It’s a language of the Muslim pasts too
Audrey Truschke | 22 Jan, 2021
An illustration to Akbarnama depicting Ranthambhor king Rai Surjan Hada submitting to emperor Akbar, by Mughal court artists Mukund and Shankar, c 1590
IN AUGUST 2018, violent nationalists prevented me from delivering an academic lecture on premodern Indian history in Hyderabad in southern India. A few weeks before the scheduled event, self-described members of Hindu nationalist groups—including the Bajrang Dal, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—wrote letters to the police threatening violence if I were to take the stage. The police refused to provide protection, which I sometimes need to speak in India and even in the West. And so the lecture, titled ‘Unpopular Stories’ in a nice bit of unintentional irony, was cancelled over my objections. The silencing of academic voices is an increasingly common outcome in India, where a political swerve to the hard right has been accompanied by a feverish devotion to a bastardized vision of India’s past. In short, Indian right-wingers are trying to cook the history books. This means that historians—who call out such shenanigans by insisting on evidence, solid arguments and professional ethics—face mounting pressure to remain mute. Sometimes the bullying works, such as in Hyderabad, but other times it does not work.
I cannot promise that the narratives I share in what follows will be anymore or less popular than those I was prevented from sharing in Hyderabad. But I can reasonably predict that the stories I resurrect here—many of them long tucked away in old, little-read Sanskrit texts—will surprise you, dear reader. For while the premodern Indian past is vibrantly alive and debated in modern times, premodern Sanskrit historical writings remain largely inaccessible and unknown to all but specialists. Even scholars partial to reading premodern Sanskrit texts may find that I analyse stories in unexpected ways and so bring out aspects of the Sanskrit tradition that are usually overlooked. The lack of visibility of Sanskrit histories of Muslim-led rule, to my colleagues and to a general audience, is part of the reason why I decided to write about this subject. This robust body of narrative texts expands our historical and conceptual resources for understanding Sanskrit literature, early modern history and premodern and modern Indian identities.
I present and analyse a hitherto overlooked group of histories on Indo-Persian political events, namely, a few dozen Sanskrit texts that date from the 1190s until 1721. As soon as Muslim political figures established themselves in northern India in the 1190s—when the Ghurids overthrew the Chauhans and ruled part of northern India from Delhi—Indian intellectuals wrote about that political development in Sanskrit. Indian men (and at least one woman) produced dozens of Sanskrit texts on Indo-Persian political events. These works span Delhi Sultanate and Mughal rule, including works that deal with Deccan sultanates and Muslim-led polities in the subcontinent’s deep south. India’s premodern learned elite only ceased to write on Indo-Muslim powers in Sanskrit when the Mughal Empire began to fracture beyond repair in the early eighteenth century. In other words, Sanskrit writers produced histories of Indo-Muslim rule—meaning political power wielded over parts of the Indian subcontinent by people who happened to be Muslim—throughout nearly the entire time span of that political experience. [I seek], for the first time, to collect, analyse and theorize Sanskrit histories of Muslim-led rule and, later, as Muslims became an integral part of the Indian cultural and political worlds, Indo-Muslim rule as a body of historical materials. My main focus remains on historiography or history writing, more than political history (although there is more than a little of that too in these pages). This new archive has wide-reaching implications for specialist scholarship on premodern South Asia. Among other things, these works lend insight into formulations and expressions of premodern political, social, cultural and religious identities. Given the current political climate where nationalist claims are often grounded on fabricated visions of India’s premodernity, [my work] also contributes to ongoing debates in the Indian public sphere.
While the premodern Indian past is vibrantly alive and debated in modern times, premodern Sanskrit historical writings remain largely inaccessible and unknown to all but specialists. The lack of visibility of Sanskrit histories of Muslim-led rule is part of the reason why I decided to write about this subject
Premodern Indians wrote Sanskrit histories within a variety of literary genres, including ākhyāna, akhyāyikā, charita, paṭṭāvalī,
prabandha, praśasti, rājāvalī, vaṃśāvalī, vijaya, vṛtta and, perhaps most importantly, kāvya.. Others have analysed individual texts as kāvya, as prabandha, and so forth, and those analyses have proved fruitful to pursuing questions about literary styles, Jain religious narratives and more. I cite such studies throughout [my work]. But from where I stand, genre is not a useful leading interpretive lens because there is no single Sanskrit genre that allows me to group together Sanskrit histories of Muslim-led rule. My claim that certain Sanskrit texts are histories is not exclusive; they are many other things also. But considering them as histories allows us to do things with these works and talk about them in ways that we have not done so previously.
