Encounters of the Brahmanical Sanskrit Tradition with Persian Scholarship in the Mughal Empire

Genealogical Critique and the Relevance of the Pre-colonial Past in a Global Religious History

In: Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society
Michael Bergunder Professor of Religious Studies and Intercultural Theology, Abteilung Religionswissenschaft und Interkulturelle Theologie, Universität Heidelberg Heidelberg Germany

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Within the scope of global religious history, a Foucauldian genealogical critique makes “history” itself the central focus of inquiry. Genealogy is usually perceived as a methodology for historicizing general concepts within religious studies, which seemingly favours post-nineteenth-century history – something that causes discomfort among pre-colonial researchers. However, this article presents genealogy as a general starting point for any critical historiography across all historical periods, emphasizing its key characteristic as a counter-history originating from the present.

Through a case study, it demonstrates this approach’s practicality by offering a fresh perspective on the notion of an unchanging Sanskrit tradition championed by Hindu nationalists. Genealogical analysis exposes how contemporary research unwittingly reinforces this notion, while the article proposes a counter-narrative using sixteenth to eighteenth-century sources, revealing a dynamic interplay between Sanskrit and Persian scholars under Mughal rule in India. This case underscores the efficacy and adaptability of genealogical critique across all historical periods.

1 Introduction

Global religious history is not a unified, comprehensive theoretical system, but rather the shared consensus that certain critical questions should inform any research design.1 It aims to preserve the broad perspective and the critical tradition of religious studies, insisting on the global reach of its objects, on its global historical perspective, and on its critical epistemological interest. In this context, “global” means that any general concepts applied must recognize the global constitution of present-day academia and society. “Religious” means that it concerns religious studies. “History” denotes a genealogical critique as the central research interest.2 The use of the Foucauldian perspective of history is easily misunderstood. Within religious studies, genealogical critique has been practiced mainly to historicize today’s general concepts – categories like “Hinduism”, “esotericism” or “religion”, for example. Conceiving of genealogy in this way, however, seemingly favours post-nineteenth-century history, causing discomfort among pre-colonial researchers. It is argued here that such an understanding misses the much broader applications of genealogy, which are not limited to specific time periods.

2 Genealogy as a Method for Historicising General Concepts

The discipline of religious studies first encountered genealogy through the Orientalism debate initiated by Edward Said. Subsequent scholars then criticized the general concepts constitutive of modern religious studies – ranging from “religion” to “Islam”, “Buddhism”, “Hinduism”, “esotericism”, “ritual”, etc. – as being the monologic products of “Western” knowledge that had been imposed on the colonized during the nineteenth century by the colonizing West.3 In line with a genealogical approach, their aim was to demonstrate that the supposedly objective definitions of subjects in religious studies were historically contingent.

If the current global applicability of such concepts could be thus traced back to globalizing processes unleashed by nineteenth-century European colonialism, it positioned Europe as the origin of today’s global modernity, which was conceived of as a kind of forced export of “Western” knowledge. As a result, many have called for the abandonment of prevailing concepts in religious studies, arguing that these were inventions of “Western” thought, which have been imposed on the rest of the world, where they do not fit.4

However, concrete research into colonial and postcolonial religious history has complicated the picture. Such revisionist scholarship has shown that the colonized were by no means only passive recipients, but in turn also altered the colonial discourse. By the same token, the “West” does not possess an interpretative monopoly over the contemporary global usage of general religious concepts. The global religious history approach incorporates these far-reaching insights and commits to a corresponding complication of the genealogical critique.5

The starting point for this approach is a reflection on the fundamental epistemological concern of genealogical critique, which was only briefly addressed within the Orientalism debate. In his late work, Michel Foucault characterizes genealogy as a “permanent critique of our historical era”, that is, a “critique of what we are saying, thinking, and doing, through a historical ontology of ourselves.”6 Historical ontology is a “critical ontology”,7 which is why genealogy stands for “critique”: “Critique is the movement by which the subject gives himself the right to question truth on its effects of power and question power on its discourses of truth.”8

In other words, genealogy critiques the general concepts surrounding us that claim to be necessary and therefore unquestionably valid. It reveals how knowledge and power “in the context of interactions and multiple strategies induce […] singularities, fixed according to their condition of acceptability.”9 Genealogy brings out the historical emergence of general concepts and thus their “contingency.”10 Here, contingency does not mean “chance” or even “arbitrariness”, but the realization that what exists is not necessarily so, highlighting potential variability and lack of historical necessity. This is not to deny the power and normative force of hegemonic general concepts. Genealogy merely reveals that they cannot fulfil this claim of necessity because other historical courses were theoretically possible. What Foucault called historical ontology, therefore, is the confrontation of present general concepts with their historical contingency, thereby questioning today’s “ontologies” on the basis of their “historical” development.

General concepts claim universal validity by different means. On the one hand, they may do it by referring to material, anthropological, metaphysical, or similar non-historical and non-discursive references – in Derrida’s terms, to a transcendental signified.11 For instance, this would be the case with an essentialist understanding of religion that is defined by a metaphysical transcendental reality.12 On the other hand, general concepts might also legitimize themselves by reference to a supposedly established historical origin when their core meaning was allegedly formed, which then similarly serves as a transcendental signified. This would be the case, for example, with “religion”, when it is traced back to the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century;13 with “esotericism”, when its origin is located in the European Renaissance;14 or with the Pentecostal movement, when its founding is said to have occurred in the USA at the beginning of the twentieth century.15 Whatever the source of such claims, genealogical critique serves to question these supposedly undoubtedly established facts. In order to uncover the historical contingency of today’s general concepts, the genealogist historian must show that these concepts have a history at all (in the first case) or a different history from the one claimed (in the second).

The overall objective is to historically unravel the extent to which a contemporary global discourse, in which the general concepts in question are anchored and derive their meaning, can be traced back continuously. Moreover, it is crucial to understand that the immediate pre-history of general concepts used globally today must necessarily and constitutively be conceived as a global history, hence the concept of a global religious history.16 Concepts that are used globally must, by their very definition, also possess a global pre-history. Establishing such a pre-history requires inverting the traditional chronological timeline. In this way, genealogy serves as a method to critically examine the pre-history of the present, moving step by step from the present into the past.

