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Al-Biruni’s India

Albiruni’s India

  • 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.

Religion and religious beliefs & practices

  • Alberuni extensively quotes Patanjali, Gita, Puranas and Samkhya school of philosophy to discuss the Hindu belief in God. He says that the Hindus believe with regard to God that he is one, eternal, without beginning and end.
  • He observes the belief of the educated class different from that of uneducated class.
    • The former strives to conceive abstract ideas and to define general principles while the later is happy with the derived rules without going into details.
    • For the uneducated class, Al-Biruni finds most of their views on the concept of God are simply abominable. But he goes on to argue that similar errors occur in other religious traditions.
    • He says that the belief in a multitude of gods is vulgar and is a typical of the uneducated. Educated Hindus believe god to be one and Eternal. Hindus considered the existence of god as real, because everything that exists, exists through god.
  • He sums up the Hindu definition of God in the following words:
    • “They call him Isvara i.e. self-sufficing, beneficient, who gives without receiving. They consider the unity is really a plurality of things. The existence of God they consider as a real existence, because everything that it exist through him.”
  • He further enlists differing Hindu opinions for example on such philosophical concepts as action and agent.
    • According to Hindu belief, the spirits or the soul do not differ from each other in substance but have an identical nature. However, their individual characters and manners differ as bodies with which they are united differ.
  • Concept of paradise and hell:
    • He also discuss at length the Hindu concepts of paradise and hell.
    • The Hindu call the word “loka” i.e. paradise, the low “nagarloka” i.e. world of the serpents, which is hell besides they call it narakloka, and sometimes also “patala”, i.e. the world of men.
    • He quotes Vishnu Purana to elucidate the Hindu traditions of a large number of hells, of their qualities and their names and the special hell for each kind of sin.
    • Hindus are known to consider swarloka (paradise) as a higher state where a man lives in the state of bliss due to his previous good deeds.
    • On the contrary, they consider migration through plants and animals as a lower stage, where a man dwell for punishment for a certain length of time.
  • Concept of Moksha:
    • He makes a very interesting parallel between Patanjali’s definition of ‘Moksha’ and the term of Sufi for the ‘knowing’, being and his attaining the ‘state of knowledge’.
    • For Sufis also there is believe that a human being has two souls – an eternal one, not exposed to change and alteration, and another, a human soul, which is liable to bring change.
  • Transmigration of soul:
    • Alberuni had also learned about the Hindu concept of transmigration of soul.
    • He explains that Indians believed that every act of this life will be rewarded or punished in the life to come, and the final emancipation of a human being is possible only through true knowledge.
    • He terms all these beliefs of the Indian as narrow-mindedness.
  • Alberuni, who had carefully studied the Hindu religion’s philosophy and institutions, found no difficulty in marking out the trinity gods (three deities of the Hindu religion) and philosophy of the Upanishads.
  • Indian philosophy:
    • In his account of the Indian views on the origins of the world, he seems to be well aware of the Samkhya philosophy and its exposition of the spirit in relation to matter.
  • 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.

Indian Polity

  • Al-Biruni’s work was not focused on political events in India but still it gives some information about political events.
  • The animosity between the Muslim Turkish invaders and the Indians is for the first time attested in the record of Al-Biruni. He laments the widespread destruction caused due to invasions and the migration of the learned men to further east.
  • He accurately dates the conquest of Somnath by Sultan Mahmud, and also noted its exact location and the legend behind building of the temple.
  • Al-Biruni also records the history of the Hindushahi’s who faced the brunt of Mahmud’s invasion.
  • He mentions the dynasties of Kashmir, Kalchuris and even mentions Rajendra Chola.

