Culture is a fascinating aspect of our life. Understanding culture requires looking at social life and observing the many facets of life, eating habits, clothing, music, language, literature, architecture, and aspects of religion, among others. In a plural country like ours, there is a mosaic that helps us understand the complexity of our culture.
In India, there is a significant mix of facets of cultures brought by people of different religions. So what is Indian culture? It can be said that the totality of the plural expressions of peoples is Indian culture. It is inclusive and exhibits syncretism in all aspects of social life. This view of Indian culture is shared by Indian nationalists. And until now, most of the time, this belief in a composite culture guided the practice of those who held power.
With the rise of Hindu nationalists in recent decades and more so in the past three years; we try to give a sectarian orientation to this understanding of our culture. All things that are not Brahminical are hijacked and undermined. One of the examples of this came glaringly when Mr. Adityanath Yogi, the UP Chief Minister, later criticized the practice of offering the replica of the Taj Mahal to visiting dignitaries (June 16, 2017). According to him, the Taj Mahal is not part of Indian culture, Yogi confirmed the practice of giving Gita, the Holy Scripture, initiated by Narendra Modi.
Taj Mahal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to be protected. It is also considered one of the seven wonders of the world. Apart from being a global tourist attraction, it symbolizes India’s great architectural achievements. It was built by Emperor Shahjahan in memory of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. There is another controversy about this great monument. Propaganda had been made that it was a Shiv temple which was converted into a mausoleum. It is totally false. Archives and historical documents tell a different story.
Shahjahan’s Badshahnama very clearly states that the structure was built by Shahjahan. A European traveler Peter Mundy writes that Emperor Shahjahan is in deep grief over the death of his favorite wife and builds an impressive mausoleum in her memory. A French jeweler Tavernier who visited India at this time corroborates this. Shahjahan’s daily account books give the detailed record of expenses incurred, such as money spent on marble and workers’ salaries, etc. The only basis for this misconception that it is the Shiv (Tejo Mahalay) temple is the mention that the land was purchased from Raja Jaisingh for compensation. It is also to be noted that Jaisingh to whom this Shaiva temple is attributed was a Vaishnav, and it is not possible for a Vaishnav king to build a Shaiv temple.
Curiously, first it is considered a temple of Shiva and now it is claimed that it is not part of Indian culture? Furthermore, the question arises as to why Gita is accorded such primacy? It will be remembered that in the past, very often, our visiting leaders would offer Gandhi’s autobiography, “My Experiences with Truth,” to their hosts. The Gita is presented as the representative book of our many sacred books such as Guru Granth Sahib, Kabir Vani and the writings of Basavanna, Naryan Guru etc. We can find the answer to this from none other than Babasaheb Ambedkar. Ambedkar points out that Gita is Manusmriti in short, which in turn is central to Brahmanism. Ambedkar’s central mission was to fight against the values of Manusmrirti. The other symbol that is being promoted lately is the sacred cow. They are both symbols of Brahmanism, as the current ruling dispensation promotes Brahmanism under the guise of Hindutva and Hinduism.
As such, Indian culture as understood by the freedom movement, Indian nationalist ideology, regards symbols of all religions, regions and languages as Indian. According to this, the contributions of Buddhists, Jains, Christians, Muslims and Sikhs are all part of Indian heritage. This is reflected in our daily life. As such, India is one of the places where all religions have flourished without any discrimination. People have been following these religions for centuries. Some of them were born here and some of them came and spread through different mechanisms like the teachings of saints, Sufis, missionaries, etc. and health. All aspects of Indian culture are richly sprinkled by people of different religions.
Our eating habits, many practices from West Asia and other parts of the world, our clothing, our architecture have a strong imprint of people from different religions and from different parts of the world coming and contributing to the evolution of culture . While Bhakti and Sufi are the culmination of this interaction, today one can discern the contribution of different religious people in the various rituals and practices of the people. It is known that Bhakti saints also had followers among Muslims, while many Hindus visited the Dargahs of Sufi saints. Saint Guru Nanak drew heavily on the two main religious traditions that prevail here.
Mahatma Gandhi had been the best interpreter of Indian culture and Indian history. He saw no antagonism in religions. In his book Hind Swaraj, he writes: “Hindus flourished under Muslim rulers and Muslims under Hindus. Each side recognized that fighting each other was suicidal and that neither side would abandon its religion by force of arms. The two parties therefore decided to live in peace. With the advent of the English, the quarrels began again… Shouldn’t we remember that many Hindus and Mohammedans have the same ancestors and that the same blood runs in their veins?
As a result, the aspects of culture brought by people of different religions become Indian, unlike the current dispensation where only Brahminical symbols alone represent this nation, and this is what Mr. Yogi is trying to assert.
* Opinions expressed are those of the author. Dr. Puniyani is a human rights defender and former professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT Bombay).