This chronological inversion is the principal rebuttal against the aforementioned attempts in the context of the Orientalism debate to ascribe a “Western” origin to the general concepts of present-day religious studies. From a genealogical perspective, this is a step backward into a mindset that roots ideas within specific regional soil: an origin point that serves as a transcendental signified.17 The key intent of genealogy is to “dispel the chimeras of the origin.”18

The genealogical tracing of a continuous pre-history can vary in length, depending on when a discontinuity is established with respect to the time before. For example, it can be argued that the pre-history of the contemporary global Pentecostal movement can only be traced back continuously to the 1970s.19 In practice, this tracing back often ends in the nineteenth century with the emerging global entanglements fostered by colonialism. As a result, the time before only comes into focus as the pre-history of the pre-history of today’s global general concepts. And yet, it is absolutely necessary to investigate the immediately preceding centuries in detail, as the only way to evidentially substantiate a disruptive discontinuity is through comparison with the era that came before. As a rule, we encounter various regional discourses that profoundly challenge any notion of a singular regional origin. Notably, these regional contexts themselves might have been extensively interconnected beyond their local context. Both aspects are impressively demonstrated in the contributions to this issue by Christoph Kleine for Japan, Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz for Tibet, and Julian Strube for esotericism.20

All in all, the genealogical critique of general concepts currently in use, as outlined so far, has proven to be extraordinarily fruitful, as numerous recent studies following the global religious history approach attest.21 Nonetheless, it cannot be overstated that such revisionist works do not establish a new historical origin and are always open to critical revision. For example, one might question whether there has been an undue emphasis on discourses from Europe, North America, and West, South, and East Asia, while Africa, Central Asia, and other regions have not received sufficient attention, as is discussed in the contributions by Bachmann and Kollmar-Paulenz in this issue.22

3 Genealogy as a General Critique of Historiography

Despite its uses, the genealogical method has caused a certain discomfort among those whose historical research focuses lie in the pre-colonial period. It seems to privilege the historical exploration of the modern era since the nineteenth century, while viewing the time before that, if at all, only as pre-history and not in its own right.

To counteract this, attempts are sometimes made to emphasise the formative influence of pre-colonial history – as opposed to colonial and post-colonial – for today’s general concepts. Such attempts can be observed in the previously mentioned articles by Christoph Kleine and Karenina Kollmar-Paulenz. Both argue that the discourses on religion in Japan and Tibet today are in many respects in striking continuity with pre-colonial traditions in these regions. Of course, the consideration and emphasis given to continuity and discontinuity inevitably remains contentious within the genealogical method. The choice about what aspects to underscore and how this is done depends solely on current research interests.

Still, one must be careful not to downplay the discontinuity brought about by colonialism in order to justify interest in the pre-colonial past. From a genealogical perspective, such an attempt would be neither appropriate nor necessary. It is based on the misconception that genealogy does not allow for direct research into pre-colonial history. The opposite is true. Genealogy involves the historicization of all purportedly established facts in today’s hegemonic discourses. General concepts are merely one form – albeit an extremely important one – in which these facts are currently expressed. Genealogical critique is by no means limited to tracing current general concepts from the present step by step into the past; it is far more comprehensive. As already mentioned, genealogy is called upon to “historicize” and thereby critique all of today’s supposedly established “ontologies.” Thus, it potentially encompasses all forms of historiography that claim to represent established facts in today’s world. The misunderstanding likely stems from the insufficient consideration given to the epistemological status of historiography within the context of genealogical critique, which is based on two fundamental assumptions.

First, Foucault argues for a genealogy that always takes its starting point in the here and now. In his understanding, a direct leap into the past to ascertain the ‘real’ meaning of historical sources within their original context is not possible. History is invariably written from the perspective of the present. The discipline of history does not possess a time machine, but rather is concerned with “a genealogy of history as the vertical projection of its position.”23 Due to the inescapably presentist character of all historiography, the guiding question must be derived from contemporary discourses, in which supposedly established historical facts are asserted to justify hegemonic claims.24 But contrary to popular belief, any historical fact, from ancient history to the most recent times, may become the object of genealogical critique.

Secondly, genealogical critique can only be expressed when it is itself writing history. Only then can it make historical development plausible. Contingency can only be demonstrated through positive historiography; however, historiography as genealogical critique cannot claim, in turn, to be the new valid and true history. Rather, it is a counter-history, which once written must undergo its own genealogical critique. Consequently, historiography unavoidably remains a function of the present.

This is less radical than it initially seems. Although Foucault’s approach radicalizes the concept of critique, it aligns fundamentally with the principles inherent to all disciplines engaged in historical inquiry. The objective is merely to consistently uphold the critical ethos that has been always integral to these disciplines. Foucault underscored that genealogy should remain faithful to scholarly investigations that employ historical methods. Genealogy does not call for a break from historical or philological approaches; rather, it “demands relentless erudition.”25 In the backdrop here are insights from Ernesto Laclau and Judith Butler, who argue that critique cannot arbitrarily redefine the content of hegemonic discourses, but can only modify and transform them through continuous re-signification.26 Counter-history is nothing other than such a re-signification.

As such, genealogy does not demand a new or different form of history; by its own self-understanding, it can only embed itself into existing hegemonic academic discourses if it is to critique them successfully. A genealogical counter-history conforms both in form and content to the conventions of academic historical research, and its critical impulse is realized through meticulous positive historiography based on solid source work. Of course, genealogical critique also includes a critique of historical methods in terms of their knowledge claims, but this, too, is a long-established practice within the discipline of historical research.

