Al-Biruni on India

January 31, 2010 § 1 Comment

M. Shahid Alam

Painting - Ajanta Caves

Speak the truth,
even if it were against yourselves.

Quran (4:134)

It was my master, Abu Sahl, who led me on to it.
“Write what you know about the Hindus,” he said,
“There are people who want to converse with them,
To understand their religion, science and literature.
We only have hear-say, a farrago of materials never
Sifted for accuracy. Give us facts with analysis.”

And so I put my heart to it, starting with Sanskrit.
This wasn’t an easy undertaking, without grammar
And dictionaries. I traveled through their country
Quite a bit, talking to learned Brahmans, and spared
Neither trouble nor money collecting manuscripts.
Often I invited their scholars from far-away places–
Kashmir and Kashi–to come and work with me
In Ghazni. I have endeavored in writing this book
Not to be polemical. I intend this account of India
To be nothing but a simple historic record of facts,
At once comprehensive and objective. I present
To you the theories of the Hindus, exactly as they
See them, supporting my explanations of them
With ample quotations. If any of this strikes you
As heathenish, then try to understand that such
Are the beliefs of the Hindus, and they themselves
Are best able to defend it. This book should suffice
Anyone who wants to understand the Hindus,
And discuss with them their myths, metaphysics,
And mathematics; their astronomy, arithmetic,
And astrology; their codes, customs, and conceits
On the very basis of their own civilization.

First published in Swan, 2004

–M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. He is author of Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). Write to him at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.

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