What We Can Learn From India’s Medieval Past

Work on Indian history is increasingly threatened by those who cling to a fabricated past filled with religious conflict and display fierce animosity toward anybody who brings up evidence to the contrary.

Work on Indian history is increasingly threatened by those who cling to a fabricated past filled with religious conflict and display fierce animosity toward anybody who brings up evidence to the contrary
brown cropped 2The medieval past matters deeply in modern India. The most prominent people, dynasties, and historical incidents from this period are common subjects of public discussion even today. This investment in the past is generally healthy for Indian society as people robustly debate how to best interpret their history and its possible lessons and meanings for the present.

But there is an ugly side to modern India’s attraction to its younger self. History, especially during the medieval period of so-called Islamic rule, is often flattened and rewritten in modern India until it bears only the faintest resemblance to any reality of what actually happened. Moreover, the battle over India’s past increasingly begins and ends in the present. The truth of any given historical narrative is irrelevant to many, and medieval history is often brazenly altered to reflect modern day political agendas, some of them profoundly troubling.

The battle concerning India’s Islamic past frequently revolves around the Mughal Empire, the most well-known and certainly the most powerful of precolonial India’s many Islamic polities. The last Mughal ruler died well over a century ago, and the Mughals had ceased to exercise substantial political power by the mid-eighteenth century. However, as the Mughals recede further into the past, their valence in debates over India’s future is conversely growing. The recent renaming of Aurangzeb Road in Delhi reminds us all of a modern reality: Mughal history and interpretations thereof matter in today’s world.

A plethora of ideas and arguments swirl around popular interpretations of the Mughals. Many of these ideas are misleading, but there is one myth that is perhaps the most pernicious and dangerous: that the Mughals were religiously intolerant and systematically attacked India’s Hindu population. This vision of the past is largely derived from the British period when India’s colonial masters justified their own atrocities on the subcontinent by supplying India’s Hindu majority with an even worse enemy that was supposedly neutralised when India became part of the British Empire. But few people know this history of ideas today. Instead too many have swallowed wholesale the story that the Mughals are the baddies of medieval India who instigated immense Hindu-Muslim conflict.

The Mughals and Sanskrit

Vishnu killing the danavas Madhu and Kaitabha. From the Razmnama, the illustrated Persian translation of the Mahabharata in 1605. Credit: Birla Academy of Art and Culture, Kolkata

Detail from Vishnu killing the danavas Madhu and Kaitabha. From the Razmnama, the illustrated Persian translation of the Mahabharata in 1605. Credit: Birla Academy of Art and Culture, Kolkata

My research on Jain and Hindu intellectuals in the Mughal Empire contradicts the politically-fueled vision of imperially-led, medieval communal conflict. I rely on a robust archive of Sanskrit, Persian, and Hindi texts – many of them little known and infrequently read – to show that the Mughals cultivated cooperation and conversation across religious and cultural boundaries at their central royal court. My scholarship establishes that, rather than cultivate an anti-Hindu agenda driven by religious bigotry, the Mughals were deeply invested in traditional Hindu and Jain knowledge, especially as contained in Sanskrit literature.

The Mughal interest in Sanskrit spans the reigns of three emperors: Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan. For roughly 100 years (1560-1660), Sanskrit-based intellectuals performed numerous functions at the central Mughal court. Brahmans served as astrologers who cast Sanskrit-based horoscopes for members of the Mughal royal family. Brahmans provided King Akbar with a Sanskrit text titled Suryasahasranama (Thousand Names of the Sun), and Jains then taught the king how to properly recite Surya’s Sanskrit epithets. Members of both religious communities participated in political negotiations, as solicitors of Mughal favors and on behalf of the Mughal rulers.

Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan all sponsored the translation of Sanskrit texts into Persian. Akbar was the most invested in this endeavour, and more than one dozen Sanskrit works were brought into Persian under his orders, including full translations of both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The beautifully illustrated master imperial copies of both translations are among the greatest manuscript treasures of India today and are currently housed in the collection of the Maharaja of Jaipur.

