A common misconception is the inherent motive behind Dharmic and Abrahamic religions increasing their influence beyond their domain.
by Raghu Bhaskaran
A frequent argument made justifying Islamic invasions, Christian colonization is that Hindu kings also invaded, conquered other lands and peoples. This is yet another case of confused comparison. The motive ‘casus belli — a case of war’, is what makes the comparison between Hindu kings warring and Christian/Islamic conquests, an act of a confused mind.
Unfortunately, many Hindus make this mistake, even well-read and scholarly ones. I present this case via a conversation I had with Sri Balaji Vishwanathan, a popular writer on a site called Quora.
Answering to question: Why didn’t Hindu kings invade Arab/Muslim kingdoms?
Balaji Vishwanathan [BV] replied,
Again, we must come out of the illusion that Hindus didn’t spread their religion. Do you think it was a magic that a large chunk of South and South East Asia suddenly started worshipping Vishnu and other gods at some point? Hindus displayed power in fairly silent ways.
Think of Manipur. Do you think Vaishnavism was the main religion there always? Nope. It came in the 15th century [Vaishnavism of Manipur] in parallel to the Islamic expansion in eastern Bengal and only a couple of centuries ahead of Christian missionary expansion in the Naga territory. All 3 religions had a fair amount of zeal.
Or for that matter Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos and Malaysia — at one point Hinduism was the dominant religion there — whose influence can be seen to this day in art, drama, names of people, language, national symbols etc. Do you think it happened by accident that the natives there adopted our religions and names there [contrary to a popular myth — they were not Indians who were ruling there — the local kings had Sanskrit names similar to Indians in India.
Following is the subsequent conversation, reproduced with some additional information and edits. The original discussion can be found here.
RB: I have not read of any Hindu kings who invaded under the ‘casus belli’ of religion. Yes they invaded and yes the invaded regions adopted Hindu Dharma, but the intent of the invasion was not ‘to spread the religion’, or at least we don’t have any evidence about such motives. That is a key difference.
BV: “the intent of the invasion was not ‘to spread the religion’”,
Do you assume that the intent of other invaders was to purely spread religion? How about the British or the Mughals? Or the Greek or Persians? Invasion in most cases is about building a resource advantage. This is why for most of Mughal rule they were more happy to collect taxes than to spread religion. Religious conversion is a mere side benefit.
RB: I agree, but religion was often (not always) used as an excuse, though intentions might have been economic. Hence I mentioned casus belli. British called it the ‘White man’s burden’, and Christian propagation was one of the excuses as well.
BV: Who used religion as an excuse? Which empires? Britain is Protestant, a lot of Christianity spread in India is Catholic. Evangelicals can get in without any colonial power — as they did in Korea, Japan, and China.
RB: The Governor-General John Shore, for example, was the President of British & Foreign Bible Society and a member of the Clapham Sect.
For the Clapham Sect, the Christianizing of India became a cause second only to abolition. In 1793 the Claphamites tried but failed to alter the charter of the East India Company to allow for missionaries (the company feared that missionaries would try to reform host countries and cause civil unrest that would cut into profits). They were able, though, to get evangelicals, such as Henry Martyn, appointed as East India Company chaplains–who in fact did missionary work as well. In a momentous action in 1813, when the company’s charter came due for renewal, Wilberforce and his friends joined forces with East India Company chairman and director Charles Grant to overturn the vested interests of the company and gained a “Missionary Clause” in the new charter. The revision of the East India Company’s charter built on other Claphamite efforts to set the table for British missionaries to go anywhere and ensure Britain had an international presence–which in the 19th century meant a lot of the world. We’ve mentioned the founding of Freetown. Even more significant in this vein was the Clapham group’s 1799 founding of the Church Missionary Society for Africa and the East. This was to become one of the most prolific sending agencies of the nineteenth century, the “Great Century” of missions.
Additional information not mentioned in the original conversation.
Amongst other conditions of the [East India] Company’s charter renewal in 1813 had been its reluctantly-given agreement to allow Christian missions to operate in India. The dangers of Hindus and Muslims perceiving British rule as a threat to their religions had long been appreciated. But with the evangelical Clapham Sect in London making converts of a governor-general (Sir John Shore) and a leading Company director, as well as exercising a powerful influence in Westminster, the pressure from missionary enterprises became irresistible. William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery champion who was also a member of the Clapham Sect, declared missionary access to India to be “that greatest of all causes for I really place it above Abolition [of the slave trade]. It was so very important, he told the House of Commons in 1813 because ‘our religion is sublime, pure and beneficient [while] theirs is mean, licentious and cruel.’ Echoing the Muslim horror of idolatory, he declared the Hindu deities ‘absolute monsters of lust, injustice, wickedness and cruelty’, a sentiment with which James Mill, author of ‘The History of British India’ (published in 1820) readily agreed. Since Hinduism was ‘the most enormous and tormenting superstition that ever harassed and degraded any portion of mankind’, Hindus were indeed ‘the most enslaved portion of the human race’. Emancipating them from this ‘grand abomination’ was as much the sacred duty of every Christian as emancipating Africans from slavery.
