Sutra Journal Logo

A curated journal on art, culture and dharma

Tolerance, Exclusivity, Inclusivity, and Persecution
in Indian Religion During the Early Mediaeval Period

by Alexis Sanderson March, 2016

Kerala Mural

Temple Mural, Kerala, cc. 9th-12th century

Editor’s Note:

Alexis G. J. S. Sanderson is an Indologist and an Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College in the University of Oxford. After taking undergraduate degrees in Classics and Sanskrit at Balliol College from 1968 to 1971, he spent six years in Kashmir studying with the Śaiva scholar and guru Swami Lakshman Joo. From 1977 to 1992 he was University Lecturer in Sanskrit and a Fellow of Wolfson College. In 1992 he was elected to the Spalding Chair of Eastern Religions and Ethics and became a Fellow of All Souls.

Sanderson is a scholar of Sanskrit and of Indian religions, especially of Shaivism and esoteric Śaiva Tantra. In his own words, "The understanding of Śaivism can only aspire to objectivity if it includes a sincere effort to see how things are in the subjective perception of its practitioners. One has to be able to enter into the spirit of their world, to be with them intimately, to see what they are saying and why they are saying it, to go beneath the surface of their texts. There has to be empathy."

This is the Introduction by Prof.Sanderson, which will be followed by further chapters.

Excerpt taken from In Honoris Causa: Essays in Honour of Aveek Sarkar, edited with a foreword by John Makinson (Allen Lane, 2015), pp. 155–224


It is generally believed that already in the early mediaeval period from the fifth century of the Christian era onwards, if not earlier, there existed a single Hindu religion, embracing Vaidika orthopraxy in accordance with primary and secondary Vedic revelation (Śruti and Smṛti) together with the sectarian traditions of the worship of Viṣṇu, Śiva, Devī, and the Sun God (Sūrya), to mention only the foremost among the deities that attracted personal devotion, that is to say, those whose worship is attested not only in countless temples surviving from that period in the Indian subcontinent and much of South East Asia but also in numerous donative inscriptions and extensive bodies of prescriptive literature. It is also widely believed that this complex unity displays an exemplary degree of religious tolerance, not only between Vaidikas, Vaiṣṇavas, Śaivas, Śāktas, and Sauras, but also between these and the followers of the other two major Indian faiths of the age, namely Buddhism and Jainism.[1]


Vishvarupa, medieval miniature painting

One who wishes to challenge the first of these beliefs might begin by pointing out that before the advent of Islam India lacked any term even loosely corresponding in its semantic range to that of the modern term Hinduism. Sanskrit sources differentiated Vaidika, Vaiṣṇava, Śaiva, Śākta, Saura, Buddhist, and Jaina traditions, but they had no name that denotes the first five of these as a collective entity over and against Buddhism and Jainism.[2]

However, the absence of a name does not entail the absence of a corresponding concept. There is evidence, as we shall see, that by the end of the first millennium of the Christian era the consensus had indeed come to conceptualize a complex entity corresponding to Hinduism as opposed to Buddhism and Jainism, excluding only certain forms of antinomian Śākta-Śaiva observance that could not be reconciled with basic Vaidika values of ritual purity and the separation of castes.

Conservative authorities continued to rail against this soft-focus ‘Hinduism’, with its blurring of the boundaries between the Vaidika and the non-Vaidika, well into the second millennium of the Christian era, the Vaidikas insisting that the prescriptions of the Vaiṣṇava (Pāñcarātrika) and Śaiva scriptures are invalid in their entirety, being based on scriptures that are not part of the Veda or rooted therein (vedamūla-),[3]the Śaivas insisting on the absolute superiority of their own revelations and the ultimate inefficacity of those of the Vaidikas and the Vaiṣṇavas, and the Vaiṣṇavas insisting that they too were Vaidikas in spite of Vaidika rejection and in keeping with this insistence fervently condemning the Śaivas,[4] in spite of the fact that the Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava systems of observance have much more in common with each than either has with the Vaidika.[5] But the middle ground saw in Śaivas and Pāñcarātrika Vaiṣṇavas proper, that is to say, in those who had taken initiation (dīkṣā) into these soteriologies and practised their special rites, only variants of observance applicable to specific communities added to the ancient bedrock of Vaidika religion without detriment to the latter; and this view came, as we shall also see, to be accepted not only by the orthoprax but also by many, perhaps even most, of the initiated themselves. As for the uninitiated, whose only rite of religious empowerment had been the upanayanam that qualified a man for Vaidika observance and the recitation of the Veda, they had themselves long since developed their own modes of Vaidika worship of the deities of the initiated and integrated them into their daily rites, privileging one deity as an expression of personal devotion but generally including the others in a syncretistic approach that, through its daily repetition in countless households, must have done much to express and nourish this sense of the greater unity that came to be called Hinduism.

