Audrey Truschke’s first book, Culture of Encounters, looked at the interactions between Sanskrit and Persian intellectual worlds at the Mughal court, challenging modern ideas of India’s past. Her third and latest, The Language of History, continues in a similar vein, focusing this time on histories of Muslims rulers written by Sanskrit intellectuals primarily in the medieval era.
The book seeks to break down conventional understandings of what qualifies as history in the pre-modern era, while also pushing back against Hindutva readings of India’s past that sees the last millennium as one of unending Hindu-Muslim conflict.
Between the two books came Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King, the book that brought Truschke attention – and also hate. Over the last month, the historian who teaches at Rutgers University has been on the receiving end of a hate campaign from Hindu nationalist organisations, starting with a petition to the university calling her Hinduphobic and extending to vile messages and even death threats. The university has extended solidarity to Truschke, while also committing to understand the sentiments of the Hindu community on campus.
Scroll.in spoke to Truschke about the most recent controversy, the death threats, and also new approaches to Indian pre-modern history, why there is much more to learn from Sanskrit texts and what advice she has for young scholars.
How did the controversy begin this time?
I do not know what caused it. There is no obvious catalyst. And I think part of what’s concerning is that the main catalyst appears to just be the kind of basic fact that I do in fact, teach South Asian history. My first indication was when I started receiving threats and hate on social media, which quickly migrated to email. This spurred a whole series of safety and security discussions that, frankly, I never thought I would need to have as a Sanskritist and Persianist by training. It’s been rough.
You’ve had to deal with criticism and hate in the past too.
I would say this time it’s by far the most virulent. But it’s not the first time. There was another petition against me two years ago, roughly much of which is actually nearly identical to the current petition. I have no insight into who wrote this current petition, except that it’s not my students at Rutgers-Newark.
One thing we’re seeing that’s new, that’s been accelerating in the last few days, is an open attempt to impose ideological and religious restrictions on professors in the US context. As you know, that sort of thing has been happening in India for quite some time. But Hindu nationalist groups have not been bold enough to try that in the United States. We have very strong academic freedom under US law. It’s a very different landscape from India’s in that regard. I don’t know if they feel emboldened or if they feel fearful, possibly due to the recent change in governments in the US and their reduction of influence.
What has the response been like from your colleagues and the university?
Support from top to bottom, which has been fantastic. The joint faculty and grad union at Rutgers has issued a couple of different supportive statements. The Rutgers administration offered their unequivocal support for me and stood strong behind that. There have been some supportive statements from other groups also, including the South Asian Studies Program at Rutgers and faculty of South Asian origin at Rutgers and other universities.
In the academic world, I think there’s an understanding that this sort of thing is incredibly dangerous. And that’s because it’s not about me. I may have been chosen as a sort of test case because of the nature of my scholarship, and the fact that I work on sensitive and controversial topics, but they’re not going to stop with me. The idea appears to be to outline a way to go after an increasing number of professors of South Asian Studies. And that is a threat to the entire field and, really, to humanities-based inquiry.
How do you respond to the charge that you are Hindu-phobic or that you are denying a Hindu holocaust?
I think the charges lack substance, I don’t think that there’s any evidence behind them. And as academics, we work in a world of evidence. I think it’s also notable that so far as I know, no student who has ever taken a course with me is part of this. In fact, I have taught hundreds of students over the last 15 years. I’ve never had a single objection raised to my teaching. That obviously doesn’t mean I’m perfect. I’m always looking for ways to improve. But I just really think that this is built on nothing.
If we can go back a little bit, how did you end up studying India and its past?
I fell in love with a Hindu text. I was 18 years old. And I was at the University of Chicago, where I did my undergraduate work. I intended to major in religious studies, and I intended originally to study Christianity and Judaism. Up until that point in life, I was not exposed to a great amount of religious diversity.
But then I saw there was this class being offered on the Mahabharata. I figured Hinduism is a major world religion, and I’m a major in religious studies, so I should know something about Hindu texts. So I enrolled in this class, knowing absolutely nothing. And I was blown away. It was incredible, what I discovered.
Keep in mind, especially for folks who have grown up in India, you’ve heard bits and pieces of the stories, and it is always around you. That was not my situation. This was entirely new to me. And I was just amazed. The Mahabharata is this long, complicated story that was never singular, that always had digressions and multiplicity and retellings. I was both fascinated, and completely ill equipped to make sense of it.