All this implies that using the genealogical method to trace the pre-history of today’s general concepts represents but one possible application of genealogical critique. Genealogy concerns any critique of current hegemonic discourses that conceal their contingency. It encompasses any historical fact that is considered established and, at a minimum, indirectly corresponds with or is directly supported by the current state of historical research. Nonetheless, it is not always immediately evident to what extent a well-established body of research acquires a legitimizing role. As such, it also falls within the purview of genealogy to first identify this relationship before the genealogical researcher then turns to the seemingly settled historical facts in prior scholarship. In doing so, the current state of research should not be viewed simply as evidence of increased knowledge. Instead, the narratives presented as acknowledged truths within research warrant thorough, critical examination. As a result, the particular methodological implementation always depends on the specific historiographical circumstance under examination.

The following will illustrate a specific case of how this general form of genealogical critique of historiography can be carried out in practice. Firstly, the current hegemonic discourse to be critiqued is explained and traced back to a corresponding body of academic research that seems to confirm it. From this, a counter-history will be presented that involves sources from the sixteenth to eighteenth century, which are interpreted directly, as opposed to as a pre-history of the present, as would be the case when using genealogical methodology for historicizing contemporary concepts. The form of genealogical critique presented below is applicable to any historical period and shows that global religious history, when it employs genealogy, can and must also directly engage with pre-colonial history. It only requires the explicit and determined situating of the guiding research interest in the present and relinquishing the claim of being able to reconstruct a new true history instead of a counter-history.

4 The Blind Spot of the Academic Study of Sanskrit Scholarship in Mughal India

The point of departure for identifying the current hegemonic discourse to be critiqued in what follows involves debates in contemporary Hindu nationalism that have a global reach. They often invoke an unadulterated Sanskrit tradition that needs to be revived.27 Exemplary of this restorationism are the views of Rajiv Malhotra, the influential sponsor and author of numerous Hindu nationalist publications. Malhotra’s profound reach can be seen in his appointment as an honorary visiting professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi in 2018.28 In his dealings with Sanskrit, Malhotra calls for a “‘sacred philology,’ a philology rooted in the conviction that Sanskrit cannot be divorced from its matrix in the Vedas and other sacred texts, or from its orientation towards the transcendent realm.”29 The sacredness of Sanskrit is shown by the fact that “Sanskrit phonemes themselves reveal the nature of reality” and that “each and every word can be parsed into its root sounds that contain its origin and meaning.”30 Sanskrit thus depicts the totality of reality in a systematic way, because “just as all primordial sounds are connected to the source in an integral unity, so are all meanings connected and interdependent.”31 It follows for Malhotra that “certain important Sanskrit words are non-translatable into other languages.” In other words, only Sanskrit has the capacity to represent the underlying reality that these words depict.32

Malhotra’s interpretation of Sanskrit is embedded within a more expansive vision concerning the authentic nature of Hindu tradition, a theme he has perpetuated since his 2011 book, Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism.33 Starting from the aforementioned debate on Orientalism, which posits the imposition of “Western” knowledge on the colonized, Malhotra suggests a profound Westernization occurred in India under the British colonial regime. To rectify this, he calls for a return to the pre-colonial “Dharmic traditions”, the unity and cohesion of which are assured largely through their common reliance on Sanskrit.34 The irreconcilable point of contrast for these “Dharmic traditions”, however, is not so much the “West” or “Christianity” alone, but the “Abrahamic religions” in general, thus explicitly excluding Islam in India too. Accordingly, Malhotra broadly characterizes pre-colonial “Islamic rule” as a “devastation.”35

Despite his assertive stance on colonial Westernization and the damaging effects of Islamic rule, Malhotra introduces the notion of a resilient Sanskrit tradition that, according to his interpretation, has managed to preserve its intrinsic essence and presents opportunities for revival. The reason for its survival, he argues, was its lack of engagement with the “realm of non-Hindus”, notably in relation to “Islam, Christianity, and Western secular thought.”36

For the purposes of our genealogical critique, we are particularly interested in Malhotra’s characterization of the Mughal era – a period immediately preceding British colonialism, making it part of the pre-colonial tradition that colonialism subsequently altered. While Malhotra admits that this was a time where “Hindus were intellectually confused and lacked the strategies to defend themselves against Islam”, he nonetheless rules out any meaningful intellectual exchange with Muslim scholarship.37

His idea of an immutable self-contained Sanskrit tradition during Mughal rule is a central part of the typical Hindu nationalist “metanarrative”, which, in the words of David Gordon, pictures “a Hindu India under siege by Muslim forces from without and secularist voices from within” and “denies the rich history of cultural and religious exchange between Hindus and Muslims, as well as the political patronage, by Muslim rulers, of Hindu institutions.”38

Contemporary academic Sanskrit research that critically interrogates this notion of a Sanskrit tradition that was allegedly free from Muslim influence during the Mughal era is surprisingly scarce. Indeed, instead of openly contesting Malhotra’s main historical argument, the scholarship appears to implicitly align with it in a certain way. A broad scholarly consensus proposes that the traditional brahmanical Sanskrit philosophies and sciences remained primarily siloed off from outside influence throughout their extensive precolonial history. This view is especially prominent in discussions of the Mughal era, where it is routinely assumed that the interactions between Muslim Persian-Arabic and Hindu brahmanical Sanskrit scholarship lacked substantial depth. Indeed, as with Malhotra, what encounters there were are largely perceived as conflictual.

A prime example of this interpretation is David Lorenzen, who focuses his attention exclusively on regional languages, because, in his view, only these – and not the Sanskrit sources – reflected the Muslim presence in India and the Hindu reaction to it.39 At the same time, Lorenzen portrays any encounter between Hindus and Muslims as antagonistic, with Hindu identities emerging exclusively in negative demarcation from Muslims. This latter assertion, however, is not substantiated by the sources he presents; in fact, the opposite is the case.40

In contrast to Lorenzen, Andrew J. Nicholson looks for traces of the Muslim- Hindu encounter in Sanskrit sources. In doing so, he takes up Lorenzen’s thesis of conflict-driven identity formation and also assumes a “military and ideological threat” posed by Muslim rule in India. Shankar Nair very aptly states “that Nicholson attributes to early modern Sanskrit intellectuals an overall feeling of jeopardy, anxiety and perhaps even (existential?) fear.”41 And yet, Nicholson does not identify a single reference to Persian sources or the Muslim presence in India in the Sanskrit texts he examines. Rather, he freely speculates, for example, that the postulation of Advaita Vedanta as the only path to salvation in Madhusudana Sarasvati (c.1600) was an expression of a developing Hindu identity that imagined itself in opposition to Islam. What is pertinent for our purposes is that he ultimately upholds an image of a Sanskrit tradition that was not in direct conversation with Persian scholarship. If there was any reaction to Islam, it was indirect and unspoken, characterized by differentiation and rejection.

