New facets of the Mughals

Print edition : May 27, 2016

A portrait of Akbar.

A portrait of Jahangir. Having inherited the master imperial copy of Akbar's "Ramayana", Jahangir called the book "beyond comprehension".

Tansen and Akbar (in disguise) visit Swami Haridas in Brindavan. Akbar considered himself to be the ruler of all, not just Muslims. Photo: Courtesy : National Museum

The book frees Mughal history of preconceived notions and carefully brings out the strands of pluralism that helped weave the Mughal fabric.

ABOUT four years ago, the historian William Dalrymple surprised many book lovers with a fine study of painting and literature during the Mughal age. Students of history knew well the miniature works done during the time of the Mughal ruler Jahangir and, indeed, had more than a passing fancy for the pietra dura technique of that period. Yet, when Dalrymple claimed that there was a flowering of art and culture after the decline of the Great Mughals with the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, more than a few eyebrows were raised.

But Dalrymple persuasively sought to prove in Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi, a book he co-edited with Yuthika Sharma, that the political decline of the Mughals did not necessarily mean a decline in the world of pen and brush. Yes, Mughal architecture suffered as the state was no longer in a position to finance lofty monuments, but the loss of architecture was the gain of the arts: Urdu flourished, poetry reigned supreme and, in the world of painting, Ghulam Ali Khan’s brush was said to equal Ghalib’s pen. Ghulam Ali Khan was in the limelight during the reign of Mohammed Shah ‘Rangeela’ (grandson of Bahadur Shah I), otherwise dismissed as a no-hoper by some historians for his political inadequacies. However, it was during Rangeela’s reign that artists who had moved to Sikh and Rajput courts came back to the Mughal court. And yes, the last of the Great Mughals, Aurangzeb, was a pragmatic ruler who patronised Hindu institutions. He employed more Hindus in his imperial administration than any of his predecessors did. So, Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi, replete with photographs, was a step in the right direction.

Audrey Truschke’s Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court is several steps forward. It comes at a time when efforts are being made to selectively wipe out traces of India’s composite heritage. It is not a book that has come too soon. Well researched, persuasively argued and patiently explained, the book fills a vacuum that one did not know even existed. After all, Dara Shukoh’s (Shah Jahan’s eldest son) fascination for the Upanishads and the Bhagvad Gita is well known. One has even heard of Akbar’s Sulhi Kul (policy of religious reconciliation). His court is known for the navratna (nine gems), the nine courtiers of extraordinary talent assembled independent of their religion or caste. Yet, nobody had thought it fit to study Sanskrit at the Mughal court. After all, the empire was all about Turkish and Persian. But the Mughals were shrewd masters; they understood the local pulse better than the local people themselves. Hence, the use and encouragement of Sanskrit was not just inevitable but natural.

With this painstaking work, Audrey Truschke also buries for good all prejudiced arguments that the Mughals were invaders who killed for pleasure, looted out of habit, demolished temples and indeed wiped out all vestiges of local culture with impunity. The picture that was presented was often jarring, almost always provocative.

The author, an assistant professor of South Asian History at Rutgers University, Newark, United States, seeks to redress the balance admirably. In the past, history has often been a prisoner of stereotypes: Akbar was a model of excellence; Jahangir and Shah Jahan were able successors during whose time art and architecture flowered; Aurangzeb was the much-despised tyrant who converted Hindus under fear.

Audrey Truschke frees history of preconceived notions with a work that unfurls so gently and deceptively that you could be forgiven for initially believing that she has little new to say. It is when you are halfway through the book that you realise that the author has been hand-holding you, leading you through paths that you did not know had even existed. In terms of interpretation of history, it is a laudable intervention, one that, hopefully, will fuel greater research into the strands of pluralism that helped weave the Mughal fabric.

In the preface and acknowledgements, the author tells us what to expect:

“…For roughly one hundred years the Mughal elite poured immense energy into drawing Sanskrit thinkers to their courts, adopting and adapting Sanskrit-based practices, translating dozens of Sanskrit texts into Persian, and composing Persian accounts of Indian philosophy. Both Persian- and Sanskrit-medium authors blazed new paths with their respective literary cultures in response to this imperial agenda. When all was said and done, Mughal-Sanskrit engagements constituted one of the most extensive cross-cultural encounters in precolonial world history, rivalled by the likes of the Abbasid engagement with Greek thought in the eighth to tenth centuries and Chinese translations of Buddhist Sanskrit materials during the first millennium C.E.”

Akbar’s translation

The Mughal rulers’ engagement with Sanskrit was not free of surprises. For instance, the Akbari translation of the Sanskrit Ramayana, which was never published. In this, Akbar idealised Rama as the model Indian monarch. Importantly, the book suggested that Akbar was an avatar of Vishnu, just like Rama. It was an attempt at fusion of state and belief, yet at the same time a radical departure from the established practice of the age when the emperor’s faith used to be the faith of the common man.

