Key-note Address




Professor A. R. Momin

University of Mumbai

We are passing through distressing times, both at home and globally. The tidal waves of hatred, disharmony and aggressiveness are threatening to drown our little islands of sanity, harmony and peaceful coexistence. The US-led invasion of Iraq has not only betrayed the hegemonic and imperialist designs of the United States but has also exposed the fragility of the United Nations and the utter helplessness of the international community. Nearer home, the forces of divisiveness and totalitarianism seem to be surging forward, casting an ominous shadow over the fabric of our civilization, over our centuries-old legacy of peaceful coexistence and communal harmony.

In this unenviable situation, many of us feel disillusioned and frustrated. Many of us have been overtaken by despair and cynicism. But, for heavenís sake, letís pause for a moment and ask ourselves: Is it prudent to throw up our hands in despair and allow the forces of evil to wreck our society and our civilization? Will our passivity and silence not embolden those who are busy spreading the message of hatred and ill-will ? Will it be wise to forget our cherished ideals, the sacrifices of our forebears, simply because we feel  powerless? Let us not lose heart. Crises and challenges are a part and parcel of human existence, of society and history. The history of civilization bears testimony to this fact.

I would like to congratulate the Institute of Objective Studies for taking the initiative in this direction, for reminding us that all is not lost, that there is still room for hope and optimism, for urging us to join hands in order to save our country from fragmentation and anarchy.

The comparative study of civilization provides two significant and inter-related insights. On the one hand, one can scarcely fail to notice a wide range of diversities across, as well as within, cultures and civilizations. On the other hand, there seems to be a universal process of cultural exchange and cross-fertilization. Civilizations, in other words, evolve through a dynamic process of adaptation and accommodation, of intermingling of ideas, institutions and cultural patterns.

Since the middle of the second millennium BC, Indian civilization has drawn several streams of migrant groups and communities to its fold. In the course of time, these groups and communities underwent an extensive process of indigenization. They adapted themselves to local conditions and were influenced by the languages, beliefs and customs of the indigenous people. The Indian subcontinent has witnessed one of the most creative and fascinating experiments in cultural cross-fertilization. The fabric of Indian civilization has been woven from textures and hues drawn from a variety of sources.

There are frequent references in Vedic and post-Vedic literature to the migration of foreign people, such as the Yavana, Abhira and Kushana. Manu mentions that several foreign tribes who came in contact with the Aryan people were drawn into the orbit of Hindu society.

The fact that India is a multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-lingual and multicultural society is too well known to be repeated or elaborated. What is less known and acknowledged and what needs to be emphasized in the context of present times is the existence of wide-ranging diversities in the fold of Hinduism. According to Hindu belief, the ultimate reality is infinite and hence cannot be apprehended in its totality by the human mind which is finite. Different religious traditions symbolize different ways of understanding and approaching the ultimate reality. The Rg Veda says that Truth or Reality is one, though sages call it by different names. In the Bhagwatgita Lord Krishna says that whoever comes to me through whatever route, I reach out to him; all paths ultimately lead to me.

Since ages, the Hindu tradition and Hindu society have been pluralistic and differentiated, rather than monolithic and homogeneous. The Ramayana, for example, has several versions or variants. There is a rich tradition of agnosticism and atheism in Hindu philosophy. Eminent historians, such as R. S. Sharma and Romila Thapar, have observed that Hinduism represents a pluralistic cultural universe, that it is a mosaic of distinct ideas, cults, deities and sects. Therefore, those who speak of one country, one culture and one language are either ignorant of the history and dynamics of Indian civilization or they are deliberately distorting it for some ulterior motive.

A while ago, I spoke about the interface between diversity and unity, between pluralism and syncretism. Indian civilization represents a mosaic of beliefs, ideas and cultural patterns, a mosaic in which every design, every motif has a distinct place and yet it forms an inseparable part of the larger design. Our composite civilizational heritage is reflected in every facet of our society: in our languages and literary traditions, in our folklore, in art and architecture, in music, in the struggle for independence. Our composite legacy pervades the whole fabric of Indian civilization.

