Albiruni’s India: Part I

Albiruni’s India: Part I

  • Alberuni (c. 972-1048) was a Persian scholar from the Khwarezm region and spent a large part of his life in Ghazni in modern-day Afghanistan, capital of the Ghaznavid dynasty.
  • He was the first prominent Muslim Indologist was one of the greatest intellectuals of the eleventh century.
  • Alberuni accompanied the invading hordes of Mahmud to the Indo-Gangetic valley as a freelance observer in 11th century.
  • He was a polymath and was a man of ‘encyclopedic learning’.
    • His knowledge and interest covered many other areas such as astronomy, geography, physics, logic, medicine, mathematics, philosophy, religion and theology.
    • He also distinguished himself as a historian and chronologist.
  • In religion he was a Shi’ite Muslim. His works seek to combine Greek wisdom and Islamic thought.
  • For his keen observations on Indian society and cultural ethos of the time, some scholars have actually written of him as the ‘first anthropologist’.
  • In 1017 he traveled to the Indian subcontinent. He travelled extensively in various parts of the country, studied the language, religion and philosophy of the Hindus and wrote the classic account of the country and its people in Arabic, entitled Tarikh-ul Hind.
  • He is considered the “founder of Indology“. He was an impartial writer on custom and creeds of various nations. Most of the works of Al-Biruni are in Arabic.

Mahmud Ghazni’s policy helped Al-Biruni

  • Mahmud’s policy with regard to science played a role in Biruni’s discovery and knowledge of Indian society.
  • Promotion of scholarship was essential for rulers at that time.
    • The presence of poets or scholars at the court of the sultan added to his prestige and reputation.
    • In a sense, the writers contributed to create sultans’ best image at the time.
    • To possess within one’s court numerous scholars and artists also constituted a sign of prosperity and power, and ultimately helped to assert one’s authority over its dependent dynasties and in relation to the Caliphate.
  • Moreover, Mahmud encouraged scholarship.
    • He brought Biruni from Khwarezm to his court at the same time as he attracted the poet Firdawi and the physician and philosopher Ibn Sina, who however refused to join his court.
  • Furthermore, Mahmud needed people fluent in Indian languages in order to help him in his military raids and negotiations in al-Hind.
    • In this context, it seems more than probable that Indian pandits and books had been brought to Ghazna or to Kabul where Biruni spent some years; which corroborates the preceding remarks concerning the origin of his source of information.
    • It also emerges from the Kitab al-Hind that Biruni had familiarized himself with various fields of Sanskrit literature.

