“The Language of History: Sanskrit Narratives of Indo-Muslim Rule” by Audrey Truschke

Audrey Truschke Audrey Truschke

Withdrawal of Kashmir’s autonomous status, legislative restrictions on interreligious matrimony and a new citizenship law marked 2020 as a year of heightened tension between Islam and Hinduism in India. In addition to these political tensions, a cancel culture is sweeping India, aiming to delete centuries of Indo-Muslim culture from public spaces.  Extreme voices advocate tearing down the Taj Mahal, or turning it into a Hindu temple. Scholars of Indian history like Romila Thakar, Richard Eaton and Audrey Truschke have argued that Muslim-Hindu conflict is a recent phenomenon. Polemicists  project current political rivalries on a premodern India where identities were not rooted in nationality or religion. Truschke has already incurred the wrath of the Hindu nationalists with her portrait of the last great Mughal emperor Aurangzeb as something other than a bigoted iconoclast. In her latest book, she investigates how Sanskrit writers thought about Muslims in India between 1200-1800, and strives to show how soliptic the Hindu Right’s version of this period is.

Truschke focuses on Sanskrit writers as most representative of an indigenous intellectual tradition, and in contrast to the bulk of our other historical sources written in Persian, the language of the Indo-Muslim culture.  Sanskrit played the role in India that Latin played in pre-modern Europe as a classical, culturally and symbolically rich language, but few Indo-Muslims mastered it. These Sanskrit texts lend weight to Truschke’s argument that Hindu identity is a modern construction, as the use of the Persian-Arabic term “Hindu” appears late in Sanskrit (14th century) and is used in a limited sense to refer to the kshatriya-caste rajas.

India has always been an environment with multiple, rich religious traditions.

The Language of History: Sanskrit Narratives of Indo-Muslim Rule, Audrey Truschke (Columbia University Press, January 2021)
The Language of History: Sanskrit Narratives of Indo-Muslim Rule, Audrey Truschke (Columbia University Press, January 2021)

The Language of History is organized chronologically, showing how the Muslims played an ever more central role in the poetic and historical imagination of the Sanskrit literati. Muslims are not, as one might expect, depicted in a uniformly negative light. The anthology includes representative selections from Brahmin panegyrists of both kshatriya and Muslim kings, Jain monks praising the Great Mughal Akbar and court poets of Rajputs and Mahrattas rajas who fought both against and alongside the Mughals.

Truschke challenges a widely-held view that the Sanskrit writers did not write history, and that they ignored the increasing prominence of Indo-Muslims. She identifies texts that modern historians have neglected because these weave together poetry, legend along with contemporary events. Closely reading these texts, we see that Sanskrit writing did not ignore history. Rather, the genre had to entertain and enchant as well as instruct. In European terms, it would be like reading about about Vasco da Gama’s voyages in the Lusiades, or the Crusades in Gerusalemme Liberata. Nevertheless these texts provide fresh insights into reaction of India to Islam.

India has always been an environment with multiple, rich religious traditions. When the Muslims began to appear in India, Sanskrit authors either saw them as simply another religious practice, alongside Buddhists, Jains and Brahmins, among others. 12th-century writers saw no novelty in the attacks of the Ghaznavids or Ghorids, since India had for a millennium experienced invasions from the horse-rich north. Sanskrit writers sometimes referred to the Muslims as “Śakas”, ie., Scythians. This anachronism suggested a wise presage, that the new invaders like the Indo-Scythians before them would be acclimatized and assimilate into India.

In the multi-polar political world of 13th-century India, a Muslim sultan was just as likely to rebuild a Brahmin temple as a Maharaja was to plunder its treasure.

The Sanskrit writers did not criticize the founders of the Delhi Sultanate for being Muslims, but for their cultural deficiency. One writer mocked the Persian-speaking Ghorids because they could not pronounce retroflex consonants—which is also my problem when trying to speak Hindi-Urdu. Indeed another Sanskrit term for the northerners was “mleccha”, one who mumbles. Religion was not an inevitable source of conflict. In the multi-polar political world of 13th-century India, a Muslim sultan was just as likely to rebuild a Brahmin temple as a Maharaja was to plunder its treasure. There was no love Jihad, or any other kind of Jihad. The Sanskrit writers did not worry themselves about the phenomenon of conversions to Islam, unless it involved Brahmins.

Two new phenomena did worry the Brahmins: interruption of the Vedic rituals and suppression of caste distinctions, for on these two pillars the cosmic order depended. So if Muslim dynasties like the Kashmiri Mir Shahis patronized the Brahmins, all was well. Not for nothing did their Sanskrit panegyrists praise the Mir Shahis as the avatars of Vishnu.

This year will witness the completion of a 212 meter-high statue in Mumbai to Shivaji, whom the Hindu nationalists consider a relentless foe of Islam. From 17th century Sanskrit texts, it is clear that Shivaji’s motivation was political, not religious. He attacked Rajputs and fellow Mahrattas just as avidly as he did the Muslim Mughals.

 

Truschke assembles an impressive number of representative texts and authors to make her points. The Sanskrit texts have great literary merit, as can be seen in the extensive appendix of gracefully translated selections. The Language of History is a bit belabored because Truschke over-explains the conclusions drawn from each of the works she analyzes. The book might have been a better read if she had interleaved the texts and her analysis, letting the texts speak more for themselves.

She seems to be aware that she has over argued her point, “In short, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it is a modern desire to see Hindu-Muslim conflict in these texts.” But after reading The Language of History, it is hard to come to the conclusion that Sanskrit literature provides proof of ancient animosity. That is unlikely to influence currently rancorous debate about the place of Islam in India, but perhaps a future generation of Indians will reexamine history in light of dispassionate scholarship perspectives.


David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019)