Jewels in the Crown

Sanskrit and its scholars thrived in the Mughal court between 1560 and 1660. A scholarly book describes this fascinating history. If only, the prose were less turgid.

Written by Bibek Debroy | Updated: March 26, 2016 1:10 am
For instance, Audrey Truschke states, “Practically, the language limits of most scholars meant that little prior work had been done to identify the archive of extant textual materials on Sanskrit-Persian encounters.” For instance, Audrey Truschke states, “Practically, the language limits of most scholars meant that little prior work had been done to identify the archive of extant textual materials on Sanskrit-Persian encounters.”

Book: Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court

Author: Audrey Truschke

Publisher: Penguin Books

Pages: 375

Price: Rs 699

Unfortunately, people tend to label and straitjacket Sanskrit. Therefore, it is often not appreciated that Buddhist scholars wrote extensively in Sanskrit. This problem is even more serious when it comes to Muslim contributions. Though a book has been written on this (Shah Muhammad Hamair, 1951), and Sures Chandra Banerji’s companion to Sanskrit literature (1989) has an entire chapter on this, not to speak of stray references in articles, clearly there is a dissemination problem. Perhaps, there was an issue with scholarly depth and expertise.

For instance, Audrey Truschke states, “Practically, the language limits of most scholars meant that little prior work had been done to identify the archive of extant textual materials on Sanskrit-Persian encounters.” The task becomes easier if one pinpoints that contribution in terms of a timeline.This volume is about the Mughal court. It is even more specific than that. It is about the Mughal court between 1560 and 1660, roughly straddling the rule of Akbar (1556-1605), Jahangir and Shah Jahan (1628-58). Other than the introduction and the conclusion, a massive amount of documentary evidence has been accumulated by the author and presented in six chapters.

In this area, as prior contributors, I know of Shah Hamair and Banerji. (There may be others I don’t know of.) Despite the very impressive bibliography, I found no mention of either there, despite relatively irrelevant contributions being included in the list of secondary sources. Is this because of over-reliance on manuscript sources? Because of what I just said, clearly not. Therefore, there seems to be a conscious or sub-conscious decision to dismiss anything not published in the West, by Western or Indian scholars. There is certainly the possibility of Truschke not knowing about these two authors. However, given the time that has gone into researching this book, I doubt it. (“This book has been a decade in the making.”)

The six chapters are (1) Brahman and Jain Sanskrit intellectuals at the Mughal court; (2) Sanskrit textual production for the Mughals; (3) Many Persian Mahabharatas for Akbar; (4) Abul Al-Fazl redefines Islamicate knowledge and Akbar’s sovereignty; (5) Writing about the Mughal world in Sanskrit; and (6) Incorporating Sanskrit into the Persianate world.

An enormous amount of information is packed into these. If one ponders over the theme of Sanskrit at the Mughal court, the subtitle of this volume, one is likely to think of Chapters 1, 2 and 3. (Chapter 3 has an extensive discussion on the newly-created Persian epic, Razmnamah, or Book of War, as part of the royal translation activity.) Chapters 4, 5 and 6 may not figure in a priori expectations and I found these chapters especially enlightening, 4 being even more delightful than the others. That still leaves the introduction and the conclusion, where one crosses over from the descriptive to the analytical.

Two questions arise. First, why did Sanskrit go into a relative decline? Second, what about Aurangzeb? From the introduction: “Sanskrit ceased to be a major part of Mughal imperial life due to two discernible shifts, one linguistic and the other political.  First, Hindi was on the ascent as a literary language in the seventeenth century and was increasingly occupying the cultural domain previously dominated by Sanskrit…the Mughals increasingly looked to Hindi texts for classical Indian knowledge as opposed to seeking out Sanskrit works.”

In 2011, Nitish Sengupta published a book titled Land of Two Rivers. This was a history of Bengal, both West Bengal and Bangladesh. It didn’t have to do directly with Sanskrit, but had a section on Muslim contributions to the development of the Bengali language. In the section, Sengupta made the point that Muslim writers helped develop the Bengali language and rescued it from “Sanskrit domination”.

To return to Audrey Truschke, the Hindi proposition is one worth probing more, though beyond the detailed purview of this book. To return to the introduction, “Additionally, when Aurganzeb Alamgir came to power in 1658, he cut the few remaining ties between the Mughal court and Sanskrit literati. This decision may seem to fit easily into a commonly held and highly charged image of Aurangzeb as an intolerant Muslim oppressor, but it is more accurately characterised as a calculated political move. Aurangzeb was the third son of Shah Jahan and won the throne at the expense of his elder brother and heir apparent, Dara Shikoh…From Aurangzeb’s perspective, however, severing all imperial links with the Sanskrit world distinguished his cultural politics from those of his elder brother.” Another interesting proposition, again worth probing, but again beyond the detailed purview of this book, apart from positing it.
Truschke is assistant professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University and a fellow in the Department of Religious Studies, Stanford University. She is an academic.  Though I am not certain, I think this is her first book. Despite adhering to academic rigor, one doesn’t necessarily have to write turgid prose.  The first sentence in the Preface has 39 words, the second 57 words. From the first sentence, this style of writing puts you off. When it is a tome and not an ordinary book, this is extremely forbidding.

Bibek Debroy is member, Niti Aayog, and has translated the Mahabharata.

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