Kitab ul Hind or Tarikh-ul Hind

  • Alberuni’s Kitab ul Hind or Tarikh-ul Hind is the survey of Indian life based on his study and observations in India between 1017 and 1030.
  • Kitab-ul-Hind is simple and lucid. It is divided into 80 chapters on subjects such as religion and philosophy, festivals, astronomy, alchemy, manners and customs, social life, weights and measures, iconography, laws and metrology.
  • Al Beruni extensively quotes from vast corpus of Sanskrit literature, like Patanjali, Gita, Puranas, Samkhya philosophy etc.
  • Distinctive structure:
    • Al-Biruni adopted a distinctive structure in each chapter, beginning with a question, following this up with a description based on Sanskrit traditions, and concluding the chapter with a comparison with other cultures.
  • It is an authentic primary source of information about the socio-religious condition of India of Mahmud of Ghazni’s times.
  • It is one of the most important discussion on Indian sciences, religion and society by an outsider.
  • It gives a scholarly analysis of the social and religious institutions of the Hindus and throws light on their rich cultural heritage, including science and literature.
  • The book presents ‘a deep sociological study, characterized by a rare spirit of enquiry, modern scientific attitude and sympathetic insight’. His approach was scientific and religious prejudices do not mar the quality of his observations.
  • Unlike the prevalent Puranic traditions of recording the genealogies or the west Asian tarikh tradition of narrating the political history in a chronological manner, the work is of a very critical nature and covers different aspects like religion, society, science etc.
    • Al Beruni gives a dispassionate account of the weaknesses of the Indian character and the shortcomings of their socio-political order which led to their defeat and humiliation at the hands of the invaders.
    • His critical assessment of Indian customs and ways of life, festivals, ceremonies and rites is particularly interesting.
    • He says that the fact that Indians had started depending on tradition heavily was a hindrance to genuine intellectual quest.
    • He felt that learning and scientific spirit suffered because they had been sub-ordained to religion.
    • Alberuni ascribed the decline of Indian science to the arrogance and growing insularity of the brahmans.
  • Al Beruni learned Sanskrit so that he could study the sources of Hindu thought and religion and to acquire first hand information. He read the religion texts and met the learned Indians.
    • He made extensive use of the Sanskrit literature from which he quotes chapter and verse in support of his contentions.
    • He quoted from the Bhagwat Gita, Vishnu Puran, Kapil’s Sankhya and the work of Patanjali.
    • He also translated or began translations of several Sanskrit texts into Arabic, such as the Kitab Sank, the Kitab Patanjal, the Brahmasiddhanta, the Pulisasiddhanta, the Brhatsamhita and the Laghujataka.
  • His research methodology is innovative, and the data provided is generally accurate.
    • He has analyzed not only written sources but also oral sources.
    • His work has elements of scientific historiography and advices historians to be more careful with their sources and critically examine them.
    • Al-Biruni was careful in mentioning the written sources of social and cultural history of India, specifically about the Indian scientific works and their authors.
  • The concern to record facts as they are, without any prejudgments, is one of the most significant aspects of Al-Biruni’s methodology.
  • Alberuni did not play a partisan role and condemned Mahmud Ghazni’s destructive activities.
  • Where Alberuni was not very sure of his own knowledge, he frankly admitted it.

Motives of writing Kitab Tarikh Al-Hind

  • He expresses his objective with simple eloquence:
    • I shall not produce the arguments of our antagonists in order to refute such of them, as I believe to be in the wrong. My book is nothing but a simple historic record of facts. I shall place before the reader the theories of the Hindus exactly as they are, and I shall mention in connection with them similar theories of the Greeks in order to show the relationship existing between them.”
    • He read the major Indian religious and astronomical texts; in his account he highlights 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.
  • Scientific and intellectual curiosity:
    • He was motivated by scientific and intellectual curiosity and wanted to know what all factors have determined the thought process of Indians.
      • An example of Al-Biruni’s analysis is his summary of why many Hindus hate Muslims:
        • He explains that Hinduism and Islam are totally different from each other.
        • Moreover, Hindus in 11th century India had suffered through waves of destructive attacks on many of its cities, and Islamic armies had taken numerous Hindu slaves to Persia which, claimed Al-Biruni, contributed to Hindus becoming suspicious of all foreigners, not just Muslims.
        • Hindus considered Muslims violent and impure and did not want to share anything with him.
  • Understanding Hindu culture, religion, society etc.
  • Establishing connection between Hindus and Muslims:
    • Hindus considered Muslims violent and impure, and did not want to share anything with him.
    • India at that time was not an ideal place for a foreigner like Al-Biruni whose intention was to study this new culture with a view to establishing friendly relations between the two cultures, Hinduism and Islam.
    • Al-Beruni wrote his work on India to provide, in his own words, “the essential facts for any Muslim who wanted to converse with Hindus and to discuss with them questions of religion, science, or literature.”
    • According to Al-Biruni, dialogue with Hindus was necessary since there were many subjects that were intricate and obscure, which would be perfectly clear if there were more connection between Muslims and Hindus.
    • Al-Biruni is the first scholar, at least in the Muslim world, whose interest in other religious traditions went beyond the then common tendency of treating the Hindus as heretics or polytheists, despite their apparently idolatrous practices.
    • Over time, Al-Biruni won the welcome of Hindu scholars.
      • Al-Biruni collected books and studied with these Hindu scholars to become fluent in Sanskrit, discover and translate into Arabic the mathematics, science, medicine, astronomy and other fields of arts as practiced in 11th century India.
  • Comparative studies of religion:
    • His motive of writing was also to make comparative study of religions like Islam and Hinduism.
    • He also compares Indian thought to the Greek thought of Socrates, Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle and others, and at times with Sufi teaching.
  • To show sympathy with Indians:
    • Some scholars says that he wrote as he sympathized with Indians, as just like his countrymen they have also suffered at the hands of Mahmud Ghazani.
  • Unfolding God’s divine plan:
    • He considered history as unfolding of God’s divine plan, through prophets.
  • Finding truth:
    • He considered both sciences and recording of history are aimed at finding out truth.

