The Sikh Problem

Dr Sangat Singh

Sikhism stands today at the same crossroads where Buddhism once stood at the beginning of the 9th century. Just as the Buddhists and their places of worship came under attack from a reviving Brahminism under the inspiration of Adi Shankaracharya, so too have the Sikhs come under the assault from not very dissimilar forces. Jainism, which was equally threatened, managed to survive by transforming itself so as to be encompassed within the framework of Hinduism. Buddhism, which had already spread far beyond India, could not compromise its religious tenets and was exterminated, Today, Sikhism has spread outside India and cannot accept the stipulated modifications required to fall within the framework of Hinduism. Therefore, it is faced with a struggle for survival. This has been intensified since Indira Gandhi's aim of physically liquidating it, in much the same way as Buddhism was once liquidated.

Gautam Buddha, like the Sikh Gurus, earned the deep-rooted hostility of Brahminism because of his revolt against the Brahminical caste system, priestcraft and rituals. Buddha's message of universal brotherhood and equality, as that of Guru Nanak later, was considered subversive of varnashram dharma, of Brahminical hegemony. Also, Buddha, and Guru Nanak later, preached in the popular language of the common man, Prakrit/Pali and Punjabi and gave them their respective scripts Brahmi and Gurmukhi. It was designed to break the monopoly of Sanskrit and strike at the roots of Brahminical dominance.

The Buddhist concept of egalitarianism and democratic social structure in the organisation of their Sangha (from which was probably derived the Sikh concept of sangat - congregation) was in sharp contrast to the elitist Brahminical social order. Buddhism in India was at its peak during Ashok's reign and later under Kushans. Subsequently, during the Gupta period, which is considered the Golden period of Hinduism, Brahminism turned the tables on Buddhism. The Buddhist Sanghas which had been centers of political power were persistently attacked in the effort to weaken their power. Buddhaand Buddhism were subjected to venomous diatribes virtually amounting to a hate campaign in various Smritis, Puranas and other classical works including those of Manu, Chanakya and others. To cite an instance, Lord Buddha had breathed his last at Harramba near Monghyr. The Brahmins propagated that if any one dies at Harramba or Monghyr, he will straight away go to hell, or be born a donkey.

The hatred took many forms, particularly, the ongoing and selective attack on the Buddhists and their places of worship. Firstly, Brahmins entered the Buddhist Sangha to subvert Buddhism from within: The introduction of Tantrakism in Buddhism was a case in point. Secondly, Brahmins did not desist from cooperating with foreign invaders like Huns and early Kushans to strike at the roots of Buddhist power. For instance, they cooperated with Hun invader Mihirgul, who not only built Saiva temples but also destroyed Buddhist monastries and Maths in his Kingdom."

By the time of Fa-Hien's visit to India in the 5th century AD, Kapilvastu had become a jungle and Gaya had been laid waste and desolate.' Saivite Brahmin King Sasank of Bengal carried out acts of vandalism against the Buddhists, destroyed the footprints of Lord Buddha at Pataliputra, burnt the Bodhi tree under which he had meditated, and devastated numerous monasteries and scattered their monks.

During the next hundred years, because of an intolerant society and constant persecution, there was mass scale migration of Buddhist monks and lay Buddhists to China and East Asia. Jawaharlal Nehru mentions of one such wave of migration in 526 AD when the grand patriarch of Indian Buddhism, Bodhidharma, accompanied by other monks sailed from South India for Canton in China. Nehru adds "that in one province of China alone -- the Lao Yang - there were at this time more than 3,000 Indian monks and 10,000 Indian families."' All of them and others who followed later to China, Tibet or to Korea and Japan were fugitives from oppressive Brahminism, which threatened their very existence.

Buddhism had a short revival under Emperor Harsha. This was followed by a steady decline. The death of Harsha in 648 AD saw an intensification of Brahmin-Buddhist confrontation and was in a large measure responsibile for the political degeneration in north India. It saw the emergence of small principalities and dynastic rulers who favoured Hindu revivalism.

This period also saw the advent of Islam with the invading Arabs. It constituted a retrieving feature for the Buddhists who had, as testified by the contemporary Chachnama, helped Mohammad Bin Qasim in his conquest in Sind in 710 AD. This was reflective of widespread contacts between the Arabs and the Buddhists, and regular social interaction between the two. Hiuen Tsang talks of Buddhist monasteries in Persia, Mosul and Khorasan, Iraq or Mesopotamia right up to the horders of Syria.' The Buddhists saw their democratic principles and social egalitarianism adequately reflected in the Islam of the Arabs and there was growing conviviality between Islam and Buddhism in India during the period.