There is another anecdote relating to the Ramayana. Badauni, the historian in the Mughal court, otherwise much lauded in history books, refused to write the introduction to the translation. His apprehension probably stemmed from his faith. Ironically, he had translated several Sanskrit texts into Persian at Akbar’s command. Badauni, taken by surprise at the Emperor’s decision to have the introduction or preface by him, wrote: “(Akbar) ordered me to also write a preface (to the Ramayana) in the style of the authors. Because I found little benefit and also had to write the khutbah without praise of the Prophet, I desisted. I seek refuge in God from that black book, which is so rotten as the book of my life.”

Badauni’s refusal to pen the introduction had to do with the politics at the court. The emperor was seen as a liberal adherent to Islam while Badauni was more of a hardliner. And, as Audrey Truschke writes, in the past he had been upbraided by the emperor for interpolating Islamic theology into the Mahabharata. The author’s narration is insightful and thought-provoking and what she says between the lines completes the picture. For instance, without seeming to compare the attitude of Akbar and Jahangir, she reveals Jahangir’s less-than-wholehearted appreciation of the local culture. Yet, at the same time, she shows the difference in the approach to stories in Persia and India. Having inherited the master imperial copy of Akbar’s Ramayana after ascending the throne, Jahangir calls the book beyond comprehension.

“This book, the Ramayana, is one of the celebrated books of the ancients of India. My father ordered it translated into Persian. It contains strange and incredible stories that are truly incomprehensible to the intellect.” As for the two styles of narration, Jahangir’s sense of amazement and wonderment at the book probably arose out of his Persian perspective and the presence of talking animals in the epic. Interestingly, the stories that come to light go beyond the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. For instance, we have Abu al-Fazl relating the story of Siva’s wife who sacrificed herself as a mark of protest against the disrespect shown to her husband at her father Daksha’s sacrificial ceremony and was subsequently dismembered and scattered across the subcontinent. Even more intriguing is the Mughals’ relationship with Kashmir. Here, the author lets Abu al-Fazl do the talking as she seeks to find parallels between Zayn al-Abidin, the Kashmir king, and Akbar. “Abu al-Fazl offers an approbative account of Zayn al-Abidin (r. 1420-1470), describing him in markedly similar terms to how Akbar is praised in Sanskrit texts from the late sixteenth century. For example Abu al-Fazl acclaims the Kashmiri ruler’s compassion in cancelling the taxes on non-Muslims and forbidding cow slaughter. He also celebrates that Zayn al-Abidin refused to eat meat [and] dissuaded men from hunting, sentiments that Akbar also expressed (at least in moderation).”

New facets

Step by step, Audrey Truschke reveals new facets of the Mughals. They were great patrons of art and culture. They were the votaries of Perso-Arabic traditions. Akbar considered himself to be the ruler of all, not just Muslims. But there was much more to them. They were not infidel-slaying, angry monarchs who lived in a social vacuum. They were politically savvy kings who were open to beliefs, customs and traditions beyond their own. Hitherto, most historians had concentrated on tapping into the Perso-Arabic reservoir, the Sanskrit treasure was delved into for the purpose of establishing literary renaissance during the Mughal period.

Culture of Encounters not only uses fresh sources of research but also quietly tells us that we have not been fair to the Mughals in projecting them in black and white. The reality with the Mughals, as indeed with other things in life, lay in shades of grey. They got the Hindu scriptures translated into Persian, they got books on the Hindu thought processes translated, too. And they did get many other books of every use, like texts on medicine or law translated as well. But their contribution was bigger than the sum of the parts. They embraced a way of life, a way of thought that was remarkably different from theirs. They did not so much as acquiesce as assimilate. The author puts it aptly: “Scholars have long ignored the very existence, not to mention the political ramifications, of connections between the imperial Mughal court and Sanskrit intellectuals, texts, and knowledge systems. Many Mughal historians have relied exclusively and uncritically on Persian histories, usually produced under royal support, which frequently offer a purposefully inaccurate vision of Mughal culture as limited to Perso-Arabic traditions. Additionally, the false notion remains prevalent that Sanskrit literary developments unfolded without reference to political events and social changes.” Audrey Truschke is successful in avoiding their errors, relying happily on the social links between the Mughal elite and Jain and Brahman Sanskrit intellectuals and the series of literary engagements that they separately and jointly produced. Interestingly, the Mughals, once they had established themselves in India, did not regard Sanskrit to be the language of the subjects. Rather they saw in the language the key to understanding India’s socio-literary traditions. They expended considerable energy into “incorporating Sanskrit intellectuals, stories, and knowledge systems into their court culture”.

Dalrymple. Yuthika Sharma. Now Audrey Truschke. More and more authors are taking a fresh look at the Mughals. Just as the political elite seeks to unravel the contiguities of the past, we must earnestly strive to bring to the common man’s domain the joys of a shared past, the age when Persian and Sanskrit were used simultaneously in the court of the same emperor. While the narrative flows smoothly, the author does not try to make her point too loudly. In that understated silence lies the strength of the book, and a lesson for our times.