Book-Review | The Upanishads: An Introduction

Book author: Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr Publisher:      HarperCollins Pages: 170

The Hindu-Muslim Unity and bonding, spanning over 10 Centuries, has endured the test of time, because of the deeper religious and philosophical Interface between the two major religions. This interface has resulted in greater synthesis and the emergence of the Composite Indian Culture.

A book, The Upanishads: An Introduction, by Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr, published by HarperCollins, throws fresh and new light on this Islam-Hindu interface that bonded together two major communities for over 10 Centuries.

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao writes, “The arrival of Islam, which was brought into India by the Turks and Afghans in the Eleventh Century CE, had impacted India’s intellectual world. The intellectual encounter with Islam found an indirect philosophical expression. The Islamic mystics, the Sufis, defined afresh the relationship between God and the individual and expressed the idea of the merger of the Soul in the Godhead. It was called fana and has close parallels to the idea of the Bhakti saints from Alwars and Nayanmars and, later, to Kabir and Nanak.”

This religious and philosophical Interface helped in forging a stronger bonding between the two major communities. Indeed, this great bonding has become a wonder for the world.

The Arab Spring during 2010-2012 brought into sharp focus how indeed India converted her rich diversity into a major advantage. In India, diversity resulted in convergence and harmony, while elsewhere diversity meant discord and disharmony.

Mughal Emperor Akbar is credited with being the first to recognize that Hindu-Muslim Unity is the foundation of Indian Nationhood. Akbar set new benchmarks when he celebrated the Jashn-e-Navroz, the Parsi New Year, Janmashtami of Lord Krishna, Holi and Eid, all with equal elan.

It is for this reason that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru described Akbar as the Father of Indian Nationalism.

In modern times, Mahatma Gandhi reiterated the importance of Hindu-Muslim Unity during the Freedom Struggle, when he realized that Hindu-Muslim Unity was not only essential but inescapable for India attaining Independence.

The book succinctly brings out the Islam-Hindu Interface that happened quietly and unobtrusively, over the centuries.

It is noteworthy that Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan’s son, and sibling of Aurangazeb, Prince Dara Shikoh, translated the Upanishads into Persian.

In fact, the Bhakti Movement saw the deepening of this Interface between Islam and Hinduism. Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer Sharif is said to have recognized the Bhajan-Keertan tradition locally and in consonance with it, evolved the Qawwali, which united both the Hindus and Muslims in the worship of God.

Qawwali, derived from the word Qaul, is sung in praise of God. Qawwali was initially sung without the accompaniment of musical instruments and with the mere clapping of hands, usually rendered within the sacred precincts of the Dargah.

Over time, the Qawwali came out of its sacred precincts, and travelling through the Mughal Court it entered the world of entertainment and popular Culture. Hindi Cinema has Immortalized Qawwali, which is the finest expression of the Composite Indian Culture.

The Sufi Saints came to be revered both by the Hindus and the Muslims. Dargah and Mandir both became places of worship, where heads bow down in reverence and devotion.
Writing about the Upanishads, Parsa Venkateshwar Rao points to its religious context, as these texts form part of the Vedas. In the West, there is an attempt to pursue philosophy, independent of the religious trappings. In India, however, philosophy is steeped in the realm of the spiritual.

The Vedas comprise of four sections, the Samhita or Hymns; the Brahmana where rules of rituals are laid down; Aranyakas or the retreat for meditation practices; and the Upanishads that contain the ultimate philosophical postulates. Thus, the Vedic Religion “begins with simple hymns; goes through a ritual phase; marks a retreat into the forest and into the inner recesses of the mind; and finally attains a transcendental insight. It is almost an idealized progress of religion and, if you will, of philosophy.”

The author writes, “It has been inferred that as the Upanishads form the end section of the Veda, they are known as Vedanta. It has also been taken to mean the essence of the Veda. Another popular meaning of the word Upanishad is that of sitting at the feet of a Teacher and it is implied, therefore, that what is included in the Upanishadic text is a mystic doctrine, which the Teacher imparts to the student or disciple.”

This Islam-Hindu Interface continued till the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. The author cites the example of the works of Allama Iqbal, Asrar-e-Khudi or Secrets of the Self, in 1915 and Ramooz-e-Bekhudi, or Mysteries of Selflessness, in 1918.

Similarly, the author also cites the example of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. He says, “Azad combines liberalism with Islamic rationalism of the classical Arab phase and tempered by modern rationality in his Tazkira or Memoir in 1916 and in Ghubar-e-Qatir, or The Dust of Memories, in 1946.”

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao mentions the failure of the Indians and the Greeks to make intellectual contact. He says when Alexander, the Macedonian, who was a student of Aristotle, came to India, the event should have connected the ancient Indian and the ancient Greek civilizations. The only visible impact of that event was the Gandhara sculpture, where the Buddha is shown in the idealized Apollonian form. “But, it is rather strange that no ideas travelled back to Greece, along the route opened by Alexander’s armies,” he writes.

Similarly, he points out the failure of the Indian and the Arab civilizations to connect substantively. “The ideas of the great Arab Islamic philosophers like Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Al-Ghazali, Ibn Rushd, and Ibn Khaldun did not reach India because the Islamic intellectuals in India from the Twelveth to the Eighteenth Centuries did not make the creative between the earlier Indian philosophical schools and that of classical Islam,” writes Parsa Venkateshwar Rao.

“This failure to connect has been a great loss to Indian philosophy, because it would have brought in not only the Arab ideas but also of Plato and Aristotle, as mediated by the Arabs,” he writes.

The author points out that on the other hand, “The intellectual synthesis occurred at the more popular level, which was mediated by the Sufis.”

That is why the greater significance of the Sufi-Bhakti synthesis, which bonded together two of the most predominant communities of Hindus and Muslims in the Indian Sub-Continent in the mosaic of the Composite Indian Culture.

 Venkat Parsa is a senior journalist and writer based in New Delhi