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How the Mughals used Sanskrit to become the rulers of India

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A scene from Akbar's court.
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If the Mughals are approached with fresh eyes, their dynamic interweaving of politics and culture can be identified as the solid bedrock on which they built their empire.

Over the course of roughly one hundred years, from 1560 until nearly 1660, the Mughals cultivated a thoroughly multicultural and multilingual imperial image that involved repeated attention to Sanskrit texts, intellectuals, and knowledge systems. Monarchs and communities outside the ruling elite responded to this self-fashioning in many ways, and their reactions no doubt encouraged the Mughals to continue these dynamic encounters. Nonetheless, the Mughals did not pursue this set of exchanges for the benefit of their population but rather mainly for themselves. They sought to understand what it meant to become rulers of India.

In the absence of an obvious answer, the Mughals set out to formulate a cluster of possibilities, many of which prominently featured Sanskrit, India’s foremost premodern tongue of literature and learning. Reconstructing this complex set of encounters will undoubtedly change how Indologists understand Mughal history and also offers a fruitful case study for analysing the culture of power in a non-Western, premodern setting. The Mughals may have declared Persian the medium of government, but activities at the royal court reveal a significantly more complex picture of how imperial claims actually worked on the early modern subcontinent.

Jains and Brahmans at Akbar’s court

Jain and Brahman Sanskrit intellectuals visited the courts of Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan in considerable numbers.

A select few entered the royal court at the direct invitation of the crown, whereas others gained entrée through regional or subimperial patrons. Many championed political causes on behalf of their religious communities or local rulers. Above all, Sanskrit literati sought access to famed Mughal patronage, which drew individuals working in various languages from across much of Asia. Sanskrit authors crafted many works under imperial sponsorship and participated in numerous aspects of court life. They acted as intellectual informants, astrologers, religious guides, translators, and political negotiators for the Mughals…

The Mughals also turned to Sanskrit intellectuals for information concerning other Indian practices and ideas that could inform an imperial agenda, including the notion that Akbar was an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. Bada’uni unhappily attests that Brahmans introduced Sanskrit works that predicted Akbar’s rise to power as Vishnu’s avatar:

[Cheating imposter Brahmans] told [the king] repeatedly that he had descended to earth, like Ram, Krishan, and other infidel rulers, who, although lords of the world, had taken on human form to act on earth. For the sake of flattery, they presented Sanskrit poetry [shi‘r-ha-yi hindi] allegedly uttered by tongues of sages that predicted a world-conquering padshah would arise in India. He would honor Brahmans, protect cows, and justly rule the earth. They wrote such nonsense on old papers and presented it to [the emperor]. He believed every word.

Some Sanskrit works written under Akbar’s support mirror these claims rather precisely. For example, in his bilingual grammar from the late sixteenth century, Krishnadasa praises Akbar as Vishnu embodied:

Since Brahma was described by the Veda

as changeless and beyond this world,

therefore Akbar, great ruler of the earth, was born

in order to protect cows and Brahmans.

His virtuous name is celebrated throughout the ocean of shastras

and among scriptures [smriti], histories [itihasa], and the like.

It is established forever in the three worlds, and

therefore with his name this work is composed.

It is no surprise that cows were protected by Lord Krishna, son of Gopala,

and the best of the twice born guarded

by the Ramas, gods of the Brahmans.

But it is truly amazing that the lord Vishnu

descended [avatirna] in a family of

foreigners that loves to harm cows and Brahmans.

Akbar protects cows and Brahmans!

Jains also provided Akbar access to certain Sanskrit-based practices that would prove politically potent, such as sun veneration. Bhanucandra, a Tapa Gaccha ascetic whom Hiravijaya sent to the Mughal court in Lahore in 1587, taught Akbar how to recite a Sanskrit text titled Suryasahasranama (Thousand Names of the Sun). Siddhicandra, Bhanucandra’s Sanskrit biographer, tells the tale thus:

One time, the ruler of the earth repeatedly asked the Brahmans for the Thousand Names of the Sun, but they could not find it anywhere. By a stroke of luck they located some wise man. He gave [the text] to them, and they presented it to the glorious shah [shrisaha]. Having seen it, the glorious shah said to them excitedly, “Tell me who among good people can teach me this?” They replied, “Only one who has subdued all the senses, sleeps on the ground, and possesses sacred knowledge is qualified in this matter.” When he heard this, the shah said, “Only you [Bhanucandra] possess such qualities here. You alone, venerable one, will teach me this every morning.”

Later in his work, Siddhicandra portrays Akbar as devoted to honouring the sun to the exclusion of other religious activities:

The glorious shah diligently learned the Thousand Names of the Sun.

He forgot any other taste and recited the names there. He devoted his

mind, stood in the correct direction facing the sun, and learned from

Bhanucandra with his folded hands pressed against his forehead.

Siddhicandra does not explain further this “other taste” (anyarasa) for which sun veneration eliminated any need on the part of the Mughal emperor. But it is likely a covert reference to Islam, especially given that Siddhicandra carefully mentions that Akbar faced the correct direction in venerating the sun and used his head and hands properly, which are both important concerns in Islamic prayer as well. Furthermore, Bada’uni, a notorious critic of Akbar in his unofficial history of the era, testifies that this ritual occurred up to four times daily, including at times for Islamic prayers such as sunrise. Jerome Xavier, a European traveler, even noted Akbar’s predilection for sun worship as one reason why he was best not considered a Muslim. Most likely, rather than indicating his personal religious inclinations, Akbar designed this royal custom to promote his absolute sovereignty.

The excerpts are adapted from Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court by Audrey Truschke, which is forthcoming in March 2016 from Columbia University Press. Copyright (c) 2016 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

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