Indian society

  • Alberuni’s observation of Indian society can be seen as follows:
  • Caste-ridden Society:
    • The complete caste structure of Indian society did not go unnoticed by Alberuni.
    • Alberuni in his Kitab al-Hind beautifully sums up theories and practices of Indian caste system.
    • Chatuh-varna system:
      • He discusses the origin of the four varna (Chatuh-varna) system in the basis of the Purusha-Sukta hyms.
        • The highest caste is the Brahmaṇa, who were created from the head of Brahma.
        • The next caste is the Kshatriya, who were created from the shoulders and hands of Brahma.
        • After them follow the Vaisya, who were created from the thigh of Brahma.
        • The Sudra, who were created from feet of Brahma.
      • The four castes do not live together at the same place.
        • 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.
        • Since it is forbidden to eat the remains of a meal, every single man must have his own food for himself.
    • Antyaja:
      • Alberuni lists eight antyaja castes below the status of the Sudras.
      • Antyaja render various kinds of services and are not part of ‘Chatuh-varna’, but are considered as members of a certain craft or profession.
      • Their crafts included:
        • shoemaker,
        • juggler,
        • basket maker,
        • sailor,
        • fisherman,
        • hunter,
        • weaver etc.
      • They lived near the villages and towns of the four castes, but outside them.
    • Untouchables:
      • Some of the names of untouchable castes that are mentioned by him are: Bhodhatu, Bhedas, Chandala, Doma, and Hodi.
      • They were also not part of Chatuh-varna.
      • They are occupied with dirty work, like the cleansing of the villages and other services.
      • They are considered like illegitimate children; for according to general opinion they descend from a Sudra father and a Brahman mother; therefore, they are degraded as outcasts.
    • Attaining moksha:
      • Hindus are said to differ among themselves as to which of these castes is capable of attaining ‘moksha’.
      • According to some, only Brahmanas and Kshatriya are capable of attaining moksha as others cannot learn the Vedas.
      • Alberuni reports that according to the Hindu philosophers, moksha is attainable by all the castes and by the human race.
    • Comparison with other societies:
      • Al-Biruni tried to explain the caste system by looking for parallels in other societies.
      • He noted that in ancient Persia, four social categories were recognized (a) knights and princes; (b) monks, fire-priests (c) lawyers, physicians, astronomers and other scientists; and (d) peasants and artisans.
      • He attempted to suggest that social divisions were not unique to India.
      • At the same time, he pointed out that within Islam all men were considered equal, differing only in their observance of piety.
      • Al-Biruni disapproved of the notion of untouchability.
    • Absence of significant differences between the Vaishyas and the Sudras:
      • One notable observation of Alberuni was that the Vaishyas were also fast degenerating to the rank of Sudras.
      • He notes the absence of any significant difference between the Vaishyas and the Sudras, who lived together in the same town and Village and mixed together in the same house.
      • By the 11th century it seems that the Vaishyas come to be treated as Sudras virtually and legally.
    • Alliance between Brahmanas and Kshatriyas:
      • The alliance of convenience between the Brahmanas and the ruling Kshatriyas was a fact that the Alberuni refers to indirectly.
  • Closed Society:
    • The closed attitude of society, lacking dynamism did not go untouched by Alberuni.
    • He informs us that travelling to far off places was considered undesirable by the Brahmins.
    • The area within which a Brahmana could live was fixed and a Hindu was not generally permitted to enter the land of the Turks.
    • All this makes sense in the context of ‘feudal localism’ which ruled out or other types of connection between one region of the country and another.
    • Alberuni further says that the isolationist attitude of Indians was further buttressed by a false sense of superiority.
      • In his opening chapter itself Alberuni writes that ”the Indians believed that there is no country like theirs, no nation like theirs, no king like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs“.
      • The Indian are by nature niggardly in communicating what they know and they do not believe in exchange of ideas. They take the greatest possible care to with hold their knowledge from men of another caste, from among their own people, and even more from any outsider.
      • He says that insularity at every level was the characteristic feature of India in the 11th century and the price of this insularity was the disruption of the country by the coming of the Turks
  • Stagnant Knowledge:
    • It is indeed unfortunate that Alberuni visited India at a time when knowledge was at a low ebb.
    • While the rich heritage of the past knowledge is highlighted by Alberuni when he refers to the various ‘sidhantas’ and the progress made in astronomy and mathematics, but he paints a very pathetic picture of the 11th century.
    • He says ”The Indians are in a state of utter confusion, devoid of any logical order, and they always mix up with silly notions of the crowd. I can only compare their mathematical and astronomical knowledge to a mixture of pearls and sour dates. Both kind of things are equal in their eyes since they cannot raise themselves to the method of a strictly scientific deduction.
  • Social evils:
    • Alberuni mentions evil social practices within the Indian society like child- marriage, sati, the low position of women in general and widows in particular.
    • He mentions that:
      • Hindus marry at a very young age.
      • If a wife loses her husband due to death she cannot remarry.
      • A widow has only two options, either to remain a widow as long as she lives, or to burn herself (sati). The latter option was generally preferred because as a widow she was ill- treated.
  • Indian customs and manners:
    • Indian customs, manners, festivals are also vividly portrayed by Alberuni.
    • According to him, there are many customs which differ from those of his country to such an extent that they simply appears as monstrous.
    • Some customs described by Alberuni are the following:
      • People divide the moustache into single plait to preserve it. They allow nails to grow long, glorifying their idleness, since they do not use them for any work.
      • The Hindus throw away eaten plates if they are earthen.
      • They have red teeth due to chewing of arecanuts with betel leaves and chalk.
      • They sip the stall of cows, but they do not eat their meet.
      • Men use turbans and trousers.
      • The man wears article of female dress; they use cosmetics, wear ear-rings, arm-rings, golden seal-rings on the right finger as well as on the toes of the feet.
      • Men take advice of woman in all consultations and emergencies. They do not ask permission to enter house but when they leave it, they ask permission to do so.
      • They write title of the books at the end of it, not at the beginning.
    • These customs amuse and sometimes horrifies Alberuni.