Furthermore, recent research on the Sanskrit tradition has concentrated on pre-Muslim India. Sheldon Pollock locates the actual flourishing of Sanskrit scholarship in the “Sanskrit cosmopolis”, which roughly dated from the third to the twelfth century and extended from South to Southeast Asia, thus predating Muslim rule in India.42 Malhotra vehemently opposes Pollock’s view that Sanskrit had its heyday in the Sanskrit cosmopolis on the grounds that Pollock would “secularise” the Sanskrit language and separate it from Hinduism.43 However, with regard to the supposed lack of interaction between Persian and brahmanical Sanskrit scholarship during the Mughal period, Pollock and Malhotra are fundamentally in agreement. For Pollock, conceptually, the Mughal period remained only a transitional period, at best a last gasp of Sanskrit scholarship before its demise at the hands of British colonialism.44

In spite of this prevailing assessment, Pollock nonetheless accords this period some attention and appreciation. He even declares that the period between 1550 and 1750 “constitute[s] one of the most innovative epochs in Sanskrit systematic thought (in language analysis, logic, hermeneutics, moral-legal philosophy, and the rest).”45 Subsequently, valuable individual studies emerged that substantiated and deepened this insight.46 Unfortunately, this was not enough to re-evaluate the Sanskrit scholarship of the Mughal period in a fundamental way, for Pollock also consistently thematises this period as the “eve of colonialism” and wants above all to understand how the supposed “death of Sanskrit” occurred in the subsequent age of colonialism.

Perhaps for this reason, scholarly interest in the Sanskrit scholarship of the Mughal period has waned again in recent years. In some ways, Audrey Truschke is the only one who really takes Pollock’s impulse further with a pair of groundbreaking studies. Yet, Truschke’s approach is predominantly oriented towards political representation, hence philosophical and religious subjects are not her central concern. Furthermore, the development of traditional brahmanical Sanskrit philosophies and sciences receives somewhat limited discussion.47

In view of this state of research, it is not surprising that Luther Obrock recently concluded that “Sanskrit produced in the Persianate age has been relatively neglected.” Furthermore, he notes the still existing “difficulties of conceptualisation” for “the study of Sanskrit in second millennium North India”, criticising, in particular, that “Sanskrit and Persian sources have tended to be held apart.”48 The prevailing state of research is notably unsatisfactory for the way that it may inadvertently lend credence to contemporary religious nationalist identity formations in India, like the ones we see in the writings of Malhotra, which are based on the notion of an unchanged Sanskrit tradition as the bedrock of all Hindu tradition.

This is precisely where the epistemic interest of genealogical critique emerges. It inquires whether it is possible to construct a persuasive counter- history that challenges the assertion of an immutable Sanskrit. In the following, it will be shown that during the Mughal period, there was, in fact, a substantive exchange between Persian- and Sanskrit-speaking scholars. The majority of Brahman scholars at this time took it for granted that Sanskrit and Persian were mutually translatable languages. Moreover, Brahmanical Sanskrit scholars of the Mughal period engaged intensively with Persian language and philosophy in a variety of ways. Indeed, the restorative thesis, as deployed by Rajiv Malhotra, asserting the exclusive designation of reality through Sanskrit, emerged as a response to the growing prominence of Persian scholarship. The sources presented demonstrate that the notion of Sanskrit’s uniqueness did not find widespread acceptance during this period.

The evidence contradicts the idea that an untranslatable Sanskrit formed the nucleus of pre-colonial ‘Dharmic traditions.’ Instead, the picture that emerges is of a Sanskrit tradition that was in constant flux and deeply interconnected with Persian scholarly discourse. These sources underscore a dynamic process of linguistic and philosophical exchange, signifying an adaptive and evolving Sanskrit tradition that was far from isolated, instead maintaining close ties with Persian intellectual culture.49

5 Persian-speaking Elites and the Brahmanical Sanskrit Tradition

In assessing the influence of Persian scholarship on the Sanskrit tradition in the Mughal period, it is important to first consider the following. The most influential Hindu communities of the time owed much of their importance to the fact that some of their members spoke Persian and held senior administrative positions in the Mughal Empire and the Muslim-ruled Bahmani successor states. These Persian-speaking Hindu upper classes belonged primarily to the Kayasthas and Khatris, but – what is particularly important for our concerns – Brahmans were also represented in considerable numbers.50 The best-known Brahman in the administrative service of the Mughal Empire was undoubtedly Chandar Bhan (d. possibly 1662/63), who had served as a highly senior imperial official under Shah Jahan. Chandar Bhan maintained a clear Brahman identity throughout his life, as is evident from the autobiographical details in his voluminous Persian memoirs entitled Four Gardens (Čahār čaman):

I am a Brahman born of the country (Pers. mulk) of Punjab, and have achieved distinction and trustworthiness among the cream of the Brahmans, people of the sacred thread. Although they earn their livings engaged in various worldly professions, the greatest attribute to this class (Pers. ṭāʾifa) is that having maintained the social and intellectual practices as they are prescribed in the ancient authoritative texts regarding this group. […] the ancestors of this rightly faithful Brahman remained engaged in our ancient ways up until the time of this faqīr’s father, Dharam Dās.51

