperor Harsha-vardhana. He visited the sacred Buddhist sites in Magadha and spent much time studying at the great Nalanda monastery, then an important center of Buddhist scholarship. The Pilgrim next travelled to parts of Bengal and then to South and West India. He studied Sanskrit and translated several scriptures to Chinese. He returned to China, again by way of Central Asia, and recorded the details of all the countries he visited. Hiuen-Tsang’s purpose was to obtain Buddhist books and to receive instruction on Buddhism while in India, but he ended up doing much more. He has preserved the records of political and social aspects of the lands he visited.
  • Ibn Battuta – He made many trips and travelled to several countries during the period 1304 – 1368 AD covering almost 75000 miles, including a voyage from Central Asia, to china and South East Asia. During the period of Muhammad Shah Tughlaq he entered India via Afghanistan. He stayed for some time at his court and then visited Khammbhat and Calicut. He described the city of Hansi under the Rajput and carried his accounts for subsequent European navigators.
  • Sir Thomas Roe – Sir Thomas Roe was an English diplomat and an accomplished scholar and a patron of learning. His reputation resulted mainly from the success of his embassy in 1615-18 to the court of Mughal Emperor Jahangir. He became a favorite of Jahangir. His journal was a valuable source of information for the reign of Jahangir. Roe himself collected several valuable manuscripts which he subsequently presented to the Bodleian Library. As a result of his contacts fame of Indian muslin spread in Europe and fabrics were exported to European Countries from India.
  • Marco Polo – Marco Polo wrote of his extensive travels throughout Asia. He wrote about customs, traditions, philosophy, astronomy, astrology, geometry and dresses of the countries he visited. His pioneering journey inspired Christopher Columbus to undertake an exploration mission in search of India, but eventually he landed on the Continent of America.

Translation of Rig Veda

The knowledge contained in Upanishads had already been put to use in Europe. In 1845 Max Muller from Germany translated Hitopdesha. Max Muller was wary of Darwin’s work on human evolution, and attacked his view of the development of human faculties. Muller shared many of the ideas and associated communion with natural forces. Muller’s Sanskrit studies came at a time when scholars had started to see language development in relation to cultural development. Muller therefore devoted himself to the study of this language, becoming one of the major Sanskrit scholars of his day. Muller believed that the earliest documents of Vedic culture should be studied in order to provide the key to the development. At that time the Vedic scriptures were little-known in the West, though there was increasing interest in the philosophy of Upanishads.  He saw the gods of the Rig-Veda as active forces of nature, only partly personified as imagined persons.

Providential Escape

Perhaps it was also a blessing in disguise that some of the documents and manuscript had escaped destruction that was to follow in India and reached Europe to be used for the benefit of mankind. The worst of blood-bath and destruction were yet to take place in India because Hindus had over indulged in spiritualism and idealism.

It is ironical that to some of our present generation, India is a nation without nationalism, pride, or history. Cultural self-hatred abounds in secular minded academicians who are Indian only in blood and color, but English in taste, opinion, and intellect. Unfortunately still those lots continue to dominate our educational institutions.

Chand K Sharma

(Next: Splashes – 55/72 –Indian Illumination in Renaissance)


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