Though the medieval Indian society was religion-dominated, the two major religious communities (Hindus and Muslims), had broken down and all of them behaved as typical Indians. Akbar’s reign was glorified by the triumph of nationalism over the process of reaction, including communalism, racialism, regionalism and other divisive tendencies. The feeling of Indians was acquired by them as a social heritage from their homes, villages and towns and through the conscious political and social policies adopted by Akbar, Jahangir and Shahjahan.
The Indians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries displayed a unique sense of socio- cultural unity in diversity which was taken note of by the European writers of the age though they could find adequate words to explain it. The Indians irrespective of their religions could be singled out from among the inhabitants of other countries because of their peculiar way of life which imparted them ‘a distinctive individuality’ of which the Indian themselves were also conscious. Medieval society can be classified under four categories viz.
(a) Feudal Society
(b) The Aristocracy
(c) The Middle and
(d) The General masses
(a) Feudal Society-The medieval Indian society was organized on a feudal basis. The emperor was the head of the social system. He claimed divine status and powers for the crown and asserted prosperity rights over the entire land in his capacity as the lord paramount of the country. Members of the royal family together with the blood relations, friends and favorites of the king enjoyed privileged position in society while the imperial ‘harem’ and the Court acted as the trend-setters in social and cultural affairs. From aristocratic and aesthetic point of view, Nur Jahan imparted a fairy’s touch to the court and transformed the awe-inspiring men-in-arms into impressive personalities of the most elegant yet invincible warriors of a dream land. These socio- cultural trends were faithfully imitated by the provincial Courts of the Governors, the Mughal nobility and the aristocracy all over the country.
(b) Aristocracy-The Mughal nobility or the ruling elite was collectively known as ‘umara” who belonged to the first category of the mansabdari system and the feudatory chieftains who owed allegiance to the Mughal crown, comprised the aristocracy of the land. The later were also graded as mansabdars with a view to determining their dignity and status in the imperial court as well as the society.
The aristocracy was copsed of Muslims as well as Hindus alike although the number of the latter was small because of the delayed entry into its fold and the slow process of Indianization. The Rajput princes imported indigenous touch to the Mughal court and influenced the standard of living and way of life of the Mughal aristocracy in general.
The medieval Indian aristocracy rolled in wealth and enjoyed luxurious lives. The law of escheat forbade economy among the nobility because, according to this practice, they held their offices for life only and were not allowed to pass on their material wealth and prosperity in heritage to their descendants or successors. Accordingly, they felt tempted to spend as much and as quickly as they could. They maintained big ‘Harems’, built big palaces, reared cattle and kept armies of domestic servants, dancing girls and slaves.
The prestigious personal establishment once developed, could not be cut to size thereafter and in the long run many of the aristocrats found it difficult to live within their means. There was no scope for thrift in their life style and they usually over drew from the royal treasury, or borrowed heavily from other sources. It ultimately led to the deterioration of character and martial qualities of those who constituted the steel frame of the Mughal empire. Their demoralization adversely affects the discipline and standard of efficiency of their military contingents which became one of the major causes of decay and downfall of the Mughal empire.
In-spite of their extravagance and general weakness for wine and women, the Mughal nobility was a remarkable institution which welded into a homogenous and harmonious whole men belonging to different regions and tribes, speaking different languages and professing different religions and with different cultural traditions. The Mughals succeeded in imbuing the nobles with a sense of common purpose and loyalty to the reigning dynasty and in imparting to them a distinctive cultural outlook, and in creating traditions of high efficiency and endeavour in administration. It was thus a definite factor in securing for a century and half a remarkable degree of unity and good government in the country.
(c) The Middle Class-Though extensive, the middle class was heterogeneous in character. It was composed of low graded mansabdars, middle level civil and judicial hierarchy, big landlords. bankers, merchants and professionals including men of letters, priests and artists. The feudal lords constituted the dominant material group and possession of land was therefore a positive source of status in society. Social stratification of the Hindus being based on the hereditary caste system, only the prosperous and influential among the high born found their way into the middle class. The Muslims, Nevertheless, also tended to determine social status on the basis of birth and racial considerations.