Chandar Bhan tells how his father was the first in the family to become a Persian-speaking administrator in the Mughal Empire. Chandar Bhan’s two brothers also belonged to the Persian-speaking elite, and his son also received a Persian education.52 Chandar Bhan is thus an example of the numerous Brahman families who opened themselves extensively to Persian-speaking culture without abandoning their Brahman identity. He even gave himself the poetic name “Brahman” (Pers. barhaman), and the final verses (Pers. maqṭaʿ) of his poems always allude to his being a Brahman.53 It is remarkable how closely he ties brahmanical identity to the sacred thread: “I have an especially intimate bond with my sacred thread (Pers. rišta-i zunnār) / For it keeps on reminding me that I come from [a line of] brahmans.”54

Although this verse is open to several interpretations,55 it seems clear that Chandar Bhan wore the sacred thread and thus received a traditional Brahman initiation (Skt. upanayana). Given this, it is likely that he also followed the other brahmanical rites of passage (Skt. saṃskāra), at least in part. The brahmanical rites of passage also require Veda study, something that involves learning the Sanskrit language. This would explain where Chandar Bhan got his knowledge of Sanskrit, which he undoubtedly had.

Indirectly, critical voices also confirm that Chandar Bhan was anything but an isolated case. For instance, a conservative Brahman scholar from Maharashtra in the seventeenth century complained that contemporary Brahmans would learn Persian instead of reciting the Vedas, and he criticised Brahman scholars in Banaras for associating with Muslims (Skt. yavana).56 The example of Chandar Bhan thus shows that in the Mughal period, a Persian-speaking Brahman could acquire “respectability and trust among the Brahman elite”, making a combination of imperial officialdom and Brahman status viable.

It is important to highlight that a good command of Persian, needed for administrative work, required a wide knowledge of Persian literature, Sufism, and philosophy. This is clearly shown in a letter from Chandar Bhan to his son, in which he described the Persian classics he had studied and also encouraged his son to read them.57 Chandar Bhan also reports in the Four Gardens that he had an intense exchange with his one-time superior Afzal Khan (d. 1639), prime minister (Pers. wazīr-i kull) under Shah Jahan, on matters of Sufism.58 His profound interest in Sufism and its philosophical underpinnings is also suggested by the fact that he devoted numerous essays to these questions in the fourth volume of the Four Gardens, the content of which has unfortunately not yet been examined.59

Chandar Bhan was also concerned with bringing brahmanical tradition and Persian Sufism into relation with each other. He was apparently influenced by the ideas of the circle around Prince Dara Shukoh, the eldest son of Shah Jahan. This circle had attempted to reconcile the Sufi concept of the unity of being (Arab. waḥdat al-wuǧūd) and Advaita Vedanta. In a similar vein, Chandar Bhan himself likely translated a Sanskrit work titled Exuberance of the Soul (Ātmavilāsa). The Persian manuscript attributes it to Shankara, so the work is probably related to Advaita Vedanta.60

Persian-speaking Brahmans like Chandar Bhan also endeavoured to feed these discussions from the circle around Dara Shukoh back into brahmanical scholarship. As a result, there is a Sanskrit translation, written before 1708, of Dara Shukoh’s Confluence of Two Oceans under the title Samudrasaṃgama.61 A Sanskrit version of Dara Shukoh’s conversations with Bab Lal also exists under the title Praśnottarāvalī, which Chandar Bhan had originally translated from Hindustani into Persian. Both texts and their possible brahmanical reception have not yet been studied. Indeed, they show that the religious philosophy articulated in Persian by the Mughal elites was not beyond the reach of traditional Sanskrit scholars. In view of the close relations between Brahman scholars of Advaita Vedanta in Banaras and the Mughal court, which will be explained in more detail below, it can be assumed that, at least in Banaras, a Brahman readership was found for it. An important piece of evidence for this exchange is a philosophy compendium from the seventeenth century, which explicitly states that some recent Sanskrit philosophers had engaged with Islamic philosophy.62

6 Sanskrit Grammars of the Persian Language

The significant involvement of Brahman grammarians in studying the Persian language during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has not been widely acknowledged to date. As early as Akbar’s reign, a certain Krishnadasa wrote a Persian dictionary and a Persian grammar in Sanskrit. According to the author, this project was directly sponsored by the Mughal ruler, whom he praised at length, and some passages indicate that Krishnadasa himself also stayed at the Mughal court for at least a while.63 However, little is known so far about Krishnadasa’s life and work. In addition to the Persian dictionary and Persian grammar, a text on the history of the Shakadvipiya Brahmans, also called Bhojaka Brahmans, is attributed to him.64 For the Shakadvipiya Brahmans, sun worship is a central practice.65 The brahmanical social doctrine (Skt. Dharmaśāstra), however, did not recognise them as fully valid Brahmans without reservations at that time. Thus, Krishna Shesha, a contemporary of Krishnadasa, ascribes a mixed-caste status to them, acknowledging their Brahman origin but identifying them as “Brahmans without rites of passage (Skt. saṃskāra)” among their female ancestors.66 Krishnadasa presumably used the fact that sun worship was also practised at the Mughal court to bolster his claim that the Shakadvipiya Brahmans were in fact the most accomplished Brahmans and greatest pandits in India.67 Incidentally, Krishnadasa’s Persian dictionary also has the sun as its first entry.68 It is possible that Krishnadasa himself was a Shakadvipiya Brahman, making his invocation of Persian sun worship also part of a larger inner-Brahman discussion.

Krishnadasa’s Persian grammar deserves special attention, as he explicitly did not use the categories of the Persian grammarians when compiling it: “Here [in this grammar of Persian] [its own grammatical] terminology is not considered.”69 Instead, he based his account on a traditional Sanskrit grammar that was very popular in northern India in his time. It was the main text of the Sarasvata school, the verses of which are used by Krishnadasa throughout.70 Krishnadasa only replaced the object-language elements in Sanskrit with Persian.71 As a result, he succeeded in providing a comprehensive, complete and extremely knowledgeable description of the Persian language based on Sanskrit grammatical terminology and in the customary verse form of a traditional Sanskrit grammar. This impressive intellectual achievement has been far too little appreciated in previous research. Although the exact circumstances of its creation remain unknown, such a work could only have resulted from extensive interactions between Sanskrit and Persian scholars. Moreover, it implies exchange among the Brahman scholars themselves, discussing Persian scholarship in the Sanskrit language.

