Chapter 20: Hinduism Under the Mughals

How exactly did Hinduism change under the Mughals?

This question may be somewhat of a misnomer considering that there are various different manifestations of Hinduism depending on where or who you ask. Regardless, the presence of the Mughal rule from roughly 1500 to 1700 BCE, and the subsequent pushback or adherence to the regime led to new and sometimes contrasting versions of Hinduism. For example, in some cases, Hindus fought against foreign cultures in an attempt to “preserve their cultural heritage” (p. 551), but in other cases, Hindus adopted many of the beliefs and customs of Muslim tradition, creating a hybrid religion of sorts in some regions.


One of the most distinct ways that the Mughal reign influenced Hinduism was seen in the change of worship from a warrior-centered Vishnu to the playful and loving Krishna, which is referred to as Vaishnavism, which “flourished under the Mughals in the sixteenth century” (p. 552). Tulsidas was one of the most influential proponents of Vaishnavism, with some of his most memorable work including talk of how Muslims can too be saved in Rama’s name, his compassion for Pariahs, and his moderate objection to caste. Another prominent figure was the Bengali saint named Chaitanya who was a Brahmin that made the pilgrimage to Gaya following his father’s death. On his pilgrimage, he decided to renounce the world, but in response, people began to join and worship Krishna with him. His newfound followers believed that he was an incarnation of both Radha and Krishna, but not in the traditional dualistic, bhakti way and instead in a “monistic and Tantric sense, to realize both male and female powers within their own bodies” (p. 554). Chaitanya’s followers, while not promoting adultery and passion-driven behaviors, admired and honored the intensity of the love that goes into those behaviors. They equated this with a metaphor for the “proper love of god” (p. 555), and in doing so, promoted the belief that Bhakti was a duty better suited for women because they were able to be the god’s lovers.  Doniger makes sure to note that while this belief may have given women more spiritual authority, it didn’t necessarily give women more practical authority.  Overall, the Vaishnavism movement that was spearheaded by the Mughal leadership promoted a more feminine and love-centric view of worship and religion, but whether or not this impacted Hinduism on a larger scale is not addressed in the chapter.

In this section, I wondered about the larger-scale significance of these seemingly insiginificant spiritual sects, considering I had never heard of Vaishnavism until I read this chapter. Granted, that could be due in large part to my ignorance of Hindiusm prior to this class, but after reading this chapter I began to wonder how Vaishnavism–along with other Mughal-influenced religious traditions–is portrayed or manifested in contemporary India today, if it is at all. Additionally, I wondered how the the preference for females in spaces of worship due to the importance of passionate love in worship

Chaitanya and followers



Of course, Doniger couldn’t go a few pages without mentioning the significance of horses, and in this chapter, she discusses the impact that the Mughal reign had on horses in the region by looking predominantly at myths and epics written during that time involving horses. On pages 561 to 563, Doniger details the “Three Tales of Equine Resurrection”, and in each of the three, she elaborates on the cultural significance and impact of these legends. In my opinion, the most significant tale was the third one, a story about a horse sacrifice in North India during the nineteenth century that promotes the belief that horses are not a low-caste animal. This belief may have already been obvious, though, considering horses were extremely expensive during this time, costing roughly ten thousand dollars each.  Some people may pushback on the belief that Hindu horse lore was strongly influenced by the Mughal reign, but Doniger quells those inquisitions by pointing out the gender of the horses. Hindus prior to the Mughal period rode stallions (males), and Arabs rode mares (females). The significance of stallions in the Hindu culture was seen in early Vedic imagery and revolved predominantly around their “virility, fertility, and aggressive volatility” (p. 565),  but mares were viewed as wild animals and were equated with the inherent danger of women as temptresses at the time. Interestingly, the perception of mares in Hindu epics changed following the reign of the Mughals, indicating that the Mughal’s positive view of mares as benevolent seeped into the Hindu narrative.


mughal horse.jpg
Mughal noble on horseback


Last, but definitely not least: women

For the most part, women–at least high ranking women–did pretty well under the Mughals, with newfound powers like property rights, education, and even the ability to get abortions. Doniger provides various individual examples of women’s new agencies and infamy, like Chand Bibi: an educated negotiator with the Mughals, Nur Jahan: a cunning and intelligent widow who was able to exploit different Mughal leaders, Mumtaz Mahal: the wealthy wife of Shah Jahan and for whom the Taj Mahal was built, and Mirabai: a brave memorialized poet who wrote about her undying love for Krishna. Suttee, the Hindu custom that entails a widow burning herself with her husband’s body, was opposed by one of the Mughal leaders, Akbar. Though he opposed the act,  he didn’t abolish it unless the woman had children. Interestingly, despite the Mughal aversion to suttee, there still remained a level of admiration for the courage, loyalty, and love that was required for a woman to perform suttee.


Mumtaz Mahal



  1. On page 565, Doniger says “Vaishnavism encompasses Islam”. What does this quote mean, exactly? Have we seen something similar to this in other chapters or previous texts? Could you provide a contemporary metaphor for the example she provides?
  2. How does what we’ve learned so far about dharma and bhakti in class align with what Doniger discusses on page 556 about Vaishnavism’s interpretation of bhakti?