Tulsidasí Ramcharit Manas contains scores of Arabic and Persian words. One of my late friends, Ramlal Nabhavi, who was a great scholar of Hindi, Sanskrit, Persian and Urdu, has identified more than 90 Persian translations of the Ramayana. Some of them have been printed, others are in the form of manuscripts. Similarly, there are more than 30 translations of the Ramayana in Urdu.

Indian Muslims have made highly important and wide-ranging contributions to the evolution and development of Indiaís composite heritage. They introduced a number of technological innovations and crafts in India, including the windmill, carpet weaving, sericulture, pedals in looms, paper making, the technique of enameling glass, the use of artillery and canon. The famed pottery of Jaipur and Khurja bears the unmistakable influence of Persian and Central Asian techniques and motifs.

Monuments of Indo-Islamic architecture exhibit an exquisite blend of Saracenic, Persian and Central Asian styles and designs, on the one hand, and Rajput and Jain architectural styles, on the other.

A highly significant contribution to Indiaís composite civilizational heritage was made by the Sufis. They set up their khanqahs or hospices in the midst of the deprived and marginalized sections of society. They communicated in the language and dialect of the common people, shared their joys and sorrows and won their hearts with their simplicity, kindness and compassion. They sought to build bridges across people of different religious persuasions and ethnic backgrounds. Someone presented scissors to the celebrated 13th century Sufi Baba Farid. He refused to take it and said: Donít give me scissors; give me a needle, for I donít cut, I stitch. This anecdote symbolizes the emphasis placed by the Sufis on building bridges and fostering linkages among people. The famous Sufi saint Ajmer Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti of Ajmer is reported to have said: A man of God possesses compassion and kindness like that of the sun, generosity like that of the river, and humility like that of the earth. Khwaja Nizamuddin Awliya was very fond of reciting these verses of Shaykh Abu Said Abul Khayr:


He who is not my friendó

May God be his friend.

And he who causes me distress--

May his joy increase.

He who places thorns in my path-

With malice in his heart,

May every flower that blooms

In the garden of his life

Be without a single thorn.


Tolerance, peaceful coexistence and sharing of cultural and emotional spaces are not things of the past; they are still an important part of our collective life, particularly in the rural areas. My friend Dr. K. S. Singh, former Director-General, Anthropological Survey of India, who will be here tomorrow, has documented this fact in the celebrated People of India project. This project shows that most communities and social groups are located within the cultural-linguistic region, where they share material traits, social and cultural spaces, languages and dialects, local customs and festivals, kinship organization, regional ethos and identity.

It is important to emphasize that the evolution of Indiaís composite heritage did not lead to a collapse or dilution of ethnic boundaries and religious identities. Hindus, Muslims and other communities maintained their respective religious and ethnic identities and traditions and respected the boundaries in which these identities and traditions were embedded. At the same time, they shared substantial cultural spaces, in language and literature, cuisine, music, architecture, arts and crafts, regional ethos.

Before I conclude, I would like to make a few observations about Indiaís national identity, which is now surrounded by a good deal of confusion and controversy. First, the assumption that a country or nation-state must have a homogeneous national culture is no longer valid, it is passť. Most countries in Europe, North America, Asia and Africa have accepted this reality. Secondly, there is no necessary correlation between political unity and cultural homogeneity. In other words, the rhetoric of cultural nationalism is an eyewash. Lurking behind the rhetoric is majoritarian hegemony and tyranny.

Thirdly, like individuals, ethnic groups and cultural communities have multiple, overlapping identities. A modern nation should allow sufficient autonomous spaces for the protection and development of these identities. Fortunately, the Constitution of India takes due cognizance of the countryís pluralistic ethos and guarantees the protection of the cultural rights and aspirations of its various communities.

Finally, Indiaís national identity needs to be defined in terms of democratic pluralism rather than majoritarian democracy. It needs to be defined in the light of our composite civilizational ethos rather than on the basis of the culture of the dominant population. In other words, Indiaís national identity should be inclusive rather than exclusive, tolerant and accommodative rather than totalitarian and tyrannical, open-ended and fluid rather than closed and rigid. These are conceptual, rather than verbal, differences.

I am sure the deliberations in this seminar in the next two days will show us the ways in which our centuries-old bonds and linkages can be restored and strengthened.