In recent years, as tensions between Hindus and Muslims have mounted, India's government has been accused of instigating or condoning numerous acts of violence against Muslims.
Popular thought in India holds that the origin of this conflict goes back centuries to medieval times, when Muslims expanded into the Indian subcontinent.
According to Audrey Truschke, a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Religious Studies, however, much of the current religious conflict in India has been fuelled by ideological assumptions about that period rather than an accurate rendering of the subcontinent's history.
In her new book, Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court (Columbia University Press, forthcoming), Truschke says that the heyday of Muslim rule in India from the 16th to 18th centuries was, in fact, one of "tremendous cross-cultural respect and fertilization", not religious or cultural conflict.
In her study of Sanskrit and Persian accounts of life under the powerful Islamic dominion known as the Mughal Empire, she provides the first detailed account of India's religious intellectuals during this period.
Her research paints a far different picture than common perceptions, which assume that the Muslim presence has always been hostile to Indian languages, religions and culture. A leading scholar of South Asian cultural and intellectual history, Truschke argues that this more divisive interpretation actually developed during the colonial period from 1757 to 1947.
"The British benefited from pitting Hindus and Muslims against one another and portrayed themselves as neutral saviours who could keep ancient religious conflicts at bay," she says. "While colonialism ended in the 1940s, the modern Hindu right has found tremendous political value in continuing to proclaim and create endemic Hindu-Muslim conflict."
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has been criticised for being anti-Muslim. Modi was chief minister of Gujarat state, where in 2002 Hindu mobs killed more than 1,000 Muslims; he was widely blamed for failing to stem the violence. As a result, the United States denied Modi a visa for more than a decade until 2014 when it became clear that Modi would be India's next prime minister.
Truschke argues that the ideology underpinning such violence – one that Modi himself openly embraces – erroneously "erases Mughal history and writes religious conflict into Indian history where there was none, thereby fueling and justifying modern religious intolerance".
Her work shows that the Muslim impulse in India was not aimed at dominating Indian culture or Hinduism. She hopes her findings "will provide a solid historiographical basis for intervention in modern, political rewritings of the Indian past".
Correcting the record
Truschke, one of the few living scholars with competence in both Sanskrit and Persian, is the first scholar to study texts from both languages in exploring the courtly life of the Mughals. The Mughals ruled a great swath of the Indian subcontinent from the early 16th to the mid-18th centuries, building great monuments like the Taj Mahal.
Over several months in Pakistan and 10 months in India, Truschke travelled to more than two dozen archives in search of manuscripts. She was able to analyze the Mughal elite's diverse interactions with Sanskrit intellectuals in a way not previously done.
She has accessed, for example, six histories that follow Jain monks at the Mughal court as they accompanied Mughal kings on expeditions, engaged in philosophical and religious debates, and lived under the empire's rule. These works collectively run to several thousand pages, and none have been translated into English.
Truschke found that high-level contact between learned Muslims and Hindus was marked by collaborative encounters across linguistic and religious lines.
She said her research overturns the assumption that the Mughals were hostile to traditional Indian literature or knowledge systems. In fact, her findings reveal how Mughals supported and engaged with Indian thinkers and ideas.
Early modern-era Muslims were in fact "deeply interested in traditional Indian learning, which is largely housed in Sanskrit", says Truschke, who is teaching religion courses at Stanford through 2016 in association with her fellowship.
Hybrid political identity
Truschke's book focuses on histories and poetry detailing interactions among Mughal elites and intellectuals of the Brahmin (Hindu) and Jain religious groups, particularly during the height of Mughal power from 1560 through 1650.
As Truschke discovered, the Mughal courts in fact sought to engage with Indian culture. They created Persian translations of Sanskrit works, especially those they perceived as histories, such as the two great Sanskrit epics.
For their part, upper-caste Hindus known as Brahmins and members of the Jain tradition – one of India's most ancient religions – became influential members of the Mughal court, composed Sanskrit works for Mughal readers and wrote about their imperial experiences.
"The Mughals held onto power in part through force, just like any other empire," Truschke acknowledges, "but you have to be careful about attributing that aggression to religious motivations." The empire her research uncovers was not intent on turning India into an Islamic state.
"The Mughal elite poured immense energy into drawing Sanskrit thinkers to their courts, adopting and adapting Sanskrit-based practices, translating dozens of Sanskrit texts into Persian and composing Persian accounts of Indian philosophy."
Such study of Hindu histories, philosophies and religious stories helped the Persian-speaking imperialists forge a new hybrid political identity, she asserts.
Truschke is working on her next book, a study of Sanskrit histories of Islamic dynasties in India more broadly.
Indian history, especially during Islamic rule, she says, is very much alive and debated today. Moreover, a deliberate misreading of this past "undergirds the actions of the modern Indian nation-state" she asserts.
And at a time of conflict between the Indian state and its Muslim population, Truschke says, "It's invaluable to have a more informed understanding of that history and the deep mutual interest of early modern Hindus and Muslims in one another's traditions."
This article appeared first in Stanford News.