India as Alberuni saw it
by Vinod Kumar
Abu Rihan Muhammad bin Ahmad, Alberuni as his compatriots called him was born about A.D. 973, in the territory of modern Khiva, then called Khwarizm. He came to as Ghazni as a prisoner of war (Sachau:viii). He was an astronomer, geometrician, historian and logician. He was so studious, his earliest biographer tells us “he never had a pen out of his hand, nor his eye ever off a book, and his thoughts were ever directed to his studies, with the exception of two days in the year”. He was beyond comparison, superior to every man of his time in the art of composition, in scholarlike accomplishments, and in the knowledge of geometry and philosophy, and above all he had “most rigid regard for truth.” (Elliot and Dowson:2) He accompanied Mahmud of Ghazni to India and stayed there for many years, chiefly, in all probability in the Punjab, studied the Sanskrit language and translated into it some works from the Arabic, and translated from it two treatises into Arabic (Elliot and Dowson:5). Sachau, translator of Alberuni’s Indica believes Alberuni “composed about twenty books on India (Sachau:xxvii), both translations and original compositions, and a number of tales and legends, mostly derived from the ancient lore of Eran and India.” He was indeed a prolific writer and his works are stated to have exceeded a camel-load. (Elliot and Dowson:3)
Let me also make another observation about Alberuni. He regards Hindus as excellent philosophers and he felt strong inclination towards Hindu philosophy but still he was a Muslim and at times does not fail to point out the superiority of Islam over Brahmanic India. He attacks Arabs but not Islam (Sachau:185). He wrote for those Muslims who “want to converse with the Hindus, and to discuss with them the questions of religion, science, or literature, on the very basis of their own civilization.” (Sachau:xvii, xix, xxiii) While discussing astronomical calculations regarding the order of the planets, their distances and sizes, he reminds the reader the purpose of his book once again — to discuss subjects “which either are noteworthy for their strangeness, or which are unknown among our own people (the Muslims) and our (the Muslim) countries.” (Sachau:80)
Having given a brief introduction, let us now see what Alberuni had to say about India, the land, its people, its religion, its philosophy, its sciences, and its literature.
1. Hindu Muslim Differences:
Alberuni starts Indica by observing “the Hindus entirely differ from us in every respect” (Sachau:17). First and foremost difference is the language. Sanskrit is a language of enormous range, both in words and in inflections. They call one and the same thing by various names and unless one knows the context in which the word is spoken. Some of the sounds of consonants are neither identical nor resemble with the Arabic and Persian. And the Hindus write their scientific books in metrics so that they can be committed to memory and thus prevented from corruption. This metrical form of literary composition makes the study of Sanskrit particularly difficult. (Sachau:18-19)
Not only the language, the Hindus totally differ from us (Muslims) in religion, as “we believe in nothing in which they believe” and vice versa. He goes on to observe that on theological topics “at the utmost they fight with words, but they will never stake their soul or body or their property on religious controversy.” (Sachau:19) Instead, he noted, all their fanaticism is directed against foreigners whom they call mlecchas i.e. impure and forbid any connection with them (Sachau:19). The Hindus have concepts of pollution and never desire that once thing is polluted, it should be purified and thus recovered. They are not allowed receive anybody who does not belong to them, even if he wished to be inclined to their religion (Sachau:20), he went on to write.
