A Passion for Hindu Myths

British Library, London/HIP/Art Resource
The Hindu god Vishnu lying upon the cosmic waters with his consort Lakshmi, supported by the folds of the serpent Ananta Shesha, with a lotus sprouting from his navel bearing the tiny god Brahma; illustration of the tenth-century Bhagavata Purana, 1863

Sometime in the second or third decade of the eleventh century, the astronomer, geographer, and historian Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni went to India. He was not a casual visitor. He came along with the army of his patron, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni (in present-day Afghanistan), who seems to have kept close watch over his learned protégé, the greatest luminary of his court. Sultan Mahmud raided northern India nearly every year during those decades and, following the standard practice of his times, left much devastation in his wake. Among other things, he is remembered for having, in 1026, plundered (but not destroyed) the great Hindu temple of Somanatha, on the Gujarat coast. As Wendy Doniger points out in The Hindus, the story of this violent act was endlessly recycled and embellished, from contrary perspectives, in medieval Muslim and Hindu sources and lives on in communal polemics between Hindus and Muslims in Indian politics today.

As is usually the case, Mahmud’s other military ventures and political excesses were largely forgotten. But it was by bringing al-Biruni with him that the sultan made his most lasting mark. The great polymath must have stayed on in northern India for some years. He took the trouble to learn Sanskrit, the ancient language of the Hindu scriptures and of Indian science; he has left us a remarkably rich and precise Arabic translation of one of the great classics of Hindu thought, the Yogasutra of Patanjali, together with materials taken from commentaries that were still extant in al-Biruni’s time.1 But his true masterpiece was an encyclopedic anthropology of India, written in Arabic, that bears the title Kitab fi tahqiq ma li’l-hind, or “A Scientific Discourse on Indian Thought”—without question one of the best books ever written about the subcontinent, eminently worth reading by visitors today. There are those who claim, with some justice, that al-Biruni was the world’s first serious field anthropologist.

Al-Biruni gave a detailed and generally sympathetic picture of Indian civilization. He knew about the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of Hinduism (which we now date to the end of the second millennium BC), and the mystical speculations of the Upanishads, which were composed over a long span from roughly the eighth century BC on. He studied with learned Brahmins, mastered the major arts and sciences, and noticed the existence of a revered prophet called “Buddha.” He knew about Hindu theories of reincarnation and about altered states of consciousness that tend, in his understanding, toward a kind of abstract monism (Advaita, “nondualism,” in the Sanskrit lexicon).

On one important matter, however, he was definitely out of tune…

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