Sanskrit histories of Indo-Muslim rule constitute a fragmented tradition, meaning that the authors did not generally build upon or even read one another. Within regional branches of this tradition, things were more connected. For instance, the later Kashmiri rajatarangini authors modelled their works on earlier text(s) of the same title. Gujarati prabandha authors sometimes read each other’s compositions. But, overwhelmingly, I have little evidence that the premodern intellectuals even knew about prior Sanskrit histories of Indo-Muslim rule. Some cite earlier political narratives about non-Muslim rulers, most commonly the Mahabharata and Kalidasa’s Raghuvaṃśa (Raghu’s Lineage, c. fifth century), another foundational text of Sanskrit literature. It remains an open question whether Sanskrit history writing, in general, was boosted by the rise of Indo-Persian rule. But at the very least, instead of disrupting Sanskrit interest in writing about the past or continuing a pre-existing ‘wilful amnesia’ regarding political facts, as some scholars have suggested, Indo-Muslim rule provided creative fodder for numerous Sanskrit thinkers who elected to write about instantiations of Indo-Muslim power. That Sanskrit intellectuals kept reinventing this wheel underscores their deep and abiding interest, across time and space, in writing about political events, including of the Indo-Muslim variety. In so doing, premodern intellectuals judged Sanskrit literature, time and time again, as appropriate and efficacious for commenting on real-world political developments.
Premodern Indian historians chose to write about political reality against the backdrop of possibly the most extensive set of myths in existence, waiting to be retold. A premodern Sanskrit poet could always rework Krishna stories, or craft another Ramayana, or invent a tale entirely. And many did these things, including several of the poet-historians. In the texts that occupy my attention, premodern thinkers focus on historically verifiable events as something meaningful to write about in their presents. In so doing, they evince a ‘historical consciousness’. Like modern historians, premoderns were selective in their narratives, only sharing details as relevant to their interests in a given text. Contrary to the mistaken views of even some sophisticated thinkers, historians, be they modern or premodern, do not seek ‘to bare the past completely’. For our part, we—similar to our premodern counterparts—focus a given narrative in a book, a journal article or, increasingly, a Twitter thread according to a set of criteria depending on what we want to know and thereby leave out many (we think) irrelevant details. Sometimes, premodern Sanskrit thinkers seem less interested in brute accuracy and more interested in twisting the facts, a trend in premodern historical traditions across the world. Still, Sanskrit historians evince (to varying degrees, admittedly) ‘interest in facts’, which distinguishes their historical narratives, in my modern eyes, from premodern Sanskrit mythology.
Sanskrit histories of Indo-Muslim rule embody considerable geographic, political and religious diversity. The authors hailed from all corners of the Indian subcontinent, from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu and from Gujarat to Bengal. They worked across nearly as broad an area. Many texts were written by court poets, working for Muslim and Hindu kings; the works’ writers and patrons also include merchants, religious leaders and other non-imperial actors. Both Brahmins and Jains number among the authors. Brahmins get plenty of attention in contemporary Sanskrit scholarship, but Jains are often relegated to footnotes, literally. More than one scholar has repeated and so entrenched a Brahmin-centric view of the premodern Sanskrit tradition in which Jains are presented as interlopers rather than full participants. By putting Jains and Brahmins on equal footing, I make a small contribution to the larger project of calling out and undermining Brahminical claims to define Sanskrit intellectual production, an issue that contemporary Sanskrit studies has not left in the past.
