Thursday, July 13, 2017

Connected Imperial Histories, Persian and Sanskrit

The study of Islamicate South Asia suffers from being on the periphery of two fields of inquiry, Islamic studies and Indology, and as a periphery never fully participates in either. This is simply because the trend towards more connected histories may have forced historians to the mine the various European archives, supplementing the Dutch, Russian and Portuguese to the British and French, but has yet to compel researchers to be familiar with Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit as well as various other Indian languages – and I stress Indian since in their contexts, vernacular networks and usages these languages, albeit somewhat elite, were very much Indian within the multilingual semiosphere of South Asia. A more connected approach to South Asia in the Mughal period would require precisely the skills displayed by Truschke in her excellent recent book Culture of Encounters

And this is because the presentmindedness of much historiography in South Asia cannot break out of nationalist categories brought about by partition: as Truschke shows in her more recent little monograph on Aurangzeb, the Pakistani nationalist historian sees within the Mughals, hardy Muslim invaders forgoing a new community of faith on the South Asian frontier, a community that remained separate from those around and hence reached their fulfillment in the demand and creation of Pakistan, and the Hindutvadi historian for whom the Mughals remained outsiders who could not possibly have seen themselves as ‘Indian’. 

The very category of ‘Indian’ is essentialised in line with a retrojection of strict boundaries of communal affiliation and identification associated with ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’. This is not to argue for a syncreticism in which people in pre-modern South Asia did not know ‘where Hindu began and Muslim ended’ or for a fully fluid concept of identity or even to deny that there was ever any conflict based on religious identification; rather, the ways in which we articulate these two categories as identity and conflict markers today is rather different. Religion and power interact in rather contingent manners.

Apart for the rejection of such essentialising categories, Truschke’s book is a significant event in Mughal studies for a number of other reasons. First, it marks a new trend towards a future philological turn in which researchers for some time dazzled by statistics and more recently by fashionable European theory have returned to paying careful attention to the text and its possibilities; people have once again decided to take pride in their ability to parse and carefully construct editions of texts in Persian and Sanskrit. Sometimes one might argue that the neo-philologists go too far in their rejection of theory. But they do have a point: why shouldn't we consider theoretical formations and practices of textual production and reading that emerge from those cultures that produce the text instead of doing what has become far too common in the study of religion in North America, namely taking Foucault or Jonathan Smith or Charles Pierce or someone else and reading a South Asian thinker on their terms? New philology in that sense could constitute a call to arms towards a new theoretical attitude to the text.  Second, Mughal rulers placed themselves within various traditions of kingship, Chingissid-Timurid, Turco-Persian, Sanskritic and they did not just appropriate Sanskrit literary culture as a mode of legitimation. Other historians looking at the ʿAbbasids have also tended to see their ideological appropriation of Iranian, Indian and Hellenic traditions in terms of their imperial projection of authority. But the cultural and textual practices of the court need not always be sublimated to the question of legitimation as Truschke stresses in the introduction. The production of historical texts is a more complicated process; perhaps we have become bewitched by Foucault via Said into seeing all configurations of power, knowledge and culture as fundamentally constitutive of ideology in which legitimation is the only language game in circulation. Thus Akbar did not have the Mahābhārata translated merely as a means to legitimize his authority – in the same way as Mughal, Safavid and Timurid princes did not have the Shāhnāma of Ferdowsī copied and presented to their peers as a simple way to connect them to this pantheon of great Iranian world emperors of the past. Third, nevertheless, Truschke, like Moin more recently, does represent a shift towards an intellectual historian’s approach in which the aesthetic practices of power are taken quite seriously. Fourth, connected history is about supplementing the modes of inquiry and approach to questions – it is about destroying the canon and not necessarily producing another: it requires reading Persian and Sanskrit, and not replacing Persian with Sanskrit. Similarly, the adoption of Sanskritic and even Vedic idioms and projections of the self did not necessarily mean the Mughal rulers suddenly thought themselves truly Indian as opposed to Central Asian and Muslim nor did it entail pretense for the court elites who were predominantly not like them. They did not necessarily see themselves as ‘ceasing to be Muslim’ or suddenly becoming syncreticists. Even Moin’s theory of the millennial sovereign in which Akbar, Shah Jahan and Jahangir saw themselves as being above the theological affiliations of their subjects might not apply to all the rulers and their allies. 

Truschke explicitly located her own contribution alongside the work of Moin, Busch, and Faruqui. Fifth, Mughal practices of power were steeped in multilingualism and interactions. And this is not a new insight – the sources have been available; it is just that researchers have not availed themselves of them. It is not necessarily that new sources have emerged. Finally, Truschke’s work complements the ongoing Perso-Indica project looking at translations of Sanskrit into Persian. Islamicate societies were the loci for a number of such cultural translation movements, and if, following Shahab Ahmed’s recent plea for considering the ‘Balkans to Bengal complex’, we take South Asia seriously we cannot neglect the works and this process studied by Truschke.

The core of the book constitutes six chapters: on Brahman and Jain Sanskrit intellectuals – and it is striking how much of the material we have on encounters comes from the latter – at court, on textual production for the Mughals which mostly overlaps with the remit of the Perso-Indica project, of the particular interest in the Mahābhārata, of the means by which Abū-l-Fażl projected the sovereignty of Akbar (something often located in the rather simple ‘ishrāqī’ and Akbarian paradigms by Athar Abbas Rizvi and others), on the Sanskrit sources, and finally on how to incorporate Sanskrit into the Persianate world. The first of these is to establish the multicultural leanings of the Mughal elite and complicate the model of their kingship. The second establishes the multilingual nature of the Mughals. The third shows how aesthetics demonstrates the ways in which literary works were used for political effect as advice literature – in that sense the Mahābhārata is similar to Yūsuf u Zulaykhā of Jāmī in its Timurid context. The fourth is one must admit rather Foucauldian in which Abū-l-Fażl mastery of the Indian in his work promoting Akbar is very much about the politics of knowledge, even if aesthetics mattered to those in power and not merely for instrumentalist reasons. The fifth considers the encounter from the other perspective and gives us an insight into Sanskrit intellectual culture and its ties to the Mughals. The sixth shows how the Indo-Persian world (with all the caveats one may consider of the usefulness of the term) was fundamentally transformed by the encounter – and one thinks of various Sufi works whether by Dārā Shikoh or ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Chishtī who could not fail to incorporate the Sanskritic into their Indo-Persian imaginary. Along the way we enjoy the many examples of close and deep textual reading in Sanskrit and Persian that Truschke displays. 

In her conclusion, after noting that Mughal encounters with Sanskrit intellectual culture has been neglected for too long, she indicates precisely some of the reasons why such a study is important and timely. The nexus of aesthetics and power is critical and a central feature of a recent trend in Mughal studies. Of course, the question arises: why did the encounter come to an end? Truschke suggests two reasons – and in fact one would wish to see more argument on this – for this process: the first was vernacularisation and the shift from Sanskrit to Hindi (and Persian remained in literary and more vernacular usage alongside others), and the second was the fall in patronage under Aurangzeb and after. This might have less to do with his infamous bigotry and more to do with the priorities of the court. Then in the 18th century the various rivals for the Mughal legacy in a declining empire provided multiple outlets of patronage for Sanskritic and vernacular elites (including those dealing with Arabic and Persian) to decentralise the process. 

For those seeking where Mughal studies lies today and its future, they would be well advised to read Truschke and heed her advice for the directions that the field may take. And at least for this intellectual historian it is refreshing to see someone take texts and ideas seriously. 

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