Interview: Audrey Truschke

Audrey Truschke: ‘I am not alone in refusing to sway with the Indian political winds’

Print edition : March 12, 2021

New Delhi, 12/09/2015: Audrey Truschke, the academic who has written on sanskrit in Mughal court Photo: Handout Email Photo: by Special Arrangement

Interview with the historian Audrey Truschke.

IN the past half a decade or so, the noted historian Audrey Truschke has caught the media attention unlike any other. Her book Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth evoked interest among both fellow historians and those who wished to look at history beyond the prism of black and white. The book aroused the anger of many right-wing trolls, many of whom followed her wherever she went to address the audience, be it a literature festival or an academic discourse. More than any contemporary historian, she was vilified for her views on Aurangzeb.

Such was the reaction to Aurangzeb that many of them almost forgot her earlier book, Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court, which was more warmly received.

In many ways, Audrey Truschke’s third and newest work, The Language of History: Sanskrit Narratives of Muslim Pasts (Penguin; January 2021), takes the argument of Culture of Encounters further. However, it comes at a time when society’s ability to discuss and debate dissent and contrarian views is under severe test. Regardless of the intolerant brigade, she talks of India’s shared past, a time in medieval India when issues beyond religion often dictated social and political interaction. She explains in the book: “I began work on this project a number of years ago, but then put it on the back burner because I was interrupted by Aurangzeb Alamgir. The sixth Mughal has been dead for more than three centuries, but he has commanded an immense amount of attention in recent times. In my case, the interruption consumed several years as I researched, wrote and dealt with the aftermath of having produced a historical biography of Aurangzeb, India’s most hated king.”

Also read: 'They want to treat Aurangzeb as a political football'

In The Language of History, she talks of the Sanskrit works in pre-modern era in Indian history, by itself an oft-neglected segment for the study of medieval India. The book covers the period of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals (1191 to 1721). She points out that there was no rancour among a large section of Sanskrit scholars towards Muslims. Often, the scholars identified people with their caste or place of residence rather than religion.

In an interview to Frontline, Audrey Truschke, who is associate professor at Rutgers University-Newark, United States, says she is “committed to recovering and analysing the Indian past”. Excerpts:

Your book on Aurangzeb evoked anger among many Indians. Do you think Indian society and polity is ready for “The Language of History”, a book that goes against the current politics of the country?

India is a big, diverse nation, and I think that many Indians continue to desire scholarly engagement. The rest should feel free to not read my books.

In the book you talk of Sanskrit scholars of pre-modern India defining people by their origin, place of residence and caste. How did they describe early Muslim rulers like Mohammed Ghori and Qutbuddin Aibak? When did they first start calling them Muslim rulers?

The earliest narrative use of a Sanskrit word close to “Muslim” is probably “mausula” in fifteenth century Kashmiri Sanskrit works. Even in those works and thereafter, terms such as yavana and mleccha were more prevalent. There is significant variety in the terminology Sanskrit intellectuals preferred for Muslim rulers. Even today, scholars debate whether we are best served by describing such rulers as “Muslim”, “Indo-Muslim”, “Indo-Persian”, and so forth. Pre-moderns also had vocabulary challenges in this area, it would seem.

Did the Sanskrit elite refer to local Brahmins, kshatriyas and others as Hindus? How did the Muslim rulers refer to them?

Any genaralisation would be too broad to be helpful. Quite often, Indo-Muslim kings perceived distinct groups of Hindus—such as Brahmins, Rajputs, and Marathas—with whom they interacted in different ways, depending on the interests of the state.

It is generally believed that no history was written in Sanskrit. An average student need only quote Kalhana’s “Rajtarangini” to disprove the contention. Are we guilty of using modern tools to examine the methods of recording the past?

We are very guilty of that. There is no sense in denying the truism that we always study the past from the vantage point of our present. But we ought to strive for awareness of our possible modern biases and try to correct for them. In The Language of History, I argue for greater awareness of how some have inappropriately applied a modern Western definition of written history to pre-modern India, so that we might expand our sense of written history and thereby appreciate and use Sanskrit texts that have often been neglected.

Also read: New perspectives on Aurangzeb

In the light of your research, why has the study of Sanskrit histories not been prioritised to study Indo-Muslim rule? Is it because Sanskrit scholars did not notice the existence of Islam for a long time?

I think we have not prioritised using Sanskrit histories to understand Indo-Muslim rule because of a series of modern assumptions, about both the nature of written history and the relevant sources for this part of the South Asian past. Our modern blinders are the problem.

Your book talks about Sanskrit scholars writing about Muslim rulers but not about their religion. How Islamic was the Delhi Sultanate or the Mughals? Were decisions not governed by exigencies of power?

State figures generally acted as such, first and foremost, but I think any single explanation is probably reductive. As to how Islamic we might consider a specific dynasty or individual ruler, well, it all depends on how you define “Islamic”.

Alauddin Khalji, who did not even know Friday prayers, is projected as a blood-thirsty tyrant in contemporary India. How did the Brahmin and Jain scholars of 13th-14th century look at him?

Do you have to know Friday prayers to be Muslim? In any case, Alauddin Khalji comes up repeatedly in the texts that I examine in the book, often regarding his military strength. Some of the 14th century Jain works exhibit remarkable historical specificity regarding Alauddin’s conquests.

You refer to Sanskrit works in the second millennium that pointed to Muslims as an integrated part of local society. This indicates an absence of hostility at the societal level. Yet there were terms such as ‘yavanas’ and ‘mlechha’. Is it not ironical?

Using yavana or mleccha for Muslims is only an irony if you have assumptions about what these terms meant. I would caution against any idea that these terms had fixed meanings over thousands of years in Sanskrit discourse. They did not. I trace a wide variety of senses of yavana, mleccha, and other terms in different Sanskrit texts between the 12th and 18th centuries. Vocabulary and meaning are not static but rather always in flux and subject to change. That is part of why close readings of texts in the original language remains an indispensable part of the historian’s craft.

In the popular imagination, Muslim rulers were temple destroyers. Do Sanskrit works talk of temples destroyed by Hindu rulers?

Popular imagination includes some daft ideas. Brahmin intellectuals were overall not particularly interested in the periodic temple destruction that occurred during Indo-Muslim rule. The subject arises more frequently in Jain works, although it is not limited to Muslim actors. One thing I discuss in the book is how some Jain authors displaced agency for such violence, blaming larger forces such as the Kali Yuga, rather than specific rulers or generals.

(Audrey Truschke writes in the book: “Contemporary Brahmin thinkers did not, so far as we know, write about the Ghaznavid-led assaults. For example, Mahmud of Ghazni sacked Gujarat’s Somnatha temple in 1025, and we know of no contemporary Brahmin-authored account of the episode, or specifically in response to it, in Sanskrit”).

Is India’s medieval history in danger of being hijacked by current politics? Mughals are repeatedly called invaders.

In my view, popular knowledge of pre-modern history is headed in a dark direction in India as many support lies, ignorance, and hatred. It remains an ongoing source of sorrow for me, and for many historians, to see such a complex history maligned by those who might rightly claim it as a complicated heritage. That said, the work of historians and academics continues. I am not alone in refusing to sway with the Indian political winds. I remain committed to recovering and analysing the Indian past to the best of my abilities, regardless of the preferences or pressures of the current Indian government.