And I thought: People have come up with these stories, and people have preserved them. And people tell them because they’re meaningful to them and their communities. And I want to know why, right? I wanted insight, I wanted a little bit of access and entry into this worldview. And so I set out to gain the analytical tools that I needed to better understand what I viewed as an amazing set of stories from an amazing tradition.
So I learned Sanskrit and I took more classes on Hindu texts, and I never got over my fascination and intellectual love, because now I’ve been doing this for 20 years. And I’m still completely fascinated and amazed, and I still have a lot more questions.
What sort of training did you receive?
I started off in religious studies. And also, I did four years of Sanskrit as an undergraduate. I was not studying modern Hindu practices in any regard. I was really focused on things from 2000 years ago. I was studying Hinduism and Hindu texts, and specifically focusing on the epics.
It was a little disconnected from anything that I could place in history. And so I wanted a bit more grounding, which I pursued by learning Persian. And that positioned me to move into the second millennium CE, especially the 12th to the 18th centuries, and I ended focusing on the Mughal Empire for my graduate work.
The other transition that I made from my undergraduate to my graduate work is I consciously moved away from religious studies and into area studies. My graduate training was, really, as a philologist. We don’t use that term anymore, because no one knows what it means. But really I was trained to read texts.
My move into history began as a career move, frankly, but I became a genuine convert to the discipline of history. So now I am a historian and I’m a tenured professor in a history department. I also work on religion still, and specifically I do history of religion.
Generally, my interests have stopped at the 18th century. For anyone who works on pre-modernity, you have to deal with the colonial period, insofar as colonial era interpretations are the earliest ones of external people looking at Indian traditions and trying to make sense of them. But my scholarship has primarily concerned pre-modern India.
That has been supplemented in recent years with a focus on more modern events and then specifically my interest in not engaging with – I do not engage with – but describing and calling out Hindu nationalist narratives, specifically, vis-a-vis Indian history.
I’ve added this modern focus, alongside my work on pre-modernity, for two basic reasons. One is that Hindutva ideologues won’t leave me alone. I’ve gotten hate mail almost every day for the past five years. And given that they have made themselves part of my lived reality, I might as well analyse it. This is what scholars do. Give me literally anything, and I will analyse it for you.
The other reason is that I think that as a pre-modernist, trained to work on pre-modern sources, I’m actually well positioned to comment on certain aspects of Hindutva ideology, specifically their misinterpretations of the Indian past, and projections onto it. And so I feel compelled to do that at this moment when that specific form of hate is accelerating.
Before we come to some of this, at the start and the end of the book you bring up the question of – among other things – how male Indology and Sanskrit studies is. Is that something you’ve seen change over time?
My popular reputation is based so much on my tweets and my public-facing work, but I have a whole world where scholars talk to each other, and I have certainly not abandoned that. So yes, I open and close the book in part with criticisms of specifically the US-based discipline of Indology and how overwhelmingly masculine it is. We have deep problems with sexism and the exclusion of women consciously and unconsciously in Sanskrit studies in the US.
Why do I engage with it? I believe in constructive criticism, and I hope that my fellow Sanskritists might actually listen to this. Because they haven’t been listening to women, me and a whole bunch of other women making these criticisms privately for years. So maybe they’ll listen to it if we make this a little bit more public.
So to come to the book, how did you pick these texts and this approach?
The Language of History was going to be my second book. I started working on it after I published Culture of Encounters. And then Aurangzeb came along. And for a guy who has been dead 300+ years, he certainly causes a lot of trouble and disruption. The opportunity came along to write Aurangzeb’s biography for a more public audience and I took it.
How did I select the texts I examine in Language of History? I went in with a loose definition and a couple of parameters. I wanted texts that talked about Muslim rulers and Muslim polities. That gave me a time range from the late 12th century through sometime in the 18th century, and I eventually ended in the early 1720s.
I wanted texts that had some grounding in what I could recognise as history. It had to be about real people. It had to be about events that I could map onto some semblance of stuff that we know actually happened. But everything else I left open. The texts did not have to narrate all relevant events. They could be poetry, and some of the texts I work on are fantastic poetry, they’re just also history.
For those who may not be familiar with Culture of Encounters or this book, could you explain the broader idea of how you got to these topics?
As an undergraduate, I had done four years of Sanskrit and then started learning Persian. Upon deciding to go to grad school, I thought about what I might study to build upon this skill set. My graduate school advisor, Sheldon Pollock, was the one who first suggested that I can look at Persian and Sanskrit texts, and those who were using these languages in pre-modern India.
