Scholar Casts New Light on Hindu-Muslim relations

  0 comments   |     by Marguerite Rigoglioso on November 04 , 2015

Stanford Scholar Audrey Truschke 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.

Mughal artwork depicts Emperor Akbar presiding over discussions in the Hall of Religious Debate, ca. 1600. Stanford Scholar Audrey Truschke says her research shows that much of the current religious conflict in India has been fuelled by ideological assumptions about the Mughal period rather than an accurate rendering of the subcontinent's history.

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 criticized 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 fuelling 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."

Scholar Audrey Truschke says we should not make the error of attributing Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s lack of interest in Sanskrit to his alleged bigotry

In an email interview, Audrey Truschke, Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University, shares with Anuradha Raman the experiences of writing her book, Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court, to be published in February 2016, and argues forcefully in favour of acknowledging diversity in India.

The present Bharatiya Janata Party government believes Mughals are not part of India’s history. Your book is about how Sanskrit, sought to be made mainstream by the government, flourished under the Mughals. How do we reconcile the two?

We don’t reconcile the two perspectives. Rather, we ask two key questions. One, who is on firmer historical ground in their claims? Two, what are the political reasons for the BJP wanting to erase the Mughals (or at least most of the Mughals) from India’s past? The bulk of my work concerns the honest excavation of history. The Mughals are a significant part of Indian history, and Sanskrit is a significant part of the story of the Mughal Empire. Those facts may be inconvenient for the BJP and others, but as a historian I do not temper my investigation of the past in deference to present-day concerns. However, I realise that history matters in the present, perhaps especially in modern South Asia. One present-day implication of my work is to point up the flimsy basis of the BJP’s version of India’s past.

In an ironical way, as the present government fights to push Sanskrit into mainstream discourse, your work concentrates on the Mughals, whom the BJP dislikes, and their engagement with Sanskrit.

The BJP only wants a certain version of Sanskrit in the mainstream. They no doubt love Kalidasa, but I cannot imagine the BJP endorsing students to read the Sanskrit accounts of the Mughals written by Jains in the 16th and 17th centuries. India has a great treasure in its Sanskrit tradition, but that treasure is not only classical poetry and the Indian epics, but also the immense diversity of Sanskrit literature.

Who were the Mughal rulers under whom there was active exchange of Sanskrit and Persian ideas, in your account?

Sanskrit flourished in the royal Mughal court primarily under three emperors: Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan. However, we should not make the error of attributing Aurangzeb’s lack of interest in Sanskrit to his alleged bigotry. Aurangzeb is a severely misunderstood historical figure who has suffered perhaps more than any of the other Mughal rulers from present-day biases. There are two main reasons why Sanskrit ceased to be a major part of Mughal imperial life during Aurangzeb’s rule. One, during the 17th century, Sanskrit was slowly giving way to Hindi. This was a wider literary shift in the subcontinent, and even under Shah Jahan we begin to see imperial attention directed towards Hindi-language intellectuals at the expense of Sanskrit. Aurangzeb’s reign simply happen to coincide with the waning of Sanskrit and the rise of literary Hindi.

Second, as most Indians know, Aurangzeb beat out Dara Shikoh for the Mughal throne. Dara Shikoh had been engaged in a series of cross-cultural exchanges involving Sanskrit during the 1640s and 1650s. Thus, from Aurangzeb’s perspective, breaking Mughal ties with the Sanskrit cultural world was a way to distinguish his idioms of rule from those of the previous heir apparent. In short, Aurangzeb decided to move away from what little remained of the Mughal interest in Sanskrit as a political decision, rather than as a cultural or religious judgment.

As a side note, let me clarify that while Akbar inaugurated Mughal engagements with Sanskrit, he did so for slightly different reasons than many people think. Akbar’s reputation is that he was open-minded and tolerant, almost a protosecular figure. This can be a misleading characterisation. Akbar was interested in Sanskrit for its political valence in his empire, not as some personal religious quest. Akbar also had no qualms about harshly judging perspectives that he viewed as beyond the pale. A good example is that he questioned Jain thinkers about whether they were monotheists because to be otherwise would mean being evicted from the Mughal court (Jains assured him that they believed in God).