Science in India

  • Alberuni was among first who made a deep study of Hindu sciences. He was the first scholar to study India and the Hindu scientific literature.
  • Alberuni was impressed most by the Indian knowledge of astronomy, metrology, arithmetic, alchemy and geography which he mentioned in Kitab al-Hind.
  • Although Alberuni is critical of the scientific knowledge of Indians, sometimes he has praised their knowledge.
  • When Al-Biruni came to India he had knowledge of Indian astronomy, which he had acquired by studying Arabic translations of some Sanskrit texts. He considered the Indians well versed in astronomy and mathematics, but he also mentions that Indians mix up science with poplar religious belief.
  • Astronomy:
    • He makes observation that science of astronomy is the most popular with the Indians because in various ways it is connected with their religion and that is why Indian astronomer should also be a good astrologer.
    • He mentions Varaha Mihira’s Panchasiddhantika (6th century), Brahmagupta’s Brahma Siddhanta and Khandakhadyaka (7th century); Aryabhatta I’s Dasagitika and works of Aryabhatta II.
    • He also describes the composition of the Earth and the Heavens as given in the Hindu sculptures.
    • He mentions the planets and their motions, the 12 signs of the Zodiac, the motion and different stages of the moon. He says that Indian astronomers divided the zodiac into 27 or 28 lunar stations or nakshatras, and gave the number of stars in each nakshatra along with its distance from the sun.
    • He mentions that Indian astronomers knew about the real cause behind solar and lunar eclipses and notes two methods given in Khandakhadyaka for ascertaining the time of an eclipse.
    • He also mentions the calculation of equinoxes and refers to Brahmasphutasiddhanta regarding the revolution of sun, moon and planet.
    • He discusses various astronomical terms such as kalpa, adhimasa etc. and analyzes them.
    • He was inspired by the arguments offered by Indian scholars who believed earth must be ellipsoid shape, with yet to be discovered continent at earth’s south pole, and earth’s rotation around the sun is the only way to fully explain the difference in daylight hours by latitude, seasons and earth’s relative positions with moon and stars.
    • He makes comparison between Geek science of astronomy and the Indian.
    • Alberuni discusses the five Siddhantas (standard books) on the Indian astronomy:
      • Surya Siddhanta
      • Vasishtha Siddhanta
      • Pulisa Siddhanta
      • Romaka Siddhanta
      • Brahma Siddhanta
  • Meterology:
    • In meterology, Alberuni enlists contemporary weights and measures like Suvarna, tola, Masha and Yava, Kala, Pada, Kudava, Prastha, Adhaka, Dropa and Surpa.
    • He praises the weights and measures system and distance measurement system of Indians.
    • An interesting comparison has been made between tola and the Arabic Mithkal and Alberuni also worked out the equivalent weight of the two.
  • Arithmetic:
    • In arithmetic, Alberuni’s interest lies in the Indian order of numbers. He mentions the eighteen orders of numbers listed in Sanskrit literature.
    • Alberuni quotes the famous Indian astronomer Brahmagupta on the science of numerical writing. Brahmagupta wrotes: “If you want to write one, express it by everything, which is unique, as the earth; two by everything which is double,as, e.g. black and white; three by everything which is three-fold.”
  • Chemistry:
    • He refers to chemistry mainly in the context of alchemy (rasavidya).
    • He condemns such ideas though he concedes the efficacy of some metals and chemicals for medicinal purposes.
    • He gives account of three alchemists – Bhanuvasa, Nagarjuna, and Vvadi.
    • He had idea of Ayurveda and was aware of the Charak-Samhita though not of Sushruta Samhita. Consequently, he has nothing to say on the art of surgery.
  • Mathematics:
    • With regard to Indian system Al-Biruni writes that numerical signs have different shapes and styles in different regions of India.
    • He mentions that the decimal system, symbol for zero, higher order numbers were all known to the Indians.
    • He also mentions the value of pi (π) as per Brahmagupta and Aryabhatta.
  • Indian alphabets:
    • He also notices the many variations of the Indian alphabets.
  • Criticism of Science in India:
    • Although Alberuni regarded the Hindus as excellent philosophers, good mathematicians and astrologers, he considers his own knowledge superior, and disdains to be put on a level with them
    • To prove his point of superiority he takes to the method of comparing Greek theories because of their being near akin and of their strictly scientific character as contrasted with those of the Hindus.
    • He identifies Indian knowledge of alchemy (Rasayana) almost with witchcraft and Hindus with socerers.
    • He says: “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.”
    • Alberuni ascribed the decline of Indian science to the arrogance and growing insularity of the Brahmans.
    • He condemns the hypocrisy of Brahmin Scholars, who in spite of knowing the scientific explanation of various natural phenomenon preferred to mislead the masses and keep them steeped in ignorance and superstitious.
  • He does not conceal whatever he considers wrong and unpractical with Hindus, but he duly appreciates their mental achievements … and whenever he hits upon something that is noble and grand both in science and in practical life, he never fails to lay it before his readers with warm-hearted words of approbation.
    • 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.”
  • Criticism of Indian literature:
    • According to Al-Biruni, not only was the available literature on Hinduism insufficient, it was also misleading, which was a more serious violation of being truthful to truth (al-haqq).
      • He complains, “Everything which exists on this subject in our literature is second hand information which one copied from the other, a farrago of materials never sifted by the sieve of critical examination.” This, according to Al-Biruni, was inconsistent with the ethical framework provided by the Scriptures of both Christianity and Islam.
    • He illustrates his argument by referring to the Qur’an and the Bible. The Qur’an reads, “Speak the truth, even if it were against yourselves.”
    • Al-Biruni was critical of Indian scribes who he believed carelessly corrupted Indian documents while making copies of older documents.
    • He admired the Hindu civilisation but was critical of the attitude of the scholars and the dichotomy between the scientific awareness and ignorance that existed side by side among the Hindus.
    • He mentions several lies and concoctions which are mixed up with almost all historical traditions and records, especially when it comes to analyzing and reading of Indian texts. He criticizes the Hindus for the lack of interest in history.

