A peripatetic scholar from afar who probably had a soft corner for the Hindus, Al-Beruni was born in Khwarzim, Persia (modern Khiva in the Commonwealth of Independent States) in 972 AD.
He was a minister of the court there when in 1017 Mahmud of Ghazni overran his country taking Al-Beruni as a prisoner along with others. On knowing about his scholarly pursuits, Mahmud set him free offering him a similar position in the Ghaznavid court. Al-Beruni declined the offer; presumably he was averse to taking benefits from an enemy of his people, but agreed to become a sort of Chronicler Emeritus of the Ghaznavid court.
He accompanied Mahmud to India during the latter’s expedition in 1019, probably was appalled by what he saw and decided to stay behind to know the people who like his own people (but on a much severe scale) were exposed to the brutalities of a ruthless marauder. It would appear, this touched his heart and that was how he could write with such deep understanding on the events of the day, the society that was tortured, and the moorings of that society as could be seen in its history, literature, philosophy, religion and arts.
Al-Beruni was in India for more than a decade. He travelled extensively around the country, learnt Sanskrit and studied the Gita, Patanjali’s Sutras, Kapila’s Sankhya as also the Puranas. He was a follower of a different faith, receiving patronage from a conquering hero; yet he had the breadth of mind as also the courage of a true man of learning to make such a painstaking effort to know the alien.
The result was the Tehrik-ul-Hind written in Arabic (it was later translated into Persian) a comprehensive account of the Indian society, religion, mores, follies and foibles in Al-Beruni’s times, an account that was considered a gem in the eleventh century and remained so in the centuries following down to this day.
Al-Beruni was no starry-eyed admirer; in fact, he was brutally frank. This is what he says some where in the beginning: “….folly is an illness for which there is no medicine and the Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no kings like theirs, no science like theirs. They are haughty, foolishly vain, self-conceited and stolid. They are by nature niggardly in communicating that which they knew, and they take greatest possible care to with hold it from men of another caste among their own people, still much more of course, from any foreigners.”
It should not be regarded as a diatribe; it was the considered opinion of a serious scholar about whose integrity there should be no doubt, for example when he says: “….if they (the Hindus) travelled and mixed with other nations, they would soon change their mind, for their ancestors were not as narrow-minded as the present generation is.”