The rise of Adi Shankaracharya in the late 8th-early 9th century, saw the intensification of Brahmin-Buddhist conflict, rather an all- out Brahminical onslaught on Buddhism. The Buddhist Sangha which frowned upon the killing of animals for food (in fact during Harsha's reign a state edict had been promulgated prohibiting the slaughter of animals for food) provided Shankaracharya-led Brahmins, then voracious beefeaters, with an alibi to mobilise the lumpen elements to attack the Buddhists and their monasteries. Plunder was another factor as the Buddhist monasteries were rich and affluent centres amidst a decadent society. This resulted in large scale vandalism, in destruction of Buddhist personal property, Buddhist monasteries, stupas, their images and idols.

Shankaracharya himself kilied hundreds of Buddhists of Nagarjunakonda in Andhra Pradesh and in the words of A.H. Longhurst "wantonly smashed" the Buddhist temples there. Nagarjuna, it may be mentioned, had been a great Buddhist missionary and Nagarjunakonda was "one of the largest and most important Buddhist settlement in southern India".' Shankaracharya, thereafter, led the group of marauders to Mahabodhi temple in Gaya, and they indulged in large scale destruction of Buddhist monasteries and stupas. The Brahmins took over the temple under their control.'

His appetite whetted, Shankaracharya personally led a motivated group through the Himalayas. The object now was the Buddhist centre at Badrinath. His reputation of wholesale destruction of Buddhists preceded him. The Buddhists chose to abandon Badrinath. They threw the statue of the presiding deity in Alakananda river at the foot of the temple and escaped to Tibet. The centre was taken over by the Brahmins. Keeping in view its importance amidst a host of ancient places of historical importance, Shankaracharya named it as one of the centres of Brahminism.' So was with Buddhist centres at Puri, Sringeri and Tirupati.

The fate of Buddhist property and their places of worship especially in central and southern India was similar, when Saivism asserted its dominance through the armed strength. The fact that Shankaracharya travelled widely and converted Buddhist centres into Brahminical centres of learning, maths, at Badrinath in the north, Sringeri (and Kanchipuram) in the south, Puri in the east and Dwarka in the west, the impact of his militant campaign against Buddhism was all pervasive. Buddhism almost disappeared from India. Over the next couple of centuries, aptly termed Dark Age, it flickered in different regions before it finally became extinct.

Jawaharlal Nehru traces the "cultural unity of India" and the emergence of "common Indian consciousness" to this period of Shankaracharya's annihilation of Buddhism, for India now became a homogenised Hindu state. But the advent of Islam, which, like Buddhism, was already an international religion, introduced a discordant element. It is truism for Hindu historians to say that Shankaracharya defeated the Buddhists because of his superior intellect and arguments, and that was why the Buddhists agreed to give up their faith and be absorbed into Brahminism! The arguments were carried with the help of fire and power, and not logic or persuasion. Jawaharlal Nehru, the acclaimed builder of modern India, was no exception and gave expression to his Brahminical proclivities in his presentation of historical processes. He later sought to make partial amends by organising the celebration of 2,500 years of the Mahapari-nirvana of Lord Buddha on national, indeed international, scale. Buddhism was revived in India during the 20th century with the conversion of some backward classes led by Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar. But this was on a limited scale, and Brahmins intended to keep the faith within the framework of Hinduism.

Buddhism had become non-violent but in spite of that, it took Hinduism, perhaps because of lack of centralised organisation, several centuries to exterminate it. The Brahminical social order was not always successful. The Buddhists, the general mass of them who had been alienated from Brahminism, chose to accept Islam which provided them equality and met their natural instincts and aspirations. That was the reason why north-western India including Kashmir, western part of Punjab and Sind was lslamised. That also happened to the Buddhists in Bihar and Bengal. The contemporary Shuny Purana and Dharm Puja Vithan bear testimony to that.

It is remarkable that district gazetteers of the Gangetie valley speak of the existence of Muslim societies in 10th and 11th centuries before the arrival of Muhamad Ghauri. Hindu historians, however, plead inadequate understanding of the conversion of the rural elite and large sections of peasantry to Islam in eastern India at that time. They fight shy of facing this phenomenon, the upshot of backlash of violent extermination of Buddhism by Shankaracharya.

In Afghanistan -Turkistan, Bamiyan and Kabul - the Buddhist faith and Kingdom were stamped out by the Saivite Brahmin Minister, Kallar or Kulusha, in the second half of 9th century. He effected a coup, overthrew the last Buddhist King, Lagaturman, and founded Hindu Shahi Kingdom. In tune with the guidelines laid down by Shankaracharya, Kulusha killed the Buddhists in thousands and levelled their monasteries and citadels. It was during the course of Hindu Shahi vandalism that the Buddhist structures in Bamiyan, Gardez, Laghman and other places were disfigured or destroyed.