Krishnadasa explained in the introductory verses of the Persian Dictionary that he had

compiled a number of Persian words which – through knowledge of the Sanskrit meanings – served to facilitate the understanding [of Persian]. He had done this for those who wished to penetrate the vast ocean of the Persian language, which, however, he himself had not actively (Skt. apaṭhitvā) but only passively (Skt. śrutvaiva) known.72

The reference to having only a passive command of Persian himself suggests that Krishnadasa was more concerned with a systematic grammatical survey of Persian rather than with producing a practical language textbook.73 It would be worth examining whether the principles of his grammar played a role in the numerous Persian translation projects of Sanskrit texts at the Mughal court.74 In any case, the many extant manuscripts point to a wide dissemination of the text throughout India, where it was presumably read and received by knowledgeable Sanskrit scholars.75

Krishnadasa was not the only Brahman scholar to compile a grammar and dictionary of Persian in Sanskrit. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, a certain Kavi Karnapura wrote a similar work.76 This text, which also contains a dictionary and grammar and is preceded by a dedication to the Mughal ruler Jahangir, has not yet received close research. Compared to Krishnadasa’s work, only a few manuscripts of it are known to exist.77 Although similar in conception, unlike Krishnadasa, Kavi Karnapura does not presuppose knowledge of a very specific school of Sanskrit grammar, which makes his text potentially more accessible.78 Nevertheless, this work, too, was comprehensible only to traditionally trained Brahman pandits. Of particular note, in the introductory verses Kavi Karnapura assumes that in his time there was a mutual study of Sanskrit and Persian, for he wants his work to be understood as an aid for scholars of both Sanskrit and Persian: “Knowledge of Persian will come for those who know Sanskrit, knowledge of Sanskrit for those who know Persian, and knowledge of both for those who know both. Thus this book is to be studied.”79

In any case, both grammars show that there were traditional Brahman Sanskrit scholars who mastered Persian and studied it systematically. It is not known whether Krishnadasa or Kavi Karnapura ever stayed in Banaras. However, the circulation of manuscripts in the libraries of Banaras and Hindu Rajputs in Rajasthan suggests that scholars in Banaras also studied these grammars.80 Perhaps these grammars are also related to the schools that traditional Brahman scholars ran for learned Sufis in Banaras.81 This, too, is a phenomenon that has been insufficiently appreciated in the research. These schools were apparently popular. At least one exceptionally distinguished graduate was the Muslim philosopher Kamran Shirazi, who is said to have studied under the Dashanami ascetic Citrarupa Ashrama in Banaras. This school system required teachers and students be able to communicate in Hindustani, and its curriculum probably included Sanskrit as well as the study of Persian terminology. Here, such dictionaries and grammars would have come in handy.

7 Persian Upanishads Translation

To illustrate the close connection between Sanskrit and Persian scholarship for the Mughal period, a remarkable major philological project is also of interest. Dara Shukoh, the eldest son of the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan, initiated a Persian translation of the Upanishads, which was completed in 1657 and entitled The Great Secret (Sirr-i akbar). Fifty Upanishads were translated in their entirety into Persian for the first time.82 It was a remarkable collaborative work between Brahman pandits and Muslim scholars. Unfortunately, the Brahman scholars involved in the project are largely unknown by name. However, two scholars can be identified with some certainty.

First, there is the Dashanami ascetic Kavindracarya Sarasvati. He was the leading traditional Brahman pandit in Banaras in his time.83 His private library was famous. He wrote a commentary on the Rigveda, fragments of which have survived.84 At the same time, however, Kavindracarya Sarasvati had excellent relations with the Mughal court, and Shah Jahan conferred on him an honorary title and a lavish annual pension.85 Kavindracarya Sarasvati was also actively involved in imparting the teaching of Advaita Vedanta at the Mughal court. In the presence of Dara Shukoh, he regularly explained a commentary by Shankara to Shah Jahan.86 Perhaps related to this, he produced a Hindustani translation of the (Laghu) Yoga-Vasishtha-Sara in ten sections, complementing it with the original Sanskrit text.87 Additionally, also in Hindustani, he crafted a concise, sixty-line overview of the multiple facets of brahmanical philosophy (Hind. tattvajñān), viewed from the Advaita Vedanta perspective.88

The second traditional Brahman scholar who contributed to the Upanishads translation and whose name we can identify was Brahmendra Sarasvati, a Dashanami ascetic. Although the disciple of the famous Narayana Bhatta, he was considered a distinguished scholar in his own right in Banaras.89 A letter exists from Dara Shukoh to Brahmendra Sarasvati, written in Sanskrit, which eulogizes him in twenty-four paragraphs.90 In it, Brahmendra Sarasvati is referred to as the “selfless protector of kings in the time of their desire [to speak with him, i.e., Dara Shukoh]” (Skt. vivakṣām-akṣit-īśa-niṣkāma-rakṣaka). Incidentally, Dara Shukoh himself explicitly professed the basic teachings of Advaita Vedanta in this Sanskrit letter.91

