Literary Review

The Mughals and Sanskrit scholars

Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court; Audrey Truschke, Penguin Books India, Rs. 525

Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court; Audrey Truschke, Penguin Books India, Rs. 525

Scholars have often ignored the many roles of Sanskrit intellectuals and texts in Mughal imperial life, particularly the political dimensions of these connections. In large part, this oversight is due to the persistent misreading of Persian court chronicles. With few exceptions, the Mughals penned their histories in Persian. These works provide a valuable means of accessing much of the past, but they are carefully crafted political narratives that represent the Mughal imperium and courtly activities in highly selective ways. Following Indo-Persian precedents, Mughal histories only selectively recognize the presence of languages and cultures at the royal court beyond the Indo-Persian realm. They also project an idealized image of strong, unwavering imperial authority that deliberately elides the consistently evolving and threatened quality of Mughal power. In short, court chronicles must be read as limited, politically charged documents. Such works are tremendous resources for parsing the Mughal imperial image, and I rely heavily on Persianate histories here. However, they are best paired with materials from other traditions in order to produce a more historically accurate picture of the multifaceted nature of Mughal court culture and political power.

Several scholars have recently drawn attention to the many ways in which Mughal power operated that cannot be gleaned from official histories. For example, Azfar Moin has emphasized the importance of embodied kingship for the Mughals as expressed through performance and invocations of popular traditions. Munis Faruqui has underscored the role of princely networks and competition in ensuring a vibrant dynasty. Allison Busch has highlighted Hindi poets and literature in reconstructing the multicultural environment of the Mughal imperium. These scholars have put to rest the old notion that written Indo-Persian histories alone tell us what was really important in premodern and early modern South Asia. Nonetheless, scholars have been slow to look to Sanskrit texts in order to recover Mughal history, partially because few Mughal historians know Sanskrit and also because modern Indian language politics dictate the irrelevance of Sanskrit for understanding a Persianate empire.

Sanskrit texts present a nearly entirely neglected archive for understanding the venues and perceptions of Mughal imperial authority. In this book I draw on Sanskrit histories of the Mughals, Sanskrit praise poems for the ruling elite, and a wide range of Sanskrit poetry and intellectual treatises. These works offer a myriad of insights, but no single work or genre of materials discusses the full spectrum of cross-cultural exchanges that took place under Mughal auspices. Accordingly, I also regularly draw on Persian courtly and noncourtly sources and, to a lesser extent, on Hindi and Gujarati texts. In this sense, my work exposes the flaws in monolingual analyses of early modern India when contacts between cultures were more often pivotal rather than peripheral. The precise political claims that the Mughals pursued through involvement with the Sanskrit realm are best understood by examining specific exchanges and texts, but a few aspects of this intersection of power and empire are helpful to elaborate. First and foremost, Mughal engagements with Sanskrit were directed primarily toward a narrow band of ruling elites who were considered the true makers of empire. Individual texts repeatedly address a limited audience that was sometimes restricted to the Mughal emperor and other times included high-ranking members of the imperial administration. The Mughals rarely conducted cross-cultural exercises with an eye toward Jain or Brahmanical leaders and even more infrequently for the sake of the Indian population at large. Legitimation theory fails to capture this dynamic of Mughal imperial culture because it anachronistically assumes that the relationship between the government and the people was of paramount importance. A legitimation framework posits that the Mughals incorporated Sanskrit literati into court life, became involved with the Sanskrit social sphere, and commissioned translations in order to justify their right to rule. However, I have uncovered little evidence that the Mughals, either intentionally or incidentally, won over any Indian communities through their interest in Sanskrit. This is not to say that the Mughals were uninterested in gaining the trust and loyalty of those they governed. On the contrary, Munis Faruqui has recently shown the careful and painstaking work that such attempts at integration generally entailed. However, what Sanskrit offered the Mughals was a particularly potent way to imagine power and conceptualize themselves as righteous rulers.

Above all, encounters with Sanskrit reveal the centrality of literature in the Mughal effort to build an Indian empire. The relationship between aesthetics and politics was fluid for the Mughals and took different forms rather than being confined to a set framework. Here again legitimation theory offers a presumptive understanding of political power that automatically subordinates aesthetic events to political objectives and fails to accurately capture the multiple political and social dimensions of Mughal cross-cultural interests. Rather than mere tools of legitimation, the Mughals saw literary pursuits themselves as a crucial part of a successful imperial formation. Aesthetics was often deeply political in pre-modern India, a phenomenon that scholars have also noticed in other Asian societies, such as early modern Japan. For the Mughals, encounters with the Sanskrit cultural world offered several promising possibilities in terms of advancing specific politico-aesthetic objectives.

In many instances, the Mughals sought to claim hitherto unavailable Sanskrit texts, stories, and knowledge systems as their own. By reinventing aspects of the Sanskrit tradition in Persian, the Mughals aligned themselves with a literary culture possessing the deep historical roots in India that Persian lacked. Persian linked the Mughal Empire with a larger early modern cultural world that included Safavid Iran, the Ottoman Empire, and much of Central Asia. But 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. The Mughals also adapted Sanskrit terms and ideas in order to develop new modes of expression. In this sense, they strove to recenter the Persophone world around the subcontinent and to create a distinctively Indo-Persian literary culture that prominently featured interactions with the Sanskrit sphere. In yet other cases, the Mughals encouraged textual production within the Sanskrit tradition and thus sought to participate in a long-standing custom of providing royal sponsorship to India’s traditional elite. Without having a single unified agenda, the Mughals nonetheless consistently turned to the resources of the Sanskrit tradition as part of their multifaceted political interests.

Scholars have denied Sanskrit any substantive literary or historical, much less political, role in the Mughal Empire for so long that it may no doubt strike many readers as difficult to imagine that Sanskrit was a major component of Mughal imperial authority. But the forms and density of imperial interactions with Sanskrit demand that we rethink the very formulation of Mughal culture and power. The Mughals created (rather than merely vindicated) their claims to rule through their connections with the Sanskrit sphere, which we can best understand if we forgo the assumptions of much Western theory regarding the justification of power. They cultivated deep and diverse ties with Sanskrit thinkers and texts over the course of nearly one hundred years because they saw such activities as a central part of their political project. The opinions of the population at large were not at stake in these engagements. Rather, these cross-cultural exchanges were driven primarily by the cravings of political leaders to formulate their own locally flavored sovereign identities and narratives of power, above all for their own benefit. This hunger for a unique political self, dubbed the “inward-turning aspect of legitimation” by one theorist, is a phenomenon rampant across the premodern and the modern worlds. By investigating the mechanisms of this political behavior during the height of the Mughal Empire, we stand to gain fresh insight into the actions of government figures both historically and today.


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