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Published in the 16-30 Apr 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Book Review

Religious fusion in the Subcontinent

By Mohammed Ayub Khan


Book: Sacred Spaces:
Exploring Traditions of Shared Faith in India (2003)
Author: Yoginder Sikand
Pages: 273
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN: 0143029312

India has a long and rich tradition of syncretism or the fusion of different forms of beliefs and practices. Religions liberally borrowed each others rituals, customs and to some extent beliefs. Even Christianity and Islam with their strict monotheism were not immune to this trend. Hence, today we have Christian priests in the states of Kerala and Goa who practice a Hinduised form of Christianity, complete with pujas, hawans and recitation of Sanskrit shlokas. And there are the Muslim dargahs (shrines) of Sufi saints where Hindus and Muslims pray together. These shared traditions are now being challenged as believers move towards more orthodox and puritan interpretations. Complicating the situation are the politicians and communalists who use religion as a tool to further their political ends. Dr.Yoginder Sikand in Sacred Spaces documents twenty five religious places where a syncretic form of worship is practiced. With the notable exception of Our Lady of Health of Vailankanni in Kerala the rest are primarily Hindu, Muslim, shared or of late increasingly contested pilgrim centers. 

Sikand begins with his own experiences as a person with antinomian beliefs. ‘Resisting the tyranny of labels is a constant battle. No sooner does a child come into the world than it is branded, for no fault of his or hers, with a label that generally stays until the grave, that boxes it into a specific caste or religion.” 

He claims that, “For millions of others in India, religion is a free-flowing river that meanders wherever it pleases, in search of peace and solace, or, more often, in a desperate quest for divine intervention to solve worldly woes.’ It is with this mindset that he embarked on his exploration. 

The syncretic spaces he visits are centered on myths and legends about the supposed super-natural powers of their patron saints. The Shrine of Ayappa in the Sabari Mala mountains of Kerala attracts thirty million devotees each year. According to one popular legend he was the offspring of Vishnu and Shiva. Another theory claims him to be a local prince. He reportedly had a Muslim disciple called Wavar who led an army of warriors and defeated Ayappa’s enemies. There still exists a mosque called Wavar Masjid at the foot of the hill where pilgrims seek the blessings from a “maulvi” before embarking on the uphill trek. Citing various historical narratives Sikand writes that Ayappa and Wavar seem to represent urban ‘upper’ caste Hindus and Muslims who joined forces to enslave the forest-dwelling tribals and capture their land. Despite attempts to completely Brahmanize the Ayappan cult, the Muslim influences continue to flourish.

Arguably, the most popular cult in India is that of the Sai Baba of Shirdi. His portraits and popular saying, Sab Ka Malik Aik (everyone’s lord is one), are ubiquitous in India gracing everything from plush offices to auto-rickshaws. Due to the efforts of his modern day namesake Puttapurthi Sai Baba this cult is also popular in the West. Sai Baba’s origins are also shrouded in mystery. His clothing, actions and many popular sayings and actions definitely point that he was a Muslim. He wore the dress of Muslim fakir, held ‘fatiha’ ceremony every Thursday and lived and died in a mosque in Shirdi.’ According to Sikand, ‘the Baba’s understanding of religion was expansive enough to recognize the presence of the light of God in all beings irrespective of religion.’ During his life he was simply known as a Muslim fakir. As further proof Sikand cites the existence of an Urdu manuscript consisting of the Baba’s under his supervision by his disciple Abdul. 

The legacy of the Baba has not escaped the rising tide of right-wing Hindutva resurgence. The priests who control his shrine have erased all Islamic links and have converted him into a demi-god, one of the many in the Hindu pantheon. Warren, an expert on Sai Baba’s thought, points out: “While Sai Baba was claimed by both Muslims and Hindus, his core approach to God-Realization had a distinct Islamic stance, and he never taught specifically Hindu doctrines and rituals …Sai Baba has, however, been almost completely assimilated and reinterpreted by the Hindu community.” 

On of the most intriguing figures in the book is that of the Haji Baba Ratan of Bhatinda in Punjab. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs all claim him to be their own despite his strong Muslim connections. According to one legend he was a companion of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and lived for over 700 years. The first references to Haji Ratan in Islamic literature date back to twelfth century. Several Hadith collectors traveled from as far as Andalusia and Central Asia to collect the supposed traditions from him. Abu Marwan Andalusi, a Spanish Muslim chronicler, visited Haji Ratan and penned an interesting sketch of him. ‘When he arrived at the Baba’s monastery, he was taken aback to see an ancient, wrinkled man, his cheeks covered with hair ‘as white as cotton’. The Baba addressed him in a language he could not understand, claiming, as was later translated for him, that he was present in Medina during the famed Battle of the Trench…At that time, he said, he was just fourteen years old. When the Prophet saw him laboring at the trenches, he blessed him with a long life.’

Obviously, most medieval scholars including Allama Shamsuddin declared Haji Ratan to be a fraud and liar for making preposterous claims but his cult continues to prosper with hundreds of devotees of all faiths beseeching him for help.

The author should be commended for compiling historical information on obscure cults surrounding the personalities of Baba Budha, Imam Mehdi of Panna, Sarmad, Siddiq Deendar, and the Sufis of Jammu and Karnataka. Notable absences are the more well known shrines of Sufis like Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti (Ajmer), Nizamuddin Auliya (Delhi) and Haji Ali (Mumbai) . Also missing are non-Muslim and non-Hindu figures like the French soldier Monsieur Raymond whose grave in Hyderabad has been turned into a shrine by the local populace. 

The author ignores that the Dargahs are not the only shared sacred spaces. Even today, with communalism on the rise, Hindu ladies still line up at the doors of several Mosques in India and ask the Muslim men leaving after the prayers to blow on their children. 

Sikand laments the fact that the shared traditions are being rapidly eroded. This should not, however, be the end of the road for inter-communal harmony. There are various other alternatives where the communities can come together like labor and other social justice platforms. It might even be a good thing that people are turning away from these syncretic shrines as many of them have become money making enterprises for godmen who dupe the naďve devotees. What is disturbing is the saffronizing of these shrines by the Hindutva forces which are always in wait to spark another controversy over contested spaces.  «

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