Hindu-Buddhist Conflict in the Chachnama: Fact or Fiction?

Contrary to popular belief that Buddhists suffered at the hands of Hindus, the reality is quite different.

Hindu-Buddhist Conflict in the Chachnama: Fact or Fiction?

***(This paper was published in the journal History Today (Journal of History and Historical Archaeology) No. 9, 2008, pp. 49-52.)***

 

Introduction

The single most important historical source for the medieval history of Sind is the Chachnāma, a thirteenth-century Persian text, written by Ali bin Muhammad Kufi, a scholar who had immigrated to Sind, presumably from Kufa in Iraq. In the year 613 AH (1216/1217 CE), during the reign of Nāsiruddīn Qubācha, the author visited the ancient city of Aror, which had been the capital of Sind during the Hindu period.[1] The Chachnāma is a chronicle of the Arab invasion of Sindh by Muḥammad b. Al-Qāsim in 712 CE, though its story begins with the ascent of the king Chach to the throne of Sind, and provides an account of his successors until their line ended with the defeat and demise of King Dāhir. The Chachnāma was based on an Arabic source, which was already several centuries old by the time it was translated. Neither the name of the Arabic source nor that of its author is named in the Chachnāma. The Chachnāma is drawn upon by the Tārīkh-i Ma‘asūmī (16th century) and the Tuḥfat-ul-kirām (1173 CE). But these two sources are much more recent, and they are also lacking in historical detail as compared to the Chachnāma.

For these reasons, the history of Sind has mostly been reconstructed on the basis of the Chachnāma. A misreading of the Chachnāma would thus lead to fundamental errors in the understanding of the history of Sind.

In this article, we deal mostly with the early part of Muḥammad b. Al-Qāsim’s campaign, beginning with the conquest of Debul (near present-day Karachi), followed the attack on Nirūn (present-day Hyderabad), and Sīwistān (present-day Sehwan).

Claims regarding a Hindu-Buddhist Conflict in Sind

Historians from Pakistan, writing during the early years of the new state, have read in the Chachnāma evidence of a Hindu-Buddhist conflict, which facilitated the Arab conquest of Sindh, as seen from this excerpt from the writings of Sheikh Muhammad Ikram:

The comparative ease with which the Arabs defeated the Indian forces and occupied a large territory calls for explanation. It was due partly to the quality of their troops, the ability of the military commander, and the superiority of the Arab military technique. But the conciliatory policy which Muhammad ibn Qasim adopted towards all those who submitted to the Arabs also facilitated his task, and the Arab conquest was noteworthy more for voluntary surrenders than for bloody battles. At Nirun, for example, the Buddhist priests welcomed the general, and at Sehwan the populace revolted against the Hindu governor and submitted to Muhammad ibn Qasim. Popular dissatisfaction with the former rulers, or at least indifference to their fate seems, in fact, to have contributed substantially to Arab success. A large proportion of the population of Sind and Multan was Buddhist, but Chach, a Brahmin minister of the Buddhist king, had usurped the throne in 622 CE, and his dynasty was not popular with large sections of the people. Even the chiefs and officials were quick to offer allegiance to the Arabs.[2]

This theme is repeated in the work of many other Pakistani historians.[3] The common thread running through these interpretations of the Chachnāma are:

  • the (alleged) oppression of Buddhists by Hindus
  • the cooperation of the Buddhists and the Arabs, in an attempt to end this oppression.

The second point is elaborated especially by I.H. Qureshi, who recounts the story of a “Buddhist” priest who tells the Arabs how they could destroy the defenders’ temple:

There are several instances of Buddhist collusion with the invaders. For instance, it was a priest who came and told Muḥammad bin Qāsim to aim at the flag and the pinnacle of the temple at Debal. It was another priest who acted as the messenger between the Arab prisoners in Debal and the Arab general. It is not impossible that the prophecy regarding the fall of Debal if the flag of the temple could be demolished was fabricated for the benefit of the Muslims. Nīrūn, which was under a Buddhist chief, had been in correspondence with the Arabs even before Muḥammad bin Qāsim set foot on the soil of Sind. It made a show of resistance because the chief was away with Dahir, the king of Sind, when the Arabs appeared before its gates, but as soon as the chief came back, he apologized and surrendered the town.[4]

Relying entirely on Qureshi’s analysis, the Soviet scholar Gankovsky writes that “the invasion of Sind was all the easier because the leaders of the Buddhist community comprising most of the country’s population were in opposition to the Hindu rulers and sympathized with the Arabic [sic] invaders and sometimes even helped them. Thus, the Buddhist principal [sic] of Sehwan called upon the faithful to submit to the Muslims. In particular, the Buddhists helped the troops of Muhammad ibn Qasim in the crossing of the Indus.” He further claims that “The Arabic [sic] invasion of Sind was accompanied by the spread of Islam in this region. The local Buddhists who suffered from religious persecutions took to Islam specially eagerly.”[5] The idea that Buddhists sought relief from Hindu oppression is now quite widespread in the secondary literature.