Indian Legal system

  • He made great effort to understand the Indian legal system.
  • He notes every practical aspect of the legal system and points out the difference between these and the legal theories as expounded in the law books like Manu smriti.

Geography

  • He makes extensive use of the Puranic tradition to discuss Indian knowledge of geography.
  • Because of his travels, he was able to see different geographic features first-hand, and come up with theories as to how they are connected.
  • Madhyadesa:
    • He begins with the Indian concept of Madhyadesa (area around Kannauj) i.e. the middle of the realm.
    • He also mentions that Madhyadesa has also remained an important political centre because in former times it was the residence of their most famous heroes and kings.
    • Distance between Kannauj and various parts of the country are noted such as Mathura, Prayaga (Allahabad), Banaras, Pataliputra, Kashmir, Ghazni etc.
  • He also gives a detailed account of the routes to nepal, Tibet, Malwa, Gujarat, North Western India and some parts of Southern india.
  • References are made to the islands of South-East Asia and those of the Chinese Sea.
  • An account is given of the Varshakala (monsoon season) in India.
  • He lists the various rivers of India as given in the Vayu-Purana and Mastsya-Purana and the great knots of the mythical Mount Meru from where these rivers flow.
    • For example rivers such as Godavari, Krishna, Tungabhadra, Kaveri flow from ‘Sahya’ whereas Mahanadi, Narmada, Chitrakuta etc. flow from ‘Riksha’.
  • By analyzing the different types of soil particles in the Ganges River from its source to the Bay of Bengal, Al-Biruni formulated theories about erosion and how land forms are shaped, particularly noting the role of water in this process.
  • He discovers fossils of ancient sea animals in the mountains that cut India off from the rest of the world – the Himalayas.
    • It seems unlikely that lowly sea snails and other shellfish would travel thousands of miles inland and up the side of a mountain, so Al-Biruni came to the conclusion that the Himalayan Mountains must have been under the ocean at one point, and moved to their present location over millions of years.