The Mughals were interested in Sanskrit texts and ideas largely for non-religious reasons. For example, Padmasundara (a Jain intellectual) crafted a text on Sanskrit aesthetic theory for Akbar, focusing on shringara (erotic love). Jagannatha Panditaraja, probably the most well-known Sanskrit pandit of the 17th century, enjoyed the support of Jahangir and Shah Jahan and wrote a Sanskrit praise poem to Asaf Khan, Shah Jahan’s royal vizier, about a visit he paid to the verdant region of Kashmir. And while the Persian Mahabharata produced under Akbar is overall a relatively close translation of the epic, his translators included only a severely shortened version of the Bhagavad Gita.

What Aurangzeb changed

aurangzeb Brown croppedMughal engagements with Sanskrit ceased with the ascension of Aurangzeb ‘Alamgir in the late 1650s. Aurangzeb occupies the little envied position in modern India of being branded the most malignant and intolerable of India’s Muslim kings. But the real story is more complex and far more intriguing.

Aurangzeb ruled for nearly 50 years, and in that time he ordered many acts and policies that affected specific Hindu communities, often in disparate ways. For example, it is true that he ordered the destruction of certain Hindu temples (generally as punishment for political opposition). But he also gave tax-free lands to numerous Hindu groups. And he employed greater numbers of Hindus within the imperial administration than any of his predecessors. Aurangzeb has long been neglected by scholars, although this state of affairs is rapidly changing. Even in our partial state of knowledge about his reign, however, we can safely posit that Aurangzeb pursued no overarching, coherent strategy of destroying Hindus or Hinduism.

Mughal support of Sanskrit thinkers ceased when Aurangzeb came to power for two reasons. Neither had anything to do with his alleged anti-Hindu sentiments. First, Hindi was gaining popularity as a literary and intellectual language in the seventeenth century. As a result, the Mughals gradually began to favor Hindi in place of Sanskrit during Shah Jahan’s rule, and this process was nearly complete by the time Aurangzeb took power.

Second, Aurangzeb’s elder brother and Shah Jahan’s favorite for the throne, Dara Shukoh, had supported Sanskrit thinkers and Persian translations of Sanskrit works throughout the 1640s and 1650s. When Aurangzeb beat out his rival for the throne (princely conflict was the usual mode of determining Mughal succession), he needed to strike a balance between continuing standard Mughal modes of claiming authority and determining his own, distinct bases for power. Sanskrit was one of the victims of the latter impulse.

Nonetheless, Aurangzeb’s decision to cease patronage to Sanskrit intellectuals did not signal any change in Mughal policy beyond the royal court. Kavindracharya – a Sanskrit thinker who lost his imperial stipend when Aurangzeb rose to power – soon joined the retinue of Danishmand Khan, a Mughal noble. A few decades later, in the 1680s, Aurangzeb’s uncle, Shaista Khan, asked a Hindu munshi to write a table of contents for the Persian Mahabharata and even penned several Sanskrit verses himself, which are preserved today in an anthology titled Rasakalpadruma.

The politics of history

aurangzeb brown cropped 3The largely unknown story of Mughal engagements with Hindu and Jain thinkers and Sanskrit texts offers heartening lessons for the present. In the courts of Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan Hindus and Muslims found ways to coexist and even learn about one another’s views. The point is not that Mughal India was somehow idyllic. But there is great potential for defusing India’s current communal tensions in the knowledge that Hindus and Muslims have not always been at one another’s’ throats and that there is a rich historical legacy of relationships between Hindus and Muslims that could replace such enmity.

But we are in increasing danger of becoming unable to access India’s medieval past, especially its diversity and complexity. Over the past decade a number of scholars have sounded alarms about the steep decline in people who can read premodern Indian languages and the poor state of many manuscript archives on the subcontinent. In addition to such problems I would add that work on Indian history is increasingly threatened by those who cling to a fabricated past filled with religious conflict and display fierce animosity toward anybody who brings up evidence to the contrary. This is a climate where historical research regularly earns Indologists character assassinations and death threats. Such abhorrent reactions have entrenched the false notion that Indian history is a simple set of binaries: the insistence that the Mughals were either “good” or “bad”; Akbar was a tolerant secularist and Aurangzeb a religious zealot. Such formulations lose the nuance of history, and that nuance—born out of calm historical research—is perhaps what is needed most in the culture wars over India’s past.

Audrey Truschke is a historian at Stanford University and Rutgers University-Newark. Her book, Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court will be published by Columbia University Press in 2016

The three uncredited images are details from ‘Emperor Aurangzeb at the siege of Golconda’.
Credit: Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library.

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