Stanford religious historian Audrey Truschke uncovers a surprising cultural alliance between Muslim and Hindu elites in early Sanskrit texts. Her findings could help ease current tensions between the two groups.
BY MARGUERITE RIGOGLIOSO
The Humanities at Stanford
In recent years, as tensions between Hindus and Muslims have mounted, India’s government has been accused of instigating or condoning numerous acts of violence against Muslims.
Popular thought in India holds that the origin of this conflict goes back centuries to medieval times, when Muslims expanded into the Indian subcontinent.
According to Audrey Truschke, a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Religious Studies, however, much of the current religious conflict in India has been fueled by ideological assumptions about that period rather than an accurate rendering of the subcontinent’s history.
In her new book, Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court (Columbia University Press, forthcoming), Truschke says that the heyday of Muslim rule in India from the 16th to 18th centuries was, in fact, one of “tremendous cross-cultural respect and fertilization,” not religious or cultural conflict.
In her study of Sanskrit and Persian accounts of life under the powerful Islamic dominion known as the Mughal Empire, she provides the first detailed account of India’s religious intellectuals during this period.
Her research paints a far different picture than common perceptions, which assume that the Muslim presence has always been hostile to Indian languages, religions and culture. A leading scholar of South Asian cultural and intellectual history, Truschke argues that this more divisive interpretation actually developed during the colonial period from 1757 to 1947.
“The British benefited from pitting Hindus and Muslims against one another and portrayed themselves as neutral saviors who could keep ancient religious conflicts at bay,” she says. “While colonialism ended in the 1940s, the modern Hindu right has found tremendous political value in continuing to proclaim and create endemic Hindu-Muslim conflict.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has been criticized for being anti-Muslim. Modi was chief minister of Gujarat state, where in 2002 Hindu mobs killed more than 1,000 Muslims; he was widely blamed for failing to stem the violence. As a result, the United States denied Modi a visa for more than a decade until 2014 when it became clear that Modi would be India’s next prime minister.
Truschke argues that the ideology underpinning such violence – one that Modi himself openly embraces – erroneously “erases Mughal history and writes religious conflict into Indian history where there was none, thereby fueling and justifying modern religious intolerance.”
Her work shows that the Muslim impulse in India was not aimed at dominating Indian culture or Hinduism. She hopes her findings “will provide a solid historiographical basis for intervention in modern, political rewritings of the Indian past.”
Correcting the record
Truschke, one of the few living scholars with competence in both Sanskrit and Persian, is the first scholar to study texts from both languages in exploring the courtly life of the Mughals. The Mughals ruled a great swath of the Indian subcontinent from the early 16th to the mid-18th centuries, building great monuments like the Taj Mahal.
Over several months in Pakistan and 10 months in India, Truschke traveled to more than two dozen archives in search of manuscripts. She was able to analyze the Mughal elite’s diverse interactions with Sanskrit intellectuals in a way not previously done.
She has accessed, for example, six histories that follow Jain monks at the Mughal court as they accompanied Mughal kings on expeditions, engaged in philosophical and religious debates, and lived under the empire’s rule. These works collectively run to several thousand pages, and none have been translated into English.
Truschke found that high-level contact between learned Muslims and Hindus was marked by
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Source: Islamic News Daily