Inaccuracies and ambiguities in interpretation

We have seen that Qureshi has presented the collaborators at the fort at Debal as being a Buddhist. But the Chachnāma clearly says that the priest was a “barahman”. An excerpt translated by Frieman leaves us in no doubt:

When the army of Muḥammad b. Al-Qāsim was about to attack Daybul, “suddenly a Brahman from amongst the garrison came out, asked for amān and said: ‘Long live the just amīr! It is stated in our astrological books that the province of Sind will be conquered by the army of Islam and the infidels will be defeated. The flags of our temple are a talisman. As long as they are in place, it is not possible to conquer the fort. You should strive to destroy the pinnacle of the temple and to tear the flags to pieces. The conquest will then be made possible.’” (… nā-gāh brahmanī az dākhil-i-ḥisāriyān bīrūn āmad wa amān khwāst wa guft; baqā bād amīr-i ‘ādil-rā! Dar kutub-i tanjīm-i-mā chunān ḥukm kardand kih wilāyat-i-sind bar dast-i-laskhar- i islām fatḥ shawad wa kuffār munhazim gardad fa-ammā īn rāyāt-i but-khāna ṭilasm ast tā mā dāma rāyat-i but-khāna bar qarār ast zabṭ āwurdan-i īn ḥisār imkān na-dārad dar ān bāyad kūshīd kih sar-i īn but-khāna bi-shikanad wa rāyat-i ū pāra pāra shawad fatḥ muyassar gardad).[6]

Thus, to maintain the claim that it was the Buddhists who collaborated with the Arabs, the meaning of the term “barahman” must be extended to include Buddhists. Qureshi himself admits:

The Chachnāmah mentions the Buddhists and Buddhist temples in Sind quite frequently; sometimes the word Brahmin is used indiscriminately for any native priest, whereas the context makes it amply clear that the reference is to Buddhist priests in some places and on other occasions Hindu priests are clearly indicated; many a time the word samanī is used for the Buddhists.[7]

The presence of Buddhists in Sind is signalled by the use of the words samanī, buddah, rāhib (monk), nāsik (hermit, ascetic) etc, and place-names like Naw-Bahar. However, the meaning of these words is by no means unambiguous.

The word samanī, for instance is related to the word śramaṇa, which is clearly a word reserved for Buddhists and Jains in India. However, in the Chachnāma, it is not definitively reserved for Buddhists. Thus, in the story of the conquest of Nirun, the ruler is a samanī, but the priestly interlocutor of the Arabs is a barahman. If the word “barahman” is used indiscriminately when referring to holy men, the decision when it refers to Hindu and when to Buddhist is made entirely by the (modern) historian who reads the text.

The temple at the capital city of Aror in Sindh was named Naw-bahār, which seems to be related to the Sanskrit word Nava-vihāra, which would indicate that it was a Buddhist shrine. Yet, it was in fact “a Brahmin temple newly established during the more recent ascendancy of the Brahman rulers”, since it housed an idol ‘seated on horseback’, which “would rule out the possibility of its being a ‘Buddha’.”[8]

These seeming contradictions can only be resolved on a case-by-case basis, by looking at each individual instance where the confusion between Hindu and Buddhist is possible. This work has already been undertaken in large measure in the recent work of Derryl Maclean,[9] (but some questions still need further clarification). For instance, Maclean shows that Chandar, the brother of Chach, was not a Buddhist, as is often claimed in the secondary literature, but a Brahmin. (Maclean claims that the Chachnāma regards Chandar as a rāhib (monk) and a nāsik (ascetic),[10] but the text merely says that he only promoted monks and ascetics (dīn-e rāhibān wa nāsikān rā taqvīyat dād).[11] The internal evidence of the text shows that these words are not reserved only for Buddhists.)

Treatment of the Buddhists

While historians such as Qureshi, Ikram and Gankovsky have argued that the Buddhists welcomed the Arabs, the case of the fort at Nirun does not point to a happy fate for the Buddhists. Though the samanī ruler of Nīrūn surrendered to the Arabs, waited on Muḥammad bin Qāsim (bi-khidmat-e Muḥammad b. Qāsim āmad), brought them gifts, and supplied provisions for the army (ghalla bā lashkar farākh shud), Muḥammad bin Qāsim still had the Buddhist temple destroyed and a mosque built in its place (bi-jā but-kada-ye buddah masjidī binā farmūd ).[12]

As another example, we may consider the case of the conquest of the fort of Mawj in Sīwistān. The prince who ruled there was Dāhir’s cousin Bajhrā b. Chandar. But the headman among the people was a samanī. Maclean recounts the story based on Daudpota’s edition of the Chachnāma (pages 119-120):