With Lord William Bentick, an Evangelical sympathiser, as governor-general (1828–1835), a start was made on India’s ‘reformation’ with legislation to outlaw practices like widow-burning (sati, suttee) and ritualised highway killing (thagi, thuggee). Neither was particularly common, nor were they, in any sense central or particular to Hindu orthodoxy. The effect of legislating against them, whilst it probably saved some lives, was principally to stigmatise Hinduism as indeed abominable to Christian consciences. - John Keay (1)
If that was about the colonization, the standard policy for Muslims was to destroy temples, behead kaffirs and be Ghazis (Honorific title given to Muslim champion who destroyed non-Muslims), even when not warranted by needs of war. Example the letters from Raja of Delhi, Anandpal in the year 1011 CE to the most famous (or infamous) of Islamic invaders Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni on the eve of the destruction of the temple of Thaneswar (Thanesar):
‘The Raja’s brother, with two thousand horses was also sent to meet the army, and to deliver the following message:- “My brother [Anundpal] is the subject and tributary of the King, but he begs permission to acquaint his Majesty, that Tahnesur is the principal place of worship of the inhabitants of the country: that if it is required by the religion of Mahmood to subvert the religion of others, he has already acquitted himself of that duty, in the destruction of the temple of Nagrakote. But if he should be pleased to alter his resolution regarding Tahnesur, Anundpal promises that the amount of the revenues of that country shall be annually paid to Mahmood; that a sum shall also be paid to reimburse him for the expense of his expedition, besides which, on his own part, he will present him with fifty elephants, and jewels to a considerable amount.” Mahmood replied, “The religion of the faithful inculcates the following tenet: ‘That in proportion as the tenets of the Prophet are diffused, and his followers exert themselves in the subversion of idolatry, so shall be their reward in heaven;’ that, therefore, it behoved him, with the assistance of God, to root out the worship of idols from the face of all India. How then should he spare Tahnesur?’ – John Briggs (2)
You are partially right, but it is also a fact that Evangelicals were embedded in the colonial powers and aligned with the activities.
China was impacted as well, via unequal treaties — it is a different variation on colonization. Not sure about Japan and Korea though.
If the rulers and religions are in cahoots, it helps them both. A standard theme in history, isn’t it?
BV: I didn’t say Evangelicals didn’t embed into colonial powers. I just said it was not the primary motive of the EIC to spread Christianity. If they could make 10 pounds extra and 10 Christians less, they would take that.
RB: That might have been the initial motive, but then the evangelists took over. But coming back to the question, irrespective of the extent, is there any such case of a Hindu king or company colluding with spreading religion as a motive, means or policy of conquest?
BV: I don’t know if you can clearly draw a line between Hinduism and Buddhism, but if you define Hinduism as faiths of India, then Ashoka clearly sent missionaries across the world with the explicit objective to convert. It was sent to the whole of the known world back then. Again Hindu/Buddhist merchants did often travel with the idea to setup mandirs, monasteries and left multiple artefacts, wherever they traded. Cholas and Guptas did look to spread Hinduism in their lands. Later Shivism was something that Tamil kings tended to put more emphasis on. The Brahmin migration in Manipur is often compared with the missionary migration into Nagaland.
RB: I can’t draw a line, Buddhists may though. Still, Ashoka’s evangelism was unaccompanied by invasions. Cholas — I have not come across any evidence that their military policy was driven by religion. Do you have references? Tamil traders did establish temples in China and SE Asia, and locals did adopt. But that predates Chola expeditions. Hence not pertaining to this discussion of religion being the cause of invasions.
Aren’t we talking about religion as a reason/policy/party to martial invasions?
Then Manipur does not meet the criteria either. Wikipedia says they switched from a Bishnupriya tradition to Chaitanya tradition and the invasion was from the Burmese. Brahmins settling in on invitation at best is missionary activity, not an invasion. And seems it was solicited by the kings.
BV: I thought we had already clearly established that invasions are not primarily motivated by religion. This is about the religious expansions that work in parallel to invasions.
RB: Sorry, I don’t think we established that. Religion provides as much suitable cover as does economy or power. I agree it is a combination of factors. Hence I mentioned, that you are partially right, with qualifiers. But even so. Neither Manipur nor Ashoka’s had even the parallelism you mention. Did Ashoka send the army as well as Bhikkus? The wiki mentions no Hindu soldiers coming along with the Brahmins to Manipur.
Just compare the ambiguity we have to dig in, For such in case of Dharmic traditions as against explicitly stated evidence in case of Abrahamic invasions/colonization. Do you think your answer that Hindus also made war to spread religion is warranted, on such ambiguous and sparse evidence? They sure did spread, but was the means by war?
End of conversation.
It is very unfortunate that even well-read Hindus have such a blurred vision of history, traditions, and values of their own heritage.
Hindu kings very well warred, against each other and upon outsiders. There would have been horrible acts of violence, which any war brings. But the motive was never to make other people, accept their choice of god or religion. There is no evidence to support that.
This might arise from a good intention that cruelties of the past should be forgiven and people should live in amity together. But that intention is naive, when neither Islam nor Christianity, have accepted that their doctrine of exclusivity is flawed and continue to ‘impose’ their worldview upon others, via different methods, even obligating via charity.
And further, even if for argument sake if it is accepted that all religions have similar motives, then it becomes extremely critical for Hindus to hold allegiance to Hindu Dharma so that their identity is not eroded. To take an objective view would be like a soldier in the Indian army saying that all countries make war with their neighbours, let us not get worked up. A neutral position in such a context is simply a neutered position.
Such naivete and neutering only damage the Hindus, letting down their guard and leaving them unprepared to face the damages of invasive ideologies. History can be ‘forgiven’, but never ‘forgotten’. And forgiveness is possible only if the motivations of violence are acknowledged and discarded. Until that happens, for Hindus to be thus confused about their history or the dogmatic motivations of Christianity and Islam, is to invite disaster upon themselves.
1. India: A History by John Keay
2. History of the Rise of the Mahomedan Power in India by John Briggs — Translated from the Original Persian of Mahomed Kasim Ferishta