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The disrobing of Draupadi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The disrobing of Draupadi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Excerpt: Culture Of Encounters—Sanskrit At The Mughal Court

A new book details how this Sanskrit epic was treated as a politically important work in the Mughal court

In the 1580s, Emperor Akbar ordered the translation of the Sanskrit Mahabharata into Persian. The newly minted Mughal epic, called the Razmnamah (Book of War), would prove a seminal work in imperial circles for decades. In the 20 years following the initial translation, Mughal literati composed a highly political preface for the Razmnamah and reworked portions of the text several times. The translation was even incorporated into the education of royal princes. While scholars have long been aware of Mughal engagements with the Mahabharata and the epic’s visibility at the imperial court, few have tried to parse the impacts of the translation on Mughal political and literary culture. Nobody has provided substantial textual analysis of the Razmnamah, and its two major subsequent rewritings remain unpublished altogether. As modern theorists remind us, translation is always an act embedded in larger cultural, social, and political networks. Through repeated encounters with the Mahabharata, the Akbari elite remade a Sanskrit epic into an imperially potent part of the Indo-Persian tradition.

The Mughals took up the Mahabharata as part of a larger translation movement that Akbar had inaugurated in the mid-1570s... In 1575, three successive translators failed to produce a Persian Atharva Veda, an enigmatic Brahmanical religious text. Around the same time literati authored two Persian retellings of the Simhasana-dvatrimsika (Thirty-Two Tales of the Throne), a popular collection of Sanskrit stories. A team of translators produced the Razmnamah in the mid-1580s and tackled the Ramayana a few years later. Thereafter imperial support abounded for translations of all sorts. Akbar liberally patronized Persian adaptations of astronomical and mathematical treatises, the most renowned of which was Fayzi’s poetic rendering of Bhaskara’s Lilavati. He underwrote Persian versions of several narrative texts, including story collections such as the Pañcatantra (Five Tales) and historical chronicles like the Rajatarangi (River of Kings). Another noteworthy Sanskrit-based narrative sponsored by Akbar is Fayzi’s Nal-Daman, a masnavi retelling of the love story of Nala and Damayanti. The imperial atelier lavishly illustrated many of these works, and art historians have produced some of the most insightful analyses to date on Mughal translation projects.

Akbar’s successors also supported translations, although to a lesser degree. As a prince, Jahangir commissioned a Persian Yogavasistha (Vasishtha’s Treatise on Yoga), a philosophical work, and the Persian rendering was later brought into Safavid intellectual circles. Also, beginning during Jahangir’s reign, translations did not merely come out of the royal court but also entered into it as individual authors generated Persian renderings of Indian texts of their own accord and dedicated these works to the reigning Mughal king. This practice engendered two poetic re-creations of the Ramayana addressed to Jahangir and a new Persian Simhasana-dvatrimsika. Shah Jahan evinced less interest in translating Sanskrit materials, although he did back another Persian Simhasana-dvatrimsika. Shah Jahan is also credited with supporting Hindi versions of Sanskrit materials, such as Sundar Das’s Simhasanbattisi.

Culture Of Encounters—Sanskrit At The Mughal Court: Allen Lane, 336 pages, Rs699.
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Culture Of Encounters—Sanskrit At The Mughal Court: Allen Lane, 336 pages, Rs699.

Among this wider group of texts, the Mahabharata was a consistent focal point, especially in Akbar’s court. Akbar employed some of the chief literary stars of his time to participate in the translation and retranslation processes. For example, Fayzi, Akbar’s poet laureate, and Abu al-Fazl, the head vizier and a master of insha (Persian literary prose), were both involved at different points. Additionally, Persian histories situate the Mahabharata in the center of court life by depicting Akbar as consulting with the Razmnamah translators regularly and even challenging parts of the Persian text. The accuracy of these stories matters less than the fact that official court histories project the Mahabharata as closely connected with the Mughal sovereign, who embodied imperial authority. Akbar also poured immense resources into illuminating manuscripts of the initial translation, and the master copy of the Razmnamah numbers among the finest, most highly valued specimens of Mughal art that survive today. Akbar never devoted equivalent resources to another translation and rarely to other manuscripts (the Akbari Ramayan being a notable exception). Even after Jahangir came to power, the Razmnamah continued to be shown and read at court regularly for decades.

