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Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court by Audrey Truschke

Audrey Truschke, a fellow in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University and Assistant Professor of South Asian History at Rutgers University-Newark, seeks to ruffle a few academic feathers in her first book, Culture of Encounters.

Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court by Audrey Truschke
Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court, Audrey Truschke (Columbia University Press, March 2016)

In this, her account of the links of the Mughal courts of the 16th and 17th centuries with Sanskrit scholars, she aims to overturn the traditional assessment that India’s Mughal emperors operated in an almost exclusively Persianate and Islamicate milieu. She uses her detailed reading of Sanskrit texts by Jains, Brahmans and others, along with related Mughal Persian texts, to expound the alternative view, that in fact the Mughals, in particular the Emperor Akbar, made deliberate efforts to incorporate Sanskrit literary works into the imperial culture as part of their creation of a legitimate, though foreign, Indian dynasty.

It needs to be made clear at the outset of this review that this is a book by a deeply learned scholar intended for other experts in her field. Her account assumes in its readers a knowledge of the overall history of the times, as well as of a good deal of other Indian history, and of the modern scholarly controversies that surround the period and its issues. This is a work for those with a serious interest in Indian culture and history, a dense and detailed read that calls for frequent reflection. It is, however, one that repays the care with which it is necessary to approach it, for much of what Truschke says is new. Her book is in many ways a provocative assault on earlier scholarship, about which she can at times be scathing. In her introduction, for instance, she writes that “Scholars have almost uniformly ignored the role of Sanskrit” leading to an “oversight [that] has long obscured the close imperial relationship with the Sanskrit cultural world.” She is not shy in proclaiming that she has set this deficiency to rights.

Which it seems that she has, to some degree. She divides her book into chapters covering different aspects of Mughal-Sanskrit cultural contacts, first examining the Sanskrit intellectuals who resided at the Mughal court and acted as “religious guides” for the emperors. Many of these were Jain monks, some of them were Brahmans (although the latter seem to have been rather embarrassed about the contact and so were far more coy in recording it). A few were employed as astrologers. Truschke describes these individuals as establishing “wide-ranging social connections”, although from the evidence that she cites the numbers involved seem to have been small and their contact limited.

She next describes the works in Sanskrit which were presented to the emperors for some material purpose, such as a petition, or as gifts to the Mughal court. These, too, seem to have been limited in number. For instance, the seven praise poems she lists cover three reigns and come from insignificant states within or on the edges of the Mughal Empire. The scarcity of such texts is unsurprising, as it is not suggested that any Mughal emperor understood written or spoken Sanskrit. All writing in Sanskrit had to be translated for the Mughals into Hindi then Persian.

Truschke does establish that the Emperor Akbar made deliberate, lengthy and costly efforts to have Sanskrit classics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana translated into Persian and that he and those close to him read the translated texts. In addition, Akbar used his polyglot vizier, Abu al-Fazl, to compile the five volume Ain-I Akbari (Akbar’s Institutes), which included a vast amount of information for the sovereign about his Indian domains, much of it based on Sanskrit traditions and the works and translations of Sanskrit scholars. This was a massive undertaking and, as Truschke rightly points out, the Ain forms one of the elements in Akbar’s construction of his figure of an almost semi-divine Indian sovereign.

The spread of cross linguistic contacts and their longer-term effects seems, despite Truschke’s detailed and enthusiastic exposition, to have been limited in scope. It is true that some of the Sanskrit works and stories which the Mughals had translated were re-written and copied for the next several hundred years, but others like the Ramayana seem to have been intended only for royal collections, and the mythical Hindu stories they contained embarrassed the Muslim scholars called upon to write them. Few elements from the Islamicate world of the Mughals leached back the other way into the Sanskrit writing of the time.


All of this tends to detract from the claims that Truschke makes for the importance of the cultural links that she describes. She is rather prone to exaggerate her claims; she writes, for instance, at the start of Chapter Six, of “The explosion of imperial links with the Sanskrit sphere” and in her conclusion states that these “encounters [were] a pivotal part of their political ambitions.” The implication that the cultural interchange was massive, frequent and “foundational to the construction of power” in the early Mughal Empire is not borne out by the evidence seen here.

Nevertheless, that is not to say that the cultural interchanges that Truschke has discovered are unimportant or uninteresting; far from it. The close reading that Truschke has applied to the texts that embody these literary exchanges does have an importance in forming a view of the way that the Mughals conceived of themselves as Indian rulers firmly placed in the thousands of years of Indian dynasties, as well as in their understanding of the subjects their dynasty ruled. In particular, in the Emperor Akbar’s case, his interest in India’s non-Islamicate literary worlds was a highly important component in the creation of his very strange and unique position as a Muslim but semi-divine ruler who worshipped the sun. In this, and in the case of his great-grandson, the cosmopolitan and highly cultured Prince Dara Shikuh, who lost his life in his struggle for the throne with his brother Aurangzeb, cross-cultural literature became literally a matter of high politics, life and death.

There are some niggles in Culture of Encounters that detract from the pleasure of reading it. Truschke’s writing can at times be rather stilted—there are rather too many examples of vocabulary such as “contestations” for “disputes”—or even downright clunky—  shewrites “comers to India”, for instance, for “travellers to India” and “cognized” for “realised”. Words popular in modern academic circles pop up with irritating frequency—“foreground” for “emphasise” or “highlight” is one, “excavate” for “examine” or “investigate” another.

As with works of queer theory, which are never complete without a reference to Michel Foucault, the same is true of imperial and colonial studies such as this, where a reference to Edward Said is obligatory. As is the odd sideswipe at colonial scholars, none of whom, it would seem in Truschke’s view, studied India for reasons of scholarship, but only to provide tools for imperial control.  

Although Truschke thus does herself no favors in some of her writing, these faults do not detract from the overall contribution that her book makes to Indian scholarship. Bear with the linguistic ticks; this book will be required reading in its field for some time to come.