While Sanskrit histories of Indo-Muslim rule are diverse in some ways, their authors were elite in terms of language, gender and social status. These poet-historians all wrote in Sanskrit or (in a few cases) Prakrit, a set of Sanskrit-adjacent literary mediums, languages unknown to the vast majority of Indians, past and present. The authors were nearly all men. A sole historical text considered here was authored by a woman (Gangadevi’s Madhurāvijaya), a small bit of diversity that, while important, points up the overarching gender exclusion that defined premodern Sanskrit textual production. The authors were often high caste and, following the tight link between gender and caste, many express extreme levels of misogyny and casteism in their histories. They are unapologetic about all of this. Exclusivity and privilege structured premodern Sanskrit intellectual culture and the social spheres in which it operated, which in turn informed what people chose to say in Sanskrit. Again, I will give away something of my findings: elite authors often express harsh, elite ideas. I present these with an unvarnished gaze and attempt to contextualize premodern views, no matter how distasteful and bigoted we may find them today. Brahminical privilege is one notion to which I return several times, because it was a borderline obsession among several authors (e.g., Jayanaka, Jonaraja and several writers working for Rajput and Maratha courts). We also see recurrent attention given to Kshatriya kingship, a flexible institution that rulers and intellectuals defined in many different ways. Being a Kshatriya ruler was, for most thinkers, a varna distinction and typically involved certain kinds of relations with Brahmins. But for numerous premodern Sanskrit thinkers, the advent and expansion of Indo-Muslim rule provided new foils for thinking about what it could mean to be a Kshatriya king or warrior. Some of the results were stunning. For instance, writing in the fifteenth century, Nayachandra upholds a Muslim Mongol, somebody outside of the varna system, as an exemplar of Kshatriya heroism. Writing in the sixteenth century, Chandrashekhara lauds as an ideal Kshatriya king a man who neither ruled nor fought for himself. There remained more traditional views as well, such as Paramananda’s seventeenth-century vision of a Kshatriya ruler who took every conceivable action to assist Brahmins. Although, arguably, even Paramananda was innovative in his historical context, since the Kshatriya ruler in question was widely believed to have been born a Shudra. Instead of Kshatriya kingship, some thinkers reworked other kinds of local and sectarian identities in the context of Indo-Muslim rule, sometimes through contrast and other times through likening. Over time, Sanskrit poet-historians made a general move away from seeing Muslim political figures as Other, although the trajectory approximates a windy path more than a smooth arc. In short, within their elite diversity, India’s traditional learned men cultivated a rather astonishing number of ways to write about Indo-Muslim political history and the key figures therein, and to articulate the relevance of this past for their communities.
Muslims identified themselves and were described by Sanskrit intellectuals according to terms and norms that were often based on culture, region and even pseudo-ethnicity rather than religion
I did not set out looking for diversity, even elite diversity, and so I think it is worth reflecting briefly on how I found it. I articulated a different set of questions than most modern Sanskritists. In recent and ongoing research, a few other modern Sanskrit scholars have similarly highlighted alternative and minority voices precisely through formulating their research questions in innovative ways. There is a lesson here about the need to expand the topics that we study in modern Western Indology as a way to see underappreciated aspects of the premodern Sanskrit tradition. But there is another issue, too, which is that by being a woman I stand apart from most modern Sanskritists. As Anand Venkatkrishnan described the field’s jaw-dropping lack of gender representation in 2019, ‘If you encounter Sanskrit scholarship in America, you’re likely to find it littered with men, a patriarchal lineage rivaling that of any Sanskrit epic.’ Writing in 2018 and positioned outside the field, Karla Mallette called out the inexcusable dominance of male authors, who constituted over 90 percent of authors in a 2014 edited volume on Sanskrit literature. She noted, powerfully, that the erasure of female agency in modern times mirrored its premodern counterpart in Sanskrit erotic poetry: ‘Women are there, yet they are not actors. Perhaps this is not striking given the fact that the majority of the texts discussed in the book were premodern. But even the scholars who contribute to the  book are men.’ Homogeneity rarely provides fertile ground for creativity. And so, perhaps, our failure to see different viewpoints in premodern Sanskrit begins at home, in our failure.
NOT WRITING ABOUT HINDU-MUSLIM CONFLICT
Sanskrit thinkers wrote about both the political violence and cross-cultural relations associated with Indo-Muslim kings. These two aspects are correlated since the advent and expansion of Indo-Muslim rule, achieved in large part through force, created social and cultural conditions that allowed for exchanges across literary, linguistic, religious and cultural lines. But the violence, in particular, sits ill with many people today. Especially striking to modern eyes are accounts of total annihilation, where one political dynasty destroyed another, which pop up several times during the first few centuries in which Sanskrit thinkers wrote about Muslim-led polities, roughly 1190 through 1420. Speaking of fourteenth-century poetry concerning political violence enacted by Indo-Muslim polities in southern India, Ajay Rao wrote, ‘[These violent narratives] are painful to read, sometimes depicting violence in graphic detail, and are filled with images that may lead many of us to avert our eyes.’ Some historians, such as Taymiya Zaman, are doing important, innovative work that investigates and wrestles with modern emotions about the past. Elsewhere, I have confronted and reflected upon my own encounters with the emotionally charged rants and violent threats of those who promote the hateful ideology of Hindutva. I offer something a tad more conventional here, which is a non-injury-based framework that empowers us to interpret premodern narratives of political violence on their own terms rather than through a contemporary emotive lens.