The middle class in general was very well off but not Unlike the aristocracy it was free from ostentation. The low grade mansabdars and the middle level Mughal bureaucracy felt no trouble and passed their days merrily even during the last years of Aurangzeb’s when there was wide spread economic distress in the country. The businessman and the bankers, most of whom were Hindus, usually concealed their wealth and pretended not to be rich lest they might be fleeced by the unscrupulous and corrupt bureaucrats. Bernier tells us that whatever the profits of trade, the commercial class lived in a state of studied indigence. The big bankers and merchants. engaged in the maritime trade on the western coast of India, exhibited their riches unhesitatingly and enjoyed a high standard of living, usually rubbing shoulders with a high-class ruling elite.
(d) The general masses-The aristocracy and the middle class collectively formed not more than fifteen per cent of the entire population of India therefore the majority of the people irrespective of their religious denominations, comprised the masses or the lower classes. They included among them the peasantry, agricultural labor, artisans, craftsmen, soldiers, menials, slaves and millions of self-employed persons. The poor among the Hindus and the whole lot of Shudras and outcasts, irrespective of their material possessions fell into the category of general masses. Some sections of the masses were economically well off and they lived happily and contented lives but on the whole their life was hard because of the wide disparity in the distribution of wealth.
The general standard of living of the general masses was very low and their wants were very few. Much clothing was not needed due to Salubrious and warm climate in many parts of India but even otherwise the people made bare use of the garments. Woolen clothes were practically unknown to the masses while shoes were not much in use in some parts of the country. However, there was no scarcity of food except in times of famines and draughts and the prices were very low; therefore, deaths and starvation under normal circumstances were not known.
Agriculture flourished, the State demand was fixed and the peasants usually had enough to spare. The government officials were not allowed to charge the riot in excess of the state demand. There was no intermediary to deprive the peasant of the rightful fruit of his plough. Great interest was taken by the state in the welfare of the cultivators. In times of famines and draughts, land revenue was remitted and instead substantial relief was given to the peasants. Takavi’ loans were advanced to them to tide over the difficulties. The cultivators were fairly compensated for the damage done to their crops during the march of the armies. It was only during the last years of Shah Jahan’s reign that the condition of the peasantry began to show signs of administrative efficiency.
Religion and Society
Religion permeated every aspect of the medieval society in India. The country was studded with mosques, temples and other places of worship erected by the people belonging to various religious denominations and the whole country from Kashmir to Kanyakumari seemed to be a holy land. The foreign travellers who visited India during the Mughal period were surprised to see the passion of the people for their religion who built their place of worship everywhere. The rulers emptied their treasury and the commoners poured out the entire savings of their lives in the construction of holy places without remuneration. The Muslims undertook the Ramadan fast en masse and went on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina in thousands, while millions of Hindus thronged their places of worship. Similarly, the pareses never allowed the ‘holy fire’ of their temples to be put out.
Religion exercised a profound influence over the minds of Indians and moulded their entire life- style and character. Sectarianism was a striking feature of the religious life of the Indians. Each one of the religions had branched off in numerous sects and sub-sects representing considerable variations in their religious beliefs and practices, Hinduism was plagued by many sub-sects of Vaishnaivtes, Shaivites, tantrics besides a few progressive sects of Bhakti reformers, one of which led to the birth of Sikhism. Similarly, the Muslims were divided into Sunnis and Shias besides the followers of various Sufi orders. The lessons of the Sufi saints and Bhakti reformers seemed to have been lost on the bulk of the nation although asceticism was credited with religious merit. Observance of wasteful ceremonies and rituals besides participation in the numerous fairs and festivals was deemed essential to purify the soul and seek redemption from sin.
