For the Mughals, power was often about the rulers first and foremost rather than the ruled. This plain fact has escaped many historians, and a cascade of other misunderstandings has followed. Chief among our modern oversights is a general failure to appreciate that the Mughal culture of power was inextricably linked with wide-ranging literary, aesthetic, and intellectual interests in Sanskrit traditions.

Scholars have often neglected Mughal court culture in favour of emphasising economic and administrative histories. But even those interested in softer forms of authority have generally judged Mughal imperial culture too narrowly.

An unknown history

… (The) Mughal imperium, particularly its central court, was defined largely by repeated engagements with Sanskrit thinkers, texts, and ideas. Select Indian communities that the Mughals ruled (primarily Brahmans and Jains) provided access to Sanskrit forms of knowledge and served as interlocutors for the imperial elite.

However, these groups did not treat such encounters as a referendum on whether or not they were governed by a legitimate power. Indeed, Sanskrit thinkers seem to have had little interest in considering whether Mughal rule was legitimate or justified, which suggests that the contemporary focus on this question is anachronistic. Instead, Jains and Brahmans far more commonly viewed Sanskrit and Persian exchanges as an opportunity to participate in the imperial project and tried to adapt Mughal cross-cultural endeavours to the structures of their own literary, social, and religious networks.

This largely unknown history has much to tell us about the diverse Sanskrit-language communities in Mughal India. Equally important, the Mughals and their Brahman and Jain interlocutors offer a notably rich set of insights into the complex relationship between power and culture, a dynamic that defined the lives of many early modern Indians no less than it shapes our own.

… Indologists have typically depicted Mughal imperial life as confined to the Persian-medium world, with occasional appearances from other Islamicate languages such as Arabic and Turkish. Scholars have almost uniformly ignored the role of Sanskrit, India’s premier classical tongue, as a major component of Mughal political, intellectual, and literary activities.

This oversight has long obscured the close imperial relationship with the Sanskrit cultural world as well as the multicultural nature of Mughal power.

In fact, at the same time that the Mughals promoted Persian as a language of culture and administration, members of the ruling elite also aggressively formed ties with Sanskrit literati and engaged with Sanskrit texts. In the 1560s and 1570s, Sanskrit thinkers from across the subcontinent first entered the central court. By the 1580s, the Mughals hosted an array of Jain and Brahman intellectuals at court, bestowed titles on members of both communities, and supported a stunning range of Sanskrit textual production.

Simultaneously, under royal orders, Mughal literati started to translate Sanskrit texts into Persian and compose their own expositions of Sanskrit knowledge systems. Seeking to capitalise on the court’s interest in Sanskrit, regional rulers and communities commissioned Sanskrit praise poems for the consumption of the Mughal elite and also sent Sanskrit intellectuals to the central court. Most of these activities continued throughout the reigns of Jahangir (r 1605–1627) and Shah Jahan (r 1628–1658), coming to a close only in the mid-seventeenth century.

In these ways Sanskrit literary culture flourished alongside Persian at the Mughal court. Moreover, these exchanges produced great effects within both cosmopolitan traditions, and Persianate and Sanskrit literati each responded in a myriad of written ways to Mughal cross-cultural engagements.

Retelling the Ramayana

Despite the initial vision of a circumscribed imperial epic, Akbar’s Ramayan helped reshape Indo-Persian literary culture far beyond his court and marked the beginning of repeated retellings of the Ramayana story in Persian that continued to be generated well into the nineteenth century. These new Ramayans were often based on Sanskrit or vernacular versions of the epic or simply oral knowledge of the tale rather than the Akbari translation.

… (It) is useful to briefly survey the two earliest retellings: Sad Allah Masih Panipati’s Dastan-i Ram u Sita (Tale of Ram and Sita), also known as Ramayan-i Masih, and Giridhardas’s Ramayan. The works were both written for a Mughal courtly audience (although outside direct imperial patronage), but the authors developed their respective narratives in dissimilar ways. Masih Panipati crafted his Ramayan as a love story, whereas Giridhardas cast his poem as a heroic tale. Together they showcase the vivacity of Sanskrit-derived materials for Indo-Persian literati and begin to outline some of the rich possibilities for retelling the Ramayana in Persian.

