Chapter 19: Dialogue and Tolerance Under the Mughals

A Summary and Analysis by John Newhall.


Basically, this chapter revolves around the idea that rulers had complicated feelings when it came to Hinduism. Very few of the Mughal leaders discussed were strongly aligned with Hinduism or opposed to it. Beginning with Akbar, Doniger describes how he was sometimes good and sometimes not in relationship to the Hindus.  She writes that he “abolished the jizya, the tax on pilgrims, and other discriminatory measures against Hindus. He ensured that Hindus would have their own laws and their own courts.  He celebrated the Hindu festivals of Divali and Dussehra.  He put Hindus in charge of almost the entire money lending system, acknowledging their competence in matter mathematical and financial” (535).


Mughal artwork depicts Emperor Akbar presiding over discussions in the Hall of Religious Debate, ca. 1600. To read more click here (Stanford).


One of the primary sources of conflict between Hindus and Muslims was the Muslim practice of sacrifice.  Muslims would sacrifice animals to Allah, including cows.  This deeply offended the Hindu community. At one point Doniger ventures out on a tangent about the treatment of dogs.  It’s not totally clear why, it seems as though dogs were pretty important to Akbar.

It is important to note that the Mughals did not have control over all of India.  Doniger notes that “there were major pockets of resistance, including the Punjab under the Sikh gurus, Vijayanagar, the kingdoms in the far south, and, most famously, the Maharashtrians…” (544).

In basic summary, Hindu temples were knocked down, mosques were built, Hindu temples were restored or rebuilt.


Let me just, for a moment, express that this book is not great, nay it is not even good.  I would not recommend this book to someone who is just beginning to learn about Hinduism. However, Doniger does know what she is talking about (although, sometimes I think she’s the only one who knows).  I find it beyond my ability so say whether I think she is correct or not, I can only say that she seems to present a persuasive argument.  To the best of my understanding, that argument is that some Mughal rulers were bad, others were good, but for the most part they tended to be on the good side (i.e. more tolerant side).

Doniger begins the chapter with a quote from Abu’l Fazl that acknowledged the mutual “fanatical hatred” between Hindus and Muslims.  The passage is discussing “Akbar, by far the most pluralist of the Mughal rulers” (527).  She backs this claim up by assessing his actions, beginning in a section where she deems him “Akbar the Tolerant” (531).  She posits that Akbar was the first to back religious pluralism with the power of a great empire. Akbar would wonder through bazaars, which Doniger claims may have “nourished his interest in the religious diversity among his people” (532).

There was no doubt as to the religious diversity of India (Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism were not uncommon faiths in the area).  Doniger seems to come to the conclusion that these faith traditions, especially Hinduism and Islam, were in a constant state of dialogue.  She points out that “Much of the poetry written by Muslims … begins with the Islamic invocation of Allah but goes on to express Hindu content or makes use of Hindu forms, Hindu imagery, Hindu terminology.”  She then connects this to the practices of the people stating that many “people were Hindu by culture, Muslim by religion, or the reverse. Mughal emperors patronized yoga establishments. Hindus worshiped Sufi Pirs” (548).

These types of religious interactions pervade most religious traditions throughout history, especially in Europe. In fact, most witchcraft beliefs throughout Europe were connected to this type of “religious fusion,” as Doniger calls it.  It is not surprising then, to see such intersections occurring within Hinduism and Islam throughout their history in close proximity.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does this all mean in relationship to the development of Hinduism?
  2. What meaning can be drawn from the religious intersections played out through Islamic poetry of the period?
  3. What does it mean to be Hindu by culture and Muslim by religion (or Muslim by culture and Hindu by religion)? How does this relate to assimilation and conversion?

7 thoughts on “Chapter 19: Dialogue and Tolerance Under the Mughals

Add yours

  1. I think that your third question is a very interesting one. I think that to be Hindu by culture is to live and work within a community of Hindu people in a predominantly Hindu country/area. You can be in an area where people are majority Hindu and where there is a lot of Hindu influence in the community, while still identifying as a practicing Muslim. This relates to assimilation and conversion because the community that you are in may lead to influence a change in religious practice. Many may convert to what the majority of the people around them believe because of their majority influence. The area you are in has a direct influence on what you believe/who you are.


  2. Also in response to your third question, and adding to what Lexi said, I think one can work and interact within a community of people that are of the same group, such as a religion, yet maintain one’s own personal identity that may differ from the group’s. For instance, I work at a Methodist church by singing in the choir. Every single person that attends that church is Methodist (except for some of the other Lawrentians that also work there). Although I am surrounded by a group of people that follow the same religion, I never feel pressured to become Methodist. I know this is a very different situation than that of the Hindus and Muslims during the Mughal Empire, yet I still think that it has value in the fact that not all people are trying to convert others to their religion. I firmly believe that some Muslims and Hindus interacted solely for the exchange of their skillsets; had they not possessed those skills, they may have never interacted. Likewise, the people at my church respect that I am not Methodist yet still value that I can use my skillset to help them. I do agree though, that being in a larger community (than perhaps a church) of like minded people may be more challenging for one to maintain their personal identity, without having any influence from the group.


