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Sanskrit shone at Mughal court

Published : Apr 20, 2016, 1:17 am IST
Updated : Apr 20, 2016, 1:17 am IST

It is a pleasure to recognise at the very outset that Audrey Truschke’s Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court is a major intervention in the study of the Mughal Empire in India.

Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court By Audrey Truschke Penguin pp. 336, Rs 699
 Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court By Audrey Truschke Penguin pp. 336, Rs 699

It is a pleasure to recognise at the very outset that Audrey Truschke’s Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court is a major intervention in the study of the Mughal Empire in India.

Even as it recognises that the theme of the imperial patronage to the Sanskrit language by medieval Indian rulers has been explored by several scholars over the past few decades, many of whom are referred to in the text or listed in the extensive bibliography at the end while some are still missing, where it marks a significant departure is in problematising the theme.


Translations of a large number of Sanskrit texts of variant natures — from those on astronomy, astrology, medicine etc to sacred texts like Ramayan and Mahabharat — were driven by multiple considerations. Some of these were purely utilitarian, like texts on medicine or astronomy; others more thoughtfully comprised an attempt to understand the religion and culture of the vast numbers of the people inhabiting the medieval society, who professed a religion as well as an intellectual tradition that was different from their rulers’. But Truschke goes beyond these well-trodden paths and strongly argues that the Mughals sought to integrate the culture of the Sanskrit language and literature in the evolution of the Mughal state system. In other words, it wasn’t just a clever strategy to please some Brahmins to obtain their support; indeed, a worldview that envisioned the Mughal court and by extension the Mughal state as a multi-cultural and multi-lingual cosmos inhered in the extensive effort to translate dozens of texts over a century between 1560 and 1660. Simultaneously some Persian texts were also translated into Sanskrit. Inherent in it was also the question of relationship of culture and power, which is a constituent of any polity and Truschke returns to it again and again. She concludes with the bold announcement: “I have established the relevance of such an exercise for thinking about the nature of Mughal Empire, Sanskrit and Persian traditions in early modern India, and connections between literature and imperialism.”


Truschke bases her complex argument on a vast database, comprising a massive number of Sanskrit and Persian texts, both published and in manuscript and several other languages and, of course, even more massive amount of secondary literature; she develops her argument with élan and supports almost every sentence with a reference to her source. The great strength of her work lies in her mastery of both Sanskrit and Persian, nearly absent in any other work on this or any other theme, which takes us back to medieval India.

Yet, Truschke is not entirely free of some inconsistencies. Several times she puts on record her discomfort with the argument of seeking legitimacy for the state through this as through other actions. She seems to view the search for legitimacy by the state (any state) as a sort of confidence trick played on the subjects; implicit in it is a suspicion of illegitimacy of the effort.


However, when she asserts “I argue that the Mughals developed a detailed exegesis of Indian, particularly Sanskrit, learning in order to formulate their sovereignty over the subcontinent and benefit from its multiple forms of knowledge”, she is really reinforcing the search for legitimacy without any trace of illicit ulterior motive.

Norbert Elias had long ago emphasised the significance of culture as a source of legitimacy of states, not as deliberate manoeuvre but as part of its self-image

In some ways, chapter 4, “Abul al-Fazl redefines Islamicate Knowledge and Akbar’s Sovereignty” is both the strength of the book as well as its weakness. The great historian of Akbar, Abul Fazl was redefining several things: the very concept of history as a discipline and the displacement of the Islamic hijri era which divides historical time vertically between the age of ignorance prior to the birth of Islam and one of the light of wisdom after it. In its place, Abul Fazl deploys Akbar’s Ilahi era. Implicit in this substitution was abandonment of the political descent of the ruler through Islamic lineage and treating the flow of historical time from Adam down to Akbar without interruption. Akbar’s lineage is thus linked to the first human being and he is thus the ruler of all of humanity and not of Muslims alone. In the five revisions of the Akbar Nameh, Abul Fazl was constantly distancing the discipline of history from its Islamic axis and he did a marvellous job of it, even as it remained an exception. One could have, with legitimacy, expected Truschke to deal with the very major redefining of history writing by Abul Fazl in the whole of the Akbar Nameh. Surprisingly, she confines her discussion to the third part of the Akbar Nameh, i.e. the Ain-i Akbari. Rich as the discussion is, it misses out the bigger picture for the micro one.


As one reads this book so full of intellectual energy, the enormous labours of a young scholar and its great complexity, one is still left with a little discomfort at the claims of leading us “toward a new kind of history of the Mughals” as a sort of hard sell. All scholarship rides on the shoulders of the preceding accretions and every time a new work appears it takes us a step or two further. As this one does. It also leaves one a little sad for the realisation that very little of such impressive scholarship percolates down to the street level where it is hard to simplify it further than one of “the foreigners”, the Muslims, oppressively ruling over the helpless vast majority of the native Hindus. We also boast of vast organisations tasked with preventing such percolation. Like the study of Sanskrit in the Mughal court in pre-modern India, the study of history in modern India remains limited, very limited to a small circle of professionals. What could really be sadder


One small bit of advice for Truschke: Please spare Prince Dara the name Shikuh (terror); let him retain Shukuh (glory) instead!

Harbans Mukhia is a former professor of medieval history