Indian festivals

Alberuni enlists all the important festivals without much comment on them. He mentions: 2nd Chaitra (a Kashmiri festival), Guru tritiya, Vasanta etc.

He takes an important note of the fact that most of the festivals are celebrated by women and children only.

9 thoughts on “Albiruni’s India: Part I”

  1. “The Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no kings like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs.They are haughty, foolishly vain, self-conceited, and stolid. Their haughtiness is such that, if you tell them of any science or scholar in Khorasan and Persian, they will think you to be both an ignoramus and a liar.” Few observations in history would compare with such specificity for their validity over a millennium. Truly amazing.

    1. More of a common sense thing than an “observation”. It is common in many (if not most) parts of the world for the native people of a land to consider them the best in the world.

      Today armchair specialists can sit in their chair on Internet and yet be completely unaware that such superiority complex is the usual characteristic in many societies. Japan, Korea, China are prime examples. To think that this attitude exists in 21st century society so well connected with fiber lines Indians were not too snobbish to have superiority complex, being the ones who invented Zero.

      I see no genius of Al-Biruni in it. And find your snide over Indian superiority complex completely void of intellect.

  2. I find it truly amazing and very useful in history optional preparation.but unable to see previous year solve questions as it requires password. Pls guide how can I see the answers?

  3. Al-Biruni remains one of the illustrious historiographers retaining objectivity inrecording the facts as he saw or experienced.His views on indian society in 11th century was are relatable to contemporary north Indian brahminical mindset.

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