My original proposal – I had forgotten this – to go to grad school was that I was going to work on all Sanskrit-Persian interactions in all of South Asian history. I couldn’t do that in 100 lifetimes, right?
Once in graduate school, I settled on the biggest show in town, the Mughals, and focused on a specific set of text-based interactions and patronage networks concerning scholars and rulers. In the course of that research, I found texts that did not fit into the parameters of Culture of Encounters, where I was really looking at interactions between Indo-Persian rulers and pre-modern Sanskrit intellectuals.
I found texts that were by pre-modern Sanskrit intellectuals and were about the Mughals, but they were not directed at the Mughals. That actually forms a chapter of Culture of Encounters, but I started putting additional notes and references aside… and when I had enough I knew I could do a whole book on Sanskrit histories of Indo-Persian rule.
How long did you take to go over these texts? What was the research for the book like?
I began the work in earnest probably in 2015, but then I took a break for a solid two-and-a-half to three years to work on Aurangzeb. In terms of the process, once I had a list of texts, then I divided them up and some were easier to work through than others. So when I was dealing with the Ghurids, for example, we only have one text, the Prthvirajavijaya. So you sit down, you read it, you read the commentary (there’s only one), that’s not super complicated except for parts of the work being fragmentary.
But when you deal with the Rajataranginis from Kashmir – and many people only know about Kalhana’s but there are several Rajataranginis, all of which have the same title – I had to choose which ones I would focus on for the book.
I bring this up because this is a decision that I could be fairly criticised for. So for anyone looking for a legitimate criticism of my book, here it is: I cut out Shuka’s Rajatarangini. I deal with Jonaraja and Shrivara. I have a footnote on why I do this and I invite someone else to come work on Shuka’s text. It’s very important.
History is never complete, no book ever tells the full story, I’m telling one narrative, and I have my reasons for it and I outline those. But my story is not the only story to tell of Sanskrit histories of Indo-Persian rulers.
But in terms of the research process, most of it was me, sitting in this chair, reading Sanskrit texts. I had a two year period where I was not teaching, I was doing research and for much of that, I was sitting here, reading Sanskrit. It was great.
Was it easy to access the texts without going into libraries and archives?
I designed the project consciously so that it could benefit from archival work, but it did not require archival work. That reflected the circumstances of my personal life. I began this project when I had one child, and now I have three children. So I was not at liberty to jet off to India or Pakistan or even Europe and stay there for months and months.
This is different from Culture of Encounters, which is based on many months of archival work especially across India. For The Language of History, I did do some archival work, but by and large I relied on printed editions of materials.
And I actually talk about that in the introduction, because there is something that I felt compelled to at least try to explain. Which is that given that nearly all of these texts have been available to any scholar who reads Sanskrit and has access to interlibrary loans – that’s a small group of people, but we’ve been around for decades – but given that we’ve all had access to this, why didn’t anyone write this book before me? What explains the neglect of materials that are hiding in plain sight?
Let’s get to the question of what is history then. You quote Hayden White saying “history as a discipline is in bad shape today because it has lost sight of its origins in the literary imagination.” Tell me a bit more about this approach.
Hayden White is a famous theorist and I think all historians will give him lip service now. But I think that history has not really wrestled with the more serious implications of his work.
Basically, I think that modern history is a lot about narrative. We tell stories. Now we tell stories that we think, in good faith, are factually accurate and are based on evidence. And there is a whole list of rules and ethical precepts that guide the modern practice of history, but we still tell stories right? There’s a lot in the narrative.
I sometimes say, a list of names and dates, we call that a timeline. The difference between a timeline and my book, or any book that any historian has written, is all the words between the names and dates. History is the narrative.
In the Indian context specifically, many people have viewed this as a dangerous idea. I mean, look at my life. In the past two weeks, I have faced all sorts of accusations that I am distorting history, telling the wrong kinds of stories and so forth.
Precisely in order to answer and in some cases just avoid those kinds of criticisms, there is a tendency on the part of some historians to emphasise the facticity aspect of what we do. That, as historians we don’t make up stuff about the past, we recover things, we really try to understand it, reconstruct it, we work on facts, we critically read texts, all of these things.
And I’m on record again and again, doing exactly that. I just think that emphasising the narrative of history and the facts of history are compatible. And, really, I think they benefit from each other. Because I want to tell good stories about the past – not good in the sense that they make you feel good, but good in the sense that they are compelling and as accurate as possible and as evidence-based as possible, and also as well written as possible. To me all of that goes together.
