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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 33, August 12, 2023

Mughal Kings who Promoted Sanskrit, Hindu Epics | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 12 August 2023, by M R Narayan Swamy



Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court

by Audrey Truschke

Penguin Books
Pages: xiv + 362; Price: Rs 450
ISBN: 9780143428909

It is not without reason that Emperor Akbar (who ruled from 1556 to 1605) was always described as Akbar the Great – till Hindutva ideologues decided that popular admiration for him should go and he must be seen as another Muslim king who Hindu-majority India would have probably preferred to do without.

Unfortunately for those who despise Akbar and others, the Mughals (as opposed to many others) not only did not consider themselves as outsiders once they settled down in India but went on to nurture and build on some of the country’s ancient traditions which they could have suppressed if they desired.

In what might surprise many, the Mughal elite, for roughly 100 long years, drew Sanskrit thinkers to their courts, adopted and adapted Sanskrit-based practices, translated dozens of Sanskrit texts into Persian, and composed Persian accounts of Indian philosophy. This was particularly true for Akbar, who was born in India, and his successors until historical factors ended up rupturing these ties.

Scholar Audrey Truschke, who specializes on South Asia, delves deep into unexplored archival materials to draw a picture of the Mughals that right-thinking Indians can be proud of.

It is not that this aspect of Indian history has not been studied before. Where Truschke succeeds admirably is her knowledge of both Sanskrit and Persian which helps her to appreciate that the Mughal culture of power was inextricably linked with wide-ranging literary aesthetic and intellectual interests in Sanskrit traditions. She rues that most scholars have uniformly ignored the role of Sanskrit, India’s premier classical tongue, as a major component of Mughal political, intellectual and literary activities.

Sanskrit thinkers from across the subcontinent first entered the Mughal central court in the 1560s and 1570s. By the 1580s, the Mughals hosted an array of Jain and Brahman intellectuals, bestowed titles on members from both communities, and supported a stunning range of Sanskrit textual production. Both Jains and Brahmans served the Mughals as political actors, translators, authors and more. Mughal literati also translated Sanskrit texts into Persian. Most of these activities continued throughout the reign of Jahangir (1605-27) and Shah Jahan (1628-58), coming to a close only in the mid-17th century.

The Mughals sought to understand what it meant to become rulers of India with such a diverse population. Sanskrit offered them a particularly potent way to imagine power and conceptualize themselves as righteous rulers. The Mughals also wished to see themselves as Indian kings and pursued this desire by appropriating a culture deeply grounded in South Asia’s pre-Islamic past. They saw cultivation of deep and diverse ties with Sanskrit thinkers and texts as a central part of their political project.

No wonder, Sanskrit functioned as a cosmopolitan tradition under Mughal rule. But because scholars have denied Sanskrit any substantive literary or historical role in the Mughal Empire for so long that many may find it difficult to even imagine that Sanskrit was a major component of Mughal imperial authority.

Hindi too was part of Mughal culture though its growing clout eventually forced Sanskrit to fade away. In the 17th century, Braj Bhasha replaced Sanskrit in many ways as the premier Indian tradition to receive Mughal support.

Even before the advent of Islam, Persianate kings evinced keen interest in Sanskrit. In the 6th century, a Sassanian ruler sent a vizier to India to find the Sanskrit story book, Panchatantra. It was later translated into Persian and Arabic. Pre-Mughal Indo-Persian rulers like Lodis also copied and illustrated versions of the Panchatantra. Akbar sponsored two versions of it.

Even the Delhi Sultanate, which ruled parts of north India from 1226 to 1526, established numerous methods of integrating Sanskrit intellectuals and texts into an Indian-based Islamicate court. Amir Khusro proclaimed Sanskrit as superior to courtly Persian. It is of course known that Sufi communities were interested in yoga and other Hindu spiritual practices.

But it was under Akbar that the Mughals developed an unmatched depth and diversity of links with the Sanskrit tradition that were concentrated around their central court. Akbar sponsored the translation of numerous Sanskrit texts into Persian, hosted dozens of Jain and Brahmin Sanskrit intellectuals at court and hired Sanskrit–medium astronomers. His takeover of Gujarat gave Jains in that province incentives to seek imperial support.

