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South India’s Roots of Planetary Counterculture

sectitle-featuresPersian loversWhen we talk about planetary culture, we tend to think it’s a matter of Westernizing the world. Maybe that’s because we’re more aware of how we influence others than how they change us. Maybe we assume that non-Western cultures have been insular, while Western culture has spanned the globe. But cultures are like fields of flowers, cross-pollinating for new breeds. And one of the most fertile fields of planetary counterculture has been South India, where Islam and Hinduism long ago started melding into something more beautiful than either one was before.

The setting of this story involves the different ways Islam appeared in northern and southern India. In the North, Muslim warlords conquered country around 1100 CE, and then ruled as oppressive rent seekers. But in the South, Hindus and Muslims were in peaceful contact for nearly a thousand years before the Mughal conquests in the late 1500s. Their ships passed back and forth across the Indian Ocean, sharing trade and dreams. To this day, most Muslims in Kerala or Tamil Nadu speak the language of the local Hindus, rather than using their own dialect (Urdu) as is usual in the North.1 In the South, the dialogue between civilizations was less polarized by issues of military domination. The cross-fertilization of social worlds had a chance to bear fruit, and that fruit changed the world.

sufi tombIn South India, the Islamic ideals of brotherhood and equality were introduced as unsullied dreams, apart from the contrary examples set by West Asian rulers. Many Hindus were inspired by Muhammad’s vision of social equality. Some converted to Islam, and many more applied Islamic ideals within Hinduism. Popular Hinduism became more egalitarian, and more theistic. There were still many Hindu gods and goddesses. But now each devotee was commonly dedicated to only one.2 The Islamic personal relation to a sovereign Lord melded into the Hindu aim of psychological union with the divine. The result was a devotional religion of passion for a chosen deity. A new kind of sainthood emerged, in which the devotee would have to be described as God’s lover.

Within Hinduism, this style of religion involved a series of bhakti (devotion) movements, with their commonly sexual imagery for spiritual love. Especially with the saint Ramanuja (b. 1017 CE), the seemingly mechanical operation of karmic law was transformed.3 Salvation could be won by a personal appeal to grace, the way suitors win the favor of their beloved. Such religion distinguished two forms of devotion. The first was vaidhi bhakti, or formal and liturgical devotion, which Joseph Campbell says was called devotion only by curtsey. The second was raganuga bhakti, or passionate love, heedless of social decorum.4

cochin loveboat

This second, or “true” devotionalism was perhaps most controversial upon reaching the northwest of India, and spreading among women of the “purdah-zone.” In Rajasthan, for example, the female saint Mira Bai dropped all pretense of social conformity, abandoned her husband and purdah, left her semi-desert homeland, and journeyed to the forests of Brindavan to be an ascetic. Allegedly, she merged into an image of her Lord Krishna, uniting eternally with her true lover, who was God.5 The response to this story in Rajput society was ambivalent. One modern Rajput woman expressed deep respect for Mira Bai, but added, “Mira … had no faith in society. She didn’t like Rajput society … I don’t think that it’s a good thing; it’s better to be a pativrata [a wife devoted to her husband].”6

In the South Indian Islamic community, the spirit of submission to God, as before an arbitrary, omnipotent ruler, was modified. A new ideal of faith involved the bhakti sense of passionate union with the Lord. Of course among Muslims such talk of “union” almost never meant a merger of identity with God. The union was best compared to the union of lovers. By implication, the most holy relationship, or the one best symbolizing the prioritized spiritual values, was not the relation of ruler to subject, but the relation of lovers to each other. This kind of Islamic devotionalism spread through the various Sufi movements, some of which originated in India. A state of grace called fana (rapture) could be attained through the loving instruction of a pir, or fairy princess. Such a guide was also called a fravashi (spirit of the way), and the enlightenment reached through such a teacher was “the larger full surrender.”7

Krishna RadhaSufi devotionalism grew popular across the Islamic world, from India to Spain, or Indonesia to West Africa. According to Joseph Campbell, it was the Sufi’s spiritualization of sexual love which infected Christian Europe after the crusades. The Sufi dervishes became models for the troubadours of Europe—the West’s folk-singers of a new morality. In that new faith, sexual desire could be an inspiration of greater spiritual value than any church sacrament. Love could become more important than any social convention, or any threat of eternal damnation.8