Whereas, given the pressure from Hindu nationalists, who just blatantly make up stuff about the past, some historians would say, “okay, let’s go back to basics and talk about facts”. I would say, “let’s go back to basics, and let’s talk about facts. And let’s also talk about our narrative and storytelling.”
Could you expand on the idea that it is the narrative that makes something a history? How does that show up in these texts?
Sometimes people think that historians say everything about the past. And that’s not true. We would never stop talking. And I know that many people think that academics are very long winded. But no historian ever says everything about the past, you just can’t do it.
Instead, historians select things about the past. Historical narratives are selective by their very nature and definition. And when, when I say selective, I don’t mean in a kind of cherry-picked sense, I mean that we select facts as we think that they are germane – according to our ethical guidelines and how we do history – to the narrative that we are telling.
When I was looking at pre-modern histories, written in Sanskrit, one thing that I was looking for was precisely that impulse to say some things about the past and not other things about the past.
The backdrop here is that as a modern historian, I am very attached to facts and reality and accuracy. Pre-modern historians did not feel that way. And that’s true across traditions. I mean, Herodotus is a great example of this. He was known as both the father of lies and the father of history, because he was both in the Western tradition.
And we see that in Sanskrit texts too. Sometimes people tell the truth, sometimes they don’t. And so I felt like an emphasis on facts and accuracy as a definition of history, which many scholars have tried, leads one to dismiss the vast majority of Sanskrit historical works as non history.
And I don’t like that, because that is imposing a modern Western definition to the detriment of pre-modern Sanskrit literature, precluding us from both understanding and engaging with it.
I wanted to try something else. if you’re not going to use facticity as a definition of history, you have to have some other kind of definition, right? I can’t pick up any scrap of poetry from pre-modern Sanskrit and say it’s history. I have to have some connecting points.
In the book, I analyse, as histories, Sanskrit texts in which authors selected pieces of information from the past to craft a specific narrative that made sense in their own day. As a modern historian, I get this. Even if I have this additional set of factual precepts that were not shared by my pre-modern counterparts.
So, for example, Padmasagara [a Jain biographer] rewrites early Mughal history and leaves out things like Babar, and the Sur interregnum, and overall gives a much cleaner storyline. As opposed to saying “oh that’s non history, what’s wrong with this 16th century dude,” I can say, “okay, here’s a selective narrative about the past that is based on real people and events, if very selectively told. Why did he do this? Was this storyline beneficial to Padmasagara and his Jain community?” And those are exactly the sorts of questions that historians generally want to ask.
I felt I encountered a similar approach in Manan Asif Ahmed’s the Loss of Hindustan [we spoke to him here] which again goes beyond a modern or colonial Western classification of what counts as history or as epic or as poetry. Manan’s book focuses on the colonial, but yours pushes back against a Hindutva reading of the past that seems connected to colonial interpretations.
The Hindutva folks have adopted a lot wholesale from India’s former colonial masters, which is really sad and very dark. It’s really hard as a historian to see the uncritical adoption of tools that were used for decades, in some cases more than a century, to malign Indians and their traditions. Now, over and over, we see Hindu nationalists just swallow this stuff and regurgitate it.
I’m engaging in different ways with pre-modern historians. I’m glad you bring up Manan Ahmed’s book, it’s an excellent book. And I think people should definitely read it. I’ve struggled with it, and there’s nothing more you can hope for as a scholar, right, than when other scholars struggle with your book.
Manan takes a very different approach from mine to pre-modern historians, and I think that’s really useful, to see two different approaches. And as a general point, historians love diversity in our approaches, and we love diversity in our conclusions.
In the book you push back against not just Hindutva interpretations of the past, but also some of your contemporaries. You bring up Textures of Time [a major work by Velcheru Rao, David Shulman and Sanjay Subrahmanyam from 2001] and say that you have a fairly different reading of history from pre-modern India. Could you expand on that?
Textures of Time is another book that we all struggled with, in a good way. It remains a very thought-provoking book. It was published 20 years ago, and I’m still talking about it, so let me give credit where credit is due.
That said, like the vast majority of scholars who work on pre-modern Indian texts, I reject the basic framework of Textures of Time, while still finding immense value in its actual substantive chapters where the authors have many nuanced readings of individual texts.