Masih Panipati constructed his Ramayan, titled Tale of Ram and Sita, as a versified Indo-Persian romance dedicated to Jahangir. In the opening section, he emphasises that his poem expresses a truth grounded in love:

I must speak eloquently of Hindustan
because the dust of this land is infused with love [ishq].
From that I spoke the tradition [ḥadis] of Ram and Sita.
It is not a legend [afsanah] but history [tarikh] here.

Later he again states that “this love [ishq ] of which I speak is not a legend [afsanah]. / every pearl I pierce shines like the sun.” Masih Panipati’s insistence that the Ramayaṇa possesses historical legitimacy echoes the understanding of Sanskrit texts translated under direct Mughal support.

But whereas Akbar’s translators labelled texts such as the Mahabharata a record of India’s royal past, Masih Panipati accentuates the emotional honesty of the Ramayaṇa’s love story. Masih further recast this Indian tale within the Persianate framework of a romance.

As one scholar has put it, “Masih canonises the Rama story among the other Islamicate legends as a tragedy of love. Rama and Sita come to embody the similar trope of a lover and beloved who must surmount numerous obstacles.” Romances had long been tightly linked with courts and kingship in the Persianate tradition. In telling the Indian tale within this romantic-political frame-work, Masih may also have intended to provide ethical or even spiritual instruction to his projected imperial audience.

In contrast, Giridhardas reimagined the epic as Rama’s story exclusively and set out to write an account of an Indian hero. He authored his Ramayan in 1623 - 1624, dedicated the poem to Jahangir, and described his work as the “book of ram” (namah-i ram). Giridhardas follows Valmiki’s version quite closely and so includes the story of Sita within the text.

But when Giridhardas sketches an initial table of contents, he outlines Rama’s good nature, his exile, and the war against Ravana with no mention of Sita. Even when it seems he must name Sita in order to explain the reason for battle with Lanka, he prefers vague references to how “disaster suddenly befell” and “countless soldiers prepared for war.” Giridhardas ends his prologue by focusing on Rama’s glorious rule in Ayodhya (Oudh) after he returned triumphant over Ravana.

After the promised time of fourteen years,
the crown and good fortune together returned to Oudh.
The world was full of equity and justice.
He delighted the world with righteousness. 

In the closing line of his summary, Giridhardās reiterates that he is going to narrate “[Ram’s] adventures.”

Giridhardas’s excising of Sita mirrors the opening of Akbar’s Ramayan, which also includes a brief summary of the epic and likewise characterises the tale as Rama’s story. The synopsis in Akbar’s Ramayan reads:

It has not remained hidden from the hearts of the lords of truth that this is a book famous among the Indians [ahl-i hind] and called Ramayan in Sanskrit [zaban-i hind]. It is an account of the adventures of Ramchand from the time of his birth until his death. He was an Indian king and sovereign lord of an empire. The majesty and splendour of the city of Ayodhya, which is now known as Oudh, is famous. Among Ramchand’s stories is that he built a bridge over the salt ocean and vanquished Lanka, a well-known city among islands, with total strength and composure. He killed Ravan, a strong demon with ten heads, whose line had held sovereignty over that land for thousands of years, and he destroyed that lineage. Valmiki, a Brahman who was very learned and an ascetic, versified this story [afsanah] from beginning to end in Sanskrit [zaban-i hind] and became famous in this land.

We do not know whether Giridhardas was familiar with Akbar’s Ramayan. But it seems that there was a common interpretation of this epic as a hero’s tale in Mughal India, especially in works directed toward the Mughal king.

Even this cursory glance at the retellings of Masih Panipati and Giridhardas illustrates how select Sanskrit stories proved to be successful as creative materials in Indo-Persian literature. Many other Sanskrit-based narratives were also popular during this period, and some had been part of Indo-Islamic culture far before the advent of Mughal rule.

Most notably, animal fables from the Pancatantra (Five Tales) and the Hitopadesa (Good Advice) had been translated and reformulated in Arabic and Persian since the sixth century. Interestingly, however, even poets working outside the royal court viewed Persian Ramayans in particular as demanding an imperial reception.

Both Masih Panipati and Giridhardas dedicated their poems to Jahangir (whether he received them is unclear). Elite Mughal culture exerted such a profound influence on Indo-Persian literature that poets continued to imagine Persian incarnations of Rama’s story as belonging within the royal court.

Excerpted with permission from Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court, Audrey Truschke, Penguin Books India.