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

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This book is available at Amazon.

Preetha Nair (IANS)

Mughal rulers patronised Sanskrit literature in their courts, especially between AD 1560 to 1660, and also took up Persian translations of epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana as ambitious projects, says scholar Audrey Truschke in her book ‘Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court’.

Truschke, an assistant professor of South Asian History at Rutgers University, says that Hindu nationalism is deeply tied to colonial ideas and rewriting the past is a “dangerous activity”. The author also says that she faced backlash from Indian right wing groups against the book, published by Penguin Books India.

To buy the book from Amazon, click here.

Excerpts from an email interview:

Q: Your book ‘Culture of Encounters’ comes at a time when there is a perceived effort to demonise and rewrite Mughal influence in Indian history. How do you view this?

A: The Mughal empire is a critical chapter in India’s long, diverse history. I think that it is essential for future generations to learn about the Mughals and the Indo-Islamic past more broadly.

Q: The book has revealed how Mughals patronised Sanskrit. Do you think it has helped the language flourish?

A: It is difficult to assess the degree to which Sanskrit was dependent on courtly patronage during the Mughal period. I would need more data from elsewhere in India in order to answer this question.

Q: What made you research on a subject like the patronage of Sanskrit in Mughal courts? What were the cultural, academic and social challenges you faced?

A: A combination of my language skills (I read both Sanskrit and Persian) and my interests led me to this topic. I have more recently faced some popular backlash against my work, mainly from the Hindu right.

Q: Was the Mughal court’s decision to translate the Ramayana and the Mahabharata more of a political necessity than a literary urge?

A: The Mughals did not fully distinguish between political and literary aims. On the contrary, they expressed and pursued political goals through literature, and so the translations of the Indian epics were about both aesthetics and power.

All translations point up the limits of understanding across cultural and linguistic divides. The Mughals found certain aspects of the Indian epics difficult to translate, such as some of the religious scaffolding of the texts, and so adjusted these aspects accordingly.

Q: What has been the impact of British rule in India in demonising the Mughals as anti-Hindu?

A: The British attempt to demonise the Mughals carries on today in the efforts of Hindu nationalists, who have gobbled up this colonial argument. Today two major impacts are the ongoing suspicion of Indian Muslims and the persistence of the troublesome notion that somehow Hindu and Indian are collapsible into a single identity.

Q: There is a perception in some quarters that Aurangzeb is being overtly demonised by the current political dispensation in India. Though he was instrumental in the destruction of many temples, the number of Hindus in the Mughal courts was the highest during his reign.

A: Yes, Aurangzeb is being historically demonised in India today. He destroyed some Hindu temples, although he protected many more. He killed some Hindus who opposed the Mughal state, such as Sambhaji, but he also welcomed willing Marathas into the Mughal administration to the extent that they outnumbered Rajputs at one point.

My argument is not that Aurangzeb was not as bad as we think, although that is probably true. Rather, I contend that we should strive to treat Aurangzeb with historical rigour and understand him on his own terms. This is a basic mission of historians, and I think that we stand to learn about pre-colonial India if we come to a more historically-grounded interpretation of Aurangzeb and his impact on the subcontinent.

Q: India is witnessing an emergence of Hindu nationalism. As a historian, how do you evaluate the trend? Also how worrisome are the attempts to rewrite history?

A: Hindu nationalism has a particular history that is deeply tied to colonial ideas, as I have written about elsewhere. Hindu nationalism faces a significant problem, however, which is that it advances historically bogus claims. Hence the need to rewrite history arises.

Rewriting the past is a dangerous activity with potentially serious repercussions in the present and future. Hindu nationalist attempts to simultaneously villainise and erase Indo-Islamic history go hand-in-hand with casting aspersions on modern Muslims and bode ill for religious tolerance in India.

Q: Your book says “Indo-Persian court histories often obfuscate the importance of Hindi as a spoken vernacular in the Mughal imperium, and that it was on the ascent in the 17th century”. Could that be the reason for the decline of Sanskrit?

A: Possibly, but we would need to explain why it suddenly became a problem that Sanskrit was an elite language. Sanskrit had been used for thousands of years in India, and at earlier points the language even attracted people (such as Buddhists) who had previously written in more accessible tongues. I am not convinced that Sanskrit’s limited reach is responsible for its demise, especially since the written versions of vernacular languages in the seventeenth century were hardly accessible to everyone.

Q: Persian translations are an eye-opener to how theological interpretations have been given to both the Ramayana and the Mahabaratha to juxtapose Hindu Gods as intermediaries between humans and Allah. You have extensively explained the use of gushayandah (solver) and rahunama (guide) in the translations. Please comment.

A: There is no set relationship between God and the gods in Akbar’s Persian Mahabharata. At times, Hindu deities occupy a middleman position between people and Allah. At other times, however, Allah replaces Hindu gods, such as Brahma. I argue that the Mughal translators necessarily understood the religious landscape of the Indian epics as mediated through Islam. Accordingly, they introduced Allah as needed to make the Mahabharata intelligible to readers who had an Islamic background but who were relatively unfamiliar with Hindu traditions.

Q: The Mughal translators have adopted a severely shortened Bhagavad Gita, a text considered as the soul of Hinduism, to a few pages. Do you think it was necessitated due to social, political or religious reasons?