He wrote the customs and manners the Hindus differ so completely from the Muslims that “they frighten their children with us, our dress and our ways and customs” and decree us as “devil’s breed”. They regard “everything we do as opposite of all that is good and proper”. (Sachau:20) Some of the reasons of Hindus’ repugnance of Muslims are complete banishment of Buddhists from countries from Khurasan, Persis, Irak, Mosul and Syria, first by the Zoroastrians and then by Islam. And then Muhammad ibn Elkasim entered India proper, conquered the cities of Bahmanwa and Mulsthan and went as far as Kanauj – “all these events planted a deeply rooted hatred in their hearts.” (Sachau:21)
And then Sabuktagin choosing the holy war as his calling, called himself a Ghazi, built those roads on Indian frontier which his son Sultan Yamin-uddaula Mahmud, during a period of thirty years, used to utterly ruin “the prosperity of the country, and performed those wonderful exploits, by which the Hindus became like atoms of dust scattered in all directions, and like a tale of old in the mouth of the people.” He goes on to say “their scattered remains cherish, of course, the most inveterate aversion towards all Muslims.” (Sachau:22)
Alberuni does not talk much about Mahmud whom he calls “the lion of the world, the wonder of his time” when he remembers him for “breaking the strongest pillar of religion”, (Sachau:ii – 2) and his raids into India, except a few times. Once about his ruining the prosperity of the country as quoted above and second when he writes of his demolition of the idol, in the year A.H. 416, at Somnath much revered by the Hindus. The upper part of the idol was demolished and the lower part transported to his residence in Ghazni with all its trappings. One part of it, along with the bronze idol of Chakraswamin from Thanesar, was thrown into the hippodrome and another part before the door of the mosque of Ghazni, on which people rub their feet to clean them from dirt and wet. (Sachau:103)
2. On Hindus customs:
He found Hindus to be very proud of their country, their kings, their religion, their sciences to the extent that he thought them to be “haughty, foolishly vain, self-conceited and stolid.” (Sachau:22)
Many customs of the Hindus, he observed, differ from Muslims’ “to such a degree as to appear to us simply monstrous.” Hindu customs, not only, not resemble to Muslim customs but are the very reverse; and if ever a custom of theirs resembles one of the Muslims, it has certainly the opposite meaning. He goes on to say that it seems as if “they (Hindus) had intentionally changed into the opposite”. (Sachau:179)
What are these customs of the Hindus that he observed that he thought were the opposite of theirs?
“The Hindus eat singly, one by one, on a tablecloth of dung. They do not make use of the remainder of a meal, and the plates from which they have eaten are thrown away if they are earthen.”
“They drink wine before having eaten anything, then they take their meal. They drink the stall of cows but they do not eat their meat.”
“In all consultations and emergencies they take advice of the women.”
“They do not seek permission to enter a house, but when they leave it they ask permission to do so.”
“In their meetings they sit cross-legged.”
“They magnify the nouns of their language by giving them the feminine gender, as the Arabs magnify them by diminutive form.”
“They consider the crepitus ventris as a good omen, sneezing as a bad omen.”
“They write the title of the book at the end of it, not at the beginning”. (Sachau:180-2)
3. Hindu Arithmetic:
On Hindu arithmetic Alberuni observed the Hindus do not use the letters of their alphabet for numerical notation, as Muslims use the Arabic letters in the order of the Hebrew alphabet. The use of Arabic letters for numerals must not have been in wide use when Alberuni wrote c.1030 CE, for these have been communicated to the Arabs in the eighth and ninth centuries as he goes on to accept that “the numeral signs which we use have been derived from the finest forms of Hindu signs.” Having observed the names of the orders of the numbers in various languages he had come in contact with, Alberuni found that no nation goes beyond the thousand including the Arabs. Those who beyond the thousand in their numeral system are the Hindus who extend the names of the orders of numbers until the 18th order. (Sachau:174)
Pulisa has adpoted the relation between the circumference and diameter of a circle to be 3 177/1250 which comes out to 3.1416. (Sachau:169)
4. Astronomy and sciences:
While ancient puranic traditions about the earth and heavens and their creation still existed, but these were in direct opposition to the scientific truths known to Indian astronomers.