What was the interaction between the Mughal elites and Brahmin Hindus and Jain religious groups like?

Brahmans, for example, assisted with Mughal translations of Sanskrit texts into Persian. The method was that Brahmans would read the Sanskrit text, verbally translate it into Hindi (their shared language with the Mughals), and then the Mughals would write down the translation in Persian. Jains and Brahmans alike assisted the Mughals with astrology. Brahmans cast Sanskrit-based horoscopes for the Mughal royal family. On at least one occasion, Jains performed a ceremony to counteract an astrological curse on Jahangir’s newborn daughter. My forthcoming book, Culture of Encounters, devotes an entire chapter to reconstructing the social history of links between Mughal elites and Brahmans/Jains.

You argue that the ideology underpinning violence — such as what took place in the 2002 pogrom, in which more than 1,000 Muslims died, or the current intolerance towards them — erases Mughal history and writes religious conflicts into Indian history where there was none, thereby justifying modern religious intolerance. Is it correct to then deduce that there was no religious conflict in the court of the Mughals?

No. First, there was plenty of violence in Mughal India. Violence and conflict are enduring features of the human experience and I would never suggest otherwise. Even under Akbar, violence was commonplace. A far trickier question, however, is, how much Mughal-led violence was religious-based or motivated by religious conflicts? Generally, the Mughals acted violently towards political foes (whether they were Rajput, Muslim, Hindu, or otherwise was irrelevant). It is very difficult for many modern people to accept that violence in pre-modern India was rarely religiously motivated. In this sense, pre-colonial India looked very different than pre-modern Europe, for example. But we lack historical evidence that the Mughals attacked religious foes. On the contrary, some scholars have even suggested that modern “Western” ideas about religious toleration were, in part, inspired by what early European travellers witnessed in the Mughal Empire.

That said, there were limited instances when the Mughals persecuted specific individuals over religious differences. A good example is that Akbar sent a few of the Muslim ulema on hajj to Mecca, which meant that they were effectively exiled from the court. Some of these ulema were murdered on their way out of India.

Is there a problem with a Marxist interpretation of history as is being argued now by the BJP government?

Marxist history is limiting, in my opinion. This strain of thought tends to emphasise social class and economic factors in determining historical trajectories. Modern historians have a much wider range of approaches at their disposal that better situate us to understand other aspects of the past.

Mughal history is such a contentious part of history in the Hindu nationalist imagination. How do you propose to shed light, and create space for a scholarly engagement with the period? It also comes at a time when there is a wave of revisionism in India.

My approach is that of a historian. I seek primary sources from numerous languages and archives, read deeply in secondary scholarship, and attempt to reconstruct the most accurate vision of pre-colonial India possible. My work has plenty of present-day implications, but those come secondary and explicitly after the serious historical work. This approach is unappealing to many in modern India (and across the world). It is painstaking, requires specialist knowledge, can be slow, and often leads to nuanced conclusions. But there are also plenty of people, non-academics, who view what is going on in modern India with scepticism. For those who want it, my work offers a historically sound foundation for challenging modern political efforts to revise the past.

What are the dangers of rewriting history?

So far as the dangers of rewriting history and subscribing to narrow interpretations of specific texts, there are many risks. One is that we risk rising intolerance going forward, something already witnessed on both popular and elite levels in 21st century India. Another risk is that we cheapen the past. India has a glorious history and one of the richest literary inheritances of any place on earth — it would be unfortunate to constrict our minds to the point where we can no longer appreciate these treasures.

You argue that “a more divisive interpretation of the relationship between the Mughals and Hindus actually developed during the colonial period from 1757 to 1947”, a legacy that the present Modi government appears to have inherited. But while the British positioned themselves as neutral saviours, who will emerge as the neutral saviours now?

In the BJP vision, I believe that the new saviour is the BJP itself and affiliated Hindu nationalist groups that will restore India to its proper, true nature as a land for Hindus. This is an appealing ideology for many people, which is part of what makes it so dangerous. I maintain that India’s greatness is found in its astonishing diversity, not some invented, anachronistic, monolithic Hindu past. Part of the sad irony of the BJP’s emphasis on rewriting Indian history is precisely that India has a deep and compelling history, which so many seem intent to ignore

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