Sanskrit & Persian at the Mughal Court

A review of Cosmopolitan Encounters: Sanskrit and Persian at the Mughal Court, by Audrey Truschke.

Audrey Truschke’s dissertation provides a detailed account of encounters between Sanskrit-Persian scholars, texts and ideas in the Mughal imperial court from the late sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries. She analyzes a wide array of both Sanskrit and Persian texts that reflect on and are produced by cross-cultural interaction. Her purpose is to direct scholarly attention to the understudied subject of the points of interaction between the two dominant, cosmopolitan learned traditions of South Asia to argue that Sanskrit was vital to the constitution of imperial power in the Mughal period and to the broader cultural history of early modern South Asia. These are topics which scholars have usually addressed largely using Persian primary sources (p. 2).

Ed. Note: At the request of the dissertation author, Audrey Truschke, we are happy to include a link to the full version of the dissertation (Columbia University Academic Commons).

The dissertation consists of four chapters and a substantive conclusion. The first two chapters focus largely on Brahmin and Jain scholars at the Mughal royal court, their encounters with the emperors Akbar and Jahangir, as well as nobles and officials of high station such as ‘Abd al-Qadir Bada’uni, Abu al-Fazl and ‘Abd al-Rahim Khan-i Khanan, and the ways in which these encounters are represented in Sanskrit texts. The third and fourth chapters examine the Mughal court’s interest in and engagement with Sanskrit scholars, texts and knowledge systems by analyzing the social context and textual texture of Persian works such as the A’in-i Akbari, a portion of Akbar’s official history, and translations of Sanskrit works patronized by the Mughal court such as the Razmnamah (a translation of the Mahabharata) and the Ramayan (a translation of the Ramayana). Together these chapters provide views of cultural constitution and intellectual exchange that challenge views of military, administrative or economic aspects of the Mughal state as sufficient for understanding Mughal political history. A one-page appendix provides reconstructed Sanskrit verses included in the Razmnamah, along with their English translations.

Chapter 1 focuses on the encounters between Jains and Brahmins at Akbar’s court, and then the changing nature of these relations during the reigns of Jahangir and Shahjahan. Sanskrit literati served the Mughal court in a wide variety of capacities, as translators, negotiators and astrologers, and some wrote at length about these experiences. Out of these engagements came multilingual titling practices bestowed by Mughal emperors on Sanskrit leaders, Mughal participation in the religious hierarchy of the Jains, and Mughal adoption of some of the latter’s devotional practices. Particularly fascinating is the manner in which Sanskrit scholars acted as informants and interpreters for Sanskrit knowledge systems and religions through the oral medium of Hindi. Indeed, it is the rise of Braj Bhasa (courtly Hindi) at the expense of Sanskrit in the mid-seventeenth century that serves as a terminus for this study. Truschke then examines two types of Sanskrit texts that came out of these encounters, encomia (praise poems) of the Mughals and Sanskrit grammars of Persian. She examines these texts for their imperial implications, as well as the different ways these encounters with the Mughals impacted the Sanskrit tradition. Brahmins, most often at court on behalf of others, were largely silent about their encounters, leaving only the indirect traces of grammars and lexicons. Jains represented their time at court in the more direct form of praise poems, portraying Sanskrit as an important feature of court culture. They most often narrated their involvement in the Mughal court as beneficial for their particular sectarian interests (pp. 105-106). Truschke argues that these encounters between individuals, texts and practices constituted vibrant aspects of Mughal court culture (p. 29).

Chapter 2 argues that Jain-authored Sanskrit materials have much to add to the generally Persian-centric narrative of the Mughal empire, pointing most immediately to episodes of imperial importance about which Persian chronicles are silent. These prose and poetic biographical texts also demonstrate the impact of Mughal relations on what Truschke identifies as “crucial moments of cultural innovation within the Sanskrit literary tradition” (p. 108). These texts, the ways in which they represent cross-cultural practices, their characteristics as literature, and the innovations they represent are diverse; nevertheless, they all “place power and culture at the forefront of their concerns” (p. 109). Though courtly affiliation sometimes conflicted with their ascetic practices, these imperial encounters gave Jain authors the opportunity to reflect on their identity as monks, outline their theology in dialogue with the Mughals, and locate themselves in the context of a new imperial reality in the subcontinent. In the process, these texts provide alternative and innovative “literary and social locations” from the relative reticence about the Mughals, Persian culture and Muslim beliefs in Sanskrit texts produced by Brahmins, who frequented the imperial court in greater numbers (p. 176).