The priests had a firm hold over the social life of their devotees and many fake men of God and crooks in the garb of yogis exploited the poor and ignorant masses. They encouraged all sorts of superstitions and blind practices, including the animal and human sacrifices in the name of God. Because of the intensity of religious life. Charity in the name of religion was always forthcoming in abundance. The big temples and mosques had large landed endowments attached to them and the priests who controlled these holy places made their priesthood hereditary. They flourished on public donations and the income derived from the landed endowments, thus making religion a great feudal organization with deep rooted vested interests in landed property.
Mutual Impact of Hinduism and Islam
The medieval Indian society in the eighteenth century was a result of five hundred years of continuous interaction and synthesis between Hinduism and Islam or the two socio-cultural streams, one indigenous and the other exotic India, the land of millions with one of the richest and the most conservative cultural treasure troves of the world, was like a mighty ocean into which the Islamic stream of refreshing and invigorating waters mingled up and became a part and parcel of the whole.
The descendent of foreign Muslim conquerors were thoroughly Indianized by the end of seventeenth century. India became their homeland and from the socio-cultural point of view they became indistinguishable from the rest of the Indian masses. The difference was their sentimental leaning towards Mecca and Madina: Otherwise the Muslim countries of Turkestan, Iran and Arabia were as much foreign to them as they were for the Hindus of India. The ‘Muslim world’ the oft repeated slogan of some religious fanatics was neither a political nor a cultural unit; it was a myth in medieval India and a political stunt today.
Islam did not impress the bulk of Indian population as a superior religious or cultural force. It did not produce a revolutionary effect on Hindu religious thought and practices. Likewise the Bhakti Movement was not influenced in its basic concepts by Sufism although the two movements gave impetus to each other on the common issue of ‘Hindu-Muslim unity’. The presence of Islam made the Hindus more orthodox and conservative in their religious outlook and social customs. Caste system became more rigid and the evils of the child marriage and infanticide found their way into the Hindu society as a negative impact of the aggressiveness of the Muslims conquerors. Purdah system of the Muslim was adopted by the ladies of upper strata of the Hindus.
Urdu which was the offspring of Hinduism, Islam and Persian was accepted by the Hindus in long run as the language of opportunity and synthetic culture of the age. The Hindu scholars with their Muslim fellow-brethren enriched the Persian literature and thought in prose as well as in poetry. The entire range of Muslim dress, social customs and food habits, manners and social behaviour, outdoor and indoor games, superstitions and taboos were absorbed by the multitude of the Hindus except that they would not touch beef nor eat in the common utensil with the Muslims.”
Ancient Hindu architecture was also changed by the impact of Islam. The Hindu temples could not remain immune from the influence of the Mughal architectural forms. The Rajput princess freely patronised Mughal art and architecture and transmitted the cultural trend of the imperial court, in the cultivation of which they themselves had played a significant role, to their states and its aristocracy. The Hindu gardens were also influenced by the Mughal gardens and together constituted a rich cultural heritage to the whole of India.
The Muslims of medieval India had become Indians in thought, speech and action: None of them could claim with certainty what percentage of the foreign blood did he carry in his reins. The two religions Hinduism and Islam imparted religiosity as a common cultural trait in its manifold forms to their protagonists which nourished the medieval Indian culture as a whole. Religion by itself could not act as a dividing factor in the Indian society unless it was exploited by a foolhardy ruler, devoid of national consciousness and obsessed with religious fanaticism or sectarian outlook.
Concluding we can say that during the Mughal period the Muslim community of India was essentially an integral part of the Indian people having much more in common with other people of India than with those outside India. The great redeeming feature of the life of the Muslim community of India was that they had much fewer point of quarrel with other communities than those of later times: On the whole, the wholesome principle of ‘give and take’ in the cultural life of India continued undisturbed and Muslims had less prejudice to import silently colourful Hindu customs in birth and to par take of the mirth and joy of gay holi and swinging in the rainy season.