Buddhists, persecuted harshly by Brahmins, now became the followers of Ibn Karami, a local Sufi Pir, and were called Karamis. They placed a statue of Allah on his throne in place of Buddha set on the Lotus." The Karami sect was the half-way between Buddhism and Islam, and assumed great importance in the life of Ghur, Ghazni and Qusdar.

Al-Beruni mentions that by 950 AD when the Hindu Shahi Kingdom was at its zenith, Kabuki was Muslim." That was half a century before Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni began his campaigns in India. Mahmud appointed teachers to instruct the people of Ghur in the precepts of Islam after his campaign of India in 1010-1011." Mahmud Ghazni's campaigns against the places of Hindu worship in India including the breaking of Hindu idols at Jawalamukhi, Mathura and Somnath temples were, in part, in retribution to earlier Hindu onslaught on the Buddhist places of worship which rankled in the minds of the people. Brahminism had sowed the seeds of iconoclasm in the sub-continent and now they reaped the whirlwind. It may be mentioned here that Mahmud Ghazni's general, Tilak or Tilaka, son of Jaisen or Jayasena, educated in Kashmir, was a Buddhist.

The destruction of Hindu places of worship from now on became a regular feature with the Muslim invaders of India. For instance, Qutubuddin Aibak demolished 27 Hindu and Jain temples at Delhi and used the material for the construction of Qutab Minar. No Buddhist monastery was destroyed as these had already been demolished by the Hindus! Qutab Minar was designed to teach the lesson of subjection to the Hindus! It also marked the end of the Indo-Aryan period of Indian history. The contemporary Hindu was conscious of that. Compilation of Shunya (Zero) Purana during the period was recognition of the Zero sum game.

The Hindus straightaway developed a deep-rooted hatred of the Muslims and in the words of Al-Beruni enclosed themselves in a shell calling the new rulers mlechhas, impure, That coloured the Hindu nationalism which was born from a sense of defeat.

Buddhism became extinct in India around that time, though Hinduism too was subjugated for next eight centuries. That was the retribution meted out to Hinduism, or was the price paid by the Hindus for the crime of violent extermination of Buddhism from the land of its birth.

With the Indian independence in 1947, Hindu revivalism underpinned by the state power and machinery resumed its onward march after a hiatus of one thousand years. The first task undertaken immediately after independence by the new government, avowing secularism and composite nationalism, was the decision to reconstruct, at the state expenses, the Somnath Temple which, in the words of K. M. Munshi, had served as a galling reminder of the degradation of the Hindus. And, the Cabinet meeting was presided over by Jawaharlal Nehru.' Only a year earlier in his Discovery of India (1946) he had given expression to his atavistic perception of Hindu revivalism and in the words of Shaikh Mohammad Abdullah (Atish-i-Chinar), he "regarded himself as an instrument to establish, once again, that old dispensation". It was another matter that he was later acclaimed the apostle of Indian secularism. That was an upshot of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad's working on his megalomania, especially after Sardar Vallabhbhai Jhaverbhai Patel's death in December 1950. Presently, the mosque constructed at the site in the 17th century was demolished. It was contended that protagonists of Allah had migrated to Pakistan, and those who stand up for the mosque would be made to do so. Sikhism which came up during this thousand-year interregnum, as a distinct religion, has since been the butt of Hinduism.

The story as to how the Sikhs, who were the third party at the time of Indian independence, have been reduced to a non-existent role, and how using the Hindu card, the leadership of the Indian National Congress (which has been in power during the last 43 out of 47 years) has gradually pushed the Sikhs out of the national mainstream which enabled Indira Gandhi to launch her Sikh war, makes a grim reading.

To begin with, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the acclaimed father of the nation, did not accept Sikhism as a religion distinct from Hinduism; and the Sikhs trustingly - a trust that immediately after independence was betrayed - placed all their eggs in the Congress basket without suspecting the Hindus. They are now paying the price for that trust. As of now, thinking Sikhs all over the world are apprehensive of the very existence of Sikhism in India as a vibrant faith. With their back to the wall, the Sikhs face Hobson's choice.

In retrospect, Hinduism's extermination of Buddhism did not lead to wholesome results. The cost-benefit ratio was in an adverse scale. But the Hindus have learnt one thing from history that they cannot learn anything. This is not the first time that the Sikhs face extinction in India. Attempts have been made earlier as well.

How will the Sikhs fare now? Will history repeat itself? Or will it be rewritten, this way or that? Only time will tell - the gruesome time that lies ahead.

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