But the overarching idea is that there were what they called sub-generic markets. So you’re reading a work of poetry, and it’s poetry, poetry, poetry, and then – bam – sub-generic marker and we switch to history. And then it’s history, history, history and –bam – another sub-generic marker and we’re back to poetry.
The upshot of this was that they slice and dice texts – this part is history, this part is not history. And underlying this is the basic idea that poetry and literature on the one hand and history on the other – are opposed. And I basically reject that.
I do a lot of work in The Language of History in terms of how we can read history through poetic tropes, not in spite of them, but precisely using them. I argue that literary conventions were not antithetical to historical consciousness in pre modern India, that rather they were part of it. So I separate myself from any proposed opposition, and then say that I’m going to do something different.
That said, would I have been able to do that without the springboard of Textures of Time? I think, quite possibly, no. So I remain indebted to the three great scholars who wrote that amazing work.
I think that we’re living in a great time for the study of early modern India, in particular, and pre-modern South Asia is doing pretty good overall too. We have great books coming out every year, and you’re seeing a great diversity of approaches. And that is fantastic. I love that. How boring would it be if we were all doing the same thing?
Could we see these on a continuum? That twenty years ago, Textures was able to throw off some colonial baggage and slice and dice to see at least part of those texts as history, and now you’re able to look even beyond those definitions?
I hope so. The general goal with scholarship is to progress. Things have changed in 20 years. This is part of why history is never done. This is a very common misconception that somehow someone someday is going to write the definitive history and then that’s it. We’re done.
That’s never going to happen. Someone may write the best book on a certain period or aspect of, say, South Asian history for 20 years. But then hopefully somebody comes along and writes an even better book. And part of this is that we always ask different questions of history, as our historical circumstances change. It is a contingent discipline, in the way all humanities disciplines are. And that’s exciting because it means we have the ability to ask ever different sorts of questions and come up with new tools and ways of investigating history.
Honestly, if a younger scholar from the next generation comes along and thinks that one of my books is important enough to be cited in their introduction saying, “I wouldn’t want to do that outdated thing” in 20 years, I will count that as a mad success.
There’s so much we can talk about in terms of process and theory, but to come to what’s in the book: One of the interesting points you make is that earlier historians misread Sanskrit poetic portrayals of violence involving Muslims to portray them as particularly bloodthirsty. You argue that actually those portrayals liken them to other Indian rulers, rather than marking them out as different.
It’s important to know here: You should never read Sanskrit poetry if you have a weak stomach for blood and guts. It was very beautiful to Sanskrit poets, who love describing a battlefield with rivers of blood and headless corpses wandering around, feasting on the dead and cutting off heads and making chains of human skulls. You get the picture.
The use of violent bloody imagery was well worn in the Sanskrit tradition, long before there were Muslims on the face of the earth, and certainly long before they got to India. Also, there’s political reality. When rulers who happen to be Muslim showed up on the subcontinent, like all of rulers within India, they engage in bloody battles and conquest.
And Sanskrit poets wrote about that, because they had been writing about similar conflicts for hundreds of years. And in addition to bloody battles and conquest being great poetry, it was also a mark of sovereignty and power.
We need to set aside our modern disgust at this sort of stuff. If you are a normal modern person, and you think that warfare and killing a lot of people is bad, you need to hold that back to try to understand this worldview.
So starting largely in the 12th century, Muslim rulers roll into northern India, and they engage in wars, like everyone else. And Sanskrit poets start writing about it. One thing that struck me immediately reading some of these early accounts, for the first couple of centuries, they do tend to focus on moments of intense battle, most often when one dynasty wipes out another.
Sometimes it’s a “Hindu” dynasty wiping out a “Muslim” dynasty, sometimes it’s the reverse. There’s no consistency in terms of religious identities in the texts, and they didn’t use those terms, which is why we use scare quotes. But what was consistent was the poetic portrayal of violence.
When I saw this over and over, you start thinking, “okay, well, what does this mean in the tradition? And how does it work?” In the colonial period, many colonial-era scholars used accusations of violence, both true and false, to malign Muslim kings. And it was a way to say these people were uniquely bloodthirsty, and this worked into the larger colonial project of presenting themselves, the British, as less bloodthirsty than the guys who came before them, who are overwhelmingly Muslim.