The identification of Kavindracarya Sarasvati and Brahmendra Sarasvati as participants in the Upanishads translation makes it clear that this project had the active support of the leading traditional Brahman scholars in Banaras. This fact cannot be overemphasised. Early British Orientalism at the beginning of the nineteenth century discredited this collaborative translation from Sanskrit into Persian with the emerging new philological ideal that a translation be done by a single philologist with full bilingual competence. The influence of this line of reasoning has extended, to a certain degree, into contemporary judgement,92 though the practice of translation by committees does exist in the modern philological tradition, especially in the field of the major Bible translation projects since the nineteenth century, which themselves represent considerable philological achievements.93 If Dara Shukoh’s translation project is to be judged by today’s standards, these would be an apt point of comparison. Moreover, the considerable multilingualism and expertise of those involved should not be underestimated. Kavindracarya Sarasvati was not only a Sanskrit scholar but also a distinguished Hindustani author. Such expertise was bolstered by the many unnamed Brahman collaborators from Banaras, a city that was not only a stronghold of Brahman scholarship but also of religious exchange with Sufi scholars, as we have already seen. We can assume that among the Brahman collaborators on this translation of the Upanishads were also those who taught Sufi scholars and thus had practical experience of how to communicate Brahman philosophy in Hindustani to an audience influenced by Persian philosophy. On the other hand, Dara Shukoh himself had an extensive Persian and Arabic education, almost certainly knew Hindustani very well and at least knew the meaning of the most important Sanskrit terms, even if he had at most a rudimentary knowledge of its grammar and syntax.94 Some formulations in the preface indicate that he edited the final Persian version of the Upanishads collection with his own hand.95 There was also an impressive multilingual competence in his immediate environment, as two examples show. The poet Jagannatha (d. c.1670) was a specialist in Sanskrit poetry but had also studied Persian, and he was proficient in Hindustani.96 Furthermore, the aforementioned Chandar Bhan also moved in Dara Shukoh’s circle and mastered Sanskrit as well as Persian and Hindustani.

The collection contained all the important older Upanishads, although it is unclear whether this was already based on a similar compilation in Sanskrit or whether it was an original selection.97 Regardless, what is certain is that leading traditional Brahman scholars of Advaita Vedanta in Banaras were prepared to have fifty Upanishads translated from Sanskrit into Persian. It should also be noted that the Upanishads translated were not only those for which commentaries by Shankara or other classical authorities of Advaita Vedanta existed. The large number of texts compiled reflected the contemporary philological efforts of Advaitic scholars in Banaras to retrieve as many Upanishads as possible and, if necessary, to comment on them independently and for the first time.98 The Brahman scholars had no qualms about contributing their new insights into the Persian translation project. In this way, the brahmanical renaissance of Upanishad scholarship is linked to this Persian translation project.

8 Brahmanical Philosophy of Language and the “Death of Sanskrit”

The dominant role of Persian in the Mughal period led to fundamental debates about the philosophy of language within brahmanical Sanskrit scholarship. What came under scrutiny was the view that Persian and Sanskrit were to be treated as two potentially equal and mutually translatable languages. In the contemporary brahmanical philosophy of language (Skt. mīmāṃsā), it was actually settled for many scholars that Sanskrit was one language among many. In the first half of the seventeenth century, Kaunda Bhatta of Banaras, a nephew of the famous grammarian Bhattoji Diksita, wrote with regard to Marathi:

we must conclude that vernacular language, too, possesses the power of signifying directly. […] it is not the fact of a language’s being Sanskrit or a vernacular that determines whether or not it has signifying power but rather its orthographic stability […] The variable orthography in the vernacular is like the variability in Sanskrit with respect to synonyms.99

This position, however, was vehemently opposed. The overriding political and cultural importance of Persian in the Mughal Empire as well as the increasing importance of Indian regional languages, not least through the poetry of Sufism and various Bhakti currents, challenged the claim to Sanskrit superiority in a significant way. A fierce intra-Brahman discussion about the status of Sanskrit flared up. In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Banaras, the philosophy of the Sanskrit language reached a new, hitherto unattained height.100

Over the course of this debate, a conservative counter-position was formulated against liberal positions such as that of Kaunda Bhatta. Kamalakara Bhatta, a direct descendant of Narayana Bhatta and prominent scholar of Dharmashastra in seventeenth-century Banaras, demonstrated staunch opposition to the “new” (Skt. navya) doctrine of Kaunda Bhatta and invoked the supposedly classical view that only Sanskrit could truly denote things and thus had real words:

the vernacular can be said to possess real words only in one of two ways: either by the illusion of their being expressive in themselves, or through the presence of the grammatically correct Sanskrit words that they imply. Words are actually changeless and eternal, because the phonemes of which they are composed are such.101

In this classical position, the “vernaculars” (Skt. bhāṣā), which were different from Sanskrit, included all the languages of the uncivilised (Skt. mleccha), that is, both the Indian regional languages such as Marathi, Bengali, Hindustani (Braj, Avadhi) and, explicitly, Persian. Although this traditional maximalist position of Kamalakara Bhatta had frequently been put forward and advocated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as well, it apparently became difficult to sustain in this form in view of the omnipresence of Persian and the increasing importance of Indian regional languages.102 Therefore, a modified version of this classical position became popular, as formulated, for example, by the grammarian Khandadeva (d. 1665) in a treatise on the philosophy of language.

He conceded that the languages of the uncivilised (Skt. mleccha) could also signify things: “This leads us to assume that their linguistic usages do express meaning. Accordingly, their practices, too, [no less than those of the āryas,] should be authoritative in determining the signification of words.”103 The crucial difference from the classical position, however, was that a categorical distinction was now made between Indian regional languages as ungrammatical or degenerate (Skt. apabharaṣṭa) Sanskrit and the languages of the uncivilised (Skt. mleccha), which referred, above all, to Persian.104 Nonetheless, this distinction was not always upheld, as the classical position sometimes broke through again when quoting older authorities.105

While the languages of the uncivilised (Skt. mleccha), and thus Persian, were formally ascribed signifying power, they were at the same time excluded from brahmanical discourse because it was proposed that an absolute prohibition be enacted on learning them at all. The Indian regional languages as degenerated Sanskrit, on the other hand, could be used generally and their use was only excluded for Vedic rituals. As Khandadeva put it:

However, there does indeed exist a prohibition of a general moral scope (Skt. puruṣārtha) applying to words of barbarian (Skt. bārbara) and other languages, since there is a scriptural prohibition against learning them at all: ‘One should not learn a mleccha language’ (Skt. na mleccha-bhāṣāṃ śikṣeta) […] Thus the prohibition on barbarian and other [uncivilised] languages only is purely of a general moral sort, whereas the prohibition on other [Indian regional] languages [as degenerate Sanskrit] relates to sacrificial activity and that only.106