The earliest usage of ‘Hindu’ in Sanskrit dates to the mid-fourteenth century, more than six hundred years after the earliest Sanskrit texts and inscriptions that mention Muslims. Even after the 1350s, ‘Hindu’ was more commonly used by Muslims writing in Persian rather than by anybody—Brahmin, Kshatriya, Rajput, Jain, etc—writing in Sanskrit
FOR THOSE WHO are interested in understanding what Sanskrit historical narratives of violence meant for those who crafted and read them in premodernity, Sanskrit literary norms of depicting bloodshed serve as our bedrock. Premodern Sanskrit poets and readers shared a nearly insatiable appetite for gore. They relished images of ghosts traversing battlefields crisscrossed by rivers of human blood, animals feasting on the entrails of the newly dead, decapitated bodies spurting blood as they staggered about tripping over fallen corpses, and the like. Such repulsive imagery was poetry in premodern Sanskrit, theorized under the aesthetic emotions of fear (bhaya), the macabre (bībhatsa) and revulsion (jugupsā). Also, the ability to enact gratuitous carnage demonstrated political authority. In many cases, Sanskrit depictions of Muslim-enacted political violence also reflected reality. After all, when Muslim would-be rulers showed up on the subcontinent, they proved no exception to the general rule that premodern Indian politics was a bloody affair. That said, those primed to find Muslim-enacted atrocities in India’s past (generally as a doomed attempt to justify their unjustifiable hatred of Muslims in India’s present) should note that material evidence furnishes a mixed picture of Hindu-Muslim interaction and exchange, even in the early days of Indo-Muslim rule. Sanskrit texts give us only one perspective in hard-history terms. More relevant to my purposes here is that, in textualized accounts of violence, Sanskrit intellectuals treated Muslim political figures no differently than other sorts of subcontinental political actors. Sanskrit thinkers used violent imagery to integrate Muslim political figures within traditional Sanskrit ways of expressing political power, including through showcasing martial strength.
While Sanskrit thinkers wrote a lot about violence, it was not the communal violence, largely of Hindutva extremists attacking Muslims, that plagues India today. It is unclear that the Hindu-Muslim binary was operative—or that both of its constituent parts even existed—for much of the second millennium CE. As many scholars have pointed out, ‘Hindu’ is a Perso-Arabic term, not a Sanskrit word, and its premodern uses often refer to residents of India (‘Indians’ in modern terminology). The earliest usage of ‘Hindu’ in Sanskrit dates to the mid-fourteenth century, more than six hundred years after the earliest Sanskrit texts and inscriptions that mention Muslims. Even after the 1350s, ‘Hindu’ was more commonly used by Muslims writing in Persian rather than by anybody—Brahmin, Kshatriya, Rajput, Jain, etc—writing in Sanskrit. Muslims, too, identified themselves and were described by Sanskrit intellectuals according to terms and norms that were often based on culture, region and even pseudo-ethnicity rather than religion. Richard Eaton has argued, rather persuasively, that we ought to understand Indo-Muslim rulers as participants in Persianate culture, which was grounded in a prestige language and model of political power rather than religion. I concur, even if I choose to subsume that, in terms of vocabulary, within a broad category of Muslim-led rule.
The Hindu-Muslim binary assumes the primacy of religious identities, which is arguably inaccurate in many instances in modernity and certainly so in premodernity. In short, to talk about Hindu-Muslim violence in premodern India is an anachronism. As Eric Hobsbawm reminds us, ‘The most usual ideological abuse of history is based on anachronism rather than lies.’ Sometimes I think that term—anachronism—cloaks in scholarly language the fear, oppression and violence fuelled by crudely misreading the past through the lens of the present. There are serious stakes, in terms of human livelihoods and lives, in current politico-ideological abuses of premodern Indian history. Historians ought to call out the factual paucity of Hindutva narratives that insert Hindu-Muslim conflict into India’s past, and some of us do so regularly. I advance a parallel project of cultivating alternative, historically grounded frameworks to the modern categories of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ that might serve us better in making sense of conflicts and narratives thereof in premodern India and also might add nuance to those modern categories.
(This is an edited excerpt from The Language of History: Sanskrit Narratives of Muslim Pasts by Audrey Truschke (Allen Lane; 408 pages; Rs 699).