Al Beruni’s India

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Al Beruni’s India

 Al Beruni came to India in the war-train of Mahmud and lived in India for many years. He was a great philosopher, mathematician and historian.

Attracted to Indian culture, he learnt Sanskrit and studied several books concerning Hindu philosophy and culture. He travelled far and wide and wrote a masterly account of India in his book Tahqiq-i-Hind. This was also known as Kitabul Hind (1017-31 A.D).

In addition to it, Alberuni is also credited to have translated many Sanskrit works into Persian and Arabic. Talking of Hindu in general, Alberuni complains of their complacency and ignorance of the outside world. He even finds faults with them for their want of sympathy and communication with other peoples whom they call mlechchas.

Observing the consuming arrogance of Hindus he notes, ‘The Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no kings like theirs, no religion like theirs, and no science like theirs. If they travelled and mixed with other nations, they would soon change their mind, ‘he adds, ‘for their ancestors were not as narrow-minded as the present generations.’

He observed that the Hindus did ‘not desire that a thing which has once been polluted should be purified and thus recovered’. Thus, the above portrayal clearly shows that all was not well with India. Caste tensions were prevalent. There was no sense of cause; the disintegrating tendencies were already serious.

Alberuni was able to observe the condition of India very minutely. He wrote what he saw here.

 

Caste-Ridden Society

Alberuni said:

The Hindus call their castes varṇa, i.e. colours, and from a genealogical point of view they call them jâtaka, i.e. births. These castes are from the very beginning only four.

  1. The highest caste are the Brâhmaṇa, of whom the books of the Hindus tell that they were created from the head of Brahman. And as Brahman is only another name for the force called nature, and the head is the highest part of the animal body, the Brâhmaṇa are the choice part of the whole genus. Therefore the Hindus consider them as the very best of mankind.
  2. The next caste are the Kshatriya, who were created, as they say, from the shoulders and hands of Brahman. Their degree is not much below that of the Brâhmaṇ
  3. After them follow the Vaiśya, who were created from the thigh of Brahman.
  4. The Śûdra, who were created from his feet.

After the Śûdra follow the people called Antyaja, who render various kinds of services, who are not reckoned amongst any caste, but only as members of a certain craft or profession.

There are eight classes of them, who freely intermarry with each other, except the fuller, shoemaker, and weaver, for no others would condescend to have anything to do with them. These eight guilds are the fuller, shoemaker, juggler, the basket and shield maker, the sailor, fisherman, the hunter of wild animals and of birds, and the weaver.

The four castes do not live together with them in one and the same place. These guilds live near the villages and towns of the four castes, but outside them.

The people called Hâḍî, Ḍoma (Ḍomba), Caṇḍâla, and Badhatau (sic) are not reckoned amongst any caste or guild. They are occupied with dirty work, like the cleansing of the villages and other services. They are considered as one sole class, and distinguished only by their occupations. In fact, they are considered like illegitimate children; for according to general opinion they descend from a Śûdra father and a Brâhmaṇî mother as the children of fornication; therefore they are degraded outcasts.

The Hindus give to every single man of the four castes characteristic names, according to their occupations and modes of life.  Of the classes beneath the castes, the Hâḍî are the best spoken of, because they keep themselves free from everything unclean. Next follow the Ḍôma, who play on the lute and sing. The still lower classes practise as a trade killing and the inflicting of judicial punishments.

The worst of all are the Badhatau, who not only devour the flesh of dead animals, but even of dogs and other beasts.

Each of the four castes, when eating together, must form a group for themselves, one group not being allowed to comprise two men of different castes.

If, further, in the group of the Brâhmaṇa there are two men who live at enmity with each other, and the seat of the one is by the side of the other, they make a barrier between the two seats by placing a board between them, or by spreading a piece of dress, or in some other way; and if there is only a line drawn between them, they are considered as separated.

Since it is forbidden to eat the remains of a meal, every single man must have his own food for himself; for if any one of the party who are eating should take of the food from one and the same plate, that which remains in the plate becomes, after the first eater has taken part, to him who wants to take as the second, the remains of the meal, and such is forbidden.
Such is the condition of the four castes.

Stagnant Knowledge

To al-Beruni the Hindus were excellent philosophers, good mathematicians and astronomers, though [out of a certain self-confidence] he believed himself to be superior to them, and disdained to be put on a level with them.

He did not conceal whatever he considered wrong and unpractical with them, but he duly appreciates their mental achievements. Speaking of the construction of the ponds at holy bathing-places, he says: “In this they have attained a very high degree of art, so that our people (the Muslims), when they see them, wonder at them, and are unable to describe them, much less to construct anything like them.”

Social Evils

Al-Beruni noted:

(i) Social conditions: Indian society was cast-ridden. Several evil prac­tices like child marriage, prohibition of widow marriage, ‘Sati’ and ‘Jauhar’ existed in the Hindu society. Only the Brahmans had the right to attain salvation. People had a very narrow outlook.

(ii) Religious conditions: Idol worship was prevalent. Brahamans had the sole privilege of reading the Hindu scriptures.

(iii) Political conditions: Alberuni informs as that the feeling of nationalism among the Indians was almost absent. The country was fragmented into a number of independent states. These states were jealous of each other and constantly engaged in fights against one another.

(iv) Legal system: According to Alberuni, criminal law was very mild in India. The Brahmanas were exempted from death punishment. The limbs of serious offenders were amputated.

Religion

Al-Beruni read the major Indian religious and astronomical texts; in his account he highlighted a few choice parts of  the Gita, the Upanishads, Patanjali, Puranas, the four Vedas, scientific texts (by Nagarjuna, Aryabhata, etc.), relating stories from Indian mythology to make his point.

He also compared Indian thought to the Greek thought of Socrates, Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Galen and others, and at times with Sufi teaching.:

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