The Mughals treated the Mahabharata as a crucial component of their multifaceted project to make the Sanskrit tradition a living part of Indo-Persian culture. Moreover, Mughal literati repeatedly reframed and reworked the Razmnamah to participate in multiple imperial interests, including political disputes, poetry, and history. Often these visions developed the potential of the epic in ways that far exceed the scope of the initial translation. In the late 1580s Abu al-Fazl penned an extensive preface that outlines a much more direct political application of the epic than can be gleaned from the translated text. Several years later, Fayzi liberally mixed his own poetic verses into the first two books of the Razmnamah. Last, Tahir Muhammad Sabzavari, a historian in Akbar’s court, abridged the Razmnamah within his larger world history in 1602. He explores the value of the Mahabharata as reported history that provides a politically charged account of India’s pre-Islamic past. These writers do not share a unified vision of what the Mahabharata meant for Mughal claims over India. But each one revisited the epic as an important aesthetic or political work.

Scholars have typically paid little attention to translation in South Asia overall, and Mughal translations are particularly neglected. This overarching lack of interest is due in part to prevailing Western attitudes about the derivative nature of moving texts between languages. Indologists sometimes seize upon translation as an apt metaphor to talk about cross-cultural exchanges in medieval and early modern India. As I noted, scholars have occasionally provided lists of known Mughal translations. But few academics value (or find the time to pursue) the painstaking work of reading a translated text, alongside its original where possible. This neglect is unwarranted. Translation was a nuanced practice in Mughal India, and authors frequently displayed close attention to previously unknown sources, for both Western and Sanskrit works. The Indian epics were especially important in Mughal culture, standing on a par with works such as the Shahnamah, the major Persian-language epic. Careful comparative reading of the Razmnamah and its reworkings is a promising and unexploited tool for recovering Mughal imperial culture. Mughal elites redefined the Mahabharata as an Indo-Persian epic that spoke to the concerns of their expanding polity and had direct implications for Akbar’s sovereignty.

In and of itself, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Mahabharata was an important text in Mughal eyes. This epic was “premodern India’s most sustained and profound discourse on power" as well as one of its most beloved stories. What makes Mughal engagements with the Mahabharata worthy of close philological analysis are the choices that were made in transforming this martial, kingly tale across cultural lines. The Persian texts that resulted offer much needed insight into Mughal self-conceptions of power in particular and the tense, productive relationship between political and literary cultures in general. Here the clear line fades away that so many theorists have tried to draw between reducing texts to being instruments of power versus divorcing literary endeavors from politics. The Razmnamah and its later adaptations transcend such artificial dichotomies and reveal how the Mughals understood their evolving imperial identity as cutting across literary and political realms.


In addition to their literary interests, the Mughals understood bringing the Mahabharata into Persian as a thoroughly political project that was intimately connected to Akbar’s kingship. In his preface to the Razmnamah, composed a few years after the translation itself, Abu al-Fazl categorizes the entire text as history (tarikh)... Moreover, he names royal advice as a core motivating factor for the translation:

Likewise, the minds of most people, particularly great kings, yearn to listen to histories [tavarikh]. All-encompassing, divine wisdom has made the science of history, which offers examples to the wise, dear to their hearts so that having taken advice from past events and counted it advantageous for the present, they pass their cherished time in things pleasing to God. Thus rulers need above all others to listen to the tales of their predecessors.

Later in his preface, Abu al-Fazl reiterates the Mahabharata’s royal relevance when he describes the work as consisting of “advice, guidance, stories, and descriptions of war and feasting," or, more concisely, kingship.

The Mughals treated book 12, called the Santi Parvan in Sanskrit, as the crux of the Mahabharata’s political commentary, which they indicate in several ways. The translators rendered the Santi Parvan into Persian at disproportionate length to the rest of the text so that the book constitutes nearly 25 percent of the Persian Razmnamah. Moreover, they quote poetry extensively in the first two of three sections of the Santi Parvan, which address kingly ethics (rajadharma) and ethics in times of emergency (apaddharma). The only other comparable concentration of poetry quotations in the Razmnamah occurs in the Udyoga Parvan (Book of Effort), which focuses on negotiations to avoid civil war... In his preface, Abu al-Fazl also characterizes Bhishma’s advice to Yudhishthira, contained in the Santi and Anusasana parvans, as particularly pertinent to sovereigns.

The translators also changed the framing and content of book 12 so that it became a definitively Mughal mirror for kings that spoke directly to Akbar.

Excerpted with permission from Allen Lane (Penguin Books).

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