Temple desecrations in medieval India: Iconoclasm or political tactics?

Always a tough and tricky subject.

This is fab research given it is so difficult to do such stuff. It is by a trio of econ researchers: Sriya Iyer , Anand Shrivastava , Rohit Ticku.

We conducted this study to understand the motivation for temple desecrations by medieval Muslim States in India. Our results show that political tactics, rather than iconoclasm, underlined the agenda for temple desecrations. We, however, do not rule out the iconoclastic behaviour of certain medieval Muslim rulers. How India escaped the systematic desecration of pagan religious sites in the Arabian Peninsula remains a question (Benthall 2005). 
The literature on medieval India offers possible explanations. The Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence, which was the predominant school of Islamic law in India, encouraged a more conciliatory approach towards Hindu subjects. Another explanation is that Muslim elites were vastly outnumbered by their Hindu subjects, and hence a pacifist approach could only have been politically most viable (Benthall 2005). 
This study has key implications in the current political climate. The rise of extremist groups such as the Taliban and the Islamic State, and their destruction of religious relics, have led some to magnify the presence of religious bigotry in Islamic societies. Our results suggest a nuanced approach; events which appear to be motivated by religious ideology might camouflage the political interests that lie at the helm. The same caution needs to be applied to the discourse on medieval temple desecrations that has precipitated several Hindu-Muslim riots in post-independence India. Hopefully our study will add some nuance in future to the debate about medieval temple desecrations.

16 Responses to “Temple desecrations in medieval India: Iconoclasm or political tactics?”

  1. MS Says:

    Thanks for pointing, seems to deserve deep and wide attention. Quick skim read did not show why the Econ researchers did this or how it helped. Also would have been good if they examine it in wider context – how the Europeans engaged in selective Hindu temple demolitions (at least more selective than Islamic invaders), or even how the Indian Hindu kings treated temples during invasions.

  2. vikramml Says:

    Hilarious! A perfect example of how stupid current research has become.

    To make my point, let me pick on this central statement, after which no further reading is necessary:

    “Our results show that political tactics, rather than iconoclasm”.

    Now, here’s the wikipedia meaning of iconoclasm: “Iconoclasm is the destruction of religious icons and other images or monuments for religious or political motives.”

    So, can someone please explain to me what difference is there between political tactics and iconoclasm?

    Secondly, it is well known that religions are political in varying degrees. The very term religion means different things in different cultures. In Abrahamical traditions, religion is closely intertwined with politics, which has only been separated to some extent in Judeo-Christianity, by the Enlightenment Age. Islam has a political vision as much or even more than a religious one, which hasn’t had the fortune of undergoing an enlightenment. Some schools might moderate or compromise that vision for the sake of practicality, but that is a compromise of convenience and transient in nature. Perhaps the researchers should research religion first to understand terms that they are throwing about without understanding.

    • MS Says:

      @vikramml, it is sort of clear that they try to make the distinction between political and theological objectives of the descration. We need not be too hung up on word choices. What matters more is the evaluation of the econometric techniques used in the available data

      • vikramml Says:

        Oh, it is clear why they are trying to do, I’m just saying that their perspective doesn’t make sense. What good is econometrics going to do when the hypothesis is stupid?

  3. MS Says:

    You’re right to the extent that religion can be used for exerting power, but so can be language, caste or any other art of the human mind.

    Considering that there were many categories – attacks purely for plunder (Ghazni on Somnath, Malik Kafur on Madurai), intra-religious political attacks that never touched the temples (Cholas vs Chalukyas), intra-religious theological attacks (Emperor Rajaraja Chola on Kerala-Chera region) – I certainly feel that there are enough examples to justify their hypothesis.

    I’m sure Amol is very amused on the amount of discussion generated by religion and history – never fails :)))

    • vikramml Says:

      I don’t understand which point of mine you are replying to. And, I surely wasn’t implying your first cringe-worthy statement either, so I guess we are going to keep talking across each other.

      Maybe this kinda makes my initial point that religion means different things to people in different cultures. Its hard to have a conversation when the people involved are thinking about religion differently. My main point was that the authors (and you can include yourself with them, I suppose) are talking about religion and politics in a way that is not helpful in the given context. It is common in most academic circles, I’ll give you that, but my contention is that it is an unscholarly and stupid perspective.

      • MS Says:

        Hey I am the one giving many counterexamples to the authors’ rather limited views…while you haven’t done anything done anything other than calling other viewpoints as stupid. Maybe some examples and explanation would help. (and believe me, quoting some wikipedia definition of a word is not good enough).