While it is not possible to mention all the theories and concepts prevalent at the time, let it suffice to say what some of the ideas of Hindu astronomers that Alberuni found interesting were. Quoting Brahamgupta, Alberuni wrote:
“Several circumstances, however, compel us to attribute globular shape to both the earth and the heaven, viz. the fact that the stars rise and set in different places at different times, so that, e.g. a man in Yamakoti observes one identical start rising above the western horizon, whilst a man in Rum at the same time observes it rising above the eastern horizon. Another argument to the same effect is this, that a man on Meru observes one identical star above the horizon in the zenith of Lanka, the country of demons, whilst a man in Lanka at the same time observes it above his head. Besides all astronomical observations are not correct unless we assume the globular shape of heaven and earth. Therefore we must declare that heaven is a globe, and the observation of these characteristics of the world would not be correct unless in reality it were a globe. Now it is evident that all other theories about the world are futile.” (Sachau:268)
Quoting Varahmira, he further continues:
“Mountains, seas, rivers, trees, cities, men, and angels, all are around the globe of the earth. And if Yamakoti and Rum are opposite to each other, one could not say that the one is low in relation to the other, since low does not exist…. Every one speaks of himself, ‘I am above and the others are below,’ whilst all of them are around the globe like the blossoms springing on the branches of a Kadamba-tree. They encircle it on all the sides, but each individual blossom has the same position as the other, neither one hanging downward nor then other standing upright.” He emphasized: “For the earth attracts that which is upon her, for it is the below towards all directions, and heaven is the above towards all directions.” (Sachau:272)
There was no consensus about the resting or movement of the earth. Aryabahata thought that the earth is moving and the heaven resting. Many astronomers contested this saying were it so, stones and trees would fall from earth. But Brahamgupta did not agree with them saying that that would not happen apparently because he thought all heavy things are attracted towards the center of the earth. (Sachau:276-7)
The above gives some idea as to the nature of discussion in astronomy at that time but Sachau observes these ideas had not changes much since the eighth century when the knowledge of Hindu sciences were communicated to the Arabs.
On the topic of ocean tides, Alberuni wrote that the educated Hindus determine the daily phases of the tides by the rising and setting of the moon, the monthly phases by the increase and waning of the moon; but the physical cause of the both phenomenon is not understood by them. (Sachau:105)
The Hindus have cultivated numerous branches of science and have boundless literature, which with his knowledge, he could comprehend. He wished he could have translated Panchtantra which in Arabia was known as the not book of Kalila and Dimna. (Sachau:159)
5. Hindu Laws:
Hindu laws, Alberuni observed are derived from their rishis, the pillars of their religion and not from the prophets i.e. Narayana.. “Narayana only comes into this world in the form of human figure to set the world right when things have gone wrong. Hindus can easily abrogate their laws for they believe such changes are necessitated by the change of nature of man. Many things which are now forbidden were allowed before”. (Sachau:106-7)
6. On pilgrimage and sacred places:
Pilgrimages, Alberuni noted, are not obligatory for the Hindus, but “facultative and meritorious”. Most of the venerated places are located in the cold regions round mount Meru. (Sachau:142)
About the construction of Holy ponds, let me quote his own words:
“In every place to which some particular holiness is ascribed, the Hindus construct ponds intended for the ablutions. In this they have attained to a very degree of art, so that our people (the Muslims), when they see them, wonder at them, and are unable to describe them, much less to construct anything like them. They build them of great stones of enormous bulk, joined to each other by sharp and strong cramp-irons, in the form of steps (or terraces) like so many ledges; and these terraces run all around the pond, reaching to a height of more than a man’s stature. On the surface of the stones between two terraces they construct staircases rising like pinnacles. Thus the first step or terraces are like roads 9leading up and down). If ever so many people descend to the pond whilst others ascend, they do not meet each other, and the road is never blocked, because there are so many terraces, and the ascending person can always turn aside to another terrace than on which the descending people go. By this arrangement all troublesome thronging is avoided.” (Sachau:142)
7. Hindu caste system:
No discussion of India would be complete without observation on the contemporary caste system and rightly so Alberuni does miss it. He describes the traditional division of Hindu society along the four Varnas and the Antyaja — who are not reckoned in any caste; but makes no mention of any oppression of low caste by the upper castes. Much, however the four castes differ from each other, they live together in the same towns and villages, mixed together in the same houses and lodgings. The Antyajas are divided into eight classes — formed into guilds — according to their professions who freely intermarry with each other except with the fuller, shoemaker and the weaver. They live near the villages and towns of the four castes but outside of them. (Sachau:101)
On the eating customs of the four castes, he observed that when eating together, they form a group of their own caste, one group not comprising a member of another caste. Each person must have his own food for himself and it is not allowed to eat the remains of the meal. They don’t share food from the same plate as that which remains in the plate becomes after the first eater has taken part, the remains of the meal. (Sachau:102)
Alberuni wrote extensively on India and on many aspects. It is impossible to cover every topic in a rather small article but I have tried to give some of the points which would look strange or were not known to the Muslims.
Sachau E. C., trans. Alberuni’s India. New Delhi: Low Price Publications, 1993.
Elliot and Dowson. The History of India as told by its own historians. New Delhi: Low Price Publications, 1996, vol. II.