And people repeated that over and over. And, in doing so, they missed that literary portrayals of violence in premodern Indian texts served different purposes. I think in a world where the ability to wage warfare on a large scale and, in many cases, an exaggerated scale in poetry, that was a mark of being a good, virtuous king. To then assign that to your enemies in battle, that’s a mark that they’re included in your worldview. It’s a mark of similarity not of difference.
You point out that few of these texts mark out Muslim rulers as being particularly different or needing explanation for the reader.
This is actually an issue with early materials, in particular. In early inscriptions, we are often not certain if they’re referring to Muslims or not. And that is because there is no distinctive vocabulary or imagery associated with Muslims, even in the earliest stage when this set of communities was presumably largely new.
Most Indians weren’t familiar with Muslims early on. Many Muslims looked different, spoke different languages, had a different religion with distinct practices. So you might expect perhaps some marker of difference to come up in Sanskrit materials. But then there’s very little in the early texts and even inscriptions. I have a decent-sized list of inscriptions where I don’t know if they’re talking about Muslims or not. To me, that was a very visible sign of just how little specific imagery is overall associated with these individuals.
Later on, the meaning of terms – like yavana or mleccha – do change, though you again argue that our modern understandings flatten these meanings in retrospect.
All of these terms retained multiple meanings. So yavana comes to mean Muslim, but it also can still mean Greek. It can also mean European in certain instances. So it never loses multiple valences. Mleccha is a good one. I’m sometimes called mlechha today. And it can mean Muslim, it can also just mean any impure outsider, according to the sort of fourfold class system.
Mleccha can mean Muslim in a neutral sense, in a negative sense, and it can also mean it in a positive sense. We have many instances where Indo-Muslim kings refer to themselves or are called by people close to them as mleccha-raja. And that doesn’t mean king of dirty impure outsiders. Turushka is another example. It can mean Turk, it can mean Muslim or it can just mean outsider.
I actually took great heart in the vocabulary problems of pre-modern Sanskrit intellectuals, because we still have this today in a very different way. There is no agreement on what to call this group of rulers and larger communities in English: Indo-Muslim, Muslim, Islamic, Islamicate, Indo-Persian, Indo-Persianate…
I took heart in the fact that my pre-modern counterparts also were not clear on vocabulary for these groups. And even in the 17th century, people were coining and trying out new terms, like tamra and tamranana.
One takeaway lesson there is that you can’t just say mleccha means x. You have to read carefully and contextually, and you have to consider each author, what do we know about them and their circumstances and what can we glean from the text itself? And that is long, laborious work, but I think that we end up with a rich set of intellectual insights, if we do it.
The same was true on the Hindu side, with use of that term – “Hindu” – showing up only later.
In The Language of History, I deal overwhelmingly with Sanskrit texts. It’s not a comparative book. But I think there’s a very rich project, and people have done some work on this, but there’s more to be done comparing the meaning of “Hindu” within Sanskrit materials and Persian texts, and to some degree Arabic texts. How was the Hindu community defined in these works? Who was a member and what actual terms were used? What did they mean?
One way that this does sort of come up lightly as an intersection in the book is with that word, Hindu. This is a Perso-Arabic word. It is slow to be adopted and used by people we would now call Hindu. And I pick up the story starting in the 14th century, which is the earliest Sanskrit based use of the word Hindu by someone [Vijayanagara founder Marappa] whom we would call Hindu today.
But somewhat ironically, for him to say that he’s not one. He says that he’s the sultan, not among these more lowly Hindu kings. So the first “Hindu” use of the word Hindu is a rejection of that title in the sense. And then I do sort of trace that term, it comes up in the Rajatarangini, it comes up in some of the Maratha materials, but it doesn’t have an entirely consistent meaning.
To the extent that there is a sort of general thread, it is a more limited definition. So when we think of Hindu today as a very broad-based religious community. In most of the Sanskrit resources, it is more narrow and limited to upper classes, sometimes Brahmins specifically.
You mention that there is very little engagement with Islamic theology in these Sanskrit texts. You say in the book that you’re not going to get into the motivation of authors for many of these texts, but is that something you have thought about?
I remain very dubious, really entirely sceptical of my ability to reconstruct what was in people’s heads. Who knows what motivated people? That’s a very complicated question. It is further complicated by the fact that we just have very little information about the social context for many Sanskrit texts.
And I actually do more on social contexts than a lot of Sanskritists tend to. I do try to place people and where they lived, and if someone is was paying them and who was reading these texts. But so often we have limited information, and without that, how can you reconstruct their motivations?
