ContrastingAl-Biruni and Tales on Classical India
In“The Description of India,” Al-Biruni gives an account of theearly Indian civilization of the tenth and eleventh century. Hespecifically presents the aspects of the Hindu science as he tries todescribe how the large country was different from other countries andcivilizations. In the book, Al-Birunigivesan observation of India with a view of painting a picture of how thecountry existed at the time and how it was governed. At the sametime, other tales like the “the city of gold,” The man WhoImpersonated God Vishnu,” and “The red Lotus of Chastity” givetales that describe the classical India. The discussion of thesebooks will illustrate their differences and show how Al-Birunidiffers from the three tales in describing the classical Indiansociety.
Basedon participative observation, Al-Biruni gives a clear picture of theIndian caste system for the world to understand the organization inthe eleventh century. Al-Biruni presents a view of India that has anorganized religious society that had a strict adherence to the castesystem. The book paints a picture of an organized India, with fourmain castes. The tales also give the aspects of India, but focus moreon the values in the society rather than the organization. One of thedifferences between Al-Biruni and the tales is that he describes allaspects of the classical India, and not just religious values. Whilethe tales focus on the religious values of the Indian society,Al-Biruni focuses his attention on comparing the Indian society withthe other societies.
Onthe other hand, the two tales paint a picture of a caste system thatwas disorganized in terms of practice. The tales tell of people whowere not committed to the organization of the caste system anddeviated from the constraints of the caste system. For instance, thetale of “The Red Lotus of Chastity” describes a number of peoplewho practice things that are not in line with their castes. In thetale, Sidddhikar, the pupil to the nun uses deception to gaininteraction with the merchants, which is far way beyond his sociallevel. The same situation is observed in the tale of “the personwho impersonated god Vishnu” gives a case of human beings wantingto live far way beyond their caste.
Anotheraspect of viewing India and perceiving the caste system as per thepieces of literature is the religious values. The tales and the bookby Al-Biruni take different perspectives in creating a picture of thereligious values of the caste system. Al-Biruni presents the castesystem as a strong promoter of religious values in the classicalIndia. According to Al-Biruni, the caste system stipulates the valuesthat each member of the society should practice the values set by hisor her caste systems. According to Al-Biruni,the religious values of each person at the time were supposed to bein line with the recommended religious values of the practice of hisor her caste.
Onthe other hand, the tales present a different view of religiousvalues in relation to the castes. The tales focus their themes onreligious values and how they are broken. Unlike Al-Biruni,the tales present the broken religious practices and beliefs of Indiaas a country. In “The Red Lotus of Chastity” tale, Sidddhikarideviates from the religious values to engage in deception to gainundue benefits from the rich. First, the deceptions go against thecaste structure and against the caste values of honesty that wereobserved within the castes system. The tale focuses on the aspect ofdisguise as the characters seek to achieve a life that is beyondtheir caste. Deception also shapes the character of the maincharacter in “the person who impersonated god Vishnu.”
Interms of gender role, Al-Biruni differs with the tales in thepresentation of the tasks and roles of males and females in theIndian society. This is because Al-Biruni explores in comparison withother societies, especially the Muslim societies. In “TheDescription of India,” Al-Biruni describes that women were notcommonly linked with masculine responsibilities or do the works thatmen do in the society. Women were believed to play the simple houserelated roles in a family, and could even be married at a young ageas long as they could perform these tasks (Al-Biruni 154). Inaddition, women were not allowed to closely associate with men to dobusiness.
However,the tales give a different view of the gender roles, especially theroles of women. In the tales, women could do business and interactwith men as equals. For instance, in “The Red Lotus of Chastity”tale, the nun was interacting with Devasmita in her desire to deceivehim as a merchant. This shows that the shrewdness of women in theIndian society made them significant for men. In “The City of Gold”tale, women like Saktideva communicated with the gods, as shecommunicated with a Great Mother goddess (TheCity of Gold92). This shows that women had a significant role in the Indiansociety.
Inaddition to gender roles, marriage is another aspect of gender thatAl-Biruni and the tales explore. Al-Biruni describes the process ofmarriage where women were more significant as the caste bearers.Women were married early and people advocated to marry strangers thanrelative (Al-Biruni 155). In “The Red Lotus of Chastity” thestory was a struggle of Devasmita in maintaining her chastity even inthe absence of the husband. This shows that marriage was a socialunit that was respected in the society.
Al-Birunisucceeds in painting the picture of India, because of the tone of hiswriting. Therefore, the three pieces of literature are totallydifferent in terms of describing the main aspects of the society. In“The Description of India,” Al-Biruni takes a descriptive tone topresent the social, economic and political aspects of the Indiansociety. In doing so, Al-Biruni also takes a comparative tone thathelps him to compare Indian society of the eleventh century with thatof the other societies. In most cases, Al-Biruni directly usescomparative terms like “they differ from us” among others. Forinstance, when describing the language of India, Al-Biruni says,“First, they differ from us in everything……and here we firstmention the language, although the difference of language also existsbetween other nations” (Al-Biruni 17).
Theperspective of Al-Biruni about India paints a picture of a countrythat was well organized through the caste system. All the economic,political and social aspects of the society were based on the castes.At the same the tales the city of gold,” The man Who ImpersonatedGod Vishnu,” and “The red Lotus of Chastity” present an Indiansociety that had deviances from the stipulations of the caste system.The differences however merge their view to a common point inrelation to the existence of values that guided the social structureof the classical India under the caste system.
Al-Biruni,Raihan. "Descriptionof India,"ICON Post, 17-157
Somadeva.“The Red Lotus of Chastity.” In Three Tales of Ancient India,ICONPost,17-157
“TheCity of Gold.” In Three Tales of Ancient India, ICONPost,17-157