This led to the following paradoxical consequence: Persian was recognised as a language that signifies things, but at the same time it was to be completely excluded from brahmanical discourse, while the Indian regional languages, such as Marathi, Hindustani and Bengali, were given limited legitimacy. Khandadeva acknowledged their utility for communication in everyday life as well as in bhakti poetry: “For these degenerated Sanskrit words are used by learned men of all regions (Skt. sakaladeśiyāḥ śiṣtāḥ) in their everyday (Skt. vyavahārakāla) activities as well as in chanting (Skt. saṃkīrtana) the name and virtues of God (Skt. hari).”107

As the quotation shows, Khandadeva saw the importance of regional languages primarily in everyday life and in bhakti poetry. Even though he only formally excludes the regional languages from Vedic sacrificial acts, they remain structurally deficient, construed as degenerated forms of Sanskrit. From this point of view, brahmanical scholarship must absolutely hold on to Sanskrit as the sole language that can truly signify things.108 In effect, this position meant self-exclusion from the Persian discourses of the time and thus from general political, social and cultural debates. At the same time, this created a protected space for Sanskrit scholarship in which the Indian regional languages were no threat due to their supposed structural deficiency. As a result, this conservative branch of the brahmanical tradition settled beyond society, everyday life and popular bhakti. Certainly, such self-marginalization indeed promoted the “death of Sanskrit” as a cosmopolitan language in Pollock’s sense and upheld the notion of an immutable Sanskrit.

But it is important to note that this conservative stance represented a new position in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Above all, it was not shared by a great many Brahman scholars. Indeed, it seems that it was rather a minority position, because, at the same time, Krishnadasa and Kavi Karnapura were writing Persian grammars in the Sanskrit language. Chandar Bhan still saw himself as a traditional Brahman, although he was also a Persian-speaking scholar. Leading traditional Brahman Sanskrit scholars came together in Banaras for the major philological project of a Persian Upanishads translation.

Even as late as the eighteenth century, the conservative stance apparently had only a limited following. In the early 1720s, Lakshmipati wrote two historical Sanskrit treatises on the contemporary succession crisis of the Mughal Empire.109 Lakshmipati was court Brahman to the local Hindu ruler of Kumaon, who acted as a vassal of the Mughal ruler.110 In the opening verses of one of his treatises, he explicitly mocked the view that Brahman scholars were forbidden to learn Persian, expressing this in a perfectly crafted style.111 Instead, he deliberately mixed Persian elements into his Sanskrit verses, from numerous Persian words to Persian grammatical forms. Another example is brahmanical astronomy, which received Persian-language works until the eighteenth century. In this context, the works of the Brahman scholar Mathuranatha, who had an excellent command of both Sanskrit and Persian and was a leading authority on astronomy in Banaras, should be mentioned. Under the patronage of the local Hindu ruler there, who controlled the region on behalf of the East India Company, he wrote two linked Sanskrit introductions to theoretical and practical astronomy in 1782.112 These two treatises were intended for teaching and they reflected the current state of brahmanical astronomy as represented by Sanskrit scholarship in Banaras at that time. Although they have not yet been studied in detail by researchers, it is clear that Sanskrit and Persian astronomy were combined here in a systematic way.

9 Conclusion

A closer look at the historical sources of the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries reveals that the supposed isolation and pristine nature of the brahmanical Sanskrit tradition was a deliberate repositioning by select Brahman scholars and a reaction against the increasing influence of Persian scholarship and regional language bhakti traditions. Moreover, there is weighty evidence that this position was not generally shared. At the same time that Sanskrit grammars of Persian were being developed, an extensive Persian translation of the Upanishads also came into being. It was commonplace for central works of Sufi philosophy, originating from the milieu of Dara Shukoh, to be translated into Sanskrit. Kavindracarya Sarasvati, a distinguished Brahman pandit, penned doctrinal texts of Advaita Vedanta in Hindustani, with the specific intent that they be accessible to Muslim scholars. Furthermore, Brahman Sanskrit scholars were not confined to their own circles, as they engaged in running schools for erudite Sufis in Banaras. This intermingling of intellectual traditions paints a nuanced picture of extensive scholarly interaction. The evidence strongly implies that traditional brahmanical Sanskrit scholarship from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries cannot be separated from its interactions with contemporaneous Persian scholarship. Future consideration of such interactions could challenge the perception of a pre-colonial Sanskrit tradition that existed in isolation from Persian scholarship – a narrative that currently informs much of the self-understanding within Hindu nationalism and beyond.

This case study further demonstrates that genealogical critique is not restricted to the historicization of today’s general concepts, nor is it limited to modern history. Genealogy starts in the present and assumes that the present is the inescapable reference point of all historiography. Its critique is directed against today’s supposedly established facts. Whatever historical sources serve to confirm these facts fall within its purview, and it makes no difference at all from which historical epoch they derive. At the same time, genealogical critique can only take the form of positive history writing, the results of which, however, act as a counter-history rather than as the new true history. The counter-history itself is always in need of retrospective critique. Despite challenging some knowledge claims, this approach remains consistent with the conventions of academic historical research.


The article greatly benefited from the feedback received during a research colloquium at Heidelberg. I would like to express my special thanks to Judith Bachmann and, most notably, Julian Strube for their invaluable critical comments on earlier versions. I am also indebted to Everett Messamore for his excellent work in refining the English language used in the text.


Michael Bergunder is Professor of Religious Studies and Intercultural Theology at the University of Heidelberg. His areas of interest include theories and methods in religious studies, Tamil religious history since the eighteenth century, the history of esotericism and the study of global Pentecostalism. Among his publications are Ritual, Caste, and Religion in Colonial South India (as co-editor) and The South Indian Pentecostal Movement in the Twentieth Century.


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