Art & Culture

How Mughals chained Sanskrit to the Indian library for good

Utpal Kumar
Utpal KumarMar 27, 2016 | 11:49

How Mughals chained Sanskrit to the Indian library for good

Audrey Truschke's Culture of Encounters is an interesting book. It tells how over the course of 100 years, from 1560 to nearly 1660, the Mughals "cultivated a thoroughly multicultural and multilingual imperial image that involved repeated attention to Sanskrit texts, intellectuals and knowledge systems".

According to the author, Sanskrit flourished in the Mughal court, especially under Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. It was only when Aurangzeb came to power that it started losing ground. Truschke, however, cautions against linking the decline with Aurangzeb's alleged bigotry, and instead cites two reasons for this: One, during the 17th century, especially in the second half, Sanskrit was slowly giving way to Hindi, and "Aurangzeb's reign simply happened to coincide with the waning of Sanskrit and the rise of literary Hindi".

Second, the reason was political, rather than religious, as Aurangzeb had no option but to cut all ties with what the author calls "the Sanskrit cultural world", for this helped distinguish his "idioms of rule" from those of Dara Shikoh, the eldest brother he had to kill to reach the throne.

Political move

So far so good. But this still doesn't explain why Sanskrit, which was supposedly patronised by the Mughals, got decimated in no time. Truschke herself gives away the reason, without ever acknowledging it, when she writes: "Let me clarify that while Akbar inaugurated Mughal engagements with Sanskrit, he did so for slightly different reasons than many people think... Akbar was interested in Sanskrit for its political valence in his empire, not as some personal religious quest."

Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court; Penguin; Rs 699.

This may be the reason why the Mughals did not pursue "this set of exchanges for the benefit of their population but rather mainly for themselves". They, through classical Sanskrit texts, writes Truschke, sought to understand what it meant to become rulers of India.

So, the Mughal endeavour to translate Sanskrit books into Persian, and also provide patronage to Brahmins and Jains, was hardly about ushering in a literary revolution; rather, it was about achieving a political end, of accruing political legitimacy for themselves.

Badauni, for instance, writes quite despondently how the Brahmins would repeatedly say that Akbar "had descended to earth, like Ram, Krishna, and other infidel rulers who, although lords of the world, had taken on human form to act on earth."

Is it, therefore, any surprise that Sanskrit struggled to survive once there was an emperor who was indifferent, if not antagonistic, towards Sanskrit? For, the patronage for the language was an artificial construct, confined inorganically as it was at the highest echelon of the Mughal court.

Worse, the Mughals themselves played an important role in the decimation of Sanskrit. As Truschke writes, "Hindi was on the ascent as a literary language in the 17th century and… the Mughals increasingly looked to Hindi texts for classical Indian knowledge as opposed to seeking out Sanskrit works." What's contentious is whether it was inspired by religious motives or political objective. That's for the historians to decide.

What can be said with certainty is that, yes, the Mughals provided patronage to some Brahmin and Jain scholars of Sanskrit, but this backing didn't end up in the flowering of the Sanskrit language; it was a self-serving, political move on the part of the Mughals - here, one can draw parallels with Akbar opening the gates of the Mughal court for non-Muslims in the early 1560s. As in the case of Sanskrit, what's generally ignored is the political expediency that forced Akbar to follow this path.


Akbar initially went for the broadening of the Mughal nobility due to political compulsions, thanks to the rebellion he faced from the foreign nobles. He could salvage his position only after he entered into matrimonial alliances with Rajput chiefs, and by reaching out to non-Muslims by abolishing the pilgrim tax (1562) and the jizya (1564).

But once the rebellion was suppressed, Akbar changed his stance, massacring as he did 30,000 peasants in the Chittor fort in 1568, and even re-imposing the jizya in 1575. It was only after he faced an even bigger rebellion in 1580-81, again from the foreign nobles, that made Akbar realise his folly and reach out to non-Muslims in a big way by, first, abolishing the jizya for the second time and then introducing the concept of sulh-i-kul (meaning peace with all in Persian).

So, Akbar's idea of religious tolerance owes as much to the loyalty of Rajput chiefs in the face of Turani rebellions as to his evolution as a liberal emperor.

Be that as it may, but the fact remains that the Mughal court, especially during Akbar's time, interacted closely with a few Sanskrit scholars. The author should be commended for researching on this largely unknown episode of history. However, it needs to be reiterated that this was quite a self-serving, political move.

With this, the Mughals brought Sanskrit to libraries and confined it there forever.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Last updated: March 27, 2016 | 11:49
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