When the Arabs besieged the fort of Mawj in Sīwistān, its Buddhist inhabitants advised the Hindu governor Bajhrā b. Chandar to submit to the Arabs since “we are afraid that this group will come and, thinking we are your followers, take our lives and wealth (māl)”. The concern of the Buddhists with retaining their possessions was so important a consideration that when Bajhrā rejected their offer to intercede with the Arabs, they again reproached him: “It is not proper that through your unwillingness to submit, our lives and wealth should be endangered”. When Bajhrā proved obdurate, the Buddhists decided to secure a separate peace with the Arabs.[13]

Here we see that the motive for collaboration (of the inhabitants of the fort) with the Arabs was not a desire to escape oppression by the Hindu governor, but a fear of the invaders, and a desire to retain their possessions in the event of a defeat.

Conclusion

1) The Chachnāma does not provide any evidence of Hindu oppression of Buddhists. The word “barahman” has been sometimes deliberately been regarded as referring to Buddhists, (by historians such as Ikram and Qureshi) in defiance of the actual textual evidence, so as to buttress the unsubstantiated claim of Hindu oppression of Buddhists. This sustained misinformation has been largely refuted by corrective explanations by Friedman and Maclean. However, the false conclusions have acquired wide currency in the secondary literature, as exemplified by the writings of Gankovsky.

2) The collaboration extended by native Sindhi groups to the invading Arabs is manifestly the result of fear of the invaders and motivated by a desire to escape the invader’s wrath.

3) The collaborators are not always Buddhists – sometimes they are clearly Hindus.

4) The natives who surrendered to the Arabs still had to endure the destruction of their places of worship.

5) The distinction between Hindus and Buddhists is sometimes quite unclear in the Chachnāma, even in places where the author employs terms suggesting such a distinction. The exact scope of words such as samanī, rāhib and nāsik needs further investigation. Whatever their interpretation, the text of the Chachnāma makes no mention of oppression at all.

 

References:

[1] “A Study of Hajjaj bin Yusef’s outlook and policies in the light of the Chach Nama”, Irfan Habib, in Bulletin of the Institute of Islamic Studies, Volume 6-7, 1962-63, pp. 38-43.

[2] Muslim Civilization in India, S.M. Ikram, Edited by Ainslie T. Embree, Columbia University Press, New York and London 1964, pp. 8-9

[3] In addition to works whose excerpts are quoted, we may also mention, for instance, In Quest of Daibul And Other Speeches, Mumtaz Hasan, The Writer’s Guild, Karachi, 1968, p. 113, and A History of Sindh, Suhail Zaheer Lari, Karachi, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 28.

[4] The Muslim Community of the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent (610-1947): A Brief Historical Analysis, Ishtiaq Husain Qureshi, Mouton & Co., ’S-Gravenhage, 1962, p.38.

[5] The Peoples of Pakistan: An Ethnic History, Yu. V. Gankovsky, “Nauka” Publishing House, Moscow 1971, pp. 116-117.

[6] The Origins and Significance of the Chach Nāma, Yohanan Friedman, in Islam In Asia, Volume I (South Asia), ed. Yohanan Friedman, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1984, pp. 29-30.

[7] The Muslim Community of the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent (610-1947): A Brief Historical Analysis, Ishtiaq Husain Qureshi, Mouton & Co., ’S-Gravenhage, 1962, p. 37

[8] Fathnamah-i Sind, Being The Original Record Of The Arab Conquest Of Sind, Edited By N.A.Baloch, Islamabad, 1983, p. 172.

[9] Religion and Society in Arab Sind, Derryl N. Maclean, E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1989.

[10] Ibid., p. 13.

[11] Fatḥnāmeh-yi Sind, also known as the Chachnāmeh, by ‘Alī bin Ḥāmid bin Abī Bakr al-Kūfī, Edited by Umar M. Daudpota, Majlis-e Makhṭuṭāt-e Fārsī-ye Haidarābād Dakan, Delhi, 1939, p. 50.

[12] Fathnamah-i Sind, Being The Original Record Of The Arab Conquest Of Sind, Edited By N.A.Baloch, Islamabad, 1983, p. 87.

The text in Daupota’s edition is slightly different: (bi-jā but-kada-ye buddah masjidī binā namūd). The meaning is not significantly altered (Fatḥnāmeh-yi Sind, al-Kūfī, Ed. Daudpota, p. 118.)

[13] Religion and Society …, Maclean, op. cit., p. 57.

About Author: Dileep Karanth

Dileep Karanth teaches physics and enjoys working with natural languages. He welcomes suggestions, to help improve his bare-bones blogs at: i) leepkar.blogspot.com ii) dileepkaranth.wordpress.com/blog/ iii) https://hcommons.org/members/leepkar/

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