Mahavira's Nirvana

Mahavira's Nirvana from Kalpasutra, Patan, Gujarat. cc.1472

The thinking behind the concept of this as yet unnamed Hinduism is by its nature more tolerant than the views that we shall see below of the strict adherents of its competing components. But it is strictly brahmanical: Buddhism and Jainism remain invalid in this thinking.

However, while certain states did at times adopt a hostile attitude towards these two non-Vaidika faiths, we may surmise that in general it was not politic for Indian and Southeast Asian governments during the early mediaeval period to adopt a policy that strongly disadvantaged their Buddhist and, in the case of the subcontinent, Jaina subjects. As we shall see, this supra-brahmanical perspective, which I see as an answer to the socio-legal question of what forms of religion the state should tolerate or support and which are truly beyond the pale of the permissible, also finds its voice in the learned literature of our period. Stopping short of accepting that all forms of religion are within the law or, rather, that any form of religion is above the law, since it excludes the most blatant forms of antinomian observance, it nonetheless requires tolerance of these long-established traditions.

In this perspective it may be said that Indian and Southeast Asian states generally propagated tolerance in matters of religion. But it is not the case that any of the individual religions that came within the purview of this tolerance were tolerant by nature. The long-entrenched contrary view, that the Indian religions were essentially tolerant, cannot reasonably be maintained in the face of the carefully formulated views of the adherents of these Indian traditions and evidence of sporadic outbreaks of intolerance and persecution. If the religions that flourished during the early mediaeval period in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia enjoyed in many regions and periods an enviable degree of peaceful co-existence, this must be explained not through an argument from essence, which leads inevitably to the overlooking or dismissing of contrary evidence, but in terms of a balance of influence in which no one religious tradition was in a position of such strength that it could rid society of its rivals, a balance of power sustained by the policy of governments.

chitra painting hindu gods

Hindu Gods, Chitra Painting


[1] For a survey of the major proponents of this doctrine of the essentially eirenic and tolerant nature of Hinduism see VERARDI 2011, pp. 41–58. (For full bibliographic details see References at the end of this essay).

[2] The term Hindu (Arabic and Persian hindū), first used by Muslims to refer to the inhabitants of Hind, that is to say, the lands east of the Indus river, who had not embraced Islam, does not appear in any non-Muslim Indian source known to me before the work of the Kashmirian brahmin court historian Śrīvara, learned in both Sanskrit and Persian, who uses it in the late fifteenth century in the Sanskritized form hindukaḥ to refer in the Indo-Islamic manner to those in the population of Kashmir who were not Muslims (variously called yavanāḥ,mlecchāḥ, turuṣkāḥ, and mausulāḥ in Kashmirian Sanskrit sources). He does so in his Zaynataraṅgiṇī ( Jainataraṅgiṇī), covering the last years of the reign of Sulṭān Zayn al-‘Ābidīn (1459–1470), and, in the second chapter, the short reign (1470–1472) of his son and successor Ḥaydar Šāh, and his Rājataraṅgiṇī, covering the reign of Ḥasan Šāh (1472–1484) and the first two years of the reign of Muḥammad Šāh (1484–1486). The passages in these works in which the term hindukaḥ is found are Zaynataraṅgiṇī 2.122–123: oppression of certain Muslims (yavanāḥ) by Hindus (hindukāḥ) leading on the Sulṭān’s orders to retaliatory oppression of the brahmins ( dvijapīḍanam); Rājataraṅgiṇī 1.213ab: Sulṭān Ḥasan Šāh’s mother Gul Khātūn is lamented after her death as one who had been to the observances of the Hindus like the sun that causes the lotus to open its petals (hindukasamācāraśatapatraraviprabhām); 1.270: some pro-Muslim ( mausulavallabhāh) merchants who had observed Hindu customs from birth (ājanmahindukācārāḥ) slaughter a cow; 2.503–507: after the death of the tolerant Sulṭān Zayn al-‘Ābidīn the kingdom became bereft of proper Hindu observance; every year more of the calendrical rites prescribed in the[Nīlamata]purāṇa lapsed; and some merchants, favouring the Muslims (mausulapriyāḥ), gave up the observances proper for them as Hindus ( svocitaṃ hindukācāraṃ tyaktvā), slaughtering cows and eating their flesh, ashamed of the ways of their ancestors. For the distinction between Śrīvara’s two works, hitherto concealed by their publication as successive parts of a single Rājataraṅgiṇī (KAUL 1966), I follow SLAYE 2005. The second work begins with the third chapter of the consolidated edition (Rājataraṅgiṇī 1.213 as cited here = 3.213 of KAUL’s edition). The evidence of Śrīvara’s learning in Persian, which after the advent of Muslim rule in Kashmir in 1339 had replaced Sanskrit as the language of court culture, is his Kāvya Kathākautuka, a rendering in Sanskrit of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān Jāmi’s celebrated Persian narrative poem Yusof o Zoleykā of 1483.