I bank on what I do know, which is what they wrote. That’s what we’re clear on. We have the Sanskrit texts, or most of the Sanskrit texts – several of the texts I work on are fragmentary, which is sad and heartbreaking.
In terms of thinking about why didn’t they engage with Islamic theology, I think it’s a fair conclusion to say they weren’t that interested in it. That is not what they saw as worthy of comment and engagement.
And I think that maybe a useful thing to do is to turn that question on us, which is, why do we keep looking for that? Why do we keep wanting to find in pre-modern Sanskrit texts engagement with Islamic theology?
A huge part of the answer has to do with our own biases and prejudices in the modern day, and the idea that is still pervasive within the academy and beyond the academy that Islam at its core is a set of high theological principles. The idea is that true Islam is the theology, and everything else is somehow less Islamic. I reject this definition of Islam.
There’s some discussion of Islamic theology in the book – I talked about the Kalacakratantra [an 11th century set of Buddhist Sanskrit texts that offers many details about Muslim belief and practices]. But given that that’s not the main storyline, what I tried to do in this book is instead of trying to explain why isn’t this the main storyline, I say, why don’t we just recover the main storyline, which concerns political power.
We can circle back later to why this isn’t the storyline we expected. But that question, and that answer, is fundamentally not about pre-modernity. That’s about us.
When you are writing, or your editors editing, the book, was there a voice in the back of the head looking out for the thing that is likely to anger the Hindutva trolls or the thing they’ll jump on to dismiss the book? Like, say, the argument that the reason Hindu-Muslim differences aren’t highlighted is because these texts were paid for by the Muslim rulers?
That particular objection is easily answered. Indo-Muslim rulers weren’t paying for the texts, with only a couple of exceptions. They weren’t reading them, certainly, because they didn’t know Sanskrit. The only place that would come into play would be in the Shah Miri dynasty in Kashmir. I think there are specific reasons why that’s not applicable there. But by and large, this isn’t stuff being written for the consumption of Indo-Persian rulers.
Was I thinking about what the Hindutvadis would say? The answer to that is yes, but only in the Indian context. Okay, so the book has two publishers. In the US context, I published it with Columbia University Press. I write what I write, we peer review it, that’s it. There’s no further control or discussion of what I say or whether it will offend anyone, because there’s no right to not be offended under US law.
In India, that is a very different scene, both because India has extensive laws that restrict freedom of speech, academic speech and other kinds of speech. You can’t necessarily publish everything just because it’s a solid scholarly argument. And also because of the threat of extra-judicial violence, which grows every week in India. And I may not be there but my publishers sure are.
In India, Penguin subjects all of my books to a legal read. I have no choice in this. It is standard practice these days. As a result of the legal read, The Language of History, like my other two books, is not identical in the two editions. There are changes that I was compelled to make to the Indian edition.
The changes are largely not hugely significant. We re-worded some of the Kalacakra stuff to make it clear that I’m not saying, much less endorsing, certain things. I also reworded some of the Maratha stuff, especially concerning Shivaji’s caste status, because people just see red on that stuff. I had to omit the map because the current Indian government is extraordinarily thin-skinned about maps.
There is one change that I was not happy about and that I would like to mention, which is the opening sentence. The opening sentence is not the same in the two editions. And specifically, I had to take out the word Hindutva in the Indian edition of the book. Because to criticise that political ideology in the context of modern India has itself become controversial, which is a truly Fascist turn of events.
Do you worry that, under the barrage of Hindutva trolling and bad-faith arguments and threats, it becomes hard to engage with more reasoned, genuine criticism if it’s coming from outside your immediate academic circle?
That’s an interesting question. From my perspective, the reasoned and substantive criticism of my work has come from within the academic world. And there are some really good criticisms of my work. And I love criticism. It’s great, especially when it gets you somewhere, when it allows me to see something that I hadn’t seen before.
If the question is, do I think that there have been any substantive criticisms of my work in the public sphere? The answer is yes. I think it’s pretty hard to find it beneath the morass of bad faith and silly arguments inflected with misogyny and other forms of prejudice.
I think that my haters have done a real disservice, obviously, to reasonable criticism and debate about my work and that’s unfortunate.
How do you respond to criticism, sometimes coming from fellow academics, that your work or public presence is intentionally provocative for fame, or that by going out there on Twitter etc you’re asking to be trolled?
I would respond in two ways. One is that no person and certainly no woman ever asks for death threats or rape threats. I have had people threaten to rape my daughters, who are currently ages six and five. No one asks for that.