But when such devotional movements spread to North India, K. M. Panikkar feels that their quality changed. There were great northern bhakti saints, such as Ramananda and Mira Bai. And some saints such as Kabir or Guru Nanak inspired Hindus and Muslims equally.9 Dara Shukoh, the son of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, was an adept in both Sufism and yoga. He wrote the Samudra Samagama—the mingling of oceans, otherwise known as the Persian Upanishad.10 But more generally in the Delhi sultanate or the Mughal empire, such religion spread as an “underground” movement. In the North, Islam was the faith of conquerors, and Hinduism the superstition of infidel subjects. In that context, unorthodox devotionalism and eroticism often became mere diversions from reality. They were more a stimulus for private dreams than social change. Norvin Hein says the erotic became a refuge of satisfaction, because this was the source of fulfillment that was hardest for the authorities to control.11 In such a segregated society, the private erotic imagination ran to sickly sweet dreams of Radha and Krishna, or to harems of 40 virgin houris. In the literature of Delhi court poets, Radha (Krishna’s mythic lover) was no longer a lowly peasant saint. She became an upper class princess, living perhaps in a Rajput or Mughal court harem. Here, making love was her only vocation. In the poetic focus on her sex there was little to say of her, save to linger over her bodily parts. Her breasts were compared to the Himalayas.12 The goddess here had no purpose save titillation.

flower childBut for all the perversions and cruelties of India’s history, the best of that heritage came to influence popular religion across the world. In Iran, probably most people feel that the real Islam is best expressed in the love poetry of Sufi saints, in which sexual passion and spiritual devotion join as one flame. The entire counterculture movement in North America from the 1960s on has reflected an infusion Indian spirituality—with Western teenagers aspiring to be Krishna and Radha-like singers of love anthems, and Christian civil rights marchers wearing Gandhi caps. It’s fascinating to watch how the mingling of cultural oceans generates a stream of countercultures. That mingling of worlds changes us from inside, altering what we hope to be.

This article is based on a portion of The Gardens of Their Dreams: Desertification and Culture in World History.


1. Shahabuddin, Syed, and Wright, Theodore P., “India’s Muslim Minority: Politics and Society,” in Islam in Asia: Religion, Politics and Society, ed., Esposito, John L., Oxford University Press, New York, 1987, p. 162.

2. Panikkar, K. M., A Survey of Indian History, Asia Publishing House, London, 1963, pp. 135–136.

3. Panikkar, A Survey of Indian History, pp. 135–136.

4. Campbell, Joseph, Creative Mythology: The Masks of God, Penguin, New York, 1976, p. 63.

5. Harlan, Lindsay, Religion and Rajput Women, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992, pp. 206–207.

6. Harlan, Religion and Rajput Women, p. 211.

7. Walker, Barbara G., The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Castle Books, Edison, NJ, 1996, p. 974.

8. Campbell, Creative Mythology, pp. 63–65.

9. Panikkar, A Survey of Indian History, p. 138.

10. Panikkar, A Survey of Indian History, p. 174.

11. Hein, Norvin, “Comments: Radha and the Erotic Community,” in The Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India, Beacon Press, Boston, 1986, pp. 122–123.

12. Schomer, Karine, “Where Have All the Radhas Gone? New Images of Woman in Modern Hindi Poetry,” in The Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India, pp. 90–99.

Article Written by Brian Griffith

Brian Griffith is an independent historian who’s interested in culture wars and cultural creativity. So far he’s written four books. The Gardens of Their Dreams: Desertification and Culture in World History examines how environmental degradation has affected society across the center of the Old World from ancient times forward. Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story and Different Visions of Love: Partnership and Dominator Cultures in Christian History reflect on the culture wars that have raged within Christianity from the religion’s beginning down to the present. A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization explores the alternative traditions and religions of Chinese women, which offer the world a powerful vision for partnership, health, and spirituality. He lives in a multicultural marriage in the multicultural hub of Toronto.


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