There may be an earlier use of the word by a non-Muslim Indian author. I merely report the earliest uses that I have encountered, these being a century earlier than the earliest occurrences previously noted, namely those in texts of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition, beginning with the Caitanyabhāgavata of Vṛndāvanadāsa, c. 1545, cited by HALBFASS (1988, p. 192) following O’CONNELL (1973). There, as in the usage of Śrīvara, the term always appears in contexts of conflict with, or in opposition to, Islam. I note also that the term does not occur in the Rājataraṅgiṇī of Śrīvara’s teacher Jonarāja, which covers the history of Kashmir from 1149 to 1459 (the year of his death). When Jonarāja refers to the ancestral religion of his community he uses the language of the insider, terming it sadācāraḥ ‘orthopraxy’ (773) and brāhmakriyā (596) ‘rites prescribed by the Veda’, opposing it to the ‘sinful observances of the Muslims’, by which, he says, the kingdom of Kashmir had been defiled (kaśmīramaṇḍale mlecchadurācāreṇa dūṣite [591ab]).

One may ask whether when the term Hindu was introduced following Islamic usage it was used to refer to Hindus in the modern sense, that is to say, to Hindus as opposed to Buddhists and Jainas, or was used to cover the followers of all three non-Islamic religions. It is probable that it was used in the narrower sense, since several centuries earlier the great Khwarezmian scholar Abū Rayḥān Moḥammad b. Ahmad Bīrūnī (Al-bīrūnī, Alberuni) (973–1050) clearly distinguishes Hindus and Buddhists in his Indological magnum opus Ketāb taḥqīq māle’l­Hend men maqūla maqbūla fi’l­‘aql aw mardūla (entitled India in SACHAU’s two-volume English translation [1910]); see, e.g., vol. 1 of that translation, p. 7.

[3] An outstanding case of this conservative stance is that of Aparāditya, a twelfth-century ruler of North Konkan, who devoted much learned effort to resisting the drift into acceptance of the initiated Śaivas in his long comment on Yājñavalkyasmṛti 1.7, the verse that lists all the valid means of knowing one’s religious duties (dharmapramāṇāni) (vol. 1, pp. 9–20).

[4] The Vaiṣṇava stance has been expounded with great clarity by Yāmuna in his Āgamaprāmāṇya. According to Śrīvaiṣṇava tradition, his life span was AD 916/17–1038, a barely credible 121 or 122 years. MESQUITA (1973) has proposed that he lived from 966/7 to 1038. The attempt of Yāmuna in South India to persuade the deeply sceptical Vaidikas that the Bhāgavatas are real brahmins reflects a wider struggle. For the objections raised by the Vaidikas against the Bhāgavatas’ claim as presented by Yāmuna are found in much the same form about a century earlier in Kashmir in Jayanta’s topical play Āgamaḍambara, where they appear on the lips of a disgruntled Vaidika officiant (ṛtvik), who complains bitterly about the attempts of the Bhāgavatas to intrude themselves into the brahmin community by pretending to be brahmins themselves (4.3, prose, 4.4, prose).

[5] On the intimate connection between the Pañcarātra and the Śaiva tradition of the Mantramārga see SANDERSON 2009a, pp. 61–70.

Prof. Alexis G. J. S. Sanderson

by Prof. Alexis G. J. S. Sanderson

March, 2016

About Prof. Alexis G. J. S. Sanderson

After taking an undergraduate degree first in Classics (1969) and then in Sanskrit (1971) at Balliol College, Oxford, Alexis Sanderson spent six years in Kashmir, studying with a scholar and traditional guru of Śaivism. He was Lecturer in Sanskrit in the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Wolfson College from 1977 to 1992. From 1992 to the present he has occupied the Chair of Eastern Religions and Ethics in the same university, and as the holder of that post became a Fellow of All Souls College. His field is early medieval religion in India and Southeast Asia, focusing on the history of Śaivism, its relations with the state, and its influence on Buddhism and Vaishnavism. In addition to his research, he trains both undergraduate and postgraduate students at Oxford, especially those undertaking the M.Phil. in Classical Indian Religion and those preparing theses for the D.Phil.

Get the One and Only Sutra Journal Newsletter

Sutra Journal Logo

© 2016 All Rights Reserved by Sutra Journal and Respective Authors.

Sutra Journal has readers from 170 countries.