Culture of Encounters

Sanskrit at the Mughal Court

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Audrey Truschke
South Asia Across the Disciplines
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , December
     2018.
     384 pages.
     $27.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780231173636.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Focused on the rich tradition of Sanskrit literary production and culture at the Mughal court that ruled South Asia between the 16th and 19th centuries, Audrey Truschke's Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court is a timely addition to scholarship on early modern empires and encounter-based approaches to South Asian historical research. At the time of the book's publication, Indian politics had started to see the ascendance of Hindu nationalism and historical revisionism in public discourse that vilified the Mughals as barbaric invaders. Truschke's work counters this view and instead places the Mughals in a multicultural and pluralistic ethos of shared influences and interests.

In her introduction, Truschke states the importance of Sanskrit literary production for the constitution of Mughal sovereigns as rulers who were identifiably Indic. The Mughals were not engaged in patronal and literary activity for the sake of popular legitimacy. Instead, they were concerned with a "narrow band of ruling elites who were considered the true makers of empire" (18). This concern is a recurrent theme, although Truschke's attempt to deemphasize the role of the public in political constitution does not always communicate itself effectively. The Jain and Brahmin communities that are central to her research are placed in precisely that position of public life, outside of the court. The peculiar erasure of these communities as representatives of public space, is a critical omission on part of Truschke’s work and weakens some of her important claims.

This is visible in the first chapter on Sanskrit intellectuals who were drawn into the Mughal court. While Truschke is right to point out the relatively elite formulation of intellectualism and the proximity of intellectuals to the upper tiers of political life, she elides the impact of courtly practice on non-courtly lives. Farmāns (royal orders) against animal slaughter, for example, affected the consumptive practices of the masses, and while Truschke posits them as expressions of royal favor toward the leaders of various sectarian traditions, she does not consider their implications upon the life of ordinary people. The chapter's discussion of the slow assimilation of Sanskrit knowledge practices into Mughal courtly culture is well articulated, especially in the sections detailing conflicts between Brahmins and Jains, as well as the eventual fall of the latter from royal favor in 1618.

The second chapter engages literary patronage through its examination of Sanskrit texts produced explicitly for Mughal consumption. Truschke insightfully remarks upon the flexible and capacious boundaries of Mughal imagination, which saw "creative mixings of the Sanskrit and Perso-Islamic worlds" (66) through appropriation and remaking of concepts across literary texts. From oral translation into Hindi or Persian to appreciation of formal elements such as alliteration and simile, Truschke proposes that the Mughals engaged these texts through a variety of means and unlike Persian sources that derided Sanskrit texts as partly or wholly unintelligible, were aware of their utility. Sanskrit works such as Rudrakavi's Jahāngīracarita addressed to the Mughal emperor Jahangir, placed great emphasis on the use of Sanskrit poetic conventions in the fabrication of eulogic narratives. Thus, poems that described foreign locales used Sanskrit poetic conventions and language in conjunction with specific details about local flora, fauna and custom, marking the porosity in Mughal visions of empire that allowed for syncretization of various concepts and aesthetic views within its ambit.

The third chapter focuses on the translation and retranslation of the Sanskrit Mahābhārata, into Persian as the Razmnāma or Book of War. Truschke highlights the ways in which the text manipulates and reframes its Sanskrit source to reflect Mughal aesthetics and concerns. The chapter is of interest to literary scholars who are interested in Mughal idiomatic and expressive variation.

The fourth chapter on Abū al-Fazl stresses multiculturalism at the Mughal court, contends that al-Fazl's Ā'īn-i Akbarī  "combines intellectual and political objectives in fluid configurations" (144), and describes the gains of the Mughal empire in accommodating Sanskrit learning within its vision of "unprecedented . . . Indo-Persian political authority" (144). Truschke highlights al-Fazl's valorization of the emperor and the Persian text's objective in engaging Islamicate elites who were essential to the Mughal empire's self-fashioning. In particular, al-Fazl repurposes the Indic calendar and places the Mughals in a genealogy of kings going back to the mythical Yudhishtira from the Mahābhārata. The Ā'īn-i Akbarī  thus meanders between the geographies of Mughal India and local mythologies and legends to articulate visions of Mughal imperium through the text's formal medium.

In the fifth and sixth chapters, Truschke turns her attention to reception. The fifth chapter addresses the viewpoint of Sanskrit intellectuals, and examines how differing and contesting religious traditions were integrated or engaged under Mughal eyes. The Jains and the Brahmins were often at odds with each other and defended their viewpoints using accepted conventions such as theism to advance conceptual frameworks unique to their worldviews. The sixth chapter accounts for the contextualization of Sanskrit in the broader Islamo-Persian world, and how the Mughals articulated their new political aesthetic. Citing Supriya Gandhi among others, Truschke contends that the Mughals used Sanskrit as part of a larger attempt to differentiate themselves from Persianate cultures in Central Asia, creating new idioms that were uniquely theirs, and reinterpreting Persian culture through a radically different epistemology.

This last point is perhaps the single most important part of Truschke's argument. In saying that the Mughals articulated new possibilities for their own self-fashioning as a convergence between Indic and Islamicate forms of rule, Truschke gestures at the court as a site for meaning-making through language and knowledge production. Not only that, Truschke's conclusive chapter more broadly places the Mughals in a position of authorship and idiomatic uniqueness, a significant claim that deserves greater exploration. Culture of Encounters is an important intervention in the larger field of Mughal history. While it does have some problems—its expansivity in argument needing far more interrogation than the author offers—the book is a worthwhile read for scholars of 16th- and 17th-century South Asia.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Manasvin Rajagopalan is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature with a concentration in Religion at the University of California, Davis.

Date of Review: 
October 31, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Audrey Truschke is Assistant Professor of History at Rutgers University–Newark. 

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