        Maybe the comments section is too restricted. Do you publish your views somewhere, in a blog or something that we could follow and understand ? thanks

      • vikramml Says:

        Counter-examples? I thought you were giving supporting examples? 🙂 I mentioned my issue with the paper in my first comment, I didn’t see you address any of it so I didn’t add anything to it.

        For example, you could try answering the question which I raised, as to what the difference between political tactics and iconoclasm is (which is the central distinction made in the paper)? If idol-destruction is a religious tenet vs a political tenet, did anybody care to understand how and why such a thing became a religious tenet to start with? How and why does a religion become antagonistic to other religions and are all religions universal in this antagonism to the same degree as people seem to point out all the time (and I’m not talking about religious followers mis-using religion here, but the founding principles and ideas)? Aren’t most academics looking at religion merely as a label which stymies further discussion and muddies the waters? And if that is the case, isn’t that perspective stupid?

        Sorry I don’t blog. There’s an article by Taleb but I think it only touches on ~50% of what I’m trying to say (apparently not with any success) and I don’t agree with everything he writes here:

        View at Medium.com

      • MS Says:

        Most of your larger questions stem from the blinkered view of western thinkers (reflected in Taleb) that refuses to look at religions beyond Islam and Christianity. This makes you conclude that all religious tenets have political elements.

        May I suggest that you look at the huge body of Indian thought on Dialectics in the Indian context, that evaluates how Buddhists, Jains, Adi Sankara and Ramanuja debated and established their philosophies. It would be nonsensical to look at their work as political alone. Their work was not one of ‘converting masses’ or political success, but about pure theological dominance.

        Maybe Islamic invaders didnt do pure theological acts, but that needs to be established. Taleb is not the judge.

        The authors are trying to segment historical events into two categories using ‘coding criteria’ which they have explained fairly well – and that should be adequate for economic research. I believe that is sound according to statistical and econometric philosophy.

        And mine are counterexamples because the authors generalize on two categories, while I provide more categories by choosing examples from broader timelines and geographies.

      • vikramml Says:

        I think I pointed out Abrahamical religions specifically in my first comment. And, that is the correct context for the paper referenced here. Secondly, Taleb points out the difference of Hinduism, Buddhism, and points out an example between India and Pak I believe, so why do you think that he ignores differences between west/ME/east? Nevertheless, I am sympathetic to the idea that he has a limited perspective, but I think one that is relatively better with regards to the particular topic in question. Nowhere did I say all religious tenets have political elements, I don’t know where you got that idea? I agree Taleb is not the judge, why would/should he be, I don’t think he’d be interested anyway? 🙂 Your definition of a counter-example is kinda weird. I don’t get that at all! I don’t think I have a problem with number of categories, rather the quality.

        Its a bit tedious clarifying things that I did not say. And, no arguments as yet on what I did say. Disappointing…

        It is also amusing to be pointed to Indian references when that is not the subject here and when I haven’t said or claimed anything about Indian idealogies as yet. If anything, you are making my point there that coming from an Indian perspective, which is as you say it is (and I agree), one is liable to misunderstand western or ME idealogies. That people from different cultures see religion differently. I see that I still haven’t got my basic point across. Sigh… I should have known better!

      • Amol Agrawal Says:

        Phew! MS and Vikramml please relax. I realised only in morning that the post has led to lot of heat. But I am the culprit for posting it. I just thought that how people think about researching such issues was worth posting about. Take all economic research with a pinch of salt. There are lots of gray areas and is all over the place. So no point getting into a bitter war of words.

      • vikramml Says:

        Killjoy! 😦 If anything, please post more, not less! Let not banal arguments in comments section deter you from posting about controversial stuff! You can delete my comments if and when you feel it is warranted. Cheers.

      • MS Says:

        :))) Same here

        @vikramml – thanks for the discussion. We didnt entirely get across to each other, but I did read your posts one more time, especially the first and last. I do agree with what you say. Good luck !

      • vikramml Says:

        @MS – I don’t quite know anymore what we were disagreeing about. Thanks and good luck to you as well. Cheers.

  4. everydayeconomix Says:

    Very interesting piece of research – you’re right, it is difficult to find reliable, accurate research on this topic. Anyway, you did a good job finding this; thanks for sharing it.

    Please could you check out my new blog (https://everydayeconomix.wordpress.com). It’s based on the subject of economics so I think it’ll interest you. Your feedback will be welcomed with open arms.

    Thanks again,


    • Amol Agrawal Says:

      Hi Guntash. Thanks for the kind words. I did see your blog. Some of the posts connecting law and economics are interesting. Keep at it and am sure your blog will grow. Thanks, Amol

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