Limitations

  • Barriers obstructed Al-Biruni in understanding India:
    • Al-Biruni discussed several “barriers” that he felt obstructed in understanding India.
      • The first was language.
        • According to him, Sanskrit was so different from Arabic and Persian that ideas and concepts could not be easily translated from one language into another.
      • The second barrier he identified was the difference in religious beliefs and practices.
      • The third barrier was self-absorption and consequent insularity of the local population.
    • He was aware of these problems so Al-Biruni depended almost exclusively on the works of Brahmanas, often citing passages from the Vedas, the Puranas, Bhagavad Gita, the works of Patanjali, the Manusmriti, etc., to provide an understanding of Indian society.
  • Faulty reading of sources:
    • Sometimes AL Beruni could not understand original concepts due to misunderstanding and faulty reading of Indian texts.
  • Ignoring non-Sanskrit texts:
    • He relied mainly on Sanskrit texts for society, religion, science etc. in India.
    • He ignored other Indian texts like Buddhist texts, Jaina texts and other texts written in prakrit, pali and other languages.
  • Limited audience:
    • His audience was limited to the upper castes in the Indian society, and hence it fails to give information regarding aspects such as real understanding of varna order when seen from the point of view of the lower classes.
  • Information was not always based on direct observations:
    • Whereas the compilation date of his work, namely around 1030 A.D., is known to us, his field of investigation, that is to say the territory covered by his research as well as his sources, is still subject to doubt.
      • First, he rarely makes mention of where his visits took place, or when they did;
      • Second the Kitab-al -Hind itself is lacking in positive evidence;
      • Thirdly, sometimes difficulty arises in distinguishing the historical events from the legendary ones.
    • The definition of his field of investigation is however crucial for the purpose of using the Kitab al -Hind as a historical source in an appropriate manner.
      • Biruni’s mobility depended thus on the conquered boundaries of Mahmud’s empire. Therefore, a distinction between the conquered and unconquered world is needed in order to assess the depth of his information as well as the methodology he employed for gathering information.
      • The majority of scholars considers that Biruni’s travels were confined to the boundaries of the Ghaznavid dominion.
      • Kashmir Valley was not included in the Ghaznavid empire as he explicitly indicates two unreachable locales, namely Kashmir and Varanasi.
        • Yet he gives generous information on the Kashmir Valley:
          • he describes at length geographical, ethnic and social features;
          • he names cities and mountains;
          • he lists itineraries leading to the Kashmir Valley and he mentions customs of Kashmir’s inhabitants;
          • he knows which alphabets and scripts were in use; and
          • he presents detailed accounts of religious practices and of astronomy.
        • As compared to any other region of India, the Kashmir Valley is perhaps the one described in most minute details in the Kitab al-Hind.
        • The amount and accuracy of information given by him about this area suggests first that its isolation has to be reconsidered, and second that his information did not rest on direct observation.
      • It is possible to draw out from the Kitab al-Hind how he obtained his information.
        • For instance, in another extract, he describes certain mobility between people of Kashmir Valley and other areas of India in strictly religious sense and deals with visits to different places of pilgrimage in Kashmir by outsiders.
        • Also, he describes how he interacted with Kashmir by giving account of circulation of written documents between the conquered and unconquered (Kashmir) world.
        • His expression “the people of Kashmir whom I have seen‟ indicates that he met informants from Kashmir.
        • Also, there is evidence of a scholarly exchange of books between Biruni and a Kashmiri which helped him in gathering information.
    • We learn then that Biruni acquired information thanks to a certain interaction and mobility between the different regions of India which generated circulation of written and oral data. Apart from that, intellectual interactions were equally encouraged by different dynasties of India.
    • One could expect that direct observation would constitute the main method of Biruni with regard to the conquered land.
      • This expectation is however not confirmed by a closer look at the Kitab-ul Hind. On the contrary, direct observation is rare in the Kitab al-Hind.
      • Direct observation does not appear to have been the main method of Biruni; as in the case of Kashmir Valley, oral informants and written sources provided data regarding his field of investigation.
      • Moreover, in other portions of the Kitab al-Hind, Biruni gives the names of two of his sources, Jivasarman and Sripala which informed him about Kashmir and Multan respectively.
      • A large amount of written sources was equally available to Biruni.
        • He was acquainted with these works either through the accounts of Brahmins or quotations found in books that he read, such as the Vedas, the Smriti of Manu, or many Puranas.
    • Biruni keeps silent regarding the origin of his written sources’ authors, except for three of them: Durlabha from Multan, Utpala from Kashmir and Vijayanandin from Varanasi.
      • Since Kashmir and Varanasi were out of reach, Biruni had probably the books brought from these two places.
      • Similarly, Biruni could have collected books from Multan, without even having visited this city.
    • To summarise, the majority of the information found in the Kitab al -Hind seems to be based on first hand and second hand literature, mainly from the Puraṇas, Gita, the Kitab Sank and the Patanjali for information related to physical or mythical geography, religion, culture, history and philosophy and Siddhantas, Tantras and Karaṇas for information related to astronomy and astrology.
    • Biruni’s work is based on a vast literature in comparison to his predecessors, whose accounts were generally based on observations and hearsay.
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9 thoughts on “Al-Biruni’s India”

  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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