  3. Also loosely in response to the third question, I found that section of the chapter very interesting, because despite what we have learned throughout the term about the messy nature of religious history, I had an assumption that religious fusion was a modern, maybe even American phenomenon. That is clearly not the case, as Doniger points out. It brings to mind conversations I have had with friends who believe that drawing from aspects of different religions only maintains a watered down version, and is not genuine. However, the fact is that, exactly as Doniger describes, the religions that we categorize as separate belief systems are actually mutually influenced. The word “syncretism” which Doniger uses on page 548 illustrates this banyan-tree-like nature of Hindium in relation to other religions, including Islam. The fact that “Hindu-Muslim sects flourished” (548) surprised me; it changes how I view religion, and especially the notion of needing a single religious alliance, as it were.


  4. In response to the first question, as a brief overview, it essentially means what Doniger has been saying all along: that Hinduism has changed and developed over time alternatively to what most believe and that Hinduism was not developed in a vacuum but an ocean of ideas. It means that upon further analysis of Hinduism and Islam there’s surely going to be similarities to one another (and to any other religion of course). One example that comes to mind is the treatment of dogs. I don’t know where the idea that dogs were dirty and unclean came from or really when, but its a focal point in both religions; whether that was because of a merging of ideas earlier and if this similar belief was a reason for more tolerance during the Mughal rule is a question worth exploring.

    What’s additionally intriguing to me is how this intersection of thought appeared to develop. Unlike most invasions and takeovers, the Mughals in Doniger’s account are extremely tolerant in comparison. This means that people weren’t forced to take extremes to protect their religious freedom and it was probably generally a peaceful climate that most likely only helped create tolerance in Hinduism itself. It reminds me of the Arabian Nights I read in freshman studies. What has consistently caught my attention was the treatment of other religions (although the mention is scarce). There were no particularly negative treatment of non Muslims in all the parts of the Arabian Nights I read. Other religions were acknowledged, and it’s acknowledged that they mainly lived with their own religion and didn’t hang out with each other much, but there was no obvious mistreatment of another religion. Again, whether this idea had been implemented from the reality of exposure to other religions or helped create more tolerance for future generations is an interesting question to explore.


  5. With regards to question one, this chapter illustrates how the development of Hinduism, as we have addressed and stated before was “messy and complicated.” Social, political, artistic, intellectual, and religious interactions between diverse groups of people (Muslims and Hindus), had long lasting effects on one another. Paradigms shifted and at times/different regions relationships between the groups oscillated between peaceful/interested and hateful/un-accepting. The reverence that each group had for different aspects of each other’s religion is very interesting (e.g. poetry, concepts). The places where they’d agree on matters was also interesting (e.g. dogs). As a result, this all means that Hinduism’s development heavily relied on and incorporated ‘outside’ influences. On another note, I think its interesting how we collect and analyze evidence of cross-cultural interactions, that occurred hundreds of years ago.


  6. I am fascinated by the Mughal Empire and its effect on the Hindu psyche even today. The myth of Aurangzeb is still alive and well, serving as a sort of bogeyman to continue the fear of Islam. As Doniger mentions, Aurangzeb is popularly remembered as the Mughal ruler who was responsible for rampant brutality and the wholesale destruction of Hindu temples, holy sites, and cultural centers. This romanticized idea of Aurangzeb is a complete antithesis of the image we get of Akbar ‘the Tolerant’, leaving us today with something of a cognitive dissonance regarding the Mughals. Of course, these were two different men, and as despotic absolute monarchs, could have ruled completely differently from each other. But today what becomes much more important than their actual actions is the idea of the man in history. Those who choose to see the Muslim domination of the subcontinent as an enlightened era look at Akbar, while those who see it as an unjust invasion prefer to view Aurangzeb as the archetypal Mughal. To muddy the waters of history even more, I’d like to add this link to another essay about Aurangzeb’s reputation:


  7. Considering the third question, I think the meaning behind the statement that “Many people were Hindu by culture, Muslim by religion, or the reverse (549)” is that a clear line of the distinctions among religions may cannot be drawn that easily, or such a line even does not exist at all. King Akbar’s attitude towards pigs and dogs can be deemed as a good example since even though he claims himself as a Muslim, he regards “neither pigs nor dogs as unclean (542)”, which is completely conflict with the “traditional” teaching of Islam, and he even further believes that “dogs had ten virtues, any one of which, in man, would make him a saint (542).” The reason that he would hold such apostate claims are probably due to the influence of other religious and philosophical ideas. So is he a Muslim or is he a Hindu or Jainist or a practitioner of the new religion created by himself? Doniger claims that “Syncretism remained at the heart of Sufism (548).” I think that the statement can be even made more general that every person is syncretic since the dialectical relationship between people and religions. Meanwhile, in response the first question, I think, connecting to what Doniger wants to express in most of the chapters in this books, one of the points that Doniger conveys is that the development of Hinduism or hinduisms, similar to most of other religions, is not simple and all people are somehow syncretic.


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