Jahangir sponsored translations of Sanskrit texts into Persian even as a prince and continued his cross-cultural involvements when he ascended the throne in 1605. He fostered both Jain and Brahmanical intellectuals at court and held Sanskrit works in the royal library.

Shah Jahan’s reign ultimately marked the fading of Sanskrit as a major literary, intellectual and cultural tradition at the Mughal court but only after witnessing a few especially high-profile cultural encounters. When Aurangzeb took power in 1658, he cut the few remaining ties between the Mughal court and Sanskrit literati though he periodically met Jain leaders.

But while Jains wrote voraciously about their time at the Mughal court, producing numerous experiences, Brahmans in contrast maintained a nearly complete narrative silence on their parallel activities. But this did not preclude Brahmans from accepting Mughal patronage, authoring Sanskrit texts for Mughal consumption, and participating in court life. Brahmans also significantly outnumbered Jains at the court.

In what is clearly the first scholarly attempt to comprehensively and chronologically reconstruct the social ties between Jains and Brahmans with the Mughal court, Truschke says the Sanskrit authors acted as intellectual informants, astrologers, religious guides, translators and also political negotiators for the Mughals.

While Jains mainly came from Gujarat, the Brahmans in the court hailed from a broader geographical area, stretching from Gujarat to Bengal and as far south as the Deccan. Both Jain and Brahman intellectuals freely entered the exited the Mughal court. And they received official and honorary titles from Mughal kings. Some preserved ties with sub-imperial and Rajput rulers.

Their proximity allowed some of them to influence Mughal kings to prohibit animal slaughter and cancel tax levied on non-Muslims, at least on occasions. Akbar ordered the return of Jain idols looted during the Mughal campaign in Rajasthan. Jahangir prohibited animal slaughter at the request of Brahmans. Several Mughal rulers adjudicated issues of land ownership and use in Benares among the Jangam, a Shvaivite community.

More than one dozen Sanskrit works were translated under the direct orders of Akbar or Jahangir. Translations from Sanskrit during Akbar’s reign began with the Atharva Veda. Both Akbar and Jahangir repeated litanies to the Sun daily – much to the chagrin of the conservative ulema. Akbar abstained from meat on particular days of the week while Jahangir refrained from hunting and consuming meat for some four years of his rule, both likely due to Jain influences. Jahangir once described Vedanta as “the science of Sufiism”.

Kavindracarya Sarasvati, a Brahman leader from Benares, instructed Shah Jahan about Sanskrit philosophy and poetry. Kavindra, who was also a Hindi author and singer, accepted monetary rewards at the Mughal court in his capacity as a musician. He played a key role in upping the importance of Hindi in the court. Shah Jahan’s court increasingly employed Hindi intellectuals. Although Aurangzeb severed Kavindra’s royal stipend, he too supported Hindi poets. Many members of the imperial elite, including kings starting with Akbar, were fluent in conversational Hindi and enjoyed Hindi poetry.

Truschke said it is time to abandon age-old conception, guided by Indo-Persian court histories, that the Mughal court was a space dominated by Persianate culture and in which all other languages were outliers.

Truschke maintains that compared to earlier Indo-Islamic kingdoms, the Mughals exhibited an unusually robust dedication to promoting Sanskrit as well as Persian. In the 1580s, Akbar ordered the translation of the Sanskrit Mahabharata into Persian. It was called Razmnamah (Book of War). The translation was even incorporated into the education of royal princes. It was also richly illuminated.

After Jahangir took power, the epic continued to be shown and read in the court for decades. The Mughals were captivated by the Mahabharata. Poets produced around two dozen Persian versions of the other Hindu epic, Ramayana. According to Truschke, Hindus themselves continued to read the Razmnamah well into the 19th century. “Akbar’s court succeeded in making the Mahabharata an important part of the Indo-Persian literary culture.”

Truschke’s is not a recent book. Yet its importance is now all the more relevant considering the way aggressive Hindutva ideologue want Indians to believe that everything during Mughal rule was black and that Hindus and their culture were suppressed in that era. The reality was very different. Not all Muslim king were alike, and some were less tolerant of Hindu culture than others. The author laments that scholars have lacked the imagination to recover the complex, multilingual culture of encounters that flourished under Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan.

This is a fascinating and an eye-opener of a book that cleans up many cobwebs, some inculcated over the decades by vested interests who love to hate Muslims. It is a virtual steal for just Rs 450.

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