Cultural Crossroads: How Sanskrit became the Mughal lingua franca

Cultural Crossroads: How Sanskrit became the Mughal lingua franca

By SRIJA NASKAR | | 2 April, 2016
Akbar watches Tansen take lessons from Bhakti music composer Swami Haridas.
Srija Naskar looks into the whys and hows of participation of Sanskrit as the classical language of India in the Mughal imperial project — cutting across aesthetic, linguistic, cultural and religious norms of an Islamicate court culture during the Mughal era.

As the hashtag #prayforLahore trends on social media, let’s take a quick look back to early 2015. Paris was at the forefront of global attention due to the Islamic militancy attack on the Charlie Hebdo office. And, if one distinctly remembers, a different collective sense of love and solidarity for the French capital had emerged besides #prayforParis. It was called #ParisisLife, when Joann Sfar, one of the cartoonists, urged the world via his Instagram page, “Friends from the world, thank you for #prayforParis, but we don’t need more religion! Our faith goes to music! Kisses! Life! Champagne and joy”.

Can you imagine a Pakistani dare such a modified hashtag living in a country that is still struggling to imbibe the ideas of secularism in its system? Over the years the increasing public association of non-adherents of Islam with militant extremism and the rising need to compartmentalise all such Muslims as “bad” has reduced the identity of a whole community based on just one thing: “religion”. Besides being reductive, this has also resulted in complete methodical elimination of historical evidences. The peaceful co-existence of communities, religions, languages, cultures had in the Mughal way of living has become a matter of convenient ‘historical forgetting’.

The Sanskrit literati — primarily Jains and Brahmans — used Sanskrit as a tradition to promote the interests of their communities by co-opting the power associated with Mughal rule. Author Audrey Truschke in her newly released book Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court leaves a treatise on this subject. “The history of Sanskrit at the Mughal court has remained out of sight for most scholars due to assumptions and lack of language skills. Scholars have presumed that the Mughals as Muslims, had no interest in Sanskrit. And very few  Mughal historians know Sanskrit (myself excepted) and hence lack access to many of the textual sources that point up the unfounded nature of that assumption,” Truschke tells Guardian 20.

“Terms such as ‘good Muslim’ and ‘bad Muslim’  will never help our understanding of Indian history and figures such as Aurangzeb are poorly understood when we think of them exclusively in religious terms,” adds Truschke.

Truschke explains in her book that rather than mere tools of legitimation which assumes that the Mughals incorporated Sanskrit into court life in order to justify their rule, the Mughals saw literary pursuits as a crucial part of integration rather than domination. By reinventing the aspects of the Sanskrit tradition in Persian, the Mughals aligned themselves with a literary culture possessing  deep historical roots in India that Persian lacked. Persian during the Mughal period apart from being an integral part of the cultural world of the Ottoman Empire also had a culture deeply grounded in South Asia’s pre-Islamic past.  So, these cross-cultural exchanges were aimed to formulate a locally flavoured sovereign identity.

Rejecting doubts over Akbar’s literacy and the authenticity of Mughal consumption of this cross cultural project, Audrey writes that Sanskrit tradition furnished precedents for vernacular verbal recitations of certain works, such as Puranas, for the sake of a non-Sanskrit knowing audience and that Akbar frequently enjoyed hearing texts read out aloud. Even though Persian was the administrative language of the Mughals, Audrey urges one to abandon the age-old concept guided by Indo-Persian history that the Mughal court was a space dominated by Persianate culture.

Audrey corroborates this with facts on early Brahman intellectuals like Orissa’s Mahapatra Krsnadasa and his Akbarnamah, considered one of Akbar’s earliest official histories and another text called Gitaprakasa that goes on to exemplify how the Sanskrit tradition of musical discourse was nurtured by the Mughals. “They sponsored Sanskrit treatises on music, wrote about Sanskrit-based musical traditions in Persian, and also employed Indian musicians such as the famous Tansen,” she says. Often, Mughal emperors would call upon individuals to provide access to practices beyond their sectarian affiliations. Audrey writes about Shaykh Bhavan, who  belonged to Akbar’s court and was often — despite his conversion to Islam — expected to explain Brahmanical ideas. Once Bhavan said that the Atharva Veda permitted Hindus to eat beef in certain circumstances and prescribed burial of the dead rather than cremation. The Mughals were tempted by this idea which fell outside mainstream Brahmanical belief and the first translation from Sanskrit began with the Atharva Veda during Akbar’s reign.

Sanskrit was an effective medium for petitioning the Mughal ruling class and have been used for political favours.

It should also be noted that Sanskrit was an effective medium for petitioning the Mughal ruling class and have been used for political favours linguistically, culturally so forth.  Hiravijaya, a Jain monk, during his stay from 1583 to 1585 solicited several imperial concessions like, prohibition of animal slaughter during the eight-day Jain festival of Paryushan. Audrey informs that many Sanskrit texts written during this period corroborate this fact that the Mughal court culture promoted the central Jain value of non-violence. In some Sanskrit works of Mahapatra Krsnadasa written during Akbar’s reign —Akbar has been shown as an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. Gujarati poet Samayasundara in 1592 in his text titled Artharatnavali  equates the final letters of the word “raja” to three different Hindu deities that match the last three syllables of Akbar’s Sanskritised name Akavara. Thus Akbar, an Indian raja, came to be identified with Brahma (ka), Vayu (va), and Agni (ra). By mentioning how Mughal rulers enacted Sanskrit aesthetics, like sun-veneration or suryanamaskar and attributing rulers like Akbar’s name to Sanskrit etymology, the Sanskrit literati were not only evaluating expressions of imperial claims but also resisting it.

“True, there was a break in Mughal connections  with Sanskrit thinkers after Akbar’s reign and more so with the ascension of Aurangzeb. Based on the historical evidence available to me at present, it was not the result of Aurangzeb’s alleged anti-Hindu biases. By the time we get to Bahadur Shah Zafar, Sanskrit had largely ceased to be a vibrant tradition of intellectual production, and Indian thinkers of the nineteenth century largely wrote in other languages,” says Truschke. 

Professor Ram Nath Jha of JNU’s Sanskrit Studies who has also worked on the Sanskrit translations done under the patronage of Dara Shikoh, however, refutes such claims: “If Dara Shikoh would have been the king, even Islam as an ideology would have made much progress. Aurangzeb had zero tolerance towards intermingling of Persian and other cultures. Under Dara Shikoh, fifty Upanishads got translated into Persian, the translation now called Oupnekhat. This Persian translation reached Schopenhauer and through him got circulated in Europe. We must not forget this huge contribution of Dara Shikoh which helped in spreading Upanishadic knowledge across Europe — a milestone translation that infused Islamic philosophy with that of Upanishad’s. Dara Shikoh’s other works, such as, Samudra Sangam deals with the similarities of Arab and Indian cultures. Unlike Aurangzeb, Dara Shikoh had equal respect for all cultures”.

Summing up the multifaceted nature of Mughal court culture, Professor Neshat Quaiser of Jamia Millia Islamia’s Sociology department says, “Sanskrit was an act of developing art, science, and a theory of negotiation in a situation of plurality. Thus, the medieval state’s interest in Sanskrit, in my view was not guided just by political expediency to know local people. In the contemporary ideological chaos and contentions, a reading of medieval India based on a theory of plurality would be something that one should strive for to counter religious hegemonic ideologies.”


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