History Optional Paper- 1 Solution- 2005: Q.5 (b)

History Optional Paper- 1 Solution- 2005: Q.5 (b)

Q.5 (b) Write a short essay on: “AI- Biruni’s India” 


Abu&l Rayan Alberuni was a philosopher scientist, whose Kitab ul Hind was the first and most important discussion on Indian sciences, religion and society by an outsider. He was not Just a historian. His knowledge and interest covered many other areas such as astronomy, geography, logic, medicine, mathematics, philosophy, religion and theology.

Alberuni’s Kitab ul Hind or Tahrik al Hind is the survey of Indian life based on his study and observations in India between 1017 and 1030. To get a proper grip of the situation, he learned Sanskrit so that he might go to the sources of Hindu thought and religion. He learnt Sanskrit to acquire first hand information. He read the religion texts and met the learned Indians.

His approach was scientific and religious prejudices do not mar the quality of his observations. He quoted from the Bhagwat Gita, Vishnu Puran, Kapil’s Sankhya and the work of Patanjali.

Alberuni’s observation of Indian society can be studied under six major sub-heads:

a) Caste-ridden society;

b) Closed society;

c) Stagnant knowledge;

d) Social evils;

e) Religious beliefs; and

f)  Scientific knowledge.

Caste-ridden Society

The complete caste structure of Indian society did not go unnoticed by Alberuni. 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.

The alliance of convenience between the Brahmanas and the ruling Kshatriyas was a fact that the  Alberuni refers to indirectly. He also refers to a class of untouchables which which existed in the society called antyaja. Alberuni lists eight antyaja castes below the status of the Sudras. Some of the names of untouchable castes that are mentioned by him are: Bhodhatu, Bhedas, Chandala, Doma, and Hodi.

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.

Religious Beliefs and Practices

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. 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.

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.

Scientific Knowledge and Legal System

Although Alberuni is critical of the scientific knowledge of Indians, sometimes he has praised their knowledge. 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. He also praises the weights and measures system and distance measurement system of Indians. He also notices the many variations of the Indian alphabets. He provides interesting geographical data and takes into account local astronomical and mathematical theories, While making his profound observations.

Alberuni, did not play a partisan role and condemned Mahmud Ghazni’s destructive activities. He was perhaps the first to have undertaken the study of Indian society on such a major scale.

Where Alberuni was not very sure of his own knowledge, he frankly admitted it. 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.


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