Hop aboard the Mecca-Benares Express

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[The detailed description/guidelines for our Mecca-Benares forum]


Welcome fellow traveller joining this caravan somewhere... 

Between Mecca and Benares!


Before posting any messages to this forum, please study the following 3 seminal essays:


Sexuality, Death and Transgression in Hinduism and Islam (‘popular’ syncretism as a reflection of a shared esotericism: transcendence)

Hindu-Muslim Relations in Colonial Banaras (from religious conflict to political solidarity: social dimensions of ‘autonomy’ in Hinduism and Islam)

Negotiating sacred space and religious identity (reducing the inner distance between Mecca and Banaras) - PDF

Despite the initial violence of its triumphant entry, Islam has long since made itself a permanent home in South Asia, where ‘Indic’ Muslims went on to develop their own indigenous strands of the one faith and have made major religious and cultural contributions to the larger world of Islam. Though contrary to the egalitarian thrust and aspirations of the community of the faithful (umma), the hierarchical caste-society had paradoxically embraced, preserved and nurtured a diversity of social groupings, modes of worship, doctrinal innovations, and political stances rarely equaled outside the subcontinent. The ‘Hindu’ ethos of secular India, one might argue, has continued to protect the sizable Muslim minority from the forcible uniformizing that has often been attempted from above or below in many avowed Muslim states. Feudal history is rife with examples of Muslims and Hindus fighting side-by-side against coreligionists for territorial gains. Hindu-Muslim rivalry has been culturally very productive, not only through the emergence of new religious (e.g., Sikhism), aesthetic (e.g., Hindustani music), linguistic (e.g., Urdu), etc., forms, but also through mutual emulation in the devotional movements, Sufi mysticism, modes of dress, manners, food, etc. Not only did syncretic modes of worship (Ghâzî Miyã, Satya Pir, etc.) thrive, Hindus participated in festivals like Muharram, just as Muslims did in Dashahra. South Asian Islam has been defined by a creative tension between its allegiance to Mecca and its biological rootedness in the subcontinent. One may only speculate as to how this Indo-Islamic culture would have developed and consolidated itself had it not been for the intrusion of modernity through colonial rule.

So diametrically opposed, at the socio-religious level, are Islamic and Hindu self-perception that Jinnah was able to demand, perhaps with justification, a separate nation where Muslims could determine their own destiny. Syncretic cults provided the contested space for the eruption of communal violence, Sufi warrior-saints were eager martyrs at the vanguard of Muslim expansion, the pilgrimage to Mecca fosters a religious identity that can negate even biological (let alone cultural) inheritance, and for all its secularism India’s ethos today remains inescapably Hindu. Not only were Islamic structures a violent imposition of the Meccan orientation on Hindu centers of worship, even the syncretic accommodations could be interpreted as an ideological tussle pursued through peaceful means. The religious revivalism that finds socio-political expression in the RSS/BJP would have eventually reared its head even without any perceived threat from Islam. From this perspective, one marvels at just how much the two segregated communities were able to accomplish together despite these unresolved differences that go to the roots of their identities. “What emerges in all clarity is the opposition between two worldviews with differing understandings of community, history and the sacred city. Permanent reconciliation between Hinduism and Islam will be achieved only when—by reducing the inner distance between Mecca and Banaras—the questions posed by (the mutilated stump of) the world-pillar—which still straddles the boundary between the two religions—are finally resolved” (Sunthar Visuvalingam, Hindu-Muslim Relations in Colonial Banaras, concluding lines).

Pre-colonial Hindu-Muslim interactions were defined by an “I-Thou” relationship that could range from a harmony of minds, through dialogue with a disconcerting challenger, to a heated altercation resulting in (much worse than) blows against a hostile adversary. But (the evolution of) self-perceptions (and self-construction) were still mediated by the reflected image of Self in the eyes of the rival Other. When modernity usurped the place of the insistent interlocutor (“Thou”) for both Muslims and Hindus, each was relegated to “They” in the eyes of the other, someone no longer worthy of talking to but only about—the ‘brokering’ between the two traditions increasingly became the prerogative of a secular scholarship, with its own agenda, that did not share their traditional self-perceptions. Increasing ‘Hindu-Muslim’ polarization, it may be argued, is largely the product of a modern mentality that drags the dead-weight of both traditions into its reductionist wake. Ironically, the ultimately religious legitimization of Pakistan has resulted in intra-Islamic sectarian strife and the disintegration of Muslim polity; the ‘revival’ of Hinduism has only further reinforced its image, even and especially within Asia, as the idiosyncratic product over several millennia of the geographical isolation of the sub-continent.

Could South-Asian Islam, despite its Middle Eastern origins, eventually assume the role once played by Buddhism, but on an even grander scale, in radiating Indian spirituality and cultural production around the globe? Could a re-assertive Hinduism contribute powerfully and constructively to Islam’s struggle to adapt itself to modernity without surrendering its transcendental message and its very soul? So committed was Gandhi to Hindu-Muslim unity that he even offered the political leadership of India to Jinnah, who was ‘pragmatic’ enough to realize that partition might be in the best (immediate) interests even of the Hindus. ‘ProgressistIndia, still a breeding ground for ‘Macaulayites’, is as much a betrayal of Gandhí’s vision, as an Islamic Pakistan, a breeding ground for fundamentalists, is of Jinnah’s desire for a secular Muslim state. Gandhi’s dream of a ‘greater’ India, for a civilization true to its own fundamental insights, went hand-in-hand with a personal engagement in peacefully transforming Hindu society and attitudes. Being a true ‘Gandhian’ today perhaps amounts to rethinking the two great religious traditions with the help of post-modern categories, which are themselves well into the process of deconstructing their own unconscious Judeo-Christian bias and their underlying ‘colonial’ mentality already exposed as a (neo-) imperial legacy. This forum is an invitation to focus not so much on the (inevitable) ‘failure’ of Jinnah and Gandhi but on creating the conditions for a Hindu-Muslim dialogue that is informed by the global implications of the current civilizational crisis. The understanding of both leaders evolved in the course of their interaction—let us not foreclose their verdict on history nor our own.....

Participants are urged to study the underlying concerns of opposing viewpoints with due diligence and respond with a judicious balance of respect and candor. Let us conduct ourselves in a manner that proves exemplary for others intent on Jewish-Muslim dialogue regarding Jerusalem, or those engaged in the growing Hindu-Western debate on ‘Orientalist’ hegemony over the representation of Eastern civilizations.


As the dialogue keeps evolving, you are also invited read the remaining articles on inter-religious dialogue—Hindu-tribal, Hindu-Buddhist and Hindu-Jewish—at the svAbhinava web-site. You’ll see frequent references to these articles in my postings to this forum.

Some other resources relevant to our discussion are:


Paradigm of Hindu-Buddhist Relations (PDF - acculturation model Bhairava cult in Nepal) and Buddhism in cultural perspective


Cultural history of Kashmir including Muslim period - Abhinavagupta and the Synthesis of Indian Culture 

Religious and secular dimensions of the current global crisis



Sunthar Visuvalingam