Chapter 3 focuses on the centerpiece of Mughal-sponsored translations of Sanskrit literature into Persian, the Razmnamah. Through comparison with its source text, this chapter analyzes the translation methods that went into producing the text, and considers its influence on Mughal literary culture by tracing its courtly reception. Truschke argues that the ways in which it was translated created the Razmnamah as “a new Indo-Persian epic of deep relevance to the imperial court and polity” (p. 181). Noting that the lack of bilingual scholars resulted in this translation taking place orally through the vernacular of Hindi, Truschke approaches the text by thinking about the social interaction and collaboration that produced this translation (pp. 186-191). Translation was not line by line, and the ways in which particular sections were abridged, expanded or refigured demonstrates some of the fascinating ways in which this text participated in the Mughal fashioning and practice of power. Certain Sanskrit words and concepts were retained in the translation, developing “a web of associations between the epic and Indo-Persian forms of knowledge” (p. 200). In this vein, Truschke traces the ways in which the translators expanded and rendered portions of the epic in the tradition of Persian moral and political advice literature (pp. 217-219).

Chapter 4 examines the ways in which Sanskrit literature and knowledge systems were incorporated into Persian court-sponsored literary culture beyond the Mughal central court, beyond Akbar and Jahangir’s reigns, and even beyond the Mughal realm itself to the Deccan. This chapter offers “the complex reception dynamics that emerged as the Mughal court introduced an increasing number of Sanskrit materials into the imperial realm” through an analysis of the synthesis of Sanskrit learning in texts like Abu al-Fazl’s A’in-i Akbari, Persian chronicles that incorporate the pre-Islamic history of the subcontinent like Tarikh-i Firishtah, and responses to translations in the form of reworkings and reader comments (p. 253). Imperial Persianate actors reacted to this introduction in various ways. Abu al-Fazl advocated mutual understanding through partial adoption of each other’s practices. In contrast, Firishtah domesticated pre-Islamic Sanskrit historical narratives and incorporated them into a Perso-Islamic universal history that positioned the Mughals as the culmination and inheritors of a linear South Asian history. This story of cross-cultural encounters was not free of tensions, as evinced by the discomfort with and condemnation of figures like Bada’uni who found Mughal claims to power through these translation efforts to be both heretical from a religious standpoint and an instance of political overreach.

Audrey Truschke’s dissertation offers a series of interventions at the level of historiography and at the broader level of scholarly methodology. She effectively challenges the notion that only Persian is necessary for understanding the construction of Mughal power in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries by highlighting the ways in which the royal court drew on Sanskrit knowledge systems to frame, distinguish and map the Mughal imperium onto the subcontinent. At the broader level of cultural history, she offers the focus on and method of comparing points of internal divisions and cross-cultural interaction at the center of empire (rather than from the margins of empire and external relations) as a way to yield fresh perspectives on culture and power (pp. 335-336). Comparison and analysis of various manuscript copies of the same work and attention to handwritten flyleaf notes and marginalia also demonstrate that manuscripts and their culture are worthy of attention beyond just the factual or literary content of the text itself. She demonstrates the rich potential for this kind of manuscript work in thinking through questions of circulation, access and reception in early modern culture. More broadly, Audrey Truschke underlines the importance of understanding the role of literary culture and power in the study of early modern empire.

Mana Kia
Center for History of the Emotions
Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin

Primary Sources

This dissertation largely relies on a rich array of manuscripts of Sanskrit and Persian works. These include Sanskrit praise poems, grammars of Persian, and biographical prose and poetry, as well a number of voluminous Persian chronicles and epics in both languages. Some of Truschke’s sources are published, particularly the longer chronicles and epics, but much of her work was with rarely-used or unknown manuscripts. Truschke draws on manuscript collections across North America, Europe and Asia. These numerous archives and manuscript libraries include those in Washington DC, London, Oxford, Paris, Doha, Kolkata, Delhi, Jaipur, Pune, Mumbai, Patna, Ahmedabad, Lucknow, Rampur, Hyderabad and elsewhere.

Dissertation Information

Columbia University. 2012. 369 pp. Primary Advisor: Sheldon Pollock.


Image: Photograph by Audrey Truschke.

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