The Encounter between the Persian and the Sanskrit Worlds

The Encounter between the Persian and the Sanskrit Worlds

Richard M. Eaton, in conversation with William Dalrymple

In this #JaipurLiteratureFestival2021 session, Professor Richard M. Eaton, in conversation with William Dalrymple, discussed the complicated period of 1000-1765 CE, in which Indo-Islamic interactions took place in South Asia and how an encounter between the Persian and the Sanskrit worlds led to the altering of numerous social, political and religious fabrics.

Prof. Eaton began the conversation by discussing the shortcomings of colonial historiography. In the colonial period, the British rulers conceived of Indian history in a tripartite way – Hindu, Muslim and Colonial. This division of time was a European understanding of ‘Ancient, Medieval and Modern’ – this was superimposed on Indian history with a political purpose. It was necessary to demonise the immediate predecessors of the Raj and thus, a model was proposed that until the coming of the Turks (in roughly 1000 AD), India was a peaceful country which was derailed by Muslim rulers. These beliefs were baked into subsequent colonial historiography.

What Prof. Eaton’s book, India in the Persianate Age (1000-1765) attempts to do is to “reconceive the entire project of understanding Indian history through the lens of religion”. Prof. Eaton claimed that if one looks back at the 11-12th centuries in India, one finds that the term used to describe Muslims was ‘Turushka’ – these were people who were not fashioned as individuals posing a strong civilisation challenge but perceived as one more ethnic group, the Turks. In modern colonial historiography, a shift occurred and “the idea that these were Muslims first and Turks second” became popular.

Dalrymple quipped that it is surprising that Prof. Eaton begins his book “not with a thrust in from Central Asia but a thrust northwards from the Chola Heartlands”. Eaton claimed that by doing this, he was allowed to compare and contrast what had been happening in South Asia pre-1000 and what the Turks were doing during the same period. Eaton argued that even prior to the entry of the Turks, many conflicts existed in South Asia and there was perpetual warfare going on. “The best way to introduce the Turks was to talk about what was already there, which was a South Asia inhabited by many powers at war with each other…it was necessary for kings to create an idealised model based on circles of friends and enemies (mandalas)…these ideas were not floating around in the atmosphere but being played out in real history,” claimed Prof. Eaton.

When the Turks arrived in India, they came to a region already infused with internal conflict. Prof. Eaton found it fascinating that when the Delhi Sultanate was established, another mandala was created – with defeated powers around the Sultanate who were not alienated but reduced to the status of subservient king and thus, the notion of the mandala was observed by the Turks themselves. Citing another example of assimilation, Prof. Eaton claimed that “the earliest coins of Mohammad of Ghor are identical to those of the Chauhans, the very dynasty they defeated”. These coins would carry the image of Goddess Lakshmi and the writing too was in Sanskrit – this was not only to provide a sense of continuity but also done out of economic necessities for Indian merchants who would not accept money which did not look familiar to them.

Prof. Eaton asserted that even on certain inscriptions, there appears to be a desire to achieve a modicum of commensurability and there existed inscriptions with religious notions of both the Hindus and the Muslims. “What a Muslim would define as Allah would be described in Sanskrit terms as ‘The Maker of the Universe’ (Vishawadata)”. Theologically, what was going on was that the terms were adjusted but the commerce was maintained – “we got to keep the money coming in!” remarked Prof. Eaton wittily.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, regions in North India such as Delhi, Jaunpur and the eastern provinces of the Indo-Gangetic Doab saw the rise of stories celebrating warriors and the love they possessed for their beloved. These were ‘premakhyans’, stories primarily authored in Hindavi, Khadi Boli and Awadhi dialects by Sufi writers. The last leg of the fascinating conversation revolved around this theme. Prof. Eaton claimed that by these centuries, the Muslims had thoroughly assimilated with the Indian fabric and though the ideas in the story were Sufi in nature, the literature used was deeply steeped in Indian culture - “you see yogis, Jain monks and the atmosphere is entirely North India”.

Dalrymple then asked Eaton about the colonial distortion of the historiography of Vijayangara – with the kingdom being projected as a bastion of Hindu culture, besieged by rabid Muslim armies. Prof. Eaton noted that both in the North and South of the Deccan, where the Vijayangara kings and the Bahamani Sultanate ruled– both of the kingdoms were playing a double game. They were reusing architectural units, columns, water tanks etc. of the royal Chalukya dynasty.  This was done to present the fact that they were continuing older royal traditions. At the same time, they were plugging into the Persianate world – you find Krishna Deva Raya of Vijayanagara adorning the tall Islamic hat (kulayi) and the Vijayangara court demonstrating their presence in the Sultanate world, claiming that they too could be called Sultans.

These examples highlighted how a rigid and black and white compartmentalisation of the past is a tool which historians are often become guilty of utilising. While boundaries in history provide us with the illusion of simplicity, they also result in a gross misunderstanding of a much more convoluted past.