In this book, I present and analyse a hitherto overlooked group of histories on Indo-Persian political events, namely, a few dozen Sanskrit texts that date from the 1190s until 1721. As soon as Muslim political figures established themselves in northern India in the 1190s – when the Ghurids overthrew the Chauhans and ruled part of northern India from Delhi – Indian intellectuals wrote about this political development in Sanskrit. Indian men (and at least one woman) produced dozens of Sanskrit texts on Indo- Persian political events.
These works span Delhi Sultanate and Mughal rule, including works that deal with Deccan sultanates and Muslim-led polities in the subcontinent’s deep south. India’s premodern learned elite only ceased to write on Indo-Muslim powers in Sanskrit when the Mughal Empire began to fracture beyond repair in the early eighteenth century.
In other words, Sanskrit writers produced histories of Indo-Muslim rule – meaning political power wielded over parts of the Indian subcontinent by people who happened to be Muslim – throughout nearly the entire time span of that political experience. This book seeks, for the first time, to collect, analyse and theorise Sanskrit histories of Muslim-led rule and, later, as Muslims became an integral part of the Indian cultural and political worlds, Indo-Muslim rule as a body of historical materials.
My main focus remains on historiography, or history writing, more than political history (although there is more than a little of that too in these pages). This new archive has wide-reaching implications for specialist scholarship on premodern South Asia. Among other things, these works lend insight into formulations and expressions of premodern political, social, cultural and religious identities. Given the current political climate where nationalist claims are often grounded in fabricated visions of India’s premodernity, this book also contributes to ongoing debates in the Indian public sphere.
In what follows, I offer a substantial revision to Sanskrit intellectual history. I argue that Sanskrit authors marshalled the full resources of their layered literary heritage to comment on what we now identify as the single biggest set of cultural, political and social changes of the second millennium in South Asia: Muslim-led rule.
This means that some Sanskrit authors, far from being checked out of their day-to-day realities as many modern scholars have presumed, were keenly interested in writing about political events, sometimes in real time. The fact that premodern Sanskrit intellectuals wrote histories matters for how we understand the contours of the Sanskrit tradition and its relationship to political realities. Moreover, in the following pages, I explore how premodern thinkers recounted the political past in Sanskrit and what purposes these narratives served for their authors and readers.
I also investigate what these Sanskrit histories can tell us about premodern identities. This is a tradition defined by writing about an Other, a time-honoured way of also writing about the Self. I will tip my hand at the outset: If you are looking for the origins of “Hindu” and “Muslim” identities in premodern India, or the roots of Hindu–Muslim conflict or, to be frank, Hindu/Muslim anything, then you might want to try a different book. Few, if any, of the dozens of authors I discuss here offer categories remotely approaching our modern dichotomy of broad-based religious identities.
In fact, I use the general categories of “Hindu” and “Muslim” throughout this book, in part, because they do not offer strong interpretive frameworks for premodernity. Such categories are broad enough to enable us to recover the highly variegated identities expressed by premodern Sanskrit intellectuals.
Sanskrit thinkers who wrote about what we now call Indo-Muslim or Indo- Persian political history, circa 1190–1721, defined peoples and communities by place of origin, place of residence, caste, class and style of rulership, and often not by the god(s) people worshipped so much as by the political power(s) they served.
Sanskrit thinkers evinced a wide range of responses to political power wielded by Muslims, including formulations that I did not expect to find. In their works, we meet outcaste Ghurids who can never be proper north Indian rulers and Mughal kings who speak flawless Sanskrit. We encounter Vijayanagara rulers who, despite not being Muslim, declare themselves sultans superior to mere Hindu kings.
We stumble across Maratha and Rajput yavanas (a Sanskrit word most commonly translated as “Muslim”) who fight proudly for a host of Indo-Persian dynasties. We have a whole lot of groups that I struggle to succinctly describe in modern English.
While I wallow a little here in the glorious confusion of this rich tapestry, in the substantive chapters of this book I prioritise context and specificity. I parse the identities expressed in individual texts that generally feature an Other, who is often, although not always, an Indo-Muslim political figure or dynasty. I am interested in the definition of that Other and also in the Self, as formulated by each author, right up through the moments, in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, when the distinction ceased to exist for some Sanskrit intellectuals.
In this book, I am interested precisely in the intersection between an elite learned tradition (Sanskrit thought) and a disruptive set of political changes (Indo-Muslim rule).
Only a thin upper crust of premodern Indians participated in Sanskrit literary and intellectual culture. Accordingly, we should not conflate Sanskrit with India at large and certainly not with “Indian civilisation” (if such things even existed in premodernity). Similarly, Indo- Persian rule was not an enterprise exclusive to Muslims, nor did it involve all Muslims. From the start, Muslim-led polities on the subcontinent were both elite and diverse, and included Hindus among others.
Accordingly, my questions here concern Sanskrit literary culture and its commentary on specific incarnations of Indo-Muslim rule. How did premodern Sanskrit intellectuals relate writing about new types of political power to their inherited literary tradition? Why did they write in Sanskrit? How did Sanskrit intellectuals think about rulers who happened to be Muslim?
Did they always (or ever) conceptualise political actors as “Muslim” or “Other”? How did specific thinkers reformulate their own community identities through writing about Indo-Muslim political history in Sanskrit?
It is difficult to cultivate within ourselves the capacity to imagine the premodern Indian past, which looks so radically different in many ways from our present. Part of the challenge lies in lacking a cluster of familiar concepts that might order our understanding of this long-lost world.
A few short paragraphs in, and I have already thrown out “Hindu” and “Muslim” as analytical identities. I am talking about Sanskrit histories, a category that may confuse people who think that these do not exist. Below I suggest some ways to muddle through and develop new analytical concepts that enable us to unpack how premodern Sanskrit intellectuals narrate aspects of the Indo-Muslim past.
Ultimately, this project may empower us to think more creatively and critically about writing history in our own present, an exciting possibility that I discuss later in this introduction and to which I return in the epilogue. But we ought not to put the cart before the horse. In order to begin, we must dismantle the bad ideas that have blocked most modern scholars from seeing the rich archive of premodern Sanskrit historical materials on Indo-Muslim polities.
Excerpted with permission from The Language of History: Sanskrit Narratives of Muslim Pasts, Audrey Truschke, Penguin Books.