My second response would be to go back to the story of how I got into this. I’m 18 years old, and I decided to study Sanskrit. I had to explain to my whole family what Sanskrit even was. Frankly, I think some members of my family are still confused about this today.
You don’t do that for fame. I got my PhD at the age of 30, at which point I was making a small stipend, barely able to afford life in New York City, I really thought that I would write for single digits of readers, maybe like double digits, if I did really well, in the academy. The US job market in academia is very hard. I had no guarantee of employment. It took me several years to get a tenure-line job. This was never about fame.
I was really just fascinated and wanted to study these subjects. And from my perspective, it’s not me who has changed. It is the world who has changed around me. I’m still studying the same texts and topics. I’m still doing the same stuff. I also have both a backbone and I have integrity, so I’m not going to be silenced. When you see increasing violence against religious minorities and you can say something about that, you’re not silent about that. This is a point of personal and scholarly ethics.
Is there a concern that, in trying to push back against Hindtuva views of the past as being all Hindu-Muslim conflict all the time, there is a danger of going too far to show that the past wasn’t so religiously divided, and thereby also showing a false picture of history?
Our options are “Hindus and Muslims can’t see each other without killing one another” versus “they’re all sitting around singing Kumbaya”? They weren’t all sitting around singing Kumbaya. Do people really say that? Maybe it helps to go back to the selective narrative idea.
My first book Culture of Encounters focuses on interactions. I don’t talk much, if at all, in that book about the violence of the Mughal Empire. Because that’s not my set of questions. You don’t just share random facts about the past. Whereas in The Language of History, I don’t talk about cross-cultural interactions as much. But I talk a lot more about violence, because it’s relevant to the text. So you focus on different things in different moments.
Practically the whole book is about combating misconceptions, but this is something I like to ask all our interviewees – do you have a pet peeve that you find yourself having to correct people, fellow academics, journalists, lay readers, about all the time?
It’s this – that many people seem to think that there must be personal feelings and emotions from me that are influencing my interpretation of history. And I find that absurd. This comes out most poignantly with Aurangzeb. Many people think, why would someone work on Aurangzeb and want to present an even-handed, even-keeled historical view and try to understand what really happened if they didn’t like him?
This set of assumptions dictates that of course Audrey Truschke must like Aurangzeb, and sometimes it comes out in really inappropriate, weird ways of imagining that I am in love with Aurangzeb and other absurd ideas.
I understand to some degree where this is coming from, because the way most people think about the past is in terms of their emotions. Who’s your favourite figure in history and that sort of thing. And so I understand that historians are an odd breed in this regard. But that’s not how we think about the past. And it’s not how I think about the past.
I decided to work on Aurangzeb because he was an important figure to understanding 17th century South Asia and various things thereafter. And he’s one of the most poorly understood figures of the period. And so for a historian that’s where you direct your energies. You don’t work on the guy that someone just wrote an amazing biography of. You work on the people who need attention and re-thinking.
Historians work with people and subjects and texts all the time that we don’t like. A great example are a number of US scholars who are themselves African-American and work on slavery. Some of them work specifically on slaveholders. It’s not like they like those people. So I think that this assumption that there’s some sort of personal emotionality, it’s just something that doesn’t match onto the reality of academic circles.
What would you like to see young scholars working on, either in terms of specific areas or in terms of tools that they should utilise?
For any Sanskritists out there who are interested in the Language of History, in the notes, I have multiple references to things like “I didn’t mention this text, but someone should work on it” or “I only mentioned this text in a paragraph, but somebody really should write a book on that.” So there are a lot of nuggets in there and just indications of things that I do not intend to do, but I think somebody else should do.
More generally, my plea concerns primary source work. It’s so much easier to work in English, I get it. It’s easier to read the translations and to level critiques even of colonial-era resources. But my argument would be do all of that, that’s all great, but also learn pre-modern languages, and then read in the original, and see what you can do with that. There is so much of Indian literature that still remains under-appreciated and under-read and under-analysed.
Three recommendations of things to read/watch/listen to?
- Manan Ahmed’s The Loss of Hindustan.
- Perso-Indica, an ongoing research and publishing project to produce a comprehensive Analytical Survey of Persian Works on Indian Learned Traditions, encompassing the treatises and translations produced in India between the 13th and the 19th century.
- Issue 24/25 of Samaj (South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal) on The Hindutva Turn: Authoritarianism and Resistance in India.
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