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Gods Among Us...

The Religious Journey to
E.M. Forster's A Passage to India
 
Islam   Christianity   Hinduism

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Mosque
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Cave

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Temple

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E. M. Forster

In E. M. Forster’s novel, A Passage to India, an unlikely friendship emerges between two men living very different lives in British-ruled India. One is an Englishman, Cyril Fielding, the principal of a Government College in the fictional city of Chandrapore in India.  The other is Dr. Aziz is a devout Muslim.

Though the novel shows a growing friendship, by the book's end, there is a definite division which cannot be overcome. Their worlds are too different.

E. M. Forster was not a religious man, leaving what Christian faith he held while attending Cambridge, behind him before he left there in 1901. He travelled to India between 1912 and 1913 and, after World War I, returned there again 1921, working as a private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas (Source). The book he wrote about his experiences of seeing British rule would be his last novel.

Through Forster’s forsake Christian faith, we see the third tenet of three parts of A Passage to India. The sections of the book--Mosque, Cave, and Temple--represent Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. To understand India, it becomes obvious that one must understand their gods and devoted followers.

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Temple

According to one web site, ancient Hindu temples were located in places where large numbers of people could gather after making a pilgrimage. Its architecture was centered around three elements: Earth (its base), Space (its walls), and Heaven (its spire) (Source). Temples were also located near water because worshippers needed it to make ablutions (Source) or ceremonial washing associated with worship. The temples themselves were considered the “Universe in microcosm where devotees make offerings to the god enshrined in the temple (Source).

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Ancient Indus Valley Civilization with remains found in modern Pakistan and cities in India

The Indio-Europeans (still called “Aryans” occasionally, though the name is disputed by some historians) brought what ultimately became Hinduism with them to the Harappan civilization which was living in what is modern India and Pakistan. They also brought their religion including anthropomorphic gods and varnashramadharma which was a religious/social order. The word itself describes “the bedrock of Indian traditional social organization” which builds upon the notions of varna ("color" or social class), ashrama (stages of life such as youth, family life, etc.), and dharma (righteousness or adherence to the cosmic law). “The underlying belief is that present happiness and future salvation are contingent upon one's ethical or moral conduct; therefore, both society and individuals are expected to pursue a diverse but righteous path deemed appropriate for everyone based on one's birth, age, and station in life” (Source).

The gradual assimilation of the surrounding cultures throughout what is known as the Gupta Empire period The most significant achievements of this period, however, were in religion, education, mathematics, art, and Sanskrit literature and drama. The religion that later developed into modern Hinduism witnessed a crystallization of its components: major sectarian deities, image worship, devotionalism, and the importance of the temple. (Source)

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Delhi - Jama Masjid Mosque, India's largest mosque

Mosque

According to historians, the first invaders of ancient India were not white Europeans, but Islamists led by followers of the Prophet Muhammad. Propagated in the early seventh century, in less than one hundred years Islam spread to the Middle East, Africa, Iran and Central Asia. As the Turks took up the religion, they applied a warlike determination and took the religion to Afghanistan, Iran, and India. “Both the Quran and sharia (Islamic law) provided the basis for enforcing Islamic administration over the independent Hindu rulers…” (Source).

Power struggles arose. Especially in South India, the Muslims and Hindis attempted to establish empires or sultanates. Finally in the early sixteenth century, invaders from Iran, Turkey, and Afghanistan invaded the South and in 1526, Zahir-ud-Din Babur who established a Mughal (Islamic) rule over much of India (Source).

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Jala-ud-Din-Akbar

While the conquest was a success, Babur’s son, Humayun died early, leaving the empire to thirteen-year-old Jala-ud-Din-Akbar. According to historians, Akbar rewarded Hindu chiefs with the highest ranks in government and allowed new temples to be built. He also personally participated in celebrating Hindu festivals such as Dipavali, or Diwali, the festival of lights; and abolished the jizya (poll tax) imposed on non-Muslims. (Source)

He eventually established a new religion, Din-i-llahi, with himself as its head. In Forster’s novel, Dr. Aziz, a practicing Muslim, describes this transition from Barbur to Akbar:

Hamidullah—whom you shall meet—will tell you that Akbar is the greatest of all. I say, “Yes, Akbar is very wonderful, but half a Hindu; he was not a true Moslem,’ which makes Hamidullah cry. “No more was Babur, he drank wine.’ But Babur always repented afterwards, which makes the entire difference, and Akbar never repented of the new religion he invented instead of the Holy Koran” (Forster 160)

Over the next several hundred years, more rules came into power. The final one among the Mughals was Aurangzeb who ruled until 1707 and reestablished much of the anti-Hindu governmental restrictions and forbade the building of new temples, in fact, he destroyed several that had long existed.

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Caves

Tradition teaches that it was Jesus Christ’s apostle, Thomas, who first came to India. As one history accounts, “It will probably never be settled beyond historical doubt, but we can say with some certainty that the church in India has existed from very early times. A voyage by Thomas to south India in the first century is well within the realm of possibility” (Shelley 30)

What is indisputable is that Europe came to India’s shores in 1498 when Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese voyager, arrived in search for spices. In 1510, the Portuguese took over Goa which became the center of their political power in India. With that power also came missionaries who eagerly sought converts among the population. Eventually, the tragedy of the Inquisition made its way to India’s shores as well in Goa. Hindus in the area were forced to convert and those suspected of practicing heresy were burnt alive. Roman Catholicism is still prominent in the region today (Source).

Competition among other European nations also led to The British-founded East India Company in 1600.  The British learned the language of the land including Persian in order to ingratiate themselves with the Mughals. They were able to extend their control over the region, eventually establishing rule over the Muslims and Hindus throughout the late eighteenth and into the early-to-mid nineteenth centuries.(Source)

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William Carey and Anthony Norris Groves

Two prominent Christian missionaries include William Carey and Anthony Norris Groves. Carey, an English Baptist Minister, came to India in 1793, and established Serampore College and translated the Christian Bible into Bengali. He worked until his death in 1834. Earlier in 1833, “a revised charter granted to the East India Company opened the way for unrestricted Christian missionary work in India.” In 1833, Groves visited other missionaries eventually working in Calcutta (Source).

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Forster's India

When E. M. Forster came to India, the nation had already experienced its first failed war for independence (1857). One of the causes for the revolt was related to British soldiers using gun cartridges that were allegedly greased with animal fat, something mutually offensive between Muslims and Hindus. The moment united the two estranged faiths, though, for only a moment.

The Indian National Congress was founded in 1885 by two Europeans: Sir William Wedderburn and Allan Octavian Hume. Moving away from Christianity or Hinduism, Hume proved to the a Theosophist which recognized a Supreme Deity and likely ran closer to Hinduism than Christianity (Source). Later in 1906, the Muslims created their own Muslim League to address their rights under British rule. The two competing religions now worked against each other in order to compel more rights from the British Imperialists.

Forster found himself in this tumult of religion and history while he worked in India. He lived to see its eventual resolution as the British left in 1947. Its final division between Muslim and Hindu gave rise to an India and a Muslim-led Pakistan.

The gods were now divided by borders. Their disputes between each other, nevertheless, rage on even today.

Sources

 

Forster, E.M. A Passage to India. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1952.

 

Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language.  Dallas: Word Publishing, 1995.