‘IT IS high time we discarded our love for a fabricated past in which the Mughal kings are vilified as religious bigots and destroyers of Indian culture and society,’ says Dr Audrey Truschke about her ground-breaking new book Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court. A PhD graduate of Columbia University, now working as a postdoctoral fellow in the department of Religious Studies at Stanford and an assistant professor of South Asian History at Rutgers University, Newark, Truschke certainly has the credentials and the courage to defend her thesis. Keenly aware that the politics of violence targeting Muslims today not only clouds the lens through which we view the Mughals but conversely, also taints the community as inheritors of a dark past, she urges us to re-examine a ‘misrepresented past’ by documenting a hundred years of close collaboration between the courts of Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jahan (1550-1650) and a host of Sanskrit and Jain scholars and dignitaries.
Expectedly, Truschke has become an object of vilification by some but also admiration from those who have studied the new material she has uncovered.
In a heavily referenced book—the extended bibliography runs to a hundred pages—Truschke examines Mughal- Sanskrit engagements that ‘constituted one of the most extensive cross-cultural encounters in pre-colonial world history’. What emerges is a picture of a multicultural Mughal court with many levels of personal and professional collaboration between Persians and Indians. The book focuses on three major areas of collaboration. First, Sanskrit-based practices that Jains and Brahmins introduced into Mughal imperial circles that included astrology, mathematics, the arts and Indian religious world views. There are accounts of Akbar and Jehangir taking part in Vedic practices led by Jain monks and Brahmins, many of who had titles at court.
Second, there are chapters on the translation and adaptation of at least a dozen seminal Indian works and other Sanskrit material into Persian. These include the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, Panchatantra, Vedas, mathematical treatises, histories and poetry. The book devotes an entire chapter to the many Persian Mahabharatas commissioned by Akbar. What was the fascination with these ancient Indian texts? The Mughals looked for information in these sources to better understand their subjects and consolidate their power. The third area of focus is the writing in Sanskrit about Mughal political history, religious differences at Akbar’s court, including defiance in upholding Jain ascetic practices, and several praise poems. The latter, together with accounts of the Mughal court in Hindi, Gujarati, Persian and pre-modern Indian languages are among the ‘robust sources’ that the author excavates for her book. Truschke’s felicity with Sanskrit, Braj Bhasha and pre-modern Indo-Persian languages explains why her account deviates so sharply from the predominant narrative and makes her work a game changer.
Releasing at a time when social inclusiveness is being defined by the religious Right in its own image, Culture of Encounters will provide food for thought for some and provocation for others. If what Truschke says is correct, then the very basis of the age-old distrust between Hindus and Muslims is flawed. It’s hard to imagine that saffron evangelists will ever consider abandoning their pet grievance because a foreign historian has studied Mughal Sanskrit literature and tells them they are wrong. Nevertheless, it is time that we did re-examine the ‘mis- represented past’ so we can replace it with a more harmonious reality. It takes an open mind, which seems harder to find in a polarising polity.