A: I think that the Bhagavad Gita made little sense within the Mughal concept of the Mahabharata as a book about India’s past. For the Mughals, the Mahabharata was what the Brahmins understood to be Indian history. The Gita was arguably a digression from this narrative, from a Mughal perspective, and in any case the Gita was theologically awkward within an Islamic worldview. ( IANS)

(Preetha Nair can be reached at preetha.n@ians.in)

You can buy the book from Amazon.

 

 

 

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    Culture of Encounters emphases the critical role of the sociology of empire in building the Mughal polity.

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How telecom has become driver of economic change in India

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The country's hyper-competitive telecom sector has led the revolution from the front.
The country's hyper-competitive telecom sector has led the revolution from the front. Wikimedia Commons
  • India has done well to stay ahead of the curve in the technological revolution
  • The sectoral change in productivity has been the highest in the telecommunications sector since the reforms of 1991
  • India has managed to provide the cheapest telephony services around the world

For the most part of human history, the change was glacial in pace. It was quite safe to assume that the world at the time of your death would look pretty much similar to the one at the time of your birth. That is no longer the case, and the pace of change seems to be growing exponentially. Futurist Ray Kurzweil put it succinctly when he wrote in 2001: “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century – it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).” Since the time of his writing, a lot has changed, especially with the advent of the internet.

India has done well to stay ahead of the curve in the technological revolution. The country’s hyper-competitive telecom sector has led the revolution from the front. In fact, according to Reserve Bank of India data, the sectoral change in productivity has been the highest in the telecommunications sector since the reforms of 1991, growing by over 10 percent. On the other hand, no other sector has had a productivity growth of above five percent during the same period. It is no wonder that it has also been one of the fastest-growing sectors of the Indian economy, growing at over seven percent in the last decade itself.

Also Read: Social Media in India: Understanding The Dynamics of ‘Facebook’ and ‘Twitter’

Such an unprecedented pace of growth has been brought about the precise levels of change that Kurzweil was so enthusiastic about. Today’s smartphones have the power of computers that took an entire room in the 1990s, and the telecom sector has had to keep up with a provision of commensurate internet speeds and services. Meanwhile, India has managed to provide the cheapest telephony services around the world, which has hit rock bottom after the entry of Reliance Jio. This has ensured access to those even at the bottom of the pyramid.

A rise in internet penetration has distinct positive effects on economic growth of a country.
A rise in internet penetration has distinct positive effects on economic growth of a country. Wikimedia Commons

Even though consumers have come to be accustomed to fast-paced changes within the telecom sector, the entry of Jio altered the face of the industry like never before by changing the very basis of competition. Data became the focal point of competition for an industry that derived over 75 percent of its revenue from voice. It was quite obvious that there would be immediate economic effects due to it. Now that we’re nearing a year of Jio’s paid operations, during which time it has even become profitable, we saw it fit to quantify its socio-economic impact on the country. Three broad takeaways need to be highlighted.

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First, the most evident effect has been the rise in affordability of calling and data services. Voice services have become practically costless while data prices have dropped from an average of Rs 152 per GB to lower than Rs 10 per GB. Such a drastic reduction in data prices has not only brought the internet within the reach of a larger proportion of the Indian population but has also allowed newer segments of society to use and experience it for the first time. Since the monthly saving of an average internet user came out to be Rs 142 per month (taking a conservative estimate that the consumer is still using 1 GB of data each month) and there are about 350 million mobile internet users in the country (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India data), the yearly financial savings for the entire country comes out to be Rs 60,000 crore.

To put things in perspective, this amount is more than four times the entire GDP of Bhutan. Therefore, mere savings by the consumer on data has been at astonishing proportions.

Today's smartphones have the power of computers that took an entire room in the 1990s, and the telecom sector has had to keep up with a provision of commensurate internet speeds and services. Wikimedia Commons
Today’s smartphones have the power of computers that took an entire room in the 1990s, and the telecom sector has had to keep up with a provision of commensurate internet speeds and services. Wikimedia Commons

Now, this data has been used for services that have brought to life a thriving app economy within the country. So, the second level of impact has been in the redressal of a variety of consumer needs — ranging from education, health and entertainment to banking. For instance, students in remote areas can now access online courseware and small businesses can access newer markets. Information asymmetry has been considerably reduced.

Third, a rise in internet penetration has distinct positive effects on economic growth of a country. These effects arise not merely from the creation of an internet economy, but also due to the synergy effects it generates. Information becomes more accessible and communication a lot easier. Businesses find it easier to operate and access consumers. Labour working in cities has to make less frequent trips home and becomes more productive as a result. Education and health services become available in inaccessible locations. Multiple avenues open up for knowledge and skill enhancement.

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An econometric analysis for the Indian economy showed that the 15 percent increase in internet penetration due to Jio and the spill-over effects it creates will raise the per capita levels of the country’s GDP by 5.85 percent, provided all else remains constant.

Thus, India’s telecom sector will continue to drive the economy forward, at least in the short run, and hopefully catapult India into 20,000 years of progress within this century, as Kurzweil postulated. The best approach for the state would be to ensure the environment of unfettered competition within the industry. Maybe other sectors of the economy ought to take a leaf out of the telecom growth story. The Indian banking sector comes to mind. However, that is a topic for another day. (IANS)

(Amit Kapoor is Chair, Institute for Competitiveness, India. He can be contacted at Amit. Kapoor@competitiveness.in and tweets @kautiliya. Chirag Yadav, a senior researcher at the institute, has contributed to the article.)