Akbar got Mahabharata translated into Persian: A lesson in tolerance

Shadab Nazmi
Shadab NazmiJan 19, 2016 | 16:37

Akbar got Mahabharata translated into Persian: A lesson in tolerance

Jalal ud-din Muhammad Akbar, one of the greatest ruler of the Mughal dynasty, is also known for his liberal policies towards non-Muslims and encouraging different religions during his reign. That's why in 1582 AD, Akbar created a syncretic religion called Dīn-i Ilāhī, which was proposed to merge the best elements from different religions of his time. Primarily drawn from Hinduism and Islam, Dīn-i Ilāhī had an amalgamation of Christianity, Jainism and Zoroastrianism as well.


Akbar's reputation of bringing different religious texts on a single platform paved way for mythological texts to be translated and made accessible to non-Sanskrit speakers. To gain access to the literature of the non-Persian speaking world, Akbar's scholars translated works from Latin, Hindi, Sanskrit and Greek into Persian.

One among them is the Hindu epic Mahabharata, which was translated into a Persian book called Razmnama (Book of Wars). Akbar also explored Ramayana, the Artharva Veda and the Leelavati (a treatise in Mathematics) and translated the Sanskrit texts into Persian.

The battle between Duryodhana and Bhima (among others) from the 1616-1617 edition of the Razmnama. Image courtesy: Simon Ray.

According to Videsi Sutra, a website which extensively writes about Akbar's approach to translate religious texts, Akbar's court historian Mulla Daud writes that Akbar “ordered that the rational contents of different religions and faiths should be translated in the language of each, and that the rose garden of the traditional aspects of each religion should, as far as possible, be cleared of the thorns of bigotry.”

Akbar's Sanskrit scholars first translated the common north Indian variant of the Mahabharata from Sanskrit into Hindi both in text, and verbally. And later, the Persian scholars translated those texts into Persian. The project head, Abu al-Fazl, one of Akbar's Persian scholars converted the raw translation into poetic verses.


That clearly indicates that it wasn't a pure translation, but more of a retelling process. According to Kodaganallur Ramaswami Srinivasa Iyengar, author of Asian variations of the Ramayana, the Razmnama is divided into four separate volumes and illustrated with 168 miniatures. The single volume Ramayana has 176 miniatures.

A 1616 copy of the Razmnama which says, “Asvatthama fires the Narayana weapon (cosmic fire) at the Pandavas.” Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Based on the translation of Audrey Trusche’s paper "The Mughal Book of War", Persian Mughals seem to have viewed Hindu Indian culture through a lens similar to that of later British or German orientalists. They saw Indian culture as "aja’ib", the Persian word for magical or enchanted qualities.

That's why the first Hindu scripture the Mughals chose to translate was the Artharva Veda, which describes spells, incantations, magic and tricks. Based on the principle of "aja’ib", Mughal scholars only translated those verses of the Mahabharata which had "magic words" or "spells" in it.

Also, in one instance, the Bhagvad Gita was translated and compressed down to a few pages because Mughal translators were more interested in warfare and escapades, which could relate to the Mahabharata's story. Hence the translated title "Book of Wars".

Videsi Sutra further explains how Lord Krishna has been portrayed with a confused association with god. At some points he is described as prophet-like but a strictly human figure (like Prophet Muhammad), but at other times as a Hindu deva and at still other times as the Islamic khuda.


This should not be interpreted as an attempt by the Mughals to inject their religious ideology into a Hindu text. It is much more likely that this theological confusion is the natural result of Muslim scholars translating a text for a Muslim audience, while simultaneously trying to ignore or obfuscate the religious nature of the text.

If you understand Persian, the entire book can be accessed here.

Last updated: January 19, 2016 | 19:53
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