4 thoughts on “Chapter 20: Hinduism Under the Mughals

Add yours

  1. With regard to Question #1, Doniger wrote “Vaishnavism encompasses Islam” as the coda to her retelling of a Tamil story about two friends, one a Vishnu-worshiper, the other a Muslim who periodically prays to Vishnu as well as to Allah. The punchline of the story is that the Muslim friend ends up going to Vishnu’s heaven, even if Islam teaches that worshipping anything besides Allah leads to hell. I take the meaning of the story to be that Vishnu redeems—and claims for himself—anyone who dares to contemplate devotion to him, and therefore the gloss that “Vaishnavism encompasses Islam” could evoke an attitude of *appropriation* and *condescension* toward other, non-Vaishnavite paths to the divine, which at best will just lead to Vishnu.

    This motif brings to my mind another instance in which Vashnavism outwardly claimed the legacy of another religion, as but further support of Vishnu’s divine supremacy. Think of the appropriation of the Buddha as another avatar of Vishnu, but with the anti-Buddhist explanation that Vishnu was born as the Buddha so as to ultimately purify the world of falsehood and heresy, by means of posing as a sage who denied the Vedas and thereby led evil-minded people into hell or low rebirth.

    On a somewhat different note, it could be worthwhile to explore the topic of how some modern Hindu thinkers (such as Mahatma Gandhi or Paramahansa Yogananda) have taken keen interest in the story and parables of Jesus, while stopping short of claiming that historically-received Christianity represents the whole truth about him.


  2. I think that the idea of Vaishnavism encompassing Islam could have two meanings: one highlighted in Burton’s comment above and the other highlighted by the idea that there seem to be multiple paths to god (God) in the larger religious context in India which are conditioned by social interaction. It seems like by this time, the Mughals demarcate religious boundaries by defining some ideas to be Hindu and some to be Islamic, but Doniger doesn’t provide us with any hints as to what Hindus thought of this classification brought to the subcontinent by the Mughals. In the story, the Hindu and the Muslim are good friends that aren’t disquieted by differences in their religious affiliations. The story’s end puts forth the view that even though the Muslim prays to Allah, that Allah is just Vishnu in the Hindu’s eyes. That shows to me that the Hindu author doesn’t really care what the Muslim thought God was since the association with a Hindu is, in some way, a transfer of religious affiliation (sort of like the transfer of karma, but more like an exchange of g(G)ods). By associating with a Hindu, the Muslim becomes a Hindu since the author seems to assume that in this interaction, the Muslim probably abides by the social customs put in place by the Hindus (according to what we’ve read, Hindus care more for social order than Muslims) and so, their death is probably going to follow the trajectory of the Vaishnava Hindu since the more specific Hindu experience in the Muslim’s life is that of a Vaishnava.


  3. For Q2, I feel like the Bhakti we have been introduced so far does not quite well align with the Vaishnavism’s interpretation of bhakti in this chapter. The first difference is that the devotion is to Krishna instead of Shiva and Vishnu. The main focus is on women and Doniger mentions that bhakti is well suited for women but on the other hand for male worshippers they need to pretend to be a woman in order to practice bhakti. This is the first time such a thing was mentioned. In the previous Ch 13, it does mention the role of man in bhakti in this manner but in the form of poems where a man would write bhakti poem in a woman voice. Also, there is a very strict emphasis on just women and bhakti which I find it weird and confused because I feel that the bhakti that we have learned so far does not necessarily align in this chapter. At least from my experience to me, the meaning of bhakti is quite different then what Doniger mentions in this chapter as well as other chapters. I feel like I am more confused now which is not a surprise.


  4. Bhakti practices entail a supreme devotion to god, choosing a relationship more similar to that of husband and wife or mother and son than of worshipper and deity. Past examples of Bhakti involve feeling this devotion or acting the role, where Vaishnavism favors an adoption of this role solely by women. In chapter 13, Doniger points out that in sharing a divine gaze, the “superficial trappings of both gender and sexuality” (353) are made meaningless, allowing men and women to worship in a very similar way. With worldly limitations of gender and sexuality gone, gender stereotypes are redefined. The so-called “typical” traits of a woman such as “gentle, sacrificing, and loving” come to replace men’s traits, allowing men to assume these traditionally feminine roles.This differs slightly in the Vaishnavism tradition. Here, one does not simply play the role of the loving devotee, but one must fully become these roles; therefore, Bhakti practice was essentially exclusive to women because “male worshippers had to pretend to be women” (556). Because of this, women tended to win the ‘Bhakti battle’ because of their authentic adoption of these intimate roles. I think these ideas of gender identity are very interesting, especially in how neither interpretations are necessarily negative towards either men or women; but the feminine method of devotion is preferred in both senses. As far as men acting as women, sometimes even “withdrawing to menstruate every month” (556), I am interested to know more about the life and identities of these practitioners, and where they would identify in terms of sex and gender in today’s society. On a separate note, I can’t help but connect these identities with the aforementioned shadow forms; could one argue that men who don’t act as women are merely shadow forms of those who do act as women, or even of actual women, in the sense of Bhakti?


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